Live Review: Coco ‘n’ the Fellas at the Bee Bop Café

Coco 'n' the Fellas at the Bee Bop Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Coco ‘n’ the Fellas

Bee Bop Café, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

June 29, 2017

I had been hoping to get to this club during my stay in Plovdiv this year. Several of my favorite jazz (or jazz-influenced) artists have performed here, so I knew to expect talent on the schedule. Obviously, I still checked out Coco ‘n’ the Fellas’ music before deciding to head out to the club, and I was duly impressed. Not just with the band, but with the club, as well. It has a comfortable vibe of its own, and I hope to return whenever I’m in town and find good music on the club’s calendar. Indeed, Plovdiv has a top-shelf jazz venue rivaling those of any major city.

Coco 'n' the Fellas at the Bee Bop Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

London-based Coco ‘n the Fellas consist of Ami Oprenova and “the Fellas”: electric guitarist Daniele Ciuffrida, acoustic guitarist Joe Perkins, and upright bassist Havard Tanner. The group’s sound is gypsy swing-influenced. As you may know, while I appreciate and enjoy good jazz music, and I think music fans spanning most genre preferences would recognize Coco ‘n’ the Fellas as an exceptionally talented ensemble, it’s not my area of greatest expertise, so you can (as I did) click through to see what Wikipedia has to say about gypsy swing if you’re so inclined.

The group performed two sets at the Bee Bop Café, delivering the sort of performance I’d expect in a ’50s or ’60s jazz club, a cool night out in a setting with an air of sophistication. The “fellas” were tight when supporting Ami’s vocals, loose and adventurous when called-for, and occasionally a bit playful in their instrumentation. “Coco” frequently became the fourth instrument, as is the case in many jazz performances, scatting along with or in response to one of her bandmates. Just as notably, once every few songs, she would hold a note impressively long, often matching a note-holding cohort. In all, an exceptional outfit, well-matched and up to their collective task.

Coco 'n' the Fellas at the Bee Bop Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

After a music-only opening, Ami joined the band on stage to begin the evening with “Honeysuckle Rose.” It was followed by an exceptional performance of Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song.” The performance was smooth, like something straight out of a ’70s love story movie soundtrack, perhaps from during a montage scene. This was one such instance in which precise light instrumentation was deployed in support of Ami’s smooth, full vocal, her voice dancing around the melody, never sitting still on it.

I loved the tempo of “After You’ve Gone,” a (gypsy) swinging tune that was notably driven in parts by the electric guitar. And “If I Didn’t Have You,” an oh-so-smooth song overall, is primarily bass-driven with each guitarist moving the song along in a different segment.

At this point, Coco ‘n’ the Fellas pleased the crowd with a jazzy version of a traditional Macedonian song, one of my favorite moments of the evening, as well.

Coco 'n' the Fellas at the Bee Bop Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Another highlight was “A Red, Red Rose,” a very torchy number, one of several that showcased Ami’s strong lower register, contrasting it with the dynamic higher end of her vocal range. Ami and Joe performed as a duo on “Cheek to Cheek,” an uptempo strummer that included some serious scatting. And the band without Ami delivered an instrumental, “Dark Eyes,” that seemed like it should, on at least some occasions, inspire some jazzy folk dancing.

The second set was an extension of the first, an enjoyable performance by this talented ensemble. Rather than repeat myself too much, I made note of just three songs from the second set. “A Child is Born” is about as smooth and mellow and this quartet gets. Coco ‘n’ the Fellas original “Not Enough Coffee” doesn’t contain many words, but it is high energy, I noted, as if the song itself was actually hyped up on too much coffee (in a fun way, of course). And I noticed great energy on the group’s performance of “King of the Swingers,” a recording of which you’ll actually find on YouTube from one of the band’s London shows last fall.

Looking Ahead

Per the “live” tab on band’s website, Coco ‘n’ the Fellas continue their European tour in Bulgaria and Italy before returning to London. However, the dates on the website are off by one (unless they’ve been corrected since I checked since the band is aware of it), so you’d be better served to rely on this Facebook photo, which lists the correct dates, though it’s a little incomplete. Tonight (June 30th), the group is at Menthol in Varna (though it may be too late by the time I’ve posted this for you to get to the show), tomorrow (July 1st) at the In the Jazz Bar in Stara Zagora, and Sunday, July 2nd at Jazz Club Studio 5 in Sofia. In a couple weeks, the group will have a few dates in Italy. And then they return to London, with a few shows booked through August. The band tells me they’ll be in Ireland later this year, too. Be sure to check the band’s website (and/or its Facebook page) or the venue websites for additional information. And, of course, double-check the dates.

