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Wednesday, 07 June 2006 00:00

Sweet vinegar sounds

Written by 

By Chris Cooper

Claiming influences as far apart stylistically as Iron Maiden and Ravi Shankar, Mother Vinegar lean further toward the rocking side of the jam ethic than the majority of their tie-dyed brethren. Off kilter lyrics (understatement?) and a blatant disregard for genre boundaries are the name of the game for these guys, and thankfully their overall instrumental prowess allows them to play musical hopscotch with a minimum of skinned knees.

The band itself has a pretty impressive pedigree: each member spent time in several well-respected projects individually before coming together in 2005 as Mother Vinegar.

Notably, singer/multi-instrumentalist and ringleader Karl Engelmann is an alumnus of Ali Baba’s Tahini (with future Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger), and penned several tunes that remain part of UM’s live repertoire.

Tommy Dennison has graced just about every popular group in WNC (Zyder Zee, Oliver Soup, The Skinny) with his fluid fretwork.

Bassist Jeff Hinkle was part of “groosion” purveyors Big Block Dodge, and drummer Kevin Cassels wrote the book on Phish. Literally.

Mother Vinegar doesn’t make it easy on you, though. Once you think you’ve got a bead on what they’re doing, what their “sound” might be, they shift gears hard. Opening with the surprisingly poppy “Big Dreams,” they demonstrate a smarter ear for the song than many improvisation oriented acts. That said, guitarist Dennison does turn in a succinct, flowing solo that makes its statement without going overboard.

But then they hit the darkly swinging, mostly acoustic “Gypsum Cave,” and follow it with the twisted boogie of “Family Reunion,” with subject matter that might make you rethink just how weird YOUR last family get-together might’ve been. That is, unless your granny just happens to enjoy a rock-n-roll pole dance as much as the one in the song does. Hmmm.

It’s the instrumental “Have A Sitar” that struck me as an insight to the surprising places Mother Vinegar can really go. A trance inducing sitar, bass and drums jam, I found myself going back to it several times, enjoying the simplicity, mood and groove of the tune. With some acoustic shows coming soon, it will be interesting to see how Mother Vinegar reinterprets their mostly electric music, and if some of the elements presented in this piece play a role the direction of that interpretation.

While on the subject of “live,” it’s recommended highly to catch Mother Vinegar in the live format, especially to witness the band’s technical skill and interplay. A lot of his playing on the CD is kind of “reigned in,” so hearing guitarist Dennison rip on an extended solo gives you a much better idea of his real skills as a guitarist. Drawing on the rapid fire picking style of Steve Morse and the flowing musicality of Eric Johnson, he turns it on effortlessly whenever given the chance, providing fans of high-tech guitar with the fix they may be craving.

Front-man Engelmann is the showman, perfectly comfortable cajoling the audience or falling to his knees in the “rock god guitar solo” pose. The whacked sense of humor in his lyrics is easily mirrored in his onstage demeanor, and though he obviously doesn’t take it all terribly seriously, the music doesn’t suffer for the shenanigans.

Much like the recent Umphrey’s McGee album, Mother Vinegar’s debut is a mostly song oriented affair. By saving the all-out jamming for the live arena, they’ve constructed a collection of highly adventurous pop friendly songs that give you a glimpse of where they’ll take the tunes onstage. By no means a “reserved” listening experience, Mother Vinegar could appeal to fans of Zappa’s satirical lyrical bent as well as those that dig the instrumental skill of Phish, Widespread Panic and the like.

Skillfully played and smartly arranged, Mother Vinegar is a fine debut from a group of musicians that know exactly what they’re doing, and do it well. 4 stars.

(Chris Cooper is a guitar teacher at In Your Ear Music Emporium in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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