Singer/saxophonist Grace Kelly took the stage at Hochstein Performance Hall Saturday night surrounded by three Clark Kents: Pete McCann on guitar; Evan Gregor, bass; and Jordan Perlson, drums. All three bespectacled men wore drab, everyday clothing, which served to focus most of the attention on Kelly in her chain-link miniskirt. She looked great, but it was a bit disconcerting to watch a beautiful 20-year-old woman who seemed to have the musical soul of a 1950’s hard-bop sax player. Let’s just say Hank Mobley never had to worry about straps falling down.
The Exodus To Jazz series, which had to cancel several concerts due to poor ticket sales just a few months ago, drew an enthusiastic audience of 426 for the Kelly show, its second-largest ever. Kelly gave patrons an excellent concert, mixing her saxophone prowess with jazz vocals and examples of her contemporary songwriting. The songwriting was the only uneven element, ranging from the beautifully composed “Eggshells” to the cliché-ridden “Don’t Box Me In.”
The good news is her new material is her best. “Autumn Song,” an instrumental meant to evoke leaves changing colors and falling from trees, actually kind of conjured up that image. A New Orleans-style blues march nicely captured the flavor of early jazz. And her ability to win over an audience with her playful personality has never been stronger.
Rochester jazz fans have had a rare opportunity with Kelly. She performed at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival in both 2010 and 2011, so many in the audience were seeing her for the third time in three-and-a-half years. We’ve watched as she’s grown from a teen-aged wunderkind into a formidable, mature saxophonist. Still, mixing in some sexy pop-star tropes (one of her main career role-models is crossover artist George Benson) creates some interesting dichotomies. For instance, when Kelly plays a particularly slithering run on her alto sax, she is also slithering.
Kelly mixed it up nicely throughout her sets, shifting between full-band instrumentals and vocal tunes. On her free-scatting rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” in which she riffed about how good it was to be back in Rochester, she was accompanied only by Gregor on bass. She also pared down the sound with a fine saxophone and bass version of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.”
But the highlights of the night for me were two classics transformed by Kelly into irresistible funk. Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” received a gritty treatment punctuated by Kelly’s best solo flight of the night. The final tune, George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” sounded more like the “Theme From Shaft” due to McCann’s ubiquitous wah-wah guitar. But it somehow worked. By then all of the Clark Kents had made full transformations into musical supermen. McCann was especially versatile, ranging from Grant Green-style legato runs to Jimi Hendrix-like pyrotechnics. “Summertime” wasn’t actually the final tune, because a standing ovation brought Kelly back for a beautiful rendition of “Over The Rainbow.”
It was Lincoln, Nebraska, sometime in the mid-90s, sometime in the mid fall, when I ran into The Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap. We had both played shows in the city that night and wound up at the same dank motel (where I’m certain every room at one time or another was a crime scene). My band mates and I sat and listened in awe as he spoke of rock ’n’ roll vampires, van fires, throwing up on the ceiling, throwing down, and other assorted sordid tales. It was here that he also imparted wisdom on our young, optimistic, impressionable minds. One nugget in particular: when you’re the support act on the bill, never, ever blow away the headliner.
I didn’t agree at all… and neither did John Kingla as he warmed up for Americana warbler Ana Egge at Abilene last night. Kingla’s set was velvety soft and captivating as he built gorgeous melodies atop stark and strident strums of his Tennessee flat top box. The place was cemetery silent, as opposed to the volume war some shows get caught in as both the band and the crowd wrestle for aural dominance. Kingla joined Egge on stage and added some tres cool atmospheric guitar full of out of phase T-Bone twang and a rich and righteous tremolo. Now ordinarily it’d be a safe bet that I’d go for the beautiful blonde with the nice getaway sticks, but Egge came off a little hollow and plain next to Kingla’s cool.
After shutter-buggin’ with Violet Mary (watch out, a new LP is on the way), I headed over to the California Brew Haus Saturday night, where an all-day hard-rock line-up had been pummeling away since 4 in the afternoon. I don’t know about you, but an all day rock ’n’ roll show can leave my head felling like green Jell-O.
I arrived about 10 p.m. or so to catch Cosmic Shakedown, a trio from the mean streets of Buffalo. The band was straight-ahead hard rock except for the way-cool hooks it centered two songs around. It was reminiscent of the thump-and-twang skeleton laid forth by Son House, or more recently by Jack White or The Black Keys. I dug it and will dig it again.
