Chad Vaccarino

Matthew Morrison and Ian Axel at The Beacon Theatre

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Matthew Morrison headlined The Beacon Theatre last night. That’s a very big deal for a lot of people (I mean his fans). We wouldn’t have noticed, except for the opener, Ian Axel (listed as a Special Guest on the marquee). We don’t watch Glee, but I’m aware of how big a hit it is and how big a following it has and how beloved Matthew Morrison is to those fans.

BeaconTheatreMarqueeMatthewMorrisonIanAxel

I normally cover the headliner first. The exception is when the headliner doesn’t mention the opener. Since Matthew didn’t even acknowledge that there was an act before his, let alone repeat his name, I get to cover Ian first (which I am happy to do).

(Apologies for the dearth of photos and the awful quality of the few I’m posting. Lois uses a compact, and we were much further back than usual. It was effectively useless…)

This is the second time in less than a week that we’ve seen Ian Axel open for a very big headliner. The two shows couldn’t have been more different. Last Thursday was an outdoor, full-band show, with a possibly larger crowd (hard to tell, it was in a park), opening for Five For Fighting. Last night was mostly Ian (no band), acoustic.

One thing that was the same, fantastic sound systems and sound engineers at both shows, but the indoor acoustics at the Beacon wins hands down. We’ve seen Ian solo and with full band enough times that there were only a few surprises.

Ian opened the show with Waltz, which starts with a long-ish piano intro. Considering what an incredible pianist he is, it’s a great way to introduce newcomers to his skill. On the other hand, I imagine that some people might have been thinking that they would be listening to classical music until Matthew hit the stage.

IanAxelPiano

That feeling might have been exacerbated considering that Ian had a single musician accompanying him, the world-class cellist, Dave Eggar. I’ll come back to Dave in a minute.

DaveEggarIanAxel

I still think Ian picked an excellent song to open with. The lights went down at exactly 7:30pm (the announced show time), which is awesome, but catches way too many people scrambling for their seats. The piano intro gives people something to latch on to aurally and just when they sit, bam, the singing starts.

IanAxel

The vocals (for everyone, not just Ian) were so perfectly mic’ed with the volume set just right that on some level, it was like hearing Ian for the very first time (as in chills down the spine effect). Ian’s voice is highly nuanced and really portrays (captures?) the emotional content of his songs.

Ian can captivate with just a piano, no problem, but I still prefer the full band sound, partially because he has a great band. Dave Eggar is such a great cellist (no matter the musical format) that having him alone replace a full band was quite interesting. He’s not just playing mellow strings in the background. He creates percussive sounds (not quite mimicking a drum, but filling in that feeling), fills in bass lines, etc.

In other words, if you can’t bring a band, bring Dave Eggar! Smile

DaveEggar

Ian then introduced the next song, Gone, and calmed the crowd down (in advance), lest they misunderstand the purpose of the song. If you listen to it, you’ll understand why he feels the need. His intro worked, with the majority of the audience chuckling (appropriately). Dave accompanied Ian on Gone as well, then left the stage.

Ian switched gears and played Leave Me Alone! solo. Such a fun song, delivered perfectly. I was impressed that everyone seemed to be listening to the words (another advantage of great sound engineers and acoustics), because they laughed (hard) at the right places. It’s funny on the CD, but Ian’s live delivery adds a dimension that can’t be captured without the visuals.

Ian asked the audience if they would sing along to the call/answer section, It Ain’t Easy. Many did (I sang really loud, sorry to those around me who wished I didn’t). People also clapped to the rhythm. Ironically, there is a special clapping part in that song, but to a cool beat, not just straight clapping. I don’t blame those that came for Matthew for not knowing that, and I don’t blame Ian’s fans (me included) for not trying to confuse everyone by doing it right. Winking smile

Ian then introduced his writing and singing partner, Chad Vaccarino. The two of them performed a very special version of one their newest (unrecorded) songs, Rockstar. This is another song that works perfectly with and without the band. Chad’s voice is something that every music lover should experience, live, at least once. Now that I’ve heard him at the Beacon, I highly recommend that you hear him there. Smile

IanAxelChadVaccarino

Like they did in Stamford (for the first time), they morphed the song into Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. I might be mistaken (and probably am), but it seemed that they sang considerably more of the song last night, their voices blending beautifully together. Before finishing it, they morphed back into the end of Rockstar.

At this point I’ll mention the only niggle about Ian’s performance. He was playing on a baby grand. If I am correct, it was an electronic device, not an acoustic grand. Typically, Ian changes the pressure he applies on the keys (and pedals?) to create dramatic emotional shifts in the sound of the music, even when he plays alone.

Rockstar and Leave Me Alone! both have such shifts (typically). With a full band, the shifts are easier to create between the bass and drums, but Ian is very effective. Last night, either the nature of the “electronic” piano, or Ian’s change in style, or something regarding sound leveling, no such shifts occurred. The volume and feel of the piano was constant throughout each song.

Ian and Chad closed their set with their signature hit, This is the New Year. Perfect.

It was an absolute treat, short though it was, to see them in such a gorgeous venue, supported by excellent sound engineering, playing to an attentive and appreciative crowd, made up mostly of strangers to their music!

On to the headliner, Matthew Morrison.

I understand that we had as little sense of what to expect of Matthew’s set as most of the crowd had before Ian’s. I also understand the there are big themes in the show Glee, that his (and the show’s) fans would be disappointed if he didn’t reproduce, or find a way to pay homage to, on stage. The point of this defensive intro is to say that I understand that there was context to his performance, this wasn’t just a singer/songwriter coming on stage to share his music.

Ultimately though, Matthew Morrison is touring in support of a new, self-titled CD, that was released in May 2011. While it may instantly appeal to Glee fans, if he is to have real success in the music business, it better have much wider appeal than that.

The show started with a large screen dropping from the ceiling in the back of the stage. There was a short clip of Matthew driving a car, with Jane Lynch sitting in the passenger seat. The clip was extremely funny, well produced and delivered. I also happen to be a huge Jane Lynch fan (obviously having nothing to do with her role in Glee). That set a good tone for me.

When the lights came on, Matthew’s band was already on stage. He came out in a tux (complete with bow-tie).

MatthewMorrisonCenterStage

Before I describe the show (from my perspective, for his fans who will want to jump all over me), I’d like to list a few positive things (none of which I knew before):

  • Matthew Morrison has a fantastic voice. I was really impressed, across a wide range and many genres, it held up on every song.
  • He moves extremely well on stage (some would call it dancing, which he certainly did a bit of). He even did a split to end one number, so he’s certainly more limber than I ever was. Winking smile
  • He exudes warmth. I left with the impression that hanging out with him (as a person, not as a celebrity) would be a fun thing to do.
  • He’s a reasonably good songwriter (more on that later).
  • His new CD is pretty good (more on that later as well).
  • The show was entertaining (which is not the same as saying it was a good or great concert).
  • His band is exceptional, each and every one, including the three backup singers.

To summarize, he’s extremely talented. I didn’t know that he was a Broadway star before yesterday, but I totally get it. He has the voice, he has the extremely fluid moves and he is clearly an actor.

All of the above feels like it’s leading up to a but… It is, unfortunately.

But, the show felt like it belonged in Las Vegas. If he had sung Danke Shoen, the image would have been complete in everyone else’s mind as well. This was more of a production than a concert. That’s fine, many people (millions?) go to see these types of shows in Vegas (and elsewhere) all the time. But, he’s promoting a CD, including original music, and I admit feeling completely lost at trying to reconcile the two.

What made it Vegas to me?

  • More covers than originals
  • Many covers were actually medleys (often alternating rather than sequential)
  • Anachronistic dancing (Gene Kelly-like moves to a Rap/Hip-Hop number?!?)
  • Costume changes (OK, a weak one) Winking smile
  • He had a special guest (covered later), who also did a cover

There are probably more examples, but if the above don’t give you the sense, we’re just going to see it differently, which is fine with me (hopefully it’s fine with you too!).

That’s not the real problem I had with the show. I like entertainment for the sake of entertainment as well, even though, to repeat, Matthew is really pushing a CD, not a traveling show (I applaud touring in support of CD sales, so that’s a positive, not a negative for me!).

For me, given the production, and the nature of the arrangements (even though played by outstanding musicians and sung by someone with a great voice), made the covers feel stale for the most part (a very few notable exceptions). In my head, the words rounded corners (yes, an oxymoron) kept repeating.

He/they were reproducing the originals without the same excitement, nor were they interpreting them in any interesting way. Hence, stale.

On the other hand, he performed at least four originals (perhaps more, I didn’t know at least four songs). I really liked all of them, in particular the two singles, Summer Rain and Still Got Tonight! So, he can write songs that I like, but he chooses to play songs that don’t differentiate him from anyone else. Oh well…

The real point is that he delivers his own material freshly. It doesn’t feel manufactured. It’s coming from within him. I know, it’s fresh to me because I haven’t heard it before, but that’s not really it, it’s the actual delivery that I’m talking about. Actors (on Broadway) deliver the same lines every day, sometimes for years on end. The great ones make them fresh to each audience, even when members in the audience have seen the exact show many times.

Matthew has been touring with New Kids on the Block and The Backstreet Boys. After mentioning that, he said that of the boy bands, he preferred ‘N Sync. He started to sing one of their songs.

Halfway through, JC Chasez (of ‘N Sync) walks onto the stage, microphone in hand, singing along with Matthew (and taking some verses himself). The crowd went nuts (well, most did).

JCChasez

When the song was over, there was some loving exchanged between the two, then Matthew left the stage so that JC could sing a song without him. Above, I used the word manufactured. Here’s one example. The last thing Matthew Morrison said as he walked off the stage was: “When I return, I better see you all standing on your feet!” (or something like: “I’ll be surprised if you’re not all standing on your feet when I return!”). The point being, if you’re a fan of Matthew Morrison, you’re going to stand, whether you were moved to or not, or you’re letting your idol down.

JC gave a long (rambling) introduction before singing. He was self-deprecating (and got a really good laugh for it) when he interrupted himself and said: “This is why they don’t usually let me talk into the microphone.” Smile

Then he started singing Don’t Stop Believing by Journey. OK, great song (by any measure), and he and the band delivered it really well. But seriously, you get one song to sing, and you pick someone else’s? Also, this was hardly a Rock Show. But, instantly (and dutifully), nearly everyone in the place stood up (for the entire song). We didn’t, and for all I know, we might have been the only two people sitting during that (and one other) song.

Why did it feel odd to me, even though I love the song and thought they did a great job? Because there are a hundred Journey cover bands in the US (probably a dozen in NYC), most of whom can nail the sound (perhaps better than they did last night), and I can guarantee you that 80% of the people who stood and rocked out with JC last night, wouldn’t put $5 in a tip jar for those bands, and certainly wouldn’t stand throughout the song. They got to pay a heckuva lot more for the privilege of hearing covers last night.

OK, I could go on (an on), but I’ll shift gears and wrap up.

First, another shout-out to the band and backup singers, they were really top-notch pros.

Kiley Dean singing and dancing. She was excellent all night, but when Matthew was finishing up a Soul number, he took the opportunity to introduce each of the backup singers and give them a few seconds of lead to show off their stuff. All were really good, but Kiley killed it, hitting some super high notes amazingly for a finishing flourish.

Kamilah Marshall singing and dancing. Everything I said about Kiley applies here as well, with the exception that she didn’t quite push the mini-solo. She was otherwise completely outstanding throughout the set.

There was a male backup singer/dancer who also was excellent, though somewhat less highlighted than the ladies. I can’t easily find his name, though Matthew Morrison definitely introduced him (I don’t take notes, everything is from memory, augmented by searching the Net the next day).

BackupSingersPartialBand

Likewise, he introduced his band, but I assumed I’d have no trouble finding them online. I am giving up, so I’ll just briefly describe them without giving them the proper attribution. Left-to-right on the stage:

The bass player (electric) was fantastic. He also played a keyboard/synth on at least one number.

The drummer was incredible (playing a very large kit). For one of the medleys, he came to center stage and played the bongos. Everyone else left the stage and Matthew Sang with only the bongos accompanying him. I applaud the drummer’s play on those as well (Matthew asked the lighting person to shine a spotlight on his fingers, which were flying).

BassPlayerDrummer

Unfortunately, that was also the lowlight of the evening for me. Matthew sang a medley from West Side Story. His voice? Perfect. The bongos? Perfect. Singing a medley from West Side Story, solo, with just a bit of percussion? Borderline ridiculous. (Not even up to Vegas standards!)

MatthewMorrisonBongoPlayer

The keyboards player (L-shaped setup with an organ and electronic keyboards that sounded like a piano), was absolutely terrific and was highlighted on one number that he nailed.

Two guitar players. One alternated between an acoustic guitar on which he played rhythm and an electric on which he took a number of excellent leads. The other one played electric all night. He took a number of leads, but his volume was lower than the other guitar and it was a bit harder to pick out his skill level. Given how incredible everyone else was, I have little doubt that he’s that good too!

On to the final positive thing, followed by the biggest negative one.

The point of the tour is to promote the CD. If the tour can make a profit, all the better, I’m sure. At those ticket prices, I would guess they accomplished the latter, but did they accomplish the former?

