Top 5 Worst Places to Play a Gig

zzcasAsk any musician about their worst gig ever and I guarantee it won’t take more than a heartbeat for them to begin regaling you with an elaborate story involving a shitty venue, or a shitty staff, or a shitty headlining band, or a band member being sick, or gear breaking, or there being no crowd, or the crowd being dicks, or Altamont, or Woodstock ’99, or anything in a long line of ultimate crappy experiences that can occur when you’re trying to play music. Heck, there’s even a great site called where you can read about famous bands’ shittiest gigs of all time. But for the most part, all of those gigs are specific instances and/or surprises – in other words, the gigs would have been fine if some factors were slightly tweaked. With this list I am imparting upon you the five places where you’re guaranteed to have a shitty gig – the five places that you only see musicians playing at when they have ceded to the will of the gods and agreed that glory is not their destiny. Let me know what I’m missing.

5) Casino

Now I’m not talking about some big arena connected with a casino – I’m talking about playing on the actual floor of the gambling room itself, usually in a round by the bar in the heart of thousands of slot machines. First off, nobody in any sort of close proximity is either excited nor even expecting to hear music. They’re there to get drunk and gamble – anything that makes them recall the pleasures of the outside world is a knock to their fantasy. And nobody goes to a casino to be polite, thus even what you consider to be a killer version of the latest Maroon 5 hit is bound to get more vocalized criticism than praise. There’s nothing more powerful than the lack of any audible clap when a band has just finished up their third version of “Margaritaville” in the past two hours – it’s also the perfect time for somebody to shout “you suck.”

4) Sidewalk In The Rain

You see a lot of these folks out in Portland. Usually it’s either someone on acoustic guitar or someone drumming on buckets, and they’re admirably determined to not let the weather get in the way of their performance. On a sunny day, you can actually make decent money bustling on the sidewalk. But when the rain starts dumping on you, there’s no doubt that you’ve turned into nothing more than a glorified beggar. If the experience doesn’t incite one of those “what the hell am I doing with my life” moments, then I suppose your degree of self-content is to the level of true zen.

3) Airport

Ahh, the last remaining outpost for wielders of the pan-flute. Any gig where the central criteria is that you remain as invisible as possible is just a drag right out of the gates. There’s nothing as disheartening as watching hordes of people walk by you completely oblivious to your art. Even when you stop playing, there’s not even a hint of acknowledgment that anything has changed in the audible spectrum of the building. The shining moment may come when a six year-old brings you a dollar, but for the most part their parents will want to keep them as far away from you as possible. Want a smoke-break? Good luck with that.

2) Obligatory Wedding

I thought for a while about the right adjective to describe this one, because certainly not all weddings suck. In fact, I’ve had some downright phenomenal wedding gigs over the years. And shitty or not, they’re usually well paying gigs. But then you have the weddings where everyone in attendance is there out of obligation - that random couple that doesn’t have many friends so nobody knows each other and everyone is afraid to step foot on the dance-floor. The best is when the engaged couple gives you an advanced notice of “we don’t really listen to music.” But the worst part of it is when the band has not even been considered to be human beings. There’ll be no table for you to sit at, they won’t have any food for you to eat, and forget about trying to get a drink. Oh, and most likely they’ll want you to set up at least five hours prior to your actual start time, and expect you to be ready to play at any moment without warning.

1) Dueling Piano Bar

I know this one from experience folks – dueling piano bars are the ultimate worst. The one I played at required you to be on stage playing from 10pm to 2am – you literally could only leave the stage for an emergency. Also, you were considered an employee of the venue and thus weren’t allowed to have a single drink. Add to that the absurd notion that your tips were evenly distributed amongst all employees because sure, the coat-check girl deserves an equal cut of my pay. And while I presume not all of these bars are like this, I can guarantee they have a few things in common: You’re going to have a ton of middle-aged bachelorette parties sitting around you – guaranteed. Not only will you have to play the shittiest pop songs known to man night after night, hour after hour, you’ll also have to hear drunk middle-aged women scream along the lyrics. You think maybe you could spice things up with a tasty solo? You’ll get maybe two bars into it before they start yelping pleas to play “Don’t Stop Believing” again.

Are Cassettes More Durable Than Tape Players?

zzztapeIn case you’re out of the cyclical loop of regenerated hipness, cassette tapes are making a comeback. In fact, for some folks they never really went away - Thurston Moore purportedly has a massive collection of low-fi, noise-rock tapes that he’s never stopped collecting and there’s several tape-only record labels out there that have been doing just fine for themselves for quite some time. (Lost Sound is a favorite of mine.) Earlier this year, Sony introduced a new tape data storage system that would allow for 180 terabytes of info to be stored on one tape, or the equivalent of about 47 million songs. And more and more bands are offering tapes at their merch booths because it’s hard to argue with a $5 album. For a nostalgia geek like myself, a great indie band trying to sell me a cassette is hard to ignore and consequently I have a stack of tapes on my desk waiting to be listened to. Why are they being waited on though? Because all my tape players are busted, that’s why.

