31 October 2000

After a long, music-filled weekend in New Orleans, we were back in New York, off to the Beacon Theater once more - this time to catch MMW on Halloween night, proper. First, I'd like to apologize for not knowing all the names to the songs. I've seen and hear my share of MMW shows, but still didn't recognize or know a lot of the songs played.

Word in the crowd was that Phish's light man, Chris Kuroda, would be the special guest on lighting for the night. A large projection screen was behind the audience for added visual effects. These were just part of what turned out to be another epic evening on what is fast becoming the best live music holiday, even surpassing New Year's in all-around nastiness.

The lights went down and the sounds of MMW filled the air. A basic groove that may or not have had a name. Problem was, the band was not on stage. While the music meandered through the crowd, semi-psychedelic splicings of Blair-Witch-style-edited band footage, odd home movies, nature films and more were projected on the screen. Finally the band slithered onto the stage in full costume - Medeski was clad in a silver jump suit with a simple- faced mask on; Billy Martin was a Swami with a fake beard and a shimmering cape to match his turban; and Wood looked like a member of Spinal Tap with a big wig taboot.

The band quickly became Starship MMW, hurtling through a spacey noise jam for what seemed like an eternity. Some was head-bobbable and other times it was the band at it's most inaccessible. Finally, the speck of light in the far reaches of space grew to become the Milky Way galaxy, then the solar system came into view and finally the spaceship's journey was complete as it landed on the Third Stone From The Sun.

This was the first of three Hendrix covers and quickly brought coherence to the mix. The playing was excellent and the band was locked tight into each other's playing. The song fell into an absolutely haunting jam and came back to the theme once more. Medeski took over and slung Last Chance to Dance Trance over the audience, note by note. This jazz-blend was a nice change of pace from the blistering cacophony of the first 20 minutes or so.

After that one, Chris Wood picked up the electric bass and the really funky groove was afoot. I don't know the names of the next two or three songs/jams/sections, but needless to say, they got me dancing very hard. Although all three played off each other marvelously at nearly every turn, each member got their own chance to shine.

For the first "tune," Jon Medeski displayed the uncanny ability to not just play two different keyboards with each hand, but to twist complex rhythms and melodies with each, sometimes playing off each other and other times just going their own direction. Here it was clavinet and the oft-played organ that were blended to perfection.

Next up, Billy Martin fuelled a groove with techno-like beats that defied the gravity of natural abilities. It was drumming that would make a programmable drum machine turn green with envy. Finally, Chris Wood took the reins and got down and nasty. I've been super-impressed with how much better over the past 3 or so years, Wood has become on the electric bass. At one time I thought he was the weak member of the band, but now I'd have to say he's my favorite.

The set ended with Hendrix song 2 of 3. This time it was Manic Depression. It took me a while to figure this one out - it was the bass line that gave it away. It was an interesting interpretation that was characterized by odd, mixed tempos.

Set break provided a nice break and a realization that my first ever MMW show was Halloween weekend exactly 5 years ago in Detroit. That show was literally in a living room and Tuesday night they had sold out the Beacon Theater. Just goes to show that talent and kick-ass grooves still count for something.

Second set started with a parade of percussion - Billy Martin lead a handful of drummers around the orchestra area of the theater, passing right in front of us lucky folks who had front row seats. The parade made it's way onto the stage as Billy directed them through wild rhythms. Marc Ribot also joined the band on stage and they launched into a slab of wild grooving to get things rolling.

The percussionists left after the first song, except for one - Sera Baptiste is what I think his name was - he was out on stage for the remainder for the show. He added some wonderful flourishes as well as some whacked out vocal sounds at some key moments. Marc Ribot stayed out for the entire set as well. I was afraid that his presence would bring out more of that noisy side of the band that they had teetered towards in the first set. But instead, it was just the opposite. Ribot seemed to be the catalyst for some of the most straight-up boogie-fuelled jams of the night. For the first few songs of the set he stayed back, adding embellishments and rarely taking the lead. The best example of this was in Dracula where he added some wonderfully spooky riffs to augment the date- appropriate choice.