Well, thanks to Spotify, I actually listened to entire CD this morning (that never would have happened if I didn’t see the show last night). Since Spotify pays royalties, I’ve already contributed an additional $.00000034 to Matthew Morrison beyond his take of the uber-expensive $180 (with fees) we paid for our two tickets to the show.

Here’s my take on the CD:

I like it! I don’t love it, and I’m unlikely to buy it, but I wouldn’t swear to that. If any Matthew Morrison fan were to promote it to me, I would not look at them funny, or think they were weird.

I said above that I liked his original music, and that holds true for the CD version as well, so it’s not a matter of only coming across well live. Two of the covers that he performed last night are also on the CD, but there they are actual collaborations with the original artists (Elton John and Sting). The songs came across stale/flat on stage, but are better (still not my choice of listening material) with Elton and Sting singing verses as well.

Last night he also sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow (one of our favorite songs). He did a nice job, nothing special. It’s not the original arrangement, but rather one that I associate with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, though perhaps he didn’t originate it either. On the CD, it’s a collaboration with Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s fantastic. After listening to it, I took off the headphones and played it again out loud for Lois to enjoy with me. Smile

So, here’s what Matthew Morrison accomplished yesterday by having Ian Axel open for him:

  • He extracted $180 from my wallet, though he didn’t get every penny of it personally Winking smile
  • He impressed me with his incredible talents
  • He entertained (and annoyed) me
  • He got me to listen to his CD
  • He got me to promote his CD here
  • I will speak favorably about his CD to anyone who shows an interest
  • I will check out his future recordings, especially if they contain original music!

That’s not a bad night’s work if you ask me.

All of which brings me to a complaint that nearly everyone had (especially in the orchestra section), which had nothing to do with Matthew Morrison (though I’d like to believe that the headliner can and should affect these things!).

As with a number of other venues/shows, but worse last night than I’ve ever experienced, they continually shone bright lights directly into the audience. These were land airplanes in fog level brightness. Blind you level brightness. There is no reasonable explanation for doing this that I can dream up.

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Even if you aren’t sensitive, the light overwhelms (and therefore obscures) whatever section of the stage it’s coming from at the time (yes, they rotate from all angles!). At the extreme, I can imagine it triggered some migraines! The only thing that could have made it worse would have been to strobe them. That would have surely set off epileptic attacks.

I’m not alone in my feeling. Lots of people around us were shielding their eyes and grimacing. Even on Matthew Morrison’s site, there were comments this morning about how horrible the lighting was, questioning the purpose. Like I said, not his fault, unless they did it in rehearsals, in which case I can’t imagine they would have done it had he asked them not to.

The best part of everyone standing up for two entire songs? We had human shields to protect our eyes, however brief that was…

Five For Fighting, Ian Axel and Blip Blip Bleep at Alive at Five in Stamford

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If you wound up here looking to read about Five For Fighting, skip to the bottom, or read about the openers first, followed by why I chose to cover them last (not my usual order).

While we were very excited to see Five For Fighting, we primarily showed up to see Ian Axel. Ian is a star in the making. At some point, he’ll be less accessible (just the nature of the business and the world), so we try to see him whenever and wherever we can, especially in places where fans can easily connect with him. If the music business wasn’t as mired in the old (broken) ways, while simultaneously (blindly) feeling it’s way through to the (eventual) new ways, I believe that Ian would already have broken through (as they say).

IanAxel

Ian, along with his songwriting and performing partner Chad Vaccarino, create songs that connect instantly, but will be timeless as well (I have little doubt). The range (slow ballads, with Ian playing/singing solo) to feverish full-band numbers with Ian and Chad singing together (e.g., their hit single, This is the New Year) is impressive for people of their age. They have a lot to say and they find interesting ways to say it.

IanAxelSingingPassionately

Ian plays the keyboards and ukulele. He is an incredible pianist. He has a wonderful voice that displays a number of characteristics. One of those is his easy way of slipping into a falsetto to hit high notes. In a not-so-small irony, that’s one of John Ondrasik’s most notable vocal features (he is Five For Fighting, for the one person reading this who didn’t know that).

IanAxelKeyboards

Chad Vaccarino has a voice that moves every single crowd I’ve seen him perform in front of. There’s a soul to it that you can’t escape and it’s just darn beautiful independent of his emotion. He’s an amazing songwriter, proving that in collaborations with people other than Ian (I’m particularly thinking of a number of songs he’s co-written with Mike Campbell).

ChadVaccarinoSinging

Chad plays keyboards (double decker) in an organ-like accompaniment to Ian’s spectacular piano play. During one song last night, he used the lower keyboard to simulate bells. He plays the trumpet on a couple of songs as well.

ChadVaccarinoTrumpet

Chris Anderson on electric bass and vocals. Chris always nails the bass lines no matter who he supports, but he gets significantly more animated when he plays with Ian. It’s a fantastic thing to see how much joy he derives from playing Ian’s songs (fitting, since he embodies the joy we feel listening to those songs!).

ChrisAnderson

He led the crowd in the fun clapping part during It’s Not Easy. He was instrumental in leading us in the call/answer parts of Girl I Got a Thing for You as well. Too much light behind Chris for good shots, but this one in the shadows, of his leading the clapping, was nice:

ChrisAndersonLeadingTheClapping

Ian was new to the majority of the crowd last night (I’m willing to bet on that). So, the fact that he and the band were so impressive was amusing (and a bit of a relief) to me. I’ll tell you at the end how I know that he impressed the newcomers. First, why was I amused/relieved?

Ian’s electric guitar player was unable to make the show at the last minute (way too late to replace him). So, they simply played without a guitar. Did it make a difference? Not in the least! I’ve said a number of times that in this particular band, the guitar isn’t highlighted anyway. Last night proved me correct, once and for all.

Ian’s regular drummer is one of my favorites, Adam Christgau. Adam is currently touring with Sia, selling out venues all over the place. Last night, he was committed to playing in Washington, DC. That tour was set before Ian was invited to Stamford, so Ian had time to find a replacement drummer.

Zach Jones on drums and vocals on one song. We just saw Zach for the first time last week (not with Ian) and I was very impressed with him. That lessened any nervousness I had about how well he might substitute for Adam. After the fact, I feel foolish that I worried.

ZachJones

While I won’t be disappointed when Adam rejoins Ian (he’s touring with Ian on both coasts starting in a few weeks) I’m not afraid to admit that there’s a qualitative difference between Adam and Zach. Adam can blow your mind at any moment (he’s got mad skills). So can Zach. But, Zach seems more disciplined and consistent. I’ll always love and appreciate Adam, but I think last night was the best drumming I’ve seen at an Ian Axel show.

Rockstar is one of Ian and Chad’s newest songs (still unrecorded). If you’re not falling in love with it during Ian’s piano intro, and head-over-heels halfway through the first verse, you don’t like Pop/Rock music (the gauntlet has been thrown). Given the name, Rockstar, you can imagine that there is a big finish.

In an absolutely unscriptable moment, when Zach Jones hit the cymbal on the very last note, he hit it so hard (Rockstar, right?) that it flew into the air and landed on the stage! His face (and the rest of the band’s when they realized what happened) was priceless. I was feeling what they were looking like.

Ian and Chad added a twist to Rockstar that took us by surprise. Toward the end of the song, they morphed into a mini-cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. Excellent, since many people (myself included) think that one of the people that Ian is reminiscent of is Elton John!). Just when you think he’s going to play the entire song, he morphs back in to finish off Rockstar (including the big finish I described above).

In my post about the show that Zach was in last week, I wrote the following about him:

The link from his name above is to a group he is in with Emily Long called The Stone Lonesome. They have an album out that Zach sings a bunch on as well and I am really impressed with his voice (listen to the second song, Bridge to Nowhere). I’m sure we’ll be hearing about him a lot and hopefully seeing him a lot as well.

I mention his voice above because he got to use it once last night. Pacific Sun is the only song that Ian played ukulele on last night (but not the only song he performs on the uke). When we first saw Ian play it, it was almost always a solo effort. He then worked Chad into it, including having Chad sing the second verse solo. On tour, he often plays it as a trio (with Mike Campbell, Julia Nunes, etc.)

IanAxelUkulele

Last night, it was back to a duo with Chad, mostly. Zach got up from the drums and joined Chris Anderson at his microphone. Chris put down his bass. During the chorus, they sang four-part harmony. More, please?

ZachJonesChrisAnderson

What can I say? It was totally worth sitting in the insane traffic on I95 to get to Stamford. In a word, awesome!

Ian was the middle act. Before moving to the first act, I’ll deliver on explaining how I know that newcomers were enamored by Ian.

We stood for all three acts (nearly four hours including the breaks). Standing and sitting near us was an extended family. Grandparents, their children and grandchildren. The grandchildren ranged from two to upper teens. The oldest is an aspiring musician (his grandfather told me he’s recorded a number of songs already).

All of them raved about Ian after the set. The Grandfather said to me “He has clear sailing ahead of him!”. The aspiring musician really wanted to meet Ian. Lois took him over and introduced him. He bought Ian’s CD (you should too!). Remember, above I said that the artists are accessible at these shows. Ian certainly met a ton of people last night. He here is meeting a young fan:

IanMeetingFans

Blip Blip Bleep opened the show. I hadn’t heard of them before, even though they’re Brooklyn-based. I guess I don’t get out enough. Winking smile (that former comment was meant to entertain the people who wonder how we don’t collapse from all of our music outings.)

I’ve heard the term Electronica Dance/Pop many times. When I heard Blip Blip Bleep start playing, I instantly felt that this is what that must mean. Turns out, I was correct. Here’s their own description, straight from their bio:

Founded by New York native Sean Han (guitar/synth/vocals/Ableton Live), Brooklyn-based electro-pop outfit Blip Blip Bleep (BBB) has made a name for itself by consistently delivering catchy hooks, intelligent songwriting and for making audiences dance. Over time the group has grown to include Kayce McGehee (synth/vocals) and Jojo Schwarz (drums) who contribute immense talent and intensify all aspects of the project.

Sure, they call it electro-pop, but add making audiences dance, so I declare myself correct.

Sean Han sings well, plays synth/keyboards and wailed on the electric guitar on roughly 1/2 the songs. He was self-deprecating in his stage presence and made me chuckle a number of times.

SeanHanSeanHanGuitar

Kayce McGehee on electronic keyboards, synth and vocals. Kayce did an excellent job. She sang harmony with Sean on most numbers and provided the primary keyboard play. She switched positions with Sean on one number, coming to center stage to play the synth and sing lead. Sean took over the keyboards.

KayceMcGeheeKayceMcGeheeJojoSchwarzSeanHan

On that number, a cover of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, she absolutely nailed it. Since covers are more familiar to a crowd that doesn’t know your band, this was a great way to highlight Kayce, since everyone instantly tuned into the song.

Jojo Schwarz on drums (and I think vocal background on one song). Dance/Pop (or is it Dance-Pop?) drumming is quite demanding. This is all about fast beats, constantly. Jojo was working it throughout the set. I was impressed. That said, I’ll point back to my comparison between Zach and Adam above. For a few seconds here and there, Jojo seemed to get a bit sloppy (lost focus), but quickly recovered. The last few numbers were his best, so he has stamina and skills.

JojoSchwarz

I thoroughly enjoyed their entire set, but this is the type of music that I would more likely listen to while exercising (I don’t dance) than for pure musical pleasure. At a live show, it was engaging.

OK, one last bit before we get to the main act. The MC for the night was a very entertaining guy. I didn’t catch his name, but I’m guessing he’s from the local TV station (probably an NBC affiliate, since NBC Universal was one of the many sponsors). He was joined by someone from the local FM Radio station (another sponsor).

MCs

After Ian’s set, he came out with a box full of T-Shirts and Hats. They were mostly Jerry Springer merch, but there were a few Maury Povich ones as well (making for some groaner quality jokes). They tossed T-Shirts and Hats into the crowd. People scrambled to get them.

Who doesn’t like free stuff? Well, I’ll tell you who!

On the left-hand (facing the stage) there was a gated VIP section without roughly 20 people in it. One of the Jerry Springer hats was tossed into that section. It was caught by a boy. Without hesitation, he turned and tossed the hat into the large crowd behind him. The cheers were deafening, which seemed to catch him by surprise. He turned bright red and couldn’t stop laughing. The MC on stage remarked: “Obviously, not a Jerry Springer fan.” Winking smile

I only found out half-way through the Five For Fighting set that the boy was John Odrasik’s son, somewhere between 11 and 12-years-old. The VIP section included his wife, parents, mother-in-law and the Brooklyn-based family of his bass player (perhaps others as well).

Finally, the headliner. The reason I’m covering them last is a policy decision of this blog. It’s one that rarely needs to be enforced! When a headliner doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone mention the opener(s), I relegate them to the bottom of the post, trying to reverse the injustice. At some point, you (mister superstar, whoever you are) were an opener, and hungered for recognition from the headliner.

Why is it important? Because many people don’t show up until the headliner is on stage. They have no idea who was on earlier. A shout-out from their idol, no matter how off-hand (though, how great is it when it appears to be heartfelt?), might stick with the crowd and they might check out the opener later on.

Phone it in if you have to. Say something as trite as “How about those openers?” or “Let’s have another hand for the openers.” Crank it up a notch and jot their names down, even if you didn’t listen to them.

Now you know. Onward.

