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Phish goes out on positive note with ‘Undermind’

Aspen Times writer

It’s hard to get a read on the jam-band world these days. Phish, the biggest current jam band, is about to retire – for good, they promise. Widespread Panic, the next-biggest thing, isn’t scheduled to end their Phish-like hiatus for another nine months. The Dead, the remnants of the biggest jam band ever, did not get glowing reviews from last month’s five-night stand at Red Rocks. With Widespread away and Phish going away, no one seems to be stepping up into the highest reaches of the music world.On the other hand, this year’s Bonnaroo, the massive Tennessee festival centered around the jam universe, got raves and huge attendance. While no acts are poised to move into the arena realm, there are lots of good-to-excellent bands at various lower levels.Maybe it’s that the jam world has extended its stretch so broad that it can expand and contract at the same time. Which doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing.Following are reviews of CDs from various corners of the jam universe.Phish, “Undermind”

produced by Tchad Blake (Elektra)Crazy band, this Phish. They announce their break-up – and almost simultaneously release an ambitious studio album.”Undermind,” presumably the last studio work from the 20-year-old Vermont band, reveals neither a band gasping for its last creative breath, nor one leaving a last magnum opus. Phish is clearly going for something here, bringing in producer Tchad Blake, who has put his stamp on albums by Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Pearl Jam and the Bad Plus. Blake seems to be the ringleader for bringing in techno sounds on “Access Me” and the industrial reggae of the title track.Phish seems to be feeling a lot of different things as they head into their final weeks. One moment, they’re breezy and free on “The Connection”; the next, they’re swimming in the surreal dreamscape of “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing; then they’re reaching – make that grasping – for keyboard pop on the raw, but oddly appealing “Army of One.” It doesn’t seem to be a shortage of ideas that has prompted the break-up. Maybe there are too many.Phish has never been more inward-looking. Even with regular lyricist Tom Marshall, Phish has never been much for making direct emotional statements with their words, so maybe searching their lyrics for a group state-of-mind is a wasted effort. But there is at least the hint of a coherent theme here, of taking account of where they stand and scanning the horizon for the next thing. “The time has come for changes/Do something or I will,” sings Trey Anastasio on “Crowd Control.” “The Connection” talks of “changing direction”; “Undermind” rattles off a list of ambivalent words: “undecided, undefined/… rearranged but not refined.” And the entire lyric of drummer Jon Fishman’s slight “Tomorrow’s Song” is “Today I sing tomorrow’s song/In this place we learn to wait.”With “Undermind,” Phish goes out on a positive, though probably not definitive note. Things could have been worse. Without this, their final album would be last year’s lame “Round Room.” At least then we would have known exactly why they were calling it quits.

Widespread Panic, “Über Cobra”produced by Widespread Panic (Sanctuary)With their break looking to stretch to a year-and-a-half, Widespread Panic sends out a treat to its fans. And a treat it is. Recorded live last November at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, S.C., “Über Cobra” is the first acoustic Panic album. Acoustic Panic is a markedly different beast than the usual plugged-in version. While Jojo Hermann still plays electric keyboards, not grand piano (and wouldn’t that be worth hearing?), and guitarist George McConnell breaks out the electric here and there, the guitars are mostly warmer and twangier. Singer John Bell’s voice – for my money, the best of the jam-band lot – gets an even more prominent place in the mix. On a song like “Can’t Get High,” the full range of his emotions and phrases comes to the fore. The songs get different treatments than usual – mellower, softer. “Nobody’s Loss,” led by Hermann’s piano, moves slowly, soaking up every bit of the song’s Southern sweetness.Widespread also uses the acoustic format to mix up the set lists. The album opens with a nicely rearranged version of Neil Young’s “Walk On,” and there are also covers of Traffic’s classic rock classic “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Geraldine & the Honey Bee.” But easily the most interesting tune here is the take on Talking Heads’ “City of Dreams,” which gets a passionate, stately reading.Derek Trucks Band, “Live at Georgia Theatre”

(Columbia)If there is a band that deserves to move a notch or three up the ladder, it is the Derek Trucks Band. Led by slide guitarist Trucks, the band makes music a combination of world travel, intellectual workout and soulful dance party.This two-CD set, the band’s first live album – exactly what were they waiting for now? – is blistering. The album, recorded last October in Athens, Ga., opens with the Cuban percussion-inspired “Kam-ma-lay.” They move through the soul chestnut “Gonna Move,” spotlighting the vocals of the group’s newest addition, Mike Mattison. Elsewhere they jam fluidly on American blues, African-leaning rhythms, gospel, and funky Southern rock, giving it all a measure of depth and smarts. Trucks’ band – including bassist Todd Smallie, drummer Yonrico Scott and keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge – has been mostly in place for nearly a decade, and it shows in the way they function as a unit.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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