Bullfrog's funky party-jams
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., April 14, 2002) – Maybe it’s too much to lay on a party band like Bullfrog, but a concert at a museum like the one by the 10-year-old, Montreal-based funk outfit at Mass MoCA on Saturday night invariably provokes aesthetic questions, particularly of the contextual kind.
What does it mean when a rock band performs in a museum? Is this in itself some kind of artistic statement? Certainly the programmers at Mass MoCA are a careful, cutting-edge curatorial bunch, and a curatorial vision of sorts emerges over time through the groups the museum hand-picks to perform in its series of occasional concerts indoors and out.
There’s undoubtedly a line connecting acts as seemingly diverse as Patti Smith, Cowboy Junkies, Luna and They Might Be Giants – next up at Mass MoCA on May 11. Actually, there are several lines, but the most pertinent one for our purposes is a genealogical one, as all in one way or another trace themselves back to the pioneering art-rock band, the Velvet Underground, which got its start entertaining denizens of the art world as the house band at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Mass MoCA doesn’t have a house band – yet – but it’s intriguing to think of a concert like Saturday night’s as an audition for the slot. And Bullfrog brought several qualities one would want in a contemporary gallery or museum house band. It is a versatile, multi-cultural sextet with an eclectic palette and an equal commitment to the groove and the idea. That is to say, while Bullfrog’s party funk never strayed too far from its fundamental function – laying down the beat – there were plenty of accents, tones and colors spread on top, both musical and conceptual, to qualify as something like an artwork in progress.
Bullfrog was as much a performance collective as a band. Focus was shared among all the members, including singer/guitarist Mark Robertson, rapper James Sobers, drummer Massimo Sansalone and DJ Eric “Kid Koala” San. Different songs belonged to different members, and in some songs the focus jumped from one to the other, but not as often as one might think.
Rather than a separate DJ spinning records on the side, San functioned as a full-fledged member of the ensemble. While it remains to be seen if the turntable will ever be accorded the status of musical instrument – or deserve it – San, perhaps more than any other member, lent Bullfrog its distinctive sound, which included archly ironic spoken word passages, blasts of keyboard-like bursts, and the deep rumble of a bullfrog, all carefully inserted into the group’s arrangements with the finesse of a real instrumentalist.
In the end, however, for all the hip-hop trappings, for all the post-modern skittery eclecticism, for all the multimedia jazz pretensions, when it came down to it, Bullfrog was just another funky jam-band lacking a coherent personality or strong identity. Not that that seemed to matter a whit to the hundreds of college-age concertgoers who stood raptly throughout the 100-minute show in the Hunter Performign Arts Center. The singer summarized it best toward the end: “The party’s lasting all night long…. Take me out.”
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 16, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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