When a band says things like "consumerism and the corporate media have taken us all down the path of cynicism, apathy, and nihilism" and "the music we like has always spoken to the struggle," one might be forgiven for expecting a certain amount of hectoring in the lyrics, and maybe a bit of overweening '60s revivalism in the music. And to be sure, it's not like Sound Tribe Sector 9 haven't been guilty of both at times in their past work. But on Peaceblaster there aren't really any lyrics at all -- the band sticks to the instrumentals that have been its meat and potatoes since it formed ten years ago -- and the music is a rich blend of elements from any number of rock and electronica subgenres. The results are consistently enjoyable without ever being really terribly interesting. The music doesn't come across as overly smooth and it's certainly not lazy, but there is a kind of laid-back confidence that informs even the most raucous tracks on this album -- and the most raucous tracks aren't very raucous. They're funky (check out "Beyond Right Now" and the eventually jungly "Metameme") and sometimes avant-gardish (the weird music-and-spoken-word sound collage "Regeneration"), and sometimes they're downright jazzy (the borderline fusion experiment "Oh Little Brain"). And the band does manage to get preachy in a couple of cases by importing some found-sound speechifying. But for the most part this album is good, not terribly challenging fun. AMG.
Back to a more varied approach -- encompassing Latin, funk, jazz-rock, and even country ("Country Rose") -- with nice results. Nine insturmentals and only two vocals (reprising Canned Heat's "Future Blues" and Pure Food & Drug Act's"My Soul's on Fire"), handled by Lori Davidson, on this live-in-the-studio audiofile set. Mandel's nod to B.B. King on "Mashed Potato Twist" is worth the price of admission. AMG.
A jam band coming out of the Midwest in the mid-'90s, Umphrey's McGee edged toward the Frank Zappa side of the improv rock scale, as opposed to the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers Band direction espoused by many of their contemporaries, like the Big Wu. The members of Umphrey's McGee met at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The original four bandmembers (keyboardist Joel Cummins, guitarist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, and drummer Mike Mirro) had been playing in various campus bands when they got together in December 1997, naming themselves after a cousin of Bayliss'. With the national jam band infrastructure already in place, the band quickly began disseminating their live shows and soon released their first album, Greatest Hits, Vol. 3. The fourth-generation jam band often included songs by Phish and moe. in their live sets, along with the usual selection of wacky covers.
On New Year's Eve 2000, Umphrey's McGee released their third album, another live disc, titled One Fat Sucka. Local Band Does O.K., their first studio album, came out in 2002. In 2003, they released their first DVD, Live from the Lake Coast, which had been filmed in July 2002. It marked the last appearance on an Umphrey's McGee recording by Mirro, who had left to go to medical school and was replaced on New Year's Eve 2002 by Kris Myers, who had a Master's degree in jazz drumming. Local Band Does OKlahoma, their next live album, was also released in 2003. A second studio album,Anchor Drops, appeared in 2004 on fellow jam band the String Cheese Incident's SCI Fidelity label, and a second DVD, Wrapped Around Chicago: New Years at the Riv, was issued in 2005. In 2006, Umphrey's McGeereleased their third studio album, Safety in Numbers. The studio effort Bottom Half and the concert album Live at the Murat both appeared in 2007. Mantis was released early in 2009, followed by by the Manny Sanchez and Kevin Browning produced Death by Stereo in 2011The quartet won a large following in the South Bend area. As bandmembers graduated, the group instated a more and more rigorous rehearsal schedule. Half of the band had degrees in music, so emphasis was placed on constant precision. The band religiously studied tapes of their performances in order to improve them. While their record sales never reached high levels, they used live recordings to pave the way for gigs in parts of the country they'd never been to before. A story circulates of the band selling out shows in Colorado before their first trip there due to the distribution of live CDs. In 1999, the band released a live recording, titled Songs for Older Women, their first recording to feature percussionist Andy Farag. In 2000, the band became a sextet with the addition of guitarist Jake Cinninger, a former member of a fellow South Bend group Ali Babba's Tahini, which had broken up, and they made the move to the bustling metropolis of Chicago. From their new home base, the band went on two-week jaunts throughout the Midwest, occasionally hitting other markets and sharing the stage with a variety of musicians, including Dr. Didg (akaGraham Wiggins), the Chicago-based blues harmonica player Sugar Blue, Béla Fleck, Topaz, and many others.
