Garaj Mahal, Northeast Swing (MA, NJ, NY, CT)- 3/23-3/26,
3/23, Johnny D’s, Somerville, MA
Chilly out with a storm looming- the season's changing skies. The first night of the Garaj Mahal's coast to coast spring tour- Boston. Not necessarily a great town for the band, or at least it's a quirky town. There was that ugliness in 2003, although two nice shows thereafter have been released as downloads. Now, though, Fareed Haque is stuck in the storm and everyone else is setting up on stage, meaning "Geo Trio." A big treat for East Coasters who literally never see the paired down unit perform, but there were still some mumbles of "Where's Fareed?" from the less tuned in.
The set was excellent, a balance of dance beats and jazzy rolls, plus a dose of fun. Opening with "Semos," the trio tackled the tough stuff right away, digging into the overlapping time signatures without hesitation. Mid-song there is an angular shift in tone and Eric Levy is off on a pounding wank, playing with speed. Eventually Kai Eckhardt brings up the bottom and tries to run the keyboard down in a smiley, playful chase.
That playfulness was everywhere throughout the set, each band member grinning and laughing on stage. There was virtuosity too, as in the great drum solo at the end of "The Chicken," Alan Hertz ducking and spilling and crashing and carrying it right on through the tune's close. On Kai's call, next up was "The Paladin," complete with spaced out intro courtesy of the song's composer and his effects-laden keyboard. The dance groove resurfaces here in the composed passages, spotted with clacking rim shots. The song washes into a slipstream jam, Eric at the lead as Kai screws up his face in a thousand different contortions- fleshing out the sounds.
The room at this point has a fuzzy buzz, and despite the backbeat, it's a jazz gig- the audience listening and applauding, not dancing so much. "Be Dope" features more incredible drumming, but even better, a very cool, long rendering of a spontaneous composition. Rather than toying with the idea for a moment and moving on, as most would do, the group tinkered and adjusted and built up an intricate, satisfying passage- virtuosity in action.
A cool down version of Levy's "Island Tune," followed by a last blaze in "Make a Hippie Happy," Eric bunched up on the right side of the keys, leaning off his stool, and the set ends as Fareed walks in the door.
For the first actual Garaj Mahal set of the tour, Fareed is toting a huge, glimmering white hollow body; it sounds good as the quartet hits "The Shadow"- that slight distance. At the mid-song switch, Kai steps out and indicates the far recesses of depth- the kind of probing playing that makes Mr. Eckhardt a favorite. Just before the close, Alan roars up with ferocious drumming; Fareed arches his neck to cast a grin.
Fareed's guitar was central to "Meatless Patty." A wicked, sharp lead in the first jam just slices back to the bridge and then drops into a simple, clean rhythm lick during the second outing-a super funky six minutes of groove. Next is "Poodle Factory." "It's all in a day's work," poodle suits and a poodle mobile. The music is dramatic, sweeping, constantly teasing A New Meeting, but goes wild in the center. Once it's clamed (Alan still driving at the rhythm, but doing so quietly), the quartet slides in a grand, stretching jam- vaguely like "Two Soldiers" or some arabesque. It's beautiful and flowing and begins to inch back towards "A New Meeting," but as they're playing it, Fareed begins, "poodlepoodlefactorypoodlefactorypoodlefactorypoodlepoodlefactory," and they all jump into the funk.
Special guests: toaster Toussiant and sax man Sam Kininger, a long time jammer with the band. The ensemble starts up "Ivory Tower," and Sam cuts loose right away. Toussiant grabs the microphone for a long, energetic rant- the music and lyrics fit perfectly, "Ivory Tower's" sense of injustice replaced by "So I can see Babylon burn in hell, I've got to bring it crumbling down." Sam stays on stage for the "7-Up" closer, playing like one of the band, and returns for the "Jan-Jan" encore. He guns early, but when Fareed decides to show off his chops, nothing can compare- he's so fast and so clean, and just when you think he's peaked, he goes on and on. Toussiant is waving his hat, trying to cool the strings; Sam is bending around Kai to see- Alan looks to Eric, who has yet to solo, as if to say, "What are you gonna do?"
3/24 Mexicali Blues, Teaneck, NJ
A dreary, rainy day, good for napping and a night of warm music. Before the show, everyone, band, bartenders, fans, is watching Miles at The Isle of Wight Festival above the stage- that set the mood and soon the night began with an immense, heavy jam. Grinding bass and cosmic keyboard washes set the music into interstellar drift. Movement after movement passed- Fareed alone, a Hertz-powered over drive, a decidedly Weather Report sounding jam with vague hints of other Shorter. And finally, two quick licks, and they're up in "Never Give Up." The song was really just a refined expression of the jam- a funky strut of flute sounds with rhythm guitar sneaking on in. The jam goes aggressive and falls into a loose hitting-the-one piece reminiscent of the pre-show viewing. The second outing featured Kai and Fareed smiling as they toyed and tagged with intricate noodles all leading up to an explosive end.
The expansive fusion vibe continued to dominate in the rolling, amorphous jam of "Hindi Gumbo." It was not crazed or out of control, but loose with cowbells and Fareed on tambourine. The craziness surfaced, instead, in "Semos"- the story of the simian ancestor's arrival involving Stanley Crouch- the man who gave the jazz world's Judas cry when Miles went electric (leave it to the professor to force in a little education). The third improv had Eric and Alan flying furiously, lashing and finally crashing back to the bridge at breakneck speed.
