ambeR Rubarth, Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Joey Ryan at Tin Angel

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ambeR Rubarth is very good about disseminating information about upcoming shows once they’re set. When she tweeted a couple of months ago that she would be appearing in Philadelphia at Tin Angel with Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Joey Ryan on January 22nd, 2010, we grabbed tickets.

A month later ambeR announced that she, Greg and Joey would be performing on three consecutive weeks at Rockwood Music Hall in a January Residency. Rockwood is way more convenient, and we though we’d get to see them at least once. Amazingly, we couldn’t contort ourselves enough to make any of those shows, including the last one this past Thursday when Ian Axel guest starred as well.

No worries, we were set for last night, and had been to Tin Angel once before and knew we liked the place.

The gang of four had a bit of trouble with their GPS so we were actually seated right next to the stage as they scrambled in (about 25 minutes before show time). They did their sound checks and disappeared into the green room to catch their breaths for a few minutes.

Only six minutes late (7:36pm), they came back on stage and announced that they would be playing the show in the round, taking turns doing songs. We have grown particularly fond of that format from all of the CMA Songwriters shows that we attend at Joe’s Pub.

Greg Holden kicked it off with Joey Ryan doing a song we really love. They debuted the song on YouTube and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve listened to it, but it’s dozens (we sing it out loud in the car a lot).


After that the order was Ian Axel, ambeR Rubarth, Joey Ryan and back to Greg again, etc. Each of them knows all of the music of the others so well, that there was quite a bit of support during most songs (harmonies, Ian playing piano for the others and the others playing guitar for Ian). They all sing harmony beautifully.

We’ve seen a number of our favorite keyboard players on real pianos and on electronic keyboards. While a good electronic keyboard and a good sound system can sound nearly identical to a top piano, the obvious difference is that the electronic keyboard can mimic other instruments, or create a more synthesized sound in general.

Last night highlighted a much more significant difference between the two. Greg was about to play one of his songs and Ian was set to accompany him on the piano (electronic variety). Greg turned to Ian and apologized, telling him that he was going to play it one fret down from where they normally do.

I’m sure that there are piano players out there who can transpose a piece in their heads, and nail it. It’s not something I would want to even consider. Ian just smiled and said “No problem!”. He made one tiny adjustment on the keyboards, and transposed electronically, while being able to play in the key he was familiar with. Do that on a real piano! 🙂

They performed four songs each and one all together at the end, making a total of 17 numbers (a superb set, lasting just under 110 minutes!). Song selection was wonderful all around. Now that I’m thinking about it, they might have played five each, for a total of 21, but I wouldn’t swear to it (at least not in court).

Each of them has wonderful stage presence. Greg got the audience to sing along on two of his numbers (including Bar on A, the last one that all four of them did together). Ian felt that he was rambling in introducing a song and said “Perhaps I shouldn’t talk.” The crowd resoundingly implored him to keep talking! 🙂

Here they all are singing Bar on A:


ambeR asked for one request, got three separate responses (In the Creases from Lois, Rough Cut and Novacaine). All three choices are awesome, and Lois withdrew her request and ambeR played Rough Cut (one of two songs she played using Ian’s keyboards, which makes me more confident that they played five songs each).

ambeRRubarthKeyboards ambeRRubarthGuitar

Ian knocked us out as he has from the first time we saw him. For his third number he played his current sensation, the title cut from his new CD called This is the New Year. You can lift your spirit by watching this YouTube video of This is the New Year. It has over 39,000 views already (Lois swears she doesn’t account for more than 1,000 of them) 😉 though she has sent the link to everyone she knows, and all of these views are just in one month!


Greg Holden sang the part that Chad Vaccarino normally sings. Greg did a fantastic job, but I admit that my ears are attuned to hearing Chad’s voice in that spot, and it took me a few seconds to adjust.

Our friend @HappyBee3 saw the show the night before in Rockwood and told us that she was moved to tears when Ian sang Say Something. Last night he performed it too, on the ukulele (like he did the night before), but ambeR, Greg and Joey all sang harmony with him. The song is moving enough, but with 4-part harmony, all the more!


After Ian sang Gone (another moving song), Lois was nearly in tears (notice the trend from the night before?). Then Amber took to Ian’s keyboards and performed a song we hadn’t heard her play live before, and Lois achieved real tears. They all joked that Joey better pick a more up-beat song. He asked whether a song about cancer would qualify? In other words, lots of deeply emotional lyrics last night.