Cleveland’s Ionia followed, preceded by a lot of what struck me as disingenuous posturing. The band sounded good and was tight, but the music came off contrived and overwrought. I don’t know; maybe my head was gelatin at that point, too… Besides, the Mirage is under new management, and there was a steak sandwich at home calling my name like that Mickey and Sylvia tune.
Things got all shook up Thursday night as Albany's Lustre Kings hosted its annual Elvis Birthday Bash at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where a host of Rochester rockabilly glitterati tore into their equivalent to the great American songbook. Doghouse bassists Brian Williams and Big Mike Woolhaver spanked the bottom end, the Bradley brothers -- Todd (bassist in the Hi-Risers) and Mark (saxophonist for the Essentials, Salamanders) tore it up Memphis style, while flipped-southpaw guitar-slinger Bobby Henrie played the part of blue-suede Britannica, digging up early Sun Records gems as well as cinematic cuts from The King's stab at Tinseltown.
The dance floor was flipped out and flooded with fleet-footed boppers, jitter-buggers, jitter boppers, and one guy who turned the joint into the Dinosaur Dojo by copping to some of The King's karate moves. I even summoned my inner DA and sang a couple to remind my wife who The King really is (as if she ever had any doubt). Thank you; thank you very much.
It's time to double clutch and jam the gears, cut the apron strings, and kick out the jams, m****rf***ers! The Roc City Pro Jam -- the now-weekly open jam that rotates venues -- has reached its plateau. Or maybe its ceiling, depending on how you look at it. This is a wonderfully organic event that takes on a professional-player edge without getting too high tone. Anyone can get up and play, but you've got to step high. The level of talent runs high here. The problem is, basically, there ain'tno words. Each jam is groove or beat-centric to exalted heights, and within these goalposts it shines supernova bright. But to avoid the comfort and bloat from this position, some melody needs to be introduced. It could be freeform freak-out, classic Sinatra, Gregorian chant, anything, but it's structured where there's an additional challenge and the endings don't resemble a plane overshooting the runway.
I came to this realization Tuesday night while killing Kenny with a pinball and after dominating the slot-car track at Rock 'n' Roll Ron's while the jam shook the walls at a packed Skylark Lounge. Members from local bands like The Goods, AudioInflux, the Teressa Wilcox Band, and Teagan and the Tweeds all got up and played in various configurations. And it seems some are inching in a more structured direction already as several saxophones wailed wantonly around more than just righteous riffs. My suggestion to the wigs that run this shindig is to give the recently assembled ensembles a chance to get their assorted ya-ya's out, rocks off, and grooves on, but throw them a curve ball. Spin the wheel and predetermine the groove the group has to adopt. Metal mavens? Give them a reggae beat. Long-winded jammers? Assign them a three-minute pop tune. And so on. Remember, it's all one big song, and we're all just trying to carve out our own little piece.
Ventured into the unavoidable void of the west side on Friday, where broken bottles twinkle like suicidal stars and women on the financially motivated stroll ask for the time as a ploy for money. It's bleak, I tell you. But within this shabby Shangri-La beat the hearts of two excellent venues pumping out real American music to those who live there, and those that come from the surrounding burbs to get down.
With the wife and her sidekick in tow, we hit Sandra's Saloon on Smith Street, where the Mike Snow Band was laying down a flurry of country and western in this beautiful urban honky-tonk. Snow draws from the Willie and Waylon and George and Buck songbooks of rural bang 'n' twang, and he is the most country-ist cat this town has to offer since Dave Donnelly died in 2011. What a voice.
As if that weren't enough, we climbed into the midnight caboose and headed over to Smokin' Joe's on Lyell for some down and dirty blues from Dan Schmitt & the Shadows with special guest Joe Beard. The place was packed. The steam heat fogged the windows like a Roman bath house on Valentine's Day. Schmitt solos with and around lush chord patterns. The music swings for sure, and it jumps, too. It served as a perfect back to Beard's forth: a bare-bones tone that is both soothing and sinister. And though Beard intoned, "I feel like a stranger in my own home town," there was nowhere else any of us needed to be but right there at Smokin' Joe's with the blues and the Shadows and the steam.
The good folks at Gig Link threw an all-day party Sunday at the Firehouse Saloon on South Clinton to benefit the families of the victims of the Christmas Eve shootings in Webster. The place was already jumping by the time I made the scene. Funk Nut was rocking a deep-dish groove full of jazz, soul, and funk. Moon Zombies followed with a multi-media extravaganza that at times resembled a tantrum. Again this was funk, but with a breakneck edge and abandon. The band stomped around as if it were trying to get the flubber on their soles to kick in. Give it time and I predict this band will be playing air born.