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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2004/01/27
by John Zinkand

Glancing Back

2003 was a damn good year for live music. With both Phish and The Dead touring strong and a second Bonnaroo festival proving to be a smashing success, no one can question the vitality of the jamband scene. We’re here in large numbers that don’t seem to be waning at all. With the almost infinite styles and sub-genres within the often-maligned moniker of "jambands," the choices of music in the scene are exhausting. From jazz to bluegrass, rock to thrash, hip-hop to psychedelia, techno to funk, there are so many bands to choose from and support. People who dig improvisational music can find a style they love in the jamband scene. The diversity is astounding. One could easily camp next to a fellow music lover at a festival who will not see even one of the bands that the other plans to see at that festival, and that’s what makes our scene so unique: the diversity, the freedom, and the open-mindedness of it all. As the New Year begins, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the live music high points I enjoyed throughout the year.

First Quarter

2003 started without much of a musical bang for me. Instead of rocking out to Phish’s triumphant return on the east coast or taking in a Bay Area Dead New Year’s Eve show, I found myself sitting on a couch watching TV as the year began. I hoped this was not the harbinger of a lackluster year of music for me, and my hopes proved well founded. After shaking off what was definitely the mellowest New Year’s Eve I have ever experienced, I managed to attend at a few great shows in the first few months of 2003.

What better way than to start off a new year than with a new band? The first show of the year was from the bay area’s New Monsoon. This young group of players melds many of the styles I love together and I really enjoyed their heavy percussion, nice groove, Latin flair, and excellent guitar work. The next show I saw in January was Robert Walter’s 20th Congress with Will Bernard and Motherbug. These names are pretty well known in the scene by now and both are deserving of the acclaim. An incredibly steady and grooving rhythm section backs up Bernard’s intricate guitar playing in Motherbug. Mr. Walter puts out a seriously funky groove with his skilled organ work and solid backing band, and the addition of Bernard on guitar propelled it to new levels as the crowd danced hard and enthusiastically at this great show.
February is the month of my birthday and it just so happened that moe. was playing a show on that very day in my hometown of Portland, OR at the Crystal Ballroom. While I have a love-hate relationship with this venue, I had an excellent time at this show. Don’t ask me what moe. played, however, as I couldn’t tell you one song name from that night. My buddy decided that I deserved a steady stream of birthday drinks on this evening and I pretty much blacked out before the show ended. Luckily my other friend was there to drive and take care of me because apparently I needed him. Allegedly he had to roust me when I tried to curl up for a nap on the dance floor in the middle of set two. I can neither confirm nor deny that this event actually happened. Then it was off to Vegas to catch Phish’s two-night stand. Much has been written on these shows so I will just say they were better than I expected, but not up to the high standards I have for Phish. Both nights were solid, but neither was mind-blowing. It was very nice to see them back on stage playing together, though. A week later I found myself taking in a show from the OM Trio. This powerful little trio really kicked down to an enthusiastic crowd on this night. I’ve seen them many times since then, but this particular performance was the most inspired. For just three guys, they put out quite a bit of sound with their groovy, trancey, aural soundscapes.
Then March began and it felt like mutant March to me. I found myself back at the Fez seeing Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey open up for Ponga. I’ll be damned if this wasn’t one of the most bizarre shows ever. "The Fred," as they are sometimes known, is a weird enough band with Brian Haas writhing and contorting as he slams relentlessly on his keys in a way I’ve seen no other keyboardist perform. His energy and freakiness are impossible to deny. His band mate Reed Mathis on bass also has a unique playing style that involves playing the bass both traditionally and as a lead instrument. Throw in their numerous effects, liberal political rants, and understated drumming of Jason Smart and you’ve got one bizarre improvisational freeform jazz show.

Normally JFJO would be all the weirdness one would expect or require in a live music show, but this night weird was in overdrive as Ponga came on stage next. Ponga is made up of Skerik on sax, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Bobby Previte on drums…but that description might make one think this is a conventional trio, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Both Skerik and Previte have all sorts of electric gadgets hooked up to their respective instruments enabling them to produce strange sounds on a whim. Skerik squawked and squealed, grooved, or played electronic samples on his samplers while Previte drummed away with a steady beat and maniacal sneer on his face the entire time, mixing up the sound that was emanating from his electronic drums at random intervals. All the while Horvitz lurked in the shadows near the back of the stage, emerging now and again with lead keyboard lines and grooves that complimented or complicated whatever strange space his band mates were exploring. By the end of the night only a few of us diehard improvisation lovers were left, as most of the crowd couldn’t handle the jumble of random abstraction that was Ponga.
After a nice soothing reggae show from New York’s John Brown’s Body that soothed my soul and brought in a nice summer vibe amidst the rainy winter doldrums, it was back to mutant March music as King Crimson came crashing in to town. Seeing Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew perform together live on stage had always been something I hoped I would be able to witness, and this show was worth the wait. While it was relatively short, clocking in at about an hour and a half, the sheer density of it was amazing. On this night, King Crimson ripped through many of the tunes from their newest album, The Power to Believe. Robert Fripp had a long solo section at one point that displayed his unique and incredible talent on the guitar. Overall this show was dark, heavy, and twisted…and one of the top musical highlights for me of 2003.

