John Medeski’s Mad Skillet was born out of a late-night jam session at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2015. The instrumental quartet features expository riffs from each member, while keeping the audience off balance as to where it might go next in a given composition.
In concert with the musical unpredictability and their late-night origin, it seemed only fitting that a prolonged travel day led to a very out of the ordinary show Wednesday night in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room.
“We’re so happy to be up here playing music for you,” said a slightly incredulous Medeski from behind his keyboards after the opening tune. “It took us nine hours to get here and the last thing we wanted to do was drive all the way up here and stare at each other in the van all night.”
That commitment to get to Tahoe resulted in what amounted to a late-night start with Mad Skillet taking the stage at 11 p.m. after a pleasant, jammy set from Sacramento funk trio Big Sticky Mess, who had their own adventures to make the gig.
The wait, however, was well worth it. The band, consisting of Medeski on keyboards and melodica, Will Bernard on guitar, Kirk Joseph on sousaphone and Terence Higgins anchoring at the kit (the latter two of the famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band), took an appreciative gathering through its self-titled debut album.
While officially listed as jazz, the cacophony of textures and tones swirled together in each distinct tune also borrow from recipes of funk, rock and psychedelia. Much of what pours out of the four instruments sounds improvisational, and in the genesis likely was, but the impression of chaos is actually a finely crafted dance of cohesive variance, right down to some amazing work from Joseph pulling some amazing gooey notes from a lifetime of perfecting the uses of a sousaphone.
Bernard coaxed jazz, funk, rock, slide and bits of flittering fuzz, sometimes in the same song, throughout the evening, while Higgins cracked open a massive percussion and time-signature toolbox and showed off exotic and ever-changing ways to guide the other instruments through their own expressive portals.
Then, there’s Mad Scientist Medeski himself. Never content to simply play a note or rip through a solo and have the speed and pairing be enough, every expression has its own unique auditory signature, from spacey to wailing, or funky and playful. He’s also adept at half-notes and staccato fills that somehow all work together with the seeming incongruence flowing through his bandmates.
While it was a major pain is the ass for Mad Skillet to get here, the musical hash they cooked up was an absolute delight to those who ventured out in the snow and ice to join them for a late-night treat.
— Michael Smyth