Passion Pit has always been about mixing the light and the dark. The songs on the band's first two albums, "Manners" (2009) and "Gossamer" (2012), obsessively dwell on kill-me-now topics like depression, self-loathing, bankruptcy, suicide attempts and frontman Michael Angelakos' struggles with bipolar disorder. But these grim lyrics are always hyped up with bubbly, blindingly bright dance music that gives the false impression that everything is just fine.
That luminous side of the band shone through when it played at the Main Street Armory on Monday night. The band performed under a manmade skyline of balloon light bulbs, which bathed the entire performance in brilliant pinks and purples, blues and greens, and ensured that the sparkling side of Passion Pit would be at the forefront of the show. It was certainly a step up from the band's last appearance in the area, in 2010, when it performed in a gymnasium at SUNY Brockport. It also made for an evening that, altogether, might be the most exuberant Monday night Rochester has seen this year.
The Swedish girl duo Icona Pop, coming off its self-titled debut from last year, got things going with a ravey, jumpy set of house music, and were then followed by an even higher-energy duo: Matt and Kim. The all-smiles Brooklyn pop duo and couple - vocalist/keyboardist Matt Johnson and drummer Kim Schifino - filled the Armory with their bare-bones instrumentation, and could barely keep still for a second as they playfully blazed through hits like "Now" and "Daylight." Schifino jumped on top of her drum set whenever she had a free moment, Johnson almost leapt across his keyboard while shouting into his microphone, and the couple took frequent breaks to banter, toast beers together, and dance to hip-hop tracks and "Harlem Shake." It was like sitting in on a hangout with the cool hipster couple everybody envies.
Once Passion Pit took the stage - starting with the insistent and ironic "I'll Be Alright" - it was hard to top Matt and Kim's jubilant overload. So it isn't much of an insult to say that the headliners never did. Passion Pit's set was frontloaded with some of the band's biggest songs - "The Reeling," "Moth's Wings," "Carried Away" - and the band only slowed things down once it ventured into an unnamed new song. (Basic summary: elated vibe, glistening keyboard lines, falsetto-heavy chorus.) But Angelakos, who performs all of the songs himself in the studio, mostly just paced around the stage during each song, and made few attempts at interaction beyond the occasional crowd check-in and assurance that everyone was "fucking awesome." Meanwhile, the rest of the band - keyboardist and guitarist Ian Hultquist, synth player and sampler Xander Singh, bassist Jeff Apruzzese, and drummer Nate Donmoyer - dutifully remained seated in the background.
Still, there was a noticeable contrast between the band and its leader. While the band played record-perfect renditions of Angelakos' chirpy songs, Angelakos himself was mostly imperfect - his signature helium-high falsetto was usually adrift and inconsistent, almost muttered at times, as if he was already worn out long before getting onstage. You could call it poor showmanship. Or you could call it a good representation of the earnest anxiety that Angelakos embodies, and that is central to his music. Either way, his struggle and strain were on full display at the show.
But the crowd didn't seem to mind. Like true Passion Pit fans, they were happy to share in the struggle. The titular refrain of the recession anthem "Take a Walk" has grave connotations in the song's narrative - it could be a motto of resignation or even suicide - but here, it was the night's ultimate sing-along and throw-your-hands-up moment. When Angelakos wailed the existential grief in the chorus of "The Reeling" - "Look at me, oh look at me, is this the way I'll always be?" - the crowd giddily answered back each time with the response of "Oh no!," like they were helping a friend through a crisis.
On this night, the underlying darkness of Passion Pit was nothing to worry about - it was something for everyone to embrace. Of course, the beautiful lighting helped. It set the perfect mood for everything from the R&B slow jam "Constant Conversations" (the lights dimmed into a sensual red) to the isolation ode "To Kingdom Come" (the bulbs projected eyeballs that blinked through the song). Best of all, though, was the seizure-inducing light show spectacle that accompanied the climatic performance of "Make Light" - a song that begins with Angelakos remarking how, in his life, "darkness falls like shattered pieces."
Out at Lovin' Cup, the patrons taste their beer, they don't just guzzle it. On Wednesday, February 13, the crowd of beer aficionados shunned the Bud and wrapped their buds around some tasty Smutty Nose treats to the solid strains of some sweet jazz. While all this tasting and testifying was going on, trombonist/composer/Rochester ex-pat Nick Finzer set brassy, icy fire to the bandstand with his quintet. Finzer and his fine five took to the stage and launched head-first into Finzer's own "Alternate Agenda," a snappy modal exploration off his debut, "Exposition," and colored just a wee bit outside the lines, with everyone in the locally assembled group getting a turn with the crayons.
