Singer-songwriter Jon Chi has a background in the jam band and world music scenes, high profile producer gigs with Galactic, Robben Ford, the Jayhawks, and others, as well as two singer-songwriter albums as a solo artist. In other words, he’s got quite a network of musician friends. And his Bay Area locale and regular appearances at the now-shuttered Terrapin Crossroads gives him access to an amazing group of mostly Dead-influenced backing players for this effort, River of Marigolds, which marries the solo approach with hints of the jam band style. Like so many of us, Chi is trying to get us to the other side of these past two years, which in addition to the usual pandemic-induced isolation, social protests, and divisive politics include the wildfires and floods in his northern California. His songs try to navigate out of that morass to a more hopeful place.
Seeing Widespread Panic, his first jam band show, in the mid-nineties was a turning point for Chi musically and inspired him to embark on that path initially. He taps into it in a major here again by recruiting this dizzying ensemble of players including Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools (bass). Others include the leader on guitars and vocals, Dave Zirbel (pedal steel), Jeremy Feinstein (keyboard), Jeremy Hoenig (drums), Mike Emerson (keyboard, harmony vocals), John-Paul McLean (bass, harmony vocals), Ian “Inxk” Herman (drums), Mingo Lewis Jr. (percussion), Rob Hooper (drums), Ryan Scott (trumpet), Steve Pile (harmony vocal), Alex Baxy (saxophone). Collectively this group have pedigrees that include the Mickey Hart Band, I See Hawks in LA, Paul Simon, Melvin Seals, JGB, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Carolyn Wonderland, The Monophonics and others.
The single, “Got to Give the Devil His Due” features a spontaneous horn arrangement from Ryan Scott and Alex Baxy of the Bay Area’s Monophonics. After playing around with a few different grooves, Chi settled on the funk groove, which in turn, demanded horns. He notes that the song is representative of how the band plays live trading solos almost like a jazz combo from guitar to B3 and then to lap steel.
Culling nine songs from an original forty, we find the first two songs that he wrote with a linking segue – “Bring on the Rain” and “Up in Flames” in the middle of the album. You’ll hear strains of his jam band influence in both, linked by the pedal steel of Zirbel of I See Hawks in LA and some Garcia-like guitar playing in “Up in Flames.” While these two are in different keys, Chi felt as if he found a bit of magic and the second half of the album flows practically seamlessly awash in tremolo guitar, organ, and pedal steel. “Dannemora Blues (Don’t Lose Your Head)” stands out with its psychedelic backdrop over which the indelible chorus “don’t lose your head” keeps ringing before melting into the lush “Sweet Surrender,” a prime example of how well those sounds of tremolo guitar, B3, and pedal steel mesh so well.
The title track appears twice, as the second track and as the closing reprise. It started as a folk song with acoustic guitar and vocal but took life with School’s bass line, a balance of melody and driving pulse. The lyric “Toss us a tourniquet, send us a sage / We’ve been waiting for the wind to blow the other way—speak to the hopeful message of the album, more directly stated in the buoyant “Road to Revival.” These stand in contrast to the opener “Cold Clear Winter” which has a bleak tone of chilling briskness via the whirling pedal steel to aptly connote the title.
More than anything, Chi’s album bears that Dead-influenced Bay Area sound. He’s crafted some strong songs here but the modern sheen on the psychedelic rock sounds we first fell in love witth in the ‘70s prevail and still blissfully resonate.