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Drummer steers Rudder in a powerful direction

The New York quartet really cooks at the Baked Potato, thanks to the percussive Keith Carlock.

January 28, 2008|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

The sax was amped through a Marshall half-stack. The crowd sported some rock-dude coifs and a skull on a shirt. Today's funk-fusion ain't the same as your dad's, as Thursday's performance by Rudder at the Baked Potato testified.

But some things haven't changed. Plenty of audience dads were grandfathered in. The players represented an identifiable stripe of unkempt studio rat. Henry Hey's keyboard emulated a vintage Fender Rhodes. The poster-plastered Studio City shack itself had the same clubhouse vibe as when Larry Carlton fused there in '77.

The main difference was energy -- more stroke, less coke. Rudder came to groove hard.

Which didn't mean the New York City quartet, which has accumulated a substantial underground following in its mere three years of existence, neglected atmosphere. The stringy-haired Hey, looking like a medieval alchemist, leaked clouds of twinkling space dust when he wasn't striking the keys with constabulary authority. You never saw as many pedals in front of a saxist as the tall, grad-student-like Chris Cheek had arrayed, and he spread the effects with a modernist painterly touch, from canyon echoes to distorted clavinet imitations to acrylic-thick pitch-shifted slides.

Cheek's porterhouse tenor tone and aggressive solo jaunts stuck mostly in the deep slot of the groove, though, and so did the classic Fender bass pluck of lumberjack Tim Lefebvre, who beamed as if hit in the head with a happy brick.

Largely, though, it was Keith Carlock's show. The dark-eyed drummer belied his unhealthy complexion with an athletic assault that came off like a set-long solo. Man, he was loud. His kit nearly split under the centripetal force of his sticks, which conveyed a sense of constant motion without ever seeming busy. A colorist as well, Carlock extracted the most from his tiny set by exploiting both the centers and the edges of his drums. Especially impressive was the range he got from his snare by muffling or slapping it with his left palm; although there were spells where he concentrated on that skin alone, it sounded like nine.

Carlock's heavy foot, combined with his confrontational counter-rhythms, kept listeners' heads bobbing at the same time that they cheered his creativity. It was easy to hear why Sting, Steely Dan, Leni Stern and many more have leased his services.

The tunes from the group's new debut album, "Rudder" -- Average White Band-style funk workouts, urban soul, techno chill -- were attractive. What put Rudder in a class with fellow instrumental reinventors Medeski Martin & Wood and the Bad Plus, though, was the playing. And the sense that this is music of the now.

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