Medeski, Martin & Wood @ The Fillmore, SF 11/20/08

Medeski, Martin & Wood are old hands at pushing the envelope. They first came to prominence in 1994, after catching the eye of Trey Anastazio and opening for Phish. It was an important concert as it helped to launch their larger career, but unfortunately also pretty firmly established them in the public eye as a jam-band; unfortunately, because in practice and philosophy they are far more than that. They describe themselves as “avant-groove,” and they are constantly attempting a forward-looking sound, re-working and expanding on their jazz-funk genre and experimenting with new sounds and instruments. Trying new things isn’t easy, and some of MMW’s efforts have been more successful than others. There is such a thing as over-experimentation, forgoing established aestheticism to such a degree that the result is music that is unappealing and basically sounds like random noise to most listeners, i.e. their album “The Dropper”. A lot of the time the first experiment will be unpalatable, but when that experiment becomes less of a creative outlier and more of a direction, when they become comfortable with their new sound, then something new and truly “forward” can come around, i.e. “End of the World Party (Just in case)” (what a great name for an album).

At their 11/20 concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore I swear I could see them working this out on-stage, first experimentally over-shooting, and than finding the musical niche the experiment resulted in. As they were playing riffs off of an upcoming album, this tour being their first chance to perform it, a certain amount of roughness was to be expected. Overall the concert kicked ass, but I saw a marked difference between the first half and the second half. There would be long passages of atonal, incomprehensible noodling, usually beginning each song. Uniformly, John Medeski on keyboard and piano, Martin on drums, and Chris Wood on base would all seem to play in isolation before meeting, playing together and getting the song itself going. Only then would they start to rock. I could almost pinpoint each exact moment where this happened. There would also be periods when Wood and Martin would fade into the background and Medeski would go crazy on his two keyboards and piano in long, sometimes tedious solos. Of course Medeski is a wonderful musician, but Wood and Martin are just as talented. Letting themselves be relegated backup is a crime indeed.

The band took an especially long, nearly 40-minute break between sets, and when they came back they had a whole new approach. Gone were Medeski’s endless solos and the weird, intentionally experimental openings. Medeski controlled himself and waited his turn, allowing Martin and Wood to come forward. When they came back they sounded like a trio, and as a trio they shined. Each song had its own character, and you could hear them working through different musical mediums, putting their own spins on them. I heard blues, salsa, jazz, even an almost Bon Jovi-esque, power chord anthem, but all unmistakably and wholly MMW’s. This was the real strength of the jazz-groove genre: true, controlled musical creativity that, in practiced hands, would have been just as appealing to the casual listener as to the critical enthusiast.

I think the best song they played was their last, their second encore, and after it was over the crowd applauded long enough and loud enough to have justified a third. In a slow, simple play on the typical blues trio the three jammed satisfyingly in tandem, and also allowed ample space for solo improvisation. Medeski by-passed his keyboards completely, focusing solely on the piano, which, in my opinion was far stronger than any of the multitude of different keyboard settings he’d used throughout the night; clear and crisp and with the obvious touch of a master on his primary (non-synthetic) instrument. Here I could see the appeal of MMW typified: while adhering to the time-tested blues trio approach in slow-cool staggered rhythm and expressive melody, the creativity and experimentalism of the group came out through the sheer strength of their instrumentation. Now this, at once accessible to all listeners, was truly “avant.” We’ll surely be seeing more of MMW in the future, and hopefully this will be the kind of thing we’ll see.

[This review originally appeared on MyCrazyMusicBlog, and cannot be reproduced without permission. Thank you.]

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