Chris Benelli

Alex Wong and Ximena at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Alex Wong had a show listed at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 as: “Alex Wong and Special Guest”. A number of days ago the title changed to “Alex Wong and Ximena”. We didn’t need any extra incentive to attend the show, but if Alex was worried that we were getting tired of seeing him as often as we do, revealing that Ximena would be there would certainly have pushed us (and many others) over the edge.

The last time we saw Alex, Ximena was there as well, but she was only supporting Alex with harmony and piano. Well, they also played a song they co-wrote in a day as part of Dubway Days. This time, the show was a real collaboration. They alternated singing their own songs.

Alex opened the show with what seems to be his new signature opener: Always Something Better. Ximena sang harmony.

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Chris Benelli joined on the drums. We’ve seen Chris twice before and I really like his drumming. This was particularly interesting. Every other time I’ve seen Alex play Always Something Better, he starts by looping his own percussion, tapping the body of his acoustic guitar and rubbing the strings, before moving to the piano to perform the song.

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It’s very cool (very!), but hearing a professional drummer give a fuller, more dynamic bottom, brought more life to the song. It only made me want to hear Alex’s new CD sooner (he said it should be out in Feb 2012).

Jeff Kerestes played the electric bass. He was quite good.

Jeff Kerestes

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

Ximena took the piano next, with Alex taking over the drums to support her. She sang Love Again. It’s off her upcoming CD (I believe it will be released next week), her first English one.

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Pete Lalish joined Ximena playing electric guitar (with lots of effects) on all but her last two numbers.

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Sebastian Sarinana (Ximena’s brother) joined on a few as well, crouching throughout each song. He wielded an electronic gizmo that produced organ-like sounds, but also seemed to be able to add effects (reverb, distortion, etc.) to what he and Ximena were playing. He sang harmony with Ximena on most of the numbers.

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A last reminder that Alex and Ximena alternated singing lead. I don’t have a set list from last night (I stood behind the tables for the entire set, so I wasn’t close enough to the stage to grab one). Rather than cover each song and tell you which order they were played in, I’ll just mention some of the highlights.

When Alex came back to the piano he brought up another very special guest, Dave Eggar. If you’ve never read my posts before, then you won’t know how exciting that was for me. That doesn’t mean that you won’t know Dave. He’s a world-class cello player (and that’s a bit of an understatement).

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For the first number that he was on stage, he didn’t play the cello in a traditional style (which in itself is not unusual for Dave). Alex mentioned that when rehearsals take place at a drummers house (Alex is a top percussionist), people tend to hit lots of things. Throughout the first song, Dave literally just hit the cello strings with a short baton-like stick. Cool!

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Later in the set, Dave played more traditional cello bits, enhancing one of my favorite Alex Wong songs quite a bit.

That was Alex’s closing number, his now necessary to play: Are You Listening (or as my friends know, the one I call the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah song). I say necessary, because if he left the stage without playing it, he wouldn’t be able to make it out of the place without being hassled.

I think that’s the song Jeff did the hand-sliding on the electric bass as well. Ximena slipped off stage before the song started (she sang harmony on all/most of Alex’s other songs). But, Alex invited her up to lead us in the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah chorus, a task for which she is perfectly suited.

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Repeating: I told you what I call Are You Listening. Ximena introduced a song saying that she and her brother used to do covers occasionally, but rarely do now. They were in the mood to work up a new one and decided to play it last night. They did a song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Ha. Seemed fitting.

When she finished she said goodnight, but the chanting began immediately. I don’t know if they chanted for a specific song, or whether they were chanting “encore” in Spanish. Either way, she came back for one last solo song.

Ximena chose Mediocre, the title cut of her Spanish CD. She was extraordinary (no surprise), but I was extremely impressed by how different a feel a song can have based on venue and fan perception. Here’s what I wrote about this song the last time we saw her perform it. That was at Bowery Ballroom, in front of 400+ people, at 1am:

Ximena dismissed the band for her last number. She played the title track off her original CD, Mediocre, solo. When she introduced the song, the crowd was feverish, knowing what was coming. With a microphone and electronic keyboards and no other support, she blew away a crowd of hundreds of people, most of whom had been standing for over four hours already.

