Ten Ton Chicken, one of the SF Bay Area's keenest purveyors of the jam, finds themselves in 2003 with a fine new album, In Search of..., and a palpable hankering to be heard. And just as any singer must find their voice, a band must find its sound. After wandering through the styles of others, trying different flavors on their golden skin, TTC has found a cosmic dust groove of their very own.

There's something reassuring about a band that's better with every outing. The Chicken grows mightily with each phase of their development. A year ago they were still exploring the possibilities of their debut, Just Like In The Old Country, a not unpleasant nugget that carried echoes of Little Feat and many blond haired soul units. In the intervening months something happened, and to use the vernacular, something deeply cool. From hours upon hours of composing and practice, they've emerged with a distinctive twang, knotty with finger twisting patterns that frequently detour into space yet always flow fine and smooth as Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian. The maturity of the players comes through loudly. Their new record feels like they're serving notice that they are their own band. So why don't more kiddies flock to their coup?

I find myself travelin' down the same road
This lonely road, this tired road, this hard road
Familiar path that I have walked before.

By Karen Sutton
If sheer talent were the only barometer of success they'd already be doing this fulltime. In some ways TTC is a bit too professional, a bit too together for a scene that digs randomness, wildness, and perhaps most basically, quantity over quality. None of the members have that wild hair that captures an audience. No one is a drug-addled freak (though the first cut on In Search of... clocks in at a telling 4:20). They have fun but there's a seriousness about them. While they have no fear of rainbow experimentation, their material is too intricate, too involved for all out tangents. Instead they offer a commanding punch live, full of odd saucy turns and clever interplay. At their album release show at the Tongue & Groove, I got the sense of a group making exactly the noises they intended. From an opener full of Kingston rhythm melded to JB's skunk funk through unrushed, gleaming future flights, what's absolutely certain is they have the skill and the songs to make them a contender in this rarefied arena.

Gobbledygoop, I'll take my coffee black.
Gobbledygoop, and have a crap attack.
Gobbledygoop, on account of the bad bad cream.

By Karen Sutton
They are kinda goofy, though. Bonafide sax marvel Jamison Smeltz has beefed up his role in the band lately. He's working an octopus of percussion instruments, singing, and writing lyrics. Quite silly lyrics. Not many would frame a whole tune around the gastronomical distress caused by expired dairy. At times their offbeat humor is at odds with the technical ecstasy of their melodies and considerable instrumental prowess. Even their non-funny verses are often strange, puzzles to be unscrambled for those willing to put the time into it. The other branch of their lyrics is earnest and gently philosophical. That they have such a passionate, warm-throated crooner as Tom Fejes doesn't hurt. The backing vocals have a nifty call-and-response pop lately, suggesting they want to weave their voices in the same way their instruments overlap. In many respects, they are a good match for a Phish phreak seeking something smaller and a bit more homegrown. That you could also recommend them to a Tower of Power fan is a mark of their rubbery flexibility.

Besides the goofiness, there's one other loaded word that fits TTC: fusion. Yeah, the flared power of the Headhunters but also the chrome-and-neon slickness of Spyro Gyra. There are times when Ten Ton Chicken could use a bit more dirt, some smudges to complicate matters. The main place this pleasant wrinkle appears is the glorious and consistently vigorous guitar of Gary Morrell, who recalls a host of great axe slingers without bowing down before any one of them. There's a bit of Larry Coryell, some Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, even a flash of Al DiMeola from time to time. Morrell incorporates fuzz into the mix, a punk-Zappa drive to make things less pretty. It's an urge I think the band would benefit from following more often.

By Karen Sutton
None of this is to say that TTC is anything less than excellent, but I have been musing over what keeps a bigger audience at arm's length. While many bands have fallen into audiences through the growing jam fan base, TTC consciously courts these shaggy listeners. Maybe as another band pointed out to me recently, they need to leave their hometown in order to get recognized. Leaving SF for a spell might be the best thing to happen to them. The East Coast would eat their brand of California Soul up with a ladle (a spoon would be too meager for the portions they'd want). They are a LOT stronger than many acts getting national attention. Believe that.

It won't hurt that they have a smile-raising new platter to use as a calling card. In Search of... rollicks like a kid with a pocket full of coins and a day with nothing to do but run in the sunshine. "Jungle Cat" opens it up, updating "Maneater" for a new generation before swingin' into "skLorilla," a shameless reworking of Otis' "I Can't Turn You Loose" riff that puts a tiger in your tank. Listen to Smeltz slaughter the groove, great peels of brass flying from a single small figure. Recorded with the whole band cranking together on a sound stage, In Search of... is a goulash of Philly vamp, middle eastern spice, Cuban-esque piano, modern electronica made by man instead of machines and silly string excursions that actually take you somewhere. The instrumental "Horscht" is my personal fave, a clean and crispy Lego block-builder with corridors to explore for days on end. Lock-tight drummer Rich Dibenedetto shows his best here, highlighting his humility as a percussionist who never showboats while holding things together expertly. Keyboardist Greg Sankovich also rises to the top on this cut. His gift for finding fresh colors without being obtrusive continues to impress.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: Watch this band closely. A year is a very short time. They've made a lot of nifty changes and delivered a great sophomore release, all ample evidence that they are onto bigger and better things.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 10/29/03]

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