I enjoyed getting to learn more about some talented folks this year via these written interviews. I hope you enjoyed them as well, and I hope you found some new music to enjoy. Below the picture is a review of the people we met this year.
with Baby Molly in Austin before the pandemic
Riley Hall - Bass player and singer in Snarls, a band from Columbus that you really should check out.
Jenee Halstead - Artist, singer-songwriter. She released an album called Disposable Love this year.
Baby Molly - Songwriter who recently moved from Toronto to Vancouver. You'll be hearing more from him soon.
Elyssa Vulpes - Italian songwriter who has moved to New Zealand since we did our interview.
Emmrose - Songwriter and artist from New York City.
Kyleen Downes - A music professional from right here in the Dayton area.
If you missed any of these interviews, or would like to re-familiarize yourself with any of these fine people, feel free to visit the links. Listen to their music, connect with them on social media, and if you find any of the songs particularly moving, maybe tell a friend?
Welcome to Concert Memories May! All of my Monday blog entries this month will be about memorable concerts.
This time we're going to party like it's 1999... well, because this show happened in 1999.
The third Local H album was Pack Up the Cats, and even though it was released in 1998, the band was still on tour to support it in 1999. Local H had a massive radio hit single from their previous album, and I had seen them before when they were on the road touring with that one. They opened for Stone Temple Pilots on an arena tour, and I caught them at the Nutter Center in Dayton. This show though, instead of being in an arena, was in a properly sized venue for a rock and roll show.
Normally at the Newport Music Hall, there is a crowd control barrier in front of the stage. This serves to give a space of a few feet between the crowd and the stage, and this space is populated with security staff and professional photographers for the more crowded shows. Immediately upon entering the big room for this particular show, my group and I noticed that the barrier was gone. Indeed, we could lean right up on the stage, giving the show a much more intimate feel. We were actually able to talk to the musicians during the show, as we were close enough to be heard. I swear that I could even feel the air being pushed by Joe Daniels' kick drum.
If you're not familiar with Pack Up the Cats, well, it's a concept album about playing in a rock and roll band. The band leaned into the album, opening the concert by playing the first 9 songs from it in order. For a group who wrote a self-deprecating song about not being a very good live act, they brought the frenetic, high-energy performance they were known for. These guys have been road warriors for years, both before AND after this date in 1999, going out and earning it night after night in town after town. In fact, Local H are still at it.
One of my favorite lyrics from the album - and from this show - is from the song "Hit the Skids"... . I'm in love with rock and roll / but that'll change eventually
I related to those lyrics when I was 22, and well, it hasn't changed yet... but maybe eventually.
Welcome to Concert Memories May! All of my Monday blog entries this month will be about memorable concerts.
Once upon a time, I was somewhat obsessed with The Cranberries. Not only did they have a tastefully named bassist, their Irish roots shone through the singer's voice, making them a new thing to me in the world of rock and roll. I mentioned this show briefly in a previous blog entry, as a background detail to a sad story. This show was enjoyable enough that it's a shame that I usually remember it that way first.
This happened at Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio... which isn't there anymore. There is a museum with that name on the site in Columbus, but that is not the concert hall where I went to this show. The venue had your classic concert hall seating, surely intended as a home for an orchestra. Our seats were in the balcony, way up high... in fact, I think we might have been in the very last row. (Give me a break on the details, this was a LONG time ago.) I attended this show with a group of good friends, some of whom are no longer with us, and some of whom I have lost touch with. That detail in itself is kind of a sad reminder of the passage of time.
At this time, The Cranberries were still touring in support of the No Need To Argue album, which brought them international stardom. With only two albums out at the time, we all knew every song, and as happens at shows like this, there was a great deal of singing along. We were all in for a surprise... they played one song twice.
Dolores told the audience at one point that they were shooting a music video for "Ridiculous Thoughts", and that they would need to play the song again. There was a wardrobe change involved for this. (The outfit was the pattern of the flag of the United States, and not, strangely enough, the flag of Ireland.) That's kind of cool... not only did we get to hear a very good song twice in the same night, the music video is a permanent memento of this specific concert. In case you have never seen the "Ridiculous Thoughts" video, here it is:
Here's another concert that, if it were a human being, would be of legal drinking age in the United States. In case you are wondering, yes, this makes me feel old. Here's how long ago this show was:
That's right, almost exactly 22 years ago. Also, I understand that inflation is totally a thing, so maybe I shouldn't gaze too terribly long in wonder at three bands for $15... but the Internet tells me that the value of that in today's dollars is $23.55, and that's still pretty great for a show of this quality.
