The Principal of Change - Wise Monkey Orchestra and Winter Tour 2000

by Lee Abraham

Many years ago, in another time and space, I earned a living as a real estate appraiser. Actually traveled that road for about fifteen years. For the most part it was a pretty good deal. Certainly taught me a lot. Zipping like a madman from house to house, taking notes on everything from the dwelling’s size and condition, to how it compares to the rest of the neighborhood, appraising was fast paced and interesting. Paid well too.

As the years passed though, appraising became more of a job and less of an adventure. Too much stress. Deadlines every day and people getting seriously pissed off if the estimated value came in too low for their sometimes greedy purposes. Handling an editor or PR person who doesn’t like a CD review or magazine article is a lot easier on the nerves than a homeowner who’s frothing at the mouth, believe me.

Even though I hung up the clip board and measuring tape some time ago, several of appraising’s analytical principals continue to help me make sense of what’s going on around me. One of the more basic concepts is the ‘Principal of Change.’ Bottom line - things change. Makes sense. Certainly doesn’t appear too radical. In layman’s terms, "Shit happens," is a pretty close corollary. That brings me to this month’s column. Whether it’s managing a softball team or a rock and roll band, people are tough. The bigger the group, the greater the headaches. The longer the unit is intact, the more people change. Same with the world around them. Rare is the band that runs an entire career without shuffling the lineup. It happens, but not too often.

The Principal of Change becomes particularly useful in conjunction with another appraisal concept, the Principal of Anticipation. Simply stated - anticipate change. A proper mix of the two concepts indirectly heightens awareness of the -now-, that fleeting point on the line that too often comes and goes without fanfare as we plan for the future, or dwell on the past. Nothing like a healthy dose of tomorrow’s uncertainty to sweeten the scent of the flowers we stop to smell today.

Case in point - Wise Monkey Orchestra. Now in it’s eighth year as a touring groove generator, the monkey barrel has been a grand central station of lineup changes since inception. Founding monkey, Sean Hart estimates that more 35 different musicians have come and gone over the years. At one time, there were a dozen people in the orchestra. The thing is, few of these players have been at the core of the band. It’s Hart who has always been the nucleus. A funky, high spirited tone scientist with a flair for techno, Hart has lead the monkey’s ever changing lineups back and forth across the country time and time again. Sometimes that leadership came by example. Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the band at any given time, Hart has played drums, bass or keyboards to make things click.

Here’s a little WMO history: Bass player Chad "Chuckstew" Stewart and Hart have been friends since elementary school. After the original incarnation of Wise Monkey disbanded in the early '90s, Hart’s first choice to begin rebuilding was his old buddy. Chuckstew was living up in San Francisco at the time, playing with a band called Gypsy Circus. Convincing Stewart to relocate to Tempe, Arizona, WMO’s original stomping grounds, they began anew. Six months into the rebuilding process, a new lead vocalist, Alley, joined the band. Then came trombonist Andy "AG" Geib about a year later. Together with Hart, these four -are- Wise Monkey Orchestra.

But there’s more to the story. Soon after AG joined, the monkeys moved to their current digs in San Diego. That was ‘93. A sax player and a guitarist who also made the move to Ocean Beach both left the band. And there were more changes. For a while the lineup was in a constant state of flux with new people onstage almost every night. One of the new faces was drummer Ed Fletcher. Then came Tim Pacheco on percussion, vocals and trumpet, as well as guitarist Scotty Homan.

That lineup stuck for a few years. And man were they great! It was an incredible run, but as of the new year, Fletcher, Pacheco and Homan are no longer wise monkeys. They’ve split off to focus on Pacheco’s -Psydecar- project. Why? Creative differences. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it works. The move didn’t come suddenly. The winds of change had been stirring for some time. I got the news on November 1st. From that point forward, Pacheco no longer performed with the band. Fletcher and Homan however, played ‘til the end of the year.

In the interim, WMO lucked out by picking up a couple of stellar musicians in drummer Bruce Stodola and Marty Shwartz on guitar. Both rip! Over the past four or five weeks they’ve been prepping for the upcoming tour, a three month cross country epic they’re calling ‘Winter Tour 2000.’ I’ve never seen a band so focused. In addition to playing their standard four shows a week without missing so much a as syncopated backbeat, the new lineup has been jamming three to four hours a day, five or six days a week.

The hard work has paid off. The new monkeys played their first show at a local benefit on January 2nd and put on a stunning performance. As we go to press, they will have just completed a three city run through northern Cal, as well as several shows closer to home. Has their sound changed? Sure. The past lineup had a smoother, jazzier groove. The new look rhythm monster is an edgier, funkier monkey. At least for now. See, things change. The upcoming tour will give Wise Monkey an opportunity to refine their new sound -on the road-, where they do their best work.

For WMO fans, this is a very interesting time to catch the band live. Aside from their music, one of the things that has always attracted me to Wise Monkey is their dedication and commitment. On stage and behind the scenes, there’s a certain chemistry among them. Not only when the jam is fat, but when shit hits the fan - a resilient, ‘give-us-your-best-shot because we’re in it for the long haul,’ sort of mental toughness. Anyone close to a hard working, touring band knows what that chemistry is all about. Very much a family vibe with an unspoken, underlying tribal spirituality. Not unique, but very cool to be close to. Inspiring too. For WMO, that chemistry remains intact in spite of the recent changes. In fact, the ties that bind are stronger than ever.

I’m not saying the departed members won’t be missed, they will. But the key to benefiting from change is recognizing opportunity and seizing it. Opportunity to grow, to evolve. And that's what Wise Monkey has always tried to do. As a fan, participating in that process is really all we can ask for. I’m anticipating -that- will never change.