Even a cursory listen to their first three full-length releases — two of them live, and one studio — makes it abundantly clear that Norfolk, Virginia power trio Bended Light are one of those rare outfits that manage to balance the discipline and songwriting savvy required of successful pop rockers with the creativity and improvisational aptitude of a top-notch jam band. “We like to jam and get out there, but we have a lot of structure in what we do,” says bassist Jack Gallagher. “We like strong songs, and we like to include storytelling in the way we write. We like to have a message in the songs.”
Bended Light got its start when Gallagher and guitarist/vocalist Jordan Cooper — both graduates of the same Norfolk high school, albeit a couple of years apart — started jamming together in 2013. They eventually hooked up with percussionist Hunter Rhodes, another Norfolk native, and made their live debut in April of the following year.(The band also had a fourth member for a time, a keyboard player.)
The trio’s earliest songwriting efforts were heavily influenced by guitarist Cooper’s fondness for reggae, and reggae/dancehall rhythms still saturate a good portion of Bended Light’s music, particularly when the trio are engaged in long-form improvisation. In the meantime, the members’ collective appreciation of jam-rock stalwarts like Phish and the Grateful Dead began to play more heavily into both the band’s writing and playing, as did elements of funk, fusion jazz, and modern-day psychedelia.
“We call what we do psychedelic blues rock, with the stipulation that it’s in the context of a jam band,” Gallagher says. “But what it boils down to is that we’re not afraid to play anything.”
As previously mentioned, BL have three records available right now, including the 2015 studio release “Bend a Little,” and the live efforts “2014 Live Sampler” and “Live at The NorVa 4/18/2015.” “Bend a Little” is a tight, burnished effort, with memorable songs — borne aloft by the band’s ample chops, and by Cooper’s engagingly mellow vocal — that manage to indulge BL’s love of genre blending without coming off as cluttered or busy.
Their live sets admirably preserve the integrity of their studio craft, while still affording Gallagher and company the space to stretch out on their respective instruments. Gallagher tells that he and his ‘mates gained insight into the art of the jam from an old Trey Anastasio interview, wherein Anastasio described a sort of rotating game of musical follow-the-leader that lies at the heart of his band’s seemingly telepathic improvisational rapport.
“He talked about something he called ‘chasing the jha,'” Gallagher says. “The idea is that when they get into jamming, there’s someone who has an idea, and everyone follows that person. Then at some point, someone else takes up the idea, and everyone chases him. We try to do that in our own improvisations.
“But still, we like to keep to that sense of song structure, even when we’re jamming,” Gallagher says. “We never stretch a song out for more than eight or nine minutes — we don’t go for those 15-minute jams. We don’t want to bore the audience.”
Right now, Bended Light are working on songs for another studio album, an effort they hope to record sometime in the coming months. Gallagher says BL members are staking out new territory in their latest songwriting efforts, expanding the band’s already-diverse creative palette with forays into new genres.
“We’ve got one new song that has some bluegrass influence in it,” Gallagher says. “We’re also working on some material with more southern roots, southern twang, along the lines of My Morning Jacket. And then there’s some funk stuff. Which even in our live shows now, we’re already pushing the funk more and more into our sound.”
Bended Light will play Preservation Pub Thursday, April 12 at 10 p.m.