By Dan Alford

Jam fans will recognize Aaron Katz as the principle songwriter and drummer for the great New Hampshire foursome Percy Hill. That quartet was part of the first generation of the late nineties’ jamband revolution, along with moe., Strangefolk and the Big Wu, among others. Aaron was behind much of the material on Percy’s Jammy-winning album Color in Bloom, and now he is out with a new band and a seemingly limitless ability to create new material. The Aaron Katz Band was formed less than a year ago and is already selling out venues such as The House of Blues in Boston. "That was a great night- a lot of new faces and also a lot of old friends. People that were Percy Hill fans, we’re seeing a lot of them." They have also toured the mid-West, continued the long standing Percy Hill-Strangefolk conspiracy by playing with both the folk and the Reid Genaur Band, and will share the stage with SKB, Soulive, Gov’t Mule and the Phil Lesh Quintet this summer as part of the Gathering of the Vibes. "We’ve opened for G. Love; we’ve opened for Pete Francis, who is the lead singer from Dispatch, and Mike Doughty, who was the lead singer for Soul Coughing, so we’ve been able to pull in some new people and some different backgrounds People in the crowd are getting more familiar with the band, with the members, with the sound of it."

Part of AKB’s broad appeal is due to the sonic versatility of the band. In a music scene where being able to play multitudinous styles is virtually a prerequisite, the five piece unit is able to commit so fully to any given approach that songs envelope the listener. They insulate you from the previous tune and the following tune, yet somehow manage to complete a natural sense of continuity. The title track of their first release Simplest Warrior is an aggressive reggae groove replete with driving bass, echoing guitar chords and a funky, rhythmic Wurlitzer. "It works out well for the title of the song because reggae music always is so simple in its form and its musical elements. There is so little going on, there is so much space, and I think that musical idea works very well to augment the lyrical idea." Aaron’s vocals call out an almost pleading "rise up" through the choruses, but growl through lines like, "People think there’s a heaven that you could end in/ But only the chosen, only Snow White’s children" The song has a presence, forcing you to pay attention, and yet the following tune, the Percy Hill standard "Aubade", is a mellow, sun shiny love song, and in moments you are lost in its smiling embrace. Guitarist Josh Pryor also plays the bass here, strutting along a line of distinct, punchy notes, while drummer Dave DiCenso (professor, Berklee College of Music, Two Ton Shoe, Duran Duran) slaps out a loose, energetic rhythm. By the end of the song, the warm glow has overwhelmed the angst of "Simplest Warrior" like a flower growing away the stone. But the warmth itself is lost within the first few seconds of the neo-dancephunk and synth bass (courtesy of Percy Hill’s John Leccesse) of "Stadium". The longest track on the disc, it features an extended jam led in turns by keyboard player, saxophonist and horn arranger Andy Gallagher on synth and Rhodes, and Josh, who uses one of his arsenal of effects to create a fuzzy foil. "Josh Pryor was always known around UNH as this great guitar god that everybody wanted to play with. But next to that, he’s also an amazing engineer and producer. He made the last Moon Boot Lover album. He’s an extremely versatile person. He’s got a lot of ideas and a lot of imagination and a lot of technical ability too."

As impressive and varied as the compositions are, they are incomplete without Aaron’s sometimes enigmatic, sometimes delicate, often biting and always clever lyrics. "That’s the way in which I write music: just sitting and experimenting with chord progressions and then creating words that sound a certain way, and then manicuring it into a meaning. It’s not the kind of thing where I’ll write words and then put music to it, or write music and then put words to it. It’s all born at the same time." There is an intelligence that pervades his songbook, from the scorned love of "Make Believe", which includes "Lady Elaine, your love has sprayed a can of mace", to the environmental warnings of "Chlorine Xmas": "At this rate my children will be skating on desert sand; turn up the air condition, break out the Evertan." And Aaron’s world is populated by a host of quirky characters whose thoughts and actions speak of human experience. There is the obsessed narrator of "Soul Sister", the businessman with reptilian hallucinations in "Faith", the drab, lifeless "Mr. Grey" and William, the "Millionth Man" who dares to ask a question. Each of these characters contains as many secrets as the denizens of Dylan’s Mobile, and in some ways speaks more clearly, with contemporary voices. There are legions of them, as Aaron is constantly producing new material. "I’ve been writing so much, there is so much new material, that we’re actually ending up doing a lot more of that [in concert] than even stuff from Simplest Warrior right now."

Yet even though the Aaron Katz Band has its sights set on the horizon with new material and new styles, it has deep roots that are constantly being nourished. Certainly there is no division between Percy Hill material and AKB material for Aaron. "Those are songs that were so important; they’re songs I’ll always want to play." The five-piece has breathed new life into songs like "Chrissy Reid", adding big jungle drums to create an edgier vibe. It has also continued to develop songs like "Ammonium Maze", a piece that has vast improvisational potential. Bassist Pat Dole is doing wonderful things with that particular song, adding imaginative fills and smoothing the tempo. The band is also capable of unearthing older, less developed material like the fluid, rambling "Masterful Reminder" or the lush and sensual "2 AM", and polishing it till it shines. "A lot of it is maturing as a musician and learning that by doing less you create a larger landscape. With Bob Marley, everything sounds so big. There’s one guy playing a cowbell once every 32 bars on the first beat, and when that does come around, it has such impact."

Of course the polish also comes from a lot of hard work. The band is continually on the road all over the East Coast, and the gig time shows. Their performances are energetic and the band, which often includes drummer Andy Herrick (Moon Boot Lover), is tight. Interplay is a constant thing, and jams are less about solos than about layering. There is something intricate, but organic about the organization and progression of tunes that allows a piece like "Faith" to swell up, seemingly out of nowhere, and knock you off your feet. "I thought about, when we were recording, how to create all these different textures through layering. I’m very influenced by Paul Simon, what he’s able to do with his bands, which is just have these different musicians, all these different layers. It just creates such a landscape. It creates depth, whereas when there is always this constant soloing going on, sometimes it doesn’t allow that sort of picture to develop." It is the balance of elements, of instrumentation and vocals, of presence and power, of humor and heartache that has allowed the Aaron Katz Band to succeed thus far, and that gives it such potential to shine in the future.

AKB will be headlining at the Middle East in Boston on May 3rd to celebrate its 10-month anniversary. For more dates and info on the band, including audio samples from Simplest Warrior, check out www.aaronzkatz.com.