Steppin’ Off A Star – Juggling Suns
It makes sense that the Juggling Suns were once a Grateful Dead cover-band.
Like the Dead, their sound combines sunny harmonies and spacey jams, with
lead guitarist Mark Diomede’s piercing solos guiding the group both in
concert and in the studio. Though the group is well versed in all eras of
the Dead’s canon, their latest album .Steppin’ Off A Star finds them
swimming the group’s Wake of the Flood sound. Clearly a psychedelic
band, the Juggling Suns create a mellow, jazz influenced sound, heavy on
acoustic piano and a sublimely powerful guitar.
Standing at the center of the disc is "Shelter", the album’s "Row Jimmy".
An epic six minute ballad, "Shelter" culminates with a beautiful duet
between Diomede and keyboardist Gus Vigo, whose ivory keys shine throughout
the track. The album’s title track also seems like a long-lost Grateful Dead
song and combines the group’s sloppy, yet comforting, harmonies with several
sublime solos from Diomede. While no member of the Juggling Suns has a voice
as distinct or powerful as Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir, Diomede, Vigo, and
bassist Bruce Wigdor are all accomplished singers and their harmonies help
ground the group’s jams. When used sparingly, the group’s vocals are
enjoyable, but the slow-rocker "Calling" places a little too much emphasis
on their voices, making the song fall flat. "Son" adds a little synth and post-Disco Dead spice to the group’s sound,
with some distorted vocals and spacey-sound effects making the song extra
creepy. Wigdor’s bass is also turned up throughout the song, letting him lay
down several interesting funk lines before fading into some, left field,
Disco Biscuits grooves. The Dead’s late ’70s side is revived in a more
straightforward form on "When Everyone Knows", which mixes touches of synth
and acoustic piano with Garicaish solos. The Juggling Suns’ lyrics also add
to their songs’ flair, discussing universal themes of following one’s dreams
and overcoming one’s nightmares. On "Jungle in my Heart," the group uses the
jungle as metaphor for hopes and dreams and uses Vigo’s pumping organ and
Diomede’s guitar to push the ensemble through the dense imagery.
Though his playing is subtle and often overpowered by his more emphasized
band mates, drummer Ivan Funk grounds the group’s sound, adding more
experimental textures to his playing. The bouncy "Forbidden Fruit" opens
with some manic chords from Diomede and spends four minutes showing off the
guitarist’s electric presence, at times sounding time a hybrid of the Zen
Tricksters and God Street Wine. His playing is tight and focused, yet the
song will clearly serve as an extended jam vehicle in concert, with Funk
adding quick rhythm changes to his music.
With eleven focused songs, Steppin’ Off A Star is a quick reminder of
why this group has been welcomed into the Dead’s extended family and
continues to be increasingly enjoyable, if not increasingly original.