Featured Music: Wednesday, December 5, 2002

Nuthin’ Special calls to mind the glory days of the Grateful Dead.


I missed out on the jam band boom the first time around.

I was never a Grateful Dead fan, although as a teenager, I knew plenty of people who would travel anywhere in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to see ’em. (I did develop an affinity for the Dead’s American Beauty album when I was sick for a couple of months one winter.) But one day, my appreciation of Jerry’s Kids took an unexpected turn into the “fan” category. It was the spring of 1975, and as I was trudging up a grass-covered hill in a park in downtown Albany one morning, I came across a flatbed truck full of longhairs with guitars and drums, playing the Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” medley. In front of the stage, an assemblage of kids, tie-dyed and denimed and garlanded, was doing what rock scribe Lester Bangs called “the patented Grateful Dead ecstasy dance.” The music ebbed and flowed through endless dynamic shifts. Maybe it was the day, maybe it was the residual effects of whatever I had imbibed on the night before. Whatever it was, it made for a magical moment.

One Thursday night earlier this month, I was on my way to hear a jam band called Nuthin’ Special at Scooner’s, a college bar near TCU, when I was reminded of this Dead experience. A friend of mine had told me a few days before that this band, which has been subsisting chiefly on a monthly gig at J. Gilligan’s in Arlington (though the boys play elsewhere on occasion), had played a Ridglea Theater show that left him in awe — the musicianship was more focused and accomplished than anything he had ever seen before from a “bar band.” Now, “bar band” is not an epithet, although it’s often used as one. There’s honor to be found in slogging it out in dives, playing four sets of covers a night for chump change in front of beer drinkers who by and large aren’t there to really listen to you. Also, not all bands conform to stereotype. The thought of this show by a serious band at a frat-boy bar was altering my consciousness already.

Inside, in front of a crowd of young kids in Horned Frogs gear, the band was hitting hard in its opening slot for the Merchants, an Americana-ish new outfit powered by drummer Jason Thompson (who used to play in Smokehouse, a blues-rock bar band fronted by Sam Perez). Nuthin’ Special played an hour-and-a-half set that encompassed ska, Phish, James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” rockabilly (the original “Texas Grass”), that familiar “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” medley, and Willie Nelson — a varied program that managed not only to evoke but to transcend the musicians’ wide-ranging influences. All four bandmembers sang lead (on some songs with four verses, they each took one), and Wes Selman, John Stevens, and Don Christensen often combined their voices in three-part harmony. In the course of their hour-and-a-half set, I felt myself transported back to that hillside in Albany.

Nuthin’ Special are nothing new. You can trace their history back to 1998, when Nuthin’ Special guitarist Stevens had just taken over the guitar chair in Smokehouse, replacing Sleepy Rene, who’d just left to form Smart Like Einstein. By the time Stevens joined, the spark in Smokehouse was dying, but he was clearly a player with, uh, something special. He was still a total Stevie Ray devotee at that point, doing the little sideways dance that he probably learned from watching the Live At the El Mocambo video and wearing a golf cap instead of a Stetson. But he was a groover and a listener, a fluid player with a great touch and seemingly inexhaustible ideas, beginning to find his way beyond the limitations of SRV plagiarism.

In August 2000, Stevens was between bands when his mother asked him to put together a group to play in a bar on her birthday. He met up with Nuthin’ Special, then a three-piece of Dead/Phish-heads, and “confiscated their band” for one show. The combination clicked, and soon this new foursome was playing dates in out-of-the-way locations like Fast Freddie’s on Division Street in A-town. “We were still a blues band then,” said bassist Selman, “but really, our influences come from all over the spectrum. We kind of came together on the same page around Phish and the String Cheese Incident.” Besides those common denominators, Selman digs Les Claypool and Pink Floyd. His rhythm section teammate, drummer Eric Voss, cites influences ranging from math-rockers Helmet to bluegrass daddy Bill Monroe, while guitarist Christensen expresses a liking for jazz-funksters Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Of course, they’re all big fans of local jam bands Spoonfed Tribe and Peach Truck Republic, sometimes traveling as far as Austin and New Orleans to see them.

A couple of weeks after the Scooner’s show, on their “home turf” at J. Gilligan’s, Nuthin’ Special was even more impressive, unconcerned with the constraints of “what you can play with a rock band in a bar.” Their stage was decked out with candles and totems — a cat, a knight — and there were drums and small instruments scattered everywhere. The boys ended their first set with a Spoonfed-like drum jam and began their second with a three-song acoustic mini-set that featured Stevens on banjo and Christensen on mandolin. At one point, before Phish’s “Prince Caspian,” there was a surprising, four-part “vocal percussion” jam (imagine four Bobby McFerrins). There was even an interval when Voss left the stage and Stevens took over the drums — what Stevens called the “drummer-takes-a-leak jam.” There’s nothing self-indulgent about this band. Their playing is tight and energetic, and they make the music’s shifts and turns appear effortless. Selman and Voss provide a supple, grooving rhythm, while Stevens and Christensen have achieved a seamless blend of guitars.

The band has recorded a five-song demo of strong original material. Their current ambition: to open some shows for Spoonfed Tribe. With a couple of years of dues-paying under their belts, Nuthin’ Special is definitely ready for bigger and better things.

Does anybody have a flatbed truck I could borrow?

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