Seth Mnookin Hits The Town

ATN Boston correspondent Seth "Iron Butterfly" Mnookin hit

the town the night before New Year's Eve. Here is his report, written the

morning of Dec. 30: 8:30 PM. Double Tree Guest Quarters Suite Hotel, Scullers

Jazz Club. Scullers, one of the two high-brow jazz club's in Boston that take

up residence at equally high-brow hotels (the other being the Regettabar in

Harvard Square's Charles Hotel) has been redone since I've been here last;

while the room still overlooks the Charles River and the atmosphere (and

prices) remain strictly upper-class, there are two very significant changes:

the acoustics have improved, and now there's no smoking anywhere in the club.

Win some, lose some.

Last night's Jimmy McGriff (saxophone)/Hank Crawford

(organ) show in many ways typified Scullers. McGriff and Crawford, who both

played on some of Ray Charles most earth-shattering music in the '50s (check

out "I've Got A Woman" or virtually any of Charles' Atlantic set, The Birth

of Soul) have settled into mid-to-late career complacency. They can still

draw the crowds, still have their chops, but oftentimes seem to refrain from

pushing themselves that extra mile. Last night's set was no different. While

much of the 8-song, hour-plus set verged on the schmaltzy, McGriff, and less

frequently Crawford, saved the night from total disaster by pulling out all the

stops during some truly inspiring solos. Mid-set renditions of "Next Time You

See Me" and "St. Thomas" were the unquestionable highlights. McGriff's and

Crawford's guitarist heated up "Next Time You See Me" with some spine-tingling

blues-informed jamming, and McGriff, for the only time during the set, truly

let loose and spat out the chord changes during a short, hot-as-hell version of

St. Thomas during which the drummer temporarily lost his heavy-as-lead hands

and actually did some interesting tom work. Still, despite the crowds almost

universally ecstatic reaction, the show was not much of a success. Rarely

leaving the domain of late-night talk show band, McGriff and Crawford rarely

demonstrated the inspired playing that brought them to prominence with Charles,

assorted other R&B acts, and as jazz acts in their own right.

The evening -

the second to last of 1995 - did not progress much from there. After leaving

Scullers, I headed across the river (the Charles, that is) to Cambridge's

hipper-than-thou Middle East to catch what proved to be a triple bill of

atmospheric prog-indie-rock: Trans Am, Blonde Redhead, and Tortoise. Although

at ten-o'clock there were lines out the door for Tortoise, by the time the

Chicago-based quintet came on at midnight, much of the crowd was leaving or had

descended into conversation. (John McEntire, one of Tortoise's roving

musicians, is also known as the Oberlin alum who taught - or didn't, as the

case may be - Liz Phair to play guitar.) Tortoise, with two drummers, a

keyboard, a bassist, and two guitarists (I know that makes six - sometimes

there was one drummer, sometimes one guitarist) played their ethereal prog rock

to uninspiring perfection, with a Clint Eastwood spaghetti-western theme on

valium here, a downplayed calypso/jazz/rock beat there. It was hard to complain

about their set - their chops are tight and they certainly can't be blamed for

not exploring their terrain - but they were none too exciting.

The same

can't be said for Blonde Redhead and Trans Am - that is, it wasn't that hard to

complain about their sets. Blonde Redhead, with an annoyingly self-indulgent

female lead singer who whined when she sang and bitched about being compared to

Sonic Youth when she "chatted up" the audience, certainly doesn't lack

potential, but the trade-off vocals between man and woman, the whiny-overtones,

and the guitar-duels that started nowhere and ended up in the same place got

old...quick.

The same can be said for Trans Am. A trio of seemingly nerdy

boys, Trans Am's set consisted of song after song of bass and drum heavy

grooves that seemed to exist purely for the sake of noise. Kind of like Primus

meets Iron Butterfly in the interminable middle of "In a Godda Da Vida." Fun

for a song, maybe too...and very annoying for almost an hour.