A Cappella

The Thang Band at Lagond Music School

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The Thang Band headlined a set at Lagond Music School last night, closing out a fantastic show. I already posted about the set before them, Greg Mayo Band. I have seen The Thang Band once before and was really looking forward to seeing them again. I was nervous and excited for Lois to see them.

I wrote an incredibly long description of The Thang when I first saw them. I was tempted to reproduce it in its entirety here, but 1/3 of it doesn’t apply (because it wasn’t the same audience and they toned down their act a drop because this performance was at a school after all…). You can read the full description for yourself about 1/2 way down this one-year-old post.

Basically, The Thang are top musicians, irreverently performing for their pleasure. The rest of us are given permission to enjoy it with them (in fact, we’re encouraged). The irreverence touches everything they do, including the innuendo-laden tongue-in-cheek lyrics and the dramatic acting (presentation) of some of those lyrics. It’s a thing of beauty (or is it a thang of beauty?), if you can let go of societal norms for a little while. Winking smile

Even in a slightly toned down show, there is something that simply can’t be contained: Energy. Their shows are upbeat, joyous spectacles.

They went through three wardrobe changes. Each was layered, so it was only a matter of removing a layer of clothing. The photos will tell the story, but you have to come to a show to experience the deep dialog that is coupled with each change. Winking smile

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I normally mention band members from a left-to-right perspective, but that feels wrong with this band, so I will simply cover them in the order that I feel like at the moment.

Paul Maddison is one of three front men, but I declare him to be slightly more forward than the others. He plays the guitar (obviously), but that actually takes a back seat to both his vocals and his overall showmanship. Paul is like the conductor (of an orchestra, not a train). In addition to interacting heavily with every band member, he’s constantly drawing the audience in.

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That last phrase is literal as well as figurative. He beckoned (more like insisted, strongly) that people come right up to the stage and bunch up and become part of the show. They did. If they were reluctant to begin with, that feeling faded right away as everyone was swept up in the show.

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I have never taken the time to introduce myself to Paul. Last night, during the opener, he was standing right next to me. For whatever reason, I still didn’t introduce myself. That’s just stupid (on my part), since he brings me a lot of joy and he deserves to know it directly from me. I will correct that next time, pinky swear!

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Dan Golden on keyboards, harmonica and vocals. He’s nearly equal to Paul in front man duties and as I noted the last time, definitely up to that enormous challenge. He’s excellent on both keys and vocals. On occasion he even steps away from the keyboard and sings (or talks/raps) directly to the audience (something Paul does a ton).

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Rob Pawlings (a.k.a Bobby Bananas) on electric bass and vocals. I wrote about Rob in my earlier post about Greg Mayo Band, where he filled in for Chris Anderson. In this set, he cranked the bass up a notch (hard to do, as in some of the Mayo songs he was really wailing) but here he added quite a bit of vocals, including a fair amount of lead.

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In one number, parodying any typical big-name rock band, he would have slammed his bass on the stage and jumped on it (for the full effect), except that it’s unlikely that any of them can afford to smash (and replace!) their beloved instruments. So, he went through the motion, but instead very gently laid the bass down on the stage and gestured at it as if he were hurting it. Winking smile

As opposed to my inexplicable lack of introducing myself to Paul, I went out of my way to find Rob before the show and introduce myself. I’ve become a big fan of his, in particular when I saw him play with Abby Payne (also filling in for Chris Anderson that night). This was the fifth set that I’ve seen Rob play (including the one right before with Greg Mayo).

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Dave Freedman on electric guitar. Dave is the quietest one in The Thang. He doesn’t sing or talk, but his guitar play speaks volumes. Paul is good enough to play lead in this band (or any other!), but by having Dave there to fulfill that role (brilliantly), Paul is really freed to run the show. Wait, because of Dave, Paul is a freed man. Hmmm, perhaps it’s all an illusion, and there is no Dave Freed Man. Winking smile

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Last but certainly not least!

Kenny Shaw on drums, cowbell, shakers, conducting and even light vocals. I mentioned in the previous post that I would heap a bunch more praise on Kenny. Of course he was great in the Greg Mayo Band set. The Thang is non-stop upbeat rock. The drummer (Kenny, in case you’re not paying attention) is in constant motion. He’s so fluid, fast and tasty that it’s a thing of beauty to behold.

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On one number, Kenny came out from behind the drums, Dan left his keyboard, and everyone but Dave sang a cappella with their arms around each other. Yes, that includes Kenny, pushing out some sounds through his larynx. Late in the song he whipped out a shaker (in the shape of an egg), which got a lot of hoots because it was the only instrument used on that tune. (Well, I think Dave gave them some very light-touch guitar accompaniment as well.)

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Toward the end of the number, he broke away from the others (Paul, Dan and Rob) and conducted the end of the song by moving his arm up and down, so that they knew whether to raise or lower their voices. Nicely done by all of them.

KennyShawConducting

Martin Rivas was a guest on the previous set. He missed this one because he was performing at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 while this show was going on. He tweeted two short videos of Kenny Shaw with a halo of lights over his head (from the previous set!). Here’s a still that makes Kenny look more like an alien:

KennyShawAlien

Late in the set Paul called up two very special guests. Both are/were students at Lagond. I’m not going to link to them because I have no idea how they intend to promote themselves, but each was easy for me to find if you care to check them out yourself.

Alex Silverstein on electric guitar. Paul admonished the rest of the students in the room to get back to their practice, given what they were about to hear out of Alex. One might assume that Paul was simply complimenting a student (encouraging him), but no, no no no, he was giving the rest of the guitarists in the room fair warning that Alex is the real deal and they better get on the stick.

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I don’t even want to tell you how young he is (it would make both of us cry!), but trust me, he’s still a kid (who knows if his voice has broken yet). Let me assure you, he doesn’t play guitar like a kid. He’s got the skills and the feel for the music. Bobby Bananas (Rob Pawlings) gave him a lesson in theatrics during one song, which Alex followed perfectly. He’s the complete package.

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Kevin Myers on drums. Kenny stepped to the side and played the cowbell and shakers while Kevin took over the drum kit. Those are some big shoes to fill, especially during the same set that Kenny just tore it up. And yet, another holy cow, Kevin was up to the task (and more). He really was fantastic on both numbers (very long ones).

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There was another benefit to having Kevin behind the drums (aside from his incredible play). It freed Kenny up to play a cowbell solo, seriously! In addition to the solo itself being awesome (Kenny didn’t just hit the outside of the cowbell in various spots at various tempos, he also rapidly beat up the inside of the cowbell with a drumstick.

It would have been amazing at that, but I would also swear that at one point, the sound guy quickly alternated between the left and right speakers, to that every other strike of the cowbell came from a different speaker, creating a phenomenal stereo effect (like there were dueling cowbells). If I’m wrong about that, then it’s time to get my hearing checked (which very well may be the case)…

Steven Salcedo was called up to play a long sax solo in one of the last songs. Paul personally walked the microphone down from the rear of the stage so that Steven could serenade us up close. Thanks Paul. Getting another taste of Steven’s play (he was a highlight during the previous Mayo Band set) was a nice way to top off an extraordinary evening.

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And, what show is complete without someone doing push ups on stage?

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Now all I have to do is start training to stay up real late, as most Thang Band shows start at midnight or later. That made last night an extra special treat. Smile

Apollo Run Acoustic Show at Rockwood Music Hall

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Apollo Run headlined a special acoustic show at Rockwood Music Hall last night. I characterized it as special (that’s not how they billed it), because it gave me a chance to evaluate their core musical proposition relatively quickly after my first encounter with them three weeks ago.

ApolloRunAcoustic

In that first show, I had tons of good things to say. I also had some negatives, most of which revolved around everything being way too loud that night. An acoustic show would let me know what’s what (or at least should).

I now know everything I need to know about Apollo Run and you can take it to the bank. They are awesome, no ifs, ands or buts.

Big picture: amazing vocals (individually and harmony), excellent musicians, great songs (sounds like all of the ingredients to me).

Pesky details:

John McGrew on acoustic guitar, piano and lead vocals. John mostly played the acoustic guitar throughout the set. He switched over to the grand piano for one full number, then returned to the grand with his guitar still around his neck to finish another one. However, like I noted in my first write-up, what really separates John from the pack is his voice. It’s fantastic.

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Graham Fisk on percussion and vocals. When I saw Graham line up on stage with the others, a different kind of shaker in each hand, I worried that I’d miss out on his drumming. He’s an exceptional drummer, which I fully appreciated the first time around, even though the volume was too high. Not to worry.

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While I am sure I would have loved hearing the drums (with a light touch), Graham’s sensibility with the shakers was fine. More importantly (much more importantly), his voice is really great (as I noted last time) and he sings so well with John. Not having the drums allowed that aspect to shine even more.

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Jeff Kerestes on acoustic bass, ukulele, grand piano and vocals. Even for the acoustic show, the formula for splitting the duties between the three seemed fairly constant. That meant that Jeff handled much of the melodic work, even on the bass. He’s an incredible bass player, so having him be front-and-center works well.

