Medeski Martin and Wood Album Review on JamBase!

My review of Medeski Martin and Wood’s Radiolarians III is now up on! Check it out, along with all the other awesomeness they’ve got going on…

Live: The Oatmeal Conspiracy and Triple Wide, July 7, 2009, Pour House Music Hall, Raleigh, NC

Raleigh, NC’s Pour House Music Hall hosted the first of many Tuesday night jam sessions this past week, and if the event was any indication, there’s going to be plenty of great music made during The Oatmeal Conspiracy‘s ongoing “first Tuesday” residency.

The Oatmeal Conspiracy's Chad Johnson

The Oatmeal Conspiracy's Chad Johnson

The evening was billed as The Oatmeal Conspiracy and Triple Wide, just like the show I attended back in April. Like that show, there was plenty of collaboration and personnel changing throughout the night. However, the music at this most recent concert was almost entirely different from the previous one, and even more musicians got in on the act.

The community of friends and musicians included the announced bands along with friends and collaborators like bassist Martin Jarrard, guitarist Dave Ivey and vocalist Jessica Stewart. Those three, along with Triple Wide drummer David Daniels and guitarist Steven Stewart, once comprised the Chapel Hill jam-rock quintet Southern Groove Society, so there was a familial vibe in the room from the start.

Triple Wide’s early set was the start of a nonstop evening of experimentation, and the show began with both bands on stage for a warmup funk jam that eventually gave way to the original “Meshell Funk.” The expected Southern Groove Society reunion followed, and the band had a blast working their way through their own “Done Me Wrong,” which sounded pretty much like a song should sound after 8 years on the shelf. Still, it was fun to see the band share a moment and gather around for a run through an old staple.

Bryce and Stewart converse during a jam as Robl looks on

Bryce and Stewart converse during a jam as Robl looks on

Triple Wide bassist Dale Bryce returned for a three-song showcase of the band’s original material, and the guests kept coming in waves. Ivey, vocalists Stewart and Whitney Pearsall, Oatmeal Conspiracy saxophonist Mitch Morton, and local guitarist Will Robl all contributed to a progression of songs that included the tricky “Slick Willie” and a hip-shaking cover of “Tell Me Something Good” before climaxing with a joyous “Turn On Your Lovelight.”

A brief break preceded The Oatmeal Conspiracy’s set, after which the band offered up their pleasantly quirky fusion of jazz, funk, electro, and pop. Morton and Keyboardist Chad Johnson have a grip of great songwriting ideas, and the band’s unique keyboard/sax/drums/vocals configuration offers plenty of possibilities. Two older tunes (“Stephen” and “Plaidipuss”) followed two newer tunes (“Bumblebee” and “Everywhere I Go”) before Steven Stewart and Bryce joined in for “Shady Shack” and “All Systems Go.”

Pearsall, Bryce, J. Stewart, S. Stewart

L to R: Morton, Pearsall, Bryce, J. Stewart, S. Stewart

Also part of the ever-changing lineup were guitarist David Titchner and bassist Matt Levine of the enduring Raleigh band Waylandsphere. They made their way to the stage for the expansive jam vehicle “The Great Equalizer” and another instrumental titled “Family and Friends.” For a nightcap, everyone gathered onstage for a whimsical version of “Quinn the Eskimo.”

The overall flow of musicians on and off of the stage, the wide variety of music, and the technical skill demonstrated both instrumentally and vocally suggested a level of talent that is scarcely found at a free concert. These monthly musical melting pots will continue, and it can’t be long before Raleigh’s wiser music fans take notice of the lively, burgeoning scene that is being established.

Click here for an unedited photo gallery from the show.

Video of the opening jam segment:

Bonnaroo Preview: Phish

When the first Bonnaroo took place in 2002, Phish had been “on hiatus” for nearly 2 years, and there was relentless speculation that Trey Anastasio’s festival-closing set would transmogrify into the band’s comeback. The rumors never panned out, but the possibility electrified the weekend. You could feel the excitement in the stiff Tennessee air for three days.

