One of the most difficult things for a live band to do on a studio recording is capture that magnificently inexpressible, intangible something keeps us coming back to show for the 2nd, and 17th and 70th times. Energy and intensity and a feeling rushing from the speakers that envelops and elevates the audience (you and me) to a place galaxies beyond the sterile trappings of a studio.
For their latest project, due out in early 1999, David Nelson and his ensemble of deft fingered veterans may have found the wormhole to bridge that space. The David Nelson Band set up shop in Oregon for a week in September, transforming a 600-seat Portland theater into a studio space large enough to comfortably give fans an insiders look at the making of Visions Under the Moon.
Nelson and his colleagues Barry Sless, electric and steel pedal guitars; Mookie Siegel, Keyboards, accordion and vocals, Bill Laymon, bass and vocals and drummers Arthur Stienhorn and Charlie Crane; have a voluminous musical history. Their collective roots are arguably more tightly entwined with The Grateful Dead than any band that is not one of its member’s other projects. In fact most come from one of those side projects. Nelson’s early 60’s bluegrass trio the Wildwood Boys, a collaboration with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, was the first in a string shared ventures between various combinations of the three. Nelson and Garcia also played together in New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. What you hear at a DNB show is that same succinct style of country rock and meandering psychedelic improvisation cultivated from a reverence of traditional American music.
It’s at once traditional and experimental, which makes DNB’s previously untested recording process so beautifully apt.
“This isn’t a regular show, “ Nelson tells the crowd. He sits, center stage, on a stool under the full brightness of the house lights. “I hope no one came expecting to see a normal show. This is going to be painful.”
It’s Sept. 11. The first of two invitation only shows to be followed on the 13th by a public show here at the Aladdin Theater is slowly rolling to its start. Steinhorn then worked his day job for the company that produces shows at this place. He’s gotten a good deal on rental for the week for what is tentatively titled “High Adventure” the bands third release. Strangely, this is the bands first “studio” effort and they’ve chosen a big hollow theater as the venue. Limited Edition (1995) and Keeper of The Key are both largely comprised of live material. The former also had three studio cuts. The later came about at the suggestion of Dick Latvala (_Dick’s Picks_.)
A heavy black curtain hangs from the theater balcony to prevent the sound from bouncing around into distortion among the room’s space and shape. During earlier sessions the band set up in a circle, everyone playing towards the center. Plexiglas and plywood constructed around both drum keeps their sound from over powering the mix.
The evening stops and starts and though it looks like a theater, it feels like a studio. The house lights never come down. Some people dance, but this isn’t a show. Silence holds the audience until a signal from the stage at the end of a song says its okay to react. Though everything sounds tight and crisp to me, some efforts make it only a couple bars before stopping to begin again. . It’s a great peek what working in the studio is – a little less glamorous and a lot more monotony than most folks would imagine.
In the lobby album producer Aaron Hurwitz (The Band) has a make-shift recording booth behind a fort made of that same heavy black curtain strung inside the theater. DNB took a liking to Hurwitz’s work on The Bands 1993 release Jericho and its 1996 CD High On the Hog while listing to them on the road. “Over the course of the past few years while driving around during tours, we have listened to the bands last few albums. We were intrigued by the possibility of getting Aaron to produce our next record. He thought he could get behind this creative venture and said he would be delighted to work with us on this project.”
Steinhorn said they were attracted both to ability of bring out the best in male vocals and to blend acoustic and electric instruments. With he and Crane drumming, DNB also noted that Hurwitz’s experience working with two drummers made him perfect for the job. On previous releases only Steinhorn was on percussion. Until the birth of his son last summer he also handled touring responsibilities. When the boys return to the road to support Visions Under the Moon next year Crane will be the man behind the kit at most shows. Now immersed in papahood,, Steinhorn has been off the road since late spring and handles much of the band’s business from Portland.
It’s a shame more people weren’t at the final show, the public performance. The opportunity doesn’t often arise to catch a top group of musicians from the cornerstone of this continually evolving scene take studio recording to a strange new place. If it succeeds in capturing that ever elusive element that draws us to live shows like RVs to Alaska, Visions Under the Moon could set a new recording standard for “jam bands.”