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When he switched to the ukulele, he didn’t just strum (which is what the majority of uke players do), but also finger-picked a bit and played some lead. Very nicely done!

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In a move that didn’t happen at the amplified show, Jeff took to the grand piano for one song. Another instrument that he can handle ably.

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He sang roughly half as much as Graham did, always very well, creating gorgeous three-part harmonies. When John played the piano, Jeff put down all of his instruments and moved next to Graham to sing.

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Even though it was an acoustic show, they project a power and energy which is palpable (you can even catch it on film):

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They closed the show with the same bang that they did at Rockwood 2, with all three descending into the audience to sing All in Good Time, a cappella, clapping and stomping, with most of the audience joining in. Awesome.

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Their set list was on John’s phone (I know that, because John had to call out to have a friend hand it up from the audience). Lois didn’t get to take a photo of the iPhone screen, so I reached out after the show to have Jeff send me a copy. He ended his note with “I think….”, so I don’t want anyone to sue me (or him), if this was the exact set list:

Desire
Nightingale
Love song
Annie Mae
That’s how it felt
Myography
Tiger blood
These kind of girls
Stars
All in good time

They mentioned that they had copies of their first two EPs for sale: Here Be Dragons (Vol’s I and II). We bought a copy of each. I listened to both this morning and love them! They are nearing completion of Vol III (produced by Dan Molad of Lucius and others). Looking forward to getting my hands on that as well.

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OK, glad to know that all of the people who raved to me about Apollo Run knew exactly what they were talking about. If I find myself in a similar situation to the first show, all I need to do is climb up into the sound booth and force the sound guy to dial back the master volume. Winking smile

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.

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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

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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

Apollo Run at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Apollo Run headlined a set at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2. I’ve heard about Apollo Run from a number of people, including a band that we love who has opened for them on more than one tour. All of them told me I’d love them.

ApolloRun

They might end up being right, I certainly understand the excitement, but last night’s set didn’t do it for me. On the other hand, the crowd, made up of their fans, went nuts (in the good sense) on every song, so I was in the teeny tiniest minority.

Every element of why I would normally love them was there, in spades, which is why I allow for the fact that I could (easily) get there, eventually. Given that, I’ll cover only the positive things first, allowing any of their fans to shake their heads in agreement first, then they can split when I turn to the negatives, or they can shake their heads in pity at my lack of understanding.

The good:

Each of the three members of Apollo Run is incredibly talented in multiple ways. The whole is greater than the sum of their individual parts. I’ll describe each first, then talk about the group, their sound and how you can easily check them out (which we did before we decided to go).

John McGrew is the lead singer. Last night he mostly played the electronic keyboards. He tossed in a cool trumpet part in the middle of one song (then tucked the trumpet between his legs to finish the song on the keyboards). He played the electric guitar on the final (stage) number, but also played a bit of keyboards in that.

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He was good on the keyboards, but he was great on vocals. He has a very crisp voice that can hit very high notes without going falsetto. There’s something very compelling about his voice. He’s extremely passionate in everything he does on stage (including dropping to his knees to wail on the electric guitar during the finale). His fans went wild whenever he took it up a notch.

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Graham Fisk on drums and vocals. Graham is an exceptional drummer. He’s the primary harmony vocalist as well, singing roughly 50% of the time that John is singing lead. Their voices blend so well. Apollo Run’s songs are mostly filled with very driving rhythms/beats and Graham is an integral (perhaps actually critical) part of that sound.

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Jeff Kerestes on electric bass, ukulele and vocals. Jeff is one of the most inventive (and talented) bass players I’ve seen. Since there wasn’t a lead guitar in the set, and John played more chords than lead on the keyboards, Jeff was often playing fast and sophisticated leads on the bass. He also played with both hands on the frets a couple of times, creating a superfast sound (like the top acoustic guitarists do). Wildly impressive.

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Jeff also sings really well, creating a gorgeous three-part harmony with John and Graham. I estimate that he sang roughly 20% of the time. For you math-heads out there, that means he sang roughly 40% of the time that Graham did. Winking smile

Jeff played the ukulele on two songs, one of which was a song they wrote last year, during Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, where they put Charlie’s actual words to music. Smile

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Jeff is the only one that I’ve seen before. He played a few numbers in support of Alex Liang Wong, also at Rockwood 2. I was impressed that night as well, writing the following:

He was quite good.

Jeff joined for one additional number later in the set and played in a style I don’t often see. He spent much of the song sliding one hand or the other, up and down the frets, very slowly. It produced a gorgeous sound in accompaniment of a slower, more soulful song.

The three-part harmonies are awesome. Unreal power, not subtle stuff, except when there are few or no instruments accompanying them, in which case they can totally control their voices to get more mellow, but still beautiful.

We listened to one song (and watched the clever YouTube video). We loved the song so we were very excited to go see them. If you are prone to epileptic seizures, don’t watch the video, just listen to the song. I think it’s angelic. Parts of it would certainly be appropriate for welcoming people to heaven:

Apollo Run – Stars – Official Video

One more video, of a live performance at Rockwood 2, of the song where John plays the trumpet in the middle. Good shots of each of them, so you can get a sense of the experience, specifically at Rockwood 2:

Apollo Run – Fireman – Live at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

They closed the show by jumping off the stage and going into the heart of the crowd. They sang “All in Good Time”, a cappella, a gospel revival type song. The crowd joined in the clapping and foot stomping in a big way, producing a huge sound.

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Here’s a tiny clip (part of their promo for their second EP, released last year). It will give you a good idea of what All in Good Time felt/sounded like last night. I tried to queue it up to the 1 minute 47 second mark, where that part starts. I couldn’t get it to work for this embedded video, so feel free to skip to 1m47s:

Promo for Here Be Dragons Vol II by Apollo Run

On the home page of their site (first link in this post), you can exchange your email for a free download of City Lights, which you can also stream on the left side first. It’s beautiful.

So, this was all pretty awesome stuff, how is it even possible that you didn’t like the set, Hadar?

We’ll get to that in one second (so please tune out if you only wanted to read glowing stuff about Apollo Run).

Here’s the set list:

SetList

The bad:

While everything I said above was evident last night, the glowing descriptions come more from my listening to them all morning, both on their site and on John’s site (where it starts streaming the minute you click on it, which isn’t so cool, but the music is!).

Last night, rather than enjoying the sound, I felt assaulted by the sound. Three things caused that, all cumulative (making it worse):

1) The volume was cranked up way too high. It was balanced to some extent, so it wasn’t just one piercing thing, but it ended up washing out the otherwise extraordinary vocals. In fact, hearing lyrics (for someone unfamiliar with their songs) was nearly impossible. All of the recordings I listened to today were clean, even when they were infused with the same energy that last night was meant to deliver. I’m a drum fanatic (freak is a more accurate description), but even though Graham is fantastic (on every level), the drums were way too loud last night.

2) As amazing as Jeff is on the bass (truly), he turned on a bunch of effects throughout the set. At times he sounded like an organ, at others like a fuzz box. I guess there’s music where that would enhance the sound/mood, but to me, it was a huge distraction, especially at the volume he was playing (see above).

3) Because of the volume, the vocals felt like they were being screamed at me, even though they hit every note, cleanly. I’m not sure I can explain it well, but essentially, the vocals should feel somewhat louder than the instruments (for such a harmony-driven group), without feeling that they are too loud, or that the singers are working too hard to overcome the instruments.

So, while I could concentrate on picking out any sound I wanted (hence my description of the sound being balanced), it was all a wall of sound coming at me, rather than highlighted things (like the harmony, or a bass lead, etc.) floating appropriately above the background.

Now for a word from opposite world. I’ve already mentioned that their fans are in love with them. There was dancing, tons of swaying and head bobbing, and generally a feel of getting lost in the music (all good things). And yet, on every single quiet passage (of which there are a reasonable number, during intros, endings and some bridges), dozens of people were talking so loudly that I wanted to cry for John, who was singing so softly, sweetly and soulfully, over very few other sounds.

Aside from the rudeness, I just felt that the fans want the assault of sound. They’re not interested in the artistry and the individual skills that can best be sampled at really quiet volumes. They want to lose themselves in the energy. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to everyone in the room, many of whom were likely really annoyed at the talkers. But, this wasn’t one loud person or couple (which is more often the case), this was a meaningful percentage of their fans.

It might not bug Apollo Run at all, because they might just love the party atmosphere that defined the overall set, but it bothered me a ton, largely because those were the most beautiful parts of the set.

So, I have the dilemma of whether to go out and see them again. My guess is I will, likely when it’s convenient to an adjacent set I’m going to see anyway. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll just buy their music and listen to it without all of the distractions I felt last night.

A Holiday Benefit #5 at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Last week I scanned the Rockwood Music Hall website for this week’s shows. There was a show listed for last night simply labeled: “A Holiday Benefit”. The performers were a mixture of our favorite who’s who, plus a couple of groups we have wanted to see for a while, but scheduling has gotten in the way.

