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Published: 2003/10/07
by Brian Gearing

Lotus, Dave’s Taverna, Harrisonburg, VA- 10/1

Harrisonburg, VA is a weird place to put on a show for almost anyone except hair band tributes, but it is especially so for a band like Lotus. Their jamband-techno hybrid doesn't fit too well in a town where commercial radio consists of country and classic rock stations, one of which plays mainly to the local Camaro set, spinning old Scorpions and Judas Priest tunes alongside the occasional modernism of Nickelback. There is a fairly large state university here but afternoons on James Madison's WXJM usually consist of death metal with an occasional slot for the indie-rock snob police. There are, of course, the Birkenstocked frat crowd and the obligatory hippie-dread set, but the crowd at Dave's Taverna appeared to be mostly just locals who had heard there was a pretty decent band playing.

With the bar set that low, it would have been hard to flop, and Lotus exceeded expectations. Drummer Steve Clemens competently mixed drum n’ bass, trance and break beats to keep the dancers dancing, and guitarist Mike Rempel’s light touch and Garcia-esque tone gave those more sedentary something to listen to while slogging down their beverage of choice. But despite their talents and passable performance, the band often slipped into the same "groove-oriented improvisation" (i.e. noodling over a pretty melody or two with no real fireworks other than the typical tension and release bag), as every other livetronica jamband without really distinguishing themselves in any definitive way.

That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. One of Lotus’s strong points is their restraint. While they could probably do with a little more rock n’ roll artillery and a couple power chords, they commendably managed to keep most songs in the five to ten minute range, just long enough for the dancers to get their rocks off, but not so long that the conversational hum from the drinkers at the bar took over the room.

After opening with "Spaghetti," a song with a pretty good groove but not enough umph to complement its bluesy feel, they quickly changed modes, going for the jungle beat and matching bass line of "It’s All Clear To Me Now." Aptly titled, this song is a good example of what Lotus do best. With its twelve-bar breaks flowing into a hard-driving drum n’ bass section and back again, it was clearly what Lotus is all about.

"L’immeuble" was tiresomely similar to the bluesy funk of the opener. As a jam tune, it was passable, but if you’re gonna play funk, you’ve gotta hit it hard, and Lotus looked like robots on stage. But the song gradually took on a direction of its own, ending up somewhere in disco territory by the end. They redeemed themselves once again with "Lucid Awakening," a futuristic Spy Hunter car chase theme, and "Shimmer and Out," a simple, happy dance tune that would end up being one of the best numbers of the whole night. Unfortunately, they closed the set with "Soma," which didn’t change much for ten minutes beyond an annoying DJ-style voiceover from guitarist/noisemaker Luke Miller that began about mid-song.

Opening the second set, "Suitcases & Sandwiches" and "Caywood" both showed yet again that, especially with Lotus’s style of instrumental music, shorter is often better. "Suitcases" was another happy, danceable house tune that wasn’t given time to get old, and "Caywood"‘s weaving, polyrhythmic beats showed that Clemens and bassist Jesse Miller didn’t waste their time in West Africa. The intertwining rhythms were a feast for the ears as they calmly faded into a tricky ambience, then came back into the ecstatic braided beats.

But "Mikesnack," a slow groove built around a pseudo-funky guitar lick, once again gave away Lotus’s biggest weakness: like many up-and-coming jambands, they lean too often on the old, reliable jamband-schtick, playing faux blues and faux funk, never quite able to commit to one style, but not yet confident enough to plait them all into a unique, unified sound. Given a little time and attention, though, the song eventually morphed into a late-80s Dead-style funk getdown with a cool little break and some groovy acrobatic guitar work from Rempel.

As the crowd finished their last drinks, however, they began to disperse en masse. Not to be discouraged, Lotus launched into one last number for those dedicated enough to stick it out, but as they faded off into a house/trance groove, those not dancing were sweeping the floor and stacking chairs.

If this all sounds damning to the performers, it's important to keep in mind that this is Harrisonburg, VA, home of Mennonites and mullets and quite possibly the least jam-inclined university population this side of bible college. That said, Lotus admirably channeled what little energy the crowd sent them into at least a handful of solid tunes, exploring some interesting sonic terrain and throwing out some good dance music to boot. The few jamband faithful in the audience probably walked away cheery and content that this town was finally getting some decent acts, but for everyone else, it was probably just a pretty decent show. . . for Harrisonburg.

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