Monday, July 12, 2010

NY Times Review: Garage a Trois

A Jam Band Counting on a Style of Its Invention

HOBOKEN, N.J. — The terminology can’t be trusted when it comes to Garage a Trois, a band consisting of the drummer Stanton Moore, the saxophonist known as Skerik, the percussionist Mike Dillon and the keyboardist Marco Benevento. That’s four people, not three, despite the group’s chosen name; it doesn’t have much stake in garage rock, either. And while Garage a Trois fits the profile of a jam band, its music feels more focused and less freewheeling than that particular pigeonhole might suggest.

Garage a Trois formed just over a decade ago, originally with Mr. Moore, Skerik and the guitarist Charlie Hunter. Its sensibilities have skewed grittier and more psychedelic with the current lineup, largely because of the fuzz-tone output of Mr. Benevento. On Thursday night at Maxwell’s here, the band played a shrewdly overdriven show, combining heavy-riff distortion with a rough-and-tumble funk delirium.

Almost all the songs were from its most recent release, “Power Patriot” (Royal Potato Family), a respectable album but only a faint intimation of what Garage a Trois can do live. (That may ultimately be the strongest link the group shares with its jam-circuit brethren.)

The band’s life force is rhythm, both at a subterranean level and on the surface. Mr. Moore is also a founding member of Galactic, which has evolved into an all-purpose New Orleans house band equally at home with bounce music or Mardi Gras funk. He has a knack for disarming bombast with elasticity, sounding sly and adaptable even when jackhammering at his toms. And he had a ready sidekick in Mr. Dillon, who began the set on vibraphone before turning to congas, tablas and effects.

There was mathematical complexity in some of the tunes, like “Rescue Spreaders,” which involved a whorl of superimposed meters, in groupings of four and five. (During a vibraphone solo by Mr. Dillon the rest of the band shifted neatly into swing.) But it was no less satisfying to hear the album’s relatively simple title track rendered tougher and wilder, with Mr. Dillon socking a pair of cowbells and Skerik howling through his horn. One tumultuous stretch of the tune recalled the Brecker Brothers at their fusioneering peak, when their sound was best described by the title of a live album: “Heavy Metal Be-Bop.”

Skerik and Mr. Dillon also played an opening set as two-thirds of the Dead Kenny G’s. (The other third is Brad Houser, on bass and baritone saxophone.) Their rapport in this setting was a bit more feverish than in Garage a Trois, and their tone a lot more juvenile. Skerik was freer and more impulsive with his improvising as the trio pinballed between styles: Afro-pop, Balkan klezmer, pocket funk lashed to Middle Eastern modality.

The jumpiness felt a little dated and obvious — very 1990s Knitting Factory — as did the ostensible target of the band’s fury. There are few easier marks than Kenny G, the living symbol of simpering instrumental pop. Skerik and crew know this, but why would they let that stop them? What’s in a name, anyway?

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