Five Bands That Should Be Bigger Than They Are

Last month's Live Music Blog feature, the five part What Bands Should Be Bigger Than They Are was one of the most enjoyable reads of November. Equal parts validation of some of my favorite under-the-radar acts, controversial picks that make you think, and short list of new bands to check out, I eagerly awaited each day's installment.

Thrilled at the variety of tastes and the persuasiveness of the LMB contributors, I was equally amazed that there were still some bands that I felt were extremely deserving of the honor that didn't make the cut. To make up for the oversight, I'm offering five more bands that could don't quite get the recognition they deserve. Of course, the do have a little Chicago / Midwest flavor which seemed to get brushed over in the LMB piece. I tried not to duplicate what was already included, but still, the hardest part was sticking to just five.

1. Strange Arrangement

This Chicago four piece is taking some time off from the road at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, but you wouldn't have guessed it given the response they got from fans at their last show before the break. Their hometown crowd devoured an improv-laden set that resides in that seedy neighborhood where rock, funk and jazz intersect.

Their hiatus will be an interesting development. It feels like the band is on the cusp of something monumental -- they have the talent and the approach to generate the sort of fan fervor cultivated by the most beloved jambands. All they need is to inject a bit more of the unexpected, and focus on the one-of-a-kind jams, song choices and sets that make shows truly special for audiences.

Of course, making that happen that takes a lot of work, which is what I hope is inspiring the wood shedding. And they'll have to blaze their own trail, while taking some cues from those that came before them. A bump-up in popularity could put them in a rare class, creating a chance to experience the breathlessly exciting narrative of graduation from clubs to theaters for a new generation that came to improvisational music too late to experience the upward swing of Phish, Widespread Panic and others.

2. Greensky Bluegrass

Even if Greensky never played a single improvisational passage, they still might be one of my favorite bands. Hell, even if they never left the studio, their four albums have enough unbelievable songs that position them on an interesting acoustic music frontier.

As it is, however, they're something of a total package. The band's live output easily rises to, if not exceeds, the quality of the songwriting. In fact, the improvisation has such a distinct voice, a true blending of five stringed instruments that borrows from bluegrass but never quite succumbs to it, that it's mesmerizing. And for somebody like me, stumbling on Grateful Dead and Phish covers amongst other more unconventional cover song choices used to round out the repertoire, was the ultimate gift.

Check their tour schedule and they've already got what it seems to be an open invitation to any festival, so what's left for this band to get bigger? How about a prime slot at Telluride and prominent featured slots at the nation's "major" feativals ('Roo, Lolla, ACL etc.)? I feel a move up from clubs to theaters, perhaps headlining a package tour of like-minded acts to capitalize on the current acoustic craze, seems like a legitimate goal for this fine group from Kalamazoo, MI.

3. Van Ghost

There's definitely something that I appreciate about music with an undeniable hook -- and I'm not talking about the market-tested, written-by-committee, produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life songs that make up the Top Forty these days. In an age where integrity is often equated with being deliberately obtuse, it is refreshing to note that Van Ghost leader Michael Harrison Berg simply possesses the pop gene. Just like my favorite improvisers channeling the cosmos in a great jam, he seems to pull melodies from some place they've always been.

Need proof? His material is convincing enough to recruit some serious talent to round out the roster of Van Ghost: the multi-talented Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman (both spent time on the road with Trey) serve as suitable foils both instrumentally and vocally, while VG's lead guitarist and rhythm section have pro-quality sheen.

With a product so infectious, all it takes is being in the right place at the right time for them to bust through. Bigger for Van Ghost doesn't necessarily mean dominating the tour circuit or festival scene -- but one of their songs could certainly stand a fighting chance on the radio. With so many great candidates already, I don't think it's a stretch to see Van Ghost finding themselves with a hit.

If they do break through, they'll come complete with a few albums worth of solid material, top notch chops and a steadily growing fan base, so there's no telling where it could end and should be a thrilling ride.

4. The Sea and Cake

When I saw Tortoise appear on the original LMB list, it was like splash of cool water to the face. They tend to fall through the cracks of lots of the media outlets that I follow and they're a band that I tend to forget about - despite from being right here in Chicago and producing incredible music.

The same can be said about The Sea and Cake, another Chicago group which features Tortoise drummer John McEntire. But right now, they're at the top of my mind since I can't get enough of their 2012 release The Runner -- an album that subtly hides the aforementioned pop cues amidst dreamy, yet organic, soundscapes.

I've had this feeling once before with their 1995 LP The Biz. What is amazing is how a band that creates a sound that seems to exist out-of-time can actually evolve with the times.

Frankly, both The Sea and Cake and Tortoise get a ton of recognition in certain circles, but I see no reason they can't break out. Now, I'm sure mainstream is a beyond dirty word to the members of these bands, but access to open minded audiences looking to be challenged has never been easier. There are a ton of opportunities for this music to get in front of more people and I'd like to see them seize them.

5. Snarky Puppy

Let's leave the Midwest and head down to, of all places, Texas for the final band, which I felt the need to classify here, despite (or perhaps because of) its inability to be classified. Described on their own website as a cross "between a garage band and a collective, with over 25 players in regular rotation", Snarky Puppy breaks every convention of what a band should sound like. Where other bands deliberately try to "break the rules", it's like Snarky Puppy never saw the rulebook at all and are creating a whole new game from scratch, of which this happens to be the soundtrack.

What Medeski Martin & Wood was 15 years ago, Snarky has the potential to be for jazz curious youth of today. Fusing unexpected forms on the back of virtuosity, while remaining equally committed to community outreach and education, their music is hopeful, creative, and offered on a grand scale.

When they hit the road, the clubs they play are leveled by the sound. I can only imagine what the experience might be like in small theaters with rapt crowds... but I'd sure like to find out.

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