 

Album Review: Lucid Fly – Building Castles in Air

Lucid Fly

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

Album Review of Lucid Fly: Building Castles in Air

Building Castles in Air is the fourth release from heavy progressive rockers Lucid Fly since 2005, but it’s the band’s first full-length release. Nikki Layne (vocals), Doug Mecca (guitarist), and Aaron Ficca (drums) combine their talents to create a powerful, weighty, brooding tour de force.

The album moves along at a slow tempo, as if weighed down by its heavy guitars and drums, carrying its power slowly and deliberately. Yet even with all of its weight, Lucid Fly finds the ability to soar, lifted at least in part by Nikki Layne’s rising, falling, soaring vocals, but also by the progressive nature of its instrumentation, able to reach exceptional heights without losing any strength and power.

Vocally, Nikki reminds me a lot of Rescue Aurora‘s Brittany Flynn. Though Lucid Fly is progressive heavy metal while now-defunct (and much less widely-known) Rescue Aurora was heavy alt-rock, the two bands’ penchant for powerfully deliberate tempos further amplifies their vocalists’ similarities.

Lucid Fly - Building Castles in Air

image courtesy of Head First Entertainment

Lucid Fly opens Building Castles in Air with “Billowy and Broken,” easing the listener into the band’s power with bits and pieces of unleashed fury displayed periodically, offset by an erstwhile mellowly soaring music bed and strong vocals, mixing softness with strength and power. By the end of the song, the shift has been made to power; a perfect entrée into the heavy progressive rock world that is Building Castles in Air.

Stylistically, this could easily be listened to as a mood-setting album, a work that creates a feeling, with individual songs being less important than the complete collection. It suggests the sort of band whose concert would be amazing simply because of an overriding sound, one that draws listeners in for that reason alone. Then, of course, after multiple listens, the songs begin to separate themselves, carve their individual identities, and favorites begin to emerge.

“Billowy and Broken” is one standout, and it’s followed by another, “Circles Into Squares,” with edgy vocals punctuating the powerfully atmospheric guitar line.

“No I in Voice” shares its power in a seemingly asymmetrical manner, as if the whole song is off-balance and about to topple over, atmospheric in parts, yielding to driving power via forceful drumming and a whirling, heavy guitar line. I never really quite groove along with the song, as it always seems a bit askew – very creatively interestingly so.

Lucid Fly

photo courtesy of Head First Entertainment

“Ribbons” would stand out by itself, but it serves the purpose of steadying the ship, as well, by immediately following “No I in Voice.” “Ribbons” hints at the same whirling guitar in spots, but it’s more of a straight-ahead, steadily-balanced, centered mid-tempo rock tune. One with pleasingly powerful vocals, occasionally soaring with the music, building in power and releasing during softer musical bridges.

Finally, the last song I’ll mention individually is “Next to Strange.” It has an incessantly driving rhythm with interestingly tempo-overriding vocals seeming to soar but actually just punctuating the song’s gentle intensity. This is, at least to me, quintessential progressive hard rock at its finest.

As a whole, Lucid Fly’s Building Castles in Air is an all-encompassing listen. It envelopes the listener with a slow but heavier-than-a-brick-wall progressive sound, as powerfully weighty as it is musically meanderingly progressive. Again, it almost seems odd to review the individual songs as the entire album is an entity, a terrific beginning-to-end listen. It also captures such power that I’m guessing Lucid Fly must most certainly deliver a blow-your-face-off live performance worth seeing… and feeling.

Album Review: Lindsey Luff – Lindsey Luff

Lindsey Luff

photo by Dustin Cohen; photo courtesy of Lindsey Luff

by James Morris, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Lindsey Luff: Lindsey Luff

This self-titled debut album from Lindsey Luff is hyper radio-friendly. I would go so far as to say it is an album full of singles. But there is so much more to this record than its glossy radio appeal. Get under the surface and you discover a deeper introspective worth. The singer has created an album to be proud of whilst candidly revealing a life of heartache and pain. These are raw emotions dressed up in such a well-presented musical package that it offers both passing radio play enjoyment and for the more discerning, a darker more rewarding experience.

“Music has been a really healing process for me,” says Lindsey. “I think this record is a story of the pain I’ve gone through in my life. It’s me processing that anger, and giving it a name and a face. It adds skin and bones to everything I’ve dealt with, and it makes it clear that those things don’t define me.”

Lindsey has an absorbing and plaintive voice; an intriguingly lazy drawl with a depth of world weariness. She puts it to good use in this revealing and beautifully concise 32-minute, 9-track album.

Lindsey Luff

cover design by Stephen Brayda; photo by Dustin Cohen; image courtesy of Lindsey Luff

There are some real standout moments here, plus a few tracks that happily grow on you. Opening track “Anything at All” is certainly a grower for me. After a few listens I found myself enjoying it more and more and liked the “Ticket to Ride” line which nicely referenced Lindsey’s childhood listening preferences.

