The Slip : Webster Theatre, Hartford CT 7/20/2006

Every town has it’s own cast of neighborhood favorites that perform relentlessly and work their way through the ranks of what’s on tap in the local bar scene, ‘til their very name becomes synonymous with music in that area. They make their mark the old fashioned way; on stage, through the fearless execution of uncompromising live performances on a weekly basis in ever-widening concentric circles from a popular local night spot. You know they’re the real deal, because they’ll play an empty room on a weekday like it’s Radio City Music Hall, ‘til one day they’ll be playing in some festival clear across the country and realize they’d coalesced the touring apparatus and the recognition of a national act and they’ll know they made it.

If you were alive and listening to ‘alternative’ music before Nirvana, you’d know that Boston was the capital city of progressive rock when Seattle was still just the final resting place of the Lewis & Clark expedition. It’s the city that brought you everyone from Talking Heads and The Pixies to Dinosaur Jr. and Morphine. More recently, it’s brought you a power trio of young Berkelee dropouts called The Slip to prove that it still is.

Last Thursday night they drove an hour down route 91 to Webster Theatre in the slums of South Hartford, CT to make a point of it. Despite the short distance from the high class Brownstones of the BU campus in historic north Boston, where the Paradise reigns, the event was a long way from the shows they played a month ago, co-headlining with My Morning Jacket, and the Boston Symphony as the back up band.

A dark marquee under the streetlights on the corner of Webster St. and Crown featured the band between LL Cool J, and god knows who else. Low-income housing and old dilapidated New England cottages with Amazonian front yards line the once quaint neighborhood behind the bar. The security guy swears he can’t vouch for the safety of your car stereo if you don’t pay him five bucks to park in the fenced-in lot. The price was offset by the surprisingly cost effective $17.00 ticket: a real treat for people who spend far too much time in much bigger cities.

Inside it was a very intimate setting for a band with no small host of faithful dancing followers over the past decade. The 100 or so in attendance seemed like no one at all in the cavernous hollows of the theatre’s main showroom. Earlier this summer they played to ten times that number outside, in the pouring rain, on the second stage, on the second day of rain at Mountain Jam, with Mike Gordon, and then Medeski, Martin & Wood playing on the main stage.

They opened the night’s show with “The Shouters” using the vocal mics to tap out tones on guitar and bass that were, nonetheless, remarkably succinct, while inducing a subtle feedback from the interacting magnetic fields. Occasionally frontman Brad Barr would sing the lines into his. Throughout the set he’d use everything from a running tape recorder to plastic musical children’s toys to evoke strange sonic nuances from his pickups.

Their experimentalism and mixed instrumentation are a distinctive feature of The Slip’s peculiar sound. Drummer Andy Barr could often be seen smashing the set with maracas instead of sticks. The intro to one particularly soulful jam featured Brad plucking rubber bands and little metal sticks emulating an African kalimba, or thumb piano, on a tin can with a pickup in it while bassist Marc Friedman accompanied on melodica. Throughout the set he would occasionally cast aside the bass for a longneck Danelectro baritone or a Fender Strat and play rhythm. Brad’s own frequent guitar changes show a serious penchant for alternate tunings which help to variegate his arrangements, while the lower register helps to accentuate the low end spectrum and compensate when Marc goes six string.

Over the years the band has undergone an extensive evolution from a purely atmospheric jazz fusion band to what Glide has referred to in the past as a, “power rock trio that has only begun to scratch the surface of potential.”

What sets them apart from most modern touring (a.k.a. jam) bands is their flare for writing poppy alternative ballads, with verbose, poetic and engaging lyrics more along the lines of British alternative acts like The Verve, or Radiohead, than Uncle John’s Band. Every song has the sublime airy quality of a cool drizzle on a foggy day, or the score to some sort of existential satire. Songs like “Even Rats’,” with it’s vintage distortion and mellow bass harmonics, featured early on in the set, or their roadhouse, Stevie Ray, delta blues throwback “Mudslide,” played shortly thereafter, can even be singled out as the unsung number one radio hits of the 21st century.

But while their songs have taken on a more cohesive pop structure, they continue to derive their essence from the band’s more organic roots as they’re drawn out on stage with a healthy conversational interchange of guitar, drum and bass lines – and plenty of good ol’ free-range ambient jazz improvisation. They have a remarkable tendency to go totally off the map with licks that seem to have a very fixed format on record, and every song is subject to massive onstage remixing in ways seldom seen with even the most far out veteran jam bands.

Though the band was visibly dismayed by the lack of audience participation, that wasn’t about to slow them down. An upcoming album has kept them largely off the road this summer, and Brad in particular was clearly looking to rock from the first note in a way that the small crowd just couldn’t oblige. They buckled at times within the sparsely populated cavern, but mostly they threw down hard, like they didn’t give a damn who was listening. Despite the adversity, they played some pretty ostentatious versions of their signature licks in a protracted single set. They even threw in a three song encore, including a rare “Old George,” “Soft, Simple Wonder” and “Spice Groove.”

In the end Andrew just got up and walked away, with brother Brad clearly holding some funky chord shape for the next encore that eventually no one would ever get to hear. They hung out afterwards for a beer. It was a tough night, but they rocked it pretty hard, and that’s how you know they’re the shit; when they play an empty bar on a weeknight like it’s the Boston Pops. Even The Slip gotta pay the piper every once in awhile.

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