Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Niagaras Farewell Show - August 15, 2008

According to their press materials The Niagaras have been called "The greatest unsigned band in New York" and I have to agree. Now the Niagaras, who have been performing wildly energetic live shows to delighted and fiercely loyal fans and newcomers alike in New York City as well as the occasional tours out of town (read Europe) for longer than some 'signed' bands have been alive (which says much about the dumbing down of the music industry), have finally decided to call it a wrap and venture into new territory.

Rather than perform their 'last waltz' in one of the many familiar and long-established venues they've played in over the years they chose to say good-bye in a relatively new space, Gavin DeGraw and Duggins King's The National Underground on East Houston Street. It's a small-ish space perfect for fostering the type of audience-to-band intimacy that the Niagaras are well-known for. However this farewell show could have been held in Central Park and and still maintained that intimacy, it's just how The Niagaras work. There is something good karma inspiring about ending such a long run in such a new venue because although the Niagaras as an entity may be no more, the members of the band are certainly continuing on with new projects.

Having arrived early enough I was happily ensconced inside once the band started to play but friends who were not so lucky arrived too late and were actually turned away at the door. No it was not some velvet rope nonsense, one assumes that would not hold well with the Niagaras - especially since at one point lead singer Robert Whaley actually left the stage and hit the street during at least one song. Not an entirely unknown turn of events as Mr. Whaley has been known to run through streets in the Village playing his trumpet to passersby (while his band holds down the fort inside until his return). So no velvet ropes here. But apparently occupancy limits had been reached (let's face it this is New York City, the occupancy limits were very likely doubled by the time they opted to bar the door.) Given the close quarters and the insane energy level inspired by the band and Whaley's innate kineticism and humor it is astounding how well-behaved the crowd remained - even while dancing, as much as one could dance in a space that was quite clearly not at all designed for dancing.

Despite the inherent sadness one might expect at a final performance, the mood over all was one of happiness. I had a feeling that this is what it might have been like to be in a room full of Shakers, or Sufi Dervishes or any number of other ecstatic religious groups. But with none of the guilt or shame one associates with any organized religious group, only the happy, blissful delight of being in the moment and feeling a part of something bigger than yourself.

There was also an air of old home week as Whaley called various Niagaras alumni to come onstage one by one and sit in. Niagaras' regular drummer, the talented Dylan Wissing, graciously gave up his seat for two previous drummers, Frank Whaley and Paul Capuzzo and then joined them - one drum kit, three drummers. Bass player Gary Ptak deserves kudos for keeping perfect pace with so many varied drumming styles. Aaron Wyanski added layers of sound with his keyboards bringing in unexpected and yet completely appropriate styles from piano bar Gershwin to early '70s psychedelia. Thomas Hutchings' saxophone upped the ante on Whaley's trumpet bringing to mind a channeling of Sam Butera and Louis Prima at their finest, and wildest. And all of this underscored by the masterful, driving lead guitar and inspired (and sometimes improvised) vocals of Tony Grimaldi whose onstage rapport, banter and song writing with Whaley are the crux of the Niagaras.

It did appear they were videotaping and recording this event which was a wise move - I imagine that roomful of fans, as well as those who waited patiently on the street to get in and those who simply could not get in, will be quite happy to get their hands on a copy of those recordings.

While the sensational Niagaras will no longer be performing, some members of the band will be continuing on with Robert Whaley in his new venture Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak which they describe as a "piano-driven, soul-influenced band" which promises to continue the Niagaras tradition while breaking new ground. After the show I saw Friday night it is a certainty that I will check out this new endeavor and I highly recommend any music lovers in the New York City vicinity who want to see seriously talented musicians make hard work look like child's play do likewise.

The Niagaras
Comic Tales of Tragic Heartbreak
Dylan Wissing
Aaron Wyanski
Thomas Hutchings

Monday, August 4, 2008

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends: An Anti-Social Comedy - July 20, 2008

I went into Larry Kunofsky's "Hate All Your Friends" expecting an antagonistic bleakness. Yeah, good attitude.

I was pleasantly wrong. "Hate All Your Friends" is funny, funny stuff! I am quick to leave at intermissions if I feel like I've put in enough time during the first act and see nothing interesting coming down the pike, I'm happy to say that I was glued to my seat here. I consistently laughed out loud and that is not a common occurrence at the theater for me.

The base of the story is meeting between Matt, played hilariously by Todd D'Amour,
who has decided that he despises and loathes everyone in his life and that he has no friends and a cult-like group of "friends" who are more of a society with firm rules and regulations than a true group of like-minded individuals who care for and support each other. Their points and ranking systems for who is their best friend (for any given time period) is complex and often disturbing - but funny throughout.

The cast is quite a talented group all of whom are blessed with great comic timing. Since several double up on roles, the costuming
(Melissa Trn) - different bright and happy colors for different characters - is a nice visual assist to the audience.

The end of the play seems a bit out of place, not so much that it's really bothersome, but that is the only thing I can come close to saying is amiss in this very funny, thought-provoking piece.

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends
The Lion @ Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
(between 9th & 10th Avenues)
New York, NY 10036

Performance Dates:
July 19, 2008 - August 23, 2008