Review: MMW @ House of Blues – Chicago

Set I:

The band began the show with a swift attack on their instruments. Billy Martin struck his single ride cymbal forcefully, while John Medeski tinkered around his of assortment of electric keyboards and a baby grand piano. Chris Wood ran his fingers heavily along his vintage Hofner bass, before settling into a hard blues chord riff that set the bar for an assorted improv. One of Wood’s great strengths as a bassist is his ability to treat a bass guitar as if it actually is a guitar, especially when using a slide. Medeski seemed to lash out at his keys to make sounds like a crying baby in between Wood’s strums, while Martin shifted dynamics from a laid back strutting beat, to banging every piece of his drumkit.

Right about this time in past shows, the band’s progression would dissolve instantly into a mash of robotic tweets from Medeski, combined with cymbal crashes and bass plunks. But that night, they allowed a bizarre array of sounds to enter their music without losing the feel they had spent the beginning of the show achieving. The band has always been able to stray very far from a direction they set out on, only to return as a single unit on a downbeat that would throw a crowd in a frenzy. But that cohesiveness had to be reconstructed during past shows. This time, they kept their glue together as a band while expanding and searching.

mmw3

Two improvs, with the second heavier than the beginning, led to the trio’s take on Sun Ra’s Angel Race (I’ll Wait For You). But time seemed to quickly pass, as Wood started a fuzzed out off-road driving line, while Medeski played bright ringing notes from a Moog and Martin kept pace with a shaker. With Wood trading his Hofner for a Fender bass, they dove into Reliquary with sheer force. Martin showed he can play with as much control while striking every surface of his kit, as he can playing a funk beat dragged just a little to give it swagger.

Towards the middle of the song, where Medeski played a flowing major piano solo that momentarily soothed amidst the chaos, Wood and Medeski played a short call and response three times with heavy bass undulations against delicate organ work. They added to the calm middle section with Martin trading his drum sticks to make sizzles and pops with a Brazilian Pandiero before a descending pattern on Balinese gongs, while Medeski blew twangy notes through his melodica.

The song died down, leaving Wood for a bass solo that seemed to evoke the simple yet gut-wrenching melodies written by him and his brother Oliver. Wood settled into a dark, straight groove right on top of the beat to lead into Padrecito. The back-alley grit, dusted with Latin feel sounds like an echo of Combustication days, but with Medeski focusing more on piano instead of the howls and shrill sustained voices that colored their 1998 release.

To close the set, MMW delicately rose out of a calm interaction into the swiftly shifting dynamic of Amber Gris. The hip hop beat under Wood’s fuzzed bass guitar riffing made a launching and landing pad for Medeski’s explosive yet gorgeous piano runs that help make this song one of the more emotional in the Radiolarians set.

Set II:

The second set began more straightforward with the band jumping into a bouncing groove that slowly morphed into Walk Back. The song shifted back and forth between the subtle and warm opening strut to a high energy midsection led by Medeski suddenly swelling his sound with a higher pitched keyboard and his B3. Overall, the Radiolarians collection seems to have brought out the trio’s rock senses more so than past efforts.

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Martin and Wood slowly faded their playing down leaving Medeski blowing into his distortion-addled melodica. The effects created something between a blues harmonica and an accordion, with a bunch of dry sand thrown in. It made a fitting weathered sound to be the backbone for Junkyard. With Wood using his Hofner again like a blues guitar, and Martin playing a clangy New Orleans beat, the title definitely fits the sound. They faded out quickly into just Martin playing a swift swung beat and Wood sparsely walking up and down high and low notes. The space left was filled by Medeski switching from short whispers out of his B3 to full, rich tones while dragging his hands along the keys.

The mood changed to a much lighter, dancier feel with the band strutting through their latin-tinged Jean’s Scene into the hipshaking, jukejoint boogie of Amish Pinxtos. The latter also had Medeski leading the way with his grimey melodica sound, which fit with his Clavinova warbles. During a drum break, Wood came full force with a bluesy shuffle that set the stage for Cloud Wars, a raucous tune that occasionally broke down into Martin dancing around his kit while Wood pulled bizarre sounds out of his Fender Jazz Bass. After descending into chaos a few times and returning to the song’s main shuffle theme, the band dove even more into rock for the aggressive pop of Undone. To close the show, they serenaded the audience with “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” a swung jazz tune with the band stripped to their very basics: upright bass, brushes on drums and the piano.

Undone symbolizes a major portion of the Radiolairans experiment, because people still try to categorize the trio as either a jazz or a funk band. The word ‘experimental’ will squeeze its way in there, but people still often try to contain the band’s vehement commitment to changing and growing with two words. This song has them going far distances from their dark grooves and sonic barrages to create a layered piece of beauty with a distinct chorus, verse and, yes, a bridge section. And why not? They still do exactly what they please.

Medeski, Martin & Wood
November 22, 2009
House of Blues
Chicago, IL

Set 1: Improv > Improv > Angel Race (I’ll Wait For You) > Reliquary > Bass Solo > Padrecito > Amber Gris

Set 2: Walk Back > Junkyard > Broken Mirror, Jean’s Scene, Amish Pintxos > Cloud Wars, Undone

E: Baby Let Me Follow You Down

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