Music News & Reviews

Flower Vato’s ‘Church’ celebrates 20 years of funky grooves and hands-in-the-air partying

DJ Larry Rodriguez gets the dance party started in this photo taken several years ago on a Sunday night.
DJ Larry Rodriguez gets the dance party started in this photo taken several years ago on a Sunday night. Sacramento Bee file

The weekly dance party is so sacred that locals simply call it “Church.” And for 20 years devotees have flocked to it on a night that’s usually one of the sleepiest in Sacramento.

While most of the world is packing it in and preparing for the Monday morning rat race, the good times are just getting started at midtown’s Press Club. DJ Larry Rodriguez, otherwise known as the Flower Vato, presides over his Sunday night congregation with a musical mix that’s unlike any other found in Sacramento. Vintage R&B, Banghra beat tracks from India, Afrobeat, disco, reggae – if it’s got some funk and soul, it’s fair game.

Rodriguez’s dance party has developed into a midtown institution, a dependable spot for the free-spirited to wave their freak flags while holding tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Jan. 8 party will go an extra distance to entertain, offering live music from Sacto Storytellers, a reunion of Sacramento hip-hop legends The CUF and other bands. The celebration’s $10 cover charge includes an Indian food spread and a night capped with choice tunes spun by the Flower Vato himself.

“People tell me the (Sunday night) party has been a great form of therapy for them, like a cathartic release,” Rodriguez said. “For them, that has a lot to do with the ‘church’ connotation. Those James Brown screams (from the records) set the room into this joyous place.”

Unlike other DJs of the moment, Rodriguez doesn’t dabble in scratching or other turntable trickery. His gift is an innate ability to read a room combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of grooves that get people dancing. The name “Flower Vato” speaks in part to his homeboy side. He is after all a guy who came of age in Del Paso Heights, but one who seeks peace as he’s spinning his music.

Rodriguez’s Sunday night party has bounced around town for the past two decades. It debuted at Old Ironsides on the first Sunday of 1997. Rodriguez was armed with two turntables – one cost $15, the other $10 – that he’d scored at thrift shops. Back then, he was already a longtime record collector and former Tower Records employee who wanted to take a spin at DJing.

He decorated Old Ironsides with Christmas lights and built a small shrine that faced the dance floor. He cued up his first song: a 1965 track by Chico Hamilton called “Conquistadores.” The song essentially summed up the Flower Vato’s purpose – share the timeless spirit of funky grooves and showcase the less-obvious in terms of track selection – even if the club was mostly empty.

“There was only four people there,” Rodriguez said. “After a couple of months the crowd grew to 20 to 30 enthusiastic people, which was very encouraging, and it kept growing from there. It was then that I could fathom the possibilities of the dance party becoming a regular thing in the future.”

Rodriguez kept the trippy decor as the party moved to The Press Club from 1998 to 2003, followed by stints at The Distillery and Blue Lamp. The party returned to The Press Club in 2010, and ever since then, a melodic rumble can be heard on the corner of 21st and P streets starting at 9 p.m. Sundays.

Over the years, the party has grown to attract an especially diverse slice of Sacramento. High heels or high-top Converse, anyone who is 21 and over and wants to dance is welcome on Sunday nights as Rodriguez keeps the beats fresh and eclectic. His mix is built on a foundation of classic soul and funk, but over the years has expanded into a world of grooves that includes cumbia, Brazilian tunes, Syrian music and much more.

“I’ve always described the crowd as ‘the funkiest crowd in Sacramento,’ ” Rodriguez said. “We get punks, scholars, musicians, artists, hip-hoppers, state workers, poets, baristas, artists, students, young folks and old folks all having a great time together as brothers and sisters should.”

These days, the weekly dance party is on its third generation of attendees, from the old timers who’ve been partying with Rodriguez since the late 1990s to millennials looking for their own sonic fix. Jonathan Carabba, 31, went to his first Sunday night dance party as soon as he turned the legal drinking age. And when Carabba was married three years ago, he hired Rodriguez to DJ the wedding and bring that Press Club spirit to a day of nuptial bliss.

“Larry is one of those Sacramento music institutions,” said Carabba, who also is co-owner of Submerge magazine. “No matter how old you are, you can lose yourself in whatever music he’s getting down on. Sacramento nightlife-goers have come to trust someone like him. He’s swimming in music all the time.”

Rodriguez stays busy with other endeavors related to music. He hosts a radio show on KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis called “Tripping With the Flower Vato” that’s currently on break, but normally airs from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Fridays. He also has 12-year DJ residency running at downtown Davis’ G Street WunderBar and until recently worked at Records on Broadway.

But once Sunday night arrives, there’s one place you know you’ll find him, presiding over a sweaty and smiling crowd that prefers to dance on the holiest of days.

“It can be dark and rainy, or you may be facing troubles in your life, but when the good ol’ funk hits you, a positive force grows from the inside, going straight to your soul and exploding into lots of joy and happiness,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s why people call it ‘church.’ 

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

DJ Larry Rodriguez/Flower Vato holds his dance party 9 p.m. Sundays at The Press Club, 2030 P St., midtown Sacramento.