Words by: Will Nissen | Images by Al Nowatzki
Medeski Martin & Wood :: 4.18.09 :: Trocaderos :: Minneapolis, MN
I've seen MMW in a variety of settings: Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, 10KLF in 2006, an ice rink in Vail, CO; indeed, the band forged their reputation by notoriously playing any and all venues they could. They approach the stage to play their unique style but never lose sight of the subtle nuances of a particular crowd on any given night. From the outdoor festival performances to the sit down theater shows to the downtown club gigs, they are always draped in the obscure influences of their surroundings. Knowing this I was interested to see what kind of show awaited when I arrived at Trocaderos in Minneapolis. The venue was a healthy mix of posh restaurant, downtown bar and high-class nightclub. There was valet parking out front though little street parking, and no matter how disgruntled I was to pay $7 for a drink, the price matched the vibe the venue was going for. And as I took in the layout and design of the place I wondered how attendance would be among the festival-going jam crowd, a large part of MMW's following but surely not frequent visitors to Trocaderos.
My suspicions would be put to rest as soon as the opening act, a local beatbox/looping extraordinaire named Heatbox, hit the stage. There was already a steady crowd of middle-aged jazz lovers (the show was billed as part of a four-night jazz fest), well dressed 20 and 30-something clubgoers, and jam-circuit kids, some giddily enjoying the rushes of whatever stimulant was going around. Armed with only a microphone and a looping station, Heatbox proceeded to perform what could only be called the epitome of a one-man act. Building songs from the ground up, this producer/band/turntablist put out beats, harmonies and lyrics that left the crowd stunned with jaws on the floor. A mix of originals and choice covers (including Warren G's "Regulators") had everyone's head bobbing whether they knew it or not. An older couple appeared next to me and apprehensively took in the scene of beat-driven dancers, the array of tapers' mics in front of the soundboard and the bombastic sounds coming from just a single man's vocal chords. After a few wary looks around they slowly turned back to the bar to wait for the nice, calm jazz show they had come to see. They were in for an interesting night.
When MMW hit the stage the now filled-in crowd was more than warmed up from Heatbox's set. From the get go I knew that this was the most intimate setting in which I had seen the band perform thus far, and this proved to be the defining feature of the night. As the group eased into their first song I could have casually reached over the stage and hit one of Billy Martin's garage-modified cymbals or wandered over and played a note on John Medeski's pedal-driven Clavinet. Potentially hazardous and nerve-wracking to an artist on stage, the band dove into the intimacy, pulling the audience into their collaborative trance. And the crowd responded powerfully throughout the entire show, pushing and pulling the band through their songs, and respecting the unexpectedly close proximity. At one point a fan dancing in the front row picked up a fallen auxiliary piece and easily replaced it on Martin's percussion toy rack without missing a step.
|Heatbox :: 04.18 :: Minneapolis|
This was only the band's second show since the April 14 release of their brand new studio album, Radiolarians II, the second in a three part series of recordings (Radiolarians I was released September, 2008), that broke away from the mold of write-record-tour, and saw the band approach their music with great improvisational creativity. Throughout 2008 the band gathered for brief writing sessions to build song structures, then immediately hit the road, performing and refining only the new material, followed by studio sessions to record the newly "written" tracks.
This idea of "live-writing" was definitely apparent this night as I repeatedly saw Medeski hold up a medley of fingers, directing the band on the spot through different chord changes. And there were numerous times when MMW quickly floated off into ambiance as the three performers made eye contact, only to drop back as one into a deeper and tighter groove than where they left off. About 45 minutes into the first set, the band was warmed up and launched into some fast, furious funk that harkened back to the roots of MMW - beat-driven with simple but chest thumping basslines from Chris Wood and crunchy, hair-raising screams on the Hammond organ from Medeski. This type of playing shows what I love about these guys, i.e. that they are jazz pros who have the ability to play the fastest, most avant-garde shit possible but they have the musical taste and understanding to play with a "less is more" prowess that speaks to everyone, rather than settling for finger-flashing, on-stage wanking. The crowd was having a lot of fun at this point and this song was definitely the fan favorite of the set.
The band closed the first set with a track off Radiolarians II called "Flat Tires," which revealed the group's experimental underbelly. With Wood plucking away to his own beat on his grungy electric bass, Martin and Medeski thrashed about on their respective instruments with a circus-like quality, creating a wave of sound that ended abruptly as the band left the stage around 11:40 p.m. People milled around with grins on their faces before heading back to the bar for a drink, or outside to the rare, warm Minnesota spring night for a smoke.
|John Medeski :: 04.18 :: Minneapolis|
About 40 minutes later the second set opened with an amazing treat for everyone in attendance. Unannounced and unexpected, the band retook the stage with a very special guest, the legendary B3 Hammond organ innovator of over five decades and a forefather of acid jazz, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Crossing the stage with cane in hand and head wrapped in a turban, Dr. Smith took his seat at the organ while Medeski switched to the piano. Despite his legendary status, Smith was obviously listening to the band and following them instead of trying to direct things. Medeski and Smith traded some tasty solos, both with smiles on their faces, and Wood intermittently leaned in to add his piece. Displaying his trademark body language, Smith appeared to be calling on the music gods above to come down and bless this gathering of music lovers, wringing his hands in the air and repeatedly grunting and clapping in rhythm to the delight of the crowd. After the song, the three MMW members embraced Dr. Smith as he left the stage and it was apparent the reverence and respect they all had for the man.
And as if that song wasn't funky enough, Medeski then pulled out a melodica and dropped into another track off the new record called "Junkyard." This was straight New Orleans swamp funk and featured Medeski ripping the melodica like a wizened, old blues guitarist. Even Wood got in the mix and played some rarely seen slide bass, hitting some wailing upper register notes played above the pickups on his beat up electric. A few songs later, Wood switched back to his smooth upright and Medeski took to the piano for a beautiful piece reminiscent of a New York City jazz club. Although the group played an array of songs throughout this set - including a dark, Bad Plus-like, piano-heavy number about halfway through and a tight, fast groove with Medeski rocking the Clavinet immediately following - they ended at about the 50-minute mark. I was a little disappointed by the brevity of the set, but the band hit the stage very quickly for the encore with a track that floated in a surreal ambiance over an open bass melody, but then slammed into a heavy middle section that knocked everyone in the place back a few steps. When the song ended Martin said the thank yous and buenas noches but Medeski and Wood weren't moving. They looked at each other with mischievous grins and started up "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," another track off the new record. This was a fitting cocktail hour sendoff that brought everyone back to earth after a night of rigorous booty shaking and head bobbing.
|Dr. Lonnie Smith :: 04.18 :: Minneapolis|
All in all this was a great night of music from moment one. The production at Trocaderos is top notch and the closeness of the fans to the artists is undeniable. The sound was great for a 1,200 person capacity room, and with support from local music companies (BB Organ supplied the Hammond rig, Schmitt Music brought a Steinway half-grand piano) the band sounded superb. I am always incredibly impressed by bands (a trio no less) without vocals that can draw large crowds that are completely immersed in the music. It is a testament to Medeski's prowess as a lead "vocalist" on the keys, as well as to the forceful presence of Martin and Wood. These guys have delivered countless shows over their almost twenty-year existence and have never fallen into one category or become mired in their own self-definition. I was hoping to hear them expand the boundaries a little more at this show and push some jams in different directions, but they played to the situation while staying true to themselves. I approach every MMW show naively, thinking I know what to expect but every time leaving surprised with a sheepish grin on my face and a new appreciation for the group and their music.
MMW is on tour now, dates available here.
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