Review by Rob Jonas
Three years ago, I had the good fortune of frequenting the Daily Grind’s Thursday night open mic in Troy while Sean Rowe was hosting. If there weren’t a lot of performers on a given night, Rowe would play several songs to fill the time. Among the songs I and the other patrons heard were “Old Shoes,” “Flying” and “The Walker.” Saturday night at Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany, those songs were played once again but in a different context. Rowe was no longer standing alone in front of a mic with only his acoustic guitar in hand. Now, he had company in the form of three members of Railbird – Sarah Pedinotti, Chris Carey and Chris Kyle.
The occasion was Rowe’s CD release party for “The Salesman and the Shark,” his first new recording for major independent label Anti- Records. Anti- re-issued Sean’s previous full-length album, “Magic,” last year after Rowe signed with them. With backing trio in tow, Rowe opened the night with “Flying,” one of six songs he played off “The Salesman and the Shark.” The song always stood out when Rowe played it solo, but the Railbird crew gave it an extra lift Saturday between Carey’s drumming and Pedinotti’s backing vocals.
That was the way most of Rowe’s set went. “Joe’s Cult” rocked with the help of Carey’s pounding beat, while “Old Shoes” benefited from Pedinotti’s harmonies (side note: Pedinotti was substituting for Marketa Irglova, who turned the song into a duet on the album). Two songs from “Magic“ – “The Walker” and “Old Black Dodge” – were also given full-band treatments, and the arrangements were tastefully done. Rowe wasn’t afraid to delve into the catalogues of two artists he’s been compared to in recent album reviews, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He played Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here” with only Carey accompanying him on drums and tackled Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” with aplomb.
As any national artist would do on the occasion of a CD release party, Rowe closed out the main set with the first single off the new album, “Downwind.” Here Kyle had the chance to show off his surf guitar chops just as he had on the recorded version, and he did so with ease. Well, as easy as it is to pick the guitar so fast that your right hand is only a blur of motion anyway. It was a triumphant and rocking end to the main portion of Rowe’s set.
Rowe returned to the stage alone to perform a yet-to-be-recorded song called “Leave Something Behind.” The large crowd in the upstairs portion of Valentine’s was transfixed as Rowe played a song about trying to leave a piece of himself that others could enjoy for years to come (that’s my translation of the song’s message, anyway). Listening to him with only his deep, soulful baritone voice and finger-picked guitar playing, it brought back memories of those Thursday nights at the Daily Grind where he’d pour every ounce of himself into his songs – even if there were only a few people in the coffee house.
Rowe couldn’t end the night by himself, though. He called the Railbird crew back to the stage to finish the encore with a version of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Baby Gone.” While they did an admirable version of the song, it was also the only misstep of the night. It would have been better to leave the crowd mesmerized with “Leave Something Behind” than to end with a cover song.
Railbird – the full-fledged version – played nearly as many songs during their opening set as Rowe did during his headliner set. Pedinotti, Carey, Kyle, second guitarist Xander Naylor and bassist Derek Leslie tore through 10 scheduled songs plus an unplanned encore that encapsulated where this band is heading. Each song challenged the listeners by creating soundscapes that veered from hushed to all-out rock, and the crowd loved every minute of it as several people danced in front of the stage. They also got Rowe on stage to perform “Jump Ship,” the song Railbird recorded with backing vocals by Rowe and Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel. Overall, it was a lively set by a band entering its prime.
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “In case anyone needed a refresher on Rowe’s talents, he delivered full force this night with help from fellow local favorites Railbird, giving it his all for a scant 12-song set that got a large crowd stomping their feet and singing along. With a set that drew heavily from ‘The Salesman and the Shark,’ but also saved plenty of room for older songs, covers and even unreleased material, Rowe left only one thing to complain about — it was too short. Armed with a taped-up acoustic guitar and decked out in his trusty fedora and suspenders, Rowe sauntered onstage shortly after 10pm to thunderous applause, launching into the grooving new song ‘Flying,’ the second track from the album. With Railbird singer and Saratoga Springs native Sarah Pedinotti providing backing vocals, and Chris Kyle and Chris Carey bashing away on electric guitar and drum kit, respectively, the song soared to energetic heights only hinted at on the studio version.”
SEAN ROWE SET LIST
Old Black Dodge
Jesus Gonna Be Here (Tom Waits)
Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen)
Leave Something Behind
Gone Baby Gone (Violent Femmes)
RAILBIRD SET LIST
Kiss the Wall
Jump Ship (with Sean Rowe)
What You Do To Me
Walls of Scotland