It was the eve of New Year’s Eve and for many rock ‘n’ rollers that means a show to warm things up before the main event. This is especially true for bands that have large repertoires and lean toward improvisation. Tea Leaf Green is just such a band. The Bay Area jam rockers have been at it since the late ‘90s and have a strong new album with 2013’s In the Wake. So there’s no shortage of material. The band also likes to stretch its songs out, so just playing one show wouldn’t quite cut it.
Jamrock bands tend to play New Year’s Eve runs in their home regions, but that’s not the case for Tea Leaf Green this year. The band plays plenty of Bay Area gigs, so it’s not too surprising that the group might want to take its show on the road for an occasion like this. And for a band whose name is a riff on cannabis, ringing in the new year in the state that has legalized cannabis for recreational sale is a special occasion indeed.
The band’s appearance in Denver at this time is also a testament to the thriving local music scene. There are a slew of New Year’s Eve shows with multi-night runs going on all over town, but the scene is so strong that it can support multiple shows. Tea Leaf Green was originally booked into Cervantes’ Other Side, the smaller side room adjacent to the Masterpiece Ballroom. The Other Side is a great little room of its own, but the band sold more tickets for the December 30th show than venue management apparently expected. There was therefore great enthusiasm when bassist Reed Mathis posted on Facebook earlier in the day to announce that the show was being moved into the larger room.
Ever the savvy music historian, Mathis also expressed delight at the chance to play a stage where jazz great Louis Armstrong had once performed. The Masterpiece Ballroom is a vintage venue and one of Denver’s better sounding rooms, so the band and its fans alike were amped for the festivities. An opening set from the normally dependable Toubab Krewe floundered in seemingly aimless noodling for quite a while before the band finally dialed in some tight grooves toward the end. The energy level was raised decidedly when the PA cranked out Led Zeppelin classics during the setbreak, which had eager fans rocking out while waiting for the headliners to hit the stage.
Tea Leaf Green had its sound dialed in from the start with a “One Reason” opener that found singer/keyboardist Trevor Garrod in vintage form. Garrod is gifted with one of the more soulful voices in modern rock ‘n’ roll and “One Reason” oozed with that soul. Guitarist Josh Clark seemed pumped as well, while Mathis threw down bright sounding octave pedal bass runs.
Mathis commented early on about loving the room’s vibe and sound. He also remarked on having seen Umphrey’s McGee at the Denver Fillmore the previous night, causing him to lose some of his voice, but insisted he was going to sing anyway. His vocal on the new “One Condition’s Enough” was indeed a bit rough, but the heartfelt feeling on a tune about a relationship at the crossroads was still there. The feeling is what counts most in rock ‘n’ roll and it’s why Tea Leaf Green is still one of the premiere traveling bands on the rock circuit. Mainstream success may have unjustly eluded the band, and it’s unlikely to occur at this stage in the game. Still, Tea Leaf Green keeps jamming on year after year because this is a band that is indeed all about the music. That passion comes out in the tunes and the live shows, and it’s what keeps the group’s dedicated fan base coming back for more.
“Space Hero 4” was another highlight from the new album, led by Clark’s smoking riffage on a hot jam that blended an Allman Brothers sound with a Phishy jamming aesthetic. Drummers Scott Rager and Cochrane McMillan were in fine form here. “All Washed Up” built with intensity into a tease of Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone”, harkening back to the energetic setbreak vibe. Garrod and his harmonica starred on “Incandescent Devil”, one of his patented melodic gems. The band passed on a setbreak and just kept rocking for what turned into a two and a half hour set, the length of which put many mainstream hitmakers and their 90 minute shows to shame.
A peak moment occurred with “Garden III”, one of the quintessential Tea Leaf Green songs based around that ever infectious melodic blend of Garrod’s piano and Clark’s guitar. “Got a little bit of soul, got a little bit of rock and roll in my bones”, sang Garrod on the anthemic tune. A killer cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” scored as well, with many singing along on an arrangement that leaned more toward the Nirvana version.
“I love music and I love people that love music. It’s a special thing”, said a sincerely grateful Mathis to the crowd at the end. The sentiment may sound trite to some jaded hipsters, but it was in fact a pithy tip of the cap to all attendees for helping to keep the band rocking on into 2014. A “Keep the Faith” encore acknowledged the band’s long years on the road, “singing for a pot of gold”.
As soon as the show ended, the PA cranked a live version of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light”. Elated fans kept dancing and singing on the classic line, “May the good lord shine a light on you, make every song you sing your favorite tune”. It’s one of the great spiritual anthems in rock history and it was a fitting way to cap off the night with a band that’s determined to keep that rock ‘n’ roll torch burning.