In the months leading up to March 2020, members in the Flathead Valley’s popular funk band 20 Grand were hitting their groove. They had just recorded their second album, they were consistently rehearsing and they were preparing for a busy summer.
On March 7, the band played an album release show where it dropped “Not My Work” and packed the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish with adoring funk fans. Little did the nine musicians know that this would be one of few opportunities to promote their new music thanks to a looming global pandemic that would soon upend normal life.
“We put all of this work into a new album, we had a CD release party, we released it and the whole world shut down,” said Eric Kanter, the band’s emcee, also known as E-roc. “We never got a chance to sell our album.”
For the rest of 2020, they played a few outdoor shows, including their annual concert in Polebridge, but they felt uneasy about the crowd they drew during a COVID-cautious time, canceled the rest of their tentatively scheduled shows that year and moved on with their lives.
By the fall, lead vocalist Kendra Timm announced she was moving to Puerto Rico after five years with 20 Grand. The news left the rest of the band feeling even more uncertain about its future.
“We thought about disbanding,” Kanter said.
20 Grand officially launched 13 years ago, started by drummer Vinnie Rannazzisi and guitarist Jamie Simpson, whom Kanter calls the anchor of the band’s sound to this day. Tenor saxophone and flute player Rebecca Nelson, who is Rannazzisi’s wife, soon joined along with two more musicians. The unknown band played its first show during Whitefish Winter Carnival in 2008 at Craggy Range Bar and Grill, which Kanter said was once a curator for musicians in the valley before live shows at the Great Northern Bar and the Remington Bar became consistent.
Kanter joined the band later that summer after working with Rannazzisi in a separate hip hop group, bringing a freestyle rap element to the traditional funk genre and becoming the band’s official emcee. In that role, he hoped to bring some life to the local music scene.
“There was no music in Whitefish,” Kanter said. “20 Grand was this random funk band that came alive.”
Over the next decade, the band saw a steady turnover of artists with eight different bass players and a handful of singers, eventually growing to a nine-piece band complete with keys, percussions and a horns section.
Percussionist Toby Ferguson joined in 2010 and trumpet player Zac Fawcett returned home to the Flathead after playing music and touring with roughly 30 bands in the Los Angeles and Spokane regions, bringing the group to nine. His fellow bandmates say he allowed them to hit a significant stride.
Since Fawcett joined five years ago, Rannazzisi and Kanter say the band’s dynamic has shifted from a traditional funk sound to a neo-soul afrobeat, adding a new perspective.
“There was a little more hip hop about it,” Kanter said. “We were very rock-sounding before. When I would rap, it would be like a Rage Against the Machine rap-rock sound. But we incorporated a more jazz hip hop sound … there was a silkiness to it after Zac joined. It kind of changed our direction.”
While there’s no lack of guitarists or drummers in the valley, Rannazzisi said horn players are difficult to find and Fawcett describes trumpet players as a dying breed.
“It’s a very physical instrument,” Fawcett said. “You have to be in shape and you treat yourself like an athlete. You have to play every day otherwise you lose the muscles.”
At one point, Rannazzisi’s teenage nephew and trumpet prodigy, Nick Simko, snuck into bars to play with 20 Grand, but the band was always on the prowl for a full-time player who could be a consistent ninth member. Fawcett filled that gap.
Contrasting Fawcett, Kanter said he never felt like he had a rare talent after growing up in southern California, a landscape saturated with emcees. Kanter eventually moved to Lake Tahoe where he continued rapping with friends for fun, but he still never saw himself performing on a stage or earning an income from it. It wasn’t until he moved to Whitefish in the 2000s where he met Rannazzisi that he felt like he could be a professional.
“Vinnie was the light,” Kanter said. “This guy is a beacon if you want to learn how to be a musician … He’s a special one. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be rapping. There’s no way. He sees potential in people.”
As the unofficial band manager, Rannazzisi is the glue that holds it all together, coordinating practices and shows for nine people, all in their 30s and 40s, who have families and other careers. He describes funk as a team party and while the group has frontmen, there’s no lead and he’s watched a rotating cast of nearly 25 people flow through 20 Grand in the past 13 years.
“Trying to schedule an hour that overlaps for nine people is kind of a Hail Mary,” Fawcett said. “Being in a band is a lot like being in a marriage, there’s a lot of give and take.”
That give and take was especially apparent at the end of 2020 when they thought about disbanding. Without knowing when the band would be able to play consistent shows again and after Timm left, 20 Grand’s future was very uncertain. But by 2021, the bandmembers missed playing music. Eventually, they started rehearsing together and started working with sibling duo Sanjay and Shyamali Malakar, both singers, and soon began planning 20 Grand’s summer.
“The funk was alive,” Kanter said.
20 Grand was invited to play Under the Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, so it started working on new songs. The band played a return show at the Great Northern Bar over Fourth of July weekend in 2021 right before the festival a few weeks later.
“Having that gig and seeing the potential, we tried to have a normal summer,” Kanter said. “We had a setlist, played a bunch of new songs and we became a band again.”
While Under the Big Sky wasn’t their favorite venue since it played the first show of the festival and most audience members hadn’t made it past the security gates by the time they were finished, it helped the band organize for the rest of the summer and it prepared them for their annual Polebrige show shortly after, which remains a favorite of the band’s.
“It’s great because the whole band gets to hang out after,” Rannazzisi said. “We have this bond and we can look under the stars and have that romance … It’s just inspiring that people like us enough to drive an hour-and-a-half to watch us and spend the night and tell all of their friends about it. That to me is great that people like us that much. Those shows are my favorite.”
In 2022, 20 Grand will return to its classic venues in Polebridge, the Stonefly Lounge in Coram, the Northern and the Remington but members opted out of playing weddings and festivals. The band has embraced a “less is more” strategy, maintaining a scarcity element to 20 Grand’s persona.
“We’ve gotten to the point where now you don’t know what we’re going to play or when we’re going to show up and it’s changed the game for us a bit,” Kanter said. “We’re not going to play every weekend. We’re playing way more sporadically and every show is different.”
While Timm returns to sing with the band every now and then when she visits from Puerto Rico, including their 2022 New Year’s Eve show at the O’Shaughnessy Center and a January concert at the Remington, the band is continuing to bring in new singers and musicians. Rannazzisi compares the variety to bands like Galactic where they rotate vocalists, always bringing a fresh sound.
With the band’s less frequent appearances, it gives bandmembers the opportunity to live their lives outside of 20 Grand and nearly all nine members play in multiple musical projects.
Fawcett continues to tour with other bands and he plays in the local reggae band, Roots Uprising. Kanter is working to revive a former hip-hop group. Nelson on the tenor sax and flute joins Rannazzisi and baritone sax and keys player Eric Gates in Barrel Stove Trio, a jazz group. Guitarist Jamie Simpson plays in Badger Hound. And Rannazzisi plays with multiple bands including Predactor Project and his newest band, Honey Bandit.
“We’re all in support of each other’s musical endeavors,” Kanter said. “It’s not 20 Grand or bust.”
As the members of 20 Grand evolve and it continues to create versatile music, Kanter says its future still remains a mystery. But their mission remains the same as it did when they formed 13 years ago.
“Every town needs a neighborhood funk band,” Rannazzisi said.