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Published: 2005/05/20
by Mike Greenhaus

The Mars Volta, The State Theater, New Orleans, LA-4/28Les Claypool, TwiRoPa, New Orleans, LA-4/28

Five years ago, Superfly Productions put Les Claypool in charge of organizing a supergroup during New Orleans' annual Jazz Festival. At the time, Claypool existed on the fringe of jam-nation, tied to the hippie-rock community mainly through a handful of Phish cameos and an appearance on Rob Wasserman's Trios album. Dubbed Oysterhead, the trio ran through a show’s worth of shot-gun originals and odd-ball rock covers, in the process, birthing a new type of dark, edgy jamming. A Frank Zappa-style eccentric, Claypool quickly found his niche in the jamband community, arranging a variety of one-off backing bands before assembling his more permanent Flying Frog Brigade. And, show-by-show, Claypool became more and more intertwined with jam-nation to the point where he is now considered one of the genre’s most recognizable faces. Musically, Claypool always existed only a branch away from his peers, favoring performance art over staged theatrics and building many of his Primus’ recording sessions around layered jams. Looking back, it took many fans a few years to adjust to Claypool’s metallic-edge, a far cry from the relaxed psychedelia of the Grateful Dead. In deed, Claypool raised the bar of how hard a group could improvise.

A half-decade later, within the urban wilderness of the New Orleans club circuit, another band began its safari into the jungle of jam-nation. Perhaps the most prominent example of Superfly’s Bonnarooization of JazzFest, The Mars Volta are the type of band that, if marketed right, could very well join Claypool as an alternative scene ambassador. Merging dark, aggressive prog-rock with heavily improvised psychedelic-rock, The Mars Volta exists on a fringe plane connecting jam-rock and experimental metal. Born out of seminal emo-act At the Drive-In, The Mars Volta is, in certain ways, as far from hippie-dippie as Superfly has stretched. Yet, since being added to Bonnaroo’s lineup, The Mars Volta has joined the Flaming Lips and Wilco as green-lighted, indie-rock bands rapidly expanding the genre’s borders. In certain respects, the group is the next evolutionary step in the jamband movement, combining jazz-approved improvisations with the industrial layering of Tool. At times the group also recalled the dark-jams of Oysterhead—only with more success. While Oysterhead ended up sounding like a thinned-out version of Primus—- with a few Anastasio-approved psychedelic riffs, The Mars Volta are true space pioneers. But, beneath their stylistic similarities, The Mars Volta adheres to a different esthetic—one rooted in jagged, aggressive punk, instead of danceable hippie-rock.

Drawing mostly from its recent Frances the Mute, an album filled with extended deeply layered improvisation, The Mars Volta hit its audience at full force. Flanked by a lush backing band, Mars Volta mainstays Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez layered their performance with world-beat percussions, eclectic time signatures and free-jazz keyboard solos. Layering a spacey, Pink Floyd backdrop, enhanced by a dark, star filled scrim and lightshow, The Mars Volta offered a series of instrumental suites, cut by razor sharp guitar solos. For jamband fans venturing between shows, the group’s songs initially sounded like noise—-and really loud noise at that. But, a closer examination, revealed a series of carefully orchestrated passages with built-in room for solos and more organic improvisation. Like a ray of light peering through a think forest, the group’s psychedelic guitar solos seemed that much more vivid and defined —- the hook tying fans into the group’s feedback and distortion.

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of his own induction into jam-nation, Les Claypool offered a set alongside his band, Frog Brigade, just a few blocks and a few hours after The Mars Volta’s set. Compared to The Mars Volta, Claypool’s sound seemed strangely pleasant and suddenly familiar, as if jam-metal had just morphed into jam-thrash. Billed simply as "Les Claypool," rumors of potential Claypool’s collaborators were rampant within the full on, tank-heavy Shakedown Street which developed outside TwiRoPa. Some predicted a full-scale Oyesterhead reunion, while others wagered on some cross-pollination with George Clinton, who performed earlier in the evening at the same venue. Unfortunately, both proved to be wrong, when Claypool commenced his set shortly before 3AM with the same version of Frog Brigade that hit the high seas aboard JamCruise last January. Claypool’s new Frog Brigade is anchored around mainstays saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon—a combo which has pushed Claypool in his most groove-driven direction to date. Jazz-weirdo’s themselves, Skerik and Dillon are the groove equivalent of Claypool, whose Critters Buggin project brought an aggressive edge to the downtown scene. Adding an oddball edge to his jams, Claypool arrived onstage dressed in a pig mask while his stage-mates dressed in sailor uniforms. After an hour of metal-bass slapping set against some jazz-drumming, including an undusted version of Oysterhead’s "Shadow of a Man," Claypool invited Warren Haynes onstage for a brief cameo and he stood naturally at Claypool’s side, soloing over the bassist pronounced sounds. Gabby La La, Claypool’s sitar-playing prodigy, also added a complex eastern layer to the group’s sound, veering Claypool into a more supportive role. Like Claypool, La La favors dark improvisation, though her eastern edge brings in a more immediate organic edge.

Of the Disco Biscuits, Marc Brownstein once said, "You want us to be the bad boys, but the jamband scene is just a bunch of nice kids going around and playing their music for a living." In truth, there are few nice things about The Mars Volta’s sound, though at times the group is capable of creating beautiful music. Similarly, as fully ingrained as Claypool has become in the jamband community, there has always been an intangible aspect of his persona separating himself from most jamband’s collective "everyman personality." Perhaps it’s the aura of darkness that hovers around The Mars Volta’s sounds, instead of the free-thinking, tie-dye mentality which will ultimately determine whether The Mars Volta emerge as jam-pioneers or alternative outcasts. But, either way, both Claypool and The Mars Volta’s acceptance into jam-nation goes back to the genre’s one qualification for membership: musicianship is a must.

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