The Beatles at the Cavern Club, The Ramones at CBGB, Prince at First Ave….GrooveSession at the Crazy Horse Saloon. Who knows? It’s not insane to imagine that we might look back on this pairing of band and venue as another one for the history books. Audacious as it may be to list the trio from Ontario, CA in the same sentence as these Hall of Famers, they do share something very important in common. Distilled to one word: groundbreaking. They are doing something that absolutely no one else is doing right now. It can be defined in a number of different ways or perhaps it can’t be defined at all. One thing is for sure: when you feel it, you know it.
When GrooveSession played the Crazy Horse on Friday, December 12, they attracted a diverse crowd of age groups and demographics. As the night wore on, one could look around the full, festive dance floor and see all these people staring at the stage with a sense of reverence. When a band has that special something, you don’t have to be a musical savant to detect it. It comes down to a basic element which no amount of practice can conjure: Emotion. You just have it or you don’t. Well, sure, almost any music has some sort of emotional resonance. In this case, it’s a constant outpouring of emotion, palpable on every level: in the lyrics, the melodies and even between the notes. It’s the kind of emotion that grabs you, elevates you, reminds us why we cherish music so much in the first place.
You have to love and respect a band which is clearly so eager to evolve and improve every time you see them. This was the fourth time GrooveSession has played the Crazy Horse in 2014. They take their relationship with the place seriously and feel like they are not doing themselves or the audience justice if they don’t push themselves further than they’ve gone before. When you see a band three times, you’re starting to feel like you have them figured out. The glory of this performance was the way in which the band totally reinvented itself and showed that it’s futile to try and put them in a box. With reworked new songs and rarely played old material, they melded it all into two sets glowing with refinement. Gaining momentum steadily as the night progressed, we couldn’t bear to stop them until the last possible second. They finally had to stop threatening us with a “Good Time” as the train pulled into station at 1:51 – later than any other band before.
One of the best things about GrooveSession is the way in which they challenge the listener. Their music goes down smooth, but it is complex in the way it forces listeners to hang on every note. You never know where they are heading next. However, it’s not as if they would ever be regarded as erratic. Their shows are rich with subtle improvisation coupled with an overriding sense of focus. There lies the ideal balance between spontaneity and intentional alchemy. It’s evident they are frequently surprising themselves and having a blast in the process. Their bodies are extensions of their instruments. This makes them almost as fun to watch as they are to hear.
We’ve gone overboard in the past expressing the amazingness of brothers Manny and Ronnie Sanchez on the drums and bass. They were better than ever on this night, tapping in to a more cerebral approach as if they had figured out the equation of the space-time continuum. Manny showed increased finesse on an expanded kit. Ronnie took us through the galactic wormhole of grooves while remaining connected to the elements of earth, air, fire, water and ether. Long hair flying, sweat dripping, they both are animals of the most lovable kind. With their father/manager watching from the lip of the stage, the musical genius of the Sanchez clan was represented with pride.
The trio is all about equal parts, but the x-factor of this show without a doubt was guitarist Sarven Manguiat. In the past we’ve found ourselves craving more guitar in the mix. No matter how exceptional your drummer and bassist are, if a band is going to soar, ultimately it’s going to come down to the brilliance of your guitarist. On this night it all seemed to click as Sarven took control in a way previously unseen. He flaunted his versatility in a most impressive fashion, playing a healthy mix of electric, acoustic and slide. For the latter he used a beautiful cigar box guitar, busting out a pair of songs which were among the most engaging material we’ve heard from the band. He also had the chance to show off his psychedelic jazz chops on a couple spicy instrumentals. Here was a prime representation of the way GrooveSession turns any genre on its head, making it their own.
The band gravitates to many of its favorite covers which in other cases could get tiresome, but here it exhibited how their sound had grown more well-rounded and mature. We got to hear a new one – Brett Dennen’s “Darling Do Not Fear” – which was absolutely delightful. One of the highlights of the night was a staple of their repertoire – “Funkadelic Medley” – which never fails to show how connected they are to the roots of funk. With Manny at the controls of the Mothership as usual, something happened during this version which transcended simple explanation. It’s that thing that defines true funk or, on a grander scale, improvisational music magic. Torches ablaze, treasure map deciphered, booby traps conquered, ultimate goal in site…we the audience surrender ourselves completely and find a way to dance a little harder. Giggling with elation and awe, we turn and connect with the person next to us, sharing a glance of warm recognition. Because, after all, this is what we strive for.