Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ryan Montbleau Band with Laura Tsaggaris

Iota Club & Cafe
Arlington, VA
November 24th, 2009

With Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday frenzy right around the corner, I decided to tone it down a bit tonight, settling for the very laid back, pseudo-coffeehouse confines of the Iota Club and Cafe for my weekly music fix. Iota offered the perfect setting for a chill evening, with Christmas lights strung around the stage and a crowd consisting of both music fans and folks who were there to just relax, have a bite to eat, and sip a glass of wine. I had no idea what to expect from the acts on tonight's bill since I'd never heard of either one of them, but they too would prove a perfect segue into a time for being thankful.

Laura Tsaggaris
One of the things I respect more than anything else from a musician is the ability to get in front of a crowd by him or herself with nothing but a guitar and sing his/her own songs...no covers. In my mind, it is truly an amazing thing to witness. Local girl Laura Tsaggaris did exactly that.

Sitting atop a barstool with her guitar balanced on one knee, the strap dangling needlessly to the side, Laura played a stripped down set of songs with a very folksy vibe. She would have fit perfectly into the early 90's heyday of the Lilith Fair Tour. Lending even more to the coffeehouse vibe, Laura took a moment to introduce each song to her audience, ensuring that we felt what she was feeling when she wrote them. With her soothing voice and admirable guitar playing, Laura Tsaggaris was the perfect opening act for this evening...emotional, heartfelt, and most of all...inspiring.

Ryan Montbleau Band
I enjoyed the Ryan Montbleau Band so much, that I'm thankful I stumbled into Iota tonight just so I can call myself a fan of theirs. Are you sensing the theme of this article yet? My honest to God, takeaway impression of these guys can be summed up with the following question...how in the hell were they only playing a small place like Iota? The Boston based band features Ryan on guitar and vocals, Matt Gianarros on bass guitar (and upright bass at times, how cool is that?), Jason Cohen on keyboards, Laurence Scudder on violin and the ever smiling James Cohen on drums (no seriously, this guy wore a grin throughout the entirety of the band's set).

This is going to sound weird, but listening to the Ryan Montbleau Band was like listening to Tracy Chapman fronting the Dave Matthews Band. However even that description doesn't do justice to the range of capabilities displayed by Montbleau and company as they stylistically dipped in and out of folk rock, blue grass, reggae and even jazz, all in a matter of just a few songs. During one particular song, I felt like I had stepped into some backroom lounge act, like I should be sitting at a table in the corner, smoking a cigar, sipping a glass of brandy and having an important conversation. Comparisons to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and even Otis Redding wouldn't be inaccurate...these guys are talented, I tell you.

Ryan was the perfect frontman, simultaneously being confidently witty and modestly humble. Sample exchange between him and the crowd after already thanking them profusely for coming out...Ryan: "I'm gonna continue to thank you all night"...someone in the crowd: "you're welcome"...Ryan: "thank you for saying you're welcome...now we're in a never ending spiral". He even performed a mini-solo set mid-show when the rest of the band left the stage, allowing Ryan to play a few songs on his own, just him and his guitar. See above for my thoughts on artists with that kind of talent and confidence.

The Ryan Montbleau Band has apparently played 41 cities in 52 nights. Ryan explained that when you're on tour, home keeps expanding. Being from Boston, when they first played in Buffalo, they thought "what the hell are we doing in Buffalo", but now when they get there they feel like they're almost home. He went on to explain that playing at Iota felt the same way...almost like home. Well Ryan, we're glad to have you my friend, and I for one will be back whenever you decide to visit your "home away from home" again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Baroness with Earthless and U.S. Christmas

Rock n’ Roll Hotel
Washington D.C.
November 18th, 2009

The Binge was at the Rock n' Roll Hotel this week, which is a very small, cozy venue in my favorite neighborhood in DC...the "up and coming" (which really means, keep to the beaten path or you may not make it home) Atlas District. The place is a freaky, little, hole-in-the-wall dive that doesn't hold much more than a couple of hundred people at best. And when I say freaky, I'm talking mannequins with steer skulls for heads, hanging from the ceiling freaky. So with that said, let's get to the business at hand.