Finzer -- also known for his pedal-enhanced slide wizardry with the Po Boys Brass Band -- is a traditionalist in that he follows in the footsteps of quintets led by the likes of Curtis Fuller and Benny Golson, but also acts as a pioneer by following non-standard arrangements with a dash of impressive dexterity and a smirk. That's how we keep it new, kids.
Friday night was downright regal at The Auditorium Theatre at the 70's Soul Jam starring Philly sensations, The Stylistics. It was a day-glow zoot suit riot and lots of size 14 gals buttered up and shoehorned into size 5 dresses. I swear to God, I saw one cat dressed like a king in all-white fur and platform heels that had goldfish swimming in them.
Though not all original, The Stylistics brought their vocal soul and the house down with the hits like my personal fave, "You Are Everything." I would have loved to have seen the band pull it off street-corner style and a cappella. You know they could.
Later that night, me and my rejuvenated soul made our way back to Lovin' Cup to catch The Swooners as this unassuming trio swung like a junior Rat Pack. The drummer was MIA so the bassist played a box with snares on it as the piano strolled the bottom end. The group swung the standards as if drunk on Slim Gaillard atomic cocktails, digging into Gershwin and Charles, et al.
This weekend the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presents music from 50 years of James Bond films. If you managed to totally screw up Valentine's Day, or just want a sexy, swinging night on the town, this is a program that will hit the target.
Guest conductor Carl Davis, anything but undercover in flashy attire, including a bedazzled Union Jack vest, led the RPO through more than two dozen musical numbers from the Bond catalogue. Starting with John Barry's theme from 1962's "Dr. No" and building to Adele's award-winning title song from 2012's "Skyfall," Davis gave the audience a crash course in Bond-ology, tracing the iconic spy in his film adventures. Davis imparted little bits of information about the actors who played the role, as well as the musicians and composers who have been involved in scoring the series over the decades.
As a property that has existed for 50 years, the Bond films present a unique cultural opportunity. This program serves as a fascinating kind of musical anthropology, as you can trace shifting artistic trends over the past 50 years. The 1960's film scores were dominated by that suave, masculine orchestral sound, while the 70's devolved into schmaltz (Marvin Hamlisch's "Nobody Does it Better" from "The Spy Who Loved Me") and the 80's ventured into slick pop-rock sounds (Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill"). Interestingly, the 21st century Bond films, the three starring Daniel Craig, have boomeranged back to those 60's roots musically as well, with the modern scores including some of the iconic elements of the earlier films while still sounding totally fresh and relevant to today.
The orchestra in generally performed well Friday night, and I noticed more than a couple of gleeful smiles on the faces of the musicians as they attacked some of those classic Bond motifs. The musicians sounded equally at home playing the more traditional nocturne from "Octopussy" as they did taking on an instrumental-only version of "Die Another Day" by Madonna. (Davis made an easy joke at Madge's less-than-renowned composing career, but it's actually a pretty nifty song once you take out the droning staccato lyrics.) I will admit to totally rocking out during the faster portions of "Live and Let Die," headbanging and all in the Eastman Theatre.
However, there were two critical instances where I felt that the orchestra didn't live up to the standards set by the original songs. In the opening number from "Dr. No," that absolutely essential thrumming guitar line didn't synch up with rest of the orchestra. The soloist had the rhythms down, but the timing of that particular passage is tricky; it's not quite on the beat, and he was slightly off, making it sound rushed instead of that key laidback cool. In a similar vein, the first song after intermission, "View to a Kill," lacked urgency from the brass section. That song includes gunfire-like stings from the brass section which, on Friday, sounded more like pop guns. Give us the punch, folks. This is James Bond! The man demands potency in every way.
Vocalist Mary Carewe joined Davis and the orchestra on roughly half the songs for the night. On the one hand, singing James Bond themes sounds like a pretty fun gig. On the other, the originals feature some amazing singers, and living up to Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Adele, and the like is no small order. Carewe does a fantastic job with all of the disparate styles, and was especially good on the theme to "License to Kill."
The RPO again presents "Classic Bond" Saturday, February 16, 8 p.m. at Eastman Theatre. For more information visit the website.
I knew he could do it, I just didn’t realize how well. Bassist Todd Bradley has the chops and the pipes for sure, as he demonstrates as a a member of popular Rochester trio The Hi-Risers. But Thursday, February 7, at Abilene, armed with an acoustic and those aforementioned vocal cords (a foundation-rumbling collision between Ernest Tubb and Barry White), Bradley wove his way in and around songs by Dion, Buddy Holly, and of course The Hi-Risers. Often, a lone troubadour in a bar is background, a bed track for the alcohol-fueled come-ons and the get-losts, or it can be loud and over bearing. Bradley was neither as he anchored the elusive drum-less beat and crooned casually.
