SLC’S NEW SCENE AT THE COMMONWEALTH ROOM
When you think of music meccas, Salt Lake City doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Even the bumper stickers read: London New York Tokyo Paris Moab. Music present and past has claimed many birthplaces but the state that is homeland to the LDS religion is not one of them. Isn’t it surprising then that Utah actually sports a pretty decent music history, loaded with trivia tidbits and fervent fan-followings. I’m not referring to Donny and Marie either. The amusement park known as Lagoon hosted classic rock’s greatest in the late 60’s and 70’s. Before then several versions of the Great Saltair, a majestic palladium built upon stilts at the shore of the Great Salt Lake, hosted extravagant balls and events for the city’s finest. The modern structure still hosts its share of musical events although the facade is far removed from its past glorious architecture due to numerous flooding. Recent collaborations with the Utah Symphony in the state’s five national parks has drawn widespread acclaim and music festivals such as the Moab Red Rock Festival, Bonanza Campout and Reggae Rise Up have become staple must-attend events for locals.
Despite its reputation as a conservative stronghold which made the classic anti-dance film Footloose ideal, Utah and Salt Lake City is a perfect location to be the true crossroads of the U.S. Placed on the western slope of the rocky mountain range abutting the great plains, the city is home to a scattering of the highest rated ski resorts in the country and hours from five national parks. Situated at the mouth of five separate canyons that carve through the Wasatch mountain range, outside venues provide spectacular views of the valley from either side that are often accompanied with sunsets or summer storms for an experience mixed with nature that rivals the imagination. However the world-class snow means the city’s many indoor venues shouldn’t be overlooked when winter weather relegates musical events to more accommodating climates.
Opening the spring of 2018, The Commonwealth Room sought to push the dimensions of SLC’s music scene to new heights with headlining acts that would make the A-list in any city. The following three accounts aren’t meant to be taken so much as reviews than they are experiences. If you are a music lover, then you seek out great bands and wish to see them perform live in memorable venues. The building is a converted Church of Rock which aptly lends itself to the intimate yet airy layout and unrestricted traffic flow. This aspect also loans itself to the dialed-in acoustics and ideal setup as a live concert venue. Its owners purchased the property and molded it closely after their primary venue, The State Room, located near the heart of downtown SLC. Co-managing another property in Park City called O.P. Rockwell, they know a little about booking great acts as many of their headliners have seen multiple bookings at each location. It seems that the Commonwealth Room is destined to travel the same path that fans of live music in the city will gladly follow.
December 30-January 1
I’m usually a stay-in person these days when it comes to NYE. The days of bar-hopping in the freezing cold and crashing wild house parties are far behind me. However when I saw that one of my favorite funk/soul/afrobeat/latin/groove/psychedelic bands were headlining this new venue on the last night of the year, I knew I had to be there. As bands go, Orgone is a California-based group which has included the standard guitars, bass, drummer, keyboardist combo and added in a small brass section and vocalist for good measure. Not only does this lend them a great amount of versatility, but also an overwhelming and powerful sound. Having changed their female vocalist in past years, they remain with the same Aretha Franklin-like presence which perfectly accompanies the bands varied styles and powerful chord progression style. Additionally, with a healthy canon of albums in a relatively short amount of time, Orgone proves that they can not only master the different genres of music they play, but transition and blend them together with ease and grace.
Starting things off was a local band which I have followed for a little over a year: Superbubble. When I first heard them I thought it was a weird name, but talent will always triumph uncertainty and this group has that in oodles. Mixing a similar funk/groove/jamband style, ‘Bubble boasts only an EP of original material promising more to come with an early March release. They wasted little time in getting the audience’s attention, however, and played an energetic and dynamic set which showcased their ability to meld multiple genres into their own unique sound. A perfect stage setter for what was to come.
With their latest release, Reasons, Orgone emerges from the studio boasting their most mature songwriting to date. Tracks on the album display the band’s ability to execute soulful and intimate ballads, funky swinging grooves and sizzling dance floor anthems. Playing two sets of music that covered roughly 3 hours of live performance, they even timed in a toast when the clock hit midnight and outlasted many of the revelers packing the venue to celebrate. Transitioning from song to song, the band allows each of its strengths to stand on its own. Lead guitar Sergio Rios was as on-point as ever whether playing his Latin-based style reminiscent of Santana, working a dirty soul groove snatched from the 70’s, or in freestyle jam conjuring up sound vibes worthy of the pervading smell of sativa. The horn section is given great latitude in how to present themselves depending but always remain within the constraints of each song. Vocalist Adryon de Leon possesses a full pitch of tools to blend with each style of the band’s music. From throaty and emotional purring/serenading to full piped, eardrum splintering soul accompaniment that holds its own with the other musicians on stage.
