The iconography of a rock and roll band being mythologized as a rebellious pack of outlaws living by their own set of rules dates back to the ’50s, the image originating as something between a snarling, defiant Elvis Presley and a sullen, brooding Marlon Brando. As time passed, the rock and roll outlaw would take many forms: the government persecution complex of The Rolling Stones, the shamanistic rabble-rousing of Jim Morrison, the peanut-butter smearing defiance of Iggy Pop, the corporate-magazine abhorrence of Kurt Cobain, the scenery-climbing petulance of Tim Commerford and the trailer-park decadence of Kid Rock. Never has the image of the outlaw musician been more gentlemanly than when Bob Dylan co-opted the philosophy that to live outside of the law, one must be completely honest. That gallant spirit thrives within Tea Leaf Green. If ever a band has found a way to exist outside of the law of the music business, Tea Leaf Green has accomplished that mission by remaining true to their core vision.
Tea Leaf Green emerged during the post-Coventry Phish hiatus when being called a jamband wasn’t considered a death sentence and a group could find a devoted audience on the strength of a compelling live show. Despite its connection to classic rock and jazz, in today’s world, “jamming” is considered a dirty word, used to marginalize bands that have dedicated themselves to letting musicianship, not spectacle, be their calling card. Always a song-oriented band, Tea Leaf has never really been a jamband in the traditional sense of the word and their resistance to the term is grounded in more than correcting a genre misclassification within the marketing department of the collective unconsciousness. Over the course of the band’s metamorphosis into a five piece collective, there have been many opportunities to diverge from the less travelled path. Being gentleman outlaws, Tea Leaf Green has resisted the urge to change and conform, remaining one of the rare bands that plays honestly true to their inner nature.
Stalwart road warriors, Tea Leaf Green made a triumphant return to the New York City area with an old-fashioned though increasingly more-prevalent two night run at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom and Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl. If the Bowery Ballroom show was notable for the number of long time Leafers that have been a bedrock of East Coast support, the Brooklyn Bowl could be distinguished by an influx of newer, younger fans. The two shows also differed in the focus from the stage. The two-set Bowery Ballroom show leaned heavily on guitarist Josh Clark and the band’s penchant for focused musical exploration while the single-set Brooklyn Bowl centered upon keyboardist Trevor Garrod and group’s underrated ability as songwriters. The differences between the two shows served to strengthen one point: the transitional period during which bassist Reed Mathis came into the fold from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Cochrane McMillan paired up with Scott Rager to broaden the band’s percussive backbeat has ended and Tea Leaf Green is poised to recapture their position as one of the most essential live bands in the country.
Underneath the patina of domesticity that provide a backdrop for songs like Honeymooners and The Garden (Part III), Garrod has never lost touch with the old, weird America and the traditional folk spirit. The rural bonhomie of Garrod’s mellow voice betrays the dark nature of songs like Devil’s Pay and Jezebel and he can change the mood of room simply by moving his keyboards from the pleasant tinkling on Nothing Changes to full on jamtronica as on the funk workout of Panspermic De-evolution. If ever Garrod betrays the gentleman outlaw spirit, it’s on Cops Took My Weed, a song, which in its bouncy workout at the Brooklyn Bowl, explicates on actually breaking the law (and getting caught).
Each Tea Leaf Green show plays off the complementary styles of Garrod, the philosopher poet, and Clark, the mischievous guitar wizard, the latter being TLG’s secret and most potent weapon. Every time Clark takes the stage, he further stakes a claim for being in the upper echelon of rock’s current crop of young guitarists. His slide guitar sets the proper tone for many of Garrod’s steamier compositions like 5000 Acres and even his simple strumming strikes the right level of poignancy as on the Bowery version of Carter Hotel; at the Brooklyn Bowl, he showed he can play in the arena rock mode as on Bouncin’ Betty , shred with the best of them as he did with Scott Metzger on Incandescent Devil or just let loose in a hard rock frenzy like on the encore of Death Cake. (Try disliking a song with the lyric “I used to be love muffin, now I am a DEATH CAKE.” I dare you).
