Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Spring Standards Do Their Thing

It’s no small thing to play an instrument really well. It’s another thing all together to play three instruments while singing a song that you wrote. Meet The Spring Standards, a band with seven instruments and only three musicians (or maybe you already met them, they used to be called Old Springs Pike. But you should meet them again).

At their CD release party at the Bowery Ballroom on July 31st, the three members of the band gave new meaning to the term “multi-tasking”. Sandwiched between two men (both named James) was Heather Robb with her sweet voice (like a younger, hipper Joni Mitchell), plus her keyboard, harmonica and base drum with cymbals which she beat enthusiastically and with surprising skill. The two James guys (James Cleare and James Smith) share not only the same name, but also the same instruments, switching sides of the stage throughout the set, moving between the acoustic guitar and electric bass. Their stations were also outfitted with segmented drum-sets and a harmonica (for which the crowd went crazy).

The trio had their moments of bright poppy melodies and guitar lines, even approaching a little metal on occasion, but their country roots are undeniable (and happily so). The set was mostly original songs, except for one cover done in tribute to Neil Young and, later, a good old Cranberries song in which the trio invited all of the musicians from the night up to join them in a paramount finale.

James, Heather and James are clearly very talented musicians. But they are also gracious and genuine (Heather commented several times on how happy they were to be back in New York), humble and amiable (James went on a spur-of-the-moment tangent about the movie Anaconda 3 and had to be reeled back in). They play with everything they’ve got, which makes their skills all the more impressive. Any one of them could be pulled out, sat down on their own, and left to give a captivating solo acoustic show. But together, they rock, with layered and seamless harmonies that would make the Beatles proud, and a synchronicity so perfect it’s a wonder that they can breathe without each other.

They came out for an encore (how could they not?) and launched into an upbeat blues song that they seemed born to perform. After the cheers died down, they stepped away from their instruments and announced that the audience would have to be really quiet for the next song. As seems to befit their nature, the trio cut to the chase, jumped off the stage and onto the main floor of the ballroom, where they were quickly encircled by the delighted crowd. With only a ukelele accompanying them, they sang their closing song, like a fond farewell, inviting the remaining diehards in the audience to join in towards the end. Suddenly, the iconic venue felt smaller, the Spring Standards felt like family and the concert became an intimate, unique experience never to be repeated.

And this, the ability to give a performance that is unforgettable, is the most impressive thing of all.
Top photo by Reid Rolls
Live photos by Cassie Newman

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Via Audio Plays Bowery Ballroom

It is a fine line that musicians (or all artists, really) tread. The goal is to be a commodity: to fit a bill or have a skill that others don’t, or to have a sound so unique that you are in a league of your own. But you go too far across that line and you may offend or lose the interest of listeners; you play it too safe and listeners will move right on to something edgier. It seems that some bands have developed a stratagem, then, of versatility: a way to cover their bases and dabble in all sorts of sounds, like a politician trying to please as many people as possible.

Playing at the Bowery Ballroom on July 31st, the Boston/NYC based band, Via Audio, took the audience on somewhat of a musical tour. While some songs are all about the words (often about regret, skepticism, moving on...), others have hardly any lyrics to speak (or sing) of, replaced by bright and loud melodies, somewhat disconnected vocal harmonies and driving drum beats. There seemed to be much more versatility in the live show than is characteristic of the band’s albums. Just when it seemed clear that they were a garage rock band, they’d lean on the synthesizers or the keyboard and the music took a turn for pop. In the next song, the drums would introduce a reggae beat, or the guitars would riff off into heavy metal land. Then, out of nowhere, there would be a horn section (with members clad in the requisite dark sunglasses), taking the music back towards big band jazz. Even a flute made an appearance, adding an entirely new, softer dimension to a sound that by that point had become quite metal. These are instruments that are not utilized as much on the album and really threw the band’s sound in a different direction.

Whatever their sound, whatever they play, they play it well. What helps them stand out, though, is their casual and playful energy on stage. It felt like a big party (four band members, plus up to four guest musicians); like witnessing a jam session that happened to be catering to an audience. Whenever a part wasn’t in the fray, such as the trumpets or the saxophone, the musicians danced around on the side, singing along with the sultry voice of lead singer, Jessica Martins.

It is commonplace, and often helpful, to assign definitions to people or things, to put them in a box. But doing so can be extremely limiting and even destructive, especially when it comes to music or the arts. Well, Via Audio cannot be put into any one box, their sound is not easily labeled or defined. Whether this makes them a commodity or a confused lot is up for debate, but in the mean time, they put on quite an entertaining show.

(top photo courtesy of Via Audio's blog, bottom photo from the band's live show at the Lion's Den and courtesy of "The View from My Seat" blog)

Jukebox the Ghost!

There's a stage set up at the south end of Union Square, a semi-permanent fixture which exists for the Summer in the Square program. Passing by on a Thursday, New Yorkers and tourists alike may witness the stage playing host to all sorts of entertainment (as if there wasn't enough already in Union Square). From yoga classes led by local studios to dance shows for kids to rockin' concerts at cocktail hour, the stage breathes a diverse life into the corner of the park usually reserved for skateboarders or protests.

I happened to be passing by last Thursday night at aforementioned cocktail hour and there was a huge crowd gathered around, a song ringing out from the stage that I knew somehow and figured to be a cover, though I couldn't quite pin it down. As I got closer, I recognized the drummer on stage, in his typical black square framed sunglasses: Jesse Kristin from the band Jukebox the Ghost.

Let me explain the reasons for my ensuing excitement:
1. It was a hot day, there were too many people in a small area, but what a pleasant surprise to unexpectedly stumble upon one of the most talented bands playing the indie circuit right now.
2. Jukebox, a band out of Philly, seems to travel around the country more than many of their contemporaries, so to find them back in New York is a treat.
3. These guys are incredible musicians and word is still not entirely out. A gig in Union Square will most definitely warrant them much deserved attention and a whole slew of new fanatics.
4. Their poppy music and playful energy (particularly Ben Thornewill on piano and vocals, whose theatricality is irresistible) brings a smile to my face every time. Simply put, they make my day.

Although I only caught the end of their hour-long set (much to my chagrin), I left no less satisfied than after jamming along with them through their longest show. Once again, they made my day.

Jukebox will be back in Brooklyn August 20th at Studio B, and again October 2nd at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Don't wait to run into them in Union Square: do yourself a favor and go see them in concert.