Jam bands can noodle an awful lot. I know that’s stereotyping. But isn’t that sort of the definition by name alone? In the wake of the bands that started that “revolution,” bands like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors Phish and Widespread Panic (who were among the original H.O.R.D.E.) we have seen countless bands full of people who can play the shit out of their instruments. But writing cohesive songs? Good lyrics? This tends to go to the wayside. Of course, we are all entitled to our own opinions. So for every person that loves the 45 minute instrumental jam on some classic rock “nugget,” there’s at least a few out there like me who hope for something a little “tighter” and hopefully some words once in a while. Not always. But most of the time.
[All Photos by Marc Millman]
So when it came time to venture out to Brooklyn Bowl for the twelfth annual Freaks Ball, I was a little leery. I knew there were a whole bunch of great players. But clearly they are all too busy to have spent much time getting material together. Truth be told, it was only because Eric Krasno & Warren Haynes were promised as the featured guests that I decided to go (call me jaded, but if I have the chance to see Warren play with anyone, anytime outside of his own bands, I try to never miss it. And Kraz…if you don’t know about Eric by now, then finishing this article is probably meaningless to you). Imagine my surprise when the night turned out to be one of the best nights of live music I have seen in the last 12 months. In fact, it’s only the end of the first month of the year and I am predicting this will be pretty hard to top!
The opening set was handled by Erik Deutsch, Joe Russo, Scott Metzger and Hagar Ben-Ari. I knew nothing about Mr. Deutsch (keys) and still don’t. That’s not true, I can tell you he’s an excellent keyboard player. Mr. Russo (drums) is familiar to most these days from Furthur. It was his duo with Marco Benevento that got him going. He also shares a common bond with Mr. Metzger (guitar) from their time playing together in Bustle In Your Hedgerow (a Led Zeppelin instrumental cover band). I had the pleasure of catching Ms. Hagar-Ari (bass) twice that week. On Monday she played as part of Ms. Stereo James (look them up and check them out). But her main gig is as part of the Dap Kings, known for backing up Sharon Jones. Now here’s the rub: they played only instrumentals. But they were fun. They didn’t extend the jams for too long. And in the context of the evening, they made for a great opener. It was sort of mellow, but there was a ton of skill on hand. And it didn’t become a “noodle fest.”
After an hour of the quartet (and some egg shooters, fried calamari and fried chicken), it was time for the Freaks Ball-Stars. The core band was comprised of Eddie Roberts (guitar) from The New Mastersounds, Joe Russo, Marco Benevento (keys) from The Duo & Bustle In Your Hedgerow (Wait! A link to Mr. Metzger as well!), Ron Johnson (bass) from Warren Haynes Band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe & Brett Dennen.
Alecia Chakour who spent most of the past year touring with Warren’s solo band as the backing vocalist also fronts her own band and sings as part of the aforementioned Ms. Stereo James (I’m telling you to check them out). She served as the lead vocalist for the Ball-Stars…except for when Warren joined in (and even then, she sang two duets with Haynes). The band got things going with a rendition of the Shel Silverstein song Freaking At The Freakers Ball and from there played a few original instrumentals. If that were the night, I would have said it was a fun time, but when Haynes and Krasno joined in on guitar, things turned simply ridiculous! And by ridiculous, I mean stupid. And by stupid I mean insane. And by insane I mean this night went so far beyond my expectations, it’s really hard to explain if you weren’t there.
Alecia and Eric really turned things up a notch on the Hendrix classic Little Wing. The two share a bond of playing on all sorts of projects as part of the Royal Family that Krasno spearheads. On this song, Kraz showed off his best channeling of Stevie Ray playing Jimi while adding a bit of his own jazzy touch to the mix. And then the stagehand came out carrying a certain red sunburst Gibson Les Paul and you knew it was time to buckle your seatbelt.
Warren & Alecia dueted on two songs. Ms. Chakour chose Howard Tate’s You Don’t Know Nothing About Love and it was a perfect showcase for her soulful voice. But it was a rendition of the Etta James classic I’d Rather Go Blind in tribute to the recently lost “Matriarch of R&B,” on which Warren and Alecia showed off how great a duo they make as soul vocalists. From there things got really…freaky. The band launched into Zeppelin’s D’yer Mak’er with Johnson & Russo really locking in on the reggae groove. But when the band launched into the Grateful Dead’s Fire On The Mountain it was time to call the fire marshal! Haynes and Krasno played searing leads and Benevento kept the keys percolating below them to really add nice fills into the texture of the jam.
The set concluded with Mr. Roberts and Mr. Metzger returning to the stage for an instrumental take on the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I know what you’re thinking: this is exactly what he says he can’t stand, a bunch of guitar players wanking off endlessly on an overplayed rock dinosaur classic. But here’s the thing: only three of the four guitar players soloed. And the whole thing was under thirteen minutes. And Mr. Metzger who is by far the least well-known player of the four had the precarious position of following Krasno and Haynes. And he killed it! And with that it was over, save a quick reprise of Silverstein’s “theme song” played again by the Ball-Stars core band with Ms. Chakour.
And what about the guy who went questioning what he was in for? He thought the night was so amazing that he stood front row against the stage the whole time smiling ear to ear while shooting tons of photos and videos. In fact, he enjoyed himself enough to contact Mr. Johnson for an interview on how it all came together. So here is a Marc’s Musings bonus:
Marc Millman: How was the band put together?
Ron Johnson: Truthfully, it started as something else based on an idea Aaron (Stein) and Peter (Costello) had. They reached out to J. Bau from Warren’s management who suggested me as the bass player for that project. But schedules changed and made the first idea not possible so it morphed into this band.