Ropeadope New Music Seminar :: 11.19.04 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA


Ropeadope New Music Seminar by Adam George
A muddled miasma on the roads makes me late for class. This annoys me because more so than some shows I want to hear every note, drink in the wisdom and celebration being spilled out. For this tour is a form of ecstatic lecture delivered by journeymen and masters, a continuation of the line begun on the stages of the old Fillmore auditoriums in the '60s, where Miles Davis could share a bill with Santana and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Each act, in their own faltering unutterably beautiful way, sought to be true to the Great Groove pulsating beneath all music. And like the many faces of God, the form this devotional practice takes is myriad, subtle and unexpected. By inviting professors from the world's of jazz, rock, hip-hop and soul, Ropeadope has helped revive a tradition that birthed some of the most exciting music of the past century. They've taken the festival atmosphere and put it on a bus, and within minutes one knows this is a splendid idea.

Joe Russo :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
The air inside is muggy, wet with breathing and smoke, and my glasses steam up. For a few minutes I just stand still and listen. Marco Benevento slaps his organ about while Joe Russo puts a kick drum in the tune's ass. The Duo, as the lads are known, have their way with music. They can play things sweet but more often they draw steel and see what metal the notes have to offer. The heat and the pounding are disorienting. I feel afloat in some over-full swimming pool, nostrils flaring at the chemical funk particulating around me. When my glasses clear, I see Russo holding his stick aloft, caught in one of those Jack Kirby action poses he's prone to. His square jaw and naked intensity just up the four-color hero flava.

Marco Benevento :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
Out strolls Boots Riley of The Coup, a perfect afro and hip length leather coat makes him look like he walked straight off the screen of a Richard Roundtree movie, all coiled power and ghetto smooth. When he speaks he flows with a poet's unguarded confidence, preacher's hands directing the throng with irresistible authority. The Duo sticks around for a few minutes as the three players in Boots band emerge. The music never stops, something that holds true all through this Friday night. When they play it's like hearing a slice out of Funkadelic's "Music For My Mother." They are more soulful than hip-hop often allows itself to be these days, referencing Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron and Brother Marvin in the tone if not the actual notes played. Boots directs them deeper and deeper, calling out instructions that the trio hops on like kids on candy. "You all get high yet?" he asks the audience. Anyone holding lets loose with an industrial chimneystack burst and that seems to push The Coup into the proverbial next level. No Pam The Funkstress tonight but during the second number a honey thick singer named Silky joins the boys. Hers is a woman's voice not the girls we get in R&B today. She's got the lived-in know how of a Candi Stanton or early Roberta Flack and she's the spitting image of the daughter Queen Bee that the Dolomite flicks never had. Operating without a DJ, carried along by guitar and a tight rhythm section, The Coup thoroughly impressed, as good a first impression as any live hip-hop act has ever made on this author.

JJ Grey (MOFRO) :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
During their set it hits me that this is a cutting contest, each band trying to out perform the one that preceded it, whipping the knife-edge of performance between splayed fingers and grinning as they do it. Putting so many talented people in one place raises the entire game. Anyone can play chess with a little training but you don't usually get to sit down with Bobby Fischer night after night. There's incredible smarts behind grouping people so different on the surface but sharing a bedrock philosophy about playing music. This tactic ensures an overall feel that ebbs and raises unexpectedly, a DJ's logic if you will.

Daryl Hance (MOFRO) :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
Another drummer enters and plaid shirts and trucker hats replace the blaxploitation couture of The Coup. With a back-of-the-hand slap of reverb MOFRO is here. They instantly add humidity to the air, some swamp aura carried with them in their motorhome all the way from Florida. There's a line of continuity from their Stax-Volt infused soul and the hip-hop that proceeds them, something southern mingled with electricity and a somewhat vulgar independence. It takes less than 60-seconds to figure out why MOFRO puts their records out on way cool San Francisco label, Fog City Records. They share Frisco's feel for funk passed around the left hand side, an easy swagger combined with city sharpness. Some of the mud of their homeland clings to every friggin' note, adding to the general dirty vibe of the evening.

JJ Grey (MOFRO) :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
A few songs in singer JJ Grey really leans into it, a hard secular gospel that puts you over a log like Isabelle Hubert in I Heart Huckabees. He gets down to deep things like Brook Benton, Dobie Grey and acknowledged influence Otis Redding. Being around MOFRO always feels a bit like my real church. I love the Creator but I also dig what his Creation's can do on a Friday night. MOFRO, by combining the soaring boogie of Little Feat with the rest of the south's musical traditions manages to put the honey in the rock in a way few others do these days. An hour with them feels like a foot massage on a day with no work, a cold beer after slaving away at the job, a smile from a pretty girl you pass on the street. It's just unwholesome enough to be interesting and still possessed of no small amount of holy spirit. The Millie Jackson style sermon that Grey inserts into one tune confirms that somewhere along the way they've seen the inside of a church, but their churchin' mixes in the thick freakness of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies.

