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Review: Rudder’s Live Rockwood Music Hall NYC DVD

Rudder: Live Rockwood Music Hall NYCFollowing on from their first two left-field grooving studio albums Matorning and Rudder, the funky band have released a DVD recorded last year in New York. I got the chance to ask the band the rationale behind the release of the DVD.

Bassist Tim Lefebvre shares, “Well, we wanted to document the vibe of the month long tour of Europe we had just completed. People have been clamoring for a new release, and we knew there was interest in a live DVD out there. So we decided on Rockwood hall in NY, a place we have all played a bunch. Great PA and good sounding room, nice and cozy feel…”

Lefebvre, who recently migrated from New York to LA, is one of the most versatile guys on the scene right now, having performed both on electric and upright with Wayne Krantz, Oceans 12 and 13 soundtracks, Patti Austin, Boomish, Uri Caine, Jamie Cullum and Chris Botti.

“Well, the tour was 5 weeks in Europe,” Henry Hey (keyboards) said. “We did the DVD because there was a lot of demand for it. A lot of fans had asked about it, and we know that the band is at its best in a live setting. Every recording up to this point has been a studio project and the time had come for a live release.

“The DVD shows the band at its peak and gives insight into the way we improvise as a group. These songs have been transformed through so many live shows over the last two years. With every show being unique and leading to fresh new approaches, we wanted to document the progress of this music and capture the improvised nature the exact moment that it happened. Even on this performance, there was new material created on the spot.”

Rudder is such a great band – a rollicking great monster of a groove/jazz/jam/band with their left-field grooves, infectious sense of humor and extended joy-infused improvisations. They’re four very fine musicians in a band that is always more than the sum of the parts. Rudder doesn’t disappoint their fans: the enjoyment these guys clearly feel playing together communicates itself immediately to an audience.

Mississippi-born drummer Keith Carlock (Steely Dan, Wayne Krantz, Sting, Oz Noy, John Mayer) and Lefebvre are one of the best rhythm sections around today. It’s fun to watch and listen to them create their grooves. I think I could have just watched that… but Chris Cheek on saxophones (Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Brian Blade) and Hey on keyboards play with, if anything, as much rhythmic vitality.

Carlock is undoubtedly one of the most unique and talented drummers out there today; Lefebvre’s influence has changed how I play bass; Cheek explores sonic textures with effects as well driving the band with a refreshing combination of passion, melody and irony and Hey is forever tinkering with sounds and melodies, adding serious, cheeky, soulful and creative musical layers. They play like they mean it! The chatter of musical voices and constant high level interplay is immediately engaging. “Lucy” in particular is stunning – melody, counterpoint, relaxed intensity, groove, swing, dynamics, passion, momentum… wow!

Lefebvre plays his Moollon P Classic and J Classic basses… oth modeled after vintage Fenders, made in Korea with hand wound pickups, with either fingers or pick plus analog effects at times, adding great squelching grooves, creative interplay, intriguing counterpoint and working with the whole band to prevent anyone listening to this music from standing still. This is head nodding, looking crazy on the metro while listening, dancing in your living room kind of music. Carlock especially is imperious.

Track Commentary:

1. Intro: The tune begins in a freeform mode with a simple piano ostinato and spacey effects from Hey. The band joins in to build the flowing groove and Cheek hits a gorgeous middle eastern vibe in his effects-laden harmonized solo. The camera pans around with a nice mix of individual close ups and band shots and you get to see plenty of everyone but not much of the audience – all eyes are on the band. Cheek, Lefebvre and Hey are bearded (the latter pair newly so) and Carlock clean shaven but there the resemblance to ZZ Top ends.

2. Tokyo Chicken: This track has the squelchiest teriyaki funk bass sound – fingerstyle on the P classic, perhaps in contrast with the sound, Lefebvre’s line is all arpeggiated eighth notes and creates an unusual groove with Hey’s ska keyboard accent and Carlock’s bombard. The drummer grins as he lays down a great bouncing beat with the kind of kick drum sound Bonham had in his heyday, though Keith doesn’t hit as hard as John did – it’s a subtler bombast. The bass looks like a toy in Lefebvre’s giant hands and the highlight of the track is a barreling sax/drums duet.

3. Skate: A church organ intro leads to a melodic bass line that made me think of Flea’s later work with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but with a measure more funk added to the line as it develops. Cheek shreds on sax shreds and Hey hits power chords as the track rocks out before a subtler ending with jazz-tinged Fender Rhodes, light drums and soulful organ.

4. Lucy: This is my favorite Rudder track. A soulful ballad with McCartney-esque picked bass – all melody and counterpoint, expansive piano chords and a yearning saxophone melody. As yet, the audience has not been witnessed, and we get our first glimpse of a few heads in the front row and become aware of them as we hear their cheers, not much crowd noise in the mix. This is about the band.

5. Lopez: Wow! A truly great bass solo opens this track, Carlock joins the solo and builds the groove. Lefebvre’s fingerstyle phrasing is redolent of a modern jazzer like Janek Gwizdala, but the soulful motifs come more from the old school of Willie Weeks. The bassist makes great use a saxophone like alternate fingerings building funky intensity. A funky octave pedal groove enters the mix and the band stomp on it, with Cheek preaching over righteous organ from Hey. When you think it’s over, it kicks back even funkier and harder as the band rides out the tune. By this point, Carlock is sweating with the intensity.

6. Happy Brick: We needed a breather after “Lopez”, and we get it. Here, Hey weaves a sonic tapestry and a spacious, funky vibe develops – great dynamics here with Lefebvre playing contrapuntal chord-melody guitar-style on bass. Rauchy tenor, finger-style melodic bass, theremin-style synth and rolling drums is an unusual mix, but it works.

7. Solo: The band leaves the stage for Carlock’s extended drum solo – a delight to have on the DVD. He’s the best there is at playing what he does and quite unlike any other drummer. He weaves his magic spells alone and you know every eye is on him and every drummer is trying to figure out quite how he does it.

8. Floater: This is another righteous tune. If anything, there is almost a Miles/Zawinul feel to the melody and a touch of Weather Report to the groove. It’s all funky 16th notes at a steaming tempo. The audience is now all worked up and more audible.

9. Laurito: Another dynamic shift. Another ballad. Again I’m thinking Zawinul, and this time with a Wayne Shorter in the Miroslav Vitous-era vibe. There’s a melody-laden duet between Hey and Cheek that’s all electric piano and abstract tenor. The rhythm section are restrained – man you have to watch the video to see how much these guys watch each other and respond to each other and feed off each others’ reactions – bass ostinatos and subtle jazz drumming.

10. One Note Mosh: Back to the loudness. This track from Matorning features Lefebvre’s pick driven J classic bass, and a groove somewhere between metal, punk, rock, funk, jazz and pop. It’s hugely melodic like the best pop but drivingly relentless.

11. Microphone Technique: Make sure you see this most unusual band introduction.

12. Bonus Footage: This features the “beard cam”; the story of Tim’s exploding amp; some impromptu beatnik poetry and other moments of muso hilarity on the road. Spoiler alert: Despite what you may have heard, there is no naked footage of Keith Carlock!

Buy this DVD! Listen loud! I’d suggest either some very decent headphones or plug your DVD player into your Hi-Fi. I must admit that though I buy and enjoy music DVDs, I don’t play them as often as CDs. It’s hard to wrestle control of the family TV and so often nowadays we listen to music while our eyes are otherwise engaged, but I make an exception for this DVD. It’s one I’ll be coming back to frequently, hooking up the DVD, plugging in the speakers and letting rip!

You can watch a teaser video for the DVD here: