Review: Stephen Cogswell, Floating

Stephen Cogswell, Floating

12 Nov, 2015 Alex Henderson

stepehncogswell

The San Francisco Bay Area has given the world a long list of famous musicians over the years, from Santana to Sly & the Family Stone and Tower of Power to Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship) to Pete & Sheila Escovedo.  And of course, the Bay Area gave us the Grateful Dead, whose recordings continue to influence the jam band scene long after the death of Jerry Garcia (who died of a heart attack in August 1995).  One Bay Area-based musician who, in 2015, is showing a strong Grateful Dead influence is singer/songwriter Stephen Cogswell (stephencogswell.com).  The Grateful Dead aren’t the only influence one hears on Cogswell’s likable debut album, Floating: other direct or indirect influences on this release range from the Eagles to John Mayer to James Taylor to Fleetwood Mac.  But Cogswell obviously has a strong appreciation of the folksy, good-natured style that the Grateful Dead were known for, and that is evident on earthy offerings such as “Borrowed,” “Waiting in Divine,” “How Beautiful” and “Teeter.”  Saying that Cogswell has a heavy jam band influence is not to say that he does a lot of jamming and improvising on this album, but melodically, there is no overlooking the Jerry Garcia/Bob Weir elements one encounters on “Rest in Your Fields,” “Moonlight and Candle” or “Thoughts Unsaid.”

Floating is an appropriate title for this album because Cogswell’s songs do, in fact, tend to have a floating type of sound. Cogswell is the type of artist who would rather float than rock out, and his material tends to be on the laid-back side.  Even when he increases the tempo, Cogswell’s work comes across as good-natured and easygoing (which, of course, was also true of the Grateful Dead and Kingfish, a jam band that the Dead’s Bob Weir was a part of in the 1970s).

Although Floating is relevant to the jam band, singer/songwriter and adult alternative scenes, Cogswell obviously has influences outside of rock.  “Whale Song” has a definite country influence, which is not surprising in light of how much country influenced the Grateful Dead (who were quite happy to include Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” in their repertoire).  “Sweet and Wonderful” incorporates elements of soul and reggae, while “The One” has a strong hip-hop influence and even includes some rapping.  For those who closely follow the modern, post-Grateful Dead jam band scene, it should not come as a big surprise that Cogswell flirts with hip-hop on “The One.”  Many young jam bands of the 2000s and 2010s have incorporated hip-hop, which in some cases, has been around longer than their members have been alive (the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping,” two of the early hip-hop singles, both came out 36 years ago in 1979).  And when one considers how long people in the jam band scene have been listening to hip-hop, it makes perfect sense for Cogswell to take the “Grateful Dead meet hip-hop” approach that he favors on “The One.”  Cogswell makes hip-hop and the influence of the Grateful Dead sound like a perfectly natural and logical combination.

Another non-rock influence on Floating is African music.  Cogswell employs Karamo Cissokho, a kora player from Senegal, on “Distance.”  The kora, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a traditional string instrument that is used in West Africa (not only in Senegal, but also, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau).  On “Distance,” Cogswell demonstrates that there is no reason why the kora cannot be used in a jam band setting.  Jam bands are known for their rootsy, folksy outlook, and the kora fits in well with that type of approach.

Floating is an enjoyable demonstration of Cogswell’s talents as a singer/songwriter.

Review by Alex Henderson

3 stars out of 5