It’s a festive vibe for a special Saturday night in the city by the bay. It’s the CD release party for the new album by local rockers Tea Leaf Green, and it’s been clear all week that the band is pretty jazzed about their latest work. The band members are known for actively engaging with their fans on social media, and there’s been lots of recent buzz about the new album. The material has not been road tested, as is the usually the case for jamrock outfits. But Tea Leaf Green are known for their songwriting just as much as their improv skills, so anticipation runs high to hear the new material.
It feels like reaching the finish line of a race that started last year when the band announced a Kickstarter project to fund the new album. It’s a triumphant moment for a band whose star has plateaued a bit since they were selling out the Fillmore five years ago, and why that star hasn’t risen higher is one of modern music’s great mysteries. Keyboardist Trevor Garrod oozes heart and soul, guitarist Josh Clark can shred with the best and bassist Reed Mathis is a musician’s musician who is constantly in demand for other projects (he backed Marco Benevento last summer and will tour with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart this fall.) Drummers Scott Rager and Cochrane McMillan are a dynamic duo and chemistry seemed to be at a peak level on the band’s 2012 fall tour.
Now it’s time to deliver the goods as the first set features the new In the Wake LP performed in its entirety. The buzz around the album is that it’s a little more experimental, with the band dabbling in a wider sonic palette for maximum creative expression while also tapping into how the talent in the band adds up to a greater whole than the sum of its parts. This vibe comes out on the opening track “Someday”, where Garrod sings of hoping to catch a break some day and having nothing left to lose but his mind, while Clark delivers some spacey slide licks. There’s a vintage ‘70s rock flavor that draws the crowd right in and a nice jam at the end that says this will not be a by-the-book set. “Space Hero II” cranks the energy up a notch with fat guitar riffs and a bit of an Alice Cooper vibe on the vocals from Clark.
“Penny Saved” has a Stonesy psychedelic vibe that ingeniously blends sounds from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s for a unique 21st century vibe of its own. Clark throws down some hot octave riffs on the solo as the band builds a big groove that also features a monster bass solo from Mathis. It all feels quite organic though, with the solos always charging the song. Slide guitarist Dan Lebowitz from Animal Liberation Orchestra makes the first of several appearances on “All Our Love”, adding his signature sound and making a great guitar tandem with Clark.
The album’s title track features some gorgeous multi-part harmonies that find the band going deep, emotions on their sleeves, over an odd time signature with a toe-tapping groove. One could name any number of classic rock influences that come to mind, but the mix is attributable only to Tea Leaf Green. “Give Me One More Chance” finds Garrod leading the band through an infectious and eclectic pop rocker that could easily light up the FM radio waves if given a chance. Guest vocalist Leslie Helpert comes out to trade verses with Garrod as the whole crowd catches a feel good groove. Garrod’s big piano solo pumps up the energy even more for one of the evening’s top highlights.
Mathis steps up for the lead vocal on “One Condition’s Enough”, showing some deep soul of his own on a bouncy groove that builds into a tune with artful sonic layers and a big finish. “Space Hero III (Forever in Space)” is a deep cut ambient tune featuring some Clark riffs that could fit in on Led Zeppelin III, as he and Garrod sing of “trying to find our place in the human race”. There’s plenty of folks feeling the same way here in the tumultuous times of 2013, so it feels like the band is tapping into the zeitgeist here. Then they crank it back up on “Two Parts”, with the drummers laying down a tight up-tempo beat. Garrod offers some of his deepest vocals here, with the band once again layering the song in a masterful way. A big keyboard solo by Garrod drives the song deeper for a hot jams, followed by a smoldering slide solo from Clark that lights up the night. The song feels like an instant classic.
Mathis takes the lead vocal again on “Don’t Go” as the x-factor continues to gel, with the set soaring on a wave of creative energy and stellar musicianship. The vibe keeps surging on “Space Hero IV (Letters Home)” with Clark on vocals for a big rocker, tearing up the fretboard as the band rocks a triumphant jam with a soaring sound that threatens to blow the roof off. “Mr. E and the Cosmic Receptacle” follows with a psychedelic breather to preface the album/set closer of “We Aren’t Done”. The latter features Garrod in his classic up-beat, piano plunking soulful rocker mode. It’s a perfect set closer because there’s a whole second set to follow. “We’ve just begun to see what dreams may come,” Garrod sings, summing up the band’s modus operandi for 2013.
The second set kicks off with Garrod’s classic “Faced With Love”, opening with some sweet harmonica licks and some of his most memorable piano lines. Clark rips off a smoking solo and the band is off to the races to kick the Saturday night dance party back into gear. Lebowitz returns for the next tune as the band throws down a huge jam with he and Clark trading licks to spur each other on to greater heights. In between tunes, Clark teases some heavy Alice in Chains riffage that tantalizes for a brief grungey moment. But he then takes center stage with “Stick to the Shallows”, where he offers a soulful vocal to match his comrade Garrod’s best. It’s another one of the band’s many songs that overflows with melodic heart and soul, and there’s no doubt that this is the best band in San Francisco tonight.
Only time will tell if In the Wake can launch the band to greater heights, but there’s got to be an alternate reality where Tea Leaf Green are huge stars. Maybe that reality will start bleeding into this one, or maybe it won’t. But there’s no doubt that the San Francisco scene is better off for the fact that this band is still in it to win it.