Jay Stolar

Jay Stolar EP Release at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Jay Stolar released a new EP (The Acoustic EP). Numbered CDs were available for sale at his headlining show at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2.

JayStolarSingingGuitar

If you read my last post about Jay then you know that we weren’t going to miss this show (and there was strong competition for our attention down in Philly!). We made the correct decision, as I can summarize the show/performance in one word: Wow!

Seriously, among the many things Jay has going for him, the top three are:

  1. Extraordinary voice
  2. Unreal stage presence
  3. A band that can keep up with him (at every position!)

I couldn’t help thinking how lucky we are (were) to experience them (Jay and the band) in such an intimate (yet mobbed!) spot like Rockwood 2. I have no doubt that Jay has the energy to fill Madison Square Garden to every fan’s satisfaction. I hope to get the chance to verify that claim some day.

In addition to playing all four of the EP songs, Jay mixed up his classic Soul/Rock/Pop genres to keep every song fresh throughout the set.

I’ve mentioned before that Jay could thrill on his own. He likely couldn’t do that at MSG though. He certainly could with his 4-part harmony and kick-a** band. Left-to-right on stage:

Jason Wexler on grand piano and vocals. We’re big fans of Jason’s and our fandom grows each time we see him (we had seen him guest with Jeff Litman the night before). He was atypical last night in playing only the grand (no electronic keyboards) with such a big sounding band. That’s perfectly fine with me, his piano skills are exceptional.

JasonWexlerPiano

In addition to singing a ton of background vocals throughout, Jay gave Jason a really long lead during When I’m Acting Crazy. Holy moly Batman, Jason slayed it (and everyone in the room).

Jay took over the piano duties on one number and Jason stepped to center stage and played the accordion.

JayStolarJasonWexler

Grace McLean on vocals. Fantastic, but no surprise (other than I didn’t know Grace would be singing with him). I recently saw her for the first time at one of Sam Teichman’s Leave a Lasting Mark benefits and was instantly taken with her voice (and performance). I may as well repeat what I said about her that night:

Grace McLean was the final newcomer to us. Grace performed perhaps the second most famous song (to me at least), Chain of Fools. Let’s see if I can be succinct in describing her: Wow! (OK, that was succinct, but not sufficient, how about: Holy Wow, Unreal!, yes, that’s better).

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In a small-world story, Grace’s upcoming EP was mastered by my good friend (and expert Masterer) Larry Lachmann. I discovered that just days after seeing Grace for the first time.

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Seth Faulk on drums, percussion and vocals. Seth completed the vocal superfecta. In addition to adding his wonderful voice to the mix, Seth was one of two drummers/percussionists, another touch that makes Jay’s shows so special (I think 10 drummers might be too many, but less than that is all a plus for me, as long as they’re good, and these guys are more than good!).

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Here’s Seth as part of the 4-part power harmonies:

PowerVocals

Kenny Shaw on drums. Kenny is always great. Having him coordinate with Seth cranks it up a notch and is a sonic joy. Kenny and Seth are a large component of why I feel that Jay could fill MSG with sound. Let’s get on that one folks, please!

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Rob Pawlings on electric bass. I’ve written about Rob a number of times lately and they’ve all been raves. No difference last night, another amazing performance.

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Paul Maddison on electric guitar. When I last saw Paul, on May 12th, I wrote that I would finally introduce myself to him at the next show. I can’t say I totally followed through, but we did shake hands, so I’m making progress. He’s getting married on Sunday (tomorrow), so I didn’t want to break his concentration. Winking smile

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On a more serious note, Paul is an excellent guitarist and Jay gave him one long lead with a bunch of other tasty licks. Wonderful!

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That takes care of the core band. There were three additional guests.

Wil Farr came up to sing with Jay on a song they co-wrote. Very well done. Wil was the front-man for the band that was up next, so I’ll be writing more about him shortly.

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Matt Simons joined for one song on the sax (I believe it was When I’m Acting Crazy). We had seen Matt perform a solo set on the grand piano right before this one. Now he switched to the sax and when he was let loose, he destroyed the room. That he ended up taking such a great solo in the same song that Jason did on the piano, made a great song all the more amazing.

MattSimons

Jim Perry on drums/percussion. Jim joined for two of the final numbers. I think I heard Jay say that Jim co-wrote one of those songs with him, but don’t hold me to that. For the first number, Seth gave up his kit (Seth stood and played a tambourine and shakers while singing). On the second number, Jim took over Kenny’s kit and Kenny played the tambourine between Seth and Jim. Jim did an excellent job in both spots.

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Here’s the set list:

SetList

An absolutely incredible show. When do we all get together to do it again? Smile

AlexBergerAyelet

Jay Stolar at Rockwood Music Hall

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Jay Stolar headlined a set at Rockwood Music Hall. That, in itself, is not news. Jay headlines there every Thursday, but, at 1am, which we have yet to keep ourselves awake for. Yesterday, he kicked off the evening with the first set, at 6pm. For us, that’s as good as it gets.

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For most people it’s not. Typically, even when someone awesome plays a 6pm show, the place is relatively empty. Not so for Jay. It was the best (biggest) crowd we’ve seen for an early show.