Lois often needs to hear a single song to know that she loves an artist (sometimes, a single verse!). She’s rarely wrong, meaning, that artist will usually make it big (or already is and we didn’t know them). Such was the case with her first hearing of Five For Fighting (over 10 years ago). She came home and told me that I had to listen to them!

Of course, I instantly fell in love with their (really his) music. That said, over the years, I stopped listening to them other than the three biggies: Superman, 100 Years and America Town. We own both albums (America Town and The Battle for Everything). We also own the album Two Lights. I’d be lying if I said I listened to it more than once or twice.

I think John Ondrasik is a great songwriter. I think he’s a great vocalist. I think he’s excellent on piano and very good on acoustic guitar. But, his songwriting has two levels. Awesome to the point of super-human skills, and really good. More of his stuff falls into the really good category (for my taste) and there’s enough stuff I enjoy more than I don’t gravitate to it.

JohnOndrasikPiano

He has thrilled us in many ways beyond his own CDs. Check out his mind-bogglingly long list of accomplishments as a songwriter for film and TV.

We hadn’t seen him live, so we were quite excited, independent of our desire to see Ian and regardless of my comments about his catalog above.

John is an exceptional performer and his band is top-notch. The experience was very entertaining. The craft of the performance was worth watching and studying. The very large crowd seemed totally mesmerized by him/them (as it should be with true fans).

JohnOndrasikJennOberle

For me, while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t mesmerized, with the exception of 100 Years (which he closed the show with, before returning for an encore). I felt a bit detached, which is why I described it as studying the performance.

I’d be hard-pressed to defend my feelings, especially given the professional level of their performance. He was passionate (not phoning it in). He talked to the crowd a lot (he’s excellent in his story delivery!). In other words, he seemed to really connect and care about the fans. I’ll bet they felt that he was perfect (which is great!).

For me, I felt that he was somewhat floating above it all, not really connecting. To repeat, I couldn’t give you an example even if I was forced to.

He gave a three-song encore, replete with long, entertaining introductions. Again, he wasn’t phoning it in.

John played the entire show barefoot. For the last number in the encore, he announced that the thought it was about time that the crowd have something to dance to. It’s the only song that he didn’t play an instrument on. At first, he pranced on the stage with a microphone (with a very long cord).

At one point, he jumped off the stage. There were gates between him and all audience members, so while he was only a few feet from the crowd (Lois was roughly one foot from him!), the security people panicked. Literally. They obviously had no idea he was going to do that. So, four huge guys surrounded him, and as he tried to move left, right or forward, they moved in unison with him.

JohnOndrasikNearTheCrowdJohnOndrasikSecurity

It only took him 20 seconds or so to realize that his idea wasn’t going to work. He climbed back on stage and finished up the number, at one point standing on the piano bench to the roar of the crowd.

One last comment before moving on to his band. Many big bands get tired of playing their hits over-and-over. They want to grow artistically. Conceptually, I understand it. Unfortunately, music is also a business. Fans pay to buy the music, they pay to attend shows, they pay for merch. Many (I would bet most), want to hear the song played the way they know it (fell in love with it), even if it bores you.

It’s worse when you factor in songs that the artist invites the crowd to sing along to (or knows they will, invited or not). When you choose to jazz-it-up by dropping instead of going up on a famous line (not because you’re harmonizing with the crowd, but because you’re trying to keep it interesting for yourself), you’re doing no one any favors. Keep your art to new songs, or change everything in the hit (creating a unique cover). Monkeying with parts of the song but keeping the rest the same feels wrong to me. John did that on Superman…

Greg Suran on electric guitar and vocals. Greg was excellent on both. On a few numbers he got very long and tasty leads. One of them employed a slide. His harmony with John was spot on. I kept thinking to myself that he looks exactly like someone, but who? Then as John was introducing him, it hit me, Brad Pitt!

GregSuranTuning

After the show, I mentioned to a friend that he looked exactly like Brad Pitt (from my vantage point). She didn’t see it. An hour later, driving home, Lois says to me “Didn’t you think Greg looked exactly like Brad Pitt?”. Ha, great minds think alike!

So, above I said that John introduced Greg. Well, he didn’t. He started to, telling the crowd that his guitarist was excellent, single, into the Chicago Cubs, etc. But, when he mentioned the Cubs, he (John) distracted himself and started polling the audience as to whether they were Red Sox, Mets or Yankees fans (overwhelmingly Yankees, if you care). He never mentioned Greg’s name!

What’s worse, I had such a hard time finding it. It doesn’t appear on the Five For Fighting website, and very few links in Google mention him either. That’s another pet peeve of mine, when stars don’t make it easy to discover the hard-working, super talented people who support them (known as “sidemen” and I suppose “sidewomen” or “sidepeople”).

Randy Cooke on drums (and vocals on one song I think). Randy was perched on a tall platform way at the back of the stage, in a typical Rock Star drum setup (glass cage included). He did a superb job throughout the set, including acrobatics with the drumsticks quite a number of times (finger twirls and tosses). Obscured all night, and super dark in this photo, sorry:

RandyCoooke

Jenn Oberle on electric bass. John introduced Jenn as the newest member of Five For Fighting. She did an excellent job on every number. It was an extremely solid (if unflashy) performance. Her family (she was born and raised in Brooklyn) was in the VIP section with John’s, and they were cheering their hearts out for her. Smile

JennOberleJennOberle2

Ian Axel, The Spring Standards and Madi Diaz at Bowery Ballroom

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I tell everyone I meet that Ian Axel is magical. Since I don’t distinguish between people I’ve already told it to and newcomers to this fact, I am not surprised when people start running away as I approach. Winking smile

Until now, it has seemed subjective, but I finally have proof, to convince all of the skeptics. It was supposed to thunderstorm in NYC last night. It didn’t (Ian had a show headlining the Bowery Ballroom, so it would have been inconvenient for his fans if it had stormed). I see you shaking your heads in disbelief. Mere coincidence or luck (you say). Wrong!

As of yesterday afternoon, rain was predicted every single day (but one) for the next week+ (I know, my doorman showed me the weather on his iPhone!). Check the NYC weather today, and more importantly, the forecast for the next seven days. Only one day of possible rain (a complete reversal). First 80+ degree days as well.

All it took was getting Ian Axel to perform in NYC, with a full band (well, specifically his full band), and the weather is now perfect. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is! Smile

IanAxelSinging

It’s been 97 days since we’ve seen Ian with his band. We’ve seen Ian and Chad Vaccarino performing together three times in between, as recently as 16 days ago, so don’t worry about any deep withdrawal. Ian’s solo shows and his performances with Chad are magical as well. That said, even though the set lists are often the same, the experiences are dramatically different (both great in their own way).

I have a few nits to pick as well (not about any of the music last night), but you’ll have to read nearly to the bottom if you are interested (no cheating and skipping ahead!).

You can spend an entire day on this site reading everything I’ve written about Ian in the past. I won’t repeat too much of it here.

In addition to playing a more typical (fantastic) Ian Axel set, there were a reasonable number of surprises. At the top of the list was the debut of two new songs: Rockstar and Golddigger (perhaps it’s two words). We’ve seen them performed once before at North Star Bar in Philly, but this was the fist time they were ever played live with a full band. I’ll wager a few dollars that there are still a few audience members who haven’t yet recovered from having their minds blown. At least we had a bit of warning from the duo show. Smile

Pacific Sun was performed very differently. All five band members were clustered together. Chris Kuffner created an organ-like sound on his electric guitar (adding a cool/eerie flavor to the song) and all five sang the chorus together. Excellent.

IanAxelChadVaccarinoAdamChristgauChrisAndersonChrisKuffnerPacificSun

Since I mentioned Chris Kuffner above, let me mention each band member briefly before continuing with the surprises.

Chad Vaccarino was tucked away in the far left-hand corner of the stage. He had a double-decker electronic keyboard setup and was mostly creating organ sounds to complement Ian’s piano sounds. He broke out the trumpet for Hangman and one or two others, to great effect.

ChadVaccarinoSinging

Adam Christgau on drums. We used to see Adam play with various bands (including Ian’s) a couple of times a week. We were quickly spoiled and expected to see him as often going forward, and have other drummers live up to his standard. Then all of sudden, poof, Adam started traveling more and for longer periods, so we don’t get to see him as often. I savor ever single strike of his sticks whenever I can.

AdamChristgauDrums

Last night was no exception, but it wasn’t a robotic reproduction of his previous play either. His fills during the epic This is the New Year varied quite a bit, at some critical moments. I enjoyed it, but my ears were expecting the fills I’ve come to love and it caught me by surprise. For those that are curious, the changes were to a more understated drum pattern, less focus on Adam. Nice, but bring back the more dramatic version, please.

AdamChristgau

Chris Anderson on electric bass. I seem to write about Chris a lot as well, since he plays with a number of bands that we can’t get enough of (I wonder if Chris deserves any credit for that?). Winking smile He was wonderful last night as well. Later, in the nit-picking section, I’ll have a bit more to say (very positive) about the difference between Chris’ play last night and the bassists who were on stage before him.

ChrisAnderson

Chris Kuffner on electric guitar. Chris was great as he always is. In addition to the organ effects mentioned above, he also effectively used the slide. But, his best work last night was actually in the set before, so I’ll save that for a bit and describe it where it belongs.

ChrisKuffnerSlideGuitar

Now that the core band has received its due, I can continue with the surprises, which largely involved guests (but not entirely).

Ian brought out Dan Romer, who played accordion on a couple of numbers. Dan produced Ian’s CD (This is the New Year) with the exception of the title song (he is credited with producing the piano track on that song as well). Dan is an icon in the NY music scene (on many levels). Having him on stage is more of a huge Thank You from Ian than a necessary addition to the sound.

DanRomerAccordion

If you’ve been to Ian’s NYC shows in the past, you know exactly what happens when he plays Girl I Got a Thing. It happened last night too, but with some twists. Normally, when Ian starts the song, Glenn Chocky climbs on stage and does his thing (read any of my other NYC-based Ian posts to know what that thing is).

Last night, Ian actually called Chocky up before starting the song. Obviously, we knew what song was about to be played, but clearly there was going to be a twist. First, Chocky came out in a red sweatsuit (track suit). Next, he was carrying a gym bag which he laid on the stage. Third, instead of his signature bourbon in a glass, he had two of them, in plastic cups.

ChockyTrackSuit

Chocky had a surprise in the gym bag. When it came close to the time to shake my tambourine, Chocky opened the bag and started tossing tambourines into the crowd. His timing wasn’t perfect as he got to his a beat or two later than he usually does. It still created a memorable moment. Hundreds of us joined Ian and the band in singing the “Na na na na, Whoah wo” part repeatedly as well.

That wasn’t the last surprise of the song though. Toward the end of the song a Blues Brother’s looking guy walked onto the stage carrying a gong held by a rope (he had white gloves on). He held it unwaveringly, center stage, as Chocky banged the hell out of it for the rest of the song. Smile

ChockyStrikingGong

Another surprise was an added twist to one of Ian’s standards, Waltz. Toward the end of the song they broke out their version of I Want You (She’s So Heavy), returning to finish it off with the end of Waltz.

Ian dismissed the band for one song, removed his glasses and played a perfect version of Say Something.

IanAxelSingingSaySomething

The rest of the surprises came during the encore. Of course there was an encore! I can’t do justice to describing the electricity in the very large crowd throughout the set. Surely, Ian wasn’t getting out of the building without coming back when the set was over.

He returned by himself and played You’ve Got a Friend in Me by Randy Newman. Ian joked (or perhaps he was serious) on Twitter about starting a Randy Newman cover band. Last night he started it off perfectly, without an actual band (or rather, he was a band of one!).

He called the band out when he was done and they performed You’ll Be OK. During the song, Dan Romer came out and shared the mic with Chad (who was center stage, leading the awesome vocal mayhem). A minute later, Chocky came out and eventually settled on Ian’s bench. He mimed the key phrases, pointing at the crowd (letting us know that We’ll Be OK). Thanks Chocky. Now we will be!

ChadVaccarinoDanRomerChockyIanAxel

I was pretty sure that would be the end (and what a high-note ending it would have been). But no, there’s more!

After Dan and Chocky left the stage, Mike Campbell appeared. Everyone knew exactly what song was about to be played. For those of you playing the home version, it was Shorty Don’t Wait. Smile

MikeCampbellIanAxelChadVaccarino

Mike picked up an acoustic guitar and Ian returned to the ukulele (that he played on Pacific Sun). Chad took the mic at center stage (he kicks off the song). It all started as amazingly as you could hope/expect. After the first verse, there’s a dramatic pause in the music as Chad launches into an incredible vocal beginning to verse #2. Well, that’s the plan anyway.

For the first time in my experience, Chad lost the words for a second. It turned into quite a funny moment as nearly everyone on stage broke down laughing (Chad most of all!). The audience ate it up as well. Chad wanted to pick it up exactly from that point, but Ian would have none of that. As if to punish Chad (I’m kidding), but more importantly to thrill the crowd with an extra verse, Ian insisted they start from the beginning. Thanks Ian, that was the correct call! Smile

From the second Ian walked onto the stage, until the second he walked off, the people all around me (we were right up at the stage) were in a state of rapture (that’s an honest description, and my one and only homage to the numerous hilarious Twitter comments I enjoyed for the past two weeks).

