I’d gladly trade a year of highlights in the sexy, thrill-packed life of the Calendar Kid to be Merl Saunders on one of his afternoons off, puttering around the house, changing the water in the fish tank or whatever you do when you’ve got to take a little time from all the funk/jazz/jam musicians out there lining up around the block to sit in at one of your sold-out shows. Windows? I would totally do windows.
What’s Merl been up to lately? Welp, most of May saw him touring with his Funky Friends, including bassist Michael Warren and guitarist Tom Edwards, and adding a dozen players, easy, to the roster of legends and unsung entertainmentatorial oddments he’s shared the stage with. If you’re counting, that list includes but is by no means limited to: the late Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Trey Anastasio, Jorma Kaukonen (get those two in the ring, man, and it’s fireworks a go-go), Vince Welnick (of the Tubes and the Grateful Dead), Paul Jackson of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and Paul Humphreys (Yes! He played the drums on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and also on the themes from “The Lawrence Welk Show” and “Sanford and Son,” the latter of which pretty much gives him a scepter and a halo in my hagiographic compendium of minor funk saints). Some nights he played funk; others were jazz only. Pretty boss, eh? Imagine being Merl Saunders, in it to win it for almost 50 years, touring the country playing with your friends, living the life, living the dream.
And speaking of living the dream, by now you’re hopefully aware that Abendego made it back safe and sound from their epic “Green Circle” tour, following mountains around the American West in a loping O from Missoula to all points jam and back again. You might also have also have noticed a souvenir tag on the big purple bus, courtesy of an anonymous Hollywood Picasso with a can of spray paint. Highlights of the Green Circle, says soundboard mädchen Mariah Scheskie, are too numerous to mention in full but include the second annual Bigfork Lakefest on their return leg, where they shared the stage with Runaway Truck Ramp, Bozeman noodlers Dr. Gravy and the Motet, to name but three. Also, as kind of an antipodal example of what we typically think of as a highlight, Scheskie mentions that their Green Circle at one point intersected with Merl Saunders’ swath of funk reduction—in Tahoe, where they found themselves playing opposite the man, at a different show. A show that, notwithstanding a soundboard designed by the same guy who dials in Widespread Panic and monitors inherited from the Grateful Dead, drew a paltry two people.
“Yeah,” she laughs. “Everyone was at Merl. Merl really screwed us on that one.”
She’s funning, of course, but no danger of the same happening again: Abendego will be opening for Merl in Missoula. Living the dream together, you might say, as though the Green Circle had finally come full circ … oh, jeez, don’t make me say it.
Merl Saunders plays the UC Ballroom with opening act Abendego, Wednesday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. Tickets $15 general, $13 students.