15 songs – 79 minutes
Californian native Andy Frasco formed the U.N. back in 2007 to start a world tour that he claims has never really ended. Comprising Frasco on keyboards and vocals, Ernie Chang on sax, Shawn Eckels on guitar and vocals and an ever-evolving line-up of other musicians, the band has released five studio albums since 2010’s Love, You’re Too Expensive.
Given the band’s reputation for raucously wild, celebratory live performances, a live CD/DVD was perhaps an obvious step on the career path, and Songs From The Road does not disappoint. Recorded at the Tucher Blues & Jazz Festival in Bamberg, Germany, in August 2016, the album captures a band that is seriously match-fit, exploding onto stage with the breakneck “C Boogie” and not letting up until the closing, madcap cover of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name” (the only cover on the album). With songs selected from across the band’s back catalogue, Frasco and his co-conspirators quickly have the audience hooked on their vigorous blues-rock, willingly singing along to the boisterously vulgar (yet infuriatingly catchy) chorus of “Stop Fucking Around”.
The band’s line-up on Songs From The Road comprises Frasco, Eckels and Chang together with Chris Lorentz on bass, Andee Avila on drums and vocals, Matt Owen on tuba, Jelmer Olsman on percussion, Niels Kant on trumpet, Arno Bakker on sousaphone and trombone and Rens Ouburg on guitar, harp and vocals. They are an immensely impressive combination, mixing technical virtuosity and edge-of-the-seat improvisation with memorable choruses and witty lyrics. Chang in particular pulls out a number of superb solos, especially on “Main Squeeze”.
The ska-pop of “It’s Been A Struggle”, one of the highlights of 2014’s Half A Man, is a perfect demonstration of the inventiveness and off-the-wall humor of the band. It is played significantly faster in a live setting but still stretches out over 14 minutes in length as Frasco introduces the members of the band, who then throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, including a short drum solo, off-beat quotes from various rock classics (including, Heaven forbid, “The Final Countdown”), African jungle beats, bird song and even some James Brown.
“Smokin’ Dope And Rock N’ Roll” adds a new country-ish intro to what is an unheralded country rock classic. “Sunny Day Soldier” breaks down into acapella singing before Eckels steps out for an extended guitar solo and Avila contributes some fine bluesy vocals as he segues into “Feels So Good”.
The DVD is superbly filmed to capture the anarchic brilliance of Andy Frasco and U.N. live. The entire band is dancing and laughing from the first song, demanding audience engagement and interaction. The tracks are interspersed with clips of the band watching other acts at the festival, loading and unloading of instruments into a van and squeezing past each other in cramped hotel accommodation, all of which brings home the hard realities of being a working musician.
Is this blues? Not by a long stretch. It is blues-rock at best, and very much at the rock end of that spectrum. It is also however highly enjoyable, technically impressive and viscerally exciting. This is music to get lost in and to dance to, with a knowingly absurdist sense of humor and an almost reckless indifference to genres and categorization. It is what rock and roll should be.