Second song, “Until It’s True,” has a driving beat and bright sound that put me in mind of Fleetwood Mac and KT Tunstall, which also applies to the next track, “Remind Me,” which comes at you with a country pop kick and ultra catchy chorus. Could be my favourite track, but the more I listen, the more contenders there are. What a great dilemma to have.

“If You’re Leaving” starts slowly with a great drum groove (bit like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”), and I have to admit, although it highlights the sonic geek in me, I really enjoyed the drum sound on the album, especially the relaxed and airy bass drum. Musically the album is beautifully played and its level of understatement gives the songs lots of room to breathe. This is particularly prevalent in the next song, “Homecoming,” with its warm acoustic opening and delicate vocal.

Next up is “What I Wouldn’t Do.” There is something reminiscent in the intro of KD Lang. I could also imagine a later-life Roy Orbison singing this. Very solid stuff and, yet again, another very radio friendly track.

Lindsey Luff

photo by Dustin Cohen; photo courtesy of Lindsey Luff

Track 7, “Weathered,” has a wonderful 3/4 swing that works so well in creating a swaying folky vibe, underlined by a weaving Gaelic lilt.

Penultimate track is “Wishing Well,” a love song to Lindsey’s husband, longtime supporter and childhood sweetheart.

Final track “Those Days Are Gone” is a stripped-back affair, just voice and ukulele. It is a nice way to end, a moment of solitude that focuses you directly on the singer for a final thoughtful moment before enticing you to take another listen from the top.

The album was co-written with a small group of collaborators, including the Lone Bellow’s Brian Elmquist. A similar approach was taken in the recording, filling the studio with guests, including singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken.

I completely agree with Lindsey Luff’s own conclusion on the album where she states that the songs don’t overshadow the challenging circumstances that birthed them. This is well-constructed, classic songwriting that draws from the musical influences of her childhood. Classic pop-style melodies woven through an alt-country landscape. This is a musically polished work but with the rough edge of painful raw emotions left unchecked. In the wrong hands it could have sounded mawkish, but Lindsey’s painful lyrics are delivered so boldly and honestly that the experience is very real, engaging and highly listenable.

It has been a pleasure to discover Lindsey’s music through this album, which is available now for download and streaming. Discover more through her website, where you can keep an eye out for any live shows at www.lindseyluff.com.

Live Review: Pesky J. Nixon at Front Street Concerts

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Pesky J. Nixon

Front Street Concerts, Hopkinton, MA

June 17, 2017

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Before this evening, I had heard of Pesky J. Nixon, but I had never seen the band perform live.  A regionally touring folk band, Pesky J. Nixon plays locally occasionally, but they were just one of many top bands I hadn’t yet fit into my schedule. That changed last night.

Featuring two options for lead vocals, an accordion, and a mandolinist/fiddler, Pesky J. Nixon can cover a variety of musical real estate, centered on folk. The group shines when it features its immensely strong vocal harmonies. And its sense of humor, especially live. An evening with Pesky J. Nixon is a lighthearted affair featuring a cadre of top-shelf musicians.

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The band opened with its cover of “Look at Miss Ohio,” showcasing its great harmonies. The first set also featured a smooth folk groove on Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills,” great fiddling and harsh vocals on Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s That Sound,” and an energetic, groovy, and fun cover of “Easy Chair.”

The amazing Ansel Barnum joined the band for the final song of the opening set, the smooth, lilting original “Breathe in Autumn.” Ansel would play on the final three songs of the second set, as well.

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Second set highlights included a cover of Ryan Adams’ “Two,” steeped in the band’s exceptional musicianship and strong energy. And the following song, a cover of Jimmy Ryan’s “John Brown,” in which the accordion and drums drove the rhythm, harmonies and co-lead vocals added texture, and there was a mandolin solo. Indeed, this performance of “John Brown” ticked all the boxes of a great Pesky J. Nixon song, cover or original.

The cover of Jeffrey Foucault’s “Americans in Corduroys” was a more sentimental number, an easy song to just close your eyes and soak into.

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The return of Ansel Barnum closed the evening with three more crowd-pleasers. First, a Pesky J. Nixon original, “Anna Lee” dabbled in harmonies, accordion, and harmonica. No, I wouldn’t call it bluegrass, either; we’ll just say it’s bluegrass-inspired and leave it at that.

Next up was an energetic, fun, rollicking rendition of “Talk About Heaven,” a Tim Gearan tune on which Pesky J. Nixon brought its most intense energy of the evening.

