I have often rejoiced as technology has brought music back to the musicians and out of the grabby paws of the too-long-established charlatans and racketeers. Bands are embracing and forging a new honesty, even a new sound.
You've got, for instance, Brooklyn's Lucius, a band so full of unpretentious joy that I smiled until my skull almost popped out of my mouth. The band wowed the crowd, and my skull, Thursday at yet another swell edition of Party in the Park. The instrumentation was minimal, with everyone in the band resorting to percussion, sometimes all at once.
The five-piece band was fronted by two identical ladies in half-black, half-white dresses, kind of like the black & white cookies we used to get at Sibley's bakery when we were kids. When the two played it was as if one of them was playing into a mirror. The quirk and Talking Heads-esque slant was overshadowed only by the women's constant and stunning harmonies. The guitarist played a complete Sears Silvertone set up, which was all kinds of cool.
Straight outta Seattle, headliners The Head and the Heart pounced the stage to the delight of the extremely enthusiastic mob. In much the same bare-bones vein, THTH had instruments laying about the stage, with each member picking one up as if on a whim. The melodies were gorgeous. Everyone was singing and jumping up and down. I left smiling in a cloud of Gray Ghost exhaust, my skull still inside its wrapper.
Took a chance and rolled up on the singer/songwriter showcase at The Club @ Water Street Wednesday night. Half the battle in supporting local music is encouraging it to stay original. Most artists I talk with want to play their own stuff exclusively, but demand often dictates differently. Kaylin Cervini is one of those artists. Though the young lady in all her barefoot elegance pulled out a couple of covers, including a passionate take on "Summertime," she mostly stuck to her original guns.
Her lyrics aren't necessarily that unique or profound as she addresses love, love lost, and the endless confusion and twilight in between, but her voice demands attention. Cervini serves up a heady and sensuous contralto that sailed above her abbreviated backing band. She can belt, that's for sure, but when she hovers in that lower, throatier register, it gets downright steamy.
Thursday night I agitated the backstage gravel in the Gray Ghost with the Tin Man riding shotgun to catch Leon Russell at Party in the Park. Upon our arrival, Ithaca-based Driftwood was serving up its whirling stomp-and-shout spin on bluegrass. The group brought excellent vocals and intensity, especially when the fiddle player wound up and bowed for the clouds. The crowd was one big, howling smile. This band needs to come back soon...
Russell Rascal'd his way to the stage set up on the by-then packed parking lot under the bridge. Russell is a study in white, and looks a lot like how I thought god looked like, when I believed in god. Russell is way-cool and understated as a vocalist, and at times it was hard to make out his words. The piano, however, rang loud and clear as the man's digits summoned the boogie.
Rolled by the Dinosaur with a backseat full of females to catch the blue symbiosis that was Steve Grills with his special guest -- and big brother -- Arizona-based guitar slinger Tom Grills. The two duked it out family style. Steve is an encyclopedia while Tom is a shredder. It was cool to hold them both up to the light.
Friday night, Los Straitjacket, Hi-Riser, and all-around rock 'n' roller Greg Townson celebrated the release of his most excellent solo CD, "On Your Side." Townson's stripped-down performance -- just the man, a Harmony Rocket, and a Jerry-rigged suitcase -- showed how beautiful his songs are even without the polish and dressing. Townson is a treasure.
Later that night I went from the sublime to the subsonic pummeling of Water Street for the Officer Friendly reunion with guests Eyesalve and Nasty Habit. Eyesalve's set was an earsalve of big 90's, not-too-grungy rock as it set off in its mid-tempo thunder and drive. Nasty Habit -- the stars of the night, for me anyhow -- rocked its collective brain out with period-correct 80's-inspired metal. These guys have it down; the screaming guitars, the soaring vocals, the hooks, and the moves. The kids went bananas. Officer Friendly didn't miss a beat and came out as tight and as loud as ever. It was nostalgia for a lot of the big crowd, but still made sense to first timers. Good rock will do that.
