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On a recent Tuesday night at the Poor House, singer Jeffrey O'Connell, the soft-spoken, enigmatic, and reluctant leading force in the group, begins the band's second set with a long, low, sustained didgeridoo tone. The music slowly builds as the other players come in -- first on percussion, then adding guitars and bass. Suddenly, the music discovers a faultless groove. The whole room becomes quiet and focused, the crowd swaying, dancing. That's when Andy Martin and David Klein kick in to a traditional five-beat Middle Eastern rhythm on their djembes. Then O'Connell weaves his way into a little tone-poem, repeating the final phrase, "Don't you know we're all just a little blind, just a little blind, just a little blind." It's delivered more intensely each time until, in near-frenzy, he screams, releasing the momentum to the group, who kick into a wild, 20-minute jam before finally winding back down.
Pretty cool, but for your true transcendental listening pleasure, you really need to catch one of the group's six-hour-long overnight sessions at an outdoor festival. Even in such an expansive setting, you'd still probably just classify their electronic/trance/world-music stew as long, repetitive, Deadhead-friendly jams -- and react with either delight or revulsion, depending upon your tastes. But a broader look and longer listen will reveal plenty of subtleties for anyone with an attention span longer than the three-and-a-half minutes radio programming permits. Open your third eye and behold the influences of the mavericks of the late '50s (John Cage, Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk) who helped spawn an elite avant-garde of minimalists and experimentalists. These artists all infused their work with elements founded in ancient traditions. So when O'Connell (who usually goes by his first name only) spouts, "[Drums are] the heartbeat of the universe, and they've been around forever," his hippie-sounding sentiments actually place him in beatnik company.
In 1999, the group emerged from a series of downtown Lauderdale open-drum gatherings hosted by O'Connell. He says he established a vision for the band years before the group came together. "I wanted to find tribe, I wanted to find family and create music that you can sit at home and play a drum to," he explains. And though there are five core members in Jerrods Door, the number of actual players on stage varies from show to show. Elegant Yee San Loh often sits in with hammer dulcimer, Dana Mackay may add magical castanets, or electronic keyboard wizard Lancelot and any number of percussionists might join in. Opines O'Connell: "Instead of a mosh pit, I want a drum pit." Djembe man Martin finds that the group feeds off audience participation: "Without each other, there's not much going on."
In many ways, Jerrods Door is part of the jam-band trend, rebelling against the mainstream with long, extended pieces. Its hypnotic, otherworldly concoction draws from ancient and indigenous music from around the world. O'Connell's didgeridoo has Australian origins, and everyone grabs African and Middle Eastern drums, the rhythms of which are fused with guitar and mandolin (Chris Monteleone), bass (Kevin MacIvor), and kit drums (George Wyatt). "Psychedelic tribal music, with an emphasis on the tribal" is how O'Connell describes the group's sound. It's also jazz in terms of the improvisation; acid jazz in terms of how stretched out and chaotic JD often gets; and psychedelic in the overlapping, drippy, electronic keys and effects-enhanced guitar.
O'Connell's ethno-tribal passion and connection to ritualistic and magical components of the belief systems of ancient cultures seems utterly sincere, though a spiritual bent prompts him to speak in ponderous pronouncements. "[I] take the music with respect to its power and ability to inspire and transform," he says. "It's like plugging in, receiving information, processing it, and then giving it away." O'Connell makes his own drums and has traveled the world playing percussion. He also teaches drumming to children at the Learning Center at Mars Music in Fort Lauderdale, where he works.
Lately, JD's organic development is picking up steam. Next week, after opening for Ray Manzarek at the Culture Room, the group heads out on its third tour of the Northeast. Its second CD, Through the Door, is currently in progress at Sound Box Recording Studio (owned by Monteleone) and due out in the fall. A live release is also in the works.
Naturally, JD prefers a grassroots approach to marketing, selling CDs at live shows and through its Website (www.jerrodsdoor.com). "I wanted it to stay as natural and pure a process as possible," O'Connell says, but he admits, "If someone came along who totally understood and respected what the music is all about, then of course we would be interested." But bands that won't kiss industry ass don't necessarily jibe with the industry's mechanism of distribution, so it will be interesting to see whether JD's beat will go on or just keep going around in drum circles.