Calm Down Cologne is the latest release from Garage A Trois, a five-song record that finds the group returning to their original lineup as a trio. The document traverses familiar topography, exploring the nascent, unicorn sound and free-wheeling intention of this colossal collaboration.
The primordial crew who gave birth to this project over 20 ago includes eight-string guitarist extraordinaire Charlie Hunter, saxophone maven Skerik, and New Orleans stalwart drummer Stanton Moore (Galactic). The configuration first coalesced while recording Moore’s 1999 debut solo LP All Kooked Out, which spilled into jam sessions that became the seminal Garage A Trois debut EP Mysterfunk. After several different incarnations and releases, followed by a half-decade of dormancy, OG GAT reassembled to perform a series of multi-night engagements in different cities in support of the new album.
A three-night run at the venerable Sweetwater Music Hall in Marin last January 20th–22nd saw the three amigos deliver six sets of Garage A Trois’ imitable sonic adventuring. This writer was lucky to experience Friday’s bridge-night affair, and rest assured it delivered the goods. No matter who’s onstage, this has always been a band bent on fearless improvisation. Yet when distilled down to the OG trifecta, a different sort of spark comes aflame. These gents wear big beaming smiles onstage, and have a certain flair for upping the ante between them. Nearly every song sees them stoking one another to higher heights and stretching toward the stratosphere, yet making it look fun, and oftentimes effortless.
The instrumentalists of GAT are unequivocally virtuosos, completely unique, inimitable players who’ve carved out their own lane in the jazz-funk jam diaspora, not to mention light-years beyond our little corner of the musical universe. The sum of these parts is a particular elixir that calls out to NOLA, Harlem, and even the Fog City here in the Bay; alas, it belongs to all of them, and yet to none as well. Despite their cheeky name and occasional stage banter muttered in something that resembles French, Garage A Trois truly is from parts unknown.
On this night, OG GAT came out of the gates with my all-time favorite song of its, “Tchfunkta”. A frenetic banger from All Kooked Out that I first fell in love with at the Saenger Theater in May of 2000, when Garage A Trois famously opened for (and some—like this writer—say upstaged) the debut performance from Oysterhead. This evening’s version was a fine natural wine, mellow yet methodical, and the swaggering groove set a proverbial tone for the festivities to come.
For two 70-minute sets. GAT oscillated between classic cuts from the seminal All Kooked Out, and the streamlined, stylistic evolution that manifests on Calm Down Cologne, interspersed with a choice cover of “Powerhouse” from local organ legend Chester Thompson. The band did not seem to be working from a preconceived setlist so much as a lengthy list of songs at their feet, yet since their improvisations were ambitious and lengthy, they only touched on a handful of the allotment. But boy did they ever make them count.
The group’s long-established kinetic chemistry would unveil itself in moments large and small. Stanton would get goin’ on the toms like a whirling dervish, whipping his co-conspirators into his frenzied swing and then downshifting gears on a dime. Skerik might let out a grindcore growl after some outer-spacial Pharoah Sanders voyaging. Hunter might go Wes Montgomery-meets-Ernest Ranglin on some opiate jazz bliss, while playing something resembling a Hammond B3 through a Leslie speaker, mind you all-at-once. Other times, Moore would uncork a neck-snappin’ DC Go-Go beat that Skerik would hop on with his patented, spastic skronk-o-phonics, arsoning a five-alarm fire in a mere matter of seconds. That’s just the kind of band we’re dealing with here. To quote the late Dennis Green: “They are who we thought they were.”
A prodigal son of the Bay Area, Charlie Hunter is nothing short of a revelation, particularly when observed from a few feet away. His diabolical wizardry on the Hybrid Big 6 ax allows him to lay down burly basslines while simultaneously playing guitar rhythms and/or leads. Once he was properly greased-up, Hunter even saw fit to bust out a 12-bar blues off the cuff, and freestyle lyrics while holding down bass and guitar. Think about that brainpower: a bassline, a guitar part, and not just singing, but making up the words on the fly. I’ve been enjoying Charlie Hunter in various combos and collectives for a quarter-century, from Natty Dread to Omaha Diner, and his pure genius continues to daze and astound.
Toward the end of Friday’s performance, GAT unspooled the brilliant “Blues for Ben”, a beloved number from the All Kooked Out palette that is, in this writer’s opinion, most emblematic of the group’s embryonic sound. The crowd may have thinned just a bit as we approached midnight in sleepy Marin, but the vibe had demonstratively thickened. For two electrifying sets, Garage A Trois held the entire room in the palm of its collective hand, sprayed us head-to-toe in Calm Down Cologne, then rolled a six-five no-jive; sending us buzzin’ and struttin’ back into the night, All Kooked Out.
Check out a full-show stream of Garage A Trois from Sweetwater Music Hall on January 21st. Scroll down to check out a gallery of images from the 20th show courtesy of Upful LIFE.
Garage A Trois – Sweetwater Music Hall – Mill Valley, CA – 1/21/22
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