I don't live in the suburbs, but I might as well. I live by Cleveland Avenue & 161, right on the edge of Westerville and don't get downtown very much. But on Thursday night July 25th my lovely wife Debbie set off for the Ohio Theater Summer Movie Series to see The Thin Man and I went to check out The Wet Darlings and Nick Tolford & Company at The Columbus Commons.
Here's the thing about going Downtown for people like me; Columbus city leaders are always paying lip service to revitalizing our City Center (pun intended, that's the failed urban mall they tore down that BECAME The Columbus Commons) but then immediately start throwing up obstacles to that goal, i.e. making people feed the parking meters until 10 pm adjacent to Columbus Commons (as well as The Brewery District and much of the rest of downtown). I just got home from a series of gigs with Watershed in Raleigh, North Carolina where downtown parking is TOTALLY FREE after 5 pm. Seriously, are people from the suburbs - who NEVER have to pay for parking ANYWHERE - really going to make the effort to load up the family, make the drive downtown (which they perceive as scary anyway) and then get soaked for parking meter or garage parking fees? And it's not even the actual COST of parking, which is nominal compared to a Big City prices, it's the IDEA of paying to park.
Secondly, Columbus urban planning geniuses, whose bright idea was it to shoehorn in a row of apartments/condos between High Street and the Columbus Commons, thereby cutting off any kind of connection between THE MOST HIGHLY-TRAVELED STREET IN THE CITY and The Commons? Heaven forbid that people might be driving or walking past The Commons and say to themselves, "Hey, there's a show going on here, in the heart of my city, maybe I should stop and check it out." At my most cynical I wonder if those buildings were placed there to cut off free viewing access to the Commons, so that homeless people or mere moocher-passersby can't set up a lawn chair on the sidewalk outside the fence and watch Picnic With The Pops without paying 25 to 50 bucks . Or even more cynically, so Picnic With The Pops patrons wouldn't have to look at the homeless while sipping chablis stage-side with their families. Regardless, are there really enough highly-paid downtown-sector workers to FILL those buildings? How'd that Jeffrey Place condo development go over on 4th Street?
Anyway, enough anti-capitalist rich people grousing, let's talk about music.......
I actually like The Wet Darlings a lot. (It's not going to sound like it, but I do.) I was looking forward to seeing the band in a non-club setting, but I've gotta admit being a little disappointed with them. The Columbus Commons set-up really couldn't GET any more pro: good sound, GREAT lighting (though most of the Darlings' set took place in full daylight) and a HUGE expanse of stage to work with, which was part of the problem. Lead vocalist Jenny Lute is a great singer, is really pretty and possesses genuine onstage charisma but the band seemed a little bit lost on the Big Stage. The songs are good but not really great and it seems a little like the band wouldn't know a hook if it fucked 'em in a closet. Plus songwriter Bill Patterson might wanna work on FINISHING the songs, some of which don't so much end as just subside.
Also, Lute seemed to be having trouble connecting with the kinda-distant (geographically and temperamentally) audience. She wound up talking to the crowd about the weather THREE TIMES during the 90-minute set, which is at least two times too many. If the band wants to make the jump from clubs to bigger shows it really might not be a bad idea to work on a little stage banter. It doesn't have to be prepared or forced, but SOME idea of how to draw in an unfamiliar audience of regular (non-clubbing, non-hipster) people might be in order. All that being said, I really enjoyed The Wet Darlings set. It was a good solid set of rock & roll on a truly gorgeous summer night.
The Wet Darlings might want to take some onstage lessons from Nick Tolford & Company. Tolford is instantly ON and communicative with the crowd, opens the show with a song about how great summertime is (obvious in this setting, but still great) and completely engages the crowd from the very first moments of the set. There's a lot of things I could say about Tolford & Co. but the main thing I always have to start with is how simultaneously TIGHT and LOOSE the band is. This brand of gospel-infused rock SEEMS easy to play but it isn't. Staying strong on the beat and swinging at the same time is a tightrope walk Tolford & Co. have mastered.
Also, I should be put off by the band's LOOK, but I'm not. I'm 61 years old, I started off my rock & roll journey with The Beatles and The Dave Clark 5 in matching suits, progressed through Paul Revere & The Raiders, etc. to wind up back at The White Stripes and The Hives, sartorially. The fact that the whiplash-great pretty-boy blonde guitar player sporting a cardigan sweater is immediately adjacent to a Z.Z. Top-bearded, ballcap-wearing bass-player straight out of Leon Russell's band in 1972 SHOULD bother me, but somehow the Tolford band pulls it off. (By the way, for those of you scoring at home I saw Joe Cocker and Leon Russell's Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour at the Ohio Theater in 1970 and it's always the first thing I'm transported back to when I see Tolford & Company. And you KNOW that can't be bad.)
So yeah, Tolford has a KILLER yowl of a white-soul voice, is a great bandleader, plays a mean electric piano (with the mike placed firmly between his knees, Jerry Lee Lewis-style) but really it's the SONGS he writes that truly set him apart from the rest of the Columbus rock & roll pack. Unlike most local acts you never really know WHERE a Nick Tolford song is gonna go next: is there gonna be a funky out-of-time bridge, is there gonna be a stop-time section that wasn't there the last time they came out of the chorus, is there gonna be a drums & bass breakdown where you least expect it? Where ARE we in this tune? It's great. It's genius. Plus, my ultimate compliment: I always find myself wishing the songs in Tolford's set were three minutes LONGER than they are rather than the two minutes SHORTER I hope for in lesser bands' hands. And that soul-gospel chorus enacting choreographed dance-steps and synchronized tambourine-shaking? Man, that guy and those girls are FINE.
Nick Tolford & Company, thank you for a consummate night of summertime rock & roll.
(sidenote; I got hungry around the time of the bands' set change, so I wandered over to Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at the Commons for a snack , but was in for a rude awakening: two scoops of Jeni's Splendid would have set me back $118. That seems pricey for an ice cream cone, doesn't it?) - Ricki C. / July 26th, 2013
Ricki C contributes to Pencilstorm and has his own fabulous blog, "Growing Old With Rock n Roll" . You can learn more about him and our other contributors by clicking here.