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June 07


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Spam Allstars


In Miami, the Spam All Star’s regular home, Hoy Como Ayer, is an artistic, laid-back music venue and art gallery. It's located on the famous Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana, but this historic neighborhood has become home to more than just traditional Cuban-American culture.

The Spam All Stars’ blend of jazz, electronic, Cuban, as well as other Caribbean, Latin American and African music styles reflects the evolving exchange of cultures taking place off of the Florida shores.

Released in April on the self produced Spamusica record label, the group’s most recent album, Electrodomesticos, finds its energy in improvisational electronics layered with Afro-Cuban, jazz, hip hop, funk, and dub rhythms and harmonies. Bandleader Andrew Yeomanson (i.e. DJ Le Spam), who was born in Montreal and grew up in Venezuela, spent more than a year in his Miami studio mixing tracks for the album. Pee Wee Ellis (former saxophonist for the James Brown band), Phish keyboardist Paige McConnell, Cuban flutist Mercedes Abal and Shakira’s keyboardist Albert Menendez are just a few of the music greats also involved in this project.

The CD’s first track exemplifies the Spam Allstars’ clever mix of new and old styles. Titled Charanga, it references a type of Cuban dance music originally popular in the 1930s. Staying true to the genre’s tradition, the song features a flute and violin. At the same time soft but pulsing electronic elements create a drive that extends throughout the entire CD.

As reflected in other tracks, such as La Mareada (Spanish for “dizzy”) and Gallo Pinto (a Nicaraguan bean dish), neither horns, electronics nor percussion disturb the CD’s characteristic nonchalant funk ambiance. this way, Electrodomesticos never quite reaches the point of an all out James Brown funk party, yet it still creates a forward moving space of innovative harmonies, melodies and rhythms.

The Spam Allstars recently appeared at the Bottleneck in Lawrence as part of the Wakarusa Music Festival pre-party. Unfortunately, the virtuoso Latin funk group ended up playing a short set to a small crowd. But to those few who did catch the group’s late-night show, they experienced — if only for a fleeting moment — the life and energy that is Calle Ocho. —Elana Gordon (posted 06/22/07)

Mushroom with Eddie Gale
Joint Happening


The San Francisco-based experimental jazz-psychedelic-funk troupe known as Mushroom (no doubt for their love of a favorite pizza topping) has been around for ten years or so, doing their own “Spinal Tap” jazz odyssey thing with little concern for financial success.

Now, with the help of the famous Eddie Gale on trumpet, this musical collective (led by Pat Thomas on drums, Ned Doherty on bass, Matt Henry Cunitz on a whole bunch of freakin’ instruments, with some back up by musicians — Tim Plowman, David Brandt, Erik Pearson and Dave Mihaly) has produced the seven track Joint Happening, and having a joint before you listen to this is a mighty good idea.

Like most jazz, the songs here average 10 minutes or so, flipping, riffing, rolling and twisting through rhythms and melodies like a drunken snake through a dishwasher, and all this writer can say is you’ll either love this stuff or abhor it. This is jam-band craziness all the way, and one senses that these guys don’t even care if there’s an audience: They just want to play, man!

Having performed with other musicians the like of Kevin Ayers (Soft Machine) and Cream lyricist Peter Brown to name just a few, it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve created a style truly their own; and if you’re a fan of jazz, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa or even the German prog-rock band Can, this is your stuff.

