Wetlands’s basement lounge is the seventh-and-a-half floor of local clubland—and not just because of the minimal headroom and occasional sense of shuffling among the zombies. Like the Village Vanguard, or even Yankee Stadium, the lounge is less a venue than a portal leading to a certain heady consciousness. This particular pipe shoots you directly into the brain of an audience member—Gehrovich! Gehrovich! Gehrovich!—before dumping you outside the nearby Holland Tunnel hours later. The dancing tends to be a little squirrelier down here than upstairs, the vibe a tad darker. And it’s where a constantly replenished farm team of young bands sink or swim, in hopes of getting called up to the big room someday.
Still: As above, so below. I’m writing this the morning after seeing former Wetlands-fillers the Disco Biscuits play nearly four hours of the sickest improvised techno-rock ever to an ecstatic Irving Plaza crowd. I mention this not only to justify expensing my cab ride home, but to point out how the jam-band alternaverse is applying its bizarro spin to electronic dance music (although the Disco Biscuits’ name originally referred less to their beat than to their audience’s love-drug of choice). But the disco, house, techno, and dub modes the Biscuits fold into their sound are, at least as disconnected abstractions, virtually meaningless categories to the jam-band audience. Disco never sucked for jammers, hasn’t sucked in fact since the Dead started getting disco-funky with “Shakedown Street” in the late ’70s and “West LA Fadeaway” a few years later. Fast forward to 1997, when Phish break out their own circular funk, then to last year, when they unexpectedly play a frighteningly alien half-hour techno jam out of Ween’s “Roses Are Free” in Nassau Coliseum. Better late than never, the electronicat’s out of the bag, with the Biscuits the first band (except Ozric Tentacles, but they’re from England) to pick up that particular disco ball and run with it.
But even stranger dance/rock fusions are brewing down in the basement. Lake Trout, the New Deal, and Sector 9 are familiar faces in the Wetlands lounge, and while they couldn’t be more different soundwise, they share a casual look-ma-no-hands approach to integrating electronic dance tropes into the improv realm minus the safety net of sequencers and samplers. Which basically means they flourish or fail on the strength of their respective rhythm sections.
The four-to-the-floor kick drum of breakbeat house is the watermark of the New Deal, from Ontario, a keyboards-led instrumental trio whose almost wholly improvised sets recoup and revamp disco past, present, and future. With its 14 musical highlights extracted from what were obviously longer jams, This Is Live only hints at the expansiveness of a vision that owes as much to the Orb as to Medeski, Martin and Wood. Bassist Dan Kurtz and drummer/beatbox Darren Shearer share a spacious, Meters-like approach to rhythms that quicken and relax in oceanic waves of bliss. Jamie Shields morphs real-time keyboard patterns and slyly expressive Moog burbles above it all. Playing recently in the lounge, the New Deal transcended house’s repetition compulsion by ingesting the spirit of the utterly unexpected.
Lake Trout are more fish of a different color. This Baltimore quintet has a stunning drummer in Michael Lowry, who usually leads their jams by kicking the band’s limpid acid jazz (whatever that is, although you’ll also discern it in other fusion-tipped groups like Ulu, Topaz, and the Pharmacy) onto a higher plane of sizzling (real) drum ‘n’ bass in tunes like “Little Things in Different Places.” Lake Trout sometimes seem to have less fun than other bands; they possess a certain austerity, particularly when singer-guitarist Woody Ranere sings lovelorn lines like “At the end of the day, I’m still all I’ve got.” On the other hand, Volume for the Rest of It possesses a rigor you don’t often hear from jam bands, and “Sounds From Below” (“It’s about a fire in the back and bubble gum in my face/Too many white caps, empty taps, it’s a waste”) might well have been written about a certain basement.
And I’m all over Atlanta group Sector 9’s even better Interplanetary Escape Vehicle, which suggests both Phish’s deeper funk grooves and the Disco Biscuits’ airier techno jams (with David Phipps’s boogie-woogie piano style right outta Chicago house). A quintet of Mayan-codex freaks still in their early twenties, Sector 9 play fast, nimble, and otherworldly music that revs up like tightly meshed prog rock, but with nary a discouraging dick-wagging solo to be heard. The submission of individual players into the combo mind-meld has been a hallmark of psychedelic music since the San Fran ’60s, of course, but groups like these level the field even further by wading deeper and deeper into ego-free seas of sound. Which, I would suggest, is always easier to accomplish underground.
Lake Trout, Sector 9, and the New Deal play Wetlands December 16 (for free, if you email firstname.lastname@example.org). Volume for the Rest of It and Interplanetary Escape Vehicle are available from www.homegrownmusic.net; This Is Live from Amazon.com.