Dank Sinatra delivers far-out funk

Jam band–inspired Athens group to rock Rolling Stone Bar in Rosewood Saturday night

When the gentlemen of Dank Sinatra first take the stage and grab their instruments, they may appear just like any other University of Georgia students. Dressed in casual coolness, their worn-in T-shirts, untucked button-downs and backward caps create the illusion that this is another group of guys who only play Phish songs and think John Bell created the earth. But in the case of Dank Sinatra, you should probably listen before you speak.

Although they do know a few Phish songs by heart, Sinatra’s resident master of the ivory keys Matt Henderson said the band tries to avoid pigeonholing themselves as a “jam band,” a title he admits leaves a sour taste in his mouth. Instead, Dank Sinatra prefers to create a mellow blend of classic rock ‘n’ roll with the same carefree, rootsy style incarnated by fellow Athens purveyors of funk Widespread Panic. Toss in the band’s distinct rhythmic flavor and you have a collection of tunes that are, well, dank.

“We currently work with a lot of jam band–type influences in our music,” Henderson said, quickly adding a caveat. “But we try not to play too much because I think that can sometimes turn into a little bit of a cliche. So what we try to do is bring in a lot of different elements and blend it together into something that is unique and still sounds good.”

Going strong for nearly three years now, Dank Sinatra was stitched together from a patchwork of friends (and friends of friends) that was eventually sewn into a harmonious artistic vision of organic, free-flowing vibes. They soon found themselves playing up and down the Southeast in various venues, large and small, spreading their dankness from small bars to the high ceilings of the Georgia Theatre.

But in a classic case of clashing careers, the band hit a small speed bump last summer when several members graduated and the question of what to do next hung in the air like an unfinished chord pattern. While some original members opted out of pursuing music professionally, Henderson said adding new members who share love for their craft has propelled Dank Sinatra forward into a fresh, positive direction.

“Last summer, things just started moving into a different direction for some people,” Henderson reflected. “But now we’ve got a new lineup, and we’re back and ready to rock.”

And rock they have. Henderson counts this summer’s set in the Revival Tent of Arkansas’ groovetastic Wakarusa Music Festival as one of his favorite shows to date. In the tradition of the improvisational style of most jam songs, Dank Sinatra’s members all bring different tastes to the dinner table.

Henderson himself is a fan of the jazz/funk style while guitarist and vocalist Joe Gaines edges in his own Southern, classic rock approach. Bassist Clint Meadows, drummer Josh Birmingham and second guitarist Jimmy McAlpin also contribute with their individual perspectives, especially when it comes to songwriting. A collaborative effort for the boys, Henderson said many of the band’s original tracks begin with one element that quickly blossoms into a complete song with a multitude of parts tossed in from each member. But, Henderson said, the process is a different story each time and never gets dull.

“One of our songs can sprout from almost anything,” he explained. “We all draw on similar bands and influences, but we still bring in individual elements that we all add into a single common genre that is Dank Sinatra.”

While Dank Sinatra is no stranger to the studio, with one album released and another slated for this summer, Henderson said the most rewarding aspect for the band is seeing a studio cut go live for the first time. Believing studio sessions and live sets are two “totally different” beasts, Henderson claims there is no better feeling than witnessing the success of a hard-to-hammer-out track.

“My favorite thing is doing live shows, especially in smaller venues, which I think are the best for a more intimate feel,” he said, adding that larger arenas tend to lose the audience’s energy. “When you can literally watch a song you’ve been working on go over so well in a live crowd, it’s a great feeling.”

Long term, the band hopes to continue playing as many live shows as possible and expand its fan base to areas outside of just the Southeast. These days, the boys enjoying returning to their old stomping grounds each year, playing to bigger audiences with new material and vibing off the mutual passion for spirited music. Big-time record label? No, thanks — that’s not the dank way. But no matter what the coming years may bring, Henderson said one thing will remain constant: Music will always be a part of his life.

“Music will always be key for me, no matter what I’m doing,” he said. “We’re just going to keep playing and playing as long as things keep working out.”

Dank Sinatra will play Saturday at The Rolling Stone Bar at 1332 Rosewood Drive.

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