On Thursday night at the Westcott Theater, Matt Butler and Everyone Orchestra concocted a musical potion that had us all under a spell. Butler played the role of lead hypnotist as he memorized not only the crowd, but also the band that he so craftily pulled together for this outstanding evening of sonic surprises.
Binghamton-based three-piece, Several Sons, opened the blissful trifecta of acts with their mellow harmonies and soulful unplugged sound. Their performance featured Bradford Allen on cajón drum for the entirety of the performance, which created a backyard fire-pit vibe. Kevin Ludwig took over the lead vocals and rhythm guitar, paving the way for Jack Bucher to display his bluesy chops on lead guitar. The mostly instrumental set list was capped off by a folk rock original, “Moonshine,” paying tribute to the act of getting drunk with friends. What a way to send us off into a set break.
Located just a couple of cities to the left of Syracuse is the blue-collar, “Bills Mafia” community of Buffalo, NY. Football probably holds the title for most discussed topic of conversation on a Saturday night, but I can guarantee that the local groove-rock quartet, Aqueous, is definitely on the minds of many Western New Yorkers. Their appropriately named, “2016 Random Company Tour,” fits the bill perfectly as the entire room anxiously awaits their arrival to the stage. As they entered to DMX’s “Party Up (Up In Here)” blaring on the speakers, we hoped they were about to make us lose our minds (sorry, I went there) and lose our minds we did.
“Strange Times” was first up and allowed Mike Gantzer and Dave Loss to share the spotlight on vocals and guitar solos. The two methodically went line-for-line on this lyrically appealing tune before dropping into a sludgy, greasy transition. Evan McPhaden pounded away on bass to symbolically clean up the jam goo. Solid improvising segued into “The Median” off the 2014 album, Cycles. Rob Houk’s drumming showcased their genre blending skills by combining elements of progressive rock and reggae with a hint of electronica. There was one point towards the end of “Median” where it almost sounded like a completely different piece, but long time fan, Mitch (the guy on the rail whose head seemed to explode note to note), explained that this phenomenon is common during one of their juiciest originals. Loss then seamlessly goes back and forth from guitar to keys while Gatzner pans for gold on lead guitar during the third and final song of the set, “Don’t Do It.” The crowd was definitely thirsty for more after the brief second act, but with Everyone Orchestra being served as an entrée, just about the entire room decided to take a break outside to work up an even stronger appetite.
Butler appeared on stage with his 7-piece mixture of talent to specify the guidelines of the show. He would be writing notes to the band and the crowd on his simple yet effective white board while signaling to all of us via hand gestures, screams resembling words and Hulk Hogan-like crowd controls. Realistically, Butler runs the show like a drag race in the movie Grease, “Rules are, there ain’t no rules.” The ceremony began with Butler warming up the fingers of the esteemed group of musicians as they delivered a tight and funky beat that got the room dancing immediately. Eric Yates deserves the first MVP award of the night due to his funky banjo plucking while Ryan Montbleau deserves a shout out for creating the lyrics, “What do I see in my sight? Westcott Theater on a Thursday night.” Rob Derhak’s bass was bumping along with Emanuel Washington’s drumbeat when Butler asked the crowd to throw an idea at Montbleau for additional lyrics. The best we could up with was “sexy night” which morphed into an entire band-crowd, call-response of “Ugly, sexy night, yeah!”
After a brief stretch of weirdness, the conductor brought us all back down to planet Earth and asked Yates to pick away on the banjo during a fast-paced, unusual and unplanned cover of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” The Westcott was transformed into an old-timey honky-tonk as the band turned the Dylan cover into something reminiscent of Johnny Cash in his prime. Montbleau and Yates had a dueling guitar-banjo section before turning the spotlight to moe.’s Al Schnier for a signature guitar solo. Syracuse’s own Adam Gold from Sophistafunk kicked off the next piece with a heavy yet buttery organ solo. Butler did an amazing job of hazing the Everyone Orchestra freshmen as each member of Sophistafunk joined the group for the first time on Thursday. The conductor wrote, “This is Part A” on the iPad while scribbling up directions on his whiteboard for only the band’s eyes to see. Tommy Weeks took over to deliver a spectacular sax solo before returning to Gold for a spacey synth solo. The baton was passed back to Montbleau for an Everyone Orchestra modification of his original “Dead Set” which features the lyrics “Observe your mind, and stop your thinking” which is good advice for a band expected to go with their gut on these improvised reconstructions.
Aqueous guitarist Mike Gantzer returned to the stage and the applause grew when Butler informed us that it was his birthday. “Soft” was written on the whiteboard as Gantzer took over with a silky guitar riff. The crowd participation was at an all time high as we yelled “Birthday” to celebrate the joyous occasion. The band was fully in sync at this point in the performance and it was evident through the design of a new smash hit “Hotel Party” which Montbleau creatively developed before our eyes. “There’s ice in the bathtub” and “Everyone’s invited” were only some of the outstanding sporadic lyrics sung by Montbleau which brought a collective smile to the room. Gantzer channeled the energy of Jerry Garcia, with a liquid fuzz distortion on his incredible solo before Gold killed the keys on Butler’s command. After the Holiday Inn jungle boogie, the show wrapped up in an epic formation of nine band members with the addition of David Loss from Aqueous and the return of Eric Yates on banjo. The conductor looked more like a mad scientist as he circled the stage giving each and every member one last time to shine. The evening was capped off with birthday boy Gantzer’s in-your-face knockout solo.
Butler thanked the crowd and noted that after 15 years of asking members of different bands to come together so that he can live his dream, they keep showing up and they keep showing up! There is no question that this traveling circus of insane talent brought the goods to Syracuse on Thursday. Some bands spend years touring and writing music together to find out what it is that makes them unique. Matt Butler pulls the rabbit out of his hat night after night by creating the magic rather than searching for it. He is a composer, a communicator, and a connector all in one while leaving his mark on music through his whiteboard, iPad and multitude of invisible air instruments. When asked to join the Everyone Orchestra in the future, just say, “Yes” and strap in for a truly special ride.
Aqueous Setlist: Strange Times> The Median, Don’t Do It
Everyone Orchestra Setlist (To the best of my ability): Funky Intro, Jam (Ugly Sexy Night), Buckets of Rain*, Part A Jam> Dead Set**, Gatzner’s Birthday Jam, Hotel Party Jam, Set Closing Jam
*Bob Dylan Cover (Blood on the Tracks)
** Ryan Montbleau Cover (For Higher)