A great jam band can transport you to places of musical ecstasy, their live performances becoming the stuff of legend. The long, strange trip they take you on is highly personal, and completely communal. Will Paynter’s band, Sonoma Sound, can hold their own with the best of them, musically. It’s not often you find a group of players this versatile being led by a former member of the Special Forces community.
As the story goes, Paynter saw a lot of the world as a Green Beret. Along the way he developed a deep appreciation for other cultures and musical traditions. Paynter brought that passion, and those influences, back to the civilian world and the Philly area that his band calls home. Sonoma Sound seeks to take their place in the lineage of jam bands that look to Jerry Garcia and the Dead as spiritual guides.
The playing on this record is nothing short of stunning, each member of the quintet knowing what they bring to the table and when to bring it. They move in and around each other’s space with the proficiency of the best jazz musicians, never once stepping on each other’s parts in the process.
Paynter plays bass, melodica and percussion, as well as handling the lead vocals for all twelve tracks. It becomes immediately apparent that while the band flirts with middle-eastern flavors and Latin rhythms, Reggae exerts a strong influence on the melodies, and on Paynter’s vocal phrasing.
Throughout the album, Jay Popky’s guitar, along with Paynter’s bass, and Dean Sophocles’ work on the eighty-eights, dances to the backbeat of Paul Downie’s drum kit. Popky’s guitar is subtle and sinewy, and seductive, while Paynter’s bass holds down the center, a force in its own right. Guest Jake L’Armand provides a slithery violin, at times seeming to draw on middle-eastern flourishes to add spice and color to the reggae inflected rambles.
There is a lot to like here, especially in the interplay of parts. The instincts of the band members show their appreciation for the individual while serving the vision of the group. Each band member seems to know when to come in, and when to step out, which seems to indicate these guys know each other’s strengths very well.
Standout tracks include “Natural Call Out,” a blissful, trippy, man-of-the-world musing about the beauty of nature, clearly informed by the travels of a man of who has found some peace after a life engaged in global conflict. The next track, “Motherland,” begins with bass and drum, and draws the listener in to the history of immigration and America, painting a picture of a land that was so beguiling that it changed everyone who found themselves on her shores, no matter how they got there.
Doesn’t really matter how or
Why they came
Now that they’re here
Their lives are never gonna be the same
The piano provides a tender undercurrent below the steady bass and the insistence of the violin, the guitar coming in midway in the song to provide a hint of urban tension. “Natural Man,” finds Paynter laying out his sense of where he fits in the world.
I dance when I’m happy
And I brood when I’m blue
When I’m far away from home
I’m always thinking of you
I’m a natural man
And I do what I can
The simplicity of the lyrics comes across at once resigned and philosophical, painting a portrait of a man who has seen too much, yet found a way to make his peace with the world as it is. Paynter’s spoken-word, reggae inflected tone comes off like a new set of beatitudes.
As gorgeous as this record is, there is room for improvement. The very things in the music that appeal to the listener also work against it. The need here is for diversity in a number of areas. First, as gorgeous as the music is, all twelve songs are mid-tempo spacey rambles. That is all fine and well, but the album would carry more emotional punch if there were a few rave-ups in the mix. Imagine an entire album of Dead songs with the same pace as, “Trucking” or “Casey Jones.” Now imagine an album with one of those songs followed by a rocking number like “Alabama Getaway.” You get the idea.
In the vocal department, Paynter’s spoken style of singing, coupled with the mellow global citizen lyrics, creates an engaging persona within Sonoma Sound. That becomes, by itself, both appealing and repetitious. If the band were to add another singer to contrast Paynter’s Rasta-style approach to vocals, it would create a more diverse palette and provide an internal form of yin and yang the band would benefit from. The Band had Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm each with their own distinct, yet complimentary sound. The addition of another singer would actually elevate the uniqueness of Paynter’s world-weary philosopher.
The last item on the agenda is songwriting. Again, diversity is needed here. All of the songs on the album echo the same natural man observations, with the end result being that sometimes they are enchanting, and, at other times, they unintentionally come across trite and almost self-serving. All of the songs on the album are about Paynter’s view of the world, and his place in it. There needs to be some songs about someone else, outside the narrator of the lyrics.
At the end of the day all of this is a minor tune-up compared to the opportunity Sonoma Sound has to take their already wonderful sound to the next level. This is a band you do not want to miss.