PhishImagine, then, what it is going to be like to actually have Phish on the farm. Bonnaroo began as an event aimed squarely at the band’s gigantic fan base, and now, after 8 years, they’re finally coming to Manchester. It could have never happened. After 2004, Phish could have been done forever. Bonnaroo would have gone on, but not having a Phish performance would have been one giant gap in the still-evolving history of the festival.

Now, with the event firmly established as world-class attraction, Phish has helped create one of the most unique Bonnaroos ever. For the first time, a headliner will perform twice without the two performances happening on consecutive days. The band will perform the festival’s first-ever late-night headlining set on Friday – and no, I’m not counting the debacle that was Kanye West at dawn in 2008 – and the festival-ending set on Sunday.

While Phish have welcomed guests with open arms in the past, sit-ins have gotten less frequent over the years. It’s hard to say if anyone will join Phish during their sets, or if any band members will appear during other performances. In any case, the possibility is there – the band is on record as fans of King Sunny Ade (performing Friday at the Other Tent), they’ve occasionally covered “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys (performing just in front of Phish Friday night), and even hobnobbed with David Byrne (performing Friday on the Which Stage) in the past. It’s no stretch to fantasize that even Snoop Dogg could be invited to rap with the band, since Jay-Z did just that in Brooklyn during Phish’s 2004 “farewell” tour.

All of this speculation and anticipation begs the question – is Phish still worth catching? Is their fans’ excitement justified?

Judging from the band’s recent performances in Boston, MA and Wantagh, NY, they’ve tapped into enough of their old mojo to give solid, if not legendary performances. It seems like the band is right on the verge of performing to their capabilities, and who knows – with another week of warm up time, Bonnaroo may be the place where Phish officially gets their groove back.

-Make sure you follow The Wounded Messenger on Twitter for the best Phish setlist and performance updates during Bonnaroo, along with lots of other stuff from the festival!

Phishy links:

Official site

“Sample in a Jar” from 1996’s Clifford Ball festival:

Album Review: Tortoise – Beacons of Ancestorship

Beacons of Ancestorship brings Tortoise’s sound firmly into the future. Once known for their majestic, open-ended post-rock instrumentals, the band have turned engineer John McEntire’s fascination with breakbeats and off-kilter rhythms into an altogether new venture.

Beacons of AncestorshipThe album gives listeners a clear indication of where Tortoise’s sound is probably headed. Change is manifested in dense, bass heavy tracks like “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” and “Northern Something,” the latter of which manages to be tongue-in-cheek even without the benefit of lyrics.

“Gigantes” almost sounds like something from a Squarepusher or Prefuse 73 album, with squirrely synth sounds, hammered dulcimer and earthy percussion squeezed through a filter of dance music and turntable-like sampling. “Penumbra” is a brief, wholly synthesized tune that sounds unlike anything that has ever been on a Tortoise album.

Fans of Tortoise’s classic sound won’t be disappointed, though, as tunes like “Prepare Your Coffin” and “Minors” are full of the angular melodies and driving drums that have made the band underground legends. “The Fall of Seven Diamonds” touches on a particularly nostalgic, cinematic vibe that the band is partially responsible for pioneering.

Beacons of Ancestorship displays the highly evolved talents of its creators, who are suddenly staring down their 20th anniversary. Guitarist Jeff Parker can still reach for the sky or glide along with the rest of the band with equal skill. The rhythm section has become one multi-headed monster, constantly blurring the lines between post-rock, breakbeat, hardcore electronic music, dub, and hip-hop.

Tortoise is still innovating. This album is not going to have the impact of TNT or Standards, but it is a concise, thoroughly enjoyable instrumental experience.

Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Support the Music! Buy the CD or LP!

Bonnaroo Preview: Turbine

Since their beginning around 2004, New York City’s Turbine have evolved from a blues-folk duo into an exploratory quartet that is never predictable. Bonnaroo’s Troo Music Lounge will be the secret hotspot of the day on Saturday, with Turbine opening up the beer-laden tent at noon and the aforementioned Russian Circles set later in the evening.