This was our first full set seeing Jay. Now that we’ve experienced it, I want to hit rewind and catch every one of his previous sets (including staying up for the 1am ones!). I don’t mean to sound surprised by Jay’s performance. We’ve seen him sing (at least one song) five times before, either at a benefit or as a guest. The longest stretch was at a Backscratch, where he sang three songs.

Here’s what I wrote when I saw him for the first time, in January 2011:

Jay Stolar (lead singer for Julius C) was up next, and he shared the stage with Chrissi Poland. He was also incredible. What a voice and what passion and energy on stage (very theatrical, in the best sense). I shouldn’t be surprised. For the past month, every time I ask a question of a friend in an audience (like: “Who’s that guitar player”?), the answer often comes back: “Oh, he’s in Julius C, you really need to check them out!”. Indeed, I do!

Ignore the Julius C part, they no longer exist. Since then, Jay was known as Jay and the Birds. I no longer see him use that moniker either. Now it’s just Jay Stolar, or Jay Stolar and Friends (for the 1am shows). No matter, Jay has enough talent to shorten it even further, to just J. Winking smile

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So, it’s obvious that I knew before last night that Jay has an incredible voice. That’s been evident at every show. We also got a few tastes of his guitar play, so that wasn’t a surprise. Last night we found out two additional things. 1) He writes great songs and 2) he plays the piano quite nicely.

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I have absolutely no doubt that we would have loved the set if Jay came out solo, accompanying himself on the guitar and piano. Jay had more epicness in mind though. He had more than a full band supporting him, left-to-right on stage:

Catherine Brookman on vocals. She was fantastic on every number. Very powerful and crisp voice. She never sang lead on a full verse, but she took the lead on a number of bridges/choruses, where Jay was playing around (amazing us) with his voice, dancing around Catherine (and the others). Catherine has been on Broadway in the revival of Hair (and possible some others). I can definitely see her in that kind of role.

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Paul Maddison on electric guitar. I’ve always been impressed by Paul, but most of the times that I’ve seen him, the guitar hasn’t been highlighted (The Thang Band was one exception). Last night, Jay let Paul rip it a few times, and even when he wasn’t soloing, the lead guitar was an integral part of the sound. Excellent!

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Jason Wexler on grand piano, accordion and vocals. Wow. I’ve only had glowing praise for Jason on every show we’ve seen him (which is eight times including last night). Toward the end of the set, Jay stepped aside to let Jason take a long lead on the piano. Holy moly, it was so fast, so clean, so interesting. Basically, mind-boggling. When Jay took to the piano, Jason came center stage and played the accordion. He also sang harmony on practically every number. An all-around wow (to repeat myself).

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Rob Pawlings on electric bass. This was my third time seeing Rob. Last night’s performance was super solid, but not flashy. Obviously, he plays what’s most appropriate to the specific set. Here’s what I said about him the last time I saw him, when he supported Abby Payne:

Rob Pawlings on electric bass. Rob was absolutely incredible. I’ve seen Rob once before, as part of The Thang Band, where I also had only superlatives for his performance. Given that this was a trio, Rob carried a lot of weight and he never spilled a drop of water all the way up the hill. He sang a bit, but mostly too far from the mic to really be heard. I heard him sing with The Thang Band and praised him that night, so he should bother to step up to the mic next time he sings with Abby as well.

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Seth Faulk on partial drum kit, cajon, percussion and vocals. Of course Seth was great on the drums, percussion and cajon, but I’ll admit publicly, that the biggest thrill was getting to hear him sing harmony on every song. I’ve written many times about how good Seth’s voice is, but it’s usually a taste here, a sip there. Last night it was every single song. It was almost always 4-part harmony (Jay, Catherine, Jason and Seth), but Seth’s voice was so easy to pick out and enjoy.

SethFaulkSinging

That Jay, who is such a great vocalist, shares the vocals with three others, is a thing to behold. Kudos to all four of them. In fact, there were a number of a cappella moments (or very near a cappella, with a very soft guitar, or extremely light touch drums) where the singing was a nearly religious experience.

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Kenny Shaw on drums. One of Kenny’s floor toms was split off for Seth, who sat to Kenny’s right. On Monday, I noted that it was unusual that we had gone two weeks without seeing Kenny play. Last night was only two days later, so things were back to normal. Whew. Winking smile

KennyShaw

I often write about my fantasy of having multiple drummers on stage at Rockwood. It’s happened occasionally (closer to rarely), so last night (in particular at Rockwood 1), it was a surprise and a major treat. Even though we were so close to the drum kit, even with two them hitting at the same time, not a single strike was too loud. Fantastic.

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Jay’s songs vary in feel and genre, keeping the set interesting throughout. Rock/Pop/Soul/R&B, even a bit of Gospel feel. Quiet, loud, full band, a cappella and everything in between.

When he was done, the crowd would have none of it. Practically everyone in the place was chanting for more. It wasn’t obvious to me that he would give in, but eventually he did. He gave the audience a choice of a new song, or a favorite that a number of people called out. The overwhelming response was for the new song.

