On a typical snowy blustery January night in Upstate NY, those who were brave enough to venture out into the elements were in for a real treat at the Oneonta Theatre this past Friday with an evening of ‘new grass’ and Americana music to get people dancing and keep their souls warm despite the frigidness outside. Floodwood, featuring Al Schnier and Vinnie Amico of moe., seemed excited to be back in Oneonta playing in a small familiar venue, having recently returned from a jaunt to Jamaica where they performed at the Tropical Throe.down festival. The increasingly popular Oneonta based The Spectacular Average Boys opened the show, laying the groundwork for the spectacle that was Floodwood.
The Spectacular Average Boys, a hometown favorite clearly thrilled to be there and opening up for Floodwood, paved the way for an altogether splendid evening. Performing a mix of hipster and Americana styles of music, the band appealed to a wide range of interests. At times sounding a bit like the Avett Brothers, and at other times offering some hints of Ween, this band can play it all. Bassist Joel Shue was particularly impressive, with his ability to simultaneously take care of both the melody and rhythm sections, plus he sang beautiful harmonies to boot. Lead singer, the famously bearded Ned Brower (who has organized the annual “Beard-Off” competition in Oneonta in the past), has a surprisingly powerful voice, not to be overshadowed by his mastery of the banjo. What made his banjo playing even more striking was his ability to morph the sound coming through his instrument through his foot pedal in such an effective way, giving the banjo a more distant and otherworldly sound. On the more country side of things, guitarist/vocalist Justin Ploutz was sporting a flannel and cowboy hat, and he rocked out the entire set! Drummer Joe Pfeiffer provided steady yet creative beats throughout, with an incredible energy level to back up his obvious skills. Mixing a bunch of clever originals, with many songs seemingly related to relationship troubles, but put in a funny light; with a variety of covers ranging from Stone Temple Pilot’s “Plush” – introduced by Ned describing the band as being ‘a product of the ‘90s’ – to the traditional tune “The Ballad of Jesse James” the crowd was more than adequately warmed up for the evening’s main event.
Right from the get-go, one could tell that Floodwood is a force to be reckoned with. It quickly became evident from their unique ability to communicate musically that this band is tight, as they took off running with “Mother”, which is particularly difficult to keep together rhythmically, featuring an unusual time signature and interesting placement of pauses. Watching the band members interact with each other was like watching them have a veritable conversation using their instruments. The music seemed to flow through the group like a wave, with each musician able to sense when they were about to be passed a solo through visual cues and body language.
It was clear that mandolinist Jason Barady is the attention hog of the group, but I mean that in the best way possible. Constantly dancing around the stage, and often jumping off stage to come play in the crowd, even dancing right in front of a lucky fan’s cell phone camera at one point, Jason helped to blur the line between band and audience. You could tell that Jason was truly enjoying being up there to share his musical talents with the world. And boy, did he have talent. He really wailed on that mandolin.
Almost equally as eager to connect with the crowd was Nick Piccininni, Floodwood’s fiddler and banjo player and the youngest member of the band at the tender age of 25. When you weren’t too consumed with feeling totally envious of his incredible talent rivaling that of musicians many decades his senior, or basking in his infectious smile, you realized you were exceedingly fortunate to be in the presence of such a musical genius. On top of everything else, Nick made it look easy to do what he was doing, which it clearly is not.
Bassist Zach Fleitz was much more subdued in manner than Jason and Nick, but he could still bring it on the bass. Alternating seamlessly between stand-up and electric, Zach provided a steady backdrop for the band. He really shined through during one of their more traditional tunes, “Nine Pound Hammer”, so much so that Jason had to take a moment to pay homage to the bass by literally petting it in the middle of the song! Zach’s silliness did shine through at one point: during an extended drum solo at the end of one of their songs, he was doing push-ups in rhythm with the drums right there on stage! Towards the end of their set, Zach and guitarist Al Schnier ended their song “Caught” with a duet featuring an awe-inspiring use of harmonics by both players, with Zach sounding particularly Victor Wooten-esque. I didn’t realize how many notes it was possible to get from just two instruments.
Acoustic guitarist Al Schnier and drummer Vinnie Amico of none other than moe. fame rounded out the band. The fact that they have been playing together for 25 years really came through in their subtle methods of communication. They seemed very comfortable playing with each other, and thrilled that they have found three other such talented musicians who work together with them so effortlessly. Vinnie was one of the quieter members of the band as far as stage antics go, but his presence was definitely felt on a profound level. Even though new grass music has bluegrass at its core, and drums are not a typical instrument one would find in a bluegrass band’s line-up, it seemed to work. Al drove home that point with a joke about when they were forming Floodwood: “We told him we were playing bluegrass and he couldn’t come, but he came anyway!” From that joke, the band went into “Stomp It” one of their more complicated tunes both rhythmically and melodically, on which the drums played a crucial role, and while they were playing, everyone kind of moved around on stage looking at each other in awe of the music they were creating.
Al Schnier added his distinctive style of acoustic guitar to the mix, which provided a consistent drive throughout the band’s set, and with his incredible and unique voice that you would recognize anywhere, this guy is the whole package. Towards the end of the show, Al revealed to the audience that he was a graduate of SUNY Oneonta, where he spent the best five years of his life, during which he occasionally went to classes in between catching Grateful Dead shows. This little tidbit served as the perfect lead-in to a rousing rendition of “Cumberland Blues”.
Altogether a remarkable show, Floodwood definitely gained some loyal fans who will surely make it a habit to check out lots more of their shows in the future. Early on in the set, Nick asked the obligatory “How’s everybody feeling?”, to which he received only a handful of cheers, but when he asked the same question later on, it was a whole different story. You could tell the audience was hooked, and rightfully so.