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

And the “encore” was a real treat. A melancholy, nostalgic, wistful folk rendition of… “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Complete with singalong. Did I mention that sense of humor? Indeed, though mostly present in the between-song banter, clearly it also creeps into song selection. Truly, they did a heck of a job with it. And it drew to a close an exceptional evening of folk and folk-adjacent music from a talented band.

Pesky J. Nixon

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

Pesky J. Nixon lists four upcoming shows on the band’s events calendar, though I’d suggest checking back as more gigs are added. First, on June 25th, the band will perform with Miles to Dayton as part of the Sunday Street Acoustic Series at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, NY.  Next up, they’ll take part in the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival August 3rd-7th in Hillsdale, NY. On September 15th, they’ll be local again, joining the Durham County Poets at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA. And on September 23rd, you can catch them at Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-On-Hudson, NY.

Front Street Concerts has four more concerts currently scheduled this summer: Peter Mulvey on Thursday, July 13th; Andrea Gillis & Marc Pinansky on Saturday, July 29th; Danielle Miraglia on Saturday, August 12th; and Tim Gearan on Saturday, August 19th.

Live Review: Ibby at The Farmer’s Daughter

Ibby

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ibby

The Farmer’s Daughter, North Easton, MA

June 16, 2017

Tonight’s show was an album release party for Ibby’s new disc, Cross Your Heart. In the past several years, I’ve only been to one other hometown album release event at a venue filled with friends and family like this – TOS’ in Maynard last summer. Sure, I’ve been to album release concerts in the city, but this is a unique sort of event with its own energy, one where relatives, neighbors, coworkers past and present, and (especially for a recently-graduated 18-year-old like Ibby) school friends seem to comprise nearly the entire audience.

Ibby

photo by Geoff Wilbur

From the start, Ibby adorably, enthusiastically cheerful, fully enjoyed the spotlight and every moment – contagiously so, in fact; it’s clear this fearless singer-songwriter is completely at home performing.

Frequently, Ibby’s songs reminded me of other talented artists. Not in the entirety – which is to say, she has an original sound of her own – but elements of her songs recalled others for comparison. Unfortunately, I was rarely able to get beyond “what is the name of that song this reminds me of?” last night, so I’ll have to hope I can make more of those connections for you later this summer when I review the CD. Suffice it to say, Ibby’s songs will quickly feel familiar while remaining uniquely hers.

Ibby’s vocals are warm and rich with plenty of well-placed vocal cracks adding emotion and emphasis. Her strumming was steady and strong with varying patterns giving the songs unique textures. And, as I noted, her cheerful-yet-thoughtful, enthusiastic stage presence was cute and endearing. It’s a combination likely to win over any audience of music fans.

Ibby

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ibby’s music is pop singer-songwriter fare, occasionally veering into folk-pop, sometimes sporting a hint of country, written about and inspired by events in her life. It’s a glimpse at the ups and downs of a teenager’s world, if that teenager is as introspective and self/world-aware as a good, young songwriter must be. Musically, I’d expect to hear her music in coffeehouses, nightclubs, and festivals (and on the radio). And, as with any song-driven music, it should transition well between acoustic and full-band performances, as opportunities arise, obviously sounding more folky when it’s just a girl with her acoustic guitar.

She kicked the evening off with “Breathin’,” a song driven by its strumming pattern and featuring an emotionally scratchy vocal. The next song, slightly folky pop-rocker “How Did I End Up Missing You,” coupled insistent vocals with forceful strumming, mixing a cracking voice with a combination of other tuneful vocal elements to create a memorable, distinctive-yet-familiar sound.

Ibby

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Other songs stood out during the evening, as well. “88 Keys” deployed a heavier strum, building and getting louder during the song. “Pier 17” was performed in a pop-folk style with the energy of a “travelling song,” its tempo causing it to always seem to be going somewhere. And “Lightning Don’t Strike Twice” was rather soaring and exceptionally engaging.

“My Dear” deploys a steady tempo with vocals rising and falling to pull the listener in, utilizing the insistent, emotional wail Ibby places so well (and not infrequently) in her songwriting.

During her second set, Ibby dipped into her “back catalog” a bit, with a bit more country in the sound of songs like “Dance,” which I believe she said she wrote in 8th grade, a song she performed with infectious cheerfulness, clearly having a grand time and exuding joy while singing it. She followed it with another “old favorite,” “Worst I Ever Had,” and both of these songs had this room full of her old friends singing along throughout. Like I said, hometown album release parties are a different species of animal.

Ibby

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ibby also featured a couple new songs in the second set. One, whose title I didn’t catch, was a poignant song artistically using its words and sounds to paint a picture. The other, “Better Now,” sported an interesting rhythm and some ambitious vocal moves, including a little warble to draw attention to the bridge. This one, “Better Now,” may have legs for Ibby, as it’s catchy enough to become a singalong song by the end of the first listen.

