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Published: 2004/10/30
by Brian Ferdman

Under the Influence: A Jam Band Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd – various artistsBoogaloo to the Beastie Boys – various artists

Sanctuary Records 84713-2

Scufflin’ Records 8776

Ever since the advent of the compact disc, tribute albums have seemed to crop up like wildfire. Only on rare occasions do these tribute albums constitute actual tributes, and more often than not, tribute albums serve as little more than a cheap marketing ploy for the bands and producing record label. Under the Influence: A Jam Band Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Boogaloo To The Beastie Boys each take different paths to "honor" their subjects. The former employs a variety of bands to do the dirty work, while the latter constructs a band of jazz and funk musicians to handle the job. Not surprisingly, both efforts are a mixed bag with nice successes and a few horrible failures.

Many of the tributes on Under the Influence: A Jam Band Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd play it safe and attempt to remain faithful to the song. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as Gov’t Mule uses Warren Haynes’ gut-wrenching voice and searing solos to squeeze every inch of soul out of "Simple Man" in a performance that sounds as if it came straight from the Mule canon. moe.‘s pairing with vocalist John Hiatt on the easygoing "The Ballad of Curtis Lowe" is a strange one. Drive By Truckers do absolutely nothing but bore with a flat "Every Mother’s Son," and Big Head Todd and the Monsters take the all-time classic rocker "Sweet Home Alabama" and reduce it to a plodding pile of sludge.

Then there are the performances that take the music in an original direction. Les Claypool's bizarre slap-bass driven rendition of "Call Me the Breeze" utilizes the wailing saxophone of Skerik to drive this thunderous number. Meanwhile, Galactic's heavy funk-rock spin on "Saturday Night Special" is a welcome addition, as is the angelic, old-time bluegrass Yonder Mountain String Band applies to a bluesy "Four Walls of Raiford."

The irony in Under the Influence: A Jam Band Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd is that jambands are known for jamming, but that rarely happens on this record. Blues Traveler has been handed the grand jam vehicle in "Free Bird," but they respond with a sagging adult contemporary feel. Things improve once John Popper starts scatting in the climactic section, but the lack of a powerful guitar and the unwillingness to cross the six-minute mark keeps this bird grounded. Surprisingly, Particle is the only jamband willing to take their Skynyrd song and use it as a launching pad, as evidenced by the ethereal jam in the middle of a rocking "Workin’ for MCA." It’s a nice way to close the album, but it only leaves one wondering what would have happened had the rest of the bands had the courage to engage in this kind of experimentation.

Not long ago, Scufflin' Records released a nice little gem of an album in Boogaloo to Beck. Employing a trio of jazz-funk groovers, they successfully paid tribute to the unique pop star while setting his music firmly within the boogaloo genre. It was an inspired idea that worked well, and since this idea came out of Los Angeles, home of the half-hearted Hollywood sequel, why not do it again? Producer/arranger/guitarist Doug Monro came back on board for another round with a new honoree, giving birth to Boogaloo To The Beastie Boys.

It's a helluva lot easier for instrumentalists to play singing vocals than rap vocals, and that's where Monro finds his toughest challenge when arranging The Beastie Boys' material. More often than not, he assigns Andrew Beals the task of performing The Beastie Boys' raps on his saxophone, and more often than not, Beals fails miserably. Beals' sax tone is way too clean to tackle this kind of dirty work, and the result is akin to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir covering Kid Rock. It's rigid, stiff, and unintentionally hilarious. Monro's arrangements are far more successful when he's allowing more than one player to assume the vocal lines in call-and-response fashion, as evidenced by soul jazz pioneer Reuben Wilson trading Hammond B-3 licks with Beals on a funky and fresh "Hey Ladies."

Once the group gets over the hump of the vocal arrangements, it's smooth sailing, although sometimes it's a little too smooth. "Intergalactic" languishes in smooth jazz hell, a sound that this band often drifts toward but thankfully, only fully discovers on rare occasions. Otherwise, Monro succeeds in crafting several different takes on the boogaloo theme, ranging from the slinking and soulful "Egg Raid on the Mojo," the uptown funk of "Shake Your Rump," the brilliantly arranged back-and-forth grind of "So What'cha Want," and the robotically-tight grooves of "Brass Monkey," the latter utilizing simple but effective beats from drummer LaFrea Olivia Sci. and swirling organ runs from Wilson.

The players on Boogaloo To The Beastie Boys are all very skilled in the art of songcraft, something that the jambands on Under the Influence are not known for. The jambands’ forte is sonic experimentation, but by and large, their Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute lacks daring and adventure. Meanwhile, the boogaloo crew forgoes the songcraft and chooses to use the music as a springboard to improvisations and solos. These two albums demonstrate two different ways of approaching music, and each has its virtues and limitations.

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