Tea Leaf Green, NYC: Beacon Theater- 12/29 and Sullivan Hall- 1/1
Ben Chambers’ succinct statement that he was leaving Tea Leaf Green after close to ten years and the concomitant announcement that Reed Mathis would be stepping into his shoes sent deep ripples through two different fan bases. The close knit Tea Leaf community entered into a state of shock over the loss of the beloved bassist while many within the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey fan base expressed the apoplectic anger of the betrayed.
It would be an understatement to say that the Tea Leaf faithful had great affection for Chambers. His laid-back demeanor and penchant for smooth Chronic-styled hip-hop beats beautifully complemented the folksy, homespun qualities of Tea Leaf’s philosopher-poet keyboardist Trevor Garrod, Josh Clark’s mischievous guitar-wizard wildness and the understated quietness of drummer Scott Rager. Mathis’ distinctive style, honed with Jacob Fred as well as the Steve Kimock Band, is radically different from Chambers. It would be foolish to bring Mathis into the band to replicate someone else’s work and his jazzier leanings and improvisational skills are wonderful additions to Tea Leaf Green.
With the aftershock tremors down to a dull murmur, New York City got their first taste of the reconfigured Tea Leaf before the year’s end when they opened the second of Gov’t Mule’s three year-end shows at the Beacon Theater. Two days later, The Big Apple got a longer look as the San Francisco rockers headlined the January 1st opening night of newly rechristened Sullivan Hall. Chambers was an integral and adored member of Tea Leaf Green and will never be forsaken by the band or their fans. However, if the Sullivan Hall show is an indication of things to come, it’s not throwing Ben C. under the bus to say that Tea Leaf may well become a better band with Mathis in the fold.
Tea Leaf’s January 1st gig, which featured an opening set from U-Melt only 15 hours after the close of their New Year’s Eve after-hours party at the HighLine Ballroom, celebrated the transformation of the Lion’s Den into Sullivan Hall. To combat the general malaise and post NYE hangovers that most people experience on the first day of each year, Sullivan Hall offered fans a chance to see Tea Leaf, who just last September played a wonderful three-night run at the spacious Blender Theater, in a much more intimate setting.
With a weary throng of fans excitedly greeting the band, Tea Leaf took the stage a little before 11:00. Rager’s introductory drumbeat to “Franz Hanzerbeak,” a song closely associated with Chambers, emerged from Garrod’s spacey keyboard intro and then all eyes were on Mathis. The new bassist didn’t change the song’s uber-funky bass line but, on this night, “Hanzerbeak” took on a slightly jazzier feel. If Mathis’ take on the song didn’t erase any possible reservations over whether he would fit in with TLG, his solos on “Hot Dog” and “Criminal Intent” certainly did. When he came forward on his bass, Mathis impressively took over the show and began the process of whetting appetites for what the future holds.
Over the course of their two sets, Tea Leaf nicely balanced well-crafted songs like Garrod’s “I’ve Got A Truck” and “Red Ribbons” with fiery instrumentals like “Lil Hood” and “The Garden (Part II).” Garrod and Clark traded lead vocals throughout the night and with Garrod adding a nice Neil Young style harmonica melody, the two wonderfully blended their voices together on the heartfelt “Carter Hotel.”
On harder-tinged numbers like “Criminal Intent” and “Sex In The 70s,” Tea Leaf showed a deft ability for building tension and they’ve definitely mastered some old-school tricks; Clark’s solo on “Slept Through Sunday” only needed the wind machine behind him to hit all the classic rock high notes. This led into an electrifying closing run of “Hot Dog,” “Incandescent Devil” and “Sex In The 70s” that had the band going into full-on jam mode. As the group would let the music take over, Garrod seemed to withdraw into himself, his eyes seemingly losing focus as he threw himself into the song. On the extended sections of “Sex In The 70s,” they threw in some anachronistic solos: Garrod riffing on “This Land Is Your Land” and, as it apparently must be played by the lead guitarist at every single concert, Clark incorporated Hendrix’ “Third Stone From The Sun.” Rager pulled out some versatile drumming during “Hot Dog,” unifying the various solos laid down by Garrod, Clark and Mathis. Even though he catered his drumbeat to what each of them were doing, he held to the song’s musical theme so the others could improvise away.
At the Beacon Theater, the spotlight focused brightly on Garrod and Clark as they were given the nod by Warren Haynes at the close of Gov’t Mule’s first set. The Tea Leaf two quickly won over the Mule’s fans, blending their styles with the Mule’s on the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For My Man” and, after teasing “I Can See For Miles,” a classic-rock tinged version of “My Generation.” Garrod split vocals with Haynes on both tunes and his mellifluous voice nicely floated over the bluesy slant they put on the tunes. With a smile on his face, Clark got to trade licks with the venerable Haynes at the end of The Who cover and many of the Mule’s fans seemed to enjoy their brief glimpse of Clark’s prodigious guitar skills.
Tea Leaf’s opening set at the Beacon focused on heavier arena-rock tunes like Clark’s gritty “Dragonfly” and Garrod’s sultry “Devil’s Pay.” In the vastness of the Beacon, Rager’s normally subtle drumming took on an added grandeur, each beat of the bass drum resounding loudly throughout the theater. As it was his first NYC appearance with Tea Leaf, you couldn’t help but pay attention to Mathis. For the most part though, he played a rather commonplace rock bass, saving the Sullivan Hall for his true Metropolitan coming-out party.
At both shows, Tea Leaf’s New York fanbase warmly and enthusiastically welcomed Mathis into the fold. As he’s coming into an already tight knit unit, there will be some growing pains. There were times at Sullivan Hall when Mathis didn’t seem completely tied in with Rager and others where he played on the outskirts of a song rather than dive into the mix; these are all things that will resolve with familiarity. One thing was clear: as Clark and Mathis start to play more shows together, they are going to bring some wonderful things out of each other
By playing well into January 2nd, Tea Leaf challenged the stamina of the crowd. Although the audience thinned as the hour grew late, TLG never let it affect their intensity. In fact, when they returned for their encore – a leisurely “Don’t Let It Down” and a romp through the neo-metal “Death Cake” – they thanked those who remained for “rockin’ out when you should be sleeping.”