The openers were a band from Missouri called Flick. I had never heard of them before. I loved them from the first ten seconds of their set, their sound was pretty much dead center on my musical interests at the time. After their set, I wandered on out to the lobby area to meet them... and that was difficult, because a LOT of people were doing the same thing. I made sure to speak to their bass player, whose name is Eve. This might not have been a good idea, because I had a couple of very large beers before the show and during their set... on an empty stomach... and this was just a few months after I was old enough to purchase alcohol, so I was a rather inexperienced imbiber... I remember not making any sense while trying to talk to Eve, and possibly slurring words just a touch. She was kind enough to sign my ticket stub as you see above. I didn't have another drop of alcohol the rest of the evening.
I don't remember if I bought the Flick CD that evening, or if I picked it up at Best Buy or something the following week. I still have that CD, and I still like these songs, even though I don't think I've ever met anyone else who has heard of this band.
Placebo were next. They were on tour in support of the Without You I'm Nothing album. I had already been playing that album, and if memory serves, I had gone out to get their previous album as well before the show. Shows where you know the songs are a different level of enjoyment. Placebo were outstanding. I'm glad I got the chance to see them on this tour... I had no idea they were going to have the level of success that they ended up having. After their set, I headed back down to the lobby to talk to them. It was impossible to get anywhere remotely near Brian Molko. As is my custom, I was sure to talk to the bass player, whose name is Stefan. I expressed how much I enjoyed their set and the album... he commented that he could see me rather clearly in the audience (I'm taller and blacker than most everyone at rock shows), and then tried flirting with me a little.
The headliners for this one were Stabbing Westward. They were still touring for Darkest Days. This band was my first significant exposure to "industrial" music, if you don't count Nine Inch Nails... but I had never considered going to check out NIN in concert.
Stabbing Westward brought fog machines and an interesting light show. I don't think I really "got" all of that extra stuff back then, I remember wondering why they didn't just bring the rock. These days, I think I am more understanding of some of the other artistic things that can come with the rock show. Also, there was certainly some kind of drum programming, loops, and/or synth happening with these songs, but I also didn't think very deeply about that at the time. I gave Wither Blister Burn & Peel and Darkest Days a cursory listen to go with this blog post... trying to remember what I liked about this band back then. Not all of the songs still hold up for me... also, the music is a great deal angrier than most of what I listen to these days. I clearly understand why 21 year old me dug this though.
This was definitely a memorable show, and I certainly got my $15 worth of value.
You might remember that Burst, the debut album from Columbus, Ohio's Snarls, was one of my favorite albums of 2020. Let me give you just a little background on how I discovered this band.
Snarls opened for Sleater-Kinney in fall 2019 at Newport Music Hall on High Street. Since the Southgate House down in Kentucky is no more, the Newport is my favorite concert venue. It's exactly the kind of place that I would love to play, and I've seen plenty of outstanding shows there. Sadly, there are plenty of people that don't pay attention to the opening act at rock shows, or don't even bother to arrive early enough to see them. That's not me, I'll gladly take all of the rock you'll give me at a concert, thank you very much. Snarls did not disappoint. They did seem a little nervous, but I think playing a legendary venue in one's hometown for the first time is a reasonable thing to get nervous about. The songs were good, the performance was good, and everyone in the band looked like they were enjoying themselves.
After the show, Misty and I headed to talk to the band and buy an album, but they didn't have one out yet. We got to meet three of the four band members. (We met everyone but Max, and I'd like to assure everyone that we are not biased against drummers.) So, I've been going to shows at this venue since before some of these kids were born. Misty and I are totally old enough to be their parents. Suffice it to say that we are neither cool nor interesting, so Chlo & Mick & Riley (alphabetically) didn't have any reason to be nice to us, but they were. Yeah, I'm not cool, but I am a musician, and they put up with me asking a couple of nerdy musician-type questions. They're lovely individuals... so consider it a bonus that they also made a solid record.
