Thursdays are one of the best nights for live music. The performers are on top of their game and the audiences are comprised of people who want to experience live music, and not necessarily shout to their friends with self-monitoring impaired by weekend revelry. When I was invited to see Travers Brothership and The Fritz at Visulite Theatre in Elizabeth on a Thursday, I jumped at the chance. Their set at Neighborhood Theatre in March was still on my mind, and my temporal cortex was pleading to be tickled. If anyone can tickle my temporal cortex, it’s Travers Brothership.
The band took the stage: Kyle Travers on guitar, his brother Eric on percussion, Ian McIsaac on the keys, and Josh Clark on bass. They began funky and kept the groove going for a scintillating set of auditory pyrotechnics in greens and pinks. Eric played the drums as heavy as a time card punch on a Thursday morning while Ian teased the keys with such spirit as to lift you up like a three day weekend. As Kyle brought his guitar up from a slow, low murmur to a wild frenzy of notes, everyone in the band got into it: four musicians in various states of movement, sharing a groove. It seemed they did this effortlessly, spinning the air into gold like a troupe in a fairy tale trope.
The band cranked up “Hold My Name,” Kyle getting frisky with his guitar and Josh snarling the lyrics, hungry, and demonstrative, I been having good feelings ‘bout how this type of hurting should feel…. The youthful voice behind a veil of experience instantly grabbed the attention of everyone present, holding the audience in an invisible yet powerful grip. Josh wore a hat with a feather in it, as if to keep his sensuality from escaping out the top of his head, so he could graciously share it with the crowd of happy people as they melting under the spell of his voice. At the bridge, the keys elevated Josh to a celestial boudoir, and Kyle filled the air with a marvelous multitude of notes. Kyle’s red guitar glittered under the lights like a burlesque dancer’s sequins, drawing attention to the extraordinary mind-finger-guitar rendezvous that transformed kinetic to acoustic before our very lucky eyes.
As the song came to a powerful end, the sound continued to pour from the band. Eric took over vocals to sing with a sound like the frostbitten certainty of someone who knows where they’re going on a snowmobile. The band played on, and the guitar sounded like it only sounds when played by someone who has eaten their share of brisket and lived through their share of sorrows. Josh took another turn on the mic, delivering scuttled vocals, once again directed from that place deep inside where one feels the blues the most. He turned it into something beautiful. I’m interested to see what he’ll sound like at 80. Kyle’s mastery of those blues intervals, sped up for a high energy performance, stunned toques at a party or the sweet switch between ice cream and hot chocolate.
In another round of musical prodigy chairs, Kyle jumped on keys and Ian on percussion, clearing the way for Eric to deliver the vocals, so steeped in soul they were dripping. Josh plucked out a bassline, weaving it into the rest of the sound like threads in a fine espadrille. This band is a remarkable collection of kindred souls who understand the marriage underlying a rich life: that between love and sorrow.
The band struck up another song, starting easy like a walk on a sunny Saturday morning. Josh’s vocals were textured and just meaty enough, like a good bolognese. The drums were a series of thick beats, like linguine, and I was suddenly overcome with the desire to slurp the sound up in between the invisible tines of time. At times, Eric moved so fast I strongly suspect he is capable of drumming the speed at which individual beats become indistinguishable to the human ear, a Travers Buzz, if you will. Kyle & Ian switched back so Eric could plead, Oh baby don’t you do it. Don’t do it. Don’t you break my heart. With Kyle backing the audience witnessed a fraternal supplication to be kind to his heart. Kyle reiterated the point – more strongly, as Eric delivered those powerful vocals, dripping with soul, while drumming. (I bet he is really good at patting his head while rubbing his abdomen. He must have an incredible corpus callosum.)
Another switcheroo and Josh was on vocals. His arytenoids tilted in a way that would make Don Quixote swoon. Then he brought the soul down low and played a bass solo that was pure magic. What a treat to watch him get those thick strings moving in such a pleasing way, so fast, so heartfelt. The whole band built up the tension, Kyle coaxing notes – nay, words, out of his guitar, more meaningful than any tweet that’s read on the evening news. The mood was communal; we were all sharing a special spectacle together, drums like popcorn were passed around, topped with Josh’s buttery vocals.
The band began to play “Clothes on My Back,” and I knew I was in for something good by the way Kyle bit his lip with each note. This is the rock of the People, of those who live a hardscrabble life with glee. The performance dripped like swamp-dwelling cypress trees, extoling the virtues of survival in the swirling frivolity of fast living and slowing down when it’s worth it to stop and marvel at the surroundings. The verses were punctuated by Kyle’s six string alchemy (he is a performer who goes to the edge and back while on stage… I wonder what his driving record is like), and the crowd swooned.
Then the guys struck up a slow amble with their instruments. The guitar played a curiously comedic ho-hum melody you might hear on a sitcom when sitcoms were worth watching. Then the bass came in like a shot of expensive whiskey; it warmed and started a slow burn. Ian gave it a psychedelic vibe, like a vague memory, but so much better. As Kyle worked slowly. moving up the neck of his guitar, when his hand arrived dangerously close to the neck pickup, the instrument, as if speaking in tongues on a Sunday morning, exploded into a primordial communication that crossed barriers into another, more soulful world.