Yep, between my older car, older stereo, and two withered boomboxes, I have a total of six broken tape players at my home. And yet, my original 1988 copy of He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper is still going relatively strong. So why is that a medium which can be fixed with a pencil and a strategically placed piece of scotch tape holds up longer than the rotating cranks developed to play them? Sure, I’ve given all my players some solid face slaps over the years, but if you had told me 25 years ago that I’d be scrambling for a way to listen to Hysteria in 2014, I would have thought you were loony. So you tell me – what’s the oldest still-functioning cassette player you still own? Is it just that I beat the shit out of all my Walkmen over the years, or did folks just presume that the advent of CDs and MP3s would make us forget about the hundred of bootlegs and mix-tapes sitting in our parents’ closets? And truly, who can deny the magic of a solid mix-tape? The time spent winning a girl over with the correct placement of a GNR ballad or that one deep Poison cut you know would blow the roof of of your road-trip… and are we just supposed to forget about how the cases were the best way to carry a little weed around in your pocket?

I’m on my way to the electronics store, and hopefully leaving with a stereo that has a cassette player, record player, CD player, and an iPod plugin? I hope they still exist. If not then everything from this 2013 Kurt Vile EP, to this 2010 Carnivores album, to this half warped copy of The Grateful Dead in Portland from 1977 that was left on a hot car dashboard and melted to the point where the “Casey Jones” opener sounds like it’s being played underwater – they’re all just going to keep collecting dust on my desk. At least this guy gets it…

FREEMAN’s “Covert Discretion” Is Dividing Households of Ween Fans

zzawFREEMAN, the debut record from Aaron (RIP Gene Ween) Freeman is due out in a week from now – July 22 – but the live stream of the album is already causing factions to take form in the once prestigious house of Ween. The album is streaming for free right now at SPIN, which is somehow miraculously still a news source for music. It seems that most commenters don’t need to get much further than the opening track, “Covert Discretion” to take their stance on either side of the Ween lines. The simple notion that there is any dividing of the factions makes me slightly sick to my stomach. I’m under the impression that my love for the band is strong enough for me to accept both Gener and Deaner’s positions in this whole ordeal, despite me not being too into hearing Guy Heller sing Gener’s parts, nor into hearing somebody else play Deaner’s guitar solos. That being said, I think “Covert Discretion” is a beautiful creation to exist in this world, and I think Deaner himself would fully support it.

The gist of the tune revolves around Freeman giving his point of view of the debauchery of Ween tour, over the delicate plucking of an acoustic guitar. Stoked fans and the ailing state of his mind are presented in direct contrast with one another, battling til he reaches the point where he claims “I’m on my last leg and I can’t see – I wasn’t trying to blow your fantasy.” Realizing that playing in Ween is a toss-up between his “money and [his] life,” he pleads to “save your judgements for someone else” and “be grateful I saved me from myself.” It’s rather poignant stuff and an undeniably elegant telling of his 1st person experience. Then the coda hits, and in bombastic triumph he repeatedly says “Fuck you all, I got a reason to live and I’m never gonna die.” It’s this last line that’s stirring up some debate among fans. Some folks really seem to be taking it to heart, feeling that their love for Ween and desire to see the band reunite is being shunned by Freeman and that he’s misinterpreting their love for the band as opposition to his own health and well being. In fact, on Freeman’s facebook page some folks are stating that comments as such are actually being deleted from threads. In some sense, they are correct. I think there’s a notion that until he tries playing with Ween sober, he doesn’t have the justification to say it’s something he’s incapable of doing. Obviously no person is justified to critique the limits of sobriety of anybody else, but most of these naysaying fans have only been brought to this level by the way the Ween split went down. In fact, I think that some folks aren’t even necessarily looking for a reunion, but would rather have had a consensual farewell.

