Folk Duo Shines In Understated 9th Ward Debut

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Intimacy at a musical event can be a funny and altogether fickle creature. Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing 50-60 shows in areas that are the closest place to home all the way into the deeper heart of New York City, and performances have ranged from the tiniest clubs to outdoor stages and everything in between. The funny part about it is once I’ve had the debate over which setting is better (hole in the wall kinda runs away with that race) I then start to wonder, is there such a thing as too much intimacy?

That question raised it’s hand to me once again this past weekend going to see well-traveled country-folk couple Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion play Buffalo NY’s The 9th Ward. The twosome (who are in their 14th year of music together) were making their debut at Asbury Hall’s underground club, and as a first-timer myself I admittedly came away impressed. While it is a smaller venue that will unmistakably be limited to the “underground” or lesser known acts that come to town, the Ward clearly benefits from being little more than half a decade old. Surfaces are kept up, the bar is tended neatly, and while comparable venues with more of a history of character are always appreciated, it’s nice to see a spot with the same intended visual appeal that Asbury Hall has up above. On a simpler scale, of course.

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But after my excessive ogling of the scenery it was time for the show, to which only a few dozen people had shown up to see. A few dozen might even be too kind of an estimation, which is special as an attendee but disheartening to witness from the perspective of wanting to see such obvious musical talent getting justified recognition. I’d had the same wincingly unfortunate realization when I saw James Taylor’s son Ben play The Haunt in Ithaca last year to a crowd of 10 or 20, and sadly that question of intimacy debate arose all over again last Saturday at The 9th Ward. Promotion is not exactly a manner of rocket science, and more effort would have been welcomed in order to ensure that musical acts of this caliber continue to make stops in Western NY.

Because you see, for anyone who still enjoys the stirring lilt of classic harmony-drenched folk, the history of singers gone and those who grace us still, and the stripped down sweetness of two musicians working within six strings of a rhythm all their own…. well, you really did end up missing out. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are much like two sides of a complementary coin to each other; while Irion might play lead fiddle to Guthrie one moment the next would seamlessly transition to Guthrie adding backing vocals or percussion to Irion occasionally going “off-script”. Improv aside though, their set wound through children’s songs they’d written (“Go Wagaloo”), tracks from 2013’s superb “Wassaic Way” (“Chairman Meow”, “Lowest Ebb”, “Hurricane Window”), covers (“And I Love Her”, “Runaway”), and everything in between (the nod to Sarah Lee’s grandfather Woody with the murder ballad “Tom Joad” felt especially appropriate). But truly the best moments were when the two would be in tandem, whether it was harmonizing, storytelling, or layering guitar against guitar.

The duo closed their set with a quaint off-PA version of “When The Lilacs Are In Bloom” that took them directly into the crowd, and if anything could make that small gathering of people feel appropriate, this moment was it. Because despite how disappointing it was to see Sarah Lee & Johnny treated to such a minimal gathering, there was such power in that too. Like a group of friends swapping songs and stories around the campfire, this was sharing and imparting the power of music at it’s simplest roots. And that, is truly when intimacy shines the brightest.

Band of Horses Bring Acoustic/Electric Double-Dip To Buffalo’s Ballroom

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It’s quite a rare circumstance when a band or solo act with some musical clout decides to revisit Western NY within the same calendar year. Younger groups trying to make a name for themselves or beloved jam bands often return on different coast-to-coast legs given their aggressive touring schedules, but it’s always a pleasant surprise to see established acts of differing genres drop by for a second showing.

Enter South Carolina’s own alt-rocker outfit Band of Horses, who’s limited run of haunting acoustic shows took them through Ithaca’s State Theatre (along with opener Sera Cahoone) back in February. This time the Horses (paired up with the band Midlake) brought their full electric setup to a sold-out crowd in Buffalo’s Town Ballroom this week, and the results as they so often say, did not disappoint.

While the Town Ballroom isn’t exactly a marquee venue dripping with the backstory of the aforementioned State Theatre or Buffalo’s own Shea’s for example, it’s a fine hole in the wall that pairs off compatibly with the smaller intimacy of The Tralf (another music spot located just down the street). And while I wouldn’t exactly call the packaged sardine feel of the standing room only crowd “intimate”, everyone behaved themselves for the most part and allowed the best aspect of these smaller settings to truly shine through. Namely, an unadulterated connection to the music on stage.

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And that kicked off with Midlake, who’s normally more electric-oriented lineup was stripped down in favor of a trio made up of acoustic guitars and a keyboard (with occasional flute for added effect). It gave the band a feel that was a very fitting homage to what BOH was doing back when I saw them in February, complete with several-part harmonies, a melancholic folk-rock sound, and an overall sense of mellow laid-back ease. I’ll admit I wasn’t overly familiar with any of their prior catalogue up to that point, but their warm blend and winsome take on set-closing cover “I Shall Be Released” made for stirring up the steaming kettle of my curiosity. And if nothing else, that’s what every good opener should be able to accomplish.

