Some Familiar Faces on the Go-Go

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 15, 2006

There's no denying that go-go is the sound of urban Washington and has been for more than two decades. But as demographics shift and various clubs are shut down, the music has started to spread beyond the clubs of Southeast, Eckington and close-in Prince George's County. If you want to see one of the hottest bands around on a Friday night, you have to head to a sports bar in Laurel.

Familiar Faces is a fitting name for a band with so many go-go veterans, but Familiar Sound might even be a better name. Vocalist and saxophone player Donnell Floyd was on the front line of Rare Essence from 1983 to 2000, helping craft classic anthems such as "Lock It," "Work the Walls" and "Uh Oh (Heads Up)" while becoming one of the scene's most popular performers.

The percolating, floor-filling conga and drum rhythms are locked down by Samuel "Smoke" Dews and Larry "Stomp Dogg" Atwater, both of the much-missed Northeast Groovers, and Jacques Vaughn of Raw Venture hits the timbales and rototoms. Kenny "Doc" Hughes keeps the bass popping. Mark "Godfava" Lawson, a co-founder of Rare Essence, is on keys. No wonder most people don't stop dancing all night.

A charismatic showman, Floyd spends the brief pauses at the beginning of songs calling out to regulars in the crowd ("I see you, Mia"), performing snatches of Rare Essence classics or a new song dedicated to the bartender who works during the band's weekly sets at the Tradewinds nightclub in Camp Springs but has come out to see the band at J's Sports Cafe: "Nicole the bartender / She makes the drinks that you won't remember / She'll have you slipping all over the floor / Still have you asking for more."

The small area in front of the stage is packed with women and men grooving, holding drinks aloft and singing into the mike when Floyd or one of the other vocalists reaches out to the crowd. You'd almost imagine you were in the District instead of a television-covered sports bar whose flier points out that it's in a strip mall "next to the Red Roof Inn."

"We'd known about J's before we started doing it [this spring]," says promoter Eric Floyd, Donnell's nephew (who's conveniently known to all as "Nephew"). "The manager had been contacting us about a year before we started there. We'd been doing Safari Steakhouse [in Lanham] and had been doing real well there on Fridays, but then they got shut down.

"If the distance is too far for the everyday go-go person, then it's a problem," says Floyd, adding that the group declined a weekly residency in Waldorf because fans complained about the drive. "Our core people, who've been following us for years, will come out there [to J's], and it also opens us up to a new audience. It's a very good crowd and it's a good party, but we're still building the crowd."

Donnell Floyd estimates that Familiar Faces has been bringing in 200 to 300 people a week at J's, or about half what they can draw at the Tradewinds on a Saturday night, but he thinks it's important for the band to spread its shows around. (They also play at Zanzibar on the Waterfront on Thursdays, and they're soon to start playing at Phish Tea Cafe on Wednesdays.) "Most of us are from P.G. County and our friends are from here, so anything inside the Beltway is going to be a win [in terms of attendance], but you have to be able to spread the fan base."

When Floyd and a few bandmates left Rare Essence in late 2000 and formed a group called 911, they didn't deviate much from Rare Essence's hard-charging, chant-heavy funk. The new group's first CD, "Blueprint," earned raves and the song "Brown & White" got radio play, but whether it was because of a maturing audience or clubs trying to distance themselves from stereotypical violence, the go-go scene has been moving away from the raucous, aggressive sound toward what has been called "grown and sexy" or "pocket jazz" -- groups lending a backbeat of congas and timbales to jazzy, horn-driven R&B covers, drawing what Floyd calls the "out to party, but dressed to impress and laid-back" crowd.

Eventually, Floyd says, "we played a more mature style and changed our name to Familiar Faces in hopes people would give us another look." Adding the talented Halima Peru to handle female vocals and Sean "Kal-El" Gross, a classic soul crooner who makes the ladies swoon with romantic ballads, has diversified the band's sound. Still, Familiar Faces prefers to take something like Sade and play it more forcefully than most R&B covers, putting a sharp beat behind the mellow vocals. "It's not the music that makes it grown and sexy, it's the lyrics," Floyd says. "I like percussionists. Stomp Dogg and Smoke had a brilliant career with Northeast Groovers, and they play young."

As the night moves on, the songs crank harder and harder, sounding more like vintage Rare Essence or Groovers than "adult go-go." "By the end of the night, we're playing as aggressive as anyone," Floyd laughs. "That last 10, 15 minutes, we're at our peak. It's like a revolving door. If you want something mellow, come early. If you want something more aggressive, come later."

The next big step for Familiar Faces is to cut most of the crowd-pleasing hip-hop covers and focus on the band's own material. "The only way go-go will ever make it nationally is on the strength of the original songs," Floyd says. "People say to me, 'You guys just play other people's songs. You make 'em good, but you're playing other people's songs.'

"When Familiar Faces started, to gain some popularity, we did a lot of covers," he says. "Now that we have a following, we can change it up. I started putting in some originals -- we probably do five originals a night," part of the repertoire that includes Busta Rhymes, Ne-Yo, 2Pac, Trillville and the occasional Rare Essence jam, plus Jill Scott or R. Kelly when they want to slow things down.

Familiar Faces recently began recording an album, which Floyd hopes will be available next year, and he's started demo-ing some of the new material before it's even finished, like the bartender song, or a popular ode to women who have tattoos on the small of their backs. "I make it up on the spot," Floyd says. "That makes it interesting. I'll try a million things a night. The tattoo song is only a month old, and I see people singing along. Girls turn around and show their tattoos while they're dancing. Bartenders raise their bottles when I sing the bartender song. That's a great feeling."

J's is full of love for the band, and the tables in the "private party" areas are packed with folks enjoying plates of chicken wings and the cheap drinks -- $1 specials until 10, $3 beers all night. It's a mixed crowd of dressed up and dressed down -- the folks wearing jerseys and sneakers paid an extra $30 to get in -- and everyone I talked to seemed more interested in enjoying the night and having a good time than anything else.

Familiar Faces at J's Sports Cafe 12617 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel; 301-483-6993 Vibe: A band of go-go veterans hits all ends of the spectrum at its Friday night party.

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