Category Archives: Reviews

The Congress, “The Game” Album Review

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The Congress, “The Game” Album Review

Published in the September 2016 Issue of Appalachian Jamwich

The Congress is a soulful, southern blues-rock band now based in Richmond, VA, after their move home from Colorado. The relocation, now nearly a year past, makes the lead track all the more significant- “Home Again” is a poignant, stripped down melody that showcases the vocal prowess of the band before anything else. Throughout the rest of the album, there are noticeable differences between Jonathan Meadows’ and Scott Lane’s signing, but on this track they are flawlessly one. “New Amsterdam” follows and is the first introduction to what the band can really do. They bust into a danceable verse almost instantly, but, quick not to give away too much, dial it back for stellar balance. The high-energy chorus is impossible not to move to, and the drum driven bridge takes listeners almost to another world. The third track takes a far more honky-tonk approach than when played live; “When I’ve Got The Time” features a slide guitar, broken-down music, slower and simpler than their rock ‘n’ roll take, and lead vocals that crackle and scoop like country singers are so known to do. “The Poison and the Antidote” is the newest (to this writer) song on the album; an epic ballad on love and loss, this song is most reflective of their lyrical ability to reach right into the soul of their listeners. The album’s title track is sixth, a staple of their live performance and perfect summary of who the band is; fun-loving southern boys just trying to make music that people will love. Besides Meadows and Lane, The Congress also features Chris Speasmaker on keys and Raph Katchinoff on drums (however the album was recorded with former drummer Mark Levy). Three other equally as quintessential “Congress” songs close the record, reinforcing their technical skill, outstanding talent, and classic song writing. The Congress will be touring the west coast before a run in Spain in November. Check their website for other upcoming dates near you.

Phish New Years Eve Review [Part 1]

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Better late than never?? Some may say that, but I say in the spirit of new tour dates coming really really soon (fingers crossed), let’s take a look back on New Years Eve and what it had to offer us. All pics taken by my crappy phone.

Phish New Years Run- 12/28-31/11 Madison Square Garden, NY, NY originally published on Oh Kee Pah!

(Part 1)

Well, I’m sure by now you’ve heard all the major complaints about Phish’s New Years Eve run. They didn’t jam nearly hard enough; there were some major flubs in critical parts by all members of the band; song selections were generally not the best they’ve done before and the openers were fairly deceiving, though I’m sure that wasn’t on purpose. But who can really say they had a lousy time? Among those who attended one show or all shows, I doubt many can say it sucked or wasn’t worth the money. It was; 99% of the time it will be, and this is coming from someone who spent $100 to get in half way through first set on the least-well played night. But it’s not about how much you paid, or when you got in, it’s about being there, with your phamily, celebrating the Phish, their music, and the exuberance it provides to all of us.

While I’m all about the way they play and how they jam, we are so overly critical sometimes that you have to ask, if you were going to hate on it, why did you come? Phish aren’t gods, they’re human, they have ups and downs, good days and bad days, and peaks of interest that may not necessarily have been with the band at that moment. Trey and Mike are busy with side projects, Page and Fish with their families- it’s no wonder that NYE2011 wasn’t the highlight of the year. But let’s look at the scene, and consider the whole experience before we judge how good or bad the run really was.

Night one, set one began with the first ever “Free” opener and while it didn’t knock anyone’s socks off, the energy in that round room was so good, nothing could bring it down. We got a nearly perfect “Glide,” the first one since MSG ‘09 and before that, it was Coventry, so you could feel the tension in the room, and hear Trey slice right through it with perfect riffs and excellent dynamics. They got “Possum” out of the way nice and early with a relatively hype version that got the crowd moving, but the set was starting to feel a little flat. “Cities” was too early but the first sign of funk to come; Mike gets plenty dirty, but I remember when the jam dropped out and lost its form, and it was hugely disappointing. They brought it back with an insanely funky “Contact,” even though Rolling Stone called it the worst song ever written. To close out the set, they delivered a tight but ordinary “Bathtub Gin” that made up for a lack-luster “Stash” earlier in the set.


“Birds of a Feather” second set opener was fun and appropriate, and drew the still reuniting crowd back in from set break. In a unique move, they delivered a serious “Carini” that got dark and deep and went into a well-received but pretty standard rendition of “Tweezer.” Everyone flipped at the sound of the first heady jam so early in the run, but to me it meant they weren’t holding out for anything particularly amazing. I raged it, had fun with crowd, and enjoyed the “My Friend, My Friend” that came after it. “Rock n Roll” was unfortunately weak, but the New Yorkers loved it, as did I, and finally “NICU” came along to save the set. It’s not that they played it particularly well, but it was perfect for the moment and caused a whirlwind of happiness around the venue. “Harry Hood” was nothing to write home about and a poor transition into an anti-climatic “Bug” set closer didn’t do anything to help it, but the 3-song encore was somewhat of a consolation prize; the “Tube” was a little surprising, and kicked into a high-energy, party starting “Rocky Top.” And even as predictable as the “Tweezer Reprise” was, it made my heart flutter in excitement for the next few nights.

