The Slip :: May 5th, 2004 :: The Independent :: San Francisco

Wasteland wanderer T.S. Eliot held that every word, every new line in humanity's long poem, changed the others written before it. Rather than works standing alone, he saw them mingling in a subconscious jigsaw puzzle, commenting and contradicting, illuminating and obscuring, depending on where the listener stood. That's how a single poem from the man could include Sanskrit prayers, hyacinth girls, old men with wrinkled breasts, and beautiful drowned sailors, all tangled in the roots that clutch, the branches that grow out of the stony rubbish. He speaks of an artistic and spiritual continuum where the lines between Middle Eastern love poems and English academic verse disappear, the differences being illusionary in the first place, the bond between traditions stronger than the distance. Watching the The Slip in San Francisco I felt their music creep by me upon the same waters. Here was a band that respected no artificial boundaries. For them there is music, plain and true, where one moment might find them space truckin' and the next moving low to the red dirt in Africa, a twisted finger acoustic passage blooms into sunflower pop, which in turn eases into full bore organic boogie. Jazz, rock, folk, all slops for the trough, steam for the engine, links in an unbroken chain that made a room buzz and ask what is that sound high in the air?

With my back to the stage, taking in the effective simplicity of the refurbished club (last the Justice League and a score of other names before the current moniker), I felt their presence before I actually saw them, ghost fingers reaching through the dense crowd, working their way up my spine as the children of December came running into the room. Before my brain could intellectualize, name that tune, categorize, the sheer bloody sound envelops me, a feeling but much more than a feeling. The Slip changes your emotional barometer, adding humidity and cumulus. It’s an undertow the swimmer welcomes, sliding down until they pop up like a cork far out to sea. To fully give one’s self to their music means surrendering expectation, moving outside one’s comfort zone, though not in the same way the avant-garde asks. Instead of fear and chaos waiting in the unknown one finds a benevolent spirit full of beauty and reflection. All this philosophizing occurs in the space of the first three numbers, three compositions, three heartbeats, a numerologists’ emphasis on this prime number coming to fruition.

Live there is also the visual component, the play of their notes on their sweat-soaked faces, the workman bandanas on the Barr brothers soaking up their exertions; the live painting going on at the back, the interplay of rock motifs and oil on canvas matured, Andy Warhol's spirit joyously soiling himself at the sight of cymbal brush stroke and painter’s wand dueting. There's a charged focus in the way Andrew Barr's drum kit sits at the front of the stage, angled so he can face his band mates, absorb their nuances, adjust his trajectory, respond immediately. The sheer vigor of his playing pours unhindered from his limbs, the intensity showing in the abused edges of his equipment, wood and sharp metal sculpted by hard, happy hands.

Center stage stands Marc Friedman, a blade of high grass swaying, rooted, pumping out a hum that is total, the kin of bass players like Michael Manring (minus his perfumed Windham Hill-isms) or ECM Records mainstay Eberhard Weber (same retreat from any one style, same gift for otherness) or even Stanley Clarke (sans the machismo common to instrumental prodigies like himself). He is active, engaged, attentive but rarely busy or showy. In describing Friedman or the Barrs I always want to qualify the reference, sand away the sharp pointing so no one thinks they play exactly like anyone but themselves. Taken as individual talents, they stand with such high-powered units as the Police, Return To Forever, Pink Floyd and early Pat Metheny but they are only like those acts in terms of sheer balls-out talent. The flavor of their gum is strikingly different. One finds a more orthodox adherence to one tradition or another in those touchstones that’s missing from the Slip, who seem to have NO bias, NO taboo, NO hesitation to explore polyglot diversity, often within a single piece.

Take for example the stunning "Get Me With Fuji" in the first set, a mixture of funk swing, Taiko drumming and blood-warm fusion motifs. Brad Barr's mouth moved without sound as he searched for the ohm hiding in the strings of his guitar, the same sharp digging one finds in Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and other saxophone giants, the lending of breath to beat creating real soul. It drags me back to an intermission conversation about Fela Kuti. Hearing the Nigerian funk master during the break made me and another attendee muse over the lack of overt spiritual content in most popular Western music. With Fela one never doubted this was his life's purpose, the very reason the Creator placed him on this Earth. As the sticks on bongos pound out a big, open thwonk and Marc's hips wiggle and Brad dives into a clean solo worthy of Grant Green, it hits me that what they do is just the same, akin to monk’s making wine or translating antiquated parchments. To be certain, there is work to what they do but it seems so natural, so right to hear them play that I can imagine them nowhere else but on stages or in studios. They are born music makers and it’s apparent that they are all in, body and soul present in every single note.

