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Published: 2004/03/03
by Jesse Jarnow

Medeski Martin and Wood with Marc Ribot, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 2/28

NYC ROLL-TOP: Old(er) and Improved

My cyber-cherry's been a-poppin' with frequency these days. I switched to OS
X, got hooked on iTunes' software, installed BitTorrent, made my first
all-online music purchase, and – now – made my first download of a show I
attended the previous night, which happened to be Medeski, Martin, and Wood
with Marc Ribot at the Mercury Ballroom. I'm sure these will all seem like
quaint events in the future, MMW included, but – for now – they are quite
nice, I assure you.

Before the show, I happened to watch a documentary on the making of Pink
Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with some friends, which alternated
between vintage footage of The Floyd and recent interviews with Roger
Waters, David Gilmour, and company. These sudden flips – to see how much a
face has suddenly aged – were emotionally striking, so much so that when
John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood took to the stage, it was hard
not to notice that they're not the same insane limb-flailing long-haired
nu-jazz freaks that burst onto the hippie scene nearly ten years ago with
the proclamation by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio that Medeski, Martin, and
Wood was "music that made [him] want to drive too fast."

Since then, they rose to a quick embrace in the burgeoning jamband
community, tried to shake the hippies by issuing three CDs of densely weird
atonality, and smoothed back out into a groove-oriented existence with
2002's Uninvisible — which, despite great playing, felt a bit like a
holding pattern in terms of the band's evolution. Nonetheless, what they've
done has been so strong that they essentially became the defining band of a
certain kind of groove that etched itself into the national consciousness
over the past decade – some manifestation of urban funk and hep jazz – that's been copied and copied and copied. So, it's weird to watch them get
older, and play with ever-less frequency in their native Manhattan, where
they once engaged in weekly residencies but now mostly only show up for
their annual Halloween show and side projects. A benefit gig, with old buddy
Marc Ribot joining on guitar, at the smaller-than-usual Bowery Ballroom was
certainly a cause for excitement.

With the band in and out of the studio, on and off the road, it was hard to
know what to expect. But, if the first three songs of the show – all before
Ribot came out to join 'em – were any hint, there's a whole new MMW waiting
in the wings. Entering the stage with nary a greeting to the crowd, Martin
started a gamelan-like groove while Medeski gamely squealed on vintage
synths. Martin's rhythm and Medeski's noise both increased as Wood offered a
bassline. Imperceptibly, Martin slid into a jungle rhythm and the band
suddenly seemed to reconcile their yearning for danceability and their
desire to make really bizarrely pretty music. The music was Sun Ra and James
Brown all at once. Over the next half-hour, the band flowered through an
arrangement of duos, solos, and trios, all of the music In and Out at the
same time. (So far Out that the melodies seemed stumbled-upon, so far In
that the noise seemed totally natural.) They could do nothing wrong.

A half-an-hour into the set, guitarist Marc Ribot – another NYC jazz elder – joined them, his age apparent in his face and hair, his still-punkish energy
present in jagged guitar lines. The band did nothing wrong with Ribot,
either, though the music did seem to lose the magical sheen of the opening
numbers, perhaps only attainable when the trio is able to focus inwards. As
well, Ribot sometimes seemed intent on an all-out rock playing. Ribot ran
the band tune through a Spanish tune (delivered with appropriately gruff
vocals by the guitarist, with support from Martin). When Martin called DJ
Logic to the stage, it seemed like old times, even for those who were never
huge fans of Logic's work with the band to begin with (a once seemingly
never-ceasing debate). Whatever it was – and Logic wasn't doing anything
obviously amazing – the band clicked back into gear with the turntablist's
entrance; still not quite as ethereal as the beginning of the set, but
likely still the best music being made in lower Manhattan at that particular

The quintet swept into "Sugar Craft," the opening number off of 1998's
Combustication and through several noirish improvisations before
landing in "No Ke Ano Ahiahi" (also from Combustication), the song
that finally made me melt for the band in autumn 1998 after having seen them
numerous times. Medeski's just-lighter-than-a-tropical-sea-breeze organ
floated delicately and the band plunked their way through the exotically
translucent Hawaiian melody as air from the first warm night of the year
trickled in from the back doors of the Bowery. Ribot found himself playing
gospel fills and the song – while not as transparent as the bauble-like
original – was made.

A groove-lined encore and the band was done. I glowed the kind of deeply
satisfied glow rare in a city where it's possible to see decent live music
on any night of the week, went home, went to sleep, woke up, downloaded the
damn gig off of BitTorrent, decoded it, and fired it up once again. It
really was that good. I've had iTunes looping the first three songs
for the last two hours now, and it's not getting old yet. Medeski Martin and
Wood aren't old either, really. With any luck, they're going to be making
music for a long time and the music from the Bowery show will be considered
the beginning of their middle period. For now, though, it's new, and it's

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