This is why I do what I do; why I spend endless hours searching for new music on the Internet, at the record shops and in clubs. I’ve seen more great shows than I can ever count (plenty of terrible ones too), but every once in a while I get turned on to something truly exceptional. Otis Grove falls into the latter category and if their new album, The Runk, didn’t prove it on its own, their CD release party at the Lizard Lounge did.
The club itself is something special. It has the feel of a dark, sexy basement living room. The super-low ceiling, flickering candles on the walls, oriental carpets on the floor and dark red lighting all support a very intimate feel. The fact that the band plays in what amounts to the middle of the floor, with no stage to speak of, completes the homey feel. It’s as though the band is playing their own jam space to an audience of close friends. The acoustics of the room are impressive too, with driving, thumping bass at a reasonable volume which doesn’t leave you with bleeding ears at the end of the night.
When I got an advanced copy of The Runk a couple of weeks ago, I was floored by the combination of influences and styles - funk, soul, jazz, metal, hip-hop, jams. I knew these guys could play but nothing really prepared me for the musicianship I witnessed in the live experience. They opened with a triplet of songs from the new album; “The Bunk,” a classic sounding funk/soul number, segued into “Rock City,” which is, as the title alludes, a driving rock instrumental, then into “Bobby Nosox,” another jam in the classic funk/soul vein.
Otis Grove are a spectacle to watch - Sam Gilman playing the role of a white Stevie Wonder, eyes closed and head a-swaying; Blake Goedde drumming with a ferocity that would make Neil Peart envious; Tyler Drabick, a geeked-out guitar god. Each song was layered with drum fills, keyboard flourishes and guitar work but with every note in the groove. For all the technical musicianship there’s never a wonky moment. Every note contributes to the mood. There’s not a second of showmanship for showmanship’s sake. Everything instead comes together in an organic, jammy flow.
The songs are so hook-laden that, just before the end of the first half of their set, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey, I just realized they’re not singing.” That, I think, is the key to why Otis Grove works so well. Without any lyrics they manage to connect and communicate with their audience directly through the music and between song banter. Even their more throwback style songs sound modern; making great use of the Pixies/Nirvana loud-quiet-loud method to pull their songs through whole series of emotions without ever uttering a word.
At about the half-way point the band introduced Brighton native, Mr. Lif, to MC a series of songs they’ve worked on together. Mr. Lif’s skills are legendary and in another context the short set would have been thoroughly enjoyable. For me, though, the introduction of vocals to the mix was such a jarring transition from the mood that had been building earlier that it left me wishing they’d performed these tunes in an opening set instead. That’s not to say that the songs weren’t good. They reminded me of some of the Beastie Boys more groove-laden work and Mr. Lif pumped the crowd along with a vast well of energy.
After the short hip-hop interlude Otis Grove get right back into it, running through a scorching Jimi Hendrix medley that hit “Little Wing,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze,” among others. As the night wore on I started to worry that they weren’t going to play my favorite track from The Runk, the album’s opener, “The Monarch.” Fortunately, I wasn’t let down. Finally, in their next to last song, I heard the classic, Deep Purple-esque, dual guitar keyboard riff that opens the song. They killed it, complete with an Emerson, Lake and Palmer-like organ breakdown in the middle. They closed the set with their interpretation of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” a seven-plus minute jam that turns the classic heavy metal tune into a wandering jam session. I’m not sure which was more entertaining, hearing the guitar and keyboards mimic Ozzie Osbourne’s vocals, or watching the entire crowd singing along, trying to step up into the role of the Prince of Darkness.
- George Dow