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Published: 2001/06/07
by Kevin Ford

Jen Durkin & The Conscious Underground- The Stanhope House, Stanhope, NJ 5/31

A small but dedicated crowd came out to the historic Stanhope House on May 31st to hear the second live performance of The Conscious Underground. The group is the latest project for Jen Durkin, late of Deep Banana Blackout and arguably one of the finest vocalist of her generation. Located in the hills of northern New Jersey, the Stanhope House is a former stagecoach stop from the colonial era that has, over the years, presented the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Tonight, the Conscious Underground paid tribute to those blues roots while breaking new ground in the fusion of rock, funk, and hip hop.

The first few openers, among them "Year of the Snake" and a cover of James Brown's "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing", were a bit rusty around the edges. As this was only their second gig, immediate cohesion should not have been demanded. The CU's musicians, all of whom are "borrowed" from other full time projects, took this time to work out the kinks and get their rhythm down. Even if the band wasn't fully in sync right off, individual flashes of greatness from Durkin, drummer Gary Sullivan, and guitarist Harold Davis tantalized the crowd. The band truly clicked on "You Got The Love" a Rufus and Chaka Khan cover that Durkin sent out to the Vibe Tribe. Davis truly shone on this one, flashing the occasional Hendrixian lick within his own unique phrasing. Visually, Davis (or Fro, as he is known) reminds one of Deep Banana's Fuzz. Their instruments and stage mannerisms are strikingly similar. Davis, however, borrows more freely from Hendrix (competently so), and tinkers more liberally with his effects pedal. The result is a sound all his own that compliments Durkin's ever-maturing voice quite nicely.

Alluding to the storied past of the Stanhope House, Durkin decided to do a slow blues. As the band started into the opening chords of Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood", Durkin signaled for them to stop. She then turned to the audience and, in a heartfelt display of gratitude, thanked them for coming out and supporting her latest endeavor. It was a rare and sincere expression from an established artist that earned a loud cheer from the crowd. The band started up again, and Durkin led them in one of the sultriest versions of "Dr. Feelgood" ever. Slower and steamier than the '67 original, the song gave Dave Savitsky a chance to flex his chops on saxophone. His soft and extended notes lent Durkin's voice a delicate and complimentary layer over which to croon. Without taking a break, the band sped things up considerably as they went into the original "In My Mind", a psychotically fast funk extravaganza driven by Sullivan's solid drumming and Josh Werner's intrepid bass. Over this indomitable rhythmic foundation, Davis poured out of his amplifier note progressions that should not be humanly possible. With the precision of Carlos and the soul of Curtis, Fro's stunning fretwork complimented Savitsky's fiery sax as the two wove over and under one another like racecars, inspiring the initially docile crowd to get on their collective feet. This one ended the first set, with Durkin promising the breathless crowd a "real short break".

The band returned after about twenty minutes and opened with the Buddy Miles classic "Them Changes". MC Pauley Ethnic stepped out from behind the congas to take over vocal duties, and he did a masterful job. Ethnic seems born for the stage and clearly had fun with this one while staying true to Miles' original vision. Fro Davis also did a terrific job on guitar, again paying tribute to Hendrix without robbing from him. "Jah Ride" slowed things down a bit, lending the Stanhope House a Caribbean air. Savitsky stood out here, playing some very soulful reggae sax. Durkin returned to funky diva mode with a satisfying cover of Etta James' "You Give Me What I Want". Back to the mic went Pauley Ethnic, this time for a metallic rocker called "Love Life". Note to Fred Durst and Kid Rock: this is how it's done. No pretentious gangsta posturing here. Just a sincere fusion of hip hop vocals with hard rock guitar that showed what's possible when the two genres are married by artists who play for love, not money or fame. "This Time" was another tour de force for Savitsky, who ended the soulful tune with a little flourish of Coltrane. Durkin then led the band into a salsa-fied improv jam. Freestyling at first, she said, "I'm just gonna let these guys jam a little while." She then left the stage to watch Davis, Savitsky, Sullivan, Werner, and Ethnic descend into a maelstrom of hot Latin funk. Pauley Ethnic's work on the congas and bells was superb, another reason to keep your eye out for this multitalented powerhouse.

Durkin came back to close the evening out with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression". She was in top form on this one, singing every note with sincere ferocity. The lead instruments were a little too loud and tended to get washed out in feedback, but this gave the astute listener a chance to focus on Shuman's terrific bass, which actually wound up driving the lead melody. Hendrix figured prominently throughout the show, and he has clearly been on Durkin's mind of late. More than likely, it has to do with her participation in the upcoming "thirty year jam" at this summer's Gathering of the Vibes. Along with Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, the jam will pay tribute to the late master of the Stratocaster. After this night's performance, one can't help but wonder if Hendrix (had he survived the autumn of 1970) would be heading in a direction similar to the CU today. If anyone could convince a new generation of listeners that there was more to Jimi than just paisley and Purple Haze, it would be the Conscious Underground.

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