If it’s Labor Day weekend, then there must be a jam-oriented show to kick off the festivities at Cervantes as a prelude to Phish’s fifth annual Labor Day weekend run at the now legendary Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Denver has become the jamrock capitol of the world in recent years with its combination of affordability, legal cannabis and a thriving music scene. Labor Day weekend has become the prime holiday to visit mecca, with the Phish shows drawing music fans from around the country to pack the soccer stadium in nearby Commerce City.
Cervantes has staked out a rep for serving up the weekend’s kickoff party and the Everyone Orchestra was back in action again, having played in Cervantes’ adjacent Other Side room a year ago to help kick off “Phish Dick’s weekend” as ringleader Matt Butler called it during a vocal jam dedicated to the new holiday.
Everyone Orchestra operates on a rotating basis with no two all-star band lineups ever repeated and an all-improv agenda conducted by conductor Butler, who will cue the band for different moods, key changes, tempo shifts, solos, etc. But the top-hat wearing conductor had several cohorts from last year’s show back in action, as if to acknowledge a good thing he wanted to keep going. Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman from the Trey Anastasio Band were back on trumpet and trombone, Jason Hann from the String Cheese Incident on drums, as well as Eddie Roberts from the New Mastersounds on guitar.
Butler rounded out the evening’s lineup with Robert Mercurio of Galactic on bass, Vernon Reid from Living Color on lead guitar, Aron Magner from the Disco Biscuits on keyboards, Kris Meyers from Umphrey’s McGee on drums, Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass on mandolin and a final coup with Durga McBroom from Pink Floyd joining Hartswick and Cressman on vocals. That’s a lot of talent to have on stage and it’s an inherently risky premise as too many cooks in the musical kitchen can potentially spoil the sonic stew. But Butler knows how to craft such musical concoctions, having orchestrated such performances since founding the project in 2001.
A bluesy “Fake it ‘til ya make it” jam was an early highlight of the show, with the female vocalists and their horns lending a classy jazzy vibe to the proceedings. Cressman delivered a knockout solo during the intro and then Magner went deep on keys after the first verse. McBroom was a genuine presence, with her elegant yet powerful vocals conjuring psychedelic visions of Pink Floyd stadium jams of yore. She seemed to fit right in with Cressman and Hartswick, forming a dynamic vocal trio that raised the vibe of the room throughout the evening.
A reggae jam found the band still perhaps feeling each other out, while the crowd was ready to rock. Being that this was Cervantes’, there was of course another hot band playing in the adjacent Other Side room. In this case it was Start Making Sense, a killer Talking Heads cover band that had been tearing it up before the Everyone Orchestra even hit the stage. Any lull would see some folks heading back over for more Talking Heads, but it worked both ways with people also coming back through when the Everyone Orchestra was cranking it up.
The second set was where Butler and company really got down to business. Butler pointed to Hoffman to start a “Can’t Stop” jam with an infectious melodic quality that saw the band layer the jam in expert fashion with the energy continually rising. The ladies starred again with their sassy vocals on a “Shake me, don’t break me” tune that served as a launch pad for a fiery jam where Vernon Reid was able to cut loose with some molten hot guitar shredding as Mercurio and the drummers laid down a big groove.
Another jam saw the Biscuits’ Magner taking the lead with his trademark psychedelic synths, catalyzing a dance party and delivering a mind bending solo.The lineup’s overall chemistry didn’t always seem to gel quite as strongly as last year when former STS9 bassist David Murphy and Furthur guitarist John Kadlecik seemed to be really dialed in on some cosmic jams. But such is the inherent risk in a project with a constantly rotating lineup. Hartswick, Cressman and McBroom were the top stars in this lineup, lifting every tune higher with their soulful vocals and dynamic horn solos. Butler was also in fine form in his circus ringleader role, bringing an uplifting energy to the proceedings befitting of the festive holiday occasion.