We all know that bigger isn't always better... except when it is. The chemistry the develops between a tight knit band, performing over a long career isn't easily replicated and can be jeopardized if elements are changed or added. But additions aren't always disruptions. Sometimes they can be catalysts, too -- taking complacent groups into new and uncharted territories. Sometimes a big personality can give the outfit a whole other direction, making the new sound bigger and bolder and enhancing the qualities of the original group to match its magnitude. Here are eight examples of where adding a great musician to an established act produced surprisingly good results.
1. Crosby Stills & Nash + Neil Young = CSNY
If they were a supergroup before Neil arrived, what exactly were they afterwards? Already brimming with incredible material from its three principals, Young delivered an adrenaline shot of tunes, some with an edge that was not quite present before his arrival. And it was just in time for Woodstock, too.
It also signaled the transformation from a rock leaning folk band to a folk leaning rock band. With the stadium sized tours and outsized personal dynamics, everything CSNY did was huge. Three hour sets, breakups and reconciliations, all seeming to rise and fall with Neil's fickle whims.
There's a reason why, even into modern times, CSNY plays the big sheds and arenas while CSN is likely to appear at a casino or on the oldies circuit. Not to take anything away from the clear greatness of Mssrs. Crosby, Stills and Nash, but Neil is the true superstar. What is the biggest commercial opportunity for CS&N is just another feather in Neil's cap.
2. Pearl Jam + Neil Young = "Neil Jam" / Mirrorball
What did I say about feather's in Neil's cap? He's been a shape-shifter throughout his career. Jumping around from band to band, changing sounds and lineups to meet his fleeting inspirado. A Crazy Horse here, an acoustic album there -- trying to guess his next move is pure folly.
As Seattle bands took off into the stratosphere in the early nineties, MTV touted Young (the original flannel-shirted rocker) as "The Godfather Of Grunge". There's no denying the similarities to Neil's most hard edged noise rock. Riding a wave or early nineties successes, he joined up with the hottest band in the land at a time when they were trying to live down their own legend and acclaim -- Eddie Vedder was even dealing with a "stalker situation" at the time of the album's recording, leaving him off of the majority of the tracks.
The result, Mirrorball, was about 1000 miles away from CSNY, but certainly continued Young's no nonsense approach, something that Pearl Jam also embraced. It was an uncompromising rock album without any hits. Because of this, the album has been somewhat relegated to a footnote, but doesn't make it any less wonderful, especially Eddie Vedder's limited participation, he adds vocals and a co-songwriting credit to "Peace & Love".
The band toured Europe in the summer of 1995, but only played a couple of gigs stateside. Pity.
3. Medeski Martin & Wood + Scofield = MSMW
Maybe jazz wasn't ever uncool per se, but it had been decades since it had the discernible cache with young people that was delivered by Medeski Martin & Wood, who brought improvisationally challenging, yet danceable, jazz out of the clubs and into theaters in the mid-nineties. John Scofield was one of the true masters who ushered in the previous wave of jazz-rock fusion, with a pedigree that goes back to stints with Miles Davis. When these two artists joined forces, it generated something incomparable.
Their first album, A Go Go, is required listening. A decade later it sill feels ahead of its time. Scofield's guitar oozes lick after memorable lick, while MMW are keenly able to match any mood or theme that he wants to evoke throughout its ten tracks. It is a sound that is as accessible without forfeiting what makes the artists truly visionary -- together, these artists seem to have so much to say. Their follow up, Out Louder, picks up where A Go Go leaves off - and their regrettably infrequent live performances are representative of the in-studio chemistry.
I think this collaboration introduced Scofield's music to a much wider new audience, and opened up some commercial doors for him. It also cemented MMW as a chameleonic jazz force that cannot be contained. They were clearly on the rise before MSMW, but after they occupied a rarified strata.
4. Black Crowes + Jimmy Page = Black Zeppelin
It may be hard to believe the magnitude of impact that the Black Crowes had upon arrival in the late eighties, but classic rock was a REAL THING back then, and there were so few artists seemingly ready to take up the mantle left by (even back then) aging artists like The Stones and The Who. In a world increasingly dominated by pop, dance and rap music -- and still on the cusp of "alternative" -- they were one of the few contemporary artists embraced by the rock mainstream and were a welcome younger, real-life embodiment of the rock swagger that so many great bands possessed in the 60s and early 70s.
Led Zeppelin, in the meantime, wasn't rushing to cash in on any reunions. Robert Plant was making a realistic go at a solo career; however, through most of the eighties and nineties, getting a full dose of Page was a dicey proposition. He was pretty much MIA for a while -- then immersed himself in a few middling projects, including the Page Plant acoustic collaboration Unledded that didn't quite deliver the real crunch that fans craved.
In 1999, Page met up with the Crowes to record Live At The Greek, the fusion of contemporary and legendary into something completely new, yet emblematic of everything these iconic musicians represented . What elevated this collaboration is that it didn't get bogged down in tired Zeppelin "hits" that were played out on classic rock radio by the eve of Y2K. Instead, it was anchored by some more obscure tracks -- both nuggets from the Zeppelin catalog ("Hey Hey What Can I Do", "Ten Years Gone", "Out On The Tiles") and straight blues jams (the slinky "Shapes Of Things To Come", Elmore James' raucous "Shake Your Money Maker", Peter Green's balls-to-the-wall "Oh Well"). Here's where Page and The Crowes found common ground and a collective voice, the steamy barroom romps where everybody's a winner.
No Crowes originals made the cut because of contractual reasons, but who cares because... JIMMY FUCKING PAGE.
5. The Slip + Nathan Moore = Surprise Me Mr. Davis
In an alternate universe, The Slip is a band that people talk about alongside the major acts that fueled the indie rock revolution of the 2000s. They produced some amazing music that simply cannot be categorized, but was steeped in emotion while not skimping on execution.
