Photos By Ben Wilson
The Scene: It was a brisk Friday night as I ambled down Colfax. The streets felt electric and alive as they twinkled with Christmas lights and hummed with revelers, on their way, as I was, to The Ogden Theatre. The energy and animation outside was no doubt an extension of what was about to take place inside as Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood prepared to take the stage. As I stood at the corner of Ogden and Colfax waiting to cross the street, a kid weaved his way through traffic before the lights had changed. “We got a rebel!” another concertgoer yelled, and I thought about how dangerously fitting this was to the music I was about to experience. MMW alone are a band that steps out into the whizzing traffic of the music world, refusing to yield to the traffic lights of convention. But add experimental Jazz guitarist John Scofield to the mix and you have a rebellion on your hands; one that threatens to hi-jack the cars and tear down the traffic lights of traditional Jazz and Funk.
As I walked into the venue, I was enveloped by the warmth of dynamic, living music, being transmitted through hundreds of gyrating bodies. The place was packed considering Soulive and Kyle Hollingsworth were just across town. After slipping through the crowd, I found a good spot, took a deep breath and looked up into the vaulted ceilings of The Ogden where music danced, mirroring the crowd below.
Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood: After a climax out of “Hanuman>Boozer” John Scofield began the opening riff of “A Go Go,” the title track of Scofield’s 1998 album with MMW as his backing band. Chris Wood picked up his upright bass like a kid snatching up a Christmas present and, after locking in on the riff a few times around, the band surged into the rocking breakdown, after which Scofield took a jazzy run followed by a clicky Medeski organ solo. Scofield bent us back into the main riff with Medeski joining him, then the band melted into a chaotic soundscape with Medeski’s hands flying on a wahed out Clav. Billy Martin busted out some mallets, rolling his cymbals like tides as Chris Wood picked up the electric again and segued into a funky groove. Another song began to take shape, this one very familiar, and the crowd hit the ceiling as they recognized the melody of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias.” I’ve been seeing MMW for ten years and had yet to hear them cover The Dead. I had to think that “Scarlet” was no doubt a result of Scofield’s status as a “friend” of Phil Lesh. After playing a few verses however, the band fell back into a jam with Scofield ripping furiously over another funky Clav part. I wondered if this was just a tease, but after what seemed like a lifetime, out of the fog came the “Scarlet” riff, bookending the song. This would be the first of many great covers that night.
After “Scarlet” faded out, Chris Wood picked up his upright bass again and began plunking out some chords. While Wood can play anything with four strings, he really shines on the upright. He plucks the strings with talon like fingers, utilizing the entire double bass, sometimes plinking out high staccato notes and other times sustaining rumbling vibrations with a bow. As he settled into a foundational groove, Billy Martin breathed a light drumbeat behind him.
Martin’s drumming is deceptive. I’ve heard his style characterized as minimalist, and while he certainly knows the cardinal rule—less is more—his playing is so effortless that he deceives the eye into thinking that he is doing less than he really is. The ear, however, is not as easily deceived, and if you really listen you can hear the subtle complexities of what Martin is playing. As Wood and Martin bobbed along to a slight Reggae beat, Medeski floated in with a melody that was vaguely familiar to me, but I just couldn’t place it. The irony of this would not be lost on me later. After a few measures of the melody, Scofield transported us to a hashish den along the Ganges with very bendy, Indian sounding licks reminiscent of the opening strains of “Acidhead,” off his album Uberjam. Following this shift to the minor, Medeski let loose a psychedelic organ solo with full Leslie, and now I felt as if I was really at an acid test. It was all very 60s, with archaic patterns swirling behind the band and pink and green lights casting out over the crowd…but what was the name of that song? As I racked my brain trying to figure it out, the band slipped back into a major scale and I was pulled out of my frustrating mess by Wood’s bass lines again, then Martin’s reggae beat, then Medeski’s melody…”Legalize It!” I heard it murmured through the crowd and I didn’t feel like such a space cadet, others had missed it too. Actually, I felt more like a space cadet but I was in good company. All of the sudden it smelled really good in the Ogden Theatre and although we stoners may be slow on the uptake, once we get behind something we do it right. Amendment 64 case in point. By playing Peter Tosh’s pot anthem MSMW were doffing their collective hats to Colorado.
