Words by: Jarrod Dicker | Images by: Rob Chapman
Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 04.16.10 :: Union Hall :: Brooklyn, NY
"We finally have something to sell at the merchandise table," Nathan Moore declared midway through Friday night's set. "After six years, we finally made an official demo. I want to thank Marco Benevento. We appreciate all he's done for us, steering us in the right direction. He's brilliant."
Benevento, in jest, turned to the crowd and smiled, "These dudes are fucked up!"
Surprise Me Mr. Davis is STILL the greatest musical project no one seems to know about. Initially comprised of The Slip (Brad Barr, Andrew Barr, Marc Friedman) and singer-songwriter Nathan Moore (ThaMuseMeant), the foursome has now "officially" become a quintet with experimental rock guru Marco Benevento on keys. With all men on deck, the group managed to construct a long awaited EP, That Man Eats Morning for Breakfast (Royal Potato Family), and a nationwide spring tour to support it.
The weather outside was gray and damp, formulating an ominous aura throughout Park Slope, Brooklyn. Dodging raindrops and puddles, I took a route bowing beneath awnings and trees to reach Union Hall; a former warehouse converted into a two-story bar. The upstairs resembles a library, decorated with bookcases, upholstered furniture and fireplaces. The downstairs, where the stage resides, is smaller and muskier, with portraits of 18th century women and environmental artifacts ornamenting the narrow walls of the bunker-like space.
The opening act, Annie and the Beekeepers, was already onstage when I arrived. Throughout the set, members of SMMD casually perched in the crowd to heed the soft/folky resonance of the string-based trio. After 45 minutes, the Beekeepers said their farewells and exited the stage.
The men of SMMD casually leaked out one after another from behind a black curtain and assembled onstage. They were dressed in formal wear; a corporeal tradition long practiced at their live performances. Fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder vying for position in the cubbyhole setting.
All five members stood center stage and formed a semi-circle. Sans instruments, they kicked off the evening with an acappella version of Moore's "Tombstone," off his 2009 solo record Folk Singer (JamBase review). Here it became visibly clear that Benevento adores collaborating with SMMD, as a smile from ear-to-ear brewed a welcoming mood that resonated throughout the venue. This "official" marriage between Benevento and SMMD could be the prime catalyst the group needs to be socially recognized as one of the top bands in the jam/live music scene; an appointment that is far overdue and richly deserved.
The players took to their instruments and exploded into the emotional blues/funk merger "Papa Came Rolling Home." After brief applause, they jumped into a tune off the new EP. "Roses In Bottles" provides an audible sample for the listener to experience firsthand the unique synthesis of vocalists Brad Barr and Moore harmonizing together. It displays a collaborative resilience which is both original and attractive in its delivery, combining Barr's soft/high manner of singing with Moore's raspy, Tom Waits-style.
In customary SMMD fashion, the band did an about-face and embraced its softer side, playing two light, serene tracks, "Hollow" and "One Sick Knave." Praised by SMMD loyalists for its profound lyrical substance, "One Sick Knave" is also a composition where Brad Barr demonstrates his high pitch guitar shredding, musical layering and intensity driven chord progressions.
After a blissful version of "Emily Green," hints of impending chaos loomed in an elevating drum roll that boiled into SMMD fan favorite "I'm No Good At All." As Moore approached the microphone, Benevento rose to his feet and began to clap above his head, pumping adrenaline through all the hipsters, hippies and various Brooklynites in attendance.
Following a quick breeze through "The Garden," Brad pierced the subtle mood with an upbeat harmonica solo that led into the classic "I Hate Love." The crowd bounced in unison, as handclaps amassed in an off-rhythm yet gracious manner. The closing notes subsided and sparked Benevento and Andrew Barr to roll into the drunken sailor ditty "Home Away From Home." As the song came to a close, the band left their instruments and formed a semi-circle center stage, repeating the refrain acappella to a simmering close: "Oh what a home away/ Oh what a home away from home."
After a breeze through "When a Woman" into "In His Own Worlds," Moore performed a solo acoustic take on "Nowhere From Here to Go." Silence swept the crowd as the rest of the band casually returned to their positions. The band looked on as Benevento began soloing, touching on familiar hooks from his personal repertoire, eventually emerging full throttle into the liberating, hilarious, celebratory hit "The Real Morning Party." The group then slid into protest rant "Sissyfuss" and love-struck "Joelle," ultimately closing the set with the bluesy, outlaw jam "Rubber Ball."
Surprise Me Mr. Davis - cyclical and precise in their playing and demeanor - reformed onstage in the same semi-circle arrangement seen earlier. Humming sparked the encore, with accompanying foot stomps and clapping by all members of the group. The quintet concluded the show with acappella staple "As the Crow Flies."
The only thing that surprised me about Mr. Davis this night was the realization that a band of such high caliber musicianship can still sail so quietly under the radar. What began as a side project between friends has now become a full fledged touring act anchored by musicians as talented as any other on the circuit. Surprise Me Mr. Davis will soon be headlining ballrooms rather than basements, and when they do I'll be the first one in line at the box office. Union Hall, this night, was truly a "home away from home."
Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 04.16.10 :: Union Hall :: Brooklyn, NY
Tombstone*, Papa Came Rolling Home, Roses In Bottles, Hollow, One Sick Knave, Emily Green, I'm No Good At All, The Garden, I Hate Love, Home Away From Home*, When A Woman, Nowhere From here to Go, Real Morning Party^, Sissyfuss, Joelle, Rubber Ball
E: As the Crow Flies*
^ Marco Benevento Song
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