Rarely mentioned in the same sentence as the massively popular Grateful Dead or Phish, or even Widespread Panic or Sting Cheese Incident, the long-running New England band Max Creek deserves to be recognized as an important root on the jam band family tree. Formed in 1971 and predating touchstone moments in the genre’s history like the HORDE Festival, The Wetlands or Bonnaroo, there’s a treasure trove of material to dive into, but as good a starting spot for a new listener as any is last year’s 2-CD “45 and Live.”
Sonically pristine and bristling with energy, the set, pulled from several dates on the group’s 45th anniversary tour in 2016, shows off a balance between instrumental tightness and a loose, free-flowing performance style honed by decades on the road, despite many lineup changes. The bluesy “She’s Here” kicks things off, followed by the NRPS-flavored country rock of “Sadie.” “Devil’s Heart” is slinky jam rock, calling to mind Dead tunes like “Althea.” A boozy cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is fun and not a carbon copy of the original by any means.
The highlight of the first disc, and possibly the entire album, is “Diamond Eyes,” which incorporates several genres and eras of classic rock while maintaining a distinctive Max Creek identity: the lilting, Van Morrison-eque intro, a Pink Floyd-y jam four minutes in with tasty, delicate picking by guitarist Scott Murawski; a second jam that catches fire with driving rhythms behind Murawski’s soaring leads, matched with bright piano, reminiscent of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica.”
Disc two opens with “Into the Ocean,” which springs from some atmospheric playing that coalesces into a tropical groove and more tasty playing by Murawski — a long-time collaborator with Phish’s Mike Gordon. “Willow Tree” is a fine foray into reggae, and “Peaceful Warrior” is straight-ahead rock, with synth and piano solos by Mark Mercier. Covers of “After Midnight” and “Midnight Special” are nice additions, the latter taking on gospel tones and providing a forum for Mercier’s tinkling piano. “Emotional Railroad” is upbeat, and the mid-tempo and stately “Said and Done” closes the proceedings.
“Live at 45,” the band’s first official release in 19 years, which was followed this year by the acoustic “Live at the Stafford Theater,” is not “Europe ’72” or “At Fillmore East.” But it’s a fun, diverse set of classic jam rock worth checking out for jam band diehards as well as fans of Little Feat (another underrated band), with whom Max Creek seem to share a simpatico approach to arrangements, performance and sense of humor.