Spoon Scoops Out Sweet, Alt-Rock Savagery At Ithaca’s State Theatre

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Ah, the start of the fall season. It’s that magical period of time when the leaves erupt from their traditional greens into bursts of mottled reds and golds, the apples burst forth in full fruit from their orchards, and tourists suddenly receive the instinctive call to migrate north and sample the latest seasonal Starbucks pumpkin latte. Brings a tear to the eye really.

But for local Ithaca NY residents and music fans in the area surrounding, it means another jam-packed fall roster of Dan Smalls Presents-curated concerts taking center stage in 2014. And luckily enough for yours truly, I managed to score superb seats this past week for the inaugural show at Ithaca’s State Theatre with Austin TX’s own indie rockers Spoon. They’ve been hot off the early August release of album “They Want My Soul” (their first since 2010’s “Transference”), and my anticipation for one hell of a live set was fairly high. Little did I know what was to come….

Though first up was a special treat in the form of Spoon’s own Eric Harvey acting as the opener for the night. While Harvey has opened for the band before, it was apparently a rarity for him to actually appear with a full group of musicians at his back. Gathered from local contacts around the area (who aided in the recording Harvey did in Ithaca for his 2012 solo record “Lake Disappointment”), the added composition of cello, bass, electric guitar, drums, and backing vocals provided added pastels of flavor to the plaintive heart of Harvey’s guitar-plucked singer-songwriter persona. In fact it led to an on-stage versatility I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing many bands do in which the varied players kept cycling on and off in the background.

At one moment Harvey would be alone on stage, then the next two songs would offer entirely separate arrangements until one guy with a voice and a tune on his strings would become a band in full throat…. only to shift right back again. The night would take a much different tempo before it was complete, but Harvey’s easy swing of mostly originals (diverging only on a loving take of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”) provided a heavily folk-inflected coffeehouse swoon that was a welcoming warmth to settle in with. And given Eric Harvey’s extensive ties to Upstate NY, his set seemed like an appropriately brilliant homecoming.

But then it was time for Spoon to hit the stage, and amidst a backdrop of glowing grey screens and a futuristic disco ball of sorts the quintet shake rattled and rolled the State Theatre right down to the screws of it’s foundations. Opening with the title cut off of “They Want My Soul” before shifting into “Rent I Pay” and older tracks “Don’t You Evah”, “Small Stakes”, and “Who Makes Your Money”, the band kept up a rhythmic barrage that barely paused for either breath or banter. Lead man Britt Daniel was a gritty, growling force of Telecaster-contorting energy who could only be matched by the multi-instrumental tornado that was Alex Fishel, though as a whole Spoon was seamless no matter what direction they chose to weave through their catalogue.

I mean one of the greatest pluses of the band’s new album is how reinvigorated they sound as a group following a four year period of downtime, and that easily carries over into their performance and just how connected these five guys seem. Through a set of 20+ songs they made nearly two hours feel like ten minutes, they got a theatre seated crowd to stand, dance and move from beginning to end, and they converted me from a casual fan into one who’ll be regularly inserting Spoon songs into my playlists for a long time to come.

I don’t think I could have thought of a better way to kick off musical festivities in Ithaca, and you can put THAT into your latte fall fans.

Admiring The Scenery….

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In all my years spent living in Western New York, I find myself traveling often (especially in my pursuit of the local music scene). Buffalo, Rochester, Geneva, Lewiston, even as far off as Cooperstown. But one place continuously manages to stick out above the rest, and that is Ithaca. It’s a place whose venues have not only managed to play host to some of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, but also contains some of the best storefronts that have music…. nearly ready to come springing out the door at you when you walk in.

Take Angry Mom Records for instance, which despite the presence of Rochester’s famous House of Guitars and underrated Record Archive remains one of the top record shops in all the area. Located within the basement of a used bookstore on Ithaca’s Commons and run by a couple of old punk rock enthusiasts, there’s a distinct sense of character and what may be a (slightly below sane) sense of humor oozing out from between the stacks of CD’s and LP’s. It creates a familiarity and a connection within the place, and as a lover of vinyl and record stores of all shapes and sizes that’s what I most often find myself gravitating towards. That environment where you can take time out of mind, and just exist within the simple joy of flipping through 33’s, 45’s, and everything in between.

It’s often all about those simplest of joys when it comes to our ties with music, and for me that inevitably always boils down to the experience of concerts. Seeing music played out live and in person surpasses the magic that even masterpiece-level albums can reach, and when it comes to Ithaca there are venues that embody everything from marquee-lit splendor to hole-in-the-wall hideaways. There’s the historical State Theatre, whose vaudevillian-era mainstage has had everyone from fresh faces like The National to grizzled veterans such as BB King, right down to The Haunt which has been an avenue for under the radar talents like folk duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and punk rock icon Bob Mould. There’s even the very hushed little Hangar Theatre, which has been a backdrop for more gigs courtesy of varying acts like Richard Thompson, Cowboy Junkies, and Leon Russell.

Thanks to a very vibrant little college town (and the persistence of some very skilled individuals making it happen), my hope for the local music scene is always alive and well whenever I’m visiting Ithaca. It may not have the name recognition of nearby Buffalo, and it will never be the size of a hub in NYC, but it’s a place with a superb backdrop of culture that isn’t frequently found in Western New York. But like a good song or that record you never knew existed, sometimes it just takes a little discovery.

 

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