The crowd at the Wetlands on Friday, March 30th, 2001 knew from the opening tune that crazy electric 6-string violinst/composer Joe Deninzon, dressed in a fiery red Trix T-shirt, and his all-star line-up were not your average silly rabbits! The band’s mission was simple: Make the crowd groove to the acid funk-infected vibe of his latest quartet, Stratospheerius.
While ulu and Addison Groove Project meandered through their groove sets upstairs, Joe Deninzon's Stratospheerius, with Grisha Alexiev on drums, Rufus Philpot on 6-string bass, and Alex Skolnick on guitar, dazzled the Wetlands second stage crowd all night long with their original jam band tunes. Deninzon, a Cleveland native who is now living in NYC, is finally staking his claim in the jam bands space as a virtuoso performer whose unique, feisty blend of funk and fusion jam explorations are reminiscent of Bela Fleck or Jean-Luc Ponty.
Stratospheerius started the set with "What's That Thang?", a funky blues groove that featured Deninzon and Alex Skolnick trading blazing solos in midstream. Skolnick, the former lead guitarist for metal rock outfit Testament, pleasingly defied all of the laws of groove tradition by blending his metal and noisy jazz runs within Joe's music.
The next tune was "Pleasurepain", a pounding jam tune that started out with an eerie, minimalistic bass and guitar motive that soon broke down to all out New Orleans funk hell. Joe's chunky violin wah-wah riff forced the crowd to mosey down from the upstairs and hit the dance floor. The listeners were now ready for "Peppermint Patty", a funk and jazz-inspired song that featured Deninzon's Stevie Wonder-style vocals. The tight groove, created in part by a jazzy violin and wah-wah guitar underlying primary riff, conjured up images of Peppermint Patty wearing leather and lace. Deninzon and Skolnick displayed their cool thematic interplay all night long as a screaming violin second verse frenzy broke down to quiet jazzy, jam band groove. Letting the rest of his ensemble jam in the limelight, Joe went out into the crowd and danced with his hippy fans -- oh, sweet liberation!!
With the crowd eagerly anticipating a return to the principal groove, Deninzon followed up with a mellow Grappelli-esque "Evening Nap In the Afternoon Sun". This song began with a Rolling Stones-sounding Middle Eastern motive, with an ascending linear guitar line that set the stage for Deninzon's "ever-so-true to his jazz violin roots" sense of melody -- his music is incredibly diverse, due in part to his vast array of musical influences.
"Chunga Chunga" and its quirky violin rhythms created an inspirational Dave Mathews Band-type groove that got the crowd dancing. The whole ensemble got into this song, as the guitar, violin, and bass all had turns displaying their chops galore over the Bossa-Nova type harmonies. 6-string bassist Rufus Philpot, on loan from his stint as house bassist with Broadway's "Saturday Night Fever", took an adventurous bass solo relying upon blazing 32nd note Jaco-like staccato runs which showcased his amazingly precise sense of right-hand articulation. The entire crowd bowed its collective heads as each player soloed in. At this point in the show, some people were leaving ulu to check out the Stratospheerius sounds from below.
Newer jam tunes like "The Chicken" and "Storytime" soon followed. Throughout the rest of the night, drummer Grisha Alexiev carried the pulse on his shoulders and displayed some serious woodblock chops as Deninzon's violin jigged on top of the bass and guitar syncopated harmonies. "Acid Rabbits" was at least 20 minutes long and its purposeful violin solos, fueled with effects-driven delayed and harmonized melodic thoughts, were somewhat reminiscent of Trey Anastasio's poignant melodic noodlings. A neat little Nintendo-sounding muted bass ostinato drove the harmonic tension during portions of this tune. With its old-school Chili Peppers pulse, "Hindsight" relied on Deninzon's Anthony Keidis-style vocals to entice the crowd into its hardest dance of the night.
Another new tune, "Red", kept the crowd on its heels. The last song of the night, the appropriately named "Shock Therapy", was by far, the funkiest tune of the night. You don't need horns to lay down the funk when you have Deninzon's violin mimicking the sound of Fred Sanford's son coming back to the junkyard! There were a ton of highlights in this gig closer. The pounding funk pulse, held tight by Alexiev's energetic downbeats and another smokin' bass solo led the band into a final jagged musical statement, highlighted by a fragmented Skolnick-esque heavy metal solo. As the end of the song broke down into a mini drum solo, Alexiev's huge, pounding chops keep the crowd moving on their feet. Deninzon and Skolnick even uttered melodic fragments of the "Stayin' Alive" motive, playfully teasing their bassist, Rufus Philpot.
Following the inspirational musical path of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Dave Matthews Band, Joe Deninzon’s musical statement and creative presence are leaving brilliant impressions in the jam band space. His profound musicianship, intertwined with skillful, effects-driven arrangements ultimately creates very accessible and mainstream music -- qualities that are the hallmarks of the most diverse jam bands and virtuoso players in the space. Deninzon has arrived. Stay tuned for the release of his upcoming CD and be sure to check out his website at www.joedeninzon.com for the latest touring information.
GrasstaiN's Jay Terrien
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