Is there a more earnest band in the land than Tea Leaf Green? You wouldn't think so based on their latest performance in Vermont. The quartet's self-effacing approach to their music and their audience may be the virtue that‚ as much as their growing musical skill‚ ultimately defines them as a band.
This was not the same TLG that last appeared in the Higher Ground Showcase lounge about a year ago. At that point the young San Franciscans were stretching their improvisational muscles and their material to the breaking point. It was in stark contrast to the compact punchy impact of their (then) soon-to-be-released studio album Taught to Be Proud.
The show on October 16‚ 2006 found songs at the heart of that album for jams. And even those interludes were not the conventional comping behind Josh Clark's often-stratospheric (occasionally strained) solos. Based on how quickly the group slid into improvisation from the opener "The Devil's Pay‚" Tea Leaf is much more of a unit now‚ striving for the collective spontaneity of another famous quartet now defunct.
Not coincidentally‚ just as that impression began to set in‚ about ten minutes into a swirl of sound around the lounge‚ what appeared but a half-dozen glow sticks of various colors and sizes‚ the tossing back and forth of which seemed to ignite the crowd's enthusiasm to an even greater intensity. It's as if they collectively recognized the sensation they were experiencing.
Such is the psychic connection growing between TLG and their audience. The band obviously couldn't be more pleased to get the high-spirited reaction they were getting this night in Vermont‚ even though it was less off the cuff and seemingly more self-conscious than the year before (when a giant stuffed animal was passed toward the stage by the crowd). Clark's glowing smile said it all for the musicians‚ an expression shared by many of the most mobile dancers in the room. It was as if they'd all found a new‚ albeit somewhat familiar‚ soundtrack‚ to dance to.
Tea Leaf Green are becoming much more collectively courageous‚ so that the instrumental interludes are actually more interesting than the songs themselves. "5000 Acres" doesn't have the allure that drummer Scott Rager and bassist Ben Chambers have when they become deeply immersed in their playing‚ even if the duo aren't such distinctive musicians yet.
The rhythm section‚ and by extension the whole quartet‚ hasn't quite the chops to match their manifest enthusiasm. And‚ at least during the first set‚ the sound didn't offer enough clarity to pick out the nuances in their playing‚ which is exactly what makes extended improvisations fun to follow. Nevertheless‚ it's a joy of a lesser nature to see the reaction of the band as they turn a corner‚ tease something like "Gloria‚" watch for a reaction‚ as they did so shyly‚ then move on up a notch in the dynamic range.
Tea Leaf Green sounds best when they reside in the earthy realm of vocalist/keyboardist Garrod's harmonica turns rather than his indulgences on icy synthesizer. And his somewhat reedy voice might benefit from more group harmonies. But if this autumn performance in the Green Mountains suggests anything‚ it is that‚ if TLG maintains their sincerity as their instrumental expertise grows‚ they'll be imparting new meaning to 'jamband' as the contemporary definition of rock 'n' roll.