These days, I’m so swamped with my own Biz, I rarely go out to see live music. The only bands I see are the bands I share the bill with. (It’s a shame, ’cause I risk alienating myself from my own field of endeavor.) But last night, my old drummer Dyson was here in Eugene at Luckey’s with his S. F. band Crackerjack Highway
It was worth staying out past 2:00 a.m. to watch Dyson killin’ it with this group of amazing jammers. Back when he joined my band at the turn of the century, he was raw, just out of music school, with a fondness for fancy Carter Beauford-like chops, which he couldn’t quite pull off. We had band a meeting to ask him to calm down and smooth it out for my more song-oriented material. It’s quite common with young drummers, many of whom complain about controlling singer-songwriters always putting them in straitjackets. But Dyson had a rare work ethic–the results of which became obvious on our 2002 album, Pollyanna Loves Cassandra
Nowadays, Dyson has chops in abundance–and an apt band in which to use them. Crackerjack Highway is one of those bands for whom songwriting is mostly a series of canvases on which to apply spectacular instrumentalism. A funky-ish jam band, less with the endless hippy-noodling of Phish spawn, and more with the purposeful trajectories of blues-rock, Allman, and maybe fusion. Suitable for a bill with Derek Trucks or Umphrey’s McGee.
And love those Allman-esque twin leads! Crackerjack constructs plenty of their own, but of course, with that ability, you just have to throw in “Liz Reed” and “Jessica.” And furthermore, why not segue into “Boys are Back in Town” and “Frankenstein.” I don’t care if you’re one of those anti-lead-guitar hipster short-songs-only kind of critic. When it comes to guitary indulgences, someone has got to it. (You know it’s true.) The elite few who can pull it off have a duty to do so with this much conviction and gusto. If you were at Luckey’s 1:45 a.m to hear the Pat Travers version “Black Betty,” you would know what I mean. (After-hours folks were wandering in from the streets like they were heeding a distant call.)
I have to say a few words about the middle band on the bill, Sudden Anthem from Portland. Great band. Hard to pin down… if you’re the kind of listener who always tries to pin things down. Two or three lead vocalists/songwriters. “Modern-vintage Progressive rock,” by their own description. But they’re not “prog” in the sense of pretentious fusion-Artrock. They have a song-oriented approach–slightly rural-and no shredding. (The leads are tasty, though.) At first, I noticed that the voice of frontman Joshua Rivera sounds like Jerry Garcia on pitch, and his guitar tone too. But there’s nothing in the music that waxes Deadhead. No parodies of old rhythm and blues. The cadences are current–very Portlandy. That’s it! A Portlandy approach to spacious songwriting. What comes to my mind The Band. Yes, that’s it! A band influenced by the Dead and The Band, who doesn’t sound at all like the Dead (thank god) or The Band. It’s more in the cinematic touch, where the songs move around into different territory. These guys are after my own heart.
And sure enough, towards the end of their set, they busted into “Cripple Creek,” led by the mandolin player, proving my thesis.
And rarely do I see a band who has put so much work into group vocals. Four of them sing, bringing background melodies and counterpart in and out, like the Beach Boys or The Mamas & the Papas.
When I went to their website, I was shocked to see how few gigs they have. So tight and seasoned, I was sure they were on the road for 20 gigs a month. I was hoping so anyway, ’cause I want to go on the road as their opener.
I got their CD, which they give away at shows for free. It’s good, matches their live set. And my friend Asher Fulero is on it playing keyboards.
Now I have to say a word about the venue. Luckey’s has a good sound system and a capable sound man, and the stage can fit a sizable ensemble. And in recent years, it has become part of Eugene’s sadly dwindling supply of small venues. But, as is common in this third tier of the Biz, the stage management is awful. My buddies in Crackerjack Highway, slated to go on third, at 12:25, weren’t able to play their first note until 12:55 a.m. This would be fine on a night with a packed, late rowdy crowd. As it was, this is Spring Break, with no local headliner, so the draw was sparse, the atmosphere subdued. Unfortunately, the opening band was left to noodle around on stage for an hour and 15 minutes, moving everything back. This led to such a late start for the middle band–Sudden Anthem–that by the time they were finished, the venue felt like the night was over. It was sheer heroism that Crackerjack, on tour from San Francisco, tired as hell, were able to get things revved up again by 1:30 a.m.
This is my pet peeve. Small venues can help us out by bossing us around a little bit. Keep things professional, on task, on schedule, on point. Even though it seems like it’s just local bar band stuff, we’re doing this for professional reasons, with all our heart, and all our resources. It’s important that the vibe in a club isn’t too casual and amateurish. No matter how few people show up. It matters, and over time, it helps the reputation of bands and clubs alike. And that translates into dollars.