U.S. Christmas
U.S. Christmas, hailing from a little town called Marion in my home state of North Carolina, was up first. The band literally crammed every square inch of the tiny R n' R Hotel stage as they consist of seven members! Lead by vocalist/guitarist Nate Hall, they played a psychedelic blend of stoner/sludge/doom rock. In addition to Hall, U.S. Christmas includes guitarists Matt Johnson and Chris Thomas, bassist Josh Holt, drummers B.J. Graves and Justin Whitlow and violinist Meghan Mulhearn. The dueling drummers, who quite literally blended together visually as if you were watching one drummer playing beside a mirror, provided a rhythm to the music that was heavier than all hell. And the subtle violin gave an eerie backdrop to the entire proceeding. Speaking of eerie, Hall had the skull of some mysterious, antlered animal hanging from his microphone stand, and to top it all off, he used it to hold his finger slide...weird! The band was nothing if not original, especially in a genre that has become oversaturated. Impressive.

San Diego's Earthless were second on the bill and although foreign to me, there appeared to be quite a contingent there to see these guys. Appearing to be the band's front man, Isaiah Mitchell, walked onstage, thanked the crowd for coming out and then pushed the microphone away from him and proceeded to create a wall of feedback that lasted for at least five minutes. I knew immediately that those would be the last words we would hear from Mitchell, and true to my inclination, Earthless turned out to be an instrumental act. The band also includes bassist Mike Eginton and drummer Mario Rubalcaba, whose kit had one of the biggest bass drums I've ever laid my eyes on.

Earthless basically played one 40-minute song with Mitchell soloing for what seemed like 95% of that time. Now listen, I get what these guys are about and I have nothing but respect for it. Talent-wise, they have it in spades. With that being said, their shtick got old. Kyuss used to do this type of thing back in the day, but they did it much better. The difference? They had a vocalist, John Garcia, who would exit the stage and allow the rest of the band to play for what seemed like forever, but his presence alone ensured that you never, ever got bored with the music. Earthless weren't able to keep my attention in the same way. Perhaps they should consider adding a vocalist to the mix, even if it's only to offer the occasional distraction from all that guitar wankery.

Baroness, from Savannah, Georgia, is the current torch bearer for stoner rock in my humble opinion. The band plays an amazing blend of slowed down, Clutch-like beard rock with a slight dose of Van Halen-esque guitar flare thrown in for good measure. Quite honestly, I could have listened to this shit all night long!

You would have been hard pressed to know the band was kicking off the tour in support of their latest opus "Blue Record" tonight, as they hit their stride immediately. Apparently these guys have ties to the DC area, having grown up in nearby Lexington, VA, which explains their decision to start the tour in DC (and explains vocalist/guitarist John Baizley’s tie to local bands Darkest Hour and Pig Destroyer, for whom he’s done album artwork in the past).

Baizley is quite the imposing figure, sporting a shaved head, a mighty beard and eyes that drill holes through the audience. When the vocalist screamed into the mic, the veins in his neck stood out so vividly, I thought they might explode…and those damn eyes, I tell you the man looked possessed! Baizley managed to command the stage, despite having nothing to say to the crowd throughout the first ¾ of the show. It wasn't until Baroness left for an encore that he addressed his audience, offering a sincere thanks and saying..."you allow us to do what we do".

Meanwhile, pig-tailed bassist Summer Welch was a maniac onstage, never losing the wicked smile that adorned his mug the entire night. And Peter Adams was equally as psychotic on the other side of the stage, handling lead guitar duty and playing off of Baizley’s rhythm guitar perfectly. Drummer Allen Blickle completed the picture, tying the whole thing up into a nice, neat package of southern-prog-swamp-metal bliss.

Speaking of pictures, behind the band was a backdrop with Baizley’s cover-art from “Blue Record”. This guy’s work really is worth a look, as he is an amazing artist. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and check out Baroness. Come for the music and stay for the art…just don’t get caught in the gaze of those eyes…

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lamb of God with Darkest Hour, Periphery and This or the Apocalypse

9:30 Club
Washington D.C
November 11th, 2009

This marks the first (and probably not the last) time since initiating this project that I’ll be reviewing a band more than once. Taking a break from their stint on the Metallica tour (see Metallica with Lamb of God and Gojira), Lamb of God made a pit stop in DC to play a show that had all the makings of a true homecoming. To commemorate the occasion, the boys from Richmond, VA tagged local favorites Darkest Hour as openers in addition to two other regional acts, Periphery from Bethesda, MD and This or the Apocalypse from Lancaster, PA.

