I was happy with the arrival of Design It Together in Troy over the summer. Not just because of my passing familiarity with the men involved, but also for the fact that it meant there would be a small, intimate music venue downtown that served something more than passe pseudo-blues and cover bands.
Last Friday, they brought singer-songwriter Time Travels and pop duo the Pleasants to an enthusiastic crowd of four.
Yes, four. And I’m counting the two men I mentioned earlier.
It was a combination of bad timing and a stifling reminder that the city has a long way to go. There’s no shortage of young people eager to embrace the sort of indie fare that was offered, but there’s a problem of attracting people to an area of the city that is completely closed down well before the music starts. That means you don’t get passerbys or folks that happen to be in town already. It also had the unpleasant task of competing with shows at much larger venues that same evening that drew from the same crowd they were targeting.
Regardless, the low turnout was more unfortunate for those that weren’t there than it was for the artists.
Relentlessly optimistic to the point of defiance, singer-songwriter Frank P. McGinnis – alias Time Travels – happily took his place before his small and intimate crowd. His vocals alternated between subtle reflection and late ’90s grandiosity, reminiscent in some ways of Dashboard Confessional but with a more polished voice and less of an axe to grind. His lyrics also focused more on storytelling, admitting in-between songs that he often found a distance between what he was going through at a specific time and what subjects he ended up inserting into his songs. In that sense, he became more Harry Chapin than Chris Cabrera, a welcome recourse to the stifling self-involvement that plagues so many guys and gals with guitars. This came through in songs like “Benny” and “Georgie,” two companion pieces about two brothers and their lives’ travails. There were, too, some more personal compositions, such as the song “You” and “The Eye,” the latter of which was dedicated to his father. Yet there seemed to be much more reflection than one would expect in someone so young, and the songs took a view of the subjects in the context of a larger scope rather than simply telegraphing a specific emotion or kneejerk reaction.
It’s also worth mentioning that McGinnis is a hell of a guitarist. There were clean picks, no hesitation, and perhaps most impressively, he kept time despite some complicated structures and dramatic shifts.
He was followed by the Pleasants, a duo from Belmont, Vermont. They were a bit less disciplined, but this was by design. And by that I mean in terms of their attitude and the scotch in guitarist Mike Matta’s belly. Still, it was all great fun, and everything they did bounced, even when they got into darker material. As they playfully bickered and joked light-heartedly about the low turnout, they turned out originals and covers with enthusiasm and precision. Pianist and vocalist Amanda Rogers talked extensively about her nerves, but it wasn’t evident in her performance. As soon as she hit the keys, she had all the confidence of an accomplished jazz pianist. Even more impressive was her voice: Rogers is able to hit melodrama without oversinging it, which is rare for a vocalist of her caliber.
Their set list was, by their own admission, ad-hoc and a bit erratic. Yet it worked, partly because of the duo’s charm and engagement with the handful of people in the room but due in larger part to their natural talents as performers. It also helped that they drew from such a wide array of influences, at times giving a Latin beat to traditional folk song structures, combining blues guitar with a cathedral organ, and running the gamut from torch songs to poppy dance numbers. Their covers included a very earnest and fascinating interpretation of “Pulling Teeth” from Green Day’s breakthrough (and overplayed) 1994 album “Dookie.” And, owing again to their likability, they performed “Don’t Pass Me By” – my least favorite track off “The White Album” – and made me like it.
In the end, I was thankful for the opportunity to see live music downtown that didn’t involve drunks bumping into each other and ignoring the music. More importantly, the music was not only worth paying attention to, but engaging.
The Design It Together shop is a small space, but it provides a surprisingly full sound. More shows are sure to happen there, and if last Friday was any indication, it’d be in your best interests to make it out next time.
Review and photographs by Kevin Marshall