Tuesday, February 15, 2005

From Jambase-

Tsunami Relief Benefit II :: 1.28.05 :: 12 Galaxies :: San Francisco, CA

Across the street from the 12 Galaxies lays a derelict, once grand theatre marquee, its faded gold and umber paint peeling around the words "New Mission." Standing outside, enjoying the first temperate respite in a day of damp, erratic weather, I was moved by the sign. I'd seen it dozens of times before but this night on which San Francisco musicians gathered to do some good for people they'd never met, and most likely never will meet, the notion of a new mission, one where strangers extend themselves, share their blessings and their talents, and strive towards something beyond mere entertainment, seemed the most glorious way to end the first month of a new year.

Eenor by Todd FlemingI walked in to find the Disco Biscuits' Marc Brownstein leaning on a stool, picking an acoustic guitar, the mellow gold Eenor by his side, attentively looking for pockets to weave silver strings into. Ah, folk music Bisco, what a thing. Since the '60s San Fran's musicos have gathered in just this manner, utilizing their skills to gather bread and blankets and small bundles of care for folks who need it. We take to this kind of thing like a grandma to a toddler, embracing it with smiles so broad we wake up the next day with sore faces. It is one of those "x-factors" that explains why we live with the traffic and high cost of living – folks here seem to have a little more love to give than many other places. This was but one of several benefits happening around the city, including a folk-down at the Great American Music Hall led by Red House Painter Mark Kozelek. It made perfect sense that the proceedings would begin with a man strumming away at the darkness, which Brownie did with his usual fidgety aplomb.

After a few songs, they cleared out to make room for the seven-man-storm-front, New Monsoon. As they set up, I noticed that tablist Rajiv Parikh had traded his mountain man beard from last December to acoustic guitar/banjo whiz Bo Carper. One imagines that things like this are lost and won all the time during tour bus poker games.

Within minutes, they were assembled; the first notes a smoky incantation that stilled most of the barroom murmuring. Mark Karan stood next to me and commented, "They've really cut the fat off this music." Indeed. A week of packed shows up the West Coast and into Canada had further sharpened Monsoon's steel, leaving them limber and open to whatever direction the muses might direct them. Electric guitarist Jeff Miller spoke after the initial spell had been cast, telling us to "let your ears soak it up tonight" and to appreciate ourselves and what we have - clear, beautiful thoughts not unlike the succinct, moving things he does with his instrument.

It got me thinking about the over 200,000 people who died in the south Asian Tsunami, humbling me for all the comforts and pleasures I take for granted in my life. I smiled thinking how people, not just the musicians on stage but also the whole audience, were here trying to combat grief and darkness in whatever small way they could. It's said that Americans are the most generous folks on the globe and I'm sure that's true. That generosity is, in part, the by-product of having more than any people in history have ever had, a standard of living unknown in most places and times. That our political policies and ever-hungry business agendas produce this excess is another matter and one you should take up with Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, and Lenny Bruce if you wish to enlighten yourself. For now, let's sink back into the performance.

Ben Bernstein by Susan J. WeiandThat music, and instrumental music of all things, can make us feel so damn good is still a day-to-day miracle to me. And rarely am I more struck by this notion than in the company of New Monsoon. Their Santana-meets-the-Allmans-by-the-Ganges mojo hits like a mood enhancing atom bomb. All through their brief set, bassist Ben Bernstein showed the alchemical swing of a young Stanley Clarke, before an overabundance of technique harpooned much of his funk. Bernstein is a surprising pulse, the heart chakra that completes and binds all the possibly disparate elements in this big band.

Late in the set, Miller announced the passing of Traffic's Jim Capaldi earlier that day. It was the first I'd heard of it, and like many in the room, I let out a tearful sigh. The master drummer and genius songwriter could be felt throughout the night in every note played, and more than one player mentioned feeling an "eerie" connection with his spirit. Karan and Eenor joined the boys for a rousing, set closing "Can't Find My Way Home." Though Capaldi neither played with Blind Faith nor helped write the tune, it struck the perfect sympathetic vibration, truer to his troubled nature than many of his own compositions.

