Iron Horse Music Hall
May 14, 2011 CD Release Party!
It was through a chance meeting at the Strange Creek Music Festival last year that I met Garrett Sawyer, bass player for the band the Alchemystics. Interestingly, it was the year that while standing at our vending booth, Old 78 Farm clothing, that I was taking an informal poll to see which band at Strange Creek was people's favorite. Overwhelmingly, the local hip hop, funk, soul reggae band the Alchemystics seemed to be the choice of the Worms who come to celebrate twice a year in Greenfield.
Garrett is a tall lanky fellow, with dreads that are longer than most people are tall. His careful yet easy going manner do not necessarily indicate the lively and spirited bass playing that he uses to anchor this fascinating band. I've seen the Alchemystics now probably five times since then, capped off by the performance last Saturday night at the Iron Horse music hall in Northampton MA that acted as the release of their brand new CD, Spread Hope. I was happily greeted by a line at the door that stretched down the block, hundreds of people waiting to get into a room that probably couldn't fit as many people as were in the line. This is a good sign.
With the large ensemble Bearquarium opening the night, the sound crew had their hands full with two bands that require alot of equipment onstage and expertise off of it. So after a quick sound check in front of a music hungry mob, the Alchemystics readied themselves and whetted the appetite of the crowd. What followed was around two hours of exciting new music. By that I don't just mean the music that they premiered off of their new album, but also the whole concept of the band. While reminiscent of the band Arrested Development, in that they share that band's penchant for cultural history and mixing hip hop with other musical styles, the Alchemystics blend of hip hop, reggae, soul and funk is truly a glimpse into the future of contemporary music. Without the pretension of declaring this music in a "We Are now going to Mash Up these Musical Styles" (pretend a robot voice was reading that…) they simply mix them without pretense. Bands like the Alchemystics are just playing the music that they love, being adept at mixing their influences without declaration of intent.
The band was firing on all cylinders- Ian-I on guitar and reggae influxed vocals; Garrick "Force" Perry on the mic bringing the sound into the 21st century with conscious rhymes, and the statesman Ras Jahn singing all of the hooks with his Jamaican inflected voice. They ran through song after song, including the album's lead single Type a Prayer, a song that perfectly illustrates what this band brings to the table. Equal parts Michael Franti, the Beatie Boys and Soulive, this band was able to fire into the appreciative crowd one salvo after another. In large part their ability to keep the energy up is due to the band's ridiculous rhythm section. That section is anchored by drummer Demse Zullo and frequent home town guest Matthew King on percussion, who also sings a bit of backup it seems. They are joined by the aforementioned Garrett Sawyer on bass whose infectious smile, island dancing and genial nature really sums up the personality of this band- serious badass musically but serious fun lover in life. A great combination!
Jay Metcalf on keys is another anchor, supplying much of the legitimate skank and bubble that is the root of their reggae sound. You would hardly notice as he seems to crave the shadows instead of the spotlight. But there is plenty of spotlight to share on the Alchemystics stage- with characters like Force and Ian-I and all there is to see front and center, its okay to have a cat like Metcalf who is pulling the strings without demanding attention. This band has clearly matured not only over the five years or so that they have been lighting up the Pioneer Valley, but in the last six months since I saw them with Roots of Creation at the Elevens in Northampton for their Halloween themed show. At that show they wowed the crowd not only with their own abilities, but by bringing up serious guests like Trinidad's Calypso King Kurt Allen. This show was no different.
In what would have been the second set had they actually taken a break, but was really just 90 minutes into a lengthy show, they brought up another out of town legend, Denroy Morgan. As the father of a slew of reggae musicians who now tour under the name Morgan Heritage, Morgan was decked all in leather, and brought some serious reggae knowledge to the show. Coming into the Iron Horse as an Alchemystics fan rather than a reggae buff, I wasn't super aware of him or the songs that they were doing, but his skill and experience shown through easily. The band was visibly jazzed by his presence and they dropped some old school reggae on the crowd while Delray and his two backing vocalists took the stage with the band for several tunes. He was then easily spotted in the crowd for the rest of the show digging as hard as anyone else there the sounds of the band. It was particularly cool to see someone who is so respected and accomplished in the reggae scene just being a part of the Alchemystics community- not separated from the crowd as an elder, rather in it as a participant. Such is the nature of what happens to you at an Alchemystics show- you come in as a stranger and are instantly integrated into their community.
Afterward the band was in their groove, breaking out some of their fun material and not necessarily feeling the need to stay on the new album tracks, having already showcased them earlier. Metcalf fired into the tell tale chords of Van Halen's Jump which of course the band bent and molded into their own creation. It quickly morphed into the song Shout that we all know from the Animal house soundtrack- and the combination of the two songs was obvious to the point where you wondered why they had not been joined together before by others. The crowd was frenzied jumping and shouting along with the band and you could easily tell that the beautiful people there would want to be nowhere else but right there sharing their lives and loves with their favorite band. A few more tunes came out as the band glided to the end of the show including an old school Bangers and Mash and a few other tunes that I can't recall necessarily, but I'm certain that recordings of this show ought to be available here sometime soon somewhere.
The band is getting ready to go out in June on their first lengthy road jaunt, just 10 days or so down to the upper South and back, but it's a symbol that they are willing to stretch themselves not only musically, but also in terms of their reach as a band. In speaking with Demse Zullo after the show, he smiled and winked a bit saying "I had just enough gas to reach the end…" But both he and I know that there is plenty of gas left in the Alchemystics tank, and you should not hesitate to check them out wherever you are.
(Check out a video of the sound check in the section below for a taste of what this show was all about.. More videos likely will be added as they appear!)