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Published: 2006/11/07
by Dan Alford

Garaj Mahal, The Lions Den, New York, NY- 10/12

At over a year, Garaj Mahal’s break from NYC (from the Northeast in general) shows has been nothing short of way too long. It seems that bad booking has plagued the band, which frequents and thrives in other regions. Here they play odd venues, small venues and usually without any publicity. Still they were back in the Big Apple, landing at The Lion’s Den on a Thursday night.

Mahalics will tell you, and not without merit, that no band varies as much in approach and style from night to night, and the first set of the Lion’s Den gig was weighty with jazz tendencies- lengthy solos being passed about with quiet interludes between each. The opening “Down in the Basement” was the anomaly, a raging, aggressive version of the new tune that matched the vibe of the West Village streets outside. The band then crept slowly into “Be Dope”, the quintessential GM workout vehicle- you can judge any given show by its “Be Dope”. Each member offered a distinct part of a groove, none quite synching up with the others until Fareed Haque’s bouncing rhythm, always in the fore, rallied the troops. In the song proper, keyboardist Eric Levy took a stroll ranging from harsh, swaggering steps to comfy gospel brightness before passing the lead to a low, pensive Fareed. The keys/guitar solos, however, were entirely overshadowed by Alan Hertz’s absolutely devastating barrage of drum breakdowns.

“The Shadow” belied its odd time signature and crazed syncopation to go dance trancey with Hertz and bassist Kai Eckhardt, Fareed lacing and racing through the structures. A beautiful bass solo late in the song drew down to another quietish moment, the calm before a percussion charged explosion of sound.

For the “Hindi Gumbo” closer, Fareed strapped on the guitar and cut into a nice intro, the band backing him with a simultaneously jazzy and primal beat. The unique instrument would resurface at the end of the second set for “Gulam Sabri”, the resonating strings humming its player rocked and twisted while racing up and down the frets, drawing the song to a close. Yet the tune just didn’t reach that epic status that so often hovers in its aura; the parts- the warm, rich bass solo early on and the Judaic keys lead that looked back at the preceding Zappa style “Isaac and Ishmael”- didn’t quite flow. It was good, but not great, which summed up the night.

What was great was the back to back “7-Up” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that opened set two. When Garaj Mahal is at its best, it’s a truly egoless band where each member is as only as good and responsive as every other member- and every member is real, real good, and ultimately responsive. They can explore places that other bands only look at. The first jam in “7-Up” had Levy at the reins and quickly built up a huge head of steam- everything seemed to fit. After a bridge, Fareed was up off his stool, tapping pedals and arching his back, glowing in all his guitar hero glory. But it was only then that the band shifted gears, dropped the song and launched out into the space funk- rolling and effortless and beautiful. At some point the guitarist tried to dislodge the groove, but Alan was slow to respond- their interactions that night, as always, so engaging. Instead, Fareed adapted with screeches and squeals, pushing the music to be more fully itself before the song bubbled up to a close. Drawing on that same energy, Alan called, “Maybe they want some Christmas music,” and set the course for a thick, gratifying version of “God Rest Ye” shot through with Kai’s rumbly warmth and crisp guitar licks that spiraled with echoes near the end. It was a fine thing to have rattling around in my head when I awoke the next morning.

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