Win, Lose or Jam

Capturing the sounds, the souls and the smells of Battle of the Jams

"We actually do punch a clock, in a way," says guitarist Ghazi Al-Mulaifi, whose Tempe home has become the practice and work space for the band. "We work Monday through Friday here, from 10 to 5."

"But it's a job we all want to come to," adds keyboardist Jeff Bujak, with a big grin. "I wake up in the morning now, and I can't wait to get to work."

"This has been our goal for a very long time," explains singer Christine Devlin, who, along with guitarist Justin Eck, recently quit her job as a teacher at a charter school to work full-time for the band. "We all had day jobs up until the tour we did this past summer," adds Eck. "We had a lot of dates lined up in the East and Midwest, and we all decided we'd be better off if we quit our jobs to devote all our time to the band."

"We actually do punch a clock": Ghazi Al-Mulaifi (left) commits to Somebody's Closet.
Emily Piraino
"We actually do punch a clock": Ghazi Al-Mulaifi (left) commits to Somebody's Closet.


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Bash on Ash, 230 West Fifth Street in Tempe

"We've all given up a lot to start this company," stresses Al-Mulaifi, who himself is embroiled in a divorce over band commitment issues. "It's not like we were without options. Some of us gave up some good-paying jobs, and very comfortable, safe lives to do this. Because we all believe in it so much."

While working at their own little Jams R Us may be a far cry from the average office job, Al-Mulaifi insists he hasn't turned his home into a hippie crash pad.

"The biggest misconception some people have is that it's very la-de-da here," he says. "They think we're all just hanging around the house all day partying. But we actually all have our roles, just like an ordinary company. Justin and I are in charge of booking, both locally and around the country. Jeff is in charge of the Web site. Cubby [Hall, the percussionist] is our art director, he helps design the album covers. Brian [Headlee, on drums] is our numbers guy, he does the accounting. And Christine's in charge of our merchandise; she sets up the tables with our CDs and tee shirts and local artists' jewelry and stuff. So every morning after our meeting, we all go off and work on our particular jobs."

There's also time set aside almost every day for practicing, which the six do -- at full concert volume -- in the cramped recording studio Al-Mulaifi has set up in his living room, right by the front door. It's a sound that can be heard from far down the street in Al-Mulaifi's quiet Tempe neighborhood.

"We try to practice during the day, when most people in the neighborhood are away at work," says Devlin. "But those who are around never seem to complain."

"It's because they like the music," says Hall -- at 35, the oldest of the group. "It's not like we're that stupid metal band down the street.' We're playing a kind of music older people like."

To be sure, Somebody's Closet's sound is an updated mixture of musical styles most middle-aged homeowners grew up tripping to. At times, the blend of male and female voices in the band recalls early Jefferson Airplane, Renaissance, or It's a Beautiful Day.

"Our parents love our band," muses the 24-year-old Bujak. "My mom is an old hippie from the '60s, and I've never seen her dance before. But we were playing in Syracuse, where I'm from, and she was out on the floor -- with my grandmother, too! And I'm like, Whoa. This is weird!' But I like it. Because I've been in hard-core metal bands, with names like Hellacious Muffin, and I was actually embarrassed that she saw me in those. Now I'm playing the kind of music she grew up on."

After grooving out to the Lymbyc Systym's minimalist jazz and Somebody's Closet's communal peacenik vibe, it's a little jarring for the Sail Inn faithful when the six members of Baraka launch into their set fronted by a tag team of black rappers who attempt to bring a hip-hop element into the mix -- aggressive four-letter words, freestyle macking and all. While Baraka's songs are still on the positive tip, just the mere touch of anything angry-sounding doesn't quite mix with the incense and flowery skirts.

"Anger doesn't really fit into the vibe," acknowledges promoter Hanley, who likes it better when Baraka gets into an extended funk groove toward the end of the night. "If you look at the big bands on the scene -- Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese -- a lot of their songs tend to be positive and kind of whimsical. Overall, you're not gonna get the same type of negative energy that you get at, say, a death-metal show. It just doesn't fit."

Getting "the vibe" right is a major element in a jam band's success. "We may not have the improv skills down yet," admits Andy Hobbs of Good People, a not-good-enough band eliminated earlier in the competition. "But we definitely have the vibe. It's that feeling that everybody's accepted. You can do no wrong here."

In the end, it's the Lymbyc Systym's brother duo of Michael and Jared Bell who take the title -- possibly more for their true-brother tightness than for their performance, which, when compared to the larger ensembles that followed, provided little spectacle. Most of the fans at the Sail Inn cite the Bell brothers' almost telepathic timing behind their improvisational tightrope walk, a sixth sense that can only come from playing in the same room for so many years (drummer Michael and keyboardist Jared started playing on toy instruments together when they were only 10 and 7, respectively). Some in the audience mention that they liked it when Michael dedicated the last song, the prettiest, to their dad, who had driven down from Flagstaff to see his sons play.

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