Cornmeal & The Wood Brothers
The Canopy Club
October 31, 2010
Cornmeal is a band more than capable of providing all the tricks and treats needed for a Halloween spooktacular all by themselves, but with The Wood Brothers, Mathien, and Zmick backing them up for a haunted evening at The Canopy Club, the night was assured to possess enough bewitching to make Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery wiggle her nose more than once.
Returning for a third straight year to Urbana, Illinois’ The Canopy Club for an All Hallows Eve of song and dance, Cornmeal has steadily built their fanbase and their skills to a peak of psychedelic bluegrass madness that no one could have imagined prior to their debut. Taking the finest elements of mountain music, jam band swerve and pure astral craziness, the band has gelled into a force that cannot be denied, only withstood.
The Canopy Club has seen its share of weird sights, but there were some rather inventive costumes on hand that just may have been firsts for the venue. For instance, has anyone ever managed to wear a working full size Lite Brite to the affair? One female patron pulled it off, and all night long people lined up to play with her box of delights – even the bands themselves were drawn like moths to her outfit’s flame. The venue itself got into the spirit, as staff and walls alike were decorated for the holiday in ways that were both scary and fun. With a two-stage set up, The Canopy Club is ideally suited to having multiple bands play at the same time. When one band would wrap up their set, another would take the opposite stage, which kept the crowd moving and made it so the music never truly stopped the evening’s entirety. First up was local band Mathian.
Playing to a crowd of friends and fans, Mathien brought a funky energy to the proceedings and proved to be very entertaining. This quartet, based out of southern Illinois, provided a jazzy and funky style of play that was both crisp and endearing. Through musical turns and lyrically silly euphemisms, the one constant of their sound was their skill. It shone through whatever type of tune they played from ballads to full speed jam sessions, all treated with respect and verve. They provided a fine opener for the serious Southern rock of the second act on the bill, Wood Brothers.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy side projects in music, The Wood Brothers are what their name implies: brothers Oliver and Chris Wood, the latter from Medeski, Martin and Wood. The story of the separation of the two brothers in their youth, each choosing to follow musical paths, is more than just an interesting backdrop to the story because while separated, with Oliver in Atlanta , and Chris in NYC, both embraced intensely diverse musical taste and style.
Oliver embraced the swampy Southern sound he was surrounded by while Chris embraced the jazz side of the equation. Together, the sound is something completely unique. Chris’s funky upright bass has been heard on numerous MMW projects and has delighted hundreds of thousands of fans over the last decade and a half. Meanwhile, Oliver recorded and toured with his own band, King Johnson. Reconnecting, the brothers decided to collaborate and hit the road together as time permitted from their bread-and-butter affairs.
By turns both funky and soulful, the crowd quickly got behind this brotherly duo and their minimalist costumes and sweet homespun sound. After the laid back sound of the brothers Wood, it was type to get the crowd into full hype mode, a job made for Zmick.
Making the short ride from their home base of Chicago, Zmick took the bar stage with a fistful of fine songs, a kicking style of play, and a fighting stance in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles garb. Speaking of mistresses, one of the many costumes of the night that was catching the eye of the crowd was that of Cartoon character Dr. Mrs. The Monarch and her deliciously outfitted husband The Monarch from The Venture Brothers cartoon. The amount of handmade costumes in the room was staggering, as Halloween seems brings out the creativity in folks like no other holiday. What kind of hosts would Cornmeal be if they didn’t join the fun?
Cornmeal’s love of the holiday became instantly apparent as they took the stage in full regalia! Bassist Chris Gangi chose to rock one of David Bowie’s more provocative period ensembles, coming out in full Ziggy Stardust gear, complete with make-up and spiked wig. Drummer J.P. Nowak kept it primal in an outfit so easy a caveman could wear it, representing the caveman contingent. Nowak’s brother Kris brought a more mechanical flair to the stage, appearing as a grease monkey. Wavy Dave Burlingame took his costume concept from the master of coin operated prestidigitation, Zoltar, looking like he stepped out of his booth in "Big" ready to grant wishes and tell fortunes. Rounding out the line-up of finery was the devil on the fiddle herself, Ms. Allie Kral. Choosing to fully embrace her demonic heritage, she rocked a "Satan Girl" outfit, complete with horns and a tail. Those who have seen Allie in action were not surprised at her choice of attire, as the wickedness of her playing that magic fiddle of hers has long been a testament to her otherworldly origins.