Easily playing from each of their varied albums from the past decade, including a well-measured cover or two, Orgone delivered a NYE performance to remember that will set the bar for future celebrations. As part of the “older group” this was one night I was glad that I didn’t stay in.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Chris Robinson and his band, the Black Crowes, had been travelling the United States and world over for decades, delighting crowds with their unique brand of southern, bluesy folk rock. When they announced their end around 2010, many feared that this band and its musicians would fade into the sunset like so many others who never succeeded past initial reincarnations. Little did most of the musical world know that the end of the Crowes was the beginning of a new era of musicianship for the formerly southern rockers, a sort of rebirth if you will. Naturally, the band reformed in a slightly different configuration and called themselves the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
With their new look and a style adapted to southern California’s laid-back, psychedelic vibe, the group took to the studio and road, eagerly inspiring a passionate following that absorbed the new sound the group was quickly becoming accustomed and known for. By 2018, the group had accumulated an impressive amount of studio albums with tracks inspired by its constant touring and connection to their fans. Bookings at small venues and music festivals were a staple on tour lists and the band would often perform for multiple nights in a city or even venue to accommodate the zealous demand of listeners. The ability to transform a 7-minute song into a 20-minute jam session effortlessly became the band’s hallmark as it becomes all bands under the “jam band” mantra.
Having seen them play many times in different venues I originally decided to sit this one out. But as the date drew near and tickets still remained, I became more enticed with the opportunity to see a band I enjoy so much play at a local, intimate venue. So, on a chilly late winter night I once again found myself in the crowd to watch Chris Robinson and his family of musicians entertain. I did not regret my decision. Right from the start the band went into a familiar favorite that immediately drew the crowd’s focus and energies. From there they launched into a slightly more than hour-long set that exuded the upbeat and warm feel that everyone needed to shrug off the bitter cold of the night outside.
Beginning the second set with a trippy version of a Roy Orbison classic, the band wove its way through a setlist that included favorites from their Barefoot in the Head and Big Moon Ritual albums. One of the great things about a Chris Robinson Brotherhood concert is that you can easily lose track of time and allow your enjoyment of the performance become the focus. Attending one of their shows reminded me of the days of my early 20’s when you went to support some friends’ band at the local watering hole. The close personal feel of the choice of venue and the band’s performance easily gives way to experience of a less pretentious day and age that many yearn for. The band closed with a rousing cover of “Relax your Mind” which perfectly encapsulated the night that fans had just enjoyed.
For a band known only in certain tight-knit musical circles, Lettuce has been around for an astonishingly long time. Formed in the early 90’s this 6-piece band incorporates both a saxophonist and trumpet player to accentuate their crushingly powerful brand of funk-inspired fusion that also hints at elements of Latin samba, jazz and groove. With a relatively short discography, this band offers more than an ample amount of choices in their set/playlist and have increased their audiences and reach steadily to headline festivals stages and arena size venues. Relentlessly touring, their tight-knit approach to being musicians nicely compliments their insanely tight chops on stage where any given night a member may be invited to make the stage their own and melt faces with the sheer force of talent and originality.
The temperatures outside hadn’t warmed much since my last show at Commonwealth and I was nursing a persistent cough, but having not seen them for several years I was determined not to miss what was to be a truly rewarding night of music. The venue was packed, and sold out just hours before with a delightful mix of youth and experienced concert veterans alike. By the time the band took the stage fans were ready for the music to match the racing pulses fueled by shots from the bar. Not ones to disappoint Lettuce launched into a cavalcade of music that perfectly captured their essence, both possessing a unique sound and tight musicianship that fans have come to expect.
The band raced through the first set with a wild energy that was breathtaking to watch. Blending material from their entire canon of music, their sustained energy provided bursts at just the right time keeping the audience bouncing and swaying to their songs that alternated from laid-back to boisterous. The latest album is a tribute to Miles Davis called Witches’ Stew which gives trumpeter Eric Bloom ample opportunity to display his range of chops, as well as put forth his best Davis impression. As if Lettuce needed to add to their already explosive reputation as live musicians, Stew brings their live performances to a new level by mixing classic jazz with the funk-laden focus that has stayed at the heart of their performances for decades.
This was only my second time seeing them live and I hope it is far from the last. Along with the tightness of their musicality and the passion with which they perform, few other shows offer the energy and enjoyment that the audience experiences hearing and seeing them live. The Commonwealth Room has been around for a little more than a year and I look forward to many more memorable concert experiences there. If the first year is any indication, this venue has already made a great impression on the Salt Lake music scene. Hopefully the musicians will continue to look forward to the evenings they are booked there.