Second Quarter
The next three months of 2003 arrived with a slight slowdown of live music. What was lacking in quantity was made up for in quality, however. As winter faded into spring, I was able to enjoy a few choice shows, all of which were among my very favorite of 2003. The first being a somewhat unusual co-bill showcasing Connecticut’s own Psychedelic Breakfast opening up for Bay Area groove monsters Vinyl at an intimate show in Bend, OR. As Psychedelic Breakfast began their short and powerful set, no one was on the dance floor. Admittedly, this band can emit music that is difficult to dance to, or to even digest, with hyper speed guitar solos from Tim Palmieri and thunderous, kinetic drum assaults from Adrian Tramontano. But by the middle of their opening set, the music fans of Bend, OR were able to choke down their breakfast. Whirlwind tune after tune took us all on a wild and crazy ride and the floor was packed with dancers by the end of the set. Then Vinyl came on and served as a nice yin to PB’s high-energy yang as they grooved and funked up the room with their slower, horn heavy, Latin flavored grooves. With two great young bands taking their respective improvisational music in two vastly different directions, this was a great night of jamband music
After a few weeks of musical void, it was time for me to hop on a plane and fly down to San Francisco to see Trey Anastasio play with his solo band at the Warfield Theater. The last time I stepped foot in the historic Warfield Theater was to see three consecutive Phish shows there in the spring of 1994, so this particular two-night stand with Trey loomed large for me. How things have changed in our scene over the last decade! These shows proved to be as enjoyable and significant as the venerable old venue itself. The first night was a solid rollicking performance that included many of Trey’s staple tunes like Drifting, Money, Love and Change, and Alive Again. The show ended with the entire band, minus Tony Markellis, jumping down off the stage and parading through the floor while still playing a groove. This was an amazing treat that gave the audience a feeling of camaraderie with the musicians.
But of course, the following night was the musical a-bomb no one could have expected as Carlos Santana emerged as guest guitarist for much of the first set and all of the second set. I couldn’t help but think back to the Santana shows I saw in 1992 in Philadelphia, PA and Pueblo, CO where Phish was the opening band. How things can come full circle in an incredible synchronicity is amazing to me sometimes. Seeing these two old friends trade licks on the Warfield stage is something I will never forget as my ultimate musical high of 2003. The energy the band exuded with the help of Mr. Santana on stage was mesmerizing. Trey was giddy with excitement with a smile plastered on his face the entire time Carlos was present. And man, did they ever wail. They traded lick after lick developing different themes in the jams and obviously were having a high time on stage. The show was very inspirational and it is impossible to deny that it had that "extra special something" that jamband fans crave. I don’t think anyone levitated out of the Warfield Theater that evening on anything lower than cloud nine or ten. Wow.
As June closed out the second quarter, all thoughts were on the summer festivities just around the corner. Having just come off a sort of touching base with my jamband musical roots with Trey in San Francisco, I was ready to indulge myself in what I see as my future in the jam scene: A multi-show run with my up-and-coming favorites, Umphrey’s McGee. High Sierra always kicks off my summer in grand style, but the summer of 2003 brought Umphrey’s McGee to the Northwest. I couldn’t have asked for a better High Sierra primer than multiple shows from the Umph. I caught them in Seattle and Portland before taking a quick Umphrey’s breather and seeing the Fareed Haque Group play two consecutive nights in Portland. These were the last days of June and the Umphrey’s, Fareed, High Sierra train rolled right on into summer.

