The Art Of The Sit-In | Scott Metzger
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Alan Evans, Stanley Jordan, Stanton Moore, John Kadlecik and more.
If you know the jam world, you’ve almost certainly come across the ubiquitous Scott Metzger, much respected as a player even in a scene loaded with marquee guitarists.
Beyond the obvious strengths of his playing is a chameleonic quality that seems to allow him to adapt – and thrive – in any situation, whether as a sideman for Trixie Whitley, or a guitar foil and regular band mate for Anders Osborne, or in Wolf!, the lovably scruffy bar band where he lets his inner Telecaster wizard really come to the fore, or in a number of frequent and one-off combinations, including his recently becoming a first-time Phil Lesh Friend. And that’s to say nothing of RANA, Metzger’s former main band, whose cult hasn’t dimmed even if its reunion shows are fewer and farther between than ever.
We asked Scott to talk about what moves him and what’s on tap for the next few months:
JAMBASE: You spent some time out west and played a few gigs at Terrapin Crossroads, including with Phil Lesh & Friends, so that seems like a good place to start. How was that experience?
SCOTT METZGER: It was one of the most unique things I’ve ever done. You know I’ve played in straight-ahead country situations, and rock and jam and jazz and all this, and I feel like that experience was the first time I’ve used it all in some way or another over the course of a three-hour gig. Nothing is off limits with Phil. It was definitely unique.
JAMBASE: Had you known Phil before?
SM: No, we actually met the day before the gig. How it came together was that my buddies in Tea Leaf Green had played Brooklyn Bowl a few months ago and I sat in and spent time with them. The idea came up that I should come to the West Coast and do some gigs out there with some of those guys. Cochrane [McMillan] was planning to play on the bar stage, so we booked to do a gig in the bar with Reed [Mathis] and Jason Crosby.
Well, Anders got word of that, and called me and said I’m going be playing in the big room at the same time, so why don’t you come out and hang and play with us in the big room? After that, I got an e-mail from Phil’s management saying, we heard you’re going to be out here, so why don’t we tack on another one that Sunday and we’ll get you a Phil & Friends gig. So it all came out of this one very small gig, a whole week almost of great gigs booked, and all at that gorgeous club.
JAMBASE: Terrapin Crossroads does have that vibe, for sure.
SM: Oh my god, so unique! The word unique is what keeps coming up. That’s a pretty great thing they’re doing out there.
JAMBASE: So I assume the Phil & Friends show was a positive experience?
SM: Very positive, very liberating and also very challenging. You can’t stay in your comfort zone. You can’t use the go-to stuff you might play; it just doesn’t work in a situation like that. It drew from all the experience I have and it was great. It was a real honor to be asked to play with Phil. The amount of energy and conviction he plays with is absolutely jaw dropping. It’s deeply inspiring.
JAMBASE: I’ll come back to the Dead stuff in a minute but I wanted to ask about Anders. You guys seem to have a pretty strong bond and it seems like you’ve been a regular in his band for a while now.
SM: We met about four years ago, I was doing gigs in Stanton Moore’s trio, and Anders had just come out with American Patchwork, which Stanton produced. I had heard a lot about him, and that he was a really special guitar player and songwriter, though I’d never actually had the chance to check out his stuff.
I can remember the first night we played and immediately he started playing the guitar and knowing immediately he was the real deal. I always look to play with people I think I can learn from, so we played the next time he was at Brooklyn Bowl, and then it became whenever he was in [New York] he’d call me, usually at the Bowl and I was usually in the band. Then I started to get other requests, usually in the northeast and now some more stuff, so for now – and knock wood – it seems like I’m getting the calls. We’re talking about doing more, and talking about doing some recording in New Orleans, which I’m definitely looking forward to.
JAMBASE: When playing in Anders’ band do you get any direction? It’s always amazing to me how an Anders live situation can be almost a pop or straight-on reggae song and then move into this Crazy Horse-style protracted guitar jam.
SM: It’s very little direction. I think he knows who he wants around him. Good bandleaders tend to not try to tell you what to do – they trust who they surround themselves with. Anders is a perfect case of that. There’s very little direction for me and for the other guys. For a while, you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing or not, but that builds confidence, because after a while you trust that you are and you go for it.
JAMBASE: So how do you prioritize what gigs you’re going to take on? Your dance card always seems full but how do you keep enough open so you can, say, play one-offs at the Bowl like you just did with Joe Russo, Robert Walter and Andy Hess?
