Growing Up with Tea Leaf Green
Becoming a “responsible adult” is a slow progression. One decision at a time, your priorities begin to shift as changing circumstances rearrange the life you had begun to build for yourself. You don’t even realize that it’s happening until something comes up that points it out to you in starkly contrasted black and white, the kind that hurts your eyes if you stare at it for too long. It’s literally like waking up one day to discover that you’ve grown up. Somehow, you weren’t paying attention and your carefree youthful days just slipped by undetected. Well, maybe not entirely undetected I did see it coming, I just didn’t realize full blown adulthood had officially arrived until this past weekend but I’ll get to that later.
In my case, it was a fairly simple decision that precipitated the series of changes that have proven to be the undoing of my previous lifestyle as a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants live show fiend. Under option A, my husband and I would continue to barely scrape by with both of us working 40+ hours a week in dead end jobs, with our infant son in daycare for just as long. Option B presented itself about a year and a half ago a new job with essentially unlimited career development potential, double the salary I had been making, which allowed my husband to stay at home with our son. There really wasn’t much of a debate on which path to take. There was, however, a catch.
There’s always a catch.
While some might think having a child in and of itself signals the death knell of your youthful adventures, that doesn’t have to be the case. You can still do all the things you loved do to before, you just can’t do them as often as you used to, and when you do, you have to figure out new ways to do them. My husband and I don’t let our newfound status as parents define who we are in every aspect of our lives; it will guide our decisions more than any other factor, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of everything we are. Of course we love our son dearly and will do everything in our power to provide the best life we can for him but part of doing that is recognizing that we are individuals who had lives before parenthood. Our day-to-day routine does tend to revolve around our son, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to break out every now and again and spend some time being a couple when we can. Therein lies the afore-mentioned catch.
Back home in New England, option A had us living within a four hour drive of my in-laws, who were thrilled to take our son for a few days whenever we had a string of shows we wanted to hit. Option B has relocated us clear across the country to Washington State, necessitating that we start from scratch in building an entirely new network of friends, as well as accepting the fact that “getting away” for more than a few hours at a time is a near impossibility.
When Tea Leaf Green announced several shows within a six hour drive, our immediate reaction was to do whatever we could to hit as many of them as possible. As luck would have it, my annual bonus arrived in time for us to blow some cash on flying my mother-in-law out from Boston to babysit while we traveled down to Oregon for the first two shows in Eugene and Portland.
It’s been about two years since I had seen a Tea Leaf Green show, so I was curious to see what tales this upcoming road trip would tell of the band’s own path of evolution in that time. I had already witnessed their forum discussion group grow from 45 people when I joined back in 2002 to the 2,820 members it has now. I watched as their press coverage started with one article in that same year, grew to 8 articles between 2003 and 2004 and now averages around 2-3 articles per month from online and print publications nationwide. I’ve seen a lot of changes as the band’s popularity increased, but I had yet to catch a recent show that would give me the holistic view of the band’s current state of affairs I was looking for. I got a small glimpse of it during Flowmotion’s Summer Meltdown festival this past August, but wanted to reserve judgment until I had seen some full-on, two-set Tea Leaf Green shows and now I have:
October 8, 2008, W.O.W Hall, Eugene, OR
Set 1: One Reason>Devil’s Pay>If It Wasn’t for the Money, Red Ribbons, Been So Long, Earth & Sky, Jubilee, Drink of Streams, Taught to be Proud
Set 2: Panspermic De-evolution, Bootlegger>Rapture, Deep River, Ride Together, Stick to the Shallows, Hot Dog, Keep the Faith, Sex in the 70s
Encore: Jackson Hole, Let Us Go
October 9, 2008, The Hawthorne Theatre, Portland, OR
Set 1: Let Us Go, Lil Hood > If It Wasn’t for the Money, Bootlegger, Don’t Curse the Night, Georgie P, Standing Still, Make A Connection, Earth & Sky, Morning Sun
Set 2: Rattlin’, One Reason, Criminal Intent, Innocence, My Bastard Brother, The Garden (Part II), The Garden (Part III), Jackson Hole, Dragonfly, Wet Spot > Death Cake
Encore: Keep the Faith > Red Ribbons
October 11, 2008, The Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA
Set 1: Innocence Let Us Go, Rapture, One Reason, Without a Broom>Stick to the Shallows, Bouncin’ Betty, If It Wasn’t for the Money, Freedom, Jackson Hole
Set 2: Not Fit>Red Ribbons>The Garden (Part III), Jubilee, Loony Bin, Criminal Intent, Keep the Faith, Piss It Away, Taught to be Proud
Encore: Deep River, Tequila
Because I’m a newbie to the west coast, this was the first opportunity I’ve had to travel for shows outside of Seattle. I was particularly interested in seeing the W.O.W Hall as I’ve heard great things about it. Now that I’ve been there, I can see why it’s a really cool place to see a show. It reminds me a lot of the old armory hall back in my hometown where I went to dances as a junior high school girl. From the worn and weathered built-in benches lining the sides of the room to the small concession stand in the atrium, it gave me a really comforting feeling of being at home, a feeling that got even stronger as Tea Leaf Green took the stage.