I snagged two tickets and excitedly waited for the week to pass. It turns out that this was the fifth (and unfortunately last) installment of this particular annual Holiday Benefit. It is organized by Benjamin Wagner (with some others who helped co-found it). The money raised is for 826NYC. Great cause, great people involved in raising the money and great musicians all around.

Bottom line: my expectations were very high. I was blown away beyond those expectations on two levels: most of the people we know brought their A+ games and we discovered some people that became instant favorites!

There were 16 acts (individuals and groups), some accompanied by a house band. Each act performed two numbers. The entire atmosphere at Rockwood was that of a party filled with loved ones. In fact, some of the musicians noted (on Twitter, and probably elsewhere) that it was more like an Office Party for them, given how many musicians were performing and in the audience. We were thrilled to participate in said party.

In addition to the ticket price going to the charity, this was also an official CD Release Party. Physical CDs were on sale for $10. $20 got you the physical CD of A Holiday Benefit #5 plus downloads of the previous four albums. Of course we did that. We kicked in more money later to purchase CDs by some of the performers, signed, with the proceeds going to 826NYC as well.

At the end, the encore involved inviting all of the performers back on stage together to sing one last song. It was hard to count accurately, as people kept jumping on stage (even some who didn’t perform earlier), but I’m 99% sure that at one point there were at least 26 people on stage at the same time. If that’s correct, that’s a new record for a show I’ve attended (sorry Sam Teichman, you have your work cut out for you now!). Winking smile

There’s no way to review a show like this without spending an entire day writing (something I don’t have the time to do today, nor the inclination). In fact, it’s sort of beside the point. What I’ll do instead is similar to what I did for the Haiti Benefit nearly two years ago. I’ll list the acts in the order they appeared, and mention who supported them. When first mentioning a support person, I might say a few extra words.

Mary Bragg (#1). Mary was new to us. Great voice. On her second number she also played acoustic guitar. She was accompanied by two very talented people, who I think played only with her. I’ll list them next.

MaryBragg

Mike Cassedy on electronic keyboards. Excellent. Mary gave him a couple of leads and he was great.

MikeCassedy

Jimmy Sullivan on electric bass (no good individual link). He too was excellent. He made the electric bass sound exactly like a very jazzy upright on one of the numbers. He was smooth.

JimmySullivan

Casey Shea (#2) on electric guitar and vocals. Casey was wonderful. In addition to singing and playing well, he was very funny. He had two female backup singers, each of which was a lead performer later in the show, so I’ll save their names for their proper spots.

CaseyShea

Casey brought up Sean White to read a poem to end one of his songs. It continued the comic nature of an otherwise horrifyingly sad song (my house burned down on Christmas).

CaseySheaPaulaValsteinMistyBoyceSeanWhite

Paula Valstein (#3). We’ve seen Paula once before, at the Haiti Benefit. She played solo at the electronic keyboards. Great voice, excellent piano play. Definitely someone we need to check out more (one of our friends has been telling that to me for a while). Paula was also one of Casey Shea’s backup singers.

PaulaValstein

Astoria Boulevard (#4). Wow! I can’t believe I never heard them (or of them) before. Three guys who sing heavenly three-part harmony. They’re funny and natural on stage as well. They opened the first number a cappella and knocked me back a few steps with how awesome they were.

AstoriaBoulevard

Guitar, ukulele, harmonica and kazoos were played too. They were supported by the default house band (the next two people listed).

Ryan Vaughn on drums. Ryan was fantastic playing with roughly half of the acts last night. Ryan also joined for Mary Bragg’s second number, so I should have listed him earlier.

RyanVaughn

Tony Maceli on electric bass. Tony was his usual excellent self whenever he was on stage, which was a bit less than Ryan, but still the primary bass player for the evening.

TonyMaceli

Dave Pittenger (#5). We’ve never seen him, but I’ve heard of him many times. Mostly because he’s producing Live Society’s new CD (or at least I think it’s him). Dave invited two special guests up, Bess Rogers and Chris Kuffner to kick off his first number. Dave and Bess flubbed Baby It’s Cold Outside a bit, but turned it into a very good natured thing.

ChrisKuffnerDavePittengerBessRogers

Chris played the electric guitar in an understated but fascinating manner. When they had to restart, he signaled to Ryan and Tony to join in, filling out the sound.

Dave then performed a second number accompanying himself on the electric guitar (with Ryan and Tony playing).

DavePittenger

Misty Boyce (#6). Misty kicked off her numbers on the guitar (I didn’t know she played the guitar), with the second number on the keyboards. Her voice is fantastic. In addition to playing the keyboards really well accompanying herself, she also played them with a couple of other acts, super tasty every time. I’ve been wanting to see her perform her own set for a while and this only increased that desire. She was the second backup singer supporting Casey Shea.

MistyBoyceGuitarMistyBoyceKeyboards

Nick Africano (#7). We hadn’t seen Nick before. (That’s a total lie, Nick played with Misty during her first number, so we saw him before he took center stage!). He played the guitar beautifully (subtle slide leads). When he took over, Misty played the keyboards and she called up Bess Rogers, Paula Valstein and Charlene Kaye to sing backup. Very nicely done. We will be on the lookout for Nick in the future.

NickAfricano

Greg Mayo Band (#8). OK, it was technically the Greg Mayo Band, without the brass section. They also weren’t wearing suits, so I’m not sure how official this appearance was. That said, they were incredible, so I have no complaints! They had a guest vocalist and percussionist join them, but since each was a headliner as well, I’ll mention them later.

GregMayoKeyboards

Here are the people that were in the Greg Mayo Band setup last night (left-to-right on stage, not including the guests):

Paul Maddison on electric guitar and vocals. Wonderful.

PaulMaddison

Rebecca Haviland on vocals. Spectacular.

RebeccaHaviland

Kenny Shaw on drums. Excellent.

KennyShaw

Chris Anderson on electric bass and vocals. Superb.

ChrisAndersonSinging

The Vanity Belles (#9). We’ve seen them sing backup with other groups. We’ve seen them perform on TV twice. Unbelievably, this was the first time we saw them perform as The Vanity Belles, live. We’re proud supporters of the ladies through their recent (successful) Kickstarter, so this was one of the extra special reasons why I wanted to attend. Of course, they were fantastic. Whew! Winking smile

TheVanityBelles

Patrick Firth played electronic keyboards for them. Joining him to round out the band were: Greg Mayo on guitar and Chris Anderson on electric bass. The drummer was already on stage before with the Greg Mayo band (as the guest percussionist) but I still haven’t mentioned his name (soon, don’t panic!).

PatrickFirth

Oscar Bautista played electric guitar as part of The Vanity Belles band. He is always great, so I wanted him to have a paragraph for himself. Smile Another reason to give Oscar his own section? He broke out the mandolin last night, one of my favorite instruments. Sweet!

OscarBautistaOscarBautistaMandolin

Next up was another group I’ve wanted to see for a long time.

The Stone Lonesome (#10). This is duo of Zach Jones (finally got to mention him) and Emily Long. We’ve seen Zach drum many times (including earlier last night, and he was the guest percussionist with the Greg Mayo Band as well). He’s an awesome drummer. I also knew that he sings well, and that was proven when he was front-and-center with Emily last night. What I didn’t know was that he also plays the guitar. Emily sings really well too and the two of them sound great together.

TheStoneLonesome

GregMayoZachJonesEmilyLong

Brian Killeen supported them on electric bass, a perennial favorite of ours. He was joined by Ryan Vaughn on drums and Greg Mayo on electric guitar. Zach let Greg take a number of fantastic leads. The entire night was amazing, but I would have left happy just for the guitar solos that Greg took during The Stone Lonesome songs!

BrianKilleen

Martin Rivas (#11). Martin had previously sung as a guest with the Greg Mayo Band, wonderfully. He now took center stage and wowed everyone with two of his own songs (one a Christmas number, the other off of his new CD, due out in May, 2012). He was supported (incredibly) by Patrick Firth, Greg Mayo, Chris Kuffner, Zach Jones and Brian Killeen.

MartinRivas

A few items were raffled off during the evening. One of them was a jar of Martin Rivas’ world-famous spaghetti sauce (or is it more properly referred to as tomato sauce?!?). Anyway, we won it (see the proof here and again in a couple of the photos at the very bottom!). Can’t wait to savor it!

BenjaminWagnerRivasSauceJarMartinRivasLoisSauce

Chrissi Poland (#12). We’ve only seen Chrissi singing backup with others. We knew she had an extraordinary voice but I have to say that I still didn’t understand the full effect of it until last night. Another wow. We won’t be attending, but if you want to catch her headlining a show, with Martin Rivas opening, head to Highline Ballroom this Sunday night (Dec 18th, 2011). You won’t be disappointed!

ChrissiPolandGuitar

On her first number, she played guitar and was accompanied by Patrick Firth, Greg Mayo, Rebecca Haviland, Martin Rivas, Ryan Vaughn and Brian Killeen.

She then put the guitar down and blew everyone away accompanied by the same band, minus the backup singers (Rebecca and Martin). Her voice and stage presence had us eating out of her hand.