Sadly due to Shakedown obligations, I only got to hear three songs from Nikki Hill at her packed show at Abilene Sunday night. She sounded dangerous and beautiful and it broke my heart to leave. So you tell me, what did I miss? Be gentle...
I know it's lazy to describe a band's sound with another band -- bands as adjectives, I call it -- but sometimes it's a good kick start in the right direction. So when I tell you the new Rochester band The Bygone Few sounds like a Misfit Concrete Blonde, you'll understand why...and hopefully accept my apology.
The quartet caught me a little off guard when I saw it Tuesday, July 2, at the Bug Jar. Maybe I was used to guitarist Ryan Hurley's upright-bass-driven psychobilly leanings (most recently in the late, heavy, fast, and sorely underrated Quartershots). What I got instead was a loud and heavy slug of dark rock 'n' roll. Too swift to be called a dirge, but too noir to ever flirt with pop sugar. All around it was a pretty cool debut for this band, which hopefully won't be bygone too soon.
Coming at you straight outta Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, JD McPherson played an amazing set of gen-u-ine barroom rock 'n' roll Saturday night at Abilene. The place was boiling to the brim and spilled out on to the sidewalk, where the music ricocheted as well. Hipsters, greasers, unawares, ne'er-do-wells, Betties, boppers, freaks, and geeks all lined up to see what is one of the next great saviors of vintage and classic American music.
McPherson's guitar work was tight, tart, terse, and twangy as his band flawlessly pumped along like a casual locomotive. When not dishing out delicious originals, the band dug into the Chess catalogue to shake tails in the sardined crowd even further. Its spirited take Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley didn't hammer on the cliché licks and rhythms, but rather the subtle flow of this unmistakable Windy City wail.
Because most of the audience couldn't see the band due to the large crowd and McPherson's diminutive size, everything around us -- the pretty girls, the duck-tailed boys, bluesers and boozers -- became part of a 3-D sensory onslaught of pure rock 'n' roll glee. Fun, fun, fun. Shazam!
Updated on 6/21/13 to remove a potentially offensive phrase.
The East End was buzzing Friday night as it took a step back to an earlier time when the East End Festival was about the music and not an outdoor meat market. It was the excellent music line-up that made the night.
I started out with Amanda Lee Peers and The Driftwood Sailors, who have officially transitioned from dreamy acoustic mysticism to full-out rock. I kind of miss the minor melancholy but dug the bluesy attack a la "Houses of the Holy." Next it was the JJ Lang Band as it kissed the sky with its big engine chugging beneath Lang's vocal arrows. The Natalie B Band stomped through some bluesy boogie as the sun sank behind. It brought to mind some Big Joe Turner lyrics to mind (call me at the office and I'll sing 'em to you).
Blackened Blues broke out the hip-hop-rock hybrid with some Roots Collider in its ranks and the kids couldn't sit still. Same went for Audio Influx as the band burned the groovy soul well into the evening for the beer- and sun-soaked crowd.
It's not like they're pickling their bodies in alcohol or making arrangements to join Walt Disney and Ted Williams in frozen limbo, but at this rate let me Jimmy the Greek it for ya: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are gonna be here forever. If the fork in the road gives you a choice of either The E Street Band or The Asbury Jukes, juke it, baby. The road may be rougher and tougher, but there is still rock 'n' roll paradise to be found when you get there.
It's basically a barroom-rock outfit -- the soundtrack to come-ons, fist fights, and nine-ball. The band is relentless, as demonstrated Thursday night at the first dry night of the season for Party in the Park. Southside Johnny's vocals were a little ragged, but that just added more twist and torque to the gut wrench. It was a bit loud (I could hear it from Broad Street), but when it's good, loud is a plus.
The band's un-self-aware joy was illustrated by periodic jumping around -- not like ninjas or methodically cool rock 'n' roll stars with their screw face and gunfighter stance, but as 4-year-olds taking utter delight in the beat. An estimated 2,500 people or so braved the cool, rejoicing in the blue sky and the righteous blue-eyed soul.