I’m tired of working in metaphors for the cold, so let’s just say that I went out for some rock ’n’ roll minus my nuts Friday night. The music made its way out on to the street. It was experimental Sandwich wrapping up its set at Montage Music Hall. The band had a groovy back and forth that hinted lightly at reggae or reggae-influenced bands like Sublime without all the sunshine and peace. Upstate followed with a solid set of jammed-out progressiveness. I want to describe the band as slightly psychedelic-leaning, but wonder if the light and fog visuals planted that seed. Too late, Upstate is psychedelic, and an open-minded unit unafraid to try anything. The crowd was light but that seemed to have little bearing on the band’s collective thrill and output.
The love flowed as copiously as the cream ale at Skylark Lounge on Sunday for Rochester rock ’n’ roll scenesterRebecca Lieving, who is currently battling cancer. Tons of people wedged their way into the joint to wish her well, support the cause, and dig on the bands that donated their time and tunes. Babayaga kicked things off loud and proud. It’s odd to hear a band his heavy with sunlight streaming through the windows. It somehow seems out of context. Despite the priceless look of alarm on the faces of those unfamiliar with the band, it sounded mighty and malevolently cool.
The Sisters of Murphy followed, but the daylight had no impact here as this band simply belongs in a bar any time of day or night. SOM has that keen balance of tradition and rock ’n’ roll roustabout that has the music converting others outside the Gaelic scene. You can’t help but dance and drink a little faster. Get well soon, Rebecca. Rochester rock ’n’ roll --- and its rock ’n’ rollers --- love you and need you.
The only way to start a review of Thursday night's concert by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, led by guest conductor Ward Stare, is to discuss the final work on the program. Given the grey winter skies outside and the earlier program works being full of dissonances, "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin, featuring pianist Terrence Wilson, was a desperately needed burst of artistry, well-known themes, and good feelings.
Without question, we need to hear more from Wilson - and soon. He is an unsung giant at the piano. Lanky-limbed and fluid as molten silver across the 4' span of 88 keys, Wilson owned "Rhapsody in Blue." In the audience were Gershwin's ghost, and, hunched and finger tapping right next to him, the ghost of Glenn Gould.
Better still was the chemistry between Wilson and Stare. I cannot count how many concerts I have attended and reviewed where I have watched conductors and soloists with barely a sideways glance at each other. Even when technically competent, it makes the performance too safe for my taste. Wilson and Stare were in touch with each other throughout the entire performance, looking directly into each other's eyes and even turning their bodies toward each other as they beautifully synchronized their body rhythms. This level of communication bespeaks a very high level of preparation.
And this is what I would say of Stare as a young and upcoming conductor: he knows his stuff. While I was not sold on every aspect of the other works on the program, Stare appears to have both the natural talent and the raw desire to give a truly musical experience to every member of the audience. It is clear that Stare both loves and believes in the compositions he selects to perform, and in the musicians of the orchestra. Particularly in the work by Paul Hindemith, "Mathis der Maler," Stare brought out not only each section of the orchestra, but, also, each of the individual instruments.
What I would, however, say about the program as a whole, is that it was very heavy. All of the first three works involved deep, at times disturbing, combinations of rhythms, colliding sensibilities, and note fragments. The work by Eastman School of Music Dean Douglas Lowry, "The Freedom Zephyr," for example, included a narrative, delivered by Paul Burgett. Although the word "resolution" was at least three times emphasized by the intonation of Burgett and its placement in the text before lengthy vocal pauses, the work itself did not give the emotional release to free the audience from the experience of the oppression preceding the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The one other macro comment I hope might reach Stare is to go beyond the edge of playing it safe. In the Symphony No. 1 of William Grant Still, named by the composer the "Afro-American Symphony," there are some truly exciting passages. The foundational elements were present: solid preparation, technical execution, etc. But, I found myself rooting for Stare to push the performance over the edge. If Stare listens performances by the RPO led by POPS conductor Jeff Tyzik from the recent performance of Tyzik's "Cityscapes," Stare will know that the RPO has the capacity for jaw-dropping expression in this genre. I'd like to hear Stare let the horse out of the barn.
The RPO will repeat this program on Saturday, February 9, at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. For more information visit the RPO website.
Minor keys are like hot sauce on open wounds. When you want to kick that urge, that emotion, that thrill, that chill up a bit, nothing's finer than going minor. Then there's Rochester acoustic blues aficionado and virtuoso Fred Vine. Armed with a dreadnaught and a National Steel, Vine swings from the minor vine as the tunes dictate, but he maintains the music's ominous burn when he sails into major territory. It's all in the man's fingertips.
