Part One: Jemimah Puddleduck
Walking slow through the misty downfall, I took in the soft glow of the Fillmore neighborhood. It's a place that music lovers from all over the world know and whisper about with hushed awe. For locals it's no less monumental but a tad more dear. From the greeter at the top of the stairs to the tub of shiny, perfect apples for you, there's a sense of homecoming when one sees a concert here. That sense of return, of friends reunited, has rarely been more palpable than when the Sons of Champlin came back to their old haunt. But first there's the matter of Jemimah Puddleduck's debut at this venerable hall, a hand-in-glove fit with the headliner and ample proof that everyone sparkles more brightly under the chandeliers of the Fillmore.
Everywhere you looked there were long hairs but long hairs touched with gray. Being in the middle of this many boomers felt like hanging with The Big Chill cast aged up to cover the 21 years since that film first cemented the stereotypes of a generation that turned on and dropped out, only to wake up with a mortgage and two kids. Their presence signaled a sustained connection with their youth. They still remember the highs they'd experienced and now could pass along their own traditions to their children. Fathers wandered the poster lounge with teenage sons and daughters, pointing out bits of their history contained in paper and ink. DJ Phil Moore Jr. spun rockified raga as he scanned a copy of the Woodstock soundtrack for the next cut. For lack of a better phrase, a nifty vibe permeated the air. It was going to be a good night and every one you met had a smile to prove it.
With a polite roar, Puddleduck took the stage. Despite Mark Karan's role as lead guitarist in Ratdog and drummer John Molo's key spot in Phil Lesh and Friends (as well as both men being members of the original Other Ones lineup), the crowd seemed largely unaware of who was about to play. As a sometime-band that gathers in between the seemingly random bouts of marathon touring Phil and Bobby demand, JP are a treat seeped in the tradition of Little Feat, NRBQ, and Allen Toussaint. Their mojo is rooted in warm, fragrant ground, earthy, grooving, dead solid, and almost nothing like what they play in their respective day jobs.
Mark Karan by Alan Hess
Some may find their name a bit silly but I like rolling it around on my tongue. Jemimah Puddleduck is a character of fables unwritten, a cartoon foil that outwits alligators and tweed-clad hunters. It has onomatopoeic rightness that makes the corners of one's mouth curl skyward.
Bob Gross by Alan Hess
They start by pushing something psychedelic down a stairwell and watching it stumble to its feet and wander off in an easy shuffle where Karan sings about a look in your eye he knows all too well. Mark's husky voice adds the right accents to what will be a fairly lascivious pre-Valentine's Day evening. They come out swinging, real pros, and by the end of the first number the crowd has pressed in closer. Where other percussionists play big, Molo plays HUGE. What leavens his Valhalla-like power is a knack for delicacy that emerges when one least expects it. It is the drum that calls folks forward, making them listen for the message coming from the next mountaintop.
A bearded jester behind me comments, "That's some tasty, tasty guitar." Heads, including my own, nod in confirmation, as Mark hits all the right upper-register goosebump centers. His equally hirsute pal responds, "I know something that'll make it even tastier," and hands off a pipe still glowing orange. This is an audience that still calls it grass and knows the enhancement power of the kindest of all herbs. I snicker thinking of the recent right wing anti-weed public service announcements on television. A more harmless, gentle group I could not imagine. In fact, I feel safer in such high-headed company than nearly anywhere else. The instant camaraderie of passing a pipe always makes one feel less like John Donne's island and let's one slip off the weight of bills, bosses, bad days. In a few corners, I can see parents passing this tradition on to their teens along with the music. In a culture bound by shame and sadness and guilt over anything pleasurable it's heartening to know that not every American is uptight, close-minded, and sour enough to punish others for the fun they won't permit themselves. And what a soundtrack to enjoy it by.
As the band swings into a funk pocket, I find myself staring at the inventive projection images going on behind the band. Leaves are falling upwards and then swimming around like guppies. The visuals add layers of light complication to the rhythms and tides. The guys are pouring it on, dragging the music into the ether, reaching the thin air above the fires of moments before. Mark's hands are all over the neck of his instrument, making it cry, moan, and wail as keyboardist J.T. Thomas drops in some Palisades Park organ and pretty piano. Along with Bob Gross's rock steady bass, they are four guys who make a full sound, all throwing in something to make a flavorful stone soup.
Jemimah Puddleduck by Alan Hess
A peek at the LED clock on stage reads 9:32. A hair over a half hour and the day has melted away for many. The jobs, the traffic, the chatter and hustle of getting here and there are left behind, replaced by a wind at our backs and a new bounce in our dancing feet.
The expression "impeccable taste" was tailor made for JP's instinct for covers. This Friday night they trot out the kind of songs that record store clerks rhapsodize about: a reggae take on Joe Jackson's "Fools In Love" that gets delightfully bruised as it goes, Allen Toussaint's ode to the cost of living wrong "On Your Way Down," to remind all of us that the sun doesn't rise or set just for any one fool (paired with some great blue, open sky visuals), and a sweaty workout on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "U Can Stay, But the Noize Must Go," where Karan put his foot on the wah wah rock oh so mightily and Thomas laid down some gospel by way of Bernie Worrell. What impresses even more is that their originals line up admirably with this heavyweight material. The cover tunes provide dots to connect, a part of the shape this Duck makes. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the set-closing ballad, Randy Newman's "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today." Like getting one of those precious boxes of rain at a Dead show, it raised a few tears and tied the goings-on at the Fillmore into the greater world outside.
