By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The minor leagues
These bands are still battling it up from the local levels and relegated to off-nights and smaller venues on the road. As such, they are an excellent bargain and may just--in a few years--bestow upon the lucky listener unlimited "I saw 'em back when..." rights.
Colonel Bruce Hampton: Currently of the Fiji Mariners, late of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, regularly thanked on the liner notes of Widespread Panic albums, Atlanta's Col. Bruce Hampton sings like Captain Beefheart and writes songs like Frank Zappa with just a dash of Spike Jones and Wild Man Fisher thrown in. With a career that stretches back to 1965, Hampton's been in more bands than some people have been in pants and was one of the first to blend performance art with rock, inventing instruments (the hecklephone, the chazoid) in order to get his musical ideas across. Another early H.O.R.D.E. act, Hampton has been a major influence on musicians in the southeastern part of the country, blending southern-fried boogie, jazz, and plain old weirdness into a surprisingly accessible--yet still challenging--whole. His extensive career is fairly well represented by several albums currently available: Fiji, by the Fiji Mariners, a band driven in part by the band's half-Fijian keyboard players' exploration of his native music, and two Capricorn releases with the A.R.U.: 1992's eponymous album and '93's Mirrors of Embarrassment. Strange Voices (Landslide) is a good sampling of his work from 1977 to 1987. For daunting oddness check out the Columbia/Legacy reissue of the Hampton Grease band's 1971 double album Music to Eat, then imagine how it went over in a year that saw Donny Osmond's "Go Away Little Girl" in the No. 1 spot (it was supposedly Columbia's second-worst-selling album ever, beaten out of the basement by a yoga record). Hampton is for the most part too weird to dance to but essential nonetheless; he'll be in Austin Thursday, December 4, at the Mercury Theatre.
Anders Osborne: This New Orleans musician may just be the next big taper hero. Schooled both in the rhythms of the town's history (Dixieland, blues, jazz) and its first pop generation (the Meters, Allen Toussaint, etc.), Osborne is equally comfortable handling the intimacy of a lone guitar or the irresistible momentum of a big, percussion-heavy rock band. He's more of a singer-songwriter and less of a rhythm-heavy dance inciter, but "Burnin' on the Inside"--off of his 1995 album Which Way to Here--moves from the ears to the feet like a lava flow. His last show at the Caravan of Dreams was amazing.
The Radiators: Another New Orleans band, the Rads got together in 1978 and got their most significant exposure to date in 1988 when the title track to Law of the Fish enjoyed a bit of radio popularity. That album--a collection of long-time live crowd pleasers like "Doctor, Doctor" and a hymn to crawdad consumption titled "Suck the Head"--was polished but true to their sweaty live shows. Since their inception, the Radiators have been the epitome of a jam band--heavy on rhythm, flying without a clearly defined set list, and a dancer's band--that toured relentlessly, particularly on the East Coast. In 1995 they released New Dark Ages, their first studio album in four years. They'll be at the House of Blues the weekend of November 21 and 22.
moe: Think of near-jazzy virtuosity saved from stern, Zappa-esque fascism by a heavy dose of NRBQ-style playfulness, and you're getting close to moe. This quartet's last Dallas appearance was an under-attended but enthusiastic barn-burner. The band can sound very Phish-y at times (check out "Rebubula" and "Spine of a Dog" off of last year's no doy, the album by which most folks know them), especially in their vocal harmonies and the complex, clockwork riff-turning, but their jazzbo soloing is held in check with a sense of crunch that might--at times--make Humble Pie proud. These "Merry Danksters" have appeared on both the Further tour and the post-tour compilation album and have a new album, She Sends Me, due out soon. Their southern tour will only bring them as close to Dallas as New Orleans, where they'll appear on November 19.
The Grapes: This band is a study in the more lyrical, on-the-wings-of-a-breeze type jam-pop: try to picture Blind Melon with a clue. The upfront piano presence recalls Bruce Hornsby. Their best-known album, 1995's Private Stock, has just been complemented by this September's Juice Live on Deep South Records.
There are a host of lesser lights amid the brighter stars of the improvisational rock universe, acts that are not quite as essential or influential but still worthy of note. Among these are the Samples; Carlos Santana; the Freddy Jones Band (not the Dallas-area jazz guys); God Street Wine; Leftover Salmon; the Dave Matthews Band; Medeski, Martin, and Wood; Rusted Root; Big Head Todd and the Monsters; and Gov't Mule.