52 Shows: SHOW #6 – …And the Sky Was Red, Jay Sullivan, PAS Musique at Mobius

MobiusShow number six was Sunday, February 22 at a venue I had heard of prior to my receiving an invitation to this show – a place called Mobius. The facts that (A) There was a venue I hadn’t heard of in town after playing here for nearly a decade and (B) It was walking distance from my house, (Norfolk Street, a block from Central Square) were mind-blowing to me.

Surely, it must be new, right? NOPE. Mobius has apparently been around since 1977, though it has changed locations a couple of times. It’s not exactly a venue, so much as it is a presentation center. It is, by its own mission statement (http://www.mobius.org/content/about-mobius), “a non-profit, artist-run organization, whose mission is to generate, shape and test experimental art.”

Finding the building was oddly challenging. It is extremely modest and the only non-residential structure on the block. Thankfully, my friend Jonah (cellist of The Steve Walther Orchestra, among other acts) caught me wandering around like a fool outside and guided me in. The room is extremely small – I was told it was previously an office for a small realty firm.

MobiusThe were three rows of seats with an aisle down the middle, with three seats on each side of the aisle. On the right hand side as you enter is the ticket desk and the donation bin, on the left is the standing-room-only space, giving the room of capacity of just under 20 people. As I entered, I was asked if I’d match the suggested donation of ten dollars and assured that, could I not afford it, I would be happily welcomed notwithstanding. Cool. I paid it.

I arrived at 7:55pm for an 8pm start time and the show was off and running by 8:11. Each of the three performances were not ‘sets’, like I was used to. They were performances. The three acts (…And the Sky Was Red, Jay Sullivan and PAS Musique) all featured instruments I’d never seen before or, more accurately, devicees I’ve never seen used as instruments before. There were modular analog synthesizers, distressed vinyl turntables, carnival trumpets and loop pedals…and that was just the stuff that I recognized.

There were 17 people in the room when the show started and 15 when it ended. During that time, the audience was intensely focused on what was going on on-stage – amazing considering a great deal of what was happening was like watching electricians work. Wires were re-routed, loops were set, knobs were twisted…not your typical show to be sure. But it was fascinatingly new. The crowd was VERY into it. The dynamics of the show shifted so intensely that the songs fluctuated down to a barely-audible hum, but the crowd stayed silent. The music and crowd became so quiet at one point that I could hear the crinkle of nylon from the natural breathing cadence of a patron wearing a windbreaker. I don’t think I could enjoy this type of show all of the time, but goddamn if it wasn’t cool on this night.

MobiusWorth noting, there was no food or beverage being served, but they had no problem with me bringing in a coffee. I asked if I had thought to bring a flask if they would have cared – they indicated that they would not have cared at all.

Before the final act of the night, the door attendant gave a brief and well-received soliloquy about Mobius‘ purpose and mission statement. The show halted at 10, which was probably about as long as the audience could have tolerated, but it was fascinating nonetheless.

So, experimental art at Mobius – a great find if you want something new and you want to see something you have not seen before. If you want to dance, or “rock out” – maybe not your thing. But I’m extremely glad I went and I will go again for sure.

– Mick Greenwood

52 Shows: SHOW #4 – Wally’s Cafe

Wally's CafeSo, after the first three shows of patrolling my ‘comfort zone’, show number four of 2014 found me headed to Wally’s Cafe – a family-owned jazz club that’s been open since 1947 over at the intersection of Mass Ave and Columbus.

Jazz isn’t my thing. At least I don’t think it is. The drummer of one of my bands tells me that this because I, to quote him, “suck at music and have shitty taste in everything” – an argument that has merit – but, I just really have never had any education into what it is and why I should appreciate it. This wasn’t going to be the night for that, though. I brought my girlfriend with me and we went on the Sunday night before President’s Day – a night which, it turns out, was far more funk than jazz.

Their website listed the band name as “Wally’s Stepchildren 3” and the start time as 9 pm. We showed up at 9:45 and walked inside to an empty stage. My first reaction – the room is extremely small. That can’t be underscored enough. It is EXTREMELY small. It can’t be more than 60 feet from the door to the back of the stage and there can’t be more than 10 feet between the bar (on the right-hand side as you enter) and the wall on the left-hand side.

Given that we were 45 minutes late for the show, I was concerned that the holiday had rendered the show void. But, there were 35 people in the room and only 6 empty chairs. Worth noting: it felt PACKED with 35 people in it. I grabbed a couple of Lagunitas from the bar and we grabbed two of the remaining chairs and sat down.

