Opinions don't get much more divided than those among the patrons who caught the Tumbling Dice show on July 17 at Stephen Talkhouse. People marched out in disgust. People cheered for three hours and begged for encores. It was that kind of night.
The all-star band didn't exactly endear itself to the audience by taking the stage an hour and a half late, then opening with three lackluster songs in a row. Mick Taylor warbled most of the vocals on the opening tunes. With all due respect to the venerable slide-guitar master who replaced Brian Jones and was himself succeeded by Ron Wood in the greatest rock-and-roll band of all time, the Stones were wise to leave the singing to the other Mick. Taylor's voice won't ever make him rich.
But Tumbling Dice doesn't need to place a "vocalist wanted" ad in the "Musician's Billboard" section of the paper. They've already got a member who can sing. Ivan Neville, Aaron's son and a hell of a player in his own right, is an incredible crooner. Ironically, the younger Neville's raspy baritone has little in common with his father's piercing tenor -- other than the fact that they are each plaintive, galvanizing instruments. Ivan sings in the registers of a stone drunk, with all the earthy funk and complicitous carnality of a lost weekend in the Big Easy. If Tumbling Dice was really concerned about sounding its best, Ivan would be carrying the vocal load on every song.
A jam is a jam is a jam. Tumbling Dice's performance was not about tight material well rendered. It was about letting the big dogs eat, showcasing Taylor's tasty picking and slide solos, Bobby Keys's grease 'n' grit sax runs, and Neville's wildly original keyboard work. Fellow musicians in attendance were, no doubt, suitably impressed. But for the average schmo who came to hear a real band, with expectations heightened to match the pedigrees of the players, Tumbling Dice must have been a letdown. The setlist consisted almost entirely of blues-rock standards, with only a sprinkling of Stones tunes (which, not surprisingly, received the most enthusiastic crowd response). It was a glorified jam session, albeit one with more musical highlights than your typical Thursday night at the Brickell Tavern.
Curiously enough, Calvin "Fuzzy" Samuels, a last-minute addition to the Tumbling Dice lineup who played bass with Stephen Stills's short-lived band, Manassas, provided much of the evening's spark. Samuels, who was a frequent presence at blues jams around town before moving to Ohio with his wife a year ago, more than held his own with the rock demigods surrounding him, and was the only member of the band not discombobulated at one time or another by Neville's offbeat timing. It's not that he upstaged his better-known colleagues -- each musician had his moments but Samuels was efinitely the guy who seemed to be having the most fun on-stage.
And everyone knows that having fun is what jam sessions are all about.