Half Step at Brooklyn Bowl
Many adjectives have been tossed around while attempting to surmise the Grateful Dead and the ever so loyal deadheads. Unfortunately, the language normally conveys some sense of a lazy, perhaps dirty, hippie with little to no motivation. When was the last time the word “Dedicated” dominated such a conversation? Dedicated were the guys who played hours on end in living rooms, bedrooms, parks, streets and anywhere else a couple guitars, bass, keyboard and some drums could fit. Dedicated students who laboriously learned the intricacies of their instruments and the equipment used to deliver the sounds to the masses; they never stopped searching for that perfect sound. Like eternal scholars they devoured all types of music, internalized it, and came up with something completely fresh that had not yet been heard on this planet. Then there are the Deadheads. Name another institution that has spawned such a loyal fan base without mechanisms of coercion. Fans that rearrange their family lives and schedule vacations around “Dead Tour”, crisscrossing the nation, hitching rides to the next show with no guarantee of getting inside to hear the music- yet satisfied to try for a miracle. Dedicated is one word that sums it all up, from the fans to the band.
If you are left scratching your heads then it’s time to tune back in. A quick look at the website Gratefuldeadtributebands.com should give you some insight into the state of the dedicated. Those of us lucky enough to live in the North East have no shortage of Dead tribute acts to catch and plenty of local venues large and small that “get it”. For the heads in the New York City area the offerings are as bountiful as the opinions surrounding the band. Some bands become household names while others fizz out. Some groups don’t care to play in public; instead they rent studio space weekly and just jam out on Dead tunes for the fun of it (like the group of friends that call themselves Deadstein have been doing for the past 20 years). Yet for those that take themselves seriously, you would be hard-pressed to find a group more on point than the Long Island based Half Step. Individually, the members of Half Step (Tom San Filippo playing lead guitar, Scott Bardolf on rhythm guitar, Ron Cohen on drums, Matt Iselin on keys, Craig Privett on bass and the lovely vocals of Cindy Lopez sprinkled throughout) have been students of the Grateful Dead for much of their lives and the proficiency with which they deliver the storied song book little to be desired. Since 2004 the band has been building a loyal, rather dedicated, fanbase who have proved willing to follow them around the tri-state area. As a result of their hard work at smaller bars on Long Island, the band earned larger shows including a spot The Great South Bay Music Festival. They also hold annual Rex Foundation gigs and most recently they have been on a trajectory that found them playing Garcia’s at The Capital Theater and a much anticipated gig at the Brooklyn Bowl. Given the reputation of both these venues, from the patrons to the ownership, earning these gigs was simply validation for a band like Half Step.
They opened the night by lacing into Shakedown Street and it was obvious that once again, they were in fine form and ready to get down. Thanks to a tight knit fanbase the house was packed and lively before the band even started. Amongst Grateful Dead tribute bands, you would be looking for a while to find a better “Bobby” than Scott in Half Step. His ability to mimic the intricacies of Weir’s rhythm guitar is amazing and he possesses the confidence to add his own personality to the riffs; equally, his voice is such an asset which can’t be overstated. The playful vocal interplay among the band, missing in many other Grateful Dead acts, was highlighted all night and particularly as the close of Shakedown drew near. Meanwhile, Tom masterfully toyed around with the melody and the crowd danced away. Perhaps the band was on to something as for many New Yorkers of late, Brooklyn has become the heart of this town. Quite often a set opener, Jack Straw, took the second song slot as screams of “Hallllllffff Stepppp” could be heard over the crackling of bowling pins. With the luxury of having several vocalists, Half Step is able to stay true to the intricacies of the songs as they did with the trading of vocals on Jack Straw. Only 2 songs in and the crowd was starting to sweat as the dancing never stopped once started. With the ebbs and flows of a song like Jack Straw, it was obvious that the crowd was full of honor students in the school of Dead. Some played along with the drums in the air and smashed the crash cymbal with authority, while others couldn’t help but keep their eyes closed and rock back and forth in awe.
A solid Cold Rain & Snow had Matt filling every inch of the bowl with waves of heavy organ all the while Ron was relentless thundering out booming drum patterns. After Me & My Uncle bled into Big River it was time for a nice ballad. The first handful of notes had people stoked, it was Loser. The keys provided the dark sounding back drop for the song and Tom, just like the big guy himself, really poured some emotion into his singing. However, it was in Tom’s guitar solo where the song really took off. With such command over his instrument he can hold court on any stage out there, and as evidence one just needs to listen to how he took Loser to such soaring heights; attacking the build-up only to breathe it out softly when it was time to bring the song to a close. Then, the bouncing notes that open Ramble on Rose filled the bowling alley and afforded the crowd an opportunity to stretch their vocal chords, and the band a chance to nod to New York City. Craig was all over the map holding down the groove on the bass and speaking of groove, he was definitely feeling it as the song heated up. Just to keep him on his toes a bit the guys went into Lazy Lightning and once again, Craig was running that fretboard. Craig and Ron were on the same wave length all night and as the tune opened up their interplay was on display, propelling Tom into another flawless solo. Ultimately the song lead into the always intricate Supplication and a sharp on a dime close to it all. To close out the first set it was Bird Song and Promised Land. The first being a full fledged sing along accompanied with endless swaying of just about everyone in attendance, and the second a romping high energy barn burner with air guitar out on the floor and killer keys up on stage.
