Tea Leaf Green, Higher Ground (S. Burlington, VT), Harper’s Ferry (Allston, MA), E. O’Dwyers (Saratoga Springs, NY)- 5/10-12
In the Eye of the Hurricane with Tea Leaf Green
Back in my college days, I had no qualms whatsoever about taking off on tour with whatever band tickled my fancy at the time. I’d check my syllabi, make note of any papers that would come up due while I’d be on the road and pass them in early. Work obligations usually consisted of situations where I could switch shifts around with someone else… I wasn’t eating into any limited supply of vacation days. Rent wasn’t a concern, I lived in the dorms while school was in and at home when it was out. My bills consisted of one solitary credit card. Life was good.
Now, as I stand on the precipice between my 20s and 30s, I look back on those days with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia. I can’t just hand in my work early anymore, or switch a shift to make time for road trips. Any time I take as a nine-to-fiver counts against my yearly allotment of vacation days, which are as precious to me as summer time had been when I was in grade school. My fiancnd I recently bought our first home, so our mortgage eats up a good chunk of our monthly income, in addition to student loans, utilities, groceries and all the other "must haves" life starts hurling at you after college. On top of all this, we’re in the midst of planning our July wedding. It seems the closer we get to the date, the more details pop up that need our attention. Lately it feels as though we’re living in the outside edge of a hurricane’s eye the most intense and dangerous part of the storm where any poor decision or false step could result in dire consequences. I’m sure this is a normal part of taking on all the responsibilities that come with homeownership, planning for a family and shouldering all the burdens (and joys) that come along with both… but it doesn’t make the ride any less stressful. Life is still good, don’t get me wrong I’m happier than I’ve ever been despite the obstacles and pitfalls that present themselves on a regular basis. I just wish there were more time, opportunity and financial resources to be able to do the things we love more often.
Just as it’s been for the both of us for as long as we can remember, music is our only escape from the demands and rigors of "the real world". Neither of us could be mistaken for the casual showgoing type who’s there mainly for the social aspect of drinking; the band on stage only serving as the night’s soundtrack. We go to shows for the music; to dance out all the tension tying knots in the backs of our necks, and for Bill, to add to the constantly expanding collection of DAT recordings taking up residence in our family room. If we weren’t so much alike in that vein, I wonder if we’d be getting married a few months from now… it’d be a hard sell to try and explain why we need to spend vacation days as well as money on gas, hotels and tolls if the other didn’t understand implicitly without any explanation.
The past few months have found us too busy to even check the local music calendars, let alone attend any shows. There is, however, one band on the road today whose website we check regularly for tour dates and news, regardless of what else is going on in our lives. If they’re headed our way, making it to as many of their shows as we possibly can will take priority over just about anything else. If they were a northeast band, we could be a bit more lax about catching them, as we’d be sure to have several opportunities at the start and end of each tour. Unfortunately for us, it’s a west coast band that’s caught our attention and holds both of our allotments of vacation days hostage, beating out most any other reason to take time off from work we’re the type of people who refuse to waste sick days on being sick.
You’ve heard of Tea Leaf Green, I’m sure?
We were lucky enough to have caught them for the first time at Berkfest in 2002 their first trip to the east coast. We’ve been hooked ever since, patiently awaiting subsequent cross country tours from their home in San Francisco out to our home in New England. So far we’ve been privy to only seven shows since first discovering them three years ago, four of which were only single sets (very frustrating in their brevity), opening for or co-headlining with other bands. The remaining three, however, took place just last week as we both exchanged several vacation days in order to take a much needed road trip… and not only were they full-on, two set shows (or in the case of the Boston show, one long, single headlining set), they were the best we’d seen or heard them play yet.
Now, I know it’s common place for a show reviewer to do a song by song breakdown of what was hot, what was not and just a bit of commentary on non-music related aspects of the show. I’m not going to do that. This is a band you need to hear for yourself, so I will leave it up to you to seek out their music either by hitting a show (they’re on tour right now and are confirmed for Bonnaroo), on archive.org or via B&Ps on the taper section of their discussion boards. I will comment here and there on a particularly stellar setlist entry, or song I really love, but I will leave the truly detailed account of how they sound to your own imagination. It’s more intriguing that way, no?
