Percy Hill, Rochester Opera House, Rochester, NH- 9/21
Many bands, maybe even most bands, in this music scene rail against the jamband label, arguing that they are somehow different or unique, separate from all others. Some few bands embrace the title and all its trappings, John Scofield Band jumps to mind, and others, like Soulive or Project Logic, are more concerned with creating music than with labels. But then there are those bands that seem to truly embody the spirit of jambands. Phish, moe., the Disco Biscuits, these bands all have a penchant for intricate compositions and atypical lyrics, and a love of showmanship and improvisation. Percy Hill is one of those bands.
Over the past year, when I’ve worn a Percy shirt to a show, someone invariably asked, "Percy Hill? Hey, what happened to them?" The answer is relatively simple: they went on hiatus, not an unfamiliar idea among bands sporting a P and an H in their names. Songwriter and drummer Aaron Katz spent the year developing his own self-titled band, churning out literally dozens of new songs, and creating a new, darker and more-aggressive musical persona. Bassist John Leccese joined Aaron for a time, before moving to the Reid Genauer Band fulltime, where he was joined by keyboard demon Nate Wilson. Nate also spent time working on a college degree, and speaking of education, guitarist and singer Joe Farrell became a teacher in Maine. Clearly the band members had their hands full, but as I was told time and again, "Don’t say Percy’s broken up; we’re just not playing right now."
Still, I was pleasantly surprised when a trio of dates were announced, and truly intrigued when it was announced that those dates would feature the quartet enhanced by a horns section, percussionists, back up vocalists and even old friend Adam Terrell on guitar. Percy Hill had long been a staple of my musical diet, and the impending performances made my cravings worse than ever. I didn’t hesitate to make the five-hour commute north to catch the last of the three nights in New Hampshire, at a venue that was literally part of City Hall. Ornately painted, with a sloping balcony, wooden floors and flashing light bulbs framing the stage, it was an interesting venue to say the least, and made all the more so by the BYOB policy. People dragged full coolers into the hot, sticky room, and before the show even began, the heat and alcohol took their toll on some in attendance.
Around 8:30 the house lights went down, and the horns section, including Ellen Rondina on flute, Chris Nelson on trumpet, Bill Jones on tenor saxophone and Sean Berry on alto saxophone, vocalists Lauren Wool and Anastasia Rene, percussionists Zach Wilson (former Percy Hill member and Nate’s brother) and Andrew Dole (brother of AKB bassist Pat Dole), and Adam Terrell (guitarist for the Reid Genauer Band) all took the stage. After a brief pause, the four members of Percy Hill joined, and were greeted by the wild cheers of the fans. Indeed, it was a welcome sight, the return of a fabulous musical collaboration that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. During the hiatus, I’d seen Aaron, John and Nate with varying degrees of regularity, but to have Joe there with them, all sharing the stage again- I used up a supply of chills I thought I was reserving for the other break-fast on New Year’s Eve. Someone once told me that he thought the members of Percy Hill, when not performing, forgot how much fun they had and just how good they were. They were certainly aware as the show began.
The opener, Shining On Creation, affirmed a recent comment by Nate that his and Aaron’s songwriting leaves space for additional segments and instrumentation. The horns joined in with Nate’s initially riff, harmonizing well and filling out the sound. As Nate wrote the horn arrangements, it’s noteworthy that they functioned in a three-fold manner. Firstly, they often, as in Shining On Creation, vamped along with the B-3 lines. Secondly, in similar fashion, at times they also worked in conjunction with opening guitar structures, like big, brassy shadows. Thirdly, the more innovative segments had a very Spanish feel, and actually changed the tone of some songs, particularly in the second set. Regardless of their position, however, the horns almost always seemed natural, as though the notes had always been there but we just couldn’t hear them. On the intro to Ammonium Maze, the sounds meshed perfectly, and as Nate developed his central solo, he leaned back to single the horns, and turned back to the Hammond to dig in, dig in hard, to great effect.
Similarly, Lauren and Anastasia, functioned differently depending on who they were backing. In Beneath the Cover, they both harmonized beautifully with Joe, especially during the polished "Ahhhhhhh," before the jam. The jam itself was nicely developed, Adam playing a speedy lead as Nate swelled beneath, John thundering in to bring it all to a climax. In the following Make Believe, Lauren and Anastasia accompanied Aaron, serving a more traditional supporting role. The harmonies would not have worked with Aaron’s inflections, especially as they’ve developed during his work with AKB. In that setting, he’s focused on his singing and has added layers of subtlety to his voice, and he brought those new skills to bear on the Percy Hill arrangements. Also in Make Believe, Joe took his first long solo of the night, a smooth, fluid offering that reminded me how much I’ve missed his playing. Near the end, he passed it off the Adam who returned it in kind- a perfect match of tone and ! style.
One of the highlights of the show was a truly excellent Color In Bloom near the end of the first set. The first lyric beds came right away, but with a loud crash that heralded its closure, the ensemble began to stretch its collective limbs. Initially John popped out a few rounds of notes while Nate and Joe worked a light rhythm, allowing the song to settle in. Joe moved to the front with a series of long, slowly arching notes that broadened the sound even more. As he nursed his idea, he reached a first peak, but it was like a knoll in a great plain- subtle compared to a mountain, but offering an expansive vista nonetheless. Still moving forward, he seemed climb right into the sky, lifted by Nate’s accompaniment, and into a final furious thunderhead before the movement returned to the final verse of the song. But instead of finishing up, the group launched into a pseudo Latin groove, Zach’s congas speaking clearly. A fine alto solo gave way to a tenor solo colored by Nate’! s piano, which in turn gave way to a classic Nate Wilson B-3 solo- an idea declared and carefully developed in the long form. When it reached its apex, it stayed there for minutes, Zach dropping in deep conga notes to help ground the jam, before the band raced through the CIB theme once more, saxes blaring.
Also noteworthy was After All, a Percy tune from 2001 that was never quite fully developed until now. Easily twice as long as older versions, it began with Aaron playing the rims, as he did often throughout the show, and Zach playing congas. Nate joined with a rhythm structure, while cymbals and wooden clackers also built the song. Aaron switched the beat, falling in something similar to drumming from the AKB tune Stadium- great dance music. Joe sang the strange, haunting lyrics with style and grace, and as the song progressed in a uniquely symphonic way, Adam sliced through the layers of B-3 and Moog, with a shiny, clean lead. The song was realized.
The climax of the second set, however, was a masterful rendition of Wrong Side. The opening was very upbeat, with the horns and Aaron’s signature rolling drumming. At the end of the second verse the movement dropped low and the stage was bathed in light blue, except for two spotlights, one on Aaron and one on Nate. Nate began again to slowly fashion a sonic sculpture, working and reworking its grooves, fitting it with ornate corners and subtle ridges. The room was filled with sound as the group returned to the song, Nate traversing the transition on the back of his B-3. The end funk-down, normally a showcase for John, swelled well beyond its natural limits, with the audience clapping and stomping, and all the musicians doing likewise, playing hard and thriving on the massive vibrational build up- a performance of enormous proportions.
This mini-tour was recorded for a live album, and the Rochester show was actually filmed, and should definitely produce one hell of a rock n roll movie. Hopefully Percy Hill, with or without the additional musicians, will be performing again soon. Even if they may forget how much fun a PH show is, I never do.