I'm amazed -- even scared a little -- of the fragility of the path that led me to something I love. If I hadn't been someplace in particular at a particular time I never would have met so-and-so, or experienced such-and-such. Hell, I almost didn't meet my wife, and that would've sucked.
So, on Friday night me and the toe-headed Pink Flamingess were taking our time getting to CMAC in the persistent drizzle. Opening bands weren't our concern; headliners The Lumineers were. If we had dragged our asses or hung out in the parking lot with the beer-helmet crowd we would have missed Richmond, Virginia's J Roddy Walston and the Business -- and that would've sucked, too. With a hint of N'awlins swagger and sweet heat, Walston and his ragged denim crew parked themselves in and around the other bands' gear and proceeded to slay the damp and shivering hipster dragon with some down-home, rough-and-raw rock 'n' roll.
Walston's voice was amazingly soulful but lacked the trappings of a soul-singer as he swept the piano keys with long hair and nimble fingers. And the band's grasp of classic strains was only bested by its equally impressive harnessing of its warm, crunchy tone. Kind of Allman Brothers, kind of Black Crowes -- or Black Oak Arkansas -- kind of Dr. John, kind of pretty great. I can't wait to see this band again.
L.A.'s Cold War Kids followed. Short answer: they sucked. Long answer: they write very interesting tunes with a lot of dynamics and clever hooks, it's just the sound that sucked eggs. The bass was so subsonic and loud I almost shit myself. It completely drowned out everything else on stage. The audience seemed to enjoy hearing songs they recognized (when they could recognize them, I suppose), but I can't be the only one that was there plugging my ears and running for the porta-potty.
It's got to be The Lumineers' sincerity and lack of fanfare that has won the band its fans. Now, I'm not saying that rock concert pageantry is dead. But it is nice to hear and see a band that has perfected its music and lets the components of the old song and dance fall where they may. For instance, the band didn't hold on to its mega-hit "Ho Hey" until the end of the set, like you'd expect. And all the musicians on stage seemed to be playing for each other as much as for the packed CMAC shell.
Guest conductor Tito Munoz pulled out all the stops Thursday night as he conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"). The musicians of the orchestra filled the stage, including no fewer than 10 kettledrums and a gong struck by a huge mallet. It was precisely the kind of chandelier-rattling sound Stravinsky intended, and it left me wondering why the word "spring" appears anywhere in the title. It was clear that Munoz not only knows, but loves this iconic piece by Stravinsky.
Also on the program, which will be repeated on Saturday night, was "Finding Rothko" by American composer Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980). Part of the 15-minute work inspired by painter Mark Rothko is available for previewing on the composer's website (AdamSchoenberg.com). Some of the longer, sustained notes captured the majestic emotions a viewer experiences when standing in a gallery, viewing Rothko's canvases. But was the piece true to Rothko, the artist? You'll have to let me know your thoughts, because I can't say I would ever have thought to use, for example, a triangle or the upper registers of metal xylophones to express either his work, particularly post-1947, or to describe my own reaction to his work. It was an interesting piece to hear, particularly on the same program as the Stravinsky.
The long work of the program was the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in d-minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 30, a work in three movements, of approximately 45 minutes in length. At the piano was Leonardo Colafelice, 17 years old, and the gold medalist of the 2012 Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition, among other global piano contests.
Colafelice's performance raised every question associated with a young musician, competitions, and the bridge from competitions to professional orchestras. There is a line of argument in the classical-music world that puts these monster concertos on the "approved" list for contestant selection. There is a thrill among audiences who revel in watching a young person with hands blurred as they dash up and down the keyboard. There's even a willingness for some to say that they don't care if a young musician has missed notes because, "Just imagine how good it will be." And there can be an unheralded talent at the baton, when a conductor understands working with a young musician who is a guest soloist.
The issue I debated last night was whether to write a review considering Colafelice's age, or whether to write a review as if I didn't know how old he is. What I can say, having followed his performances during the competitive and final rounds in last year's Eastman competition, is that Colafelice is demonstrating measurable growth as a pianist. It is clear that he engages in disciplined practice and it is abundantly clear that his stage presence reflects the many, well-deserved bows taken by this young man.