Sometimes I like the audience recordings so you can hear what the crowd thinks and still hear the band pretty well, and the crowd was pretty pumped for a opener like “The Sloth” followed by a 15+ min “You Enjoy Myself.” This was another shocker, like “Tweezer” but at this point, we had to assume that the band wasn’t going to do anything we expected, and isn’t that always kind of the case? A little stumbling here and there throughout “YEM” didn’t crush it and they picked it up at the end for a killer ending jam. “The Moma Dance” into “Funky Bitch” (The Dancing Bitch?) got really good at points, with Mike taking serious lead and getting as funkadelic as the jam would allow. It dropped into a pretty good “Maze,” and I have to say that at this point I was heartily satisfied with what Phish was serving up so far.  “Roses Are Free” was a welcome cover for the arena as the crowd sung out every word, but it seemed like filler material at the time; it was really the “Halley’s > Antelope” combination that was a particularly wonderful moment in that incredible first set.

The choice to open second set with “Crosseyed> Simple> Lifeboy” was possibly one of their best all weekend, and, though they didn’t get into any serious jamming and had a few slip ups, especially during transitions, the following sequence of “Guyute,” “Mike’s> Chalkdust> Hydrogen> Weekapaug” was pretty stunning as it was happening. There was obvious difficultly getting in and out of CDT, but once they felt comfortable, it was ragin’ pretty hard, as was the crowd. Easily the most rowdy of all night, and probably the most musically strong, it seemed like no body in that building was still for the entirety of the show. And, well, a “Show of Life” closer is just that. No better, no worse; after such a dense and interesting set list, it was nice to sit, reflect, and take the time, so I didn’t mind it and they played it well. But- surprise!- it wasn’t a closer at all, and when the boys started into “Character Zero,” it felt a bit like a tacky add-on at the last minute, but we dug it. The “Loving Cup” was just filling enough to leave the building confident for the next two days of glorious Phishdom.

Yonder Mountain String Band in Ridgefield, CT 10-23-2011

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I always try my hardest to be objective about Yonder Mountain String Band shows, but the music they make never fails to make my heart flutter and in that way, it becomes difficult. And as long as that disclosure is out of the way, I hope that you can trust me when I say this was a great show. Set at the quaint and beautiful Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT, the band hardly filled the theater and walked out to polite clapping and seated rows.

Adam Aijala

They started with “Blue Collar Blues,” “At the End of the Day,” and “This Lonesome Heart,” a calm trio of songs that complimented their instrumental skill and voices, and introduced the idea of getting up and dancing a bit. By “If Loving You is Killing Me,” there were finally more people standing than sitting, and it seemed that YMSB was settled enough to make this a comfortable and intimate show. The set stayed fairly mellow, with the guys walking all over the stage to play with one another and coming right up to the front to interact with the mass gathering in the isles. “Natchez Whistles” into “What the Night Brings” brought the it to a close, echoing the roller coster of style from the whole set. Jeff Austin seemed to truly be feeling the “Natchez Whistles” and the band follow suit with beautiful harmonies and decadent chords. The set closer amped the crowd up for what was to come, as the name might imply, topping the first half of the evening with a perfectly bluegrass, energetic tune.

Jeff Austin

Yonder Mountain really got worked up for second set, opening with a banjo-driven, dirt-kickin’ “Jesus on the Mainline > Shenandoah Breakdown > Jesus on the Mainline” sandwich. They kept the energy high and were flowing seamlessly from super fast jaunts to slower melodies, like “Mother’s Only Son.” They took the opportunity here to get into a few nice jams and interplay back and forth between exciting solos, but it was “Bloody Mary Morning” that seemed to decide the remainer of the set. Loud cheers and hoe-down clapping could be heard in the usually tame theater, and the crowd seemed to call for more dance tunes. They boys sure delivered, starting the beginning of the end with a strong “Whipping Post” that the audience loved. Almost unrecognizable first, when the tempo picked up, people started wailing and jumping about, and YMSB were all smiles and laughs. Austin’s passion just seeps through his vocal chords and when they cover songs he loves, you can all but tell. It was especially moving when they went back into it after “Only a Northern Sun” to end the set.

Yonder Mountain String Band

The enthused crowd was not going to let that be the end of this special, personal show, so the band came back on for an encore even though their sound guy began unplugging everything. After an attempt at the microphone, Jeff said a word to the audience and, speaking of covers he loves, started strumming the chords of “They Love Each Other.” Whether it was for the people begging for it during the show, or because then genuinely felt like playing it, or maybe both, but they wobbled their way to the front of the stage and took real advantage of the theaters acoustics, no pun intended. He wailed out the first verse and when the chorus came around, the crowd couldn’t help but sing along. It turned into a big family carol and was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had with Yonder Mountain String Band.