But disregarding the how and why of what brings us to the point where we’re talking about a Gener solo record as compared to a new Ween album, there’s no denying that this final line of “Covert Discretion” is one of the most bad-ass lyrics ever written. To Aaron, he takes every complaint about the breakup as a direct jab at his sobriety. And if his sobriety is the do-all end-all to his existence on this planet, then it’s understandable to see how he would take such comments directly to heart. The lesson he’s imparting though is that life and living are the top rung on the ladder – that anything that is a detriment to your own Earthly existence is not worth doing. So fuck you if you’d rather his potential death over the idea of Ween not being a band anymore. It takes balls to say this to your fans, and there’s no doubt that the people he’s telling to fuck off are legitimate Ween fans. In the end, I think every fans’ stance on the subject is stemmed in reasonable validity, but it’s hard to not take pride in an artist who’s doing his own thing to such an elevated degree. The tone is different, but this is just the same as when John Lennon said in “God”: “I don’t believe in Beatles – I just believe in me.Check out the track and the whole record and see how it makes you feel about the current state of the Ween community. The one thing we should all be able to agree on is that thank heavens we’re not arguing about what could have kept Gener alive.

Concert Review: Phish @ SPAC July 3, 4, & 5, 2014

If you don’t get lost at least once during a Phish SPAC run, then you’re doing something wrong. When it’s one of those perfect nights in Saratoga, the park becomes an enormous if not infinite spiral of trees, archways, pavilions, fireworks, sidewalks to nowhere, and a glistening haze of lights in the distance that makes seeing further than 20 feet in front of you a seemingly insurmountable task. Oh, you parked at the Gideon Putnam and aren’t sure which way to walk? Well, I know Milwaukee is due west from here if that helps.

As the decades continue to roll by without an adequate venue in Vermont to house the state’s preeminent sons, we’ve all taken to thinking of Saratoga Springs, NY as the designated locale for the band’s “hometown” shows. In fact, it was a Sunday night second set at SPAC in 2004 that caused the bittersweet tears of farewelling to stream down my face – not the subsequent disaster that happened in the Green Mountains later on in that week. And yes, after seeing this band for 20 years and 200 shows, nothing feels more like home than walking into a Stewart’s Shop to buy a case of beer to drink around a motel pool. Who’s got the boombox?

Thursday night started with the kind of thunderstorms that make those stuck with lawn tickets seriously question what exactly they’re doing with their life. Luckily it turned to more of a steady trickle as the gig got underway, and the rest of the weekend would be nothing but pure, perfect Summertime bliss. The first set was overly “first-setty” – odd song placements, under-stretched potential jam vehicles, and the solitary bliss of “Roggae”. In the bathroom line at set-break I really wanted to correct the bro in front of me who kept saying that “Row-Gay” is his favorite song, but it’s hard to tout the merits of a soft “G” to a guy non-ironically sporting an American flag bandana.

Most likely due to this year’s downplay of cover songs, “Bathtub Gin” finally made its way back into the second set, and found its place in the opening slot position for the first time since Hampton ’98. The jam took on some ideally sinister undertones before melting its way into “Limb By Limb” which itself got downright dangerous. Next came Fuego’s “Winterqueen” which garnered the most lukewarm reception of the evening albeit an oddly placed eruption when Trey sang “the prince of music plays guitar.” “The Line” came next and even the crowd’s biggest Fuego enthusiasts seemed to agree that back-to-back new cuts was an odd call. A rudimentary “Tweezer” would follow, dissolving too quickly into the still maligned “Prince Caspian,” which itself collapsed into “Sparkle,” which half of the crowd seems really excited to hear for some reason these days. Things continued to yada-yada-yada from there, so let’s get to the Fourth of July.

The “Star Spangled Banner” opener immediately stirred up debate among those fans who tend to take every word Trey says as gospel, and thus interpreted his “less covers” comment as a guarantee of no covers being played all Summer. Thankfully, the following weekend’s Randall’s Island run stopped all that talk, and relegated cover tunes to the position they used to hold – welcome surprises. Once we all settled into this SPAC first set though, it became a beautiful thing. “Reba” always sounds great in a summer shed, and this one served as an omen of the open expansion that would come in the second set. I really like “Waiting All Night,” but standing alone in the first set is not the place for it. It deserves to be the decompression drift out of something huge. “Runaway Jim” came next and featured an extended take on the pre-explosion percolation section which is always one of my favorite moments at a Phish gig. There’s nothing like getting really low on that part. Ahhhh… nothing. “Split Open and Melt” took a plundering stomp through the pines that everyone thought would end the set, but nobody argues when the ever-rarer “Squirming Coil” dropped in to push the firstt set near the 10:00pm mark.

