Three bands from different backgrounds and musical points-of-view gathered at the Starving Artist on West St. in Keene last Friday, Nov. 11. The opening band for the evening, Phishstix – a brand new Keene State College band – stepped onto the stage of the Starving Artist wearing flashy, colorful clothes. Vibrant yellows and blues, a pink flamingo shirt, and Erik Wirkkala’s zebra dress with mutated colors set the funky tone that goes hand-in-hand with the trio’s sound and style. “The band was a long time coming. I played a lot with Mintel since my freshman year, busting out Phish and Grateful Dead tunes,” Phishstix guitarist Kyle Michaud said. “This year we finally started to get a Phish cover band going.” Only a month old, Phishstix members are musical weavers in a sense: their instruments are the yarn they use to seamlessly transition from song to song, perhaps in an effort to weave music as funky as the shirts on their backs. Beyond Phish, they explained their individual influences range anywhere from Grateful Dead to Talking Heads, Umphrey’s McGee to NOFX.
“Well, we are a Phish cover band, so fittingly we’ll open with a Phish song,” guitarist Michaud said before starting the first song. Their knack for transitioning from song to song, aside from homage to Phish, came from mistakes in practices, Wirkkala explained. “It happened by accident, by just messing around,” he said. “But we liked the transitions so we kept playing them.”
If there’s one word to describe Joey Mintel’s bass playing, it’s funky. His rhythmic relationship with Wirkkala is well refined, and the occasional slap of the bass with his thumb meticulously fills out the group’s low end. Mintel also plays in the KSC student band The Calerpittars, along with Dan Kuhn and Andrew Reynolds. In the middle of the set, the dynamic trio transitioned from Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” to the surf classic “Wipe Out” into Phish’s “Bathtub Gin” without missing a beat. “It’s kind of like a Wipe Out Gin,” Michaud laughed after the song. Michaud’s ability to tap into the intensity of the original tunes was made blatantly apparent through his soloing ability.
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Friday night during “Bathtub Gin” he tore across the higher frets of his six-string until letting the solo explode with the crying sustain of a single note like a drop of serotonin to the central nervous system. Michaud explained throughout the years, Phishstix has been his “tightest” and most enjoyed musical project. “We’re all on the same page, looking towards the Phish model.” Aside from Phish, the trio covered the Talking Heads, Allman Brothers Band, and the Beatles. The second group to perform Friday night, The Milkman’s Union from Portland, ME, was aesthetically distant from the frenetic energy of Phishstix, but their mellow sound meshed well with the atmosphere of the Starving Artist.
The beginning stages of The Milkman’s Union go back five years, they explained. When guitarist Henry Jamison and drummer Peter McLaughlin met as freshmen at Maine’s Bowdoin College, they made the initial strides of the current-day band. At the end of their time at Bowdoin College, “we flirted with the idea with doing it seriously,” McLaughlin said.
After personnel changes along the way, the present Milkman’s Union arrangement was completed two months ago when bassist Jeff Beam joined. During their performance, McLaughlin danced across the surface of his snare gently with brushes to form interesting rhythms and Jamison’s microphone was lightly dosed with shades of echo. The Milkman’s Union put on a slow-burning and well thought-out performance; their journey was a languid enterprise of song-building command. They’re nothing too fancy in a sonic sense, and have built their magic as well as any bare-bones trio can. Jamison’s gentle finger-picking was their trusted jumping off point for almost every song Friday.
The group doesn’t necessarily depend on their quiet-loud-quiet dynamic but, combined with their warming harmonies, it was a major asset to their sound. “I thought they were really good and really mellow,” Turners Falls, Mass. resident Jimmy Barbuto said after the show. While the namesake of their music is tough to pin down, McLaughlin explained that writers and fans frequently use the word “lush” to describe their style. But to them, their music is somewhere along the lines of Radiohead-meets-country, “with an undercurrent of folk traditionals.”
“[Radiohead] is a common language that all of us can dig,” said McLaughlin. Their style varies from song to song, according to Beam. “I was a fan of the band before I joined,” he explained. “It’s all over the place, as cohesive as it is.” The trio exists entirely on a D.I.Y. platform: they have no manager, no booking agent, and they record all of their own material. They are currently in the process of recording a new EP titled “The Golden Room.”
