Heads from all over the country flocked to San Francisco to get their groove on and see why SF is now the undisputed New Year’s Mecca of the jam community. This progressive city of 700,000 residents played host to a sick lineup of inspiring artists, many of which dropped in on each other’s shows as special guests.

Check out this list of action around the city:

ALO • Michael Franti and Spearhead • Carlos Washington & The Amazing Giant People • Medeski, Martin & Wood • Crater • New Monsoon • DJ Logic • Robert Walter • Galactic • Skerik & Mike Dillon • Garaj Mahal • Soulive • Gomez • Sound Tribe Sector 9 • Greyboy All-stars • String Cheese Incident • Hamsa Lila • Tea Leaf Green • Hot Tuna • The Other Ones • Josh Roseman Unit • Top Four Flights • Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe • Topaz • Keller Williams • Vinyl • Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade • Will Bernard • Lettuce • Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra • mamaSutra

The run of shows started the Friday after Christmas, allowing folks to see their families and then boogie on to SF. Prior planning was necessary and tough decisions had to be made (think Jazzfest) because of multiple shows to pick from and many being sold out well in advance.

I customized my four day run to give myself a variety of shows, and it all began Saturday late night with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe at Ruby Skye.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Ruby Skye | San Francisco | 12.28.02

Karl D had just played a show at the Fillmore with the Greyboy Allstars that evening, so the sold-out gathering had to wait until 3:15am before he made it onstage. While it was delayed, all was forgiven when Karl D and company took the stage, promptly busting out the funk. Then things got really cookin’ as a parade of special guests came out to compliment the Tiny Universe. It started with the human beatbox known as RadioActive and his in-yo’-face freestyle delivery. Next up was Fareed Haque of Garaj Mahal fame - things got frenzied quickly. This guy has been following me around since the High Sierra Music Festival where he sat in with so many bands that he earned MVP status by many insiders. Despite technical difficulties securing the sound he wanted, Fareed patiently exploded into the Tiny Universe like a runaway comet. His lead bubbled over and melted into the funky rythym guitar being laid down by Karl’s guitarist Brian Jordan. Those not familiar with Fareed’s fretboard gymnastics were introduced to his lightning fast delivery as he tore through a series of extended solos. The crowd was really bumpin’ on the dance floor as Eric Bolivar (formerly of Global Funk Council) suddenly slid behind the drum kit – the party was on.

Before the second set fired up just after 5am, a buff Karl D addressed the audience with a big smile on his face, laughing at the fact that we were still there. Always the showman, KD really took charge the whole night. I am always impressed with his technical ability not only on the saxophones, but also on the flute. At some point around 6am, I couldn’t dance anymore; Karl had outlasted me again. I knew I needed to pace myself as there were still three more days of SF shows, so I crawled on home to shut the blinds and get some much needed rest. I couldn’t believe Karl D had a show in New York City that night only a few hours away. When does the man sleep?

The Catalyst | Santa Cruz | 12.29.02

photo by Hawk
It was now Sunday and Galactic was playing in Santa Cruz, a scenic little drive down the coast from San Francisco. I picked up my friend P-Squared and we burned our way to Santa Cruz as fast as possible. We made such good time that we stopped for a couple of beers at a friend’s house before heading to the main event.

I figured this Galactic show was going to be a tune up for their NYE show at the Warfield in SF, but I quickly realized that this show was all about tonight. Determined to get the people moving, they set about in workman like fashion to accomplish their mission. Their sets were energetic, and the crowd responded by popping around much like lottoballs in a bucket. A big highlight was when Stanton Moore and company ended the first set with an extended electronica trance experiment. This was the bomb! Stanton activated some kind of effects processor that changed the sound of his drum kit. I welcome Galactic to push the boundaries of their music, and “the trance” was well received by the Santa Cruz peeps. After all, Santa Cruz is the home of many bands that are pushing the limits such as The Disco Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Estradasphere.

photo by Hawk
Even though the show was a rousing success, there is one touchy subject that I feel needs to be mentioned: Houseman. He did have his moments – a killer version of “There’s Something Wrong With This Picture” in which Eric Bolivar (he sat in with Karl Denson the previous night!) took over on drums. Stanton played air cymbals as he hovered over Eric’s shoulders - the whole place went insane. Unfortunately, I thought Houseman had a poor overall performance; in fact, he seemed wasted to me. Even the heavy dose of makeup couldn’t hide the incoherent look on his face for a majority of the show. Everybody else in the band are consummate professionals: Robert Mercurio is rock solid on the bass; Jeff Raines is an extremely underrated guitarist; Ben Ellman, the subtle master on the sax; Rich Vogel is an expressionless wizard on keys. But I get a chill down my spine when Galactic starts playing bluesy Motown numbers. They are so much better than that in my opinion. I understand it’s a N’awlins thang, but I really believe that Houseman can hold them back with the selection of time-honored songs they perform. Yes, they embrace a treasured roots tradition, but I have seen Stanton Moore’s solo tours and it is really cutting edge material. My boys that went to the NYE Galactic show had similar stories of Houseman staggering through stale oldies. In conclusion, I challenge Galactic to explore new musical horizons and not stagnate on traditional numbers.