The 2014 SPAC “Fuego>Down With Disease.” Despite an equally massive “Fuego” coming a few days later in Philly, we’ll be talking about this 33 minutes of music for years to come. The new tune that everybody had been waiting for the band to take to big places got launched into the ionosphere for America’s birthday. First venturing into the spooky, minimalist territory, it eventually wound its way into an ascending attack riff from Trey that sounded so perfectly massive that I half-thought it could have been a new composed ending to the song. It morphed into ethereal goo before landing in “Disease” in what may have been the most ideal transition into “DWD” that I can ever remember. It was perfect – one of those band/crowd blurred line moments where even the gabbiest set talkers were in an entranced hush. The brilliant pocket of the “Disease” jam infused my brain with one of those, “I can keep this up as long as you guys can” moments before ending up in “Twist.” Then a great “Light.” Then a solid “Theme From the Bottom.” And then came the soul-sucking intro to “Backwards Down the Number Line.” Not only could you feel the entire life get sucked out the shed, you could literally see it. A solid hour-plus of the hypnotic hold shattered in an instance – you could even see the frustrated smirk roll slightly off of Trey’s lips, which makes me wonder why even he wants to still play the song. As has become more usual, the jam went absolutely nowhere – nothing more than an extended strumming of chords – hopefully serving as the last great example to folks who say “at least the jam is good.” “First Tube” tried to regain some of the energy, but there’s only so much that song can do. That being said, the final 60 seconds of feedback couple with Kuroda’s explosion of light is one of the more intense things any human may bare to witness.

I’d be willing to wager that at least 50% of those in attendance on Friday saw the sun rise the next morning, which made Saturday one of those days where the ball gets rolling really slowly. I myself didn’t leave the woods of SPAC until 4:00am but that’s a whole other story. Saturday’s first set was fun, highlighted by Fish’s marimba lumina solo on “Scent of a Mule.” The novelty of “Wombat” works much better in a first set position, so I was stoked to hear it. Although I’m more interested to hear the soundcheck jam of “Wombat>Manteca>Wombat>Can’t Turn You Loose” – anybody tape that? But after “Undermind, “Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” “Foam” and “David Bowie” all in the first set, I was feeling fairly rejuvenated for the upcoming final set of the run. Now, nothing was enormous in this second set but it’s hard to argue with the setlist. The “Carini” opener got unexpectedly delicate, which was great, but things felt a tad too drifty when it made its way into “Waves.” “Wingsuit” continued its battle for consensual validity, and most likely will be a fan-favorite across the board by the end of summer. “Piper” was the fiery victor of the evening – never getting too far out there but also never letting up once. Everyone was content with a well-placed “Fluffhead,” but it’s the “Slave>Yem” to close out the run that led my fiancée to say “Maybe we should just fuck our adult obligations in life and go out on tour again.”

So sure, for your younger kid on the lot, SPAC may not feel like home. If you’re not smart you’ll get a drinking violation, and the expansive park draws a lot of the magic away from any type of a centralized Shakedown. But for some of us who have been around the block more than a few times, SPAC is home. Hotels within walking distance. The lack of pre-show chaos. Bars open til 4am. Grateful Dead music being played somewhere til the wee hours of the morn. Bloody Marys by a pool. The acknowledgment that anyone from the greatest parts of your life growing up in the NorthEast could be just around the next tree. Not only will I be there every year until the cows come home, SPAC almost makes me never want to see the cows again.

Thurday July 3

Set 1: Farmhouse, Wolfman’s Brother, Maze, Yarmouth Road, Strange Design, Devotion to a Dream, Ocelot > Chalk Dust Torture, Mound > Roggae > Possum

Set 2: Bathtub Gin>Limb By Limb.Winterqueen, The Line, Tweezer>Prince Caspian>Sparkle>Run Like and Antelope

Encore: Sing Monica> Tweezer Reprise

Friday July 4

Set 1: The Star Spangled Banner, 555, Kill Devil Falls, The Moma Dance > Reba,Waiting All Night, Runaway Jim > 46 Days, Rift, Split Open and Melt, The Squirming Coil

Set 2: Fuego > Down with Disease > Twist > Light > Theme From the Bottom,Backwards Down the Number Line, First Tube

Encore: Character Zero

Saturday July 5

Set 1: Crowd Control > My Friend, My Friend > Scent of a Mule, Undermind, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, I Didn’t Know, Foam, Wombat, Divided Sky, Wading in the Velvet Sea > David Bowie

Set 2: Carini -> Waves, Wingsuit > Piper > Fluffhead, Heavy Things > Slave to the Traffic Light, You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Suzy Greenberg

CHON – As Absolutely Filthy As Prog-Rock Comes

zzchonUsually when a band lists Return to Forever as one of their influences you don’t expect their music to be even in the same league as the Chick Corea crew of sound benders – especially when they’re just a bunch of young cats from SoCal. CHON is a whole different story though. Fresh off a tour opening for the much beloved prog-metal band, Animals as Leaders, including some sit-ins from AAL’s Tosin Abasi, these kids are primed to be key players in the new age of mind-boggling jazz/prog/fusion/rock – you know, the genre that all the kids are talking about these days. Seriously though…