TurbineBonnaroo is just one of several key gigs for the band this summer as they ride the last swells of success from their wonderful 2007 album Reward. According to their website, there’s a new album in the works and they’ll be playing two shows at Bonnaroo, with Saturday’s Troo Music Lounge show confirmed and a second show TBA. They’ll also perform at the always interesting Wakarusa festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s “NightGrass,” and a Phish aftershow party in Knoxville.

Don’t dismiss Turbine as another “jam” act just because they happen to be orbiting Phish for a few days. These seasoned performers bring an anything-goes intensity and unmistakable sound to the stage. Position yourself in front of them for a while and you’ll hear sounds as varied as dark, bluesy rock, crisp vocal harmonies, frenetic guitar work, scientific electronic funk, energetic improvisations, and traditional American music, all performed with a down-and-dirty NYC edge. Adding to their distinct sound is the oft-synthesized harmonica of Ryan Rightmire, who plays guitar while adding all manner of sonic colors via the hooked-up harmonica.

Find out more about Turbine at these links:

Band Website
Sonicbids Press Kit
Turbine YouTube Channel

Album Review: OHMphrey – OHMphrey

OHMphrey is a quintet featuring half of Chicago rockers Umphrey’s McGee – keyboardist Joel Cummins, guitarist Jake Cinninger, and drummer Kris Meyers – along with Chris Poland (Megadeth, OHM) and Robertini Pagliari (OHM). Their eponymous debut album, out on Magna Carta, is a fiery, expansive instrumental opus that will please a wide range of listeners.

OHMphreyGearheads and musicians will love the album for its technical complexity and performance perfection, jam-seekers will dig the many open-ended compositions, and fusion devotees will find plenty of styles and solos to discuss. Full of impressive individual performances and amazing group interplay, OHMphrey brings the band’s many tastes to the table, including hard electric fusion, menacing metal, and soaring improvisation.

Opening track “Someone Said You Were Dead” combines a jittery guitar figure with synthesized waves of guitar, bruising drums, and frantic bass work. It’s all contained within a structure that is alternately uplifting and menacing, as progressive note frenzies surround a hopeful hook. “The Girl From Chi-Town” is nearly the opposite, as the band lounges on a bluesy, stoic groove full of evocative melodies and wistful solos.

It’s impossible to single out the contributions of each band member on a per-song basis, as all five of them add invaluable ideas. Listeners who are familiar with both of the contributing bands will instantly recognize the personalities and signature sounds of the players. While the band does create some wholly original music, the album still tugs knowingly at the ears of those who know the musicians’ prior work.

“Denny’s By the Jail,” in particular, has the chugging feel of a typical Umphrey’s jam. It will be a familiar sound to their fans, who are used to following the band back and forth across the line between pure improvisation and premeditated chaos. The alternately fierce and atmospheric guitars scurry along a schizophrenic beat that is unmistakably Myers, and I’d bet most Umphrey’s fans could name that drummer in less than 30 seconds.

Cinninger revels in the chance to indulge his prog-metal leanings, which have markedly changed the Umphrey’s sound but are finally allowed to run completely wild here. Cummins sounds as if he’s riding the same creative wave that inspired his solo album, Common Sense, and his highly mechanized synth work and poignant piano are right at home among the album’s dynamic shifts.

Pagliari unleashes a jazzy rollercoaster of notes during “Ice Cream,” then propels the band through a brief, seemingly spontaneous bit of fusion that fades out far too quickly. The subsequent “Lake Shore Drive” fails to achieve liftoff and isn’t nearly as appealing, but it stretches out for over 8 minutes. “Ice Cream” melted in three and a half. Anyone who has spent time in Chicago knows that Lake Shore Drive isn’t as good as ice cream.