Skerik :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
We leave Florida's sons as Critters Buggin skitter in. First, Mike Dillon raising a focused clatter on his panoply of percussion gizmos, then Skerik, sax in hand, dressed like an extra from Ocean's 11, blowing the tattered soul out of his horn. There are many talented saxophonists out there today but Skerik is easily the most visceral player alive, an original who stands out as one of the most expressive voices to hit his instrument in a decade. The two dip and swerve into a kinda blue Afro-Cuban rhumba as the rest of the Critters join them. Assembled, one hears the evolution of jazz when it used to be called jungle music, claws out, Grendel unleashed, wildness infused with top-flight skill. In them beats the heart of Mingus, a lion smoking a cigar, watching the horizon with Rainer Maria Rilke's eye for detail. When they explode into a piece from their latest (and quite swell) release, Stampede, it's like a tin roof being pelted by golf ball sized hail. All the little animals inside the building shimmy with fear but remain frozen in their tracks.

Ike Willis :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
The intricacy and sheer pummel of Brad Houser's bass work keeps things flowing even as all around him crumbles. He is the master of the perfectly placed single note. There's gravity to his strings, a pull that helps the listener navigate the admittedly strange terrain. One usually has to look to the Dutch or Germans for such master class, non-traditional jazz chops but Seattle and Texas have given us this lot. They are good enough at their craft to go anywhere they choose. As this thought pops into my head out walks Zappa-alumni Ike Willis and uber-jester Les Claypool. As if to answer Skerik's question earlier in the set, "You enjoy the variety of life, right?" this pair makes the crowd go wide eyed. We are witnessing a comic book crossover, the Legion of Super Heroes hooking up with Power Man and Iron Fist, the Fantastic Four getting help from Gotham's finest (though I've often likened Les to Superman villain Mr. Myxlplyx for some reason..). The super hero metaphor is a frequent one for me. These guys might as well wear capes and fly because to my ears, to my heart, they perform feats of super human ability. To take instruments and make them live in this way, to stretch the human voice every which way so the lie of the Tower of Babel is revealed, well, it makes the world a better place.

Claypool and the Birthday Boy :: 11.19.04 by Susan J. Weiand
Claypool tells us this is "Ski-wrecks" 40th birthday and he and Ike are here to help celebrate. We learn that sweet potato pie will be served backstage and the birthday boy's poison is Patron Tequila. The "Dirty Colonel" as Skerik refers to him then encourages us to buy shots of said tequila as a show of our love. It isn't two minutes before the little glasses begin accumulating on the keyboard next to him.

Skerik :: 11.19
By Susan J. Weiand
The newly expanded line-up grooves mightily, going pretty with Willis singing a brief "Shadow of Your Smile" before running down a plain nasty rendition of "Talkin' About My Baby" after Skerik's request to sing him "something nasty." Their collective juice makes me itchy and nervous in a prickly pleasant way. It makes me want to run through an orchard picking apples for these teachers. What is clear from the blurry lines of their music is this band can play WHATEVER they want and they can invite anyone alive to play (and that is the operative word in the fully kid based sense...) with them. It is good to have the Critters back after their hiatus. I say it out loud several times and every time folks within earshot gave me a smiling thumbs up.

This time, no one leaves except Willis and Les, as the next batch arrives. The Sex Mob Horns, backed by all the Critters and eventually Benevento/Russo, drag Bourbon Street onto Divisadero, a New Orleans by way of New York rumble that resurrects Louis Armstrong's Hot Sevens, the saucier Ellington small groups and the Albert Ayler klezmer of the Willem Breuker Kollektief. Local wind magician Ralph Carney is instructed to join them by Sex Mob leader Steven Bernstein. Carney, on clarinet this night, is inspiration on two legs, a true musician's musician and a welcome addition to a horn section already plumped by Skerik.

Sex Mob Horns :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
Carried along by the high balloon air of Bernstein's slide trumpet, they ease into a smooth, lyrical piece that's like frozen mint on a dry tongue, iced sorbet that cleanses the pallet. This cool splash refreshes after the marvelous beat down the Critters gave us. Before too long though, this unique Mob needs to rage, a party skittering along on centipede feet, tossing out beads even if we don't show them our goodies. Much of what they play is drawn from their latest release, the fabulous Dime Grind Palace. I toy with cutting class early, exhausted and knowing I'll need my strength to survive another evening of instruction on Saturday, but as I lift a foot to leave all I'm able to do is shake it in the air while waving a hand jitterbug fashion. Damn that devil music!

Eric McFadden :: 11.19 :: By Susan J. Weiand
Amidst the controlled chaos, a guitarist attempts to plug in. For a moment I think it is Vernon Reid (Living Color), friend to Ropeadope label founder DJ Logic, but then he turns and offers a fiery grin to us. It is none other than Eric McFadden still fresh from his Stockholm wandering and he begins to bop along with the rest of the gang on a slinky version of Prince's "Sign o' the Times." Like the rest of this night, it is a surprise and a wholly pleasant one.

Bernstein described his experiences making their last album with these words and they drifted into my head during their set, "That's what I'm trying to deal with: musicians communicating with each other when they play. They don't know the songs, so they're listening, and someone plays something that affects the next person, so they're just using their ears and they're reacting and using their reactions to make the performance."

Ropeadope New Music Seminar :: 11.19 :: By Weiand
When they finally stop, house lights up within moments of Bernstein dropping the virtual curtain, the audience looks spent. The truth of a show being equal parts performers and attendees is exposed on our faces. We gave as good as we got but only because we got what we got. Got it? It's a circular logic but one that makes complete sense when you're up to your ears in such talented honchos. I literally stumble on to the sidewalk, legs jelly loose, and hope that sleep heals me up for the next round 16 hours away...

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 12/10/04]

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