With a sound reminiscent of Phish, Stevie Wonder and Tim McGraw, Big Leg Emma aspires to be the next great jam band, mashing together genres in order to create an album that is, as a result, overwhelming. Playing a variety of unconventional instruments such as the occasional African hand drum, audiences should expect an unorthodox show when Big Leg Emma plays the Paradise Lounge on Feb. 7 at 9 p.m.
Taking their name from a Frank Zappa song, the six-person ensemble formed in 2001 when songwriters Steve Johnson (vocals/guitar) and Charity Nurse (vocals/mandolin/djembe) met fiddler Amanda Barton through a mutual friend, according to the biography on the band’s Web site. Their musical style blends into a folky bluegrass type sound with a trace of alternative country.
Drummer Rad Akers and bassist Steve French joined the original members in April 2006 and added to the band’s jamming abilities with influences from progressive rock and hip-hop. With the addition of Steve Davis (keys/organ/vocals) in Feb. 2007, the eclectic sound of Big Leg Emma was complete. From funk to honky-tonk to jazz and blues, their sound is not easily or frequently recreated.
Their newest album, Big Leg Emma Live, consists of eight tracks that blend together in strange ways. “A Perfect World,” the lead track, starts out simply enough with guitar and fiddle but as it continues, organ and percussion start to dominate the instrumental opening. By the time the vocals begin, in three-part harmony, it is not clear which sound is supposed to be prominent. For a band that takes pride in their deep-hearted lyrics, Big Leg Emma has an odd way of showing it: Johnson may sing “If this is a perfect world, then this is a perfect song,” but sadly, neither statement is true.
The big problem on most tracks is the layering of instruments. Individually, each instrument sounds decent: Barton’s fiddle playing draws out the country elements of the music and the vocal harmonies, especially on “Someday My Ship Will Sail,” fill out the simpler instrumental rhythms of the song. But with the addition of crashing cymbals and syncopated organ, everything forms one big mound of sound that distracts the audience as opposed to capturing their attention. As much as the sound of the jam band relies on a variety of techniques and instruments, Big Leg Emma has yet to master this balance.
Big Leg Emma’s love of jamming is apparent on every track but the long songs often end up changing style halfway through, creating an uneven effect. On “The Mexican Song,” a Latin influence is added to the mix of sounds and while the song is interesting to listen to, it sounds more like “Tango: Maureen” from the musical Rent than the Grateful Dead. The more prominent guitar, in addition to the organ and fiddle, make the tune seem longer than nine minutes.
At its best, Big Leg Emma focuses on its country sound and creates an interesting blend of songs reminiscent of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.
The results are especially good when the women take the lead; on songs like “Hey Maker,” their voices blend together in the style of Alison Krauss and Natalie Merchant with a little bit more funk. Although they do not fill out the sound as completely as a group like Rusted Root, Big Leg Emma is not like any other band performing today.
A nationally touring group originating in western New York, Big Leg Emma has shared the stage with smaller groups like Old Crow Medicine Show and Donna the Buffalo as well as more widely known acts like The Gin Blossoms and Los Lobos.
Their goal is to use as many sounds as possible on a nightly basis and if this latest album is any indication, they are staying true to that statement. With their mixture of various percussion, keyboards and strings, Big Leg Emma has a diverse sound that comes across in their original compositions as well as in their cover songs. Their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” brings out the funk when it is placed in between verses of their own song “Cornfed.” The effect brings out their jamming skills and defines Big Leg Emma.
Building their sound in many different layers, Big Leg Emma will be an interesting act to see live, especially if their jamming abilities translates to personality on stage.