Live Review: Small Stone Boston Showcase with Mellow Bravo, Wo Fat, Lo-Pan, Gozu, Roadsaw and Neon Warship, 03.28.14Posted in Reviews on March 31st, 2014 by JJ Koczan
I’ve had some pretty landmark good times at Small Stone showcases over the last 10 or so years. Some of them — admittedly, the more recent ones — I’ve even remembered. The last one in Massachusetts was 2012 at Radio in Somerville (review here) was a monster, and as my first time in the upstairs room at the Middle East in Cambridge, I can’t imagine a more fitting occasion. A six-band bill with a shared love of riffs and a record label in common, it was a front-to-back night of volume, distortion, and groove, and from Neon Warship through Roadsaw, Gozu, Lo-Pan, Wo Fat and Mellow Bravo, there was no letup. No moment when you’d want to go outside and smoke or get some air. No moment when the place to be wasn’t in front of the stage.
That’s rare enough when three acts are playing, let alone twice as many. The same lineup minus Mellow Bravo and plus Geezer would play the next night at St. Vitus bar in Brooklyn, but as I had family coming north Saturday and zero dollars for gas, this was my fix. Parking in Cambridge on a Friday night is a singular joy between what’s campus housing for this or that elite-perpetuation factory and other sundry restrictions, but I found a spot and made it into the Middle East well enough in advance of Neon Warship starting off the night. Here’s how it went down from there:
Of all the acts who’d take stage Friday night, Neon Warship were the most recent addition to the label’s roster. Picked up late in 2013, the Dayton, Ohio, three-piece gave a taste of Small Stone to come with their steady rolling riffs and the post-The Sword vocal stylings of guitarist Kevin Schindel, who when he hit into his higher register made up for some of Freedom Hawk‘s absence from the bill. It was my first exposure to them live, though their 2013 self-titled debut had made an impression, and though they’ve been a band for three years, they came across initially as still getting their feet under them on stage. They were well received by what was rightly a friendly crowd, however, and flourished as their set progressed, getting more comfortable as they went on. It was short sets for everybody, however, so just as Neon Warship were hitting their stride, they were also wrapping up. I doubt it’ll be my last encounter with them, and I’d be interested to see them go longer and have more of a chance to engage the audience. They seemed to be headed in that direction.
I knew when I left the house that it was going to be an evening of top-notch guitar work. What I didn’t realize was that Ian Ross of Roadsaw was going to meet the quota on his own. Don’t get me wrong — situated as early headliners no doubt to bring in the local crowd early and get them drinking; a nefarious plot that worked wonders — all of Roadsaw was on fire, including new drummer Kyle Rasmussen (Phantom Glue) who recently came aboard to replace Jeremy Hemond for reasons yet undisclosed, but Ross seemed particularly to rise to the occasion that the night presented, and whether he was tearing ass through “The Finger” from 2001’s Rawk ‘n’ Roll or leading the way through the undulating stonerism of “Black Flower,” if it wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen him play, it was certainly close. They finished out with two from their 2011 self-titled (review here) — which at this point is begging for a follow-up — “Long in the Tooth” and “Weight in Gold,” and were nothing if not in headliner form, frontman Craig Riggs sharing a mic with bassist Tim Catz after swinging his enough to dislodge its cable and all four bringing their still-too-short set to a monstrously noisy finish. Sometimes earplugs just don’t matter.
Never say never in rock and roll, but at least for the time being this night marked the end of Gozu‘s three-guitar experiment. Lead player Jeff Fultz, who’d pull double-duty with Mellow Bravo, is reportedly on the move out of the area, so there goes that. And while his farewell with Mellow Bravo would be drunker/more emotional later on — he’d been in Mellow Bravo five years, a few months playing with Gozu — it was nonetheless a stellar sendoff. For me, they seemed to affirm the potential for Gozu as a five-piece they showed when I saw this lineup make its debut at the Great Scott back in January (review here), songs like “Irish Dart Fight” and “Meth Cowboy” benefiting both from the extra heft and and still nascent dynamic between Fultz and Doug Sherman‘s soloing. Guitarist/vocalist Marc Gaffney brought his own edge via a Gretsch hollow-body guitar — I don’t play, but if I had the money to spend I’d buy one just to look at it — and Joe Grotto, his foot up on the monitor, was duly animated holding down the low end, while still-relatively-new drummer Mike Hubbard made himself comfortable in the slower, more swinging terrain of “Alone,” the closer from 2010’s Locust Season (review here) and a rare enough inclusion in the set that I don’t think I’d ever seen them play it before. Certainly not since 2013’s The Fury of a Patient Man (review here) was released, anyway. They didn’t get to “Meat Charger,” but “Ghost Wipe” had been a raucous enough opener that all was well. They’re ready to hit Europe next month.
