28 December 2007

Review: The Word

Terminal 5, 27 December 2007

It's amazing how little "jam" music I see these days. Part of it is my drifting personal preferences, but really, how much truly "jam" music is still out there? Once not too long ago, you couldn't go a mile in Tribeca without tripping over a 15 minute Zappa-tinged noodlefest, now there are few bands willing to wear the jamband badge with pride, let alone quality, laid back rooms in which they can ply their wares. But the jam is still out there and last night I was taken by surprise when the reunited The Word blasted two sets of that old time, no-direction-but-up jam-o-rama.

The Word, for the uninitiated, is the boys from North Mississippi All Stars, Jon Medeski and Robert Randolph ostensibly playing House of God-style gospel music. But really, as they reminded me last night, songs are just a suggestion and a starting point and it's never quite clear where the music will go. The show at Terminal 5 last night embodied all the best traits of the traditional jam band -- full-on instrumental music; tight rhythm section allowing the front men to just let loose; great interaction between the musicians; charging, climactic back-and-forth with dueling guitars; deep, dark, bubbling mysteries of keyboards that seem to control the purple and green lights swirling around the stage; instrument changes and washboard solos; tight talented licks rubbing shoulders with sloppy, silly fun; covers of both the goofy and kick-ass variety; wild excursions that temporarily left reality behind or better yet, redefined reality for just a short bit; etc, etc.

I was most impressed with Robert Randolph last night, which was a bit of a surprise and I guess a surprise that it would be a surprise. There are two ways you can be the "leader" of a band -- you can be a front man, front and center, with a backing band who is there to support you while you do your thing. This guy usually has his name on the band and there are many examples: Clapton, Santana, Derek Trucks, etc. The first go-around with the Word had Randolph being this type of guy, the band -- all A-grade veterans themselves -- ceded control to the young gun and let him do his thing. The second type is the guy who knows he is one part of a whole, he is a player/coach who leads his team to victory not by taking all the shots, but by passing the ball around to get the best possible chance to score: Miles, Zorn, Anastasio. Maybe not quite in that league, but last night, I saw a mature Robert Randolph be that team player and the results were fantastic. Sure, he had his moments of sheer pedal steel fireworks, but they were a part of the bigger picture. This version of the Word is so much different than the one five years ago that had RR screaming "Woooooooord!" after every song. Sometimes, back in the day, watching Robert's stage antics would make me cringe, but last night there was none of that, just a total pro leading a band of pro's pros and making some beautiful, intense, rocking and most of all fun jam music.

The interaction was just a thrill to watch. Medeski and Luther Dickinson were equal parts of the mix with Randolph and the three of them were a fun sight to behold. Many instances had Luther sidling up next to Robert and challenging, spurring and dueling ot wonderful effect. The two sets (a little more than an hour each) were comprised mostly of stuff off the album, but everything had a little twist or release point or launching pad that let the guys go bonzo... but never quite too crazy. There were some nice covers in there as well, "Seven Nation Army" wouldn't have been my top choice for this band, but fun nonetheless. Better was the James Brown and Marvin Gaye stuff that brought a special groovy energy to the night that seemed perfectly fit.

My 1st time in Terminal 5. While I found little to complain about, there's also nothing special to crow about either. It seems half-finished -- the walls are stark, bare white and there is absolutely no warmth or personality at all in the entire joint. Maybe there's more work to be done, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see a show there. It seems like it was thrown together with a "we need a venue of this size" attitude, not a "let's make a cool place to see music." Somewhat surprising for the Bowery Presents folks who have one of the best rooms in the world on their roster.


Brian Ferdman said...

Well put. I couldn't agree more. There were many times last night where I felt like I had stepped back in time 5 or 6 years. We just don't see real jamming music like this anymore. Personally, I loved the impromptu jam on the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster." It was a little sloppy, but it was a real spur-of-the-moment thing, and Randolph pushed everyone to get into it. That made my evening.

neddy said...

Totally forgot to mention that, Brian, but yeah, that was a definite highlight and a perfect illustration of what the night was about. A little playful tease, then an urging nod and then all of the sudden out of nowhere they're riffing hard and Chris Chew is singing. Perfect.