Speaking of singalong, Ibby closed her second set with “Burnouts,” a fun “local favorite.” To that warble, Ibby adds a bit of a howl in this song, and on this particular night, with a venue singing along, she was completely emotionally and musically invested in this song; her energy only increased as the night wore on, buoyed by her own performance.

Ibby’s encore song, “Can’t Forget It,” was a sensitive, tender, touching, folky singer-songwriter piece. And then the evening ended, as the venue was closing, though the crowd would have stayed for another set.

It’s obvious Ibby isn’t a “developing talent.” She’s a developed talent whose future growth will be like that of any artist, as life events and continued maturity will provide different life experiences to write about and connected with, different viewpoints and thoughts to share. But she’s clearly “ready” now, creating engaging, emotional songs as a songwriter and performing them with infectious enthusiasm and skill.

Looking Ahead

Ibby performs again this afternoon at the Beverly Arts Festival – or she probably already has performed by now, as the All You Got Tour performers’ time slot was listed on this notice as 10:30-3:30. Follow Ibby’s Facebook page to see when and where she’ll perform next.

EP Review: Nate Jones – Testing the Waters

Nate Jones

photo by Jill Moninger; photo courtesy of Nate Jones

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Nate Jones: Testing the Waters

This EP represents a nice cross-section of what you would get at a live Nate Jones show. He is a Detroit area singer-songwriter cut from the same cloth as artists like Jason Mraz, early John Mayer, and, even, classic James Taylor. No doubt a take-off on the local indie brew pubs and taverns Jones plays on a regular basis, the disc sleeve bears the stamp: “100% Genuine Craft Music; Made in Michigan.”

Nate Jones - Testing the Waters

image courtesy of Nate Jones

The dream-like ballad “Autumn Road” opens the disc and sets a romantic scene, with a vivid aural portrait suitable for framing. He begins with solo acoustic guitar lightly arpeggiated as he softly sings of a fall stroll—crunching leaves under foot—where two lovers are lost in each other. This is a great place to start as Jones immediately grabs your attention, with his graceful and engaging vocal style.

“Blonde in the Ballroom” follows and has a lilting and entrancing waltz-like feel. Jones sings in a buoyant and wistful manner about dancing with the song’s dream girl. Bassist Barry Schigelone and drummer Dan Bourquin give it a light kick that recalls something Fairport Convention or Mumford & Sons might do.

“Smoke Filled Room” features a lyrical tale of a femme fatale, with a steady propulsive groove and Oscar Sosa’s flamenco-tinged lead guitar. The song is rooted in a minor key and is the perfect vehicle for Jones’ emotive and dramatic delivery.

Nate Jones

photo by Brandon Hawk; photo courtesy of Nate Jones

“Love is Not a Victimless Crime” explores the perspective of songsmith as the prey or victim in a relationship. In it he sings “I’m the victim, you’re the thief, you stole my heart right from beneath my feet.” With practically anyone else those words might come across somewhat forced or a cliché. But Jones has a knack for conveying sincerity and vulnerability that is convincing and totally for real. This also has a bubbly rhythmic hip-hop vibe that bops along in a catchy and free-spirited fashion.

Subtle social relevance enters into the mix here with the track “Good Morning Rome.” It is a sly and clever reference to the fall of ancient Rome at the hands of its own people. The song makes comparisons to American society and its common foibles and faults.  The tune has a very loose, yet steady beat where Jones spins his cautionary tale while Sosa turns up the heat via sizzling blues riffs.

The bonus track here ends the disc as it began, with a solo acoustic piece. “King of Hearts” has all the majesty and wordcraft of a Shakespearean tragedy blended with masterful and brilliantly executed guitar work. Again, Jones sells the song right up to the final plea where he cries to reclaim his queen.

Nate Jones is a diverse and personable musician that lays it on the line by wearing his musical heart on his sleeve. That sincerity comes through loud and clear, with production that is lean, open, and brings out the best in this refreshing and original young artist.

EP Review: Aüva – Side Effects

Aüva

photo courtesy of Aüva

Aüva formed in January 2015 while studying at Berklee and is comprised of Miette Hope, Jack Markwordt, Jake LeVine, Michael Piccoli, Andy Metzger and Austin Birdy.

EP Review of Aüva: Side Effects

Psychedelic, enveloping pop-rock music. Aüva unleashes three new numbers within its lush, full sound on this 3-song EP, Side Effects, a follow-up to the band’s eponymous 2016 full album release.

