Bobby Vega: Stepping Out Softly. A Review.
N. G. Meriwether

Bobby Vega. Down the Road. Monterey, CA: Bean Bag Entertainment, Bean 55564, 1997. 1 compact disc, 29:27 min. With liner notes. Consists of: Elizabeth € Down the Road € Until Then € Last time € Helicopters and Small Planes € The Sensitive Chef € Lullaby for Lucy € Fabiana € Poonk € Rocco.
With Airto Moreira, Steve Kimock, the Turtle Island String Quartet (Darol Anger, Mark Summer, Danny Seidenberg, Tracy Silverman), Paul Hansen, Matthew Eakle, Dennis Harper, David Garibaldi, Michael Spiro, Pete Sears.

It's kind of appropriate that the first time my attention got called to this, it was right after I had purchased it but before I had even opened the wrapper. I was at a Zero show with my friend Xian and one of the cuts from this album came on, and for a brief moment I thought it was Blue Incantation, the Sanjay Mishra/Jerry Garcia collaboration. That didn't sound quite right, even as I said it; Down the Road has more of an acoustic, Wyndham Hill style feel and sound to it. And though I don't consider myself a big fan of that kind of music, I do like a number of their artists‹Keith Jarrett's Kö ln Concert is superb improvisation‹even if it usually isn't what I put on the stereo. For Zerofiends, however, the disc is mandatory listening. Consider it an education in Bobby's aesthetic. And what we learn is surprising.
On the whole, it's an album of soundscapes more than songs, I think: textures and moods and atmospheres are what will strike most listeners, especially at first. The songs do fulfill their obligations and several definitely linger in memory; it's just that someone used to hearing Bobby perform will find themselves wondering where the rock and roll went. Having heard a ten-minute funked-out version of the sweet little two-minute breath called "Poonck" last weekend in Sebastopol, I can sympathize. But suspend your expectations: this is a fine collection, half an hour of little gems of song poems.
I say acoustic advisedly: the liner notes state that he used his trademark '61 Fender jazz bass for nine out of the ten tracks. But Vega has always excelled at pulling a tremendous range of sounds out of that assembly-line classic, and the feel throughout is nothing so much as a quiet night of acoustic jazz at some North Bay watering hole.
"Elizabeth" leads off, setting the tone for the album. Fans will recognize the melody from Zero's Go Hear Nothin', where Bobby plays its signature descending bass riff at the end of "Straight Jackets." Playing soft and low, he makes the bass the principal melody-carrying instrument. It is rhythmic, but it's as if he conceived and wrote the melody in rhythmic terms, so that the rhythm is defined and carried by the tune. The strings take a while to get used to, especially for those people expecting a Steve Kimock and Friends' style outing, but the whole hangs together well, and Vega's bass fits right in with those liquid strings, Bobby playing as if it were an acoustic instrument, all sweet soft thumps, touches, and harmonics. The outro is especially well done, setting the tone nicely for the next song's feel.
As the title track, "Down the Road" may strike you as a surprising choice. It shouldn't‹it grows on you a great deal. By the third or fourth listening, this song will mesmerize you: the groove is so sweetly understated that it creeps up on you like sleep when you're exhausted. It's easy to imagine dancing to this; it is quintessential Zero hypnogroove material. That really would describe the production philosophy at work on the entire album: it bears as much relationship to what Bobby would do with these live that the Dead's sub-three-minute single version of "Dark Star" did to its half-hour concert appearances.
Early moments of sweetness get modulated nicely by spells of grayer moods, tapering from major to minor to ease the tension. You can see how this could be a great jam vehicle; here is perhaps the only time I got a SK&F feel, oddly enough. For many fans, the graft of rock and classical may seem strained, but it is an interesting experiment. Now, let me hear the version with Kimock and Anton ....