Usually, when bands do press, the lead singer and/or lead guitarist end up doing most of the interviews. For Snarls, that's Chlo and Mick. They are the most visible part of the band, while the rhythm section labors in relative obscurity to drive the bus. I mean no slight to the guitar players in this band (Mick actually did the artwork for my singles "Anecdote" and "Promise"), but I like to show special love to bass players.
After the picture, I amplify the voice of Riley Hall, who plays bass and sings in Snarls.
1. Let's hear the elevator pitch for your skill set and genre.
I don’t know if I have any technical musical skills but I guess my skills include creating music that is true to my heart. That happens to be alternative emo rock.
2. When did you start playing music? Why did you decide to play bass? Do you play any other instruments?
So the first time I picked up an acoustic guitar was when I was 10 years old and taught myself through grade school more as a hobby. I learned through YouTube tutorials of Taylor Swift songs (haha a simpler time). I picked up bass for a class in high school called band lab. The students formed bands and wrote songs the whole year. The band I was in was actually with Chlo and a different classmate from then named Austin. That was me and Chlo’s first live band experience and it was kind of spur of the moment that I decided to play bass. It’s funny actually I had never even touched a bass before but it came quite naturally since I had played guitar for about 6 years already. There was a time where I took piano lessons but that was only for about a year when I was 16 and I haven't practiced since.
3. What was the first album you can remember buying with your own money?
I’m not sure if this is considered my own money, but I did buy Taylor Swift’s album Fearless on iTunes with a Christmas gift card when I was like 11.
4. Tell me about the last concert you saw.
I went and saw CAAMP with my mom at legend valley back in October. It was a drive in concert so it was nice to have the luxury of live music while also being COVID conscious. A little breath of fresh air in this day and age.
5. What artists do you consider to be your biggest influences? A brief follow-up, making this a 2 for 1: Which bass players do you consider to be influences?
I love this question. There’s so many artists that I have admired over the years but there is a handful that stick out. John Mayer for one. I was 14 when I started diving into his music and really becoming inspired by him to expand my guitar skills. This is when I started learning his cool plucking and strumming technique like in “Stop This Train” and his cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”. I definitely immersed myself in my acoustic guitar and as I learned more I started to recognize and acknowledge my growth as a musician for the first time. It really started to click in my head that maybe I should be chasing my dreams, or rather that they weren't just “dreams”. I can’t say that I have ever payed attention to bass players specifically since I didn’t start playing until I was 16. Even still I have never viewed music like that. Looking for the best guitarist, drummer, bassist etc. I look for music that makes me feel. Music that reminds me that other people feel too.
6. The pandemic did not treat you all kindly. You had a tour cancelled right out from under you, and while I know you would have loved to go on the road because you love to play, it's also work, so that cost you financially as well. How are you personally dealing with this lengthy disruption?
Obviously it was very upsetting to first hear that all of our tours were cancelled but I never took it very personally just because I realized that it was all out of our control. I will say that I personally am very blessed, especially during lockdown, because I don’t pay rent (thanks mom!) and have very little monthly expenses. Given that, it has been really easy for me to just take everything day by day. There hasn't been any doubt thanks to all of our sweet fans that have been showing us so much love and support from the start of this whole mess. Also the Spotify recap thing was really comforting to see for Snarls and a really great reminder that we still have listeners from all around the world that are dying to see us play.
7. My favorite song on your band's album is "Burst", because, well, I'm also a bass player, and that should be obvious. A sneaky second is "Concrete", I enjoy your work in that one. What's your favorite song to play live and why?
Thank you! “Concrete” was one of the first more intricate bass lines that I wrote so I appreciate that coming from a fellow player! I think my favorite song to play live is “Walk in the Woods” just because of how energetic we can get with it. My favorite thing about playing live shows is seeing everyone dance and let loose while they listen to us and that's very easy to do with that song.
8. How do you intend to keep growing as a musician and writer?
I guess I just want to make sure that I continue to be as genuine to my emotions as possible. My biggest fear as a writer is making something just to stay relevant or to make money so pushing myself to make my music mean something in turn inspires me to discover everything that I possibly can about my own experience and emotions. I want to make sure what I express is real and not fabricated solely for the pleasure of others.
