Fantastic Fungus

Mushroom mixes it up, blurs genre borders, and wins the devotion of its fans.

When thousands of hungry consumers purchase fast food or a processed, preservative-laden treat, most expect it to taste exactly as it tasted last week, last month, and last year. It’s often the same with music, in terms of audience expectations, and this aspect sometimes puts musicmakers in a bind — namely, performers get penalized by some for changing their style, and criticized by others for staying the same old course. There are some artists, however, who have made shifts in focus and style an intrinsic part of their careers. Elvis Costello and jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas come to mind, as do mercurial eclectic locals Mushroom.

Fans wouldn’t have it any other way. One devotee echoes a favorable review of a Mushroom disc from the webzine Aural Innovations: “Every disc of theirs is different than the one before it.” And while many labels and publicists might have a problem with that, Mushroom’s drummer and de facto leader Pat Thomas is proud of it. “Changes in mood, attitude, instrumentation, personnel,” he says. “That keeps it fresh.”

While Mushroom has a core membership — Thomas, Ned Doherty, Matt Cunitz, David Brandt — it’s really more of a music collective than a band. The list of locals who’ve made the Mushroom scene is dizzying and delightfully varied: jazz players Jon Birdsong and Graham Connah, rock guitaristas Tim Plowman (Slovenly) and Dan Olmsted (New E-Z Devils, Dandeline), singers Gary Floyd (Sister Double Happiness, Black Kali Ma) and Alison Faith Levy (Loud Family), and multi-instrumental whiz Erik Pearson. Mushroom also has collaborated with some cult luminaries, including UK iconic art-rock eccentrics Daevid Allen (Soft Machine, Gong), Kevin Ayers, and, more recently, Bay Area jazz trumpeter Eddie Gale, who aside from rare sessions as leader, appeared on seminal recordings by avant-jazz titans Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Larry Young.

Sometimes Mushroom plays songs inspired by that late-1960s/early-1970s epoch where divisions among rock, folk, R&B, and jazz were less rigid (i.e., Traffic, Spirit, Funkadelic); other times, the ‘Shroom will lay down endless grooves that fluctuate cheerfully between old-school soul-jazz jams (Charles Earland, Medeski Martin & Wood) and crystalline, synapse-scrambling spaceouts (Can, Neu!).

Mushroom was founded a decade ago with a concept of reaching for a “progressive” sound — “when ‘progressive’ didn’t mean Yes or Genesis, when it meant stretching the boundaries of rock and jazz in general,” Thomas says, as defined by “The Beatles, Soft Machine, King Crimson, and electric Miles Davis.” The band’s take on the once-maligned P-word has a distinctive audience in the Bay Area. While Mushroom is more popular in Europe, local crowds range from twentysomething postrock and jam-band acolytes to the middle-aged beard ‘n’ sweater crowd.

To celebrate its ten-year anniversary, Mushroom has released not one but two new and very different platters. There’s Yesterday, I Saw You Kissing Tiny Flowers (on the UK 4 Zero label — limited edition, so act fast, collectors!), featuring the soulful warble of Alison Faith Levy. Number two is Joint Happening (Hyena), featuring Eddie Gale. Flowers is a heady, trippy mishmash of songs so genially, stimulatingly weird (the way Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s and Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man albums are weird) that you’ll want to open your own psychedelicatessen. Happening lives up to its title — it’s both open-ended jazz- and groove-oriented à la mid-’70s Miles Davis (i.e., Big Fun, Agharta), albeit with a higher chill quotient.

Whether you’re a closet eclectic or out and proud, Mushroom evokes an era, sans corny nostalgia, where music in general was rich with what seemed to be endless possibilities. If you too choose to be experienced, you’ll have several Bay Area shows to choose from this week.


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