Club d’Elf “Perhapsody: Live 10.12.06” (Kufala)
By Ben Taylor, Transformonline
Monday. Jul 09, 3:17 PM
An unstoppable, far-out musical force captured live on two discs.
The last time we checked in with Boston's Club d'Elf, they'd just released Now I Understand, their long in-the-works first studio album where they finally distilled the groove science they'd been perfecting in countless intimate club gigs. That excellent, if overly edited and tweaked, album was preceded by a half-dozen double-disc live albums, many recorded in their home base of the last decade, The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA. It's not surprising that they decided to document and unleash the proceedings of their record release show for Now I Understand, since they thrive on on-stage reinvention just like the great electric bands of one of their admitted heroes, Mile Davis. Releasing a live record so soon after a studio album, especially from a gig dominated by material from said studio album, is always the worst example of major label cash-in, but for a band as far-out and constantly re-inventive as Club d'Elf, it makes perfect sense. While it's a jam-band clichÃ© to say a band never plays the same set any given night, for Club d'Elf that's really true, because the line-up so often changes from gig to gig, and bassist/leader Mike Rivard trusts his comrades to take the music in whatever direction it needs to go in order to make its way back to the ether from which they summoned it.
On this night in October 2006, they were firing on all cylinders with a crew who all appeared on Now I Understand (but given the slice-n- dice nature of modern digital editing, there's no guarantee that any of them were necessarily in the studio at the same time). Launching the first set with the same â€œWar of the Worldsâ€-esque stentorian radio announcement that kicks off the studio album, Rivard and monster drummer Eric Kerr coast in on the nimble groove of â€œBass Beatbox.â€ DJ Mister Rourke adds some nice electronic flavors while Rivard does an understated dance around Kerr's drum 'n' bass skittering. Things coast smoothly for a while until keyboardist John Medeski fires up some organ weirdness that splits the difference between jazz great Larry Young's polytonal riffs and a funhouse/ roller rink meltdown. They don't call this stuff â€œqueasy listeningâ€ for nothing. Someone's laying down a weird chirpy line that wouldn't sound out of place on Herbie Hancock's Sextant, but between two guitarists, the DJ, and Medeski, it's anyone's guess to what instrument is actually making what sound.
The most eye-opening moments here are the transitions between songs, easy enough to do with a mouse stroke in the studio, but harder to pull off live on the spot, especially with as little rehearsal as these guys probably get. While the band is free-ranging improv experiment, Rivard is always there dropping hand signals to cue players in and out, and he's got such a rapport with Kerr that they pull this stuff off like they'd been planning it all along. Again, the comparisons with '70s electric Miles arise, but these guys also know when to tame things slightly and lay into some really nice spacious grooves, trimmed of any fat or noodling bullshit.
Medeski is definitely the biggest name here, and while his presence will hopefully attract attention to this great but still somewhat unheralded group, he's definitely not the only heavy-hitter here. Duke Levine and Dave Tronzo's dual-guitar attack leaves heads spinning with their casual virtuosity and restraint. Two lead guitars sparring with Medeski seems like a recipe for wanky disaster, but these guys never seem to step on any toes. Levine especially knows how to spice things up from the sidelines, providing gentle support with pedal steel-like harmonics and glisses.
Probably the main difference from the studio versions of this material is the absence of Brahim Frigbane, a charter member of the group who makes strong contributions on Middle Eastern lute and percussion, and provides the most exotic sounds to an already polyglot sonic stew. They stick a little closer to straight-ahead groove here (â€œstraight-aheadâ€ being a relative term: check out the molasses-thick â€œThat is My Voiceâ€ sounding like The Meters jamming with R2D2 after downing a family-size bottle of Robitussin), with Medeski's organ workouts leading the charge through some tough grooves and Kerr laying down a harder pocket than the lighter stylings of Billy Martin, Medeski's regular sparring partner in Medeski Martin & Wood.
Plowing through dub, world beat, funk, jazz, and just pure sound (both acoustic and electronic), Club d'Elf are an unstoppable musical force, and Kufala does an excellent job of documenting the live experience (they're doing good things with the packaging, too: Perhapsody is one of the first discs to come in their new bio- degradable non-plastic shrinkwrap). For people who can't make it to The Lizard Lounge, this double-disc bonanza does a great job of making you feel like you're in the middle of it all. Some might've thought that the studio excursions on Now I Understand were something that wasn't physically possible to play, but these jams prove otherwise. It's a must-have companion to Now I Understand and a fine purchase on its own. For those seeking new funky music that isn't afraid to color outside the lines, this is a great place to start.