When Green Tea formed 14 years ago it’s founders, Jamie Conroy and Toby Kniffin had a simple, but ambitious idea. “Seven players were invited to participate and everyone was told to bring two songs in. The agreement right out of the chute was everybody would put their best effort into the other peoples’ songs,” explains Toby. “The model worked. For the first time in a long time we weren’t dealing with any conflicting agendas because we said forget it, we won’t have an agenda.”
What Toby and Jamie wanted was to find a group of likeminded musicians who were committed to the idea of bettering themselves as performers and putting on a good show, regardless of the size of the room. On top of that, what has been key to Green Tea’s longevity is every member’s capacity for giving their all to everyone else’s material. “I could be one of those guy’s who’s like ‘No! We’re not playing my songs anymore, I’m not into this.’ But when I look out at the crowd and see when one of Marty’s songs is working, you don’t question that.”
Seven cooks are a lot for one kitchen, but by establishing the ground rules from day one, Jamie and Toby positioned the band to be a grooving, self- sustaining organism.
“After 14 years, despite the personnel changes, we’ve got some of the best people ever playing this music right now.” The current line up – consisting of Toby, Jamie, Amie Coffey, Mike Chicoria, Gino Maiorano, Marty Moroney and Jay Hartley – have been together for two years and their chemistry is easy to see when they’re up on stage. There’s camaraderie up there that’s been strengthened by years and countless gigs together.
According to Jay Hartley, who joined as the band’s drummer three years ago, “There’s no ego. No one’s trying to be the shining star of the band at anytime ever. And it’s great. No one is stepping on anybody’s toes. We all enjoy what everybody is going to bring to whatever tune we play. We’ve rehearsed our music so much that we know exactly how to present it when we go out to the bar.”
Though a jam band at its core, Green Tea knows when a Willie Nelson tune might work better than say a nebulous, freewheeling improvised jam. Toby and Jay both take pride in the band’s keen sixth sense for reading a room. Just as they feed off of one another they feed off the crowd, and after years of playing out they have mastered the art of making a live mix tape for whatever crowd they’re playing in front of.
“How do you craft a catalogue? How do you maintain a regular list of songs?” Toby wonders. “Okay, we threw ‘Tumbling Dice’ in at Barley, it worked. At Strange Brew we were able to throw a 15-minute original that’s loaded with Phish or Zappa-like changes. It’s just constant refinement every week.”
“We’ve made our sound with the seven people that we have,” adds Jay. “And these seven people have learned how to play with each other and off each other. There’s a connection up there. We might not be on every night, but we’re on with each other.”
That connection and refinement is honed each week when the seven all get together for a three-hour rehearsal. On top of that, Jay records those rehearsals, a fact he wears like a badge of honor, and between one week and the next those sessions are poured over. Which songs worked, which ones didn’t? Who’s doing what when and how can they do it better?
“We’ve gotta be a crowd pleaser when we do our local hometown shows because there really isn’t a big jam scene down here,” says Jay. “But we’ve learned how to go into a room and say ‘okay, what do we have to do to make this room enjoy us?’ And fortunately we play some cover tunes very well and we definitely make them sound correct.”
Having seen them at Malted Barley last month I can attest to their crowd-pleasing prowess. A song and a half in and a bar full of people who had hardly seemed to notice the band loading in was fixated on the performance. Great tunes and good vibes poured out of their amps smoother than the beers on tap. Like seven benevolent pied pipers, Green Tea had snagged another bar.