Cornmeal is received with welcome arms across southeast

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Cornmeal
Cosmic Charlie’s & 12th and Porter
Lexington, KY & 12th and Porter
February 23-24, 2011


Cornmeal’s steady climb to success has been without significant national airplay, YouTube hits or even orchestrated media blitzes.  Instead, the Chicago based band has ground out an intensive touring schedule and honed their sound —a mixture of bluegrass instrumentation with rock and progressive jazz sensibilities— with unrelenting energy and passion, unapologetic in its range and bombast.

Nights on the road give way to weeks that give way to years.  For some, this way of life can wear the physical and emotional body down, but for the members of Cornmeal, it’s simply business as usual. It  and is a price that they have and continue to willingly pay to keep making the music that they love and to keep the circle of love that has grown between them and the rabid fan base that supports them intact.

IMG_6086.jpgBy gaining their acclaim the honest way, Cornmeal is riding an ever growing wave of appreciation. Embracing their idiosyncrasies rather than homogenizing their sound has allowed them to find their own voice and strengthen individual talents so as to better contribute to the whole.  The last addition to the band, percussionist John-Paul Nowak, has helped the band make a considerable leap in stage presence over the last few years by bringing a cohesive backdrop for the exploration of the more melodic members.   Bassist and founder Chris Gangi quickly formed a wonderful working relationship with the rhythmic Nowak, the resonance of the upright bass he favors matching the driving nature of the percussion to create a propulsive platform on which the sonic assault is staged.  The drummer Nowak’s elder brother Kris has benefited greatly from the addition of his sibling to the lineup, allowing him to liberally mix effects that transform his acoustic guitar into an amplified weapon of destruction, seeking the center of a song and turning it into a sonic ground zero.  Exploring the range and diversity that the banjo has to offer, Dave Burlingame brings a wandering music spirit to the squad.  Rounding out the band and acting as a visual and auditory lightning rod is the bouncing ball of violin mayhem, Allie Kral.  Her classical training, ferocious playing and clear affection for the lonesome sound of the fiddle make her the perfect person for a unit as adventurous as Cornmeal.

This heady combination of skill sets hasn’t gone unnoticed by the music community at large.  This year alone, they are on the line-ups of over a dozen music festivals and are being booked in larger and larger rooms, filling them to capacity with a diehard fan base.  Their following, self-coined the Cornstalkers, lives up to its sobriquet. They follow the band across the nation, ensuring that smiling familiar faces will always be visible from the stage.

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Lexington, 2/23/11

On this night in Lexington, the Stalkers threw the band a potluck dinner. The bar tables groaned at the weight of the dishes that were filled with everything from pasta salad, to sandwiches, stuffed mushrooms and a massive amount of cupcakes.  The band milled about with their devoted Stalkers; issuing heartfelt thanks at the bounty their seeds of love had produced.  After fully stuffing themselves and tackling sound check, it was time for the opening act.

Cornmeal, being a band of so many facets, can choose among a wide variety of styles and genres in picking an opener.  Generally giving a local band an opportunity to open the night, they generously share the stage anyone who they feel would fit for a night.  For their Lexington, KY show at Cosmic Charlie’s, they chose local favorites Sour Mashers Jug Band, a traditional bluegrass act who performed a mixture of originals and traditional songbook classics, including “Goodnight Irene” which proved to be a crowd favorite.

With the preamble fully written on the last note of the Jug Band, the crowd surged towards the stage and greeted Cornmeal with an enthusiasm that was deafening and heartwarming all at once.

Taking the stage, they immediately launched into a high energy tune and in turn, the crowd reached their arms to the air and moved their feet to the sounds.  When you have a travelling fan base seeing you regularly, it’s a difficult thing to pull together a setlist. When asked what they did to keep it fresh, Chris Gangi replied, “We keep lists, and post all our setlists to setlist.com.  We really don’t want to repeat ourselves.  And you have to keep a proper flow.  No one wants to hear—or sing—five fast numbers in a row!”

IMG_6024_edited_1.jpg The Lexington show played out with a wild exploratory feel.  Each song stretched out with a long psychedelic break here or a revved up breakneck bluegrass run there; even an entire song in a distinctly Ragtime signature that had the dancers twirling.  After an hour and a half, a pleasant announcement was made: the first set was over, but there was to be a full second set to follow.

A short break later and they were back with bassist Chris Gangi taking a few moments to thank the fans who had thrown together the earlier group supper, remarking “it’s very special to us to have folks like you come out and support us. It makes everything we’re doing that much easier. You might see some [Cornstalkers] covered in stickers. They’re good folks, trust me.  You should say hi.”