Her voice and skills at live performances are that good. Again, the crowd sang every word with her. They were good (hitting the notes as far as I could tell), but this song builds, and Ximena pours some amazing power into it, so she was always easily recognizable above the audience’s singing.

Last night, even though a good portion of the audience were Ximena’s fans (you can’t miss them, they love her to pieces and video every second of the show), people mouthed the song with her, but didn’t sing out loud. Who would want to break the incredible mood that Ximena was creating alone?

It’s quite possible that I screwed up the order above. Mediocre might have been the closing solo number, followed by a solo encore, also from the original CD. Sorry if I messed that up.

In what felt a bit herculean to me, Ximena had played a set earlier that night at Webster Hall. She opened for Sia, performing before a sold-out crowd of 1,400 people! That is an emotionally (if not physically) draining thing. Running over to Rockwood and giving us her all, was much appreciated. I tried to buy tickets to the Webster Hall show two weeks ago, but it was already sold out.

Tonight, Ximena plays another sold-out show at Webster Hall, again opening for Sia.

Martin Rivas, Mike Campbell and Chelsea Lee at Rockwood Music Hall

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We saw three consecutive sets last night at Rockwood Music Hall. I could write about them in any order (they were independent) but I’ll write about them in reverse order (which is the usual order here) because that’s the order in which I heard about the sets and therefore dictated our planning the night out.

We’ve seen Mike Campbell a number of times now, solo, in a duet with Chad Vaccarino and with Chad and Ian Axel as well. We enjoy all of the variations. He’s a good songwriter and his collaborations with Chad Vaccarino produce gorgeous songs.

Mike was up at 11pm last night, typically too late for us, but he doesn’t play that often and we decided not to miss the opportunity. Aside from the earlier sets (which we enjoyed!), I’m glad we came out for Mike (on a monsoon-like night), because he surprised us by switching to an electric guitar from his usual acoustic one.

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I will admit that more often than not, I really don’t like a solo singer accompanied by only an electric guitar. Mike made it work really well. I mentioned that to him after the show. The only exception was his song Come Home, where he strummed the guitar a little harder and somewhat overwhelmed his vocals.

One of our favorite songs is Days Gone By co-written with Chad. We’ve seen them perform it with Chad in the lead and with Mike in the lead. Last night was the first time we’ve seen it completely solo. Mike did a wonderful job. I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked hearing the harmony, but to be honest, if this was the first time I ever heard the song, I wouldn’t have known the harmony was missing and I still would have thought it’s a great song.

Of the three solo sets we’ve seen Mike perform, this was the strongest, so he continues to grow as a performer.

I had tweeted to Mike in advance that we might not make it out that late. Even though we were committed to trying, finding out a short time later that Martin Rivas was performing the set before (10pm) sealed the deal for us.

We’ve seen Martin many times, as recently as two weeks ago, but it’s been nine months since we’ve seen him perform a purely solo set (even that night, he was joined on vocals for two songs by Chrissi Poland). We love Martin’s upbeat full band shows, but I have to admit (after the fact) that seeing him captivate the audience with nothing but his voice and acoustic guitar last night reminded me that there are many ways to enjoy Martin’s music.

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It was so quiet when Martin performed (a difficult thing to imagine at Rockwood) that a number of times, I caught myself feeling that I was the only person in the audience. Hearing the roar of the applause after each song brought me back to reality. It’s so great to really listen without distraction. Nicely done Martin and Rockwood crowd!

Martin performed four new songs that will appear on his upcoming CD (hopefully out later this year) which will be produced by Alex Wong. All four songs were excellent. In addition, we were treated to other favorite Martin Rivas songs, including one Lois called out (but Martin already had on his set list), Raise Me Again.

