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Sweet Knievel: Jam Heads to the Museum

Sweet Knievel are the latest bloom in an impressive crop of new bands who have found a way to combine the joy of ecstatic dance music with the precise and delicate playing of chamber music. Chamber pop outfits have been around for a while and are bountiful these days: typified by the Decemberists, these indie bands craft delicate setpieces that transform the listening experience into a stroll through a museum. This year alone we’ve heard impressive releases from Night Beds, Camera Obscura, Woodkid, and Phosphorescent.

Sweet Knievel’s “chamber jam” employs a similar ethic, but could be said to maintain a greater level of rawness. Chamber jam is still party music, and chamber pop tends to shed the rawness of its rock heritage entirely. However, the two styles share a specificity and a deliberateness not found upon the Mount Rushmores of rock and jam from which they descend. All of this is debatable and ultimately illusive, but other examples of chamber jam are White Denim, Trampled by Turtles, My Morning Jacket, and bits and pieces of sundry others from Woods to Phish.

Sweet Knievel keeps it on instrumental most of the time, drifting from proggy ditties full of quick shifts and smooth slides to celebratory anthems that take it to the other side. Gripping the terrain like a Sherpa navigating an icy pass, they can sound like other bands that like to stretch it out, but the Georgia group defines its own territory with the graceful playing of keyboardist Jerry Hendelberg and the thoughtful tone of guitarist Jonathan Brill. Hendelberg and Brill form the core of Sweet Knievel with occasional visits from Ben Williams, Drew Hart, Evan Sarver, Darrren Stanley, Mason Davis, Paull Lee, and Carl Lindberg. The band’s playing is better than their singing, but that has essentially been the status quo ever since T. Anastasio and Company came on the scene. Syd Barrett-inspired songs like “Wanderful” show the band does have a vocal nitch to work with. Brill has a lot of skills but knows when to keep it simple and warm on his guitar. Hendelberg has been to the Moon and back with Dubconscious, but his musical relationship with Brill has evolved over the years regardless of what other projects the duo is involved in.

Tunes like “Cold Corn” and “Dougy Strut” showcase the band’s tightness, funkiness, and Booker T.-ness. “The Square Bullet” sounds like John Scofield after a ten year hermitage in the Caddilac Desert. Perhaps most illustrative of Sweet Knievel’s chamber jam aesthetic is their take on the Michel Legrand classic, “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Normally rendered with enough schmaltzy swoon and syrupy strings to put Boca under water, Sweet Knievel delivers the head of this tune in full calypso lounge mode, but after a series of hairpin turnarounds brings out the hard funk which flings Brill’s guitar into several rounds of searing leads. This band concentrates, that’s for sure, but it’s hard to miss their impish grins while they flutter through the changes with virtuosic precision. You may come for the chops, but you’ll stay for the bliss.

Sweet Knievel could be put in any number of old categories, and could also give birth to and re-define many new ones: acid lounge, bossa funk, post-MMW. Chamber jam is just a term, but chamber jam and chamber pop represent the outcome of the recording industry’s slow and steady decline and the concert industry’s ascent towards dominance. So as the NFL continues to suffer due to digital communication making the home experience superior to in the stadium, live music enjoys a multi-phase resurgence. Sweet Knievel and others of different stripes and colors have discovered that joy and restraint can go together. Go check ‘em out the next time they rumble through town.

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