The Gabe Dixon Band (2008)
Live At World Cafe (EP, 2005)
On A Rolling Ball (2002)
More Than It Would Seem (1999)
I can trace a lot of the bands I like back to another band. It’s often a multi-nested heirarchy of a band who opened for a band who opened for a band that I already liked. A healthy percentage of all of the bands I’ve seen live can be directly linked back to Dave Matthews Band, who was the first band to get me hooked on live music. The Gabe Dixon Band, however, first caught my ear from a TV commercial.
Formed in the halls of the University of Miami in the late ’90s, GDB were originally a 5-piece (+guitar, sax) jam/jazz/experimental band. They lost the guitarist early (too many soloists?) and recorded a brilliant independent album as a quartet in 1999 called More Than It Would Seem. They later moved to NYC and were signed to Reprise Records, who released their major label debut, On A Rolling Ball (including 8 of the 10 songs from their earlier record) in 2002, after Gabe declined the invitation of Paul McCartney to tour with him as a keyboardist (Gabe had played on Paul’s Driving Rain record and with him at the Concert For New York City following September 11). A few years later they released their Live At World Cafe EP, including the song “All Will Be Well”, which was prominently featured in the oft-recurring commercials for a new NBC TV-show called “Conviction” in 2006, and this is where I come in.
[Keep in mind, that’s a live recording (yes, it sounds that good) and a studio-shot video… which is kinda weird and lame, but what a great tune!]
NBC hyped the shit out of that show (it was yet another Law & Order spin-off) and I got to hear 30 seconds of that great song a few hundred times… until I finally went looking for its artist. It was much harder to figure out who was singing it than I would have thought, but after an extensive search-and-rescue, I finally found Gabe & the fellas. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find their back catalog filled with jazz-jam sax tunes (“All Will Be Well” is mostly drum-free and explicitly jam-free). But Chandler Webber had taken his sax and left the band before they recorded that live EP, which royally bummed me out at the time. As luck would have it, they had secured an opening slot on Marc Broussard’s spring tour of ’06 and were rolling through Philly in May (at the TLA, one of my favorite local venues), just a couple months after the debut of “Conviction”.
I was pretty psyched for that gig. I’m a fairly even-keeled kinda guy, but new music excites me, and seeing a new band for the first time, that I already know I love, puts me at a near-frenzy. Their set was semi-short, but very sweet. I didn’t even know a few of the songs but they were all fantastic. They get a little crazier on stage and really let loose; Winston was screaming furiously in a song at one point, if I recall.
I do remember being supremely wowed by their musicianship. I hadn’t bought the records until the show, so I didn’t get the full onslaught of their righteous talents until that night. I was standing in between Winston and Jano’s positions on stage (and Jano was seated facing center stage, so his left side was towards me – I got a great view of his movement on the kit). He’s one hell of a funky drummer, and it never really looked like he was even going full-bore.
Gabe was all over the piano (and organ) and Winston was mostly playing a gnarley-looking upright (electric?) bass. One hell of a good show. I bought their two CDs (at the time) before their set from a merch guy; when I went back after their set to see if I could exchange them for ones that weren’t cut-outs, Jano was working the table. They didn’t have any that weren’t (he said the label only gave them cut-outs to sell), but I got to tell Jano their set was kick-ass, so that was cool.
By the time I discovered them, they had relocated to Nashville and were in the process of working their way out of the Reprise label deal, but they were also feeling generous by offering their first independent album up as a free download on their website. The very day after I saw that first show, I snapped it up and burned myself a copy. (I would only find out recently, as in December of ’09, that there were still some for sale at CD Baby. Then I bought one – go get one before they run out!). They were still a quartet and the saxophone still featured prominently in their tunes, yet you can still see how solid the song structures were. Just because they ventured out into some jams and interludes doesn’t mean the songs meandered or were an afterthought. Gabe has always been a songsmith, but I think their virtuousity overshadowed their craft. However, they ended that record with a far-out tune called “Narcissus” that just blew my mind. To think that the same person responsible for “All Will Be Well” also wrote that? You must be crazy. Check out this live version from Austin’s South By Southwest music festival back in 2002-ish:
It’s a wicked, nutzo song. I absolutely love it, but I could see how it might confuse or confound some people. Incidentally, they left it off of their major label debut. They still play it out, though.
OK, so I got all into this band, and then I waited for new music. Or another show in Philly. I waited. A while. I wore the crap out of those CDs that I had… my then-4-year-old stepson took a liking to “More Than It Would Seem” (which is actually on all of their first 3 CDs) – especially the “just about… just about my size” part. He referred to it as “The Just About Song”. 🙂 Even the wife seemed to not complain about them as much as some other CDs that I play repeatedly, ad nauseum. And what seemed like forever really wasn’t all that long – just a couple of years. The thing is, I found out about GDB just after that live EP came out, but it had been 4 years since their last studio album, so it just seemed like it had been longer. It didn’t help that they didn’t have any Philly gigs between May of ’06 and August of ’08. It took them some time to get out of that label deal, apparently, and then finally get back into the studio to knock out a new record. That happened, THANK GOD, in late 2007, and they even blogged about the process quite a bit. One thing I figured out is that I didn’t know a whole lot about the guys or really any backstory about the band, why any of the other members left, etc. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I also enjoy knowing the details and I usually eat up any and all information about new bands that I discover, just to know all I can. I’m a curious guy. So being a fly on the wall as they were making their new record was fascinating and exhilirating… and a little frustrating, knowing it would be months before it finally hit stores. The brief time they took to record what would become their self-titled debut for Fantasy Records also scared me a little. They recorded it live on the floor, more or less, with little overdubs or extra-cirricular instrumentation – in (basically) 11 days! Whoa. I thought maybe it might end up sounding a little lightweight. Or undercooked.
