Soulvation Army: Burlington’s Musical Militia

Soulvation Army does not take second-hand clothes donations. Nor do they feed the homeless hot soup on a single-digit day in Burlington.

They do, however, perform an important social function: funk and soul.

Formed in 2005 with the hopes of winning the Battle of the Bands, Soulvation Army, a band with UVM roots, was originally a group of friends from the music department. Almost a year after they won the contest, the young group has manifested as a locally-known band with somewhat of a cult following.

“It’s bazaar,” says soul soldier Paddy Reagan with modesty, “We actually had someone yell out of the car the other day, ‘Soulvation Army!'”

Sure, the instance must have been flattering, but Paddy contends that the best part about something like this is knowing that people connect with the music at the same level the band enjoys playing it: for fun. To Soulvation, this crazed fan is the embodiment of their music and performances, of which nothing is taken too seriously.

Practices are lax, and the shows are as wild as the group’s outlandish on-stage attire which, even on its most drab nights, looks way cooler than any army uniform. The band wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That’s kind of the atmosphere of our band. We want people to… have a crazy time at our shows and just really enjoy themselves,” Paddy explains. “That’s really what we’re kind of going for.”

Soulvation is, in some respects, its own army. Led by front man Mike Gorgone, the band consists of seventeen cohesive and co-ed members complete with a six-person horn section and a hype-man-a testament to the band’s goal of getting people to move.

Known to most as O.D., their hype man joins the ranks of Flava Flav and other characters with the sole purpose of hyping up the crowd. Part of the original show for the Battle of the Bands, O.D. succeeded in his job so well that has since played a critical role in the band-as important as any guitar, horn or voice.

The idea admittedly comes from such acts ad James Brown and George Clinton & the Parliament Funkadelics, two of the group’s musical influences, who would often remain off-stage while their hype-man worked the crowd.

“We wanted to preserve [the hype-man] and really have that be a big part of our show,” says Paddy. “People enjoy it.”

When O.D. isn’t hyping up the crowd, Soulvation Army is lighting up the stage with both original songs and covers laced with their own twist. The self-proclaimed “Funk-Soul-Motown” classification of Soulvation Army affords room to wiggle as far as genre goes, and the band does just that.

In other words, the “jam band” label is not apt here, but neither is it out of the question. Most of the group’s songs are limited to around six minutes, but their talent and experience afford them the option to jam at a show for as long as they deem fun. Paddy, when forced to answer, would label their music that of a soul band, but one gets the feeling that branding these tunes is at the listener’s discretion.

Why label a band when they’re doing so well and having so much fun? Attaching a “girlfriend/boyfriend” label never works for relationships and labeling a can of Ajax “edible” does not make it so.

Soulvation Army is not about such formalities, but about having a good time. The soldiers of Soulvation are serious musicians reveling in a wacky band atmosphere, and this mindset is reflected in the audience every show.

Further, while bands are often preoccupied with “making it” these guys are not concerned about money or a contract.

“People really put the effort in because we all know how fun it is, says Paddy. “It’s like a family band. We don’t make any money…we look at twenty dollars per person as like 300 dollars for the band fund.”

Meanwhile, this modest “family” band had such a successful show opening for Jugtown Pirates earlier this month that the concert was moved from Higher Ground’s Showcase Lounge to the main stage due to capacity.