The resurgence of Tea Leaf Green though can be attributed to Mathis and the revitalized drum section of Rager and McMillan. No stranger to intricate bass lines, Mathis’ weighty tone sonically conjures up the unsettling darkness that lurks just outside many of scenes created by Garrod. Mathis also provides Clark with a mighty foil, giving him not just ample space to fill with his solos but laying down a challenge to meet his level of creativity. A true drum duo, McMillan and Rager lay a portentous though not overpowering percussive template that complements the activity before them. The pair lock into a deep groove, their deep concentration making them seemingly unaware of their occasionally identical patterns. At the Brooklyn Bowl, the two provided an extra jolt of energy to the Mathis-penned My Old Oklahoma Home, turning his alt-countryish ballad into a candy-coated near-pop song.
At the core, Tea Leaf Green remembers that a rock and roll concert is supposed to be fun. At the Brooklyn Bowl, they paid homage to The Big Lebowski, the Citizen Kane of bowling movies, with a cover of Dylan’s The Man In Me and tweaked their Williamsburg locale with a romp through Hipster Ninja. (“We have so much fun pretending we’re not at concerts/we like to grow beards, though we’re not sure why”). Reconnecting with the communal spirit of the Wetlands and because sit-ins are just cool, Scott Metzger appeared with the band as did keyboardist Pete Levin (Blind Boys From Alabama) on Dreaming Without Sleeping and Panspermic De-evolution. In the midst of Taught To Be Proud, they delighted the old schoolers at the Bowery Ballroom with a brief segue into Franz Hanzerbeak, prompting the appropriate Ric Flair “Whoo” on the downbeat. While true that there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert; there is also nothing like a Tea Leaf Green concert.
This past October, Karl Denson expanded his Tiny Universe to include guitarist Anders Osborne for a cover-to-cover cover of Sticky Fingers. As the early ’70s were an era where rock saxophonists and blues guitarists lived together in perfect harmony, a Denson/Osborne pairing on the Stones’ classic 1971 album seemed ripe with potential. In fact, it’s fun to imagine the whole idea germinating from the segue into the extended instrumental middle section of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Going beyond the Halloween season, Denson and Osborne have taken their faithful interpretation of Sticky Fingers out on the road for a brief run that swung through New York City’s Webster Hall. Osborne’s presence gave the evening a special feel. Setting aside his appropriately soulful vocals on You Gotta Move and I Got The Blues though, Denson guitarist DJ Williams seemed well up to the task of handling the heavy lifting on his own, providing a fine foil the Keith Richards/Mick Taylor interplay. Ultimately, the Sticky Fingers collaboration provided many fun moments but never established any transcendence. However, since The Rolling Stones are never going to play Sticky Fingers straight through (and if they did, would charge $500 for the privilege of hearing it at your local football stadium), Denson and Osborne’s version should suit everyone just fine.
The RIAA loves to remind everyone about the improprieties of taking the creative work of others without proper compensation. Given their militant point of view on the subject, surely they will be paying a visit to the National Academy for Recording Arts & Sciences to address the Grammy Awards repeated appropriation of the Jammy Awards modus operandi of pairing seemingly inapposite artists in highly publicized mini-sets. Then again, the Grammys may just plead ignorance: it appears to be blissfully unaware of For Emma, Forever Ago.
From their home base in Brooklyn, the Dolchnakov Brigade are leading something called the Palevish Revolution. What is this revolution? Your guess is as good as mine. From their set at Pianos in New York City, it apparently entails plastic machine guns, wild choreographed disco dancing, a face-painted, begoggled leader singing (and I use that term real loosely) through a megaphone, a woman dressed like Goldust who has likely never heard of Goldust, songs that feature lead cowbell, MIDI-quality synthesized beats, onions gratuitously distributed to the crowd by two worker bees in gas masks and the waving of those onions overhead and proclaiming them “the underdog.” The Dolchnakov Brigade are either the cutting edge of performance art or simply high concept in their awfulness. I’m hedging by bets and getting out in front of this one: Viva La Revolution!! Where’s my onion?