It wasn’t Pink Floyd, Dire Straits or The Talking Heads. No, for this crowd it was something even better. On Sunday, June 2 of 2019, The Slip reunited to play its second set of the last seven years. This was the only thing that could have been meaningful enough to cap off a nine straight hours of breathtaking music. Even for those, like me, who don’t have intimate knowledge of the trio, the emotional impact was as persuasive as a charging rhino. For a room full of industry insiders, world class musicians and super fans, there was a palpable kinship in the voracious passion we share for this art form.
Just when you thought you’d seen and done it all within the concert realm, an event like JamBase 20 rears its head. We received an email invite months in advance beckoning us to the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA. We’d be gathering to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the game-changing website that leveled the playing field for anyone wondering where bands were playing. The company was founded by computer savants and savvy marketing minds who had limited expectations for long term growth. They were driven by the noble intention of compelling the masses to “Go See Live Music.” Having arrived at this milestone, they were classy enough to know that it had to be celebrated in monumental fashion.
What the invite notably excluded was any mention of the musical lineup. The silence was deafening. As the event drew closer, I figured the details were forthcoming. Nope…this was a hush hush campaign. I happen to love surprises and didn’t even inquire with anyone who could have spilled the beans. On the drive there, my mind was racing, imagining who might be making the pilgrimage. I didn’t know who among my friends would be there either. Joyous reunions were inevitable and that proved to be a theme for the night.
Raven and I arrived at 4pm and the music was already swinging on the front patio of the Sweetwater. A drum and keyboard duo called Clangin’ & Bangin’ served as a festive welcoming committee with a variety of hip material interpreted in the mode of New Orleans style funky jazz. Cellarmaker Brewing had created a “Twenty Years Nectar” Pale Ale just for the occasion. Yummy appetizers were being passed such as tempura cauliflower which proved to be one of the culinary highlights of the event. We were all given a JB20 laminate with our name printed on it which was a stroke of genius to spark the old memory bank and help break the ice with new faces.
The patio scene was incredibly inviting and it felt so good to catch up with friends. It was difficult to tear one’s self away and progress into the music hall. Andy Gadiel, the co-founder of JamBase, walked around informing people that Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was on stage. This was the first time the flagship lineup of Reed Mathis (bass), Brian Haas (keys) and Jason Smart (drums) had played together in twelve years so conversations could wait. The event had a strict policy against chatting in the music hall, thus the choice was black and white: Musical immersion or socializing. A no-brainer for me.
Kicking off the programming with the JFJO reunion was like starting your freshman year of college dating Angelina Jolie, circa 2001. You might have drank each other’s blood, but man, you sure didn’t regret it. Just like they were back in their glory days, the trio was delightfully dangerous, deliciously disturbing and devilishly disarming. It was over too soon, but it was like a prolonged orgasm; the pleasure from which continued in waves throughout the night.
When I reviewed my first JFJO show for JamBase in October of 2002, I said of Mathis, “He embodies the primal powers of the sonic universe, channeling tones through his bass from the nether-regions of imagination.” I can’t really improve upon that too much. In Haas, he found a cosmic soulmate who matched his fervor in formulating a musical language for alien communication. To see them face off again onstage was a trip to improv junkie fantasy camp.
Haas is one of the most entertaining performers on the face of the earth. Playing like a man possessed, he attacked the Rhodes as if he would eventually open a gateway to another dimension with enough persistence. Unable to restrain a maniacal grin under his curly mop, he continuously hurled lightning bolts across the stage which Mathis calmly chewed up and spit back out into deceptively complex counter-rhythms. When it’s time to get ever weirder, he uses the melodica with the cunning of a snake charmer. Then Mathis goes for the pedals, transforming his tone into mournful phosphorescence.
