Words by: Kevin Schwartzbach | Images by: Elliot Dodge DeBruyn
U-Melt :: 01.24.09 :: Higher Ground Showcase Lounge :: Burlington, VT
As eclectic as the music that falls under the umbrella term "jam" is, the myriad of jam bands touring today makes it hard for artists on the scene to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. This is precisely the task U-Melt is currently faced with. I went down to Higher Ground to find out just how well this New York based foursome accomplishes that task. So, are they successful in this endeavor? After two sets worth of their remarkably tight jams, impressive compositions and surprisingly soulful and profound lyrics, the answer is a resounding yes.
Though they share many commonalities with other jam bands – abrupt key, tempo and time-signature changes, segueing seamlessly between songs, astonishing musical virtuosity, drawing from eclectic influences, etc. – U-Melt's self-proclaimed "organic progressive groove" harbors all these elements in a manner that matches, if not exceeds, most of their contemporaries. On top of their jamming skills, Saturday night's show also illustrated that unlike many of the jam band kin, U-Melt also has a remarkable propensity for songwriting, lyrics and all. The chemistry that produces such results is an uncommon happenstance that yields a unique sound that allows them to keep things fresh and unpredictable.
The trip down from Montreal, my current city of residence, through the frigid Vermont night was a rare but worthwhile one. Normally Montreal's luscious music scene has more than enough to quench the auditory thirst of any music aficionado. But for all of her musical splendor, there is at least one scene in which Montreal is lacking – some good ol' crunchy jam music. Lucky for me nearby Burlington is practically swimming in jam.
To a still-infantile audience, the Nate Wilson Group emerged to start the night off. This didn't stop the New Hampshire natives from delivering pure, unadulterated rock 'n' roll that comes at you with a level of energy high enough to get anyone's feet moving. Bearing little resemblance to his work with Assembly of Dust, Nate Wilson's first effort as a bandleader possesses a sound that's a little blues and a little funk, resulting in a final product any avid rock fan can appreciate. As the room became increasingly crowded, the energy of their music seemed to rise accordingly. The song "White Lantern" proved these guys not only have the chops to throw down tight jams, but also excel at songwriting (see JamBase's rave for their debut). Don't be surprised if you see their name popping up in a lot of places this year.
U-Melt, in a similar fashion, came out with guns blazin', kicking off their first set with the energetic "Pura Vida." From the drop of the first sound, the now fully matured crowd was gyrating to and fro. One thing was clear from the start, the folks at Higher Ground know how to get down.
|George Miller / U-Melt :: 01.24 :: Vermont|
The nice thing about Higher Ground's Showcase Lounge is that its small size allows you to get right up close to the stage. The massive hearing loss I sustained throughout the night was a small price to pay for catching an intimate glimpse of these guys at work. Watching the astonishing speed of George Miller's drumming, particularly during songs such as "Folded" and "Schizophrenia," was a magnificently mesmerizing experience. With a stoic expression on his face, Adam Bendy stood statuesquely in the background pumping out graceful yet funky basslines. Each note he plucked seemed to be scrupulously chosen, perfectly complimenting the soaring solos of Rob Salzer (guitar, vocals). Throughout the show, I intently watched the onstage communication between these two, giving me a whole new appreciation for the amount of effort put into their seemingly extemporaneous improvisations. The pair was so locked in together that it seemed almost as if they were reading each other's minds.
The guitar work of Salzer, much like U-Melt's music on the whole, seemed to cover a wide gamut of genres, sometimes displaying more than one influence at the same time. From the classically infused, trance-like licks in "Schizophrenia" to the jazzy dance-inducing guitar of "Panacea" to the straight-up rock 'n' roll riffage in the band's rendition of The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog," it was evident that Salzer is capable of playing any style with expert fluency. If one critique could be made of his playing, it would be that his work often sounds uncannily similar to jam godfather Trey Anastasio (if one could even call that type of comparison a "critique").
As if the diversity Salzer's guitar lends to the band's sound wasn't enough, Zac Lasher (keyboards, vocals) seemed, at all times, to be deliberately doing his best to defy genre boundaries. Lasher's keys produced noises that ranged from a Gregg Allman-esque organ to eerie psychedelic cacophonies.
One area where U-Melt has a leg up on other jam bands is in the vocal department. Individually none of them are exactly Thom Yorke, and for that reason singing duties are most often shared by all four of them. Their most recent release, The I's Mind, finds these guys combining their meager pipes to create soft harmonies that sound downright angelic. "You are the center of the universe my friend/ Breathe it all in, slow," a quartet of voices radiantly harmonized in "Question Matters." Live, "Question Matters" also showcased another of U-Melt's strong points – their compositional skills. The composed sections of their songs, mostly penned by Salzer and Lasher, show off their affinity for bewildering musical complexity, while still maintaining an enjoyable aesthetic translatable to the most ignorant of musical lay people.
|Rob Salzer / U-Melt :: 01.24 :: Vermont|
As "Question Matters" moved from the aforementioned angelic harmonies and astonishing composition into tight jams that sounded like something out of a Sonic the Hedgehog videogame, one had the sense that U-Melt was taking them on some sort of fantastical journey. The fluctuating energy level - rising from relaxed down-tempo all the way up to a glorious explosiveness that seemed to transcend reality - only added to that feeling. Many other songs, such as "415" and the Latin flecked "Carne," possessed this quality as well, giving the concert a sense of forward motion of epic proportions, like the band had some far off destination it was taking us to, using music as its vehicle.