"Until Then" comes across as a lilting, Scottish-inflected acoustic ballad, sweet and soulful and restrained. The production works perfectly here, minimalism making the acoustic qualities breathe nicely. A big part of the feel comes from Pete Sears on the accordion, and Bobby uses an MTD acoustic bass, the only departure on the album from his beloved '61 Fender jazz. So much style and class to that battered, red-tinted classic cutaway. There's a great photo of Bobby cradling it on the back cover of the liner notes, with a priceless expression on his face‹not funny at all, just somber, serious, even reverent. When you listen to the sounds he pulls out of it on this album‹as if it were a Stradivarius bass, singing only for him‹it really does remind you of the power and vitality of American democratic artforms, from cartoons to rock, and perhaps most especially including electric guitars and basses. It's part of what makes up the bohemian aspect of American art, and precisely the part that so terrifies those boxed in by their perceptions of high art: if taken seriously, it becomes worth being taken seriously.
One of the best arrangements involving strings, "Last time" also showcases Bobby playing more aggressively. In this percussive, dissonant setting the strings sound quite good, no hint of lugubriousness. After a flashy opening it becomes a moody little meditation, a strange and quirky vehicle for Bobby's technical wizardry, with his beautifully pulled harmonics and tight funk slaps all wrapped together, bouncing back and forth with lightly strummed string sections, against a curtain of stick taps, rattles and clicks to underscore the bounce. Even an appropriate little touch of humanity at the end, with a soft little laugh and a "muy bien."
"Helicopters and Small Planes" is a good solid traditional rock tune, with the acoustic inflection of the album still somehow interwoven. Part of that is Bobby's elegiac tone, even in the hard-driving bridge; the range and subtly becomes a lot more comprehensible when you look at the dedication, to San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham, who died in a helicopter crash. A sweet and sad-tinged ballad, it encompasses a great deal of atmosphere and mood in its three-piece arrangement, Airto whirling between snares and rattles and drum taps.
The feel extends into the next tune, whimsically entitled "The Sensitive Chef." Nice, round, soulful guitar tone makes this stand out, the slightly Hawaiian feel rolling the bounce throughout, saying something very nice about this American culinary fixture (the song is dedicated to Julia Child); it just makes you wonder, why do they like her this much? "Lullaby for Lucy" takes and builds on that Hawaiian feel, with more emphasis on Airto's percussion menagerie, a full battery of chirps and roars and whispers, and such a marvelous complement to Steve's guitar atmospherics.
Perhaps the outstanding track on the album, though, is "Fabiana." Arguably the perfect distillation of the sensibility Bobby was trying to capture with the disc, "Fabiana" is supremely minimalist, and fully articulated: thoughtful, intense, light-touched, and expressive. All Bobby and Airto, it is a superb exhibition of virtuoso playing, and one of the most effective displays of combining rock and classical modes of lead and rhythm bass playing, simultaneously. Who needs guitar when you have a bass? Some fantastic runs throughout, bass dodging in and out of the percussion, weaving melody all around the rhythm; and that, too, is exquisite, built entirely of this one quirky, catholic vision of the bass's role in a small group. A glimpse of the power that electricity adds to a quartet, which is the point underscored by the shift into the heavy funk of "Poonk."
This is the album's only real sample of Bobby's funk: some good deep thunks, heavy string pops, and great interplay with Dave Garibaldi's drums and Michael Spiro's percussion. And still a place for Vega to dazzle, all nimble-fingered fleetness around the top of the neck, before a last pounding intro to "Rocco." The parallels with a jazz concept album really fall into place here, with harsh strings sawing away in the beginning giving way into some sense of ease and raunch, the bass pounding and propulsing even as it stakes out a large chunk of the melody as its own. The strings and bass fall in together briefly before getting into a back-and-forth, whipping into frenzy, up the scale and away from the melody. Especially good production here, and a very effective string arrangement‹this is one of the better uses of strings in a popular format that I've heard. All of this benefits from a fair amount of volume, however, or its nuances will wash into flatness. The little flip at the end is a quick rise, an easy gesture to bring listeners up to the surface again. It's emblematic of the album: subtle and appropriate, after an interesting dive into a world Zero fans have probably not suspected.