Note: This review originally appeared on the now extinct About.com jambands page, way, way back in September of 2000. It was a prehistoric time, so please forgive my naive, 24 year-old writing style.
As I trudged home from my long day of doing nothing at work, it was already sundown. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, had begun. Since I was literally $400 shy of being able to afford to worship God in a New York synagogue for the evening, I decided to head down to my own temple, The Temple of Groove. In truth, I knew that for 12 bucks, the North Mississippi All-Stars and The Sugarman3 could take me to spiritual heights far higher than that of any stolid, Ben Stein-like, filthy-rich rabbi.
After a brief phone conversation with my brother, who was celebrating the New Year by watching the tape-delayed broadcast of the Olympics, I started to get ready to leave my apartment. Then I realized that “The Simpsons” were on TV, and to my shock and surprise, this was an episode that I had never seen. It was like I had found a Holy Grail of sorts (God, please excuse the Christian analogy) because it is a rare find when a Simpsons episode is unfamiliar to me. “God surely likes The Simpsons,” I rationalized. “Otherwise, he never would have advised Homer to skip church and watch football.” I had no choice but to watch.
When “The Simpsons” ended, I had changed my clothes and was lacing-up my dancing shoes (the ones with holes in the bottom and a only small trace of an actual heel) when “Malcolm In The Middle” came on the TV. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was the episode when the Dad teaches Malcolm how to skate, a half-hour of hilarious sidesplitting, pee-your-pants laughter. This was a tough call, but I decided that “Malcolm In The Middle” hasn’t been around long enough for God to make a valid judgment, so I bolted for the subway.
All of my transfers were working-out smoothly, and to pass the time, I read an old copy of the elitist New York Magazine. Is gossip-queen Liz Smith gay? Does anyone actually care? This was riveting stuff.
I got off of the train and misread the directions, so I wound up walking in a big circle. That was okay because there are few places on Earth that smell sweeter than Chinatown in the evening. The pungent aroma of rotting fish on the sidewalk prompted me to get my natural compass in gear and find the Bowery Ballroom post-haste.
I went inside to find my fellow Jew, Adam. He, too, would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah inside the Temple of Groove . I grabbed an overpriced beer in an elegant plastic cup (The Bowery Ballroom has an impeccable sense of style), and we sat downstairs and listened to the last song of pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph’s set over the P.A. We traded Jewish war-stories (actually neither one of us has been involved in any Jewish wars), and then we went upstairs to partake in the groove known as The Sugarman3.
The crowd was very sparse and very middle-aged. I knew that The Sugarman3 would not be a huge draw, but the North Mississippi All-Stars have been getting a lot of airplay on NPR recently, so I had no idea how many people would be there for the headliner. Sure enough, it was NPR-donor night at the Bowery, as the place was populated with white upper-middle class liberals slumming in Chinatown . The men were instantly recognizable by their tucked-in t-shirts, although there were several yuppies in dress shirts and slacks as well, and I even saw a man in a corduroy jacket and tie. Ah, but I stereotype and digress…
The Sugarman3 were kicking-out some sweet funky grooves, and I had no choice but to move my body. Unfortunately, the middle-aged NPR crowd was not interested in shaking their ass. In fact, one might assume that they were not interested in having a good time either. An outbreak of “arms-folded disease” had swept over the crowd. I turned around and began to read the minds of the disgruntled.
“What is with this funk music? I did not pay for this!”
“How dare these musicians attempt to make me tap my toe. I am appalled.”
“This is atrocious! How can they be The Sugarman THREE if there are FOUR musicians? This logic does not compute.”
“I wonder if the current economic downturn in Priceline.com’s stock price, coupled with their failure to meet the industry’s quarterly projections is a signal to buy the stock at a bargain price in what may be another surprising upswing into a bullish market.”
I bent down to pickup my beer and I discovered that this crowd was suffering from two major ailments:
1) This crowd was anything but hip. There were no hips to be found in the entire place. None. I mean these people had no hips. Their rib cages were connected right to the femur. It was an odd biological phenomenon, and I had no cure.
2) Everyone had been suffering from having a two-foot pole stuck up his or her ass. As a former sufferer of this disease, I know how painful this malady can be. With extreme caution and dexterity, I began my task of extracting the poles. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far when one man turned around and saw me reaching for his ass with a fixated look. There are few situations in life that can be more uncomfortable that this one, so I pretended that I was doing some sort of drug-addled frog-like dance, and I escaped the crisis with only my pride in a shambles.
