Friday, August 21, 2009

On Tour with the Roadside Graves

Recently, the Roadside Graves blew through the Los Angeles area on their first U.S. tour in support of their nice long new album, My Son's Home. This was a special occurrence for me because a) I grew up with some of the bands members, and b) I'd never seen them play live before because the current band formed after I'd moved from the east coast. So I decided to follow the Graves around for three nights of their recent adventure in the southland. This is that story.

Wednesday, August 12
Knitting Factory - Los Angeles, CA

I've been hanging out with the Graves for approximately two hours before it comes to light that I’m in some sort of trouble with guitarist/violinist/co-drummer Jeremy Benson. He’s harboring, however lightheartedly, a seventeen-year grudge against me for causing him some grief in a sophomore high school English class in our hometown of Metuchen, New Jersey. And just in case I’m not copping to the offense, Jeremy has prepared himself with supportive documentation of the event from another student who sat in a seat near us and witnessed the whole sordid affair.
I can’t lie and say I’m not aware of the general nature of his complaint. For some reason, the poking, prodding, and sometimes outright teasing did occur, despite my best intentions, and for that, as a reflective and conscious adult, I am sorry. There is no good explanation for my behavior except that, looking back, it seems like just the natural thing a sister would do to her brother. And that's how I have perceived Jeremy throughout our lives: like a brother.
The Graves are on a bill with local southern California bands M. Bison, Avi Buffalo, and my favorite new band once this is all through, the Parson Redheads. The Roadside Graves are six guys from New Jersey and New York, playing a new kind of American folk music, part, part Irish wake, all passion in playing and heartfelt lyricism. Their name suggests something stumbled upon, a harbinger of death. But their melodies and joyous live performance relay a strange acceptance of the present and all its past.

Rich Zilg - 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)

Coming off their last show in Flagstaff, the band has been on the road for a few weeks and tiredness and the surrealism of being in Hollywood are apparent. The Knitting Factory itself doesn't help. Located in a complex on Hollywood Boulevard that is an entity to itself, it is a parking garage, mall, and nightclub--all in one! The brightly lit escalators, and store picture windows are the antithesis of what a nightclub should be, but given that you can buy sautéed onions and sausage a mere fifty feet from the club’s entry, and The Simpsons and Big Bird have stars nestled into the sidewalk almost directly from the club’s side door, there is some redemption available for the club in my eyes.

Hollywood Boulevard: Not Sesame Street
The band is John Gleason on lead vocals; Jeremy Benson on electric guitar, occasional violin, and a makeshift drum kit composed of two snares doused with confetti, a stack of antique cymbals, and a crudely-bent metal garbage can lid that he hits with one drumstick for accent during especially rousing numbers; Rich Zilg on acoustic guitar and heart-wrenching harmonies; Animal Colin Ryan on drums; Dave Jones on a laid-back but steady bass; and John Piatkowski on keyboard and organ. They open with the feel-good “Far and Wide,” and “My Father Sat Me Down,” from the new album. Singer John Gleason’s lyrics are filled with loss, disappointment, longing, thwarted expectation, yet there is an inherent hope that dances with it all, such as in the upbeat “West Coast.” This song isn’t thrown in, it seems, to balance the rest of the set for good measure.

John Piatkowski and Jeremy Benson, Knitting Factory, 8/12/09
No. The Graves are painfully aware of the joy and pain in each moment, and their celebration of this coexistence is expressed through their playing. For a band that has such a heavy name, the lightheartedness of their joy is evident onstage: confetti flies off a snare like raindrops off hot asphalt. John literally buries his face in acoustic guitarist Rich's shoulder, leaning on him with all the weight of the world. And Colin on his drum kit never takes a break. And it's not hard to believe John when he croons, “I’ve got a heart that won’t quit, won’t break, no matter what you do.”

John Gleason, Rich Zilg - 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)
Whereas Jeremy and I grew up on adjacent streets, and I can still see him walking home, lost in thought, twisting the violin case with his quick stride, John came into the picture in middle school, when children from three different elementary schools collided for the first time at just the right hormonal moment. In high school, John was the star of the musicals as well as the de facto class clown, once he chose to accept that role. He often found himself getting reprimanded by impatient teachers who didn’t know how to handle his imagination or imperviousness to the classroom behavior standards.

John Piatkowski, Jeremy Benson - 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)

The Graves' lyrics are a testament to the fact that John is a great writer, and that was apparent, even in high school. In poetry class (the first in our little schools' history), I always envied the ease with which he created characters and scenarios, with a seemingly limitless range of attributes and plots. It was not a surprise to anyone when John and Jeremy formed a band with Rich, a year younger than us, and bought their name from a kid in the lunchroom one day for a pittance sum; from thence forth they were known as the Billy Crosbys. When I left the area after high school, I heard reports back from classmates that they were playing around central Jersey and New York City, and around 2000, the word got to me that they’d changed their name to the Roadside Graves.
The night is capped with a performance by the Parson Redheads. Dressed in all white like the Bee Gees, and with heavenly harmonies like a choir, they came out of the darkness of the Knitting Factory like Crosby, Stills, and Nash at a Mormon picnic, somehow also channeling the grooviness of the Partridge Family. They're also on the bill tomorrow. Intriguing. Should be an interesting weekend.

