LIVE in the Age of COVID: SexMob (w/ Extra Special Guest John Medeski) @ Live at The Falcon, Marlboro 8/23/2020
It seemed at several points that this review wasn’t going to get written at all – not only because of the titanic case of Writer’s Block that’s been smacking me around, but because late last month, the NY State Liquor Authority threw yet another spanner into the smoking hulk that is the summer concert season and put all scheduled music dates (including SexMob’s first live performance in five months) into a cocked hat.
On the Thursday before Steven Bernstein was to bring his band to the Falcon, the SLA issued the decidedly confusing ruling that bars & restaurants that featured live music could neither advertise the shows nor sell tickets for those shows. Basically, any music that was to appear was to be purely “incidental”, and not a way to draw people into a potential SuperSpreader event. (This is why you’ve seen ads for “Waterfall Dining with Mike Stern” and “Incidental Music by the Levin Brothers.”) It seemed impossible for 2020 to get any more satirical, but nothing is impossible for NY state government.
I’ll rant more about this situation at the bottom of the page. The bottom line was that I arrived at the Falcon wondering whether I was going to do a music review or a restaurant review. I’d ordered up an Industrial Arts IPA and a Beyond Burger to prepare for the latter, when I looked down at the stage area on the Falcon’s multi-tiered deck and saw one of my favorite instruments in the world – a Hammond B3 organ – set up on Stage Right. Since SexMob didn’t have keyboards, I was naturally confused. Then I saw two fellow bald gentlemen, both masked, in discussion by the B3. It took me a few seconds to realize that SexMob frontman Steven Bernstein was talking with the owner of the B3: John Medeski, who was not supposed to be on this stage until Club d’Elf played the Falcon the following Friday.
What had been advertised (before advertising was forbidden) was that SexMob was going to do a tribute to the late Hudson Valley artist Robert Hite, who was taken from us by pancreatic cancer earlier this year. In his introduction for the band, Falcon impresario Tony DeFalco told us he might also “light a bonfire” for Hite in tribute. If you’ve ever been to the Falcon, you know how big a supporter of the Hudson Valley art scene DeFalco is. What we didn’t expect was to see DeFalco go over the side of the deck in the middle of the first number and actually light a bonfire down by the twin waterfalls next to the club.
The bonfire was still smoldering after Medeski & SexMob had filled all our minds with ninety minutes of raw, brilliant, and extremely tasty jam. Bernstein did dedicate one mournful ballad to Hite somewhere in the middle of it all, but essentially we were treated one long, varied improvisation by people who’d been playing together since the early-to-mid ‘90s. Bernstein’s slide trumpet pierced the initial boogie-centric vamp the band played under DeFalco’s introduction with a note that sounded like a human scream while Medeski’s B3 percolated and Kenny Wolleson’s drums counter-percolated. If you closed your eyes and factored in Tony Scherr’s super-phat bass, you’d swear you were hearing Medeski Bernstein Martin & Wood! The music went from boogie to the blues and the show just went on from grove to groove, blues to boogie, boogie to reggae, reggae to Second Line, and from there off into that musical question called… the Twilight Zone!
Bernstein creates brilliant cacophony at the drop of a hat, making a note that’s flat as a pancake sound letter-perfect and making his horn sound like it was playing on a static-encrusted AM radio. Although Medeski is more than capable of finding those notes between the notes that only occasionally visit our reality, his organ actually helped Scherr anchor the foundation even as he busted out his own range of killer solos. Meanwhile, Wolleson’s counters and fills could pass as solos in any other band, and he was as content-rich as ever on this evening.
It all seemed kind of strange to hear SexMob play without Briggan Krauss’ alto sax, but then an alto appeared about a third of the way through the set, making me think Briggan had simply arrived late. As it happened, he didn’t arrive at all, making the personal choice to stay in Lockdown: The alto was provided by the Klezmatics’ Matt Darriau, who was every bit the foil for Bernstein that Krauss usually provides and contributed his own otherworldly sense of lyric. Put it all together with Medeski’s unannounced appearance, and you had your basic pickup date where the players sounded like they’ve been working together every night for the last decade.
As to the SLA ruling that had both musicians and club owners in an uproar, the SLA issued a “clarification” saying that their ruling only applied to music played inside a club or restaurant. This lets the Falcon (and other venues with patios and tents) off the hook for now, though the Hudson Valley’s going to get colder in a very little while. That said, the State Liquor Authority essentially turned the live-music scene into a seasonal economy. Current COVID rules would only let clubs have 25% capacity anyway (while paying 100% rent), so everyone was ready to take a big bath together before this. What’s one more kick in the scrotum between friends?
But the real kicker is the ban on advertising. At the risk of sounding like a philosophy major, what IS advertising? Most clubs I know do most of their connecting through social media, so no “traditional” advertising is involved! It seems like either the SLA didn’t think this one through, or they just didn’t care – as usual – and continued their never-ending quest to make life more fraught for anyone who attempts to present live bands of any stripe.
Bottom line: No matter where or how you see live music, please wear a mask, tip big, buy all the band’s music & merch that you can, and hope a vaccine (that’s demonstrably safe) shows up before everyone’s economy is down the crapper for good and all.