HARMONIZED RECORDS SHOWCASE WEEKEND

Harmonized Records Showcase | 10.03 & 10.04 | Lincoln Theatre | Raleigh, NC

Wait till you see this on DVD! The newly-formed Harmonized Records brought five of their best bands to the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh for a two-night entry into jamband history. Garaj Mahal, The Motet, Perpetual Groove, ulu and Lotus all appeared to help herald the arrival of Harmonized on the world's musical radar. Incredible all-star jams each night helped cement the evening in the annals of improvised music, and the whole thing was recorded for DVD and CD release.

Harmonized is the latest growth spurt from the scenester stalwarts at the Homegrown Music Network. Taking the step from a grassroots distribution and promotion outfit to a full-blown record label has brought the Mebane, NC company into a new era. Label founder Lee Crumpton wasted no time establishing a formidable lineup of musical heavyweights young and old. And what better way to announce a new record label to the world than by renting out the local theatre and digging in for the weekend.

New York City's ulu was the first band onstage, tearing into their funky jazz excursions. The band has had three different lineups over the course of four albums together, but they've never lost their singular edge. And while each incarnation had its distinct charms, the band retains a discernible sense of forward propulsion with each shape shift. Their bouncy Afro-Cuban flavored funk drifted into heavy territory at times, sounding like a cross between Lake Trout and a robot's nightmare. They followed with an arcane reading of David Bowie's classic "Space Oddity," which alternated from sultry and slinky. The set also featured their jazzfunk tour de force "Canine Brigade," which I used to play for friends to make them love ulu. Though that was years ago, they still bring the same frenetic energy and positive groove to their shows today.

The Motet was next to take the stage, unleashing their unique blend of Latin jazz rock. Nobody would expect a sound like this out of Boulder, Colorado, but their home base in the middle of the country seems perfectly positioned to expose them to sounds from the entire world around them. The Motet's secret weapon is rhythm. At several points throughout the set, the entire band put down their regular instruments to pick up percussion and bang away. This was no drum circle chaos, however - they were indeed playing songs, with verses, melodies and solos, all on drums and percussion. Drawing on the endless inspirational patterns of African and Middle Eastern drumming, they interweaved djembe, dumbek, chekere, congas, agogo bells, bongos and more into a delicious worldly concoction. Each member filled in a different hole, layering rhythm upon rhythm in a cascading cadence of sound. Having seen the band several times before, I thought I knew what to expect, but was still mightily impressed with their ability to surprise and entrance.

One of the main attractions of the Showcase weekend was a promised superjam at the end of each night. And so it was that eleven people climbed onstage for the first Harmonized Records All-Star Jam. All of the members of ulu and The Motet, along with the saxophonist and guitarist from Harmonized label-mates Cadillac Jones, appeared onstage to soar into an hour of improvised supergroove. This may very well have been the highlight of the entire weekend, as they morphed into a churning mass of neo-psychedelic stew. Three saxophones, two keyboards, a guitar, two basses, two drums, and percussion tore into thick rhythms and jubilant melodies as the groove kept getting thicker and thicker. This was gritty teeth-clenching jazz, funky at its core but with master instrumentalists soaring over the top – call it music for your guts. It seemed history was already being made when a female rapper, a new friend of The Motet's, stepped up to the mic and started rhyming. Throwing vocals into what had been an instrumental set shook things up to say the least, adding a new layer and focal point for the music. At the time it seemed the groove could go on forever. We certainly weren't thinking about the fact that we'd be right back here again in 19 hours for...

Lotus, the funkiest ambient trance band you'll ever see. Starting off night number two of the Showcase, this young band from Philadelphia wasted no time diving into the cosmic ocean, bubbling along the water on their island grooves and bouncy buoyant bass. The keyboards and percussion were especially vibrant as they ventured from sounds of soft glory to rages of hyperactive rhythm. They even kept playing right through a brief power outage, ending their set with just the sound from their amps filling the room. An audience this supportive doesn't fret over a technical problem, and merely stepped outside for some fresh air while they quickly fixed the sound system during intermission.

The intricate guitar and keyboard interplay of Savannah, Georgia's Perpetual Groove was up next. Their name however belies the true span of their sound. While the groove may be their overarching goal, the moods elicited by their many textures range across the emotional spectrum. Ideas from coy to poignant to flamboyant all fly across their fingers as the night progresses. Their sound ranges throughout the rock genre, encompassing elements of jazz, funk, electronica and reggae into the mix. They ran through a mesmerizing set, perfectly bridging the gap between the hypnotic world of Lotus and the frenzied mayhem of Garaj Mahal.

I hope no one reading this still needs an introduction to Garaj Mahal. If you do, you've been missing one of the most energetic, talented and tasty jambands on the current tour circuit. Led by guitarist Fareed Haque, they are the ace in the Harmonized Records deck. Opening with "The Shadow," they seemed to fill every possible niche with their trademark fusion onslaught. Pick a beat and dance to it. The four members of the band are all world-class musicians, inspiring and improvising off each other right in front of your eyes. "Break Out" was followed by the Zappa-like absurdity and off-kilter rhythmic utterances of "Poodle Factory," which also included a brief jam on Parliament's "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up.)" The set continued with "The Palladin" and "Massive" before wrapping up with "Celtic Indian." Haque's screaming guitar and Eric Levy's keyboards blended into a fusion fireball, with Kai Eckhardt's bass and Alan Hertz' drums fueling the fury. They left behind an exhausted but exhilarated crowd, whose voices behind me included the understatement of the year: "These guys play well together."

But the night wasn't over yet. It was time for the second All-Star Jam, and the stage looked like a carnival as members of all three bands returned to see what would happen. They ended up launching into Paul Simon's melodic classic "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," from his legendary Graceland album. Perpetual Groove guitarist and lead singer Brock Butler handled the vocals, as Eckhardt erupted into an epic bass solo. Lotus percussionist Chuck Morris slammed through a djembe break, while other musicians held down the rhythm on congas, electric drums, shakers, and more. Haque took the band into the old Afro-Cuban standard "Guantanamera," which included a brief vocal jam before settling back into the instrumental innovations. At some point in here, the mind meld took hold and you could hear the moment they completely locked together. Hank Smith from local rockgrass heroes Barefoot Manner appeared to shred through a banjo solo, while bassist band mate Walter Hensey watched from the crowd. Haque switched to a double-neck guitar as Hertz took over Morris' drum kit and oozed into a frantic club beat, keeping it going for a full hour of irrepressible improvisation. It was truly an honor watching musicians of this caliber as they experienced something completely unique.

The concert finally wrapped up, as eventually they all must, and so there was nowhere left to go, except of course the closest IHOP. As I explained my syrup secrets to my compatriots (the trick is to mix the strawberry and butter pecan together), we reflected on the ridiculous weekend of music we had just witnessed. A record label astute enough to sign all of these great bands truly deserves to be successful. The label's roster also boasts several great bands that weren't featured in the Showcase, including MoDeReKo, The Recipe, Ten Ton Chicken and Cadillac Jones. The CD and DVD of the weekend should be available soon – keep an eye on www.HarmonizedRecords.com for info and soundclips. Here's hoping we're hearing from Harmonized for a long time to come.

Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Gabriel Nelson
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 11/8/03]

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