September 16, 2010


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Where the music meets
Spiritual Rez is all about the groove, mon
By Michael Witthaus

Start with a dose of old-school, Marley-Toots-Tosh reggae and infuse it with everything from Sun Ra Arkestra freak jazz to Steve Vai guitar pyrotechnics. Inventive intersections like these define Spiritual Rez, the Boston-based septet performing at Stone Church in Newmarket on Thursday, Sept. 16.

“It’s a melting pot left and right, a swirling vortex of music that comes together,” says the band’s drummer, Ian Miller.

“Nexus” is a word that pops up frequently in conversations with Miller. It’s the title of the latest Spiritual Rez CD, released in July. He also uses it to describe Berklee College Music, where Miller and bassist Jesse Shaternick, fresh out of high school in Hawaii, met vocalist Toft Willingham and guitar player Van Gordon Martin in 2002. “It started in the basement, in the practice spaces, freshman year, and really just melded into something where we said, we need this to be our job,” Miller says.

Such a pronouncement has inherent challenges. As he prepared to go to Berklee, Miller’s father asked if him if the six-figure cost was worth it. “I said if I have to make $100 a day and live in a shack, I want to play the drums. And I’ve lived in a shack — metaphorically and sometimes quite literally. I’m still 100 percent, and all of us are still willing to make this sacrifice to the music we love so much.”

Among the sacrifices: Miller spent the day of the interview handing out free samples of Back to Nature Cookies in downtown Boston. “We each paid our rent in one shot,” he said, “so we’re stoked and the music can take full hold.”

The music business is challenging, something Miller finds strangely appealing.

“In one sense it’s survival of the fittest, but there’s so much more music being created, and music begets music,” he said. “In my opinion there should be much more art, even if makes less money for people playing music.”

The band is currently enlisting Facebook followers to vote them onto next year’s Jam Cruise. “That’s another nexus place for us,” Miller said. “I hate to keep using that term, but people from all over go on it who are intimately involved in booking larger festivals. They’re all there, all having a great time.”

The festival circuit has been a steady source of work and inspiration, a warm-weather highlight to a schedule that averages 150 gigs a year.

“The reason we do this because people get off on it so much,” Miller said. “We work the stage and stage works us. The festival scene is perfect — instant community, instant energy. We take it to that next level of insanity.”

Willingham’s full-body dancing, coupled with Martin’s crackling, sometimes otherworldly solos, are testament to Spiritual Rez’s live performance power. The group is looking forward to the Newmarket show, Miller said. “We love the Stone Church, the energy there is incomparable,” he said. “We’ve played there for years, in and out of the management changes and ownership, but one thing remains the same: the shows there are always crazy.”

The following night, Friday, Sept. 17, Spiritual Rez will play a hometown show at Boston’s Paradise nightclub. Former Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell will join them onstage. It’s a friendship that dates back to Martin’s pre-Berklee days in his hometown of Chicago, where he was a teenage member of Bernie Worrell and the Wu Warriors. “They instantly made the connection,” Miller said. “Once you meet him, you won’t forget him.” Worrell initially sat in with them at the old Lion’s Den Club in Greenwich Village; the Paradise show will be his fourth with the band.

On stage, Spiritual Rez begins with the kernel of a song and takes it from there. Part of this stems from their jam band ethos, but mostly it’s the product of a very busy schedule. “Rehearsal is a strange thing — we don’t rehearse too much,” Miller said. “We have been more now that we have some time. In the last three years we’ve been touring so much — last year, we played 150 shows. So there’s not a lot of time to sit down and practice, which was an issue for us. Now we’re trying to do that more and more. But there’s a lot of improvisation going on. We have forms of songs and we change it around as we see fit. It’s a very jazzy thing but it happens within this crazy rock-ish reggae sound.”

Miller will probably be happy wherever it takes them.

“Personally, it’s been my dream for as long as I can remember to play in a band, do nothing but play drums and have a good time, and make other people have a good time,” he said. “Luckily we’ve been shown this project and each other, and it’s amazing. We all have such a great time.”

Spiritual Rez
Where: Stone Church, 5 Granite St., Newmarket, 292-3546
When: Thursday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10 at