AN EVENING WITHOUT PHISH

So many people were befuddled with our choice to dump our Phish tickets and opt for an alternative on New Year's. I couldn't give a sufficient answer for most, so this review will have to do.

The theme for our evening was (without too much sacrilege) "dayeinu" which I believe roughly translates to "it would have been enough." While on Passover it's said that "If You lead us out of Egypt but didn't give us anything to eat in the middle of the desert, it would have been enough, (etc.)" on Tuesday night I was thinking "If my evening was just this single Ribot solo show, it would have been enough."

Tonic in the Lower East Side was comfortably full for the early showing of Electric Masada. First up was the Marc Ribot Mystery Trio featuring Trevor Dunn on bass and I can't remember the name of the drummer. As they got on stage and the lights went down I had this sinking feeling like: "Did I make a big mistake? Should I be at the Garden right now? And are my wife, brother and sister-in-law all gonna blame me for it?" Ribot started the show with some loud and noisy feedback-type effects from his guitar, shrieking off chords while violently cranking his volume knob. The sinking feeling sunk even deeper. But Lo! out of this noise a beat and a melody began to take place and what was feared to be an avant-garde nightmare became an absolutely ripping rock and roll adventure. Within a minute of the song I confidently, if not blindly, pronounced, "I made the right choice" to myself.

The Ribot set was nothing short of "sick ass." You will have to argue long and hard to convince me that Marc Ribot was not the best guitarist playing on the island of Manhattan on New Year's Eve. I've seen this guy play in such a wide range of ensembles and each time reissuing his talents toward a particular cause. Country music, Cuban/Latin, straight jazz, Frisellian beauty-music, avant-garde noise, rock and roll, funk-groove... he doesn't play one-song-from- each-genre every time he plays (like most other "jambands" do), instead he pulls out every facet within that genre for a particular group. It's the kind of thing I've come to appreciate by seeing him in so many settings. The Mystery Trio seems to be Ribot's attempts to explore the musical universe of the classic power trio format. Indeed, many times during the set I caught whiffs of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the more invigorating and beautiful offerings from the Mahavishnu Project coming through his music. That brings up another refreshing quality of Ribot's music... you'll never hear him covering or quoting or teasing other songs within his playing. Instead he is able to evoke other music within his own music. It's the difference between being just sarcastic and actually developing a unique brand of humor.

Anyway, if I wax this much about the opening set to the first of three stops on our Magical Musical Mystery Tour this review will go on for days. Point being: check out Ribot, check out anything he does, he absolutely shreds... just like he did with Electric Masada. Again, I was being cautiously apprehensive about Masada as a New Year's choice -- I saw them just a couple months ago and they were a bit "noisier" than I cared for, although every other time I've seen Zorn recently he's blown me away. I wasn't sure what I'd be getting. The line-up was superb, though: Ribot again (!), Zorn, Dave Douglas (2003 Grammy nominated trumpeter), Trevor Dunn again on bass (he's f'in terrific, by the way), Cyro Baptista on percussion... Kenny Wolleson was supposed to be playing drums, but without explanation someone else was up there. I recognized him, but forget his name. Jamie Saft continued his great work on keyboards for the Masada ensemble.

The Masada set was the best set of the evening, by far. Added in with the Ribot opener and the early show at Tonic easily cracks my top five for the year. Masada was nothing short of perfect... there wasn't even a second of music where I wasn't in complete awe of what was going on in front of me. By this time we were able to creep a bit closer to the front and just absorb the beauty being unfurled before us. A lot went through my ears after this set, so it's tough for me to give a full-blown review, but one particular thing that blew me away I'll try to recount:

Last year I saw a Zorn project called "The Gift" which was so utterly beautiful I bought the album the next day, something I rarely do. That show featured a lot of the same musicians (Dunn, Ribot, Baptista, Saft, that I can remember) but was just a lulling, gorgeous flowing evening of music. Anyway, Masada starts playing one of these tunes, starting off in the same swaying melody, pretty as ever, but as it grew became something quite unreal. Ribot took a particular guitar solo that turned the song on its head into a rather nasty, crackling rager. The song, which originally has a parenthetic return to the beginning, quiet theme, never recovered and just exploded into some of the best shit I've heard all year.