SM: For me it’s about a balance – making sure I stay inspired. Musically speaking I have a lot of different personalities, it’s my job to be a little schizophrenic and make sure all of those personalities get air time, so to speak.
When I’m on tour with Trixie Whitley, there are no guitar solos in that gig. So almost to balance that out, the drummer and the bass player and I really go for it during sound check and all the jamming out of our systems, so that part of me is satisfied. I look at every gig I take or don’t take in terms of musical satisfaction. I enjoy playing composed sections on a record just as much as I enjoy a 15-minute, open-ended experimentation. I need to keep all sides of my musical self firing on all cylinders, so I spread it across the board.
JAMBASE: Do you consider Wolf! your main band?
SM: Wolf! is the thing I’m the bandleader in. It was born out of gigs that I wanted to do to satisfy the Telecaster guitar hero side of me, and I had two buddies who love that too. Where are the bands around playing blazing Telecaster stuff, you know? I’m sure in Nashville people would argue with me, but up here in New York it’s, let’s do our poor man’s version of Danny Gatton or Roy Buchanan at a bar. We’ve got a homebase for these shows now, we have a weekly gig at Hometown BBQ [In Brooklyn]. It’s great.
JAMBASE: Do you plan to record more with Wolf!?
SM: There’s more on the horizon, yes.
JAMBASE: Excellent. So what else is on your plate for the immediate future?
SM: It feels like a bit of a transitional phase. JRAD [Joe Russo’s Almost Dead] has opened up quite a bit of stuff, and we’re looking forward to more happening in that direction in the fall. I haven’t been that deeply involved in a new band for a while. Other than that, I’m just keeping the hustle going and trying to keep the calendar full. There is more Anders stuff, I’m sure there’ll be more Wolf! and Trixie Whitley gigs too. Hopefully, and there’s been talk, there will be more Phil & Friends.
JAMBASE: I know you have to keep any of that under lock and key per the Phil management team’s usual decree, but sounds like we can say ‘hope there are more’?
SM: I hope there are more! I look forward to finding out.
JAMBASE: So going back to JRAD, Joe Russo told us the story of you guys coming together for the Freaks Ball and enjoying it but not thinking the buzz on that gig and that band would be as loud as it became. Do you feel the same?
SM: None of us saw that at all. It was supposed to be we’ll play a set of Dead music at the Freaks Ball, and in my mind, it was 100 percent going to be a one-off. But we did that gig and suddenly I’d be out doing gigs and people everywhere I went to were talking about JRAD and how much they loved that show. That’s overwhelmingly positive, so we figured, what the hell. It’s a dream situation: to play a bunch of great songs with a bunch of your best friends and have people excited about it.
JAMBASE: But there had to have been a point, though, where you guys said, OK, maybe we should try to do more of this than just say, maybe we’ll try to get together and do it again once or twice a year. You’ve got gigs booked in Chicago, San Francisco, Colorado, and it sounds like more are coming.
SM: We haven’t had a roundtable discussion about it or anything but everyone is psyched. Each one of the shows, it gets more and more enjoyable. We’re having fun, the people are having fun, and it’s of a real high quality I think. I’m proud of what we’re doing with this.
JAMBASE: Do you have a long history with Dead music?
SM: I can’t claim to be the most knowledgeable Grateful Dead guy, but I’ve certainly always been an appreciator of Jerry Garcia. I hear a lot of my own influences in his playing, from Django Reinhardt to blues stuff and also free jazz, the Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp type stuff. It’s always been important to me, but I never saw the Dead or anything.
JAMBASE: Earlier you mentioned the style of playing with Trixie Whitley, which is a lot more song-based and in line with her style. Which one of your cylinders does that gig satisfy?
SM: Trixie is an unbelievable talent. She’s consistently the most intense and urgent singer I’ve ever played with, just gives 150 percent every show and has a message and vision she puts everything behind. Coming up with the parts for a gig like that is a challenge because she wants something unique and won’t stand for stock licks. From a guitar geek perspective it’s opened up a lot for me. I think about it almost like a Bill Frisell or a Marc Ribot situation where it’s not about playing the guitar, it’s about serving the song. Backing her is amazing.
JAMBASE: How did you connect?
SM: We were on a gig together, the recreation of The Last Waltz. We had all kinds of special guests and she was one of them.
JAMBASE: So given all these cylinders, do you have a particular style or collaboration you’d want to spend more time on in the short-term? Maybe something you’ve always wanted to devote more attention to?
