Tidewater's Major and the Monbacks.
Major and the Monbacks evoke the passionate soul of the ’60s and ’70s.
Photo by Francesco Sapienzo
Call Major and the Monbacks a retro band or a throwback and the members sigh.
They’ve heard it before—the references to great performers of the 1960s and ’70s like Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, and the sweaty, passionate performances that their soulful music evokes with every overdriven Hammond organ growl.
The eight-piece group’s music may call back to the past—indeed, “Monbacks” is a play on “come on back”— but the band is young and ambitious enough to chafe at being pigeonholed. They’re just out of college, after all.
“We’re drawing from all kinds of music,” says bassist, tour arranger and all-around band manager Cole Friedman, 23. He cites British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as a main influence.
Guitarist Neal Friedman, who happens to be Cole’s twin, agrees—“‘Tumbling Dice’ is, I think, the most perfect rock song ever,” he explains— and adds the Band and Van Morrison to the mix.
Those bands all drew from the soul performers of the American South, including what became known as the “Norfolk Sound”—an enthusiastic, horn-driven style perfect for parties that was led by Gary “U.S.” Bonds.
There is a direct connection to these bands and the Monbacks. The Friedmans’ grandfather owned Virginia Beach’s most influential music store beginning in the late 1960s, when he bought Birdland Music from none other than Frank Guida, the man who discovered Gary “U.S.” Bonds and recorded his “Quarter to Three” and other hits. Birdland, a cultural center of Tidewater’s music scene, is now owned by Barry and Bob Friedman, Neal and Cole’s uncles. The brothers spent many weekends there while growing up.
The twins started music lessons in middle school, on the same day. Neal spent hours picking out “Sweet Home Alabama” on guitar while Cole focused on bass. In time, they formed a band called the Yolks with high-school pal Tyler West on percussion. When Michael Adkins joined on guitar, they renamed the band Major and the Monbacks (“We just thought it was kind of funny and it sounded right,” Cole recalls) and started playing at the 40th Street Stage in Norfolk, a high-school hangout. The band had a different drummer and keyboard player then, and their sets were a raucous mix of classic rock and current acts such as My Morning Jacket.
After a highly satisfying career as a high-school band, they split up to go to school at six separate colleges around the mid-Atlantic. Somehow, the group stayed together, playing on weekends at venues in and near their various college towns, and crashing on the couches, floors and guest beds of friends.
The biggest shift in these years came in 2012, when longtime friend and roadie Harry Slater joined the band onstage as a guitarist. After so many years watching the show, Slater says, he knew just what to do. His playing, which nods to soulful greats like Steve Cropper and Mick Taylor, fit so well that Neal moved to keyboards. Playing the Hammond organ inspired Neal to write songs that drew on the soul tradition; Slater began writing music as well. The Monbacks were evolving.
Upon graduation, they kept going. This year the Monbacks raised enough funds through social media to record and release their first, self-titled album to positive reviews. No Depression magazine enthused, “These talented players resurrect the festive spark of horn-lined rock ‘n’ soul with irresistible grooves.”
In true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, the Monbacks have hit the road, playing more than 100 gigs in five months, ranging farther and playing more than ever.
“It’s been crazy,” Neal says. “I graduated [from William and Mary] and three weeks later we went full time.”
Now the Monbacks are planning a new album and taking a minute to catch their breaths. They admire bands like Dr. Dog that can build successful careers without being household names. And of course they want to do what 20-something musicians have always wanted: to play music, enjoy themselves and make a living.
“We don’t have to be the biggest band in the world to succeed,” Neal says. “We’re definitely trying to make our next move, and just committing to what we’ve been doing.” MajorAndTheMonbacks.com