MMWs Bowery Reserve
Neil Young, Road Rock Vol. I- 18 minute Cowgirl in the Sand
Bobby Lee Rogers, 10/9/07- Loaded with jazz standards
Phish, 11/30/94- Great second set
WSP, 8/6/03- An exceedingly fun acoustic show
Andrew Bird, 9/3/08- A strong hometown show; quality recording
Back in January of 1999, hometown heroes MMW had a string of five shows at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC that marked an important transition for the trio- in fact, its fair to argue that listening to those many, many sets is crucial to truly understanding the change from the straight ahead (relatively speaking) groove machine that was the trio in 96 and 97, to the transcendent master musicians they had become by the early days of the new millennium. Theres no doubt that the Bubblehouse era gigs are incredibly satisfying, giddy really- there was a time I could hardly listen to anything else, the music just feels so good. By late 1998, however, the band seemed to be pulled in opposite directions. Their album Combustication, which was heavily steeped in the effects of DJ Logic, was the first to win truly widespread acclaim- remember that at that time having a live DJ component of a jazz group was unheard of, and the band became known as a trio of cutting edge genre benders. The disc includes some now classics like Sugarcraft; and rather bravely for a studio effort, the ten minute Church of Logic; and of course one of the all great spoken word pieces, Whatever Happened to Gus? Logic became the unofficial fourth member of the band, playing most shows, but the music stretched far beyond the songs to serious, free form fusion explorations that might make Dark Magus Miles look twice. Around this time I saw my first MMW show in Boston and still have an extremely visceral memory of the sweaty, thick atmosphere carrying the nearly insurmountable sounds for half the long set, and then something giving way, and a bootyquake erupting for the second half of the show.
At the same time, however, MMW was gaining accolades from all quarters for the seminal new groove offering from fusionist John Scofield, A Go Go- the longstanding impact of that disc cannot be overstated. Its one of the all-time best groove albums ever created, and it certainly catapulted Sco into a whole new realm of success and recognition (as well as served as the underpinning for his various and ever more risky jam funk outfits that would follow). Those first notes from the opening title track still bring a smile to my face every time, but in terms of MMW, the disc found the band cleaving to an older, cleaner, groovier approach- totally satisfying, but seemingly at odds with the direction Combustication was indicating. While John and Chris joined Sco for a supporting tour, a birth kept Billy at home and the material was really only cultivated later with the guitarists own band, becoming, as is probably appropriate, associated with Sco rather than the trio.
Skip ahead a couple of months to the beginning of 1999, and MMW plays five nights on the Lower East Side loaded with guest appearances from Logic, Joshua Roseman, Oren Bloedow, Vernon Reid and others. The material is largely comprised of newer joints like Psychedelic Sally, Note Bleu and Toy Dancing mixed with Combustication material. Older joints like Dracula had faded away and are entirely absent, while fans still shouted for Bubblehouse. Even though there is a noticeable overarching tone to specific shows, and certainly to the run as a whole, the individual compositions stand out in a way they didnt always in 98, when they could become lost in the soupy morass. But thats not to say the opened ended improv had vanished too- indeed it was pushed to the next level over the course of the five nights in a series of purely improvised outings, what Medeski called spontaneous compositions, known as Bowery Reserve I-XX. (There are also a number of percussion pieces that permeate the run, known as Billy Beats with themes such as Temple > Monkey or BustaRIDDEM.) Ranging from five minutes to nearly fifteen, doses of Bowery Reserve cover a full scope of MMWs music, from the loose, jangly pots and pans stylings that can be fun to watch live, but fall into tedium on recordings; to driving funk and blissful moments of grace. Listen to the whole event if you can, but as with any run, there are some choice moments.
January 13 is a quiet, spacey show with lots of upright bass and piano, an excellent slow burn that looks back to MMWs earliest days as an acoustic real-jazz unit, although there is plenty of electric music too. Bowery Reserve II has a funky backbeat over which Medeski grinds on a Rhodes. Chris rumbles in with a single, stretched note and tumbles down in little rock slides. The music settles, however, on Billys shoulders, broad and open despite the density of the other band members. Theres also a nice version of Everyday People for the encore
On January 15, the Psychedelic Sally with Vernon Reid is a standout, as is the quiet, soothing No Ke Ano Ahiahi. Theres also a super long Toy Dancing and a raging Church of Logic- that break beat drumming under Logics effects is so damn bad! Bowery Reserve X is a heavy organ mash with Billy spinning and shaking underneath, whereas Bowery Reserve XI is a Josh Roseman affair- kind of high and noodly until about seven minutes in, when Billy hits a vein, Logic spins a light revolution and Bloedow gives some rhythm licks. The build is slow but engaging, Billy keeping heads a-bobbing, and the stark trombone solo at the end is a fine pay-off. A wicked cover of Hey Joe closes the show.
January 16 has another smoking hot version of Toy Dancing that drives into craziness at about ten minutes, and a lengthy bass jam loosely based on Gus. The Bowery Reserves at this show are fantastic too, especially XIII, IV and XV. The first draws up to a galloping run, much more grounded in jazzy cymbals, woodblocks and piano than in vintage keyboards. Chriss upright bass glows through warmly, while Logic casts out weird spinning effects- next level approach to playing even if it doesnt quite blow up. The second has heavy Chris right away, with John and Billy matching for a couple bars, and then the three spinning out and coming back on the one- funky breaks on a bright organ lines. Man, it shines! The third is just plain funky, thanks in no small part to Oren Bloedow.
January 17 is a stellar performance straight through, loaded with violins, saxes, guitars and serious, serious groove. Bowery Reserve XIII is an intensely groovy piece, like a Scofield approach with Marc Ribot on guitar. Theres a live Whatever Happened to Gus? (fantastic with Steve Cannon on vocals), and then Bowery Reserve XIX > Seven Deadlies bridge > Note Bleu with Doug Yates on bass clarinet. Family favorite Marc Ribot comes back on Angel Race (Ill Wait for You) and a final, crushing Hey Joe. Its a monster. Dont cheat yourself- go find it.