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Published: 2003/03/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Live Stages – various artists

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Over the years, jamband music has danced through several stages. From the
country-space explorations of the Grateful Dead to the trance-fusion
mutations of The Disco Biscuits, the genre of "jam music" has included just
about everything, at one point or another. Stages, a compilation of live
music featuring six modern day jambands, acts as a Cliff’s Notes of sorts
for the modern day hippie movement, jamming the genres’ divergent styles
into one packed album.
With a tagline which reads "where the music plays the band," Stages
is clearly a record dedicated to live improvisation. Produced by Andy
Steinberg and Brian Malone, Stages takes listeners to stages across
America, capturing an eclectic cross-section of newly emerging groups in
their natural live environment. Recorded at six clubs, in six cities, in
five states, the compilation also acts as a jamband geography lesson,
showing how each region’s native sound mixes into each group’s psychedelic
stew. With several tracks dedicated to each group, Stages is a
sprawling two-disc set, which manages to flow into one cohesive unit.
Kicking off the disc is Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee, who offer three
selections from their mammoth 2001 New Year’s show. Carefully mixing jazz
fusion with even more synthesizers and rock and roll guitars, Umphrey’s are
among the most eclectic groups touring today. With the excitement of New
Years’ Eve driving Umphrey’s energy and, as the disc’s liner notes mention,
homebrew in hand, the Chicago sextet rips through their canon at mammoth
speed. Tempo-changes throughout "All in Time" jump from hyper to sublime;
while "Roulette" includes a jazzy piano solo Herbie Hancock would be proud
to call his own. At times, the group’s southern guitar style could be
mistaken for the Allman Brothers, while at other times you’d think John
Medeski was sitting in on organ. "All Things Ninja" opens with some funky
guitar work, before building to a spooky whirlwind of guitars, keyboards,
and drums. Like the wheel of a windmill, the group keep turning out high
energy performances throughout their selections.
Also hailing from the Midwest are The Big Wu, who use their spot on
Stages to offer live versions of two songs from their newest disc, as
well as the concert staple "Texas Fireball." Recorded in February of 2002,
both "Spring Reverb" and "Texas Fireball" begin as straightforward
midwestern rock nuggets, with tight harmonies and catchy melodies, before
entering full-out jam mode. Unlike many of their jam peers, including some
of their discmates, The Big Wu’s lyrics are also deeper than simple rhymes,
adding a important element missing from many groups’ sounds. On "Texas
Fireball," the group sings of shooting the moon, a tricky act that is also a
symbol of the group’s sound. Mixing solidm song structure and spacey jams is
tough, yet the group plays their cards right and ends of creating two
impressive rock and roll nuggets, the first of which dares to clock in at
under six minutes.
Closing out the first disc of Stage is Uncle Sammy, who choose to
showcase one extended jam, instead of several individual songs. Taken from a
concert in Tenton, NJ, "1," is an epic slice of space, that weaves through
trance, funk, fusion, and solid rock and roll into one sprawling jam Often
treated like the little brothers of several more established northeast
jambands, Uncle Sammy hold their own, using their song structure as a
gateway into deeper waters. Twenty-six minutes deep that is. While the group
meanders throughout their extensive selection, their playing remains
exiting, as if creating a suite of musical styles. Though Uncle Sammy has
been pegged as Phish-soundalikes, they draw more from the groove of MMW and
the trance of The New Deal than the classic four-person jam band. Perhaps,
the album’s strongest selection, Uncle Sammy’s "1" shows what Stages
is all about, how small clubs across America have seen a new style of music
synthesized on their stages over the past decade.
If Stages was a play, the first disc would set the stage for the
climax of the second disc. Though all three bands presented on disc one have
original sounds, their music draws from jam rock’s deep American lexicon of
styles, highlighting its past in rock and roll and country. Throughout the
second act of their jamband play, however, Stages’ producers explore
the future of improvisational music, namely where techno-beats and
jazz-fusion meet. Kicking off the set is L.A.-based Particle, a quartet
whose careers have skyrocketed in just over two years of playing together.
Recorded Halloween 2001, the group’s one year anniversary, Particle’s
selections make their influences clear within minutes: the Ozric Tentacles,
trance keyboards, and Pink Floyd. Perhaps best described as a Dark Side
of the Moon set in space, "Ed & Molly" mixes spacey guitar solos and
electronic synthesizers. Faced past in its delivery, yet without the hard
hitting edge of traditional rock music, "Ed & Molly" opens in medias
res, before leading listeners on a night roller coaster ride. The track
flows smoothly into "Ghost Highway Jam", which features special
"air-guitarists" Lonnie Jordan and Dr. Inconceivable, a clever way to
represent the endless barrage of special guests that have sat in with
Particle in the last year and a half. A whirlpool of energy, Particle
clearly know how to play, though one could question the individuality of
each song, which often sound repetitive, parts of one extended beat.
Mixing Particle’s spacey trance with acid-jazz, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
brings listeners to yet another stage of jam music’s development. Recorded
in Cleveland, Ohio, a frequent stomping ground for the jazz-schooled trio,
JFJO offer three selections from a March performance. Though recorded in
Ohio, bassist Reed Mathis could have easily been playing in a smoky New York
City jazz club, with his distorted bass lines clashing beautifully with
Jason Smart’s drum licks. Brian Haas’s Rhodes fits nicely between the
group’s tight rhythm section, creating a trance-tingled spin on the
traditional organ trio. "Son of Jah", was a fine selection by Stages’
producers to follow Particle, acting as a bridge from danceable trance to
deeper jazz experimentations. "Fourth Aye" returns the trio to the more
traditional acid jazz they are known for, while "As it Will Be" is a dark
and spacey exploration that meanders a little too far from reality. Though
they are a talented trio, JFJO’s sound is the least accessible on disc, at
times getting lost in their own exploration.
The final two tracks presented on Stages are by another California
based group, Netwerk: Electric. Featuring a sound that mixes funk, fusion,
rock, space, and some fine percussion work from Kevin DiNoto, Netwerk:
Electric mix many of the key jamband ingredients. The Santa Cruz band offers
two selections from their April 2002 homecoming gig. Perhaps the least
structured group to appear on the Stages compilation, Netwerk:
Electric offer a wisely chosen capstone to the most disheveled of genres.
"All of Us" is a carefully planned musical exploration, which is funky,
spacey, and, at times, a little messy. Their sound is all over the place but,
somehow, it works, given the freedom presented on a small, smoky club stage.
As the group closes the final notes of "Back Home Revival," listeners leave
the final stage of this excellent musical tour. Back home after over two
hours of music, the curtain closes on Stages, leaving listeners with
a snapshot of how six stylistically different bands can so clearly define
the jamband genre.

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