As with so many show accounts, this one begins with a check of the clock. At 8:50 I arrived at the club hungry. Peeking through the open side door of The Riot Room, I saw a stage full of gear, but a club that was otherwise empty. Sensing I might have a moment to eat, I quizzed the doorman. Unflinchingly he told me first band would go on at 9pm as advertised. As I'm old and jaded, I didn't believe him and hurried off for a falafel sandwich at Jerusalem Cafe around the corner. Of course I had plenty of time; supporting act Beach Day had cancelled (van troubles), allowing the club to push the start time back an hour. Not only did the doorman lie to me, but neither the cancelling band nor the club bothered to tweet out the change in schedule (despite both being active on Twitter all afternoon). At some point, as music fans, we're going to have to revolt. I've got a pitchfork, can you get a torch and meet me outside of The Riot Room next weekend?
So after an hour delay, Detroit's Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas climbed onto a brightly lit stage. The twenty or so patrons drinking inside the club or smoking outside on its patio remained uninterested. However, after a few bars, Hernandez's soulful voice, a tight band, and the irresistible combination of ox blood Doc Martins and a short skirt soon drew a dozen curiosity seekers to the edge of the stage.
Pinning the band down to a single genre is impossible as slinky Latin sounds mix organically with brassy soul, and the pulsing organ hits of Taylor Pierson lay the foundation for honking trombone of John Raleeh and for Michael Krygier's broad, bending guitar solos. It is somewhat fitting then that the six-piece has landed on Blue Note Records – a jazz label known for pushing boundaries or ignoring them completely. But it isn't the solid rhythm section of drummer Steve Stetson and bassist Ben Sturley that the label has invested in, but the vocal prowess of Hernandez and the charisma she brings to the stage. And on this night, she positively killed it. Sadly less than two dozen people witnessed her bold and ambitious musical revue.
Soon the enormity of The Deltas' gear was removed from the stage, leaving acres of space for the sparse lineup of The Blank Tapes. Although the two touring bands only intersected on this date, they quickly developed a sense of camaraderie. This was particularly true of Sturley and Blank Tapes bassist DA Humphrey who spent the opening hour drinking and talking on the back patio just out of earshot. While the stripped down pop of Blank Tapes and the full musical explosion of Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas would seem to have little in common, both acts are polyglots, bravely incorporating the sounds of the world and their experiences in it. While I wouldn't expect to see the two on tour together anytime soon, the common thread was enough to bind the show together.
Without question, The Blank Tapes is the project of vocalist and guitarist Matt Adams. During his ten-year career he has occasionally picked up players to fill out his sound, but every Blank Tapes song can be reduced back to an acoustic guitar, Adams's vocals, and his ear for the perfect catchy pop of the '60s. As Adams adds players (or more frequently, tracks on his eight-channel recorder), psychedelic influences creep in, moving The Blank Tapes's compositions from crisp Kinks to the swirling compositions championed by the Elephant 6 collective. I had never seen the band before, but I knew enough to expect that even if I had, this show would be different – they all are.
Photos of Matt Adams taken only a few years ago show a fresh-faced kid playing an acoustic guitar in a park, and for some reason that is what I expected to find on stage. Instead, that boy was completely hidden by a comically full beard, wavy long hair, and (after proclaiming the lights to be too bright during the opening number) dark aviator sunglasses. With that acoustic forsaken for a '60s vintage Supro partial hollow body electric guitar, it was obvious that this show would focus on the reverb-filled beach buzz of his latest offering Vacation (Antenna Farm Records, 2013).
On this tour Adams was joined by girlfriend Pearl Charles who provided harmony vocals as well as percussion. In this second role she stood behind a snare drum and a floor tom, playing each with a cotton mallet. Her four-inch wedges, bright sundress, and long hair recalled the feel good generation of her grandparents – a lineage that was even more obvious as she sang the band's sunny refrains. This left Humphrey as the proverbial third wheel, further emphasized by his placement to the far left of the stage, hidden in the shadows. With no microphone, the lanky Humphrey played a solid supporting role, literally outside of public view.
Having little experience with the band, I can't recount the entirety of its hour-long set, but the band did mix new songs like the folky "Holy Roller" and the warm, rollicking "Don't Ever Get Old" alongside older songs such as 2009's "Listen to the One." In the case of that particular track, Adams and his band turned a song originally recorded as a straight-forward two-minute pop tune into a five-plus minute classic rock odyssey built around a guitar solo that was so prominent that it earned mid-song applause from the audience. And although I was disappointed that my request for the new album's güiro-fuelled title track was denied (the trio hasn't written a live arrangement yet), the band's lively set was delivered without flaw, reaching the perfect balance between intimate and professional.
The band closed with a scorching bit of psychedelia just before Midnight, refusing scattered calls for an encore. While Humphrey remained on stage to pack up his gear, both Adams and Charles slipped over to the band's merchandise booth. While I was tempted to stay and pepper the duo with questions in an attempt to flesh out my accounting of the show, I was also harbouring a not-so-subtle resentment for the club that had tricked me into staying longer than I needed to already. In the end, my bitterness won out. Sorry readers, blame The Riot Room.