No rest for the bleary eyed however as the lights dimmed down and the band left the stage except for Martin who proceeded to launch into a ferocious drum solo. Minimalist jazzy finesse be damned! If Buddy Rich and Keith Moon had a son his name is Billy Martin. After about a minute and a half Martin settled into a fast groove and Chris Wood stepped out and began dropping bombs on the electric bass, allowing Medeski and Scofield to sneak back onto the stage. Then a sudden STOP! BAM! MSMW came out firing on all cylinders with the jazz-fusion “Miles Behind,” off the band’s first album as MSMW, Out Louder. Medeski’s cloud finally burst as his Rhodes rained dissonance over Scofield’s frantic licks, trying their best not to get wet. Martin and Wood welded themselves together in a sizzling groove that did not let up until Scofield raised his arm like Moses and the song ended on four thunderous hits. “Miles Behind” was an appropriate set closer as that was where MSMW left the crowd and traditional jazz at the break.
When the band returned, Chris Wood was practically doing jumping jacks, apparently still high from “Miles Behind.” By this time the crowd had caught up and MSMW would have to bring the funk. As Scofield tore off the opening riff to “Chank,” another song off A Go Go, Martin and Wood locked back into their airtight syncopation as Medeski played the melody on the organ with Scofield pulling off funky right hand flourishes. After grooving on the theme for a while, Scofield took a run. It’s important to note here that John Scofield is a very expressionistic player. His whole body, especially his face and mouth, seems to be an extension of his guitar. When he bends a note, something he does a lot to great effect, his whole body bends. When he plays offbeat or jerkily, something he is wont to do, his whole lanky frame jerks wildly. When he really gets going it almost looks like he is in pain, eyes closed with his mouth open and his jaw somehow clinched. It must hurt really good and the word “Chank” is somehow fitting to his style.
After “chanking-out,” Scofield passed the talking bone to Medeski. If John Scofield is expressionistic, then John Medeski is hyper-expressionistic. If John Scofield’s guitar plays his whole body then John Medeski’s whole body plays the keys. He is a beast. He beats the Clavinet with open-handed slaps like it owes him money. He has a love/hate relationship with his Hammond organ, tickling her keyboard while pulling violently at her stops. He’s not very nice to his Wurlitzer either but the Rhodes seems to get off easy because it’s a big softy. Medeski is also a bit of a masochist too. I swear I saw blood flying off his fingers at The Austin City Limits Festival one year. No blood this time, but he did take a ripping solo on “Chank,” playing with his hands and feet and arms and elbows, all the while exchanging faces with Scofield.
The end of “Chank” descended into a 6/8 jam and for a second I thought they would go into part two of The Dead’s “That’s It For The Other One,” as it is in 12/8 time…but then something else happened and it was what I had been waiting for all night. Things got weird. Martin stood up and played the double cowbell as Scofield cranked the flange and swam away into the highly experimental and avant-garde “Deadzy,” A Go Go’s swan song. Wood darkened the mood with ominous, plodding, Frankenstein-like bass notes and Medeski went completely mad in his evil castle of keys, playing the Hammond like The Phantom of the Opera. I like dark and weird stuff but I’ve heard them do this type of thing for entire sets and the best part about dark and weird stuff is the light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily that light came with the driving “What Now,” that featured Wood dancing while taking the bass line for a walk, as Medeski and Scofield delivered scorching solos.
To lighten things up even more the band then segued into the whimsical “Southern Pacific,” also off A Go Go. This was an interesting song, led by Scofield playing odd double stops through intentionally sloppy key modulations. This is one of the greatest things about MSMW: their songs are like different moods, emotions, or states of consciousness and “Southern Pacific” makes you feel like you’re drunk. All four members traded off solos before going into another one of my favorite parts of an MMW show, the acoustic jam. On Friday it consisted of Medeski on Melodica, Wood on upright bass, and Martin masterfully double tapping a tambourine while a subdued Scofield sat back and enjoyed the jam along with the crowd. Scofield then stepped up to deliver the most poignant moment of the night with a tender rendition of The Beatles’ “Julia.” While a version of “Julia” was included on Out Louder, the fact that MSMW waited until after midnight, when the date changed over to December 8th, thirty two years to the day that John Lennon was murdered, was a lovely tribute to the fallen Beatle. The band rounded out the night with a rousing encore of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” as sent us all out into the brisk night air wondering when we would see these four amazing musicians together again.
Stage Presence: A
Set/Light Show: B+