"Dayeinu!"

The Mule was already raging by the time we got in the door at the opposite corner of the island. The only thing I'm pissed about missing is "Sneakin' Sally" (I'd also like to have seen the "Doves Cry/BB" sandwich)... which I'm sure was great. Here's the setlist (we walked in during "Time To Confess"):

Set I: Soulshine, Thorazine Shuffle, When Doves Cry > Beautifully Broken > When Doves Cry > Beautifully Broken, Slow Happy Boys, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, Time To Confess> Bass jam > Bad Little Doggie > Blind Man In The Dark, Same Price*, Bass jam* > Washing Of The Water*, World Of Confusion*, Eighteen#$+ > The Wind Cries Mary#$+> Badge#$+

Set II: Larger Than Life, Don't Step On The Grass, Sam^> Drums > Bass jam > Third Stone From The Sun%, Freddy The Freeloader%+, I Want To Be Loved%^@+, Politician%, Effigy$~ > Bass jam~ > Simple Man$~

Encore: Mule > I've Been Workin' > Bass jam > Mule

Setlist Notes: George Porter Jr. on bass first set and encore unless noted, Greg Rzab on bass second set unless noted

* w/ Tony Levin
# w/ Greg Rzab
$ w/ Audley Freed
^ w/ Mike Farris
% w/ Vernon Reid
@ w/ George Laks (keyboards)
~ w/ Andy Hess
+ first time played

Combined with the Mule show from the 30th, this represents some powerful Warren Haynes. He just hit everything. While Monday's show seemed a little more dark and explorative, this Mule show took on the personality of a Widespread Panic New Orleans Halloween show: random covers being pulled out all over the place leaving you on your toes all night, free-flowing whiskey, some weird shit going down on stage and an all-around party atmosphere.

"Badge" was terrific. The setlist might be a little generous with all the "bass jams" but there were a lot of bass breakdowns which was cool. I love seeing George Porter lay down his shit with this band. I look at George and say, "there's a guy you always knew could jam with the best of them and now you're getting to see him make it happen."

The turn of the new year was as goofy as I've ever seen Warren or the Mule get on stage. Levin finishes his shit (VERY disappointed about the repeats here, I have to say) and then Warren's like: "There's been a lot of talk about who we were bringing out for midnight..." and then they pull out Joey Arkenstat (if you haven't seen Rising Low, go see it now, I can't explain it otherwise). He's dressed in a loud, black and white polka dot shirt and is just stumbling around the stage with a Fender bass which has a confederate flag tied on the neck (classic!). He plugs in and Brian is helping him get set up and I'm thinking "what the hell are they gonna play now?" and a little feedback comes out of his amp and Arkenstat loses it and immediately throws this tantrum and smashes his bass to pieces right there. Then Warren and Danny Louis start like they're all gonna fight Joey and there's a big to-do. It was pretty funny, lowbrow low-budget humor from the Mule and probably freaked out a few people if they didn't get the joke. In all the mess, Warren lost track of the time and did a quick countdown from 5 into 2003.

Anyway, Rzab comes out and they continue an already long-ass set with a bunch of cool, semi-obscure bust outs to end it up.

Other highlights were everything with Vernon Reid. I've seen him before and he can get out there and a little inaccessible, but he can also shred with a Jimmy Herring-like speed and dexterity and for the most part last night he played a Herring-like role going back and forth with Warren and pushing the jams in the right direction. Probably the penultimate highlight from the Mule show was the "Drums > Bass & Drums > 3rd Stone." If that looks like a part of a Panic setlist, it certainly evoked those types of feelings. Drum solo and then Rzab comes out and solos (why didn't Schools ever do this with the Mule?) and then the band comes out and they are jamming and it is certainly themed on "Third Stone," but it's just a jam on that theme for quite a while... and a sick one taboot. Both Warren and Vernon laying it down 2003-style. Finally, Warren drops the actual start riff to "Third Stone" and they get into the real song with more terrific jamming all around. It sounded great!