Dropping Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” like a bomb, the song that was popularized by Old & in the Way, Jerry Garcia Band and String Cheese Incident, served as the opening number of a sandwiched “Stuck in the Mud” that reached a crescendo with an apocalyptic cover of The Doors classic “When the Music’s Over.”  Above all else, The Doors tune illustrated their dexterity as the crispness of Burlingame’s runs and trills took the place of the organ in a way that one would never have expected to work. However, work it did. The drums simmered and cooked, erupting along with Burlingame version of the Morrison/Manzarek histrionics.  Over it all, a counterpoint was established between Kral’s smooth bowing magnificence and Nowak’s picking crispness-asking and answering the same question from different angles.

IMG_6150.jpg A sad crowd begged for one, two, or in the case of one enthusiastic voice, “ten more songs!” (You have to admire that kind of hope), but alas the show came to a close. As they always do, the band returned to the concert floor soon after, personally greeting and thanking all who had waited to say hi and shake a hand.

Hearing promises of undying love and posing for pictures with the people, it became clearer than ever before how they have gotten to this point in their career: by caring as much for their listeners as the listeners do for them.

Finally pulling away to pack up the bus for the next show, it was time to move on to the next destination and our second stop on the Cornmeal Road Trip: Music City itself, Nashville.

Nashville, 2/24/11

In their decade of existence, Cornmeal has played extensively in Nashville and they have had plenty of opportunities to build a rabid group of Stalkers in the area.  With the constant deluge of live shows every night, watching the 12th and Porter  fill to the brim on a down pouring Thursday night was a visual testimonial to the draw that the band has become.

Due to damage incurred during last year’s flooding the walls streamed with water. A few roof leaks sprung up, and one look out the windows or opened doors showed that no sane person was venturing anywhere while this massive opening of the heavens raged on.  Luckily, the evening’s opening act, a heavy rock outfit, Diga, was on hand to bring a youthful fire to the night and defiance to the elements through sheer rock energy.  Their drummer, Eli Stone was particularly impressive, enthusiastic and spot on with his fills and snare work.  The cheers following each song grew louder and the crowd was squarely in their camp by the end of their final number.

Having put on one of their more memorably protracted and jam based shows in recent memory on the previous night; it was no surprise that this night seemed to crack with sharp energy and precise bursts of Cornmeal goodness.

The night’s songs read like the basis for a Cornmeal greatest hits album, with a “Rise Above” that scaled itself to massive heights. Stickered Cornstalkers danced in the crowd, tagging new fans as the moments of the various musical epiphanies struck them throughout the show.

IMG_6368.jpgThe stage itself was a bit of a marvel. With a built in drum riser and a series of high powered moving lights attached to an arching frame work shell that bent up along the curve of the roof gave the show a “Big Night” feel that fit in well with the band’s decision to go with a number of crowd favorites.

One such gem, their rendition of the Talking Heads “Naïve Medley (This must be the Place)”that began with its ever-recognizable deeply intonated  bass line solemnly played by Gangi gave way to Allie’s violin that served the keyboard line of the original to heart wrenching effect.  Harmonizing often throughout the show, with all but John-Paul joining in, their voices blended particularly well on this tune. Hence it has become one of the more requested covers shouted by frenetic fans.  On this night Kral embodied the line “you’ve got light in your eyes”  with sparked jewels and golden, glittery eye shadow applied prior to the show—a dash of ladylike bling.  Make no mistake though, Allie is no dainty flower. She jumps and wheels, launching into the air like a mad super ball unable to come to rest.

These five people, working together musically can be a crashing beast of a band and it is a fearful thing to see the rage they barely hold back at times.  Typically they end with a flourish and this night was no different. The cymbals received new nicks, the finger picks wore down ever so slightly, the bow threads pulled free at last and the full size basses tipped dangerously low as the crowds roar matched the band for ferocity.

Finally pulling back and momentarily gasping for air, the band scanned the crowd in appreciation; smiling at every pair of eyes they met.  A few moments back stage came and went and they returned to shouted requests, with one in particular…”Play some Dead!”

This made Kral’s feather adorned head snap up smiling and without hesitation the quintet launched into their last song for the evening, an ever so appropriate cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree.”  It was appropriate in the sense that Cornmeal has followed, as many have, the model set forth by the Grateful Dead, i.e. go out and play.  Don’t worry about anything other than that. Just give it to the people every time, rain or shine.  It has worked perfectly for Cornmeal to this point. Why would they stop now?

Click the HERE to View More Photos from The Shows by Rex Thomson

and have a look below to view a clip of Allie Kral taking the solo in the aforementioned “Sugaree”

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