Tuesday, May 10, 2005: Higher Ground S. Burlington, VT
We got in the car and started the 45 min drive from our farmhouse in Jeffersonville to Higher Ground in Burlington. As we sped along Pleasant Valley Road, Mount Mansfield towered over us, intermittently visible through the fluorescent green of new spring growth on the trees that lined the road. I looked over at Bill as he tucked a stray wisp of his long brown hair back behind his ear, unaware of the population of white and red dog hairs taking up residence on the shoulder of his dark t-shirt. As I began picking them off, the Tea Leaf Green CD we were listening to launched into the familiar strains of the chorus from "Garden III":
Darlin’, let’s let our hair grow long
We can work on a farm, maybe live on a mountain
I got an old hound dog that likes to run
He needs a lot of room and he hates to be chained up
Just like me, just like we are supposed to be…
I had to smile this was one of my favorite songs, the imagery was just so fitting for this chapter in our lives. Just a few months ago, we moved into an old 1832 Vermont farmhouse, which we work on constantly (I desperately want a doorbell that chimes to the tune of "Welcome this is our farmhouse…"). While we don’t live ON a mountain, we are surrounded by them, only 7 miles door to door from Smuggler’s Notch ski area. Both our dogs despise being tethered, and now that we have the space to let them run, they couldn’t be happier… as are we now that we’re in Vermont permanently; "in Vermont ya do what ya want".
We arrived at Higher Ground without incident. Bill got his taping gear set up, and after a chat with Steve, their sound guy whom we’d met on their last trip out here, he told me about some shenanigans that went down at the Philly show. Apparently someone had brought inflatable guitars to the show, using them as tangible placeholders for air guitaring throughout the night. At one point during "Georgie P", a particularly funky number that features a rather impressive bass solo, the band’s bassist, Ben Chambers, grabbed one of the inflatable guitars and did a rather involved, but silent bass solo with it priceless! We really wanted to go down to catch the Philly show, but now that we’d moved to 8 hours away instead of our previous 6 from Boston, it was just too far a drive for only one show when they’d be at our hometown venue in just a few days.
Tea Leaf Green took the stage somewhere around 10, which was perfect as our friends (to whom we’d been singing the band’s praises and handing out CDs to for months) had all arrived. They opened with "Kali Yuga", which was a perfect choice considering the rather high percentage of newbies that cite that song as they one that really caught their ear. I was ecstatic, not because "Kali Yuga" is the quintessential Tea Leaf Green song, but because I was there at the show and here they were, playing live… finally! At first, I did lament that they’re a west coast band, meaning we’d only get to see them once per national tour (I had been spoiled with east coast bands hitting nearby venues once on the way out on tour and again on the way home), but now that I think about it… it’s probably better that they’re not from the east coast. We have way too many responsibilities and financial obligations now to put maintaining the status quo in jeopardy by trying to hit more shows than we can realistically afford. I know me, and I know Bill, and I know that sometimes our priorities can shift in ways that they shouldn’t when it comes to live music… especially when we’re talking about a band like Tea Leaf Green.
"Papa’s in the Backroom" was a surprise, because I don’t remember seeing it pop up on recent setlists too often, though I was glad that it did tonight. It’s one of their older songs, and one that was in regular rotation when we first stumbled onto them back in ’02… I do have a sentimental attachment to it. "Tequila" is a fun song, but I was a bit disappointed to hear it because I was hoping to get it the following night in Boston when we’d have newbie friends along with us who’re infamous for their penchant for Tequila shots, earning them the moniker "Team Belligerence". When they launched into "Garden I", I was thrilled at the prospect of finally seeing an entire Garden trilogy, which I had seen on setlists, but had yet to see live. My excitement grew as "Garden I" morphed into the instrumental section, "Garden II". As "Garden II" drew to a close, I had my fingers crossed… but they went into "Precious Stone" instead. I was a bit bummed, but since I do like "Precious Stone" too, I wasn’t about to complain. Next up was a Velvet Underground cover of "Waiting for the Man", which was a far more energetic version than the original. At the next song, "Honey Bee", I decided this was a good time to step outside for a cigarette. While out there, there was another guy having a butt, talking to the ticket taker. After a few minutes, his girlfriend stuck her head out and said "Hey Tom… they’re playing your favorite song". "Garden III?!?!" he asked as he stamped out his cigarette. I cocked my head toward the open door and listened, sure enough… I was missing it! I threw my butt into the can and dashed back inside, just in time for the first chorus, but missing the first verse. No matter, I was elated and just hoped I’d get to hear another one over the next couple of nights.
