CMJ Day 3 found me once again at the Studio at Webster Hall for UK Showcase night, mostly because even after more than a year living in London I still can't resist an English accent. Well, that and the fact that while during my time as an ex-pat I was introduced to so much good new music that I'm starting to think there's something in the water over there. Or maybe it's the gin.
First on stage for the night was The Hosts -- very apropos. As we say in England, they were looking smart in suits, ties and vests. And as we say in America, every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. They ripped into their first few songs, and about halfway through the set slowed things down a bit, with a number that made me think if I closed my eyes, they could be the house band at a 1957 high school prom. It was the long, strummed chords, the slow melody on the guitar, and the one unifying factor in all their songs; the incredible voice of lead singer Tom. Several times throughout the set his vocals, along with the keys and guitar sounds, reminded me of The Killers. And though I'd still say that's a decently good comparison, after watching the full set I couldn't box them in that way. There was so much energy, so much varying material -- a perfect example is a song that was toward the end of the set, in which Tom sang accompanied only by guitar and keys. It was probably between one and two minutes long, and its melody was straight out of a church hymnal. It was so drastically different from the harder, more rock material they'd played to open the set, surprising and refreshing.
The Hosts had the tough task not only of opening the night, but of playing to a largely empty room. It's not easy to do and they did it well, performing as if they were staring out at a capacity crowd. They had a wit and a charm, and a rapport with the audience, they even got everyone on board for a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to honor the birthday lad among them, drummer Ben President.
Next up, Eugene Francis Jr. and the Juniors hit the stage in matching embroidered frocks and with enough band members to rival Sly and the Family Stone. I had a chat with the keys player outside before the show, and he used the word 'folktronica' to describe the band's sound. I might call it folk'n'roll.
[Eugene Francis Jr. and the Juniors]
The music had a distinct late 50s/early 60s, hay-day-of-rock sort of feel to it, with a little pinch of soul added in courtesy of two color girl back-up singers, who really added a whole new dimension to the set both visually and sonically. In total there were seven people on the stage, which is cozy for a band of any size, and that's part of the reason why it was such a fun set to see. It was like a party was going on stage for half an hour. That or a church tent revival, or both.
Eugene Francis Jr. and the Juniors put on a fabulous show from opening note to final chord, and they definitely saved their best for last. The song started out feeling like a folk rock anthem, and then broke down into an all-out jam session. Almost everyone in the band was playing multiple instruments, from hand bells to claves to the cutest little xylophone I've ever seen, and the lyrics were offering some helpful bits of life advice over the entire mix, like an entertaining story that has a moral, too.
Following the Juniors would've been a tough task for most any band, but the next group on the bill, Passenger, had my musical heart at "hello." They had a rich acoustic sound that I hadn't heard yet this week, and also really featured the keys in a way I hadn't seen yet, either. And the cherry on top was the sweet sound of a Hammond organ in my ears. I love a Hammond -- some of the best bands in popular music history have rocked the Hammond -- and frankly its sheer presence on stage had me all worked up before the first note was even struck. Singer/guitarist Mike Rosenberg had this fabulously spastic performance style, ala Joe Cocker or more recently, Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows. It's so engaging to watch; either he's having some sort of episode, or he's trying to keep the passion from leaking out of his ears and onto the electrical equipment. Either way, I love it.
Passenger's alternative/rock/folk sound really allows the lyrics to come through in a way they sometimes don't in live performances. The music never overpowered the vocals, and I felt like I was getting to really experience the meaning of the songs as well as the strength of the music. Some of the highlights were their opening number, the slightly creepy "Night Vision Binoculars", and the title track from their new album, "Wicked Man's Rest," which featured Mike doing a little garage-inspired spoken word style verses. Did I mention that his voice is incredible? Because good sweet God.
They wrapped things up with a little tribute to unrequited love called "Do What You Like", but not before Mike rocked so hard he broke a string on his guitar and had to grab a loner from another band backstage. Like me, the Passenger guys don't think that a live show means standing on stage playing your instrument. It means giving it everything you've got, and they did. They'll be back in the city next week at The Mercury Lounge for shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I have a feeling I won't be able to stay away.
Next came Lucky Soul, whose first song immediately made me think of 60s mod-rock. It was syncopated, clean, polished, very rhythm-driven and lots of fun. By the time the fourth song of the set came around, I realized two things. First, that there's only so much guitar/bass/drum syncopated driving beats and simple chord hopping I can take; second, that I couldn't have told you what the difference was between those four songs I just heard if my tickets to see Passenger next week depended on it.
They were so 60s and so mod as to be a novelty, and so novelty as to be clichÃ©. And the worst bit was that they didn't seem to know it. There were so few moments of instrumental interest that I can actually remember them specifically. There was the one time the melody was on guitar as opposed to voice -- that of lead singer Ali Howard, which incidentally is sultry and absolutely fabulous. Then there was the one time I heard a quick funky bass lick in the intro of a song, though it was short lived and quickly overtaken by -- shocking -- syncopated driving chords. And of course there was the one time I heard the keys chime in with a little counter-melody, which was the only time I really heard the keys at all.
That is, until the last song. Lucky Soul saved their best for last, as well, and I will say this: it was four minutes of a good time. It was funky, it was interesting, it had personality and life that the other songs had lacked. The problem for me was that the riff the song was built around is lifted right from Neil Diamond's "Cherry, Cherry". I'm not suggesting they don't know this, but what I am suggesting is that if the only song in the set that has different energy and brings variety to the show isn't even that original, we've got problems. I mean, I love the syncopated beats, the mod-rock, the double-time drums. It's fun. But as my mother always told me, all good things in moderation.
Unkle Bob was up next, and they did redeem the end of my evening fairly well. They had a nice acoustic sound, by far the mellowest stuff of the evening, almost haunting. It did get a little "no really, feel this with me at times, but I think what kept it from diving off the cliff into that emo abyss, was that the guys really understood the construction of a good set. It started out mellow and grew with each song, going up, going back down and really showcasing the breadth of the band's abilities. The highlight was definitely a song called "Hit Parade", which apparently is about getting laid, we were told by lead singer Rick Webster. The song had its cheeky moments, and it had its gutsy, rock moments, but it was also another one of those unrequited love ballads at heart. There was definitely a raw emotion to the entire set, fueled in part by Rick's raw vocals and of course that righteously folk sound. An excellent way to conclude my virtual trip back to the motherland.