Drumming Up the Funk
“Growing up as a little kid in the ‘70s, my first exposure to music was soul and funk. My father, George Penn Sr., was an R&B blues drummer here in the valley and some of my earliest memories are of him practicing with his band. Dad took me to see ‘The Godfather of Soul’ James Brown and The Jackson 5, and when I was twelve he gave me my first set of drums. I had a natural ear for rock music and fell in love with all the classics. To this day, my style is a fusion of rock and soul, sprinkled with a little jazz and reggae.
Music and drumming provide me continual inspiration. I’m in a state of total bliss when engaging with the audience. There seems to be a lot of confusion and division in society that’s rooted in paranoia. All of the strife and negativity breaks my heart some days. I believe that music can be the unifier, it has power. I just want to help spread peace and love through music.”
George Penn Jr. is no rookie to the local music circuit. Currently, he plays drums with three bands: funk band, Ripejive; blues rock band, Electric Woodshed; and Grateful Dead tribute band, The Dead Reckoning. But, if you’ve been on the scene for awhile, there’s also a good chance you’ve heard Penn play with a few other well known groups. He has drummed with the likes of the Floorboards, Corey Harris, the Sol Creech Band, and Jah Works, a roots reggae group out of Baltimore.
Penn was also one of the founding members of the funk-rock band The Yams from Outer Space. The Yams got its start in 1986 on the campus of Radford University and played locally, as well as up and down the east coast, for numerous years. In addition to featuring prominent musicians like Penn, Mike Kirby and Dylan Locke, The Yams had sound man Matt DeFilippis, who now runs sound for a little known band, The Drive-By Truckers.
“Kirby and I started The Yams. Other than my dad, he was my main mentor in music. He was Frank Zappa meets Eddie Van Halen. He’s the man that turned me on to all the deep, deep rock and funk music. Then there’s Matt DeFilippis. He’s the man. He’s really made it. The three of us were the three amigos back in the day. I still live vicariously through Matt and he’s been partly responsible for keeping my fire burning. I’ve seen some amazing shows because of him, and also have had the opportunity to ride on the tour bus with the Drive-By Truckers. Those guys are incredible.”
Of all of Penn’s bands, currently Ripejive is the most active. The Meters, Lettuce, and Galactic are just a few of the noted influences for this four-piece group that plays a number of local spots, including 622 North in Blacksburg and Martin’s Downtown in Roanoke. Ripejive also played the Virginia Beach Funk Out this past May and will be at the Camp Barefoot Music & Arts Festival this August.
“I’m the old man in the band and am fortunate to be with these young guys who are deeply rooted in funk and jam music. We take funk and fuse it with a little Phish, Panic [Widespread], and String Cheese [Incident] that add that flavor of fun.”
As a veteran of the local music scene, Penn shared his thoughts about its current state.
“We have a beautiful band scene that’s growing and developing. We could use a few more bands recording, traveling and representing the area. We also need more people supporting live music. Don’t be afraid of the unfamiliar, listen to all types of music. It’s hard for venues to book cool bands when people don’t show up. Get out there and put a little effort into it.”
George Penn Jr drumming at the Virginia Beach Funk Out