Deservedly these two claim the spotlight, but the wild card here was the return of drummer Jason Smart. They were able to tear him away from his teaching gig at the Cincinnati Academy of Music and he is clearly just as sharp as ever. His cerebral approach and ultra delicate touch reminded us why the trio produced its most acclaimed material during his six years on the kit. Even for someone like me, it wasn’t readily apparent if they were actually playing songs. It came across like an avant-garde jazz-funk-fusion stream of consciousness. Thanks to Bee Getz for pointing out that they closed with their classic composition, “Vernal Equinox.” Typical reactions from the peanut gallery were: “It made my head explode!” “They tore me apart!” “I might never recover!” Will it ever happen again? We won’t hold our breath.
We returned to Earth momentarily as Holly Bowling gave us a brief peek into her brilliant mind and dazzling chops during a solo piano set. People were transfixed as she dove into a lush transcription of Phish’s “Divided Sky.” Tea Leaf Green did their Americana-soul-rock thing with Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz filling in for Josh Clark on guitar. It was sweet to see Gadiel sit in on guitar for one of the songs. The heartfelt songwriting and singing of keyboardist Trevor Garrod is where everything begins and ends for this band. Lebo pushed them in exploratory directions while the punchy rhythm section of Eric DiBerardino on bass and Scott Rager on drums maintained a solid yet malleable groove.
One of the unexpected treats of the day was the Strangefolk duo with Reid Genauer and Jon Trafton – respectively on acoustic and electric guitars. I had never heard Strangefolk before and was touched by the raw emotions of Genauer’s vocals. They were joined by Lebo on steel slide guitar and we were transported into an atmospheric dream-state. Lebo has become a master of this medium. The set came to a breathtaking conclusion with the John Prine classic, “Angel from Montgomery.” Jennifer Hartswick on vocals and Nick Cassarino on guitar both contributed to major goosebumps.
Following a relatively subdued trio of bands, the crowd was ready for a full-on funk and soul escapade. Jennifer Hartswick and Friends delivered that in a concentrated dosage. This was the sort of super group we had all expected JamBase to assemble. J-Ha was joined by Cassarino (who has been touring with her lately as part of a duo when he’s not playing with The Nth Power), Trey Anastasio Band accomplice, Natalie Cressman (trombone, vox), Mark Brownstein from the Disco Biscuits (bass), Rob Marscher from Star Kitchen (keys) and Michaelangelo Carruba from Turkuaz (drums). They stormed the castle with Cassarino belting out The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use.” I freaking love this song! Our suspicions were immediately proven true: “This is going to be serious.”
The crowd started to cut loose on the dancefloor as WAR’s “Cisco Kid” strutted its bad self. Even though this was technically Hartswick’s band, Cassarino took unabashed command of the proceedings. I had yet to hear him play in person and was impressed with his velvety tone and charisma. The vibe ascended even higher for “Love the One You’re With.” You could feel the group mind embracing this joyous moment as the encapsulation of the JB20 spirit. Every time Hartswick took the mic to sing or play a trumpet solo, she would take it as far as you thought it could go…and then a little further. The energy spilled forth like the Fantasia flood.
Cressman threw us a curveball with a seductive romp through Minnie Ripperton’s “Baby This Love I Have.” Her sublime vocal delivery whisked us away to the Copacabana as the rest of the band simmered. I hardly know The Disco Biscuits so it was cool to get a gander of Brownstein’s funk credentials. His Star Kitchen bandmate Marscher was understated on the keys but always tasteful. He definitely knows his way around a Hammond B3 organ. I’ve yet to cross paths with Turkuaz so this was my first exposure to Carruba’s drumming. He started the set just hanging tough in the pocket. As the group ramped up the intensity, he matched it with flashier rolls and rapid fire progressions.
At some point during “Baby,” the towering figure of Eric Krasno emerged from the wing. This was one of those adrenaline-vaulting cameos which we all covet. The Soulive guitarist – who had just finished playing up the road with Phil Lesh and Friends at Terrapin Crossroads – spewed gas on the fire with the signature bite of his jazz-blues fluidity. On the next song, “Stormy Monday,” we got to see Krasno unleash one of the most volcanic blues solos imaginable. Eyes closed, guitar face in full effect, the man doled out a truckload of ear candy. Marley’s “Exodus” was a lackluster choice to follow it up. Regardless, the song featured a triple keyboard collaboration with the addition of Borahm Lee (Break Science) and Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee.) It was a sight to behold. The presence of all these musicians, whether on a song or a set, illustrated how greatly JamBase is valued among the community of touring bands. It’s a mutual appreciation society.