Another review coming after the NYC show on Saturday!! Oh how I love fall tours in the northeast!

Sound Tribe Sector 9 at Best Buy Theater 10-22-2011

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Originally published on BandsThatJam.com 10/28/2011 <— click the link for photos by Nick Irving!

This past Saturday night, STS9 made a stop on their extensive fall tour to spend some time in New York City. They played at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater (formally the Nokia Theater) and the scene outside was just as busy as the rest of the Square. Fingers were up for the sold out show and even though police were present, the “lot” kids designated a corner for smoking and selling wraps adjacent to the venue.

Getting in was no problem, security was loose and the spacious theater is quite welcoming. DJ opener Polish Ambassador had over an hour before STS9’s set but unfortunately, he didn’t captivate many of the people who were already there and even the chaos by the Theater bars was more exciting. Some people retired to the seats in the upper section of Best Buy and were bobbing their heads to the standard, mixed dance beats, and a few were kindly supporting the DJ, probably more as placeholders for the main act.

When the lights went down and fog machines when on, “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails drifted through the PA and coaxed the band on stage. They started off a heavy set with some newer selections; appropriately, “Scheme” was the opener, which doubles as the first track on the new album, When the Dust Settles. They made their way somewhat statically to the peak of the set, “Inspire Strikes Back,” allowing the groove and excitement of that song to carry them back in time to fan favorites like “Arigato,” “Squares and Cubes,” and “Shock Doctrine.” The set ended on a high energy, free flowing vibe with the thumping closer, “What is Love.”

Set break was a wild rush to the cushioned seats or to line-up for the smoking section (yes, there was a line and it was huge). For the most part, people were impressed with the show thus far, though there were a handful of apparently long-time fans that thought it was poorly executed and did not appreciate the overzealous lights as attempt to make up for it, or for their lack of live painters and other on-stage side entertainment. Truthfully, the light show was a little more than usual, but the Best Buy Theater’s versatile space and extensive rig might have allowed for lighting director Saxton Waller to have a little more fun.

Second set’s opener, “Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist” was similar to first set’s in its slow, murky build to the steady drop beats that support a barely interesting melody. It’s what people didn’t love about Peaceblaster that the long-time fans at set break don’t like about Dust, and to follow “Hidden Hand…” with the new albums’ title track did not make either of them look good. “20-12” seemed to give a new spirit to the faded dance party, which the band did a good job of continually re-igniting until the explosive “Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature” closer. As one of the few STS9 songs that never fails to impress, “Nature” got anyone who had lost hope up and grooving and was easily the set’s savior.

Maybe to compensate, or maybe because they were on a roll, the “Circus” encore was similarly vibrant and moving, just what the crowd needed as a night-cap to a pretty decent show. Not their best, but certainly not their worst, STS9 impressed a large majority of the crowd, and did their best to please the fans who have stuck with them since the beginning, all the while showing off some fresher tunes and giving them room to grow as well.

EOTO at The Blockley Pourhouse, 10/15/2011

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You might think that Jason Hann and Michael Travis from String Cheese Incident are used to packed venues and scalped tickets, but with their small side project EOTO, they’re right back to humble beginnings at the local venue. Even after the performance at Electric Forest you would think that their show would be beyond sold out, but bands don’t typically blow up like that, and though they may have experienced fame with SCI, EOTO is no exception.

EOTO, forgive the quality, taken with a droid.

On Saturday night, after Philly favorites DAMN RIGHT! opened the show, the Blockley Pourhouse was slowly filling up with ravers and Dead heads alike, plus your average college party seekers, who definitely came to the right place. It’s these kind of bands that give local acts hope, and DAMN RIGHT!’s 3 part jamtronica dance music was the perfect compliment to EOTO’s style.  The young musicians seemed honored when Travis and Hann came on stage to start setting up their gear, and the house was more than ready for them.

Jason Hann

They started off on a fast note, immediately diving into their untz-ier material and setting an almost rave-like vibe for the night. Throughout the set, Jason’s beats stayed at a quick tempo and he treated the crowd to a lot of high hat action. Michael broke out his bass and dug into a few heavy lines, but it seemed like they were figuring out their sound and balance over the course of the set. Not so much between each other- they were smiling and their parts were flowing seamlessly- but in setting the sound levels and figuring out the space apparently took more time than usual.

Michael Travis, barefoot 🙂

True to form, the late crowd finally made their way to the Blockley by set break and had the building filled. Pleasantly, glows ticks and flashy toys did not overwhelm me, but their presence was noticed and I supposed may have been missed at an event like this. And, as soon as second set started, the sound was crisp and clear, unlike in the first set. EOTO went mellow to start back up, and everyone in the house seemed to love the smooth grooves they were getting into. Airy and spacey, the set reminded me of their original name, End Of Time Observatory- E.O.T.O..

