The BEST: “Dean Town” by Vulfpeck

Gershon Albert Tradition Online

Summary: “Next stop: Dean Town,” announces conductor / band-leader Jack Stratton in late September 2019, in front of a sold-out audience of 15,000 people in New York’s Madison Square Garden. It’s not an unheard-of scene: a band that has risen to the top echelons of American music playing for their doting fans. Except that this band is performing on a stage that replicates the outdated living room where they first practiced together as music students in college. And the audience is singing loudly along with the bassist instead of any lead singer. And there are two band members taking turns on the same drum kit. And the entire concert was organized without a single manager or record label. This is no ordinary band. This is Vulfpeck. And their entire live show was recorded on a single camera and later streamed as a live album on YouTube. With close to 6 million views. 

“Dean Town” is the most iconic song by the band, who formed in 2011 as a group of talented music students from Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a school project. Since then, the band (more of a loose collective) has released some of the most compelling funk music of the last decade, complemented with hilarious deadpan shtick, an astute understanding of internet-driven music and community, and a seriousness around musicianship that is simultaneously undermined by comedic-irony. Underlying all this is a profound understanding about how to create culture in the modern age, by utilizing aesthetics, language, humor, and music to form a deeply-committed online community.

Why is this The BEST? There is something enchanting when serious musicians come together to perform. To capture this experience Vulfpeck almost always records before a live audience. Though each member of the group (and the associated artists within their loose formation) are all expert-level musicians, the concept of the group was to be modeled as the “backing band” of a fictional German-funk scene from the 1970s (their song “Conscious Club” from the 2016 album “The Beautiful Game” is a variation on this myth) where the groove is greater than the sum of its parts. 

The ensemble does highlight particular strengths of each member; often focusing on musical elements that would normally fade to the background: R&B drumming with intentional nods to the session greats of the 70s, deceptively simple rhythm guitar and powerful bass lines. Band leader Jack Stratton shines the limelight on his bandmates: Theo Katzman and Antwaun Stanley for their vocal ranges, and frequent guest Cory Wong for his impressive rhythm-funk guitar chops. To the extent that the group promotes one of its members as a star, it’s their soft-talking bass player Joe Dart, whose expertise (inspired by his mentor Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) often takes the lead melodic lines on their instrumental tunes like “Dean Town.” The band also celebrates its members’ other musical groups and was intentionally set up as a side-act that would allow the musicians to create both within and outside the “Vulf” brand. 

This is just one example of how Vulf has a flare for the unexpected. Listeners who have only heard their instrumental hits like “Dean Town” will be surprised by how much humor and satire are baked into nearly everything the band does. The band’s own mythology is a kind of inside joke that they’re willing to allow the audience into. By listening to the lyrics carefully one comes to realize that most of them are jokes delivered with passion and deadpan seriousness (like how the song “1612” is an attempt to remember the passcode to Jack’s one-time AirBnB rental). 

The unexpected continues with Vulfpeck’s shocking rise to fame despite their intentional lack of professional management or record label by embracing the possibilities of the internet to propel a band to fame with clever YouTube videos, social media shtick, and a devoted fanbase. Selling out Madison Square Garden without even being signed to a record label was the ultimate feather in their cap to this approach. Their embrace of technology has also led them to highlight the opportunities and challenges of online music streaming, like their “album” Sleepify where they encouraged fans to stream a silent Spotify record at night, with streaming proceeds funding a free tour.

Within all this, the Jewish elements of this band and their members sneak in. The funk-band frequently turns to their Jewish roots with elements of Klezmer clarinet, and their online videos include some of Jack’s alter egos, like “Mushy Krongold,” who speaks with the accent of an old Brooklyn Jew concerned about allergic reactions to funk music and other examples of neurotic Jewish humor. A recent video features Jack’s new alter-ego Vulfmon parodying a digital music guru’s decision to form an LA-based cult focused on R&B dance moves and veganism. In it, he answers the “Four Questions” of R & B dance veganism, with captions that read like a piece of Talmud. Another video features Stratton wearing a Na-Nach kipa while conducting a piece of Bach played by Klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd. 

A recent song’s YouTube caption features Stratton quoting from none-other than Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: “The most direct means for attaching ourselves to God from this material world is through music and song.” (This is the song with the Na-Nach Kipa.)

Rebbe Nachman certainly emphasizes the power of music along with the power of joy and laughter. We don’t need any complicated theology to know that happiness, whether through laughter or music is holy and worthwhile. Vulfpeck captures both of these elements with a subtle virtuosity. In their quirky way, they deliver to their listener some of the ethos of what may have characterized early Hasidut before it began to take itself too seriously. We can all use a bit more joy and laughter in our lives, along with some really grooving music.

Vulfpeck has mastered the art of creating culture. Every part of the musical experience is considered, from cinematographic decisions that focus on 70s video nostalgia, to self-made fonts and minimalist instruments, all available for purchase on the intentionally dated-looking website. These elements all contribute to a sense of communal belonging. They coin expressions to define their brand of musicality (like “low-volume” as a compliment for groove), and create educational videos about the history of rhythm and blues and funk music to educate their internet-age audience about the musical vocabulary that they borrow from to create their art.

Those of us who are tasked with creating sense of belonging for institutions as large as schools and synagogues or as small as individual classes can learn from this approach to culture, using elements like language, aesthetics, and “shtick” not to create barriers for entry, but a compelling packaging for the Torah and mitzvot that we believe that invites others in, and allows them to learn more and grow deeper in their connection after they get their opening taste. 

Gershon Albert is the Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


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