The first thing that stood out to me was a more well-defined collective stage presence; a palpable sense of each band member being a unique entity that went beyond the distinctions I had made previously. I’m not sure what the right descriptor is for what I was observing, but there was something markedly different. Maybe it had to do with seeing keyboardist Trevor Garrod so far removed from the seemingly soft-spoken young man who, once upon a time, only tentatively stepped into the spotlight, whereas now he clearly revels in it. It could have been Josh Clark’s guttural, growling vocals sounding more and more like the Mr. Hyde side of Jim Morrison with every listen. Perhaps it was the absence of the band’s original bassist, Ben Chambers, and the new flavor added by ALO’s Steve Adams, or maybe it was drummer Scott Rager’s uh, well no Scott was just as solid and steady as ever. The only difference I really noticed in his playing was the addition of some wood blocks that I hadn’t heard before. Whatever it was, there was a distinct and tangible shift from what I had become accustomed to. It was nothing at all negative by any stretch of the imagination, just something different.
Cutting directly to the chase, the jams and segues were consistently solid, polished and silky smooth leaps and bounds more so than I remembered their being the last time we’d caught a full show. As TLG have been constantly refining and improving with every tour, I would have been shocked and disappointed if I had detected no difference in their sound at all after having been out of the loop for two years. I can’t begin to describe what I heard and even if I could, you still wouldn’t have even the slightest inkling of their true merit without hearing them. Suffice it to say, I clearly remember thinking, “Are you fucking KIDDING me?!” during the "Devil’s Pay." Not only was the cadence slower than I remember it, which lent itself well when it came time to flex the song beyond its structure, the jam was a fire-breathing monster. To see such intensity right out of the gate really took me off guard. I didn’t expect to encounter anything like it until they’d had some time to warm up a bit. If I had called when the first insane jam of the night would occur, I would have placed it near end of the first set at the very earliest. It just goes to show that even after six years as a fan; this band can still surprise me.
The show itself was decent, although jams aside, I was a bit disappointed with the set list. Perhaps I’m just a Tea Leaf purist at heart, but while I love most of the songs that have debuted within the past few years, I find that I’m most drawn to those that emerged during the band’s infancy. This isn’t the first band that I’ve found this to be the case with the same holds true for me with Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Coldplay and Phish (to name a few). Going in to the Eugene show, I had a full list of favorites that I would have been super silly psyched to see: "Zoom Zoom," "Precious Stone," "Can You Guess It," "Asphalt Funk," "Franz Hanzerbeak," "Gasaholic," "Kali Yuga," "Hot Dog," "Midnight on the Reservoir" and "California" all spring to mind. The fact that only one of them had been played in Eugene was a bit of a bummer, but since it was just the first of three shows, I resigned myself to thinking that my chances of catching several of them in one show had increased with their absence in Eugene.
