Thunder Body’s Medicine Hi-Fi

Posted with photographs on April 25 at ithaca.com

April had just begun, and her fickle ways were surprising the concert-goers stepping outside of The Dock on a Friday evening to have a smoke, get some air, contemplate the placid flood control channel waters over the patio’s railing.

“Oh, it’s raining now,” many said as they stepped out of doors. It had been a temperate, tolerable day that resembled spring after an interminable Ithaca winter. Spring’s changes always surprise after months of snow, cold, cold, and then, snow which is still there even if it’s not coming down.

There was a surprise in store on stage inside, too, where Rochester’s Thunder Body was playing a two-set show. Someone who had just heard of them that day, April 3, and gone online to hear some of their self-described “Medicine Hi-Fi” music would have found a band playing in lots of space – a theremin involved in some of their ambient jams, reggae/dub beats predominating. Dreamy, atmospheric, those were the adjectives this writer expected to be using in a write-up of the show as he entered (albeit based entirely upon some festival recordings cut in the 2013 season).

That laid back beat was certainly in evidence on this evening of 2015, at times. Two-chord riff call-and-response is part of the Thunder Body repertoire, tightly written tunes giving way to spacier jams.

The surprises included a new horn line of Benton Sillick on trumpet and Josh Frisch on low brass, the added brash brass timbre filling in space and adding grandeur to the group’s songs.

There was also the novelty of watching guitarist Sam Snyder play with an “overhand” technique – fingers draped down over the fretboard, rather than curling up from underneath – and filling the space left on this evening by fellow guitarist Dennis Mariano’s absence. The two-tone dub beats didn’t stop Snyder from taking the kind of classic blues-rock pentatonic solo that’s usually called heavy.

(Snyder said after the show that he started playing at a time when he had a broken hand, and thus he developed an unorthodox technique).

Laying down the beat all night was bassist Jeramiah Pacheco, who got to show his chops on a solo near the night’s end; one was left with the impression he could also bring the rumble for a band that had fans who prefer Henry Rollins to Peter Tosh.

Playing the Rhodes and pianet/clavinet was Rachel Orke, who played her accompaniment parts with the easy sway of a veteran church pianist who knows how to make a congregation of staid Episcopals or mainline Presbyterians weave in their pews. (Watch the suburban college kids dance at a show like this that draws them in, and one is struck by how little some populations have gained rhythm since the rock ‘n roll revolution – there are some with moves that look like they are historic reproductions of an American Bandstand episode. It’s good they’re dancing).

And on the drums and lead vocals was Matt O’Brian, who stayed in the pocket with both sticks and voice all night long. Through the echoing effects and Orke tweaking her wah pedal, O’Brian’s vocals and the song rhythms might first remind one of The Police, with a shot of Elvis Costello influenced inflections in his vocals.

One chorus O’Brian repeated over and over, though, reminded one why Thunder Body calls their music medicine, their performances a healing vocation: “Hatred is poison. Anger is toxic. Hatred is poison. Anger is toxic.”

Incidentally, no fights were reported to break out in the parking lot after the show.

Thunder Body will be back in Ithaca for Grass Roots, if not sooner.

That Big Band Sound

Originally posted on Ithaca.com, with pictures, on April 21, 2015.

Whatever construction crew members had a hand in building The Haunt should be congratulated on doing a good job. Shoddy work might have resulted in the rock club collapsing the evening of April 16.

Two (literally) big bands played The Haunt that Thursday night, one of those happy meetings of two touring acts that can give great joy to the music fan in this centrally isolated hamlet while blowing some eardrums away.

Turkuaz was on their way down to the Philly suburbs before hauling back to Massachusetts for a Saturday night show and trooping back to central PA by the evening of 4/20.

Sister Sparrow and her Dirty Birds were heading up to Syracuse to play the Westcott Theatre the next evening.

In Ithaca they met on this one evening, and put on a show that justifies all the superlatives both groups have accumulated over their past few years of incessant touring. Turkuaz has been called a “funk army” by Relix; the Wall Street Journal said the Dirty Birds’ sound is “stick-to-your-ribs.”

Like the brash and/or lush timbre that horns provide to a band? These groups got ’em. They are both big bands, if we’re not comparing them to a Count Basie group – Turkuaz had nine players on stage for their set, and Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds numbered seven. Forget the numbers, though, because the sounds are big, real big, and rooted in the Grand American Rock Tradition.

The Dirty Birds opened the show, with a heavy horn riff that took full advantage of Brian Graham’s baritone saxophone’s low end and Phil Rodriguez’s full-bore trumpet blasts. On the harmonica, Jackson Kincheloe danced throughout the night between adding to the horn lines, supporting his sister Arleigh’s vocals, and taking the occasional funky chickachickawahhh solo that’s usually associated with a mid-70s R&B record.

The whole band was tight and wailing, providing a suitable palette of bluesrockinsoul for Ms. Kincheloe – i.e. “Sister Sparrow” – to demonstrate her vocal talents. “Powerhouse,” “sultry & sassy,” “brassy,” all the easy descriptors have been claimed by prior writers – let’s say that Ms. Sparrow can hack it on a tune made known by Aretha – “Dr. Feelgood” – and leave it there.

The only disappointment of the evening was when Turkuaz came onto the stage and were not wearing their multicolored jumpers rocked in all the press photos and at least one Schuylkill County, Pa. festival show a couple summers ago. Even so, the Brooklyn-based group’s production values are still in-your-face and plenty funky.

A Turkuaz show is very much a production, in the best sense – every player knows what he or she is doing and plays their part to its scripted conclusion. And that script ends in people dancing. Most of the attendees don’t dance in as synchronized and slinky a manner as frontwomen Sammi Garett and Shira Elias, but they dance. Unless Turkuaz plays a graveyard, everybody dances.

Behind the soaring lead vocals of saxophonist Josh Schwartz, Turkuaz and the Dirty Birds closed the show with a rendition of “A Little Help From My Friends,” in the classic Joe Cocker style with everybody on stage. Despite the joint effort ,The Haunt did not fall into Cascadilla Creek, so everyone will have to return sometime and give it another try.