Wow, what a finish and what a great song. It’s obviously not on the set list, since he really didn’t expect to be forced to sing it. Smile

SetList

Leave a Lasting Mark Soul Benefit The Bitter End

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Leave a Lasting Mark is a benefit concert series conceived and produced by Sam Teichman. We’ve been to a number of them, but have sadly missed some of the more spectacular ones (or so a number of people have told us). Our very first one was a Soul Revue (just like last night) 14 months ago. You can read about it, though it’s super long, as this one is likely to be as well. This one was also held at The Bitter End.

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Instead of expecting you to read that long post, let me just pull out a single paragraph that I wrote about Sam right up front:

First and foremost, I need to bow to Sam Teichman (@samteichman on Twitter) as deeply and humbly as I can. Sam is a perfect example of one person, single-mindedly focused on getting something done and achieving that goal (actually, exceeding it). On November 4th, 2010, Sam sat next to me at Rockwood Music Hall as we enjoyed sets by Jesse Ruben and Alex Wong. Even on that night, Sam was doing for others, as I noted across three paragraphs toward the end of my post about that show.

I highly encourage you to read the next two paragraph from that post, but I’ll leave it to you to click through if you’re interested.

SamTeichman

These benefit shows are really important to attend (in particular if you’re a music lover) for a number of reasons. First, you’re contributing to charity (100% of the entrance price goes to whatever charity is being supported at that show). Last night’s charity was Foundation Fighting Blindness, specifically targeted for their Vision Walk 2012 initiative later this month. Seems like a good enough reason to attend the show.

Second, you have an opportunity to discover local musicians that you otherwise might never hear about. Every one of them donates their time to perform in these shows. Sam does a great job of paying them by constantly reminding the audience that they create their own music (often inspired by the people they’re covering at these shows!) and that we should all make it our business to follow up and check out their own sites and music.

That’s been true for me, starting back at my first Leave a Lasting Mark (LALM) show and solidly continuing last night. I’m going to follow the format I used for that first Soul Revue. I’ll group all of the sidemen (yes, there was a sidewoman as well) by instrument, first. I’ll skip mentioning the backup singers, because each of them took a turn singing a song on lead. Then I’ll cover each of the lead singers, in the order they appeared.

The real point will be for me to call out a few people I’ve never seen before, some of whom completely blew me away (repeating a trend that’s happened at each of the LALM shows).

Apologies for the varying qualities of the photos. Tons of people on stage, often obscured or very far away. So many of the lead performers were constantly moving, so it was tough to catch them in focus, or with un-passionate expressions. This is the best our little compact camera could do.

The brass section was up for nearly every song (not every person was up on every number that included brass). They performed yeoman duty and I imagine most are resting their lips and lungs today.

Ian Schaefer on trumpet, Mitch Marcus on sax and clarinet, Chris Hiatt on sax (@chrishiatt1, no good individual link), John Liotta on sax (also no good link), Steven Salcedo on sax.

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Ian took a number of trumpet leads (in particular on I Just Want to Make Love to You and This Little Light) that were awesome. We typically see John Liotta light up a baritone sax with the Greg Mayo band. Last night he lit up a tenor sax equally well. Mitch, Chris and Steven were amazing too, in any combination that happened to be on stage for a given song.

IanSchaeferTrumpetIanSchaeferChrisHiattJohnLiottaMitchMarcusClarinet

Sarah Stern joined for one number, late in the show, on the flute (I couldn’t find a good link). Delightful! She’s (possibly) the only person who didn’t make it on to the program. She stood with the brass section. This was our first time seeing Sarah.

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Bass players: Chris Kelly, Justin Goldner, James Preston (how can you not fall in love with someone whose middle name is Peanutbutter?), Jeff Litman and Sean Murphy. We’ve seen Chris, Justin and Jeff many times (they’re always great). In fact, we discovered Jeff at that first Soul Revue, and Chris and Justin at a LALM benefit featuring the songs of James Taylor and Carole King. This was our first time seeing James and Sean, probably not our last.

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One more of James Peanutbutter Preston:

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The first time I saw Jeff I really liked his bass play. But, it was after reading one of his blogs that I really started paying attention to him as a person, then discovered that he’s an excellent singer/songwriter and musician (guitar is his primary instrument for his own brand of rock). He just released a new CD, Outside, get it, and get his previous one, Postscript.

I note how I discovered Jeff because he just put up a new blog post this morning (or at least tweeted about it today) and it’s another amazing piece. So well considered and written. I learn from Jeff, both in his writing and in his music. Both Lois and I agree 100% with Jeff’s thesis in this post (at least with regards to the part about the MET, the music can be a little more nuanced IMHO).

Drummers: Justin Hofmann, Stephen Chopek, Alex Cohen, Mason Ingram and Matt Arbeiter (still no good link). Justin and Alex were new to us (both excellent). Stephen always delivers, as do Mason and Matt. Matt is another that we first discovered at a LALM show (the James Taylor / Carole King one).

