Since the days of yore, San Francisco has been a breeding ground, a safe haven and a mecca for some of live musicís most captivating acts. Music is deeply intertwined in the culture of the Golden Gate City and is not just enjoyed, but honored by many of the locals. Seeing, playing, listening to live music is a tradition, a religion of sorts and there are many shrines in the city dedicated to the sacred pastime. One raucous example of the fruits of this cultish ritual are personified in the jokers of jam-grass fusion that are the members of Poor Manís Whiskey, sonís of San Francisco if not by birth, by adoption.
On May 8th, celebrating their 10th anniversary as a group, the quick witted, good time, hootenanny house band gave a jam packed Great American Music Hall a fiery two sets of music that spanned from the entire first set dedicated to their Old and In The Way bluegrass roots all the way to a couple of their newest, unreleased ditties. Joining the madness were very special guests Peter Rowan: the guitarist and lead singer of Old and In The Way along with String Cheese Incidentís Michael Kang: fiddler extraordinaire and one of the seven natural wonders of the live music scene.
Poor Manís Whiskey was formed in Isle Vista, California at the University of Santa Barbara in the same scene that spawned other acts including Animal Liberation Orchestra and Jack Johnson who they are still quite friendly with. They started as a jam rock band under the name Freewheeling Franklin during those years. After a break, the band eventually reconnected as a renegade string band calling themselves, for the first time, Poor Manís Whiskey, evolving over the years into a funky, soulful, grassidelic dynamo comprised of the master picker prankster duo, ringmasters and life of the party combination Eli Jebidiah and Josh Brough on guitars, banjo, piano, electric theramin, vocals and jokes. Sharing the spotlight with them is the understated and classy twang guitar hotshot Jason Beard doing musical justice to a wood grain Stratocaster and mandolin along with George Smeltz and a man simply named Aspen holding it all together on drum set and all things bass, respectively. Their music takes many forms as they glide easily between bluegrass, funk, disco and old fashioned rock and roll; often spacing out to mesh harmonious dueling leads into majestic and expressive improvised sonic odysseys. One of their specialties is a musical interpretation practice they call "Whiskifying" which entails deconstruction of a song and replacing itís parts with something else that fits, but changes, for instance, the genre of the song from psychedelic rock to bluegrass as they have done with their 2009 release of "Darkside of the Moonshine," a Pink Floyd interpretation.
In San Francisco there are few musical monuments more beautiful, more ornate or more historic than the Great American Music Hall. With itís striking opalescent, crimson columns, intimate dance floor, well placed balconies and ornate decoration, it is a magnificent offering to Apollo, Dionysus, Jerry, Jimi, and the rest of the music gods. Poor Manís Whiskey wasted no time in making tributes to those gods of bluegrass, Old and In The Way as they took the stage with Kang. Needing no introduction they fired into ĎPig in a Pen,í a traditional bluegrass cover off of Old and In The Wayís self-titled debut album. Without further adieu, the band introduced the legendary Peter Rowan who sat in with them for the next three songs: "Old and In The Way," "Panama Red" and "Wild Horses," interlacing improvisational jams throughout, connecting well with the agile Kang. Rowanís voice soared, leading the band perfectly in "Wild Horses" as I felt my heart beat solidly through my chest and goose bumps rise from my skin.
Rowan and Kang stepped off stage and the whiskey warriors continued lighting fires through the speakers as they blazed through the bluegrass drama "The Hobo Song." Slowing things down a bit, they invited Michelle Goguen to the stage for a heartfelt rendition of "Angel Band" that featured a rich, lush solo by Jebidiah. It took most of "Catfish John" to pick my jaw from the floor before the band invited Michael Kang back to the stage for the most stunning "Orange Blossom Special" that anyone has surely ever seen. Without hesitation, Kang took off in the song, shooting lightning from his fingertips as he flew through the manic Vassar Clemens riff. The band screamed into a showcase jam, pitting every member individually against Kang for a string of old fashioned duals which finally ended with Eli Jebidiah shaking his money maker among other things to control the Theramin, a double antenna sound synthesizer that seems to be powered by some sort of voodoo. As a nod to Kang and probably to the gang of eager fans dressed as buzzing bumble bees in the audience, the jam started to take form and momentarily, it found the unmistakable wail of the String Cheese Incident classic "Rivertrance." Kang thanked the band and the audience by releasing a most furious rehashing of the melody before abruptly dropping back into "Orange Blossom Special."
