It’s a tricky business trying one’s hand at songwriting in the style of the Grateful Dead. Straight emulation just sounds flat-footed, and when one digs into the underlying structures of their songs it’s complicated and tangled like a piece of computer code not meant to be deciphered. To pair thoughtful, philosophical and even spiritual ideas to music that’s relevant to daily existence AND dance hall ready AND woven with curious intricacies isn’t easy. However, San Francisco’s Tracorum seem to have this crazed formula figured out based on their new studio effort Tricked, where moments feel like one’s wandered into a lost sunshine daydream from a night at the Mars Hotel. But this is no ghost dance, simply very talented dudes working with similar operating principles, a serious but not over serious approach to road ready hymns for life’s long highway.
While Garcia could have sung the living heart out of Tricked standouts like “City Lights” and “I Know A Place,” the Dead aren’t the only classic songwriters afoot in this set. “Working Man’s Groove” and several other cuts nod back to Chuck Berry and 50s foundational rock, and “Lady of the Night” and the title cut resonate with Piano Man-era Billy Joel shorn of the bombast and studio bolstering. In fact, this album is lean and clean, the quartet’s instruments and voices direct, nothing getting in the way of the tight arrangements and fundamentally great songwriting. The overall vibe bears some resemblance to Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, where high end players are serving timely, melodically graceful material that still needed to be tour ready springboards.
The envelopingly full feel of Fletcher Nielsen (keys, lead vocals), Ian Herman (drums), Mark Calderon (bass, vocals) and Derek Brooker (guitar, vocals) is a sure-fire characteristic of Tracorum’s winning live presence, and Tricked effectively translates the band’s connected energies and outreaching charm to the studio. Piano is the primary keyboard, linking this music to New Orleans in a tangible way, and Nielsen’s singing utilizes phrasing that recalls Garcia but delivered in a voice hanging somewhere between Randy Newman and Lowell George. Calderon and Herman are a song-serving rhythm team in the vein of The Section’s Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel – always tasty and tasteful but rarely interested in spotlight attention. Brooker’s lean, conversational guitar work is a far cry from Jerry (or Bobby for that matter), his compact solos recalling Robin Trower in his Procol Harum days or Journey’s Neal Schon’s 70s brilliance. It’s not overreach to drop these four in such company; there’s little question they’ve woodshedded and studied long hours, not to mention Tracorum’s many impressive marathon concerts, where they nicely inhabit a number of Dead classics that sound totally natural next to their originals.
At the bottom, Tricked is a yearning, melodic act of true bohemian patriotism, a love letter to America’s “potential for humanity to live as one” even as the tribalism and mud-slinging that denotes ‘conversation’ amongst divergent factions today reminds us – sometimes in stingingly painful, bloody ways – that “people always fight what they don’t understand.” The good news this album hints at is “where it stops no one knows,” and while the destination at the end of this puzzling journey remains uncertain there’s hope that love, connection and compassion might yet carry a few key battles.
We shot DI’s signature questionnaire to the band, and here’s what they had to say.
- 1. Great music rarely happens without…
- Fletcher: Inspiration and listening.
Mark: Now, when I read this first sentence fragment I quickly responded with “me”. And after careful consideration, I am sticking to my guns. I love to perform music more than watching. Same goes for sex. So yeah, Great music rarely happens without me.
- 2. The first album I bought was…
- Fletcher: Hard to say. There was a lot of music around me and my house growing up. I was spinning records at an early age, but I do distinctly remember purchasing David Lee Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile and some Beach Boys on cassette from Peaches Record Store.
Ian: The Sound of Music by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.
Derek: MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. Sad, I know, but the truth.
Mark: Metallica’s Master of Puppets on vinyl. Ha! All I can say is Cliff Burton. His bass melodies are gripping, and he was all in when he played live. RIP.
- 3. The last song or album to really flip my wig was…
- Fletcher: A George Jones collection. One drink, just one more, and then another. RIP, Possum.
Ian: Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussy Cat?”
Derek: Dr. Dog’s Shame Shame
Mark: John Coltrane’s Meditations and Trio of Doom.
- 4. When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be…
- Fletcher: A garbage man.
Ian: A pimp.
Derek: I wasn’t sure that I wanted to grow up. I’m still not sure I want to.
Mark: A Ninja. But I could never get my hands on any Chinese throwing stars and the sneakers with the big toe independently stitched. But really, I have been playing music since I was 5-years-old – first piano, then trumpet, then bass guitar. I always wanted to be a musician. Now, I wanna be a kid.
