2001 - Join'n the Jam Print

The Tom Tom Club finds the jamband movement. Let there be love.

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were hurtling down the highway, packed in tight with their 18-year-old son's college belongings. En route from their hometown in Fairfield to Savannah, Ga., where their son was beginning school for art and music, the couple had, literally and figuratively, traveled a significant distance.

More than 25 years ago, they were just graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and moving to New York City, fueled by creativity and a need for musical distinction. With Weymouth's juicy upbeat bass playing and Frantz' focused, beat-savvy drumming they formed the golden rhythm section of the Talking Heads. Combined with David Byrne's lyrical genius and the group's eccentric rock identity, Talking Heads became Music 101 for subsequent jambands like Phish. Though Byrnes took a permanent solo plunge in 1995 (they'd stopped touring by early 1984), Frantz and Weymouth had always maintained a separate identity.

Their side project, the Tom Tom Club, formed in the early '80s, has steadily reinvented itself, changing members and shifting sounds with just one constant--delicious, dance-driven grooves. Worried about driving-while-talking Frantz passed the cell phone to Weymouth, whose passion for music, people and life punctuates her speech. That same passion is evident in the quality of the Tom Tom Club's sound--heavily percussive and lyrically fun. Weymouth's focus, as well as the rest of the band's, is consistently positive.

"Having learned what we've learned," she related, "we'll always be drawn toward working with positive things. Darkness does not attract us. "We're amused by it, but it doesn't attract us." Though past Tom Tom Club albums like Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom (1988) capture a bare-bones garage-quality rock essence--and an appearance by Lou Reed--the songs bear titles like "Don't Say No to Love" and "Challenge of the Love Warriors."

Even when the band shifts their focus from funk and hip-hop (in their earliest efforts) to rock, and now reggae, it is always with an ear for experimentation. Even simple lyrics and catchy hooks can not obscure the fact that the Tom Tom Club, like the Talking Heads, is an intellectually focused group. The jamband community, that collection of music-obsessed people open to just about any style (with the clarification, as long as it's good, possibly followed by dude) has always embraced the band in its various incarnations.

The Tom Tom Club was invited as the opening act of the Grateful Dead's 1988-1989 New Year's Eve extravaganza, marking one of their first successful ventures into jamband territory. In 1998, the band lent their talents to a collaborative album called Sharin' in the Groove, celebrating the music of Phish. The album's concept was a reverse-tribute in which bands who influenced Phish covered their tracks; sales benefited the Mockingbird Foundation, which supports art and music education.

Drawn to the innovation and collective energy of the growing jamband scene, Frantz and Weymouth became integrated on the local level as well, attending Gathering of the Vibes festivals in Bridgeport and befriending the open-minded music promoters at Terrapin Tapes. "When we started going to the Gathering of the Vibes, we met so many wonderful players and artists. We've got to support those kinds of artists and promoters because they're really good people who truly love the music," Weymouth said. "All the people involved are so remarkable--they really continue the legacy of the Grateful Dead."

At last August's Gathering festival in upstate New York, the Tom Tom Club finally had the opportunity to experience the diverse frenzy of fans from an onstage perspective. The group put on one of the best performances of the weekend. Mystic Bowie, their current lead singer, brought his boundless dancing, shaking dreads and deep Jamaican voice to the party onstage. In her men's-shirt-and-no-pants get-up, Weymouth was a genuine entertainer, rocking the bass without mercy alongside back-up singer Victoria Clamp, singing in pop-styled sweetness. Congas and drumbeats kept the pulsing hypno-beats flowing, and songs melted into one another, funky and bouncing until the audience became one collective swaying mass.

For the band, the experience was inspiring, especially when compared to their other summer festival experience, Moby's Area 51 in New Jersey. Initially, many band members thought that Area 51 would be the highlight of their tour experience, as the festival was touted (by MTV, that is) as the alternative to the alternative festivals featuring performers like Incubus, Outkast and, of course, Moby, the electronica godhead. Weymouth described the experience as a frightening taste of reality.

"Playing Area 51 was like playing a concrete bunker for people who were all identically dressed in mall clothes, who all watched MTV and didn't know about music unless they saw it on MTV," she said. In contrast, the Vibes became one of the band's favorite events. "At the Vibes," Weymouth related, "there was a completely diversified group of people who gave no problems to the police, were totally cool, were all ages, liked all kinds of music and were so much more interesting. The whole spirit of it was such a lift and the vibe was so positive."

The band's current album, The Good the Bad and the Funky, reflects this same good, get-down spirit. Recorded at the couple's home studio at Cock Island, Conn., each track is high on energy, designed for dancing and extremely reggae-friendly. The cover of Lee Perry's "Soul Fire" with Bowie's vocals digs deep into dub territory, and originals like "She's a Freak" and "Time to Bounce" display Frantz's and Weymouth's abilities to produce some of the most dangerously catchy songs to date.

Certainly, the album lives up to their vision, as Weymouth said, "to create something that you could put on at a party and you wouldn't have to change." Their forthcoming record will be recorded live in the same space as Tom Tom Club plays for friends and invitees. While the group takes its fun seriously, their true mission has been lending support to the creative, innovative music channels that have orchestrated their own success.

Too often, Weymouth has watched much-needed mom-and-pop stores like Secret Sounds in Bridgeport fall under, and independent promoters driven out of business by industry giants. In the jambands community, they've found a like-minded group dedicated to "what used to be alternative music," as Weymouth explained, or "anything that doesn't fit into the mainstream format."

Combating the mediocre sludge of modern music has never been easy, but the Tom Tom Club has made it a lot more enticing than watching Britney Spears dance with a snake around her neck.


- New Mass Media, Brita Brundage, September 13, 2001