The first set and the first part of the second set were just killer, I thought. The jamming was excellent. The drifting towards the incoherent psycho-babbling that can sometime overwhelm even the most open minded audiences was kept to a minimum. Each member did their part to completely blow me away, individually and as a member of a tight-knit ensemble. I believe to make the "trio" work really well must be incredibly difficult, taking not only top- knotch individual talent but keen listening and on-the-spot comprehension by the group as a whole. The best work I've seen in the trio format seemed to come from three individuals that somehow manage to play rhythm and lead concurrently, using each of their god-given appendages to their maximum. MMW showed me that prowess and then some Halloween night.

Another thing to mention was the lights. During the first set, the projection screen continued to stutter through some bizarre visuals that I tried to ignore (the music is dense enough as it is, I don't need any distractions). This lessened any impact the light show had, for me. Second set, the costumes came off, and the projection screen remained blank. Suddenly, Kuroda became a special guest in his own right, showering gorgeous hues on the stage. It really made an impression on me during the second set and added some more magic to an already grandiose event.

Halfway through the second set, things were taken to a new level. First off, Marc Ribot opened up a whole new side of himself. As I mentioned, he had stayed in the background (even though he was sitting at the front of the stage, dead center). He was doing mostly subtle fills and adding eerie effects by employing some weird devices like hunks of oddly shaped metal (magnets maybe?) and something that looked like car keys to me on his guitar. From Dracula on, he became an integral part of the mix, ripping some mean guitar solos that strayed from his normal jazz leanings to some serious "rocking out" and groovalicity. I thought he was the centerpiece to the most directed jamming of the night, forcing Medeski into some terrific interplay and taking some of the onus off the rhythm section, allowing them to just relax and have some fun. Of course, in between songs there was plenty of time for short, but attention grabbing bouts of bass soloing, percussive acrobatics and ambient mood music.

As Ribot showed off his goods, the rest of the band spit back the regurgitated free-jazz/fusion/funk/bop buffet that had been sloshing in it's stomach for the past 6 years or so. Groove made it's way into a slow blues number that was a nice change of pace. It had some wonderful builds and falls in it, featuring great work by Jon and Marc.

Just when it seemed that the audience had gotten all it could take, another guest wandered onto stage. Robert Rudolph is what I recall his name being - he plays the pedal steel. I have long been a fan of the pedal steel - it's not just for country music, believe me. This guy did some shit with this instrument that you just have to hear to believe. As he got plugged in and ready to roll Medeski got a rocking riff going that harkened Lovelight or possibly Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The full band launched into an all-out jamfest that could have been an early 70's Allman Brothers foray into a 45 minute Mountain Jam. The change of pace and tone of the show blew smiles onto the audience as they roared with delight. The name of the game was the pedal steel playing. Gorgeous, clean tone with well-timed trills, slow builds and climactic explosions. Ribot did his best to keep pace with some rocking solos of his own. Medeski hugged the organ tight as Wood and Martin just smiled and revelled in the joy of simple rock and roll. It was a jam like no other I had seen this band play and it flat out blew me away.

And this was just the beginning of the highlight run of the show. The encore that followed the well-deserved ovation was icing on the Halloween cake. Ribot and Rudolph rejoined them on stage and Wood thumped the opening notes to Chubb Sub on his stand-up. First Medeski set the tone with more of the same-old genius he had sparkled us with all night. Next, Rudolph caught on and got downright soulful. If he wasn't vamping on some Stevie Wonder song, it certainly did sound like. At this point, I'm basically thinking - who is this guy and where can I see him next? Ribot picked up the ball just as the pedal steel whistled the last notes of its solo and added some funk-ity-funk of his own. Medeski rounded out the musical gyrations with yet another mind-whipping and finally harnessed the energy into the final section of the song.

That certainly would have been more than enough, but Jon nodded to his compadres in crime and Hendrix song number three was Hey Joe. This was a chilling, somber, beauty of a cover. Again, it was marked by gorgeous solos on both pedal steel and guitar. It ended rather abruptly at the end of Ribot's solo, but it had been that last piece of Halloween candy that made you realize you had more than enough of that good stuff for one night. A truly special night and easily the best Medeski, Martin and Wood show I've seen in the 5 years I've been listening to them.

Aaron Stein
New York City
Go See Live Music!
Go See Medeski, Martin and Wood!

[Published on: 11/1/00]

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