Scene&Heard: C the Beat at Willie’s

“We turn every show into a party.”  – Lee Carroll

Indeed.  This was not my first time in Lee Carroll’s C the Beat dance crowd, but it was my first time as a journalist who was preparing for her debut as a chronicler of the Lexington live music scene. 

New to this venue, my Local Music column for Under Main, I couldn’t think of a better initiation into writing about Lexington’s vibrant music scene than to cover C the Beat.  The band is truly a powerhouse of intensely gifted local musicians, ten of them crowded onto the stage at the new Southland Drive location of Willie’s Locally Known to turn the place into a Halloween party and make folks dance.  And dance they did.

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The purpose of C the Beat, according to Carroll, is to celebrate the “dialogue between the old world and the new”, and appropriately the band got their start four years ago at the old Natasha’s venue. They opened for Gideon Alorwoyie, a master percussionist from Ghana. Drummer Tripp Bratton had met Alorwoyie previously and the original incarnation of the band played four Fela Kuti songs to open for the headliner Alorwoyie. 

Since then, C the Beat has created its own following of loyal fans who go to shows knowing there is a guaranteed promise of a really fun dance floor.  Because dancing is the whole point.  “From the beginning C the Beat was intended to be a dance band…The point was to play music that we really liked, that had a good beat and would get people up out of their seats and they would enjoy themselves in spite of the fact that we were playing good music, and we succeeded to a great extent.” 

Lee Carroll and the other members of C the Beat feed off the energy of the dancing crowd, and that was quite evident Friday night as devils, cats, witches, Egyptian princesses, skeletons, leopards, and even Peter Pan danced in a surreal swirl of color and sparkles to the ever constant beat. Listen as you read on… 

This collection of Lexington talent consists of Lee Carroll himself on keys and orchestrating the whole event, Willie Eames on guitar and vocals, Robert Frahm on guitar, Brian Arnett on bass, Tripp Bratton and David Farris both on drums, with a dialogue between them so tight and beautiful it is the backbone of the evening, and the horn section consisting of Jonathan Barrett on alto sax, Joe Carucci on tenor/baritone sax, Clayton Tipton on bass trombone and Chase Fleming, a multi-talented trombone player who also busted out an ocarina at some points, as well as jumping in to scat with the super talented Gail Wynters, both vocally and with his trombone. 

Gail and Marilyn Robie provided some amazing vocals, including Wynter’s smooth as silk voice and boisterous scat and Robie’s excellent version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” 

C the Beat feeds off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd does the same to the musicians.  The effect Friday inside those beautiful wooden walls that smell of the most delicious BBQ you’ve ever dreamed of, was cathartic.  The symbiosis between the performers and the dancers was quite evident, and when Gail Wynters starts a call and answer scat with the crowd and everyone excitedly joins in. 

This type of performance and interaction is not your usual live music experience, and I’m thrown back to the days of Count Basie and the big band sound.  Such a classic feel to the night, and what really astounds is the diversity of the crowd, and I don’t mean that some were cats and some were hookers and others were skeletons with some phenomenal face painting.  The dance floor was simply the floor of the entire restaurant, and everyone willingly moved to the beat despite their difference in generations.  Perhaps three generations of folks were represented at Willie’s Friday night, and the common need to shake one’s hips to some tightly orchestrated yet loosely relaxed beat crossed any and all potential division lines, and bliss was had, indeed. 

Live music is a visceral experience, and C the Beat taps into that need to let one’s emotions take lead for the night and lets that drive fuel the entire night. And the crowd eats it up. 

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As Lee Carroll states, “It’s easier to find the energy in yourself to play when you’re getting feedback from the folks in the crowd, if they like what you’re doing.  If they’re dancing, they like what you’re doing.”

Clearly the Friday night crowd at Willie’s really liked what C the Beat was doing, because that group of musicians is there for exactly that.  To cluster ten talented and in-demand musicians together for one night is an act of devotion for Carroll and his troupe.  They are there for the fun and for the music, and not much more.  Carroll has created an opportunity for these ten folks to be creative and stretch their musical legs, and the dialogue it creates with each other and the crowd is truly energetic.  Lee says of his musicians, “If you’re not having fun on this stage, then you’re in the wrong group.”

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So when Chase busts out his big ocarina and begins improvising, the rest of the band just goes with it, and the trombones speak to the drummers, who speak to the keys and the bass, and that old dialogue between the old world African sound and the new world Caribbean sound swirl around some Ska and some Reggae and salsa, samba, NOLA R&B, American funk and Afrobeat, and the entire world calls out in that beautifully smelling room, especially surreal with the costumes where folks can hide their true identity and lose themselves and their inhibitions in the fun of it all.

Because in the end, Lee says, it’s all about “the folks who come out and support live music”, and the musicians up on stage truly appreciate that.  “I don’t care where you go, if you go to hear live music, you’re part of the solution.”

And ain’t that the truth.

All the amazing venues we can boast here in Lexington, including my beloved Willie’s Locally Known, exist for the people who come to fill the seats and the dance floor and pay the ticket price so the musicians can get some food and gas for the way home.  That is what keeps the local music scene alive, and I’m fairly certain I can speak for everyone at Willie’s Friday night, that C the Beat definitely earned the crowd’s money, but even more so, they earned their joy and bliss.

What a great night.

[Listen to Cara’s entire conversation with Lee Carroll:]

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