Like seaweed with the tide moving in, the soul moved aside for something more aggressive and loud, slowing down at the chorus for the kind of electric sound that brings to mind visions of antiquated denim and communing with nature. Josh played his bass like a ping pong champ plays the table – the super fast kind, here and there at once.
The final note was everything and nothing; it might have been the big band on the final slurp to finish off a milkshake universe, but no one in the audience seemed to care. Travers Brothership seemed to freeze time, unbeknownst to the audience, walk among them, smile at what they had created, then return to their spots on stage to keep the show rocking and rolling. Mikey Spice from The Fritz apparated to hop on the drums. Ian and Mikey worked like tapenade and crostini. The fivesome played an instrumental that threatened to burn the stage down. The show was big, powerful, and unforgettable.
The band from Asheville, who happened to be celebrating their fifth anniversary as a band, played an energetic set, with mountain funk and human soul. If you haven’t listened to their music yet, check out their debut album, titled A Way to Survive. Or even better, see them live. Travers Brothership is a band with shows that come at you with hurricane-force winds, knocking you off your feet and into the air for a couple hours, only set you gently back down at the end. Wear a windbreaker… and some dancing shoes.
Then, it was time for The Fritz. The Asheville-based band tore through the air with funky synth waves of sound. They created layers of sound like an obsessive composter tends to organic matter, with the bass thick enough to cushion the repetitive falls involved in backflip practice and the guitar crying out in ecstasy. The Fritz must have a special communion with the moon, for the funk came in waves, enough to convert the most staid of party poopers. With synth forging new paths in my neurocircuitry, movement was uncontrollable. The rest of the audience shared the sentiment, I saw, as the young longhaired youths grouped at the musicians’ feet wiggled and writhed.
The band delighted and surprised, with the kind of bass you want to wake up to in the morning, Jamar Woods’s vocals pleasantly puncturing the sheets of funk that were whipping at every tympanic membrane in the room like a cold, windy rain that lashes at your face and reminds you you’re alive.
Sometimes the disorder in the universe conspires and the result is unexpectedly, unavoidably, just the thing you didn’t know you were looking for. Toward the end of a week where I’ve been diving into synthwave (coming up occasionally for air with some Rostropovich), The Fritz was just the thing I didn’t know I needed. With one part funk, one part synth, some killer percussion, and a guitarist and [five-string] bassist to put the curves in your paisley, this band can put the spring in your step, enchant you into mistakenly stepping in gum, and kindly peel off the offending substance.
In “Casual Mistakes,” authoritative but reasonable vocals partied with the bassline. The guitar stepped in, like a bboy proving his cred with some unique moves. The groove was infectious, a build-your-own-sundae with a percussion base and all the toppings: hot, fudgy bass, light whipped guitar, and the keyboard/synth/vocals like the mutant triple cherry on top. (And I mean mutant in a good way.)
Then the band played “Easier.” The guitar and keys worked in tandem to create a sound filling like pork belly while the drums stayed nearby, like the fried green beans on the side. On a break from the vocals, the band took a foray into psychedelic territory, knocking on the door of the eternally electric, paradoxically clearing the fuzz from the lint trap of my mind with a giant ball of fuzz.
Then the funk came hard and fast. Guitar notes in dizzying staccato swaggered up to the drums to deliver a rhetorical greeting. Jamar has the vocal control and the crowd control to accomplish remarkable things. The crowd at Visulite Theatre wasn’t huge, but he could hold a crowd. He, Jake O’Connor, and Jamie Hendrickson left the stage, leaving only Michael Tillis on drums and Mikey on percussion. The two played together, separately, and together again, in a round robin of rhythmic exploit. The two created something more engaging than when a singular drummer is left to his or her own devices on stage; the give-and-take yielded the kind of excitement that appeared during that brief evolution of internet ads in the form of games resembling duck hunt (shoot the duck, win an iPod!). The rest of the band reappeared, just to create the full, delicious sound of a shared groove.
“Stuck in Between” began with a Southern guitar riff, but with a funky crunch. Jamar’s vocals were pleading, injected with the force of the strong drums, keyboard soaring downward, like the flight path of a sturdy paper airplane. This band has a sound that plays with gravity. The melodies challenge that status quo of things tending toward the center; but the combined groove is like your first time in a Genie: rising up, up, up, past the rooftops, past the clouds, to a spacious existence among the stars.
With another song came a shot for Jamar. He took it graciously, and delivered the vocals of a well-hydrated man. When he hit the keys for a solo that could put geometric shapes into the vision of anyone, I suddenly understood what Kyle Travers had meant when he told me Jamar was “one in a million.”
Jamar straightened some of his hairs in the front as he spoke of the spirit that lives within us all. This is a man who knows his way around the jungle James Brown sang of, but has the power to find his way out whenever it’s time for him to deliver. Jamie played a delightful guitar solo, which sent the audience into convulsions until Jamar, a hypnotist reversing a trance, roused them from the rhythmic revelry. Jamar played an homage to Chris Cornell, leaning towards a nostalgic ragtime beat. It felt right. It felt like a ray of sunshine for the dreary mourners.
The band played on, a whirlwind of funky beats and danceable tunes. Jamar sets himself apart as the sort of musician who could be huge while using an unpronounceable symbol as his eponym. His love for sound, rhythm, and the people who enjoy all those things shines through, and the musical result is indescribable. If you are every in the path of The Fritz, stop and listen. Your life will be changed.