Galactic loads up on guests and heads for the ghetto

Theryl deClouet faced a hard decision: stop touring, or die. With his doctors indicating that retirement was long overdue, the New Orleans soul veteran took the sensible option and hung up his travelling shoes–which in turn left his much younger bandmates in Galactic with some hard choices of their own.

They could have done a Big Easy star search and replaced deClouet with some more road-worthy singer, or reverted to their earlier incarnation as an all-instrumental funk quintet. In the end, they found a more creative way to deal with their predicament, calling up a dozen of their favourite MCs and producing this year's hip-hop–oriented From the Corner to the Block, which is both a close-up look at ghetto life and Galactic's most musically accomplished effort to date.

"We'd always collaborated with MCs, so it just seemed like a natural thing, and a way of moving forward without dedicating ourselves to just one vocalist," says Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio, reached at home in New Orleans. "It's going to take a long time to figure out that situation, if that ever happens."

Mercurio stresses that From the Corner to the Block is more than just a Galactic-with-guests party soundtrack. "We've heard a lot of 'special guests' on instrumental albums, and a lot of the time there's no theme to it: you have everybody from Dave Matthews to an MC to John Mayer," he explains. "So if we were going to collaborate with other people, we wanted to have a cohesive concept behind it."

And so rappers such as Lyrics Born, Boots Riley, Juvenile, and Chali 2na were given a mandate: write about the corner–either a specific urban intersection that was important to them, or the greater notion of street-corner society and how it has responded to the electronic age. With responses that range from chilling crime tales to joyous celebrations of community, the record is unusually varied, and consistently thought-provoking.

Bringing From the Corner to the Block to the stage won't be easy, but Galactic has a game plan. Riley and 2na have come onboard for the band's six-week tour, and with the Lifesavas serving as opening act, album guest Vursatyl will also be available to rap.

"We'll be performing as much as we can of the album with the people that we have, and then we'll also be playing some of those people's tunes," notes Mercurio. And that's the bigger challenge: finding a way to translate the often-idiosyncratic sounds of studio hip-hop to the live environment.

"Trying to emulate some of these songs that are not made with real instruments can be difficult," the bassist allows. "We're really trying to capture that feel, or that quirkiness, or whatever makes that tune really cool.

"Sometimes the humans have to imitate the machines," he adds, laughing. "And I think I have the most difficult job, because I'm playing pretty much the whole time. Some of the other guys in the band are like, 'Man, I just have to play this little thing here and there.' I have to really know the arrangements and what's coming next."

Galactic plays the Commodore Ballroom next Thursday (October 18).