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Swyer Theatre @ The Egg
Albany, NY
February 23rd, 2007

By J Hunter

It was a study in contrast: neo-hippies milling around the Egg lobby waiting for the Keller Williams show to start, while the real thing (either former or diehard) were going up to the Swyer Theatre to go see Oregon. “The old people are on this elevator,” a woman behind me giggled. We all laughed, but it didn't make it any less true.

Oregon goes back nearly forty years, to the time the original members - guitarist Ralph Towner, reedman Paul McCandless, bassist Greg Moore, and percussionist Collin Wolcott - were part of the Paul Winter Consort. They formed their own group in 1971, and subsequently became a pebble dropped in a pond - that is, the ripple effect from their success was pretty pronounced: Oregon was New Age before there was New Age; labels like Windham Hill and Narada might not even exist; and the post-Woodstock, still-in-Vietnam generation had another place to go in the move away from the confrontational spirit that fueled rock music in the late sixties.

Oregon was the groundbreaker for this genre, and from the look of the creative space this band is in these days, they're not even close to being done. Far from being an “oldies show”, the quartet (which is now Towner, McCandless, Moore, and percussionist Mark Walker) gave the nearly-full house an even split between music from their early years and new, unreleased and (occasionally) untitled material that stands up to the old stuff without blinking an eye. “A Thousand Kilometers” - a new Towner tune dedicated to the band's late booking agent - fit like a glove with Vanguard-era pieces like “Distant Hills”, “A Peppy Link”, and “Green and Golden.”

Towner sat on a piano stool at the edge of Stage Right, left foot up on a custom-made foot rest so he could balance his acoustic guitar on his left thigh as he fingerpicked the opening of “If” (no, not the Bread tune!). He split time between guitar (electric and acoustic), piano and synthesizer during the band's two set performance, and I'm hard-pressed to say his work on any one instrument superseded the rest. Towner's synthesizer work on two improvisational pieces sounded a little too much like the soundtrack to Logan's Run, but it was completely in keeping with the Space Jam groove Oregon jumped into near the end of each set.

And make no mistake, this band can groove. Moore's solo on “A Thousand Kilometers” wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from Ron Carter, and his jam with Walker on “Hoedown” proved “funky country” is not a contradiction in terms. Walker looks like a high-school student next to the rest of the band, all of whom are long way from the long-haired, bearded group sitting cross-legged on the back of one of their old LPs. To listen to him as he weaved an amazing tapestry of percussion (assisted by a huge array of shakers, bells, blocks and chimes), you'd think he'd been part of the band from the beginning.
McCandless is best-known (and rightly so) for his work on oboe. The harmonic he creates sends you into a peaceful place and keeps you there. But McCandless also brought “all the woodwinds the airlines will let me carry”, which ranged from soprano sax to bass clarinet, and he created magic with all of them. On the closer “Doff”, he pulled out a tenor sax from behind his amplifier and laid down solo lines that could set off smoke alarms. Jazz has always been at the root of Oregon, but the new material they played is closer to straight-ahead jazz than anything they've ever done.

A world of changes has gone down since Oregon's early days - not the least of which was Wolcott's death in a car accident in 1984. But where other bands from that time have hung on to the old days with both feet, Oregon is still moving forward, ready and eager to take their music, and their audience, to new and different places. It made me wonder where all the neo-hippies up in the Hart Theatre would be listening to in forty years.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.