Jumping Hot Club
June 4th 2014
This was something of a first for me tonight. I went along solely to see the opening act, Dennis Ellsworth. Work commitments meant I hadn’t been able to research Hollis Brown.
I made my usual “fashionably late” entrance at 8:30. There were only 14 people in Cluny II and one of them was Mel on the door. When another six or seven arrived, Ellsworth made his way to the stage and — God Bless him — he performed as if he was at Wembley Stadium. He quickly won over the sparse crowd.
While Ellsworth’s latest album Hazy Sunshine has only recently been released, his 40-minute slot included just as many songs from a previous effort, Dust Dreams, and even a new unrecorded song, which I found odd and yet enjoyable.
From the new album, “Happiness” was so good it alone was deserving of a much larger audience. I vowed to find the song he wrote with John Smith on a songwriting course, “Perfect Storm”, which just may be one of the finest break-up songs I’ve ever heard.
Although Ellsworth has been to the UK twice before, this was his first appearance in Newcastle. But, judging by the reception his warm songs and jangly guitar playing received, this won’t be the last.
While I was watching his performance, it dawned on me that Hollis Brown was either a multi-instrumentalist or a band (I hoped for the latter) as there were numerous guitars, a set of drums, and a pretty funky keyboard on the stage. Thankfully they were a band and…WHAT A BAND!
I’ve said before that one of the joys of being a “critic/reviewer” is the occasional pearl I find in the gritty oysters that I receive every week. With no preconceptions at all, Hollis Brown from New York blew my metaphorical socks right off.
Sporting a great big black Gretsch and a bad haircut, singer Mike Montali got the show very firmly on the road with an impassioned “Ride on the Train”, which is the title track of their debut album. My pulse was already quickening, more so during “Gypsy Black Cat”, which followed and included a guitar duel with Jon Bonilla, who was playing a bright red Gibson SG.
I’m no guitar nut, but I do know that guys choose guitars like these because they want to make a special sound. The noise Hollis Brown made certainly appealed to me as I’ve loved classic guitar bands since my formative years.
After about 20 minutes, I was beginning to feel sorry for Adam Bock on keyboards as he’d been reduced to tinkling along as the big boys played their guitars. Then Montali introduced a slow blues song, “Doghouse Blues” and Bock was now in the spotlight. It was a brooding song, reminiscent of Leon Russell in his heyday.
Even with a new album to promote, the band slid in excellent covers of “Train Round the Bend” (Velvet Underground), countrified beyond recognition. They also did Neil Young’s “On The Beach”, and Bock gave a marvelous rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”.
At one stage, a local, who appeared quite “refreshed”, shouted an incomprehensible request. Montali recognised it and swapped his guitar for a tambourine to fulfill the lad’s dreams. It was loud and good, but I still don’t have any idea what it was called.
Toward the end of the set, the band introduced a new song, “Catching Up”, which will stick in my memory because the bass player managed to take off his jacket during the song and hardly missed a note!
The highlight of the evening was a scorching new song called “Sandy” that had Montali and Bonilla out-showboating each other in the “dirty guitar solo” stakes. At one stage I swear I saw sparks coming from their strings.
All things in life must come to an end and, for the well-deserved encore, Montali returned solo for a beautiful rendition of “Nightfall” from the new album. then the band filled the stage for a rowdy rendition of “All Along the Watchtower”, which seemed the perfect way to end the gig.
I had the time of my life. When they come back next year, they will surely fill Cluny I, which holds 300 people rather than the 30 who turned out tonight.