EOTO

The set ended fairly abruptly- no encore, no lingering on stage, it was just over. The gorgeous visuals that danced behind Hann and Travis, the swooping lights, and the throbbing crowd simply ceased and that was that. Besides getting a coat stolen and one obvious incident of too many drugs, the scene was very positive and safe. The Blockley will see me again, and I will definitely be seeing EOTO again, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Hot Day at the Zoo, 10/14 Donegal Saloon, Kearny NJ

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Hot Day at the Zoo is a progressive bluegrass band, but Kearny, NJ and the Donegal Saloon are neither progressive nor bluegrass, yet somehow, the two make quite a match.

Just a stones throw outside New York City, Kearny is a fairly shady town that does a decent job covering up its sketchy scene with a cute main street. The Donegal Saloon is a hole in the wall bar, poorly marked and not particularly welcoming to newcomers- on the outside. Behind the dark, heavy door is an open room with an oval bar, and down-home faces filling the stools.  It was mostly an older crowd, and the crew I expected to see at a Hot Day show hadn’t made their appearance yet.

Then my eyes landed on a leather cowboy hat, a few flannel button ups, a pair of boots- clearly, the act I had come to see. If I didn’t already know HDatZ, it would have been painfully obvious then, even though the local folks matched their suburban style fairly well.  As the four men loaded their gear into the small back area and set up their “stage.”

The opening musician seemed like he was just messing around at first, but turned out to be thoroughly impressive and drew a large crowd. Just an acoustic guitar and a book of songs, the meager singer wailed out covers ranging from “They Love Each Other” (Grateful Dead) to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” (Otis Redding). He was energetic and soulful, a perfect way to introduce the electrified bluegrass.

Blurry as hell, but still Hot Day

Hot Day kicked off their set with a few high tempo selections, including a Carole King cover and their original “Sweet Baby (Boom Boom Boom).” They switched the line-up a little when mandolin player JT Lawrence stepped- or should I say, sat down- on a dobro-like lap guitar, which added a twangy, deep-southern vibe to their New England roots music. A few songs after all four Zoo-grassers got back on strings, the line-up switched again and guitarist Michael Dion switched to drums, a rhythmic part they don’t usually have. It was a great addition to their overall sound, but somewhat unnecessary in the over all performance; I found that the songs with drums we’re less exciting and I was missing Dion’s vocals and harmonica playing.

A short set break rejuvenated the thinning crowd and Hot Day riled people back up with a stellar cover of The Beatles’ “Get Back.” Second set was much more a dirt-kicker-upper in the way of song selection, and the boys kept it interesting with banjo-player Jon Cumming on dobro, but it was dramatically shorter than first set, even with the encore. Luckily, perhaps at the beckon of stand-up bass player Jed Rosen, they came back on about 15 minutes later and introduced their final song as a cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” They actually played Old Crow Medicine Show’s song “Wagon Wheel,” which I personally requested to Dion and which they haven’t played in over 5 years. A great show, well worth the trek out to dingy Kearny.

Excuse my terrible pictures, I took them with my phone and am no photographer.

All Sorts of Tour Announcements!

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PHISH PHINALLY ANNOUNCED THEIR NEW YEARS EVE RUN. Now I can move on in planning my winter. I am a dedicated Phishead at heart, but it’s only natural that I should want to see as much live music as possible and if I was going to have to pick another band to see on NYE, I might have been disappointed. Luckily, I’m not.

As was heavily speculated, Phish will return to Madison Square Garden for their 2011 holiday run, which concludes on New Years Eve. Including the first ever New Years Day show that closed the 2010 run, the band had played at MSG 19 times, and this year, will have played there on the very first and very last days of 2011. The first show at this incredible venue that took place on December 30, 1994, has gone down as legend in the Phishtory books.

I seriously recommend going here: http://phish.portals.musictoday.com/ and entering the Phish ticket lottery by Monday, October 24th at noon. When tickets go on sale to the general public on the 29th at noon, they will be much harder to get, but not impossible. Like the summer that has just flown by (definitely not ‘just’ any more), tickets for this run will be easier to get than last year but still a fight and still expensive. If you’re on a budget, consider buying the early nights’ ticket from a seller on the street to save money. As in the past few months, each ticket comes with a free download of that night’s show.