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But then it was time for Band of Horses to hit the stage, also known as that moment where everything the opening band just did during it’s set pretty much melts away entirely until the next day. In it’s place was a foggy haze of excitement for the name on the front of the ticket, and BOH delivering on the anticipation by fiercely ripping into songs like “Cigarettes Wedding Bands”, “The Great Salt Lake”, “Laredo” and “The Funeral”. As with their February acoustic show the night was career-spanning for the group, though in similar fashion they mostly continue to dodge the weight from 2012’s lead balloon release “Mirage Rock”. It’s a move made for the better as it allows the quintet to lead with their best and most creative material, made all the more sharp by going for the traditional rock instrumentation that the Horses are best known for. Aside from moments like the stirring stripped-down sing-along of “No One’s Gonna Love You” and the Buddy Holly-esque walkdown of “St Augustine” their set was loud, relentless, and barely took a moment for a breath (or banter for that matter).

While it’s difficult to say exactly where Band of Horses is going in terms of their studio output these days, they remain a touring band on top that takes the best from both their acoustic and electric sides (I still can’t pick my favorite). While their harmonies are more soaring and crystalline in the space the quiet provides, songs like “Ode To LRC” and “Is There a Ghost” hit with the passion that they’re meant to when smashed down beneath the heel of tall amps and loud pedalboards. The chemistry between the bunch is immediately evident no matter the arrangement though, and the fire they brought to Town Ballroom this week left the whole room steaming (though to be fair that might be more of an air conditioning issue). Either way, go out and see them on tour with Midlake while you can. You certainly won’t be left regretting the decision.

Iron & Wine Goes Down Smooth And Sweet At The Smith

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Ahhh, another evening spent buried in the music at Geneva NY’s Smith Opera House. After my freshman encounter with the 120-year old historical theatre building back in 2011, the Smith has(dare I say it) started to feel like home returning just two weeks after seeing the stick of country-folk dynamite that was The Lone Bellow. This time around Geneva had the pleasure of hosting the masterfully versatile band Iron & Wine with opening act The Secret Sisters, which was a treat not only given their respective accolades but because it was an evening truly fit for feeling like you were out beneath the stars.

That little architectural slight-of-hand aside, the Smith Opera House once again proved it’s strength as an eclectic venue stop last Saturday night. Acoustics rang with an undeniable sheen out into the expanse of high ceilings, deep balconies and the rich smell of so many histories come and gone within walls like those. So beautifully sprung, yet so quickly evaporated before so many hungry eyes. Environment is everything as I see it, and a theatre like the Smith adds weight to every word, gravity to the melody, and beauty well-worn into the palm of each beat.

That steadying presence was put to good use as the evening led off with The Secret Sisters, AKA Alabama’s latest answer to those deceptively upbeat and charismatic singing duos first truly popularized in the 50’s and 60’s. Real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers brought a comfortably harmonized yet effusive blend of country, gospel, blues-rock and swampy Southern charm to their opening set. Backed by a full supporting cast, the two wove cheerily between lyrical heartaches, jailbreaks, murder ballads and an overall sense of optimism that was one bridge away from a shot of whiskey followed by a lithium chaser. All in all, quite a way to have 40 minutes pass through the mirror.

By comparison I’m not quite sure what Iron & Wine was supposed to live up to exactly, but as he has since the band’s inception in 2002, lead man Sam Beam makes up the length and breadth of his own expectations. Accompanied by a versatile backing of guitars, banjo, keyboards, accordion, harmonica and electric ukelele, Beam wove well beyond the origin of his lo-fi folk roots into soul, R&B, pop, jazz and a wealth of catalogue-brightening orchestration. Though often his best moments were still the quietest as the band took a break mid-set and Beam stood alone, capo in hand to field a bevy of(suddenly) enthusiastic song requests. And while he did stumble once or twice with older material, songs like “Such Great Heights” and “Naked As We Came” poured outward with a haunting bliss packed so neatly inside pretty guitar lines and Beam’s hushed and yearning vocals.

And although he seemed nervous at times digging through so many of his own songs, Beam was the composite free and easy storyteller both in banter and in lyricisms throughout the night. In a fraction of a moment he’d loosely tease or joke around about how “weird” this was going to get, and in the next he’d fixate the crowd within the capturing rhythms of “Boy With A Coin” and “one for the chair-dancers” with “Grace For Saints and Ramblers”. And while I would have much preferred a crowd that felt a BIT less content to move to the music from their seats, the mood was vibrant, lush, and fun to keep the toes actively in rhythm to.

So while I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an avid Iron & Wine listener going into last Saturday’s evening at the Smith Opera House, their headlining set alongside The Secret Sisters made for one of the top live events I’ve seen so far in 2014. The historical ambiance, casual atmosphere and mellowing sounds made for a night so pleasant that knowing all the words, was certainly no requirement.

 

Local Opener Makes Strong Case For Pop Revolution

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As a native resident of Upstate New York, I often tend to find that the pocket of the local music scene is…. residing a bit to the south of what one might ordinarily consider “sparse”. Of course between rolling green fields, looooong stretches of barren highway, and the requisite placement of cows, one often finds the word sparse to be an adjective that’s rather difficult NOT to use here. Yet despite this timeless truth, I’m always searching for the next local group that might happen to catch my ear.

