Merl Saunders

Struggling Man

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Merl Saunders brought his groovy, West Coast vibe along for a visit to New York City, and you just know the city that never sleeps was up partying on those nights. Backed by the group One Step Beyond, Saunders serves up funky covers and originals on Struggling Man, finding plenty of occasions for some tasty soloing. The record opens with "Child's Play," one in a long line of pro-environment pieces from Saunders, then opens the floodgates of funkiness with the instrumental "M.S." Although his voice is limited ("Struggling Man" could describe his attempt to sing all the right notes on the Jimmy Cliff cover), Saunders and the band let loose on the instrumental side of the equation. Jacob Langley (guitar) and Sean Nykwist (saxophone) match Saunders stride for stride in their solos, which raises the energy level on funky covers of Dylan's "Meet Me in the Morning" and the Grateful Dead live staple "Franklin's Tower." Never shy about leveraging his relationship with the Grateful Dead, Saunders closes the disc with a live version of "Dark Star," though this take has as much in common with Frank Zappa as the Dead (credit Langley's terrific guitar work for that). These club dates just exude energy, much of it emanating from Saunders himself. The recording quality is very good (especially by live standards), and the distinctive interpretations (especially the Grateful Dead tracks) will delight fans.

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