There’s something elemental about a wood block. Same goes for a whistle; the kind gym teachers wear on lanyards and old heads in New York bring out to the club to blow in approval for their favorite disco classics. These instruments of the elementary school music room can be played by virtually anyone as long as the spirit moves you.
Letting loose a multiple-minute-long, wood block punctuated whistle solo last week on stage at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere, beloved NYC dance-punk godmothers ESG made it clear that a whole lot of elemental spirit was in the room. In commemoration of the group’s fortieth anniversary, the great ESG treated a sold out crowd of shaking asses to a heart-swelling and groove-laden raucous hometown revue.
The family band, forged in the South Bronx in 1978, has managed to inspire a sense of wondrous discovery in countless scenes and individuals over their four-decade-long career. After an early “discovery” by Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, the ESG groove proved influential for New York’s 1980s no wave scene, early house music innovators from the Warehouse to the Paradise Garage, countless numbers of UFO sampling hip-hop producers, and generations of record store nerds en masse. I remember the first time I heard Dance and I’m willing to bet you do too.
Anchored by founding member and primary vocalist Renee Scroggins, the current iteration of ESG is full of ear-to-ear grinning glee. Four people playing percussion at once; what a joy to behold as a barrage of conga solos conjoin with the aforementioned whistles and wood blocks, toms on toms, and even some incredibly tasteful cowbell. ESG at their best have always sounded like if The Ronnettes were raised in a cabin by James Brown. Rhythm above everything but sweet as candy.
Renee has undeniably still got it. Unfurling scratchy, high pitch vocal punctuations that are beautifully reminiscent of James Brown backing singer Lola Blank’s work on Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L Go Bang! #5. There’s a striking ease with which she accompanies the band’s percussive bass groove-centred backbone. Dancing is a key component of every player’s duty and they do so with glee, encouraging and reflecting the audience’s boogie actively. It was a lovely embodiment to the testament of the groove ESG birthed decades prior.