I was not the only person whose mind was blown. Peter Rowan returned to the stage and, taking the microphone, told Mr. Kang that he was the best fiddler heíd ever seen; from one legend, right to another. The Poor Manís Whiskey 10th anniversary celebration was shaping up to be quite a memorable event. To the cheers of the crowd, the fully billed band fired away at the twangy ballad "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy" which was followed next by the catchy, upbeat "Midnight Moonlight." The band flowed from "Midnight Moonlight" into another resoundingly Olympian jam that built layer upon layer over which Beard and Jebidiah traded molten blues licks before returning to the song and ending the first set. The room was electric.
After only a short break, Poor Man's Whiskey plus Michael Kang returned to the stage quickly resuming the bluegrass mood with the band's first original song of the evening, "Cousin Billy." I noticed a familiar face on the stage during set break setting up a guitar amp, but couldnít figure out who it was. Of course, I would found out that it was another flourishing San Francisco rock and roll luminary, Josh Clark of Tea Leaf Green. The newly amended Poor Manís Whiskey shuffled into their tune "Barfly," allowing plenty of space for a howling Clark solo on his Les Paul. Clark bid farewell to the audience and the band introduced the next song as their theme song, the wild banjo entwined jamboree "Whiskey Creek." The crowd began to let as loose as they had been all night as everyone bellowed in chorus with the band, "I ainít gonna spill my whiskey on the dancing floor!" Abruptly, they dropped into the mellow, breezy "Whiskey Sky," a feel good jam over the Allman Brotherís "Blue Sky" featuring an airy-toned, exploratory guitar meditation by Beard on his Strat. Locking in on a melody, Jebidiah joined in on his custom sunshine-mural embellished Taylor acoustic in an Allman-esque dual guitar harmony, paying homage to another one of their deepest musical roots and leading wanting ears to a "Jessica" jam featuring solos on the piano by Brough and on the acoustic guitar by Jebidiah before crashing back into "Whiskey Creek." It was most definitely the peak of the evening; and the audience erupted into applause.
Brough dedicated the next song to all of the mothers in the audience for the next dayís Motherís Day celebrations and then took it south of the border for a poppy latin number called "Mango." Brough, Jebidah and Beard all have albums coming out soon, so, they decided to play a number that Brough wrote for his called "Sierra Girl," before inviting Kang back out on the stage for another tune that Brough had written about the life of his grandfather called "Whiskey In Heaven." Reviving the pace, they jumped into a dynamic bluegrass/folk medley instrumental jam featuring a stirring, celestial electric banjo solo by Eli Jebidiah and another invigorating guitar solo by Jason Beard. To cap off the set, Michael Kang returned with his fiddle of gold and the band rocked through an "Old Joe"/ "Up On Cripple Creek" medley.
The audience gave the members of Poor Manís Whiskey loud acclaim, calling for more as the whole crew, minus the aged Peter Rowan returned to the stage to play an acoustic "Ripple;" a praise to the saintly guitar toting, banjo picking man who wrote it: Jerry Garcia. There was not a voice in that room that wasnít crooning along. The connection made in that moment was so great that nobody was ready to leave after the stage was cleared. For a moment, there was only golden silence filling the Great American as the audience processed what they had just seen.
As for Poor Manís Whiskey, theywill return to High Sierra Music Festival for itís 20th anniversary celebration this summer as well as many other excellent adventures that are in the works. I was able to catch up with Eli Jebidiah on the phone before the concert. He talked with me about High Sierra, the origins of Poor Manís Whiskey, their connection to Old and In The Way, touring and much, much more in the two part audio discussion only here on Kindweb.com. For further information about the band, check out Ďwww.poormanswhiskey.comí.