Guitarist Mario Camarena plays licks in that quick fluid fashion that makes old players want to smash their ax to pieces. Despite having a fashion sense somewhat akin to Jimmy Buffet at a Bar Mitzvah after-party, the kid plays guitar like the bastard love-child of Al Di Meola and Buckethead. Someone needs to tell these dudes that it’s not cool to wear shorts on stage, but I’ll be damned if it’s me. Camarena is joined by his younger brother Nathan on drums (quite the beast himself), guitarist Erick Hansel who manages to lay down harmony lines over the top of Mario’s speed attack, and Drew Pelisek on bass who is smart enough to know that less is more on the low-end when your melody players are cruising at mach-9. The fellas released their second EP back in March, Woohoo!, a six-song collection that only hints at  their full potential. Like most ridiculous instrumentalists their vocals are a bit of a weak point, but it shows that they’re willing to try anything to find their definitive sound. That being said, it does take some massive balls to sing the occasional pop-hook while opening up for one of the darkest bad-ass bands on the planet. Basically any criticism you could ever have of a song is destroyed by a quick compostional moderation that arises before you would have any time to voice your bitching. Straight up, these kids are filthy. Check em’ out for yourself below, and props to the bass-wizard Steve Jenkins for turning me on to them.

How Old is Too Old For EDM?

zzzorpIn the 90′s it was all about raves. I was one of the true-blood hippie kids in high-school, which meant that I attended a few raves simply because I had friends who were into it and we liked to do drugs together, and because sometimes they had nitrous tanks inside. I never got fucked up enough to hit the dance floor though. It was more all about ripping joints on couches while watching kids act like complete imbeciles. That being said, it hasn’t been much of a surprise to see Electronic Dance Music blow up as huge as it has over the past decade. And sure, I realize EDM is a rather vague and broad label. But the question is, when are you too old for this shit? Moving from Burlington, Vermont to Portland, Oregon three years ago certainly put me a lot closer to the heart of Burning Man and thus closer to a broader age demographic of people who are into their bleeps, bloops, and whomps, but seriously – how far can you go?

This weekend I played the Bearmouth Music Festival outside of Missoula, Montana. I played with two different bands; one that leans slightly towards the live-electro side of things and one that is nothing but good ole’ rock n’ roll. Both sets were played on the smaller of two main stages, and both sets had to compete with the “DJ Dome” in the woods. Now first off, if the festival was smart they would have made the Dome the main stage and had bands play in the woods. It didn’t matter how big any of the bands were – there was always a bigger crowd for the DJs. When my rock band played it was almost like an announcement had been made before hand stating that anyone under the age of 30 should keep as far away from the stage as possible. But anyway, let’s talk about the scene at the DJ Dome. First off, most of the music I caught was unfathomably boring. There are all these new producers who think they’re being innovative by leaning away from the dub-step stereotypes and thus not relying on having big “drops.” However, if you’re not going to have a big change in intensity happen during your songs then you need to make sure you’re songs have at least something interesting happening – be it a solid melody or even something so radical as a verse/chorus exchange. Instead it was just one unfinished and mundane beat after the other. For the younger kids in the crowd, this was no matter. Being in any music scene at all is a new thing for them, so a simple beat-driven dial tone is enough for them to douse themselves in glow-gear and dance like they’re in the cave scene of The Matrix Revolutions. They filled up the region closest to the stage. But all along the periphery of the main crowd stood the “elders” of the scene. And by elders, I mean kids around the age of 30 standing still , wiping ecstasy from their nostrils, and lamenting about the good ole’ days of EDM waaaay back in 2009. These kids are wholeheartedly depressing. In a scene and genre that is supposed to be all about the collective experience, they’ve alienated themselves to the sidelines. They still eat the same drugs, but now they just nod their heads and ogle the asses of 17 year-olds.

Now I know what you’re thinking – that what I witnessed isn’t representative of the scene whatsoever. And I’m sure that a Skrillex set at some massive festival is a far more all-inclusive experience. But these kind of smaller festivals are happening constantly this summer, and if you no longer are willing to make a complete fool of yourself, then maybe it’s time you chose another activity for your long weekend. I’m not saying that there’s a Logan’s Run level of acceptance at these EDM gigs, I’m just saying that if you’ve turned into a causal observer than maybe it’s time you moved on. This music is about participation, perhaps more so than any other genre, and so when you’ve turned into a sideline head-bobber you’ve essentially removed yourself from the core of the music. Plus there’s a certain degree of perversion that comes from just standing around watching all these half-naked kids when you’re not engaging in the moment yourself. At least that old lady at Studio 54 had a heart attack on the dance floor and not sitting in one of the booths.

