It’s a Saturday night in The City by the Bay and local rock ‘n’ rollers Tea Leaf Green are primed for a homecoming appearance. The band’s star has plateaued a bit over the past few years, but it’s hard to understand why. Blues rock duos like The Black Keys have blown up to arena level and festival headliner slots touring with mere 90 minute sets, while Tea Leaf Green remains a club band with their three-hour shows that mix classic rock and psychedelic influences with infectious hooks and superb musicianship. But they don’t get played on the radio. If there was any justice in the music world, the popularity of these two bands would be reversed.
But therein lies the rub. An act like The Black Keys, while certainly talented, somehow appeals to a sort of lowest common denominator in the hipster crowd. Tea Leaf Green stretches their music out and it therefore takes a more adventurous listener to follow along on that intrepid trip. Few jam bands are able to make that leap, as if improvisational sonic adventures are something that the masses of muggles just can’t quite comprehend. But if you’re inclined to sonic wizardry, these torch bearers to the original San Francisco Sound are always ready for some musical quidditch.
This is not to say the band sounds like they came from the 1960s per se, but that pioneering influence is clearly a guide, particularly with singer/keyboardist Trevor Garrod recalling a young Greg Allman at times. Guitarist Josh Clark can hold his own with the genre’s top shredders but always knows how to play for the song. Virtuoso bassist Reed Mathis signed on in 2008 and has been adding a jazzier flair that enables the band to soar on a dime, while longtime drummer Scott Rager is now joined by second drummer Cochrane McMillan to form a dynamic quintet. There’s a cosmic cowboy outlaw kind of vibe, but infused with a noble sort of idealism about the power of music.
The current fall tour has frequently featured the band playing one longer set in the two-hour range, but there’s little doubt that a Saturday night in San Francisco will be a two-set show. “Fallen Angel” from the band’s 2011 Radio Tragedy LP is an early highlight, with Garrod in fine form on a melodic rocker that vaguely recalls Jackson Brown’s “Running on Empty”, a tune the band encored in scintillating fashion at their San Diego show a week earlier. The tragedy is that Tea Leaf Green is unlikely to ever see radio airplay at this point, but these rock soldiers will carry on. Garrod delivers a big harp solo on “Incandescent Devil”, igniting a raucous romp where Mathis also lays down a big bass solo before the tune settles into a piano plunking groove. “Germinatin’ Seed” has a sonic majesty thanks to some intricate guitar work from Clark and groovy organ work from Garrod, and its hard to understand why this band is still a relatively well kept secret.
A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” does not quite hit the mark, with Clark’s vocals sounding pretty rough and the tune being given a ragged garage rock arrangement. Tea Leaf Green’s covers are usually nothing short of transcendent, but this one falls a bit short. “Arise” finds the band jumping back into an uplifting tune though, and a standout moment occurs with a new Trevor tune “Flowers and the Devil”. The song features a stellar jam as the keyboardist sings “If you wanna get high with the band, you gotta get the band high too”, invoking that ’60s vibe of higher consciousness and/or maybe just a really good party. The best rock ‘n’ roll tends to mix both of those sentiments though, and it’s a dynamic Tea Leaf Green excels at. The band is soon joined by friend Sean Lahey on guitar, with Garrod noting that Lahey is a former roomie who lived with the band until they got evicted. “For obvious reasons,” adds bassist Mathis in prankster fashion before the band closes the set with a big jam on “Truck Stop Sally” right before midnight.
The group comes back about a half hour later later and throws down a huge second set by opening with their classic “The Garden (Part I) > The Garden (Part II)”. It’s here that the quintet’s chemistry really starts to sizzle as the x-factor kicks in to generate a collective whole greater than the sum of the parts. Clark’s dazzling fretwork is the catalyst here, but the way the band gels behind the guitar in the jam is sensational. The band goes back to Radio Tragedy with “All Washed Up”, a tune that acknowledges how they might wish the dues paid would pay off larger, yet how rock ‘n’ roll gypsies like these just can’t live any other way.
Mathis takes a moment to mention the band’s Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for recording a new album and thanks the fans for having raised over $20,000 for the project. This prefaces perennial fan favorite “Red Ribbons”, an ever crowd-pleasing tune that ignites the set into overdrive. The tune soars with Clark throwing down some melty tapping licks, with the musicians surrendering to the flow as the music plays the band. A breakout cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” continues to set the night on fire, with Garrod going deep on vocals for a most timely performance in this election season of lies and propaganda. Mathis delivers one of his patented lead bass solos as the band extends the tune and there’s no doubt that Lennon is smiling from above. The band carries this energy into the groovy “Reservoir” for a smoking jam on a tune about sea monkeys that keeps the vibrations rising and the dance floor moving. A surprising cover of The Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire” finds the band continuing to display their diverse influences, with Clark’s gritty vocals hitting the mark on the grunge classic.
Another guest raises the ante yet again when Dan Lebowitz of Animal Liberation Orchestra joins the band on lap steel guitar for a hot jam on “Sleep Paralysis > Morning Sun” with Clark and Lebowitz pushing each other higher and higher. Garrod and Lebowitz embrace at the end, comrades in the ecstatic tone sciences. The band concludes with a smashing take on their anthemic jam vehicle “Sex in the ’70s”, featuring some cosmic teases on Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” that delight the faithful. It’s nearly 2 am by the time it’s all over and that is how a proper rock ‘n’ roll band does it.