“Not Afraid of the Dark,” like “Ice Cream,” seems to be just one segment of a much larger creation. The band is in full flight when the track fades in, and Poland joins Cummins and Cinninger in dirtying up a pulsating bass and drum groove. The result sounds like Headhunters, Mahavishnu, Rush, and King Crimson rolled into one foreboding fusion-rock whole.

“Shrooms ‘n Cheese” is a loose piece of intimate improvisation that brings the listener 15 minutes in the mind of the musicians. Pagliari and Cinninger zing ideas off one another while Meyers does a routinely admirable job of keeping time through the constant changes, Cummins lends melodic depth in all the right places, and Poland contributes another piercing, tuneful solo. At the song’s halfway point, they’ve already explored a half dozen loosely-bound interpretations of funk, jazz, and rock, collectively unearthing an entirely new sound that they steer to a cinematic climax.

“What’s the Word, Thunderbird” brings the album to a close with indescribable barroom fusion. Highlighted by Cummins’ guilty-pleasure synths and an unrestrained jamming style, the track is even less structured than “Shrooms ‘n Cheese.” Together, the two tracks stand in stark contrast to the tightly wound tunes that dominate the album’s first half.

OHMphrey gives it their all on this release, alternately putting each other through the musical wringer and letting each other stretch out. The album is a revealing glimpse into the multiple personalities of each of these insanely talented musicians.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

OHMphrey MySpace Page
Support the Music! Buy the MP3s or CD

Album Review: Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project

Charles Spearin, founder of Canadian experimenters Do Make Say Think and sometime contributor to Broken Social Scene, has artistically one-upped himself with The Happiness Project. While it will probably never tug at the heartstrings of as many people as BSS, The Happiness Project is an accomplishment that other musicians will find themselves wishing they had created as the years go by.

The Happiness ProjectUsing recorded interviews with his neighbors and friends as a starting point, Spearin thrusts the melodic, songy qualities of the human voice into his musical spotlight. Trumpet, piano, harp, saxophone and other tones mimic the patterns of human speech, as on “Mrs. Morris,” or use the interviewee’s statements as a musical starting point, as evidenced in “Vittoria.” Both tactics are often combined, resulting in oddly endearing vignettes like “Vanessa.”

“Vanessa” blooms in slow motion as strings and rhythmic pulses are gradually added to a piano and voice counterpoint. The process brings to mind the telltale vocal hooks and short, demonstrative samples used by hip-hop artists. It’s art school meets the school of the turntable meets overly creative Canadians, and the result is a highly improvisational fusion of jazz, folk, and aural anthropology.

With help from Canadian music mafia members Kevin Drew (BSS), Justin Small (DMST), and Evan Cranley (Stars), Spearin finds unexpected, heartwarming melodies throughout the album. The aforementioned harp is the catalyst for conversation on “Marisa,” while a child’s petulant display is visualized in violin on “Ondine.”

The peaks and valleys of a person’s speaking voice, when unfettered by expectations or nervousness, provide excellent themes on which Spearin builds an exponential collage of sounds. In some cases, like “Mr. Gowrie” and “Mrs. Morris,” the instrumental sounds are so well placed that they elevate the simple speech to a higher level of consciousness. Each song has a moment where the speaker and the music coalesce into each other, taking on each others traits before morphing into something entirely new.

The Happiness Project isn’t for everyone. It will challenge fans of Spearin’s more rock-oriented projects, and is best taken in a small dose. Most will welcome the album’s brief running time, regardless of their feelings about the content. I think it is a fantastic idea and a revelation, but I don’t think I’d want more than the 40 minutes it offers, at least not in one sitting.

After experiencing this album, the listener is schooled in a particularly challenging style of experimental music and enlightened by the endless variety of human speech patterns. Spearin deserves all the credit in the world for this brilliantly conceived work. While he never envisioned this project making it beyond his living room, it belongs in a conspicuous spot among the best avant-garde releases of the year.

Rating: 8.3 out of 10

-Support the Music! BUY the CD or DOWNLOAD the MP3 album
-Hear samples and learn more at The Happiness Project website