Aüva - Side Effects

cover art by Nathan Gorey; image courtesy of Aüva

EP-opener “Pretend” is based in ’80s New Wave, an engaging pop-rock journey that reminds me a bit of Modern English and its MTV-conquering New Wave brethren, but Aüva utilizes richer production to form a more plush wall of sound. “All I Need” slows things down and sounds a bit more ’70s-influenced, though it’s otherwise a very modern number, a current take on a lava lamp ballad. EP-ender “Glitter & Weed” is a more energetic psychedelic pop-rocker atop a music bed I’d call a “din” and supplemented with some ’80s-style synth.

I stumbled across Aüva’s music while traveling down a local music rabbithole a few weeks ago and was quickly impressed by the band’s unique sound. I’m not sure if I should be listening to it in the shag-carpeted back of a van or in a black-lit lounge sitting in a bean bag chair, maybe with a slowly turning, subtly lit disco ball overhead. Regardless, the band’s full sound and vocal interplay between its male and female vocalists create eminently listenable, stylish pop-rock.

I’ll be watching the “shows” page of Aüva’s website to see if I can catch them live somewhere soon. I’m guessing their music will translate exceptionally well to a live performance.

Album Review: Zucchero – Black Cat

Zucchero

photo by Ari Michelson; photo courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Zucchero: Black Cat (Polydor/Universal)

Many folks may not know the name Zucchero in the United States, but he’s something of a musical phenomenon in his native Italy. Born Andelmo Fornaciari, Zucchero is kind of a cultural bon vivant, able to hang with opera greats like Luciano Pavarotti and filmmaker Tinto Brass, tour with Miles Davis, and rub shoulders with everyone from Nelson Mandela to Dan Aykroyd.

Zucchero - Black Cat

image courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors

This latest effort finds the Italian blues and soul-inspired pop star taking that same approach and applying the star-studded celebrity concept to this powerful and charismatic collection of tunes. You know you’re on the right track and have set a good course when you’ve got Don Was, T-Bone Burnett, and Brendan O’Brien producing, and everyone from Bono, Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello helping out in the composition and playing departments.

This is a very interesting album in that many of the songs have a very rough-and-ready American raw blues and rock edge to them. But, contrary to a lot of other cultural crossover projects of this nature, the leader chooses to sing much of the album in his native Italian. This, of course, gives things a very cosmopolitan flavor and a very unique and somewhat provincial perspective. Zucchero has a powerful, almost operatic, voice and he really sells these songs in the process.

Zucchero

photo by Ari Michelson; photo courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors

“Partigiano  Reggiano” opens the album, with the phrase “Black cat, my bone.” Forgive the fact that you may not speak Italian, but the feel and intent is one of a bluesy romp, with a New Orleans groove and kickin’ horn chart. One doesn’t have to be fluent in the language to get the gist and energy of the tune that Zucchero conveys.

Another strong showing is “Ti Voglio Sposare.” It features more of a hard rock format, with a memorable chorus and a nice mix of Dobro and acoustic guitar elements.

The song “Streets of Surrender (S.O.S.)” is significant for its blend of Zucchero’s music with lyrics by U2’s Bono. The Italian crooner sings in English with a cadence and tone not unlike Joe Cocker or Gary Brooker of Procul Harum. The addition of strings makes this a real highlight.

Zucchero

photo by Ari Michelson; photo courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors

“Hey Lord” blends Italian and English in a seamless, yet, unusual mix of blues and gospel.

“Turn the World Down” is a tune penned by Elvis Costello that finds Zucchero delivering a hearty ballad with a strong message of hope, pause and reflection. In it he sings, “Get the word out, let the globe spin. Save everyone and everything. Turn the world down.”

There are over a dozen songs here, and each one features contributions from some of the top session musicians on the planet such as drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Nathan East and select National and Dobro guitar spotlights from Knopfler. Zucchero’s organ and pianowork on many of the tracks adds a choral and light classical feel to much of the album as well.

Zucchero

photo by Meeno; photo courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors

This is, perhaps, Zucchero’s most Americana-sounding release to date. The Italian pop star was inspired by America’s Afro-diasporic musics. Apparently he discovered in a lot of African American communities that the “black cat” was a symbol of good luck. “I decided to give this name to the album because, more than the others, it is a black album, with its roots in Afro-American music,” explains Zucchero. “The sounds are rough and rotten and anarchistic—cats are not as domesticated as dogs. I loved the sound of the words ‘black cat,’ and I felt it was in tune with the album.”

Looking Ahead

Zucchero is concluded the American portion of the tour earlier this spring, but he has dates throughout Europe steadily through September, with a South American tour scheduled for October. Check the “Black Cat World Tour” page of his website for details.

Album Review: Mike Sponza – Ergo Sum

Album Review of Mike Sponza: Ergo Sum

Blues music based on ancient poetry and recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Seriously, for those reasons alone, this would be worth a few listens. But the performers are also top talents, the songs are engaging and well-arranged. And if you didn’t know anything about the works referenced, you might never know the inspiration for this music. You’d simply consider it very interesting, entertaining, original blues. An ambitious, original project from Italian bluesman Mike Sponza, Ergo Sum is a musically-artistic success.

