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Frogwings mixing tight jams with tight schedule

Stewart Oksenhorn

Don’t look for Frogwings to be appearing in a club, or at a festival, in your area anytime soon. The seven-piece band doesn’t perform all that often, and when it does, it typically doesn’t stray far from its New York City base.

Which is too bad for jam band fans, since Frogwings just might be the finest jam band ever assembled.

The stumbling block for Frogwings is the band’s status as a side project. Five of the seven members are familiar names for their current membership in the Allman Brothers Band: guitarists Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring, drummers Butch Trucks and Marc Quinones, and bassist Oteil Burbridge. The band’s part-time singer/harmonica player is John Popper, who also fronts Blues Traveler. Rounding out the troupe is Kofi Burbridge, who played keyboard and flute for the defunct Aquarium Rescue Unit.

Frogwings was the idea of Butch Trucks, who was looking for a vehicle in which he could perform on a semi-regular basis with his young nephew, Derek. (Back when Frogwings was first put together, in mid-1997, Butch surely didn’t imagine that Derek would become a member of the Allman Brothers and that the two would have a steady gig together.) Trucks called on several of his mates in the Allman Brothers, whose schedules would jive, more or less, with his own. Handling vocal chores for the earliest incarnation of Frogwings was Edwin McCain, a Southerner who came more from the singer-songwriter mold than the jam band world.

Between various tours and recording dates by the Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, the Derek Trucks Band, and Jazz Is Dead – which counts Herring as a member – Frogwings hasn’t been given much time to perform, much less travel the country. That doesn’t mean, however, that Frogwings didn’t have sufficient time to jell as a band.

The proof is on “Croakin’ at Toad’s,” a CD recorded live, mostly at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn., with one track recorded at the Wetlands in New York City. The eight-song disc features all original material – most of it credited to Popper and the Burbridge brothers – but song composition has little to do with the music of Frogwings. This thing is about jamming.

Aside from a nearby club, another place Frogwings’ music is unlikely to turn up is on commercial radio. The shortest track clocks in at five-plus minutes; most stretch toward or beyond the 10-minute mark. It’s hard to argue that the players don’t deserve that kind of room.

Each tune rips in its own way. The 16-minute “Eddie’s Got a Boyfriend” has a rhythmic Popper-led jam that blisters before melting into a free-form staccato conversation between the guitars and finally exploding into another furious jam. “Just One” is a cool minor-key blues progression, infused with a Santana-esque Latin undertone and some power chord breaks. “Kick n Bach” has spectacular guitar work by both Herring and the younger Trucks. Popper adds a touch of humor with his introduction to “Ganja,” a tune built around an Allmans-like hook, but distinguished by Popper’s rapid-fire vocal delivery and Kofi’s keyboard solo.

With “Croakin’ at Toad’s,” Frogwings dares anyone to call their music noodling, that condescending term laid on rock bands that rely more on instrumental interaction than concise, lyric-driven songs. For the presumed shortage of rehearsal time, “Croakin’ at Toad’s” is remarkably tight. With Trucks, Quinones and Burbridge, there is a dense rhythmic aspect to the music, bringing in jazz, rock and Latin grooves. And it’s just impossible to say that the music goes nowhere, not with soloists who have as much to say as these guys do. The potential criticism that this is nothing but embellished Allman Brothers music is countered by the extensive and unique contributions made by Popper and Kofi Burbridge, making the material even less song-oriented than the Allman’s.


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