ChrissiPolandSinging

Caleb Hawley (#13). Caleb is one of my favorites and I’m always disappointed when I can’t make it to one of his shows (which happens more frequently than I care to admit, including the night before!). At least I got a taste last night to hold me over until his next full show.

CalebHawley

Caleb was supported by Patrick Firth, Ryan Vaughn, Zach Jones and Brian Killeen. There was dancing in the audience (not atypical of any Caleb performance), but I won’t post the pictures, since those people didn’t sign any waivers. Winking smile

Benjamin Wagner (#14). Benjamin was our host throughout the show, introducing each act as they were coming on stage. Now it was his turn to shine and shine he did. He has a wonderful voice and he wielded it for our delight. He was joined by a stellar band. I’ll mention all but two of them, since they were the next two headliners and hadn’t yet made an appearance.

BenjaminWagnerSinging

Misty Boyce on keyboards, Chrissi Poland singing backup, Ryan Vaughn and Tony Maceli. All, great!

For his second number, additional backup singers joined: Mary Bragg, Bess Rogers, Paula Valstein and Martin Rivas.

In true showman style, Benjamin left the stage and prostrated himself right in front of us! Smile

BenjaminWagnerOnTheFloor

Bryan Dunn (#15). Bryan also played guitar on Benjamin’s set. Bryan is wonderful all around. When Benjamin introduced him, he said “Bryan is normally a rocker, but he’s going to bring you down a bit with his first number.” Ha! I hope no one fell for that. It might have started out sounding like a ballad, but Bryan had everyone hopping in no time.

BryanDunn

Both his numbers were fantastic (and no, I wasn’t the least bit surprised!).

He was supported (wonderfully) by Misty Boyce, Ryan Vaughn and Tony Maceli. He also had another guitar player and vocalist, but since he was the next headliner, I’ll save his name for the very next line.

Chris Abad (#16). Another wow for me. He played guitar for Benjamin and Bryan Dunn and sang harmony with Bryan. His guitar play was awesome. It looked like he was playing one of Greg Mayo’s two electric guitars, so for a minute, I thought that perhaps Greg just has magical guitars and anyone could make them sound this good. I checked after the show, and the guitars are just look-a-likes, so apparently Chris is just really that good. Winking smile

ChrisAbad

He also sang at center stage when Bryan was done, and did a great job. He was supported by Misty Boyce, Bryan Dunn, Ryan Vaughn and Tony Maceli. If I heard correctly, Chris also produced at least one of Bryan’s CDs, perhaps the upcoming one as well. Talented guy, no doubt!

For his second number, he was joined by a slew of backup singers: Mary Bragg, Bess Rogers, Paula Valstein, Charlene Kaye, Chris Kuffner and Benjamin Wagner.

ChrisAbadMaryBraggBessRogersPaulaValsteinCharleneKayChrisKuffnerBenjaminWagner

Like I said above, the finale had a ton of people on stage. Here are some photos:

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One of the only performers who didn’t hop on stage was Kenny Shaw. When Martin tried to get him to come up, Kenny seemed to motion to Martin to come down instead. Martin took it as an invitation to have Kenny hold him in his arms. Kenny obliged! Smile

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We shared the evening a number of friends. In one of the photos you can even see our hard-won jar of sauce (I went with the cautious “sauce” with no modifier there).

RebeccaHavilandRobinChrisAndersonMom

KellySamTeichmanKellyKristenSauce

Here’s a shot of our bounty from the night:

HolidayBenefitBounty

Clara Lofaro at Caffe Vivaldi

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We spent the entire night at Caffe Vivaldi last night. The middle set was someone we hadn’t heard of before.

Clara Lofaro impressed us enough when we checked her out before heading down, so we weren’t planning on just passing time during her set.

Clara performed solo accompanying herself on the grand piano with the exception of 1.5 a cappella numbers.

ClaraLofaro

She has a beautiful voice and plays the piano very nicely. She has a relaxed style with a very nice stage presence.

ClaraLofaroSinging

The songs available online (on her site and on MySpace) are produced with a full band sound. They’re excellent and have a vibrant feel to them. Last night was a bit more raw and stripped down (obviously), but that didn’t change the character/mood of the songs.

She’s talented, period.

The .5 a cappella mentioned above came toward the end of one song, when she stood up and shifted gears, singing and clapping to finish out the number (actually, I think she morphed it into anther one, but I don’t know her music well enough to be sure).

ClaraLofaroSingingClapping1ClaraLofaroSingingClapping2

She was ready to pack it in when everyone asked her to play some more. The bartender told her should could do at least two more. So, after doing two more on the piano, she stepped out from behind it and closed the set with an a cappella number that was wonderful. She put everything she had into it (voice/body/spirit) and it came across really well.

ClaraLofaroACappella

A lot of her friends were in the audience. They knew every word to every song. They often sang along (even in the uninvited times). That can be a ton of fun, when done well, but I’ll admit that they weren’t always on key, or consistent with their volume. Very nice that they were so into it, but they might have interfered a bit with a new fan’s attempt to get lost in the song.

More frustrating though were the times when they weren’t singing. At least 50% of their quiet time was hardly that. They were chatting up a storm with each other. I get that they know the songs cold and were partially out to simply support their friend, but with support like that, who needs detractors.

While Clara never called her friends out specifically (and it’s pretty clear they weren’t the only rude people in the audience). She noted that when she stopped talking, the audience instinctively quieted down. She turned that into a few very warm moments, as she toyed with talking/singing/silence to prove her point. In other words, people know they can be heard, but if they have the slightest cover from the artist’s singing, they are emboldened to take up their conversations again, loudly.

Of course, the minute the song is over, they clap loudly and generally whoop their appreciation. Sad smile

In any event, while we could have enjoyed the set more if it were quieter, we liked Clara enough to warrant going to see her again, hopefully with a more respectful audience next time.

Backscratch XV at Rockwood Music Hall

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Last night was the 15th Backscratch show, hence the fancy XV in the title. We missed the first 12 (I blame all of you!) and caught the last two (three including XV). Backscratch is the brainchild of Martin Rivas and Craig Meyer. Six or Nine performers, depending on whether they can book two or three hours (last night was at Rockwood Music Hall). Each performer sings three songs. Traditionally, one original, one cover, and one backscratch, a cover of one of the other performers from that evening, randomly assigned to them in secret (in other words, no one knows who will be covering whom).

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Recent performances have included two originals plus the backscratch. Both ways work well. The evening moves very quickly, even the three-hour shows. The banter is usually worth coming out for, independent of the music. Most of all, the camaraderie. While there are a lot of musicians in the audience (by definition), the fans are not made to feel like outsiders. It’s a beautiful thing and if you come, you’ll feel like family, right away.

The idea is spreading. There will be a Backscratch I (1) in the UK next month! I think there was one already in Boston (if not, it’s coming soon). If you don’t live in NYC, look for one in your town, or better yet, clamor for one! Smile

Last night was six performers, from 9-11pm. First up was the only rookie Backscratcher.

Sarah Nisch sang two originals accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. For her backscratch she did a Patryk Larney number (pretty well in my opinion). She has a lovely voice.

SarahNisch

Her name sounded familiar to me, but I didn’t think we’d ever seen her before and I admit she didn’t look all that familiar. Everything is contextual. It’s true that we never saw her as part of the LES (Lower East Side) scene. Two years ago (7/27/2009 to be exact!) we saw her perform at the equivalent of an organized open mic show called The Set NYC.

I had mostly flattering things to say. I concluded with:

Still, she’s a talented singer/songwriter, and I’m sure Lois and I would be happy to catch her again at one of these shows.

I’m glad to see that she’s persevered and gotten into this circle and places like Rockwood.

Kate Branagh sang an original, a cover, and her backscratch, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. I could go on and on praising Kate, but let me list the highlights:

  • Fantastic voice. I felt like I was listening to a real Nashville pro, like Kathy Mattea
  • Good accompaniment on acoustic guitar
  • Excellent songwriting (lyrics, structure, melodies)
  • Quirky but superb stage presence
  • Unbelievably funny (NSFW or kids, not just the words, but the subject matter was often crude)

KateBrannagh

She covered Caleb Hawley for her backscratch, rightfully noting how difficult it would be. She did a very nice job.

One example of her humor. She just released a CD she’s been working on for six years. It’s called Minutia. She has a CD Release Show at The Living Room on September 9th, 2011 at 9pm. She asked the crowd who knew what Minutia means? (She didn’t spell it, and I admit to thinking it was a made up word, spelled: Manusha). In any event, no one volunteered.

Kate said: Obviously, I’m a lot smarter than the rest of you (as she went on to define Minutia). But, she reminded us that we were lucky to be seeing her perform, so that she could share her knowledge with the rest of us. Smile

I’m a fan of dry, sarcastic humor, and Kate’s delivery is excellent!

After her set, Lois bought the CD. It’s really good, so get it. Better yet, get to the show next Friday (we can’t make it, unfortunately) and get yourself one directly from Kate!

On the negative side, Kate’s site (linked to her name) is way out of date. Hopefully, in conjunction with this CD Release, she’ll find the time and energy to update it. In the meantime, here’s a link to her MySpace page, to listen to a few of her songs.