Mike Sponza - Ergo Sum

image courtesy of Frank Roszak Promotions

The disc kicks off with “Modus in Rebus,” a song that’s basically one great big blues hook. Crunchy guitar and a gravelly, insistent blues growl power this catchy number. It’s followed by “Carpe Diem,” which launches with an energetic travellin’ guitar line and a restrained, hoarse vocal; it’s a song you’d play during a road trip or that you’d expect to see during an energetic movie montage scene. Matel Kuzel contributes some well-placed saxophone wail. “Carpe diem. Baby.”

“Penelope” changes the album’s tempo a bit. It’s a slower-paced, emotional, blues jam-flavored number punctuated by vocal fits. It’s followed by “The Thin Line,” Mike Sponza’s collaboration with Dana Gillespie – it’s the only song not co-written with Ian Siegal – that suits Dana’s much smoother vocal delivery, also featuring a psychedelic blues organ sound not found earlier in the collection, augmented by well-placed horns.

Mike Sponza

photo courtesy of Frank Roszak Promotions

The disc continues, exploring different blues styles as it works its way through more ancient poets. “See How the Man” is horn and groove-driven. “Poor Boy” is more of a romping swing. “Kiss Me” is a musically thumping and grinding, steadily-paced blues romp. And “Prisoner of Jealousy” closes the disc with a soulful ballad full of raw, heartwrenched emotion.

In sum, Ergo Sum is an ambitious effort, exceptionally well-executed by a cadre of talented purveyors of the blues. And if critiqued simply as a blues album, it’s an exceptional disc that touches all manner of subgenres and styles of the blues in an enjoyable fashion. In other words, it’s a success all fronts.

Looking Ahead

Per Mike’s website, he has some gigs around Europe this summer. Check back to his website to see if more shows are added, but at the moment his schedule is: June 23rd (Cittadella dei Giovani) in Aosta, Italy; June 24th (Blues Festival) in Correze, France; June 29th (Lent festival) in Maribor, Slovenia; July 7th in Parma, Italy; July 20th (SWR Festival) in Mainz, Germany; July 21st (Haus Am Walde) in Schwachhausen, Germany; August 4th (Blues Nacht) in Meppen, Germany; August 7th (Kastav Blues Festival) in Kastav, Croatia; August 25th (Rock Cafe) in Pula, Croatia; September 8th (Topos) in Leverkusen, Germany; and September 9th (Bischofsmühle) in Hildesheim, Germany.

I also hear there’s another Mike Sponza album in the works, so I look forward to that, as well.

 

Live Review: Chris Moreno at the Hard Rock Cafe

Chris Moreno

Chris Moreno; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Holographics, Heavy America, and Chris Moreno

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, MA

June 9, 2017

There were five bands on the Friday night bill at the Hard Rock Cafe – The Holographics, Heavy America, Chris Moreno, Miele, and The Cosmonautz. I had to leave around 11:00, so I only caught the first three. Of course, I was there specifically to see Chris Moreno, whose album I reviewed a few months ago. This was the first time I had made it to one of his live gigs.

The Holographics

The Holographics; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Holographics

The evening was kicked off by The Holographics, a young band from Providence. The band began its set with a style best described as alt-rock with a spacey synth line. Musically, the band’s alt-rock vocals were often buried in a wall of sound. The vocals were consistently no more prominent than any instrument, clearly by design, providing The Holographics’ signature sound. The band’s current single, “An Hour Ahead,” was a little more jangly with lighter instrumentation – a fun song and a good choice for a single.

Other influences emerged as the set progressed. One song in particular showed the group’s ability to drive a song with a blues groove.

The back half of set was decidedly more guitar-heavy than the first – wall of sound yielding to wall of axe – though you could still hear the synth in mix, of course. One song, “In My Head” (maybe; I didn’t get the official song titles) sported a bit of funky rhythm and both classic and alt rock guitar riffs for the band’s most lively, energetic turn of the night.

The Holographics closed with a song with easier-to-spot spacey synth work again, almost as if tying the end of the set to the beginning, though there was still plenty of both classic and alt rock guitar – they seem to enjoy mixing those guitar sounds within a song. The last song was also a bit on the progressive end of the band’s musical scale, almost “Aqualung”-ish in style. A talented young band, The Holographics provided an enjoyable first set.

Heavy America

Heavy America seriously cranked up the volume with its set. Also “wall of axe,” but Heavy America’s were louder, more aggressive axes. This was the album release show for the band’s new disc Now, which has been out for about a month, so the band opted to play its entire new album as its performance on this night; it’s cool when bands do that for album release shows.

