When Tea Leaf Green played the Bay Area’s annual Sing out for Seva benefit show last May, host and legendary counterculture figure Wavy Gravy invoked the names of no less than Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Bill Graham when he introduced the young guns to a crowd mainly there to see veteran acts like Zero and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart & Friends. Such a lofty introduction was an honor the band had earned though, as there’s probably no other San Francisco rock group taking their sound across the country as widely as Tea Leaf Green has the past few years. This commitment to their music has seen the band grow from playing college house parties in the early part of the decade to national touring and now headlining two nights at the historic Fillmore here in 2008.
Tea Leaf Green’s sound may owe more to groups like Phish and the Allman Brothers Band than the Grateful Dead, but as a local group known for soulful songs, stellar jamming and good vibes, the band has positioned themselves as one of the heirs to San Francisco’s jamrock crown. And like the pioneers of the original “San Francisco Sound”, Tea Leaf Green honor the past by using their influences as a launch pad to boldly explore new sonic territory.
This formula has increasingly made a Tea Leaf Green show a communal event. There was that sense in the air that this was the place to be, with friends from all over the Bay Area convening at rock ‘n’ roll’s ground zero for another night of ritual celebration. Lake Tahoe’s Blue Turtle Seduction kicked things off with an opening set of high-energy tunes that got the party started on the good foot. The band’s sound is hard to pinpoint but blends roots rock, Americana, bluegrass and classic rock into a groovy musical stew which, judging by the audience reaction, could soon see Blue Turtle headlining the Fillmore themselves.
Blue Turtle Seduction
Tea Leaf Green were in it to win it from the beginning, with keyboardist/vocalist Trevor Garrod commanding the stage with his soulful vocals and ever-melodic piano playing. The show’s first big surge occurs during “Panspermic De-Evolution”, with guitarist Josh Clark, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Scott Rager synching in on the high-octane instrumental jam to raise the vibe to a higher level. The tune is clearly becoming a fan favorite, with the crowd yelling out “de-evolution!” after one breakdown. Garrod joins in with some spacey organ effects to activate a psychedelic circuit that is then fully conjured by a segue into a jam on The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”. Mathis lays down the classic groove with style while Clark throws down Robbie Krieger’s slinky riffs with perfection.
Garrod delivers another highlight with “Cops Took My Weed”, where he also breaks out some tasty harmonica work on what is surely the most soulful song ever written about a pot bust. The first set ends with guest Jason Finazzo of the Naysayers joining the band on guitar and vocals for a rousing rendition of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, which pays great homage to the late Bon Scott and closes the set with a bang. The good vibes are everywhere during the set break, including upstairs in the poster room where Ten Mile Tide deliver a set of well-received acoustic rock to keep the music flowing non-stop.
It’s all prelude to a monster second that sees Tea Leaf Green steering their sound around the sonic galaxy at a consistently high level. The opening “Baseball Song” sees the band demonstrating their signature blend of Garrod’s superb piano plunking with Clark’s always melodic and periodically psychedelic guitar. The instrumental opens with a catchy groove that recalls Phish’s “Gotta Jiboo”, but with some sharper changes. The song’s spacey minor key jam likewise recalls a similar change from Phish’s “Mike’s Song”, yet Tea Leaf Green finds a way to blend those elements in a fresh way that generates a compelling collective groove and makes for quite the crowd pleaser. New bassist Mathis seems to be fitting right in as he and drummer Rager are locked in tightly here and throughout the night.
“Faced with Love” and the new “Standing Still” offer more showcase material for Garrod’s super soulful vocals on mid-tempo melodic rockers. The highlight of the set may be “Jezebel”, a high-energy tune that opens with another supremely catchy riff from Clark that kicks off a rocking groove, followed by a spacey funk jam where Garrod turns to his synths to generate a downright cosmic vibe. Garrod then moves to a Ray Manzarek-type of organ sound foreshadowed by the earlier jam on “Riders”, before throwing the ball back to Clark for some guitar hero theatrics. The song epitomizes the band’s ability to cover a range of sonic turf and the Fillmore crowd responds in kind, grooving out with blissful glee.
The homecoming vibe is completed during the encore when original bassist Ben C., who just left the band at the end of 2007 after ten years together, appears onstage to deliver “Planet of Green Love”, his classic hip-hop ode to affection for the sweet leaf. It’s a popular sentiment at the Fillmore and the energy level threatens to raise the roof, with the bassist laying down the funky low-end beneath his rap while Mathis joins Clark on guitar. A huge jam ensues with Clark and Garrod both pushing the music higher and higher, reveling in the reunion with their old friend. Clark rips a huge ascending solo to end the jam on a high note, bringing the show to a climactic end.
The departure of Ben C. and the addition of Mathis on bass, with perhaps jazzier skills, heralds a new era for Tea Leaf Green. But the band shows no signs of slowing down for a transition – it looks like full warp speed ahead…