The Spring Standards were co-billed with Ian and appeared right before him. There’s something very fresh about The Spring Standards that isn’t just about their excellent music. They are inventive, passionate, talented people who blend together really well. It’s near impossible not to get sucked into their energy (not that I noticed anyone in the crowd trying to avoid being pulled in!).

I don’t know their music so I won’t rattle off song names (like I can and do with Ian). I’ll attempt to describe what I meant in my adjectives above, but first, who are they? Left-to-right on the stage:

James Cleare on acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, drums, electric bass and vocals (no doubt I left off a dozen other amazing things he did). He’s an excellent singer (more on that later) and a really good guitarist as well (leads on acoustic and electric were really well done).

JamesCleare

Heather Robb on electronic keyboards, drums, percussion, melodica and vocals. Heather is often the visual focal point of The Spring Standards both because she is the constant fixture center stage (the other two swap spots on the edges, often) and because she has enough energy to power the energizer bunny for decades. She sings many of the leads. She’s very impressive in every respect save one.

HeatherRobb

She puts so much power into everything she does, that while she hits every note, more than occasionally, her voice sounds strained. That might actually make her voice more appealing to some, because it’s different, but I’m used to hearing people with more control over their vocals and I notice the difference.

James Smith (I can’t find a good individual link) on electric bass, acoustic guitar, drums, vocals and likely others. Like James Cleare, James Smith has a very good voice and plays all of his instruments well.

JamesSmithGuitarDrumsSetup

Noah Goldman (also no good link) supported The Spring Standards on nearly every song, standing or sitting right behind them. He used to be their road manager (might still be). He played pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass and once or twice banged the daylights of some cymbals and a drum. He did a very nice job on everything, bringing a dancing energy that matches up well with the rest of the group.

NoahGoldman

So, aside from their music, what makes them so interesting?

They take a full drum set and split it apart, putting the various pieces in three separate areas on the stage. The kick drum and some other parts are on the right hand side (where James Smith spends most of his time, but James Cleare is there a reasonable amount as well). High hat cymbal and some other drum parts on the left. The rest of the kit is on either side of Heather, behind the keyboards, with some cymbals and a drum to the right of the keyboards (so that everyone, including Heather, can easily reach that, including Noah).

HeatherRobbKeyboardsDrumsSetup

It’s quite interesting to watch James Smith playing the electric bass and singing, while realizing that the perfectly timed kick drum is being operated by him at the same time. Similarly, watching James Cleare play guitar and harmonica while operating the high hat cymbal tells me that their brains operate more interestingly (if not efficiently) from mine.

Heather does a ton of drumming with sticks and brushes, all while weaving in very good keyboard play. It’s all a joy to watch.

The three of them sing extremely well together. I need to listen to their songs at home to learn them better so that I can enjoy that aspect of their show even half as much as the people around me. There were similar trances (in the most positive sense) on the faces around me as there were for Ian’s set. The other similarity is that everyone seemed to know every word to every song with the exception of the brand new ones (yes, The Spring Standards broke out new material, just like Ian did).

The Spring Standards are extremely well matched to play a show with Ian Axel (well done, whoever thought of pairing them!). So much so, that the next thing I describe was one of the highlights of the night (for me).

As you may know, musicians all over are celebrating Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. He has obviously inspired more singer/songwriters than most, so it’s natural for people to want to salute him, at the least.

The Spring Standards invited Ian and his band (including Dan Romer) on stage and they performed Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. Everyone sang the chorus simultaneously (all nine people on stage plus most of the audience). James Cleare sang most of the lead (Heather joined him on a couple of verses).

James did a fantastic job. He donned sunglasses, had the harmonica holder and played acoustic guitar. There were a few phrases that were extremely close-sounding to Dylan, without the typical over-the-top impersonations where someone’s trying to be more like Frank Caliendo doing Dylan than an honest singer songwriter becoming a little more Dylan-esque.

JamesCleareAsBobDylan

Toward the end of the song Chad Vaccarino came out of the wings, trumpet in hand, and took a simple, but perfect solo. That brought the stage total to 10.

ChadVaccarinoTrumpetIShallBeReleased

In the middle of the song, Chris Kuffner took an absolutely amazing lead. It had a single flaw in it, it was too short. That was a missed opportunity for whoever was running the song to turn to Chris (in amazement) and give him the signal that he simply had to take another turn on the lead guitar.

Anyway, it was so excellent, that when Ian’s band left the stage, Heather correctly joked that perhaps they should have considered closing their set with that number. Anything else might feel anti-climactic now. They played another two or three songs. While they didn’t necessarily have the drama of everyone on stage, there was really no letdown in the final numbers. When The Spring Standards left the stage, it was completely triumphant, with the crowd screaming their heads off.

Here is the set list from The Spring Standards:

SpringStandardsSetList

Madi Diaz opened the show with a full band. She sings (beautifully) and played both electric and acoustic guitar.

MadiDiaz

Madi just recently signed with the same label that Ian is signed with, tinyOGRE. As I type this, she still isn’t listed on their site, but I’m (reasonably) sure it will happen soon enough. Having her open for Ian and The Spring Standards was a good move to get her better recognition in NYC (she’s based in Nashville).

I was completely unaware of Madi’s music before last night. Many were upbeat catchy pop-style numbers, but there were slower ones to mix it up as well. Even the slower numbers had a deliberate beat which made them feel less folky.

Madi’s voice is excellent. She’s roughly 25-years-old. I would describe her voice as sweet (that’s not a negative, but is the only word I can think of to say that somehow, she sounds more like a 16 or 17-year-old who has an excellent voice, rather than someone whose voice sounds more mature, not necessarily better).

Given that she came onto the stage at 8:02pm (I really like that Bowery started the show on time!), the crowd was much thinner than it was later for The Spring Standards and Ian Axel. Even so, most of the people there knew every word to every Madi Diaz song. Her fans were very passionate, often making her smile (but never losing her composure) when they yelled silly things to her.

I’ll mention the band in my usual order, left-to-right on the stage. It has a bit more significance this time, because that’s also the order they contributed to the success of Madi’s set last night (in my opinion). I also have to apologize in advance if I got the drummer’s name wrong. Other than clearly hearing the first guy (and being unable to mistake him once you search, as you’ll see), Madi rattled off the other names in a nearly inaudible manner. I would swear she never even named the keyboard player (I’ll explain below why that’s important).

Kyle Ryan on guitar and vocals. It turns out that Kyle Ryan is actually the second half of Madi Diaz! Confused? Don’t be. In addition to having the name Madi Diaz, the group itself is actually called Madi Diaz as well (I didn’t know that until I looked her up), consisting of Madi (the person) and Kyle Ryan. They write together (much as Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino write together).

KyleRyan

Kyle plays the guitar really well and sings well too. It took a while to realize he sings well, mostly because it felt like he was whispering into his mic. Two guys standing behind me yelled a number of times to him that he should sing louder (that’s what I was thinking, but I’m too old to yell that out, much as I’d like to). Winking smile

Somehow, either they, or Kyle himself caught the attention of the sound guy, who turned up Kyle’s mic a bit (not enough to be at parity with Madi’s voice, but loud enough to tell that their harmony was nice and Kyle can sing).

Adam Popick on drums. Adam was never flashy, even when a song would have allowed it (let alone called for it). That said, my respect for him grew on every song. He was quite an integral part of the sound of each song. Keeping such an excellent and interesting beat, without ever being the focus of attention (except for mine, because I pay a lot of attention to drummers).

AdamPopick

I just looked up his touring schedule, and it seems he plays with some pretty big acts (and opens for a lot of even bigger ones). Clearly, Adam is a very talented musician (I think he plays bass as well, perhaps more often than drums, but I’m not sure).

Bass Player (electric). I just gave up trying to find his name, sorry, but I did work at it. He was fine, but very straight up, nothing that made me pay attention to him (other than a related topic in my nitpicking section).

MadiDiazBassPlayer

I have no idea who the keyboard player was. At the end of her set, Madi mentioned that her normal keyboard player quit 24 hours earlier. She was raving that this guy learned the material in under 24 hours and traveled to play with them. From the beginning of the set, I was thinking that he was barely noticeable (there were a few exceptions) and hardly integral to the sound. I am reasonably sure Madi never named him.

MadiDiazKeyboardPlayer

So, I’m not holding anything against him, or judging his skill. Clearly, he never got a chance to play with them. But, for my taste, Madi Diaz would have been fine with just Madi, Kyle and Adam.

Here is Madi’s set list:

MadiDiazSetList

All in all (even with the nitpicking section to follow immediately), it was one of the more amazing evenings of music in recent memory (and we’ve had many).

I need to put the nitpicking in context. There’s a difference in pointing out things that could stand (or even just benefit from) improvement, vs things that are awful (where the word improvement doesn’t really apply). It’s all a matter of context and relative degrees. Given how great the show was in general, these complaints fall under the category of “should be fixed”, not “ruined my experience”.

On the positive side, the guy who was running the stage (he sat in a booth way above the stage, deep in the left-hand side of the stage, was totally on top of every physical issue and he pounced on them immediately. Early on, he noticed that Adam Popick’s kick drum was sliding forward with each kick (I didn’t notice). He ran down the stairs from his booth, grabbed something like a sand bag from the side and placed it in front of the kick drum feet so that it stopped moving. Very impressive. He continued jumping on problems throughout the show in an efficient manner.

On the negative side, mic volumes weren’t handled as well, as smoothly, or as quickly. I already gave the example where the crowd needed to point out that Kyle was dramatically under-mic’ed. That continued throughout the show, all three sets. Mic’s were turned down when they weren’t in use (good, smart). When someone stepped up to them later on, it often took a full verse for the sound engineer to notice and get it to the correct level (sometimes, it never got correct, but at least became audible).

Chad Vaccarino was plagued by a number of mic mishaps, since he moves around on the stage a lot and switches mic’s. What a shame. He has one of the most special voices around (on a number of levels) and we were cheated out of the first few words more often than I care to remember.

That was a tolerable problem, because it didn’t last long and you were then lost in the vocals once they got it right.

The biggest problem, and I’m not sure where to lay the blame, was the general insane volume of the bass for much of the night.

I mentioned that the first bass player was very “straight up” (which is fine). What wasn’t fine was that he overwhelmed most of the other sounds nearly every time he played a note. This included full-on buzzing at times. Of course, the floor shook (a ton) with every note as well. If he were an extraordinary bassist, it still would have been wrong (even bad), but it might have been interesting as well, which it wasn’t.

I don’t know if it was the Bowery Ballroom sound guy, or the bass player himself cranking his amp and bass to unreasonable levels. I have no idea what it sounds like on the stage. Perhaps the monitor engineer had the levels better set so that it sounded good on stage, but horrible to the audience.

The Spring Standards share the electric bass duties. Both James’ and Noah play the bass at various times. None of them is fancy either (again, fine), with all three doing a nice job. Nice, with the exception that 80% of the time, their bass also overwhelmed the other instruments. One of the nicest songs The Spring Standards performed was when both James’ were on acoustic guitar. Everything was so clean and pleasant. A correctly leveled bass would not have detracted from any of the other songs.

I mentioned above that I would praise Chris Anderson down here. As far as bass playing goes, Chris was dramatically more interesting on every single bass line than the others, combined. But, what was more interesting (shocking) to me was that for the first half of Ian’s set, he was also at a much more reasonable volume (still quite loud, but no distortion).

Then, mysteriously, in the second half of the set, he too became too loud (while maintaining fantastic bass lines, so I was correct in stating above that if you’re going be too loud, you better be interesting as well!). Did Chris change something, or did the sound guy wake up and wonder why the bass wasn’t killing everyone in the front half of the room? We may never know…

Anyway, rather than ruining the show, all it did was make me think about things I shouldn’t have noticed. This was an awesome show that simply could have been much better.

I mentioned above that we’ve seen Ian and Chad three times in a row without the full band. One of those shows was at Jammin’ Java in VA. Another was in Philly. At each of those shows, we brought friends who had never seen them. In both cases our friends fell in love with them. One of our VA friends flew up just to catch this show. Our two Philly friends took the bus up. All three of them left early this morning to return to their normal lives. All three were thankful to have made the effort to soak in last night’s experience.

Before heading to the show, we had an awesome Mexican meal with our out-of-town guests. Note that the two of us on the ends are both proudly wearing our Ian Axel T-Shirts.

HadarOutOfTowners

When the show was first announced, we bought our tickets the day they were available online. I know for a fact that we bought the fourth and fifth tickets sold. At the show (actually in line before the doors opened) we saw Lindsie, who organized the amazing house concert that Ian and Chad performed at in VA. She showed me her ticket and it was #3 sold. Inside, we ended up standing with Lindsie and Alison (another Ian fan whose tweets I’ve seen many times). While I didn’t check Alison’s ticket, I’ll bet it was one of the first sold as well. It’s a badge of honor for a true fan to get tickets early and spend a long time anticipating the great night out!

HadarLindsie

We ran into so many friends at the show it was almost comical. Here are some photos of people that Lois forced to pose for the blog:

AmyRivardElyseShannonTerryElyse

LindsieAlisonMelissaTongJimSamTeichmanKelly

After the show was over, I found myself standing next to none other than Derek James (of Derek James and the Lovely Fools). We chatted for a bit about how absolutely incredible the show was. I made sure to tell Derek that we would be at his show next Wednesday, June 1st, 8pm, Rockwood 1. The original Lovely Fools (Roy Gurel and Assaf Spector), both of whom were away the last time we saw Derek, will be back this time.