Jack Casady first came to fame as an original member of the Jefferson Airplane and later, Hot Tuna. The first solo album (at age 59) from this well-traveled and prolific bassist, Dream Factor, is a mixed affair. Unlike most rock bass-playing frontmen, Casady does not sing, so his contributions to his debut are relegated to the occasional bass solo, and as co-writer of nearly all the tracks. His bass playing is more innovative and inspirational than his songwriting, which results in a passable Southern rock, folk, and blues album. Casady calls in friends from Gov't Mule (drummer Matt Abts and guitarist Warren Haynes), along with Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrére, Ivan Neville, and the Tubes' Fee Waybill, among others, to help with vocals, and all do an admirable job, but ultimately, the album rests on the strength of its songs, most of which are pleasant, vaguely West Coast folk-pop ballads. When Casady steps out on the burning instrumental jazz-rock fusion "Outside" (which also features Haynes), and again in the middle section of the folksy "Weight of Sin," you get a true sense of his unique bass-playing talents.
A very versatile and talented vocalist, Tracy Nelson is better known for her role as lead singer of Mother Earth. The Nashville sextet had three albums in a country-rock vein make the charts in the late '60s and early '70s. But Nelsonis just as capable in soul, R&B, and blues, though she hasn't released many records in that style. Her albums for Flying Fish were more indicative of her eclecticism, but her R&B and blues roots are really evident on her 1993 release In the Here and Now and 1995's I Feel So Good -- both on Rounder Records.
Born in California but raised in Madison, WI, Nelson began playing music when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Nelson began singing folk and blues at coffeehouses and R&B and rock & roll at parties with a covers band called the Fabulous Imitators. In 1964, she recorded an album for Prestige, Deep Are the Roots, which was produced by Sam Charters. Two years after recording Deep Are the Roots, Nelson headed out to the West Coast, spending some time in Los Angeles before settling in San Francisco. After arriving in San Francisco, she formed Mother Earth in 1968, moving the group to Nashville the following year. The band stayed together for five years, recording several albums for Mercury Records, among a handful of other labels. Nelson left the band in the mid-'70s, embarking on a solo career that saw her release albums for a variety of labels, including Columbia, Atlantic, and Flying Fish.
Although the Harlem Boys Choir is occasionally utilized, and Pat Peterson takes a soulful vocal on "The Inner Voice," this CD is very much trumpeter Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson's date. The explorative trumpeter is heard at his absolute peak, taking lengthy and fiery improvisations that show off not only his virtuosity but his emotional range. The superlative band (tenor saxophonist George Adams, pianist Kenny Barron, cellist Diedre Murray, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Dannie Richmond) really inspires Peterson, who stretches the boundaries of his music toward gospel and soul without watering down the jazz content. This well-balanced set is one of Hannibal's finest recordings. AMG.
Silverchair's third full-length release is a confusing affair that reveals a band more talented than their critics realized and more confused than their fans could tolerate. The Australian trio never made any secret of their respect forNirvana, and on Neon BallroomSilverchair does one of the best impersonations of their Seattle counterparts on record. It would be easy to convince any Kurt Cobain fan that "Spawn Again" and "Dearest Helpless" are actually In Utero outtakes, and quite good ones at that! When the weepy ballads, like the Goo Goo Dolls-esque "Miss You Love," pull Neon Ballroom into an overtly radio-friendly direction, all the promise of a gritty grunge tribute fades, andSilverchair appears to be serving two masters. The resultingly incongruent musical textures stifled Neon Ballroomand assured a certain amount of fan disenchantment despite the minor airplay success of "Ana's Song (Open Fire)." There are still enough nice moments on this CD to recommend it to even casual fans of the Aussie outfit. Those who had enough of Silverchair when modern rock radio played their mid-'90s hits to death need not concern themselves with this mixed effort. AMG.
Talk about ambitious. This two-LP set finds guitarist Al di Meola performing with his quintet of the time (featuring keyboardist Philippe Saisse), with studio musicians, solo, in a reunion with pianist Chick Corea, singing a love song, and welcoming veteran Les Paul for a version of "Spanish Eyes." Most of the music works quite well and it shows thatdi Meola (best-known for his speedy rock-oriented solos) is a surprisingly well-rounded and versatile musician. AMG.
