Somewhere on the 30-minute drive between Princeton, NJ and New Hope, PA lies the nexus of Phish and Ween. Princeton is the childhood home of Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall, and New Hope remains the home of Dean and Gene Ween. Based in those two towns and the ones in between are a number of artists, many of whom are informed to some extent of Phish and Ween or at least draw their inspiration from both the alternative rock and jamband scenes in varying mixes.
At the center of all this is singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Chris Harford. If Marshall and the Ween boys are the local scene's big names, then Harford is its soul, thanks to his emotional songs, hard-rocking but improvisational performances, and willingness to mentor the area's younger musicians. Harford has been a fixture of the indie-rock scene since the early '80s -- he has collaborated with Ween and even released a major-label album in 1992 -- but probably was not known to most jamband fans until he joined Marshall's band Amfibian last year.
To showcase the talents of himself and his colleagues, Harford organized a seven-act bill that performed Saturday night at New York's legendary CBGB. The night was called Chris Harford Presents and featured The Saras, f-hole, Squalor, Mark Mulcahy, RANA, Jessie Harris, and Chris Harford & the Band of Changes. The event was a great success, offering much to like regardless of whether you come to a show to hear outstanding songs, energetic rocking or spine-tingling jamming.
The Saras, led by singer/songwriter/keyboardist Stephanie Sanders and
singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Solloway, offer a selection of bouncy pop
songs with elegant, swinging arrangements. Harford, who produced their debut album, backed them along with Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz and Squalor drummer Mike Kinsey. Saturday's performance had a bit more punch than many of their sets I had seen previously, with Solloway playing electric guitar as often as acoustic guitar, and the band executing a perfectly played cover of the Beatles' "Lovely Rita," as well as strong versions of originals like "Deliah" and "Salvage."
Next came f-hole, an instrumental trio consisting of three of Harford's
Amfibian bandmates, bassist Matt Kohut, guitarist Scott Metzger and drummer
J.P. Wasicko. They draw equally from improvisational rock, alternative
"post-rock" along the lines of Tortoise, and jazz. Here, they emphasized
their hard-rock side, opening with a forceful version of their most
propulsive song, "Go Left." But they left each other lots of room to stretch out and to change moods as they saw fit; one song seemed to shift
effortlessly to a new genre with almost every measure.
Squalor, a side project of Harford's, is known primarily for two things: the rarity and the loudness of their performances. Harford only convenes the band, consisting of guitarist Eric Shaneson and bassist Tom Murphy in addition to Harford and Kinsey, a few times each year. While Saturday's performance was again heavy on the volume, the unit played tightly and tunefully, and seemlessly integrated Metzger, who sat in for the entire set. They offered amped-up versions of Harford favorites like "Raise the Roof" and "If I Can't Turn to You," but the highlight was "Curious One," which featured a ballistic bass solo by Murphy and a turn-on-a-dime detour into a verse of "Purple Haze."
Mark Mulcahy, who came down from New England to join the festivities, has known Harford since the '80s, when he led the college-rock band Miracle Legion. While Miracle Legion inspired comparisons to REM in its day, Mulcahy's performance on Saturday seemed to draw more of its sound from Lou Reed. Accompanying himself on guitar and backed only by a drummer, Mulcahy displayed a world-weary vocal tone, an elegant lyricism, and a lean but full sound.
It would not be surprising if RANA ends up being the band that takes the scene's hard-rock-fused-with-improv ethos to the masses. The quartet, consisting of Metzger, bassist Andrew Southern, keyboardist Matt Durant and drummer Ryan Thornton, has infectious enthusiasm, charismatic stage presence, breathtaking versatility, and a pointed, powerful style of jamming that it calls "stretching." All its strengths were on display on Saturday, from the thrash of "Carson Daly" to the funk-rap "Ghetto Queen" to the Talking Heads-inspired "Baby's Got a New Bike" to the awe-inspiring jazz-rock instrumental "Smile." A small legion of the band's college-age supporters attended, making for a crowd that matched the energy coming from the stage.
Jessie Harris is a purveyor of sometimes moody but always breathtakingly gorgeous acoustic songs, delivered in a voice that sounds uncannily like Paul Simon's. Backed by a stand-up bassist and a drummer, Harris successfully walked the line of being quiet and mellow without being wimpy or boring. Harris ended his set with a cover of The Band's "Bessie Smith," but the originals that proceeded it were equally compelling.
Harford closed the night out with a set by his primary group, the Band of
Changes. "Changes" being the operative word there. The group's lineup (often including Dean Ween, but not on this night) shuffles from show to show, as so many of the scene's musicians are familiar with Harford's repertoire and he can call on them as needed. On Saturday, the lineup shuffled from song to song, and eventually began to change in the middle of songs. Yet no one missed a beat, and Harford expertly led his charges through roaring rockers like "Into the Universe" and "Ouch" and heartfelt slower songs like "Joe Strummer's Midnight Dream." But the biggest fireworks were saved for the finale, "Leaf of Fall," which has become Harford's signature song and always extracts impassioned performances from him and whomever he plays with. Harford invited anyone who wanted to come up onstage, resulting in a mind melting all-star jam, from the guitar dueling by Harford and Metzger to the keyboard duetting by Sanders and Durant.
The finale, and the entire event, were emblematic of the strengths of Harford and everyone in the Princeton/New Hope scene who is inspired by him. While not embracing superficial affectations, the musicians nonetheless offer a sense of community with their constant support of one another. While working in differing genres, they nonetheless share an adventurous spirit. We should all consider ourselves lucky if Harford ever organizes another night like this one.
JamBase NYC Correspondent
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