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Published: 2004/04/14
by Jesse Jarnow

Syn, Coda, NYC- 4/9

NYC ROLL-TOP: Dance Music

As often as people dance to it, jambands don't really make dance music, at
least in the sense that dancing is its primary function. The results are
just as social but, quite frankly, even for the most spun-out head, there's
just too much listening involved. The proof is in the laced pudding: at gigs
by even the most beat-laden jambands, like The Disco Biscuits or The New
Deal or Particle, the focus of the crowd is always, no matter what, aimed
towards the stage. If people dance, they dance towards the musicians, not
towards each other. Ultimately, it's an important distinction. It changes
(or defines) the body language of the crowd, and makes the dancing less
about sex, at least in the immediate dancing-with-girls/boys-to-get-laid
sorta way, and more about spectacle.

The sporadically held Syn parties have been an attempt to remove the bands
from the equation, replace them with DJ Motion Potion spinning excerpts from
jams by the aforementioned bands (along with Phish, the Dead, and pretty
much every other hippie band that ever flirted with disco grooves), and just
have the dancing. Manhattan's Coda – in midtown's sterile lower end, the
kind of place where one expects faceless dance clubs to live – seemed a good
place to try it out. Heads crowded under the inward-turning grid of bright
lights, and danced. It was a strange sensation not dancing to a band, and it
certainly took some getting used to for me. It seemed the same for others,
but – in the end – it worked out nicely. Many of the dancers, at first,
positioned themselves facing the DJ, the center of energy being near the
front of the stage. Gradually, the gravity of the crowd tilted and people
began dancing with each other, enjoying the evening as a purely social
occasion, as opposed to some unrepeatable night of music that they should at
least try to pay attention to.

And it was fun. We listened for the (relative) hits (The New Deal's "Back To
The Middle," the Biscuits' "Helicopters"), laughed at the bands we didn't
like, and had a grand ol' time. The dancing was communal, for the most, and
more like a hippie show than a real dance club, people dancing more
generally with each other than with specific partners, but the energy was
very different than a live performance, at least while Motion Potion was
spinning. It unfortunately probably wouldn't be a moneymaker, but I'd love
to see a regular Syn night somewhere. It could develop into something fairly
nifty. Motion Potion, for his part, was impressive. His choices were
inspired (a mightily up-tempo "Shakedown Street" anchored by perhaps the
most convincing funk grooves I've ever heard outta the Dead), his segues
were great (a live Talking Heads version of "Crosseyed and Painless"
segueing into Phish's), and he blended the tunes well.

If it was an experiment, though, it was uncontrolled. Between sets of Motion
Potion were the Synphony Orchestra and Laverneus Cool, both actual live
acts, supergroups of varying degree. The former was made up of smaller,
mostly Philadelphia-based post-Disco Biscuits jammers, the latter was a
bonafide all-star outfit starring the Biscuits' Marc Brownstein on bass, The
New Deal's Jamie Shields on keyboards, moe.'s Al Schnier on guitar, and The
Duo's Sir Joe Russo on drums. For once, it turned out okay. The quartet had
moments of directionless wank, but managed to play at a consistently high

There's a reason why the British government (through their representatives
at the late, lamented Wetlands Preserve) chose to knight Russo, and he
showed why numerous times on both Friday (at Syn) and Saturday (when he
joined Brownstein in the bassist's Electron project). Russo, almost
unconsciously, I think, led the jams on Friday night, keeping the band
together through the sheer force of his playing. While many drummers who
emulate DJs get hung up on sounding like machines, Russo is able to find his
own voice within the beats, participating aggressively in the improvisation.
On one hand, the fact that he was playing jungle beats (or whatever) with
Laverneus Cool and Electron was almost secondary. He's a great player in
pretty much every context he's tried his hand(s) at. On the other hand, it
wasn't. He drove the band.

In the context of Motion Potion's sets at Syn, the performances by Laverneus
Cool at Coda and Electron (Brownstein's on-again/off-again side project,
initially conceived as a full-time gig during the period in 2000 when he was
briefly bounced from The Disco Biscuits) the night after at BB King's, shed
some new light on this whole "live electronic" thing that the jamband scene
has flirted with over the past few years. Except for rare occasions, DJ sets
don't fall apart, and the question of whether or not one will is rarely part
of their appeal. Jambands, on the other hand, and especially one-time (or
two or three or four-time) acts likes Laverneus Cool and Electron, always
have that potential. And people listen to them.

Drum-n-bass never fused with jambands the way many predicted it would.
Instead, it's become just another tool in the box. The fact that it is the
most recent integration to the style makes it feel contemporary (or even
futuristic), but – really – it's no less of an affectation than any other
trick in the jamband book, just another way to enter into the psychedelic.
On one hand, that surely makes the music a little less exciting, a little
less revolutionary. But, on the other hand, now that the hyped sheen of
"live electronic" has worn off a little bit, it means the players can get
around to just, well, playing music (though many will surely continue to use
the beats as a crutch). Sometimes it will be special (such as Laverneus
Cool), sometimes it won't be (such as Electron, though – still worn out from
Syn – I took off early in the second set). But it could've just as easily
been the other way around. If the music were perfect, there'd be no need for
Brownstein and Russo to play two gigs in the same town on one weekend. They
could just have one big show and everybody would go because it'd be made to

In the end, people didn't really listen to Motion Potion's music as if it
were club music being played by a DJ. They listened to it as if it were
jamband music being played by a DJ. (Ironically, at their best, the closest
Laverneus Cool got to sounding like a DJ was to sounding like Motion
Potion,) But, whatever Syn was or wasn't, it was good and fun and they
should do it way more often.

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