I strongly recommend the Snarls performance in Chicago at Audiotree. This is it:
You can find Snarls all over the Internet, and listen to their debut album over on their Bandcamp page. (Bandcamp Friday will resume in February, so if you are thinking of buying some Snarls merch, that would be a wonderful day to do so.)
I released an album in 2020, and of course, have listened to it way more than anyone else has. That's kind of how it works for songwriters, you spend so much time listening and critiquing your own art. I feel obligated to mention that release, because I'd really like you to listen to it if you haven't done so yet.
Curious about some of the other things I listened to in 2020? Be assured, I spent time with music that wasn't actually my own music, and there was certainly no shortage of albums released. Did you know that Pearl Jam put out an album this year? It's true. Guided By Voices put out three albums this year, because of course they did. Some artists who released albums I enjoyed this year are Lesley Barth (Big Time Baby), Lydia Loveless (Daughter), Nick Kizirnis (The Distance), and Local H (Lifers). However, here are my favorites, in no particular order, except for perhaps this first one:
HUM - Inlet
HUM dropped this on the world as a complete surprise. In unison, music blogs everywhere reviewed Inlet with collective awe and near-universal approval. If you’re a music fan who reads about music, and younger than my generation, I’m sure you didn’t understand it. "Why are there suddenly all of these articles about a band I’ve never heard of"? That’s what you surely asked yourself.
HUM hail from Champaign, Illinois, and had a moderate hit song on their third album in the 90s. From the first time I heard that song, I knew this was exactly the kind of band I would love to play in and the kind of band I would love to see. Riff-tastic. Layered. Like shoegaze, but with more driving drums, very subtle harmonies, and some separation in the guitars. A little bit like metal, but not quite as angry or as fast. (Let's take a moment to appreciate some things about that excellent song I linked to that would be generally be castigated today by people in the music business.... introduction of 33 seconds, complete sonic deviation from introduction to the body of the song, all of the instruments are real, the vocals are not pitch corrected, vocals not sitting right on top of the mix, almost two minutes go by before the chorus shows up, total run time is five minutes.)
HUM disappear for 22 years, then drop an album out of nowhere that sounds like they had never left. It is glorious, and is my favorite album of the year. The guitar tones and feel of the songs remind me of my youth, but the vocals are on occasion just a touch more prominent in the mix now than they were a couple of decades ago. There are still lyrics about space and relationships, and there is still all sorts of rock being brought to the table.
Favorite songs: “Waves”, “Step Into You”, “Cloud City”
Punch The Sun -Brevity
If you read my blog, you might remember that I’ve mentioned this album before, when I posted an interview with Shannon Söderlund. Well, here we are near the end of the year, and Brevity remains one of my favorite albums, and I have listened to it over and over and over again. That sweet 90s rock sound will probably always be a soft spot for me, and this album has plenty of it, but also plenty of vocal harmonies and clever lyrics. Go listen to it immediately, leave your ammunition in the junk drawer, and don’t be like Steve.
Favorite songs: “Ammunition", Hey Steve”, “11 Until 2”
I am pretty sure that everyone in Snarls is too young to remember anything about the 90s, but here again, the rock sound from that time period shows up on a 2020 album. These folks are fellow Ohioans, hailing from Columbus. They've had a good year... they've gotten plenty of press from the prestigious and coveted media outlets who we all wish were listening to our music, they signed to a record label, and they released Burst, their debut. Sure, the pandemic nixed their touring plans, and I'm sure that caused them to lose their collective marbles, but as soon as its possible, I think they'll head out on the road in search of world domination. I'd really love to put together a show and play with them in Dayton, but that is probably not enough profile for them.
The songs here are good. A lyric on the album that really resonates with me goes "twenty seems further than it ought to be", which I find to be amusing because there is no way this was written from my point of view. You'll be learning more about a specific member of this band later. (That is what they call "a tease".) For now, let's say that this is another album that lands squarely on some of my favorite sounds... two guitar attack, vocal harmonies, hooks aplenty.
