Unlike many of my brethren, I had never seen The Word perform live. I don’t particularly know why, but perhaps their few performances occurred way back when I was playing all of the bad white guys in a touring musical about the Underground Railroad. I didn’t own their album, but I knew that a supergroup like this playing gospel-inflected music was a no-brainer. Moreover, it had been a few years since I had seen pedal steel phenom (he’s probably too old to be called that now) Robert Randolph in concert, and I felt a palpable urge to see him perform quality material instead of his now-standard lowest-common-denominator pop songs with off-key vocals.
After suffering through the inhospitable Terminal 5 for two otherwise enjoyable Ween shows, I briefly contemplated selling my ticket for The Word. With its bad sightlines, lousy sound, eternal entrance and coatcheck lines, and ludicrous bar policy that makes it a real challenge to buy a drink, Terminal 5 is probably the worst concert venue in the city. (Terminal 5 is so bad that it makes me pine away for the notoriously awful Roseland Ballroom.) I had no desire to go back to this 11th Ave. hellhole, but the ticket was purchased long ago, and interest in this show was waning enough to make it a buyer’s market. Then the venue and/or Ticketbastard decided to play some sort of game with ticketholders by notifying us that the show would start at an incomprehensible 7PM. That being said, a friend on the inside insisted that the show would go off at the previously scheduled 8PM starting time. I had a bad feeling about this—- it just seemed as though the writing on the wall was saying that this show would really suck.
Thankfully, I rarely read the writing on the wall.
It quickly became crowded on the floor, but the pre-show soul and funk music had me in a great mood. Then The Word appeared on stage. Right from the get-go, they sounded great, reveling in their holy sounds. Of particular note was a beautiful tune that I’m fairly certain is called “Louis Collins,” a song I only know because Jerry Garcia and David Grisman used to play it. When they kicked into “Down By The Riverside->When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” the vibe was really uplifting. This was exactly what I wanted from John Medeski, Chris Chew, Luther and Cody Dickinson, and The Talented Mr. Randolph. Every song seemed to serve as a little trampoline for these guys to bounce into a little improv of sorts. They weren’t quite launching pads, as they never really got “out there,” but there were plenty of nice jams, especially a ragged but fun second set spur-of-the-moment exploration of The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster,” in which Randolph forced Medeski to engage him in lighthearted chicanery. Initially, Medeski was hesitant, but then he seemed to say “Ah, fuck it,” and really let his hair down. Okay, he doesn’t have hair, but if he did, it would have been down.
The first set also featured a cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” We had already been tipped off to this, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I enjoyed it, nonetheless:
Randolph was really the star of this show, although he wasn’t hot-dogging like he used to. Sure, he would whip out a killer line or two, but his real virtue on this night was serving as an All-Star point guard, dishing out assists to the other players around him. Determined to get everyone involved in the game, he was confident, decisive, and his unselfish play certainly made Medeski, Chew, and the Dickinson boys sound great.
I left Terminal 5 (for what I hope will be the last time ever) thinking that I had just stepped into The Wayback Machine. Outside of Jazzfest, I hadn’t really experienced a jam-laden show like this in 6 or 7 years. It made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of The Wetlands Preserve, when you could pay 10 bucks and see four bands who would open things up and knock your socks off. That kind of loosey-goosey vibe no longer flies in today’s post-9/11 indie-pop-obsessed world, but this evening’s nostalgic treat was delicious.