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MasonIngramMattArbeiter

Guitarists: Mark Marshall, Mike Bell (no good individual link, but here’s a link to a band he’s in, BELT Band), Jeremiah Birnbaum (also sang lead), Joe Brent, Hudson Mueller (also sang co-lead). Mike and Hudson were new to us. We’ve seen Joe once before, but not on guitar. Late in the show, Joe also joined on two numbers playing the fiddle. He’s a major talent, whatever instrument he touches.

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Keyboards (grand piano and electronic): Megan Cox, Scott Chasolen, Nick Semrad (also sang lead), Kenneth Harris (also sang lead), Scott Stein (also sang lead). A first for us seeing Nick and Kenneth. In addition to playing the keyboards wonderfully on every number, each sang lead from the piano, so more on them later.

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Scott Chasolen is a great pianist and proved it again last night. He has an excellent voice, but wasn’t one of last night’s leads.

Scott Stein is also great on the keyboards. More on his lead performance below.

We’ve seen Megan play fiddle, when we first discovered her at the first Soul Revue. This was our first time seeing her on the keyboards (very nice!). I lied above when I said all of the background singers sang lead. Megan sang background but didn’t sing lead. Sam told me this morning that Megan was scheduled to sing lead, but came down with a bad cold and couldn’t do it. What a trooper for playing the keyboards and singing background even though she wasn’t feeling well!

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One last piece of reporting before moving on to the lead singers. The show was broken up into smaller sets to keep the transitions among musicians to a minimum. Each set had a Musical Director (M.D., as you’ll see below). Here’s is the order that they appeared on stage:

Mark Marshall, Justin Goldner, James Preston, Joe Brent and Scott Stein. Considering that there was only a single, five-hour rehearsal for everyone to come together, each of the M.D.’s deserves a huge round of applause (as do each of the musicians!).

Finally, the divas, both male and female. Winking smile

Chrissi Poland opened the show. Such a powerful voice. She’s currently raising money to record a new EP. Check out Chrissi’s music and help if you like it (and can afford to, obviously).

ChrissiPoland

Terry Brennan (no good individual link, but he’s in BELT Band with a couple of the other performers from last night!). I’ve seen Terry in the audience at a number of shows, but never knew his name, or that he was a performer himself. His voice was great last night, so now I know and can again count on LALM for introducing me to new talented people.

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Abby Ahmad put on yet another passionate performance.

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Martin Rivas was the only singer to sing two songs. In addition to killing it with a full band, he returned later to do the only solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

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Stephanie White’s vocals soared above the music. Incredible power with a laser-like precision. Stephanie was supposed to sing another song late in the set. The entire program ran over by 20 minutes, and Stephanie’s second number was an unfortunate casualty, getting cut at the last minute. You can catch Stephanie as part of Philth Harmonic (a band she’s in with Robbie LaFalce).

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Crystal Durant is another person we discovered at a LALM show (The Blues Bothers tribute). What a wonderful voice, both lead and background vocals.

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Jared Saltiel was another first for us. He was impressive, but I’m actually liking the music on his site even more, so click the link and check him out. Smile

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Eva Alexander was also new for us. We were both extremely impressed with her voice.

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Abby Payne is someone we’re very familiar with. In fact, I’ve written (glowingly) about her a number of times in the past few weeks. So, you’d think she couldn’t really surprise me, especially in an extremely positive way. Wrong. Backtracking for a bit. Abby is yet another performer that we discovered at the first Soul Revue. Here’s what I wrote about her lead singing that night:

Abby Payne did a very nice job (yes, the same Abby who nailed the piano parts!). The only issue is that it took Abby a bit to crank up the volume on her voice, which was necessary because she (and all of them) were competing with tons of instruments and other vocalists. Abby had an all-male backup singing contingent.

Note that my only complaint was that her voice didn’t soar above the music. Holy moly, last night Abby delivered all of the power, passion and clarity you could want in a voice that was clearly soaring above a stage full of awesome musicians. I was already a big Abby fan, but it seems that my fandom can grow.

AbbyPayne

Speaking of being a fan of Abby, please help her make a new CD (pretty please?). Nine days left as I write this. I have faith in all of you. Smile

Jeremiah Birnbaum did a wonderful job on his lead song, in addition to all of his guitar play and background singing throughout the set.

JeremiahBirnbaumJeremiahBirnbaumSinging

Nick Semrad was new to us. During the set that he played keyboards, he also sang lead on one song, very impressively.

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Ashley Lehmann sang (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, perhaps the best known song of the night (though there were a ton of real soul fans, who likely knew every song just as well as this one).

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Dani Tersini was awesome, hard to describe it any other way. Also new to us, but won’t be a stranger going forward. Her red dress seemed perfectly appropriate for her song, I Just Want to Make Love to You. Winking smile

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Scott Wolfson yet another first for us. I liked his voice a lot, and he did a fine job on his number, but I’m guessing that I’ll like his own shows even more.

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Maddy Wyatt was an extremely nice surprise for me. I was very impressed by her the only other time I’ve seen her, supporting Jeff Litman. That night she sang a ton of harmony (beautifully, but quite mellow) and played the flute (also beautifully). To see her come out and belt out a soul number with the full band was not what I expected. Oh yeah, she also accompanied herself on the acoustic guitar. Very nicely done, both vocals and guitar!