PHISH NEW YEAR’S RUN 2011-2012

12/28 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
12/29 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
12/30 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
12/31 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

The ever-touring Zach Deputy is back on the road to support the release of Another Day (check out my review here). Though the album is much more mellow and represents the laid back side of Zach, you will definitely find yourself a dance party if you hit any of these million shows coming up:

Oct. 11- Woodlands Tavern- Columbus, OH
Oct. 12- The Castle Theatre- Bloomington, IL
Oct. 13- Red Sky Lounge- Mankato, MN
Oct. 14- Cabooze- Minneapolis, MN
Oct. 15- The Aquarium- Fargo, ND
Oct. 18- The Zebra Cocktail Lounge- Bozeman, MT
Oct. 19- Top Hat Lounge- Missoula, MT
Oct. 20-Tractor Tavern- Seattle, WA
Oct. 21- Berbati’s Pan- Portland, OR
Oct. 22- Humboldt Brews- Arcata, CA
Oct. 25- Lost on Main- Chico, CA
Oct. 26- The Mint- Lost Angeles, CA
Oct. 27- Winstons- San Diego, CA
Oct. 28- Marilyn’s on K- Sacramento, CA
Oct. 29- The Independent- San Francisco, CA
Oct. 30- The Underground- Reno, NV
Oct. 30- Hangtown Halloween Ball- Placerville, CA
Nov. 2- Hodi’s Half Note- Fort Collins, CO
Nov. 3- Cervantes’ Other Side- Denver, CO
Nov. 5- Three20South- Breckenridge, CO
Nov. 7- College Bar- Stillwater, OK
Nov. 8- 2826 Arnetic- Dallas, TX
Nov. 9- The Den at Howlin’ Wolf- New Orleans, LA
Nov. 11- Nov 12- Bear Creek Music Festival- Live Oak, FL
Nov.  15- 5 Points Pub- Columbia, SC
Nov. 16- Ziggy’s- Winston Salem, NC
Nov. 17- The Orange Peel- Asheville, NC
Nov. 18- Work Play Theatre- Birmingham, AL
Nov. 19- Exit/In- Nashville, TN
Nov 21- Brooklyn Bowl- Brooklyn, NY
Nov 22- Toad’s Place- New Haven, CT
Nov 23- Mills Street Brews- Southbridge, MA
Nov 25-Nov 26- Rock and Roll Resort, Kerhonkson, NY
Nov 27- Appalachian Brewing Company, Harrisburg, PA
Nov 29- The Blind Pig, Ann Arbor, MI
Nov 30- Zanzabar, Louisville, KY
Dec 1- 123 Pleasant St, Morgantown, WV
Dec 2- Musica, Akron, OH
Dec 3- V Club, Huntington, WV
Dec 4- The Blind Tiger, Greensboro, NC
Dec 7- The Pour House Music Hall, Wilmington, NC
Dec 8- The Pour House- Charleston, SC
Dec 9- Sky City, Augusta, GA
Dec 10- Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, GA
Dec 29- Jack Rabbit’s, Jacksonville, FL
Dec 30- The Bond-Fire Art and Music Festival
Dec 31- The Coligny Theatre- Hilton Head Island, SC
Jan 9-14 2012- Jam Cruise 10- Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Feb 17- 19 2012- Jungle Jam Festival, Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

In one-man band news, Keller Williams is doing a No Kidding! show specifically for kids at The Brooklyn Bowl! Along with the release of his first album for children, appropriately titled Kids and the publishing of his children’s book, Because I Said So, Keller will be stopping in select cities to host this interactive kids performance. Featuring an opening drum circle and Meet and Greet with Keller after the show, it’s not just for kids in a Yo Gabba Gabba! kind of way… plus, he will be performing a night set for us folk at each of these venues the same night.

Saturday, October 22 – 9:30 Club, Washington, DC at 10:30 am
Saturday, November 19 – Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY at 10:30 am

Rubblebucket is doing a serious tour, as well, to promote Omega La La, which they were giving out for free download before it was released. For a taste, check out my DJ’d playlist, The Weekend Trip, or hit any of these intimate, affordable shows.

0/12 – Columbus, OH – The Basement w/ Brenda & Cuddle Magic
10/13 – Urbana, IL – The Canopy Club
10/14 – Chicago, IL – Double Door w/ Brenda & Cuddle Magic
10/15 – Grand Rapids, MI – Founders 
10/16 – Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall  Ballroom w/ Brenda & Cuddle Magic
10/17 – Iowa City, IA – Gabe’s Oasis 
10/18 – St. Louis, MO – The Old Rock House w/ Trombone Shorty
10/19 – The Bottleneck – Lawrence Kansas
10/21 – Denver, CO – Cervantes’ Other Side 
10/22 – Ft. Collins, CO – Hodi’s Half Note
10/23 – Aspen, CO – Belly Up
10/25 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Court 
10/27 – Seattle, WA – The Crocodile 
10/28 – Olympia, WA – The Eastside Club Tavern
10/29 – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios 
10/31 – Bend, OR – Century Center
11/01 – Arcata, CA – Humbolt Brews 
11/02 – Crystal Bay, NV – Crystal Bay Club Casino
11/03 – San Francisco, CA – Boom Boom Room 
11/04 – Los Angeles, CA – Bootleg Theater w/ Superhumanoids
11/05 – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar w/ Superhumanoids
11/06 – Flagstaff, AZ – Green Room w/ Superhumanoids
11/08 – Austin, TX – Beauty Bar 
11/09 – New Orleans, LA – House of Blues: The Parish 
11/10 – Mobile, AL – Alabama Music Box 
11/11 – Live Oak, FL – Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival
11/12 – Atlanta, GA – Drunken Unicorn
12/31 – Northampton, MA – Pearl Street Ballroom 

