The first day of CMJ '08 marked my first-ever CMJ experience, and as with all firsts in life it came with a few hard-learned lessons.
1. I have little to no sense of direction and need to invest in some sort of personal GPS system to keep myself from walking off the Williamsburg Bridge thinking it's just a fancy nightclub entrance.
2. Only people from Tennessee wear flip flops to rock shows.
And 3. Don't drink beer on an empty stomach and then dance to The London Souls, because the only good thing that's going to come of that is, well, that you're dancing to The London Souls.
I kicked off my night at the Serious Business Showcase, which was anything but serious business. The vibe was family-reunion-like, the crowd was up for anything and the atmosphere was laid-back enough to keep the music meshing with all of it.
First on the stage at Piano's was Benji Cossa and his band, whose 1950s-style rock featured killer tenor sax solos and driving, addictive rhythms -- a credit to the drummer, since the band's line-up was sans bassist. Though there were moments when the tenor stole the show, Cossa's voice denies overtaking, and offers an odd, yet pleasant, juxtaposition to the purely rock sounds of his guitar. He kept things fairly relaxed during his set, asking for a moment here and there to make sure he had the lyrics right and checking tempos with his drummer, but it seemed to fit right in with the vibe of the night.
Rocketship Park, the next act on the bill, featured label president and founder Travis Harrison on, of all things, the tambourine. With a pedal steel guitarist on one side of the stage and a pianist on the other, Rocketship Park delivered an outstanding set, stretching to the full limits of their sound from old-school Patsy Cline country to alternative rock'n'roll.
The crowd was growing during Rocketship Park, and by the time The Two Man Gentleman Band hit the stage, the room was near capacity and ready to jam with the duo. The Gents were an undoubted highlight of the evening, opening with a genre-bending cover of the theme from Ghostbusters that would have had Ray Parker Jr. rethinking the saxophone in favor of the Gentlemen's instrument of choice, the kazoo. The cover set the tone for the rest of their set, in which most songs call for audience participation on some level, from shouting out lyrics to making them up as you go. Half-way through the set, singer Andy Bean told the audience that he and his fellow Gentleman, Fuller Condon, had been thinking of starting a dance craze. "And what better week than this to start a dance craze?" He asked. The crowd certainly seemed in agreement; an audience member volunteered to come on stage to assist the Gentlemen in demonstrating "The Drip Dry," their new -- very freestyle -- dance sensation.
But beyond the shouting, the sing-alongs, the dance moves and the camp, the Gentlemen can't help but put on a hell of a show. It's a sort of Vaudevillian, 1920s swinging sound that avoids banjo clichÃ©s (bluegrass and country), thanks in equal part to the technical talents of Andy Bean and the contrast of the upright bass -- not to mention an upright played by someone not afraid to go in for the groove. Watching Condon solo on the bass, his hands flying effortlessly up and down the neck, is worth a ticket to a Two Man Gentleman Band show on its own. Throw in their witty lyrics, tight vocal harmonies, ability to work just about any crowd, dashing outfits and non-stop street-performer sensibilities, and you have a must-see live band. Just be prepared for a little history lesson, the Gentleman closed Tuesday's show with fan favorite "William Howard Taft", based ever-so-loosely on the life of our illustrious 27th president.
After The Gents, I headed out of Piano's in search of Santo's Party House, which took longer than I'd care to admit to you fine people (see earlier need for personal GPS device). Once there, I was standing behind the first of what will undoubtedly be dozens (hopefully hundreds?) of velvet ropes to come in the next few years, waiting patiently with about 50 other people for The Green Owl show to start. When the rope finally was lifted, things were touch and go for a minute as I was told my name wasn't on the list. Luckily I made quick friends with a gal in line who dates someone who knows people who know people, and was in the door in less than five.
The hassle became worth it the moment I entered the room and heard the mixing of DJ Dub Defender, whose mix of reggae and hip-hop with a little freestyle saxophone, vocals and drums over the track was stunning, so danceable you couldn't help but move, but so sonically appetizing I couldn't keep my eyes off the DJ booth to see what he was up to next.
Around quarter past the witching hour, though, came the guys I'd been waiting to see -- The London Souls. These guys have a sound that would fill an arena, but if you really want to experience this band you need to see them the way me and a hundred or so others did Tuesday -- close enough to see every curled lip, bead of sweat and finger on fretboard.
These guys are rock'n'roll, straight up with the slightest twist of soul and a little dash of the blues. They play loud, they play raucous and they play with every bit of their bodies, as any good rock musician should; but perhaps the even better news is that unlike a lot of what passes for rock these days, they haven't lost sight of what good music sounds like, no matter how loud it is.
Though their more syncopated, quick tempo stuff is fun, The Souls are at their best when they take it a little slower and lay back in the groove. Luckily for Tuesday's crowd, that's exactly what they were doing for the majority of the show -- their first of four during CMJ week. Kiyoshi is a master on the bass, and during a country inspired piece he infused a little funk into the intro, setting the tone for the next few songs in the set. "Out of Control" and "Easier Said than Done" got the crowd moving right along with the rhythm, but still left room for more upbeat tempo in the bridges and chorus lines, creating a perfect balance particularly for a live show that was effortlessly danceable. And to be fair, saying that it was something I could dance to isn't really anything shocking, because I'm a constantly moving soul train, but this show, particularly those grooves, the moments of soloing virtuosity, the smart melodies and even smarter lyrics, could have gotten anyone onto the floor. Don't expect to get much use out of your bum at one these gigs.
Funk, blues, soul, rock, whatever you're into -- The London Souls have three more shows this week and are an absolute must-see.