bakin’ at the potato! isn’t just a consciousness-raising, ante-upping, grab bag o’ awesomeness, it is the sole inspiration for that phrase.
In 2010, Mike Keneally Band bassist Bryan Beller hatched a rather ambitious plot: to launch a tour in support of his own two solo albums and have the Keneally Band open for itself under the Beller moniker. Fairly simple, really. Called the They’re Both The Same Band Tour, the jaunt saw the Keneally Band -- Keneally, Beller, guitarist Rick Musallam, drummer Joe Travers -- augmented by longtime friend and guitarist Griff Peters. Circumstances dictated that the tour was brief, so the two bands reconvened in September 2010, at the legendary Baked Potato in Los Angeles for one more show, the results of which were captured on Beller’s recent inaugural live release, Wednesday Night Live (available on both CD and DVD), and this, the third official live album from Keneally.
If there was a weak spot in the Keneally output of the past, it was 1996’s Half Alive in Hollywood. A two-disc affair, the record served as a kind of aural documentary of Keneally and Beer For Dolphins both in the studio and on the stage at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood. Half Alive is the sound of a band finding its way in those two mediums with occasional aplomb. But it’s a far less confident sounding unit than the one that appeared a decade later on the more streamlined and time-tested Guitar Therapy Live. That record saw the written-in-the-stars rhythm section of Beller and Travers mesh flawlessly with the guitar brotherhood of Keneally and Musallam. It was the quintessential Mike Keneally Band and the quintessential live Keneally release.
Here, Keneally sounds more relaxed as a live performer, a more confident and at-ease vocalist, an artist more fully in tune with himself and his music. Thus, one might reason that bakin’ @ the potato! would be another leap forward, the sound of the man and the band’s potential made nigh on tangible. You might reason that this is further evidence of an outfit capable of receiving vital, engaging music that inspires the mind and elevates the soul. And your reasoning would be, in this writer’s estimation, correct.
Keneally consistently levels expectations and the opening moments of bakin’ are no exception. The album opens with “Kedgeree”, a track that appeared late in the sequence of 2000’s Dancing. Its placement on that release was exactly correct––it unleashed some late-album fireworks and its Who-ish rhythms and vibe begged for the piece to be a show-closer or a highlight of encores. But its placement here at the top of the set eases listeners into an hour-plus of musical mastery, majesty, and magic. Rather than thrust a typical rockin’ pyrotechnic opening track upon an unsuspecting audience the band offers an implicit promise that there are plenty of peaks to come but that this journey, like many journeys, has to begin on the ground. By the time the quintet gracefully glides into “Blameless (The Floating Face)”, the album’s second track, there’s no doubt that bakin’ is Keneally’s live masterpiece.
Like most great bands this one sees the inherent potential in live performance, the way that the stage can push and pull and re-shape material into fascinating new forms, how the stage demands its own nomenclature and how the almighty moment can be as much of compositional tool as a quill or a pawn shop guitar and an archaic echo unit. “My Dilemma”, a favorite that originally appeared on 1994’s Boil That Dust Speck, is presented in a way that respects the studio version and the spirit in which the piece was conceived but lacks the kind of painful reverence that frequently renders live rock albums as exciting as a bowl of day old Quaker Oats. “Dilemma” is a tune owned by the Beller-Travers rhythm section and on this version said rhythm section does not disappoint. To call their performance a textbook example of how to lay down an earth-shattering groove is unfair as the term textbook carries with it a clinical aroma; rather, this is the kind of performance that reveals the character of both the players and the composer, demonstrating for us the certain indefinable elements that come together when two players are as cosmically linked as these gentlemen are—and it sounds as dirty as a coal miner’s lungs.
Peters’ presence offers a new density to the material here, especially on tracks such as “Taster”, wherein you can almost weigh the atmosphere, and “Chatfield Manor”, wherein he and Musallam re-create the track’s Southern California-ness with sublime effortlessness. Musallam is an equally mesmerizing presence as he seems not so much to play the music as channel it especially during “Chee”, “Pretty Enough For Girls”, and the aforementioned “Taster”.
If it seems that Keneally’s name is sorely lacking from the above paragraphs it is perhaps because what emanates so brilliantly from the heart of this release is the San Diego resident’s skills as a composer and bandleader and the benevolence of his presence. That is to say that his presence is so there that it’s, paradoxically, not there. The presentation of the music is clearly a shared endeavor in which the players pass the energy of the notes, of the emotions, of the moment between them in such a way that they function as a seamless unit. It is, in short, a selflessness and a spiritual bond that allows the experience of these songs and these players to connect with the listener.
Some of this is perhaps best witnessed on the bakin’DVD which contains 20 selections against the CD’s 16. Watching the magic unfold during “Taster” and on “Career Politicians” (originally recorded by The Mistakes, a mid-90s collaboration between Keneally, guitarist Henry Kaiser, former Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West and drum wizard Prairie Prince) is awe-inspiring, but you really do have to experience it for yourself to get the full awesomeness, the complete Bang! Zoom! contained within its confines. (The DVD commentary tracks––two of them––are unusually entertaining, funny, and insightful.)
bakin’ at the potato! isn’t just a consciousness-raising, ante-upping, grab bag o’ awesomeness, it is the sole inspiration for that phrase. Isn’t that enough?