22 July 2010
(NB: this review was originally web published 3 April 2007.)
Robert Fripp of King Crimson once made a series of analogies comparing the band and its live shows to relationships. If memory serves, King Crimson concerts were “hot dates,” while studio albums were “love letters.”
What then does one make of a live album? Is it a fond remembrance of a hot date?
And what does any of this have to do with Frogg Café?
Read on, and hopefully find enlightenment.
Frogg Café is, much like King Crimson, a band that shines in a live setting. As good as their studio albums are (and their last two releases, Creatures and Fortunate Observer of Time, are as close to “all killer no filler” as one can hope to get), the band really comes alive on stage in front of an audience. Furthermore, Frogg Café is a band that excels at intelligent improvisation; rather than amble mindlessly over a vamp, the musicians in Frogg Café are adept at taking the listener on an enjoyable and unscripted musical adventure, dropping them off pretty damned close to where they were picked up.
The Safenzee Diaries, Frogg Café’s latest release, provides ample evidence of this.
The album is not a traditional live album as such. Interleaved with a wide selection of live tracks are several studio improvisations, skillfully woven into the fabric of the album as to be nearly indistinguishable from the live tracks. From a band history standpoint, the material on The Safenzee Diaries covers nearly two years of concert material, with tracks from a variety of venues and events, including NJ Proghouse shows, NEARfest 2005, and a number of dates in the band’s Long Island back yard. As a further treat for long time Frogg Café listeners (as well as newcomers to the band), an extensive amount of new material not released on album previously is debuted on disc here, making it an essential purchase for any Frogg Café listener.
Newer tracks such as “Leave of Absinthe” and “Small Chuwawa” (which open disc one and disc 2 of this set, respectively) sit comfortably alongside Frogg Café classics like “Abyss of Dissention” and “”You’re Still Sleeping.” Despite the quantity of shows and venues from which this album was drawn, the songs flow smoothly into each other, creating a seamless listening experience that maintains the listener’s attention. The newer tracks seem to lean a little more toward a jazz feel rather than some of the heavier rock influences that drive material such as “Abyss of Dissention,” but jazz has always been a major influence in the band’s sound, and as such is not too surprising.
The band is in fine form on the 14 tracks captured here. Nick Lieto is an impressive lead vocalist, and his keyboard and brass talents are sued to excellent effect throughout. Bill Ayasse’s violin and John Lieto’s trombone help to add jazzy and organic inflections to the band’s sound, while Andy Sussman and James Guarnieri amply hold down the bottom end and rhythm section, able to drive a grove or turn on a dime and change up the beat at a moment’s notice. Steve Uh’s guitar chops add the final ingredient to the mix, easily making older tracks his own while adding his own touch on the band’s more recent material.
There can’t be a lot of complaint over track selection. The band has succeeded at balancing their more song based material with looser and improv based selections to give the new FC listener a representative taste of everything the band has to offer. It is true that I wished for a moment that they had included the emotional “Waterfall Carnival” from their NEARfest 2005 performance, which featured a reunion with former guitarist Frank Camiola, but including it would have perhaps meant one newer track would have been left off. As such, it’s a compromise I can accept.
The Safenzee Diaries is the latest in a series of incredibly strong releases from Long Island based band Frogg Café. It is an indispensable addition to the hardcore FC fan’s collection, while simultaneously being an excellent starting point for neophyte listeners.
Track listing CD 1:
Leave of Absinthe
You’re Still Sleeping
Track listing CD 2:
Fat Guys in Shirts
Abyss of Dissension
The Gold Ambler
Asleep on the Rim
Cut and Run
Nick Lieto (lead vocals, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn)
Steve Uh (guitars, violin, vocals)
Bill Ayasse (violin, mandolin, vocals, percussion)
Andrew Sussman (bass, cello, vocals)
James Guarnieri (drums and percussion)
John Lieto (trombone)