Caleb Hawley sang two originals and his backscratch accompanied on his brand new guitar. I’ve written about Caleb a number of times. He’s an unreal talent (in the sense that he’s so good at so many aspects of writing and performing that it’s hard to wrap your head around it all!).

CalebHawley

He writes great songs. He is an exceptional guitar player, in particular for accompanying his singing (though I could listen to him play for hours even if he didn’t open his mouth). He has an excellent voice. He’s funny and engaging on stage. His warmth is contagious (avert your eyes if he smiles in your direction, or you’ll be forced to follow him anywhere).

So, why did I bother to mention that he was playing a new guitar? Because he just recently won it, by capturing the Song Competition at this year’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. This netted him the guitar and an appearance on the Main Stage next year!

Caleb’s backscratch was a Kate Branagh song, so they ended up playing each other’s numbers. He chose Dandelion Lovers (the first cut on her new CD) and did a beautiful job. I listened to the CD version this morning (with full band) and it’s stellar.

Next up was our fearless leader, Martin Rivas. This evening was very difficult for Martin. I want to explain why, but I will fist mention his incredible performance, especially in the face of what I will describe afterward.

MartinRivasGuitar

Martin Rivas sang an original, his backscratch and a cover, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. All three were excellent performances. His original is a new song which will be on his upcoming CD (released in 2012). His backscratch turned into a little behind the scenes look at how backscratch works.

Typically, each performer submits a list of their songs that they might play at the show, so that whoever gets them for the backscratch portion won’t duplicate a song they intend to play. Since Sarah Nisch was new to backscratch, or for any other reason that I am unaware of, some signals got crossed.

She opened her set with the song Paper Bag Heart. That’s the same song that Martin had picked for his backscratch. Martin joked that at least we’d have an A/B comparison. Both were well done, so no harm, no foul. In fact, since the song was new to me, hearing it twice in one night wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Martin closed his set with a cover from one of his songwriting heroes, Nick Ashford, who passed away last week. Martin played Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. The entire audience sang along to each chorus, it was gorgeous and moving. Of course, for Martin, it had an even deeper meaning (as you’ll see next).

On to more somber matters. Martin spends a lot of time in Middleburgh, NY, Schoharie Country. While many NYC folks escaped serious damage by Hurricane Irene (we have to remember that’s not true for all NYC residents!), the devastation in upstate NY (and many other places north and south of NYC) is not getting enough attention.

Martin was having a hard time being in the moment at Rockwood last night, as his heart was breaking from all the pictures and video that was coming in from Schoharie County. Amazingly, it didn’t affect the quality of his performance. I was going to post a before and after photo of the valley (it’s mind-boggling how a valley can turn into a giant river/lake overnight). Instead, I see that Christina Morelli of NYC Arts Scene has written an article which includes that photo in it.

I urge you all to read that article and help in any way that you can!

Patryk Larney sang two originals and his backscratch, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. He also invited up Ben Morgan to play piano on all three numbers. Ben sang light harmony as well (very nicely). Patryk (and Ben) did an excellent job. I was particularly impressed by his backscratch of Bri Arden’s song, Sink Down Under. Bri is a tough act to reproduce. Kudos to Patryk.

PatrykLarney

I’ve only seen Patryk do one cover before last night (at a Benefit Concert). He continues to impress. I’m going to catch a full set of his music tomorrow night (Wednesday, 8/31/2011) at Rockwood 1, 9pm. Come join me and see if you agree with my assessment of his talent.

After the show I walked over to Ben to ask him his last name. When he said “Morgan”, I said, oh, I just saw you on video. It turns out that he was accompanying The Vanity Belles when they were interviewed and performed on MNN (Channel 56 on Time Warner Cable in NYC) on Sunday night. We watched the show (and enjoyed every second of it, including Ben’s keyboard play). Patryk played on one song as well. He produced the Vanity Belles current album. They will be singing a bit with Patryk tomorrow night. Just a little extra incentive to come see Patryk’s show!

BenMorganPatrykLarney

Last, but certainly not least, Bri Arden.

I’ve seen Bri a number of times. She has impressed each and every time (last night included). The performances have ranged from acoustic (Bri singing, accompanied by a single acoustic guitarist) to nine people on stage (full band plus two backup singers). In all those shows, Bri sang without playing any instruments.

She teased me last time, playing the piano during sound check (at the acoustic show). Last night, she finally played the piano for real, during her two originals. She was very self-deprecating about her ability, joking that she was prepared to declare herself the best piano player of the show, until Ben Morgan was invited up by Patryk. Smile

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Bri played very nicely indeed and I’m sure she will continue to improve the more she chooses to play in public.

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That said, it was her backscratch that was the highlight of the show (to me, and I presume to many others). Keep in mind that she chose it before any of us knew what was (or would be) happening in Schoharie Country!

Bri came out from behind the piano to sing a cappella. Everyone knew she was going to cover Martin (the math was no longer hard at that point). She chose one of his iconic numbers, North.

BriArdenACappella

North was actually written with Schoharie County in mind, with happy thoughts of a destination that Martin loved to go to. When your heart swells so much with joy, the heartbreak is equally unimaginable when that place is laid to waste. You can listen to the song and read the lyrics at Martin’s Bandcamp Page. You can buy the download there as well.

Bri was awesome. The audience sang large swaths of the song with her, since we all know it so well. For the finale, Caleb Hawley and Patryk Larney came up and kept the chorus going while Bri sang in and around them. Stunning. Of course, Martin was triply moved. There was a long hug and private words exchanged between Martin and Bri on stage when she was done.

CalebHawleyBriArdenPatrykLarney

Another successful Backscratch show. There’s a special magic to them. Come find out for yourself at the next one, Monday, October 24th, 2011 at Rockwood Music Hall.

Different than most shows at Rockwood, there was no tip jar passed around for the performers. Instead, Rockwood Music Hall makes a donation and all of the musicians donate their time. Last night’s donation will be made to help the people of Schoharie County.

Thanks to everyone at Rockwood Music Hall for this very generous act!

Ximena Sarinana at Rockwood Music Hall

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We are huge fans of everything Alex Wong does. His talents seem boundless. One of those talents is spotting other talented people, then collaborating with them to increase the talent level in the room geometrically.

Recently, Alex toured with Elizabeth and the Catapult (see, I told you he knows talent) when they opened for Sara Bareilles. Elizabeth ended up being the middle group each night.

Ximena Sarinana opened those shows, which was Alex’s first introduction to her and her music. Like I said, Alex can spot talent. He is now touring with Ximena and last night they hit Rockwood Music Hall. We knew about the show for a few weeks and had it marked as an unmovable event (which is why we missed last night’s epic Campfire at Slane).

XimenaSarinana

Before I describe the show, let me state some facts. The typical (successful) indie musician in NYC has between 1,000 and 6,000 followers on Twitter. These are people who release CDs, have a lot of fans (obviously not all of them are on Twitter, or bother to follow musicians), and sell out shows regularly.

Take it up a notch. One of the bigger NY-based artists is Ingrid Michaelson. She has nearly 80,000 followers (more than 10x the top of the other local artists).

@XimenaMusic has how many? Over 600,000! That’s 7.5x more than Ingrid, and 100x the following of the typical Rockwood headliner. Why would she be opening for Sara Bareilles then? Because Sara has over 2,000,000 followers! There’s always a bigger fish. Winking smile

Let’s back it up a bit. Ximena is huge in Mexico, where she broke out years ago (she’s all of 25 now!). After conquering Mexico (my words, not hers or anything I’ve read), she decided to see if she could crack the US market. She moved here and is now touring. Her first CD was released in Spanish (to huge sales). Her next CD (I believe she said that the release is expected in August 2011) will be in English.

That’s the buildup, now we find out whether there is any meat to go with those potatoes.

Yes!

OK, I’m done. Winking smile

Seriously, I was blown away. For all but one number Ximena played the grand piano. There was nothing particularly amazing about her play (compared to some other singer/songwriters who specialize in keyboards) but her play is extremely solid and interesting.

XimenaPiano

Then she opens her mouth. The sound that comes out is heavenly. Range, power, sweetness, raw emotion, basically, whatever she wants to project, you’re going to take it, and say “Thank you ma’am, may I have another?”. It’s not just the voice (which is stunning), but also the melody, the chords, the arrangement, etc.

Note that I haven’t mentioned anything yet about lyrics. Last night, Ximena chose to play 1/2 the show in Spanish (opening with it) and 1/2 in English. She alternated songs the entire set.

I speak zero Spanish. The only words I could understand were the biggies, like bueno, aqui, corazon, etc. It didn’t matter, I didn’t care. I was hearing a vocal instrument that took me somewhere (even if was different from where the lyrics were taking the Spanish speakers in the room), that was more than sufficient. I would have been happy if the entire set was in Spanish, though I enjoyed the English songs just as much (and I admit that I didn’t pay as close attention to the words as I otherwise might have, given the lesson I learned in enjoying the Spanish ones!).

