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Medeski Martin & Wood

(31 Dec 1969: 15 January 2005, The Fox Theatre — Boulder, CO)

The Fox Theatre in Boulder is one of those venues that just oozes that unsettling, aging-hippie vibe. You know the one: pictures of Jerry Garcia on the wall, tie-dye banners draped down from the balcony, and of course, the ever-present smell of cannabis wafting through the air. It doesn’t matter whether you’re seeing a Grateful Dead tribute band or a straightedge hardcore act—at some point during every show at the Fox, someone lights up.

At the second of two sold out shows that Medeski Martin & Wood played there, plenty of punters got high, but the vibe was anything but mellow. The watchword for the night was “unrelenting,” as the band hit peak after peak, the momentum rarely, if ever, flagging. The trio hit the ground running from the very first note and didn’t let up for the better part of two and a half hours. They gave the packed crowd a taste of what makes them that rare band that Phish-heads and hardcore jazz fans agree on—a band that’s as crowd-pleasing as it is wildly experimental.

A group that seems to delight in confounding expectations, MMW have toyed with hip-hop, dub, hard bebop, and a myriad of other genres on their records, but live they’re essentially an organ-trio in the tradition of the late, great Hammond organist Jimmy Smith’s small combos. The frequently astounding John Medeski surrounds himself with an array of keyboards, switching effortlessly, mad-scientist style, from one to the next, while Chris Wood (bass) and Billy Martin (drums, percussion) lay down a thick-but-elastic rhythmic bedrock.

While each member shines, it’s really Medeski that most holds your attention. He’s absorbed and mastered 50 years worth of keyboard styles He can swell soulfully like the aforementioned Jimmy Smith; he can play robotic funk like Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock; and he can be as simple and effective as Booker T. It’s all (quite literally) at his fingertips. On record, he’s impressive. Watching him do it live is nothing short of breathtaking.

One of the most memorable moments of the night came when Medeski abandoned his electric keyboards for the baby grand at the back of the stage. He didn’t use this reversion to a more organic medium to mellow out. Instead, he attacked the ivories as though he had been nursing a long-standing grudge against the poor piano. Coughing up clusters of precise dissonance, worthy of Cecil Taylor, Medeski made it abundantly clear that you don’t need electronics to make a hellish racket. And then, at the drop of a hat, the band tripped into a perfectly melodic cocktail jazz interlude.

This smooth transition was only one example of the bandmembers’ seemingly telepathic interplay. You could detect it from time to time—a nod from one to another—but for the most part, the three principals made it look as though they could read each other’s minds, slipping seamlessly from one segment to the next. MMW has been together for over a decade now, but it takes most players a lifetime to build this kind of musical empathy.

As the trio left the stage for the final time, you could see that the audience—many of whom had attended both nights—was exhausted. But it was the good kind of exhaustion, the kind you get after a long hike or a satisfying meal. It was the kind of high that doesn’t require any illicit substances, marijuana or otherwise.

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