Vermont Rutland Herald

February 21, 2008 | BY Anne Lawrence Guyon

SOVER SCENE: The gritty wonder of Chris Bergson
Inventive yet seasoned blues come to Bennington
February 21, 2008

By ANNE LAWRENCE GUYON

Imagine it's a weekend afternoon, you're hanging out in your Brooklyn flat, maybe munching on an H & H bagel, and the phone rings and it's Levon Helm, cordially inquiring as to whether you might be able to hop in the car and drive up to his Woodstock, New York studio to sit in on a few sessions.

This is precisely what happened to guitarist and songwriter Chris Bergson, who at only 31 is the remarkably accomplished leader of the Chris Bergson Band, a quintet of consummate blues, country, rock and jazz musicians that in only a few years has earned high praise from colleagues, critics and fans alike.
One glance at the weighty list of luminaries and venues that populate Bergson's bio - Etta James, Norah Jones, The Blue Note and the JFK Center For Performing Arts, to name just a few ó and it makes perfect sense that a music industry icon like Levon Helm would ring him up. That and the fact that when Bergson and his bandmates were laying down tracks for their latest album, "Fall Changes," just a few days before in Helm's recording studio barn, the man himself had wandered over and obviously liked what he heard.

During a recent conversation, I asked Bergson - who brings his band to North Bennington's Sage Street Mill on Saturday night - what it was like to hear those widely revered husky tones at the other end of the phone.

"When he first called I was totally thrown into it," he exulted. "It was 4 p.m. on a Saturday and I'd just gotten home from recording our album up at Helm's studio and he said, 'It would be great if you could come up tonight,' so I didn't really have time to get nervous."

Bergson's accelerated career seems to be saturated with similarly pivotal moments, the sort that can only come from professional connections borne of steadfast diligence, well-honed aspirations and profound talent. When I asked how he came to record the album in the hallowed halls where Helm's famous Midnight Rambles concerts take place, I wasn't surprised to find it was yet another link in that connective tissue.

"Helm's daughter Amy is the wife of my sax player and as I got to know her she said we should come up and check out her dad's studio," Bergson explained. "I'd been up to a couple of Rambles and Levon is among my biggest influences so to actually record there was an honor."

Bergson's music is inspired by numerous genres and icons, from The Band ó Helm's legendary rock collaboration with Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, et al. ó to Delta bluesman Muddy Waters, jazz icon Miles Davis and even those demi-gods of folk-rock, the Grateful Dead.

I figured this appreciation of the past and such multifaceted sensibilities must have had beginnings that started long before Bergson was old enough to get into most music clubs.

"I'm very grateful that my parents exposed me to a lot of jazz and blues when I was very young. They were big music lovers and took me to hear a lot of greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie," he recalled. "When I was in fifth grade, for my birthday they gave me records by Albert King, Muddy Waters, Thelonious Monk, Davis and they had a lot of jazz LPs."

Having started playing guitar at age 7, Bergson studied jazz in earnest, all the way through high school. "I moved to New York City when I was 18 and it was an exciting time, when there were a lot more jazz clubs than there are now."

With a band that brings vivid perspectives from varied musical traditions, Bergson is able to integrate his formal training with other types of music that have greatly influenced him over the years. Indeed, the Chris Bergson Band is anchored by some mighty impressive resumes. Saxophonist Jay Collins tours with country rock great Gregg Allman, keyboardist Bruce Katz regularly works with Helm and bluesman John Hammond, Tony Leone brings his percussion expertise from bluegrass gospel band, Ollabelle, and bassist Chris Berger has performed with folks like Maynard Ferguson and Richie Coles.

Bergson exudes a respectful wonder when speaking about his bandmates and the breadth of experience they bring to his songs. "I'd always been really into different kinds of blues, like Muddy Waters and The Allman Brothers, so it's come full circle because this band has such a diverse background. Jay Collins tours with Allman, but he can turn around and play incredible jazz like Eddy Harris, so we draw on a lot of different styles."

"Fall Changes" is a dense and delicious case in point. Nearly every song is a rich slab of musical strata, with ragged street-smart rock, raw Delta anguish and fluid jazz coloring, all sewn together by Bergson's forceful, sandy voice. With what seems like a few extra decades from the school of life packed into wise, forthright phrasing, his delivery is an inviting balance of boyish energy and slightly world-weary reflection.

Often collaborating with lyricist Kate Ross, Bergson writes solid, piquant tunes that can be intimate and sultry or cynical or brash, and that are always embedded with just the right ratio of hooks, spaces and untethered solos.

His improvisations have an unpredictable and compelling edge, like heated discussion between maestro and instrument. After an expressive, masterful, melodic debate, he'll lean into the mike as if returning to the lyrics then suddenly gets tugged back to playing as if the conversation wasn't quite over.

"The music has a lot of room for improvisation," Bergson attests, "but we don't want to have anything gratuitous, not solos just for the sake of solos ó the goal is to serve the song. With this band, the songs are rarely exactly the same from night to night and the improvised element keeps it fresh."

Everything on the new album has room for both composition and exploration, with gritty social observations peppered by moments of poignancy. Often infused with themes of despondency and hardship, some tunes are thoughtful inner contemplations while others read like urban poetry.

In "Gowanus Heights" ó which British music arbiter Mojo Magazine put at No. 5 on its 2007 playlist ó the pathos is torn right out of a Bukowski notebook:

The junkie blonde and her tough brunette

Counted up their money to see what they'd get

Out in pajamas on a Saturday night

Just cruisin' 'round waitin' to feel all right

The Chris Bergson Band also has the musical mettle to tackle landmark tunes such as "Are You Experienced" from an entirely innovative angle, in this case with a glittering, sax-woven interpretation that impels us to lend a more earnest ear to Jimi Hendrix' lyrics.

In taking on someone else's tune, Bergson manages to honor the core vision of the songwriter while still pushing into unexpected, innovative territory. On their previous album, "Another Day," his song "Three Sisters / Death Letter" is an eloquent homage to Son House, yet more sparse than the original and exquisitely crafted.

With roots that wrap gently around the heritage of his Delta elders, Bergson branches intrepidly into eclectic directions, with nods to Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Creedence Clearwater Revival along the way, and a strong current of Stevie Ray Vaughan running through every limb.

When he asks if we've "ever been experienced" and then warns "Well, I have" - we believe him.