The following day we arrived in Portland fairly early and spent some time exploring the city and by “exploring the city”, I mean driving aimlessly around unfamiliar streets because we missed an exit. Thankfully my husband had been to Portland before and we eventually wound up in an area he recognized, which put us on the right track to find our hotel. After a stop at Old Town Pizza for dinner (I was enticed by the web site’s claim that the restaurant is haunted), we headed out to the show at the Hawthorne Theater, a venue neither of us had ever heard of.
Aside from the barrier separating the front of the room from the back of the room to allow for an all ages show, the Hawthorne wasn’t a bad place I’d go there again. At one point, my husband went to the bar to refresh his drink and the bartender told him if they’d known this many people were going to show up, they would have just made it a 21+ show and there’d be no barrier. Since there was just enough wiggle room to be comfortable, I don’t believe the Portland show was sold out, but I would venture a guess that it could have been had it been a Friday or Saturday night.
"Let Us Go" is a great song to open with, Trevor’s keys give it such a bouncy, happy sound when he tickles those ivories, you can actually hear them giggle. A few songs later, I was really surprised and excited to hear "Georgie P" as I wasn’t sure if this song was still part of the regular rotation or not. I know there are some fans that are well versed in what songs are still being played live and which ones have disappeared since Ben left, but I’m not one of those fans. At this point I’m pretty sure "Professor’s Blues" has gone the way of the dinosaur, which is a shame because it’s in my top 5 favorites, and I would imagine the same is true of both "Planet of Green Love" and "Snoop" since Ben rapped lyrics in all of them. I can respect the band’s moving on from these songs in the wake of Ben’s departure, but there’s also a part of me that wishes they could hang on to them in some way even an instrumental segue would be a welcomed nod.
Little did I know that "Georgie P" wouldn’t be the only surprise in Portland. The tail end of the second set featured a rather rare rapid succession of songs sung by guitarist Josh Clark. It’s been a long time since I’d heard "Jackson Hole" and I’m happy to report that it’s grown up to become just as impressive as some of the other classics that I had been hoping to hear during this run, as has both "Dragonfly" and "Wet Spot." Both were particularly incendiary, which lead perfectly into the heavy metal vibe of "Death Cake." My memory is a bit cloudy now that it’s five days later as I write this, but I think "Wet Spot" was probably the highlight of the Portland show for me.
Since the following night’s show would have necessitated a 5+ hour drive from Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC, we decided to skip it in favor of spending some time with my mother-in-law (despite the stereotypes, mine is actually a wonderful woman and we get along famously). It was a tough decision because we know our opportunities to take extended road trips are severely limited now, but since the next show on Saturday was just 45 mins away in Seattle, it made the most sense. Of course, the Vancouver show was where they played not one, but two of the songs on the list of those I hoped to hear: "Kali Yuga" and "California." Bastards.
For the Seattle show, I had done everything in my power to get as many people as I could to come out for it; it had been my mission in life to make sure everyone I knew was aware of the show and knew I hoped to see them there. Considering Dark Star Orchestra was also in town, I had my doubts about how full the room would be since the last time Tea Leaf Green played Seattle was 2006 and the chatter on the forums indicated that only about 50 people had shown up (which might explain why they repeatedly skipped the Pacific Northwest on every tour since then). Despite my insisting that everyone buy their tickets in advance just to be on the safe side, there was a part of me that considered I might look pretty foolish should the turn out echo their previous visit. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous I wanted them to do well here so badly; it was the only chance we’d have of getting them to come through here again in a time frame shorter than a two year span.
I’m happy to report that not only did eighteen out of the twenty people I was expecting to come down to the Tractor Tavern actually show up, but the show sold out entirely! Obviously it was really cool to see word has spread pervasively enough to result in a sellout in a city they haven’t been to in two years, but for my own selfish reasons, I was ecstatic this was proof positive that they had the momentum to get the Pacific Northwest fan base off the ground. All they had to do now was deliver a stellar show, and deliver they did.