As if sensing this new wave of sorrow, Mark Karan led his band of stray Ratdogs into sunnier territory. As I told him after the show, Karan is a party on two legs, a fine time joined to a swampy low end where psychedelic will-o'-the-wisps frolic. Starting with Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "You Can Stay But The Noise Must Go," they steered us from stormy seas into a hip loosening calm. Joining the Ratdog lead guitarist were bandmates Robin Sylvester (bass), Kenny Brooks (sax), Jay Lane (drums) and the great Bay Area keyboardist Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, Flying Other Brothers). The opener toppled nicely into a gracefully jammed "Sugaree" followed by The Meters' quintessential ass shaker "Hey Pocky Way." These dudes disprove the lie that rock and jazz are distant cousins, weaving elements of both together to reveal their true identity as soul mates.

Jeff Miller by Susan J. WeiandMonsoon's Miller hopped up for a chunk of their time, and the combination of he and Karan once again proved incandescent, phosphorescent, spontaneous combustion from two guitarists who remind one of the Butterfield Blues Band's Mike Bloomfield and Clapton in his never better Derek and the Dominoes days. Each resists overplaying with a humility from which many of their brethren could learn. They play to the song not over it, shunning the spotlight and serving the music like proper stewards. This may make it harder for them to break into the Guitar World magazine pantheon, but listening to them is satisfying like being served chocolate-dipped Oreos while harem girls massage your aches away.

The last configuration that would take us out to the 2 a.m. bum's rush was ostensibly fronted by The Ritual's Jordan Feinstein, a keyboardist and vocalist deeply influenced by Capaldi's running partner Steve Winwood. His merry men included the rhythm team from ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) and their guitarist Dan Lebowitz plus Tea Leaf Green's ivory spanker Trevor Garrod. All had performed together many times in similar late night jams organized by Feinstein, and their chummy playfulness emerged quickly after a few sleepy minutes of Garrod's near solo balladeering. Once stirred, the fire picked up fast, a deliciously unwholesome funk saturating everything.

Up in the green room, Miller remarked how he'd done all the jamming he had in him. As he tried to relax, one could actually see his ears prick up, and when the band downstairs broke into a heart-expanding rendition of the Allman Brothers' "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," Mr. Miller stood up, grabbed his axe, and with a look of boyish determination said, "I think I need to go down there and burn over the top of this." With that he was gone, and the man who'd jammed all he could hit us with an incendiary smack for another 90 minutes.

Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain
The week before, they all seemed the same
With the help of God and true friends, I've come to realize
I still have two strong legs, and even wings to fly
So I, ain't a-wastin time no more
Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things

Mark Karan by Susan J. WeiandHarder times call for harder jams, and this aggregate of the Bay Area's best delivered exactly what the doctor ordered. Their playing was eviscerating, leaving us cleaner, newer, and fresher than when we first came through the doors. Peppered through the covers of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" and "Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" were things to make you tear up. Maybe it was the pure tone of Feinstein's singing, a kindred spirit to Winwood's original vocals, that got into us. Maybe it was the kundalini groove Ben Bernstein threw in on "Low Spark" or fellow New Monsoon-er Phil Ferlino's inspired organ swells on the same tune. Maybe it was the undulating, druggy waves pouring from Lebowitz's effects layered electro-acoustic guitar. Or maybe it was the bluesy, gutbucket vocals from a woman, whose name I sadly missed, who came up and offered us a paean for better days, her soul drenched voice telling us, "I will dance with you in my garden... if you come to me with your truth." Amen, sister!

A friend grabbed my shoulder as we hovered by the stage and commented, "I think this has to be one of the best Jim Capaldi tributes going on in the world tonight." He was right. This kind of music, the hungry reach of it, the deep tissue understanding of rock's potential, all speaks loudly of Traffic's legacy being lived out today, an elemental force that brings the wind indoors to carry our worries away and cool our fevered brows.

The night wound down with nods to two other jam pioneers. The first encore went to Little Feat's Lowell George and his primordial getaway "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley." But it was the absolutely perfect choice of the Grateful Dead's rarely performed "Brokedown Palace" that sealed in the hope and slow healing hurt we'd experienced together. Hushed at first, many of us chimed in with our imperfect tongues, ready to move on after being fortified by these singers and players.

Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
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