An impeccable China>Rider opened the second set and seemed to go on forever -but who would complain about that? Everyone was on point and locked into one another as they navigated their way through the funky bopping of China Cat Sunflower and intricately transitioned into I Know You Rider. The crowd, still strong on a Monday night, were dancing their way back into the building from the break delighting in the second set opener. Ron’s drumming provided Tom with the backing that he needed to set off on a lead that would find things morphing seamlessly into I Know You Rider. With the building once again packed, the energy was really building both on the stage and among the audience. The band was belting out the verses with the help of just about everyone there, and then came the “I wish I was a headlight” verse which nearly blew the roof off the place. The precision and intensity of the drumming was spectacular and perhaps only outmatched when it was time for Matt and his organ to just demand the attention. From “Sunrise” onward, the show was nothing but perfect. Cindy had the audience in the palms of her hands as she took over vocals for Sunrise. The song, almost eerie at times, is one that Half Step really shines on as all members of the band have a place on stage and a statement to make. With the song taking its namesake from the man the Rex Foundation was named for, fittingly enough, Half Step has played their share of the foundations benefits.
The following sequence of music left little time to rest for anyone as they went from Truckin’>Spanish Jam>Terrapin Station>Drums>Space>Other One>Morning Dew. Getting creative while nodding to the host venue they started the onslaught with Truckin’ and its reference to bowling pins. The move from Spanish Jam to Terrapin Station set the audience off into a frenzy, however, the place was starting to thin out thanks in part to the inconvenient Long Island Rail Road scheduling. Terrapin is one of those tunes that can’t be half assed and one that can separate weekend warriors from the truly dedicated. The intensity that builds throughout the opening verses was unleashed with a exalting “Inspiration”, one which had just about everyone lending their vocal chords. For such a complicated composition you can almost forgive some sloppy transitions from time to time however there was nothing but absolute chemistry on stage. The guitar and keyboard licks that connect the verses were all on point and the speed at which the transitions took place allowed the unique segments of the song to be fully realized and not hurried. A heavy dose of “Drums” was followed by a deep “Space” and the division lines amongst those that dig and those that hate it were as clear as ever. The clammering of bowling pins lent a unique percussive element to “Drums” that just could not be replicated at many other venues. Straight out of “Space”, the thunderous opening drums of The Other One rolled along while Tom and Craig weaved in and out of each others escalating runs. The ensuing jam has got to be where they earned their next gig at the Bowl. Everything from the layered vocal arrangements, syncopated drums and overall chemistry of the band was on display at its purest form. Now, given the musical onslaught that preceded The Other One, the bands attention to detail resulting from their endurance was something to take note of for sure.
Still going strong from the start of Truckin’, they sure as hell deserved a chance to shake the aching hands loose as they decided to do with the slower yet beautifully timed and emotionally delivered Morning Dew. Nothing really fancy about the majority of the song yet the feelings that are conveyed always seem to leave so many lost in their thoughts, heads tilted back and eyes shut- with this performance being no different. The powerful ending of the song however does build quite some intensity before settling back down and on this occasion, going into Throwing Stones. A great selection to turn the soft shuffling of feet into some serious dancing feet, the tune did just that. Everyone was getting down and lost in the bounce of the song; then with a few cues from the drums a keen ear would suspect what was to come. Ultimately, with the strumming of a few heavy chords, Scott threw things into Not Fade Away and confirmed what many had suspected. Always a fan pleaser and fun to play, it was a home run. The crowd naturally got involved with some singing, and a few virtuoso got into it with some innovative air guitar. The intensity of the drums and the thickness of the bass provided a solid foundation for Tom and Matt to just have some fun, and with the signaling of a few heavy chords from Scott, things were over.
An encore of Black Muddy River into Sugar Magnolia followed a very well received introduction of the band members. The pairing gave the band one last chance to showcase their diversity and make a statement by flawlessly delivering a classic Jerry Ballad and a quintessential hippie anthem. Its not easy to make such a sad song sound so beautiful and without the right amount of buy in, your going to fall flat. Luckily this crew has no weak links so they don’t turn from the intimidating but they break it down and own it. The know how to respect the classic songbook yet take their own creative liberties because they understand that those moments are what its all about. They can play sad songs and they can play the bluegrassy ones, both with just as much conviction as when they honor the time tested traditional ones and when they hopped into Sugar Magnolia it was obvious that they sure as hell can play the ones where you let loose and shake it all out.
With the abundance of musical offerings out there, especially in the New York City market, it isn’t hard to find some good quality tunes on just about any given night. Being that a Half Step show often times is free, but others just a nominal fee, your guaranteed to witness top notch musicianship and hang out with some great people for quite the deal…and who knows, you might even hear one!