An evening at the Mercury Lounge often proves a real treat. The structure of their shows almost always includes four bands with a time slot of roughly an hour per act. In essence, the evening feels exactly like your run-of-the-mill showcase night a la Arlene’s Grocery. You know, the neighborhood venue trying to reel in a few patrons without giving away drink specials by offering up the stage to wet-behind-the-ears bands playing in front of their poor friends who were given no option but to drop by dressed all biz casual.
Well, the difference with the Mercury Lounge approach is that they put on a showcase night, but comprised of generally really talented on-the-cusp bands with plenty of buzz, generally with some level of overlap in fan tendencies with the other acts on the bill. Hence, it makes for a great way for bands to win over new fans, while fans happily catch the band they came to see, but often leave holding the CD of one they never even heard of. Should one or two of the bands not hit the spot, well there’s always the bar just outside the performance room. You can pop out and pop back in for the next band an hour later. Plus, the price is right.
This past Thursday, the Merc played host to a relatively new band on my radar that is quickly becoming a favorite, Leroy Justice. Having heard from a couple friends in different places and seeing repeat rave reviews from a couple of great writers whose tastes I share, Dave Schultz at Earvolution and Dennis Cook at Jambase, I picked up their new album. The album, called the Loho Sessions just happens to be produced by a guy you might recognize; he goes by the name of Siket. The Loho Sessions has breakout written all over it and it’s a contender for the best this year. The “sounds-like exercise” always reaches for the Black Crowes and Drive-By Truckers, but that makes them sound far too categorical.
READ ON to see what Ryan thought of LJ and Cornmeal…
Belting through their set, highlights included two of the standouts off the new album, Out to Sea and Mickey, as well as old favorite, Revolution’s Son, Leroy Justice, in a short span of an hour, demonstrated to a crowd obviously dotted with industry vets there to see what all the buzz is about, what they are all about: a band based on a true-blooded front man with a voice that can sing it to the mountaintops, a charismatic chemistry between all members, unique song structures applied to a familiar southern rock sound, and thick juicy mutton chops across the board.
What really won me over though was lead guitarist Brendan Cavanaugh. The timing could not have been better coming just days after my random homage to the long lost art of the guitar solo – in the context of the ’80s monster ballad – because seeing Leroy Justice live made it clear that Cavanaugh handcrafts his guitar solos as opposed to loosely noodling through them in the live setting. He plays them note for note, and there is something refreshing about hearing a Skydog-worthy guitar solo that has been written and mastered to be performed in a live setting just as it’s played on the album. Jams are great and all, but these babies are compositions.
Leroy Justice knows how to market themselves (himself?) as well. Heeding the sage advice of Tommy Chong from Up in Smoke after Curtis attempts to dress his band in lame matching uniforms. “We should all wear something different man, you know like the same, but different.” Justice always sports vests, and while the styled band can rub people the wrong way, somehow this works. I guess it’s because they balance out the hipness with a bottle of Jim Beam, which gets plowed mercilessly throughout the set. You really don’t see enough bands drinking heavily on-stage nowadays.
Now back to the point about how an on-night at the Mercury Lounge can be such a win. Well, on Thursday, I had no absolutely idea Cornmeal was on the bill until I got to the door. Win. Having seen them play a monstrous daytime show on the main stage at Summer Camp in 2008, a secret show inside a barn show at that same Summer Camp with Hot Buttered Rum, as the official moe. after party on Valentines Day in NYC with the boys from moe, and finally as part of the last Jammy Awards at Madison Square Garden, I thought Cornmeal was much bigger than a Mercury Lounge band. And the place wasn’t even very crowded.
Let’s be clear though, just because it was not that crowded, does not mean it wasn’t rocking. What shocks me most about Cornmeal is that while watching Allie Kral let loose on her fiddle, something doesn’t look right. She rips it so hard, yet makes it look so utterly effortless that it doesn’t look like she is really playing at times. It honestly looks like she’s faking, she is so good.
Cornmeal took the wise approach of a band waiting to get deep and dirty in the mud by not trying hop from song to song and cram their short set with too much clutter, instead settling in and belting off a four song rager. They kicked off with the classic Allie intro tune, Girl with the Short Brown Hair, which showed off the straight ahead speed and dynamism of all five members. Next they dusted off Bill Monroe’s Southern Flavor, which tore from the south to the Middle East, to the Far East, to Eastern Europe to wherever else as the jams explored all sorts of crazy high energy terrain. The highlight of the evening came in the form of the heavily Dead-influenced Rain Your Light, which sounds like an uncanny nod to I Know You Rider and got everybody to cut footloose, which did not stop until the band did.
It can be really hard to distinguish amidst the masses with so many young top notch string bands like Hot Buttered Rum, Trampled By Turtles, Mason Porter, Greensky Bluegrass and Cornmeal competing with not only one another, but also the bigger bands like Railroad Earth and Yonder Mountain and finally the virtuoso true blue(grass) guys like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice. The reality of the bluegrass scene is that these younger bands get pretty huge in their home regions, but seem to spread a beyond the home turf a little slower than other types of bands for whatever reason.
Well, Cornmeal really does have a distinguishing characteristic. They jam a lot harder than most bluegrass bands. I don’t love this terminology, but Cornmeal takes it to type II land, as opposed to trading off blazing solos within the structure of the song like more traditional bluegrass. Cornmeal takes their music far away from the bluegrass context sound going off into high energy exotic Gogol Bordello soundscapes, Dark Star interstellar mindbenders, and pounding Zeppelin-like rockers.
The one element of Cornmeal’s dynamic that maybe rubs me the wrong way just a bit, which doesn’t really seem like it is by design, but rather one player just being extraordinarily good, is the band feels at times too much like a star and backing band structure for Kral. Not that there is anything wrong with this setup, but the fact that Kral was not a founding member, nor does she write all the music, makes you wonder if this is a point of contention for other members. Regardless, all the members – Wavy Dave Burlingame on banjo, Kris Nowak on guitar, Chris Gangi on string bass, JP Nowak on drums – in the band have blazing fingers and integral voices and should never feel like second bananas.
To catch two bands of this caliber back to back with a price tag comparable to going to see the new Harry Potter flick is one of the great treats of living in New York City. My friend and I had so much fun last Thursday night seeing these bands and meeting people that we decided to just start hanging out at the Mercury Lounge when there is nothing better to do. It’s not the best looking venue in the city and it doesn’t draw the biggest names, but these people know what’s next in music. For a good price and minimal effort, you get to see bands like Leroy Justice and Cornmeal before they get too big, which in both cases is simply a matter of time.