Favorite songs: "Hair", "Concrete", "Burst"
Radkey -Green Room
I discovered this band early in 2020, via their 2019 album No Strange Cats. That’s an outstanding, punchy, punk-influenced bundle of rock. I remember checking the touring schedule to see if Radkey were going to make it to Ohio, and then… well, we all know what happened in the spring, and what that did to touring bands.
Radkey clearly got to work during the months of isolation, and dropped a new album this year. It picked up right where their previous one left off… I mean, check out this video for the lead single:
You’ll be nodding along to everything on this album, and the interpretation of a Bill Withers classic at the end is a nice cherry on top of a tasty rock and roll sundae.
Favorite Songs: “Two-Face”, “Judy”, “Stains”
TINO -Past Due
You know, in my youth, I listened to a lot more hip hop and rap than I do now. Don’t get me wrong, I still very much respect the art form, but as I get older, I find that this genre has stopped resonating with me. Well, TINO is here to bring it all back.
He grew up in Cleveland, but he calls Dayton home these days, and music in the Gem City is better off for it. You can learn more about him in an interview he did earlier on my blog. With TINO, you shall find high energy delivery, intelligent lyrics, and rhymes that you probably didn’t expect. There is plenty of truth spoken on this album, about the 1995 Cleveland Baseball Club (whatever happened to them at the end of the season?), and about the government.
This gentleman takes his art seriously, and he’s got more on the way. If you know of more hip hop like this, point me in that direction.
Favorite Songs: “95 Tribe”, “Gov’t”
The Lees of Memory -Moon Shot
John Davis does it again. You might remember him from previous bands, such as Superdrag, and previous blog entries, such as this one right here. Davis grabbed Brandon Fisher and Nick Slack, and dropped this album in July.
A funk song isn’t the sort of thing you would ever expect here, but you get one on the last song of the album. Other than that, this sounds like a natural continuation of the sounds we have gotten on this band’s first three albums.
If you don’t listen to the lyrics, you might think this is a happy album. It’s not, and really, given what most of us have collectively experienced this year, that’s not a surprise. The lyrics on the album express plenty of problems, but they also comment on something that many of us do to deal with it all. My favorite lyric on the record is from “Crocodile Tears”, and it goes: the radio might help when you feel blue / that’s what rock and roll’s supposed to do / records lift me up when I can’t move / that’s what rock and roll’s supposed to prove.
I thank NPR and their Tiny Desk series for introducing me to Lianne La Havas a few years ago. If you have a few minutes, I cannot strongly enough recommend her enthralling performance from 2015. Here it is:
Two of those songs are from her second album Blood, and the other one is from her debut Is Your Love Big Enough?... but that’s a good sample to show you what she is about as an artist. Lianne writes beautiful songs, and has a strong, otherworldly beautiful voice.
I find the song “Green Papaya” particularly interesting. There isn’t any percussion, so the guitar gives you the rhythm. If you’re thinking that’s the bass player’s job, well, the bass here is sparse, and serves as more of an accent that occasionally moves the feeling along, it’s not actually doing rhythm work. (I happen to very much LOVE what the bass is bringing here.) There is a time signature change at the chorus, but without a steady percussion instrument, I keep having a hard time finding the downbeat, and that really holds my interest.
Lianne has been covering “Weird Fishes” live with her band for years now, so it’s pretty cool to see it show up on this album, and a very interesting choice to cover. Here’s their official video of it, and something that keeps bringing me back to this is seeing the drummer start with the exact beat from the original song, and then change it. Lianne makes this song her own. Also, the a capella bit gives me chills.
Oceanator is the project name for one Elise Okusami… a band and a person from New York City. This is the Oceanator debut album, full of fuzzy guitars for body and catchy lead licks that you might end up humming. Right around the time of release, this album got all kinds of press from just about every corner of the world of online indie rock commentary. (Well, at least I noticed this in the corners of that world that I happen to visit.) I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t been said already by a ton of writers who are more professional than me. If you want more details, definitely go check out some reviews.
I’ll sum up this way: I dig this album.