If you’re in NYC next Wed, and don’t show up for this set, you have no idea what damage you’re doing to your immortal soul. Come, experience the outrageous fun that is a Derek James and the Lovely Fools set. You won’t regret it! Smile

Ian Axel at North Star Bar in Philadelphia

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Some days are perfect. Yesterday was one such day. It began with a long call with my mom. While relaxing in the apartment (catching up on the last two episodes of Blue Bloods [great show]), the doorman rang up to say that someone left us a package. A few minutes later, I was tasting some incredible fudge, with exactly the right amount of peanut butter flavor. Heavenly!

After that, we got in the car and headed to Philadelphia. Our good friend Wes moved there last year. For a while now (9+ months!) we’ve been hearing him rave about his lady-friend, Jacklyn. We’ve almost managed to meet her a couple of times, but our collective crazy schedules conspired against it.

When we noticed that Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino were playing in Philly on May 8th, we immediately asked Wes and Jacklyn if they could join us for a leisurely dinner followed by the show. Thankfully, that worked for them, so we were finally going to get to meet Jacklyn. Getting to see Ian and Chad perform, well, no need to tell you how exciting that was for us as well.

The show was at North Star Bar. A quick scan of the menu coupled with the 5pm opening made that the perfect place to get together. I’ll heap additional praise on North Star Bar (NSB) later on as well, but the most important compliment I can give them is their complete and straightforward FAQ. Perhaps it’s because I’m old, but I like knowing what to expect (in advance) when going to a new venue. NSB delivered exactly the experience they said they would. Thanks!

I’ll circle back to the dinner later, as most people clicking on this are coming to find out whether Ian and Chad were their usual awesome selves (spoiler alert: they were!), but for us, meeting Jacklyn was reason enough to make the ride to Philly worthwhile, so I’ll wrap up with that and more on NSB in general.

Ian opened his set solo. This is from memory, so I could be reversing the song order: Leave Me Alone, Afterglow, Gone and Waltz. At each show, Ian seems to get a little more comfortable telling a story before playing a song. More, please! One of those stories preceded the final solo number, Say Something (this time on keyboards).

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After Ian wrote Say Something (an emotionally draining song, which probably gives only the slightest hint as to how emotionally draining the inspiration had to be!), Ian didn’t write another song for a year!

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It seemed fitting that when he called Chad Vaccarino up to the stage the first song they sang together was also the first song they wrote (they co-write most of Ian’s songs) after the year of Say Something was up, You’ll Be OK. Of course, their performance was amazing.

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More important than the performance was the story/transition from despair to hopefulness. Obviously, Ian went through that same transition during that year, but he also conveys it in the songs so that we can have a glimpse of the journey. For those experiencing the emotions in their own lives (most of us have, are or will), it’s much more personal than a glimpse.

Thankfully, Ian experienced it in the correct order and the songs were played in the correct order for us to be left more hopeful. Smile

Ian then invited Julia Nunes up to the stage. Ian switched to the ukulele and the three of them (Ian, Chad and Julia) shared one microphone. They sang Pacific Sun, with Julia taking the second verse lead (Chad normally sings that verse) and all three singing harmony on the chorus.

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Julia joined them for a new twist on Shorty Don’t Wait (one of my favorite songs). Chad sang the lead (as he typically does). Julia took a verse and belted it out wonderfully in a gospel-like voice (can I get an Amen!). Ian also sang lead and all three harmonized together. I loved it, no hesitation or reservation. But, with no disrespect to Julia, I missed Mike Campbell’s guitar playing and his harmony as well.

JuliaNunesChadVaccarinoIanAxelIanAxelUkulele

After Julia left the stage, Ian and Chad introduced two new songs: Rockstar and Golddigger. Wow! Both are fantastic songs. Add to that the as-yet unrecorded Shorty, You’ll be OK (and an ancient, but still favorite of mine, Home), we’re well on our way to another amazing CD. Let’s get on it guys! Winking smile

They closed their set with This is the New Year, always awesome.

We bought a ton of merch (they have brand new T-Shirts in great colors). Thankfully, they now travel with a Square reader so they can take credit cards on their iPhones. Whew! Smile You can see a few of the T-Shirts hanging on the wall over Chad’s shoulder:

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Talain Rayne opened the show on keyboards and vocals. Talain has a very nice voice and plays the keyboards well. His entire set (the music portion) was pleasant enough. Unfortunately, while I could understand every word when he spoke between the songs, it seemed like he added an accent of sorts when he sang, making many of the words hard to follow.

TalainRayne

I found him to be quite funny between the songs, including plugging his phone into the PA system and calling his mom to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. Of course, he got her voicemail. All of us in the audience left a message for her. She called back during his last number and we got to say Happy Mother’s Day to her live.

I might have preferred that his whole set be comedy though, since the transitions from the comedy to the music (and back) were a little jarring. I spoke to another audience member who had the opposite reaction. That person felt the transitions were jarring, but wished it was all music and no talk/comedy. In any event, Talain is talented and will likely hit his stride sooner rather than later.

After Ian was done, Julia Nunes took the stage. While we were saying goodbye to Ian and Chad, we caught all of her first number, Maybe I Will. It’s an echo song (call/answer) and the crowd was totally into it, singing their hearts out with her. Nicely done!

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Unfortunately, we left as she started her second song because our garage closes at midnight. We made it back at 11:45pm, so we didn’t have much wiggle room and were thankful that there was significantly less traffic coming home than heading to Philly earlier in the day.

OK, rolling the clock back to 5pm. All four of us arrived minutes before NSB opened the front door. Lois, Wes and Jacklyn went in when the door opened and I went to our car to put away something that Wes gave me.

We like to surprise musicians that we’re friendly with when they play out of town (and therefore have no expectation of seeing us there). That didn’t work out last night. As I was closing the car door, I heard my name shouted out. I looked around and saw Ian in the passenger seat of their car, driving down the side street next to NSB. Oh well, cover blown early. Winking smile

We got to spend over two hours getting to know Jacklyn (a bit). We love her and completely understand why Wes has been raving about her for so long. We swapped life stories over beer (well, Lois had club soda, which looked like clear beer).

WesJacklyn

The food at NSB is excellent. I believe it was the owner who told us that he convinced the chef to join him when he (the chef) got tired of working at 4-star restaurants (with all that entails).

This is the opposite. The kitchen is tiny (I was led to believe that it’s a solo effort by the chef). The food comes out slowly (as their FAQ states!), because it’s all freshly prepared, by one person, in a tiny space. But, the man is truly a master, so get there early, enjoy the company of your friends (like we did!) and then enjoy some great cooking.

Don’t be frightened by the next photo. This is not available on the menu, so no one will force you to eat a portion this size. This plate was sitting in front of the owner. Lois took the photo from a few tables away (which is why it’s fuzzy). He explained to us that one of the perks of convincing the chef to come over was getting this kind of treatment for whatever special dish the chef chooses to make for him each day. Smile

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The draft beer selection was large. I had Tiger Beer (highly aromatic with a citrus smell and taste). Aside from draft Smithwick’s (pronounced Smiddicks) in Ireland, this is probably my favorite beer (they’re so different, let’s just call it a tie!). Between 5-7pm each day, beer is 1/2 price. What a deal, you can’t go wrong there.

The bartender, waiter and presumed owner (presumed by me) were all funny, helpful and good at their jobs. Even though it’s a standing only venue for the show (we sat for dinner), we would return to NSB in a heartbeat to see another show. If we lived in Philly, we’d hang out there for drinks and dinner regardless of the show.

Like I said, a perfect day! Now to create another one today (my goal for every day!)…

Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino at Jammin Java

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Having just seen Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino perform at a house concert the night before, you might assume that we wouldn’t make the trek to NoVA again to see them headline Jammin’ Java. Silly Human (spoken in the proper Ferengi accent!), we couldn’t wait!

The two experiences were dramatically different, even though the setups and set lists were reasonably similar. You can read my post about the house concert if you want all the details (I’ll highlight some of the main differences here).

First, some set list changes. The opening sequence was tweaked. Ian started with The Music that Haunts this Town. It was a good choice and highlighted one of the critical differences in the venues. At a house concert, it takes little more than flicking the lights on/off or simply saying shhhh to get the crowd to be quiet instantly. At a club, people are (typically) drinking more heavily and socializing. They may even be there for the other acts. The point is, there is generally a lot of settling down that has to be done when a new set begins.

Very few clubs announce the performers nowadays (somewhat surprising). So, Ian was sitting on stage, alone, fiddling with his keyboard, while people were still talking loudly (most probably had no idea Ian had emerged yet). If Ian had started a song with lyrics, it would have ruined the first verse (or two) for his fans until the socializing eventually quieted down. By opening with a powerful instrumental, it still took some time to get quiet, but by the time he morphed into Waltz, the atmosphere was just right!

IanAxelKeyboards

Ian then played Leave Me Alone! This time, I was determined to clap, no matter what. Of course, self-conscious dork that I am, I couldn’t get the correct beat going. Then some people on the other side of the club started staring at me, probably thinking that I didn’t realize the song hadn’t ended yet (right, 20 seconds in and it wasn’t over yet?). That only distracted me even more so that I never got on rhythm. Total Fail on my part. Sad smile

It turned out that Lisa, my savior from the night before during this song, was sitting to my immediate right (but at a slight angle, so I wasn’t sure until later in the evening). If I had waited five more seconds, I could have piggy-backed on her excellent timing. Anyway, no one other than us even tried, so this crowd didn’t get to experience what it’s like at a typical NYC show.

At the end of the song there is the call/answer part “It’s Not Easy”. Very few people sang the audience part (though it wasn’t just Lisa and me).

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Two other prominent set changes. Instead of singing the song about his sister, Ian substituted Hangman. In addition to being his always awesome self (Ian, in case you’re not paying attention), 1/2 way through the song, Chad Vaccarino casually stepped onto the stage, trumpet in hand. At the precise moment when you expect the horns to come in during Hangman (you do own the amazing This Is The New Year album, right?), Chad chimed in perfectly. He didn’t play the trumpet at the house concert.

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The second addition was Girl I Got a Thing. It was great. It also highlighted a few more differences in NYC audiences. Lisa and I automatically sang the (correct this time) Girl I Got a Thing answer (perhaps a few other people joined, but it wasn’t obvious). More notably, I doubt that anyone realized they were missing out on Chocky drinking on stage and shaking the tambourine at just the right time. It also took a bit longer than expected for the crowd to get into the na-na-na-na, woa wo part, but I was impressed that people got a bit more emboldened. It was particular cool that people quickly picked up on singing it softer and softer at the end, following Ian’s lead. Excellent!

The other obvious difference was not having Mike Campbell there. We missed him, especially since it meant that they didn’t perform Shorty Don’t Wait. They did do Pacific Sun (with Ian on the ukulele, first time for us seeing him jacked-in with his new pickup) and Down By the River (yesterday I knew I was wrong when I called it Down To the River).

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I did start out by saying the difference was dramatic. The #1 reason was that Jammin’ Java was amplified and the house concert was not. Both were awesome, with the sound engineer last night doing a terrific job of getting the levels right. Still, hearing their voices amplified and hearing the keyboards much louder (in particular the bass lines) puts it squarely in between an acoustic show and a full band one.

The way I raved about the house concert, you’d think that I would much prefer it over last night’s version. You would be wrong (again). Variety is the spice of life and I really fully enjoy all of Ian’s setups!

Of course, Chad thrilled on You’ll Be OK, Down By the River, Pacific Sun and This is the New Year. There were even a handful of “Yeah, Chad”’s called out, making it ever-so-slightly more like a NYC show. Winking smile

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But, for me personally, the biggest difference last night from any other show is that Lois finally decided I was a big enough fan of Ian Axel to warrant buying me my own Ian T-Shirt. For over a year, I have had to walk around with Lois wearing one of her many colored ones, the original version saying “I’m with Ian” (so people may have thought my name was Ian!). We’ll see who wears theirs out first (probably me, since I still only have one…).

So, awesome indeed, but now I’m ready again for a full band show. Let’s get it done boys!

Ian has a way of creating super fans (we definitely qualify). The same ladies that organized the house concert the day before volunteered to run the merch table at Jammin’ Java. Lindsie and Sara did a great job, including bringing a jar of the Ian Axel Fortune cookies. If you signed the mailing list you got one. Our two guests did and got their reward. Smile

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I may have my facts wrong, but I heard a rumor that the opening act was supposed to be someone we’ve just recently seen in NYC. Pleasant but nothing that excites me. Then we heard that he canceled. Whether that’s true or not, a local group was chosen to open for Ian.

Sub-Radio Standard is five guys, a number of whom look like they’re still in High School (perhaps they are). Not one to be blinded by age-ism, let’s start out by saying they were a great selection to open for Ian. They are all talented, but the lead singer is really the heart of the group.

Adam Bradley sang lead on every song and played acoustic guitar (quite nicely) on roughly half of them. He has a terrific voice that Ian called out as well.

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Matthew Prodanovich on acoustic guitar and light vocals. Matthew did a very nice job on the guitar, in particular on the few songs where he played some very interesting leads (integrated into the songs, rather than solos). He sang nicely, but nowhere near often enough.