Set II started off with "Rapture", a song that I’m not so sure about. I do find it stuck in my head here and there, but I have to listen to the lyrics before I make up my mind on whether or not I really like it (I’m not a religious person, and that title just has too many connotations for me to not question it). "Asphalt Funk" kicked things up a notch… a crowd that had been dominated by curious people who stood stalk still, their heads slightly bobbing as they sipped their drink began to change over to animated dancers, handing their drinks off to the nearest table or non-dancing companion. I had to smile… "Asphalt Funk" does it every time. The remainder of the show only built upon the energy that "Asphalt" had brought to the table, including particularly hot renditions of "Sex in the 70s", "Hot Dog" and "Gasaholic".
At the end of the night, I was exhausted, but felt satisfied… especially knowing 2 more days of musical mayhem lay ahead. We said good bye to our friends, accepted their thanks for having told them about the show and dutifully promised to burn them all copies once we got back from our road trip.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005: Harper’s Ferry Allston, MA
Back in my hard travelin’ days as a Strangefolk junkie (circa ’96-‘99), there was a guy on their discussion lists that went by the moniker "dueling", his real name was Graham. I remember the name being very active on the list, he was a taper and seemed to share the same excitement I felt about Strangefolk traveling far and wide to their shows and always doing what he could to spread the music around. When Strangefolk’s lead singer left to form his own band (AOD), there was a split in the fan base… some stuck with Strangefolk, some went to AOD, some drifted between both, and some just seemed to disappear altogether. Graham belonged to this latter group I didn’t see his name on either discussion board anymore. Despite the fact that we were both in the northeast area and had probably been at some of the same shows over the years, we had never met. I only knew him by his posts and B&P offers. When I stumbled upon Tea Leaf Green in ’02, I signed up on their discussion boards immediately, coming in at registered user number 47*. Some time passed, I’d check in every so often to read about the killer shows going down on the west coast, wishing I’d been there to see them. One day around this time last year, I popped over there to see what was going on and found a familiar screen name staring back at me: "dueling". I immediately put up a post inquiring whether this was the same "dueling" from the Strangefolk list/boards, and indeed it was. He’d stumbled onto Tea Leaf Green after seeing a bunch of their shows on the list of a fellow WSP fan and decided to check them out. Like me, he was instantly hooked. I wasn’t surprised in the least. Tea Leaf Green has that very same quality that old folk (pre-2000) had in spades: intense jams that hinted of a solid classic rock foundation, and insightful, goose-bump inducing lyrics that complemented their sound perfectly. Still, despite our newfound camaraderie in yet another band we both liked, we still had yet to meet in person… until this Boston show.
We picked up a couple of friends on our way down from Vermont, arrived in Allston and found a killer parking spot (which might seem like it’s not worth mentioning, but if you’ve ever tried to find parking near Harper’s Ferry, you know that it is). Bill had just begun to set up his taping gear when I overheard these two guys talking about the inflatable instruments at the Philly show. One of them I’d just met a few minutes ago, his name was Billy and he was also on the band’s discussion boards. The other guy I didn’t recognize at all. He saw me staring at them and must have read the inquisitive look on my face. He flashed a mischievous smile… "Tina?" It was Graham… he and his buddy Focker (known together as "Team Focker") had been the men responsible for the inflatable instruments last Saturday. I asked whether he’d brought them tonight. He hadn’t, but when Focker arrived, he did have an inflatable microphone that they immediately attached to their mic stand. Throughout the night, they would periodically check it by blowing and tapping on it — usually halting mid-conversation, as though suddenly realizing that this air-filled microphone might be picking up the reverberations of their voices… hilarious!! It was great to not only put a face with the name I’d known so long, but to also find out he was a really cool guy with a great sense of humor.