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Akie Bermiss continued the hit parade of firsters who did a marvelous job, with Crystal Durant doing heavy duty harmony with him. Akie is part of a band called Aabaraki (who we haven’t seen). You can stream and buy their album.

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Alec Gross has to be put in the same camp as I put Abby Payne earlier. I’m a fan, and I’ve enjoyed his sets before. But, I think of him as a fairly mellow folk singer. Not last night. He lit it up, completely. Very impressed.

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Andy Mac is someone we’ve seen do one full set before, plus one song at the James Taylor / Carole King benefit. He cranked it up a couple of notches last night and really delivered. He also played acoustic guitar, both while singing lead, and supporting Ashley Lehmann.

AndyMac

Bri Arden sang This Little Light. Ha, I fooled you, because I said sang, like that’s what Bri did. If you read this space regularly, you know Bri is the subject of a lot of posts. That’s because she’s always awesome. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she took this song and created a soaring vocal masterpiece. Seriously, it is not possible to describe it in words. You’ll have to wait until Sam uploads the individual videos (which he will do) to see a poor reproduction of what we were all treated to live!

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Above, I showed a picture of Crystal Durant and Megan Cox singing background. That was on Bri’s song. Dani Tersini and Ahsley Lehmann also sang background during this song:

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Brian Collazo is another one of our favorites, any time, any place. While there’s no good individual link to him, he’s best known for fronting the incredible band, Live Society. Brian was extraordinary when he sang lead, as he was on the numbers he sang background. That we couldn’t keep our eyes open to see him sing with Martin Rivas at Slane right after this show is something we’ll regret until we get to see him again (soon, I hope!).

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Brian also sang background on a number of songs. On this one, he was part of an all male contingent:

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Here’s he was standing in front of the brass section:

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Kenneth Harris sang lead on one song, in addition to playing keyboards on one of the mini-sets. He was awesome. This was a first time for us seeing him, definitely not the last. By the time he sang lead, he didn’t surprise me. When Brian Collazo sang lead (the song before), Kenneth sang primary harmony with him and he was absolutely amazing on that number. Keeping up with Brian is no small feat, and Kenneth was definitely up to the task.

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Scott Stein came to center stage to sing his lead, after playing keyboards for the remainder of the mini-set. Excellent, on both the keys and on lead vocals!

ScottSteinSinging

Evan Felts and Hudson Mueller (of The Gold Magnolias) shared lead vocals, with Evan doing most of the singing. Both new to us, both impressive. Evan did a classic soul dance throughout (a la James Brown himself). He had the crowd completely worked up in a lather. Tons of energy, great vocals.

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Grace McLean was the final newcomer to us. Grace performed perhaps the second most famous song (to me at least), Chain of Fools. Let’s see if I can be succinct in describing her: Wow! (OK, that was succinct, but not sufficient, how about: Holy Wow, Unreal!, yes, that’s better).

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Closing out the show was someone who we also discovered during that first LALM Soul Revue. He blew us away that night, and topped it last night. He had a gig of his own earlier that evening and rushed over to close out this one.

Jay Stolar stolar’ed the show (ba dum chi!). What a voice, what stage presence and delivery. In addition to singing his you-know-what off, he put on a show. He climbed on a table, got everyone to get up and shake it, dropped to the floor (as did a few of the performers) and generally got the blood rushing everywhere.

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For that last song, Sam was up on stage, first playing the tambourine in the back (his signature) but then coming forward to sing background, sharing the mic with Dani Tersini.

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After Martin’s second number, roughly halfway through the show, Sam introduced a representative from Foundation Fighting Blindness. I won’t get her name right, so I won’t attempt it. She described the work they do and the Vision Walk, and invited all of us to learn more about it, and join on the walk on April 21st.

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Whew, made it to the end (that comment was for me, not you!). Winking smile

Some closing notes and a treat!

When we were waiting for the doors to open, four German tourists came up to ask if we on line for the club next door. We told them what we were there to see. The guy in front of us in line went into a hard sales pitch to get them to join us. They seemed interested, but left to grab a bite, saying they might return.

Indeed, they got there in time for the start of the show. Both of us noticed them having a blast throughout, whooping louder than most people at the more feverish parts. Glad they believed us and joined. Even gladder they enjoyed it! Smile

As I noted up front, in addition to the artists donating their time, it’s also a showcase for them to be discovered. Sam does an amazing job of not only promoting them during the show, but of ensuring that they’re easy to find online. Sam had a two-page handout which listed every performer (except for Sarah Stern). You can find out what bands they play in, what site they’re at, what their Twitter handle is, etc. Here are both pages of the program:

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Here’s the set list (remember, they had to cut Stephanie White’s second song):

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Finally, the treat. Sam cut a short highlight reel. It’s great and will give you a good sense of some of the performers, but you simply have to trust me on two points: 1) Many of the ones that didn’t make this reel were awesome and 2) no video will ever sound and feel like the live version does! Sam will also be uploading a longer highlight reel, which will have at least a bit of every single song in it, so keep checking his YouTube channel:

Leave a Lasting Mark Highlights from April 3rd, 2012

As always, we were surrounded by friends, some of whom Lois captured:

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Alex Berger at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Alex Berger lives in London. That’s sad enough (for us, not necessarily for him), but the really sad part is that we get to see him perform rather infrequently. When he’s in town, and schedules a show, it’s a must-see event. Last night was the night!