This or the Apocalypse
Who knew that the land of the Amish could produce a solid metal band? I have to hand it to the guys in This or the Apocalypse, they have a good time onstage. I don't think any of the five members in the band stopped bouncing and hopping throughout the entirity of their half hour set. Playing standard metalcore, replete with non-stop breakdowns and harsh vocals, TOTA proved to be a perfect opener for the evening, if a bit unoriginal. When the band's vocalist said "I want to see the stupidest circle pit the 9:30 Club has ever seen", I thought...whoa fella, those are some big words considering the impressive list of acts who've played this joint in the past. But I'll give it to the kid, the ensuing mayhem that opened up on the floor was impressive to say the least. Apparently these guys are playing with Machine Head tomorrow night in Long Island, NY. They've obviously done enough to get onstage with some real heavy hitters, so it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. A solid opening act.

Periphery, featuring guitarists Misha Mansoor, Alex Bois and Jake Bowen (yes, that would be three guitars), bassist Tom Murphy, drummer Matt Halpern and vocalist Chris Barretto, would prove to be the surprise of the night. Hailing from DC suburbia (Bethesda, MD), the guys stormed the stage and acted as though they belonged in front of the near capacity 9:30 Club crowd. Sporting a very impressive afro, Barretto did his best angry guy/sensitive guy impression...you know, growling one minute and harmonizing the next. The style provided a nice change of pace and an interesting dynamic to the band's pummeling music. The vocals alone allowed Periphery to avoid the trap of monotony that can often accompany one trick pony metal bands who think the faster they play and the lower they growl, the better they sound.

The singer's choice in attire was a bit confusing however as he sported a t-shirt that read "New York Fucking City"...seemed an odd choice given the local nature of the show. Regardless, the band sounded phenomenal and in addition to This or the Apocalypse, I was extremely impressed with the lineup that Lamb of God had assembled for their evening in DC. On a side note, the pits continued to be a swirling mass of brutality during Periphery's set, a definite sign that the crowd was eager to bring the house down for the headliner.

Darkest Hour
Washington DC's Darkest Hour are, in my opinion, one of the most underrated and underappreciated metal bands on the planet. They helped to invent the aforementioned metalcore sound that has been popularized by bands like Killswitch Engage, All That Remains and As I Lay Dying. So with that said, I was extremely excited given that this was my first opportunity to see them live.

As much as I wanted to like them, I unfortunately found myself disappointed after watching Darkest Hour's set. Blame it on high expectations or the fact that they've been off the road for about three weeks (as was explained later by Lamb of God vocalist Randy Blythe when thanking Darkest Hour for opening), but something just didn't click for me. The band's songs all seemed to blend together without much to distinguish one from another (the exact thing I praised Periphery for avoiding).

The real highlights occurred when vocalist John Henry showed his humorous side (example: "Mosh so hard that somebody gets pregnant"...hahaha) or when he took a backseat and let guitarists Mike Carrigan and Mike Schleibaum step onto the risers at the front of the stage to play dualing guitar solos. Darkest Hour is rounded out by the rhythm section of bassist Paul Burnette and drummer Ryan Parrish who are solid, but didn't ease my feeling that something was missing. Still, Henry's sense of humor shined through as he leaned out over the front row of the crowd, threw his hair out of his face and asked "everyone here likes metal, I presume?"...very funny.

Perhaps the band would do well to take a few notes from their influences (one guitarist sported a Pantera shirt and the other a Down shirt) and slow it down a little bit. Part of my problem with Darkest Hour's set was that they seemed as though they were in a rush, like they needed to fit as many songs as possible into their 45 minute set. By the time they launched into "Doomsayer", their finale, I was ready for it to be over. As John Henry walked off the stage, he thanked everyone "for coming out to this show and supporting heavy fucking metal". You're very welcome John...but take a breather next time and give us a chance to enjoy it!

Lamb of God
"We are Lamb of God from Richmond fucking Virginia"...so said vocalist Randy Blythe as he and his band took the stage and rolled right into "Walk With Me in Hell". This is true grit heavy metal my friends, the kind that is not for the squeamish. As crazy as the DC crowd was for the three openers tonight, they reached another level when the headliners arrived, the floor turning into a swirl of humanity and the balcony a sea of fists and devil horns...a true sight to behold.

Blythe is a commanding heavy metal frontman. Not since Philip Anselmo (Pantera, Down, Superjoint Ritual, etc.) have I seen a guy who can work the stage and his audience in such an adept manner. The guy is a general out there and the audience are his troops. When he says to put your fists in the air, you do it and you do not ask questions.

