Friday, January 24, 2014

Day 1 at NAMM 2014: Jonny Lang, Blue Öyster Cult, Shawn Jones, Alana Springsteen, more

While NAMM certainly offers a great place to discover the latest innovations in music making-related technology and the rollout of new instruments, it is also a wonderful way to catch established and up-and-comers performing in front of the most discerning of audiences.

Day 1 at the 2014 NAMM Show (Jan. 23, 2014) offered the chance to see established acts such as Jonny Lang and Blue Oyster Cult, as well as talented under-the-radar and rising stars. Believe me, this post will not be the last time you hear the name Alana Springsteen.
Jonny Lang in sonic flight at NAMM. Photo: Robert Kinsler

Jonny Lang brought his powerful fusion of blues-rock, soul and gospel to the official opening night concert held on the GoPro stage on the outdoor plaza positioned in front of the Anaheim Convention Center. His 90-minute set was another ideal setting for the 32-year-old artist to make a case to celebrate the power of blues-rock. Opening with "(Blew Up) The House," the single from his latest album Fight for my Soul, Lang and his band fired up the chilly evening with his distinctive mix of powerful vocals (notably on "Turn Around" and "Red Light") and blazing guitar work that just keeps getting better (as evidenced by "A Quitter Never Wins"). He closed out his concert with the jam-minded "We Are the Same" (with several of his band mates featured) before offering up a Muddy Waters cover, "Forty Days and Forty Nights," as a fitting encore.

Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser of Blue Öyster Cult 
Photo: Robert Kinsler

Blue Öyster Cult is not known as an acoustic band, so the curiosity factor was palpable when the band took the stage inside Peavey's booth armed only with acoustic guitars. With the Peavey booth (actually a large room on the second level of the convention center) having a capacity of only 200, many fans simply couldn't get into the showcase if they didn't arrive early for the 2 p.m. set. BÖC didn't disappoint; lead singer-guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser led the classic rock outfit through fiery acoustic versions of some of the band's most beloved material. Opening with the 1981 hit "Burnin' for You," it was clear that Roeser's talents on guitar translated just fine to via the unplugged setting, and harmonies provided by Eric Bloom and Richie Castellano brought the ambitious songs (which have always featured a mix of progressive and hard rock strains) to life. The crowd positioned right up against the stage greeted the announcement the band was going to play "Then Came the Last Days of May" (off the group's 1972 debut) with wild cheers, and the masterwork allowed the group to flex its musical muscles in full; the song's shifting tempos, blend of sterling guitar work from Roeser and Castellano, and lush textures of all three guitars together was outstanding.
From left, Alex Skolnick with Blue Öyster Cult members Eric
Bloom, Donald 
"Buck Dharma" Roeser and Richie Castellano.

BÖC had still one other surprise for the fortunate gathering, with the announcement that lead guitarist Alex Skolnick (of the pioneering metal band Testament) was going to join the band for their final song. With four talented guitarists on stage, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was given the ultimate NAMM treatment with an extended version that featured Skolnick and Roeser trading licks, and the crowd getting in on the act with a sing-along of the "Don't Fear the Reaper" chorus.

Shawn Jones frequently performs in Orange County, but his appearance at the GHS Strings booth was something special. He performed instrumental versions of four of his original songs, showcasing his chops that are frequently on display as lead guitarist for singer Deana Carter (including on her just-released album Southern Way of Life). At NAMM, Jones  showcased his love of the blues with a potent take on "Bottom of the Bottle" and a nuanced, graceful version of the Celtic-styled "Missing the Mourns" featuring some beautiful harmonics.

Alana Springsteen at NAMM. Photo: Robert Kinsler
There was nothing short of genuine surprise and awe when 13-year-old Alana Springsteen began to perform her song "Waste of Time" in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott. She had been invited to participate in a "Song Round" performance with well-known area artists Tim Moyer and Kerry Getz. After Springsteen (no relation to the Boss) played her first song, it was clear her shining soprano, effortless acoustic guitar work and warm personality are a potent package. She was then instructed she should play another song which was equally powerful and cast an obvious spell on the large crowd seated around the stage. She was then told by the veterans sharing the stage she should go ahead and just play her songs for the remainder of the session.

Her next songs provided a glimpse that Springsteen's talent is for real and the depth of her collective talents clearly outdistance her youth. The Norfolk, Virginia native closed her set with the original ballad, "What I Wouldn't Give," which featured her textured acoustic guitar work and a powerful lyrical message of thanks to the military. She was then given a standing ovation, something that I can't recall seeing happen in the intimate afternoon showcases that feature top-tier songwriters from around the world during NAMM. 

Although I never checked in with the media folks to see what other surprises were at NAMM, I did literally walk into Vintage Trouble guitarist Nalle Colt, whose band blew away this writer in an afternoon set at Coachella last year. He broke the news that the band will be going back into the studio later this month to begin work on their sophomore album and followup to 2012's The Bomb Shelter Sessions.

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