What do you get when you combine a fiery singer-songwriter with roots in the San Francisco bay area with two renowned veterans on Fiddle and Steel Guitar? Wait, don’t answer yet. Throw in an original, improvisational lead guitarist and a solid rhythm section. Now add a soulfully moving female vocalist and a couple of guys to fire it up on trumpet and sax. A one night jam session, perhaps? A music festival waiting to happen?
Stir Fried is all of that and a sack of chips. Needless to say, a lineup featuring the likes of John Markowski (songwriter, vocals/guitar), Buddy Cage from New Riders of the Purple Sage on Pedal Steel, and the legendary bluegrass fiddle master Vassar Clements is going to create some original, jam-based music. What really makes Stir Fried fun is the versatility of the whole ensemble – all ten of them. Their new CD release Electrafried documents their live performances well. The album was the product of a two-night stand at the Images Club in Pearl River, N.Y. on October 4th and 5th of 1996. Electrafried contains four tracks that were written by Markowski and band as well as several carefully selected covers that match the spontaneous, flowing style of the group. It is impressive how the band can skip from one genre of music to another as seamlessly as they do. They manage to play some New Orleans jive, groovy Memphis funk, a Rolling Stones cover, and even the longtime Grateful Dead-fan favorite “Turn On Your Lovelight” all on one live CD.
Running Bear, the house PA, beckons the crowd to “Fire up those woks,” and sure enough, the band stirs it up with “Summer,” a Markowski original. Joanne Lediger provides airy, day-dreamish vocals to help set up the festive feel for the night. As an additional touch, the band chose to include the first 3 songs on track 1 as a medley, with the Funky Meter’s “Hey Pocky Way” sandwiched in between another Markowski tune, “Jones.” Listening to the first half of the album is like being at the show since you can’t jump tracks on the CD without missing the last three segments of the jam. The texture of the initial 25 minutes of Electrafried is rich with interplay first between the Jan London and Clements. As the segue progresses, the fiddle sinks underneath the jam a bit and Don and Bill Harris step to the forefront with powerful horn contributions. Overall, the experience of Stir Fried’s members comes through in the give-and-take of each jam so that no one player is overshadowed.
The folk and bluegrass roots of the band are prominent in a very interesting cover of the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards song “Dead Flowers.” Clements and Cage dance circles around the sharp and gritty vocals with what sounds like effortless precision. Much like the author of their next cover song, Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog,” the band makes it pretty clear that they are all about having a good time while they play. There’s nothing too profound about the song choice individually; it just seems to fit in perfectly with the other songs on the album, giving fans a chance to get up and groove down to the beat.
The next two tracks give the percussion and bass a chance to shine. James Alvin Harrison drops some thick bass lines in “Get the Money,” while Chris Lacinak and Vincent Lorenzo take a rhythmic, tribal turn for track 5, “Steel Cage Serenade,” a drum solo which segues into a space jam near the end. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a drums/space segment at a Grateful Dead show won’t be able to resist shakin’ his or her bones to this one. The CD ends, appropriately enough, with a stirring rendition of “Turn On Your Love Light.” Stir Fried gives this Dead standard quite a workout, with everybody chipping in their two licks worth.
The most honest reaction I had while listening to Stir Fried’s Electrafried was that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard them before. This should not be a problem for a lot of folks in the future. Stir Fried is about to go on a cross-country tour from New York to the deep South and then out West. Some dates are posted on their website but more will be added soon, both there and in our tour database. If you’re a big Vassar Clements fan, you can catch him in Nashville, TN on February 26 with the Hillbilly Funk All-Stars. He’ll be joined by Jazz is Dead keyboard player T Lavitz. That gig is at Gibson’s Café Milano. Better catch these guys soon, at the rate they’re fryin’, small club venues might not be able to take the heat.