From the first time we saw Alex perform (9/21/2009), I considered him to be an excellent songwriter, a great piano player and a constantly improving (and interesting!) guitar player. Add to those basics his absolutely amazing voice (last night showed off a multi-octave range) and his warm/funny/engaging/relaxed stage presence, and you can be sure we’ll be coming to see him for years to come.

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In addition to playing the title cut from his previous (still current) CD, Snow Globe (a multi award-winning number), Alex mostly played songs from his upcoming (as yet unrecorded) CD. I really love every song that I’ve heard. In addition to being great songs in general, Alex seems to have found a niche (for my taste) in making people laugh out loud at his lyrics.

In other words, he’s translated the easy warmth/humor in his stage banter to fantastic lyrics/images in song. What makes them more special is his delivery. Comedy has two necessary components: the actual material (the thing that makes our brains recognize the twist) and the delivery (which is most often accentuated by comedic timing). Alex has crafted funny songs, but his timing/pacing in delivering those lines is impeccable.

I can’t wait for this CD to be made. I have helped make that a reality, and if you want to do me (and yourself) a personal favor, you’ll help too! Alex is raising money to have it produced (again, like his previous award-winning effort, by the equally amazing Alex Wong). You can click on this link to contribute.

This new CD is full of songs that Alex co-wrote with other talented singer/songwriters. Three of them guest-starred to sing and play the songs with Alex. He also had some special musical guests and even a dancer (yes, it was a spectacle). So, let’s get to it.

Ward Williams joined Alex to open the show. In addition to setting up his cello, Ward pulled over one of the mics from center stage. He noted that he needed it for the big surprise finish. That surprise? Ward singing gorgeous harmony with Alex at the very end of the song. Needless to say, Ward’s cello play was outstanding, complementing Alex’s equally amazing piano play.

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Adam Levy joined Alex to accompany him on their song, A Kiss is as Sweet. Alex sang, Adam sweetly finger-picked the electric guitar, including taking a very long and wonderful solo in the middle.

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Ari Hest joined to sing harmony and finger-pick an acoustic guitar on their co-written number. The interplay with the piano and guitar was beautiful, and Ari’s voice is always wonderful, solo or singing harmony (with pretty much anyone!). Smile

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Andrew Nemr joined to add percussion to the next song. Well, it was a bit more complicated that that, as the percussion was actually delivered via tap dancing. Andrew is a top dancer.

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He danced on two numbers. On the first, Alex played the guitar (wonderfully!). On the second, Alex sang The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), almost a cappella. There was an amazing bass player who provided the only accompaniment (described next). At one point, it was just Andrew dancing and the bass player, with Alex watching in amazement.

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Gregory Jones was the bass player, on the upright. He was wonderful on Alex’s song, but really came to life when he was the sole instrument (if you don’t include the sound made by tap shoes) on The Christmas Song. Very well done!

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Jay Stolar came up to sing and play acoustic guitar on their co-written number, Last Night in Tokyo (one of the ones that slays me). They asked Martin Rivas to join them so they could amp up the three-part harmony. An absolutely perfect way to end an exceptional set!

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We got to say hi to so many people before the show (some that we see all the time, and some that only come out for special occasions, of which Alex Berger is obviously one). More photos were taken as we were leaving (after the next set, covered separately), so here are only a few of the ones that were taken before Alex’s set:

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Backscratch XVII at Rockwood Music Hall

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Last night we attended the early show at Joe’s Pub. Under normal circumstances, we would have run home after the show. These were not normal circumstances. Over at Rockwood Music Hall, timed perfectly for us, was Backscratch XVII. That would have been more than enough to get us to stay out for another few hours.

More poignantly, and most unfortunately, this was also billed as the last NYC-based Backscratch. Folks, that’s simply a tragedy (of reasonably large proportions). The concept of Backscratch was originated by Martin Rivas (and I think Craig Meyer). It will live on in London, run by Alex Berger, but unless I can find a way to blackmail Martin (or twist his arm really hard), it’s going to be very expensive to catch one of these shows in the future.

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In addition to just wanting to catch any Backscratch show, the lineup for last night was particularly tasty. Every performer was particularly sharp (they understood the stakes), so it ended up being an extra-special night all around.

Quick recap of what a Backscratch is: 6-9 performers. Each does three numbers. One has to be a cover of one of the other performers. They get drawn randomly and no one knows in advance who is doing their song. For the other two numbers, deep tradition has the artist performing one of their originals plus a well-known cover. More recently, many artists perform two originals.

Stephanie White and the Philth Harmonic were up first. The Philth Harmonic is Robbie LaFalce (considering that Stephanie’s name appears separately and there are only two of them). Let’s start with Stephanie. We’ve seen her sing one song, at one of Sam Techman’s Leave a Lasting Mark benefit shows. She was extraordinary then, and again last night. The woman can sing, pure and simple.