His finger style was loose yet flawless Thursday, January 31, at the Little Theatre Café. With legendary string bassist Brian Williams holding down the rhythm and walking the line, Vine struck me as a displaced ragtime piano player as much as he did a guitar slinger. The duo picked and plucked a handful of ragged gems as the audience nursed heat from coffee mugs. Waters got Muddy, as Vine and Williams traversed the dirt between The Delta, Chicago, and the snowy East Avenue corridor.
After my wife and I dined as Mario's guests Friday night, we headed to Abilene for a nightcap, which turned into a blasting cap with The Fools. Maybe it was the Rory Gallagher rave-up that spun me out right away, but I really dug the band's set -- a blend of blues and atmosphere on the rocks.
I flew out into the upstate tundra to Lovin' Cup Saturday night. It was so cold I actually saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets. Anyway, Low Flying Planes was on stage to keep us warm with its hot rock. This is a band that flies the original flag for the most part and shows huge potential as it comes into its own. Tonally speaking it could stand to smooth things out a bit, but the set rocked otherwise. This Life followed with its cerebral, piano-driven alt-rock. The band has a serious slant amidst its clever compositions and people seemed torn between dancing and listening. You can do both, you know.
Friday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra POPS presented “New York Cityscapes,” a work in five parts composed by conductor Jeff Tyzik, accompanied by the original choreography of Jamey Leverett, artistic director, for the Rochester City Ballet. The performance will be repeated Saturday at 8 pm.
The performance was so exciting that all I can say is that it’s an experience you are going to have to go to hear -- and see -- for yourself.
In “New York Cityscapes,” Tyzik trumps Leonard Bernstein. The evening’s overall program included three dance episodes from Bernstein’s “On the Town,” providing a fresh reminder of all that’s great about the composer, from quirky rhythms to unresolved melodies to uncomfortable interval pairings. But where Bernstein’s music can grind one down into the grit of the gutter, Tyzik’s use of many of the same musical elements goes deeper into the heart and soul to portray what is persistent and enduring about city life. Tyzik finds the silver lining that eluded Bernstein.
“New York Cityscapes” breaks down into five parts, “Ragtime Redux,” “Tango,” “Traffic Jammin,” “African Dance,” and “Tarantella.” Each part was distinct, yet all captured the pulsing undercurrent of New York City. The stop-start of heavy traffic, punctuated by impatient drivers and yellow taxicabs. Pedestrians with different footfalls, ranging from harried businessmen to chatting window shoppers. Steam hissing up from grates. Just as when a person is in NYC, in “New York Cityscapes,” the listener hears all the singular rhythms that should, but somehow don’t, collide.
The brilliance of pairing Leverett’s choreography with Tyzik’s composition cannot be overstated. My fear going into the program was that the choreography might take the approach of working along the metronome meter of the compositions (I listened to them online at Tyzik’s website). Instead, Leverett took the far more complicated approach of using a troupe of dancers to express the complexities of rhythm, tone, and instrument solos so brilliantly captured by Tyzik.
Tyzik and Leverett’s approach was enhanced by the simple, elegant costumes. The unusual green color, the daring line of the bodice that appeared suspended upon the ballerinas’ chests, and the ever-fluid fabric, all of which evolved from one section to the next, enhanced all of the wildly divergent body movements of the dancers.
Credit should also be given to lighting. There was very effective use of focal lights, while the colors and hues of the rest of the stage further extended that undertone of around-the-edges-activity in a busy city.
And, I’m not telling you the whole story if I don’t emphasize the excellent execution of the musicians of the RPO POPS. At every staccato, accent, swell, and sforzando, the musicians worked hard for the kind of clear, clean, and difficult execution demanded by the pieces. As compared to my regular beat with the RPO “proper” for classical symphonies, I had to smile at how much fun the musicians were having on stage. I caught several unable to refrain from dancing in their seats, and, in particular, the brass section plus clarinet were hitting high notes and rifts with abandon. A gold star to the pure sounds of the trumpet, which soared.
The first half of the program was five familiar dance pieces plus variations on five movements from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” From Jacques Offenbach’s “Can Can” to Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” with each piece on the first half of the program, the audience contentedly murmured and applauded these favorites.
So here’s what I come down to: the entire concert was a not-to-be-missed experience. While the first half will give you familiar favorites by our outstanding RPO POPS musicians under the baton of Tyzik, it’s the second half through Tyzik’s “New York Cityscapes,” presented with the Rochester City Ballet, that gives you the future of this genre of music.
Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Rochester City Ballet will also perform this program Saturday, February 2, at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit rpo.org.
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.