Category: Music

Concert review: Phish delivers on promise to phans

Originally published at Spotlight News

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Page McConnell sat in his office, at stage-right of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage. His hands floated across his black-and-white ivory desk, delivering on his promise made to the phanatic Phish crowd just moments before: One more song.

It was only the first set of the first day of the band’s three-day SPAC stint from July 1-3, but the song — “The Squirming Coil” from the 1990 album “Lawn Boy” — did not go unappreciated. After Trey Anastasio’s vocals subsided, McConnell’s solo was underway.

For what seemed like an hour, and, being Phish, the length was likely not much shy of it, the patrons swayed in the lawn to the pianist’s oeuvre. With a skyward gaze and a substance-influenced daze, the audience watched the large video board, grinning in unison at the keys bouncing under McConnell’s fingers and the absurd talent of it.

An ovation followed. One set was completed and five more were to be played in the weekend. If any gripe had been directed at the band for its absence from SPAC in 2015, it was quickly forgiven. The group’s much-awaited return to the venue was an undisputed success.

The band’s shtick is much-established: unpredictability. With not a song repeated over the weekend and each set-list original and unique, the style gives Phish more variance in its shows than any other musical group.

Even the individual songs differ wildly each time they are played live. On the 1992 album “A Picture of Nectar,” the song “Chalk Dust Torture” has a track-length of 4:35. In the SPAC Day 1 performance, the jam lasted over 22 minutes.

Midway through the song, Anastasio set down his guitar and grabbed a pair of mallets, showing off his marimba skills. Soon after, bassist Mike Gordon abandoned his native instrument to join McConnell at the piano, creating a three-man key-striking huddle at one side of the stage, improvising on top of each other as the paying visitors lost their minds at the sight and sound.

The band’s headman is much-established too: Anastasio. With his greasy, wind-swept orange hair and his Steve Jobs glasses, he has more the look of a ski instructor than a rock star, but his guitar told a different story. With an upbeat rendition of “Juliet” off the band’s 1994 album “Hoist” near the end of Day 2’s second set, he demonstrated his six-string prowess. From country-influenced riffs to sounds that bordered on reggae, and all the progressive rock in-between, Anastasio led the way and the crowd followed. With a single strum, returning to the chorus from an ever-lasting jam session, Anastasio could light the wick of all the glowstick fireworks in the lawn.

But the star of the weekend was McConnell. Aside from his memorable “Squirming Coil” solo, the keyboardist channelled his inner Paul McCartney with a cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” — one of 10 covers in the weekend — to close the second set of Day 2, ending the tune on its iconic final chord, joined by his bandmates to continue the convoluted harmony for nearly half a minute.

Journey Review: When The Lights Go Down at SPAC, You Want to be The-e-er-ere

Originally published in NYSMusic

Leather-vested and sweat-covered, Neal Schon unearthed a solo that — even amid the political hatefest and madness of 2016 — could unite America.

The SPAC lighting backdrop transformed into a slideshow montage of soldiers, flags and the like. The Journey founding member serenaded the crowd with an improvisation-heavy guitar rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Though the concert was the Fifth of July — not the Fourth — Schon’s tight fretwork and re-defining of the term “rock anthem” could be appreciated at anytime. Nearly 50 years into his musical career, he had not lost much in strum speed, not any in his tonal quality.

The masses hooted and hollered, as you might expect an upstate New York crowd to do for an homage to the troops, but the three-minute solo, just half an hour into Journey’s set, was far from the show’s sole highlight.

Without an unfair comparison to the voice of Steve Perry, lead singer Arnel Pineda’s vocals were rich, rangeless and did justice to the classics. The Filipino, now in his ninth year heading the band, was running and hopping around the stage like a man half his age for many of the upbeat songs — “Any Way You Want It” and “Wheel in the Sky”. In the slower, ballad-like hits — “Faithfully”, “Lights”, “Don’t Stop Believing” — he focused more on the notes, avoiding any pitch wavers a jump or leg-kick might cause to a sentimental song.

Drummer Steve Smith was an unsung hero of the Journey set. Smith, who backed the band from 1978 until 1985, through much of its heyday, rejoined the band this year after Deen Castronovo left in the fallout of a domestic violence arrest.

Smith’s rolls were precise and military-like and his cymbal work seemed effortless during his solo, about two-thirds through the band’s performance. The drummer, using a traditional grip for increased roll speed, may have delivered the best drum solo at the venue since 2013, the last time Neil Peart and Rush were in town; Smith’s work on the kit was simply incredible.

Journey was the third band in the night’s lineup, immediately preceded by fellow Bay Area group — and also fellow notable Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame snub — The Doobie Brothers.

A fan’s first observation of The Doobie Brothers taking the stage is likely the band’s size. With four men on guitars and basses across the front, two kit drummers in the back, and a saxophone and keyboard player too, the group’s look is imposing, and the sound was too.

The Doobie Brothers were not as sing-along as Journey was (do not be mistaken, there were more than a couple patrons joining in on “Black Water”), but instead were jamming more. Whereas Journey’s song interludes isolated individuals soloing on their instruments, The Doobie Brothers had more collective instrumental sections.