Just check out how gross Bob Lefsetz sounds when he describe attending Electric Daisy Carnival last week. He rambles on and on about how rock and hip-hop is dead, and how EDM is all that matters now. And yet in his review of the festival he talks not once about the music, but rather just about how all the girls are half-naked. He also delusionally calls these girls “women” so as to not view himself as a potential pedophile. But that’s all he does – stand and watch. And as much as he tries to think he’s part of this new scene because he pays attention to what makes the most money in the music business these days, he’s actually just an old fart looking at girls a third his age dance naked in the desert. So if you’re not dancing – if you’re not in the thick – then you’re too old for this shit. Plain and simple. It’s all about being a part of it, so when you’re just watching from the outside you’re disgracing not only yourself but the sanctity of the live music scene in general.

Ok Go Define The Internet Again

zzokThink back to the 20+ years of the internet’s existence. What are the images that linger? What are the videos that you instantly associate with the core of the global community? It’s safe to say you’ve got at least one moment from an OK Go video in there somewhere – most likely treadmill dancing. For years now the band has been the soundtrack to the viral landslide; making videos that take cues from the web’s popularity and morphing them into something even more tangible and definitive. They’ve dropped yet another one today with an attack on perspective in “The Writing’s On The Wall.” It’s not necessarily their most ambitious project, but it’s still unique enough that you’ll want to watch it at least three times before the day is over. Of course overshadowed by the whole ordeal is the fact that the band is consistently churning out superb indie-pop-rock. This latest one has a slightly darker undertone but still emits that irresitable head-nod feel. It actually makes me more stoked for their new album than ever before - Hungry Ghosts is due out on October 14 this year. Check out the video below, and as usual remember to forward it to your Mom afterwards.

Album Review: Phish – Fuego

phish-fuegoPhish not only has the most critical fan-base in the history of rock, but also the most divisive. At the heart of anyone’s personal journey with the band is the acceptance that people may enjoy this music for inherently different reasons than your own. Thus the enigma for the band itself lies in deciphering what that base emotion is that serves as the foundation for the wide swath of their fan-base – the proverbial “it” if you will. And after the dichotomous reaction to the debut of songs off Fuego last Halloween, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any fan expecting to hear it on this 2014 release. Yet for all intents and purposes, it’s here. And while all fans will describe something different when hearing it on this album, it is undeniable. Fuego is potentially the last thing I was expecting it to be, and that makes it all the better.

Pulling no punches by opening with the incendiary title track, the band wants to make sure they grab everybody from the get-go. Combining power with compositional obscurity harkens to 1997 and “Fuego” sounds like it could be in a three-piece attack squad with that year’s “Vultures” and “Carini.” The jungle-trap breakdown in the middle of the tune sounds so natural it’s surprising they’ve never really touched on that feel before, and when it drops back into the descending groove and chanted “whoas” you get that satisfactory release that’s been lacking in new Phish songs for a solid decade. The latter of those parts sounds oddly similar to Benevento/Russo Duo’s “Play Pause Stop,” a song that Anastastio and Gordon used to play with the duo in 2006, but let’s move on…

“The Line” is the first shoulder-shrug moment of the record, and fans of the song are quick to defend its “super-cool” back-story of a Memphis basketball player blowing some free-throws. That doesn’t make the Glee-style swing feel any less corny, and the recycling chord progression at the end could have easily been chopped 45 seconds earlier. “Devotion to a Dream” is the kind of Phish song I like to label as a “sub-rate moe. tune,” in the sense that it sounds like a second tier jam-band trying to sound like Phish. But things pick up again on “Halfway to the Moon,” a dark and slanky cut that I’ve loved since first hearing the band debut it in Saratoga in 2010. Four years has been plenty of time to figure out the necessary idiosyncrasies of this one, and the result is one of Fuego’s shining moments. Written by McConnell, this is easily one of the keyboardist’s greatest creations and it fleshes out the overall feel of the record in a way that would have been very beneficial back on Halloween. The groove is reminiscent to one of those great Vida Blue pockets from the early 2000s.

“Winterqueen” steals half of the opening riff to “Rainbow Connection” and that’s actually the least Disney moment of the song. Despite the nice addition of some horns, there’s little to stop this track from sounding like it should have been the second song played during the ending credits of Frozen. It’s not terrible though, as that word is reserved for “Sing Monica” – this is the kind of song for people who still think the production of Sesame Street Live they saw in 1988 was the best concert of their life. At this point you’re probably thinking that my song descriptions somewhat clash with the high praise I gave in the introduction. Well first off, things are great from here on out. Secondly, despite some of their cornball natures, all of these songs do flow in an ideal arc throughout the record. Thirdly, every Phish album has some stupid shit on it.