Sound Tribe Sector 9
Regency Center | San Francisco | 12.30.02

Monday night was STS9, who kicked off their 2003 New Year’s run with the first night of two sold-out performances. Before the show, the scene outside the Regency Center (the old Avalon Ballroom) was phenomenal, for there was a sense of electricity in the air. Kids were swarming in front of the venue and the line was wrapped around the block. This was a tough ticket, so many people resorted to being pulled up through the bathroom windows, which were only about seven feet above the front sidewalk. Gatecrashers suck, but it was just too damn easy to sneak in for some to resist the temptation. I feared a “sardine can” setting reminiscent of the STS9 late night show at this year's High Sierra, but was relieved to find it comfortable inside.

STS9 is one of my favorite bands. However, I don’t know the name of any of their songs. Their shows are so much more than just a collection of songs. Their positive message is delivered through a combination of light, sound and art that allows one to open their minds up to a higher level of awareness. The experience is powerful with sensual stimuli coming from every direction. Crystals, flowers, smells, paintings, lights – it was simply a marvelous event. The entire night I felt more like I was at a house party than at a concert. “Strangers talking to strangers” was the unofficial theme of the evening.

The band modestly provided us with the entertainment with two brilliant sets. The sound was excellent as usual, props to the sound man. He is an extra member of the Tribe, in my book; the experience hinges on the musicians able to be heard in a quality mix. The best part of the STS9 songs for me is the first five seconds, that moment your brain picks up on the first few notes of the piece. That instant of recognition when you’re like, “This one fuckin’ rocks!” Once that is established, then you can get to the business of getting down. Well, get down we did. My sister and her Missoula crew had come into town for the STS9 shows and we all had a good ole time. The post-show hotel room trashing was of legendary proportions, I must sheepishly admit. What the hell, hiatus is over and bad habits have resurfaced.

The Other Ones | Medeski Martin & Wood | Hot Tuna
Oakland Arena | Oakland,CA | 12.31.02

Set 1: St. Stephen > The Eleven > Jack Straw, Unbroken Chain > Playin' in the Band > Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain

Set 2: Sugar Magnolia, Shakedown Street > Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Drums > Space > Lady With a Fan > Dark Star > Terrapin Station > Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away

E: Caution Jam > I Know You Rider, No More Do I > Baby Blue > Stella Blue

Thanks to my source:

It was New Year’s Eve and The Other Ones returned to their backyard arena to celebrate. Upon arriving to the lot, we popped a beer and headed for Shakedown Street. After picking up a couple “kind” veggie burritos and some chocolate goods we headed inside to meet our crew who had staked out some prime seats. I salute the early birds and all of their wisdom; our evening was enhanced exponentially!

Hot Tuna was the opener, and it was a good fit for the evening’s line-up. The acoustic performance by Jorma Kaukonen (guitar/vocals) and Jack Casady (bass) allowed the crowd to filter in and get situated in mellow fashion. We took our seats, kicked back and took a long look around. The zillion balloons netted above was going to be a trip at midnight! The scene was festive, everybody seemed ready to enjoy the show.

As Medeski Martin & Wood took the stage, the first thing I observed was the “horn” section. Well, I’m not sure if electric bassoon counts as a horn. Regardless, it was a sign that the set was going to be upbeat and funky, the way I like my MMW. The group got rollin’ with some dynamite grooves, getting even the most senior Deadheads to abandon their seats and take notice. John Medeski was at his best, playing multiple keyboards, while simultaneously devising crazy facial expressions. Chris Wood and Billy Martin also were at the top of their game, keeping the beats chuggin’. The horn section, led by Steve Bernstein (Sex Mob), really added some depth to the trio’s sound. Overall, it was another great fit; the Other Ones were up next with their passionate lyrics to counterbalance the instrumental frenzy of MMW.

There is no need to overanalyze the performance of the Other Ones. They put on an excellent show, very powerful and moving. Jimmy Herring (Phil & Friends, Allman Brothers, etc.) does not attempt to be Jerry Garcia; he has his own wonderful style. The highlight of the show for me was the thumping bass of Phil Lesh; this guy is still bringing the heat. The setlist, while impressive when you compare it to the Jerry days, was in line with what they have been playing recently.

The show had a rather nostalgic feel to it, like everybody in the house had been waiting for this moment for years. (We had!) I felt a sense of self-reflection, pondering the events that have occurred in my life since the moment I heard the news that Jerry Garcia had passed away. It was a remembrance of good times from years past and also a present day celebration with many old friends. Between sets, they aired a narrated documentary of the Grateful Dead’s rich tradition of playing New Year’s Eve in Oakland. Very well put together, it touched many of us in more ways than words can describe. Here was a classic snippet: “1980: Were you here?” (Sorry, I was only 10 and lived in Chicago!)

The balloons fell, we got our Terrapin, and we had a hella good time. Even the cops aggressively clearing out Shakedown Street after the event couldn’t put a damper on the evening. We headed back across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco with a deep feeling of satisfaction. "Inspiration - move me brightly!"

JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 1/6/03]

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