“If you want to dance, it’s all right with us!” That should be the motto at the Boulevard Cafe. This past Valentine’s Holiday weekend in Chicago would not have passed as a normal mid-winter February weekend. This time of year usually finds Chicago locked into a deep windy freeze and the touring live music scene is usually in the doldrums, but this past weekend saw moderate temperatures and scorching sets of music at the Boulevard Café. The Boulevard Cafe has the unique reputation of switching gears and turning from a fine dining restaurant into a first class music club within half an hour and the size of the club lends for intense intimate performances. The weekend brought three special nights of music to this local Chicago hotspot. The featured artist’s included the Frank Catalano Band, Giant People, and Railroad Earth, a powerful solid line-up for anytime of the year.
The weekend began early, as Valentine’s Day fell on a Thursday, which meant after the dinner hour the Boulevard stage is quickly assembled with band gear and instruments and the audience eagerly awaits a special night of music, for joining the Frank Catalano Band this night was none other than Jessica Lurie and Arne Livingston of the Seattle based band The Living Daylights. The combination would prove to be fruitful and powerful. Frank’s band this night consisted of Frank on tenor saxophone, DJ Ajax on Turntable, Danny Leali on Drums and Jay Nayak on Keys. Jessica Lurie played alto saxophone during both sets and Arne Livingston played electric bass guitar during the second set.
They jump-started the set with the Eddie Harris’ “Cold Duck Time” and let it take flight, each band member taking a solo and then stretching the song out together. It clocked in at 17:12 and cooked the entire way through. “Beshma Swing” came next, followed by “Why Me” and “Tuna Town,” which all just burned with high energy all the way through. The fluid harmonies and squonks between Jessica’s alto and Frank’s tenor saxophones, the deft drumming of Danny Leali, Ajax’s turntable scratches adding a fresh ambient edge, and Jay Nayak swinging on keys. “Theme,” ended the first set and was beautifully understated, it proved to be a wonderful choice. During the short break the band mingled with the crowd and anticipation ran high. They did not disappoint! Arne Livingston joined them for this set. They opened with a twenty-three minute version of “Cissy Strut” that I swear they took so far out that I heard elements of “Jean Pierre” during some of the more out there improvising before they brought it all back into the fold and funked it on out until the end. The house was pumping and a lot of people were up and dancing, the band really ripped that song. “Listen” came next and had a nice swinging groove, real fluid, upbeat and laid back, the band played it nice and relaxed, but it was hot just the same. They finished the evening with a nice long New Orleans jam. A nod to Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival and all the fantastic music that has originated and taken place in that city. It was a great show and a unique opportunity to see some of the hot young players on the scene jamming together for the first time.
Then on Friday night Giant People came to town, for an evening of funky soul, hot steamy jazz, and hard-bop groove dance music. This new century soul collective out of San Diego is led by trumpet and effects player Carlos Washington and anchored by the hard driving rhythm section of John Stanten on drums, and Ignacio Arango on electric bass and electric guitars, and in their latest incarnation they brought along Jesse Molloy on tenor saxophone. This band has been described as subtle, fluid, soulful, melodic, and monstrous; this night was no exception. Carlos Washington like the great masters Lee Morgan and Miles Davis has his own unique tone; he is also a master at working a crowd and upping the ante. Getting a chance to see Giant People is a treat in and of itself, but this night to would prove to be full of surprises.
The local funkster’s Lubriphonic opened the evening with a solid set that warmed the crowd up and primed them for the music to follow. A quick intermission followed while band gear was rearranged and adjusted. They opened the short first set with a hauntingly familiar tune that allowed the band to warm up and flex its muscles while setting the mood for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to obtain a set list, so this is mainly a review of impressions. The next tune featured some beautiful guitar runs and melodic tenor saxophone solos. Due to time constrictions they closed the first set with the classic Greyboy Allstar’s “Soul Dream,” which gave the entire band a chance to shine. The second set began with the added bonus of Frank Catalano who joined the band on tenor saxophone. They began a slow burn of a jam that built in intensity, fueled from the combined efforts of dueling brass trio that formed the frontline. The ripping notes tore forth working the crowd, as each member pushed the song further, subtly weaving in and out of one another’s phrases. John Stanten and Ignacio Arango anchored it all together with their propulsive back-beat. Then Carlos called Marty and J.R. from Lubriphonic to sit in with them on Keyboards and conga respectively. The song continued to build and swell allowing each member in turn, a chance to take a solo and improvise.
Now that the extended band had swelled to seven members Carlos said it was, “time to play a booty shaking number” and they went into a tune that I believe is an old Stevie Wonder song and served it up red hot. They played two more numbers before finishing up their set, both of which sounded dynamite. Then the band came back on and played an extended three-song encore. Everyone got up and danced for this last blast musical brilliance and the evening was at closing time. It was a fantastic night of music with awesome jamming by everyone, the guest appearances a welcome addition, and the overall interplay among all the musicians was in peak form. Giant People always play passionate at the Boulevard Café, which Carlos Washington said, is their “Chicago home.” The music they laid down that night was quite indicative as to why they feel that way.
Then finally, on Saturday night Railroad Earth rolled into Chicago, for their first performance here. There has been plenty of advance buzz on this finely honed sextet from Stanhope, New Jersey over the previous nine months, but this would be my introduction to their music. I might be mistaken, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that their name is a nod to Jack Kerouac's "October and the Railroad Earth.” Kerouac’s beautiful prose piece that reflects the work-a-day everyman’s observations and his hopes, dreams, and struggles on the sidewalk of Friday night in the universe; this certainly applies to Railroad Earth’s music, as well, with their intelligent songs of experience, trial, tribulation, redemption, and rebirth. Forming in early 2001, the band is composed from some of the best players from the Western New Jersey and Pennsylvania area and notably from the bands; From Good Homes, The Blue Sparks From Hell, and The Hour, among others. Railroad Earth’s line-up consists of Todd Sheaffer on acoustic guitar and vocals, John Skehan on acoustic mandolin and acoustic guitar, Carey Harmon on drums, percussion, and vocals, Dave Von Dollen on upright acoustic bass, Andy Goessling on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, pennywhistle, and saxophone, and Tim Carbone on violin, acoustic guitar and vocals.
Touring in support of the Black Bear Sessions compact disc, Railroad Earth laid down two tasty sets of music. It was immediately apparent why there is such strong word of mouth support for this group. The three-part harmonies and instrumental diversity was both impressive and delightful and thrilled the packed house. I have always been a firm believer that if something is good, it’s good, no matter what handle one attaches to it, and Railroad Earth is great; transcending the handles of bluegrass, rock, and folk, of which their music contains elements of each, to find their own unique voice. They play traditional sounding originals, as well as putting their own personal stamp on the covers they choose to play. Both their sets Saturday night at the Boulevard Café displayed the full range of their combined talents and showcased a band that is growing and evolving by leaps and bounds, emerging into a tight knit unit as they continue their journey and forge their own place among rootsy American music.
It was a great three nights of food and music at the Boulevard Café. I was able to witness a little bit of history in the making as some of the top young jazz players had an opportunity to meet and jam together and see a new band with real potential. The Boulevard Café has always nurtured the jam atmosphere and that weekend was a spectacular example of that vibe in action. On top of that, I already see that the Boulevard’s calendar contains return engagements with two the above mentioned bands: Frank Catalano Band and Giant People. If you are not in the Chicago area be sure to check the listings of when these bands tour, they are all hot and not to be missed.