At 9:56, the first person carrying an instrument walked in. Bandmates proceeded to trickle in over the next 60 minutes. Given the 9pm start time, I was modestly irritated; however, it was clear that I was the only one irritated. Most people there seemed to have been there before and this was pretty clearly par for the course, so I ordered myself another drink and resolved to chill the fuck out. The jukebox fluctuated from The Clash (which I loved) to Kanye (which my girlfriend loved) and ultimately to Sam Cooke (which we both loved).

Wally's Cafe SignAt 10:51, the show finally began and it was pretty electric. The room swelled to just over 50 people, a capacity so large that it prevented us from getting up and getting new drinks or going to the bathroom – something that would have basically required us to cut through the middle of the stage area. To me this was an issue because I spent a long time in my youth playing at a SHITTY fucking bar where the patrons literally had to walk through the center of the “stage” to get to the bathroom. It sucked. A lot.

The band was great and the frontman was better. According to the website, they’re in permanent residency on Sunday nights. Reader take note – if you want a sure thing, find a permanent residency. Clubs don’t give those things out unless they work EVERY time. The club and the artist get comfortable with each other and then some really fun stuff starts to happen. It was clear from the first note of their set, these guys wore Wally‘s like their favorite shirt.

The crowd seemed equally comfortable – paying rapt attention to every note and dancing, hooting, responding to every cue. You know that awesome feeling when you go see a band like U2 and Bono puts his hand in the air and everyone in the arena puts theirs up too? Would you believe it’s honestly better in a small room – where you can see the faces of every other person doing it with you? It’s better because you feel like you’re in on a secret. This type of thing happens every night in your city, you just have to know where to look. It’s intoxicating.

That said, there were a couple of super drunk townies who (based on the conversation I overheard) were from Lynnfield that danced their way to the front. After dry-humping in front of the band for a couple of songs, the girl started asking the keyboard player if she either could sing with them or if they would play their requests. He graciously declined. Then they both became belligerent towards the band. The ENTIRE crowd turned on them and they left minutes later. Good shit, Wally‘s.

PERFORMER SIDEBAR: If you go to a show and approach the performers asking to be included in anyway, FUCK YOU and FUCK YOU HARD. Chances are the person on stage has spent hundreds of hours refining their performance. The last thing they should have to do is cede the spotlight to you because “like, guy I fahkin play the shit outta Tohm Petty, dood”. If you were ever this person, you suck. Know that everyone thinks so and know that it will NEVER get you laid.

Anywayyyyyy….around 11:30, the room opened up a tad, dropping back down to 35. I seized the opportunity to grab another round, asking for a scotch this time. The bartender – who was extremely friendly – poured me one and realized that he had poured another of the same brand erroneously earlier in the evening. He commented on the fact that he appreciated both that I’d tipped well and that he hadn’t seen me before and gave me the other free of charge. Good shit, bartender. Good shit.

Come midnight, the place filled back up to 50+ – a clear indicator that the club has its own built-in regulars. We caught a few more songs, but my reluctance to approach the stage to use the restroom came home to roost. So, around 12:35, we decided to hit the road. I feel like I didn’t get the ‘genuine’ Wally‘s experience (given that it wasn’t pure jazz), so I will go back.

But, if I want a place to enjoy reasonably priced drinks and flawlessly executed music in an environment built to crave it – I’ll go back to Wally‘s. As I mentioned twice before – good shit.

– Mick Greenwood

52 Shows: SHOW #3 – Mad Satta, Somerville Symphony Orkestar and The Step Kids at The Middle East (Upstairs)

Middle EastShow number three brought me to The Middle East Upstairs. This venue and I have a rough relationship with one another. In 2008, I had the worst gig experience of my life there (and I’m a guy who has played a gig next to an active carousel AND had an oxy-head take a REALLY SLOOOOOW SWING at me during a song) and I STILL consider one of my MidEast UP gigs the worst of my life. I have since gone back and had better experiences there, but I knew going in that it would be hard to be impartial. So there’s that.

All that being said, I was actually pretty excited to catch this show because my friend Joel’s band was playing and he and I have been friends for far too long for me not have seen his band. It was up in the air right up until the moment I showed whether or not I could make it. My girlfriend was pretty under-the-weather and I initially gave up the gun on going to the show. But when she went to bed, I realized that my go/no-go deliberation is part of what this blog can be. Let’s be honest – most of us go to a show because we want to see the one band we have a connection to, and this was my case. I knew Joel’s band wasn’t opening, so I figured not showing up not-on-time would actually be a more realistic representation of the true ‘fan experience’ and so, off I went.

