Warfield | San Francisco | 04.20.02

April 20th is a fullblown holiday to some of us, and at the Warfield on Saturday night Medeski Martin & Wood - uberhip heroes of mind-altering music - led a rallying call to the 4.20 nation. I sat down as the music was already gushing and became immediately inundated by the deluge coming from onstage. Amidst swirling percussive eddies and bubbling whitewater bass, subtle surges of clavinet joined in midstream and flowed back to the source. Melody fell light like misty rain, nearly too diffused to be noticed but present enough to moisten the mind. MMW frequently explodes the notion of composition, and in all my experiences with the band this was as abstract as I’d seen them.

There was a DJ pinching tiny "wickiwickies" from his decks, digital animal chirps and growls barely discernable beneath the skronking din coming from the trio in front of him. Ah yeah, I recognize that smirk—it’s Dan the Automator on the fader. Dan had a hard time finding any cracks in the noise storm crashing all around him, but occasionally a well-placed scratch would infiltrate and light up the soundscape with an ominous trip-hop flash.

Sometime in mid-solo Billy stepped out from behind his drum kit to straddle a huge wooden-looking bass drum. Banging with both hands, he dueled with Chris Wood on upright, who unleashed the most enormous solo I’ve witnessed from the oft-understated bassist. Wood was all over his bass, slapping strings and sideboards in counter-rhythm to Martin’s heavy thunder. Wood’s zealous solo brought giddy cheers from the crowd, but it was the motley procession emerging from stage right that really caught my attention.

Steve Bernstein, early MMW collaborator and infamous agent provocateur of the downtown Manhattan alt.jazz cadre Sex Mob, led three other horn men behind the band to the front left corner of the stage. Bernstein shimmied with his signature slide trumpet, accompanied by baritone and tenor saxes and a bassoon whacked out on some weird electric effects treatment. Like a Preservation Hall Acid Test, these guys played with a psychedelic Dixieland swagger, their slow brassy wail complimenting John Medeski’s quick slices and stabs on the clavinet.

MMW with horns! Certainly a treat, and these horns blended especially well with the trio’s own telepathic virtuoso vibe. As surreal as this combination was, the horns provided a necessary melodic anchor that kept the trio from surpassing gravity and completely spinning off into free-jazz space. It was easy to forget there were humans up there making these noises, and the horns’ presence provided a necessary reality check. As did the set closer, a smoking version of Hendrix’s “Fire,” played by the trio alone. Ah yes, the groove. I remember that...

Set break, and the Automator wrecked a ferocious set on the decks, mixing old school hip hop, soul, and funk with some slick, stark breakbeat and tweaky effects. I found some wide-smiling friends in the very last row of the upper deck who assured me the sound up there was pristine. Gotta love the Warfield—not a bad seat in the house.

Second set started up with MMW accompanied by Dan the Man, now fully locked in and squeezing wicked hip-hop flavor from the decks. Soon the brass paraded back onstage, Medeski hit the baby grand, and that old-time Dixieland vibe swept the theater. Solos by Martin and Wood kept the groove loose and spacey, and the band’s profound ability to change the entire feel of the room by switching tempos and shifting intensity captured the crowd’s full attention.

One of these sensual 180s came when the horns dimmed their bright brass sound and settled into a hard rocking afrobeat groove. Here the full band—horns, trio, DJ—locked into a chunky, funky barnburner. Martin was rocking polyrhythmic percussion, one hand rattling a slinky shaker, the other with a drumstick keeping a counter beat on the snare as the band got heavy on this anthemic title tune from Uninvisible. Originally played on “It’s a Jungle in Here” with a horn section led by Bernstein, “Where’s Sly” came next, a mind bending bluesy number that slightly lightened when the bari player busted out an elongated slide duck call and blew a weird, cartoonish solo.

Judging by crowd reaction, the highlight of the evening was an upbeat, shuffling version of “Moti Mo”, a King Sunny Ade tune also from 1993’s “Jungle.” With a ska-skank groove and soaring horns, this number got the crowd ecstatic and rowdy, and I did the Swirl with the elated revelers above the orchestra pit. We danced in the groove like sea plants waving in an underwater current. Next came a ghostly gospel lament that featured Medeski’s reverential clavichord, a beautiful song definitely in the style of The Word. The music faded out slowly and the set ended.

A prolonged encore brought the fellas back onstage, first just the trio, then joined promptly by the Uninvisible Horns. What followed is very hazy... a new friend dancing next to me unsheathed a humongous blunt from his shirt pocket, miraculously saved through the whole show for the encore ("Happy 4/20!" he beamed). The song was “I Wanna Ride You” from Uninvisible, and before too long the entire ensemble — MMW plus the four horns — left their mics behind and took to the front edge of the stage. Another transcendent moment: the crowd hushed and the stage became a N’awleans street corner: dark, boozy acoustic blues oozing direct from unamplified instruments. As a bizarre parade the whole group bebopped across the stage, tooting and plucking and rattling with a tribal mojo that had the crowd transfixed. Slowly they snaked offstage and the music reluctantly followed...

All night these sonic meanderings produced within me a sensation of perpetual motion. MMW starts and stops their shows in the middle of the moment, picking up where the left off previously, then traveling with their audience across totally new musical horizons. Their shows tap into a stream of consciousness, tune it in like an eternal radio broadcast. To be present for that elongated moment is to understand that these three wizards are part of a continuum that began long ago, and stretches far into the future.

Jonathan Zwickel
JamBase | San Francisco
Go see live music!

[Published on: 4/30/02]

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