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Off the Deep End
It should have been clear from erstwhile Wetlands Preserve owner Peter Shapiro’s introductory semi-ramble that the “jambands scene” has given up the ghost. They way Shapiro spoke of “our scene” and “our music” and the burgeoning growth in the alternative hippie-powered arena suggested a sort of desperate declaiming in the face of absence. To make it plainer: novelist Ishmael Reed (perhaps in The Last Days of Louisiana Red or Mumbo Jumbo) wrote about a grasping ‘60s generation of negroes always screaming about having “Soul!” precisely because it was something they lacked. By swarming into Central Park to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Relix which began life as a Grateful Dead fanzine and has in recent years morphed into a slick, glossy product mining the exploits of a vast network of jam-friendly road dogs, the assembled throng seemed to voice no protest over the co-optation of their loose nation established as a haven for refugees from pop’s rank and file.
Other than the rousting of a few burly, baked grunts at the center of the crowd by the “pigs”, opener Robert Randolph & the Family Band’s sacred steel-spiked set blended virtually seamlessly into that of the main attraction: Gov’t Mule. The thrill can never quite be gone from witnessing the awesome power of the Mule in action, the duo of singer/songwriter/guitarist Warren Haynes and drummer Matt Abts augmented on this occasion by legendary Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and Danny Louis on keys. However, it was mostly the older, Allen Woody-era songs—“Blind Man in the Dark”, “Thorazine Shuffle”, the unstoppable anthem “Mule”—and the occasional cover (Prince’s “When Doves Cry” (!) slowed down almost to a dirge) which resonated deepest for these ears. “Shuffle” was truly the one that got the ole ass wiggling. Call me nostalgic if it makes you feel better. I sympathize with (especially Warren’s) their need to move inexorably forward and continue to experiment and grow but I have inevitably been left spinning in the back forty of dreams.
This was the first lovely day amidst the City’s endless season of storms and there was indeed a touch of glory to rocking out with the band as the sun set with a rosy glow over the Park. Wizard of Woo Bernie Worrell made a welcome surprise guest on organ during the instrumental “Sco-Mule” and Randolph sat in on the chestnut “Soulshine”. The set also saw the debuts of songs as deathless and disparate as “To Love Somebody” and “Tell Me Something Good”. Warren remains perhaps the most gifted guitarist of this generation and certainly the justifiably beloved collaborator of every musician who enters his sphere. He continues to make fascinating choices in approaching song, his rich voice belying the assumption that most folks lumped into the jam category are devoid of talent and tuneless. And it is his great fortune to have Matt Abts as his one-of-a-kind compadre, Abts likely being the best drummer in the country. Matt’s strengths appear to go largely unrecognized by the mass and it is ultimately to the non-tour kid listeners’ disservice. While I may not hang so well with the newer material, this disgruntled jammer will always get behind the Mule’s leaps and bounds into the sonic unknown.
The same cannot be said for supporting the unwieldy commercial beast that the improvisational music scene has become in the wake of the success of such obvious targets as the Dave Matthews Band and their one-note spawn John Mayer. It may soon come to the point where one must hope that the jams, like hip-hop nation, walk the plank and find themselves lost beyond recovery. Yet I’ll stop the rant right here; leave it to Neil Young who’s been doing so admirably railing against Clear Channel to take up the torch anew for “keepin’ it real” in rock ‘n’ roll.
Or maybe I should just kick back, mellow out and be happy that they’re now saying pot is good for you.