Music news, reviews, interviews and notes


Friday, September 14, 2007

The Greening of NYC: Tea Leaf Green At The Blender 

By: David Schultz
Photo Credits: Michelle Powell

Throughout their storied career, the Grateful Dead’s arrival in any town was cause for joy and merriment. Not counting the sizable number of Deadheads who would follow them from town to town, a multiple night run of shows probably accounted for a greater percentage of corporate personal days than most are comfortable admitting. The welcoming community created around the Dead was one of the significant factors towards making them one of the industry’s most lucrative touring entities regardless of whether they had new music to promote. Tea Leaf Green’s three night run at New York City’s Blender Theater at Gramercy this past weekend highlighted the fact that the TLG experience draws many parallels to the one formerly provided by the Grateful Dead.

Following in the footsteps of their San Franciscan ancestors, Tea Leaf Green has carved out a sizable niche as a potent touring entity, building a loyal fanbase that is all too happy to greet newcomers into their fold. Another hallmark of Grateful Dead shows was the ever-malleable set list. If they were pulling multiple nights at a venue, each show would be distinct from the next; miss one and you might miss something special. For Tea Leaf’s recent New York run, not only did they mix up each night’s set list, in seven sets of music (six electric, one acoustic), the band never repeated a single song. Showing the breadth and depth of their current repertoire, with the exception of a Saturday night cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It,” Tea Leaf Green played more than 8 hours of worth of original music without the padding of 20 minute jams.

Each show was a microcosm, encapsulating Tea Leaf’s creative energy and inventive musicianship. Only in widening the focus and looking at their marvelous three-night run, (which ultimately encompassed a fourth night, a “secret” intimate acoustic performance at Mo Pitkin’s), as a whole can you get a grasp on how Tea Leaf Green’s whole is greater than its parts.
Keyboardist Trevor Garrod brings a homespun sense of folk and country and brings an understated sense of urgency to songs like “Incandescent Devil” and “Devil’s Pay.” Even though he shares writing credit with Garrod on Friday night’s encore, the mellow “Truck Stop Sally” (the ultimate party-with-the-band song), guitarist Josh Clark provides a hard-driving growl that fuels Tea Leaf’s heavier side, bursting forth on songs like “Criminal Intent,” “Dragonfly” and “Death Cake.” Bassist Ben Chambers’ bent towards laid-back hip-hop, fleshes out the funkier side of the band, his bass line on “Franz Hanzerbeak” being one of TLG’s greatest concoctions. With three charismatic musicians fronting the band, it’s easy to miss Scott Rager’s sizable contributions. Often toiling literally outside of the band’s spotlight, Rager’s understated drumming becomes noticeable for its subtlety. During Saturday night’s encore of “Professor’s Blues,” Rager did get his moment, taking an extended drum solo while his three band mates took to the sides.

At a single show, you’ll catch a glimpse at how masterfully the four of them play together; over a span of shows, you can truly appreciate the skill with which they weave an intricate tapestry that brings together a wide range of styles. It’s the little things that become more pronounced: Chambers’ demonically funky bass riff during a “Kali-Yuga” jam; Clark integrating part of the Indiana Jones soundtrack into “Wet Spot;” Garrod pulling out the Jimi Hendrix inspired trick of playing his “Franz Hanzerbeak” keyboard solo behind his back and Rager underscoring one of Garrod’s solos with a bossa nova beat. These are just some of things I caught, I’m sure I missed many more.

The most punctual band in modern rock history, Tea Leaf remembers that going to a rock show is supposed to be a fun experience, giving knowing winks to those who know where to look. The curiously named Coffee Bean Brown, Saturday night’s opening act, was simply Tea Leaf performing an acoustic set. With Clark playing acoustic guitar and Chambers playing a sleek wooden acoustic bass, they ambled through forty-five minutes of folk and country tinged rock that catered nicely to Garrod’s mellow vocals. Keeping the mood light, Chambers drew excited cheers for his run through “(Baby Wants) Biscuits” which had Clark and Garrod chiming in on the “she’s addicted to dough” chorus. This past Tuesday’s acoustic performance encompassed much of the Coffee Bean Brown set while including nice stripped down interpretations of “Dragonfly,” “These Two Chairs,” “Earth And Sky” and “Freedom.” Opening Thursday night’s show with “The Garden,” they went on to play “The Garden (Part II)” on Friday with “The Garden (Part III)” becoming Saturday night’s predictable first number.

Tea Leaf started Saturday night’s final set with longtime staples “If It Wasn’t For The Money” and “Franz Hanzerbeak” before running through a series of songs that included “Tequila,” “Deep River” and “Stormcloud” which featured a couple stunning flute solos from Garrod. While not exactly full of concert rarities, Tea Leaf’s final set of the run, highlighted by an enthusiastically inspired “Planet Of Green Love” during which Chambers' uncharacteristically came center stage to rambunctiously bounce around, primarily consisted of songs that hadn’t been part of their New York repertoire for more than a year and a half, providing a real treat for long time but sedentary Metropolitan fans.

At this point Tea Leaf Green is at a very curious point in their career. Not that it would be a wise or advisable career decision, but if they broke up right now, their legend would spread virally and exponentially, growing to such mythic proportions that their eventual reunion concerts would make Dispatch’s sellouts of Madison Square Garden pale in comparison. The word-of-mouth buzz about the band has grown that strong as has the connection they are making with their audience. A fine example of the bond between Tea Leaf and their fans was that Josh Clark’s dad, who was in New York on business, was as big a celebrity at Mo Pitkin’s as his son.

The Gramercy run of shows saw the TLG machine, which has been finely honed and road tested over the past few years, running on all cylinders like a high precision instrument. Adept at looking back into their catalog, which has become quite sizable, it feels like it’s been a while since they’ve looked forward. For the past couple years, it seems as if the band has been in a holding pattern, establishing their current catalog and amassing hordes of new fans by maintaining one of the most industrious touring schedules imaginable. Going back to the Dead, when their touring catalog became static, it was mainly because they were past the fertile inventive stages of their career; that can’t be said of Tea Leaf Green, which has incredible reserves of creativity at their disposal. However, “new” is also a relative term. The Mo Pitkin’s show, which was recorded with an eye towards being released in conjunction with eMusic, contained a substantial number of tunes that while not new in the sense of being fresh off the notepad will be new to the ears of many. Clark may have summed up the new material conundrum for Earvolution quite concisely, “Oh, we’ve got it and you’ll have trouble keeping up with it.”

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Well done my friend, well done.
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