Mark Karan by Alan Hess
I hear in Karan's playing hints of the tremendous Mike Bloomfield, Chic's Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Ray Vaughn in his early days with David Bowie. His is the anchor for their good ship but he surely does not sail alone. The band's obvious joy in playing together carries over and becomes our own. The collective slink they stirred up this night may well have helped a few people get laid, such was the very leer of their mambo at times. Hips creaked to action after lying dormant far too long and the slow dancers faded into one another with love's gentle understanding. Jemimah Puddleduck proved that they have every right to be on that stage. Unlike the many flavors-of-the-month that frequently take dates away from worthier musicians (I'm thinking of Kelly Osbourne, O.A.R., John Mayer and their ephemeral ilk that have performed at the Fillmore in recent years), this band has earned their place in the pantheon of this place with their spirits and bodies and a performance so satisfying one wants to go have a smoke afterwards.
Part Two: Sons of Champlin
For as much as I know about music, especially the ripe harvest of the San Francisco region, there are still yawning gaps in my knowledge. The Sons are such a chasm. Having heard their name for literally decades I had heard only a handful of songs, including the cult darling "Get High," which had made an appearance on more than one mix tape from hophead pals. And one recurring aspect of the Sons legend has been a wide-eyed glee people have when talking about this band's live performances, and not just the bygone, back-in-the-day throwdowns but gigs of recent vintage, too. The band reformed in 1997 after laying dormant for 20 years while leader Bill Champlin plied his trade with FM-radio mainstays Chicago (of which he's still a member). Always ready to be schooled, I stuck around after the Jemimah boys shuffled off to hear if these tales were tall or true.
One of the things that kept me planted was the sight of a vibraphone on stage. There's a big, beautiful tone the vibes make, celestial but made by human hands. My affection for the instrument was cemented after a long intense listen to Andrew Hill's Judgment! with only Owsley's wonderful drug for company. Felt as if Bobby Hutcherson were transmitting divine missives that language was too thin, too clunky to convey. Music at its best, as it would be with the Sons of Champlin, extends past our comfort range and touches upon things we can only hint at with words. The man who would use them this night, Geoff Palmer, hit many of those same high, mighty notes and refreshed my love of these unique tones.
Bill Champlin by Douglas Mountford
With an invitation to "all feel good together" the Sons roared out, beaming to be back at the same hang they'd frequented often 37 years earlier. The first thing that hits me is how unreasonably tight they are. Instantly so. The horns accented lines with marvelous restraint while the guitars harmonized like schoolboys in a choir. The music swells, dips, and then takes off on a freight train rumba riding on jittery organ rails.
Champlin's voice is a strong, flexible, natural fit for song, one of those pure gifts from God like the Everly Brothers, Graham Nash, and Tower of Power's Lenny Williams. Like their songs, it is the unbridled sunshine of AM-radio hits that should have been, pop that borrows the best bits from blues and soul, making the word "rock" live up to its power to contain whole galaxies in a single syllable. It is the eye of a storm where all the parts come together and lift us like a happy twister from where we stand.
Geoff Palmer by Carol Karpowicz
A warning of "Don't anybody drink the apple juice" gets a knowing laugh. Many in this audience probably started traveling in their mind around the same time as the great cerebral astronaut, Captain Al Hubbard. It is a freedom celebrated, both the trips themselves and our luxury to laugh. Even as other parts of the country slide into a starched collar Puritanism there's still oases like San Francisco. When Champlin later describes them as "another band of stoners from Marin" going through "another day, another food stamp" he's greeted by a hoot of recognition. We might not be rich in the things society tells us to pursue but we are blessed in so many other ways, including these survivors from the tail end of the flower power years.
Going back to the Tower of Power, it's pretty clear that the East Bay Grease owe at least a spiritual royalty check to the Sons. Many of their moves in the early days echo the sound Champlin pioneered with guitarist Terry Haggerty (who unlike Bill has gone on to revered cult status amongst the hippie intellegencia... an oversight this piece hopes to rectify if only a little). And one of the current Sons, mighty Mic Gillette (trumpet, trombone, vocals), actually played on one of the great live records of the seventies, ToP's Live and in Living Color. What one hears in Sons' tunes like "Imagination's Sake" are classic slow jams with all the seeds removed. The up-tempo numbers are a command, not a suggestion, to dance and find the ass you shook off later.
B. Champlin & D. Schallock by Carol Karpowicz
Throughout the night I have the image of the horns being a bird that lands on your shoulder or lights on your index finger Snow White fashion. As strong, as solo-licious as both Gillette and his sax partner Marc Russo (former lead tenor for Tower of Power and foundation member of jazz-fusion act the Yellowjackets) are, they have a great skill at being present without being intrusive. That's down to both the arrangements and their stellar playing. During a ballad where Champlin sings, "You are my reason to survive," it is the combination of his falsetto and the sax notes that really sell the line. This is the kind of stuff Shaft puts on as he runs a bubble bath and lights more candles than the Vatican in preparation for his lady's arrival.
B. Champlin by Douglas Mountford
The youngest Son, lead guitarist Tal Morris, is clearly tickled to be playing this good time music. High steppin', curtain of hair swinging, a gold chain floppin' around, he's a live wire, a switched on daddy who has clearly put the charge to Bill Champlin. The chemistry between them--down to the teasing banter--is charismatic, something that spans generations because the music surpasses any one time. The impression might be, and I myself held it before coming to this show, that this is an oldies band. Instead, think of them as existing outside of time, carrying these songs around to those that need to hear them. Combining a '60s exploratory bent with intricate arrangements, this is what pop music might have been had it not dissolved into the shock and awe pabulum of today.
Discovering the Sons of Champlin is like finding money in an old coat pocket when you're really broke. Or discovering a new author who makes you cry in only a few paragraphs because your heart has been split open wide. To know this band, to resist cynicism and believe their message that time will bring you love, is to receive a gift, a smile wrangled into notation, the intangible joy of music at its best and brightest.
JamBase | California
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