Ximena opened the set solo. For the second song she called up a surprise guest (to her as much as to us!). I apologize if I get the facts wrong, but I thought I heard her say that she bumped into him at a show next door (Stage 2) where they were both audience members. They used to play together in Mexico, years ago!

Ilan Bar-Lavi played electric guitar. It was a gorgeous Jazz style. I have no idea whether they had the time to rehearse, or whether they fell back to an old favorite and executed like it was yesterday. Either way, it worked. I’ll have to keep my eye out for Ilan independent of Ximena. That’s the only song he joined her for.

IlanBar-LaviIlanBar-LaviXimena

Alex Wong joined Ximena for three songs, playing a full drum set (something that we’ve rarely, if ever seen Alex do, though we’ve seen him as a percussionist, including pieces of drum sets, many times). Of course he was excellent, don’t ask.

AlexWong

Ximena used a loop on two numbers. The first was awesome and unaccompanied by any commentary on her part. She merely looped her voice and sang harmony with herself, adding piano (I don’t recall whether Alex joined on that one as well, but I think he did). Here’s a shot of her holding the loop before the show started:

XimenaHoldingTheLoop

Toward the end of the set, Ximena was about to use the loop again, but this time she apologized for it (I don’t know why, it’s one of the most amazing live experiences I can imagine, as I’ve noted from Vienna Teng concerts many times). She said that she normally doesn’t like the loop, but that she was going to use it one last time tonight.

Now that I’ve experienced that song, I have to say that if I see her again and she refuses to play it because she’s bored with the loop, she’ll have to answer to me after the show.

While there was a touch of piano in the song (barely a hint), there was no drum. It was basically a dozen (or more) loops of Ximena’s voice doing various vocal acrobatics, while she also snapped her fingers into various loops at various tempos, creating her own percussion section.

If you’ve never experienced looping done by a pro, it will be hard for you to understand/imagine what it’s like. It’s not just gorgeous harmony (though it’s certainly that). Because of the way the loop works, it’s a process that keeps building on itself. Every time she sings a phrase, that phrase continues to loop. But, so do all of the phrases she sang before that.

So, one, then two voices at the same time, but the key is that the second is live, and the first is now recorded (it was live a minute ago, if you’re following). Now the third voice (obviously still hers) is live, while the first two continue looping. You can always distinguish the current live voice, because it’s typically doing the most interesting thing in the loop, soaring over the other loops and of course blending into the background looping a minute later when the newer, fresher vocal is added live.

Man, I feel inadequate to describe the experience. Sad smile

All I can say is that if she had played that one song and left, I would have been perfectly satisfied.

She closed with another song then said goodnight. Obviously, the completely jammed room would have none of that. Since many in the room were fans who knew every word to her Spanish songs (remember, the English CD has not come out yet), they started yelling out various song requests.

While Ximena looked up to the sound engineer to ask whether she could play another, the crowd magically agreed on a song and started chanting it. It sounded to me like a single Spanish word as the title, but obviously, I have no idea.

I may have this wrong, but I think Ximena said that this was the first song she ever wrote and it was for (or placed in) a movie or TV show (again, apologies if I misheard or just don’t remember correctly today). She said that she doesn’t play guitar (implying that the song is normally accompanied by a guitar) and that she doesn’t know how to play it on the piano.

So, rather than disappoint the crowd, she calmly took the microphone stand that was stretched out over the piano all night, carefully brought it out on the stage, straightened it up, and announced that she’d perform it a cappella.

When you read the next sentence, remember what I said about the looping song, and how close that was to a cappella too (just a hint of piano in that number).

I can’t imagine not having heard her sing this song!

XimenaSingingAnEncoreACappella

Got it? Just like I now know how special that looping song is, even though this one is as stripped down as it gets (Ximena and microphone, no loops, no accompaniment), I didn’t want the song to ever end (of course, I didn’t understand a word). You can only imagine how the crowd felt, since they chanted (literally) for it to begin with.

I have no real word to describe it other than Wow!

So, is that all Hadar? You got nothing else for us? Ha! Just like Ximena was forced to give an encore, I will too! Smile

She is one of the most charming, natural, witty, disarming people on stage. Did I mention that she’s only 25? Yup, she’s got it, whatever it is.

Alex Wong (a.k.a. @highceilings), we bow to you again. That doesn’t mean we are surprised, but we’ll bow nonetheless. Smile

P.S. I know I missed an absolutely extraordinary Campfire at Slane last night, but at least I have a reasonable sense (or illusion) of what I missed there. Had I missed Ximena’s show, I would still be a clueless dolt in thinking “How could I enjoy songs that I can’t understand?”.

Martin Rivas and Robbie Gil at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Martin Rivas was bringing his current Saturday Night residency at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 to a close last night (he’ll be touring Europe much of the summer). That would be reason enough to go see him (the last full-band show in NYC until late August or early September). But I’ll give you a better reason (even though you’re too late to act on it if you weren’t there), it was Martin’s Birthday!

In typical Martin style (his heart is bigger than any three of us mere mortals combined), he threw a party for the rest of us, rather than the other way around!

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Martin performed a set full of his original crowd favorites plus a few covers. Let’s give him none of the credit for that though. One of his birthday surprises was the set list itself. Martin didn’t get to peek at it until nearly show time. His band decided what songs Martin would have to play. Extremely cool idea on their part, well executed by everyone (Martin included). Since they are big fans of Martin as well, they were effectively making this a fan-driven set list.

MartinRivasBirthdaySetList

They had another surprise for him, which affected the entire set as well. They got him stinkin’ drunk (on top shelf hooch) before the show. I’ve never seen Martin wasted before, since he always has a long drive home after the shows. He announced (with another drink in hand!) that this was the first Rockwood show that he was going to be driven home from. Since his wife was in the audience, I presume that she was his designated driver. Perhaps the band also chipped in for a Limo (I can fantasize on Martin’s behalf, can’t I?). Smile

Martin was in excellent voice (which was a relief, since he’s been sick recently).

MartinRivasSinging

His guitar play was spot on as well (including an extremely tasty lead on an acoustic guitar, late in the set). During one song he popped a string. He played through the rest of the song without missing a beat (I saw the string fly away from the guitar when it happened).

When the song was over, he bestowed the honor of restringing it to Greg Mayo. It turned into a little bit on stage though, as it was the G string that popped. If you’re not following me, and some of the ensuing guffaws in the audience, that’s fine, as this is a PG-13 rated blog. Winking smile

A minute later, Greg emerged from the green room and informed Martin that he couldn’t repair it. I think I heard him say that the peg (the part that holds the string on the body of the guitar) came flying out as well. They took a quick look in front of Martin, didn’t spot it, and Martin decided to play the rest of the set without a guitar (no worries, there were two guitarists on stage with him throughout).

Greg being the clever guy that he is would have none of that. He returned a minute later with Robbie Gil’s guitar (Robbie headlined the set before, which I’ll cover later in this post). The tasty lead I mentioned above was performed on Robbie’s guitar, so thanks Greg for thinking of that, and Robbie for being willing to part with it (it was unbelievably worn/scratched, so it has to be one of Robbie’s favorites).

Martin got the crowd singing a few times (only once by asking us to). Even when people weren’t singing out loud, I saw so many people mouthing every word that Martin was singing. Most of his sets are like that, but there was definitely a special feeling in the air last night (I wonder why…).

Martin always has The Spirit in him. Since last night he also had the Spirits in him, he did something we often wish more performers would do on behalf of their fans/audience. He tried (with mixed success) a number of times to quiet the inevitable talkers. For the most part, he did it in the most loving way imaginable (seriously, he simply appealed to the talkers to listen quietly for one special song, then resume their talk about Stock Portfolios and Second Homes in the Hamptons!). Smile

One particularly annoying woman in the far corner yelled out “Hey, it’s SATURDAY NIGHT” (at the top of her lungs). Martin had a different kind of spirited response for her. The cheers and applause let him know that he was speaking for all us (well, I guess most of us). Here’s a Twitter exchange from a few minutes ago (as I am writing this) between Tony Maceli and Martin:

@martinrivas do you recall asking a young lady at Rockwood to ‘be quiet’ in a very un-Martin like way, followed by rousing applause?

@whosthebass did I do that?! Awesome!!!!! Hope it wasn’t too rude

Ah, reliving that moment this morning was sweet. Thanks Tony and Martin for making that happen. Smile

One last incident before we get back to the music (actually, the amazing band and guest!). Someone (I’d give them credit if I knew who) brought a lot of cupcakes (fancy ones from what I saw) to celebrate Martin’s birthday. One was passed to Martin on stage and we all sang Happy Birthday to him. Well, we started to, in a rag-tag disarrayed fashion. Martin made us all stop and said:

If you’re going to do this, then at least do it right. Ready? 1… 2… 3…

MartinRivasCoordinatingHappyBirthdaySong

That’s all it took to get us all on the right page. Thanks for that as well Martin. But that’s not the incident, I needed to relate that part so that you’d know there were a lot of cupcakes in the room. Winking smile

MartinRivasHappyBirthdayCupcake

One moron (yes, I spent hours considering the exact right word to describe this person) thought it would be funny to toss a cupcake on the stage. Of course, it landed icing side down on top of the electronic keyboard (somehow finding the most damageable thing it could on stage). It took time and effort to clean it off before the next song could start. Well done moron (sorry, it deserved repeating).