"Celtic Indian" closed the set- possibly the song most expressive of Garaj Mahal's style and stylishness. The first passage had strong and sweet guitar, cutting across low fields of sound. The middle section cast an even wider glance with a bass-led rhythm groove. The sound of that opening jam again, but colored with saffron and desert sunsets. The quartet was now in uncharted territory, the tight composition cracked wide open- the perfect was to end such an exploratory set.
Set II was a bit looser and less dramatic, Fareed toying with the pedals and his hollow body throughout. He played a slick, complex solo to start and eventually the band rose behind him with Be Dope. A long version, it was loaded with passages and textures- at times twangy, at times rocking, at times fazed and twisted- all meshing into one long stroll.
While it finished with a very short final section, "Cosmic Elevator" had a beautiful ride, with the whole band immersed in an egoless jam- in fact, the whole set was characterized by such playing. The second improv in "Fire on The Mountain," a simultaneously silly and stunning rendition, was such a jam, as was the final soaring movement that eventually came to rest quietly, gracefully. Even in the midst of a raging "The Shadow" to close, sandwiched between the muscular bass solo and a maddened Alan Hertz attacking his kit and sending wood shards flying everywhere, was a dance that seemed to move of its own accord. It's no secret that Garaj Mahal is a starkly different band from night to night, so to have such a constant fusion focus throughout made for a special show.
3/25 The Knitting Factory, NYC
Friday night, midnight, crowded room with a broad mix of revelers called out by the full moon. The music starts pretty close to on time and is immediately warm and jazzy- just right. After a "Make a Hippie Happy" and the third version of "The Shadow" in as many nights, this one full of dance beats and on-stage antics, the quartet launched into the night's main course- a fifty minute suite of thick, heady music.
Fareed begins to jive over a rich groove, talking jazz- "One cold piece of wax," and soon he and Eric are riffing on Coltrane's "Lush Life," looking for Red Garland. There is church organ and quiet noodling and a long, twisted keyboard solo before Alan's drumming swells up, and sounds shift to a beautiful transition to "Frankly Franky Ford." The tune is wonderfully restrained through the initial passage, and opens on a vast cavern for the central jam. The music is dramatic and consuming and forces the question, When did Garaj Mahal become a full blown psychedelic movement unit? Eric is now warping and wa-ing an obtuse but funky solo to close. He and Alan are locked tight , digging hard on each other, as they would often throughout the rest of the show. The music rumbles down to Kai alone, who immediately begins to play on "Tomorrow Never Knows." He toys and teases for two minutes before that crazy backbeat begins and the song looms large with all its lysergic gravity. Fareed pulls out the guistar for the first time, and Eric trills and broods and floats along with flute effects. The band is in full swing through the bridge, and as they head for a second stargazing, Fareed is grasping and groping at the edges of the song, Kai playing counterpoint, and grounding the music. This massive suite was stunning, and worth its weight in time.
The second set fed off that late night energy. "Hindi Gumbo" was lighter, more misty and shaped than the previous night, with a nice open, atmospheric intro. The funk numbers, "No Spect" early, and "Break Out" later, were both distinctly low and nasty dances. But the show closed on an entirely different note. Once again, Kai's heavy, probing notes initiated the event, running and rambling for a spell before Moog swirls and break beat drumming declared "Massive." Normally the livetronica is best left to those who do it best (and Sector 9 and the New Deal do it pretty good), but here the quartet was able fuse the tune with the expansiveness of the rest of the show to create a 20 minute dance odyssey, with an incredible, deeply buried third jam- for body and mind.
3/26 Porter’s Tap Room, Westbrook, CT
Last night of the tour opener at Porter's, a small venue with a dark, recessed performance area. At first the crowd seemed tentative and largely unfamiliar with Garaj Mahal, but it turned out to be filled with avid listeners. People clustered in front of the band, some periodically seating themselves on the floor before Kai just to watch. They got the only double encore of the tour thus far.
That being said, there were more rough spots during the show than in others, and the listening was balanced with an air of drunken college party. A late start made for a single set that opened with an intense "A New Meeting" > Jam, reminiscent in tone of the opening jam in Teaneck and the first set suite from The Knitting Factory- beautiful, delicate, stoned. The jam, as in NJ, centered on Fareed's lick (potentially something from the new Fareed Haque Group album out in early April). It stretched out nicely to create a comfortable feeling. A fourth version of "The Shadow"- worthwhile to compare all four and understand why Mahalics argue no band changes as much night to night- and a nice "Ivory Tower," a much requested tune at the previous gig. Crazed and spacey, that heady weight resurfacing, the song left its confines and plunged into a potent grinding, subterranean jam- "Ivory Tower" always has the best jams.
Later in the set, a fine, groovy "Jonesin' For Wayne" with bass runs and jazzy, drifting guitar, and a night sky atmosphere, all capped by one of many raging solos from Alan. The show closed with "Kiss" > "Poodle Factory," but it was the second encore (how often is that actually the case?) that brought closure to the run and sent the crowd into the Easter morning with gratified smiles: a skillful, utterly natural 10 minute rendition of "Material Girl."
It had been over a year since my last Garaj Mahal gig before this tour, and over the four nights, I found myself interacting with a different band, a freer, exploratory collective that drew more from its jazz roots than from funk, that was more interested in cultivating soundscapes than political viewpoints.