In 1981, a lot of rock & rollers were claiming that the disco era was officially over. Disco, of course, never really died -- a lot of the dance-pop, house music, Hi-NRG, and Latin freestyle that was recorded in the '80s and '90s was essentially disco -- but as far as many of the radio stations and record company A&R men of 1981 were concerned, disco was dead. And that was bad news for Chic, a group closely identified with the disco era. Even though a lot of Chic's work had as much to do with funk and soul as it did with the Euro-disco sound, Chic was unable to live down its reputation as a disco group. But Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards gave it a try with 1981's Take It Off, an admirable, if uneven, project that finds the group downplaying the Euro-disco elements. With R&B and funk as the foundation, Chic tries to branch out by incorporating elements of pop-rock on "Your Love Is Canceled," and jazz on "Flash Back" and "So Fine" (which shouldn't be confused with the "So Fine" that Kashif produced for R&B singer Howard Johnson in 1982). In fact, a few of Rogers' guitar solos give the impression that he'd been listening to a lot of Wes Montgomery. But as likable as the LP is, it didn't contain a major hit -- the single "Stage Fright" only made it to #34 on Billboard's R&B singles chart. And for a group that had enjoyed #1 pop and R&B smashes only two and three years earlier, that was certainly disappointing. AMG.
With Rocket 3, future-minded jam band the Disco Biscuits have two live releases in their catalog for 2006. Just likeThe Wind at Four to Fly, its slightly older brother, Rocket 3 is released by the Diamond Riggs label, so expect expertly mixed, excellent sound quality. However, the similarities stop there, because Rocket 3 is an easier introduction to the band since it's only one disc -- and even if three out of the four tracks here break the 18-minute mark, this set feels lean in comparison. The disc captures the entire third set of the Biscuits' 2004 New Year's Eve performance in New York City, plus that night's encore, "Hope" from the Señor Boombox album. The set has long been a fan favorite and a must for every fanatic's trade list, but none of the boots have sounded this good. The main reason for the set's lofty status is the whirling performance of "Magellan," which joyfully captures the freedom and mystery of travel and exploration. TheBisco dance party rolls on with the positive head-trip "Frog Legs" before a fierce segue brings the slinkier, sticky and funky "Crickets," which is just begging for a trip-hop remix. "Hope" is a fine if forgettable bonus, but it's not the album's biggest flaw. That would be the vocals, which make Jerry Garcia sound like Luciano Pavarotti and have been a problem since day one. Bisco fans have some kind of chip installed that allows them to stomach a whole lot of amateurish singing, and with all the exhilarating synth swoops and infectious beats found here, it's easier to understand their forgiveness than ever before. If you're a fan, this pivotal set has never had a better showcase. If you're just Bisco-curious, skip their less exciting studio albums and their cumbersome multi-disc sets, and try this one on for size. AMG.
Pianist Don Preston's jazz pedigree is a little bit strange. Despite having spent time in the 1950s hanging around with such respected figures as Tommy Flanagan and Elvin Jones, he's probably best-known as longtime keyboardist forFrank Zappa and one of the original members of the Mothers of Invention. That digression from the jazz mainstream didn't come out of nowhere; as early as the mid-'50s he was helping Paul Bley and Charlie Haden redefine the parameters of jazz composition and improvisation. And his modern style of writing and playing have clearly been deeply influenced by his years of rambling all over the musical map. On this excellent set you can hear him paying tribute to the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s (especially on "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque") and to the European art music of the mid-20th century ("Walking Batteriewoman"). The long-form "Lind Sonata" is written in a contrapuntal style that harks back to J.S. Bach by way of Hindemith. But as outside as he gets, he never fully departs from a jazz feel -- that's partly due to the texture of the piano trio, and partly due, one suspects, to the fact that that's where his heart truly is. This is not, for the most part, easily accessible music, but it will richly reward anyone who makes an effort to approach it. AMG.
The first studio offering from one of the early New York City jam bands, Bag presents God Street Wine's Steely Dan-influenced sound in first flower. Like many young jam bands, GSW has a bit of a hard time making its music work effectively in the studio. But, as one of the first of their generation of rock-based improvisers to try, how were they to know that at the time? Much of the repertoire introduced on Bag would be refined on their next two releases, the liveWho's Driving? and $1.99 Romances, their major-label debut. A lot of the music on Bag sounds sluggish. That in itself is kind of odd. Most young bands have the tendency to play material too fast; GSW doesn't have that problem. Instead, they patiently highlight their complex, clean compositions (which, unfortunately, border on lite jazz at times). When Lo Faber and Aaron Maxwell's guitar lines dance and intersect, the music is interesting. For a band of men in their early twenties, though, the music is awfully tame. AMG.