To anyone who was there uninitiated, a show last September 22 at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton likely proved to be a revelation.
The Koch Marshall Trio performed two sets, featuring guitarist/vocalist Greg Koch (www.gregkoch.com), his son Dylan Koch on drums, and Toby Lee Marshall on Hammond organ and backing vocals. A near-capacity crowd sauntered in, mostly musicians in general and guitarists in particular, since the elder Koch is the trio’s best-known quantity.
Yet the 6-foot-7 Wisconsin product’s performance stood even taller than his stature, filled with not only guitar histrionics but also ample humor — including his between-song verbal banter, plus original instrumental hijinks (“Sin Repent Repeat”) and lyrical content (“Daddy Long Legs”). With two recent releases, Orange Roominations and Sweet Gristle, his trio is introducing new original material that likewise straddles rock, blues, funk, and jazz/fusion. The three musicians return to the Funky Biscuit on March 11, now under the banner of “Greg Koch featuring the Koch Marshall Trio.”
The 2022 performance also included taking a blowtorch to cover tunes by notable guitar heroes, like Koch’s vocal on Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s funky “A Real Mother For Ya,” a 1977 sign-of-the-times tale relevant decades later. On an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s slow blues classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” he not only updated Jimmy Page’s titanic solo but also mimicked Robert Plant’s lead vocal. Then there was “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” the instrumental ballad composition Stevie Wonder gifted in 1975 to the recently deceased multi-genre icon Jeff Beck for his album Blow By Blow. The trio now opens most shows with that track as an homage.
“Jeff saw us play when I first met him, so we got to hang out with him, and he said some really nice things,” Koch says by phone from his home in Wauwatosa, Wis., near Milwaukee. “He was a huge influence on so many people, and had such a unique voice on the instrument.That’s one guy who I think everyone just universally accepts as one of the best there will ever be.”
Koch is among a cadre of like-minded, genre-jumping electric guitarists born near the middle to beyond the Baby Boomer generation of 1946-1964. As a result, he’s been influenced by a wide swath of additional elder and departed pioneers from all over the rock, roots, and fusion maps. Born in 1966, Koch’s current peers include Scott Henderson, Eric Johnson, Pat Metheny and Steve Morse (all born in 1954); Dean Brown (1955); Joe Satriani (1956); Jennifer Batten (1957); Vernon Reid (1958); Stanley Jordan (1959); Steve Vai (1960); Mike Keneally (1961); Jimmy Herring (1962); Trey Anastasio and David Fiuczynski (1964); Adam Rogers (1965); Mark Whitfield (1966); Charlie Hunter (1967); Susan Tedeschi (1970); Oz Noy and Jonathan Kreisberg (1972); Joe Bonamassa (1977); and Derek Trucks (1979).
Bonamassa achieved stardom by drifting into blues and rock, even though his talents have many other tributaries. He also isn’t lacking in confidence, to put it mildly, yet offers rare praise when it comes to Koch.
“I believe Greg Koch is, pound for pound, the best guitar player in the world today,” Bonamassa says. “His tone, feel and style are unrivaled in today’s guitar playing community. He is scary good.”
In that company, why has the jazz-trained Fender aficionado Koch (who also plays Gibsons, and has Reverend Guitars Greg Koch Signature Gristlemaster models) been named one of the venerable guitar manufacturer’s Top 10 “unsung guitarists?” And why does he advertise that facet on his conversational, guitaristic, and dripped-in-humor podcast, Chewing the Gristle! (on which the talented Mr. Herring was a recent guest), by referring to himself as “one of the most famous unknown guitar players in the world?”
“It’s been a weird kind of course I’ve taken, career-wise,” Koch says. “My goal was always going out and playing primarily my original music. But before the internet, everything was more categorized. You were in a blues band, a rock band, a funk band; or a jazz band. We say yes to all those things!”
The price to pay for such dexterity is often relative anonymity beyond musicians’ circles. If some of Koch’s exploratory peers don’t ring a bell, that’s probably why. For him, breaking out of the Milwaukee-area scene eventually involved becoming an educator. His long list of instructional books started in the mid-1990s; his latest YouTube videos center on “hybrid picking.” High in degree of difficulty, it involves playing traditionally with a guitar pick, held between the index finger and thumb, while simultaneously using the remaining digits to finger-pick independently.
“I found such alternate musical routes helped, like being a clinician for Fender,” Koch says. “Then I broke into the internet doing these product videos for Wildwood Guitars and Fishman transducers, starting my podcast during the pandemic, and I’ve eventually gained a worldwide audience over 20-something years. So guitar players, for the most part, now know who I am. And by doing live streams from the house during the pandemic, people who aren’t necessarily guitarists seemed to be cueing in.”
With good reason. Son Dylan, who’s also 6-foot-7, studied drumming with Tom Brechtlein, whose impressive credits include Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Al Di Meola, and Jean-Luc Ponty. The young drummer had to pull his wandering kick drum back repeatedly during last year’s first set before it was secured before the second, earning the nickname “Thunderfoot” from his father.
“When Dylan was just a teenager, my band was playing a festival nearby our home,” Koch says, “so I asked my drummer if he could sit in. I asked Dylan what song he wanted to play, and he said, ‘Let’s do a song by Band of Gypsys [Hendrix’s final trio with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles]. Let’s do ‘Message of Love.’ And he just nailed it, including all the little nuances and cues. So we all knew then that it was only a matter of time.”
For this trio, that time is a continuum including the here and now. Last year, Marshall’s bald head and comparative lack of height made him reminiscent of the Austin Powers character Dr. Evil’s sidekick Mini-Me — until he played and sang harmonies. Initially introduced by Dylan to his dad, the Hammond organist concocted the bottom-dwelling left-hand bass patterns and swirling solos that have made him integral to the success of what’s become a veteran, six-year-old unit.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Koch says. “It’s been very satisfying, at this point, to realize that the whole goal all the time was to be able to do exactly what I’m doing now.”
If you go
Greg Koch featuring the Koch Marshall Trio plays at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton
When: 7 p.m., March 11
Info: 561-395-2929, funkybiscuit.com