The band's musical migration ended off with an encore of the beautifully bizarre Frank Zappa tune "Cosmik Debris." The song made for an appropriate close to the show as it was representative of the band's quirky personalities as well as their eclectic style of music.
With so many of today's jam bands seemingly striving to fit into the same old crunchy mold (not that I don't like and enjoy listening to that crunchy mold), its very refreshing when a band like U-Melt comes along and manages, amidst all its similar-minded colleagues, to carve out its own unique sound. They've come a long way since their formation in 2003, and with the talent and creativity they possess don't be surprised if they go a lot further in the years to come. At the level they're at now much of their jamming and compositional skills rival that of other jam band heavyweights. And with the obvious effort they put into their music, evident from their increasingly tight shows, the possibilities for this band are potentially limitless.
U-Melt :: 01.24.09 :: Higher Ground Showcase Lounge :: Burlington, VT
Set I: Pura Vida, Question Matters, Folded, 415 > Schizophrenia > 415 > Hey Bulldog
Set II: Panacea > Missed > Carne, Air > Through the Prism
Encore: Cosmik Debris
Before the show, JamBase had the pleasure of sitting down for a few minutes with U-Melt. Here's what they had to say:
JamBase: Let's start off with the name, U-Melt. Obviously, it stands for the unbelievable meltdown, as we learned from your first album, but where did it come from, what are its origins?
Zac Lasher: Well, we sat in a van for many, many hours and we brainstormed, and it was the only thing that wasn't utterly obscene [laughs].
|Zac Lasher / U-Melt :: 01.24 :: Vermont|
JamBase: What were some of your alternative choices?
Rob Salzer: Cock Otter
George Miller: Rage-wagon, The Musical [laughs].
Lasher: Yeah, I don't think we need to go there [laughs]. It was all a bunch of obscene filth. It's been a long time.
Salzer: Yeah, we definitely ditched that list a long time ago, for good reason.
JamBase: Who do you consider to be your biggest influences musically?
Adam Bendy: The Bee Gees [laughs].
Lasher: Tears For Fears [laughs]. Well, let's see, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby...
[Whole Band]: The Beatles!
Salzer: Zeppelin, Pat Metheny, Yes, more contemporary [artists such as] Gomez.
Miller: Garaj Mahal, those guys are sick.
Bendy: Weather Report.
Lasher: Well really, [our influences] are all over the place. We take a lot from contemporary stuff we hear. It may not necessarily be stuff we really delve into but you just kind of hear stuff in passing and go, "Oh that's cool," and file it away in a tool bag of things you can do.
If you had the opportunity to jam with one musician, living or dead, who would it be?
Miller: That's a good question, and the first time I've ever been asked that before. I don't think I could answer that offhand.
Salzer: [Frank] Zappa. I would just love to meet that guy and hang out with him and jam and pick his brain. He's just so all over the place.
Lasher: I would love to play with the E-Street Band for a night. That would be my wet dream come true.
|Rob Salzer / U-Melt :: 01.24 :: Vermont|
Bendy: Paula Abdul [laughs].
In the last five years you guys have come a long way. Where do you see yourselves five years from now?
Miller: We're either gonna be playing MSG or we'll be somewhere with other jobs [laughs].
Lasher: It would be nice to get to the point where we'd be playing nice venues a few nights in a row, with a few albums under our belt, since we have quite a lot of music - either that or somewhere in the middle of an alley with needles in our arms [laughs].
Bendy: I'll tell you this, wherever we will be, the four of us will still be playing music together.
Critics of the jam scene often say that jam bands tend to sound rather ubiquitous. What would you say makes U-Melt special and sets you apart from the pack?
Salzer: Well, you can compare us to the Biscuits for certain reasons, you can compare us to Umphrey's for certain reasons, but I really think we're much more compositional than most of those other [contemporary] bands. Also, our lyrics our different; they're usually not as silly.
Lasher: I really think we just do things differently. We synthesize things differently and our philosophy is just different from other jam bands in the way that we look at our writing. There's definitely some common threads that link us to other bands in the scene, but I think there's more that separates us.
U-Melt formed in 2003 when at a festival, the two separate bands you were each in were missing a few musicians due to occurrences of seemingly random chance. This allowed you guys to jam, and thus U-Melt was born. So, my final question to you is do you believe in fate?
Miller: To a degree.
Lasher: Wow. If you asked me a year ago I would have said absolutely, but you ask me now and I'm not so sure anymore. There are times when I feel like I'm on a path being guided along, and there are times when I feel like I'm wandering alone in the woods. It definitely varies, but I wouldn't deny it.
Salzer: Well, with the circumstances that set up our band, it's pretty easy to think it was fate. But, once you set aside your ego completely, it's hard to think that you were meant to be any one thing. It's difficult to sum up in a concise statement. I'll tell you what, we'll know in a couple of years whether or not it was fate [laughs]. And so will a lot of other people, but it's a matter of whether we want to write that story or not. I think we have a lot to do with it. If we keep going on this path and we're successful, we could easily look back and say, "Yep, it was fate," but what if everything shits the bend somehow? Is it fate then? Who knows? I like beer [laughs].
Lasher: [Laughing] And fried chicken.
Bendy: But music is the best.
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