Heavy America

Heavy America; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Heavy America’s music is rooted in straight-ahead, blues-based classic rock, but this power trio mixes in some tempo-changing finesse and seemingly a little funk to spice up the heavy guitar foundation. This is an aspect of its musical stew Heavy America shares with fellow Bostonians Aerosmith and Extreme. But Heavy America is clearly heavier, more musically caustic, adding a harsher element to its rock mix, whether from punk, alt-rock, or the rawer corners of metal; likely a mix of all of the above.

Throughout the set (and, obviously, the album), the band varied its songs within its core musical style, which was fully embodied by its first single from Now, “Pray For Me” – straight-ahead hard rock with nary a glimmer of light but still with some finesse. With variations on that theme, that does seem to be their style. Some of the songs drifted a bit into a more old-school classic rock direction that I couldn’t really verbalize until was struck by it in the second-to-last song of the set, “Heavy Eyes.” Pink Floyd. I swear I hear a bit of Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd, most prominently in heavy eyes. Or at least something resembling it.

In the end, Heavy America delivered an energy-filled set of consistently loud and frequently edgy rock and roll well-suited to entertaining a club full of hard rock fans across multiple sub-genres.

Chris Moreno

Chris Moreno; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Chris Moreno

I specifically targeted a “full band” show on Chris’ calendar rather than an acoustic one because I wanted to hear his songs in all their electric glory, though he performs the sort of song-driven rock music that would translate readily to an acoustic setting, so I really couldn’t go wrong. On this night, Chris was joined onstage by bandmates Eric Garibaldi (guitar), Rod McCarthy (drums), Dave Brideau (bass), and, for three songs, saxophonist Hannah Moverman. Stylistically, Chris’ music is very similar to Matchbox 20, with elements of other bands in that catchy pop-rock neighborhood, rooted in song-driven rock and roll with a classic rock core, catchy hooks, and tunefully straining, emotional vocals.

Most of the songs Chris performed tonight were from his Into the Sun album. He kicked things off with one of my favorites from that disc, “All I Need.” It mixes a driving rhythm, catchy hook, and that little bit of emotional grit in the vocal that can make a song irresistible.

Chris followed that up with a heavier rockin’ edge on “Don’t Let Me Down,” before the band was joined onstage by Hannah for three songs, beginning with “Turn the Page,” again sporting Chris’ trademark hit radio-ready sound driven by hooks and emotional vocals. This song, in particular, reminds me of an old New Jersey band I loved back in the ’90s, Outcry, whose melodic college rock was one minor stroke of luck away from national recognition.

Chris Moreno

Chris Moreno; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Next up was “Reach for Me,” a song that softened the energy a bit thanks to Chris’ switch to acoustic guitar for this number. This is the song from Into the Sun that is most imbued with a Counting Crows vibe. And the sax, here in particular, added an extra coolness to this song. It’s a wonder more rock bands don’t perform with a saxophonist on stage; it adds a depth to some song segments and punctuates others.

After that, Chris slowed things down a little with the more melancholy-sounding “Try,” which was followed by a very cool cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” faster-paced that the original and with a smoother vocal. It’s smoother by comparison, anyway, as Chris’ voice usually embraces that hint of strained gravel, but “Fast Car” even had moments that showcased his vocal ability to hit some big, clean notes, something he doesn’t do particularly often.

Next up was a new song, “That Song,” a trademark Chris Moreno tune that creatively departed from the norm a bit in spots, with some interesting rhythms and guitar riffs adding a welcome, unique, different texture.

Chris Moreno

Chris Moreno; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Next-to-last was another personal favorite, “Finally Free,” as I particularly enjoy the way the song seems to coil and release. Late in the song, Eric Garibaldi delivered a stellar guitar solo to move the song along toward its end. This one’s also extra-cool because of the way Chris’ vocal moves around the melody a bit more than usual.

The band closed the night with “Closer To You,” a catchy crowd favorite, featuring a little extra texture in Chris’ vocal and more frantic strumming at the end. Great way to end the set.

Indeed, I wasn’t surprised by the caliber of Chris Moreno’s (and his band’s) performance. I had heard and loved the album, so I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. I look forward to catching another of his gigs when I get a chance, and I’d urge you to, as well. This dude writes catchy songs every bit as good – and just as catchy – as the best of mainstream pop-rock radio, and he surrounds himself with talented musicians.

Looking Ahead

The events page on The Holographics’ Facebook page shows a June 26th gig at Dusk in Providence, RI.

The gigs page on Heavy America’s website lists a show tonight, June 10, at the Carousel Lounge in Salisbury, MA.

And the shows page on Chris Moreno’s website is currently empty, but check back for shows to be added.