Played by both Phish and with his solo band, Gordo’s “555” has yet to do it for me in the live setting, but the studio does wonders for its complexion. What originally sounded like Rhode Island Reggae has turned into cream-dream era Robert Palmer, complete with horn and boisterous backing vocals. Anastasio uses a very minimalist touch here, and it opens the tune up perfectly for the rest of the instrumentation. “Waiting All Night” sounds like late-night drift-expansion at its finest. The lofty psychedelia again rings of ’97, this time a partner to “Roggae,” but even deeper into the “check-to-make-sure-the-top-of-your-head-is-still-there” category. Expect this one to pop up in more than a few late second sets this year. “Wombat” was the fan favorite at Halloween, but the cheeky novelty doesn’t hold up so well on repeated listens. It’s still a great groove, but goofball in a dumbed-down They Might Be Giants kind of way. “Wingsuit,” the Halloween opener takes on the closing role here and it’s a far more natural fit. Containing the beautifully simplistic self-referential line, “what’s new is old/what’s old is gone,” this one feels like it was the best track left of off Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell.

Now sure, depending upon one’s level of jadedness you can still find a way to absolutely loathe this record. But honestly if you’re at that point, then it’s really time to find another band to obsess over. For the rest of Phish’s dedicated fan-base though, you should be honored that your favorite band is somehow finding a way to be sonically relevant after 30 years, and be relieved to know that they still got some of “it” in their bag.

Urban Legends of Rock Part 3 – Deaner “Borrows” Santana’s Gear

zzcsLegend - Dean Ween of Ween snuck into a storage space in the middle of night so he could record a guitar solo on Carlos Santana’s gear.

Potential Validity – 100%

We’re chalking this one up to the instant legend category – same thing as when ESPN puts a new basketball game into their instant classics lineup. Good ole’ Deaner dropped this story on Facebook just yesterday. In turns out that back in 2003 when Ween was trying to finish up Quebec, one of their trusted roadies also worked for a company that supplied backline for spots in the Northeast. Santana was playing on Good Morning America the next day and all his gear was being temporarily held in a storage space near New York. So the roadie calls up Deaner, and the next thing he knows it’s 2am and they’re unpacking all of Carlos’ gear so that Deaner can record the solo for “Transdermal Celebration” on Santana’s guitar, using Santana’s pedal board, and coming out of Santana’s amp. They were there for 10 minutes, they got out one take, and it’s the one that’s used on the album. As this is one of my all-time favorite Ween songs, this is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever heard. This is fuckin’ rock and roll kids – ballsy as fuck. I hope we eventually get to hear Carlos’ opinion on the matter (I think he’d probably laugh it off) but until then it’s best to hear the story straight from Deaner’s mouth. He said he didn’t want people to share it too much, but how you can you let something about this lie. Deaner calls it his favorite Ween story of all time, but I’m sure it’s just his favorite Ween story of all time that doesn’t involve extreme belligerence. Here’s Mickey’s own telling:

Me and carlos sort of collaborate——-I think enough time has passed where I can finally tell my favorite Ween story of all-time. 
The businesses and the people involved have long since closed their doors and moved on for good and hopefully the people involved (and Carlos himself, if it comes to that) will have a good sense of humor about this story.

In 2003 Ween released our album “quebec” on Sanctuary Records. We worked on the album for 2 years in our beach house in Holgate,NJ, a rented house in the Pocono Mountains of PA, the garage behind Aaron’s house in Pt. Pleasant, PA, my upstairs guest room, and finally Andrew Weiss’s living room in NJ. We also worked at Water Music in Hoboken, NJ and Graphic Sound Studios in Ringoes, NJ. It was not a great period in our personal lives, Aaron was going thru a divorce and I was partying way too hard myself—it was some dark shit. The record is mone of my favorites, but it is a depressing album lyrically. It was not an easy record to make either, as evidenced by the amount of places we worked, trying to find the right environment. There are demos available online that I posted where you can hear the process at work, we racked up our normal batch of like 6 dozen songs or more before whittling it down to what was finally released, 15 tunes.

I am a huge fan of Carlos Santana. He is one of my favorite guitarists of all-time. He is playing better these days than ever before in my opinion. His music is more radio friendly, for sure, but as a guitarist he has aged like a fine wine. Only Neil Young, Prince, and a small handful of others can make that claim as they become members of the AARP.