The first performance of the concert came from singer Dave Mason, originally of Traffic. Mason performed three of his own songs, including “We Just Disagree”, as well as three from Traffic.

Mason’s guitar playing showed little wear from the years, as he demonstrated ample ability. The singer closed his set with “All Along the Watch Tower”, originally by Bob Dylan and made famous by Jimi Hendrix.

Brad Paisley’s Guitar Salvages Country Night at SPAC

Originally published by NYS Music

In a genre currently dominated by pretty boys, belt buckles and a mundane honky-tonk sound, Brad Paisley sticks out like a sore thumb. Forget the country music industry; Paisley is one of the most talented guitar players on the airwaves today, and he demonstrated his prowess on Sunday night at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, perhaps making up for forgettable performances by opening acts Justin Moore and Mickey Guyton.

With Paisley on the stage, sporting a white cowboy hat and a black T-shirt, the focus was entirely on the music. Beginning with his very first song, in which he opened with his 2014 hit “River Bank”, a guitar solo was included in nearly every song. Paisley’s West Virginia roots are evident in his bluegrass style of string plucking, but there was also a certain classic rock influence on his playing. His solos featured rifts up and down the fret board, and he could slide in a way that would make even Steve Miller proud. Between the bluegrass plucking in his right hand and the brilliant fretwork in his left hand, Paisley had remarkable dexterity with all ten fingers, something nearly unparalleled in today’s music scene. His vocal ability isn’t anything spectacular, but his guitar ability was impressive enough on its own merits to make up for it.

Justin Williamson, the fiddle player in Paisley’s band, also gave a memorable performance, taking numerous solos and getting ovations of his own. There were times in the concert that if you closed your eyes, it would sound like you were at a bluegrass festival. When you opened the eyes, you saw the mainstream modern country concert it was. The string playing by everyone on stage was fantastic.

Paisley’s concert team deserves kudos as well for their work on the video boards. During Paisley’s 2003 single “Celebrity,” the video featured satirical newspaper headlines and a man with a Brad Paisley mascot head running amok along the streets of a city wreaking havoc and having fun, poking fun at the different lifestyle that celebrities have. Later on, the board showed an impressive collaboration of New York City time-lapses lined up with the music. When Paisley sang his 2011 duet “Remind Me,” Carrie Underwood sang with him on a FaceTime conversation being shown on the SPAC video board. Paisley and Moore engaged in a duck-hunting video game on the board during the outro of “I’m Still a Guy.”

Compared with many of his country music counterparts, Paisley didn’t engage in much dialogue throughout the concert. All the focus was on the music. Even when he did engage with the crowd, the focus was around the guitar. After an acoustic performance of “This is Country Music,” he autographed his guitar and handed it to a young boy in the front row. A few songs later, Paisley followed up what many bands have done this summer at SPAC by playing a few acoustic songs for the people in the lawn, performing on a platform stationed directly in front of the lawn folks. Paisley poked fun at the lawn’s drunkenness, remarking that “now I’ll play a few songs for the people that won’t remember it in the morning.”

Paisley closed his set with perhaps his best known song “Mud on the Tires” and the new song that lends its name to the tour, “Crushin’ It.” When Paisley came out for the encore, he played “Then”, followed by a song that perhaps encapsulated the evening better than any other song, “Alcohol.”

Justin Moore was the co-headliner of the night, immediately preceding Paisley in the night’s events. Moore, an Arkansas native, won over the crowd with his good looks and some of his commentary, but his music left much to be desired.

Moore showed a strong vocal ability on a few songs, particularly in his 2011 hit “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” which he dedicated to the American troops around the world, but much of his performance was disappointing. Starkly contrasting Paisley, he was sub-par on the guitar,and at times it felt like the six-string was a prop instead of an instrument. I’m sorry, but if your ass faces the crowd more than your mouth, I’m not convinced that you’re worried about the music as much as you should be.

Moore also constantly pandered to the crowd by playing the redneck-card, preaching conservative values. While Paisley (an Obama supporter) restrained from talking politics during his concert, Moore wouldn’t shut up about it, talking about troops and even starting a USA chant at one point. It was disappointing that he wasn’t able to win the crowd over with his music, so he had to use his handsomeness and his rugged political views.

Mickey Guyton, the opening act of the evening, was fine, but not so fine she’d blow your mind. She recognized the concert as an opportunity to build her platform, saying at one point that “it’s such an honor to play for Brad Paisley’s crowd,” and had strong vocal abilities throughout. Guyton appeared a bit nervous for most of her performance, and was relatively fidgety with the microphone, but she loosened up a bit after large ovations for her songs “Somebody Else Will” and “Cool Ya”.

A positive thing with Guyton, being an African-American, is that she helps bring some diversity to a genre that is almost entirely white. It created a certain crude irony, with a black singer performing to a lawn spotted in Confederate flags and paraphernalia.

In all, two out of the three artists were a tad dissatisfying, but the headlining artist absolutely brought it, salvaging the concert. Paisley certainly won at least one fan on Sunday night.