It’s 9:30 pm [last Monday night]. You can weave through the stretched thin crowd to the front without bothering folks, though the front line at the stage is occupied. There is a DJ spinning, and then Jessica 6 begins at 9:45. Nomi Ruiz, Jessica 6’s forward-footed vocalist, is the energetic face of a band infused with Motown spices, ridden deep in hues of Michael Jackson movement, Cher command and mod beat styles that nod to something like Dragonette.
Ruiz is skinny in her skinny jeans, sleek black hair, perfectly manicured nails and leather jacket. Now, I suppose, when her publicists pitch her to me as ‘Brooklyn,’ I can nod in honest belief. The music is supremely danceable and tight. Drummer Jim Orso is spot on and his contributions to this band’s style – simplistic. He’s Holy Ghost!’s touring drummer, too, and it can only logically be assumed that his duality contributes to the congealing of the whole show. Again, here I am in Hell (downstairs of Masquerade), in the Fall, for one of Sweetwood’s two-band bills.
The vocal effects are nice, live, for Jessica 6. But sometimes they’re too loud. It takes the sound from indie rock to diva-ish, and I don’t like it, because Ruiz is so believable in her role. The audience reaction is noticeably related to the degree to which the musicians on stage are getting into it – and by that I mostly mean how deeply into her dancing Ruiz gets. I like the darker songs, and want to see more of them. Wonderful analog toys aside, I like it when keyboardist Morgan Wiley uses his laptop patched to controller to get sounds that can only be translated live in that way. Those sounds are Jessica 6-specific, and his creations, no doubt. Bassist Andrew Raposo adds so much warmth and texture to the mix. This actually makes me consider other NYC bands that opt out for as many live members on their East coast tours in order to stay afloat financially and keep the stage setup concise. Bear in mind, though, that Raposo (and Wiley) are founding members of Jessica 6, and that this is a band, whereas comparison acts or peers often happen to be producer/singer duos.
What I don’t like about Jessica 6’s set is the perfection of it. I mean, all the players are great and so dead-on… but that’s the problem. They come across as session players, with Ruiz taking on all the ‘showmanship’ of the show and them almost shoegazing. That’s not what their music is about, so it gradually becomes more and more of a contradiction. I want more movement, interaction and mistakes, frankly. The band moves into different styles of music during the set. One, in particular, boasts a nice break beat beneath loungy pianos. One has drums with handclaps and other programmed linear sequences, while one is definitively Latin (Brazilian, more precisely) influenced. The mix up is nice, and the ‘showmanship’ issue subsides for the less pop-rock numbers.
When Jessica 6 is done, the show cuts to more DJed club mix. It goes for longer than I’d like, but the timing isn’t unbearable. The crowd gets really into it, and I later learn why. Holy Ghost! is already set up (the two bands have obviously worked out an efficient system for sharing the stage for this tour). Holy Ghost! emerges to vertical light flashes of the table beneath the stand of four to six keyboards, computers, controllers. Their show begins.
Barring the actual title of the first song of the set, it features a double tap snare that is subtle and strikingly unique, and a great, suave guitar solo. The touring construction of the group makes the live sound denser than the record. In addition to Alex Frankel’s front and center position, prominent vocal backups come from Nick Millhiser (Frankel’s co-founder/member), who’s in the back with the bass and the Moog, and guitarist Chris Maher. Erik Tonnesen and Sam Jones (who is actively turning 26) hang out behind the machine of analog and digital devices that comprise the back center key station. Orso (drummer) plays way more now than he did during his performance with Jessica 6. The interjected breaks and would-be pop solos are cheeky and fun. Our own personal dance pit soon develops in the space beside the stage left DJ booth.
“It’s Not Over” is a crowd pleaser. The band comes in to a nice sequence set up by the guys in the back. Frankel and Maher play auxiliary drums. Theirs are really crackly, but thick when played together. The crisp guitar melody of the song shines through clearly, being pushed through a black Stratocaster into what appears to be a vintage Roland amp (112 or 212).
Frankel gives a shoutout to the DJ – Eli Escobar – and it all makes sense. Escobar is part of the touring lineup, probably a primary reason why there’s not another band on the bill, and the cause of all the thick, pro house remixing that’s been ensuing before and between acts.
Those lights under the keyboard station come on for the cherished single, “Hold My Breath.” Its new wave nature is supported by the way Frankel holds his sss’s. The warm guitars and slightly arpeggiated keys mesh well live; it’s wonderful. Three of the guys punch out melody and sound from the key station, where they work as a team with the backdrop of a mixer beast that looks more like a musicians’ switchboard. Except for Orso, everyone on stage moves around a lot, taking turns at different keyboards and controllers. There’s a board for Frankel to the left of the key station, left of Millhiser in the mid-stage right area of the sprawl.
Maher, too, takes his turn at the key wing before returning to guitar for “Hold On.” Frankel takes a smoke break for this very new wave number. Maher backs up the verses, vocally, and adds a funky wah for the guitar-laden bridge. Frankel mentions that this happens to be their 150th show as a live band, and the guys move into “Wait & See.” He (Frankel) takes a camera phone photo of the crowd.
No Holy Ghost! show would be complete without a few moments of crazy low analog synth, and “I Will Come Back” was that token moment in the set. Millhiser shows that the Moog can live up to its name live. Frankel gets up on the stage monitors before joining Orso and Maher on some unison drum beats again. The bridge vocals, lead and backups, alone are enough to make this tune soar live.
The last song before the encore is, fittingly, “Jam for Jerry,” and ode to former drummer Jerry Fuchs, who passed away just two years ago and, ironically, grew up in the Atlanta area. Maher tunes his guitar through the intro, turns off the tuner and starts playing. Frankel screws up the first line, but without criticism from any of us. The electronics, the meat of the tune, come in and, when they do, it all just sounds so right. The super 80s synths define, again, one of those distinctly new wave moments in Holy Ghost!’s set – I’m sorry to all of you electro-pop, LCD Soundsystem, DFA genre fans… moments like this make Holy Ghost!’s a new wave show, and I love it for that. The lyrics ring around the room, “If I could change it all I would… if only I could.” They cut through clearly; they cut. I’m fascinated with all that’s happening, all at once. Orso’s left hand is fixated on the hats as space clears up for the wonderful key bridge. Guitar keeps going. Frankel lights up another ciggy, almost in nervousness, at the end of the song. He ‘seriously’ thanks the crowd. The musicians exit.
The break proves to be very short break. The team returns, thank us again and introduce ‘special guests,’ who turn out to be none other than members of Jessica 6. Frankel asks the ‘best drummer I know’ to do a solo. It’s tight. Raposo begins cranking out smooth bass lines as Frankel sets his drink on his auxiliary drums. The guitar is prominent, even considering the new additions. It sounds like a low, backup vocoder is present, but I don’t see one anywhere. Frankel goes for those drums again, with a cigarette and mic in his right hand and two sticks in his left. People clap on the turn of the song. Wiley plays with one stick in his right hand and a beer in his left. Frankel introduces DJ Escobar again. “He’s gonna end this party,” we’re told. Escobar goes right in, just as Holy Ghost! and friends’ finish notes begin. This one was a show very well rehearsed but equally sincere.
photos by Tim Lampe