Dave Harrington’s Merry Pranksters Are Worth the Wait

June 27th, 2016

Dave Harrington’s Merry Pranksters – Rough Trade NYC – June 25, 2016

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Some things are worth waiting for: It wasn’t clear to me that people would gather in the back of Rough Trade NYC at midnight on a Saturday while Dave Harrington and his ensemble checked the sound for their set. Certainly there were other options available (including going home to bed). But we waited patiently (both beer and tacos were available) and Harrington and Co. proved to be well worth it. The band was a one-time grouping of 10 musicians called the Merry Pranksters, gathered for a night of groove-based improvisation. With two drummers, a bassist, a three-person horn section, keyboards, vibraphone and Harrington on guitar, it appeared somewhat unwieldy on the small stage. But under Harrington’s guidance, the band proved to be lithe, opening with a definitive spat of free-form space-out, the drummers quickly found a groove with bassist Spencer Zahn and everyone followed suit, including the dance-ready audience.

Harrington was as much bandleader as lead guitarist—he didn’t jump in for his first solo until 10 minutes into the first jam. The musicians were like different colored Lego pieces, Harrington reaching into the bag, grabbing one and then adding an interlocking brick to the improvised structure. The music came along in chunks of eight to 10 minutes. Deep, funky stretches dissolved into prettier melodic ambiance, which, without fail, built to some stunning, if not slightly dissonant, climaxes. In the best improv sessions, the musicians can’t fear not being perfect. And late on Saturday night, the Merry Pranksters embraced it with plenty of overlapping ideas, noise and weirdness until a breakthrough, a groove was found, and we found our boogie again.

Discord became bliss and vice versa, on repeat. A double-drum section in the middle was followed by a horn-free jam-out that somehow tied together modulated riffs from the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, Harrington at his most triumphant on guitar. The set ended with variations on Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way,” beauty and elegance turning muscular and torrential and then back. The crowd barely diminished—the music striking everyone oblivious to the hour—and chanted for an encore. Harrington obliged, returning to play a lovely solo version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s “Pure Imagination,” looping and weird and certainly worth the wait. —A. Stein | @Neddyo