About half way into the opener’s set, I stepped outside to have a cigarette and ran into another old school folk fan. This one I knew, but hadn’t seen in years, his name is Pat. When the split in the Strangefolk fanbase occurred back in 2000, Pat and I had exchanged some rather harsh words. Looking back now, whatever our tiff had been about was nothing more than a difference of opinion between two very passionate people who were both watching as their favorite band dissolved before their eyes. It was a really hard time for all of us, and not everyone was as nice to each other as we should have been. I liken it to how the kids of a divorce will sometimes lash out on one another because of the turmoil their worlds have been thrown into by their parents splitting up. As soon as I saw him, I wasn’t going to let our last exchange have any bearing on the present. I walked right up to him and gave him a hug, genuinely glad to see him here at the show (wouldn’t you know it, Graham had kept in contact with him over the years and had talked him into coming down to check out TLG). I apologized for whatever bad blood had been between us, and he agreed that it was all water under the bridge and a moot point now. I actually just got an email from him as I’m writing this, letting me know he was glad to see me again and how excited he is to have discovered Tea Leaf Green. I couldn’t agree more.
The Boston show was hot personal highlights for me were "Wet Spot", "Taught to be Proud" (which is still stuck in my head), "Hot Dog"->"Kali Yuga", "I’ve Got a Feeling" and "Sex in the 70s". "Wet Spot" has this grittiness to it that just makes you want to slink and jerk around the dance floor… that’s the best I can do to describe it; pathetic, I know. "Taught to be Proud" is one of their more lyrically-centered tunes, and for that I love it. I still don’t know any words other than the chorus, having only heard it live and been too busy dancing to decipher meaning, but that and the catchy melody is enough for me to keep bugging Bill to get the tapes transferred to CD so I can hear it again and figure out what’s being said in the verses. "Hot Dog"->"Kali Yuga" just f*#!in’ rocked. That’s all there is too it. If you don’t know either song, then my describing them to you isn’t going to do diddly jack squat in terms of doing either of them justice, so go “download this show”: http://www.archive.org/audio/etree-details-db.php?id=25258 and you’ll hear it for yourself. "I’ve Got a Feeling" was a real treat because we’d seen it on setlists, but had never heard Tea Leaf Green cover it. It turned out to be quite a highlight as well. "Sex in the 70s" is ALWAYS a highlight… I don’t care who you are, that tune is intense! Not having had a whole lot of exposure to WSP, I didn’t recognize that there had been a "Coconut" tease in it, but I heard Graham commenting on it, so it was there.
I have to comment that I was seriously impressed with the amount of people who turned up on a Wednesday night to see this band. The first time we’d seen them at Harper’s Ferry in 03, they were opening for Raq and the crowd there to see them was painfully small (which was to be expected on only their 2nd time in the northeast). The next time in 04, they were doing a co-headlining run with New Monsoon and were on second. The crowd was better than the last time, and there were a good chunk of people there who were obviously there to see them… but still only half the room was full. This time, however, the bodies started at the front of the stage and filled out back to the taping section by the sound board… the majority of them dancing the entire night. Not a sell out crowd, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the next time they come out. It was at that point where there were a lot of people there, but you still had room to dance without slamming into people, although you did have to weave your way through with "excuse me"s to get from one end of the room to the other "the comfort zone", as I like to call it.
Thursday, May 12, 2005: E. O’Dwyers Saratoga Springs, NY
We arrived in Saratoga somewhere around 3pm, having had plenty of time to make the trip out from Boston. We checked into a hotel that was just a block from the venue, and Bill showed me around downtown as he’d once had a friend who lived in the area and had spent quite a few drunken nights there, stumbling from bar to bar. We grabbed some dinner and then headed out to grab a few pre-show drinks (now that neither of us had to drive after the show), at The Parting Glass, which Bill claimed to be the best Irish bar in the northeast. Along the way we ran into Focker and some of his friends eating dinner at a restaurant that had an open air patio. Unfortunately Graham wasn’t able to make it to Saratoga, but Focker would be there to represent for the team and get the tapes (not on archive.org yet, but probably will be soon).