SUPER PHEST! From the Archives, 7/9/2011

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“I’ve got big balls,” sung Phish drummer Jon Fishman, “Some balls are held for charity, and some for fancy dresses, but when they’re held for pleasure, they’re the balls that I like best!” While I suppose there’s a slight chance he was referencing an engorged scrotum, what he was really talking about (in singing the AC/DC cover, “Big Balls”) was the Biggest Ball Ever, the jam band’s 9th festival since 1996.

SuperBall IX, Photo by Kirsten Sheahan

Not only was it their biggest festival ever, but it was the best planned and executed Phish festival to date right from the start. Clearly, the organizers had done this before and had learned from their mistakes. The first Phish festival, The Clifford Ball, set the bar for the modern-day super concerts we know and love. This goes not only for Phish’s festivals, but events like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza (though the alt-rock festival was conceived 5 years before the inaugural Phish festival, it was a touring event, like Warped Tour), Austin City Limits, and many others, take a hint from the Phish organization in ways to please the crowd: art installations, cooling tents, using local resources, even car-side camping all came from the one-band festival that preceded these giant concerts. The Clifford Ball (1996), The Great Went (1997), Lemonwheel (1998), Camp Oswego (unofficial festival, 1999), Big Cypress (1999), IT (2003)–these were events that defined what a music festival had become.

The Phish organization may have followed the footsteps of the Grateful Dead in their musical approach and marketing scheme, but planning and organizing these giant events was somewhat uncharted territory, especially in 1996 when all they had as an example was Woodstock (largely a failure) and day-long touring festivals. They wanted to create a completely unique fan experience, something you couldn’t get at any old concert or any regular camping trip. From the beginning, The band was fully immersed in the planning process. They helped the creative director and the engineers in figuring out what should go where and how, and in their earlier days, even helped build some of the structures. Without the efforts of the Phish organization, and without the compassion for phans that Phish truly had and acted on, we may not have today’s festival as know it.

Photo by Kirsten Sheahan

Super Ball IX was held at the historic Watkins Glen International Racecourse, site of 1973’s Summer Jam that featured The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. Unlike anything a Phish crowd is used to, the venue was fully prepared for the influx of jam band fanatics that started rolling in on Thursday morning. Even Wednesday night saw a line forming at the gates, and when the crowd thickened, they abided for safety purposes and started letting people in. Many had arrived early in hopes that Phish would pull a Grateful Dead-move and let the audience in for a full blown 2-hour set during sound check. (Alas, while the Thursday sound check would have been nice to hear, listeners had to stay outside the gates.)

Thursday night was a northeastern reunion, with phans finally coming together to make up for the disaster that was 2004’s Coventry. Billed as the last Phish show ever, the event was poorly planned, poorly managed, and even more poorly played. We may have been able to deal with the flood, the mud and the 15-mile hike to get in if anything else had worked out, but it didn’t and no phan was about to let that be their last east coast memory of Phish. So we all found ourselves back in northern New York, just an hour past Ithaca (just?!), and you could feel the excitement and joy as soon as you stepped onto the festival grounds. Well coordinated, mostly car-side camping areas were named after states Phish has never played in (North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Hawaii, and a phan-designated area called Puerto Rico) and overflow parking lots surrounded the racetrack, enabling festival city to be in the center of the huge arena.

As phans came trickling in on Friday, others took time to explore the ever-developing Americana theme on the festival grounds. Not only was there a ferris wheel, bocce ball and wiffle ball courts, an air-conditioned charging tent, and a plethora of vendors giving out information and ice cream (thank you, Ben and Jerry’s); there were also giant structures (a storage unit, a water mill, a factory-esq production line) to walk through and on. Each of these buildings was constantly changing, starting on Friday in a wooden, colonial style decoration. On Saturday, they were transformed to more industrial designs. Sunday’s incarnations represented the future, brought in by a secret, late-night, futuristic set Phish played from the storage unit in an area called “Ball Square.”

Phans were treated to balloon structures to play with, original art to look at, and the House of Live Phish, where you could download each set right after it happened, listen to and download past sets selected by archivist Kevin Shapiro. You could even single out each band member in the mix to create a totally unique listening experience.

