When I asked Santa (Jeff Waful) for a CD with a groove to review, he responded with Calobo’s fifth record. Recorded live at Portland’s historic Crystal Ballroom on May 29 and 30, 1998 in front of an enthusiastic crowd, this CD from Padre Productions delivers the goods.
Calobo is a seven-piece band originally formed by Caleb Klauder (mandolin, acoustic guitar and vocals) and David (Hobo) Andrews (vocals/acoustic guitar) during their childhood days in Washington state. As the years passed and the duo moved to Oregon, the band has grown to include vocalist Michele Van Kleef, pianist Jenny Conlee, Brian Bucolo (drums), Nate Query (bass), and Ken Erlick (electric guitar). Although the band has expanded, the sound retains the feel of an acoustic jazz performance in a coffee house-intimate, subtle and uplifting. But make no mistake, Calobo has a groove-and it’s one that surely made the mechanical dance floor in the Crystal move on the nights of these performances.
This twelve song collection is, in a word, impressive. The recording and production is excellent, with a hint of a feedback in one spot to let you know that it was done live. Calobo’s influences include a healthy dose of jazz, classical and even bluegrass-at times sounding almost adult contemporary. The vocal work on this disc is excellent and without any apparent flaws. Andrews’ strong voice reminds me of Marc Cohn/Eddie Money/Eric Clapton, and can be compared favorably to either. Van Kleef, whether harmonizing or singing lead, is also easy on the ears and complements her counterpart very well. Musically the band is tight and successfully weave their influences and instrumentation into a coherent tapestry. The songs are well-crafted and accessible, perhaps even to a wider audience that is unfamiliar with the genre. Conlee’s key work is exceptional throughout. Although I wouldn’t call his work groundbreaking, Erlick is a capable guitarist and manages to bring the band’s sound back to the electric jamband tip amidst the piano and acoustic guitar that dominate much of the melody. On the whole, this is a quality live recording that successfully captures the magic of a band in their element. Jam music as a genre is well-served by this disc, adding yet another mixture of influences in the already complex spectrum.
“Seasons of Love” begins the disc with a James Taylor-esque acoustic riff moving into an up-tempo piece that ends with a vocal jam between Andrews and Van Kleef. “What Time is It?” is a darker jam, incorporating spoken word descriptions of the nocturnal landscape and allows Erlick some room. “Put Your Pipe Down Baby” and “Eyes of Mine” are mid-tempo dancers. “Daisy” has a bluegrass bounce with a ripping piano solo and mandolin. “Billy & Bongo Blues” is another solid mid-tempo original penned by Andrews with a prominent mandolin and harmony vocals. Without a doubt, the highlight of this disc is the trio jam of “Funkytown/Sea Journey (Chick Corea)>Old Nisqually”. “Funkytown” is (of course) funky and fun and would be a sweaty one at their live show. A two minute jam ensues before Andrews and Van Kleef take over with the vocals on the verses. They jam vocally to about the 7.5 minute mark, where the band backs off to allow Query a solid, extended bass solo over Bucolo’s syncopation. Almost four and a half minutes pass before Conlee’s piano kicks in for Corea’s “Sea Journey”. Fifteen minutes into the jam, Erlick kicks the melody down into the instrumental original “Old Nisqually”. The guitar solo eventually melds into a fast-picking mandolin groove with a piano solo, and ends with a bluegrass feel. This track epitomizes the best of what jambands, regardless of their major influences, have to offer and why this type of music is so appealing. It is a musical exploration with seamless transitions between well-crafted songs, allowing the spotlight to be passed between the performers and taking the crowd on a true journey to somewhere they have never been. This is something you just can’t get from a band playing incessant note for note copies of their four minute hits. Van Kleef’s vocals are the focus of “What Is Real”. “Pourin’ Rain” is a mid-tempo feel-good song about standing in the rain. “Mozambique” ends the disc with the uplifting feel of an organic anthem with three part harmonies and the crowd getting in on the action-clapping and singing the refrain to bring the music to a satisfying conclusion.
Calobo has got something going that you should check out. Live at the Crystal Ballroom is a disc I highly recommend, particularly if you are looking for a lighter sound mixed with the jam. Regardless, you’ll find yourself involuntarily moving around the room when it’s on. Calobo is surely a bright spot in Oregon’s musical landscape and holds the promise of an equally bright future on a grander scale.