One of the problems with the show was it had a disjointed feel... pretty bad flow and had these peaks and valleys of energy and tempo. That fat Hendrix jam (many, many, many Hendrix teases and jams all night which, with the Clapton cover, evoked the earlier Ribot Trio set in a weird way) was followed by a very mellow Miles Davis cover: "Freddy The Freeloader." This was actually really good and well played, but it was quiet and slow and didn't keep the audience in that place they wanted to be. Good playing, bad placement.

Final highlight: "Effigy" was unbelievably ripping. Sheesh! Really glad we got that one. Best Mule show ever, hardly... but still good times, and how often does Warren Haynes disappoint? Ribot > Haynes = bloody eardrums.

"Dayeinu!"

Time to get back on the train and head to B.B. King's for the funk to take us 'til morning...

For the record, I spent less than half a minute checking out the scene inside BB King's club. Instead, the real gem of the night was Lucille's. Why don't more bands play in this room? Quite possibly one of the better rooms in the city to see music. The band that defined my entire year, The Marco Benevento & Joe Russo "we need a name" Duo was on stage when we got there and by the time I had gotten my coat off I realized I was knee-deep in a swamp of freaks getting down to that whack we've been grooving to all year. I've already waxed verbosely about the Duo a few times, and they were equally as good during this abbreviated set. I was bummed they were off the stage in 20 minutes... thankfully they were coming back (which I didn't realize at the time).

Let it be said here first that the current incarnation of the 20th Congress represents funk music as FUNKY as it has ever been anywhere. Anyone that hung out listening to Karl Denson in the packed main room of B.B. King's from 2am till 5:30am on January 1st missed some funky, funky, funky ass shit. For the record it's: Robert Walter (he's funky), Cheme (same here), Will Bernard (yup!), Joe Russo (he's got it), and Justin Wallace (do you even have to ask?). Egad! Look at that line-up; it's essentially the top funk musicians from San Fran and the top groovesters from NYC coming together on Cheme who is a transplant and exploding in some fat assed grooves. This band should stay together in this configuration and go around the country putting second- and third-rate funk-inspired jambands out of their misery. Actually, they should tour with Joe and Marco opening and playing between sets as they did on New Year's... is there any reason why this isn't happening?

What else can I say: sick room, sick grooves. It was pretty packed in the main room while there was a comfortable level of people in the much smaller, cozier, more intimate, more chill atmosphere of Lucille's. I think the decision to spend the next three hours of my evening in that annex instead of dealing with the hullabaloo of the Karl Denson affair was a metaphor for my New Year's. Good people, undoubtedly the best music going right there in front of me with no hassle ass-shaking and easy-access to seating, etc. Sign me up! Ending the night with that music, in that room with all those great people was more absolute perfection.

Between Congress sets, the Duo came back on and played some more of their sickness to about 25 people. Joe was operating in the zone -- he actually started dozing between sets he was so exhausted (two shows, double duty for each show... he's a MONSTER!). And some sweet Zeppelin covers, too!

Got to see some cerebrally beautiful compositions worked out with professional-grade improvisational skills at Tonic (dayeinu!), then some bone-crushing rock and roll at the Beacon (dayeinu!) and then neck-bobbing, toe-tapping, butt-shaking funk and groove at BB's (dayeinu!). The only thing I didn't have was t-shirts made up that said "Phish who?" on them... that was cool.

Happy 2003!

Quiz: How many time did I use the words "sick" and "sweet" to describe my evening?

(Answer: just enough)

Aaron Stein
JamBase | East Coast
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 1/8/03]

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