Holy Water Undertoe
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., October 28, 2002) – Jamming means different things to different people. In the hands of so-called jam bands, it means playing lots of long, extended solo and group instrumental passages which may or may not be improvised or related to a song’s harmonic structure. But in an older meaning of the word, jamming means musicians just getting together informally to play -- really a way to put the “play” back in playing.

A regular jam session of this old-fashioned sort has been instituted at Pittsfield’s newest nightspot at La Choza Cantina Americana, a new burrito place on McKay Street across from the parking garage in the Central Block. Sunday nights at La Choza belong to Holy Water Undertoe, a kind of regional supergroup assembled just for this venue by members of Max Creek, the Reverend Tor Band, Tamboura and the Pete Scheips Band.

The quartet, featuring keyboardist Mark Mercier, guitarist Tor Krautter, bassist Dan Broad and drummer Johnny Panchak, holds forth every Sunday night playing, well, whatever they feel like playing. This past Sunday night, this included songs by Bob Dylan and the Band, classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes and a few original songs, all tied together by the musicians’ particular sensibilities and a general willingness to share, improvise, and keep things as laid back and as funky as possible.

The group kicked the night off in a semi-acoustic format, with Krautter and Broad playing acoustic instruments and Mercier playing electric keyboard on a version of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” They took the song at an easygoing, country-funk two-step, with Mercier adding some honky-tonk elements on piano.

“Hesitation Blues,” a traditional tune perhaps most often associated with Hot Tuna, was one of several numbers that revealed the musicians’ affinity for early jazz, in this case ragtime. Broad sang a version of Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” that featured a paritcularly eloquent instrumental conversation between his bass and Panchak’s drums.

Mercier was hobbled by a severe chest cold, but he dutifully made his way through a version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right).” Krautter offered a haunting rendition of the traditional folk tune, “Pretty Peggy-O,” and also played his own “I Wish I Was a Berkshire Folksinger,” which name-checked such local celebrities as Arlo Guthrie, David Grover, Rick Tiven and the region’s premiere (and only?) pop music critic.

After intermission, the band returned with Krautter and Broad sporting electric instruments that powered a very funked-up version of The Band’s “Life Is a Carnival” and a grooving rendition of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright,” which may well have provided the genome for at least half of the jam-rock repertoire.

Holy Water Undertoe presumably doesn’t intend to break new musical ground; rather, it seems to want to take some of the technique or sensibility of jam-rock and shoehorn it into a classic-rock format. In doing this, the band utterly succeeds, and it provided an entertaining evening for the dozen or so patrons in attendance at any one time.

The subterranean venue itself has a simple, basement-coffeehouse ambience, with plenty of room for dancing should the music inspire a crowd to do so. After a month or two of experimenting with different styles of music, La Choza has settled for the time being on catering mostly to the jam-band crowd, with upcoming shows by Liquid Dead (November 1), Psychedelic Breakfast (November 7) and the Reverend Tor Band (November 15). Other upcoming shows include percussion ensemble Wakarusa led by vocalist Vikki True (November 9) and world-beat group Mamadou (November 29).

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 31, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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