Summer is here, and the time is right for going to see live music out of doors. The first concert I ever attended without my parents was an outdoor show. It was the Allman Brothers in 1974, touring in support of the Brothers and Sisters album. This has forever flavored my perception of what a live concert should be. The Allman Brothers did not slavishly recreate their albums in concert; no one did in those days. The Allman Brothers jammed. Their songs would walk a tightrope in concert, threatening to fall apart at any moment. But the group could take a song to amazing places, and always bring it back again. The result were exhilarating when it worked.
Nowadays, bands that approach playing live this way are called jam bands. It tells you nothing about the style of music they play, but everything about how the present it live. So a lot of music gets this label, and it can sound like almost anything. All you know is that, done well, it’s going to be exciting. Let me show you what I mean.
David Ducharme-Jones: Say What You Want
Like the Allman Brothers, David Ducharme-Jones is working in that sweet spot where the blues meets rock. And like them as well, Ducharme-Jone has the chops to pull it off. Weeds is more soulful than the Allmans, and the groove is funkier. The arrangements feature the electric guitar, and the solos are kept short for this studio album, but it’s easy to imagine where they stretch out live. Weeds performs the most important function for a studio album of any kind of jam music: it makes me want to see David Ducharme-Jones live.
Assembly of Dust: Second Song
Assembly of Dust is well enough established on the jam band circuit that they can get big name guests appear on their albums. On Some Assembly Required, they do just that, with a different guest or two on each song. The list ranges from old timers like David Grisman and Richie Havens to newcomers, such as Grace Potter. The amazing thing is that, while each song is tailored to the musical guest, the album makes sense as a whole. That is a testament to Reid Genauer’s skill as a songwriter. The guest on Second Song is Keller Williams on guitar.
Brad Hammonds: Medicine
Brad Hammonds has been part of a duo called Brazz Tree for some time, with violinist and singer Mazz Swift. Brazz Tree’s music is jazz, sometimes bordering on the avante-garde, and it’s fascinating stuff. But Through It All is Hammonds solo debut, and here he steps out as a songwriter and singer. Hammonds sets up a great groove with his band, reminiscent of the Dave Matthews Band at their best. Medicine is a fine example of what Hammonds is capable of as a lyricist; the song seems to be a paean to the joys of drugs, but there is a trap door. Hammonds knows the possible dangers all too well. The song avoids any hint of preachiness, and is all the more powerful for it.
There’s just one thing: after making his name for his instrumental prowess, Hammonds restrains himself here, keeping the songs short and the jamming to a minimum. I hope next time he finds a better balance, and steps out more.
Beautifully Mad: Reason to Shine
Beautifully Mad is a wonderful group from Australia. Their music ranges from gorgeous pop ballads to jazz singing, sometimes in the space of a single song. Tony King is the male lead singer and main songwriter. Kris Ralph is the female lead singer, and often co-writes with King. This is the only live album in this set. Reason to Shine is one of those great pop ballads I mentioned, but it gets to the solo section and the jazz comes out. Then the solos end, and the song settles down again. The listener is left to wonder, how did that happen? With each repeated listen, it makes more and more sense.
The Gentle Guest: Scatter the Ashes
[Available for purchase here as of July 20, 2010]
Marching band-punk-Americana? Those are just some of the styles that The Gentle Guest mashes together. This music has the darkness of Apalachian folk music, but with the punkish energy of the Pogues. And then there are those amazing horns. Overall, the music sounds chaotic, as if it’s going to fall apart at any moment. That’s appropriate, because the emotions of the songs' characters are in similar turmoil. Songs shift midway in surprising ways, as the characters try on different coping strategies. Usually, the listener is left to feel that things are getting better, although there is still work to do. This music has a raw edge, but it takes an amazing kind of control to make music this precarious. And The Gentle Guest are in control at all times.