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Published: 2004/08/29
by Joseph Wilson

Chasing the New Deal

When the New Deal hit the stage on a hot July evening marking Canada Day (July 1), the crowd roared in appreciation for a Canadian band everyone thought was on hiatus from a tour through the States. This was a one-time only performance for the band, breaking a string of six showless months.

Fans drove from all over Southern Ontario, Vermont, New York, Michigan, even Illinois, just to catch the live stylings of one of the most innovative live acts around, before they scurried off into hiding once again, taking a long-deserved break from a gruelling tour schedule of over 400 shows in the past 4 years.

Before the show, I get some insight from bass player Dan Kurtz on the dynamics of touring: "Musically speaking, the pace and volume of touring has had a pretty significant effect, both positive and negative. On the one hand, the relentlessness of it all has made for some pretty aggressively creative music; on the other, it has at time felt only like an endless slog, where the reward of it all is only getting in to bed. The monotony of being on the road was part of our decision to take some time off."

But playing jazz festivals like this one is something that clearly energizes the band, although they're hard pressed to pinpoint exactly what it is about their music that classifies it as jazz.

"Most of the time, jazz festivals are some of our best shows," continues Kurtz, "it's always invigorating to be faced with the challenge of turning on a crowd whose reaction we can't really anticipate, and that kind of environment more often than not pushes us a little more."

The concert tent, nestled at the foot of Toronto's City Hall on animated Queen Street West, is packed with a wide variety of traditional jazz fans, young children accompanied by parents, ageing hippies, club kids, and jamband aficionados.

It was refreshing to see a few tapers in action, too, waved through by security, positioned firmly between the speakers near the back of the tent. "We have struck up a pretty fair deal with traders," says Kurtz. "We openly support taping and trading of our live shows, although we've always tried to make clear that copying the records we make is not cool. It simply has to do with recovering the costs that come from making those releases, and I would say that for the multi-million selling artists out there, the profits they claim to be losing are far less impactful to their livelihood than for artists like us, who can expect to sell much fewer records.

Proportionally speaking, each copy of a record that we don't make money from hurts us a lot more."

Tapers aren't a common site at traditional jazz festivals, and many of them found themselves explaining to older jazz fans exactly what is was that they were doing with their umbrella-topped microphones and wires draped over their shoulders like scarves.

But in the jamband community, this is a familiar and comforting site. Dan continues talking about their association with the jamband scene and the ease at which it has allowed them to grow: "The association has been overwhelmingly positive, in that the jamband community is one of the most active word of mouth musical communities out there. Between the web newsgroups, the tape/cd trading, and the individual efforts to tell friends about a band someone really likes, the jamband scene contributed a lot to the growth of the band's popularity."

Because their music straddles so many genres (house, jazz, funk, electronica), I was also curious to know how the jamband moniker affected the growth of their music. "There's no doubt that it has contributed to the direction we have gone with our live shows. There has never been any pressure for us to go in any particular direction, and instead, the fans have always supported the kind of experimentation that has evolved as a result. We've become better and more versed players, individually and as a band."

After eclectic openers the Brazilian Girls warmed up the crowd with their own brand of afro-beat electronic funk, the New Deal took the stage at around 9:30. The crowd went nuts after the first note and the place started pulsing more like a night-club than a well-heeled jazz festival.

They started off with some older songs, employing their usual techniques of instant composition, communicating the whole time across the expansive stage with nods and shrugs. The first few songs did seem a little tentative and loose, and you could tell they were a little rusty from taking such a long break from touring, but that didn't stop the energy of the crowd.

Around the half-way point, though, they brought out some guest musicians which seemed to give the trio new found energy for the last third of their set: singer Martina Sorbara, who sings on a couple of tracks on the latest New Deal disc Gone, Gone, Gone, and later local jazz guitarist Andy Scott. By the one-hour mark, the New Deal ramped up their live show to the level it was at in late 2003.

Their always-spectacular light show was a welcome addition, introducing an extra dimension to the usually dull lighting at jazz festivals such as these. Glancing over the fence at the back of the beer tent revealed hundreds of music fans nodding to the tunes from outside, craning to sneak a peak at the fantastic light show through gaps in the tent lining.

As the band left the stage after well over 90 minutes of progressive live house, the fans were clearly hoping to hear more. The on-line newsgroups and fan-sites were soon abuzz with rumours in the hopes that the New Deal are just taking a breather and will find their way back onto the touring circuit (now borne out as the trio has confirmed some fall tour dates).

Currently, though, the members are all involved in separate projects. Drummer Darren Shearer hosts "The Join," a weekly improvisational electronic/soul session at the Harmony Lounge (every Thursday night; 589 College St W.) in Toronto. On their own web-site, Shearer explains, "this will be a new approach for me. I am using an electronic kit, and the band will be concentrating on super chill atmospheric layering, break beats, and other subdued approaches. It is completely improv, and will be structured on the spot."

Keyboardist Jamie Shields has been bouncing back and forth over the border to work with Marc and Jon from one-time tourmates the Disco Biscuits under the name JM2. They played several dates on the East Coast earlier in the summer and apparently have plans for more shows later in the summer.

Dan has been working on production work for local artists and is apparently swamped with the work involved in fixing up his newly purchased house.

When the topic of conversation veers towards touring again, I ask him about their most memorable dates, in the hopes of convincing them of the road's benefits (for all the American fans that have been waiting patiently for some news). "The Wetlands shows are all really memorable, if not only for the fact that we were playing in NYC, man,' which for Canucks like us is almost like winning the Stanley Cup of music. We also really enjoyed Coachella, the 2nd Berkfest show we did, Hillside Festival in Guelph, the Herbie Hancock tour. We've had some pretty memorable celebrity encounters too, including Herbie Hancock, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and Fat Boy Slim."

So what does the future hold for the New Deal? "We're figuring that out," says Kurtz. "I think we're beginning to miss the buzz we all get from playing together, so maybe we'll have to go out and chase that again." Indeed, it now appears they will do so sooner than many had expected.

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