Middle East | Cambridge, MA | 06.06.02
The Grape, jam > XG10, Scab, Poppo's Back > techno funk jam > Poppo's Back, Killer Bees, Hang Up Your Hang Ups (with guitarist from Soulwork), Djabooty
Besides funkmasters ulu, there were two opening bands this rainy evening in Boston of which I was impressed with both. I've seen Who's the Fat Guy on a few bills here and there but it was nice to match some sound to the band name. These guys combined heavy, funky bass lines with R&B lyrics sung by a keyboardist that reminded me of Stevie Wonder in a jamband. Very fast paced jam music. Soulwork also had their fine points, especially the lead singer who did a great job of getting the crowd involved in the relatively short amount of time they had to play. The lead singer would pick out different people in the crowd and describe them before heading back into the funky chorus of "What you do to me." They were fun to watch and did a great job of warming up the crowd.
ulu took the stage around midnight. Unfortunately, the crowd size was hampered a bit by the unusually cold and rainy June night in Boston. They continued the funky theme of the evening opening up with their old classic "The Grape." Keyboardist Scott Chasolen immediately gets funky on his organ. The new bass player, Dave Hertzberg, has a different sound of which I think ulu can take off in a great new direction with. It is a more bass heavy sound, as he plays a great sounding five string, of which I actually prefer bass players to play. The crowd that was there immediately begins dancing. sax player Aaron Gardner plays both spacey and aggressive at the same time. The best way to describe ulu is an old-school sound in a brand new way.
Despite the outside environment, things were heating up in the club right away.
Scott Chasolen is a master at finding the spaces between Aaron Gardner's boomerang sax licks that seem to always control the groove. New bassist Dave Hertzberg sticks in some great notes that provides a new foundation for Chasolen and Gardner to take off on. It seems as though they have a bit more room to explore the melodies of the songs they have been playing for years, which is a great thing to do. "The Grape" switches between furious and funky to slow and spacey in a heartbeat, with the rhythm section not missing a beat.
Scott Chasolen sounds more like a reincarnation of the old Herbie Hancock sound every time I see him. The next song starts off with a slower jam as the bass feels out the Middle East for a while before switching into another funkdafied bass line. They sounded like they were getting ready to take off on a spaceship before starting "XG10," a song off of their new live album entitled What's the Deal? All systems go. The song keeps everyone dancing.
They slow things up a bit with "Scab," which is a great song with some nice melodies played by Aaron on the flute. I have seen this song played quite a bit by them. It has a nice smooth sublime groove, and the flute with the boomerang pedal always sounds great. In my opinion, you would never have known that these guys have recently changed arrangements, as the new rhythm unit has not shown me once tonight that they are still struggling to learn the songs. ulu has taken on a new life form. It seems as though the groves have slowed a little more on the bass lines, which makes it more thick and funky throughout the entirety of the show, and not just here and there. The intensity level of their jams have also not suffered from the lineup change. The drumming from new drummer Jason Gardner has slowed a little on the chaotic polyrhythms leaving the great melodies that Chasolen and Aaron Gardner create to be explored a bit further. The melodies stand out more into the forefront of the music, and into the openness of their new groove.
"Poppo's Back": I love this tune as the funk is embedded into the song structure. Scott and Aaron playfully recreate the sound of a horn and siren on a police car. It has all its standard ulu song parts with the jam slowing in the middle for Chasolen to get spacy on the keyboard. Just when things were about to get too out there, new ulu drummer Jason Gardner kicks into a techno beat on his kit. After this the jam just kept opening up, and this is the starting point of where the night went from good to really good. Gardner picks up his flute again and begins layering notes down which gives the jam a nice soft feeling over the hard-hitting techno beat. He kept the flute going on the boomerang pedal and picked up his sax again. It was obviously time for a little techno funk!! They not only were improvising the riffs and melodies but they began to improvise on the timing of the song as well, letting everyone know they were still listening to a live band. Scott Chasolen throws down a nice synth sound above it all. Things get crazy for a while as ulu began to flex its muscles that have been developed over years of jamming, and then bust back into the theme of "Poppo's Back." It seemed as though the drummer fell a bit short on the fills towards the end, but I could be wrong. This is where you do want the polyrhythms to throw into the short gaps the band leaves for a drumfill.
They immediately start the buzzing sounds to let everyone know "Killer Bees" is coming. This song they leave some time for new drummer Jason Gardner to take a drum solo. He reminds me of a magician they way he plays drums(he actually is one), as he will mix together a few different styles of drum hits into one solo, although the intensity seems ready to get lost once in a while. The guitarist from Soulwork is then invited up on the stage and he starts the riff to Herbie Hancock's "Hang Up Your Hang Ups." Dave Hertzberg throws down a nice funky little bass line over this, and it was great to hear ulu with a guitarist again. They jam this song for a while, again not displaying any signs of being slowed by the lineup change. After this great old classic, which really set the Boston crowd off, they played the funkiest tune they have: "Djabooty." This tune just flat out makes you want to dance. I like the way Aaron Gardner took the vocal call and response with the crowd section out, as it leaves much more room to just go to town on this nasty grooving funk song.
As far as the future of ulu is concerned, I have no doubt they will do more than impress those who might feel that the lineup change will hamper their sound. The new ulu has a potential to take their music and develop it even further than the old lineup did. It is amazing what a little fresh perspective can do sometimes. I would, however, prefer to see these guys transition into their songs much more than they do. Many of their songs start out with great melodic themes and having those themes come out of jams or previous song themes would be a great thing these highly talented musicians could do. It would take the intensity level of their live show and bump it up another notch, making it more satisfying for the fans who like to not stop dancing during a show. I can't wait to see these guys again, and I hope they will be playing at some of the summer festivals to give many people a chance to see what these jammasters can do in a live setting. As a friend of the band said to me, "Those who know, know." Now I think it's time for many more people to find out.
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