Rock ‘n’ Roll Band – Tea Leaf Green
A picture is worth a thousand words, to quote the phrase. In terms of pop music, sometimes a band can capture its essence in one work, painting not just a single picture for the listener, but a complex mural. These concepts can apply to both the album’s context and, on occasion, to the group itself. If the latter holds true for Tea Leaf Green, then its latest live release, Rock N’ Roll Band, speaks volumes on its musical mettle. This is not easy to achieve on the shoulders of a warts-and-all album. Legendary bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd logged countless hours hunkered in the studio, twisting knobs and orchestrating their respective masterworks piece by piece. True to its jamband motif, Tea Leaf Green took the road less traveled; the same path treaded upon by, say, James Brown Live at the Apollo, the Allman Brothers Band At the Fillmore East and Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, and cut what could be its most definitive record to date on the same platform it built its name.
This is where things get interesting. Once a group’s “name” weds a particular musical genre, that marriage is usually quite difficult to break. In Tea Leaf’s case, uneducated folks often hurl these four youngsters from San Francisco into the watered-down depths of jamband obscurity. This is a grave mistake. TLG sure does have its moments many-a-moment, actually of serious, instrumental improvisation. “I’m a pretty big fan of the psychedelic jam,” guitarist Josh Clark gushes with pride on the disc’s sister DVD. But just take it with a grain of salt. R’N’R Band serves to eliminate any misguided generalizations one may make of this group.
This remains its best quality. It paints a loving portrait of the quartet’s swirling of pop-Americana and vintage psychedelia, showcasing a young band in full songwriting bloom. “Faced with Love” and “Incandescent Devil” sound like songs Neil Young would have written if the Buffalo Springfield was a jamband. The writing of good songs makes it so accessible in a private setting. It’s the kind of disc you toss in when visited by a small group of friends or as the soundtrack to a peaceful afternoon spent alone.
That’s not to say it doesn’t rock. It does. Keyboardist Trevor Garrod yelps the refrain “And the kids just don’t understand, but they got a rock n’ roll band!” over pulsing guitar feedback and Ben Chambers’ bass-slapping ode-to-Cow Funk on the anthemic opening track, “These Two Chairs.” And Clark and Garrod intertwine warp-sped solos during the middle portion of the love song, “If It Wasn’t for the Money.” However, the most judicious musicianship occurs on the album’s jamming centerpiece, “Jezebel.” Starting as a cool jazz vamp, its tempo clambers to a high-flying rocker before a steep drop into a valley of spooky ambience. This pattern comes full circle only to repeat itself, a calm meshing of flickering guitar distortion and electric piano hovering about during the jam’s weirder moments. Not so oddly enough, all this happens before the first verse.
Similar genre cross-pollination leaves its mark throughout R’N’R Band. That is a pretty good metaphor for Tea Leaf Green itself: the coexistence of different musical elements. For this band, oddball jams coexist with love songs, tight grooves coexist with heavy guitar solos, and rock n’ roll coexists with funk-laced jazz.
Be sure rock would exist no matter.