(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Concert review - Whiskey Blanket with Dropswitch, Bigwheel Electrosoul, The Quick & Easy Boys, and Rolphy

2 November 2013 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)

Billed as CD release party for Whiskey Blanket's latest, From the Dead of Dark (review), the lineup featured a grab bag of artistic and musical approaches with younger and more experience players. From stripped down rap to multimedia performance art, the opening acts offered wide-ranging contrasts to the headliners, which made for an full-scale evening of entertainment. The CD release itself was understated, although Whiskey Blanket's set was anything but that.

The pickings for photos are a bit thin - note to self: remember to grab the spare battery before you're miles from home.

007 Rolphy
The night started out low key with a young rapper named Rolphy. Backed by simple laptop grooves, he hit the stage with reasonable confidence. His earnest, slightly self-conscious delivery suited his entry-level raps, creating a sympathetic vibe with the audience. Plenty of his friends came out to support him and helped fill out the small crowd. The high point of his set was a female guest singer who added a soul pop texture and gave him something stronger to build on.

016 Quick and Easy Boys
The Quick & Easy Boys were the odd ducks on a slate of largely hip-hop artists. They were a solid blues funk trio without a trace of rap style. Still, their danceable grooves and strong performance made them a good fit with Whiskey Blanket's audience. They've found some success in their hometown of Portland, but they're trying to make their mark in the Denver market, taking any opportunity they can find to build a following. They'll be back again at Cervantes on November 11 for Grass for That Ass, with Whiskey Tango. It'll be worth catching them then to appreciate their funky soul, which owes a debt of gratitude to Joe Walsh and the James Gang.

009 Quick and Easy Boys
All three players are masters of their instruments, adept at finding that balance between show-off skill and nailing the tight arrangements. This is especially important for a trio, where the guitar has to walk the line between lead and rhythm and the bass and drums have to work just a little bit harder to fill out the sound. The Quick & Easy Boys laid down a driving wall of music, packed with back beat and sweaty grind, but the pop-flavored singing contrasted with the grit. Vocal duties bounced around, but the bass player Sean Badders seemed to lead most of the tunes. He was a big guy, but he had a surprising falsetto that gave some of the tunes a BeeGees flavor.

014 Quick and Easy Boys
The band was comfortable on stage, with a great sense of performance. They stayed in motion and sold their joy at playing. Jimmy Russell was especially fun as he flipped the guitar behind his head for rhythm and lead jams or wrenched out a melodic line with his whole body. That said, the band needs to improve their crowd work. The music and show were fine, but more between song patter or direct engagement would help them build the audience connection they seek.

017 Bigwheel Electrosoul
Bigwheel Electrosoul is a performance art project associated with Denver artist/producer DJ Check One (Dameion Hines) that he has described as "guided ambiguous live music." Melding live instruments with pre-recorded tracks, the group started with a foundation of mashed up and mutated music to create the main groove. The tracks sampled both obscure and better-known songs; Hines jammed along on drums while his partner added synthesizer accents.

019 Bigwheel Electrosoul
The projection screen was interesting, especially when it ditched the music videos and took a long graphic exploration of the Mandelbrot set fractals. But after a while I found myself waiting for something more. The idea itself was promising, but it needed to offer more surprises. While it might be an easy step to get more experimental on the pre-fab side , I think that it would be better to take the live component into a wilder space. That might be more effective for engaging the audience for a longer set.

026 Drop Switch
By the time Drop Switch hit the stage, the crowd was swelling and ready to dance. Their opening song set a reggae groove and their rapper, Logistixx, tossed off a speedy toasting style vocal. Song by song, he and the rest of the band showed off their musical range, mixing up styles like a shuffled deck of cards. The one-drop rhythm gave way to a hip-hop beat, which veered into heavier rock punch. The high point came with their cover of "The Distance" by Cake; the band's cathartic thrash on the chorus spurred the audience on. Logistixx did a good job of making John McCrea's vocal line his own.

