Though not as doggedly tour-centric as his erstwhile employer and mentor, Frank Zappa (an audiophiliac Procrustes if ever there was one, he’d butcher, dub, tinker, and toy with choice live tracks until a cohesive LP could be discerned), some of Mike Keneally’s most sensitive releases to date have been documents of his ever-evolving stage antics. The progressive guitar virtuoso-cum-singer-songwriter may guarantee to “tear the heads off” of listeners seated in the first few venue rows, a tagline proudly featured on the bumper stickers shipped with every purchase made from his website. But the affront is always more cerebral than his skronking, custom-built electric Taylors would immediately suggest. The two-CD set Half Alive in Hollywood—recorded with a small trio, and partially in front of an audience of music majors—achieves a naked, if flagrantly distorted, intimacy interwoven with cheeky Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix covers. Elsewhere he has even used the live album format to subtly meditate on his compositional methods: Dancing with Myself, originally a fan-club-only bonus disc accompanying the aggressively protean Dancing, stripped tunes from its studio-recorded counterpart down to their primordial keyboard progressions and acoustic arpeggios.
Keneally’s stage presence is curiously brooding; he’s most entertaining when he’s at his most introspective, cautiously navigating his product rather than playing the showman, which was hinted at by the musician himself via the apt title of Guitar Therapy Live. The jazzily named Bakin’ @ the Potato!, recorded at Hollywood’s Baked Potato nightclub, expands on this intuitive aesthetic, compiling an inscape of a set list from what are arguably Keneally’s most restlessly philosophical LPs: A suite from his sophomore effort, Boil That Dust Speck, is presented, as well as cuts from the aforementioned Dancing and the hyper-conceptual Scambot. Third guitarist Griff Peters augments the now-sturdy Keneally Band lineup of Joe Travers (drums), Rick Musallam (guitar), Bryan Beller (bass), and Keneally himself (guitar and digital piano), enabling more melodic complexity than the quartet is typically capable of and demanding a proprioceptive approach to the ensemble dynamic.
On “Kedgeree,” which significantly opens Bakin’ @ the Potato! and closes Dancing, the three guitarists render the flitting, dissonant tension and major-chord catharses of Keneally’s charts with interlocking acuity. Similarly, they divvy up harmonies originally meant for an octet with glockenspiel and flute on “Pretty Enough for Girls”; they match the clarity of the original recording, but swap out the orchestral phrasing for improvisational rawness, in some instances only implying what were previously solid melody lines. The result is a fluid, porous take on these more pensive moments of Keneally’s oeuvre, one that may suit the material better than their original arrangements. The ease of the adaptation, particularly on “Pretty Enough for Girls” and “Life’s Too Small,” makes one realize that Keneally likely writes for all instruments on the guitar, and the Bakin’ @ the Potato! versions thus feel both inventive and prototypical.
Keneally’s rarely been interested in writing simple pop-rock songs, and often impishly buries his more accessible moments under piles of experimentation: the peppy acoustic jaunt “Cold Hands” is a Scambot anomaly; “Good Morning, Sometime,” off of the otherwise strikingly dark Boil That Dust Speck, is almost a sitcom theme song. At this point in his career, however, he’s turning his more straightforward material upside down rather than obscuring it, stretching out the seventh-chord funk of the socially anxious “My Dilemma” with modal solos, and adding enough pockets of dynamic quiet to the ‘70s AOR-esque “Chatfield Manor” to make it sound like a full-blown epic. He hasn’t forgotten to the let the weirdness speak for itself; the wispily plaintive, and quite possibly Zardoz-inspired “Blameless (The Floating Face)” is included here, and it’s virtually a facsimile of the album version. But Keneally aches when diving into the give-or-take 6/8 timing of “Taster” and the condensed key slipperiness of “Hallmark.” His robust catalogue becomes a spiritual burden that must be revealed to its owner and mutated rather than cast off.
It’s further worth noting that just by virtue of the crystalline sound mixing alone, the Bakin’ @ the Potato! tracks improve on their originals. (Sluggo, from which two songs are played, is content-wise one of Keneally’s best albums, but it features a distracting aural muddiness.) The set also includes the full Baked Potato concert on DVD in 5.1 Surround and stereo mixes that differ greatly, and fascinatingly, from that on the equally superb CD; the full package allows us to experience these performances from as many sonic and visual angles as possible. And the DVD’s videography, directed by Keneally himself and other members of his SoCal pan-prog entourage, is uncommonly attuned to the players’ musicianship in a manner that neither straightforwardly exposes their dexterity nor attempts foolhardy performance portraiture. (Too many cheaply made concert DVDs zoom incoherently close on faces during solos to capture enraptured grimaces or, worse, zoom incoherently close on fingers hitting fretboards.) This technical mastery gives the Mike Keneally Band the visceral representation that they and the tunes they think their way through deserve.