- 5. My favorite sort of gig is…
- Fletcher: The one I am playing and whichever one is next.
Ian: Ones with no stairs and free booze.
Derek: A dirty, nasty club that never closes and serves greasy food.
Mark: Local, something about home field advantage. I love seeing all my community, and the feeling in SF after a gig is like no other city.
- 6. One thing I wish people knew about me is…
- Fletcher: I have indeed seen the movie Fletch, so no need to ask. And yes, Fletcher is my first name!
Ian: I need a lot of sleep.
Derek: Not sure how much I want folks to know about me.
Mark: I’m private, but that does not mean I want to be alone.
- 7. I love the sound of…
- Fletcher: Thunder and lightning.
Ian: A congero slapping a tight butt
Mark: My 1969 Fender Precision Bass.
- 8. One day I hope to make an album as fantastic as…
- Fletcher: Elvis’ Blue Hawaii or Blood on the Tracks or Red Headed Stranger…and so forth
Ian: Burt Bacharach.
Derek: Any album by Dr. Dog.
Mark: Any Led Zeppelin or Zappa album.
- 9. The best meal I ever had on tour was at…
- Fletcher: Tony’s in Baton Rouge or Acme in the Metarie, LA.
Ian: Tony’s in Baton Rouge.
Derek: ACME Oyster House.
Mark: Well, it’s always different. Some bands know how to eat and some don’t. My best meals are slow, coursed out and involve a cigarette break…Oh! I remember now! My best meal was with Free Peoples in 2009 in Glacier, Washington at Milano’s. I ate the Puttanesca Linguini and we drank red wine. The food was divine, the service was all smiles. They treated us like kings. Johnny Downer and I had a cigarette break and looked at the stars, and he told me about a previous tour when the Aurora Borealis was raging and the band took an extra long break.
- 10. I always find the coolest audiences in…
- Fletcher: The most unexpected places and everywhere in the southern states.
Ian: South Africa.
Derek: The South.
Mark: SF, baby. I love you maniacs. Where’s the after party?
- 11. The worst habit I’ve picked up being on the road all the time is…
- Fletcher: Forgetting to drink water.
Ian: Chicken wings and tequila.
Derek: Not sleeping.
- 12. Led Zeppelin or Radiohead, which flips your switch the most and why?
- Fletcher: Led Zeppelin ‘cause the music is honest and timeless…but I do like that Talking Heads song a lot!
Ian: Led Zeppelin because when that dude’s not singing the band sounds incredible.
Derek: Zeppelin because of the huge kick drum sound they always managed to get on their records.
Mark: That’s like asking if I prefer knife and fork or chopsticks. I can’t eat steak with chopsticks. That’s why vegetarians like Radiohead.
- 13. The craziest thing I ever saw was…
- Fletcher: .Ha! I really don’t want to scare anyone, and there are too many to pick a “craziest ever”. Watching a friend attempt a flip off a two-story roof and into the pool but slipping and smacking both his ankles on the pool edge as he entered was pretty crazy. Never forget that sound: schmackkkkk!!!!!
Ian: Two rats fornicating on top of a bass speaker, and every time I played my kick drum they would bounce.
Derek: A vampire on St. Louis Street in New Orleans. Really. Seriously. I have seen some strange stuff, but that takes the cake.
Mark: The television broadcast of the Twin Towers bombing, over and over again.
Name: Fletcher Nielsen
Band Affiliation(s): Tracorum, Boomstank, MC Nasty Habit
Instrument(s) of choice: Piano, guitar, harmonica, and my voice
Nicknames: Fletch, George, Dairy Queen
Name: Ian Herman
Band Affiliation(s): Tracorum, Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela, Ras Domino
Instrument(s) of choice: Drums
Name: Derek Brooker
Band Affiliation(s): Tracorum, anything musical theater
Instrument(s) of choice: Most anything with strings on it, piano, clarinet, recorder
Name: Mark Anthony Calderon.
Band Affiliation(s): Tracorum, Sean Leahy Band, Kiyoshi Foster’s Animal Party, Byron Rynes’ Smokedaddies, and more and many in the past which were not built to last.
Instrument(s) of choice: Fender Precision Electric Bass
Nicknames: Calderon, Caldo, Roney, Marqinio, Dark Mark, Broke Dic Dawg, Calzone, Radioactive calls me Dr. Seuss Yo, and one best friend calls me Markus A Varcus Cookie Jarkus, or Cookie and Cook for short.