Tea Leaf Green: Big Top Balancing Act

By: Tom Speed

Tea Leaf Green by C. Taylor Crothers
They were on a roll. The success of their fourth album, Taught To Be Proud, was the culmination of years of hard work and determination for San Francisco's Tea Leaf Green. It was a watershed event. Their popularity and acclaim was on the rise. They won a "Jammy" award for the album's title track. They were being asked to play at every major festival in the country. Their legendary live shows were being captured on a multitude of official downloads and widely traded homemade recordings. They were professionally chronicled in a live DVD/CD combo release entitled, simply but boastfully, Rock 'n' Roll Band. Their burgeoning base of well-connected fans were committed to supporting the band every chance they could. They were on top of the world.

Riding on these successes, the jam-rock foursome prepared to go into the studio for what would be a highly anticipated follow-up to Taught To Be Proud. For many bands that thrive on the stage, the official live album acts as a demarcation point – an official summation of all of the progress to date. Rock 'n' Roll Band was that for Tea Leaf Green, buoyed by the success of Taught To Be Proud. But they didn't realize how much of a demarcation point it would really be, how this point in time would mark a new era of the band, because then came the bombshell. Ben Chambers, bassist and founding member, abruptly quit the group.

Lineup changes are a fact of life in rock. It happens all the time. People quit, get tired, get pissed, find God, marry Yoko, die. But when a band is a tight foursome like Tea Leaf Green, the specific concoctions that define a band's sound can be especially dependent on the ingredients - the specific style, character and talent of the individual members like carefully selected spices in a secret recipe. In a four-piece like Tea Leaf Green - guitar, bass, drums and keyboards - there's little room for error and the slightest "offness" is blatantly apparent. It's about chemistry, that very special balance that makes something more than the sum of its parts - the one intangible element required for real magic.

Mathis & Clark - TLG by Sam Friedman
That chemistry would immediately change, and their general balance was threatened with the departure of one key ingredient, one leg of an otherwise sturdy table. With all of the momentum the band had harnessed at this point in time, such a drastic change could have been a derailing moment for many bands. But Tea Leaf Green didn't miss a beat. They quickly enlisted virtuoso bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) and hit the studio with famed musician and record producer David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) to begin writing the next chapter of Tea Leaf Green. The resultant record, Raise Up The Tent (released July 22 on Surf Dog), finds Tea Leaf at their best. Chief songwriter Trevor Garrod's lyrics chronicle a rogue's gallery of characters whose road adventures seem to define them. Hobos, tramps, truck drivers, carnies, drunks and ne'er do-wells populate these tales. They face down darkness, but keep on moving.

This oftentimes-dark life on the road is no doubt inspired by the life Tea Leaf Green has chosen for themselves. They're the ultimate road dogs, sometimes playing more than a hundred shows per year. Moving from town to town, "singing for my supper" as Garrod proclaims on Tent's closing track, "Keeping The Faith." Theirs is a traveling carnival - a metaphor indicated by the tent-pole themes found in the album's artwork and lyrical musings.

Some bands might have folded the tents. Tea Leaf raised it high. By maintaining their never-ending efforts to find the perfect balance of being both jam band shredders and serious songwriters, Tea Leaf Green have allowed their fans to keep the faith in their band by insisting that the show must go on.

Raise The Tent

Trevor Garrod by Josh Miller
"They are a real smart and capable band," says David Lowery. Though perhaps better known for his own bands, Lowery has spent the past couple decades quietly amassing quite a track record as a producer, most notably as long-time collaborator of the Counting Crows but also as a producer of Sparklehorse, Hackensaw Boys and many other such diverse acts.

Tea Leaf Green had never used an outside producer of this ilk before. The band members and their close family had produced each of their prior efforts, but when Lowery found out they were considering enlisting his services, it didn't take him long to get on board.

"I mostly heard them from listening to them on Pandora and LastFM and stuff like that," Lowery says. "I thought their song structure in a lot of ways resembled what we did with Cracker. Cracker is seen as more of an alternative band but we do have sort of longer song structures, and there's a musical counterpoint give and take that you don't have with a lot of alternative bands. And [Tea Leaf] have real good, recognizable melodies. With vocal melodies I think a lot of bands can get trapped in a range but that's not really a problem with them."

In addition to their songwriting skills, Lowery was equally impressed by their musicianship, and it was their concert prowess that sealed the deal for him. "I immediately started checking out the live shows when it was first being discussed and that's when I decided I really wanted to do it," he says.

Indeed, Tea Leaf Green may be first and foremost a live band, but that hasn't stopped them from trying to craft an alternate identity as a top-notch studio band, too. Though they are rightfully well known for their adroit improvisation, what sets them apart from much of their jam band brethren is their catalog of well-crafted songs. Even without their onstage achievements, they'd be a great band based on their songs alone. Much of the success of Taught To Be Proud can be attributed to searching for, and finding, that balance.

Continue reading for more on Tea Leaf Green...

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