Joey Ryan is the only one that we hadn’t seen perform (he’s based in L.A.). He has a really beautiful voice, with an extraordinary range for a guy. He sings in the lower registers when it’s his song (for the most part), but he hits incredibly high notes, very cleanly, when he harmonizes with Greg and ambeR.


Joey plays the guitar beautifully, finger picking a storm. He writes complex lyrics that I’ll have to listen to a number of times until they’re ingrained. Toward that end, we bought both Joey’s brand new EP, Kenter Canyon and his previous full-length CD, With its Roots Above and its Branches Below. I’m listening now while typing this. Lovely! 🙂

We already own Greg Holden’s CD and EP, and Ian’s EP and CD, and ambeR’s CD/EP and The Paper Raincoat EP/CD as well. 🙂

Lois picked up a second Ian Axel T-Shirt last night. She was wearing her green one and bought a purple one.

While all four have great stage presence and are all pretty funny, I have to give a shout out to Joey for being the driest of them. He delivers his wit so soft-spokenly, so understated, expressionless (most times), that you might be tempted to think he was being serious. Don’t fall for it! He’s just flat out clever, funny and quick!

We didn’t worry whether it would be worth the long round-trip drive. What we couldn’t be sure of was how great this particular show would be. It was excellent in every respect.

All four of them were on for each of their songs, all four meshed together perfectly. The venue is intimate. The sound was perfect, with one notable exception. For a good part of the evening, they couldn’t get the feedback from ambeR’s guitar pickups to stop. It wasn’t that distracting for us, but ambeR was a trooper for plowing through it!

The audience was exceptional as well. They knew these artists well even though none are from Philly, were quiet during the songs but really loud and long in their applause after each number. They also lined up at the merch table afterward to buy stuff and say hi. It felt good to be part of it. Thanks Philly fans, you too made the drive worthwhile!

But wait, there’s more!

The drive down was spectacular. We were bathed in a stunning and seemingly never-ending sunset.

Sunset1 Sunset2

Sunset3 Sunset4

We ate dinner at Serrano, the excellent restaurant below Tin Angel. If you have a dinner reservation, they hold a table for you at Tin Angel above. The food and service at Serrano is so good (both times we were there) that we wouldn’t consider going to Tin Angel without dining at Serrano first.

Lucky for us, we’ll see all four of theses wonderful musicians this Monday night (Jan 25th) at City Winery, where they are part of a spectacular lineup of indie artists who are putting on a benefit to raise money for Haiti.

Ceili Rain at Tin Angel

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If you’ve visited this space before, then you know we love Ceili Rain. After listening to them for years, we finally got to see them live this summer and I wrote about it in this post.

That show was awesome in every respect. That said, it was an outdoor concert, and that has it’s own feel (and in this case, particular problems). I was talking to the drummer of Ceili Rain (the amazing Bill Bleistine), and he told me that one of the best places for us to catch one of their shows indoors was at Tin Angel in Philadelphia. Shortly after seeing them at Joyful Noise II, they announced a show at the Tin Angel, and we immediately purchased tickets!

Tin Angel is a pretty small club, with a very nice atmosphere and vibe. It has the feel of a long railroad car. The stage is teeny tiny, and with Ceili Rain showing up with a full band (six people on the stage), there were some acrobatic moves necessary to stay out of each other’s way (especially given how active Bob Halligan Jr. always is!).

They performed the same entrance last night as they did at Joyful Noise III, which was surprising and impressive given the vast difference in the venues. Bill Bleistine, playing a drum strapped around his neck (as in drum and fife), along with John Dreibelbis playing the bagpipes, came up the stair case in the back, so that at first you just heard the drums and pipes, then you saw them. The crowd clapped to Bill’s beat, and was already in a frenzy by the time the procession reached the stage, and the full band joined them!

Drum and Pipes Processional Ceili Rain Arriving on Stage

The majority (all?) of the crowd were hard-core Ceili Rain fans. Nearly everyone knew the words to every song, and reveled in the opportunity to sing out loud with Bob (or on occasion without him!), when prompted. Since I sing That’s All the Lumber out loud in my car all the time, it was a hoot to sing it at the top of my lungs last night, with 100 other people. 🙂

Each of them could sustain my interest for an entire set, even if they were on stage alone, that’s how good they are as musicians, individually. Obviously, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but I’ll give a sentence or two on each of the parts. Standing left-to-right on the stage:

John Dreibelbis (I couldn’t find a good link for him) played the pipes, tin whistles and flute. He was good throughout, but I was significantly more impressed with Burt Mitchell who we saw at Joyful Noise III.

