Is it possible to love the way a band sounds on record and at the same time loathe its audience and the milieu it inhabits? That is the dilemma when it comes to Medeski, Martin & Wood and the reek of hippie jam band that accompanies them. So far I've been able to enjoy the music on their last few releases without pondering why the same hordes of tie-dye wearing, keg-beer guzzling, third-generation hippie wannabes who love the likes of Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, and Phish (ever notice how said jam outfits always seem to pick ugly and unappealing monikers for band names?) also show up at MM&W shows to wobble their scraggly heads while crushing plastic beer cups underfoot.
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Thankfully there are no audience shots on the cover of their new live album, Tonic, recorded at New York's Lower East Side club of the same name. Recorded with just two well-placed microphones, Tonic is a return to the band's original acoustic format of piano, bass, and drums that was made possible by the intimate nature of the club. (Tonic only holds about 150 people.) No samples, no formulaic hip-hop beats, no electric bass, no "keyboards" (continuing my grouch, I hate that term -- whatever happened to piano and organ credits on recordings?), just three acoustic instruments in a small Manhattan club. Divorced from their funky organ trio trappings and rock-festival-style audience, MM&W deliver an impressively playable set that reinvigorates the tired old piano/bass/drums approach while offering them a chance to ditch the nightmare audience quotient attracted by the funkier elements of the group's electric sound. The band does a handful of originals, but it's the cover tunes that surprise and sparkle: Lee Morgan's "Afrique," Coltrane's "Your Lady," Bud Powell's "Buster Rides Again," and even that old hoary garage/bar-band relic, "Hey Joe." Nice record, guys. In the future leave your fans at home, please.