The Word | The Fillmore| San Francisco, CA | 1.24.02
The floor of the Fillmore was one big dancing mass for The Word’s performance on January 24th. And yet, it’s hard to say who was having more fun at the show - the audience or the band members themselves. The musicians in this evolving new group were happy to test the waters in a series of extended instrumental jams, and their on-stage rapport was exemplified by bassist Chris Chew’s big grin, which remained intact for most of the evening.
The music of The Word is driven primarily by Robert Randolph’s righteous pedal steel guitar, and the promise of John Medeski’s rollicking keyboards is always a big draw. However, the musicians exchanged solos easily throughout the night and were clearly appreciative of one another’s abilities. The trio from North Mississippi Allstars - guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer/percussionist Cody Dickinson and bassist Chew - held their ground as the group ebbed into various forms of gospel-tinged, jazz-like improvisation. The performance was not so much a one-man-show with notable back-up players than it was a group of newly-found friends pumped to be playing together in this unique side project and bringing their definition of gospel to new ears.
Just what is “gospel,” according to The Word? That’s a bit difficult to pinpoint, as these musicians are still getting to know each other in the musical sense. Cody Dickinson’s lively electric washboard solo is a good indication of the heights these guys can reach in their exuberant moments. And yet the show had its low ebbs, too. Sometimes the improvisation felt a little too loose and unfocused, and at times I couldn’t help but wonder what an occasional vocal could do for this band. (I’m a big fan of instrumental music that pulls out all the stops without the aid of vocals. But as I’m writing this, listening to gospel music from the holy rollers across the street, I realize that simple gospel lyrics can really transport the listener, and that an occasional guest vocalist could be a strong match for Randolph’s soaring pedal steel guitar.) Nonetheless, The Word is an evolving band and these performers are highly skilled musicians. Certainly their noodling will become tighter, mightier and more refined as they build up more time together in live performances.
One interesting twist during the show: There were a few moments in which I closed my eyes and swore I could hear elements of the Grateful Dead, particularly in Randolph’s and Luther Dickinson’s guitars. Nothing as blatant as a familiar Dead refrain, but more like the ethereal, weeping notes that characterized much of the Dead’s fine improvisation. This was not what I expected from The Word, given the word that’s out on this band, but was a pleasant surprise, regardless. Don’t get me wrong: it would be a stretch to lump the two bands together, aside from the fact that they fall under the general jamband umbrella and share a gospel influence. This unexpected turn was less like one band imitating another than an instance of distinct musicians landing on common ground.
Overall, The Word’s performance on Thursday night was highly enjoyable. Though I wasn’t thoroughly spiritually transported, as I was fully prepared to be walking into the Fillmore, the show left me with enough interest to keep an ear out for future performances. Once these guys have racked up a few more live shows and are prepared to truly catapult us into new realms of gospel - not to mention jazz, blues, and whatever else they decide to deliver - I’ll be ready.
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