Max Creek @ Sullivan Hall, April 29
Max Creek’s wearing 40 well. Or, to put it another way: you’re not regularly seeing shows by 40-year-old bands that were as effortlessly enjoyable and musically nourishing as the band’s two set monster at Sullivan Hall – the middle show in a three-night anniversary swing through Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island – and that don’t feel like canned revues coasting on nostalgia.
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Max Creek is a curious institution. It never hit the big time or got much close to it, but it was a jamband before jambands were jambands: established long before Phish, Panic and the generations of improvisational rock acts since then, and really, a near-contemporary of both the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, though with the tiniest fraction of the fame. It pulled back on touring just as the late ’80s/early ’90s jam seeds were sewn and the scene mushroomed, morphed and moved into the popular, yet fractured state it’s in now. But Creek still has particular renown, especially in New England, and its tri-state fans were out in force at Sullivan Hall.
Bassist John Rider is technically the lone original member, but guitarist Scott Murawski and keyboardist Mark Mercier have been around almost as long, and the band’s drum chair is now occupied by one- and two-man configurations of its various drummers since the mid ’80s: Scott Allshouse, Greg Vasso and Greg DeGuglielmo. Bands with such long-established chemistry are sometimes hindered by that comfort, and Max Creek, too, can sound workmanlike. But shit, can they still motor when they’re feeling good. It’s a well-stocked repertoire of originals and covers both well-worn and less-remembered, so often opened up with jam segments that are hearty, brilliant and powerfully expressive.
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Indeed, Creek’s gifts for long, probing jam segments and generous workouts in the playground of psychedelic rock – with plenty of blues, country, folk, funk, R&B and other spices to flavor the excursion – are legion. And the intensity with which they executed on two sets at Sullivan Hall made the guest-packed, nostalgic adventure in Connecticut the night before seem like a warm-up. This was weapons-grade Creek, digging in with both paws and pulling up gold nugget after gold nugget, from the shapeshifting Jones opener to the last, rollicking notes of the Grateful Dead’s Bertha in the encore some three and a half hours later.
Max Creek can feel jukebox-level eclectic sometimes; psychedelically groovy Jones into the frothy, booty-shaking Wild Side, followed by an amped country rocker like Columbus Stockade Blues is a lot of ground to cover in nearly 40 opening minutes. Their triumph is in segues and jam momentum; a little bouncy reggae can yield a country blues, or a scorching rocker can melt into gooey, slow-forming jazz, or none of those things can happen. There’s pass-the-baton soloing – neither Mercier nor Murawski’s afraid to step out and drive the bus for as long as it takes – but there’s also Dead-style groupthink, sprawl and protraction. Maybe what separates Creek from lesser jammers in a similarly eclectic rock vein is that there’s a balance between insistent jamming and insisting on being unhurried. They don’t seem to waver too long – band members push the improvisation down holes, around corners and on into new rivulets and slipstreams. But no song is a rush job. In a usual Creek set of between seven and 10 tunes, at least half will see not one but several different jamming possibilities explored – exploited, rather, for their pliability.
There’s an argument that it makes them a little predictable, and that’s not wrong. Mid-way through the first set, Murawski asked the crowd if they wanted to hear “the same old crap,” and he was answered definitively in the affirmative. It was a joke, but only sort of: Max Creek knows its fans, knows its strengths, knows its purview and two out of three of those are limited. There’s a twist of sadness to that; this band lost its ambition for building a true national following many years ago, and with only handfuls of dates a year – and some long-running, wonderful festivals in Strangecreek and Camp Creek – that’s no longer a priority. But with impressive comfort has Creek aged – and there’s no reason to think that the come-as-you-are, rock-as-you-are, and jam-as-you-are-as-long-as-it-smokes ethos that’s served them well for 40 years won’t serve them for 50.
What more about the show? B-plus-level by the highest Creek standards, but high energy and peppered with choice moments. That opening run, for certain, and a depth-charged Blood Red Roses in the second set. And hell, go ahead and call it an all-time worthy Windows – 20+ minutes of classic Creek jamming on a classic Creek song to close out set one, and a near-but-not-quite sold out Sullivan Hall lapping up every loaded minute. Good show, old friends and don’t forget you’re loved.
Earlier in the evening, I relished a chance to catch 45 minutes of opener Union Street Preservation Society, gradually making a name for itself as a particularly adept Americana string band. This fivesome’s tasty and alive; their brisk, flavorful improvisation – particularly by the fiddler Harrison Hollingsworth and the mandolinist Sara Bouchard – punctuates their best originals and lifts up their less-honed numbers. They’re warm. And they’re having fun. And they play and sing a few male-female country classics – Frankie and Johnny, followed by Jackson, to close the set – and nail them.