Randy doesn't deny the true soldiers out there either as he makes sure to dedicate "Now You've Got Something To Die For" to the men and women of the armed services (something he did a few weeks ago at the Metallica gig as well). The singer continued by saying, those guys are "doing a dirty job in a shitty place...don't forget about them"...and then looked into the pit and screamed "this place is a warzone". Later, when guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler, bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler launched into "Laid to Rest", I looked down at the pit, saw an umbrella go flying through the air and had to admit that Blythe was right, this place is a warzone.

Lamb of God have apparently been on tour for about a year in support of their latest album "Wrath". Blythe mentioned that it has been great being on the road with Metallica, but that the "off-dates are a lot more fun where I can see all you motherfuckers"! Having just seen them in the arena environment, I have to admit, the band reaches a new level of energy and enthusiasm playing in a smaller venue in front of their own crowd. The place was truly alive.

Towards the end of the show, as the audience waited for the band to return for their second encore, the 9:30 Club was aglow with lighters (not cellphones!). Lamb of God returned to the stage to do a stunningly brutal rendition of their fan favorite "Black Label". When the smoke cleared, Randy looked out at the crowd and said "We are Lamb of God, we'll see you next time...Fugazi is up next" before dropping the mic to the floor (if you don't get that last quote, then do a little research on Ian MacKaye and the boys). A perfect coda to a night of local metal in DC's finest venue.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Chuck Redd Quartet

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – Millennium Stage
Washington, DC
November, 6 2009

The Binge was back at the Kennedy Center on Friday night for another of their amazing "Millennium Stage" performances (see Moch Pryderi). This time the focus was vibraphonist Chuck Redd’s jazz quartet in what was billed as "A Celebration of Dizzy and Duke". Now I’m no jazz enthusiast, although I do have a healthy respect for the genre, but even I know that tagline was referring to legends Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

If you’re not familiar with what a vibraphone is, then you’re not alone. I walked into the Kennedy Center having no idea what to expect. The instrument basically looks just like a xylophone, however a little research tells me that there are some significant differences between the two instruments. For one, the vibraphone uses aluminum bars instead of wood and each bar has a tube paired with it, which produces a ringing "vibrato" effect when struck. Another key difference is that the vibraphone has a sustain pedal, much like a piano, which can be depressed to hold the sound for a longer period of time.

Now, with that key bit of information out of the way, let’s talk about the actual performance. Chuck Redd and the boys strutted onstage decked out in matching suits, looking like they belonged in some smoky, back-room jazz club from the 1960’s. Along with Chuck on the vibraphone, which sat at the front and center of the stage, the quartet also consisted of James King on the upright bass, John Toomey playing a Steinway & Sons grand piano and drummer Nucleo Vega.

With only an hour to play, the band wasted no time getting down to business. Redd played his instrument as fiercely as a rock guitarist would play theirs, making that "ooh it hurts so good" face with each strike of his mallets. Meanwhile, King was all over his fretless bass, moving his fingers so fast that I found myself holding my breath waiting for him to lose his place in the complex, polyrhythmic songs. He even launched into a solo at one point, while Toomey and Vega subtly played in the background, Chuck standing to the side looking on and coolly snapping his fingers to the beat.

As I said previously, I’m not familiar with jazz music or with the greats that were being celebrated tonight, but I did manage to jot down a few of the tunes that The Chuck Redd Quartet played during the set. Chuck introduced Gillespie’s "And Then She Stopped" by explaining that it featured a calypso beat. The band also played Ellington’s "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" and Gillespie’s "A Night in Tunisia", the latter of which was opened with a stunning drum solo by Vega that Chuck introduced as an "African Battisti" performance.

Towards the end of the set, King and Vega left the stage and made room for an intense vibraphone/piano dual between Redd and Toomey. The two traded rhythms and runs back and forth, note for note until neither of them could resist breaking a smile, and when the rest of the quartet reemerged to finish the set, there wasn’t a person in the room who hadn’t joined them in smiling. When the band finished, they were met with a rousing ovation and chants for an encore. Having come from DC’s own Blues Alley jazz scene, I’m sure Chuck Redd isn’t accustomed to ending his evening at such an early hour. However, the band’s leader returned and regretfully informed us all that the Kennedy Center doesn’t allow them to play for more than an hour, but thanked us all so much for their enthusiasm. A classy ending to a classy evening…kudos Mr. Redd.