Friday night saw the first two of seven (announced) sets, and yes, they were all Phish. Thirteen hours, 17 minutes, and 22 seconds (thanks for calculating, NY Times), all by one glorious band and gladly soaked up their loyal phans. The first sets put us at ease when we could tell that they had been practicing, were playing very well, and were feeling the vibe of this festival already. Set one saw bust-outs like Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” and a very rarely played “Mike’s Song> Simple> Bug.” Saturday was the big day for all of us, featuring a fully day-time set starting at 3 pm.

A phan-organized beach ball fight was the perfect supplement to the opening “Tube,” and while the next two sets of the day were both phenomenal and surprising, the real gem was the secret, unannounced set that started at 2 am Sunday morning. Spacey, wandering and barely following the melody of the “Sleeping Monkey” we know and love, the boys’ 4th set of the day met very mixed reviews. While some kids were ready to keep the party going and just wanted to dance to another regular set, some of us realized that Phish finally remembered how to jam and were blown away by the improvisational rock music blaring out of that storage unit. Sunday, too, was a day filled with amazing music, happy and safe concert-goers and finally a break in the heat with a little rain in the morning. Another thing most phans are not accustomed to is the weather holding out so nicely as it did this past Independence Day weekend. Besides the blaring heat for Saturday’s 3 pm set, it was easy to stay cool during the day and even got a little chilly at night. Perfect festival-ing weather, if you asked anyone there.

Overall, maybe not in numbers, but in everything else this was the biggest festival, the biggest ball of them all; it was a most super ball. Even if you’re not privy to the ways of Phish culture, even if you hate it and everything we stand for, it’s hard to ignore the roots of the music events standing in their legacy that are becoming ever wider spread, ever more popular and accessible. How can you ignore it anyway? A gathering of 30,000-plus people (that being the smallest festival in Phish’s history), dancing to genuine rock ‘n’ roll and celebrating the freedom to enjoy whatever we want, however we want? Even though in the Articles of Orientation packet they handed out at the entrance, it reminds attendees that “Independence is a theme, not a day.” Phish allows us to be as free and independent as we could possibly be. In the beginning of the festival, in fact after the second song, before he could even guess that the weekend would be such a success, Trey said “Thanks for coming to our party, everyone!”

No, boys, thank you.

Originally published on BreakThru Radio, 7/9/11

PRIMUS at Tower Theater, 10/1/11

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Primus, Saturday 10/1/11 Tower Theater, Upper Darby, PA

If you can say that you don’t know anything about Primus, at least you probably know that they are a strange band, these three wildly talented and creative individuals. You may not know Les Claypool and his unique take on bass driven music, his ability to transcend genres from funk to metal to jam, and his ear for the oddly fascinating. Leading the band since the mid-80’s, Claypool has gone through a number of changes in line-up for his primary project but with guitarist Larry ‘Ler’ LaLonde and drumming god Jay Lane, he seems to have gotten the sound just right.

Upper Darby, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, is not the friendliest neighborhood in PA, but on October 1, Primus fans, who are mostly white males about 18 to 35, came out in droves to see the long-anticipated return of one of the ‘90’s greatest hard rock bands. They were packed inside the historic looking venue, pressed against the golden-papered walls with their $8 micro-brews, and scurrying between the rows of seats to find their friends, a good viewing spot, or escape the usher.

The stage was set just the way Les has liked it since their triumphant return in 2009, with two massive, blow-up astronauts standing on either side of the stage, an old man floating in the helmet, looking around in a questioning way. They frame a large screen, which will show interesting, sometimes slightly disturbing scenes that change with each song.

When the lights go down and the blue fog starts to creep across the stage, Les, Ler, and Jay walk slowly to their spots and “To Defy the Laws of Tradition” begins to ring out. For a crowd that would normally jump all over each other to this song, the cushioned seats made them remarkably calm, even during a killer opening selections like this one. By the third song, their renowned “Frizzle Fry,” you could tell that the calmness of the audience was not impacting the band. They were playing as rowdy as we wanted to be, and “Fry” got people into the aisles where there was room to rock.

The imagery Claypool had chosen to accompany his songs during the first set seemed somewhat tame and didn’t distract too much from the music. For songs like “American Life,” he had repetitive subway shots, blips of a television, and more, but the film acted as more of a backdrop than a complimentary addition. “My Name is Mud” and the set closer, “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” were both so explosive and intense that I noticed the video more when it was turned off than when it was playing.

Set break brought a surge of smokers to the streets of Upper Darby and a chattery buzz about the next set. Rumor had gotten around that they would be playing the new album, Green Naugahyde, straight through and after about 20 minutes of anxious waiting, it appeared this was the case. “Prelude to a Crawl” welcomed the band back on stage, Les finally breaking out his classic pig mask. The astronauts were lit up green and the film on screen had become more relevant and creepy, for example during “Eyes of the Squirrel,” when they showed a mutated, two headed squirrel eerily floating in a marsh, very much watching us.