MatthewProdanovich

Before I continue, I have an excuse to point out one thing that Sub-Radio Standard (and Adam in particular) needs to start doing. Introduce the band! Adam didn’t name the members of band. Even though they are listed on their Facebook Fan Page (which is how I know the spelling), there is an extra person listed, that overlaps with the instruments I am about to name, so I may be choosing the wrong person!).

John Fengya on electronic keyboards, acoustic guitar and small djembe. John (or is it Mike Chinen?) is likely the most talented musician in the group. He played the keyboards very well. His play on the guitar was really good too. He joined the full-time percussionist on the closing number and did a very nice job there as well. One one song John also used a shaker.

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Michael Pereira on percussion (small djembe and bass drum, both played with his hands only). He also played the tambourine with his foot. Michael kept a lively beat throughout. He also sang a bit of harmony with Adam on the first number (and on the last, but I don’t think he was near his mic since he moved over to share the bass drum with John, which was quite cool).

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Mark Siford on acoustic bass. Nice job.

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Sub-Radio Standard played at least three covers (including the opening number) and at least five originals. The covers were all by big groups (Kings of Leon, Maroon 5 and Coldplay). I know I’m one of the only people in the world who doesn’t get why many of these super groups are so popular. I don’t know many of their songs, but the reason I don’t is that none of the ones I’ve ever heard have made me want to listen to more. In general, they’re very pleasant, but not interesting.

I felt exactly that way last night. Sub-Radio Standard did a high quality job on all three covers. The performances were worth listening to, but the songs, I have no need to ever hear again (by Sub-Radio or the original groups). On the other hand, I liked every single original song that Sub-Radio played. So, keep writing guys, you’re doing a good job!

My only complaint about Sub-Radio Standard is that they don’t do nearly enough harmony. Matthew and Michael are clearly capable of enhancing Adam’s sound. Even though Adam called out Matthew for his harmony, I assure you it was way too little. They need to work on this since they have the raw material sitting there (literally).

Some final thoughts about Jammin’ Java. We really like it there and look forward to every show we attend. The food is excellent as is the coffee. For the most part, the staff there are extremely nice. Last night, that was 95% accurate (the food, coffee and majority of the staff).

For whatever reason, they decided that last night would be a standing only show (with a few tables in the small elevated area). Fine, that’s their right, even though without the full band, Ian is better served by a seated show. At 7:20 (or later!), 10 minutes before Sub-Radio Standard was supposed to start, they changed their minds (that’s fine too and we were thrilled). They started rolling tables and chairs out.

They did it fairly quickly and efficiently. But, one staff member decided to be officious and tried to keep people away from tables that were clearly done until “they were all done”. Her attitude was difficult to take, but it never ended. Once she got in a mood, it lasted until after the show was over. One of our guests ordered some chili to go. While one person was happily making it, our moody gal remarked (loudly) “You’re not making food now?”. Hey, we tried to give the club more business in this economy. We apologize for the inconvenience…

Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino and Mike Campbell at VA House Concert

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We’re missing some mind-bogglingly good music in NYC this week (and next). Is there a cure for that? Yes, catching Ian Axel on consecutive nights, in different settings.

Our two most recent Ian Axel concerts were both big stage, full band, crowded standing audience venues. We’ve seen Ian solo and acoustic before, but nothing like last night. Ian, Chad Vaccarino and Mike Campbell appeared last night in Northern Virginia (NoVA) at a house concert organized by two of their many super fans (our heartfelt thanks go out to Lindsie and Sara for putting this together!).

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House concerts vary in so many ways (so far, we’ve loved every one we’ve been at). Last night had a big crowd (75 confirmed in advance). Consistent with the other ones, there was no amplification of anything other than Ian’s electronic keyboards (he debuted a new amp that was set at just the right volume). Vocals, guitar and ukulele were all au natural.

That was a huge difference. Even for a solo show at Rockwood, Ian/Chad/Mike are mic’ed for vocals and guitar. That introduces a number of things, including the skill and mood of the sound engineer that night, plus your physical placement from the speaker(s) (rather than from the performer). Last night we were six feet away from the actual mouths producing the sounds.

Ian kicked off his set with Leave Me Alone! Of course it was great, but it also set the tone for the rest of the set nicely. Sitting to my left were a mother/daughter. The daughter finished her Masters in NYC last summer and moved back to NoVA. She is (and was) a fan of Ian’s and saw many shows in NYC when she lived there. Right after Ian sings the first verse, there is a fun clapping part (both on the record and at all of his live shows).

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I badly wanted to clap, but admit to not doing it. Lisa (the daughter, two seats to my left) started clapping. I joined in instantly (and looked over to thank her for doing it!). I can’t imagine the tension that would have built up inside me if I didn’t get to clap along. Of course, everyone sang the ask/answer It’s Not Easy part (could even have been 100% participation, it certainly sounded like it).

The same song set the tone in another way as well. One of the lines is “Take all your sh*t, I’m over it”. Given that there were a few kids there, Ian switched it to “Take all your stuff” and of course, couldn’t rhyme it. We all laughed, as did Ian. Smile Next time, I suggest: “Take all your stuff, I’ve had enough!”. Winking smile

I am sure I could reconstruct the entire set list from memory, but I would probably get the order wrong, so I’ll just mention a few songs in context. I think the second/third songs were The Music that Haunts this Town morphing into Waltz. I mention it because of the long instrumental lead. You could have heard a pin drop people were so respectful of Ian’s incredible piano play (and likely mesmerized, since we could easily see his fingers fly up and down the keyboard).

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Ian introduced a number of the songs with his classic self-effacing style (privately we describe it as impish, but now I’ve outed us). He got big laughs a number of times, including his introduction to Gone. Of course, no laughter whatsoever during the playing of the very emotional Gone.

Ian played the equally heart-tugging Say Something (after another moving intro) to end the first solo-section of his set. He then called Chad Vaccarino up to join him. The two of them performed You’ll Be OK. We had already gotten more than just a taste of Chad’s magic earlier (I’ll get to that shortly), so it wasn’t a surprise to see them nail this.

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Ian invited Mike Campbell up. Ian came out from behind the keyboards and took out his ukulele. The three of them played Pacific Sun. They followed that up with a song we’d never heard before (something like “Down to the River”, but not exactly that). More gorgeous three-part harmony!

After that, back to some more solo Ian. He sang a song about his sister that he was worried he would mess up, since he rarely plays it. He needn’t have worried, beautiful! Since I’m mentioning most of the songs anyway, I’ll add that one of the solo numbers was Afterglow.

Then Ian called Chad back up and announced that they were about to play his single. Before he started, he said he wanted to dedicate it to the kids of our hostess. She replied that they just went up to bed, but that the little girl would be very upset if she missed this one. She asked Ian to wait a minute as she went up to get the kids. You could hear them running down the stairs with excitement, it was too cute for words.

I’m sure people would have been happy to show up just to hear this song. Smile

Ian called Mike back up again and the three of them closed the show with Shorty Don’t Wait. I could listen to them sing this song 100 times in a row and not get tired of it. Each of them does their part so well and when the three sing together (especially the last line a cappella) it’s magic.

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The feeling in the room was extraordinary. For a few minutes, no one wanted to get up from their seats because it would mean that the evening had ended. We had a one-hour drive back to the hotel so we finally did get up, say our thank yous and goodbyes and hit the road.

Mike Campbell opened the show solo. He performed five numbers accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. We’ve seen Mike perform solo before, but this too was special. Without a microphone or an amplified guitar, we got to appreciate him opening up his voice a bit more. He nailed each song and the crowd let him hear it (very sustained applause after each number, which of course, Ian got as well).

Apologies for how dark many of theses photos are:

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Mike invited Chad up and they sang Days Gone By (a song they wrote together). Wow. We’ve seen them perform it before with Mike singing the lead, last night they switched and Chad took the lead. Chad is a very emotive singer to begin with and I was curious what he would sound like un-mic’ed. Holy cow, he was perfect.

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They played a song we hadn’t heard before (another co-write) called something like Don’t Worry (but that’s not it exactly). Another winner. Then they called Ian up.

This created a Three Stooges like comedy moment. Mike and Chad were sitting on tall bar stools (as you can see from the above photos). Chad pulled out the small piano stool from behind the keyboard and placed it between the stools for Ian to sit on. Ian pointed out that he would be really short sitting there and offered to switch with Chad. Of course, Chad being the shortest of the three couldn’t readily accept the logic of that offer.

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After a bit more milling around, they agreed to all stand (as you can see). Smile

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They performed another song that Chad and Mike co-wrote, All the Love. Another wow. Ian and Chad write amazingly well together, but so do Chad and Mike.

In addition to organizing an amazing show, our lovely ladies (Lindsie and Sara) had a great spread to eat. Most notable were the special Ian Axel Fortune Cookies! Each fortune was a song lyric. Brilliant and totally appropriate as real fortunes!

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Tonight we get to repeat most of the joy (Mike won’t be joining them) at Jammin’ Java (again in NoVA). Can’t wait!

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Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Julia Nunes at the Studio at Webster Hall

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This night couldn’t come fast enough for us. We bought tickets the minute they went on sale (we like to believe they were the first four sold, so don’t burst our bubble if you know differently).

Ian Axel just released a new CD (well, at the moment it’s digital downloads only, but the physical CD is coming soon), called This Is The New Year. The NY CD Release Show was last night at the Studio at Webster Hall and Ian tweeted in advance that he’d be playing the entire album in order.

The show was sold out and there are only roughly 10 seats around the edges, so there were 300+ people standing packed like sardines throughout the night. There were two opening acts making it a long night of standing for us old folks. Q: Would we do it again? A: Seven nights a week! Smile

Rather than post a set list, I’ll point you to where you can buy the CD, since the track listing is what was played last night (with the exception of the encore). Here it is on Amazon first (my preferred place to buy MP3’s). Here it is on iTunes. It’s the same price (currently) on both, $7.99, but there’s a different bonus track on each service, so that too might sway your decision as to where to buy it. There are gorgeous liner notes in a downloadable PDF in iTunes. I don’t know if they come in the Amazon flavor, so that too might be a factor in your decision.

Ian came out with the full band with one new twist. In addition to the drums, bass and guitar, Chad Vaccarino was tucked away in a dark corner behind Ian played a double-decker electronic keyboards (from what I could hear, largely an organ sound to complement Ian’s piano sound on his electronic keyboards).

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In the very old days (yes, they’re still only 25, at least for another month!) Chad only used to sing. More recently, he has added his trumpet playing skills to a number of songs. On a few numbers last night, Chad played both the trumpet and the keyboards! This adds a new dimension. Very well done!

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After playing Leave Me Alone and Afterglow (knocking them out of the park, of course), the band left the stage. Ian played Gone, solo. It’s a very moving song in general, but given that we were standing inches from Ian’s mom and a few feet from her twin sister, the emotions in our vicinity were running a little higher than usual.

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It’s a tribute to Ian’s overwhelming talent that he can electrify a crowded room with a full band and not lose a single audience member when switching to a heart-tugging solo number.

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The band came back out for The Music that Haunts this Town with a surprise guest in tow. Dan Romer came out with an accordion and joined Ian for consecutive numbers, rejoining again later. While the accordion was a fun addition to the sound, it wasn’t about adding an accordion sound that caused Ian to invite Dan on stage.

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Ian told us that Dan produced the album (the title track was produced by John Alagia, with Dan getting credit for producing the piano on that track as well). Dan produced the rest. Dan also produced the original version of This is the New Year and while Alagia added some things, he stayed reasonably true to Dan’s vision. It was a wonderful way for Ian to thank Dan and ensure that everyone knew who made this album sound as good as it does!

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When Dan left the stage, Chad Vaccarino came front and center and everyone in the room knew what was about to happen. Not only because we knew the order of the show, but because the electricity in the room became even more palpable. The title song was about to be played. If you weren’t there, I have no words to describe what was going on at Webster Hall. Suffice it to say that Ian and Chad could have healed the sick if they touched their foreheads right after that song. Smile

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After keeping the blood pumping with Hangman, the band again left the stage. Ian played Cannonball solo, again tugging at everyone’s heart.

When the band returned for Girl I Got a Thing, another special guest joined. Glenn Chocky joined to perform his usual ritual during this song (a staple at Ian’s NY shows). Chocky drinks burboun (or scotch, etc.) on stage while Ian sings. He has two jobs, both of which he nails. 1) Shake a tambourine when Ian sings “You make me wanna shake my tambourine.” (the crowd goes nuts!) and 2) lead the crowd in singing back “Girl I got a thing for you” in response to Ian singing it. Chocky often gets the crowd to clap as well, so he really has three jobs. I am not sure whether the drinking is part of the job or just his compensation. Winking smile

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It’s a shame that Chocky probably can’t afford to go on tour with Ian just to perform this one song. The crowds in other cities are missing out on a bit of fun.

The setup changed again for Pacific Sun. Ian took center stage with his ukulele. Chad moved to Ian’s keyboards (sitting down) but didn’t play. He sang harmony and lead on a verse as well. Whenever the two of them sing together the already magical numbers/performance rises to a new level.

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After playing We Are (back in the normal band configuration), Ian mentioned that it had been ages since he’d performed that. It’s clearly an emotional song for him.