After this gaffe, I decided to just focus on the music. It was a good choice because the grooves were just getting thicker and thicker. However, the crowd was simultaneously backing away from the stage, leaving a large area of open turf in front. At this time, the dancers in the crowd consisted of Adam, myself, and a late 1970’s Deadhead in a late 1980’s tie-dye. None of us were interested in jumping into the open space because then we would become entertainment for the unmovable crowd. As it was, the guy next to me, whom I could have sworn starred as a Hells Angel in the documentary, Gimme Shelter, was standing two feet away and staring at me. I don’t know if he either wanted a date (since he was a guy, he wasn’t really my type) or was just amused by my poor dancing skills. After all, I was cutting loose with my typical white-boy reckless abandon. Then another guy grooved into the open space and started cutting a serious rug. This guy had real moves and he kept trying to get Adam and I to join him. His skills were way out of our league, and I was hoping to avoid turning the concert into a lame ‘70s disco scene where everyone forms a circle and fixates on the people dancing in the center. (Later I learned that this dancing machine was none other than opening-act and pedal-steel master, Robert Randolph.) The tense situation was salvaged when our compadres from the nyc-freaks email list arrived and began to get down. As The Sugarman3 closed their set with a rollicking “Soul Donkey,” I heard several thuds as poles began to fall from many an ass.
I have two complaints about The Sugarman3. For one, they need to cross the seven-minute barrier. They can start really cooking in a song, and then they’ll just stop. They have the skills to keep the groove going but for some reason, they refuse to do so. Listen up guys, if my butt is shaking, I’m not bored, so please keep playing! My other major complaint involves the basslines. Their keyboard player kicks out phenomenal and thick basslines on the organ, but this doesn’t work for me. Why? When I hear a great bassline, I need to make an ass of myself and play “air bass guitar.” Without ever having picked-up the real instrument, I can tell you that I am an air bass guitar virtuoso. However, when the bass is played on an organ, I look like a novice grooving on my air bass guitar. I tried playing “air bass organ,” but it just looked stupid and not nearly as cool as air bass guitar.
So I went downstairs to grab another fine beverage in a plastic cup, and when I came upstairs again, the crowd had swelled tremendously. The place was packed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Now the age-gap was closed, and people were ready for some good Southern blues grooves. The North Mississippi All-Stars took the stage to a riotous ovation, and they began to release their Southern-fried rock onslaught upon the crowd. The music instantly had an enema-like effect as poles began to drop from asses left and right.
I was in a very fortunate spot because I was surrounded on all sides by men who were 6’5” or taller. These members of the Norwegian National Basketball team acted as the perfect shield from the Gestapo-like security force of the Bowery Ballroom. (For those of you who don’t know, the Bowery has a zero-tolerance policy for fun, as muscle clad cavemen patrol the place in search of anyone who is smiling too much.) One little puff was all it took to get me in perfect synch with the music, and NMAS was on fire.
Chris Chew was tearing it up on the bass. He holds the bass ridiculously high, but his fingers are monument to dexterity. The guy runs up and down the fret-board with incredible skill and his vocals add a lot to the overall sound.
Cody Dickinson pounded the skins with amazing energy. His fierce and riveting beats kept my pulse-rate moving at heart-attack level. However, I was most amazed by the fact that he never stopped playing over the course of their 2 hour-plus set! Every time a song would end, Cody kept riffing and morphing into the next beat until the other guys were ready to begin the song. It was mind-boggling to think that this guy could even lift his arms after such an energy-depleting run.
Luther Dickinson’s guitar and vocals provided the power in this power trio. His slide work was ferocious, and he was willing to explore a lot of varied territory in his jams. He was all over the map, as he incorporated quotes from both The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, while utilizing Middle-Eastern, funk, and blues influences to create a web of crunchy sonic explosions. You might say that the guy is good.
This band has grown light-years since I last saw them open up for Galactic in April. They were willing to go to new and different places with their jams, and at one point they even dropped a funk bomb on us. I was totally unprepared for this, and my body responded by doing a dance that I call the “mechanical whitesnake.” No, it had nothing do with the 1980’s big-hair band. My body just undulated uncontrollably as the music had taken control of my brain and placed a permagrin on my face. As I let myself give-in to this spiritual force, I had found my religious rite of passage. It’s obvious that God digs a good jam. I know because she told me herself.
NMAS brought Robert Randolph up to add a little pedal-steel, and he only served to spice-up the red-hot soup. He traded lines with Luther with glee, and the crowd loved every minute of it. Robert kept trying to leave the stage after each epic song, but the band and the crowd wouldn’t allow it. This guy had been absorbed into the mix and he could not escape.
The band played two long encores, and I don’t think that they were expecting the second one. With the crowd chanting, stomping, and screaming for more, they really didn’t have much choice. Robert stayed with them for both encores, and as the second encore finished, Luther announced that they were gonna let Robert finish the evening with a solo jam. The guys from NMAS walked to the side of the stage, and Robert went to town. After they couldn’t hold back, Robert’s band jumped onto the stage to join in the fun. NMAS were more than willing to hand-over their instruments, and this was a great and unselfish way to end the show. The house-lights immediately came-up, as if the management was saying, “No more fun for you this evening. We have your money now, so get out.”
I had just seen an amazing show, and I left for home as a physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted soul. It’s not often that we get to experience moments that lift us to new heights and then sap us of our energy, and it was a great way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. This music took me to spiritual peaks, and after all, isn’t that was religion is supposed to be about?