Arts Festival Review: Little Bushman
NZ International Arts Festival Review: Little BushmanReview by Tyler Hersey
Pacific Blue Festival Club
When an artist decides to leave a successful band, he often feels compelled to go as far in the opposite musical direction as possible in order to establish a new identity. Warren Maxwell’s transition from the dub/reggae sound of his wildly popular bands TrinityRoots and Fat Freddy’s Drop to the jam rock of his new outfit Little Bushman has not been without missteps. The singer and multi-instrumentalist appears so desperate to distance himself from his past that not even a hint of the reggae grooves which brought him to notoriety are served up by his new band, and he can’t seem to play a concert or give an interview these days without name checking the classic rock legends upon whose shoulders he is currently standing. And while several of his new forays into Hendrix and Zeppelin style improvisational rock are inspired, the work of Little Bushman displays only a small part of Maxwell’s musical prowess.
With less than 20 songs in their repertoire, Little Bushman resort to extended instrumental jamming to fill out their live show. And unfortunately, aside from rock solid drumming from Rick Cranson, this does not play to the band’s strengths. Apparently having tired of displaying his incredible saxophone chops with Fat Freddys and unique, layered style of rhythm guitar with TrinityRoots, Maxwell now sticks almost exclusively to the Rhodes electric piano. And while his keyboard skills have improved markedly since the first time I saw him peck out a melody at a Fat Freddys gig back in 2003, he is certainly no soloist.
Likewise, Little Bushman guitarist Joe Callwood has a growing arsenal of lead licks, yet can’t command the attention of an audience or point the band in new directions. While the group definitely builds up a big head of steam, mostly thanks to Cranson, there is no one to take the reins and lead the jams thematically. What often results is a wall of sound without focus or direction. Given a fantastic soloist, this band would be a great rhythm section. But ultimately, two hours of Little Bushman is about an hour too much at this point in the band’s career.
With four talented musicians and Maxwell’s soulful, husky vocals to lean on, the band showed great promise during the composed parts of its songs - most notably “Holy Ground” from their latest album Pendulum. Beginning with washing rolls from Cranson’s high hat and ride cymbal, the song combines all of Maxwell’s influences into a very successful whole - earthy lyrics, massive choral-style vocal harmonies, and a surging jam section anchored by a huge repeating riff in 7/4 time.
During this song and the rockabilly thump of “Nature of Man,” Maxwell achieved a synthesis of sounds and influences which was perhaps beyond the reach of TrinityRoots. Backing vocals by Lisa Tomlins on several songs provided a much needed harmonic lift to the concert, letting Maxwell’s vocal arrangements shine. And while somewhat derivative in places, the sound which the band is crafting has very interesting elements - vocal lines loop over the beat in odd ways, and there is a depth and mystery to the music which rewards repeat listening. Even when things seem a little too straightforward and perhaps a bit cliché, as on the overt Hendix homage “Mary,” the group adds strange elements which suggest an unseen world which lurks beneath the surface of each song. It’s almost like a family reunion during which everything goes smoothly until the strange cousin who nobody likes shows up and turns the whole thing on its head.
Having followed Maxwell’s work since the early days of TrinityRoots, I have been excited about each new musical venture he has embarked upon. And while Little Bushman may provide the perfect vehicle for some of the songs which he is currently writing, you can’t help but feel that this neo-classic rock is only a small part of his musical being. But he probably felt the same way about TrinityRoots and Fat Freddys at the time, so here’s to hoping that Warren Maxwell’s music, with or without Little Bushman, will continue to grow and change in the future.