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Tea Leaf Green 

The Next American Legends?

click to enlarge TeaLeafGreen.jpg
On July 10th at St. Andrew’s Hall, music fans in southeast Michigan will have the opportunity to witness history in the making. Fresh on the heels of their seventh studio album, Radio Tragedy, and with their third working lineup in the last four years, Tea Leaf Green is coming to take Detroit Rock City by storm on the first night of their summer tour with Matisyahu.

As anyone familiar with the band’s unique style will tell you, it’s hard to find a reason not to listen to Tea Leaf Green once you’ve seen or heard them. It’s also difficult to figure out why they aren’t currently one of the most beloved bands in America. They have everything that an informed listener could possibly want.

Trevor Garrod is probably the most talented emerging songwriter in the business, and not because he writes fluff. RDW caught up with the singer/songwriter in between tours and asked where he gets his inspiration for songs about hobos, shipwrecks, and burning brothels.

“I’ve always loved that kind of music. You know, the Bob Dylan sort of folk tradition. The Jack Kerouac ‘rambling man’ sort of image. It’s always been terribly romantic to me. Anything about the dark places you go in life. I’ve always found it so much more compelling than writing songs about…what else is there to write about? [Should] I write about…cars? Girls? Parties? I mean, I wish I could write about stuff like that, but it always seems so shallow.”

Combine his writing chops with his infectious voice and expertise on the keys, the searing guitar riffs and quirky songs of Josh Clark, a thundering duo of drummers (Scott Rager and new member Cochrane McMillan), and Reed Mathis: arguably the best bass player in the world (and if not the best, than certainly the most entertaining), and you’ve got the recipe for an up-and-coming American legend. If you want gut-busting rock songs, they’ve got it. Melancholic Americana, check. Extended improvisations that at times border on electronica and psychadelia and feature some of the best musicianship in the business, check. Original album artwork by Josh Clark that’s good enough to buy even without the CD…sold yet?

And yet after 13 years of touring (nearly half of their lives), the band remains underappreciated and largely unknown, especially in the Midwest.

Perhaps the reason is that they are routinely lumped in with the oft-ridiculed group of musical outcasts called ‘jam bands’. The name has become a derogatory term to listeners (however unwarranted) and as Trevor Garrod himself says, a name that has become synonymous with “…the image of a dumb hippie selling grilled cheese in a parking lot.”

So how does Tea Leaf Green really feel about being called a jam band?

“You know, I don’t think anybody is really comfortable with that label. It’s kind of pejorative. I’ve always found that to be sort of a mystery because we all come from a tradition of ‘jam bands.' Led Zeppelin was a jam band. Jimi Hendrix was a jam band. All of your favorite classic artists, they were jam bands, you know? And that’s what we like to do. We’ve got a little bit of the jazz inclination to improvise. If people don’t like it, then that’s tough, but that’s what we do best. It does kind of turn people off that might actually like the music, and they think ‘oh, it’s a jam band,' because they just don’t like what that means. But there’s only like three jam bands in the world. I mean, there’s The Grateful Dead, and Phish, and maybe Umphrey’s McGee or something. It’s not like there’s a section of jam bands at the record store.”

It seems fans of indie and mainstream music alike need no better reasons to dismiss TLG’s entire body of work than the company they keep, the festivals they play, the city they’re from (San Francisco). To a degree, it is hard to fault them for turning a blind eye to bands in that community. Jam bands often utilize extensive improvisation (at times to the point of extreme boredom) to compensate for nonsensical lyrics, loose structure, and poor vocal quality. Tea Leaf Green uses improvisation as a compliment to their already formidable songs. Studio releases from jam bands are often insufferable, but that is not the case with Radio Tragedy, or in fact with any of their releases before it.

In essence, Tea Leaf Green is too well rounded to exist solely as a jam band, and that isn’t a slant to other jam bands so much as it is a compliment to TLG.

Yet, not only does TLG have to deal with being written off by people who would likely enjoy their music if they ever bothered with it, their own fans seem to have it out for them at times as well.

It’s a familiar story with bands like Tea Leaf Green, really. Nothing pisses off a fan of underground bands more than the prospect of commercial success for their favorite artists. It goes the same way with indie rock. If you become popular, you are no longer ‘unique’ or ‘special’ to your fans anymore. They don’t want everyone else in on it. You are theirs and theirs alone. If you make money at all, you’ve sold out. Unfortunately, this often comes at the cost of a band’s (or any artist’s) natural progression.

Thankfully, Tea Leaf Green hasn’t remained stagnant. Their new studio effort, Radio Tragedy, marks a bold new era for the band with just enough of the original Tea Leaf flavor to keep old and new fans alike craving more.

“We’ve never really (made) a record like this… We approached it song by song. We wouldn’t move on to the next song until everybody in the band was totally satisfied with what had happened. It really made it so every song was unique and gave us enough time to really think about things and come up with new sounds and new ideas for each tune. Also, we’re working with a new producer named Jeremy Black, [and] he really brought us a lot to the table with his ideas and making us think differently about the songs than we would have normally. It’s also the first record we’ve done with our newest drummer, Cochrane McMillan. So it’s really very different from anything we’ve done before, almost to the point where we could have renamed the band…but we didn’t.”

The new record is surely worthy of our time and attention, and with your help, could mark the beginning of TLG’s rise to power on the US airwaves. If you don’t make it out to their shows this summer and don’t buy the aptly named Radio Tragedy, you might just miss the boat on something truly special. | RDW

The Next American Legends?
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