Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Tea Leaf Green :: 12.07.07 :: Rio Theatre :: Santa Cruz, CA
It's a truism but one worth repeating: Change is hard. While we all like the idea of evolution, there's almost always growing pains and discomfort in the long, slow slog towards newness. Walking briskly through the softly glowing winter streets of Santa Cruz towards Tea Leaf Green's inaugural gig with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey bassist Reed Mathis one couldn't escape the feeling of significance hanging over the evening. The sudden departure of Ben C. (bass/vocals 1997-2007) had kicked up dust amongst TLG fans, and the announcement of Mathis' joining made few points with JFJO fans concerned he was abandoning his more experimental instrumental work. Few of us like having our assumptions challenged, and shifting lineups in bands we've poured our passion into almost always kicks us in a deep place. But, once the music started, once the thing itself stood up on eight legs and danced, well, you'd have been hard pressed to believe this was Mathis' first show.
| Mathis & Clark - TLG :: 12.07.07 :: Santa Cruz|
Sandwiched between high flying harlequin masks of evil grinning comedy and screaming tragedy, Blue Turtle Seduction took the chill out of our bones with a compact, energetic opening set. They have the primacy of folk music – Kingston Trio vocals, fancy picking and underlying structural integrity – crashing into rock & roll. It's something akin to the way country and blues mutated into rock in the '50s, except BTS has a more global reservoir to draw from, taking pieces of Mano Negra, String Cheese Incident, Bob Marley, African jive and even the oddball genre splicing of Kate Bush. What the Rio performance – only my third or fourth time seeing them – brought home was the significance of the last word in their name. During a massive jam driven by Christian Zupancic's insistent violin and Jay Seals' growling electric guitar, one felt seduced; drawn in with caresses and glances more than straight up grabbed. Full hearted entertainers, Blue Turtle shook their moneymakers while offering up incongruous combinations that nonetheless worked – Bulgarian campfire jigs tumbling into lover's skank, sea shanties nuzzling Queen-like bravado. A new song, "El Camino," had the ale-fueled bonhomie of vintage Pogues. And while often a bit chipper for my personal tastes, there's more shadows stirring on the edges as they progress, and anyone who digs the notion of say Gogol Bordello with more polish and focus will find much to love in this band.
In the dressing room before their set, the members of Tea Leaf Green chatted amiably with a continuous stream of well wishers but to anyone looking past the surface it was clear their nerves were a little frayed going into their first gig in 10 years with a new member. Due to guitarist Josh Clark's temporary position with Particle, the full quartet hadn't rehearsed together until this show's afternoon soundcheck. While all seasoned stage jockeys, circumstances like this would give anyone pause. Still, they stared down the first sentence in the next chapter of their story with a collective smile that blossomed into full, shit eating grins within a few minutes onstage.
| Reed Mathis - TLG :: 12.07.07|
Opener "Little Hood" showed their trademark groove-rock strut to be fully intact, and at the risk of pissing off Ben C. enthusiasts, the deep end was instantly and recognizably stronger, due to Mathis' tremendous tone and gymnast dexterity and a particularly switched-on Scott Rager, who pounded a little harder, swung a little tougher and overall shined in a way with his new rhythm partner I haven't heard in some time. There's something indefinable but unmistakable about the effect of fresh blood in a band. The members test the new guy and each other, unearthing hitherto unknown pockets in their playing and the material. Throughout their lengthy set, there was no mistaking the sense of happy surprise hitting the whole group.
Mathis is arguably the finest electric bass player out there today. Sure, there's Wootens, Claypools and others who equal or even best him on a technical level, but a case can be made for Reed Mathis as the most adventurous, fearless and downright musical bassist going. There's no setting he doesn't adapt to like a duck in water, and his ceaseless passion for music never fails to infuse whatever he's doing with sparks aplenty. Such was the case as TLG burrowed into "If It Wasn't For The Money." Begun by some really beautiful, exposed picking from Clark – a man usually known as a power player but capable of the delicate string poetry of early '70s Fleetwood Mac – "Money" developed into something really special. Anyone who's listened to Tea Leaf for a spell knows they're capable of soaring (and taking an audience upward with them) but Mathis helped them dig deeper. As Trevor Garrod sang, "I was once a flower, I'll be a flower again," they tilled downward with fervor, filling the tail section with the earthy scent of dark, rich soil.
It was but the first instance where this new configuration gave familiar pieces renewed shimmer and added body. All four men exhibited near uncontrolled delight at making music together, pushing themselves, their material and one another in the hopes of breaking through to something. For some it might be joy, for others mere entertainment, and for a few folks a sliver of enlightenment offered so gently it never feels like a lesson. Pushing so hard on so many levels gave even canonized compositions like "The Garden" trilogy or the head busting final encore "Franz Hanzerbeak" unexpected angles and the promise of more to come. There's a profound sense of possibility in the air as these four gel, learn the nuances of each other's styles and generally shake off any initial jitters.
| Tea Leaf Green :: 12.07.07 :: Santa Cruz|
To their credit, TLG didn't pick a timid setlist, instead choosing to leap into the unknown confident their latest arrival would keep pace. The high ceiling and general spaciousness of the Rio underpinned the natural bigness of their sound. With Mathis on bass it's becomes easier to imagine Tea Leaf's music filling an amphitheatre. The growing sophistication in Garrod's keyboards and vocals reveal a worthy descendent of songwriting pillars like Leon Russell and Elton John – populists extraordinaire with the chops of jazzmen. That mixture of the accessible and the exploratory at the heart of Tea Leaf Green has rarely been more evident than this performance. With Mathis onboard, there's simply nowhere they can't go and a good many places they might never have visited without him. One listen to this evening's "Jezebel" testifies with uplifted hands to this fact.
While change may be hard it's also inevitable. To remain stationary is to invite stagnation. The addition of a born rock star like Reed Mathis to the fold only increases the overall potential and potency of the group. And while there's much to be said about the value of loyalty and history, it's important to note that Ben Chambers chose to leave. This is not an easy lifestyle, and if one doesn't embrace it as a calling that drives every day then it will eat you up. Today's Tea Leaf Green is a special assortment of guys who infuse rock with that passion, keeping it agile and alert, shaking off the signs of age the genre frequently exhibits. If that idea appeals to you then this next stretch in TLG's ongoing tale should excite you a great deal.
Little Hood, If It Wasn't For The Money, Red Ribbons, Hot Dog, Piss It Away, One Reason, The Devil's Pay, Let Us Go, Don't Curse the Night, The Garden Pt 1 > The Garden Pt 2 > The Garden Pt 3, Jezebel, Precious Stone > Can You Guess It?
Encore: I've Got A Truck, Franz Hanzerbeak
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