021 Drop Switch
Drop Switch had clearly spent time working out their arrangements, creating moments of synchronous bliss as the bass, sax, and guitar riffs slipped into lockstep. The upside was the tight coordination between the instruments, but the downside is that the group presented a fairly static tableau. Most of the band's visual appeal came from sax player's humorous mugging and the singer's nervous physical energy. Logistixx stayed in almost constant motion, dominating the band's stage presence with swagger and restless movement. Channeling that tension gave him rapid fire phrasing for his raps.

027 Drop Switch
Near the end of the set, Drop Switch followed Rolphy's lead and brought up a female guest singer. The band played a reggae flavored jam that let her show off a soulful style. She stayed up for the last tune, providing a smooth contrast to the percussive rap lead and jazzy hip-hop beat.

053 Whiskey Blanket
Every time I see this band, they floor me with how much they've progressed as performers. At this point, they're hitting a level well beyond their regional Colorado home crowd, with an innate sense of entertainment. Hip-hop is all about flow, lyrics, and the musical backdrop, but in a live setting, it really demands an extra spark to make it pop. Merely spitting out some solid lyrics to a backing track is not enough to hold a crowd. That's why the big-time rappers develop such large stage personas. They posture and strut; they draw on that image to drive their show.

030 Whiskey Blanket
Whiskey Blanket has personality in spades, with each member bringing his own special sauce, but they push well beyond that with inspired musical performance and a unique artistic perspective. Beat boxing, cello, wicked turntablism, and violin come together to create a sonic fingerprint that stands alone. Sloppy Joe, Steakhouse and Funny Biz each have impressive technical skills that add excitement to the show. On top of that, they've honed a three-prong vocal attack that recalls groups like the Beastie Boys or Run DMC.

047 Whiskey Blanket
Saturday night's set showcased the band at the top of their game. Their performance was choreographed with a natural eye to showmanship. Tightly coordinated raps bounced the lead between the three like the Harlem Globetrotters passing the ball. They worked the stage like veteran actors, with every movement blocked for maximum effect. It wasn't just the big motions, like Funny Biz taking a pratfall drop or Sloppy Joe reeling back from a stage slap; even the smallest facial expressions and body language supported the moment. In lesser hands, this could have easily been wooden or overplanned, but Whiskey Blanket made it look effortless with casual aplomb.

050 Whiskey Blanket
The musical twists and turns were every bit as engaging as the acting. The set flowed through new and old material, with spaghetti Western twang giving way to jazzy beats or street classical mashups. Rap sections hit hard and heavy, then transitioned to chamber music inspired instrumentals or bluegrass fiddle riffs. In keeping with the CD release, they led off the show with "The Story Unfolds", filling out the pre-recorded arrangement with live strings and a guest trumpet player. Aside from some sharp turntable work, Steakhouse got into the act with his keyboard. Seeing them integrate the live instruments into the mix was reassuring because From the Dead of Dark didn't showcase that aspect of the band. Whiskey Blanket went on to perform several songs from the album, transforming them for the stage. "Blotto Nox" was stunning, with lyrics whipping by at a pace that made the original's rapid fire rap seem almost stately. "Dinner With Ghouls" kept the slower pace from the album, but also loosened the flow so they could work the crowd a bit more.

046 Whiskey Blanket
They cherry-picked through their back catalog for material to split up the new songs. Even here, they controlled the pace of the show and the ambiance. So, the dark moodiness from "Improper Paradise" (Credible Forces) and the introspection from No Object's "Pound Boom" each found common ground with the newest material. By the end of the show, they were wrung out and ready for the break. The last treat was a Funny Biz freestyle rap. As members of the audience held up objects, he riffed off what he saw, proving that the band's skills weren't just delimited by scripted pre-calculation.

040 Whiskey Blanket
It's worth mentioning that the first time I saw Whiskey Blanket, some unknown Seattle emcee named Macklemore was opening for them. Now, he's earned his spot on the national stage. These guys deserve the same kind of exposure.

More photos on my Flickr

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