An auditory snapshot of supergroup/jam band/fusion fiends Praxis and their live set at Bonnaroo, Tennessee 2004 may arguably be one of the best live albums released this century.
Praxis is more than just an experimental, improvisational music project helmed by Bill Laswell. It's also a supergroup whose roster reads like a Who's Who of music assimilated via six (or fewer) degrees of separation with Laswell as the music world's equivalent of Kevin Bacon.
Laswell, a bassist by instrument of choice and a producer/musician by trade, has been in the driver's seat of the Praxis project for over15 years. His myriad of professional relationships, both spanning and blending several different genres of music, make him the band's conduit. The first link in Laswell's chain is keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, best known for his work as an original member of Parliament-Funkadelic with George Clinton. Worrell also played with the Talking Heads and had collaborated with Bill Laswell on many an occasion, including a studio musician stint on a David Byrne solo project.
Once again, all roads lead to Laswell with drummer Bryan Mantia (a.k.a. "Brain"), enlisted as a charter member of Praxis in the early '90s in addition to a brief stint with Primus. Brain shares a connection with Buckethead, the elusive and reclusive guitarist known as much for wearing a Michael Myers mask and KFC bucket-as-hat combo as he is for his sick, twisted, and jaw-dropping riffs. Both musicians had done time as members of Guns N' Roses during the ill-fated, Axl-led 2002 outing, and Brain worked with Buckethead before on the guitarist's solo albums.
On top of all that, subtract Laswell from the Praxis equation and the group's other three members also double up with Les Claypool's outfit, Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. And yes, Claypool has also done duty with Praxis at one point or another, too.
Once you're able to get all of that straight, get ready for another trip in trying to pin down the band's sound. Considering the wide range of stylistic territory each member has canvassed on their own, as a collective, Praxis cuts an experimental swath through the aisle, piling alternative rock, funk, jazz, blues, and metal into their cart and running with it through the electronic doors of the Super(group) Market.
Tennessee 2004, recorded live at the Bonnaroo Music Festival held in Tennessee (duh) during the summer of 2004 (natch), captures the band in their natural element. The live set sounds crisp and the sound quality of the album is excellent. Beyond the sonic sweetness of the live recording, in addition to being a supergroup and a crack squad of fusion specialists, Praxis adds another unique dimension to their sound as a jam band. It makes perfect sense to record their Bonnaroo show live, Praxis exemplifying the festival's spirit with their diverse, multi-faceted sound and air of the improvisational.
"Vertebrae" sounds like the original Blues Brothers Band in their heyday, with each one of the Praxis players bringing their instrument to the forefront without overshadowing one another or blurring into a hideous beast of sound. Ye gods! There's actually a bass line in a rock song that contributes something substantial to the material, instead of just absentmindedly plunking out every other eighth note. Brain's percussion perches itself on the cusp of jazz drumming and hip-hop beats, and compliments Buckethead's occasional DJ-like scratching riffs on his guitar.
"Spun" has Buckethead dragging some more guitar tricks out of his toybox, managing to sound like a hybrid of the great Steve Stevens (former guitarist for Billy Idol and, for my money's worth, one of the most underrated players ever to pick up an axe) and Tom Morello.
With Buckethead's substantial battery of effects, at several moments throughout the live performance the songs become a bit too improvisational and effects-laden. In terms of living up to its label, "Guitar Virus" spreads across three and a half minutes, with Buckethead doing a little too much noodling sans melody, which becomes frustrating with the rest of the band engaging in more self-indulgence than is palatable for the listener, even for hardcore fans of jam bands.
Artistically speaking, many of the songs live up to their titles, invoking a certain feel that listeners could easily pick up on sitting at the foot of the stage as opposed to checking out the album's liner notes. The seven-minute opus "Machine Gun" is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. The piece is an awesome display of retro psychedelica, with all of the instruments blending together in rattling, firing harmony. The key to unlocking the '60s and '70s doors of sound perception is Worrell's phenomenal facsimile of a Hammond organ humming its way through the song. Listening closely, it's easy to pick hear comparisons to Cream, Hendrix, and even the Grateful Dead.
Given the impressive résumés of the individual members of Praxis and their status as a super jam band, each member gets his own time to shine, shrugging off the traditional relegation of certain instruments to the background. Brain gets his moment in the spotlight with a drum solo on "Broken/Fractal" that would make Gene Krupa damn proud, his snare snipping like a rattlesnake ready to strike at any moment, carrying the piece to the end.
"Bent Light" picks up nicely after "Broken/Fractal", Buckethead's versatile guitar work sounding actually quite beautiful, almost refracting an aura of lights from the fretboard as Worrell's keyboards kick in and take the stage like a light breaking through the song's misty opening.
Laswell gets his turn on "Chopper", creating a murky bass melody all on his own that, while subdued, exhibits his considerable skill.
While the whole of Tennessee 2004 showcases a brilliant, entirely instrumental set from an all-star group of musicians, Praxis falls prey to the jam band cliché of closing their set with "Magus", an 11-minute piece that seems to go nowhere. Granted, many jam bands operate off of the slow-burn premise, cooking their way up to a grand finale, not exactly catering to a fanbase that suffers from musical A.D.D.. Nevertheless, the band's closer tests that factor and takes it just a little too far and too long. That's not to say "Magus" isn't without its groove-inducing moments. There are several. However, they seem to be overwhelmed and swallowed by the too epic and ambitious scope of the piece.
A few rough patches not withstanding, Tennessee 2004 captures a fine crop of musicians at the top of their game, alternately strutting their stuff and working together as a finely tuned unit. Most bands can only dream of sounding this good in a live setting.