Favorite songs: "Hide Away", "Walk With You", "The Sky Is Falling"
Sault -UNTITLED (Rise)
Sault released two albums this year. Many of their song lyrics directly reflect very relatable thoughts and feelings, and are expressed as direct observations or true-to-life quotes. For an example, they have a lyric that goes like this: don’t shoot, guns down racist policeman, don’t shoot, I’m innocent
That particular lyric isn’t on this album, it’s on the other one they released this year. Both of them are certainly worthy of your attention, but this is the one that makes my list of favorites from the year. The percussion sometimes sounds like it comes from some genre of EDM, whereas other times I get a very Afro-Caribbean feel from it. The music over the percussion is a mash-up of r & B, funk, soul, and gospel. I don’t even know what to call it… Up tempo soul? Disco revival? Maybe we should eschew categorization here and just say that many of the tracks here will make you want to move.
The bass groove on “I Just Want to Dance” is great, and I think I’ll spend some time learning that one for the fun of it. The bass on “The Beginning & the End” is also awesome, and I might mess around with that as well.
Favorite songs: “Free”, “You Know It Ain’t”, “Uncomfortable”
Phoebe Bridgers -Punisher
I didn't want to like this album. It has been written about everywhere, and Bridgers has been making so many appearances that I don't know if we can refer to her as "indie" anymore. Being ubiquitous makes you mainstream, doesn't it? She even got nominated for a Grammy this year. (An aside, her nomination is in the Best New Artist category, but she's not exactly a new artist. The lesson here, as always, is that the Grammys are clueless.) So yeah, I didn't want to like this album, and I didn't want to write about it, as I am not generally in the habit of listening to or writing about pop stars.
Here's the thing though... Punisher is every bit as good as people say it is. The pop sheen on the production is a bit much for me, but the songs are strong. Phoebe Bridgers is brilliant, and listening to her songs makes me want to work on my craft.
This show was a long time ago. How long ago? This long ago:
$12.50 for two bands on a national tour! I kind of miss the prices from back then.
The capitol of Ohio, Columbus, has changed quite a bit since 1999. The part of town where this establishment was located is the Brewery District. It used to be a very frequented part of town with bars and restaurants and such... then Columbus got a hockey team with a fancy new arena, and a new entertainment district sprouted forth around it. This spelled doom for many businesses in the Brewery District, and Ludlow's was one of these. Alas, it is no more. I remember it as a cozy place to see a show. Ugh, I miss cozy shows.
This particular night, both bands on the bill were from the state to the north. At some point in the evening, I struck up a conversation at the bar with a gentleman who turned out to be the bass player from Papa Vegas. Many of you have surely never heard of that band. They were excellent. As I write this blog post, I've revisited the album that they were touring to support at the time, called Hello Vertigo. I still have it on CD. The songs are still catchy, I still remember the words even though I haven't listened to these songs in at least a decade (!), and the album holds up.
The band whose name is on the ticket is The Verve Pipe. At the time, perhaps slightly to their chagrin, they had a massive radio/MTV hit single. I owned and loved their album Villians. For some reason, I don't have my copy of that CD anymore, which is a shame, because the version of the aforementioned massive hit song on my copy of the album is very different than the version that went to radio and MTV. I remember picking up that album pretty much immediately after hearing "Photograph". We did not know it at the time, but The Verve Pipe had another album on the way (The Verve Pipe), and they played a bunch of songs from it that were, of course, new to us. The ones that jumped out and grabbed me at this show were "Hero" and "La La"... "La La" remains my favorite song on the album. I will admit that I should have paid more attention to this album, which was their third... like Radiohead before them, they have a song on this album that is a reaction to their big radio hit.
Both bands were sufficiently entertaining that I was sure to catch them later that summer on the same tour. I saw a ton of shows around this time of my life, and not all of them were all that great in retrospect... but this one... I still have fond memories of this one.
If you are familiar with my musical tastes, you know that there is a very special place in my heart for Fountains Of Wayne. I listen to them and I think "this is what pop music is supposed to sound like"... plenty of hooks, vocal harmonies, solid songwriting. A bonus with them is many of their lyrics are clearly meant to be a little humorous. Back in the day, I don't think I associated Columbus, Ohio's rock band Go Robot Go with Fountains Of Wayne, but I really should have. I listen to a GRG song, and I think to myself "this is what pop music is supposed to sound like"... there are plenty of hooks, solid songwriting, and plenty of light lyrics. Let's talk about this band for a moment.