SM: Yeah, I think it would be along the lines of ’70s Miles Davis, the electric period. Seventies Miles Davis is my favorite genre of music. That would be great, to do something inspired, even if it doesn’t sound like that music, inspired by that type of energy.
The other that would also top the list is a very straight-ahead country gig – Buck Owens or Merle Haggard type of stuff. I’m a Telecaster guy and I think that’s part of the deal you sign when you buy a Telecaster [laughs].
JAMBASE: You’ve been in country situations before, though.
SM: Yes, I did a tour with Shooter Jennings last year, I was called to fill in. That band…wow, that band was just so good, I was just trying to keep up. It was so satisfying as a guy coming out of the Telecaster school to play songs like that with a guy who has the country thing so deeply ingrained and in his bloodline. Shooter is the real deal. But doing that makes that side of me want to come out and do that stuff real deeply.
JAMBASE: One more band of yours I have to touch on: RANA. Do you anticipate any shows?
SM: The RANA guys and I got together in Jersey just a few weeks ago for an afternoon, playing through a bunch of the old stuff and touching on a bunch of new ideas each of us had, and it was a blast. As far as I’m concerned, a RANA gig here and there will always be on the table as a possibility.
JAMBASE: Right on. Well I can’t let you go without a good sit-in story, either you with someone else or someone with one of your bands. What comes to mind, Scott?
SM: OK, I’ve got one. I was on a gig and it was a country gig a while ago at a small bar in Brooklyn [Skinny Dennis in Williamsburg]. There was this guy who was clearly drunk off his ass, screaming at the top of his lungs and telling us, you guys gotta let me play! Let me play!
You get a lot of that when you play out a lot and you get kind of good at politely ignoring it, you know? I mean, we’re not going to just invite some drunk guy up on stage with us. So this guy for about five or six songs he was insisting on playing with us at the top of his lungs, and then he disappeared. Five songs later, we’re playing and I’m about to launch into something, and then I hear this blazing harmonica coming over the PA. I mean, this was just killing it from the very first notes, like Toots Thielemans-level improvising. This guy had snuck on stage and played what was probably the best solo of the night.
SM: Yeah. And we were just…well he finished the solo, and he puts his harmonica in his pocket, and as he’s leaving the stage he looks at me with this look that says, I told ya.
JAMBASE: So you didn’t even meet the guy?
SM: No, I have no idea who he is. He did a hell of a job. He grabbed a mic and he did it. He’s out there somewhere.
JAMBASE: Would you have him collaborate again?
SM: [laughs] We’d probably have to have a little talk first to go over some ground rules. But who knows? God bless him.
You don’t have to look hard for quality Scott Metzger gigs, so here are five recent Metzger-centric shows well worth your listening hours.
Anders Osborne, Highline Ballroom, NYC, 2/20/2014
Metzger’s become a fixture in Anders band – as much a collaborator and foil as a sit-in regular –and this high-powered New York show from February is a scorcher, with plenty of action from Anders, Metzger and another special guest Marco Benevento. When the full, fleshed-out band adds a third axe, Billy Iuso, for “On the Road to Charlie Parker,” things get even heavier.
Wolf!, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 3/22/2014
On the final night of Bowlive this year, Metzger’s trio got the opening slot. A nice, fat little set that will push you to check out Wolf! during one of its weekly Hometown BBQ slots in Brooklyn if you’re not already a regular.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Gathering of the Vibes, Bridgeport, CT, 8/1/2014
After only a handful of gigs dating back to January 2013, more than a few folks are ready to slot this fivesome among the elite Grateful Dead interpreters. They’re not wrong. Catch this festival set for the goods and then some, including Metzger and Tom Hamilton diving into staples like “St. Stephen” and “Eyes of the World” and a nice surprise, Donny Hathaway’s “Magnificent Sanctuary Band” in a style close to how the Jerry Garcia Band did it.
Phil Lesh & Friends, Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael, CA, 8/24/2014
Does Metzger earn the right to be a Phil Lesh Friend on the basis of this tasty gig with Anders, Tony Leone and Jason Crosby filling out the lineup? Bet your ass he does. Here’s hoping we see him in the rotation during the November Phil & Friends residency at the Capitol Theatre.
Joe Russo, Scott Metzger, Andy Hess, Robert Walter, Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY, 8/29/2014
Right at the end of August came this: the type of no-frills, air-it-out, loose-jam-style gig among top players that feels like it used to happen in New York a lot more often. Metzger has heat to spare during some long, tasty explorations.