Rocky Votolato and I have developed a curious pattern. The first time I saw him perform was in a Masonic hall in the small town of Hamden, Connecticut. I drove down from a work project in Hartford (largely to see his opener, Owen) not knowing what to expect. Oh, I knew what to expect from Votolato – it was the venue and its inhabitants that were going to be a mystery. Four years later I found myself in a similar situation as I left a project in Milford, Connecticut, again heading to Hamden. Again to see his opener (this time, Matt Pond). And again to an all-ages venue I had no sense of. Two times, Rocky Votolato. We've done this two times. And both times have been unmitigated successes.
The Space is a curious venue that I'm sure I can't begin to explain after only one visit. It recalls the all-ages cafes operated out of church basements more than a rock club. There are snacks and refreshments sold from behind a counter that forced recollections of the concession stand at the roller rink I haunted as a kid, but unlike United Skates of America, The Space sells alcohol (of some sort), not just rectangles of grey sausage pizza. Most curious was a ticket booth that sat midway between the parking lot and the club's walk-in basement entrance. I cautiously approached it to find out if I was on the list, half wondering how many tickets I'd need to buy if I wanted to ride the Ferris Wheel after the show. There was some initial confusion, but soon I was ushered into the club by the very amiable promoter.
Local band Canvas begin the show a bit after 8:00. While the band is generally a quartet of some volume, vocalist/guitarist Ryan White explained that the band had pared down to an acoustic duo, in keeping with the rest of the bill. This is a dangerous thing. Songs written for one format rarely translate well to another, and the swap didn't serve the band well. White's voice, for better or worse, was the obvious element of the band's music. It is strong, and sure, but terribly earnest. Scott Stapp of Creed earnest. And it's pushed out with just as much post-grunge emotion and intensity. This may be a selling point for some, but I found it hard to swallow. White played his guitar with similar zeal, forcing power chords from the acoustic with mighty downwards strokes of his pick. Musical cohort James Ward provided blending backing vocals on choruses as well as carefully picked guitar leads. The band's emotional closer was a great song, but I imagine it sounds much better when that guitar solo isn't played on an acoustic guitar.
As one might expect, the members of Canvas could have turned the stage over to Matt Pond very quickly, but instead it sat silently bathed in blue light. Silence was a big part of The Space. Although there were thirty or forty patrons present – the vast majority of them couples seated around small cafe tables – any conversations that happened were hushed. And while I was told the show was all-ages and 21+ to drink, I didn't see anyone drinking all evening – quite curious for a show on St. Patrick's Day. I also found the make up of the crowd perplexing. My previous experience with Rocky Votolato shows included vast hoards of cooing young girls, yet there were fewer girls than guys in the audience, and the under-21 set was a clear minority. The direct translation? I didn't feel nearly so out of place as I thought I might. The Space, you confuse me again.
It was 9:00 when Matt Pond made his way through the audience and onto the low stage. His Guild electric hollowbody guitar was in his hand, confirming what I was told would be a solo performance. However, moments later he was followed by guitarist Chris Hansen and cellist Shawn Alpay. Although not billed as Matt Pond PA, I feel comfortable labelling it as such.
As the band readied itself, the audience stood up en masse and walked ten feet forward to the edge of the stage. This was also done in silence. A silence so disturbing that Pond begged the audience to converse amongst itself. After polite chuckles it was back to the hum of the furnace until the band rescued the audience from itself.
For the first song of the set, Pond left his guitar leaning against his amp, and stood unencumbered behind the microphone. Hansen played softly with just-added Alpay gamely following along. This single-guitar configuration was used for three or four songs in the set, with the rest adding Pond's talented guitar playing as well. Although I prefer the fuller chamber pop readings of the band's material, most of the audience was more accustomed to the acoustic guitar intimacy of the headliner. Pond delivered on this front throughout the set, even becoming glassy-eyed during several emotional ballads. Conscious of his role on the bill, Pond invited Votolato (and his acoustic guitar) to join the band for a song early in the set. The toned-down Matt Pond PA songs worked with with acoustic guitar and an additional voice blended into the mix.
Economical versions of both "Kc" and "Halloween" came early in the set, with a slowed down and shockingly bare version of 2002's "Fairlee" arriving towards the end. Although there were a few moments throughout the set where Hansen did have a chance to showcase his ability to play leads, and where Alpay abandoned his bow to finger propulsive bass lines, this was not one of them. The drive of the original was lost, and without all the accompaniment, so was the colouring that normally adorns this fan favourite. While Matt Pond PA was able to convincingly transition to a softer, coffeehouse aesthetic, the sweep of the fuller band was certainly missed.
There were no such tradeoffs when headliner Rocky Votolato took the stage. Solo and acoustic now. Solo and acoustic always. Audience members prepared for the mellow troubadour by carting chairs and stools toward the stage, leaving an arc of fans standing behind them, jealously admiring the forethought.
Votolato engaged his audience quickly, playing a trio of songs that elicited polite cheers once the initial chords were recognized, and full-throated sing-a-longs thereafter. While Votolato's audience never sang with the boisterous gusto and spittle of, say, Mountain Goats fans, each attendant I surveyed was mouthing the words – if not actually singing – to nearly every song. While both the start and the end of the set were roughly scripted, the middle remained wide open, drawing in both old songs ("Treepeople") played by (pre-show) request, and brand new songs still in their formative stages ("Ghostwriter"). The middle of the set also included 2006's "White Daisy Passing" performed along with the members of Matt Pond PA. The added vocal harmonies were particularly lovely, but it also offered Votolato an important chance to joke with the band and loosen up the audience.
Votolato himself doesn't have a strong voice, nor a particularly interesting one. It starts with a quick jab but quickly softens, sinking in to fill the composition. It's a warm personable voice built to sing the personal lyrics of his songs. He accompanied those songs with quick tempo power chords, delicately fingered rolling arpeggios, and lots of strummed open chords in-between. Variety plays a big part in keeping Votolato interesting while still adhering to the confines of the indie-folk subgenre.
The (nearly) hour-long set just before 10pm. While the audience didn't exactly erupt with applause, and certainly didn't shout and stomp for an encore, it did clap longer than I believe I've ever heard at a rock show; crowds simply aren't this appreciative in a town deluged by constant touring acts. To that point, Matt Pond recounted that during the previous night's show, the drunken Boston audience was rife with fist fights (a possible exaggeration) and revellers throwing beer cans (entirely plausible). Here, the focus was clearly on the performers and the performance. Curious. Wonderful. I hope that this is what I can now come to expect from The Space.