A red light throws a crisp silhouette of Trevor Garrod against the black curtain behind the stage. I can’t take my eyes off his shadow dancing with the sparkly spots. The churning and burning coming out of their amps gives the whole affair the feel of a 60’s television broadcast, where a group of long hairs chug away on the "Sullivan Show" while some head on staff works the liquid light backdrop. The keyboard helmsman has that same kind of artfully controlled abandon that rockers possessed when psychedelics first ran headlong into the music. He’s a funky ass metronome and the rest of us fall into his rhythm with nary an argument.
For four guys they make a hellacious amount of noise. The notes seep into the cracks of the room, shaking the staircase as the audience pours upward from the bar below. I let the first tune take me where it will and like a hound gnawing a soup bone they work the groove until that bone is shiny and smooth as marble. Tea Leaf doesn’t jam because it’s expected of them. They jam because it’s the thing to do. Like the Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield or Traffic in days of yore they hear the groove riding in the collective unconscious and tap into it. There’s an archetypal quality to their playing, something that stands outside of all the false chords and stale melodies that abound today.
To confound expectations, their second number is a short, sweet pop ditty and their third a gospel tinged country tune that would have fit nicely on any classic Emmylou Harris LP. Their genuine care in the song department sets them apart from those that simply play and play and play. Unlike many of their compatriots in the scene, Tea Leaf Green shines in the studio. Their most recent album, Midnight on the Reservoir, is a corker, one of those records you loan to a friend without too much fanfare and then wait for the giddy phone call after they’ve given it a spin. That they’ve managed to translate the more succinct pleasures of the studio into their live show is a testament to their instincts.
Even before they began playing there were a few good signs as they strolled out behind their instruments. Guitarist Josh Clark wore a Ween tee and anyone who gets the splendor of Boognish is all right in my book. The unexpected tightness of Gene and Dean Ween in concert is another little tip of the hat for Tea Leaf who pours the same cocktail of wildness and precision. The other positive sign was the dope fashion sense of bassist Ben Chambers who emerged sportin’ a big fur hat complimented by a suit tie and vest but no shirt. Way to get yo’ Funkadelic on!
The tightly packed box that is the Elbo Room is a good fit for the funk-inflected rawness these boys lay down. It has all the stained wood ambiance of a 30’s speakeasy where bodies bump shamelessly and vipers slither by with a wink. Tucked into a spot just off the main hubbub of the Mission District it hosts groups that make one feel just a tad hipper for being in attendance. If you hang at the Elbo Room then you know something some of the sheep don’t. Everything from avant-garde jazz to soul licks and salty rock ‘n’ roll echoes from iron-gated windows. It is a club part and parcel of the neighborhood it resides in. In the Mission every color of the rainbow can be seen walking hand in hand past the clinking glasses and savory smells spilling out of the restaurants and bars that litter the region. Everyone on the streets is working an angle amongst the dirt and noise and sputtering amber lamps. It is deliriously alive from the concrete up and that ba-ba-boom vibe filters into the brick and mortar of the Elbo Room.
During the second set the rough, unbridled voice of Josh Clark gives me a pleasant Replacements flashback. It’s all the raucous shout of punk put to sturdier use and it provides a nice contrast to sweetness of Garrod, who also has a voice that rings true with a quirky edge. There’s just enough off to make it oh so right. The sloppy goodness isn’t marred by an imposing lead singer. Tea Leaf has the feel of early Faces or Sticky Fingers-period Rolling Stones but instead of having to stare cartoons like Mick or Rod one can absorb the music more freely.
Drummer Scott Rager plays with the crisp discipline of soul skinmen like Curtis Mayfield’s longtime percussionist, Tyrone McCullen. He rides the beat with a tight shimmer that keeps everything moving right along. A head nod from him late in show sets the group off into some free flowing improvisation while he holds down the foundation with a firm grip. The three guys in front of his kit close their eyes and will the music higher. And by God it follows. They look as surprised as anyone at where the music has taken them when they open their eyes. Leaning against a dark wood column I grin right back at them feeling just as tickled by what the muses have wrought with this well steeped band.
This performance along with many others is available directly from the band through their Tea By Mail program.
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