Spectrum Road | Oakland | Review
Spectrum Road :: 02.03.11 :: Yoshi’s :: Oakland, CA
For those who don’t know, Tony Williams, the drummer for Miles Davis’ 60s Quintet, basically invented jazz-rock (aka Fusion). His first album, 1969’s Emergency!, was the first to combine rock’s heavy sound and electric instruments with the subtlety and adventurousness of jazz. And though Miles’ seminal Bitches Brew album takes credit for bringing this sound to the masses, Emergency! was released months before it. Jack Bruce joined the band soon after, and the band cut a couple of albums before John McLaughlin left the group and it dissembled.
But where to begin with this current supergroup, Spectrum Road? First and foremost is the driving force of nature Cindy Blackman-Santana (yes, she’s married to Carlos, but we’ll get to that later). In a pearl necklace and a fro, she completely stole the show with her otherworldly drumming – the music being a perfect showcase for her prowess on the skins. Then there’s Brucey, the legend himself: a mighty force on fretless electric bass whose mere presence seemed to justify and push this weird, wonderful music forward in a shamanic sort of way. Contributing their own mad skills were Vernon Reid on righteous guitar and Medeski on organ, who each patiently held back and kept the compositions cohesive until it was their time to shine and blow minds. Simply put, the tiny stage at Yoshi’s just wasn’t big enough for the talent it contained.
With the audience salivating nicely at this point, Bruce started up a weird, angular bass line which was picked up and played off of by Reid, forming a cerebral, jerky duel of sorts. Medeski and Blackman soon slid their way in, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a huge, manically swinging free-jazz groove, driven by Bruce’s wild, jumpy basslines. The barrage of sound coming off stage at this point was chaotic, confounding and utterly thrilling – true order-in-chaos. It evoked a runaway train on the verge of flying off the tracks, but the music never quite spiraled out of control. Instead, the band dropped out to let Blackman loose, and she tore us all a new one with an epic drum journey. With pure, rolling fluidity and spontaneous, off-the-cuff creativity, she told us a story through rhythm, bringing the tale up and down and back up again, coaxing completely new tones from her kit that weren’t there minutes before. One minute her touch was silky-smooth, the next she was bashing with a Mitch Mitchell-like ferocity.
From here, we got more weirdness when the band dropped into the bizarre, off-kilter spoken word song “Beyond Games” from Emergency! Now up to this point, I was stunned with disbelief and awe at the original musicality that had been pouring from the stage, but I have to admit, this song is quite awful. The original version features Tony Williams on some sort of spoken-word poetry rap with lyrics about caring and sharing and growing that are incredibly dated and silly. It was surreal to see Bruce tackle them with a straight face, and it’s too bad, because they really ruined the otherwise interesting minor-key shuffle the band was laying down behind him – Medeski’s dissonant organ howls really cut through the music to give the piece an eerie edge. From here they thankfully picked it up into a straight funk number where Medeski again made his B-3 sing over the smokin’, lusciously fluid rolls of Blackman.
And then just like that, Carlos Santana was onstage. The proud new husband of the Star of The Show beamed and strutted as he started up “Sunshine of Your Love,” and then there we were, watching Jack Bruce sing his own lyrics as the band chugged away around him. Everyone traded a few searing solos to the so-classic-it’s-cliche riff, and the song peaked out in grand fashion. And just like that it was over.
The audience was so stricken, that after almost ten minutes of hollering at the stage, the band came out with Santana for an extended encore of “Spoonful.” Another old Cream chestnut, this Willie Dixon number was Santana’s bread and butter, and it was fun to see the band loosen up and dig deep into a straight blues workout after the mind-fuck explorations they had just charted. It was a sloppy and fun ending to an evening of serious music, and the crowd filed out elated.
The strange, cerebral compositions of Tony Williams Lifetime are certainly not a light snack. They are dense, atonal and searching, and make for a seriously heavy meal to digest. These four musicians were brought together by their love and respect for this open-ended, forward-thinking music, and it was a joy to witness the deep exploration which the Lifetime catalog inspired in them, especially in such an intimate setting. Now go pick up a copy of Emergency! and get your freak on.
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