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Band rising from the Dead Tea Leaf Green departs on its own long, strange journey

"Tea Leaf Green is that rare jam band that combines exceptional instrumental improvisation with genuinely good songwriting. That's an uncommon combination in the genre, and it's why they've built themselves into one of the leading young bands around."

So says Grateful Dead historian and intellectual guru of the still burgeoning jam-band scene Dennis McNally, speaking to The News while in the midst of another time 'round the horn with Bob Weir and Ratdog. (No Buffalo date on this spring tour as of yet, but that band does play Syracuse on Thursday, inside the city's Landmark Theatre.)

Tea Leaf Green couldn't hope to gain a more insightful fan than McNally; the man has chronicled the "long strange trip" of improvisational rock music from the dawn of the Dead, through the mainstream oversaturation and homogenization of the form, right through to today's revival, which finds many new bands leaving behind the more commercial "jock-rock" tendencies of groups like the Dave Matthews Band in search of a deeper connection to this elusive muse.

McNally couldn't be more right; he nails the essence of Tea Leaf Green's mystique and breaks it down into layman's language. Getting to the head of the jam-band class requires more than endless noodling and psychotropic exploration, the musical equivalent of contemplating one's navel ad infinitum. It also demands more than the slight "hippy-fication" of standard pop and rock songs, the equivalent of throwing a tie-dye on a funk-folk-popper like Jason Mraz.

No, today, you've got to meet the high instrumental virtuoso bar set by guitarist Derek Trucks, with his own band and as a member of the Allman Brothers, and marry to that craftsmanship a songwriting acumen as near to visionary as you can possibly get. Pop tunes, it has now been proven, are not the proper papers to allow your passage. To move ahead, you've got to look back further, dig deeper, get closer and closer to the core.

Which is exactly what Tea Leaf Green -- guitarist extraordinaire Josh Clark, pianist/vocalist Trevor Garrod, bassist Franz Hanzerbeak and drummer Scott Rager -- has been spending its time doing.

A little historical context is in order here. The dichotomy in jam-band music -- the dividing line few successfully straddle -- is between the "in concert" experience and the "in studio" experience.

As with all things jam, the source of the split can be pinpointed to the Grateful Dead. Although all of that band's studio albums are interesting and worth owning, only two are perfect: "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," both released in 1970, the first year of the decade that would see the band become one of the most popular touring acts on the planet.

These were both albums full of sublime songs, and the jamming was kept to an eloquent, spare minimum. Here, the Dead became songwriters -- Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter finding a tantalizing equilibrium -- and assured, intuitive players of songs. They then hit the road and stretched all of this stuff out as far as it could go, which was often incredibly thrilling for musician and audience member alike. But as far as aural documents go, in the world of recorded long-players, these two records are it; the Dead never achieved this level of sparse brilliance in the studio again.

Tea Leaf Green is much like the Dead in concert -- though the band's structures, its instrumental voices, its rhythmic qualities, are wholly its own. Songs segue into other songs, subject matter is borderless, a sense of shared journey pervades. But Tea Leaf Green has done the near impossible; it has made a jam-band masterpiece that is comprised solely of songs, tunes that could appeal to folks who blanch at dirty sandals and patchouli oil fragrances and genuinely believe a guitar solo should be no more than 15 seconds long, maximum. (Well, TLG breaks that rule, but not by all that much.)

The record is called "Taught to Be Proud," which could indeed be a reference to the band's musical elders, its teachers, so to speak. And it really does represent a new high watermark in jam-band studio recordings.

Not since the Dead's back-to-back brilliance on "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" has improvisational rock music been so brilliantly melded to a singer-songwriter ethos.

Now, of course, TLG is taking this material back to the road, where it will change, grow, shift shapes, maybe even devolve into a protean state. Who knows? That's what remains exciting about this genre of music. With "Taught to Be Proud," TLG has created a noble starting point for its journey.

Tea Leaf Green performs inside the Town Ballroom, 681 Main St., beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available now for $10, at the box office or through www.Tickets.com. Admission at the door will be $12.

-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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