06 March 2007

Review: Doug Wamble|Apollo Sunshine

Tonic|The Annex 28 February 2007

Wednesday night was a quintessentially New York City evening of live music. The rooms, the crowd and of course, the music -- not perfect, but straying from perfect in perfect ways.

I started out at Tonic where Doug Wamble was playing with one of those "can't be bad" thrown-together backing bands: Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Ben Allison on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums. Tonic is one of my favorite rooms in the city: it has its flaws, but it sits perched between the blue and white collars of NYC venues. Too stark and grungy with too scarce seating options to be considered a top flight jazz club and a little too classy and open-minded to be a bona fide rock joint. The bookings there fit that bill perfectly and I thought back to this Ethan Iverson interview with Stanley Crouch and his oft-ridiculous notions of what jazz should be while I watched Wamble lead these all-stars through a genreless morass of free-flowing music. I actually had initial plans to catch Iverson further uptown in what could only be regarded a jazz club, and a great one at that, but am glad I made the decision to hit Tonic instead.

Wamble announced that they would play music he had written "yesterday" at his house. I couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but there is no doubt that these were little-rehearsed and in-progress works with a band that may or may not ever play again together in this form. Wamble is the kind of guy you really want to like. The word is affable. He's got a gentle Southern vibe and a big, teddy bear demeanor. We all know guys like Doug, but not many of them can play guitar like this. This gig is the perfect example why musicians like Doug Wamble come to play in the city. Everyone is a sideman and everyone is a band leader and the Golden Rule is strongly in effect with the degrees of separation of who plays with whom bordering on incestuous. Bernstein, the consummate bandleader himself, when remarked upon the nifty plaid driver's cap he was wearing as he hopped on stage, called the headwear his "sideman hat" -- perfect summation of the situation.

I've seen Wamble a handful of times and it's always been a little different: he's done the smoother Djazzy stuff as well countrified guitar with surprisingly sweet vocals. Wednesday night the 20 or so folks at Tonic got a whole lot of everything. They started with a number called "Pussy Van Halen" which set the tone for the rest of the set. There was a three-chord progression that hovered near classic rock and served as the trunk of the piece. Every song followed a similar path where there was a major theme, often fairly simple, from which everything sprouted out or grew knotty around. Wamble would start along this way, with Steve B. peppering some shots around it and then hand off the theme to Allison who would make it his own as the rest of the band took off in unforseen directions. This first number was very, very loose and basically opened up a rocking jam session. It was free and fun and wasn't necessarily out-there avant garde, but to be honest, it was completely incoherent -- not quite in tune and not quite on point.
From there things did get a lot better. The second tune was "Alhambra" and started Wamble on the slide guitar which he would bring back at least once per tune for the remainder. For this one, the intro section was all Doug on slide -- his playing here was very clean and reminiscent of a Hawaiian steel guitar. Throughout the set he would go back to the slide playing some country, some Hendrix-esque rock and roll raging and some Derek-Trucks-style mishmash of a whole range of styles. It was pretty impressive to me and really a great example of the silliness in labeling music. There was one solo in the middle of the set that was nothing short of breathtaking, a climactic explosion of slide playing that was the highlight of the show.

The band behind him did their part as well. It goes without saying that Bernstein is the man. I really liked how he kind of hung back and didn't get too over the top. He was a band member and did his part. He showed some range as well, with nice muting and of course, plenty of great slide trumpet. The slide trumpet + slide guitar combo was pretty delicious at times. The two Bens make for a top-notch rhythm section. As the night went on, Perowsky gained a lot of confidence in the setting and let loose on more than one occasion, pushing the evening well over the border to full-out rock and roll. What started as a simple evening of jazz ended up as a 70-minute blur of everything that isn't jazz... and I guess that was the point.

It was a short couple of blocks from Tonic to The Annex -- one metaphorical small step for Ned, one giant leap in musickind. That show was a Deli Magazine/ASCAP showcase type event and had a bill full of acts doing one thing or another. I got there in time to see the entirety of Vampire Weekend -- a Columbia University-based band which did their party to play the slacker Ivy Leaguer angle. The set started out in one direction: a pretty heady take on the early 80's vibe. They didn't quite channel bands as much as watershed albums: Talking Heads' "Speaking In Tongues," Paul Simon's "Graceland," The Police's "Synchronicity." These were the apparent influences, but their take had its own flavor and a certain level of cheekiness that drew you in. Despite a liberal use of the word "jam" -- used by their frontman simply to signify the playing of music, oh Wetlands, where art thou? -- these guys did have some fun chops with flashes of private lessons in grade school mixed in with the faux-freedom of the prep school dorm room. As the set came to a close, they opened up with some fairly ridiculous numbers, the last one, seemingly concerned with traffic getting back from Cape Cod was a perfect capper for the guys wearing unkempt Oxford's and Rob-Lowe-in-"Class" sweaters.

But the real reason I stayed out past my bedtime was Apollo Sunshine -- most recently seen taking a baseball bat to the mailbox outside the Freaks Ball and blowing out some eardrums in the process. They're kicking off a full-fledged tour that will take them down to Langerado, SXSW and Bonnaroo. For the big road trip, they've enlisted a 4th member, Quentin Stoltzfus of Mazarin (not to be confused with Jesus Christ of Nazareth) rounding their sound out nicely to quartet strength and clicking up the volume by about one guitar. The set was short but, man!, was it schaweet! They started off with something soft and, well, not quite quiet, but not quite... BAM! right into "Flip!" with its whirling dervish of a pedal steel melody and a whiplash bridge that leaves you sitting on top of the world and looking down from such heights that vertigo is all but inevitable. They were really clicking Wednesday night -- the sound just exploding off of the stage in big chunks of blazing electric guitars. These guys pass around their big Gibson bass like a hookah, pulling massive tokes of low end each and blowing smoke rings out onto the crowd. The 2nd guitar player really opens up things nicely so the sound either gets even bigger at times or stays the same size but gets decorated nicely with other nifty sounds and accoutrement. I'd go on in the set to "Magnolia" and "Today's the Day" and a couple others they managed to squeeze into their slot, but the set was too short to merit anything longer than a paragraph. It was a tease, a taster, and I was a smarter man than I am, I would have gone out to Southpaw on Thursday for the full treatment, but alas... I went here instead.

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