The Commotions: Sweet Soul Sensations Unleash Sizzling Satisfaction

Photos by Andre R. Gagne

They have got to still be cleaning the sweat off the dance floor inside the Babylon Nightclub after the The Commotions put the awe in awesome with a groove making, Bank Street shaking, sweet, sensational and soulicious show Friday night. There was sizzle! There was swing! If there was a spot left to sway, jump or jive upon after a crowd stretching ‘round the block hustled on through the doors you bet yours, mine and your Uncle Funkasaurus Rex’s bottom dollar that it was being occupied by a whole lotta’ jiggle and the perfect mix of wiggle. Seriously, they were dancing on the couches!

If you’d never seen them play before and were suddenly overcome with the urge the spasm wildly at their infectiously danceable tunes, you know now that The Commotions bring the motion! Best reinforce the stages in this town, folks, because this 12-piece band are ready to bring the house down where every day is a throwback Thursday filled with the classic sounds of Motown, soul and the jazziest of jazz. It’s all iced down with a layer of phenomenal funk so you better be hungry. Fronted by two powerhouse signers in Rebecca Noelle and Jeff Rogers, band leader Brian Asselin has put together a super-group of some of the city’s top players as demonstrated in a slew of recent packed performances in town. This group is ready to command their crowds with brassy beats and smooth ballad treats.

Though relatively new on the scene in this incarnation (the band was originally put together to provide a Canadian tinge to Funk Brother’s vocalist Delbert Nelson’s album Delbert & The Commotions), the group doesn’t show any signs of musical infancy. This is a well oiled machine with extra buckets side stage to make sure the party takesyou to places your body is going to feel come sunrise. It’s hard to believe that their recent album, Volume II, is indeed that, only their second shot because when it goes down it packs a hell of a punch.

Nabbing not one, but two of Ottawa’s best voices was a coup for Asselin who backed them with seasoned musicians like Ed Lister (trumpet), Steve Berndt (trombone) Ken Seeley (bass) and David Gaw (guitar), to name a few.

Check out recent cuts like “Bad Girl” where Noelle unpacks the chops that took her to runner-up in Quebec’s La Voix –not to mention concerts with The Jacksons. Then there’s “Right Kind of Wicked” where Rogers belts out a cocktail mix of Otis Redding and Joe Cocker stirred by the wild man moves of James Brown with a Ray Charles cherry floating among the bubbles. Add the sometimes backing vocals of Dee Dee Butters and Mackenzie Di Millo and you've got a lot of octave range up there to move around in, something The Commotions use in powerful abundance.  

I had a chance to chat with Asselin, Rogers and Noelle about putting the band together, their blistering live shows and how they mesh so well jostling for position between the vocalists and the beats.

Ottawa Life: Can you tell me about the genesis on how this huge band came together?

Brian Asselin: I was fortunate enough to have toured with The Legendary Funk Brothers on and off for a couple years. I am not sure why I got the call, but they took a chance on me and I will be forever grateful. Here I was, just starting out on my career, playing with the backup band who recorded with The Jackson 5, The Temptations, etc. I have always loved Motown music and being a horn player, I have always been intrigued by bands with a strong horn section.

After the band broke up, I started to write my own original soul music and called on The Funk Brothers lead singer, Delbert Nelson, to record an album with me. Delbert agreed and then I formed Delbert and The Commotions with both David Gaw and Rebecca Noelle. Unfortunately, the band didn’t play many performances since Delbert lived in Detroit, so it was short lived. I knew I wanted to record another album and I always wanted Rebecca to front the band with another lead male vocal. I have always admired Jeff Rogers, but I knew he was concentrating on his already well-established career. I called him up one day and asked him to join the band the rest is history. Jeff and I go way back so it is really a dream come true to have him so involved in the band.

As musical director, how do you find managing so many people on stage?

Brian Asselin: I am not going to lie, it is pretty challenging but to be honest I am nothing without my band. The reason why The Commotions are successful today is because I surround myself with musicians that are better than me – at the end of the day my job is pretty easy.

You have included two powerful vocalists in Jeff and Rebecca. How do you feel they two compliment the band while simultaneously playing off one another?

Brian Asselin: I could not have asked for two better musicians to front this band. Both Rebecca and Jeff are two of the most talented and inspiring musicians I have ever had the opportunity to perform with. Both come from a strong foundation in soul music which makes them perfect for The Commotions. Working with Rebecca and now Jeff Rogers has also been a game changer in terms of songwriting. This record was mainly written by myself, David Gaw and Rebecca Noelle. I may have ideas about lyrics and melody but working with a real singer, like Rebecca, has been such an eye-opening experience for me. The three of us (myself, David and Rebecca) also come from different musical backgrounds which makes each song very unique. We have already started working on some new material for our Volume III album which will include some co-writes with Jeff Rogers.

Jeff, it really is like your voice was made for this kinda’ band. How have you found merging your style with The Commotions?

Jeff Rogers: I’ve been singing R&B/Soul music from the start of my vocal career, so it feels very natural for me to merge with the band. It’s not often I get to sing with such a big band, however, and their energy and talent definitely helps get me in the mood to belt it out!

What drew you to join The Commotions, Rebecca?

