Words by: Ryan Dembinsky | Images by: Julie Collins/Rose Mountain Photo
Van Ghost :: 07.29.09 :: Union Hall :: Brooklyn, NY
If you ever need to rattle off a Zen quote to fit in with the hippies at the organic coffee stand or your local yogi studio, look no further than a quick Internet search of the term "harmony." You'll find that long before Coca-Cola's attempt to teach the world to sing, the word harmony rings synonymous with corny axioms of peace and love. Try this one on for size: "Harmony is one phase of the law whose spiritual expression is love." We get it - peaceful, living together, with nature.
|Hartswick & Berg - Van Ghost :: 07.29|
But when it comes to music, specifically with regard to the harmony between multiple vocalists, a deft interweaving of tones and melodies coming together to form soaring chords can translate into a breathtaking performance. That's harmony, and that is what distinguishes Van Ghost as a bright new standout amongst the crowding indie Americana set. When brainchild Michael Harrison Berg and Jennifer Hartswick sing together, it truly is peaceful.
For whatever reason, this band seems honest. Berg's resume over the past few years reads not of various bands and performances but of behind the scenes promoting, managing and producing the music of others. Now, deciding to take his shot with the book of songs that have inevitably been kept stashed in the desk drawer for years, Berg gives it a go with the support of many good musicians and good people, surely a reflection of his efforts on their behalf. For somebody to expend all his efforts behind the scenes with a real dream of playing, there is no doubt a love for simply being a part of it all.
Playing for a rather small room in the Union Hall basement deep in the heart of Brooklyn, Berg sang, "I surround myself with all of my favorite people/ My people are my greatest wealth." Truer words have not been spoken. Of the primary members in Van Ghost, only Jennifer Hartswick and Berg made the trip for the Brooklyn show and the remaining short East Coast run through Burlington, Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The bassist, keyboard player and drummer all performed with the band live for the very first time here and filled in admirably. Sans the pedal steel and occasional strings and horns of their studio work, the results translated to a bit more of an acoustic rock band than an Americana act, but they balanced the set magnificently between highlighting the Van Ghost catalog of radio-ready songwriting and flat out jamming.
|Van Ghost :: 07.29 :: Brooklyn, NY|
The show consisted of roughly half material off the recently released gem, Melodies for Lovers (released August 25 on Split Red), and half brand new material. Further emphasizing the harmony theme, a lot of Van Ghost song structures come in the form of what is the secret to their success, forming songs around relatively basic, spacious chord structures and gradually layering trickling piano melodies, sleepy swooping guitar effects, and of course, the dueling songbirds. This is most evident in keystone album numbers like "Wednesday" and "Summer Promise," both of which sound distinct enough to be lifelong sing-along television theme songs.
Of the new material, the intimate duet "Can't Take It Anymore," the funky reggae "Replaceable Elements" and the evening's second to last number, complete with bonzo end jam, "Return to Innocence," earned highlight honors, but all songs, both new and old, flowed together for a great set with every tune met by a chorus of applause.
|Van Ghost :: 07.29 :: Brooklyn, NY|
Of note, Berg and Hartswick have found a keeper in guitar player Nick Cassarino, a virtuoso overflowing in talent. Look him up; something tells me that Van Ghost will not be letting go of this guy anytime soon. Despite his carefree demeanor and mischievous grinding during his solos, Cassarino plays with a rare ability featuring technical skill, speed, creativity and whatever other good adjectives there are for guitar players. The running joke throughout the night was whether or not Jennifer Hartswick ever played with a better guitarist. We'll leave this debate open ended for another day, but responses were by no means unanimous.
Thinking about the setup of Van Ghost, primarily a Chicago-based band with many members splitting time between Van Ghost and other projects, and then piecing together players for the road, the challenge here would seem to be touring. With essentially a rotating cast of musicians, one would expect Van Ghost to work through the chemistry and availability of the various musicians and settle in on a permanent core in the very near future. With the momentum they have from their live performances, the new album and a ton of friends, good musicians should not be hard to find.
At the close of the evening, it became clear that Chicago's new Americana rock band has carved out their niche and aims to spread far beyond the Windy City. And as usual, the Americana tag does not quite fully capture the feeling of the band. Van Ghost sounds as much at times like Traffic as they do The Jayhawks; as much like Matt Costa as they do Wilco. Van Ghost is an Americana indie Southern rock jam band. And it all works together, in harmony.
Continue reading for more pics of Van Ghost in Brooklyn...