During "Fuji" (which always makes me conjecture about whether it's inspired by the mountain or the apple or some slang meaning known only to the trio?), they rise and fall like a single diaphragm, exhaling a breath fragrant with exotic spices, emerging amidst flashing lights into a Sabbath/Mahavishnu flourish dotted with gamelan accents.

Following this is a rough-hewn pop song, a hit waiting to happen like so much of their more song-oriented material. Seated, working an acoustic guitar, Brad Barr breaks his own heart and our own in the process. There’s a naked earnestness to their pop stuff. It should connect with a larger audience since it actually has mass appeal, which despite the leavening of mediocre talents in recent decades isn't always a bad thing. The band unfolds this small jewel into a rainy jam that begs comparison to Pearl Jam at their very best. The scope of the Slip's playing can be overwhelming, a near seamless shift from significant whispers up to a widescreen canvas, the avuncular plink of outsider folky John Fahey snuggling up to Zeppelin stadium strut.

What may keep them at arm's length from mainstream recognition is their earnestness, the way they are so fully engaged with their music. Given the floating perspective of tastemakers, who thrive on easy sound bite description, the Slip may be too complex, too serious about their craft to be embraced by fluff mongers and those who treat music like a lifestyle accessory. This latter group was out in force at this show. So many people from about the middle of the room back to the bar simply never shut up, yammering away while the three sweet spirits onstage poured their life blood out on the tiles. No wonder bands long to play Europe where audiences tend to have a smidgen of respect for performers and fellow patrons. The constant motion, the pushing of the performance to backdrop status, all of this refuses the gift being offered up.

And all things you miss if you don't stop, look, and listen: Sufi guitar strangulation, Friedman playing his bass with "one very special metallic shaker," the fire and smoke of their epilogues, thoughtful lyrics that suggest Jesus may have worked for Judas or the full blown boogaloo unleashed in certain carefree passages. This band would melt anyone who actually believes Ben Harper or John Mayer is a wicked good artist. It’s just that the bar has been lowered so much in the general populace that art need only be better than the usual crap to stand out at all. Really focusing on what the Slip does opens you up to their worldview, a place with equal measures of love for rock and jazz and anything else that’s come their way. It's complex but never in an academic way. It's dense like poetry or an emotion or a dream, different things to take away from each pass.

The best part is they are always, always, always evolving. Rarely have I witnessed a group so unwilling to be complacent, so eager to drop their dorsal fin and grow a new prehensile tail. A new number called "The Soft Machine" illustrates this dynamic nicely. Setting down his bass, Marc plays guitar for a new twist, his twinning of Brad bubbling with new possibilities for arrangements, the juke joint raw power of Mississippi blues tiptoeing into their sound, the raw slapping interplay of Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine and Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson born anew. The song itself is not outside the orbit of the British psychedelic band that shares its name, Brad’s falsetto sounding remarkably like Robert Wyatt and the broad electric sweep would have fit in well on the Machine's early '70s albums. Flecked with Tibetan bells, tambourines, bird song from a forest far from English shores, it builds to a Radiohead-esque grandeur that made dozens of people hold their breath, waiting until the tale's end to draw air again.

For my own part, I didn't really loosen my grip until the achingly beautiful strains of "If One of Us Should Fall" brought the second set to a close. One of the most honest takes on love and commitment ever laid down, the tune felt especially poignant following the announcement of Elvin Jones' death. [Editor's Note: The band had received false information that night that Elvin Jones passed away and led the crowd in a chilling moment of silence just before this song. More »] That same solitary end is a certainty for us all but how we conduct ourselves in the gap between first gasping breath and last sighing exhale is the central question facing us each and every day. To fully live one's calling, to fulfill our role in the grand scheme o' things, is no easy thing. And we're not bloody likely to do so if we don't have a hand to hold, a push when we need it, an ear to bend even in our darkest musings. "If One Of Us Should Fall" is a call to this union AND an exhortation to keep going if your partner lets go. The Slip are carriers of the songs we, as a species, as individuals in search of a soul, need to hear. Even if some folks fall behind the band's jet stream vision there will still remain those of us who hold on for dear life, grasping their fingers like children safe in the company of those sent here to shepherd us.

Words: Dennis Cook
Photos: SuperDee
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 5/18/04]

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