Though they played some of these tracks during summer performances, seeing them in order and filling one set was seeing them for the first time in a new light. I thought it was interesting that Claypool chose to take this route, and that no one in the crowd was displeased with the idea. You can often find an audience like this one at a jam band show, where playing even the same song two shows in a row is damn near blasphemous, never mind the same set all tour. With this band, however, and this tour, it was very welcome and quite awesome. (For my exact feeling on each of these songs, check out the album review.)

The most Primus-y videos came at the end, in my easily freaked-out opinion. We got an in depth look at the albums cover art, an old timey bicycling boy, fallen and decrepit, missing an eye. There was footage of a squirming baby, which was cute at first, but got weird and intimidatingly quirky. And the album was concluded before you could blink; even in listening to it now, it seems short and sweet, the way they wanted it.

In Claypoolian brilliance, he never let the music die between the “Salmon Men” closer and the encore. Kicking the last hurrah off with “Here Come the Bastards” and keeping the energy all the way through “Puddin’ Time” got the crowd response that he, LaLonde, and Lane truly deserve for their music. PRIMUS SUCKS!

Picture to come!

Primus, Green Naugahyde Review

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The 80’s and 90’s produced some of our times’ most interesting music, but nothing is as quirky and fascinating as Primus. The power trio is currently made up of Larry LaLonde, a student of guitar guru Joe Satriani, Jay Lane, and leader of the project, Les Claypool. Their most recent release, Green Naugahyde, is the first with this line-up and while Claypool has had a hard time keeping members in the band, it could be his incredibly advanced way of thinking about music that causes them to leave. Lane’s prowess, as one of the most talented drummers playing right now, combined with LaLonde’s technical ability and Claypool’s wildy creative and exciting style makes Primus one of the most accessible and remarkable live acts touring right now. Primus will be playing this album in its entirety during the second set of shows on this tour.

In a most creepy opening stunt, the first track of Primus’ new album, “Prelude to a Crawler,” is without the man himself, just LaLonde’s eerie, wandering, reverbed-out melody, but on the drop of the next track, “Hennepin Crawler,” we finally hear from Claypool. Pumping a bass that could shatter your rib cage, you almost miss his wild lyrics that serve more as a rhythm section than anything.

The third selection brings us the lighter side of Primus, which is certainly not light by any definition of the word. “Last Salmon Man” chronicles the life of a young farmer and brings us the first great guitar solo of the album. LaLonde also takes back-up vocals on this track, supporting Claypools quirky sound with his own somewhat melodic voice. And finally, we get to joke-y but dead ass serious Primus. The lyrics give the best picture of the feel of this song: “I like it, I really really like it, I think I’m gonna buy it, cuz I really really like it. Eternal consumption engine, here in the USA, eternal consumption engine, we really do like to spend our pay, eternal consumption engine… slingin’ down the slices of American Pie, eternal consumption engine, every time I get a little bit bored, eternal consumption engine, head to the wally-mart store.” Haunting, daunting, and true, with the repeated chorus “Everything’s made in China,” this song is probably the most lyrically stimulating while being musically fascinating at the same time.

Green Naugahyde Album Cover

“Tragedy’s a Comin’” (stream here) was the selected single off the album, and for obvious reasons. It’s radio friendly, not too overwhelmingly heavy, with classic Claypool riffs and enough guitar to make any arena go crazy. The lyrics also make some sense, but they don’t make so much of a statement that they could eliminate listeners.

Taking tempo down a notch, “Eyes of the Squirrel” sounds like a typical Primus song, making a small statement lyrically about American culture and reality TV. They fade into a gargly, drawn out ending that blends with the next track’s synthesized introduction, which builds to a cliff before dropping into LaLonde’s spiky guitar pit and being swallowed by Jay Lane’s erratic, but totally controlled drumming. “Jilly’s on Smack” is the first track that we don’t hear Claypool’s distinct vocals, and rather the focus is on his stand-up bass sound that smoothly undertones the wildness of the drums, until the bridge, when they start what sounds like jamming.

“Lee Van Cleef” delivers the classic dirty bass we all crave when listening to Primus and has the first and only mention of the album title. Similarly, “Moron TV” also best serves as a chance for Les to get muddy on his bass, and for him to attack (again) the lazy and lush American culture, especially with regards to watching TV.

“Green Ranger” is a wild and ghostly little jaunty asking, “Who wants to ride with the Green Ranger,” and again bringing back Claypools powerfully deep stand-up techniques. “HOINFODAMAN” is a skipable track, another critique on culture- this time, advertising, but together these two make a quirky interlude before the explosive closing number, appropriately titled “Extinction Burst.” Dense with sound, technically exciting and exploratory, this second-to-last track is creepy-crawly-funk-rock-metal song that you crave from Les Claypool and Primus.