The band was amazing musically, but they were also the driving force in lifting Martin’s spirit even higher than usual (who knew that was even possible?). In combination with Martin, they turned an awesome show in a giant party as well (who doesn’t like a party?).

Left-to-right on the stage, followed by a very special guest appearance:

Patrick Firth on electronic keyboards and vocals. I’ve written about Patrick many times, but this was our third night in a row seeing him tickle the ivories brilliantly (each night with a different band!), so there’s a lot of ink about Patrick on the home page at the moment. It was his keyboards (the top one of the double-decker setup) that had the pleasure of hosting the upside-down cupcake.

PatrickFirthKeyboards

Ryan Vaughn on percussion. Ryan did a fantastic job (as he does whenever he sits in on Martin’s full-band shows) banging on everything in sight. Not only did he play his own toys (cowbells, tambourine, shakers, etc.), but a couple of times he got up and shared the drumming duties (two drummers playing the same drum set at the same time). Awesome! Ryan was the person who diligently cleaned Patrick’s keyboard after the cupcake fiasco.

RyanVaughnPercussion

Chris Kuffner on electric guitar and vocals. Chris shared the leads with the other guitarist, Greg Mayo. In addition to each being excellent in their own right, they feed off of and complement each other. I’ll have a bit more to say about Chris’ vocals in a minute. This was also the second time we’ve seen Chris this week. He was part of Ian Axel’s band on Tuesday and rocked out that night as well.

ChrisKuffnerGuitarLeadChrisJuffnerSinging

Craig Meyer on drums. Craig is always superb on the drums. Last night was no exception. In fact, if it’s possible, he rose to the occasion of wanting/needing to make this night a bit more special. After all, he’s Martin’s Baby Brother (if you haven’t been to one of Martin’s show, don’t bother looking up which one of them changed their last name, it’s Martin’s homage to how much he loves and respects Craig as a person and as his primary drumming partner!). This was our second time seeing Craig at Rockwood 2 this week.

CraigMeyerDrumsCraigMeyerTambourine

Brian Killeen on electric bass and vocals. Another excellent performance by Brian. As with Patrick Firth, this was our third consecutive night enjoying Brian’s play (they were in the same bands each night).

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Greg Mayo on electric guitar and vocals. Since we saw Greg headlining a set that ended just 22 hours before Martin hit the stage, I’ll point you to that post to read my thoughts on this extraordinary musician. For the people at my table last night (you know who you are!), the looks we exchanged every time Greg took a lead will remain etched in my memory forever! I’ll have something to add when I cover Robbie Gil, since Greg (along with Patrick Firth and Ryan Vaughn) also played in that set.

GregMayoJamming

There weren’t any really slow songs last night, so it’s not surprising that this band kept such a steady level of energy that had practically everyone in the crowd swaying, dancing, bobbing, tapping, clapping, etc., throughout every song. The possible exception was the woman that Martin needed to slap down (sorry, I couldn’t resist one last cheap shot).

Bess Rogers was called up as a special guest. This is the song where Martin pleaded with people to be quiet (before his exchange with the woman, he was speaking to a different set of women at the bar). Martin knew why quiet would be necessary for the full enjoyment of what we were about to experience (we had no clue, or at least I didn’t).

Martin started singing, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, with Chris Kuffner  playing the electric, softly. Both Bess and Chris sang soft harmonies, not even that often. I admit (why do I always bare my soul here?) that I wondered for a second why Martin bothered to call Bess up. It seemed like he was wasting an opportunity to share her talent with the crowd.

Then the moment came. Both Martin and Chris stopped playing their guitars. Martin, Bess and Chris continued a capella in stunning three-part harmony. It was so breath-taking, even the talkers stopped (like seeing the burning bush, even non-believers have to at least wonder). Suddenly, Bess’ role in celebrating Martin’s birthday became crystal clear. Thanks!

ChrisKuffnerMartinRivasBessRogers

Bess and Martin are touring together (I assume with Chris as well). Folks, even if they just play this one three-minute song and leave the stage, get out to see them if/when they hit your town. With a little luck, they might stick around and dazzle you a bit more than that. Winking smile

At one point late in the show, Seth Faulk jumped on stage to join in the percussion merriment. A little later, Adam Christgau followed his lead and turned the merriment into a bit more percussion mayhem. Smile

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Martin closed out the show with North. Such a soulful song to underscore the evening. He brought out a dancer (Whitney G-Bowley of GIG) to add a visual dimension to the song.

ChrisKuffnerMartinRivasWhitneyG-Bowley

When I say “closed the show”, of course, I mean pre-encore. For the encore, Martin brought out two additional special guests, Robbie Gil and Casey Shea (who was headlining the next set). Along with the full band, they performed Stand By Me, which included having the crowd sing the chorus (with them and separately!) a number of times. The party atmosphere was at its height!

What a spectacular way to end the show (rather than close the show). Winking smile

Since we were there for the set before Martin’s, I had time during the break between them to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, find and introduce myself to Christina Morelli. While she’s talented in many ways, I came to discover her through her passion for covering and promoting the NYC Art Scene. Subscribe there and follow her on Twitter.

Aside from her own excellent writing, she gives a voice, platform and exposure to many talented NYC-based artists. She also does interesting video interviews in collaboration with the effervescent Sam Teichman (whom you can also follow on Twitter). Want to know why you should follow Sam on Twitter? Consider this tweet from last night (sent during Martin’s set!):

Music is my religion. Rockwood Music Hall is my favorite place of worship. @martinrivas can be my spiritual leader anytime. So inspiring.

On to Robbie Gil! We’ve only seen Robbie perform one song, as a guest at a Big Apple Singers show. He was excellent. In fact, the song he led that night was the highlight of the set for me. Here’s an out-of-context quote from that post (but you can read the entire thing to really understand what I was saying):

Robbie kicked off another The Band song but insisted that each of the other band members sing at least one verse (that’s the song that Chris took a lead on). Robbie’s voice was wonderful as was his spirit on the stage. It’s the one exception I noted above to nearing the feeling I had on Wednesday.

We’ve missed Robbie Gil’s full sets three times now. The first one (mentioned in the above-linked post) was simply because I chose to see Derek James perform next door (and I’m choosing to see Derek James again this Wed, 8pm, Rockwood 1). The next two times I tried to see Robbie, the place was so crowded that the bouncer wouldn’t let me in. One of those nights was bitterly cold (and windy to boot), but I stood outside and suffered so that I could at least enjoy Martin’s set (they often follow each other). How could I not keep trying to see someone who was obviously so popular?

Well, I guess I have to thank New Yorkers need (or is it just desire?) to escape the city on holiday weekends. Third time’s the charm, as we got in to see Robbie. It was a large crowd, but not at capacity, like it was in my previous attempts.

Robbie is a soulful, gravelly-voiced singer (which is why he killed it when singing The Band song with The Big Apple Singers) that seems to drain every ounce of energy in his body on every song. Miraculously, he has some secret recharging source that gets him ready for the next song in the few seconds he has between them.

He played both grand piano (which he opened the show with) and acoustic guitar, very well. He also sang a bit without an instrument (but always with the band, with one exception I’ll note below).

RobbieGilPiano

Robbie performed a number of originals, mixed with covers, all well. Given the amount of passion he puts into every note, it’s sometimes hard to hear the words clearly, so I don’t have enough of a sense of him as a lyricist yet (with the same exception noted above).

What comes across most is his joy on stage, which he spreads like a warm blanket on a cold day over the audience. Pairing his sets with Martin’s is brilliant, both for the genre similarities (that will make an audience for one happily stick around for the other) and for the spiritual well-being projecting from the stage from each of them.

Robbie was accompanied by a full band on nearly every number. Three of the four band members played with Martin as well: Patrick Firth, Ryan Vaughn and Greg Mayo.

Patrick Firth played both electronic keyboards and grand piano (the grand piano was lifted off the stage for Martin’s set). As good as Patrick is on the electronic keyboards, I am even more taken by his play on the grand piano (it’s simply purer).

RobbieGilPatrickFirth

While singing one number, Robbie Gil stepped over to the far left corner of the stage and started playing four-handed piano with Patrick (he remained standing while playing!). We’ve seen this before (The Paper Raincoat’s Right Angles comes to mind), but with no disrespect to other piano players, this was the best I can recall. Awesome!

RobbieGilPatrickFirthBothPlayingPiano

Ryan Vaughn played the full drum set. I’ve heard nothing but praise for his drumming from so many people, but previous to this set I’ve only seen him play percussion to Craig Meyer’s drums. I can now confirm that those rumors of his skill were not exaggerated. He’s a wonderful drummer! Sorry about the red eye in the photo.

RyanVaughnDrums

I don’t have anything new to say about Greg Mayo’s guitar play (it was equally awesome in both sets), other than to note that he took much longer leads during Robbie’s set, partially because he wasn’t sharing the duties with Chris Kuffner.

