Photos, Audio & Review: Circles Around The Sun & Hola! Perform At Freaks Ball XVIII


Words by: Dianna Hank

Images by: Adam McCullough

Freaks Ball XVII :: Circles Around The Sun & Hola!
01.19.18 :: Brooklyn Bowl :: New York City, NY

On Friday night, Brooklyn Bowl was home to the 18th Annual Freaks Ball, a yearly event hosted by and in celebration of the tastemaking email list known as the NYC Freaks, a group of live music lovers in New York City that has been around for over 18 years.

On the bill for this year’s Freaks Ball XVIII was Hola! and Circles Around The Sun. As both of these bands are solely instrumental, this year was the second consecutive all-instrumental Freaks Ball, following last year’s WOLF! and Benevento/Russo Duo double bill.

Hola! is a NYC-based four-piece group consisting of guitarist Avi Bortnick, bassist Andy Hess, guitarist Scott Metzger and drummer Joe Russo. These artists have been around the scene for years, playing with one another in various iterations all over the city and surrounding boroughs. Bortnick, best known for his long musical association with influential jazz guitarist John Scofield, brought Hess, Metzger and Russo together to form Hola! for the first time in 2016. Since then, they have only played three shows together — the first in 2016 at Nublu Classic, another one year later to the day at the same location, and their most recent at the new Nublu location this past September. While the first two shows shared almost identical setlists, last September’s gig brought some new tunes to the table, which showed that this group had been practicing and was ready to rock.

This past Friday’s show was no different. With the incorporation of the WOLF! song “Humdinger” as well as an original Russo composition entitled “Pond Eel,” it was clear that this band had been getting together to work on some new material since their last gig.

Hola! kicked off the festivities a little after 9 p.m., with the four gentlemen taking the stage in a different configuration than their last few gigs. Russo, shoeless as usual, and Metzger were set up facing each other at opposite ends of the stage, with Bortnick and Hess as the meat of this groove sandwich.

The band kicked off their set with a Hola! staple, “Vespa Rider.” This slow groove let Metzger take the spotlight for the first of many times that evening and showcase his chops. You’d never guess this was the sixth show in seven days for the incredibly hardworking Brooklyn-based guitarist.

Next up was “Bob Barker,” a funky tune reminiscent of a game show theme song, which showcased Bortnick’s bluesy side and gave Russo some space to do what he does best. Following that, a surf rock composition entitled “Pond Eel” found Russo and Hess in a deep pocket together, allowing Metzger to take the lead once again.

After these first three songs, Metzger took to the microphone to welcome everyone and thank us all for coming. The humble musician also mentioned that it happened to be Russo’s 14th Freaks Ball and his own 16th consecutive Freaks Ball, but asked that we, “not make a thing out of it.”

Next up was another Hola! treat called “Come Dancing” followed by “Meter Maid,” a tune inspired by New Orleans-based funk band, The Meters. A softer, sweeter “Lisbon” led into a fun cover of WOLF!’s “Humdinger” on which Metzger truly shined.

A personal favorite, the groovy and percussive “Fast Afro” came next, which had the audience swinging their hips and clapping in unison before giving way to “Fortaleza.” Toward the end of this tune, Bortnick tried to wrap it up a few times but Metzger, having too good of a time, kept going, causing Russo to laugh out loud before bringing the tune to a close. When Metzger and Russo are having a good time on stage, there are few things more fun than watching those two play music together.

“Endless Winter” displayed yet another driving, rock ‘n’ roll rhythm with spacey interludes and a killer drum breakdown before transitioning into the more “jamtronica” portion of the set. “High and Dry” brought about a super fast groove with a punchy drum beat as Russo held it down while Bortnick soloed away before climaxing with an electric peak. Prior to the last two songs, Metzger took to the mic to once again thank everyone for their support over the last many years and to mention how it has literally changed their lives, especially as of late.

Closing the set were additional Hola! originals, “Stoked,” and “Post Disco,” which featured Bortnick taking the lead on these EDM-sounding tunes. Finishing at the exact minute they were supposed to leave the stage, Hola! left the crowd hooting and hollering for more.

Certainly a tough act to follow, but Circles Around the Sun were up for the challenge. And with the majority of the NYC Freaks being fans of the Grateful Dead in one way or another, the inclusion of CATS on a Freaks Ball bill felt like a no-brainer. After a short break, giving Freaks a chance to try to make sense of the almost two hours of rock they had just seen, guitarist Neal Casal took the stage with fellow Circles’ keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy, and the second set of music got underway.

CATS opened their set with a tune called “Scarlotta’s Magnolias,” a song reminiscent of some combination of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias,” “Fire On The Mountain,” and “They Love Each Other,” as well as Phish’s “46 Days,” “Moma Dance,” “Foam,” “Roggae,” and probably more, if you listen closely enough.

“Scarlotta’s Magnolias” lit into a Shakedown-y “Gilbert’s Groove” which started as a funky, spacey groove but eventually developed into a rocker with Casal wailing away on guitar. “Chuck” was an airy, groovy tune that allowed folks to take a breather for a minute. The band then transitioned into a 16-minute long “unknown” tune before eventually landing on the new CATS song, “Afro Brew.” This tighter, heavier funk beat gave way into “Saturday’s Children” followed by “Hallucinate A Solution.” The band left the stage to rousing applause, only to return and encore with “Ginger Says” before leaving the stage for good around 1:30 a.m.

All in all, it was an incredible evening of music. Members of the Freaks Action Network were in attendance, handing out koozies and pins and signing people up for the Live Music Challenge, an effort to use the good feelings we get seeing live music to bring about real change in the world. And with Hola! bringing the heat up front followed by the more mellow sounds of CATS, concert-goers were able to enjoy a wide variety of music from the comfort of Brooklyn Bowl, surrounded by friends, old and new, and familiar faces, on stage and off.

Phots by Adam McCullough

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[Circles Around The Sun – Soundboard/Matrix via Eric McRoberts]

[Hola! – Audience Recording via Keith Antaya]