Paradoxically, my first night at the 2015 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival was about anything other than jazz. From anthemic alternative rock to dance-inducing bluegrass, Friday was a prime example of Producer and Artistic Director John Nugent's willingness to program music belonging to any genre, so long as it's engaging.
And though, goodbyemotel -- a Brooklyn-based quintet comprised mostly of Australians (save for Rochester native, drummer Paul Amorese) -- was a bit of a slow burn to which I was initially cool. I warmed up to the band's effective, though far from revolutionary Britpop-style songs.
The linchpin was front man Gustaf Sjodin Enstrom, who brought impressive strength and conviction, and perhaps most importantly, perfect intonation with timely and intuitive rock panache. In his smooth middle range, the tone of voice recalls Tom Chaplin of the piano balladeers Keane, while Enstrom's electric higher notes are akin to that of Muse's Matthew Bellamy.
Part of my early reluctance had to do with the artistic medium through which goodbyemotel chose to deliver their tunes -- what it calls the "4D live music experience": the stage setup was replete with the typical rock band gear plus a large screen behind the band and a semi-transparent scrim in front, on which were projected video images in 3D. Equipped with the necessary spectacles, audience members experienced what was essentially a long form music video that lasted the first four songs of the set.
The prominent visual component brought a fresh twist to the jazz fest experience, and the textured, sophisticated sounds of reverberating keyboards and electric guitars over rolling tom syncopations in the drums provided a supercharged soundtrack. And yet the whole thing felt too contained -- almost constricted -- and the scrim inadvertently created a distance between performer and listener. The festivalgoer was rendered a mere passive witness to a spectacle rather than an active participant in it. Rather than being able to dance freely, people were tethered to movie theater seats.
In other words, the Little Theatre -- despite the seemingly obvious cinematic synergy with the performance -- was the wrong venue for goodbyemotel, and too small for the band's engrossing arena rock sound. A larger, wide open space may have allowed fans to more fully immerse themselves in the multisensory vibe of the concert -- especially when you consider how well the music and images jell together.
Fortunately, goodbyemotel will be playing a free show Saturday night at 7 p.m. in what should be a much more suitable environment: the East Avenue and Chestnut Stage Stage. If you're reading this now, there is no excuse to miss it.
In sharp contrast to the limiting confines of the Little Theatre was the Squeezers Roots & Americana Stage, where the bluegrass quintet The HillBenders performed to an ecstatic crowd. The latter venue space was comparatively luxurious with plenty of seating along with ample floor space for those who wanted to sit right in front of the musicians performing on a low-rise stage. The entire room was well-lit, and that factor -- combined with the emphatic, participatory attitude of the audience -- made for an ideal communal experience between the musicians and the listeners, who thrilled to the energetic band's mix of originals, bluegrass standards, and intriguing covers. The latter selections included indie hit "Kids" by MGMT alongside several bluegrass versions of songs from The Who's legendary rock opera "Tommy."
Ultimately, the Springfield, Missouri-based The HillBenders is not just a group of top-notch musicians, but also a convergence of full-flavored personalities: the commanding presence of mandolinist-vocalist Nolan Lawrence, whose full-bodied yet versatile tenor sounds like home; the endearingly hammy showmanship of consummate Dobro guitarist Chad Graves; the subtle and steady backbone that is bassist Gary Rea, the rockstar affectations of guitarist Jim Rea, and the quiet charm and whip-smart musicianship of banjo player Mark Cassidy. Whether you're a big bluegrass fan, or you just love quality performances, you need to listen to The HillBenders.