One of the things that stood in the way of increased notoriety was their limited output. Their last release was the beyond excellent Eisenhower, but that was way back in 2006. Haven't heard it? Go check it out NOW! (Seriously NOW!) And of course, the brothers Barr (drummer Andrew and guitarist Brad) have been making it happen with The Barr Brothers, a folk outfit that borrows a lot of The Slip's songwriting sensibilities.
We still anxiously await more material, but until then the last bastion of current Sliphood -- featuring all three members -- lies in the (predictably) excellent collaboration with songwriter Nathan Moore: Surprise Me Mr. Davis. The result is something that sounds a little like The Slip but infused with Moore's more troubadour-like approach. They have built up quite a nice repertoire and are entirely worth seeking out, as they record and perform sporadically given the principals many competing interests.
What's more, this band doubly qualifies for this list, since the original quartet has also brought on Marco Benevento as a full time member in 2009 (but more on him later).
6. North Mississippi Allstars + Jon Medeski + Robert Randolph = The Word
The buzz was so strong on Robert Randolph all of a sudden in 2000, you'd have thought his brand of "Sacred Steel" pedal steel mastery was delivered to earth from heaven above. Raised musically in the church, he gracefully funneled that experience into The Family Band, a nifty outfit that blended pop, rock, funk and soul with strong gospel overtones.
North Mississippi Allstars has quite a back story as well -- second generation blues rockers from the Hill Country were just coming into their own with a collection of hard rock and blues drenched Americana that made jam fans take note. Their collision with Randolph was so white-hot, that it required Jon Medeski to balance the whole thing out (actually, Medeski spearheaded the creation of the supergroup). The result was The Word, a band with roots in blues, jazz and gospel, that managed to transform into something that transcended all of those genres.
All-instrumental, hinged on Randolph's soulful, almost other-worldly playing, but still cascading NMAS' underlying grit and Medeski's bouncy organ, the combination of old spiritual tunes and originals has nary a second of wasted space. I would love to see this band ride again.
7. Benevento Russo Duo + Mike Gordon
It is a distraction to point out that Marco Benevento and Joe Russo were indeed Phish fans before setting out together to craft some of the most compelling original jazz-rock fusion of the 2000s. However, it is necessary to fully communicate how bold and forward looking their collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon was.
But first let's give credit to Mike Gordon for diving head first into their repertoire -- perhaps the only person who can add the basslines that weren't there, and yet...were (much as he did when he joined the famously solo Leo Kottke). In the "Mike Said No" era of Phish history, leave it to a pair of Phish fans to tackle a guitar-less (heh) "You Enjoy Myself", a 40 minute "Foam", or just to keep the very idea of "Mike's Song" alive and well.
By 2006, Mike's buddy Trey wanted in on the mix, producing some excellent improvisation as well (though possibly deferring a bit too much to Trey to warrant a separate place on this list). Still, GRAB versions of "Becky", "Something For Rockets", and even "Susskind Hotel", were something to behold.
Phish is happily back together, and Marco and Joe have more projects between them than I can count, but I would love to see the GRB Trio take a victory lap.
8. String Cheese Incident + Keller Williams = Keller Williams Incident
If you've read the blog before, you've probably seen me wax on about the tragedy of String Cheese Incident -- a band who seemed to fall apart before our very eyes just at the peak of the powers (which in my mind was 2000).
I still hold that just before the band began their inexorable drift, they were making the most engaging jam music on the planet: an utterly unique hybrid of bluegrass, Latin jazz and world music. Eventually, competing personalities and visions for the band split them apart and although they still gig, they are clearly not in the same creative space.
Keller Williams is a hell of a player and talented songwriter, but he can also lay the shtick on pretty thick, and his solo shows can often use a little non-Keller counter-balance to round them out. Enter the Cheese, who had sort of adopted Keller as a wunderkind opening and tweener act during the formative years of both.
With so much time spent together, sit-ins and mutual respect, it was only a matter of time before they recorded as well. The album Breathe is a fine document of what Keller can be when pushed and challenged by other creative types, and what SCI sounded like with unified vision propelling them forward. Their triumphant set at Berkshire Music festival in 2000 is a CD length soundboard recorded masterpiece. The relationship culminated at the first Bonnaroo, and while SCI was slightly past their expiration date by 2002, they rallied for a late night two setter which hearkened back to their best output and really set the tone for these earlier, jammier 'roos.
9. Widespread Panic + Vic Chestnut = brute.
It may be somewhat of an overly literary concept, but I argue that appreciation of the music of Widespread Panic as a flavor of the Southern Gothic tradition opens up a whole new understanding of their place in the musical world. Creating art that acknowledges the tumult and despair that has shaped the American South, while at the same time celebrating its distinct culture, is daunting but can be extremely thoughtful and satisfying.
Of course, WSP is also many other things, but that's not necessarily true about their fellow Athens, GA bred musician, the late Vic Chesnutt, whose lyrically intense music touches on haunting themes with an altogether nuanced look at the world that is so very Southern. Confined to a wheelchair since a car accident at 18, Vic's sometimes brutal worldview was the musical equivalent of staring into an open wound.
Together, as brute. they produced two albums, Nine High On A Pallette and Co-balt, that crystallized this notion while taking just a bit of the edge off -- using Panic's steady rock base to elevate and recast some of Chesnutt's more dour proclivities. One of the most endearing of Panic's qualities, the deep love and respect for their peers, is on full display. The band provides as much care and nurture of Vic's tunes as they do with their own. More evidence: some of the brute. tunes have been staples in the Panic repertoire (others remain delightful rarities).