Half Moon Cruise Ship, 24 May 2007
(Dude listen to Apollo Sunshine while you read)
There is something about being out on the water. Even though at any moment you are still within shouting distance of Manhattan or Brooklyn or Jersey or Lady Liberty herself, when you're on one of the Rocks Off concert cruises, it's like you've entered the international waters of music and all laws of concertgoing are hurled overboard. Any band worth its weight in East River sludge will realize this and rise to the occasion.
The unwritten rules say Thursday is the unofficial start of the weekend and Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. So when we got on board for essentially the first boat of the season -- Apollo Sunshine on the Half Moon -- it was, for all intents and purposes, summer. Big Mama Nature did her best to cooperate with the nicest evening we could have hoped for. Yo Apollo Sunshine: bring it!
It was clear that the rules of Apollo Sunshine were being tweaked from the get go. They ran through their standard repertoire, but it was all off -- in a good way. They opened with "Better Change Your Mind" a greasy funk cover that lays right into what these guys do best. Drums (courtesy of Jeremy Black's steady limbs) and bass lead the way with swanky guitar riffs a mere afterthought. The guitarist, Sam Cohen used a double-neck thing of beauty and as the song veered into a foggy purgatory, Jesse Gallagher moved from bass to keyboards and Cohen instantaneously stepped up from the guitar neck to the bass one and picked right up with the low-end. Apollo Sunshine is a bass-first band, gloriously so. From here the shit got thick and deep and drawn out nicely, not necessarily jammed, but freely flowing.
All those sweet songs you'll hear at every Apollo show came one hit after another: Magnolia, Flip!, Phoney Maroney.... While most great bands are lovingly referred to as tight, these guys are like the opposite. They are loose -- jagged, slippery, coarse. They step on each other's toes, they hold notes for a half-step too long, they don't seem to be in each other's heads when they shift gears. All those things that awe you from other bands, these guys do the opposite. And yet, the more you hear, the more you realize that it's all intentional, the final product is exactly as intended and it's an exhilarating goulash. The last couple times I've seen them, it's been so incredibly loud that it's been hard to pick out these nuances -- been more of a rock-til-you're-deaf atmosphere. But it's in there! So by the time they start winging covers out their ass that you had no idea they played, let alone could muster, you're not surprised in the least.
The boat seemed to bust through the standard Apollo Sunshine facade. Crosstown Traffic was the first cannonball shot across the bow of the Half Moon. For a band that's short on guitar shredding, or shredding at all, Hendrix came as a bit of a surprise. As they played it, though, and pretty much nailed it, I realized that most of Jimi's stuff wasn't about guitar wanking. It was about the perfectly crafted rock and roll song -- the swell of the bass churning under the drums, clearing wide swaths of space for a Gibson or a Fender to build a foundation. It's about the riff, executed with precision while looking like it's all-too-easy. Jagged edges lovingly crafted to the smallest detail. In sum -- all the things that Apollo Sunshine is about. Then, just to remind you that these guys have Berklee-level chops like every other wankist out there, they rip into a piece they simply call "Bach": an instrumental foray into a J.S.B. composition, that should turn all doubters into believers. Had me doing the old fist pump/bootie shake/sea leg shimmy combo like cheese and crackers.
That was about the time when the rules were certainly overboard. The band realized they had some time to kill and went into "fuck it" mode. They invited a friend up no stage to take over bass playing duties. You never know how these guest spots are gonna run, but as they were tuning and warming up the strong scent of James Brown started filling the air and, sure enough, they were soon one-two-three-fouring up a nice "Sex Machine." Gallagher had some quote/unquote "zany" sunglasses on and cocked his hat to the side as he, no-more-surprises, nailed the vocals as well as you could hope. The quartet let this run all over the deck, deftly combining bass-and-drums funk with swampy rock and roll as they did the Godfather proud in a nice, extended version. It perfectly encapsulated the band that doesn't take itself seriously at all and then goes out and nails song after song as if their lives depended on it. Get on up, indeed!
The bass player might have stayed up for another song, there was a delightful Sunshine-style drums section, and some giddy-up rockabilly guitar work from Cohen on "Today's the Day" that must have set the total number of styles, themes and genres completely re-upped by the band that night to 12. They finished up with a nice, long, summer-ready version of "Phyliss." Eight minutes of chunky Canned Heat salsa; deep, psychedelic blues that served as the summary of the set in toto. And in the midst of all that hot-and-heavy they're able to spit out classic existentialism in their lyrics like: "If the universe ends/then how does it end?/and if it doesn't end/well, how is that possible?" That's just the type of guys they are.
The band, which rarely plays and encore, and seems to all but telegraph their setlist from night to night was ready to call it quits. Most bands play right up until the boat docks and for a song or two after that, even, pretty much right up to the "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here..." plea from the crew. We were outside the "if the boat sinks we could swim home" radius and the set was sadly over. The audience, which was probably a quarter what music of this caliber dictated, but a rambunctious Sunshine-loving crowd nonetheless, succeeded in getting the band back on stage.
And as they huddled to figure out what they'd play, I must admit, they finally did catch me 100% off guard -- busting into a killer cover of "And Your Bird Can Sing" by the Beatles (a version outdone only by one I caught Yonder Mountain String Band do a few years ago). Wow! S'all I can say. In a matter of about 30 minutes or less, these guys did due dillgence to Hendrix, allowed Bach to set a course to some wily rock instrumental work, popped the party with James Brown and absolutely slayed the JohnPaulGeorgeRingo hit. Note to all bands, established and wannabes: play more covers, we'll all thank you for it!
On that note: thanks, Apollo Sunshine! Let the summertime fun begin!
30 May 2007