Craig Meyer joined Martin on his last number, playing just the tambourine. I’ll still call this a solo show and feel good about it. Smile

A great set shared with a great audience.

Once we knew we’d be going for the 10pm set, we checked out who was on at 9pm so we could raise our chances of getting seats for Martin’s show.

Chelsea Lee was listed. We saw Chelsea Lee open for Girlyman at Birchmere in October 2008. She was 17 at the time. Her voice was stunning but the set didn’t do it for us (I’m not linking to that post, but if you’re really curious, you can easily find it). After that night, I wasn’t on the lookout to see her again, but this turned out to be an easy way to see if she’d matured in the 2.5 years since, so we both happily agreed to see Chelsea as well.

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I am very glad that we decided to go. I enjoyed the set a lot. In a not-so-small irony, I don’t think her voice was anywhere near as good as it was back then. It’s still gorgeous, but it’s smokier now, a little more rounded (reminded me loosely of Rosi Golan). But, the material was dramatically better (IMO).

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There were a few slower numbers (which I liked as well), with the majority of them being more upbeat light pop, very well executed. After the show, we bought her 5-song EP from her Dad. I listened to it this morning and I like it a lot. She has come a very long way since we last saw her and I will be happy to see her again.

Chelsea was accompanied by two people:

Wes Hutchinson on acoustic guitar and vocals. We’ve seen Wes once before, briefly, at the Haiti Benefit in January 2010. I liked him then, but didn’t get enough of a sense. He’s a staple in the NYC scene, but our schedule hasn’t worked out to see his own sets just yet.

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Wes did an excellent job last night of accompanying Chelsea on the guitar and his vocals were spot on. When they sang together, it also reminded me (a little, don’t draw too strong a parallel) of The Open Sea (the collaboration of Ari Hest and Rosi Golan, which is another reason I compared Chelsea to Rosi above).

I don’t know how Chelsea (based in DC) hooked up with Wes (based in NYC), but it’s a very good fit.

Spencer Cohen on cajon, tambourine, shaker and cymbal. Very nicely done. While I could hear every beat on the cajon, it didn’t seem to be mic’ed the way Alex Wong’s is. Somehow, Alex produces a much richer sound on the cajon, but that seems like an easy problem to solve. Spencer has the talent.

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When I checked the schedule, I saw that Drew Yowell was playing the 8pm set. We’ve never seen him, but we’ve seen his brother (Doug Yowell) drum for both Vienna Teng and Katie Costello. I had an interest in checking him out, but not in sitting in Rockwood for four hours, so I decided to look for Doug another time.

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Even though the weather was bad, we made better time getting to Rockwood than we anticipated, so we caught the last four songs of Doug’s set.

Guess what? I really liked it (OK, to be honest, I really liked three of the four songs).

Drew sings really well, plays the acoustic guitar nicely and was accompanied by as many as six people (that’s a lot for Rockwood 1) on two of the songs. The upbeat numbers are infectious. I purposely stood for all four songs and found my foot tapping and body swaying during those songs.

Since we came late, I didn’t hear the introductions to his band. They were good. The only one we’ve seen before was the drummer, who I recognized instantly.

Chris Benelli played the drums. The only other time we’ve seen him was in March 2010 when he accompanied Bryan Dunn. This makes for two separate small-world stories.

First, that same night was the first time we ever saw Doug Yowell play the drums, in the set following Bryan’s, accompanying Vienna Teng. That Chris is the drummer for Doug’s brother, Drew Yowell, feel’s small world-ish to me.

Second, on Friday night I wrote about a bass player, Jim McNamara, who also plays with Bryan Dunn, a name I hadn’t written about since we saw him the night we saw Chris Benelli. All good memories, brought back in focus by Drew Yowell. Cool.

Even though we didn’t get home until midnight, in a monsoon-level rain, it was more than worth it. We had a great night out.