“We want to take this as far as we can,” McLaughlin said, and as the group has progressed, “You can feel more wind in your sails.” The third band of the evening – Cuddle Magic, based out of Brooklyn and Philadelphia – walked on stage to join The Milkman’s Union on their last song. They warmed up and assembled the song piece by piece, reminiscent of a hybrid Akron Family-meets-Godspeed! You Black Emperor symphony. The two groups are close, McLaughlin explained, and have spent time together on the road touring. Their chemistry was easily discernable Friday night during the last song when they shared the stage. “We tried teaching this song to Cuddle Magic downstairs in about five minutes,” McLaughlin said. Cuddle Magic build their songs in a similar fashion to The Milkman’s Union by slowly building and adding elements as the song progresses.
Getting their songs to the stage of final completion, guitarist Alec Spielgelman explained, is a slow process. During rehearsals and practices, “Everyone brings in songs in various stages of completion.”
The band also tends to “work in smaller groups in order to work on ideas,” bassist Benjamin Lazar-Davis said, and working in duos and trios helps fit different parts of songs together. The group, currently on FYO Records, is writing and recording for their third full-length LP titled, “Info Nympho.” The LP will be produced by renowned record producer Bryce Goggin, who has in previous years worked with Pavement, Phish, Akron Family, Sebadoh, and The Apples in Stereo.
With the booming thud of Lazar-Davis’ upright bass in the foreground, the subtle accents of guitar, vibraphone, trumpet, concert bells, synthesizers, and brush drumming help create the warming mold of their sound in the Starving Artist.
Their stage presence was humorous and witty. Between joking with each other and facetiously claiming one of their songs was written about the recent Joe Paterno scandal, Cuddle Magic are entertainers beyond their music alone. Rhythmically, the group was spot on. Lazar-Davis stood in his half-buttoned overalls and shook his head furiously to the beat as drummer Dave Flaherty filled out the percussive end of the mix by scraping his snare with brushes with closed eyes.
Every once in a while Flaherty would play both his drum set and the vibraphone at the same time; a testimony that their rhythmic catalog runs deep with refreshing sounds and textures.
The melodic shade of Cuddle Magic’s spectrum was highlighted by delicately placed instrumentation and harmonies. The way they blend the rhythms and melodies together is undoubtedly where the magic is found with this band. When Flaherty paused and stuttered on a snare strike during the performance, it wasn’t an error, it was just part of their clever rhythmic platform. While each member of the group proved their musical kicks, not once did any individual abscond into the spotlight with a solo. Based on the performance at the Starving Artist, they’re all equal parts to the beautiful end result. To Cuddle Magic, describing their sound is difficult. Indeed, trying to classify the style or genre of any given band can be a bit ambiguous, but the five reference points the group gave to mark their style were dank, disco, chamber, folk and pop.
In terms of specifics, the quintet is influenced by The Band, MF Doom, James Blake, Arthur Russell, Chris Connor, and Drew Sayer. Throughout the set Friday, every member switched instruments at least a few times between songs. “I don’t know what I expected,” 25-year-old Anatoli Cepeda from Stockholm, Sweden admitted. “I was surprised at how magical it was. They allowed me to play with my imagination by using instruments and switching instruments.”
Cuddle Magic primarily played acoustic instruments: Alec Spielgelman on guitar and bass clarinet; Lazar-Davis on upright bass; Cole Kamen-Green on trumpet; Flaherty on drums; and Kristin Slipp on the concert bells. However, a surprising endeavor in their set was the inclusion of synthesizers in a few songs. A Korg synthesizer at first seemed like an odd coupling next to woodwind and acoustic instruments, but the bass sounds Slipp created with the machine worked well with the rest of the lush instrumentation.
Towards the end of the set, Slipp was back on the synth and danced around the hushed soundscape with echoed synth bits which scrubbed the sound until it exploded in a sea of digital ones and zeros. As the quintet closed their set, the crowd of roughly 25 people requested an encore with thunderous applause. Cuddle Magic’s performance Friday night was the final leg of their fall tour and from here they plan on recording and fine tweaking their upcoming LP.
Aaron Mitta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org