As tight a five-piece touring outfit, Cornmeal has built their reputation on high energy shows and insane talent on their respective instruments. But they are more than just a collection of skilled players. Rather, Cornmeal has embraced the gestalt, complimenting each other and pushing them forward musically. To challenge themselves for the evening, they trotted out rare and new additions to their repertoire of covers, adding them to a set list of their own tunes that many fans would call favorites.
The song "Rise Above," about overcoming adversity and perseverance, stretched its traditional instrumental break to the limits with a furious crescendo. It was counterpointed by more traditional bluegrass numbers like the fast and furious "Girl with the Short Brown Hair" that provided mind cleanser for those recovering from the psychedelic madness of the previous song.
During one of the many extended jam sessions that were sprinkled throughout the night, Banjoist Dave Burlingame switched sounds and managed to transform his tone to a sitar-like sound that took the improvisational mid-section of the song into Eastern territory, transforming the style of music to a near meditation that added yet another dimension to an already multi-dimensional sound. The somber "Black Smoke Rising," written in response to the loss of the brothers Nowak’s father to lung cancer, was given a spotlight and a chance to get its conservation and hope for a cleaner world message across.
The senior Nowak was a non-smoker who raised his children in an area of the country that burns coals and fossil fuels to produce electricity, textiles and other industrial applications. Far from being a political band, Cornmeal is not a band known for making speeches or championing causes, and when they choose to do so, it’s for selfless reasons. They do so within "Black Smoke" as the song likens the image of the trail of black smoke belching from a train’s smoke stack, leaving in its wake a stained land, and it’s easy to see the effect pollution has had on two sons of a lost father.
The true gems of the evening, as is the case at most Halloween shows, were a pair of covers that shook The Canopy Club to its foundation. Gangi’s Bowie outfit was a nod to a coming song, an epic reading of the seventies Thin White Duke masterpiece "Ziggy Stardust." The versatility of Cornmeal and the sheer musical prowess that they possess served them well on this number. They managed to elevate the heaviness of this ode to rock and roll excess to crazed heights this night through crashing and abrupt fills were made both grungier and sweeter at the same time, courtesy of JP Nowak’s intense drumming and Kral’s dulcet violin tone. Kris Nowak’s use of slide coaxed tortured squeals from his guitar, while Gangi played his "Rockstar" costumed persona to the gills, merrily picking out an infectious deep bass line and striking poses for the crowd.
The true show stopper was appropriately saved for last. In a way, one has to pity the members of any band that rocks and has a fiddle player, because of the constant request for the king of rocking violin tunes, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" say…five times a night. However, the foreshadowing of a toy devil’s trident and a golden fiddle propped on Allie’s amplifier and her sinister attire was hard to miss. And so it was, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"
While Cornmeal, and band for that matter, is the sum of its parts, Allie Kral captivates audiences through sheer musical wizardry and energy. It’s hard to look away from such maniacal playing, as she in turn seems to get lost in a trance-like state whilst coaxing moans and wails from her violin. She took this moment and song as her own, grinning evilly as she played the devil’s licks, her eyes flashing like a mad genius. mThe crowd went beserk, and the energy flowed through her, making a full and joyous circle. Jumping up and down in place as if she could hardly contain the force within, she seemed possessed by her muses, and the crowd was completely lost in her spell. As the band thanked the crowd and the club building to the final curtain, the crowd opened their throats and let the band hear their gratitude with a raucous cheer that surely was heard for blocks.
As always and as soon as they were able, the members of Cornmeal slipped out and mingled with the milling crowd, posing for pictures and thanking the fans for coming. Far from aloof, the appreciation and gratitude on their faces spoke volumes to their humbleness and drive. While all of Cornmeal’s shows are special, this night was one for the ages.