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A Six Pack of Phoenix Jams


With this past summer seeing the first ever Jammys Awards and summer festival agenda that included the Berkfest, High Sierra Musical Festival, the Allgood Festival and the Gathering of the Vibes, it seems that the jam band scene is on a tear of a pace. Once dismissed as Phish or Grateful Dead wannabees, the bands of the jam bands have proven through the quality of their recordings or the shear immensity of their fan base that the scene is not some passing fad but rather a musical genre that is here to stay.

Staying right on pace with the burgeoning scene is New York City’s Phoenix Media Group who have many different projects on their docket such as re-releasing vintage live recordings, maintaining an Internet radio station and serving as a label for the jam band music scene. Already, this label, known as Phoenix Presents, has released fine studio albums by England’s Ozric Tentacles and San Francisco’s Kingfish and live recordings by New York City’s Ulu and Atlanta’s Blueground Undergrass. The greatest aspect about this company is that they don’t rest on their laurels – even though they have surpassed everyone’s expectations with their superbly produced live recordings, they keep on out doing themselves.

Phoenix Presents latest additions to the jam band stew is like looking at the American Atlas of Groove. Their releases take us from St. Paul Minnesota where hometown favorites, the Big Wu, provide some good old Americana rock & roll to a sold out performance at the historic Fitzgerald Theater. Heading east, the local heroes of Rhode Island, Foxtrot Zulu, remember their fans with a rollicking set in Matunuck, Rhode Island (Live…). Taking 1-95 south, the label captured the unique combination of hip-hop loops, free jazz blowing and trance/ambient music of Lake Trout (Alone At Last) while Garden State favorites, Blind Man’s Sun, played a six week stand at New York City’s Elbow Room with their operatic progressive rock/world music (Live From the Moon). The New Years was ushered in with Max Creek’s set in Connecticut while Uncle Sammy played on for hours at the venerable Wetland’s Preserve.

The Blind Man’s Sun recording may be the best of the lot. For one, the recording was culled from a 6 show multimedia event that told a fictional history of the band from its beginnings right up till the band’s fictional grand finale – playing on the moon. This Phoenix Presents release captures the final installment of the 6 show tale and it shows how Blind Man’s Sun rivals Phish, Gong or Pink Floyd in its musical storytelling (but probably not costly special effects histrionics.) If that wasn’t enough, the recording attains additional uniqueness as the concerts served as the band’s swan song. As a result, in the process of relaying a fairytale history, the band also was almost using the story as a metaphor for telling their own history. Perhaps playing New York City’s Elbow Room is the equivalent of playing on the moon. Only the band knows.

In addition to the epic Blind Man’s sun performance, Phoenix has also captured two other concerts of legendary stature. One is the new years set from the god fathers of the jam, Max Creek. Live at the Connecticut Expo Center has the band playing in their own stomping grounds (which they can claim as their own since the mid 1970s). The set catches some of the band’s new tunes such as Scott Murawski’s "Cruel World" but the CD stands out with its impressive old reliables such as " Pissed Off", "Back Porch Boogie Blues" and "Blood Red Roses." These were the songs that turned me onto the wonderful world of improvised music over fifteen years ago and they still have a similar impact on me. Let the record show, guitarist Scott Murawski, an obvious disciple of David Gilmour, is perhaps the most underrated guitarist alive.

Five months later, Boston’s Uncle Sammy played at the epi-center of jam band music – Wetland’s Preserve to a large group of jam hungry fans. After the final notes of Phish’s now famous shows at Radio City Hall in May of 2000, the quartet kept the improvisational spirit well into the wee New York hours. If one wants to sample the maturation of a band, they only need to look at their two live recordings – Live at Broadway Joes and their new Phoenix release, Naturally Preserved. Broadway Joes was a fine, fine recording but for newest set, it is obvious that the four have gotten tighter, more spontaneous and even more exploratory. All at the same time! It is pretty tough to accomplish any of those attributes without losing an edge on the other. Not a problem for this guys. The recording contains some enlightening jams with "Purgatory", "Sociology" and a fine version of Weather Report’s "Teen Town.

As for the Foxtrot Zulu, Big Wu and Lake Trout recordings, they are easily on par with the other three. The energy in these recordings are outstanding and the musicianship is pretty much nerve numbing. Both Big Wu and Foxtrot Zulu have an inherent sense of celebration in their music while Lake Trout, with their trance inducing vibes, intend to take their audience for a sonic journey.

Not only did Phoenix Presents make masterful recordings –location producer Sam Kopper has achieved legendary status; but also Phoenix Presents managed to capture the bands within their respective local regions. As a result, the music has a high level of energy, as the musicians are able to relax amongst their loyal fan base and really stretch the music out. The Big Wu refers to their fans as their family and pay tribute to them on their website with the following words: "Much of what makes The Big Wu what it is today is the kind family and loving people that surround the band. This network of people frequent shows in every city that the Wu have entered and welcomed them with open arms everywhere they go. The pride of this group is our open door policy: ‘Everyone is welcome...’ says Wu guitarist Jason Fladager."

They may be located in a different part of the country, but the vibe is the same for Foxtrot Zulu who said it best in their liner notes: "What you hear on this disc represents the attitude of an event. The collective vibe of band, audience, instrument and atmosphere all combined into one singular moment and captured on this shiny disc." Thanks to Phoenix Presents, we have lots of shiny disc to listen to.

Check out Phoenix Presents at www.radiophoenix.com