We were working in Andrew’s living room on the song “Transdermal Celebration”, our drummer Claude Coleman had just gotten into a horrific car crash and left us w/o a drummer for the recording and ensuing tour. Eventually it worked itself out where the record took so long to complete that Claude made enough of a recovery to do the world tour with us supporting “quebec.” In the meantime though, even though Claude had played on some of the demos, drumming on the album was left up to me, Josh Freese, and Sim Cain. “Transdermal Celebration” had been recorded 3 times by this point, with a drum machine, with Claude playing drums, and the final take on the album which features Josh Freese. It was the eventual single from the album. So, we’re in the middle of this session and I get a phone call from my roadie (nameless) who also worked for a backline company (nameless) that supplied amps, drums, lights, etc. to bands touring in the Northeast. My roadie told me that Carlos Santana’s equipment (including his guitars) had arrived via a trucking company that night at their depot. Carlos was recording an appearance on “Good Morning America” the next morning and his equipment was to be delivered to the set in NYC in a few hours.

What needed to be done was immediately clear to me, I had an opportunity to play the solo on “Transdermal Celebration” through Carlos Santana’s amplifier and guitar. I had one shot at it, it meant taking a hard disk recorder to a storage space where all of Carlos’ stuff was sitting in transit. I arrived at 2am. We (very carefully) unpacked his equipment and set up his stage gear and in one take I recorded the guitar solo for “Transdermal Celebration” (the one that appears on the album, playing thru Carlos Santana’s guitar, pedalboard, and amplifier. The whole think took 10 minutes and we were terrified we were going to get caught. A lot of people would have lost their jobs. We got the fuck outta there relly fast after that. So the solo on “Transdermal Celebration” was played thru all of Sanatana’s shit in what resembled an early morning bank heist or something……….

Of course a story like this requires visual proof, so here it is. Don’t tell anyone about these please.

-Dean Ween 6/14

Photo courtesy of The Dean Ween Group Facebook page.

The Nth Power Restore Divinity to The House of Funk and Soul

zzznthThe term “funk” has taken on some askew connotations over the past few decades. You’d be amazed at how many artist submissions I get where the band describes itself as a funk act primarily because their front-man plays acoustic rhythm guitar and their songs never change key. Just because your Mom tells her work-friends that your band sounds funky, doesn’t mean you should post it in your bio. Real funk is primal. It’s inescapable. It rises up from the hearts of artists who play it because their gritty souls have incubated a sonic child of passion within themselves, and those children cannot be contained. True soul music is birthed from this same place. It arises from the wake that rolls off the channeled passage between man and his creator. True funk and soul musicians don’t play this music because they like it. They play it because these beasts of existential creation will eat them alive if they’re not released. They pound at the gates of your inner self, and the only way to ease the pain is to set them free. The Nth Power play music with all their gates open. The demons arise, the angels descend, and they meet within the pockets of this 5-piece to lay all morality on the line as the infinite battle of existence explodes around them. I first met guitarist Nick Cassarino in 2001 at The University of Vermont’s Jazz Improv program, (incidentally an era when the program would birth a horde of killer bands and musicians in bands like Rubblebucket, RAQ, Turkey Bouillon Mafia.) Anyway, Nick was this quiet kid who most of us primarily knew just as the guy who could play any and every scale on demand. So one day after class when he asked me if I could get him a bag of weed, I gave him a hesitant maybe… This was Groovy UV for Pete’s sake – you’d trip over a bag of weed if you didn’t watch your step. It wasn’t until a month later that I realized he was actually still in high school, and only taking the college Improv class because he was nasty enough to do so. At which point I felt really bad for not helping him get stoned. But regardless, it didn’t take long til this under-aged kid was absolutely slaying it in Burlington bars playing with the likes of Dave Grippo Funk Band and The Jennifer Hartswick Band. I say this with all earnestness, he may well be the tastiest guitar player on the planet, and he has been for over a decade. That’s why anyone how’s been on the Vermont music scene for a while knows that The Nth Power has been a long time coming.

Cassarino is a spiritual cat, so it’s no surprise that he’s linked up with some of the deepest players in the game. Nikki Glaspie is one of those drummer that you presume was pulsing on the walls of the womb. It takes massive touch to play drums for Beyonce, and it takes one hell of a strong woman to be able to say she’s done with the Beyonce gig because she wants to work on her own stuff. Nigel Hall on keys first made a name for himself playing with Lettuce, and he’s one of those guys that everybody wants in their band – fluid, attentive, aggressive, calm, absurd. Oh, and did I mention that all three of these folks can sing like they’re leading a Gospel choir? Nate Edgar on bass is rock solid and baby-butt smooth, and Weedie Braimah on percussion is one of those few percussion players that makes you say “Oh, I get it.” In short order, this crew is a force to be reckoned with. Pure soul. Pure funk. Pure roots. Pure power. I’d say give em’ another year or so and their gigs are going to turn into hard-to-grab tickets. Check out their site HERE and watch the clip below of “Soul Survivor” from a gig in Jerz last week.