Mike Powell rolled into Downtown Syracuse Saturday night with his new band, the Black River (John Hanus – guitar, Joe Bell – bass, Dom Scicchitano – drums, Shane Kelsen – keyboards). The packed Funk ‘n Waffles crowd was treated to a night of originals from Powell’s solo releases, including his latest, Tied to the Rail, as well as songs from the forthcoming Black River debut, due in March.
The evening was originally billed as Powell opening the show with his solo material followed by the full band. Instead, the band took the stage straight away, ramping up with a slow bluesy groove punctuated by soulful breaks from guitarist Hanus. This flowed into the first performance of a Powell solo piece with the whole band.
Powell’s songs tell stories and sometimes these stories need an introduction. The song, “Moonlight, Sunshine and Rain” is the result of an encounter Powell had at a farmer’s market. He prefaced the song describing a near perfect zucchini he found. He asked the farmer how he is able to cultivate such beauty. The farmer simply replied, “Moonlight, sunshine and rain.” The band, particularly Shane Kelsen’s keys, compliments Powell’s blue-eyed soul perfectly on this piece.
Continuing with the stories, Powell introduced the next song, “Tell Me Why,” as one about witnessing a friend spiral into the depths of addiction. His first-person account of an old college friend captivated those in the front of the house. Unfortunately, crowd chatter from the back of the room took away from some of the intimacy the song commands.
Hanus and Powell drew the audience in with a new song, “Alchemy” featuring a Hanus solo reminiscent of Warren Haynes. Powell had his well-worn Gretsch and effects pedal creating haunting sounds as the crowd began to take notice of the talent on stage.
While this band is relatively new, it’s clear that they are all seasoned. They’ve been holed up in the Big Blue North Recording Studio in Utica, putting the finishing touches on their debut album. It is clear that a true chemistry has developed among the members and they are truly a band, not Mike Powell and Friends.
That said, Powell was front and center all night. As the band exited, one of the audience members asked jokingly, “Were they that bad?” eliciting a smile from the front man. Powell’s short solo set was next. All throughout, he demonstrated his versatility as a vocalist and instrumentalist, vacillating among the doo-wop sounds of “Go Back” to the heartfelt, soulful delivery of his Jeff Buckley-styled cover of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
A Mike Powell performance is an exhibit in honest talent. He’s humble to a fault, often admitting in interviews that he’s uncomfortable hearing his own voice, yet he’s unafraid to put that to the test in front of an audience. This came to light in Powell’s final song of his solo set, “21 Rounds.” This song was his contribution to the Acoustic Guitar Project. According to the website, the project is a global one with a mission of inspiring creativity. Several cities are chosen and one guitar is passed among five musicians in that city. They have one week to come up with an original song using that guitar and record it live. Each musician signs the guitar and takes a picture with it to upload to the site. Once all five musicians in the given city complete their project, a concert is held. Powell came up with this heart-wrenching song about fallen soldiers on the final night of his turn in the Acoustic Guitar Project.
Hanus and Kelsen rejoined Powell onstage for a roll through of “Empire Line,” a song about taking the train from Syracuse to New York City and were joined by the rhythm section of Bell and Scicchitano to finish up the night. “Gone Too Far” was the finale of the set. Beginning with a jazzy piano intro from Kelsen, the song slowly gained steam with Powell and Bell harmonizing on the chorus and Hanus providing understated yet solid leads. Kelsen’s keys are the highlight on this one.
As Powell gave his salutations, several in the crowd chanted for an encore. Unfortunately, another band was due to perform later in the night, preventing that from happening. Those wishing to catch more of the Black River, can do so at a hometown gig in Watertown on Feb. 10 at the Savory Downtown. Tickets for that all-ages show are $12 and available through Ticketfly.
Powell has been working his way through the bar and art center scene since making the decision to concentrate on music after a highly successful lacrosse career at Syracuse University. His balance of honest and raw songwriting have helped him to gain a strong following among the Central New York faithful and the addition of this powerful and talented band will only serve to catapult all of them to the next level. See them in the small venues while you can. They won’t be playing them much longer.