Chill Out

Opting to dig Wise Monkey Orchestra instead of snow on New Years Eve makes the long drive from New York to Colorado easy sledding

by Lee Abraham

The decision came quickly. Well, sort of. Conceptually, the long trek back to Ocean Beach, California, from my most recent temporary digs in Brooklyn, New York, had always been part of the plan. Just wasnít sure about the timing. Until it started to snow that is.

Sure, temperatures in New York City had been dropping steadily since the end of the World Series back in October. By mid December, even a quick walk to the neighborhood bagel shop required a full compliment of cold weather gear: wool cap or trendy ear warmers as the daily fashion statement dictates; Thinsulate lined gloves; Gore-tex scarf properly wrapped around the neck and draped across the chest to insure 100% Adamís apple and nipple coverage; long underwear; goose down parka; and ankle high, insulated boots to keep the toes nice and toasty. And thatís on a sunny day.

So anyway, there I was sitting in front of my trusty laptop on this particularly cold day with every intent of being productive. Didnít work out that way though. Rather than hammering out some carefully crafted verbage for the next impending deadline, I instead found myself gazing absentmindedly out the window, hypnotized by winterís first snow. Aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely. But the dazzling visual stimuli didnít give me that warm and fuzzy, Ďainít nature grandí type of buzz. On the contrary, each slowly falling flake, whimsically whirling and twirling through the big appleís gun metal gray afternoon sky like stoned fireflies doing the hokey-pokey, was another reason for this warm weather groove missionary to head west. See, I can only take being cold for so long.

Tearing my attention from the ballet of crystallized precipitation spinning madly outside my window, I did the next best thing to actually getting work done: check e-mail. Thatís when I got the news. Wise Monkey Orchestra was playing the San Juan Room in Durango, Colorado, for New Yearís Eve! Before you could say, ĎAnother round of McSorleyís Black and Tan in a properly chilled mug,í I was thumbing through my well worn road atlas, calculating how many days it would take to drive to Durango. More to the point, I was figuring when I should split the frigid northeast. Decided to hit the road the day after Christmas. That would give me five full days to make the drive.

Turned out to be a good plan. Ran into some nasty freezing rain in Maryland that really slowed me down on the first night. The next morning was even worse. In fact, the weather pretty much sucked until I got out of St. Louis the following day. After that, it was easy sledding.

Sitting behind the wheel of my battle tested little Subaru, I had plenty of time to reflect. Not only on all the bouncing around I had done in the past year, starting with the move from Las Vegas to San Diego, then on to Greenville, North Carolina, and finally up to good old Brooklyn, but also on my experiences with WMO. More than any other band Iíve come in contact with in the past several years, the wise monkeys rock my world. Itís just that simple.

Although I canít recall the exact date I first saw WMO, I do remember it was a show at Legends Lounge in Las Vegas. My buddy Rudy, Legendís proprietor and Vegasí #1 jamfan, informed me that this was a band I didnít want to miss. He was right. The first thing that grabbed me was the bandís rhythm section. Somewhere between world beat and funk, Chad Stewart on bass and drummer Ed Fletcher were a force to be reckoned with. Almost immediately, I had the involuntary Ďhead bobí workiní. That quickly morphed into an irrepressible case of happy feet.

Midway into the first song I was on the dance floor, busting out moves that hadnít seen the light of day since the Deadís final run at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Vegas, a few years earlier. Listening to Alley, WMOís incredibly sultry vocalist for the first time was a revelation. ĎDamn, this girl can sing!", was my first reaction. And as much as she rocks the house with her powerful pipes, it was Alleyís vibe that had me hooked. Specifically, her smile. A mesmerizing combination of provocative, slightly raised eyebrows working in tandem with a wonderfully expressive pair of world class lips, Alleyís stage presence was so potent it made me feel good just watching her. Still does too.

Bolstering WMOís sound with an intoxicating shot of Mardis Gras mojo, the slide trombone play of Andy "AG" Geib had me scouring the bar for a lamp shade worthy of promotion to party hat status. But as the evening progressed, AG went well beyond the tipsy fun of traditional, funked up horn charts. This guy can do it all... rip solos, punctuate rhythm, or navigate deep space with jaw dropping free jazz explorations. Take a good listen - the array of textures voiced through AGís trombone are not only deceptively sophisticated, they are an essential element of wise monkeyís unique sound.

Onstage, tone scientist and keyboard alchemist Sean Hart usually keeps a low profile, floating a techno gurgle here, synthesizing a counter melody there. But watch the band over a period of time, or even better, barnstorming from town to town, and you begin to appreciate just how important WMOís founding member is. Seany is the guy who will stand on a chair during a particularly incendiary moment, flaming lighter extended toward the heavens, or double pumping the pinky-pointer hand gesture, ALA Ozzy, to connect with the crowd. Make no mistake - Seany is the soul of WMO.

And although Reed Stewart, Chadís younger brother and WMOís manager, doesnít play an instrument, heís as important to the band as any of the musicians. Let me put it to ya this way, after going on the road with WMO for most of Ď99, traveling with them from coast to coast in their van, crashing in their motel rooms, helping load and unload gear for too many shows to count, Iíve seen that Reedo is the hardest working cog in the WMO machine. Heís the guy who books the shows, drives countless miles while others sleep, works the merch booth at gigs, collects money from occasionally surly bar managers at the end of a night, and also makes sure that all incriminating evidence from the after show, motel madness has been cleared out before whistling his patented, Ďsswww-chaAAA!í cattle call to get the band in the van for the drive to the next town. In short, Reed is the good cop/bad cop link to reality who enables these high flying monkeys to focus on the music. Itís hard to imagine where WMO would be without him.

Like any band that sticks around for awhile, WMO has had its share of lineup changes during its ten plus years together. That first time I caught WMO at Legends, the band featured Ed Fletcher on drums, guitarist Scotty Homan, and multitalented Tim Pacheco on percussion, trumpet and vocals. All three were outstanding. The current lineup, including drummer Bruce Stadola and Marty Schwartz on guitar, has been together for over a year now. And as their inspired performance on New Yearís Eve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, WMO is firing on all cylinders. Both Schwartz and Stadola have the chops and karmatic Zen that have synergized the bandís core into an edgier, more bluesy, funky monkey mutation without genetically altering the bandís essence. In other words, they rock! (Check out WMOís new live CD, -They Live-, on Lauan Records, to get a feel for the bandís current sound).

Driving across the country, just sorta watchiní the road melt into the horizon, lots of different thoughts crossed my mind. One that came up over and over was the anticipation of spending New Yearís Eve in Durango with wise monkey. Didnít take long to realize that as much as I was looking forward to hearing some of my favorite -music-, I was even more stoked knowing that Iíd soon be crossing paths with some of my favorite -people-. And from my vantage point behind the steering wheel, thereís no better destination than that. Especially on New Yearís Eve.