Featured photo: (L-R) Sam Fribush on the keys, Nick Falk on the drums and Charlie Hunter performing at the Ramkat for their Home Sweet Home series in March.

One could be forgiven for not knowing that Sam Fribush was back in town. It’s not like there have been any live gigs or jam sessions where one might pick up this info; after the panny, the cultural grapevine went mostly silent.

But it’s true: Fribush — who started playing piano and keys with grown men in this city when he was a high school student at Weaver, who finished his formal education at the New England Conservatory and had been working on his hard-knocks degree in New Orleans when everything went to hell — is back in Greensboro. Has been for months.

I found out from his father, who runs the COVID-19 testing station on Spring Garden Street. Charlie Hunter found out from Jimmy Washington. And that’s where this tale begins.

Everybody knows that Hunter has been living in Greensboro since before the pandemic. He’d been holding small shows at the tiny On the 1 performance space, working curious projects and one-offs like the Bitches Brew Halloween show at the Crown, recording with Eric Gales at Earthtones, all while keeping his touring schedule before the curtain fell last spring.

Charlie Hunter playing as part of the Sam Fribush Trio playing at the Ramkat in March 2021 (photo still by Andy Tennille)

He heard about Fribush, about the small studio set up behind his parents’ house, and then he went over there to see for himself.

“Yeah, he just came over,” Fribush says. “We just clicked right away.

“He was my pandemic buddy,” he continues. “He showed me how to play a shuffle. I went to the New England Conservatory, and Charlie’s the best teacher I ever had.”

Now the two of them, along with drummer Nick Falk, share the stage at the Ramkat, in front of an empty room. There’s maybe eight of us in here, not including the talent but counting the sound and video crew, Ramkat staff and a couple of looky-loos.

The Ramkat’s “Home Sweet Home” series is perfect for the band Fribush and Hunter created: The Sam Fribush Organ Trio, with a double album fresh on Bandcamp that mines classic funk, R&B, soul and whatever else no one else wants to play with them — instrumental, sparse, with a groove and a backbeat. Like a jam band, maybe, but that seems reductionist. Their version of Allen Toussaint’s “Riverboat,” stripped of vocals, is so much deeper and dirtier than the original. Their turn on Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” foregoes her trademark slide-guitar licks in favor of Hunter’s staccato riffs and that thing Fribush is doing with his right hand. It’s a natural for the first song of the evening.

The Sam Fribush Trio playing at the Ramkat in March 2021 (photo still by Andy Tennille)

“Refresh my memory on the arrangement for this one,” Hunter asks his bandleader. It’s taken him a lifetime to make it look this easy. Where Fribush has been classically trained since before high school and through the conservatory, Hunter had to figure a lot of this out for himself.

“I start.” Fribush says. “Soon after, you come in.”

“Bom bom bom bom bom,” Hunter says, articulating the beat.

“And that’s the vibe,” Fribush finishes.

Hunter may be the mentor, but this is Fribush’s band — he sets the pace, he calls the tune, he books the gigs. Hunter is just a hired gun, a role he seems to relish.

Off they go: Fat organ rolls on a rented Hammond B-3, and then Hunter walks delicately across it with the strings of a Silvertone, which he’ll later describe as a guitar that was “made for children.” The Raitt number is so recognizable, even as they deconstruct it, let it unspool and then wind it back in.

Andy Tennille’s got six cameras running tonight, including the ones at the corners of the stage, in his hands and a small, tabletop dolly that tracks left and right. It’s the sort of thing he used to do for Tom Petty and Widespread Panic in his past life, so after the panna cotta, rather than try to host livestreams at the shuttered nightclub like everybody else, he figured he’d apply these skills to homegrown talent and package them as the “Home Sweet Home” series on their YouTube. The series is hitting a sweet spot — a lot of pandanna projects have been landing as of late: new bands, new songs, new connections forged even as the local music scene has been driven largely underground.
This is Hunter’s first time inside the Ramkat. It will not be his last. One of the most noteworthy traits Hunter’s displayed since coming to town is his willingness — eagerness, even — to play with local artists, and not just Eric Gales.

Nick Falk on the drums playing as part of the Sam Fribush Trio playing at the Ramkat in March 2021 (photo still by Andy Tennille)

“I’ve never met someone that gifted who shares his secrets,” Fribush says.

After the set — just seven songs, plus an encore for the eight people in the room which is really just an R&B groove at a medium pace — Hunter’s in the post-gig endorphin rush.

“I don’t really play a lot of guitar like this,” he says. And that explains the connection with Fribush.

“He’s a generation younger than me,” Hunter says. “But we like all the same music. And he can groove. He’s way too young to have all of that organ language.”

Hunter says his touring schedule, which pre-panamana would sometimes top 200 gigs a year, won’t resume until November. Until then he considers himself a part of the local music scene.

“There’s so much talent in this town,” he says. “It just needs to be collated.”

Listen to Riverboat/The Root, by the Sam Fribush Organ Trio on the group’s Bandcamp or Spotify, or at samfribush.com. Look for the Home Sweet Home performance on the Ramkat’s YouTube channel.

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