By Dennis Cook
Fundamentals. It's the lesson coaches beat into their players' heads. It's the mantra of the piano teacher and the kung-fu sensei. Learn the essentials, and the rest will unfold properly. Build a sloppy foundation, and anything built on it will tumble in time. Tea Leaf Green lives this principle in a quietly righteous way. They fully comprehend the power and beauty of good songs played with clear-eyed conviction, technical proficiency, and just a lil' swagger. In the past couple years, they've whittled and polished the true spirit inside their music. Like vintage Little Feat, Guess Who, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, their conviction and smiling passion shines through every album cut, every concert. There's a nourishing meat-and-taters quality to everything they do. And these qualities are on full display in their new live CD/DVD set, Rock 'n' Roll Band.
This is music to be experienced arm-in-arm, smiling, glasses raised. Where so much rock today seems pried from tormented bedrooms and angry journals, Tea Leaf proffers soulful sing-a-longs full of non-preachy worldly wisdom. This last part creeps up, but there's more than cheery ditties here. Rock 'n' Roll Band peels away a few musical layers, offering open-hearted snapshots of the boys at home between chunks of a very good night at The Fox Theater in Boulder, Colorado. The juxtaposition of their thoughts on what they do with a fine example of them in the throes of live ecstasy proves enlightened bohemians can also play hard. While often tagged a "jam band," this set places them more in the exploratory rock field, far closer to say Deep Purple or Peter Frampton than Phish.
A spirited reading of "Morning Sun" on the DVD nicely sums up their overall vibe:
There's a storm on the dance floor,
There's a cloud in this club.
Lightning's a warning
For the thunder struck.
You know how to shake it,
You really know how to move.
We're gonna make it,
With nothing to prove.
No props, no gimmicks, just four guys blossoming as showmen and songwriters. Director Justin Kreutzmann lingers over the band in a way that's far more revealing than today's penchant for ferret-on-espresso jump-cuts and shallow sound bites. He mixes up wide shots and close-ups so the scope of their playing dances with an intimacy the folks in the stalls rarely encounter. The live footage wisely gets the lion's share of screen time. The intercut off-stage moments pop in appropriately, expanding on the moment at hand. So often this sort of thing feels intrusive but not so here. Kreutzmann leaves few directorial fingerprints, choosing instead to showcase the band in as direct and pure a way as the camera allows. It's a rare thing to truly serve one's subject and something that makes him a director to watch in the future.
Listening to the CD, one is struck by the paring back of their solos. This leaner approach serves the songs more, which in turn increases the overall density of things. Guitarist Josh Clark manages to be eloquent without the need to showboat. Singer-keyboardist Trevor Garrod continues to master texture over multi-note flurries. And it's fun to hear him work in more harmonica these days. The fundamentals we spoke of at the start are seen most clearly in the rhythm team of bassist Ben Chambers and drummer Scott Rager. While always present, they rarely solo, and when they do, it packs a wallop. This pair is the sturdy heartbeat that fuels this agile body. That they perform this role with such humility and skill is impressive.
This set is Tea Leaf's new calling card, the proper showcase for the story so far. Taken together, the music on both the CD and DVD (track listings vary slightly) have a breezily universal appeal. Their music is the sort that ignites crowds, a cleansing fire that clears away the overgrowth of day-to-day life. It's not the emotional thunderstorm of say The Mars Volta but something subtler, closer to their '60s and '70s forebears. It's good-time music built from the ashes of hard times. This is the reason for TLG's growing popularity. They create music that speaks to life lived on the ground. It's the stuff that makes folks "turn it up" when Ronnie Van Zant tells 'em to. It's why rock 'n' roll truly never forgets Bob Seger. We need anthems to help us through all the time-clock punching and rough, gray days. When Garrod sings, "I was once a flower and I'll be a flower again," it's a glimpse of the world our eyes are often too clouded by debts and drama to really see. Rock 'n' Roll Band is chock full of such moments.
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