Playing the Grog Shop is sort of like taking the SAT: You're going somewhere all right; it's just a matter of where. Thursday night, Jason Falkner's rising star intersected with the once full-of-promise Brownie Mary.
Falkner, who has gained critical praise and a small following from his work, most notably with Jellyfish, is now a solo artist who dabbles in creative genius. While it takes quite a talent to play every instrument--something Falkner has done on two discs--how this pop songster would fare in an intimate live setting was uncertain. In what proved to be a perfect icebreaker, Falkner kicked out a few impromptu chords of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times." This set the pace for, as he said, "what we call a loose show."
Throughout his set, which was dominated by material from his latest disc, Can You Still Feel?, Falkner let his varied influences bleed through. His pop structures feature a similarity in integrity and style to Elvis Costello, while the material seems to be influenced by a melange of pop culture that transcends genres and eras. He possibly could be the Beck of pop music. The garage-rock "My Lucky Day," the groovy/jazzy "Eloquence," and the guitar-layered "Revelation" stood out as defining moments. Knowing he had captivated the decent-sized crowd, Falkner took advantage, using the melodramatic "Goodnight Sweet Night" to leave his fans cuddling in bliss.
It was only a year ago that Brownie Mary, with its guitar-driven, heart-drenched love songs, seemed poised to follow in the steps of No Doubt. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to be listening. Could it be the band's Pat Benatar Lite approach isn't working? Could it be their cliched content and basic rock sound lack any diversity? Could it be the end is in sight for Brownie Mary? Yes, yes, and maybe. Better find higher musical ground or they'll soon be playing in a garage, drinking Iron City, and remembering when they rocked Cleveland back in 1998.
When Keith Richards once addressed his advanced age by declaring
that, whenever somebody can do it better, they can have the gig, he knew it was his attitude more than anything keeping him on top. The same goes for Dick Dale. When you're ground zero for surf rock (and arguably punk), you have the option to switch to automatic pilot. Not the case Friday, as the 62-year-old rebel gave a performance that was more legitimate surf mastery than flashback beach party.
Not only did Dale not mail it in, he displayed the intensity that made him famous--shredding pick after pick on his Stratocaster's unbending 60-gauge cables and transmitting the clash at full volume. He played like a man who, although satisfied with his place in history, wanted some validation for the genre he created and the fans that supported it. "Wouldn't it be somethin' if we marched down to that stupid-ass Hall of Fame and put my ass in there?" laughed Dale, while stopping in the middle of the immortal "Misirlou." The cheer that followed gave him his answer.
Early in the set, Dale strayed far from the beach, playing a few too many covers ("Smoke on the Water") and packaging incomplete songs into sloppy medleys. He addressed anything from massage oils to the White House. It was all met with enthusiasm from the "Dick-Heads," and, throughout the uneven run, Dale's upside-down, backward style was dazzling.
The pace accelerated when the familiar triple blasts of "Rumble" (the third segment of an intriguing "California Sun/Hava Nagila" snack pack) surged out. From that point on, it was all swagger and power, as the trio cut through a collection of full-length surf classics, only slowing for a mock encore of "Peppermint Man." Dale's skittish medleys and game insights early on may not have been very memorable, but the lessons learned from that last blazing forty minutes of thick reverb and spiritual surf energy will be hard for anyone to forget.
Tri-C Metro Auditorium
The plush seats, heavy red curtains, and muggy atmosphere of the Tri-C Metro Auditorium invited a nice long sit--elbow on knee, chin in hand. Cuban dance band ACubanismo! faced such an audience at the Tri-C JazzFest. By final curtain, though, the band was entirely victorious.
The crowd spent the first set in repose. Aside from a few couples dancing in the wings, silhouetted against the orange glow of the exit signs, the capacity crowd maintained constant contact between rear and seat. This, despite the keening vocals, impromptu dance lessons, appeals from the band, and, most importantly, instantly endearing dance music. It was an appreciative crowd, but one that wasn't exactly sure how to appreciate the indefatigable Cubans.
That all changed when, at the start of the second set, a Tri-C emcee told the crowd that he'd promised the band a lively audience. It was the permission that the reluctant Cleveland crowd needed. ACubanismo! returned from the intermission with an even more energetic set, and the crowd awoke from their torpor. The space in front of the stage swelled with dancers, which was exactly how the band wanted it.
With its four-man horn section, together with bandleader Jesus Alemany's boiling lead trumpet, the group often flashed a lush big band sound. But as Alemany has mentioned, the focus of ACubanismo! is dance music. The horn line deferred to the real muscle of the group--the rhythm section. Multiple percussionists found reinforcement in bounding, bright bass, and piano ostinatos--a ceaseless foundation of beat.
The band also proved deft enough to cover dance band duties and still leave plenty of space for solos. Twin points of interest were the contrasting Alemany and pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. Alemany soloed with wit and flair, but always with the group sound in mind. Rodriguez, a pianist with more than modest aspirations, punctuated his appealingly idiosyncratic style with classical flourish, bright chord voicings, and keyboard pounding. Alemany was constantly pulling listeners back into the ACubanismo! sound. Rodriguez's playing stopped traffic.
The band's sound did get a little repetitive at times, but mostly, the Cubans succeeded in keeping the music fresh by shifting the instrumentation around an unstoppable rhythm. Alemany has boasted that one cannot help but dance at the sound of ACubanismo!, and his bandmates bore him out. By the end of the night, the Cubans turned the auditorium into a dance hall.