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The Contribution

(3 Apr 2010: The Great American Music Hall — San Francisco, CA)

Supergroups generally go one of two ways. When you put together various members from different bands, there’s always a question of chemistry. Such experiments can fall flat when the chemistry doesn’t equate with the concept. But when the chemistry is there, explosive musical fireworks can prevail. The latter is the case with The Contribution, who are following an initial Denver gig with this second CD release party on what promises to be a festive Saturday night.


The band is comprised of guitarist Jeff Miller and keyboardist Phil Ferlino from New Monsoon, fiddle master Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth, and String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley and percussionist Jason Hann. Carbone has been sitting in with New Monsoon for several years and the genesis of The Contribution occurred in 2005 when Miller, Ferlino and Carbone were hanging out at SCI’s Horning’s Hideout shows, which prompted the trio to eventually seek out their SCI friends to round out the lineup. So it’s a good gamble to bet on this being a great show (the fact that my friend Laci is also celebrating her 30th birthday here seems a sure sign that this show will be a keeper).


Sacramento’s Kate Gaffney opens the proceedings with a short but sweet set demonstrating that this singer/songwriter’s bluesy brand of Americana is gelling. I caught her solo acoustic performance upstairs at The Fillmore a couple of years ago, where her superb cover of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” grabbed my attention. Here, she has a whole band behind her and they help add a more rocking flavor to the songs. The crowd seemed like they were ready for more when the set ended at 9:25 pm, but Gaffney would be back.


The Contribution’s new debut album Which Way World hints at the quintet’s stellar chemistry, but these ace musicians are all from bands that like to jam so it’s here on the stage where the elements really catalyze. The show opens with the album’s lead track “Come Around” and sparks start flying as soon as Carbone enters his first solo. There’s been an obvious chemistry between Carbone and Miller for years and it continues to blossom throughout the show. The song’s lyrics also spotlight that this is a band that likes to take a deeper look at the highs and lows that accompany life on the third stone from the sun. “Sometimes you’ve gotta lose yourself to find yourself / And come around again,” sings the group.


The band drops a smorgasbord of cover treats throughout the show, starting with The Band’s “Don’t Do It”, with Miller on vocals and a musical interplay between Miller, Carbone and Ferlino that makes the tune sparkle. “Steady Rise” has some honky-tonk flavor, followed by “Samsara”, a Buddhist-inspired   ballad with a compelling mystical flavor from Carbone. The song’s tone somewhat recalls the Grateful Dead’s classic “Mountains of the Moon”. After the song, Carbone notes that San Francisco is his “Favorite city in the world” and most of the audience seems to agree.


The special guests start appearing on the next song with soul singer Sheryl Renee and pedal-steel guitarist Pete Grant joining the band for Bonnie & Delaney’s “Only You and I Know”, a bluesy visit to the early ‘70s. Gaffney and her guitarist James Nash join the festivities on “Fear of Nothing”, an upbeat rocker from the new album about overcoming multiple anxieties that amount to “Living in the fear of nothing.” Carbone riffs out with Miller on guitar while Ferlone steps up on piano to lead a big jam.


Another gem follows with Santana’s “Let the Children Play”, which builds into a big psychedelic jam led by Miller wailing away on the wah-wah. The set is soaring now but shoots into the stratosphere as the band launches into Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” with Renee on vocals. Hann and Moseley lay down the powerful groove while Miller and Carbone riff on top with smoking solos. The whole room rocks out as the set comes to a rousing conclusion.


The ability to nail tunes by diverse influences such as The Band, Santana and Zeppelin shows what world-class musicians and dedicated students of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition these guys are. The second set promises more of the same and doesn’t fail to deliver. A huge cast joins the band for an opening jam on “Midnight on the Water” with Pete Grant back on pedal steel, Alissa Rose joining Carbone on fiddle, Bill Evans on banjo and James Nash back on guitar. With so many cars, this train could easily run off the track but it rides smooth for another great jam.


“Which Way World” follows with perfect placement and benefits from Rose jamming with Carbone and extra backing vocals from Gaffney and Nash. The title track of The Contribution’s album blends all of the band’s various influences into a zeitgeist tune for 2010 – “I trust myself and not my fears… this has all happened before… Which way world, are you gonna go?” The twin fiddles soar, as do the harmony vocals while Miller picks perfectly complimentary licks underneath as the band layers the song with utmost skill. It builds into another stellar jam that explores the melody without ever getting lost.


The band brings the energy down a notch with “Wind Me Up”, but Ferlino shines on vocals and piano with a vibe that recalls John Lennon on “Watching the Wheels”. Carbone’s fiddle solo once again takes the song higher. Then it’s back to knocking everyone out with another seminal rock classic as Sheryl Renee rejoins to duet with Carbone on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. Miller takes the vocal on the subtle “Not This Time”, a bluesy lament about being on a “lonely sea where peace of mind is out of reach.” But Miller turns it into an empowerment by following with “I won’t go down / Not this time.” The song builds nicely toward the end with another fiery jam.


The band is great at switching gears to keep the show flowing, as Mosely steps up to sing “Don’t Let Go”, a tune best known in these parts as a staple of the Jerry Garcia Band. Everyone is dancing and the party is in full effect. Miller and Carbone jam out again and it is just such a treat to see these two playing together in an actual band instead of just guesting.


“I wanna give special thanks to my brother, my partner, Tim Carbone,” says Miller, acknowledging the obvious bond between the pair. It’s not long before the hit parade continues when Renee takes the lead on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”, another great choice for a show that just keeps getting better and better. The band returns back to the album to close out the set with the high-energy “Year of Jubilee”, a dynamic tune that shows all the instrumentalists at their best on the sparkling mix of bluegrass and rock.


The group puts a major exclamation point on this celebration with an encore of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” that brings the house down. I hadn’t heard this song live since the last time I saw Guns N’ Roses in the early ‘90s and this stunning rendition somehow manages to mix the hard rock power of the GNR version with the roots-rock flavor that The Contribution has made their specialty. Carbone and Alissa Rose smoke the main melody on fiddles, followed by Miller ripping like Slash on lead guitar. The song goes into a mellow breakdown before exploding back into one more big jam. If this kind of rock power is what The Contribution can deliver in only their second show as a band, may a full tour commence as soon as possible.


The Contribution 3 April 2010 at The Great American Music Hall


Set I: Come Around, Time Was Only Yesterday, Don’t Do it (The Band), Steady Ride, Samsara, Only You Know and I Know (Bonnie & Delaney), Fear of Nothing, Let the Children Play (Santana), The Song Remains the Same (Led Zeppelin)


Set II: Midnight on the Water > Hoedown (Traditional), Which Way World, Wind Me Up, Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones), Not This Time, Don’t Let Go (Jesse Stone; also recorded by the Jerry Garcia Band), Better Days, Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye), Year of Jubilee
E: Live and Let Die (Wings)

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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