The Church of JGB
JGB / Jazz Is Dead
House of Blues - Chicago
May 15, 1998
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1998, Volume 5, #6
Written by John Metzger
Melvin Seals has a big smile on his face these days. He's clearly happy with the direction that JGB has taken. Over the past 19 months, in addition to adhering to a brutal touring schedule, Seals has been shuffling the members of his reunited band like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Since the release of their latest disc Welcome to Our World, Seals seems to be just about everywhere gathering support for his group — a touring tribute to his departed close friend Jerry Garcia. Since Garcia's passing, it hasn't been an easy road for Seals, and the version of JGB that performed at last May at the House of Blues in Chicago was a shadow of its former self.
Welcome to Our World, recorded at the House of Blues in Los Angeles last October, finds JGB taking a giant leap forward. Since then, Armin Winter has left the group to pursue his own projects, guitarist Peter Harris has assumed the vocal duties, and drummer Donny Baldwin (who left to spend more time with his family) was replaced by Steve Stephens. This latest batch of changes seems to have propelled JGB back into the limelight. It's as if the final pieces to the puzzle have been put in place.
The last time I saw JGB, they tried too hard to capture the precise sound of the Jerry Garcia Band and wound up imitating the group rather than capturing its spirit and essence. On May 15, Seals and his band settled into Chicago's House of Blues for the first of a pair of shows with Jazz is Dead, and they came out swinging. They not only captured the spirit and essence of their former leader, but they made the music their own and turned the performance into a living, breathing tribute of epic proportions.
Opening with Cats Under the Stars the band quickly found their groove, riding the heady guitar licks of Peter Harris and Judah Gold. Each song seemed to raise the stakes a little more as the band carried each jam a little bit further than its predecessor — pushing the limits, stretching the boundaries, reaching for something higher, and achieving that spiritual plane of existence that is well-known to followers of the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band.
Lucky Old Sun was masterfully handled by the band. Harris' vocals provided a wonderful foundation upon which Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch could work their magic — their voices intertwining in spiritual splendor adding an enlightened poignancy to lyrical twist.
Stop That Train found its reggae roots firmly entrenched in the bubbly bass of Elgin Seals and the solid drum beat of Steve Stephens. Melvin Seals filled the song with his signature organ sound, providing a swirling mass of ethereal exuberance.
The band also managed to work several Grateful Dead songs into the evening's sermon. Bertha was a rousing celebration featuring LaBranch and Jones. Franklin's Tower was a delightfully joyous excursion featuring a gentle, rolling keyboard solo from Seals that gradually grew into a massive wall of sonic bliss. Of course, the Dark Star jam that routinely finds itself planted in Deal, was enchanted with the spirit of Garcia. This version was a long, deliberate stroll down a winding path of pious psychedelic ecstasy.
The absolute highlight of JGB's 140-minute performance came halfway through their set as they tore through Bob Dylan's legendary Tangled Up in Blue. It's hard to believe that the band's musical style is new to Elgin Seals. The bassist turned the song inside-out with his radiant bass runs that provided a solid foundation for the song while he also avidly took the lead in driving the rhythmic groove. The song's central jam continued to build with a fervent energy as the individual members of the band melted into a single entity. Every note Melvin Seals played seemed to increase the intensity until the song strained for release and finally came crashing down in a myriad of technicolor brilliance. JGB is definitely back, and to paraphrase Seals, they took us to church.
Jazz is Dead opened the show with a lengthy two-hour set which revolved around the dazzling drumming of Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson's astounding mastery of the bass. Unfortunately, without a singer, many of the songs' arrangements seemed to endlessly drag as the band seemed to struggle in making the songs their own. On many of these, guitarist Jimmy Herring and keyboardist T. Lavitz locked into an Allman Brothers-style of dual harmony, but after awhile it appeared as if they were somewhat short on ideas.
Jazz is Dead's best performances of the evening occurred when they explored some different sounds and arrangements. Halfway through the set, Cobham picked up an electronic drum machine (very similar to the gadget Future Man plays in Béla Fleck's band) and headed out into the audience with Johnson for a funky rendition of Truckin'.
Terrapin Station was another magical moment as the band beautifully tackled the entire song, including At a Siding and Terrapin Flyer. Lavitz added a spiritual touch by performing the "Inspiration" verse on organ.
The jazziest song of the set was Blues for Allah. At times the group conjured up the sound of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, but the song concluded before it could reach a spaced-out jazz-fest.
I really expected a jazzier sound from this group and was surprised that many of the songs were overlayed with more of a blues-based feel. From the talented members involved in the Jazz is Dead project, I expected a more adventurous take on the songs that fell closer to the David Murray Octet.
JGB's Welcome to Our World is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Jazz Is Dead's Blue Light Rain is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 1998 The Music Box