Third Quarter

As July began I found myself heading south to the High Sierra Music Festival in a rented RV. This experience was one of the highest of my life. We rolled down I-5 on the way to Quincy, CA and stopped in Dunsmuir to see the Fareed Haque Group play in the most random and sketchy venue ever, the House of Glass. Words cannot describe this experience accurately, so I won’t even try. But Fareed and his band played some intense music for the tiny audience in this most abstract of music venues. After the show we asked the owner of the venue if we could crash in our RV in his parking lot, to which he agreed. And the next night we found ourselves in Tahoe City, CA seeing an outdoor Umphrey’s McGee show among a rolling mountain stream and California pine trees under a starry night sky. Add to this the fact that this night was my wife’s birthday, and it really doesn’t get much better…well, the band could have mentioned her birthday as I requested instead of making fun of me, but I guess that scathing sense of humor and sarcastic wit is a part of what makes Umphrey’s McGee Umphrey’s McGee. I’ve written extensively on the joy of High Sierra 2003, so I will not bore anyone with even more details of these four days of non-stop musical bliss. But 2003 was, without a doubt, the best High Sierra ever. Great bands, perfect weather, kind people, and a rented RV combined to make this year’s event completely and totally stellar.
Coming off of High Sierra is always a challenge because it seems like there is nowhere to go but down from that incredible and dreamy high plateau. The thought that there is a whole year in between the next one seems like an insufferable evil brought on just to taunt one’s very being. Luckily, a few weeks after High Sierra I was pleasantly surprised by a two-night stand with a group known as the Everyone Orchestra. The band is made up of an ever-evolving line-up of musicians, but they always play in part to raise money and consciousness on environmental issues. The two-night stand at the Crystal Ballroom last July included core members Matt Butler on drums and Tye North as conductor/bass player as well as a large cast of musicians including Steve Kimock, the entire band Hamsa Lila, the entire band ALO, Asher Fullero, Jarrod Kaplan, Scott Law, Jessica Lurie, and Jamie Janover. While sometimes the stage seemed cluttered and disorganized, other times the huge impromptu band locked into sick grooves and played together extremely well. Tye North was a great conductor, leading both the band and crowd with notes and hand signals that he held up in front of the stage. The unique set of shows also highlighted the incredible guitar playing of Steve Kimock and even included a guest appearance by Kimock’s son on percussion.
August rolled in along with some nice contrast as I experienced some younger new bands as well as an old, all-time favorite. The two smaller bands that I was introduced to were Reorchestra from the Bay Area and Moses Guest from Texas. While their styles couldn’t be more different, both bands are skillful and passionate about their music. Reorchestra had the misfortune of playing an opening slot for band I had never heard of at the Mt Tabor Theater. Apparently, no one else had heard of either band because we were literally just about the only people in the room. Reorchestra grooved through one instrumental and jazzy funked up tune after another. Everyone in this band is very talented and the trombone, drums, keys, bass, percussion, and guitar work together seamlessly to produce a highly danceable sound. After their set we apologized for the lack of attendance and urged the band to come back to Portland anyway as we would try to spread the word and have a better turn out for them next time.
Then I checked out a band I had never heard before, Moses Guest. I enjoyed this four-piece band from Texas much more than expected after receiving a recommendation to check them out from a fellow jam fan on some band’s website message board. They are a jamband with Texas charm and a whole lot of passion. While they did not amaze me with complex improvisational explorations, they were solid enough jammers with excellent compositions. Lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter Graham Guest has a raspy, soulful, wise-beyond-his-years singing voice that is infectious. The lyrics are poignant, thoughtful, and also dark at times. While the show I saw was probably not one of their best, it displayed enough of their unique style and sound that I purchased their self-titled double CD. Since then, it has been in my regular listening rotation with its great songs and good solid music.
I closed out August with an incredible show by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Oregon Zoo. Folks had their blankets laid out and their bottles of wine corked and ready for a relaxing late summer evening of music from one of the world’s premier jazz bands. This gem of a venue is nestled in the forested hills west of Portland inside the Oregon Zoo. Before the show, one of the zookeepers came out on stage and released various birds of prey so that they could fly over the heads of the audience and land on different perches before flying back to the stage. Somehow the music was even more graceful and soaring than the opening act. The first set included a few songs from the band’s new album, Little Worlds. The crowd was unfamiliar with these tunes, but it didn’t really matter. Bela and the Flecktones weave a complex musical magic that doesn’t necessarily rely on certain songs to catapult their live performances; every song is a potential improvisational odyssey. Highlights from the first set included an incredible percussion solo from Future Man in which he drummed on both his synthe-axe drumitar and a small trap set simultaneously. The second set began with a mind-blowing bass solo with only Victor on stage displaying his phenomenal talents. He kept adding additional thumb pops to the loop until it became a massive barrage of notes he could solo around. Jeff Coffin took some beautiful saxophone solos throughout the night including his infamous technique of playing two of the instruments at the same time. A melodious version of "Sunset Road" punctuated the set as the sun disappeared behind the trees. The end of the show provided time for the big Flecktone to shine. Bela meandered through a lengthy solo banjo medley of songs including many Beatles songs, The Beverly Hillbillies theme, and even The Munster’s theme. Enthusiastic audience members tried to sing along at times. The band encored with the zoo-friendly crowd pleaser, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo followed by Stomping Grounds.
The last month of summer brought me back to my jamband roots with a show by the Dead at the Gorge. While the show was only average to good, the fact that the core members of the Grateful Dead had made up and were playing gigs as a touring band was an excellent thing. It was easy to see that they were enjoying themselves on stage that night as they ripped through many classic tunes including Truckin’, Alligator, Must’ve Been the Roses, Estimated Prophet, and Sugaree. And if The Dead was a little short on substance, that was more than made up for a week later when I found myself back in San Francisco to witness the triumphant return of The Phil Lesh Quintet at the Warfield Theater. While I had to miss the first, and probably best, night of the three show run, the music they played at these shows was monumental. Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes play incredibly well together and seem to feed off one another’s energy. Molo and Phil lay down a tight and spunky rhythm while Rob Barraco’s vocals and keyboards shine, especially on songs like Doin’ That Rag. The PLQ takes Dead classics to new and interesting places while adding a good bit of their unique style and flair by performing many Warren Haynes tunes, as well. Many had thought the PLQ days might be over since The Dead has been reborn, and these intimate shows of high-powered music laid all of those assumptions to rest with a vengeance. These shows definitely provided some of my favorite live music of 2003.