Mad SattaTo enter the venue, you must enter the door of The Middle East restaurant, (not The Corner, not ZuZu) and head directly for the back. I walked up to the door at 9:20 pm to a show that was advertised to start at 8pm only to find out I’d missed exactly 8 minutes of music (so there’s that). The band, Mad Satta, was outstanding, something I point out only because I want it made clear that my showing up late wasn’t a slight to them, they’re worth your buck and I’ll leave it at that. (not a band-review blog, will probably bring that up all 52 times). That buck was more accurately 10 bucks. Fairly standard cover charge.

First thing worth noticing, there were about 60 people in the room when I walked in. Not bad for a Thursday night. The crowd was intensely diverse, ranging in age from 22 to 62. The first thing I noticed was that most of them opted to keep their coats on (it was a little cold). As I cut my way across the room, I also noticed that that room SUCKS for moving around – the space in front of the stage is bookended on both sides by walls with ‘middle-eastern’ doorways which have the two bars that the room contains. So that means, most people gather between the two walls and aren’t paying attention to anything other than the show. That is awesome theoretically and a nightmare logistically.

I, in fairly short order, located the back bar and found Chris Keene, lead singer of Mean Creek (from my first show) tending it. I grabbed a Jack on the rocks and seven bucks later, found my friend standing guard by his merch stand. From outside the ‘stage area’ we discussed the merits of merch stands, during which I noticed something else – The Middle East Downstairs has improved its sound system to the point where he and I could actually talk. That’s a pretty big and non-standard deal.

When the first band was over, I went outside to the Middle East Restaurant which, had a closed-circuit tv into the venue so I could enjoy the quiet and diminished crowd before going back in. While I was out there, I became cognizant of my own fatigue and so I asked the bartender for a Red Bull. He tried 4 (no lie) 4 different ways to convince me not to drink it or to go elsewhere for it. For the first three, I appreciated the sentiment – Red Bull is gross and tastes like burnt gummy bears, but I’m a caffeine addict and I know when I’m jonesing – not proud of it. After the fourth attempt, I was more perturbed – it’s behind the bar, I’m offering you money, fork it the fuck over.

Somerville Symphony OrkestaOnce you’ve had a Red Bull you’ve pretty much told your mouth you give no shits about its opinion, so I ordered a 4-dollar Bud Heavy Tallboy and, seeing from the tv above the bar that they were about ready – I went in to catch the band I came to see. Again, not offering a review here, but it’s worth pointing out that The Somerville Symphony Orkestar were fantastic, and my personal connection to the group made me enjoy it even more. For the uninitiated, you know how excited you were when you were there to watch your friend make the big play in their sporting event? Imagine that for 45-straight minutes. SSO KILLED it, 45 minutes of goals/interceptions/tackles/saves..whatever. I had a blast. Now…worth noting that I’ve gone to see friend’s bands that I’ve hated, too and it’s pretty much like watching them drop the big pass for 45 straight minutes, so you take your chances.

The StepkidsI noticed when the crowd turned over, that the total dipped form 60 to 45 and promptly rose back to 70. My friend in SSO informed me that his brother was a member of the New York-based headliner (The Stepkids) and all of a sudden the demographics in the room started to make sense. When siblings collaborate, the family comes out of the woodwork and infiltrates clubs they’d NEVER step foot in otherwise. So parents, cousins, grandparents all of a sudden will be mixed in amongst the populace, something I think is extremely cool.

After a very similar intermission between the 2nd and 3rd band as had been between the 1st and 2nd, I resumed my spot in the room. What’s funny, is that I had initially thought I needed to watch the entire show to do this accurately, but I actually think that may not be the case. I watched 6 of the headliner’s songs, but just didn’t climb on board – I got that they were good – they just weren’t my kind of good. I made the pledge to check out the show and, that’s what I did.

I think that’s the number one reason I don’t want this to be a band review blog, who the fuck cares what I think about a band? Those dudes could PLAY. I just wouldn’t seek out their brand of music in my day-to-day. Now I know that and THAT is the point – I came, I heard, I know.

So the end result was that I had a blast and woke up with less of a hangover Friday morning. The Middle East sound was great, logistics were shit and the prices were so-so. I’ll go back. We’re not in a fight anymore.