Despite a rather slow start in the first set, the Seattle show turned out to be the best out of the three I saw. My husband, who saw his fourth show of the run in Bellingham, WA on Sunday night, stands by that claim as well. I have to imagine the band knew they had this opportunity to knock a whole bunch of curious people’s socks off and there was just no question that they would do it it seemed so effortless from an audience member’s perspective. The stand-outs for me were "Jubilee," "Criminal Intent" and "Taught to be Proud." There was one particular quote of the night that I want to call out here because it perfectly sums up just how good this set was in a way that no description I could give would convey. It was said by my co-worker and friend, Ryan, during the meat of the jam in "Taught to be Proud":
“I know everyone has different opinions and different tastes and all that when it comes to music and I respect that, but if you’re listening to this right now and you don’t think it’s fucking phenomenal well fuck you you’re just plain wrong!”
Thanks, Ryan couldn’t have said it better myself.
While I had a great time at all three shows and desperately wish I had seen a fourth (where they played the "Zoom Zoom" and "Midnight on the Reservoir" I had been waiting so patiently for again BASTARDS), I really would have liked to see less repetition from one show to the next. Over the course of three days we saw 64 songs, 25 of those songs were repeats. I wasn’t so much disappointed in the songs we heard, which were all played flawlessly, but in those that were missing night after night as songs that had already been played were chosen instead. Impressive each time, yes but even still, I found myself longing for the days when we’d see three or four shows in a row and could count on one hand how many songs showed up more than once over the course of the entire run.
I know I wasn’t the only one to notice this inordinate number of repeats; one of the fans on the band’s discussion forums made a reference to the “Northwest Repeat Tour” when posting the set list for the Portland show. While it was snarky, it was also fair since there were quite a few of us who were traveling for the shows this week and hoped to see a broader representation of their catalog. Not surprisingly, other forum members came to the band’s defense to suggest that the repetitiveness could be attributed not only to the promotion of their new album, Raise Up the Tent, but also to their navigating the limitations of having two bassists in rotation, Reed Mathis from Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Steve Adams from ALO (thus far I’ve only seen Steve, no complaints whatsoever he’s been outstanding). I didn’t chime in to add my voice to the banter on the forums, but I could also argue that given the rather large chunk of “Josh songs” and a few spots where I thought I detected a bit of a raspy edge in Trevor’s voice, it could also be that songs were chosen that wouldn’t tax his vocal chords further if he was indeed battling a bug of some sort. On the upside, the fact that they have fans who love them enough to spend their time and money traveling to see them to the point where they’re actually complaining about repeats is a good thing there are countless musicians who would love to have such a “problem.”
Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that the band needs to do X, Y or Z to earn my admiration not at all. My loyalty is just as strong as it’s been since my husband and I caught their 11am Sunday morning set back in August of 2002 when we stumbled upon that tiny little Berkfest stage that was closer to the parking lot than it was to the main concert grounds. I’ll continue to love and support them as long as they’re out there doing what they do. However — this is where that sudden “responsible adult” realization comes in — considering the financial and logistical hoops we have to jump through to make multiple-show runs happen now, I have to be honest when I say that on the off-chance that this series of repeats wasn’t a fluke, I will be checking recent set list patterns before I book another cross-country flight to arrange for an overnight babysitter.
As “responsible adult”-ish as that last sentence sounds, it’s probably not true. I don’t know who I think I’m kidding myself, I suppose. I guess I just like to remind myself that I can still be objective despite being a fan. It’s difficult sometimes because you want to cut the band some slack — especially during times of transition like when a founding member leaves the group — but no one ever learned or improved anything by being cut slack, so I feel justified in getting these things off my chest when the need arises. All in all I had a phenomenal time in spite of the repeats and I probably wouldn’t have forfeited the experience of any of these shows had I been privy to knowing the set lists before making our plans I just wish I had seen more of the songs I had hoped to. Two years is a long time to wait for a show here’s hoping they’ll come back to the Pacific Northwest soon, preferably right around the time when our tax refund check rolls in.