The Tea Party (In a Good Way)

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Jeff Martin rocks out in Lockport, NY

Jeff Martin rocks out in Lockport, NY (July 2011)

In the early ’90s, popular music changed directions.  The arrival of Nirvana and like-minded bands, influenced by The Clash and their punk sensibilities more than by the bombast of ’70s arena rock, essentially eliminated cock-of-the-walk attitude and preening guitar solos from popular music. The hair bands that had taken the imagery of David Bowie and the look-at-me guitar solo-driven ethos of the legendary rock-and-roll bands, bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, were no longer in vogue. Timing, they say, is everything in life, and for The Tea Party, their timing was awful with respect to the commercial zeitgeist.

Jeff Martin, Stuart Chatwood, and Jeff Burrows are a Canadian trio formed in 1990 with influences clearly rooted more with Page, Plant, and Bonham than with Strummer and Sid, and whose advent occurred just as the rock-and-roll world was moving on from epic and atmospheric towards simple and direct. Not to mention that their music was more tapestry than lithograph, and seemingly a bit complex and challenging for the average programming monkeys in radio, even under the previous programming paradigm.

In fact, they may have been the closest thing in the world at that time to a continuation of the Zeppelin oeurve, even down to Jeff Martin’s Gibson Les Paul guitar.  While they assembled a strong and passionate fan base, including a fairly significant following in Australia, they never achieved commercial success commensurate with their prodigious talent.

They went on hiatus in 2006 , but this summer reformed to play a handful of shows…including one this past week in Lockport, NY  that purportedly drew about 20,000 fans. That’s right, 20,000 people showed up in a relatively small city in Western New York to see a regionally-known band that has not released an album or toured in years.

Of course, this is slightly less surprising when one considers that The Tea Party have always excelled live, (to date a show of theirs back in the early-90s remains amongst the five best shows I have ever seen). Their mixture of haunting middle-eastern rhythms and blues-driven rock-and-roll with a touch of prog, (you do recall that Rush is Canadian, right?), are imbued with an ethereal quality by Martin’s idiosyncratic and slightly sinister-sounding vocals.  This unique combination is presented with immense musicianship and is liable to induce chills when experienced up close and personal. The trance they put me into almost 20 years ago, (wow!), outdoors on the top of a mountain just as the Sun Was Going Down, still resonates clearly.  Hopefully more tunes and touring is in the cards for this under-appreciated group. After all, with our recent musical detour into 1980’s-influenced electronica we’re likely due for another renaissance of good old rock-and-roll.

Check out a clip or two of their recent performances, including a cover of “The Messenger”, by fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.