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Published: 2004/10/30
by Brian Gearing

Live at Perkins’ Place – Banyan

Sanctuary Records 84718-2

One would expect a band whose first album was an experiment based on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to get into some pretty heady spaces, especially with a pedigree including Jane's Addiction, Wilco, the Minutemen and Death Row Records, but the surprise on Banyan's third record – Live at Perkins’ Place – comes from its heart, not its head. Driven by the core rhythm section of drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Mike Watt, Banyan plays far beyond the limits suggested by its rocker pasts and injects the punishing rhythms of its two founding members with chaotic noise and jazzy soul.

Live at Perkins Place is modern-day fusion, with guitarist Nels Cline shifting between atonal atmosphere and funky vamps while trumpeter Willie Waldman adds a touch of clean, classy brass. "Mad as a Hornet" starts out true to its namesake, buzzing lightly through the air with a delicate flutter, but as first the trumpet, then the kick drum and toms, and – finally – the guitar and bass join in, the foursome quickly mutates from a backyard annoyance to a national disaster more akin to Mothra buzzing around Tokyo. The opener is a savage beast, but it’s soon soothed by the more feathery textures of bop and disco. Watt gladly obliges Perkins’ disco beat on "Oh My People," and "Om Om Om" is an apt title for the meditative jazz of the third track.

Throughout the record, Cline shakes unheard of sounds from his guitar like a bad parent with a hyper child in a grocery store, and – much like that child – Banyan has a hard time sitting still for long. Even the most ambient, pensive moments quickly erupt into a hissy fit of spastic activity. "El Sexxo" is reminiscent of Perkins softer side, a la Jane’s numbers like "Classic Girl" and "Three Days" from Ritual de lo Habitual, until it degrades into a speed duel between him and Cline before fading off into the nothingness between tracks. "A Million Little Laughs" raises the possibility of Glenn Miller’s prodigy drummer and idiot-savant guitarist grandsons getting a short punk interlude in the middle of grandpa’s jazz show while "King of Long Beach" takes that punk attitude, mixes it with classical precision and bottles it until the end of the cut when its slow release transforms an instrumental love song to sad, street corner jazz, then live fusion which finally explodes into arena-style Mahavishnu jazz rock behind Watt’s punishing bass.

All this short attention span is appropriate, however; these guys weren't meant to hold back. Aside from "Rocks Are Falling," Perkins' one-minute polyrhythmic percussive pet project, most of Live at Perkins’ Place stays true to the rockers-play-jazz formula. Perkins and Watt lead the charge while Cline and Waldman comment from the cheap seats, occasionally darting down to the front row to get in a word or two. The entire album is framed much like each track: "Mad as a Hornet" provides a hard punch in the gut, and the rest of the album keeps the listener in the fight until "Funhouse" provides a final bass and drums knockout blow. While it leans toward early ’70s free fusion, this definitely ain’t no jazz record. Of course, that’s been said before. Time will tell which Banyan is: either the worst art rock quartet in town, or the hardest rockin’ jazz band on the planet.

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