Drew Gibson - Tonight, it's a review of two sets of music and one brand new club just five blocks from where I live. First impressions of the Hamilton are positive. It is basically a more formal version of the Birchmere with slick seating and a stage and light show that would suit the classiest lounge. There may be a tad less seating than the Birchmere but a lot more than at the Ram's Head in Annapolis. They also have a dance area right in front of the stage which makes for a better environment and sight lines are good.
And they have booked an excellent area folk singer-songwriter to open things up. I saw Drew Gibson with a band at Iota, but tonight it will just be Gibson with acoustic guitar and voice. He tells me this approach is more frequently used. And he easily has the quality songs that work in both formats. His finger-style guitar work is excellent and as I mentioned before in reviews of his live work and album, he can really write some masterful songs at times. It was a little tricky bringing this to a big stage as this club was a lot noisier than the Birchmere. I felt like I was in the Black Cat or Rock'n'Roll Hotel for a while. Part of the problem was their noisy bar in the back--the Birchmere has their sit down bar in an entirely different room. But Gibson kept the crowd involved easily enough with his quality songs, playing, and irreverently humorous banter. His style reminds me most of Michael Chapman, although I have a lot more trouble doing folk comparisons. Rock comparisons are much easier as there is too much personality in folk. At least there is plenty of personality for the quality performers such as Drew Gibson. That is evident once again.
And it was nice having a brief chat with before the show, even if he did confuse me by his resemblance to Jello Biafra. Thankfully, Drew actually used the art of listening in this conversation.
The Black Lillies - This band is built around singer/guitarist/pianist Cruz Contreras. His past includes some other bands that did not work out, but the Black Lillies seem to be building a nice following. And based on tonight's show, it is easy to see why. I was a bit worried early from the overall sound of the line-up that featured a drummer, bass player (stand-up and electric), a female vocalist and sometime acoustic guitarist, along with a pedal steel player who alternated with electric guitar. Contreras sang and played acoustic guitar before adding some piano late in the set. The problem early on was that although the vocals were good, things were a bit too country and the only instrument that had any flourish in the playing was the pedal steel. The guy sometimes added some good low notes to his playing so I found it better than most (although this instrument starts with lower expectations for me). But when he switched to electric guitar and the bass player went electric and showed more funk and rock, things picked up in a hurry. It never got to that 'Pentangle vibe' with masterful players showing off lead skills, but the accompanying sounds were solid and the lead guitarist was both highly skilled and quite creative. The songs and vocal work were outstanding and ultimately, they get great credit from playing country, alt-country, Americana, and rockers. There was plenty of distinction within their clear vision and I was reminded of Dave Alvin more than once. Contreras did a solo piano number to change things around even more. And when he played piano with the band, I did hear more Pentangle like interplay among three of them. They played 98 minutes and then came back for a two-song encore and had the crowd pulled in the whole time. This very solid band is from Knoxville, which I think is great that they are not from Nashville. It's akin to seeing a band from Syracuse or Buffalo instead of Brooklyn (which I don't think has happened to me yet, although I've seen a few hundred from Brooklyn). All it takes is a little creativity and ability to rock out and good bands can slip in some country and keep me happy. This band made it all work.
Quote of the Night: Drew Gibson parodying the pre-show announcement for the crowd to turn off their ringers on cellphones, but snap a picture... "Ladies and gentleman, please take out your cell phones and take a picture of me on this awesome stage."