A second wave of delicious morsels made their way around the room. The sliders were the bomb. Cocktails flowed from the open bar. Our hosts had spared no expense. JamBase co-founder Teddy Kartzman coalesced the vibe with a brief speech. His words carried a lot of weight and sentimental reflection. The big takeaway for me was, “Intention and love creates positivity.” We were now ready to enter the final stretch of the night as Nathan Moore helmed the stage. High Sierra Music Festival and JamBase are intrinsically entwined. Nathan Moore is synonymous with the festival as was The Slip for many years. The merger of the two is called Surprise Me Mr. Davis. They had been the special guest the previous night at The Chapel in San Francisco. At the Sweetwater, SMMD was amplified by Bowling and Lebo. Moore is a gonzo troubadour who is something of a “spirit animal” to a lot of people whose ears and souls he has nourished during camp-side performances into the wee hours. This brief set showcased his heartfelt brand of whiskey-fueled Americana and soul-baring showmanship.
The largely 40-something crowd was starting to fade. Alarm clocks were going off early the next morning. This was the time to tap into the reserves. The Slip were never hugely popular, but they had a significant cult following and apparently still do. Their 2006 album Eisenhower achieved a degree of mainstream recognition as they tapped into the zeitgeist of that era’s indie rock aesthetic. Whatever they did was always approached with a heightened musicianship that set them apart. Brad and Andrew Barr have achieved success as The Barr Brothers since the dissolution of The Slip. Bassist Marc Friedman has been pretty damn well for himself too, playing with Ryan Montbleu. He flew in just for this reunion and settled back into the trio groove like a ninja chameleon.
A midnight curfew had been established so when they started their set at almost a quarter after 11, I was resigned to the fact that this was going to be much shorter than we would like. At some point during the action, word spread that the curfew had been bumped to 1:30. This was fantastic news. I have enjoyed listening to Eisenhower a few times, but other than that, my familiarity with the band is limited to two performances back in ’99. While the set wasn’t as impactful for me as it was for many in attendance, I couldn’t help but be swept away by the urgency with which The Slip seized this fleeting moment.
I have no idea what if any preparation went into this set, but it was remarkable how they distilled the essence of their entire career into one definitive musical statement. The funky instrumental “Get Me with Fuji” evoked a roar from the crowd. A tender 22-year old song like “Alsoa” seemed more poignant than ever. The title track from their debut “From the Gecko” saw them stretch out with a big assist from Krasno. He goes way back with the band and it was a rush to behold he and Brad Barr trading licks.
I didn’t realize what a monster Barr is on guitar. He likes it fuzzy and dirty, but is patient enough to paint a beautiful landscape while he’s at it. He sings with the angst of a man who has suffered just enough. His enigmatic frontman persona is boosted by “DeNiro in the 70s” intensity. Friedman couldn’t mask a grin of gratitude while flinging his distinct, jazz-based boomerangs. Meanwhile, Andrew Barr came across like it was just another day at the office; attacking his drum kit with a tasteful balance of ferocity and elegance. The three exist as independent entities and components of one powerful organism.
Glancing around the room, a number of well-known musicians were scattered about, just as captivated with what was unfolding on stage as any of us. As the set progressed, the reaction of the crowd said it all. Even the most jaded music freaks couldn’t restrain their euphoria. Closing with three songs from Eisenhower was a poetic climax. I won’t soon forget the image of my old pal Toby jumping up and down with his arms thrusting in the air during “Children of December.” For a bunch of people who cherish live music above almost anything, this experience was a gift of immeasurable magnitude.
Encapsulating Tyler Blue
If you have walked through the door during a show at the Crazy Horse over the last six + years, you've probably been greeted by Tyler Blue. When we are truly moved by music, the feelings are hard to describe. Through these reivews, Tyler intends to crystallize emotions and illuminate reflections while bringing the spirit of a show back to life.