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We’ve seen Robbie LaFalce three times, all at Sam Teichman benefits. At the first, he drummed. The second, he played piano. The third, he drummed, played piano, and sang. Last night, he played the electric guitar on all three numbers. Beautiful play, subtly, but interestingly supporting Stephanie.

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This was the first time that we saw them play together, as the Philth Harmonic.

Unlike most Backscratch performers, they chose to do their cover as the middle number (there are no hard-and-fast rules). They drew The Vanity Belles. I am not familiar enough with the VB version to tell you how much Stephanie morphed it, but I can tell you that Stephanie was exceptional in performing her version.

On one of the numbers, Robbie added a percussion loop and some looping of him clapping and playing guitar. It created a much bigger sound than the two of them would otherwise have.

Morgan Karr was up next. I had never seen him before. He kicked it off on the grand piano, playing beautifully, but really, showing off a great voice. For the next number, he came to center stage and just sang (he had accompaniment) without playing any instrument. Again, his voice really shone and I really liked his songs as well.

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For his backscratch, he sang accompanied by only an upright bass. He drew Jay Stolar. Again, I wasn’t familiar with Jay’s song, but Morgan nailed his rendition of it, hitting some high notes spectacularly.

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Morgan was accompanied by two top-notch musicians:

Justin Goldner on acoustic guitar. I’ve seen Justin a number of times, mostly playing bass for Bri Arden and Sam’s benefits. I also saw him play acoustic guitar for a very intimate performance of Bri’s. He blows me away on the bass, but hadn’t on the acoustic guitar that one time. Last night, supporting Morgan, he showed a lot more skill on the acoustic guitar.

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Lorenzo Wolff on upright bass. Very good on the first two numbers. On the backscratch, he was the sole accompaniment (Justin sat that one out and Morgan sang). Hearing just a bass with a great vocalist really highlights how good (or not) the bass player is. Lorenzo is really good! Smile

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Abby Ahmad was up next. Another first for me. Great voice, very interesting guitar play. I really liked her songs as well. In other words, someone I intend to go see doing a full set soon (she’s playing Rockwood on Thursday at 11pm, but that might be too late for me that night).

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For her backscratch, she drew Morgan Karr. Another winner (both the song and her rendition).

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Abby was accompanied by two extremely talented people:

Adam Minkoff on electric bass and floor tom. On Abby’s first number, Adam took the floor tom from the drum kit and brought it up on stage. He and the drummer (up next) played together, mostly on the rims first (in unison) and then separately, creating an extraordinary jungle rhythm for Abby to sing to.

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For the next two numbers, Adam switched to his more usual electric bass, and of course, was his usual excellent self.

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Sean Dixon on drums (again, no good link for him). This was my second time seeing Sean, and again he was excellent. In addition to playing the drum kit (minus the floor tom which Adam swiped, he also played the djembe on one number, beautifully. In fact, he put the djembe where the floor tom would have been. Not sure where else he could have placed it otherwise. Smile

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Jay Stolar was up next. We’ve never seen Jay do his own stuff, but have seen him sing a song here and there (as a guest, and at a benefit concert). He has a superb voice which was in full effect last night and played the acoustic guitar. I really enjoyed his two songs.

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He drew Derek James for his backscratch. He chose Mama Said (it helps that I’m Derek James’ biggest fan, self-declared, so that I at least know which song Jay was covering). He played it so much slower than Derek does, but it totally worked. I’ll still take Derek’s version, but huge Kudos to Jay for creative arrangement and execution!

Jason Wexler accompanied Jay Stolar on his two numbers, sitting out the backscratch. Jason was superb on the grand piano. It started off in a funny manner. Jay began by picking on one or two notes, repeatedly, in a slow rhythmic manner, alone, no singing and no piano accompaniment. After a minute, Jay turned to Jason and said “Feel free to join in any time!”. Winking smile

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Jason laughed and immediately launched into a fantastic series of piano leads. Satisfied, Jay started singing. Smile

Derek James was up next. This was the first time I’ve seen Derek solo. I loved both of his numbers, which he dedicated to Terry. He kicked it off with What’s That Sound from his first CD, Stray. In a small-world story, I didn’t have that CD (though I’ve seen Derek perform the song a number of times), but Lois had secretly arranged with Derek in advance to purchase the CD last night, so I have it now! Smile

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I was totally satisfied with Derek’s solo performance, but I admit that with the full band, there’s a swagger that was missing last night.

Derek drew Stephanie and the Philth Harmonic for his backscratch and did a beautiful job. Another example of me not knowing the original, so I can’t compare the versions.

The final act to close down the NYC-based backscratches (unless I have my way with Martin!) were The Vanity Belles. I’ve mentioned how much I love them a number of times, even though the first time I’ve ever seen them perform live, as themselves, was just this past Wednesday at a benefit show.

They were stripped down last night, the two Belles, Carrie Welling and Jessi Rae Waltz, accompanied by the amazing Oscar Bautista on acoustic guitar (they typically have a full band).