After a few Cape Codders and a little more pre-game fun back at our hotel room, we headed out to E. O’Dwyers so Bill could get set up before people started pouring in. Good thing we got there early too. This crowd was very similar to the one in Boston a pretty decent turn out for a band that had only been to this side of the country a few times and practically a full year between visits at that. I can see what draws them, of course… but what impresses me is watching the power of word of mouth in action. As far as I know, the only publicity efforts these guys have in motion is from their fans talking about them, recommending them, handing out flyers and uploading shows for download. Then again, I guess it’s not that strange. When you find a band that speaks to you, who doesn’t want to shout their name from every mountain top? Hell… what am I doing here if not trying to communicate how good these guys are and urging you, dear reader, to check them out? An odd phenomenon, because while we’d love to see them get the success we know they deserve, we also secretly dread the possibility that someday we’ll need binoculars to literally "see" our favorite band while paying $10 for half a pint of beer at the local stadium. A bold statement, I know… but if life has taught me anything, it’s that anything is possible and (dare I say it? Yes I do…) even probable given the big sound these four men are consistently putting out.
The Saratoga show was, in my humble opinion, the best of the three we saw. I walked out of that place smiling from ear to ear, my body tingling after dancing harder than I had in months (years?) and drenched in sweat. It was a stellar night, one for the record books.
Set I started out innocently enough, Trevor Garrod’s silky smooth voice easing us into the night with "Ride Together", followed by more of the same on "Bootlegger". Things started to kick up a notch with "Vote on Tuesday", one of my favorites from their latest studio effort, Living in Between. Once they got to "Garden I", however, I found myself in an area of the venue that I haven’t danced in since around 1997: front row. I gave up on front row after my initial excitement of discovering Strangefolk had begun to settle into the comfort zone of feeling at home at their shows. I let the newbies take the first few rows, preferring to hang in the middle or near the back more often than not. After Bill and I started dating, I usually stayed with him at the soundboard as he tapes every show we go to. Occasionally I might wander closer to the stage if a song a really love is played, but I never go as far as front row. Tonight, however, I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was the Cape Codders I had thrown back, or maybe it was just the anticipation of hearing the Garden trilogy uninterrupted and in it’s entirety (which I hadn’t yet seen), but I was up there… dancing like no one was watching. Thankfully, the band did not disappoint and I got not only the entire trilogy, but an additional segue into "Precious Stone" AND a huge favorite that has become a bit of a rarity since I first discovered them, "Can You Guess It". Aside from the jam launch pad potential it has, and almost always fulfills, I absolutely love the rap-like cadence of the lyrics on this one.
Set II was even more epic than Set I they opened with "John Brown", which I nearly jumped out of my skin for as I’d been hoping to hear it as soon as they’d announced the northeast tour dates. For you history buffs out there, you’ll recognize the name as the man whose antislavery actions set into motion the chain of events leading up to the Civil War. It’s a great song, whether history interests you or not. There’s an edge to the jam, but the lyrics and song structure dynamics are what really make this one shine. "Panspermic De-Evolution" was an absolute monster complete with a little "Happy Birthday" breakdown for the band’s tour manager Todd Wallenbrock.
The next day as we packed up the car and headed back home to the green mountain state, I was tempted to suggest we head south to NYC instead to catch the Rocks Off Boat Cruise show around Manhattan (post-Trey at the Hammerstein)... but I had a sneaking suspicion that a bridal shower was being planned for me the following day (as it turned out, it was), so I decided not to put Bill in the uncomfortable position of having to turn down the suggestion and come up with a valid reason as to why we couldn’t do it. I got comfortable in the passenger seat, opened the sunroof and gave a contented sigh. It had been a phenomenal run, and I felt a thousand times better than I had at the start of it. I knew bills, deadlines and wedding plan details awaited me when we got back in a few hours. But at that moment, I was still basking in the cool breezes, warm sunshine and temporary carefree haze that nowadays, I can find only in the calm eye of the hurricane; on the road with my soon-to-be-husband, following the best band to come out of San Francisco since… that other great band from San Francisco.
- I signed up on the discussion boards at the band’s website as registered user #47 in August of 2002. At the writing of this review, the most recent registered user is #429… not bad in just under 3 years it’s like they say, "numbers don’t lie".