But, I am going to raise the question of programming for Colafelice. Rachmaninoff is, by my sensibilities, the God of composers for the piano. Rachmaninoff is so much more than a beautiful melody or a flash of hands or the lowest of notes. Rachmaninoff is about artistry and about the complexity of emotions, especially love.
The opening theme, which repeats several times, is deceptive. It is a single note, the same in each hand. And yet, it is exquisite as a melody with phrasing. Each of those repetitions should be blocked off and pulled out and considered. What is the relationship of one to the next? What has happened in between to advance the story? Where will it eventually culminate, and how do you use the earlier presentations to build toward that end? The melody, most especially the first time it is played, is not a simple line of individual notes.
Another early consideration for any soloist with an orchestra is the relationship of the instrument to the orchestra. Just because the soloist is out in front does not stop the soloist from having to learn the complete score. So, for example, in the latter part of the first movement, there is a conversation between the piano, the flute, and the oboe. These three instruments should be speaking with each other and wrapping each other's sounds into a blend that pulls the orchestra along with it.
And so yes, I agree, I look forward to hearing Colafelice perform the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto some years hence. But, for me, on Thursday night the gap was too wide between a performance in a competition of peers, and a performance with a professional orchestra of the RPO's caliber.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will repeat the program Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information visit rpo.org.
'Twas damp and cool within the Bug Jar's walls Wednesday night as a damp and hot Clockmen banged on the beautiful crowd like a brass-knuckled Basilio with a body bag. I've seen these cats a number of times, and this show's particularly ragged onslaught was one of the best. Recently the phrase "food-truck rodeo" has popped up in our lackadaisical lexicon. And I got to thinking: The Clockmen are the soundtrack to a truck rodeo where larger-than-life dudes in big hats wrestle Mustangs and Broncos and Rams, and busty midget cowgirls on horseback fire confetti cannons and firehoses hooked up to tanks of Genesee Cream Ale, and monkeys with jetpacks fly a...
Anyway, the band's superiority is a result of its raw imperfections. At one point the bass and drums seemed to be playing at different time signatures. If this wasn't on purpose, it still sounded pretty cool. The set was loud and urgent, and slightly celebratory as it was announced that a little Clockman is due in November.
After that set the four members of Fox Force 5 took the stage for the band's highly anticipated world debut. All musicians know that you can only have one first time. You can have a pile of crappy shows, a pile of great shows, but that vertigo-inducing belly flop you get from popping your bandstand cherry only happens once. I was thrilled to see and feel this new punk outfit's utter glee as it raged through its raunchy set. The tightening up I was initially going to say the band needed actually happened while it was on stage. Give 'em a listen, they'll rock your pants. The hard part's over.
Wednesday night the sky looked like one big black eye as I moseyed the grey ghost downtown. I had heard word from my buddy Jason (he's the one who turned me onto Morphine) that North Carolina knockout Nikki Hill simply had to be seen. I dove into the fracas she was creating at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and was promptly blown away. So was the crowd who clapped thunderously between thunderclaps.
The crowded dance floor was in a rapid boil. This was some of the best r&b-injected, soul-ified kick in the blues I have ever heard. Hill commanded the stage perched on sparkly mules and beneath a sky-high turban channeling the sweet 'n' sour bouquet of switchblades that was once held by Etta James.
Hill's voice was sweet with just a hint of ragged rust that shone through whenever she leaned on a note. This was like a less punk-careening , more authentic-leaning Detroit Cobras. Her band was top notch as it wove through a set of awesome originals, punctuated by some Little Richard, Otis Redding, Irma Thomas, and so on.
Between sets, I stood out in the parking lot with the band discussing its expert take on TarheelSlim's "Number 9 Train." How do you like that? I thought me and Steve Grills were the only ones around who cared about Tarheel Slim.
Nikki Hill returns to Rochester to play Abilene in July. Be there, I'm warning you. Hell, I'm gonna go twice.
hard to find show times.