Nah. Not even close. Their latest record was released in August of 2008 and it blew me away, right away. I heard a few of the songs ahead of time via MySpace or their website, live versions or demos or whatever, so I had kind of idea of what to expect. They also led the album with a quick, punchy single, “Till You’re Gone”, and a video:
[Umm… interesting video, though the non-performance footage perplexed me more than anything.]
The songs are tight and focused. Three of the songs are barely 3 minutes long! (Compare that to their last record, which had only 2 songs under 4 minutes and 7 over 5 minutes). I was not surprised but slightly disinterested in the studio versions of a few of the songs they carried over from the live EP. They’re great, but I was just SO used to them. The new tunes really kick ass. I was also used to the full-sound of GDB as a quartet, and I wasn’t sure if the trio could carry that weight in the studio, and to that I have to admit I was unnecessarily worried. They sound fully realized and well-done (i.e. not undercooked). What is simply obvious is how great the melodies are. These songs get stuck in your head, man. Great piano riffs, funky beats & fills, complimentarily sweet basslines. These guys really lock in together. The opening track, “Disappear”, takes some time to get rolling, but the coda really takes off. “Far From Home” and “Sirens” are very nice, though I wish “Sirens” had the percussive punch on the record like it does on stage. “Find My Way” is probably my favorite track; it’s a barn burner with some damn good, toe-tapping rhythm. Hell, I even like the slow songs! Gabe really hits some emotional high-notes with “Further The Sky” and “And The World Turned”, which are both just beautiful. I rarely like the slow songs. Hats off to you, gentlemen. It’s a great, great record.
I knew they were coming back through town (as the opening act, again) about a month after the release date, so I waited as patiently as I could so I could buy the CD directly from them at the show. It was kinda painful, but worth the wait. That show was fantastic… I got there early for a good spot and got some really good pictures. It was another short set, but they seemed to really win over the crowd and got a great response.
They broke out the melodica (Gabe’s playing the instrument made famous by The Hooters’ “And We Danced”) and the “shuitar” (Jano’s effed-up, percussive, shitty guitar) for an unplugged version of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” Right on.
They ended the show with Gabe coming off the piano and Jano coming off the drums, combining with Winston for a huge, rollicking crowd clap-and-sing-along. I don’t even remember what song it was; I do remember feeling fairly exhilarated.
It’s a real lesson in contrast if you compare their earlier catalog versus their newest record. Longer-form songs dominated with jams and solos and interludes mixed in. I am a huge fan of improvisational jamming over structured rhythm tracks, so I was all about it. The sax and piano sound great together and everyone in this band is a freakin’ musical genius. (Hell, Jano is a phenomenal drummer but majored in classical piano in college!) Their skills are ridiculous and it shows. They whittled themselves down to a tight trio and re-dedicated themselves to songcraft to come up with a perfect pop mixture of great melodies, great musicianship & great lyrics. I love them both and I’m not sure which I prefer. I don’t know if I would want to pick one if that meant the other would not exist. I suppose having both sides of this band is the blessing in disguise; you don’t have to pick one – you get both. And Gabe’s voice is the constant, here. I might say, if I had to choose a weak part of the band, it would be vocals. Their musical skills are just so great that you might listen to his voice and think it’s not as equally strong as their chops. His voice is smooth and subtly soulful but it doesn’t overwhelm you. But he’s got a great range and uses it quite effectively to convey feeling. He’s a great writer, even though he’s done quite a few co-writes outside of the band with everyone from Dan Wilson (of Semisonic) to Wayne Kirkpatrick (who wrote Eric Clapton’s “Change The World”). And it doesn’t seem to be anything contrived as to garner more “hits”, it just seems to be Gabe’s cooperative spirit. That’s how it works in Nashville.
What continues to confound me is how little recognition they’re getting in mainstream circles. This is super-accessible music. It’s jamming and it’s soulful, but it’s POP music. People all over the country should be loving this. In 23 reviews of their self-titled release on Amazon.com, 22 of them gave the highest possible rating. People DO love this! It just needs to be loved by more people. It should be.
