Sunday, January 23, 2011

Girl Howdy Rocks the House at Vincent's

It was kinda quiet at Vincents last night when I arrived.  To be fair, 9:30 was a little early for this local favorite hotspot. It’s a place to go after you’ve been somewhere else—dinner, another performance, or just late getting out of the house.  Vincent’s is always dependable because it's open later than most places and, more often than not, the music makes you “sit up and take notice.” I love it because it’s the place where I get to discover bands and musicians I haven’t heard before and tonight was no exception.  I really enjoyed talking to Betsy-Dawn Williams of Girl Howdy over the phone and listened online to some of the music, but didn’t really know what to expect, hearing this band live.
Well, I thought, as I entered and glanced around the bar, they certainly LOOK the part, attired in western wear and cowboy boots, “stompin’ at the bit” to get started. Not that I really know what a honky-tonk band looks like.  As I settled in, I looked around at the growing crowd.  Aside from what must have been some devoted fans that the band brought with them, the regular crowd had a look of anticipation, waiting to hear something new. This band looked different.  

I didn’t even need to warm up to them. Right out of the gate, they were a foot-stompin’ band.  Paula Bradley, piano and vocals, and Betsy Dawn, guitar and vocals, both have these great country-style twangy voices that are so different from each other, yet blend so well.  Drummer Billy Nadeau and upright bass player, Brian Rost, had a great driving sound but couldn’t get much of them on video—Just Billy’s arms flying around behind Betsy Dawn.  And then there’s Peter “Doctor Z” Zarkadas, the guitar player sitting in for steel guitar player Rose Sinclair.  His solos certainly had the “twang” and he was so in sync, it seemed like he had played with this band forever.   This is a band that knows how to have fun and this is a band that when you hear them, you just can’t help smiling.   Let alone dancing.
After one set, the late night crowd started filling up the place.  People loved the band, recognizing some old favorites like  ”Stop, Look and Listen”, “Face to the Wall,” “Don’t Worry About Me” or the band’s title track “Honky Tonk Hair” and “Eenie Meenie Miney,” a couple of originals.   I’m pretty sure the Girl Howdy newcomers experiencing this spirited performance for the first time will be following this band closely .  You can catch them at Johnny D’s in Somerville on January 29th @ 7 pm.  See you there. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica – Yes, Unforgettable!

The first time I heard exotica music, it was strange, only somewhat familiar and I didn’t know what to do with it or how to react to it.  It had a hypnotic beat but was a strange merging of big band, Lawrence Welk ((I’m dating myself), a little space-age but with a carribean cha-cha-cha flavor and definitely that retro ‘50s and ‘60s sound that makes some of us nostalgic.

I recently heard Brian O’Neill, the founder and leader of exotica band, Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica and the Exotica Quartet, recently interviewed on NPR and it was fascinating.  They were playing at the Cambridge YMCA January 14th and it was a CD Release show called “The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel”.  A film crew was documenting the event as part of a documentary on Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the early pioneers of this music. O’Neill’s band was paying homage to this great band leader on this night. I arrived to a packed theatre, which surprised me.  I was sure that, besides a couple of other people, I was nearly the only one who heard about this sort of music. 

I wasn’t prepared for this amount of audio and visual stimulation. A 23-piece band and every possible sort of instrument you can imagine mesmerized this audience for about 90 minutes.  The front of the theatre and the stage was packed with instruments of all sorts.  Five keyboards including a beautiful, wooden xylophone about 20 feet long, percussion including timpanis, congas and other sorts of drums and percussive instruments, an accordion, pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and four talented vocalists—all on the floor area of the intimate theatre with a Leslie to propel all this. Eleven wind and brass musicians crowded the small stage.
My musical preferences are towards jazz, blues, R&B and pretty much anything with a beat. But this was all new to me. Some of the tunes were beautiful arrangements of jazz standards but with a quirky and sometimes humorous twist. Night and Day, Take the A Train,  Sentimental Journey and Dancing in the Dark were just a few on the standards I remember from this memorable evening.

The sound filled the room.  It was stunning.  It was humorous. Most notable is that every musician there was at the top of their game (It seemed like all 23 had a solo) and in total step with each other--and O'Neill was spectacular, with seemingly effortless motions as he conducted this enormous collection of talent and glided from one instrument to another.  They were having fun and never missed a beat͟, perfect precision every step of the way.  I was blown away.  Really. So I’m on the mailing list and this won’t be my last exotica experience.

The John Cate Band "on fire" at Vincent's

I don’t know if it’s just the magic of the place and my expectation that the music will not disappoint whenever I stop by one of my favorite haunts in Worcester, Vincent’s.  I can tell the second I walk through the door,  I’m going to like this band.  This was my second time hearing them and I got caught up in whatever the band and the audience was feeling͟͟͟͟ almost instantly. Everyone was cheering, moving, smiling and generally loving the music.  The musicians were caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of the moment as well. 
I spoke to John Cate briefly between songs and he was humble (pretty good for an Aries!) despite the fact that he has written over 300 songs and has been the leader of this band for 15 years accompanied by the electric guitar player, Paul Candilore.  The other players, Steve Latt on pedal steel guitar and violin was mesmerizing and  drummer Andy Plaisted and bass player Clayton Young kept things in stride.
These guys have an impressive history but this is just a blog—by definition, quick impressions.   I love that their the name of the band is John Cate and the Van Gogh Brothers, referring to John and Paul, original band members and co-producers,  “each with one good ear,” according to them.
One song was so compelling, you could tell͟͟----the band was on fire.  Literally.   Smoke started to appear behind the drummer and they had to stop. Seriously.  People loved it. 

The band has quite a following too.  In the short time I was there, I spoke to two different groups of people:  One couple had travelled from Cambridge to hear them, remarking that this was a big stage compared to another venue they’ve frequented in Cambridge, the Toad.  (Now that’s small.) The other couple said they’ve been following the band for years, attending at least 40 concerts to date.  That’s what I call devoted fans.  I'm looking forward to hearing more!