You're one of the leading lights in 21st-century fusion‚ with a fan base that spans from Jam Band Nation to hard-core jazz lovers that are tired of listening to the same sounds they were hearing ten years ago. What do you do? Silly bee! You do an acoustic tour‚ of course!
That's what Medeski Martin & Wood did last year. They rolled through the Egg as part of a five-city East coast swing‚ and it was the best show I saw all year long. So when I heard MMW was going to do another acoustic tour‚ and were going to play the Hart Theatre again‚ I got out the bulldozer and cleared my calendar completely‚ doing my best to ignore the little voice in my head that was whispering‚ "The sequel's never as good as the original!" Well‚ it wasn't better… but it was different.
On this night‚ there was something comfortable about the way the band stepped onstage and went immediately into acoustic space. Medeski sat down at an upright piano that looked (and sounded) like someone had dropped it off a roof‚ while Wood bowed a huge double bass and Martin sampled sounds from blocks‚ bells and whistles that were scattered around his drum kit like toys in a toddler's bedroom. If anything‚ perspective warped even further when Wood switched from bowing to plucking a fat jazz beat‚ leading Medeski away from the trashed-out honky tonk and onto a grand piano‚ where he started laying down lead lines reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis.
For the most part‚ it was all about the groove from that moment on. MMW sampled from a lot of different styles - hot jazz‚ slow blues‚ even a little Brazilian - but the sentence that linked most of the pieces‚ in both sets‚ was‚ "It's got a good beat and you can dance to it!" Last year the crowd was dancing in the aisles; this time the dancers lined the top of the Hart‚ bopping and swirling and howling as MMW took whatever they were playing to the next level‚ and then a little bit further.
They returned to space several times: At one point‚ Medeski was on his knees on the oriental rug‚ playing melodica and toy piano (or melodica and accordion bellows) simultaneously; during one space moment that was too long‚ Martin was on the floor‚ too‚ crashing metal pans together and then dropping smaller pans inside a larger pan as if the aforementioned toddler was trying to find out how much noise he could make before Mom got mad. Wood took the opportunity to go electric for a few moments‚ but only to play a wild‚ disjointed solo at the highest point of the bass' range. No matter how far out they got‚ they trusted each other enough to know that - eventually - someone would find the exit and lead the others back to the groove.
Medeski's infamous for the layers of keyboards that surround him in concert; the children's toys aside‚ eighty-eight keys was all he needed here‚ pounding out the beat with his left foot as he laid down powerful jazz piano. Martin went the other way from last year's appearance‚ where he tried to incorporate the myriad number of percussion instruments he'd brought; he stuck with his kit for the bulk of this show‚ and the result was just as satisfying. Wood should always play acoustic bass… or‚ at least‚ that was the sense you got from his shimmying posture as he strummed and yanked the strings to find levels of funk most electric players would find elusive.
MMW encored with a rocked-out version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say‚" the only holdover from last year's set list. This was an indicator that the acoustic matrix is now a regular club in the band's bag. I'd wondered if last year's acoustic show was merely an experiment or a palate-cleanser; instead‚ it's become an established form that they all feel comfortable with. Hopefully‚ this will be a regular event on Medeski‚ Martin & Wood's tour schedule. Guess I'll have to keep the bulldozer gassed up.