Fourth Quarter

As I headed into the homestretch of 2003, the live music options did slow down a bit as I began a new job. But there were still some very noteworthy shows near the end of the year. One definite highlight was seeing Raq from Burlington, VT open for Galactic in Seattle. I’ve seen Galactic many times before and I always enjoy their shows, but Raq was what impressed me more than anything on this rainy October evening. I had really only heard Raq and was very anxious to see them play live. I had no idea they would kick down so hard and absolutely wail, blowing most of the Seattle audience away with their powerful skills. Chris Michetti on guitar and Todd Stoops on keys especially stood out with their high-energy style. Michetti shreds the guitar like a man possessed while Stoops literally attacks his keyboard, playing it partly like a percussion instrument. These two guys backed up by bassist Jay Burwick and drummer Greg Stukey have a bright future of jamming ahead of them. Their great set was topped off by the fact that we were able to hang out and chat with them for a bit afterwards.

By November, 2003 was well on its way out. But not before one more visit from one of my current favorite bands on the scene, Garaj Mahal. They played a Friday night show at the Fez in Portland that was pretty darn smokin’. While the first set was not the highest caliber playing I’ve seen from the band, the second set displayed the band’s true power and potential. Fareed was playing great guitar solos, Kai Eckhardt laid down both sick bass lines and phat solos, Eric Levy was animated on the keyboards, and Alan Hertz kicked out fast and flawless beats on his drum set. We enjoyed the show so much that we headed over to Hood River, OR the next night to see them again. With a smaller and more tuned in crowd, this night was even better. The band was on fire from beginning to end helping us all burn a few calories in preparation for the following week’s Thanksgiving gorging.

December is always a slow music month for the Pacific Northwest, but a few bands worthy of mention made it through our humble town of Portland. First was the return of the Big Wu. These guys have been one of my favorite bands since 1998 when I first saw them at High Sierra Music Festival. Although they have made some personnel changes along the way and Jason Fladager is no longer in the band, they still put on an impressive show. While some of the playing in the first set was uneven, the band started to lock into a groove by the second set and uplifted the crowd with some serious jamming. It was great to see Chris Castino back on stage playing guitar and I was able to talk to both him and Andy "Padre" Miller briefly after the show.
Then I closed out the year with a show by two more young up-and-coming bands, Tea Leaf Green and Moonshine Still. I had seen both of these bands at High Sierra and was psyched for their co-billing show at Portland’s Goodfoot Lounge. They did not disappoint at all. Moonshine Still played first and was really impressive. They have many songs that span many different genres, which kept their set feeling fresh and inspired. Guitarist David Shore is an amazing young talent and Trippe Wright has vast potential on the keyboards. The band’s signature sound is rounded out by Scott Baston’s uniquely deep and soulful singing voice. Tea Leaf Green took the stage next and just exploded. While their sound is not as varied as Moonshine Still’s, they make up for it in sheer jamming power. Josh Clark is a relentless shredder of the guitar and this band definitely knows how to rock out. The band laid into one hard rocking funky number after another, getting the packed crowd all worked up into a sweaty boogie. Trevor Garrod’s piano playing and vocals round out the bands sound. This show was an unexpected musical highlight for me, especially since this long, high-quality night of music only cost a measly seven bucks. Both bands should expect to play in bigger rooms with larger covers in no time.
So that raps up 2003. It was a great year of old favorites, new favorites, and all the somewhere in between bands. It was a tumultuous time in my life with a great deal of change, and that’s the way I like it. Improvisational music is an ever-changing art form that is always recreating itself by taking in new influences and styles, and I feel my life mirrored the music in 2003. They say the only constant is change, and I’m ready for whatever musical twists and life changing turns 2004 has in store for me. One thing’s for sure, 2004 is guaranteed to be full of great live music.

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