I always feel a thrill walking into First Avenue on a weekend night. Parking is a bit more bothersome when Twins are closing out the season at Target Field and a show like Hamilton is sold out a block away. Friday was jacket weather. The seasons must have changed. The year’s first freeze warning had been issued. And The Record Company was headlining First Avenue.
8:30 sharp and Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear walked on. I was immediately surprised, expecting this to be a duet comprised of Madisen and his own Mama, Ruth Ward, the Mama Bear. Instead what we got was a big 5 piece band that added electric guitar, bass and drums to the family run acoustics. What had been billed as a folk, soul duo was a full fledged rock band ready to drop into a groove. The quality of the songs was outstanding. Not only folk, gospel, rock or soul, the song Everybody’s Got Problems could easily have graced a Broadway stage.
Not long ago, these two were playing coffee shops in the Kansas City area when their songs were noticed by super producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys). The Ward’s songs were custom made for the full treatment and that’s what they brought to the road. Ruth, with her white hair, wrapped beneath a kerchief sat on a chair throughout and was an absolute delight. Not only did she play wonderfully, her backing vocals were genetically matched to her son.
There was zero doubt how much fun she was having. After the set’s third song she flashed a big smile and pumped her fist. Like anybody’s mother she needed to stop things and add her two cent’s worth. Madisen quickly stepped in to say: “Uh oh! Somebody got into the whiskey in the Green Room.” Ruth proceeded to tell the audience what a remarkable experience it had been to suddenly be on the road with the likes of The Record Company playing places like First Avenue. She shook her head and allowed: “All this traveling from town to town, this touring stuff, it’s such a mess. But I want you all to know…I LOVE IT!”
At the conclusion of a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute set the band took a minute to enjoy the applause. Taking selfies in front of a packed venue. It was a heartfelt, genuine moment. And particularly appealing to see a mother and her son doing what they’d done for years with each other for the sheer enjoyment of making music.
Sometimes rock and roll dreams do come true.
The Record Company hit the stage dressed down in black to a warm reception and immediately hit the audience with the radio hit Baby I’m Broken. While everyone seemed appreciative the crowd wasn’t fully amped. Perhaps still in that pleasant, groove filled Madisen mode. All that lasted for less than 5 minutes. In what would become the hallmark of the evening, the band took those radio friendly numbers and morphed them into heavy, visceral boogie jams. Broken continued to build until the roof was ready to lift off the joint.
Front man Chris Vos set down his guitar and picked up a harp as bassist Alex Stiff and drummer Marc Cazorla laid down a heavy driving back beat for On The Move. This was pure amped up, bottom heavy British Invasion styles blues. Flashes of John Mayall as the song bounced between bass lead and Vos’ spinning, stomping harp lines.
While blues was the basic format of the band, the Record Company easily moves through driving jam type genres, always with a ragged Stones or Stooges urgency. The Movie Song was a Lynyrd Skynyrd southern rocker which built to a kick ass guitar shredded anthem. The band is now locked and loaded. The fans are on board for the ride as the guys downshift into a John Lee Hooker boogie titled Feels So Good. As they did all night, the focus passed from Stiff to Vos. The latter lit into a very Prince like guitar solo near the end of the tune before the tune built into a huge Roadhouse Boogie type feel. That’s the beautiful thing about the blues. Songs evolve and expand according to whatever muse is speaking at that moment to the bandleader. There’s an old truism. Every great blues player can rock. But not every rocker can play the blues.
Goodbye To The Hard Life from the new album provided a new look at the band’s range. Gone was Vos’ deep gritty vocal stylings to be replaced by this effortless and very cool Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly falsetto. Remarkably, this also seemed well within his range. Vos may not have the most refined voice box to be found. But it’s surely at his beck and call at a moment’s notice.
Halfway through the show we’ve been offered searing lead guitar, harp and a range of vocals. So why not sit down and add a lap steel guitar to Vos’ repertoire? Rita Mae Young is a slithering number that has the audience heading bobbing and weaving. This was not one that hit the radio. But it was familiar ground to the First Avenue crowd. They fervently sang the chorus back at the band and showed their approval with a huge ovation.
The rest of the evening was a masterpiece of in your face, visceral deep blues. I kept flashing on bands like Black Keys, The Doors and Rival Sons. The music is not complex but the heavy, insistent back beat matches the human heart rate. You can’t hold still. The body moves, feet stomp and fists pound the bar. The music is communal. When that community connects, there’s a feedback loop. The musicians keep the song going until they’ve milked every bit of emotion from the riff. This isn’t passive stuff.
As the band concluded Off The Ground, Vos stopped the train and confessed: “About midway through that, I suddenly realized something and I want to share it before I forget it. All my life I’ve been in bands. Through high school and college. Somewhere in this room is a guy named (he dropped a first name). He was my college roommate and he was from Minnesota. We used to sit around, drink beer and watch movies. I probably watched Purple Rain fifteen times. One night, after 12 to 24 PBR’s we were watching it. I turned to him and said: ‘Some day I’m going to play in that club! And you’re going to be married, have a couple of kids and come to see me.’ Midway through the song I realized that earlier today I met his wife and kids. He’s here tonight.”
Rock and roll dreams sometimes do come true.
The most humorous moment of the night occurred when Vos reflected on their sudden and unexpected rise from obscurity to major festivals and Grammy nominations. He asked how many people in the audience had come to see them a year ago at The Entry or earlier this year at The Current’s micro show at Icehouse. A physically impossible 500 people immediately raised their hands. This has the making of an urban legend.
This is a thoroughly modern band with old school sensibilities. To them it’s not about blues, southern rock or Doors type boogies. It’s just about music, played hard, played sweaty and played whether there’s an audience there to hear it or not. There is an irresistible spontaneity and power that only grows stronger when bodies are in an audience to stomp and contribute.
It occurred to me that The Record Company is like the dream house band. I see so many shows that I love, that I can’t wait to see a year down the road when they return. With this band, I’d stop in every week to see them; to meet with old friends and new. Always familiar and yet never the same. A constant act of creation. Together we’d raise the roof. These guys are just getting started and nobody is going to get them for their house band. They are meant to be shared.
The band closed out the main set with their biggest radio hit Life To Fix. As they’d done all night, they took something familiar and built a mountain on it. Somehow a big, heavy three minute radio hit became a ten minute exploding blues jam. My notes simply say: ‘this has turned into a full blown sonic werewolf’!
According to that tried and true formula of how to do an encore, guitar tech, roadie and fine musician in his own right, Johnny was invited to sit at the drums while Catorza moved to keys. You And Me was a fun, rollicking tune that was probably the most upbeat, ballad like song of the entire night.
Vos then smiled at the audience and warned: “Before you go thinking that we’re a bunch of nice guys…” and then dropped directly into The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. Like preaching to the choir. The crowd surged. Sweat flew. As the song thundered to its end and the band gathered for the final bow you could read it in their faces. It was a night to remember.
Rock and roll dreams sometimes do come true.
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