However, like most jazz, each song is really many little songs, and just when you get into the grove of one, it changes into another, so be warned. Tracks like the delicious and infuriating “I was torn down at the dance place-shaved head at the organ” (Yes, that is the correct title, and yes, mushrooms might have something to do with that…) seem to leap from highs to lows and back again in a complex organic fashion that forces music writers to come up with phrases like “complex organic fashion” instead of just saying “it rocks” or “it sucks”

If this type of musical pizza pie is to your liking, flip it on — and don’t forget the mushrooms. — Brandon Whitehead (posted 06/15/07)

A Better View of the Rising Moon


Upon seeing the five sleepy-haired fifteen-year-olds that make up Chicago-based 1997, this reviewer could almost hear the drum circle and interpretive dance begin before listening to a single track. Given that American Idol has taken what was left of the concept of learning, practicing and rehearsing towards a lofty goal and thrown all that away in favor of underwear models faking it over “backup” vocal tracks, what can we really expect? (Not to mention that under these standards, John Lee Hooker, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix and most of their contemporaries would never have been given a record or a stage…)

That being said, these kids actually have some damn fine pop licks here with a surprisingly fresh and sophisticated style. Led by the ethereal vocals of Kerri Mack (who at times seems to channel Kelly Clarkson — in a good way, that is!), their debut album A Better View of the Rising Moon sounds more like a band’s fourth or fifth album rather than their first. Sure, there’s still a lot of teenage angst and heartbreak (That’s right, kids, nothing will ever be worse than breaking up with your first girlfriend. Promise.), but they defiantly know how to construct complex rhythms and catchy bridges with skillful results (with Kevin Thomas also at vocals, Alan Goffinski at guitar, Nick Coleman on drums and Caleb Pepp on guitar). Add in tracks like “The Roads You Can Take” and “Lovelikepoetry” and you actually get some quite listenable emo-style songs, which is an impressive feat in itself.

Given how hipster these Gen-Hair musicians look, they’re perfect for the MTV world (which is now the YouTube world, actually), and that’s fine…because they’ve also bothered to make some good music, as well. Ah, 1997…that was a good year! — Brandon Whitehead (posted 06/08/07)

James Blood Ulmer
Bad Blood in the City

Hyena Records

Ever since the Bush administration responded to the hurricane Katrina disaster by sending an Arabian horse judge to the rescue with asbestos-filled trailers, the musicians that loved and lived in the Big Easy have expressed their feelings about it all with some damn good music. Indeed, what was once a crown jewel in American (remember when that word meant something?) music is pretty much an abandoned garbage dump now, and is likely to stay that way for a looong time.

But here’s the funny thing: Nobody ever told the music it was supposed to die along with the city. So even while the water rose over the roofs, it stayed right there with the people (unlike pretty much every New Orleans politician, who were already long gone).
Blues is blues, and you can knock it down all you want, it just gets back up and keeps commin’.

Such is that attitude of jazz/blues guitarist James Blood Ulmer on his latest album Bad Blood in the City: the Piety Street Sessions, an 11-track masterpiece of sorrow, hope and pain that grabs you by the collar, puts a beer in your hand and just starts talkin’.

Having been known for his signature jazz-blues guitar fusion since the seventies, Ulmer has become an American treasure; and given that New Orleans is his adopted hometown, it’s not surprising that he’s got a few things to say (to borrow a movie phrase) with a vengeance!

Produced by the incomparable Vernon Reid (who also adds some electric and acoustic guitar licks here and there), this CD has some down and dirty brilliance — a mix of Southern blues and throbbing jazzy guitar that digs relentlessly at the soul. The first three tracks, including the haunting Sad Days, Lonely Nights, center on the hurricane’s effects and aftermath with a sarcastic wit hard to match by most musicians. But it’s the later tracks that really start the show. James and his boys (including Leon Gruenbaum, Charlie Burnham, David Barnes, Mark Peterson, Aubrey Dayle and Irene Datcher (who is probably a girl, actually) cut loose and dig in with covers of John Lee Hooker’s This Land is Nobody’s Land and a freakin’ awesome version of Commit a Crime by Chester Burnett.

Maybe we have lost a once beautiful and vibrant city forever. Maybe the people will never come back, and the only thing left will be the tourist traps and curio shops. But for now, maybe, just maybe, the music of New Orleans will remind us all what was lost, bad blood and all. — Brandon Whitehead (posted 06/01/07)

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