M & M's (Medeski, Moore, Mercurio & Mali) 5.10.14

Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
Denver, CO

Words & Photos By Brad Yeakel (OptiMystic Outlooks)

I arrived at Welton Street via light rail and was anxious to reach Cervantes. The Recovery Act was in the middle of a lively funk-soul set. The band laid crunchy foundations as Lindsay French belted out vocals. I'd seen them before, but playing in the big room seemed to inject new energy. Their closing number, a cover of an obscure song, Space Capone's "I Just Want to Dance," was among the most well received songs of the whole night.

Fox Street All Stars were next on the bill, and brought their signature sound to the stage. Somewhere between the Allman Brothers and the E-street Band, their songwriting was as strong as their chops. Front man "Skippy" Hubbard was surrounded by strong players, my favorite of which was guitarist James Dumm. His solos ranged from psychedelic to aggressive, always adding to the whole. By the time the band closed their set with "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" and Pharrell's "Happy," the smiling crowd was getting anxious to see the main event.

The M&M's featured Galactic's Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio on drums and bass respectively. The duo was augmented by guitarist Papa Mali and keyboard wizard John Medeski. By the time they took the stage, the room was roasting and the crowd had packed in. As they took on jazz and funk passages, the band seemed largely relaxed. Medeski's playing was predictably phenomenal with effortless transitions, variations, and modal fluency that has earned him his jazz master reputation. I had never seen Papa Mali before, and though I knew he was in 7 Walkers with Billy Kreutzman of the Dead, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I found him to be talented, respectful of his fellow artist's space, and capable of accompanying or leading with equal ability.

As the show went on, the organ work of Medeski began to stand out more and more. I have always enjoyed watching jazz or classical musicians tackle popular music. Their insights, angles, and musical perspective have often led to remarkable performances. Collaborations such as John Scofield playing with Phil Lesh and Friends or Bela Fleck with Phish, have led to some of my favorite musical moments. Likewise, Medeski and company tearing into "Eminence Front" by The Who was a treat. Definitely my personal highlight for the evening, this version was ballsy, loud, and precise. Mali nearly recreated Townsend's monster guitar work, and Medeski nailed the keys. No surprise.

The M&M's use of an established rhythm section (Galactic's) allowed them to be more adventurous than most side project/ super groups. Their (Mercurio and Moore) pinpoint timing could have served as a backup for Boulder's NIST atomic clock. Papa Mali set his watch to their beat. He was a good listener, a skill crucial to being a good player. He was supportive, confident, and capable of following the tunes in a variety of directions. Lastly, Medeski's skill set for improvisation in jazz piano made him an ideal candidate to provide this band's luster.

This well-integrated, balanced, respectful musical relationship among an exceedingly talented set of artists was a pleasure to watch. We closed our tabs before stepping from the sweat box out into the drizzling rain. We jockeyed for real estate to snag a cab. Then, hip hop beats and a ride through the Blake Street bar circus home... just another night of sweet, sweet, music in the Mile High.



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