Tree’s a crowd 

Banyan’s musical cross-pollination

The banyan tree is a member of the fig family, native to southern Asia, whose most salient characteristic is that it sprouts aerial roots from its branches that then grow down to the soil and form new trunks. This makes an easy metaphor for the band called Banyan, a semi-improvisational SoCal outfit featuring a rotating cast of musical iconoclasts operating under the musical direction of former Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins.

But perhaps another of the banyan tree’s traits—the fact that its flowers can be fertilized by only one species of wasp—serves as a more fitting metaphor. Banyan is clearly Perkins’ deal; he’s the wasp, the person without whom none of this would have come to fruition. He was shrewd enough to include two of the most distinctive instrumentalists in Los Angeles for the original Banyan line-up: bassist Mike Watt of fIREHOSE/Minutemen fame, and Nels Cline, a veritable cornucopia of avant-jazz/noise guitar (note that neither Watt nor Cline is in the current touring incarnation of Banyan). Many of Banyan’s live shows also include Norton Wisdom, a painter who sits onstage and interprets sounds, moods and textures on a blank canvas as the music occurs.

Though Banyan might loosely be called a jam band, show-goers shouldn’t expect lengthy improvisational excursions or interminable solos. This outfit is economical and the instrumentation tightly leashed, and Perkins places emphasis on the ensemble over any individual player, recognizing the multiplier effect attained when players are actively focused on one another. Inevitably, though, the centerpiece of the whole affair is Perkins’ ever-inventive drumming and his bent for playing complicated parts that manage to maintain all the propulsion and dynamism of much simpler beats. Perkins’ other task at hand is that of navigator and coxswain, front and center onstage, guiding and redirecting the band by hollering out changes mid-song, sometimes abruptly altering the momentum.

Now eight years into its existence, Banyan recently released its third album, Live at Perkins’ Palace, which features several improvised tracks and, for the first time, fully composed pieces as well.

Banyan will perform at The Other Side Friday, Nov. 12, at 9 PM.

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