Enter my introduction to Roses & Revolutions. Or my “stumbling into” rather, as I first encountered the music of duo Alyson Coco and Matt Merritt unintentionally while attending a Head and The Heart show during Rochester’s “Party In The Park” series. From the moment I first heard Alyson’s voice achingly croon across the expanse of that outdoor venue to last week’s opening set for The Lone Bellow at Geneva NY’s Smith Opera House, I’ve come away entranced each and every time.

And yes, while June 7th at the Smith was a headlining night for one of Brooklyn’s finest new bands, the twosome from our own aforementioned Rochester weren’t about to be left out of the equation. The pair mesmerized the intimate crowd with a stripped-down set of songs that showcased their deeply talented pop/singer-songwriter blend, led by Coco’s rich vocals and Merritt’s spaciously appealing guitar. Hauntingly electric at times(but mostly acoustic), the two danced fluidly between originals from their two EP’s(2012’s “Earth And Everything” and 2014’s self-titled followup) in their forty minute performance, along with a dash of reinvented covers that included Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”.

And while originals like “Moving On” and “When A Heart Gives Out” simultaneously enthralled and captivated, my mind couldn’t help but return to that reinvention of “The Scientist” simply because it was so brilliantly reinterpreted for a new voice. While I’m sure most have consciously uncoupled from Chris Martin and that song by now following it’s breakout smash in 2002, Roses & Revolutions has taken a long-cliche statement and created it into a fact. Simply put, they’ve made the song their own(though the fact they haven’t recorded it yet is a travesty).

So while the bulk of their set at the Smith Opera House was kept at a musical pace that was largely quiet and contemplative that night, the mood of the two Roses in sync together was a mellowing yet uplifting fit for the spell of the evening. Like a soft and inviting embrace, their talent is yet another reminder that there is great promise out there to be heard in the music world. Sometimes, you just have to wind up stumbling into it.

 

Intimacy; Intensity Define “Bellow” At Geneva’s Smith Opera House

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Given the rate and continuous high energy of the Lone Bellow’s still-ongoing tour schedule, it’s not only remarkable to think this band has only existed since last year, but that I have to keep trying to pick out a favorite performance. Before now, I’d seen the red hot trio that is Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin, and Brian Elmquist deliver their unique brand of hometown “Brooklyn country music” under the star-lined trees of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, within the illustrious confines of the staggering Carnegie Hall, and between the soon-vacated tables of Buffalo NY’s understated venue The Tralf. So needless to say, the bar was set fairly high above the ground going into this one.

Enter June 7th with Geneva NY’s Smith Opera House, which provided a blend of that small venue intimacy against the continued backdrop of Western New York’s highly underrated theatre culture. While it may not have the name recognition of a Carnegie or the talent pool of a Broadway, the historical value of places like the Smith add both character and in most cases, exceptional acoustics for concerts or events like this. But back to my point here.

The music. While it was a headlining night for one of Brooklyn’s finest new bands, Rochester NY’s own Roses & Revolutions weren’t about to be left out of the equation. Duo Alyssa Coco and Matt Merritt mesmerized the crowd with a stripped-down set of songs that showcased their deeply talented pop/singer-songwriter blend, led by Coco’s rich vocals and Merritt’s spaciously appealing guitar. The two danced nimbly between originals from a couple of EP’s in their forty minute performance, along with a dash of reinvented covers that included Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. While kept at a musical pace that was largely quiet and contemplative, the mood of the two Roses was a mellowing yet uplifting fit for the spell of the evening.

And not a moment too soon, because then it was time to be witness to what I can only swear is one of the holiest experiences in all of music: The Lone Bellow. The three took to the stage(accompanied by drummer Brian Griffin and bassist Jason Pipkin) and immediately launched into a new song called “I Let You Go”, which felt like taking a slow, deep breath of country-folk before deciding to skydive down into it. Frontman Zach Williams, bedecked in a collared shirt and suspenders that made him look like the protagonist of a 40’s detective film, soon had the crowd dashing from the seats to the stage as he and his bandmates stomped, clapped, riffed and harmonized through most of the songs off their debut release, as well as a few previews of what might follow later this year.

As utterly heartrending as he could be exuberant, Williams’ Tarzan leaps, flying clouds of sweat and brilliant musicianship could only be matched by the sheer talent of his counterparts. Brian Elmquist’s contributions were a powerhouse for much of the evening, mixing Carl Perkins-esque riffing(“Georgia Will”), intense leads(“Diners”), and aching gospel folk(“Watch Over Us”) into the group’s new songs, while Kanene Pipkin continues to be one of the most powerfully dynamic female vocals on the rustic side of indie music. She simultaneously commands and demands attention simply through her voice, and songs like “Button” and “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” shine because of it.

Combine that with their ability to be cued and attuned to one another, and I feel like intimate shows this powerfully bled out onto the stage are only going to become more rare for The Lone Bellow as they move onto their sophomore record and the popularity that will inevitably follow it. Someday I’ll have to say “I knew them when”, but as Sheryl Crow would say, for now “I’m gonna soak up the sun”.

 

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