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(Flying Frog Records 003 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/20/2000)
One pleasing development in contemporary music, serving as a counterpoint to the proliferation of vacuous, lightweight teen pop acts, is the resurgence of jam bands. Near the end of their career, the Grateful Dead, the quintessential jam band, found themselves enjoying unexpectedly wide popularity among much younger fans. Then the band called Phish inherited many of their fans with their strongly improvisational music, honed by countless live performances. so that Phish has become the kind so-called cult band that the Grateful Dead was. That, in turn, had paved the way for a host of younger jam bands, some outstanding and some not so much so. Among the first-rate groups carrying on the jazz-inspired tradition of extended instrumental improvisations, are The String Cheese Incident, Moe and Strangefolk.
This week we have a very impressive recording from what could be described as a super-group jam band, comprised of fairly well-known musicians of two generations. They call themselves Frogwings, and their new CD is Croakin at Toads.
Frogwings could be described as a kind of offshoot of the Allman Brothers Band, with founding member Butch Trucks on drums, and the current percussionist and bassist from the Allmans, Marc Quinones and Otiel Burbridge, also among the ranks of the Frogwings. Other members include Butch Trucks' nephew, the teenage guitar phenomenon Derek Trucks, who has already put out a very impressive solo albumm of his own, plus guitarist Jimmy Herring of another jazzy rock band The Aquarium Rescue Unit, Kofi Burbridge, Otiel's brother on flute and keyboards, and vocalist and harmonica man John Popper from Blues Traveler, a blues-rock band which enjoyed considerable success in its own right. Making it an even more appropriate album for a jam band is the fact that Croakin at Toads was recorded live, appropriately at a venue called Toads, located in New Haven, Connecticut.
Naturally, expectations for a band with the players on the calibre of Frogwings would be high, and the group fully lives up to those promises. Herring and the younger Trucks are great guitarists, Popper's fancy harmonica work adds some spice, and little touches like Kofi Burbridge's occasional flute add a lot to the sound. But while there may be some jam bands around with more technically skilled players, Frogwings really knows how to get up a groove and run with it -- in two cases on this CD for a quarter hour or more -- while keeping things interesting and showing great musical interaction. The two really long jams are instrumentals, but even the vocal tracks, sung by Popper, allow plenty of room for musical interaction, further enhanced by presence of the live audience.
With four of the seven players in Frogwings either members of the Allman Brothers or associated with the group, there is naturally a musical resemblance between the styles of the two bands, but that is nothing to complain about, with the Allmans having been responsible for some of the great rock jams going back to the early 1970s. Frogwings sometimes brings in a little Latin influence, incorporates the blues, thanks to John Popper, and can get a bit jazzy, owing to the inclinations of the two guitarists.
The album begins with one of its longest jams, and one of its best. The instrumental track Kick n Bach starts with a slow groove reminiscent of the Allmans' In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. <<>> It provides ample solo opportunities, including for Otiel Burbridge with his simultaneous bass and vocals similar to his work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit... <<>> before the piece picks up and gets into a Latin-influenced beat for the second guitar solo, which I am guessing was played by Herring. <<>>
The first of the vocals is a John Popper composition called Hurdy Gurdy Fandango. This upbeat song has much briefer solos but still provides a chance for good instrumentalizing... <<>> ... especially by percussionist Quinones. <<>>
Pattern is a joint composition by John Popper and Otiel Burbridge that is one of the highest energy rockers on the album with some musical homage paid to various Southern bands of the past. It's a track that has it moments, but does not rank as the album's most memorable. <<>>
The bluesier side of Frogwings comes out on Just One, another John Popper composition. Popper puts in one of his best performances on the CD, both vocally and on harmonica. <<>>
Also in the Southern Rock musical tradition is a joint band composition called Ganga, which the group really sinks their teeth into, including the Allmanesque dual lead guitar lines. <<>>
The album's longest jam, at over 16 minutes in length is another instrumental, this one by Herring and Otiel Burbridge. Eddie's Got a Boyfriend has a melodic line that sounds like a school-yard taunt of the title. Though the playing is quite good throughout, this is one instance where a bit more succinctness might have been helpful. <<>>
For me, the most interesting track on the CD is Deviant Dreams, in which Frogwings break out of their stylistic mode some, with some distinctive lyrics and a kind of progressive-rock direction. Otiel Burbridge is heard on his flute. <<>>
The album ends with Among Your Pillows, not its strongest track, but one marked by good instrumental work nonetheless. <<>>
Frogwings represents a kind of dream-team jam band, with members of the Allman Brothers, Blues Traveler and the Aquarium Rescue Unit combining forces in a great live album marked by solid playing and the kind of musical interaction that makes a jam band performance so memorable. And the fact that this is a live recording enhances the experience and leads the players to a higher level musically. Their material is, for the most part, worthwhile, though in a jam band situation like this, the compositions take a back seat to the improvisations by the players involved, and the latter are all world-class.
From a sonic standpoint, the CD is a bit of a disappointment. It being a live album, apparently produced on a rather modest budget, one can put up with a couple of sonic defects like clicks and moments of the flute being off-mic. But the old bugaboo of audiophiles is a problem on this album -- too much audio compression. Everything comes out at the same volume, and for a jam band with a good sense of dynamics, that is not good. The result takes away from the immediacy of the recording and makes you feel separated from the band.
The return of the jam bands is becoming a significant musical phenomenon. And Frogwings is about as significant as you can get with its blue-chip personnel of two generations. It's an album that should not be missed by the jam band fan.
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