John Piatkowski, 8/12/09

Thursday, August 13, 2009
The Prospector – Long Beach, CA

The Prospector in Long Beach. 8/13/09
As with many things decorated in the spirit of pirates, of which I am quite fond, the Prospector is a dare-I-say quaint bar in Long Beach dedicated to the memory of the California miner, circa mid-1800s. The bar is certainly not dedicated to the memory of anyone who got rich quick, but to the spirit that suggests, "Let’s die trying, and if that fails, we'll go with the tackiest decorations possible." Large cartoon characters of late-1800s ma and pa commingle with wagon wheels, hand-painted signs warning “This ain’t no exit,” and dark wood-paneled walls with just enough yellow lighting to make you feel like you’re back in someone’s basement at a band’s first show. The Parson Redheads are back tonight, but go on first, their accidental psychedelic sound filling the room with an ambience that suffuses the past and present.
The Prospector's setting--dark, cramped, basement-like--clearly feels like home to the Graves, as they actually dance and hop in unison throughout their set. I know John on keyboards and Dave on bass are really feeling it when I see them singing and notice that they are not even miked. The Irish roots are really coming out tonight in lots of foot stomping and beer swigging, and a few times I think John Gleason and Rich might cry from sheer joy of pealing off such striking harmonies. Tonight is also Colin’s twenty-sixth birthday, and John leads the group, which has become a rapt audience by mid-set, in a heavily wayward version of Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.”

Rich wonders why the band isn't hitting Tijuana on this tour. 8/13/09
The midnight set ends with the band taking acoustic versions of their instruments and coming "off" the stage (it wasn't raised, just set back in its own fake-wood paneled nook) into the audience and singing a song with the refrain, “I ain’t gonna go to jail.” The harmonies are rich, the band is playing with an urgency and a joy that only suggests that they’re having the time of their lives, and even the audience is hooting and hollering like it was a revival. The bartender, under the painting of a hapless man astride a stream, hopeful gold pan in hand, buys two Graves albums after the set. The band promises that tomorrow night they will play for fifteen minutes in a stairwell at Echoplex. I skip it.

The Graves end each show by takin' it into the crowd:
L-R: Dave, Colin, Jeremy, John P.- 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Spaceland – Silverlake

The last night of the Graves’ L.A. tour. The band is in good spirits at Spaceland, deep in the heart of L.A.'s Silverlake district. True to its name, the place is decorated semi-alienish (see photos of the bathroom doors below), which seems only right to me, a west-sider, who feels like she's on Mars whenever she comes east of the 405. But I digress.

The floor is decent-sized at Spaceland and fills up once the Graves start playing, despite their name not being featured on the marquee outside (who isn't going to stop and check out "The Roadside Graves"??) The folks who have come out of their L.A. caves are actually dancing despite the serious hipness of this crowd. The band seems more on display tonight and expands their sound to fill the room. It's more of a performance than the Prospector, which was more of a hangout. Guess I'm just partial to old man bars in shady neighborhoods.

Rich Zilg and Dave Jones, 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)
I wish I could continue following them to weird, small venues across the country, because I think different aspects of the band will be revealed in various sundry bizarre settings in strange bars across the states. Their seriously harsh schedule follows (good luck, guys, and much rest by the time you make it back to NJ). Hopefully, you can make it out to see them for a night of good music that reminds you of your own home, wherever that may be:
Tuesday, August 25: Green Island, IA: Mooney Hollow Barn
Wednesday, August 26: Chicago, IL: The Bottom Lounge
Thursday, August 27: Indianapolis, IN: Vollrath Tavern, with Gringo Star and the Brodericks (great name, huh?)
Friday, August 28: Pontiac, MI: The Vernors Room at Crofoot
Saturday, August 29: Bringing it all back home to the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ

The world needs more John Gleasons. 8/15/09 (photo by Deb G.)

Other dates this fall:
Saturday, September 12: Red Rocks, CO: Monolith Festival (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Girl Talk)
Saturday, September 19: Ghent, NY: Let It Roll Festival (Marco Benevento, The Breakfast)
Friday, October 9: New Brunswick, NJ: Court Tavern, with The Parson Redheads - (GO!!!)
Saturday, October 10: NYC: Lit Lounge, with The Parson Redheads
Sunday, October 11: Metuchen, NJ: Raconteur Bookstore, with The Parson Redheads
Friday, October 16: Philadelphia, PA: M Room, with The Parson Redheads


Kate said...

Great photos, great post. I wish I could've been there!

"Joy, stop talking... Jeremy, strike one."
-Diane Bank

Joy said...


Yes!! You, btw, were the backup documentation Jeremey was referring to...ah, memories...