The Lucky Seven 

In a world of jam-band sound-alikes, Calobo stands out

During the last decade, the Rockies have witnessed jam bands spring up in numbers second only to wildflowers. Sitting right between Colorado and Seattle allows us Missoulians to be on the circuit for a couple of different regions, and the ripe fruits of ’90s jam band mania are tossed at us on a regular basis.

But after half a dozen years of listening to Bill Monroe-meets-Jerry-Garcia-meets-dread-notty-dread, the discerning listener can end up pretty spaced out. So to set itself apart, a good band needs a hook. Something like exemplary musicianship, a new direction, or affecting song writing, but whatever it is, the band needs something different than the rest of the field of tripped-out sound-alikes.

Enter the Portland-based Calobo. Playing more than 150 shows a year, this septet has earned a reputation around the Pacific Northwest as one of the hardest-working bands around. Not to mention the fact that they sell out more big-ticket arenas than any other band in our corner of the country, and have sold somewhere near 75,000 albums to date.

But the thing that sets Calobo apart from the rest of the field are the ripe and delicious three-part harmonies laced brilliantly within extended jams and solos. Not that the band is lacking in the “jam” part of their genre. Not at all. But in the decade that Calobo has been playing together, they’ve put together a rock-solid lineup of instrumental musicians who have vocal pipes to match.

So, what kind of music do they play? Well, as with so many bands these days, just choose a handful of categories, hyphenate them, and you’ve got a start: pop-jazz-grass with influences of folk-rock. But the Calobo experience is about so much more than just their sound. They are about energy. They are about the interaction of seven musicians and a Top Hat full of dancin’ fools.

But more than anything, Calobo is about a good time. Upbeat lyrics and smiley-smiley interactions of band members is enough to make even the guy at the end of the bar who’s been drinking since noon to get up, grinnin’ and movin’ his feet.

And once the feet are moving to the full sound of seven people who’ve played together for hundreds of shows, the nuance and ability of the individual musicians is what can really take you into dance-trance ecstasy.

Whether it’s the bad-ass mandolin picking, keyboard stroking, or vocal harmonizing, the band will leave you sweating and smiling. What really gets me, however, it’s the powerful and sensuous vocals of Michelle Van Kleef, pulling me head-first into the I-love-you trance every time they grace our city with their presence.

So be informed: Audiences on the coast would be shocked to hear that you can see their favorite band for less than a ten-spot here. Don’t sweat the $5 cover.

Calobo plays at the Top Hat on Thursday, May 11 at 10 p.m. Cover $5.

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