One last time, the band left the stage and Ian closed the show (and album) with Say Something on the keyboards. Another wildly emotional tug at our heartstrings. On the iTunes version of the album, the bonus track is a ukulele version of this song.

Of course there was going to be an encore. Everyone returned to the stage, including Dan Romer and Glenn Chocky. Chad took center stage and Ian announced that they would play You’ll Be Okay (a crowd favorite). He explained that he and Chad co-write most of the material, but that they went a year without writing after Say Something. When they finally sat down to write again, You’ll Be Okay was born. Thank goodness they started writing again! What a way to close the show!

I can’t end the Ian section without writing about his amazing band. I’ve already mentioned that Ian mesmerizes all on his own, but I have to tell you that the full band is a mandatory experience, if you have the chance!

All three members of the band are top-notch musicians, but more importantly (from our perspective) is that all three are absolutely incredible people. You’d want to hang out with each of them even if they couldn’t play a note.

Adam Christgau on drums and light vocals. Adam is one of our favorite drummers (I’ve said it often, I’ll say it again, deal with it!). He was perfect last night. I’ve recently written about two other amazing drummers, Josh Dion and Vinnie Sperrazza. In both of those cases, I wrote that their drumming on each song was better than their solos.

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To extend that, Adam didn’t take any solos last night. But, I believe that if you recorded Adam’s drums last night, and cut out all other sounds completely so that you were just listening to his drum track, you would be listening to one of the best drum solos ever. In other words, his normal drumming on Ian’s songs are full-out gorgeous drum solos, which just happen to perfectly fit with the rest of Ian’s songs and band.

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Simply amazing. The fact that Adam is the person most responsible for us discovering Ian Axel to begin with (both in a roundabout and direct way!), makes it all the more satisfying to hear him complement Ian’s sound so well.

Chris Anderson on electric bass and light vocals. Another of our favorites (we’ve seen him a number of times in the past couple of weeks). He’s always excellent, but his fit with Ian’s music and style make his appearances with Ian the best. Last night the bass was at the right volume, but at the same time, every note shook Webster Hall to it’s core. The bass never overwhelmed any other instrument, but my pants were vibrating and a rush of air hit my chest every time Chris played a note.

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Chris Kuffner on electric guitar and vocals. While Adam and Chris Anderson sing a bit of backup vocals (Girl I Got a Thing for You, for example), last night, Chris Kuffner took a more prominent role. On at least two numbers (Pacific Sun most notably), Chris sang full-on three-part harmony with Ian and Chad. It’s a role often reserved for a different guest star, Mike Campbell. Chris nailed it.

ChrisKuffnerSinging

Chris is also a top guitarist (and bassist), but on most of Ian’s songs, it’s hard for me to pick out the guitar lines. There was at least one very notable exception, where Chris got the guitar to sound exactly like an organ. It was cool and eerie at the same time.

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It was incredible to watch/hear so many people in the audience singing along with every word. I’m not surprised that Ian’s fans know his songs so well, that’s a given. What’s cool is seeing their joy at having a chance to sing those songs with him.

To sum it all up, awesome! Much of the crowd hung around afterward to say hi to the performers, buy stuff, get things signed and pick up one of the 150 signed posters that Ian was giving away. Lois bought a T-Shirt (new style just out that day) and got a poster. Many people just mingled to not let the glow fade too quickly by leaving the place.

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Greg Holden opened the show. Greg is releasing a new CD in April and played a number of songs from it, including some of his previously recorded favorites as well. For the most part, he played solo accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. He had some guests that I’ll cover in a minute.

GregHoldenPluggingIn

The show could have started off disastrously for Greg, but he turned a problem into an interesting solution, without missing a beat. Half way through his opening number he moved slightly and somehow, lost the amplification on his guitar. It was obvious, but he didn’t panic or stop the song to figure out what was wrong.

After trying quickly to jiggle the cable (again, without missing a beat in his vocals), he pushed the guitar onto his back and finished the second half of the song a cappella. He did a great job, including maintaining all of the long-ish pauses where he might have played some guitar (very brave and very well done) in order to keep the song and pacing completely authentic. He turned a potential mishap into a crowd-winning maneuver. Very professional and well executed.

When the song was over, he figured out that the cable itself was bad. He switched cables and didn’t have any issues for the remainder of his set.

New cable: $1.98. Not missing a beat when discovering a bad cable: Priceless! Winking smile

After playing a couple of songs solo, Greg invited up one of our favorite violin players, Melissa Tong. She played two songs with Greg, and returned for two more later in the set.

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Melissa’s fills between Greg’s verses were amazing. Very classical in nature, complementing Greg’s guitar play and the melodies in a way that made the two of them sound very compelling together.

After the show I asked Melissa if Greg sent her a score to follow (I figured he might have violin parts from his upcoming CD recordings). Amazingly, she said “No, he emailed me the tracks he wanted me to play on, and I improvised those parts.”. Folks, she got the tracks that morning and was teaching violin lessons during the day. If you don’t understand why we think so highly of Melissa, you never will.

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I want to give Greg the credit for thinking of her to begin with (since they never played together before!) and for being brave enough to risk something cringe-worthy in order to achieve what he had hoped he would!

Greg closed his set with all of Ian’s band (including Ian) joining him on stage. In addition, the act following him (to be named in a second) and Melissa Tong were on stage as well, to sing his signature number, Bar On A. The crowd sings the chorus along with everyone on stage and I always enjoy it as I did last night.

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Julia Nunes was next up. Julia played all but two numbers solo, accompanying herself on two different ukuleles. She has a very powerful and clean voice and some of her lyrics struck me as insightful and well put together. Oh yeah, she’s only 22-years-old (that will become more relevant in a moment).

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First, she’s a YouTube sensation. Videos that Jullia has uploaded have collectively been viewed more than 43 million times! Second, quite a percentage of the audience last night were huge Julia Nunes fans. I was amazed that dozens of people (OK, mostly young girls, but they’re people too!) Winking smile sang every word to every song, from the first note, out loud (and very well, they could join her as a professional chorus!).

Second, and by far the most impressive to me about Julia’s set is her stage presence. 22-year-olds aren’t supposed to have that kind of poise on stage. Her style is forceful and cheeky (I’ll give an example in a minute) and it doesn’t/won’t appeal to everyone. I’m not judging the style, but rather the ability to pull off any style (she gets to choose!) and I think she has what it takes to completely own a stage.

Here’s but one example (Julia bantered quite a bit): She said that she was about to play a song (it was a cover) that would sound ridiculous if the crowd didn’t sing with her (actually, do their part). She said that if she wasn’t impressed with our singing, she’d walk off the stage and give us the finger. Hysterical to some, crude (at best) to others. Thankfully for all of us, the crowd did indeed sing their hearts out and we were spared the indignity of getting the finger from Julia…

On one number, Julia invited up Ian, Greg and Adam to sing harmony with her. Greg did the majority of the harmony, but Ian and Adam pitched in nicely as well. When Julia continued to play the ukulele during that number, Greg was barely audible and Ian and Adam not even. But, toward the end of the song, Julia stopped playing and all four voices came together beautifully for a very powerful ending!

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I enjoyed the set for the most part and I certainly see the talent (which obviously has many years to grow and mature). But, as much as I like the ukulele as an instrument, merely strumming it for 10-straight songs doesn’t hold my musical interest and the songs themselves (at least the originals) often blended in my mind. Her fans would completely disagree with me and I honestly get why. We’re just at different stages in life.

A few more random photos of some friends and musicians, who are huge Ian Axel fans as well. Smile

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Mike Campbell and Jerry Fuentes at Rockwood Music Hall

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Another day, another very late night, again the need/desire to split the music into two posts.

First up, back-to-back sets at Rockwood Music Hall. The sets were related in that both headliners performed one song on the other’s set, and each had the same special guest appear. Otherwise, nothing remotely similar about the music.

Mike Campbell played his first-ever solo show on November 20th, 2010. I covered it in this post. Last night was his second effort. It was similar in some sense, radically different in others. The similarities were good set selection, good guitar play, nervous banter (perhaps not as much as he did the first time).

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The differences: much stronger voice (Mike had a bad cold the last time), guest performers (he wanted the first solo show to be about him only, correctly so!).

Mike played a number of songs from the first show, but also added brand new and older tunes to the set.

He called up three different guests, in three different configurations. First up, the headliner of the next set.

Jerry Fuentes joined Mike to play electric guitar and sing a bit of harmony, including leading the audience in a refrain at the end of the song (which was a lot of fun to join in on). It was my first time seeing Jerry (I met him for a second the night before at Mona’s). The song they performed was great (of course, I don’t recall the name now, sorry!). I’ll have a lot more to say about Jerry below when I cover his set.

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A few solo numbers again, then Mike called up the next guest.

Chad Vaccarino joined him to sing a song they co-wrote in June, Days Gone By. When they announced the song, I thought they were about to do a cover of Keith Urban. Nope, just the same title, nothing else similar about the songs.

Here’s a YouTube video of their debut performance of the song last June (it appears to be at a house concert). In the video, Chad is singing lead. Last night, Mike sang lead. In both, Mike played the guitar, beautifully! They should perform this song much more often:

Days Gone By–Chad Vaccarino and Mike Campbell

Immediately thereafter, Mike called Ian Axel to the stage, with Chad staying up there. All three joked about the fact that they were about to perform the song standing up, something they’d never done before. They sang All the Love, co-written by Mike and Chad. It was perfect. The YouTube video below again has Chad singing lead. Last night, Mike nailed the lead, with Chad and Ian harmonizing.

All the Love by Chad Vaccarino and Mike Campbell, guest star Ian Axel

If I understand correctly, Mike arranged the harmonies. After the show, I went up to Mike to tell him how awesome it was. Watching the videos above gave me a new round of re-enjoying last night’s show.

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Mike writes beautiful songs all by himself, no doubt, but his collaborations with Chad Vaccarino are simply amazing.

When Mike was done, Jerry got on the stage immediately. Since Mike had only an acoustic guitar, they had set the stage up for Jerry in advance and there was no transition time at all.

Having never see Jerry before, I had no idea what to expect.

He’s an excellent lead guitarist (smooth, fast and interesting). He has an excellent voice. He also played the harmonica on many of the numbers, something I’m less used to seeing in a rock set than a folk set, but Jerry made it work well.

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I would describe the majority of the set as ballad/anthem style rock. There were a couple of exceptions. If you click on Jerry’s name at the top, his site starts streaming music instantly (not something I think sites should do), so you can get your own sense of his style.

Since Jerry began immediately after Mike’s set, he opened with the one song that Mike joined him on. They sang and played well together. Mike then left the stage and Jerry turned up the heat.

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Jerry was accompanied by two band members for all but two songs:

Mike Tuccillo on the electric bass. I just saw Mike for the first time two nights earlier at the Soul Revue Benefit. He was very good that night, but I couldn’t see him, mixed in among the 14 other people on stage. Last night, I was a few feet away from him and could appreciate his technique a lot more. Very well done.

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Aaron Steele on drums. Aaron is a real hitter (very powerful). That can be a great thing, especially for rock songs. The only problem was that my right ear was perhaps two feet from the drum set, so it took me a while to get used to it. Aside from that, Aaron was impressive. In particular, on the last song of Jerry’s set (not including the encore), Aaron was incredible on the drums, very fast, totally clean, still hard hitting. Also very well done.

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Ian Axel joined Jerry for five numbers. Ian played the piano on all of them, singing on one (or two?). The band sounded pretty full without Ian, but adding Ian’s heart-pounding piano to the mix took it up a notch. This capped off a pretty big day in Ian’s (and Chad’s) life. Earlier, they were featured on the Rachael Ray Show on national TV!

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Ian performed the title song from his upcoming CD (This is the New Year, out in a couple of weeks!). Rachael Ray also posted a bonus song, Girl I Got a Thing, that Ian played for the live audience while the credits were running for the rest of us. Great job!

Two of the numbers that Ian joined on were exceptions to the rock style. One is a brand new song of Jerry’s that will be on his upcoming CD. It’s called Standing in Line. I am not linking to the online video he has of it, because last night’s version was 100x better. Just wait until the CD is out and get it. The song highlights Jerry’s lyrical abilities. He also played it on the acoustic guitar, taking the entire sound down.

He tried to get off the stage, but the crowd wasn’t having any of that. He got permission to sing one more. He and Ian performed it alone. A lovely way to close a very good set.

Jerry is a theatrical performer and the band played quite loud. Rockwood 1 is not the perfect venue for that kind of music, partially due to the sheer loudness in such a small space. I think Jerry can command a much larger stage in a larger venue and be perfectly suited to it.

Once I gave Jerry my compliments, we were off next door (literally) to Rockwood 2. The two posts are really unrelated, so I won’t even link them to each other (like I did last night). If you’re interested in what I did next, you’ll have to use some of your Internet skills to find my next post. Winking smile

Ian Axel and Rachel Platten at Mercury Lounge

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When this show was announced in October, we instantly grabbed four tickets (the maximum that Mercury Lounge sells, online or in person!). Since then, we’ve been waiting impatiently for the show to start.

The last time we saw Ian Axel perform was a single song guest appearance on 9/22/2010. Before that, it was 7/22/2010 when he performed an intimate two-person show (Chad Vaccarino was the only person to appear with him that night) at Flux Studios. It was definitely full-on withdrawal time for us, since we missed Ian’s big CMJ show in October.

