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Soggy Bottom Boys

Christopher Myers
Word Up: The Word fuses blues, rock, gospel, and jazz for a wet Oregon Ridge crowd.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/15/2001

The Grassroots Music Festival

The Grassroots Music Festival


Just because you're making up the notes as you go along doesn't make you a jazz musician. Jazz improvisation and rock improvisation are very specific, very different types of improvisation.

The differences were obvious at the Grassroots Music Festival, where the rain started falling during the second set and the only group on the seven-band bill that could be unambiguously labeled a jazz act was led by a pot-bellied mandolin player who looks like Walt Whitman. Sporting a bushy white beard, David Grisman led his quintet through several originals and "Bags' Groove" by the Modern Jazz Quartet's Milt Jackson with the sort of syncopated pulse, harmonic substitutions, and implied accents that distinguish jazz. The instrumentation might have resembled that of a mountain string band, but the approach was post-bop.

Immediately following Grisman was another mandolin player leading a small combo that also featured acoustic guitar, upright bass, and percussion. But Sam Bush took a starkly contrasting approach. Despite their hollow instruments, the musicians established an emphatic beat. Sticking to familiar chord changes over that groove, they improvised melodically more than harmonically. This sort of rock improvisation is less technically demanding than jazz, but it has advantages--it can grab an audience's attention more quickly and firmly. The tall, wiry, redheaded Bush and his bandmates pulled in songs from every direction, from Cat Stevens' "Longer Boats" to Prince's "1999" to Grandpa Jones' "Eight More Miles to Louisville," and adapted them for an acoustic string band, then transformed those bluegrass instruments into rock 'n' roll weapons with their beat-stomping, chord-chopping, note-spinning, freewheeling attitude. If Bush's set was less sophisticated than Grisman's, it had a more dramatic impact.

As Bush proved, improvised rock is more omnivorous in its raw materials than jazz. This musical mix-and-match approach paid terrific dividends when the Word--the blues-rock trio the North Mississippi All Stars (the musical stars of last month's Artscape) turned blues-rock-jazz-gospel quintet with the addition of fusion keyboardist John Medeski and "sacred steel" guitarist Robert Randolph--turned in the day's most dazzling set. Most of the tunes in the confident, daring all-instrumental set came out of the church, but they were marinated in the blues and cooked in rock 'n' roll. All Star Luther Dickinson is already being touted as the most exciting slide guitarist since Duane Allman, but Randolph achieved much the same effect with his pedal-steel guitar, the unlikely lead instrument in the African-American House of God Church. Randolph is the first of that church's many virtuosos to step out into the secular arena, and he had no trouble leading the band in a segue from Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" to the traditional hymn "Without God."

Medeski was extremely focused during the Word's set, plying his B-3 organ as if he were Jimmy Smith in church. Later, when he joined regular bandmates Billy Martin (drums) and Chris Wood (bass) for the festival's headlining set, he seemed distracted. Not even the muscular rhythms served up by his partners seemed to stir Medeski's imagination. It was as if he couldn't decide whether to take the jazz approach of the trio's latest album (Tonic on Blue Note) or the rock-improv approach of the previous album (The Dropper) and wound up stranded in between.

In the penultimate set, Galactic proved that New Orleans funk could also serve as grist for the rock-improv mill. The sextet was much more impressive on its instrumental numbers, wherein saxophonist Ben Ellman and keyboardist Richard Vogel injected a libertine carnival spirit into the proceedings. When lead singer Theryl deClouet stepped up to the mic, the band reverted to run-of-the-mill R&B.

The All Mighty Senators opened the festival at 11:30 a.m. with a Baltimore version of the same P-Funk vibe that later animated the Galactic set. Whether offering a funked-up version of the bluegrass standard "Rocky Top," a hip-hop-flavored tribute to Jackie Chan, or the chant-along dance number "Flex, Release," the quintet held its own as rock improvisers. So did Lake Trout, which followed the Senators. A former jam band that evolved into a techno-influenced band ("Fresh Fish," July 25), the Baltimore quintet reproduces live the musical vocabulary of modern dance music--the microchip bleeps, blips, screeches and scratches--then improvise on that raw material. The results on this day sounded like Radiohead without the great singer but with even better musicians.

The rain started falling midway through Lake Trout's set and never really let up. The festival stopped for an hour during the hardest downpour, but it continued through a steady drizzle. Most of the reported crowd of 3,000 stayed on, coping with ponchos, umbrellas, garbage bags, or a hippie determination to commune with nature.

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