By Jeffrey V. Smith
Sometimes life gets in the way of a good thing. Sometimes it’s just a snowbank. One of the most diverse, multi-dimensional and accomplished acts to fall under the jam-band umbrella unexpectedly brought more than a decade of heavy touring to a stop following an incident with black ice in 2010. Fans were shattered and left to experience their favorite band by downloading recordings of its nearly 1,000 live performances.
Garaj Mahal is now reuniting with its longest-running line-up—Kai Eckhardt on bass, Alan Hertz on drums, Fareed Haque on guitar and Eric Levy on keys—for the first time since 2011 for a one-off, three-day Colorado run including a night at the Caribou Room, 55 Indian Peaks Dr. in Nederland, May 12 at 9 p.m. Progressive jam band Genetics opens the show. Tickets are $22 plus fees.
The end of the band’s touring days came as a surprise to everyone. “In 2007, we became victim of the financial crisis in the U.S. Guarantees turned into door deals, which made touring at a loss dangerously possible,” Eckhardt explained. “Then we ditched our touring van into a snowbank near Ymir, BC in the Canadian wilderness. We slid out on black ice. That was the end of the band.”
At that time Eckhardt had assumed control of the band’s business and had “considerable” debt to settle. “I borrowed money and floated the debt until the band had paid for itself from royalties from Harmonized Records. It took about five years. During those dues paying days, there was no playing. Garaj was down to one member. Now we are back in the black.”
Thanks to some dedicated and “loyal” fans who “demanded a comeback,” most of the band came together “against all odds” for an “unlikely reunion” at a Canadian festival last summer. “To our surprise everyone was in great musical shape thanks to all of us diversifying our musical background with many projects, both national and international while on hiatus,” Eckhardt said.
Band members “managed to put the past behind them” and played five sets at the event. Levy was unable to attend due to obligations with Night Ranger, a band he joined in 2011 soon after Garaj Mahal stopped touring. “It was great to play again with Garaj Mahal. There is a high level of musicianship that’s hard to find in a collective. Ten years of touring also created this family of friends, fans and supporters. It is like reconnecting to one’s own history,” Eckhardt explained.
“Garaj Mahal has always been about pushing the envelope of musicianship. Everyone in this band brought unique spirit and energy to the Garaj. Most valuable is the concept of a band where nobody is the leader and everybody can alternate in taking on leadership. That is Garaj Mahal. It’s the hardest path, but also the most rewarding in terms of a personal learning experience.”
When the band came together, it was a super-group of sorts. As Eckhardt explained, “Hertz has Grateful dead roots via KVHW with [Steve] Kimmock, who played with Jerry Garcia. Levy has Chicago gospel roots. Fareed came out of the Zawinul Syndicate. Joe Zawinul played keyboards in Miles Davis’ band. I came out of the John McLaughlin trio. McLaughlin played guitar on Bitches Brew,which is again Miles Davis.”
Despite their musical pedigrees, Eckhardt warns about expecting a certain sound based on their backgrounds. “Take this with a grain of salt,” he said. “Despite the intellectual nature of some of this musical lineage, we are about the groove,” Eckhardt said. “We all love the funk. The funk is what unites us. Garaj Mahal is a special kind of funk that can sit on a pocket for a very long time. And then, every once in a while, it explodes.”
These “explosions,” and high level of musicianship, are why the band’s work has remained popular and stood the test of time. “We worked insanely hard and toured a lot back in those days. We documented plenty of music. I don’t take for granted that people remember us,” Eckhardt said.
The other component is the tapers. “We have over two million downloads of our live shows from archive.org. I used to feel terrible realizing I had given away all my music for free. But, apparently, there is a redeeming value. It took seven years to grow in our absence.”
The current Colorado revival of Garaj Mahal was made possible by the band’s U.S. fan base and promoters in the state “who kept the flame alive,” according to Eckhardt. “We have deep history with Colorado. Jay Bianchi’s venues in Denver were home for us. Quixote’s, Dulcinea’s, Cervantes were all places we played repeatedly,” he said. “We also played in Nederland… back in the day. It was the Caribou Room in Nederland that reached out to us first for a reunion in the U.S. Jay followed up with an offer for two nights in Denver and the U.S. reunion was ready to go. We are extremely psyched to come to Colorado to meet our old and new fans and friends alike. Special thanks to Genetics for sharing their gear and fans and space and love for the music.”
Fans know to expect the unexpected when it comes to Garaj Mahal, so it’s unknown what exactly will transpire when everyone is back on stage together again. “I will do my very best not to expect anything other than for myself to do the very best I can for the overall situation to be a success,” Eckhardt said. “The stage dynamics should be set by the energy in the room and the audience. No micro-management. That way I can stay open and authentic without falling into old patterns or setting unrealistic standards.”
Although the band’s members are excited to get back together and Eckhardt has declared, “the doors of the Garaj have re-opened and together we shall ride it to the top,” the future after this run remains unclear. “No one knows if/when this line-up will perform together again,” Levy said in a recent online post. “Looking forward to playing creative, improvisational music with these talented musicians, and to seeing some old familiar faces too.”
Eckhardt says the band currently has a “significant amount” of offers on the table for the future. Surprised by the interest from venues, the bassist is willing to see if there is a “viable lifeline” to find out where the “adventure” might take them next. “Before we can accept any of these we have to discuss the reality of everyone’s personal priorities,” he said. “There is uncertainty. I am hoping that we’ll have a chance to work it out in Colorado.”
No matter what the future holds, Eckhardt, who performs with a number of other acts, will continue the work he began after the band’s demise. “The experience was scary enough to jolt me into activism,” he said. “After years of pondering the best way to change the plight of artists for the better, I joined Artists United in 2016.”
The artist collective has 13,000 members and include all kinds of artists as well as those who practice non-professionally. “We are dedicated to becoming a huge organization with the muscle to advocate for ourselves, to generate funding and provide the services we need instead of waiting for things to change,” he said. “Please join Artists United today. Membership is free. Your input counts.”
© Photos by Jeffrey V. Smith
© Originally published in the May 2018 issue of the MMAC Monthly.