It was a funky night in Santa Cruz last Friday, with the fine folks from Pulse Productions bringing us a powerful evening of chunky grooves featuring Maceo Parker, DJ Logic, and the hometown return of the Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars.
For those unfamiliar with the group, their website says "The Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars is not a band. It is a platform for improvised musical expression that is not defined and cannot be contained within any specific musical styles. A platform that is ever changing, and always evolving. Each member participating in this group brings forth their own unique elements and musical flavors. The vibrations could range from funk to reggae, from electronica to jazz, from hip-hop to eastern percussion, and back again." The Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars first got together in May of 2001 at Palookaville, as an after-party for the fourth annual Santa Cruz Industrial Hemp Expo (hence the “Hemp AllStars” name). A celebration of the dynamic Santa Cruz music scene, the show brought together members of some of the best local bands (Estradasphere, Netwerk:Electric) with other established bands who had recently moved to the Santa Cruz area (Sound Tribe Sector 9, Disco Biscuits). The result was three hours of improvised brilliance, and news of what had transpired (as well as some high quality digital recordings) quickly spread among the music community.
The Hemp AllStars experiment was twice repeated in 2001, sometimes with slight changes in personnel or additional special guests, but always creating an improvised musical journey that left audience and performers alike wondering what had just hit them. So it was with high expectations and much anticipation that the news was received of their first show of 2002. And the anticipation was justified, as the Hemp AllStars delivered what was without a doubt their best set yet!
The Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars IV lineup was:
Aron Manger (Disco Biscuits): Keys
Jason Concepcion (Netwerk:Electric): Guitar
DJ Logic (Project Logic): Turntables
Jeffree Lerner (Sound Tribe Sector 9): percussion and hand drums
Zach Velmer (STS9): drums
David Murphy (STS9): bass
John Whooley (Estradasphere, Phree Radicals, Whoolilicious!): tenor sax, throat singing, beatbox/scat vocals
Probably due to the stage constraints of being the opening band, they were playing with less equipment than normal: Aron had a smaller keyboard rig, Jeffree didn't have his full percussion setup, Zach only had about 2/3 of his kit, and John had only his tenor sax (and substantial effects rig). But these proved to be all the tools needed for a funky hemp throwdown.
The music started just after 8pm as DJ Logic took the stage, mixing beats behind his two turntables. He got the not-yet-very-full crowd quickly dancing to some creative mixes, including a crowd-pleasing Iko Iko (the Dixie Cups original). After about half an hour, Aron joined him onstage, adding some keyboard licks to Logic's funky backbeat. One by one the musicians joined the stage, smoothly dropping into the groove, until, with Thomas-the-Writer taking position at his typewriter behind the band, the full Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars were off on another musical adventure.
And what an adventure it was. These were among the best of the Hempsters' jaw-dropping improv grooves. There was a lot of funk thrown into the mix, and some seriously powerful energy being channeled through the crowd and band. Clearly these guys are getting comfortable playing together, and have developed some tight musical communication. Everyone played so well off each other, delivering thick, rich, intricate grooves without stepping on each others' toes. Aron showed some real chops on the keys that I've not previously heard in the AllStars, laying down some really sweet synth solos (in addition to the cosmic audio textures that he does so well). Zach on drums was as Zach always seems to be: positively bionic, complex and precise, a transforming, driving force. John on the sax was in prime form: inspired and melodic solos, great layered textures, adding just the right trippy vocals (at the right trippy time), and some really good beatbox for a "drum duet" with Zach. Jason has a beautiful new hollow-bodied guitar (I understand he just got it a week ago, and it was almost two years in the making) and he played with wonderful soul, tone, and rhythm. And it was great to have David Murphy back on bass; having the full Sector 9 rhythm section in the mix makes for crazy solid grooves.
And how about DJ Logic! Now officially a Santa Cruz Hemp AllStar, Logic flew out special from New York for this show and added some great textures and sounds to the mix. He looked so stoked up the on stage, wearing a perma-grin and styling a new Hemp AllStars t-shirt. And he was so pumped after the show, repeatedly saying how he can't wait to do it again.
The musical communication between musicians was impressive, everyone was totally dialed-in, playing off each others’ ideas and layering their own ideas wonderfully. With Maceo in the house, the jams were sure to include plenty of funk. Transitions often ventured into space-zone: bizarre layered sounds over fantasy percussion. Mid-set, Aron led the groove with a heavy synthesizer jam reminiscent of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, from which Jason launched a crunchy arena-rock riff (on top of a bionic rock backbeat from Zach), until John sent it into the estradasphere with a beautiful gypsy-sounding sax solo. Another favorite section was towards the end, as this groove just kept building and building...growing and growing...louder and louder...when just as it peaked the entire band dropped out, leaving a thumping hip-hop beat from DJ Logic. The roar of the now-full Civic collectively losing our shit was huuuuuuuuge, as the band nearly fell over in disbelief of what had just happened. The AllStars reign supreme!
Phish fans are familiar with the concept of "the hose", an idea originally from Carlos Santana in which the audience is a sea of flowers, and the music, rather than coming from within, is an external force into which the musician can tap. This force is delivered through the musicians like a torrent of water from a hose, showering the audience in bliss. With the torrent unleashed at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, The Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars again prove themselves true masters of the hose.
Great recordings of this and previous Santa Cruz Hemp AllStars shows are circulating widely in tape trading circles, and I highly recommend you seek them out. HEMP FOR VICTORY!
Here’s hoping it happens again soon. . .
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