It began as a fierce desire to work with Brian Asselin. I was aware of his work in the city, and had been admiring from afar for quite some time when the opportunity to do some backing vocal work for him presented itself. One thing lead to another, and suddenly there we were, sipping coffee and writing songs for The Commotions Vol. II on a Sunday afternoon. We gelled instantly with a mutual appreciation for old soul and throwback R&B, with David Gaw also in on these writing sessions, we just knew we'd be a songwriting team for years to come!

As a solo musician and a member of The PepTides, what has it been like to add another mega music project to your life when it comes to time management?

Rebecca Noelle: I think I must have an inexplicable need to fill the gaps in my calendar with something. If I hadn't started gigging with another band, I might have taken up competitive rowing, or maybe more productively to my line of work, just started writing even more songs! And the craziest part is, I'm currently working on 2 additional projects that have yet to be revealed!

This band has a go big or go home attitude, it seems. How would you define it?

Jeff Rogers: The band is all about positive energy. It’s a big band, full of genuinely talented, nice, friendly people, and we’re all friends. When the band starts it’s a force to be reckoned with. Brian’s charts are fantastic, everyone is totally open-minded and our collective goal is to serve the songs to the best of our ability. The product on stage is genuine collaborative musicianship, and the heart and soul is Brian. You need to know him to appreciate how truly lovable that guy is.

Your music really harkens back to the soul sensations of the 70s. Was that something you were trying to capture?

Brian Asselin: I have studied music most of my life and I keep coming back to soul music whether it be through writing, arranging or listening – I always go back to the music that moves me the most. I really wanted to make a soul record that would make people think they went back in time – to a time where music was about the music and nothing else. My time with the Funk Brothers brought that connection to soul music even closer. We have some amazing soul artists in Canada and I look up to each and every one of them – they even inspired me to write some of the music on this record. I hope someday we can also make Canada proud.

How do you feel such large groups of musicians compliment your vocals?

Rebecca Noelle: Having such a lush and full soundscape to vocally dance upon is every singer's dream. Playing off the horns, trading licks with the keys, standing in the very centre of such a powerful musical exchange is exhilarating. The energy behind this mass musical expression is intense, it's addictive. As a front woman, it feels like you're fronting a musical force to be reckoned with. It's empowering.

As a song writer as well, how have you approached that with the group?

Jeff Rogers: Well, I wasn’t involved in the writing for this past record. But when it came time to record, Brian encouraged me to take the melodies into my own hands. The songs are a pleasure to sing and I’m lucky to be part of this project. Since the album’s release, Brian and I have been writing together. He’s so easy to work with, we bounce ideas off each other effortlessly and when presenting drafts to the rhythm section, it just comes alive. It’s a lot of fun.

The album Volume II included even MORE musicians. What did you most enjoy about putting together the release and recording in studio?

Brian Asselin: This record has been a collaborative effort right from the beginning. There are no egos – everyone is free to speak their mind and take the music and ideas in any direction they please. What I enjoy most about this record are the musicians who made it possible. Rebecca, David and I have poured our hearts and soul into every note and it is an honour to have the twenty musicians help make our dream a reality. We have had so much help behind the scenes which without them this record would have not been possible. Jason Jaknunas recorded, engineered and co-produced the record with me. He is one of the most amazing and talented people I have ever met. When Jason has an idea you go with it because it is the best idea ever. Having Mark Ferguson arrange and conduct the string players put this album on another level. Every time I think Motown, I am thinking of a horn section and a string section – I arranged the horns and band while Mark did an amazing job on the string arrangements.

For the entire process of this album the biggest joy I get is seeing a tune come to life – you work on something every day and you tend to look at your songs like your children. Watching the song come to life from an idea to a recording is almost like watching your child grow up.

Rebecca, how have you found playing off Jeff's vocals?

I'm mostly just beside myself, befuddled, in a state of constant awe when Jeff takes the mic. I used to follow Jeff's work in the bar circuit in Ottawa, marveling at his limitless musical abilities and always a little too starstruck to make an introduction. Playing off Jeff is a bit like attending a really inspirational TEDtalk, it's like getting an education. I learn so much about my own voice, and how to better use it, from Jeff. We also share a mutual appreciation of old world wine, so social hour while on-tour, or in-studio is never dull!

And you, Jeff? How have you found singing alongside Rebecca?

Jeff Rogers: Are you kidding me? She’s ridiculous! In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine singing with anyone better than Becky. She is one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever met, and her voice is perfection. When she goes off on stage, it’s all I can do just to not laugh out of joy and amazement.

I’ve seen the band twice now live and the audience was amazing. You really work them up and work them out! What has it been like for you on stage seeing what the band’s music does to a crowd?

Jeff Rogers: When you play good old fashioned dance music, and the people dance, it doesn’t get any better than that. We put in lots of work, time, and energy, and to have that energy returned to us on the dance floor is why we do what we do.

It really is an amazing, dance-a-thon, off the charts kind of show. What goes into making that live show something special for the audience?

Rebecca Noelle: Sharing. We make sure to never close ourselves off, never be selfish on stage, give it ALL away. We want the audience to experience the same kind of joy that we experience from making this music. I believe that a concert is the most "special" when you feel like you've been invited by the performing artist to partake in their expression. When you feel like you also have an important role to play, as a spectator. That is special.