Revisiting New York Jamband Legends at a Familiar Haunt

by delarue

Hazmat Modine are one of the world’s edgiest and most enduring jambands. They got their start a couple of decades ago as a darkly oldtimey-flavored New Orleans blues unit which sometimes featured instruments as diverse as the Chinese sheng – a sort of hybrid harmonica/tuba – and the lowest of all low reed instruments, the contrabass clarinet. Charismatic belter and frontman Wade Schuman plays a mean chromatic harp, but he’s also a hell of an oldtime resonator blues guitarist. In the early days, the group’s signature sound was dueling blues harps; as the years went by, they went deeper into reggae, klezmer and more electric rock sounds. They also enjoyed a more-or-less biweekly residency at Terra Blues, which lasted from the early zeros until the 2020 plandemic. The good news is that they’re back, with a gig there at a little after 7 PM on March 18. Cover is $20.

Hazmat Modine had the misfortune to release their most recent album, Box of Breath – streaming at Bandcamp – barely a couple of months before the lockdown. The big new development for the band here was the detour they’d taken into African music: Balla Kouyate’s rippling balafon is a frequent, rippling presence.

On the first track, Crust of Bread, guitarist Erik Della Penna starts out on banjitar, playing a circling Malian riff and then switches to a tantalizingly brief, careening electric solo over tuba player Joseph Daley’s energetic riffage. At the end, saxophonist Steve Elson, trumpeter Pam Fleming and trombonist Reut Regev whip up a little dixieland over drummer Tim Keiper’s spare forward drive.

The album’s title track is an older concert favorite, Schuman making his way through a litany of period-perfect 1920s blues aphorisms that start out sly and allusive and grow more somber as the band move in a more brassy direction behind him. Then they make an oldtimey, brass-fueled sway out of a Memphis soul tune in Be There, Schuman and Della Penna getting into an animated duel midway through.

Hoarder, one of Schuman’s more colorful character studies, is a launching pad for some of the band’s more vivid Rube Goldberg exchanges: somewhere there’s a great silent cartoon that deserves this music. Della Penna moves to the mic for Lonely Man, a starkly swaying Charley Patton-flavored oldtime blues tune that would fit perfectly with his other band, Kill Henry Sugar: the brass and Schuman’s expressive wah-wah harp add a brighter edge.

They slink their way into hi-de-ho tango territory dotted with vintage soul horn riffs in Get Get Out. Once again, the band built a wry lattice of riffs, this time alongside guest on Mark Stewart on idiophone, Schuman running his harp through an octave pedal for extra surreal, squiggly textures.

From there they sway into Lazy Time, another oldschool soul tune taken back to its increasingly boisterous hot 20s roots. Della Penna returns to the mic for In Our Home, a metaphorically loaded, elegantly arranged blues cautionary tale, Charlie Burnham’s viola sailing amid the spiky mix of guitar, banjitar, tuba and the horns.

Ain´t Goin That Way is the closest thing to the band’s original sound, a chromatically bristling, reverb-iced Schuman harp solo over an icepick strut, and some terse, bluesy lines from Regev. Della Pena takes to the banjitar and the mic again in Dark River, a waltz that’s the darkest and most rustic track here.

Daley hits a reggae groove in Delivery Man, a cynical political broadside with some of the album’s most memorably snarling guitar and harp work. Schuman channels his inner Louis Jordan in Extra-Deluxe-Supreme, an innuendo-laden chronicle of a late-night trip to his local bodega. They wind up the album with the loosely vamping Sound Check in China, which could be exactly that. Good to see this familiar presence still at the top of their surreal, shapeshifting game after all these years.