 – Mick Greenwood

52 Shows: SHOW #2 – Unplanned trip to see Dan Blakeslee at The Plough and Stars

As I advertised on the 52 Shows Facebook page, I was planning for show number 2 to be Sunday at TT The Bears (which will now be show number 3), but plans change. I live in Central Square Cambridge, something I highly recommend. So I was at the Cambridge YMCA gym when I got a text from my friend Dan (keyboardist of The Steve Walther Orchestra and formerly of Southern Lust Club). Dan and I were supposed to grab a drink that evening, and he was texting a potential location change. He and some of his SWO bandmates had decided to head over to The Plough & Stars on Mass Ave and extended the invite my way.

The Plough and StarsFull disclosure – I love The Plough & Stars. I’ve had two last-second gigs there (the kind of gigs where a promoter puts up a Facebook SOS due to performer cancellations) and enjoyed myself immensely. It’s a small, rectangular shaped room that, at first glance, you’d think “There’s no way they do music in there – where would they put it?” But they do and they put it in the back-left corner of the room. I’ve seen a number of shows in there and it always sounds great – they have an appropriately-sized sound system and book acts that either fit the room, or are smart enough to fit themselves to the room.

Hearts For BostonSo, it wasn’t hard to twist my arm into meeting there. I didn’t know who the act was going to be, but was quite pleasantly surprised to walk in the door and find Dan Blakeslee‘s cheerful and talented self sitting in the performer’s position. For those unfamiliar with Dan’s work, in addition to his numerous accomplishments in the folk music world, he’s most recently known for being the artist that designed the “Hearts for Boston” print that raised a TON of cash for One Fund Boston and other charities in the wake of the marathon bombing.

ASIDE – This is my weekly reminder that this is not a “band review” blog. That said, in rooms so small, it’s hard to describe the night without describing the performance because it tends to dominate the experience.

I showed up around 10:15, which meant it was too late for me to get food (which sucks, because the only thing that sucks about their ever-changing menu is that it never sucks). I found my friends sitting across from the stage at the back and received a cheerful mid-song hello from the performer (not because he recognized me, but because that’s his thing). The chair I selected could not peossibly have been any closer to the performer, but I was still able to immediately make conversation with my friends that were already seated.

DanThe club holds about 60 and, when I walked in, I counted roughly 45 or so (give or take a smoker). It appeared some were there for Dan, some were there to drink and some were there because they were already drunk. Two, in particular, stood out. There was one fan who kept leaning on the attractive girls seated at the corner of the bar and would make a mariachi-style whoop loudly before, after and during Dan’s songs (again – folk music). The other kept yelling out dumb requests by artists that ranged from redundant to terrible.

PERFORMER’S ASIDE: My goal with this blog is to make music accessible to everybody. But, it only took two shows for me to be reminded that what makes it most accessible is for assholes to stay home. So, if you’re the kind of jackass that sees a performance going on and says “How can I make this about me?” – stay home. “Freebird” is every musician’s “Get Your Shinebox”. You’re not funny, you’re impressing no one and you just suck. Rant concluded.

Dan adeptly handled the back/forth of the crowd dialogue, cheerfully forcing his hecklers to come join him on stage and allowing them to recognize what they should have known from their seats – it’s not enjoyable to be in the spotlight if you don’t have any talent. Dan managed to do this in a way that let them off the hook and was non-vindictive, keeping the crowd engaged the whole way – nice work.

DanJust prior to the first set break, Nate, the friendly, bearded bartender, dispatched the assholes and the night was purified. Dan took about 25 min off before re-taking the stage at 1130 and playing straight through till 1am. When he stopped, he still had about 25 people in the bar. Nate confirmed my suspicion that the night was a success by The Plough‘s standards, acquiescing that an end-to-end sellout is always preferable, but there were no complaints on the establishment’s behalf.

For the next hour, up till last call, the crowd organically dwindled and departed. There was no need for anyone to be shown the door, it was a peaceful and civil dissipation that perfectly fit the night.

And so, without grand ceremony, show number two went into the books. End-to-end it was a pleasant experience and I think the most important takeaway for you, the reader, is this: I didn’t set out to go to a show that night, I set out to meet a friend for a drink. We succeeded in that endeavor, had plenty of time to talk and catch up, enjoyed ourselves same as we would had we gone to a pub with a jukebox except the music was way way better and the experience was a lot more unique, inclusive and fun.

 And that’s the point.

– Mick Greenwood