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They opened with a brand new song that so blew me away I can’t find the words to describe it. I happened to be standing next to their manager, Patryk Larney, and I couldn’t contain myself after the song. I turned to him and said: “Holy cow, that was absolutely extraordinary!”.

He said that he agreed, and they just finished it and rushed to get it on the new CD (of which I am a very proud Kickstarter contributor). I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know that I will soon own this song.

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Their next song had Jessi move to the grand piano. It too was absolutely breathtaking.

They finished with their backscratch, drawing Abby Ahmad. Another mind-blowing performance, and I really loved the song too (credit for that to Abby, obviously, though I have no idea how her original version sounds).

Folks, if The Vanity Belles don’t make it, the world is very broken.

They closed the show by awarding Martin Rivas with an actual backscratcher, dated and signed by everyone who appeared last night. A very nice gesture indeed!

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Here a pic of Alex Berger, currently the only Backscratch Master, with Jay Stolar. Alex has a show in 3 hours at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2, so hurry up and get over there! Smile

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Alex Berger at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Alex Berger headlined a special show at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 last night. Special, because we Americans rarely get an opportunity to see him since he abandoned us 20 months ago to return to his native England. His last show in NYC was also at Rockwood 2, 11 months ago (covered here).

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Alex is like a giant English magnet. In addition to hearing great music, performed wonderfully, it was like being in a friend’s living room (a very large, crowded one), given how many of the people we love we bumped into, hugged, waved to, chatted with, etc. (Photos at the bottom of a small sample of said people.)

Right before Alex returned to England, he put out his debut album, Snow Globe. It has since won two International awards. He has amassed enough new material to record his second CD, which he’ll be doing in a few months, produced by Alex Wong (who also produced Snow Globe).

Alex opened the show solo at the grand piano. He captivated the audience with his silky voice and exceptional piano play. From that point on, most of the songs had at least one special guest (often more). This morning I read a tweet, which I couldn’t agree with more:

martinrivas Martin Rivas

So impressed with how @BergerAlex so effortlessly carries a room by himself. What a show!

Alex switched back-and-forth between the piano and an electric guitar. In a not-so-small irony, that guitar (which sounded amazing) was borrowed from his good friend Adam Levy. Adam just happened to be headlining a set on the other side of the wall at Rockwood 1. Each would likely have happily guested on the other’s set, if it were not for the bad luck scheduling.

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In addition to sporting Adam’s guitar, Alex used it to play a song they co-wrote, which will be on the upcoming CD, A Kiss is as Sweet as it Gets.

Alex played a number of songs that he co-wrote with other top NYC-based songwriters. I believe that every one of them will be on the new CD. Two of them were guest stars who got to sing the song with Alex.

The first was Jay Stolar who came up with an acoustic guitar. That song was not the song Jay co-wrote with Alex. He sang Ari Hest’s part in a song Ari co-wrote with Alex.

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Alex Wong joined Alex Berger, along with Martin Rivas (who played Adam Levy’s guitar, beautifully!), to sing their co-written The Fighter. That song will be on each of their upcoming CD’s. Let the battle begin to see which one does it better. Keep in mind that Wong is producing both CDs, so Berger better be careful of sabotage if winning the title is important to Wong. Winking smile

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Jay Stolar returned late in the set (second-to-last song?) with Martin Rivas and Chrissi Poland to sing the song he co-wrote with Alex. The introduction was but one example of how relaxed and entertaining Alex is in talking to the audience (I’d almost say caressing the audience). He noted that this was a very upbeat song about the End of the World. Winking smile

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The four of them proceeded to make us laugh while singing their hearts out.

Speaking of laughing, perhaps my favorite song of the evening was one Alex co-wrote with Bess Rogers (who is on tour and couldn’t be there). This song is about reading too much into every situation. It’s hysterical, but so melodic and lyrical. Alex was awesome on the guitar as well, making his lush picking and strumming seem effortless. It was a joy, with everyone laughing at practically every line.

This photo doesn’t quite capture the ease with which Alex delivers his banter, but it will at least remind us of it. Smile

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For completeness sake, another song Alex performed was co-written with Allie Moss (who also couldn’t attend last night). In other words, Alex has very good taste in who to write with, as do each of the people who were wise enough to write with him. Smile

I can’t give you the titles to any of these songs, as I didn’t notice a set list on stage to grab.

Ezra Gale on upright bass accompanied Alex on roughly half the songs. He was terrific on every number.

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Andrew Nemr joined Alex to dance on two numbers. He tapped beautifully (and mostly subtly), adding the only percussion of the performance. He was originally scheduled to do one number, but everyone encouraged him to stay on stage for the next one as well.

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I mentioned above that Snow Globe won two awards. One was by a panel that included Tom Waits, one of Alex’s inspirations. Even though Alex had a ton of new (original) material he would never have the time to get through in this set, he wanted to honor Tom’s influence on him (and the selection of Snow Globe as Best Story Song!), so he played one Tom Waits song on the piano.

The guest performers obviously enjoyed the set even when they weren’t on stage!

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Great music, performed wonderfully, surrounded by friends in a warm environment. Alex Berger better not make us wait another 11 months before he plays in NYC again!

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