Saturday night at Shrine, the Academy Blues Project put on a kaleidoscopically psychedelic, boisterously entertaining and sometimes LMFAO funny display of killer chops and deliciously unpredictable songwriting that spun through pretty much every good style of music from the 1970s, other than punk. The bandname is a misnomer: there’s absolutely nothing academic about them, nor are they particularly bluesy. If you’re into psychedelic rock and you’re in New York right now, they should be at the top of your bucket list along with Greek Judas.
Throughout two long sets, intros and outros constantly shifted away from whatever the song in between was. It was like Baskin-Robbins and Ben & Jerry’s combined – although it was straight-up Coffee Ice Cream that might have been the night’s best song, a biting, glittering, rhythmically tricky art-rock instrumental that recalled Nektar at their most epic, The band have a Big Lebowski fixation, and are playing a tribute to The Dude on Oct 28 at 10 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.
A raven-haired beauty at one of the front tables confided that she’d spent a good portion of her freshman year at NYU watching Gentle Giant videos with the core of the band. Which made sense – there was plenty of that band’s epically matter-of-fact, crescendoing sensibility in the songs. Peter Gabriel-era Genesis was another obvious influence, particularly in keyboardist Ben Easton’s carnivalesque neoromantic cascades, along with plenty of sly funk, eerie noir soul, balmy tropicalia and the occasional menacingly tidal organ interlude.
Guitarist/frontman Mark Levy has chops to match, shifting effortlessly through deep-sky spirals, leering Steely Dan funk, roaring four-on-the-floor Stonesy rock, a little chicken-fried southern boogie, and a gritty, hard-hitting oldschool New Orleans soul tribute to Allen Toussaint that suddenly shifted gears in midstream into a tantalizing, rhythmically tricky maze. He led the band out of a Keith Richards stadium rock stomp into a similar acid Lego passage, made latin soul and then a hammering, almost motorik drive out of a popular Disney film theme and then swung the band through Dylan’s The Man in Me, from the Big Lebowski soundtrack.
The funniest song of the night was Little Bird, Levy talking his way through a surreal encounter with a peace-loving feathered friend who hates the “human stink” of plastic and burning trash and bombs: it’s hard to think of a more gently apropos antiviolence anthem for this year.
The night’s most epic number flowed in and out of a tongue-in-cheek, mariachi-tinged surf theme that the band sped up until they’d practically brought it full circle, when doublespeed was regular speed again. It was that kind of night. Drummer Jim Bloom and bassist Trevor Brown kept a tight pulse in sync with all the crazy changes; Brown finally danced some suspenseful octaves on an intro to one of the later numbers. All of the great psychedelic bands – the Dead with Phil Lesh, Nektar with Mo Moore, the Move with Ace Kefford and then Rick Price – put the bass out front a lot, and it wouldn’t hurt for this crew to keep that tradition going.