Jazz-Rock Supergoup Spectrum Road Impresses at Bonnaroo

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on June 13 2012 5:41 PM
Spectrum Road
Spectrum Road impressed at Bonnaroo. Palmetto Records

The sheer glut of impressive acts at the 2012 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival might have also been one of its biggest drawbacks.

Call it a First World problem, but with so many big names playing throughout the day, fans were forced to make tough decisions and occasionally miss acts they dearly wanted to see.

One of the toughest decisions of the week came last Saturday night when Questlove's Super Jam, Alice Cooper and Spectrum Road all performed at the same time. Much of the buzz of Saturday night was about D'Angelo's first stateside performance in 12 years with SuperJam, but the jazz-rock superband Spectrum Road put on an extremely strong performance of its own.

The all-star lineup features Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana and is inspired by the Tony Williams Lifetime band. All four have some ties to that act and are deeply moved by the jazz-rock music it produced.

Spectrum Road began as a onetime performance of Tony Williams Lifetime music in 2008, before the band members decided to become more than just a tribute band and began touring.

Now the band performs more in the spirit of Tony Williams rather than simply attempting to reproduce everything he did. They played their new album in front of an intimate, yet dedicated crowd on Saturday night.

As a tribute band you want to make it sound exactly like them. That's not what we do, Vernon Reid said. We bring our own feel to it. We basically wanted to bring the content of our own lives to the music rather than trying to recreate the exact sound of that music.

It doesn't hurt that Bruce played with Lifetime in the 1970s, though. The band is able to lean on Bruce for insight into how the band did things during their heyday. Reid says it was really crucial to have Jack as part of this and that he told them about how the band worked together, including a good amount of open-ended improvising.

Bruce says that one of the biggest differences between playing for Lifetime and Spectrum Road is all of the technological improvements in music. He mostly eschews the latest and greatest new instruments -- Vernon is the gadget freak -- but the innovations in general allow them to do more.

Technologically you can be much more creative, Bruce said. I think we are taking our music another step. That's not to take anything away from Tony Williams Lifetime, as we are emulating, but it's a starting point.

The band's debut is a self-titled album that features 10 songs, including a soulful rendition of There Comes a Time that showcases Bruce's recognizable voice. The album features some quality guitar jams by Reid and Bruce, which were certainly on display for fans at Bonnaroo on Saturday night.

Ahead of the band's set, Bruce said it just wants to play whatever feels right at the time.

That's the great thing about Spectrum Road -- we could play anything and everything, he said. Usually we'll have a little talk before we go on to play and decide on some direction to go, but anything can happen.

Quite often you have no idea. We just hit it, we improvise, and that's a great thing.

Bonnaroo was just the starting point -- albeit a great one -- for the band as they get ready for a worldwide tour that includes playing the San Francisco Jazz Festival on June 16 and the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in July.

That they have even been able to put together a worldwide tour is amazing to Reid.

The fact that we are even doing this tour is so awesome because our schedules are so crazy, he said. All of us are busy with other things. I have to get started on a Living Colour record and hoping to do some other productions stuff with John (Medeski). And Jack (Bruce) always has a million irons in the fire.

Bruce says he is primarily focusing on working on Spectrum Road for the time being -- It's a very important thing to do right now -- but also is busy playing with his own band. There is also always the chance of reuniting with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker for a Cream reunion tour.

In 2010 Bruce told BBC that Cream is over after a brief reunion in 2005, but now he says more performances might be possible.

There was a plan to play next year, but I think Ginger probably screwed it up again, Bruce says with a laugh. You never know, but we had a definite plan given we are all alive, of course. But Ginger said that he screwed it up with Eric.

If it happens, it happens. I'll go along with it.

But for now your best chance to see Bruce is to take in one of Spectrum Road's performances this summer. And if Saturday's stirring performance was any indicator, fans would be foolish to not see this superband live.

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