Something unique about Go Robot Go is their use of the vocoder. On many of their songs, the vocal harmonies are sung through the vocoder. The opening song to their album Convertible, called "see you on the radio", is a great example... Neal Havener's lead vocals are clean, and the harmony vocals sound robotic. Sometimes they would change it up and put the vocoder up front in the song. Have a listen to "shy (ee ii)" from the same album, and notice that the distorted vocals are there right at the beginning. Of course, the frequent use of a vocoder might seem like a gimmick if the band members weren't actually talented musicians and songwriters... but they are, so while the vocoder is heavily used, I never found it to be distracting.
Some two decades ago, GRG was gigging around the state fairly often, and they played a lot of shows in Dayton. I can think of at least three different Dayton venues at the time where I certainly saw them play, and if I think hard enough, I might come up with some more.
The last album of theirs that I am familiar with is Wait 3 Days... Then Attack! The cover looks something like this.
You might be thinking that the video game looks like it belongs in an arcade, and you'd be right.... they have a song on the album appropriately entitled "At The Arcade". (The high score spells YOU.) As an aside, it looks like there is some Arabic text on the video game, and I never noticed that before. I wonder if Neal and the boys would be willing to tell us what that means.
Sadly, I kind of lost touch with this band in the early 2000s. They released an album in 2007 called LIVE at the Zig Zag. I am pretty sure that's a self-referential allusion to "marmalade 99". There is also an album from 2014 called Good Vibes in Fashion Swimwear, and that one has a song about a certain intelligent cartoon lady in an orange sweater called "Ode to Velma in C Major".
I miss this band. I've taken the opportunity recently to dip back into their catalog, and I am falling in love with them all over again.
Grab some beer, grab some snacks, and discover Go Robot, Go... warning though, these songs will get stuck in your head.
Johnnyswim is the husband/wife team of Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano. I first discovered their music when they appeared on the Tiny Desk show on NPR. Shortly after, I bought their album, Diamonds. At the moment they are on tour in support of Moonlight, their newest album that came out this year. I love their sound, and loved the energy they showed in the aforementioned Tiny Desk show, so really wanted to catch them on this tour. Usually when I go see a show, I am familiar with the artist's entire catalog... in this case, I only knew one of their albums and I've heard a couple of singles from the latest one, so there was a great deal for me to discover.
I was surprised at how long the line was for entry to the show. Now, I am just about completely disconnected from the current musical zeitgeist ; other than the name of the occasional pop artist or rapper, I have no idea what is popular at the moment. In my circle of musicians, friends, acquaintances, and family, Johnnyswim is rather unknown, so I was unprepared for the size of the crowd. This is good, it reminds me that we need to step outside of our bubble every now and then... and also, these are musicians and songwriters who I respect, so it was nice to see that they are well supported.
Before I get into the music, let me discuss the visual aspect of the show. I don't know much of anything about fashion, but this group of musicians took the stage with a look that seemed to be a mix of old and new. See, the drummer, bassist/keyboardist/noise-maker, and guitarist who travel with Abner and Amanda were dressed in sharp three piece gray suits... white shirts, gray vest that buttoned up quite high. (Of course, the drummer dispensed with his jacket and vest and rolled his shirt sleeves up about three songs into the set.) This reminded me of pictures and video I had seen of Motown artists, where the band dressed in matching suits. As for Abner and Amanda, they were both striking dressed in white... Amanda in a simple and elegant shin-length dress with spaghetti straps, Abner in bright white pants (that looked like a fantastic target for wing sauce) and white shirt, topped off with a wide-brimmed hat. It seemed to me that white and gray were the colors they had chosen for their brand on this tour... and of course, I am not following them around the country, so I don't know if they are all dressed this way each night, but it wouldn't surprise me if that were the case.
