New York, NY 2/28//16
One of the most exhilarating instruments that anyone can play and develop any kind of mastery of is the guitar; second maybe only to the voice. It is still always thrilling to be able to see a really good guitarist or a really good vocalist. This is why guitar players and lead singers tend to take front and center in popular music, rock, punk, metal, alternative, et al. Like I said it’s a thrill to see just one of the greats onstage so when you’ve got three masters of their ax in one show, you can pretty well bet you’re bound to have an amazing time.
So it’s with great anticipation that I sat in the audience at Lower Manhattan’s City Winery on February 28, 2016 to enjoy their Masters of the Telecaster show. Jim Weider, G.E. Smith & Jon Herington all came out to show their chops and entertain the whole house.
Known for his signature bluesy sound, Weider has been subtly shredding for decades. Perhaps best known for his work for 15 years with The Band, Weider has played at places as far flung as The Berlin Wall to places as close to home as “The Bob Dylan Tribute” at Madison Square Garden. He even played at the inaugural for President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Fans of late night comedy will likely recognize Smith as the former floppy haired band director for The Saturday Night Live band; a post he famously held for 10 years. Smith has also recorded and played with the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Roger Water’s WALL LIVE Worldwide Tour.
Herington is a bandleader in his own right and has enjoyed a great deal of success with the Jon HeringtonBand. However since 1999 he’s been the guitarist of choice for touring and recording with Steely Dan. Herington has also played with the likes of Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler, and others.
As a quick aside, for those unfamiliar with the term, the Telecaster is a model guitar from legendary guitar maker Fender. Introduced in 1950 the company calls this model “The One That Started It All,” and the list of musicians who’ve used it can attest to this fact. From Bob Dylan to David Gilmour to Merle Haggard to Chrissie Hynde, Alex Lifeson to Johnny Marr to Keith Richards to Muddy Waters to Jimmy Page to Bruce Springsteen to Joe Strummer, this first commercially successful model electric guitar has graced the hands and the skill of countless musicians.
So it was on this unusually balmy February evening we were all in place to see the Masters of the Telecaster. The arc was to be eclipsed and art was to be shared inside City Winery on Varick Street in Manhattan.
The vibe inside the intimate space prior to the lights going down was characteristically upbeat. While the audience wasn’t nearly as packed as it could have been, it was a Sunday night in winter. Still that didn’t stop the energy for the show. Enthusiastic audience whoops and wails made the space feel far more full. Everyone here wanted to see these three artists shred.
With all that as the lead-in the three ax-men ambled out to the stage at the same time. I wasn’t sure what to expect with these three legends in their own rite, but I certainly didn’t imagine they’d all erupt onstage together. It wasn’t boastful though and in hindsight was totally appropriate. They all took their spots before three front facing microphones and plugged in their guitars.
For a brief moment I feared they would all try and harmonize or something but they used the microphones sparingly and never really in concert. We weren’t here to see them sing we were here to see them play.
As the Academy Awards were going on at the same time, the guitarists were more than aware of this competing entertainment venue. Still, G.E. Smith cast away fears of everything lame when he said. “We’re gonna play something you won't hear at the Oscars; we’re gonna play rock and roll!” With that proclamation the crowed erupted and all in attendance were locked in.
The first song was an instrumental tune that I did not recognize, but the formula was recognizable enough. The three men and their backing bass player (Jeff Hill) and drummer (Randy Ciarlante) evoked a smooth and familiar soul groove. The three leads traded licks with one playing the rhythm line, another soloing and a third adding in where they saw fit. Perhaps it was a bit of lead harmony or perhaps it was a bit of rhythm line punctuation; whatever was needed the three were all there for one another.
This Masters program is something that’s been done before albeit not always the same players. Still you can tell they were familiar with one another as the young lady sitting next to me at City Winery commented. The three moved seamlessly from their featured solo line to supporting rhythm line and back again in virtually every song.
The fun that these musicians were having onstage was electric; even the backing band got were keyed in. Hill joyfully romped along in his black fedora hat while Ciarlante emoted powerfully on even the most deliberate backbeats. The bass players handling was luscious and the tight drummer even changed sticks a number of times; moving from traditional sticks to “rute” drumsticks (thin dowels all bound together for a lighter sound), even subbing in timpani mallets to get the proper ride cymbal crescendos. As a humorous aside, Ciarlante even dropped one of his sticks while playing but didn't miss a beat!
The musicianship was top notch, the camaraderie was terrific, and all in all the sounds were sweet and together. Whether you were stoked from their version of the Sam Cooke classic “A Change is Gonna Come,” or lapped up their cover of Tom Waits “Chocolate Jesus,” or were tickled by their version of Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers “Blood Simple,” there was an eclectic flow and an inviting ambiance which kept everyone in attendance hungry for more.
At one point a reflective Smith told a tale about the old Lone Star Café on 13th St. and how he was invited by the spontaneous live band NRBQ to come down and play with them one night with mere hours to spare. He described his contribution to the evening as “terrible,” but still displayed a definite reverence for the band and a fondness for the old venue.
Mention of Lone Star evoked wails of approval from a segment of the audience and all that got me thinking about where we were sitting. With so many venues opening and closing all the time, this is one of the reasons so many amazing musicians have sought out a space like City Winery. The intimacy, the acoustics, the staff and the audience are all top notch at this SoHo destination.
If you have an interest in finding out more about any of these Masters of the Telecaster, Smith, Weider, and Herington all have their own websites. Folks who want to know about this or future shows from City Winery can sign up for regular updates from the venue. Master of the Telecaster was a lively show and a lot of fun; so it’s worth it to keep your ears open for future activity!