John Dreibelbis

John Dreibelbis

Joe Davoli on the fiddle. Awesome, as he was the last time. He has an incredible touch on the fiddle, and when he took solos (specifically, on Yankee’s Revenge, which he played mostly with John), his fingers ran up and down the fiddle like greased lightning!

Joe Davoli

Joe Davoli

Bob Halligan Jr. on vocals and acoustic guitar. I could listen to him sing a capella all night, what a voice, it’s really an instrument, not just a delivery vehicle for lyrics. He’s also superb on the guitar. He’s excellent on keyboards too, but Tin Angel is way too small to have crammed that in as well.

Bob Halligan Jr Bob Kicking

Raymond Arias on electric guitar and vocals. As I mentioned in the last post, Raymond’s voice and harmonies complement Bob perfectly. His guitar play last night was on fire in general, but really smoking in a rock and roll medley that highlighted him singing lead and playing lead guitar.

Raymond Arias

Raymond Arias

Kevin de Souza played bass. He was incredible throughout the set. Given the size of the stage, and the pressure they had to not go over (there was another show after Ceili Rain), Kevin didn’t get to take a solo like he did at Joyful Noise III. We missed that, given how great he is, but he still kept the bottom full all night, and toward the end of the show (I believe on Love Travels, but I wouldn’t swear to it), he threw in some really fast bass lines at the end of the song.

Kevin de Souza

Kevin de Souza

Bill Bleistine was squeezed into the back of the stage trapped behind his drum set. That didn’t stop him from reinforcing my belief that he’s one the best drummers I’ve ever seen/heard live (and I’m a big fan of quite a number of drummers!). The man is just amazing, and tireless. Keeping up with Bob’s energy on any instrument is difficult enough, but the drummer better do cardio and weight training as well, or he’ll easily pass out during one of these shows!

Bill Bleistine

Bill Bleistine

They were on stage for 95 minutes, and were definitely being rushed by the club to wrap it up and clear the stage and club for the next show. I understand the commercial nature of the business, so I’m not annoyed, but it was disappointing nonetheless. These were adoring fans who wanted either more music, or more time to schmooze with their idols, and the band was certainly happy to give them either (both I suspect), but it wasn’t to be.

Most of the audience respectfully caught up with the various band members as they were packing up their instruments and then we all said goodnight and piled out into a lovely Philadelphia evening.

On our way out, Lois bought six more CDs, even though we own them all. Buying CDs at shows is one of the most direct ways that you can support the bands that you love. When we buy extras like this, it’s always for the purpose of giving them out as gifts, to introduce new potential fans. Try it, you’ll like it! 🙂

That’s it for the music. On to our back story, if you have the patience for a bit more magic. 🙂

In the post about Joyful Noise III, I called out Rich Baringer, the main coordinator of the event. Right after we bought the tickets to the show, Lois said that she thought it would be special (for us, for Rich and his wife, and for Ceili Rain as well) if we were to invite Rich and Mary Beth to join us for the show. I thought it was a great idea. We reached out, and they agreed.

A few weeks later, Lois was exchanging emails with another member of their church, who had been involved in the fund-raising aspects of the show, and with whom we interacted quite a bit during the day, and we invited him along with his wife (we had not met her yet) to join as well. They too accepted, and we bought two more tickets.

To get a reserved spot at Tin Angel you have to eat dinner downstairs (street level) at their restaurant, Serrano, otherwise, the show is first-come first-served. We made a reservation for six people at 5:30pm (the show began at 7:30pm).

The food was exquisite (all six of us had different dishes, and all raved about their meal). We got to know the other two couples better, and are very happy for it, because our instinct that they were exactly the type of people we would like to be friends with couldn’t have been more on target! We both really enjoyed meeting Bruce’s wife (Bunny), as well as enjoying all of the conversation, food, and the show, with four lovely people.

Dinner Friends Dinner Friends

While I highly recommend the food at Serrano, and the staff were all very nice as well, it wasn’t all smooth as silk. The place is as long and narrow as Tin Angel (one building, separate floors), and couldn’t have been noisier if they were pumping in heavy metal (I think the noise was all from dinner conversations!). We had to scream at each other to be heard.

Our entrees came out very late, which made us nervous about missing the start of the show, and caused us to wolf them down. To repeat, they were fantastic, so in the end, it all worked out well, but a slightly more pleasant dinner experience could have been had with less noise, and the food served 15 minutes earlier…

We headed home after the show and walked into the apartment at 11:20pm. Not too bad in terms of the logistics, and well worth the 4-hour round-trip drive to enjoy such a wonderful evening with so many wonderful people!