(August 21, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)
For whatever reason, the tag “local band” is anathema in these parts; unless, of course, you’re talking about a cover – oh… I’m SO sorry… I meant a “tribute” – band playing in the corner of a bar somewhere. I’ve never quite understood that mentality, ’cause every band is local SOMEWHERE… right? Now, obviously, there are exceptions – bands and artists who offer a sound so unique or simply too good to be ignored… even in their hometown. The Educated Guest is one such band. This Friday night saw a packed house at Off Broadway, there to see the self-proclaimed symphonic pop brainchild of Charlie Brumley rock the rafters. And, as we’ll impart later, they most certainly did!
The evening kicked off with Syrhea Conaway, a solo artist doing business as Syna So Pro. Initially, I thought, “Oh, great! Another singer/songwriter with a keyboard! How imaginative!” Man, was I wrong! Syrhea picked up a guitar, punched a couple of buttons on her keyboard and tapped a pedal or two with her feet and played a series of power chords while intoning a line or two of lyrics into a mic; she then hit another few buttons, looping everything, before picking up a violin and repeating the process. The piece eventually brought her back to the guitar, where she played a rather intricate progression of notes that, once looped and re-looped, brought the whole thing together. The really cool thing about the way Conaway works is the fact that most of her songs seem to emerge fully realized BEFORE she starts adding layer after layer of guitar, vocals, keys or violin; watching her basically produce a new piece of music on the spot was mesmerizing. Aside from the digital trickery, it is quite apparent that Syrhea Conaway possesses a massive amount of talent as both musician and composer. Another quirky aspect of the live set was the stage banter, with Syrhea holding a conversation with herself, via pre-recorded comments, questions and jokes; they didn’t all work, but it was still a neat touch. At one point, her digital recorder misfired. A lot of performers would have had a major meltdown; Syrhea’s incredible stage presence and self-effacing humor came to the fore, as she kept the crowd entertained while fixing the problem. As ultimately enjoyable as this performance was, I would kinda like to see Conaway in a full band context (she has played in several over the years), creating these mind-boggling soundscapes while bouncing ideas off a group of like-minded musicians. Even if that never happens, I will still have this six-song set by Syna So Pro stuck in my head as one of the most imaginative performances I’ve ever seen.
Charlie Brumley’s eleven piece (yes… I said eleven piece!) band worked as a well-oiled machine, delivering a show that was part Motown Soul, part Vegas spectacle, all 1960s-style pop brilliance. An Ike Turner/mad genius type (without the violence and mounds of white powder that not-so-mysteriously disappear up his nose), Brumley acts as lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director, leading a four-piece brass section (Devin LaRue and Kenny Summers on tenor and bass trombone, respectively; Zack Hall on trumpet; Jim Scheffer on alto sax), three background singers (Arrika Rayburn, Jess Speropulos, Jamie-Lee Green) and a soulful rhythm section (drummer Brian Pincus, bassist Jon Venegoni, guitarist Grant Alexander) through what one would imagine an early ’60s pop or Motown live extravaganza would look and sound like… without a feeling of nostalgia or the kitsch generally associated with such endeavors.
The tone for the show was set from the get-go, with the wonderful “Sweet On You (and Getting Sweeter).” Brumley’s deep, soulful voice plays well off the backing and harmony vocals of the three ladies, while the horns add a warm, rich layer that many like-minded bands cannot hope to recreate. As the band (and the crowd) loosened up, their sound took on an even funkier groove, interspersing – of course – the poppy dance tunes with a slow jam or two. One such song, “The Best Part,” taken from the group’s new album (get it here), is a kind of Righteous Brothers ballady thing. That number was followed up by another track from THE EDUCATED GUESS, a Sunshine Pop confection called “Saint Monday (Love, Love, Love).” Later, another pair of songs from the new recording highlighted, not only Brumley’s writing and arranging abilities but, the talented members of the ensemble; “Get You Girl” has a loose sorta “I Can’t Help Myself” (the Four Tops song commonly referred to as “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) with a pumping bass, beautiful backing vocals and a nice solo from saxophonist Scheffer, while “Maybe” is a slow building tune that again features Scheffer, this time as singing counterpoint to Brumley, who adds his own amazing piano signature.
The twelve song set ended with an absolutely stunning “remix” of R Kelly’s remix of his own “Ignition.” Other highlights of the set proper included “A Good Kisser (Don’t Kiss and Tell),” “Wandering Eyes,” and “Playing For Keeps.” Not close to having their fill, the audience demanded – and received – an encore of “Tell Me Honey” and “Missin’ Me Some Kissin’ Blues.” Most of the Educated Guess’ recordings and previous performances featured the Emperor Norton Orchestra, so one would have expected the sound to be… uh… a little thin. Far from it, the musicians and singers filled any void that may have occurred due to the (relatively) smaller pop-oriented group. This was, simply stated, an evening filled with fun music, meant to evoke the warm fuzzies and to get toes tapping and butts shaking. If you haven’t seen (or heard) the Educated Guess, you owe it to yourself to do so at your earliest convenience.