GregMayoLeadGuitar

I’ll note two critical things:

  1. Robbie kneeled down a number of times when Greg was taking a solo, so that people on the opposite side of the stage could enjoy it visually as well as aurally. This was precisely the same type of classy move I praised Evan Watson for (in the same post linked above where we first saw Robbie sing!).RobbieGilKneeling
  2. Robbie heaped so much praise on Greg (repeatedly), that I felt certain he was actively campaigning for my position as President of the Greg Mayo Fan Club. BACK OFF ROBBIE, the job is taken! Winking smile

Lois ended up sitting right next to Robbie’s dad. Toward the end of the set Robbie gave him a shout out and the crowd enthusiastically gave him an ovation.

RobbieGilWithHisDadLookingOn

Nick Morrison on electric bass (the only additional band member, but I can’t find a good link to him). Very well done! Now I can finally get to the exception. Robbie dismissed all but Nick from the stage. He took to the piano and sang a new original number named I Believe. Nick accompanied him quietly and beautifully on the bass. Since it was a quiet song, we could hear the words clearly. Both Lois and I thought it was a really good song, so hearing more of his material is warranted.

NickMorrison

Robbie called up Martin Rivas to close his set and they sang Feeling Alright by Dave Mason. Of course, as with Martin’s Stand By Me, the crowd joined in for much of the song, included a few choruses of just the audience singing.

RobbieGilMartinRivasNickMorrison

Lois has a way of bending the universe to her will (if you know her, you know I’m not exaggerating!). The night before, when we were at Greg Mayo’s midnight set, Lois whispered to me “Ask Greg to play anything by Dave Mason!” (that’s the gospel truth!). I said: “While he’s doing covers tonight, they’re not requests, we’ll have to take whatever he gives us!”.

Obviously, Lois wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so she took matters into her own hands and found a way to force Robbie to satisfy her desire to hear a Dave Mason song performed live. Be afraid people, be very afraid… Winking smile

What an absolutely spectacular night.

We had fully intended to stay for Casey Shea next, since so many people have told me I need to get to know his music. We did hear the first three songs (all good!), but we left for two reasons: 1) His set started 75 minutes later than expected (I was ready to collapse rather than get wound even tighter) and 2) The volume doubled the minute they started, to an uncomfortable level. We’ll catch a set of Casey’s soon enough, I’m sure.

Paper Raincoat and Gregory Alan Isakov at Highline Ballroom

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Looking for a night of good music in NYC? Every night of the week will present difficult choices. Occasionally, those decisions achieve Solomonic proportions. Last night was one of those nights. I had Carley Tanchon and Joey Ryan in our calendar for quite a while. Carley was appearing at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 at 7pm and Joey was at Rockwood 2 at 9pm.

Everything changed when a month ago, The Paper Raincoat (TPR) announced that they were appearing at Highline Ballroom on the same night. It’s not (necessarily) the case that we would always choose to see TPR over Joey. It’s that opportunities to see TPR live are rarer nowadays than they used to be.

We last saw TPR on September 7th, 2010. We have seen Joey live three times since then.

TPR was sandwiched between two other acts. I’ll cover them first since we showed up expressly to see them.

TPR is comprised of two people, Alex Wong and ambeR Rubarth. They (nearly) always have a drummer, but which one will show up to any particular show has been a surprise lately (last night included). They often have special guests join them, last night was no exception.

AlexWongKeyboardsGlockenspielambeRRubarth

The 9-song set was well chosen, kicking off with perhaps my favorite TPR song, Brooklyn Blurs.

The second song was Sympathetic Vibrations with its signature audience-participatory clapping. Our table (well, four of the six of us) clapped on cue (perfectly if I may say so myself). But, it seemed to us that very few people in the extremely crowded audience were clapping with us.

We must have been correct, because a little bit later in the song, ambeR looked at Alex and said that it might be a good idea to teach the audience the clap (it’s sophisticated) Winking smile. After the lesson, more people joined us.

The next song, Motion Sickness has become a sing-along in the last year (mostly at solo Alex Wong shows). Half the audience sings the na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na part and the other half sings the ah, ah, ah ah ah part. Alex always seems to get the entire audience doing their part. Last night, the singing was anemic (except for our table, again).

I can’t tell whether the majority of the audience was unfamiliar with TPR or they were shy.

After playing The Same Old Things, Rough Cut, Don’t Be Afraid and Right Angles, they played another favorite (OK, I admit that the entire set was comprised of favorites), It All Depends. First, a photo of Alex and ambeR playing the keyboards together on Right Angles:

AlexWongAmberRubarthRightAngles

As they started It All Depends, Alex tossed (yes, actually threw) a tambourine at Lois. I was shocked and impressed when she caught it without flinching.

Tambourine

The rest of us did our clapping part until the finale, where Alex (and shortly after) ambeR both joined the drummer with all three of them drumming on the same drum set at the same time. I never tire of it and I never will! Of course, without Lois’ tambourine play, the entire song would just be boring. Winking smile

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They closed the set with their signature a cappella Rewind, wonderfully!

SarabSinghAmberRubarthAlexWong

The drummer for last night was Sarab Singh who is the regular drummer for a hot local group, Harper Blynn (they have a new site coming too). We’ve seen Sarab once before, supporting ambeR’s solo show at Highline as well. He’s very good, but it took a few songs for him to settle into a good rhythm with TPR. The kick drum was mic’ed too loud and made my hair flutter every time he kicked it.

SarabSingh

Alex is an amazing producer. TPR’s self-titled CD (absolutely incredible) is but one of his masterpieces. One of Alex’s specialties is crafting string arrangements that blend perfectly with Pop music. Last night we were treated to two top musicians playing some of those arrangements live.

Melissa Tong on violin. Melissa was wonderful (as always) throughout the set, but in particular, the opening for Right Angles is all violin.

MelissaTong

David Fallo on viola. David too was wonderful (as always) throughout. He too was highlighted a number of times, most notably on Don’t Be Afraid where David took the lead.

DavidFallo

Another surprise occurred during Rough Cut. There is a local dance troupe called Insight Dance Company. Last year they set a ballet to the music of Ian Axel. They are currently working on a number of pieces by TPR and will be putting on a show in the Spring (I believe). ambeR called them up (six of them, I believe) to dance while TPR performed Rough Cut. It was interesting, but the stage was definitely an obstacle course for the dancers. It will be more interesting to see them in their own element.

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After a 20-minute break, the headliner (co-billed) took the stage.

Gregory Alan Isakov sings, plays the guitar and the harmonica. I’ve heard of him but knew nothing about his music. He headlined a show at Highline where Rosi Golan opened for him. We had hoped to make that show but couldn’t. I’m told he played solo that night. Last night he was joined by three musicians.

GregoryAlanIsakovGuitar

I was impressed by Gregory’s voice, very rich and clear. That said, he had a setup I’ve never seen before, two microphones inches apart. One was normal and the other had a couple of effects attached to it (including heavy reverb, but more importantly, a vocal distortion). While it was technically interesting to see him switch (even in the middle of a song) from one mic (and sound) to another, I strongly preferred the normal mic to the more synthesized voice. It’s a gimmick (to me) and I can do without it.

GregoryAlanIsakovTwoMicrophones

It’s often tough for me to hang on to lyrics when seeing someone new the first time. Aside from the fact that there is so much else going on (when there are other musicians), big spaces aren’t conducive for really close listening. Still, on occasion I heard some very interesting phrases making me feel that Gregory is a poet first and foremost, but it will require more listening for me to be sure.

The band, left-to-right on the stage:

Philip Parker on cello and vocals. Phil did a really nice job on the cello. He actually played it as much as an upright bass (plucking it) as he did as a cello (with a bow). While I could see him move his lips on many songs, I would be lying if I said I could hear a single sound coming from his mic. Before I got to say that to Lois, she told me that she thought he did a nice job singing with Gregory, so it might have just been me who couldn’t pick out his voice.

PhilParkerCelloBow

Jeb Bows on violin. I was very impressed with Jeb’s play and felt that he was the most critical part of enhancing Gregory’s sound. Gregory came out for a two-song encore, the first of which was just Gregory and Jeb, validating my feeling that Jeb was more central to Gregory’s sound. On a number of songs Jeb plucked the violin. We’ve seen that before (in fact Melissa did it during the TPR set). But, for the first time in my experience, much of Jeb’s plucking sounded a lot like a mandolin. Cool!

JebBows

James Han on electronic keyboards. James had two keyboards placed at a right angle. He swiveled to play one or the other. His play was quite understated, but also excellent. It fit the mood of Gregory’s music very well.

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Paul Dempsey opened the show at 7pm on the dot (always a pleasure when shows start when they’re supposed to). He has an easy charm, a good voice and plays the guitar well enough to accompany himself. His song intros (very short) amused us. Other than a few choice phrases though, I can’t say that the lyrics made an impression on me.

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He played for exactly half an hour.

Six of us had dinner before the show. The food and drinks at Highline are always a treat and our service last night was excellent as well. Another fun night out with friends, sharing some laughs, some food and a lot of music.