For those who don’t like all my details, the bottom line first: The show was absolutely awesome!

Ian is releasing a CD on 2/15/2011. Before that, next Tuesday (12/14/2010 to be exact) he will be releasing three of the songs from that CD on iTunes. If I understand correctly, you’ll be able to complete your purchase of the full CD on 2/15/2011 without being penalized (or buying double) if you buy the first three songs next week. Do it!

If you’re not familiar with Ian (shame on you), here’s a YouTube video of This is the New Year. If you are, consider this a warm-up to get you in the mood for the rest of this post:

Ian Axel This is the New Year video

You can preview (stream) next week’s release at Ian’s Facebook fan page. If you listen to This is the New Year carefully, you’ll note that it’s a new version. I (normally) hate when artists tinker with perfection (and I hope you’ll agree that the video above is perfection). Yet, I grudgingly admit that they made an even better version (not that it needed improving), so even fans who have the previous version stuck in their head will love this one!

Last night, Ian played all three of the songs on next week’s EP release. If you missed the show and want to experience a bit of the magic, listen to Girl I Got a Thing on the above Facebook page. When Ian sings “Girl I Got a Thing for You”, you respond with “Girl I Got a Thing for You” out loud (like we all did). Then, when he sings “Na na na na”, you shout out “Whoa Wo”. If you can get a couple of hundred people to do it with you, really loud, you’ll come close to reproducing what it sounded like at Mercury Lounge! Smile

Ian poured out his heart to us and from all of the FB statuses and tweets I’ve seen, everyone responded similarly. He rocked out on some numbers, played solo on Say Something (on the keyboards this time, rather the slightly more typical ukulele version) and added ukulele magic on two others.

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Ian typically plays with a four piece band (including Ian on the keyboards). Last night, they were down a man. It didn’t matter, the sound was huge. I’ll start with the core members who were on stage for all but Say Something, but stay tuned, because there are two other people who will be covered right after!

Adam Christgau on drums and background vocals. It’s simply been way too long since we’ve seen Adam play (7/8/2010 to be exact!). It felt good to feel Adam’s rhythm hitting me straight on (we were right in front of the stage, dead center). The clock for missing seeing Adam play is now officially ticking again…

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Chris Kuffner on electric bass and background vocals. If you read this space regularly, you know that we love Chris Kuffner. All but one of his performances have been on electric guitar (excellent). Still, I lament that I need to see him open it up on the bass. The one time I’ve seen him on the bass, the music called for a more sedate style.

Last night, Chris got to open it up and I’m glad I was there. He also did something I’ve never seen/heard before. Using his pedals to add effects, Chris got the bass to sound exactly like an organ! It was cool and a little eerie. Scratch another one off my music bucket list, seeing Chris play electric bass! Smile

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That everyone at every Ian show loves Ian is no surprise. In fact, if it weren’t true, there’d be some slapping going on in the audience. What warms my heart each and every time (even though it’s completely expected now!) is that the audience totally gets how awesome Chad Vaccarino is and what an integral part of the magic he is.

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First and foremost (before any of us get to see/hear the result), Chad is Ian’s regular writing partner, co-writing many of Ian’s songs. For that alone, he deserves a spot in some hall of fame. But it’s hardly that alone. When Chad steps on stage to sing with Ian (and now to play trumpet a bit as well), there is an electricity in the crowd. The roar when Chad sings is even greater than that.

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Last night was no exception. Chad ripped the room up. There’s little more to say than that. Each is an enormous talent on their own. Together, they boggle the mind.

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Mike Campbell was a special guest on two numbers, playing acoustic guitar and singing harmony. I just recently covered Mike’s first solo show in this post. The first song that Mike joined on was also the first song that Ian played the ukulele on, Pacific Sun (a song Ian rarely plays live, so it was a very special treat). Chad stood between them and the three of them harmonized beautifully. I’ll get to the other song in a minute. Well done Mike (who also got a rousing cheer when he came up each time!).

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When Ian played his last song the crowd went nuts screaming for him to play more. After the band milled around on the stage hugging each other for a minute, Ian looked at the sound engineer to see if he could play another one. He got the OK. He announced that he would play a new song that wasn’t on the new CD. He and Chad performed You’ll Be OK. They nailed it (you didn’t expect otherwise, did you?).

Once they finished, they tried to get off the stage again. A 100+ people starting chanting Shorty (short for Shorty Don’t Wait, another new number that isn’t on the new CD). If Ian and Chad had stepped off the stage, trouble might have brewed. Ian looked up at the sound engineer again and got the OK for one last number.

Mike Campbell came back up and Ian picked up the ukulele again. They blew the crowd away. I can’t think of a better way to finish off an extraordinary evening than by playing a song the crowd demands and delivering it better than the crowd could hope for.

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They were on stage for 53 minutes. It felt like one minute in terms of time flying by. It felt like three hours in terms of the level of satisfaction.

As if the above weren’t enough, that’s only part of the story of why last night was so spectacular. There was an opening act before Ian that was incredible.

Rachel Platten opened the show. I’ve seen Rachel perform a full set just once before (covered in this post). If you read that, you know I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Rachel’s show that night. Unfortunately, Lois was sick and missed that show.

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Last night Rachel had a smaller band and that worked really well for me to appreciate her on an entirely new level. While I like the sound of a bigger band (in general), sometimes it’s harder to pick up on the lyrics to songs. Last night I had no trouble hearing every word that Rachel sang. I have a huge new respect for her as a songwriter. Every song was interesting, but some were deep and moving.

Rachel’s voice is unbelievable. Power, but crystal clear as well. It’s almost laser like. As I mentioned in the last post, she beams throughout her set. If you’re not infected with her energy and sweetness, get yourself to a doctor stat!

I knew she was good on the keyboards from the last show, but last night she also had a song where she danced up and down the keyboard at high speed. I was standing right in front of her and could see every finger movement. She’s better than I realized the first time and I had no complaints that night!

Here’s last night’s set list, all gems!

RachelPlattenSetList

Playing with Rachel were:

Craig Meyer on drums. This is the third or fourth time that I’ve apologized for not having a good link to an individual page for Craig. One of his friends better force him to have a presence somewhere, soon. Craig is excellent. His drumming is as much a visual art form as it is aural. He played a snare and a djembe last night rather than a full drum set. He also played the smallest glockenspiel that I’ve ever seen, with the tip of a drum stick. It was funny.

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Nathan Eklund on trumpet and harmony. Nathan sang beautifully with Rachel, I really liked their harmonies. He’s excellent on the trumpet as well, lending jazz tinges to Rachel’s songs when he took his solos.

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When the show was over, Lois headed to the merch table and bought a CD and a T-Shirt from Rachel. We both got to tell her how wonderful she was.

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Even though we only bought four tickets (hence two guests), we ended up seeing a dozen friends there, most of us standing front and center stage. It was truly a party in the best sense of the word, with Ian and Rachel performing DJ duties. Winking smile

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Ian Axel and Derek James at Rebel Spirit Music Flux Studios

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Rebel Spirit Music is a wonderful organization. Created to help musicians navigate the new world order, they put on a showcase of talent every month. Many (most/all?) are also benefits for very worthy causes. Last night was for the benefit of Doctors Without Borders, for Haiti relief.

While Rebel Spirit Music has done a number of showcases at Rockwood Music Hall, they are currently partnering with Flux Studios to put on the monthly shows, including last night’s performances.

Because Flux is small (at least the recording studio itself is small) these events are now RSVP only (even though they are still free). We were thankful and lucky to respond early enough to be included in last night’s guest list.

We went to see Ian Axel, so I’ll cover him first, even though he was sandwiched in the middle of the lineup.

I’ve written about Ian so many times, that you might think I’d run out of things to say, and simply point you to my past reviews. Wrong. 🙂

Flux Studios has an intimate feel that even teeny tiny Rockwood can’t create (though it comes close). We’ve seen Ian do an acoustic set (no band) at Rockwood, but this was even more special. The room is barely bigger than a suburban living room (actually, many suburban living rooms are larger). Everyone stood (with one exception), in reasonably tight quarters, but you could hear a pin drop whenever Ian had a dramatic pause in any song.

Different than being in someone’s living room, surrounded by respectful music lovers, this is a professional studio, with professional equipment. I’d hazard a guess that the microphone Ian was singing into is way higher quality than most clubs use for their vocals. The difference didn’t stop just at the electronics.

Ian commented that the grand piano he was playing was built in 1895! He has a personal affinity for pianos with storied histories. The sound was gorgeous even though the outside of the piano was beyond weathered.

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He opened with Waltz, and played Gone, Girl I Got a Thing and Afterglow, solo on the piano (perhaps one or two more, just trying to give his fans a sense).

When he played Girl I Got a Thing, his buddy Chocky came up to “do his thing” (including the tambourine part, which he’s so expert at!). The only thing missing was Chocky’s drink. We need to get him back to Rockwood for the full experience! 😉

Then he performed a very special number, Say Something on the ukulele. In fact, on a new ukulele.

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Sorry that @HappyBee3 missed it, she was forced to spend a hapless night listening to Wide Spread Panic at Radio City Music Hall (poor HappyBee). 😉 I’ve written before that both HappyBee and I love Say Something on the piano, but since we heard it first on the ukulele, it always tugs at our heartstrings a bit more and it’s been a while since Ian has played it on the uke. Thanks Ian! 🙂

Chad Vaccarino joined Ian for two numbers. First their brand new You’ll Be OK. Awesome! Next was the never-get-enough-of This is the New Year!

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If you’ve watched the video of that song then you know that there’s a big dog in it. That dog attended Ian’s show last night, and was leaning on my leg during this song. There’s no doubt that he recognized it as the one he starred in. As an aside, he’s an awesome dog. 🙂

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I was secretly hoping that Ian would go one song over his limit, and invite Mike Campbell to join he and Chad for an acoustic version of Shorty Don’t Wait (Mike was in the audience, and I chatted with him briefly before the show started). Unfortunately, the evening was run extremely professionally (something I always appreciate, so I’m not complaining!), and everyone started and ended on time!

Derek James closed the show. I know that Lois would have loved to leave before he started, given that it was already 10:30pm. I had heard of Derek (but was completely unfamiliar with his music), recalling that I had an interest in checking out one of his shows at Joe’s Pub (still our favorite venue). Lois could feel how badly I wanted to hang around, so she readily agreed.

I mentioned above that there was only one exception to the “everyone was standing” comment. Thankfully, that was Lois, who spotted the one engineer’s stool early on. That made it slightly easier to convince her to stay.

We were both blown away by Derek James (and his band). I can’t believe that we could have easily walked out and missed his incredible set.

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It’s probably easy (for some) to describe Derek’s style, but I am having trouble finding the right words. It’s some kind of blend of up-tempo bluesy/rock, tinged with some cajun-infused country, all delivered with gusto. There’s a super-charged energy that had me swaying throughout the set, even though it was sleepy time for us.

Derek sings wonderfully (and writes really cool songs) and plays the guitar very well. He also played the ukulele on two songs, which immediately endeared him even more to us, for obvious reasons. 😉

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He has a relaxed style and banters well, making me chuckle quite a number of times. He was accompanied by two very talented people:

Roy Gurel (no good individual links, but you can easily find him as a band member on a few MySpace profiles). He played acoustic guitar, mostly lead and sang harmony. He is a fantastic guitarist and had all of us itching to hear more, even after long leads. Derek highlights Roy a lot, all well deserved. Harmonies were spot on as well.

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Assaf Spector (Assie) on the electric bass and harmony. Excellent bass playing (including one very tasty lead). His high-energy bass playing reminded me of one of our favorites, Chris Anderson. He sang excellent harmony as well.

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One of the things that stood out for me was that their harmonies were fun and fit in with the spirit of the song, rather than just being “beautiful” (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). 😉

We are now instant fans of Derek James (and his band) and encourage all of you to check him out. He’s playing in Brooklyn this coming Tuesday evening (7/27/2010) at the Brooklyn Bowl, but unfortunately for us, I don’t think we can swing it.

Not announced on the bill, but sandwiched in-between Ian and Derek were two guys who played one incredibly fun new song. I’m waiting to hear back on their names. I heard them introduced as “Solo and Shakespeare” and referred to as “Solo and Shake”. But, both words in any combination yield useless searches on Google, even if I heard it correctly.

Update: I just heard back. They’re known as “Shakespeare and Solo”. Solo is Jon Solo.

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Jon Solo played the piano and sang. He is excellent on the piano and sings terrifically. Shakespeare sang a bit with him, but mostly rapped in-between verses/chorus that Jon sang. The entire song was wonderful, fun, upbeat, delivered really well. I look forward to catching them (individually and together) in the near future.

Findlay Brown opened the show. He played the acoustic guitar and sang. He finger-picks really well and has a very nice voice. The crowd liked him a lot.

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For his last number, Findlay brought up Rob Gentry to accompany him on the piano.

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While it’s clear he’s very talented, I found his songs a little too similar to one another, and super-mellow as well. For a crowd that was standing shoulder-to-shoulder, it didn’t feel like a good fit of music/style/space (though from their reaction, I could have been the only one thinking that).

That said, people whose musical taste I respect, really like him a ton, so I’d give him another shot in another setting without hesitation.

Another great night out, already looking forward to the next one!