Oh, it had been too long. Too long. Not quite a year since they headlined the third Eye of the Stoned Goat fest in Brooklyn (review here), but still, that’s too long to go without seeing Lo-Pan. They played a set comprised almost entirely of new material, songs from the fourth album, Colossus, they’re recording with Andrew Schneider in Brooklyn this week, some I’d heard — “Colossus,” “The Duke” — others that were completely new. Hearing a runthrough of something once live is no way to judge how it will sound on record, but as guitarist Brian Fristoe nestled into the open, winding grooves of his own riffs backed by bassist Scott Thompson and drummer Jesse Bartz while vocalist Jeff Martin soul-man crooned behind, Lo-Pan sounded like Lo-Pan, and yes, I mean that as a compliment. It means the Ohio four-piece have established their sound and know what sides of what they do they want to develop and they’ve set to the work of that. I pulled my earplugs about halfway out for “El Dorado” from 2011’s Salvador (review here), but even the stuff I hadn’t heard before was easy to appreciate. As the hardest-touring band on Small Stone, Lo-Pan lack nothing for presence on stage, and though I almost got cracked in the head by Thompson‘s bass once or twice and when the night was over, I’m pretty sure it was Bartz‘s crash cymbal ringing in my ears, they silver-plattered a reminder of how vital an act they are. It would be premature to say their best days are ahead of them since Colossus is just now in progress, but they showed the room at the Middle East that anything’s possible, even topping Salvador.
Getting to see Texas trio Wo Fat play a packed room was one of the highlights of my Roadburn 2013 (review here), and with their second Small Stone outing (fifth overall), The Conjuring, on the way, brief as it was, their set was no less enjoyable here. At the same time they’re probably the best advertisement for Texan tourism I can think of, it’s probably also a good thing they’re from so far away, otherwise I’d probably wind up saying something like, “Oh, it’s only 10 hours. That’s not too far to drive to see Wo Fat again.” The TSA had rifled through guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump‘s gear, so they had to set everything up from scratch before they got going, but once they did, it was a weekend’s worth of fuzz condensed and served in a three-song can. Bassist Tim Wilson was dug in deep for “The Conjuring,” which took hold following a noisy transition from “Nameless Cults” from their 2013 Cyclopean Riffs split LP with Egypt (review here) and in turn shifted via jam into “Sleep of the Black Lotus” from 2012’s The Black Code (review here), the whole set coming across as one consistent riff and fuzz fest, grounded by the plod of drummer Michael Walter. Wo Fat are masters of getting the most out of a slow stoner groove and pushing it into or out of a faster rush (“The Conjuring” does this really well), and the swamp-voodoo lyrical themes they’ve paired with their Fu Manchu-worthy tonality fits perfectly. They don’t have Lo-Pan‘s road experience, but like their Ohio compatriots, Wo Fat clearly know what works in their approach. They wrapped up with a big rock finish — no other way to do it, really — and suddenly the night seemed too short…
…But the fact of the matter is when you want to round out a party in Boston, Mellow Bravo are the way to go. As noted, it was guitarist Jeff Fultz‘s last show with the band, and they were in top form to say goodbye. Irrepressibly outspoken frontman Keith Pierce warned the audience that they were going long in his honor, and while the local six-piece left the room thoroughly entertained — aside from borrowing my camera to take a house-lights-up shot of the crowd, I also saw Pierce at the bar at one point, and he finished the set in the audience — it was readily apparent that for them this was more than just another show or even a label showcase. For Pierce, keyboardist/vocalist Jess Collins, guitarist Andrew Doherty, bassist/vocalist Seager Tennis and drummer Dave Jarvis, they were losing a bandmate and a friend and paying him bittersweet tribute. That’s how it felt watching, anyhow. I’ve seen Mellow Bravo a few times at this point, as well as Collins and Pierce in their acoustic side-project, Tastefulnudes (live review here), and while this was hardly the tightest, crispest set I’ve watched from them, they gave the night a suitable finale, more or less starting an afterparty while they were still playing. To say the very least of it, it was worth sticking around for.
Other bands had started to pack up, but there was still a good deal of milling about, drinking, band-bonding, etc. going on. It was just hitting two in the morning, which had the bar in get-the-fuck-out mode, so I hiked the several blocks back to my car made my way home, more than a little bummed to know what I’d be missing the next night in Brooklyn but feeling fortunate to have been able to see the show I did.
More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.