Jeff Kerestes

Apollo Run Acoustic Show at Rockwood Music Hall

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

ApolloRunAcoustic

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

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

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

Pesky details:

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

JohnMcGrewJohnMcGrewSinging

JohnMcGrewPianoJohnMcGrewGuitarToPiano

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

GrahamFisk

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

GrahamFiskSinging

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

JeffKerestesBass

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

JeffKerestesUkulele

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

JeffKerestesPiano

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

GrahamFiskJeffKerestesApolloRunSinging

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

ApolloRunEnergy

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

ApolloRunAllInGoodTime1ApolloRunAllInGoodTime2

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

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

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

ApolloRunEPs

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

Apollo Run at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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

ApolloRun

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

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

The good:

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

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

JohnMcGrewGuitarJohnMcGrewTrumpet

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

JohnMcGrew

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

GrahamFiskGrahamFiskSinging

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

JeffKerestesJeffKerestesBass

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

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

JeffKerestesUkulele

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

He was quite good.

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

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

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

Apollo Run – Stars – Official Video

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

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

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

AllInGoodTimeInTheCrowd

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

Promo for Here Be Dragons Vol II by Apollo Run

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

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

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

Here’s the set list:

SetList

The bad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

AlexWongPiano

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.

ChrisBenelli

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.

XimenaSarinanaPiano

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

PeteLalish

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.

SebastianSarinanaCrouchingSebastianSarinanaPeteLalishSebastianSarinana

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).

DaveEggar

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!

DaveEggarBaton

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.

DaveEggar and JeffKerestesXimenaSarinana

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.