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Published: 1999/08/15
by Brian Gearing

New Groove of The Month: Lake Trout

How do you categorize a band whose influences range from John Coltrane to Helmet? From Led Zeppelin to Philip Glass? You could call them jazz, but that wouldn’t explain the head-banging from which some just can’t refrain. You could call them techno, but that would leave out the whole instrument thing. So how do you categorize this band? You don’t; they’re in a class by themselves. Lake Trout is a bit of a conundrum. They do things with music that no other band does. And they certainly wouldn’t classify themselves as a “Jam Band.” So what are they doing here?

Simply put, Lake Trout jams in just about every sense of the word. Given the right atmosphere, they might play a 90 minute set that includes only two or three songs. They make it up as they go. Not just within one set, but between shows as well. If you saw them three months ago, or even three weeks ago, don’t expect to see anything familiar next time. You might, but you’d be better off not to expect it. “We just love to grow,” says Mike Lowry, whose pounding, fast-as-lightning drum beats leave necks aching for days after the show. If you saw them a year ago, forget the experience entirely. Chances are they’ve really changed it up by then.

Lake Trout released their first, self-titled, CD in 1997. Filled with open-ended jazz jams and soulful lyrics from guitarist and vocalist Woody Ranere, Lake Trout helped the band bring in larger and larger crowds until they were finally selling out the 8X10 Club in their hometown of Baltimore, MD. But at the time the CD was released, they were only playing two or three songs from it. “We’re not record company friendly,” explains Matt Pierce, who plays sax, flute, Rhodes piano and percussion, “We lose touch with [material] and it doesn’t make sense anymore.” Guitarist Ed Harris compares the band’s high playlist turnover to losing touch with an old friend: “You think to yourself, ‘I should really call him’ and then you just don’t.”

Simply put, they’re a little hard to keep up with at times, but to their dedicated fans, Lake Trout’s restlessness is only fuel for the fire. “We love the fact that people tape our shows and trade them around,” says Ranere. If you can’t make it to every Trout show, tape trading is just about the only way to track the changes. The band does its composing on the stage, so what may be labeled as a jam on a tape from June might be heard, a little more developed, as a song at a show in July. Ranere explains, “We could put out new music every month, but we just don’t have the means to do it.”

The changes have certainly come quickly. Ed Harris (guitar) and Mike Lowry (drums) went to high school together, after which they both attended Towson State University in Towson, MD, where they met Matt Pierce (sax, flute, Rhodes, percussion). Ranere (guitar, vocals), who had some classes with Pierce, joined the band about a year later in mid-1995. At the end of that year, James Griffith joined in on bass and the current line-up was complete.

The band played gigs in every kind of venue imaginable, from fraternity parties to raves, and they still try to create a certain feeling that fits each room individually. At the 8X10, they moved from Sunday to Monday on through until they were selling out Friday nights. The band will tell you there’s not much of a cohesive music scene in Baltimore. Focusing mainly on hard-core and hip-hop, the scene doesn’t include many touring bands, though some, like Jah Works, the Almighty Senators and Lake Trout have managed to escape the boundaries of the city.

Matt Pierce attempts to explain the band’s appeal: “[People in Baltimore] weren’t used to hearing the kind of stuff we were hearing. We had a lot of friends, you know, DJs and this and that, who were letting us here things. . . and also, we listened to a lot of jazz and we’re into the avant-garde, less mainstream stuff. . . We were doing what we wanted to do.” The uniqueness of Lake Trout’s sound is the big drawing point for many of their fans. Many are drawn to show after show, just to see what they’ll do next.

In 1995, “what we wanted to do” included covers from Pat Martino, Herbie Hancock, Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix. But Lake Trout’s influences go far beyond these few examples. “We had our sound because of where we were all coming from,” Pierce explains. From punk to funk and from hard-core to hip-hop, everything each member had grown up on came together to form Lake Trout’s sound, which, though ever-changing, is a unique hybrid of jazz, hip-hop, hard rock, soul and dance music.

Within a year, the band’s sound had changed dramatically, and techno and dance music influences were starting to surface more frequently. This new concoction is illustrated on their second CD, Volume For the Rest Of It. Some of Ranere’s soulful vocals and a bit of the band’s style of jamming had been retained, but in all, it was a large departure from the sound of Lake Trout. Six of the fifteen songs were recorded live in the studio with no mixing and no loops, giving a good representation of Lake Trout’s live sound at that point.

Since the release of Volume on Shaken Not Stirred Records (owned by DJ Who, who often sits in with the band) in late 1998, the band has added at least another album’s worth of material to their live show, much of which again shows the band’s tendency to develop quickly. Most of the new songs are hardly recognizable as songs at all, but seem more like individual points in a jam. You could go to a show tomorrow and think you hadn’t heard a single song but when a taper showed you the setlist you might find that you had, in fact seen seven or eight songs passing flawlessly into each other.

This is where Lake Trout differs from other jam bands. Whereas many jam bands follow the guitar or some other lead instrument, Lake Trout’s jams are structured more around Lowry’s drums and Griffith’s bass. Because the band doesn’t really play solos, their music takes on a very layered texture, where the drums and bass make up the first layer and the three other players throw their own riff over this hard-driving foundation.

In fact, when asked if they consider themselves a “jam band,” the entire band will answer with a resounding “NO.” Not because they don’t want to be associated with the jam band genre, but because their musical philosophy is different. They come from a very different perspective. While many of the third generation, post-Phish jam bands draw largely from the Grateful Dead and Phish, Lake Trout looks more toward DJ Shadow, John Coltrane and Black Sabbath. Certainly these bands’ influence can be heard in much of the jam band style, but the correlation is more obvious in Lake Trout’s sound. You will also here not a hint of bluegrass or country in the music of Lake Trout, while many jam bands are heavily influenced by these two styles. They also have a very different, very unique take on covers. After the Mayfield and Hendrix songs were dropped from the repertoire, Pierce had a unique idea to play a salsa-style cover of Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop.” While the salsa idea didn’t really work out, another one did: rather than have Ranere sing the lyrics, Pierce suggested that he play them on the flute. This form of tribute has since found its way into other covers, such as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” and while they have started to move away from the “musac,” you can still catch their unique take on a classic tune if you’re lucky.

So, if they’re not a jam band, why does Lake Trout appeal so strongly to fans of jam bands? As a general rule, jam band fans appreciate originality, virtuosity and improvisation, all of which Lake Trout delivers. While their sound may seem foreign to some, you can’t help but stand in front of the stage and be amazed at what this group is doing. They are pushing boundaries far beyond the original limits. Given an open mind, Lake Trout will walk right through the front door and make themselves at home. They are innovators in the truest sense of the word. If you’re hungry for something new, something you may never have imagined, Lake Trout is a must-see. Simply put, this band will blow you away and continuously keep you coming back for more.

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