To the songs. I really enjoy the songwriting from Abner and Amanda. Now, I must admit that I am not always a fan of their lyrics - although I think they are getting better at that - but I quite enjoy the music. It is a mix of influences from multiple genres... folk, soul, rock, blues, latin sounds. It features a great deal of male/female vocal harmony. You know the old adage that "you write what you know"? Johnnyswim are a textbook case, as the vast majority of their songs are about their love for each other or their relationship. (There was even a song where Abner serenaded his wife alone onstage, appropriately called "Amanda".) Abner spent most of the night playing acoustic guitar, while one of the gentleman in the back who tours with them filled in atmosphere or little lead licks with an electric guitar. There were a couple of occasions where Abner played what looked like a hollow body Gibson with one of those Bigsby whammy bars, getting a reverb heavy surf-rock sound. He tagged the intro to one song with the beginning to "Besame Mucho", and that one was played with an older-looking acoustic guitar that was not plugged into any amplification... they put a mic right in front of the guitar to pick it up... also, for that bit, the vocal microphone was a vintage-looking one of the style where the microphone is suspended inside a ring. As I am not a microphone expert, I don't have the name or model number, but I think this is one of those ribbon microphones they used to use on AM radio back in the day... indeed, whether due to the mic or the effect that their mixing folks added, an old AM radio sound is what his voice came out sounding like. I thought this was very cool, a bit more on this later.
Abner and Amanda have undeniably great chemistry, and this was on display often during the show, as they would share a microphone, forcing them to stand very close to each other.
This is clearly an experienced and savvy touring band. After the first two songs of the night, Abner whooped "O-H!" into the microphone... there is probably no easier way to ingratiate oneself with an audience in Columbus than to start that particular cheer. I counted at least three different styles of vocal microphones used during this show, possibly for different desired sounds on the songs.. also, Abner and Amanda were not static on stage, switching locations between stage left and stage right a few times, showing some fantastic stage presence, and not forgetting to acknowledge the folks up on the balcony. They had been to Ohio before, and Abner remarked on two different occasions how there were "only 26" people there to see them the first time they had come here, and how they certainly didn't take this big crowd for granted. In what is surely a memorable moment for many of the folks on the floor, after mentioning that they missed the intimacy of their previous visit and they wanted to get closer to the crowd, Abner and Amanda made their way to the center of the venue, accompanied by a couple of members of their crew, bringing the microphone along. Abner sang from here, at one point accepting a beer he was offered by someone in the crowd and taking some deep gulps, while Amanda gladly accepted mobile phones handed to her by audience members in order to take selfies or quick videos.
The crowd was enthusiastic, gleefully singing along to just about every song. Sadly, I could not participate in most of this shared experience, because as I mentioned earlier, I am only familiar with one album's worth of their songs. Johnnyswim were expecting a sing-along on some of their hooks, and even encouraged it at various points... on a couple of occasions, they seemed genuinely surprised that their lyrics were being sung back to them. (A brief aside: as a musician, I find it hard to even imagine how great it would feel to have a thousand people singing along to one of my songs. This no doubt makes the hard work of touring quite worth it.) Although the crowd was enthusiastic and supportive for the most part, there were a couple of moments that left me shaking my head. During some of the more quiet parts of the show, a great deal of random conversation could be heard. Most unfortunately, all of that conversation drowned out the "Besame Mucho" tag, at least the guitar part of it... to their credit, several folks in the crowd made an attempt to hush everyone up, but it was to no avail. Are you people not paying attention? Do you not see that this guitar is not amplified, and he's playing it directly into a microphone, and he's playing it quietly? This annoying moment made me miss the much better (albeit smaller) crowds we have at Yellow Cab in Dayton.
Two song encore, the first of which was "Take the World" from the Diamonds album, one of a number of pretty songs about their relationship. ("They don't make fairy tales sweeter than ours" is one of the lyrics.) On the album, this song has some subtle drums with brushes and some strings... for this performance, it was just Abner and Amanda and a guitar. After that, the gentlemen who back them up on tour came on down front for the last song. I didn't know this one, and the setlist hasn't been posted anywhere online yet... but it was clear that everyone was enjoying themselves.
If Johnnyswim visits your area, go see them. They know how to write a hook. Their songs are bigger and punchier live, trading some of the studio prettiness for a bigger sound to stand up to the size of the venues they are playing. (I noticed this most in the rhythm section.) Abner and Amanda are both beautiful singers and energetic performers. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the songs on Moonlight if you catch them this year, as they are playing most of the songs from that album on tour.