In February of 2009, Gabe and the boys got SUPER generous. They decided to give back in a big way by releasing a free song download every day of the month. A few of them were standard live versions of well-known album songs, but by and large we got served a heaping helping of unreleased demos and killer live tunes. In all, I heard 13 songs that were completely new to me. And these were excellent songs! The best part was the little backstories that came with the tunes; Gabe, Jano and Winston each took a turn in talking about the songs or the times in which they were written or recorded. It was a goldmine of info nuggets and I soaked it all up. Many of them were demos they recorded shortly after becoming a trio in 2004, in a jerry-rigged studio set up in Winston’s parents’ basement in Louisville, KY. I thought just those tunes alone would have made one hell of a good album, and I immediately took the bulk of the February free songs and made a 2-CD collection of demos and live cuts. They would take a handful of those tunes and sell a “live and rare, vol. 1” CD at shows, themselves. (I bought one, of course). Even going over some of their old setlists while during research for this write-up, I found titles of at least another small handful of tunes that they were considering for the latest album. Damn, they got songs for days. It’s a little painful that some of these will probably never be heard by most people. So, here are a few of my favorites for your listening pleasure:
“Running Away From You”
“Everything I Have”
“Gotta Get Up” (live 3.16.07)
Gabe and the fellas came through town again in the spring of ’09, this time with Dave Barnes at World Cafe Live [actually they were here back in the fall with Marc Broussard, but I held back on the high ticket price; I tried to land a merch spot but didn’t get one]. They were still the opening act, but they seemed to get a little more playing time. This was also the first time I saw them where I really knew all their tunes. I was obsessed with all those unreleased songs at the time, and they went and opened with my favorite one (“Running Away From You”) right off the bat! Couldn’t believe it. That was a great, great set. People were going nuts for them, they even got a bit of a standing ovation. They broke out the melodica and shitar, again, and instead of playing “Is This Love?” (as I fully expected) they broke out an old GDB tune, “Corner Cafe”, which was lovely to hear, and I felt bad that I figured they were predictable. I think they also played an unplugged cover of The Police’s “Message in A Bottle”. They even broke out a brand-spankin’-new tune there called “Running On Fumes” and it has this great, joyous crowd sing-along part, with big “oh-OH-oh”s and stuff. Kinda hard to explain. I think it could be a major hit, but as of yet it’s just a live tune played by a band on the brink.
Check it out for yourself. Dig this live version from 3.19.09 @ Rams Head On Stage (Annapolis, MD):
(It’s an audience recording, with vocals slightly low in the mix, but it sounds pretty decent. From archive.org, by taper “su6oxone”).
At that World Cafe Live show, Gabe rattled off the possibility of playing upstairs (in the smaller room) for their own show and “playing for a couple hours”. I was totally down for that, but when they pulled into town next for their own show in May, it was at the Tin Angel (great place, but much smaller). It was a package show with 3 other artists, and when Gabe and Jano came on stage without Winston, I was quite confused. They played their whole set as a duo, with a song or two with a bass player from one of the other bands. A few songs in, Gabe finally mentioned that Winston had left the band (!?!?!) to concentrate on his own band that he formed with his wife. [What Bird]. I was devastated. They’d been together for something like 10 years and they went from a 5-piece down to now a duo. I guess the bass is the easiest part to replace, but I was still pretty bummed out. They did their best to get rowdy with just drums and keys (sometimes with Jano playing drums with one hand and his own little keyboard with the other!), and though they did play a pretty long set, it wasn’t anywhere near two hours. Ah, well. Still a great show. My wife and my man Matt from work went with me (I got him hooked from repeated CD plays at work) and we got reservations at the restaurant downstairs so we could get a good table up front for the show. We were pretty close and got to rock out just a few feet from the stage. Hell yeah!
Another thing, dig Gabe’s super long, shaggy mane… which was quite the opposite from his clean-cut look when I first heard of them. I was happy to see he got a haircut by the time of that Tin Angel show!
He also mentioned at that gig that their song “Find My Way” (my fave) was being used in a new Sandra Bullock movie called “The Proposal”, and not just in the ending credits or as a clip in some random scene… it was the opening credits song! I think he said it was the first thing you hear in the movie, and the whole song. Awesomeness. I was quite happy for them. I almost went to see that movie just to hear the song in it. Couldn’t quite stomach that thought, though. Gabe blogged about a great tour he and Jano had opening up for Loggins & Messina (he also played in their band) in the fall of ’09 and he sounded bountifully positive about the response they got from audiences on the tour. I thought they might take a break, find a bassist, and come back even more determined to conquer the world.
But now, the latest… Gabe has just announced (November 2009) that Jano has moved back to New York to be closer to family. Winston is working on his other band, but is still listed as a “member” of the GDB on their website. And the current status of the band? Gabe says they’ve “temporarily parted ways”, calling it a “period of change” for the band. I am heartbroken! But I can’t help but also be happy for him – he mentioned he’s gonna be a dad for the first time soon! Congrats, Gabe!
I sincerely hope they manage to come back together eventually in some shape or form. I know Gabe can carry on with his songs on his own or with another set of musicians, but those guys together really made something magical happen. It would be a shame that the harsh reality of an unfriendly music business would keep them apart, if indeed that is the case. They make some gorgeous music together. Thanks, guys.