Why do I like The Jazz Estate so much? Is it that I feel like I’ll see Don Draper wooing a potential advertising client? I won’t continue with the 60’s jazz bar references, I could go on forever, trust me. The reason I love this place so much is the fact that the sheer size enables everyone in attendance to experience as intimate of an experience as the next.
The opening act was Kevin Horrigan, a fingerstyle guitar player from Milwaukee. Some of you may have never heard of this style of music, or write it off as all “sounding the same” which could be argued for pretty much every genre. But for such an intimate setting, Horrigan and the music he played perfectly fit the bill. Between songs during the show, Horrigan stated, “If you were to ask me what it (fingerstyle) is, I would say, I don’t really know.” For someone of his technical ability and track record to say that is really surprising and honestly quite refreshing. And yes, he does have quite a track record. Kevin won the 2011 Canadian Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, which put him on the radar and has given him a vastly growing online presence.
As he started his first song “Snorkel” (a Leo Kottke cover), the crowd was still chattering, anxiously awaiting the set, many didn’t know the show had actually started. Kevin didn’t introduce himself, just sat quietly, reserved, looking down at his guitar picking the opening notes with the only substantial light on him and the small candles placed on each individual table. Soon after, the conversations subsided, and Kevin had complete control of the room. Not a soul was talking above a whisper and I even caught myself muting my breaths of air, as to not interrupt each ascending and descending note and harmonic. His microphone in front of him was reserved for talking to the crowd between songs. Between songs he spent his time either briefly chatting with the crowd or tuning.
Many of his songs were quiet works of art, swells of high notes followed by him playing the song’s bass line at the same time. Like a painter, each note was like a brush on canvas, each its own significance. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between him and Keller Williams. They are both phenomenal guitar players and most people who don’t have a background in finger-style guitar would take the easy way out and say Kevin is merely influenced by Keller. But his set proved to be more than just imitation of a great.
As Kevin strummed the funky afro-beat intro to “Lion’s Lament” you could see a universal nodding of heads. It’s ironic the set flowed so well because before the show I asked him what the set order was, he replied, “I don’t really have any order, I just play what I feel like playing.” It’s truly a gift for an artist to control a crowd the way he did, yet to also do so with such modesty.
The headliner was The New Seven, a local Milwaukee band who are new to the music scene. I say that for this specific band as it was their first official show together, but some of the members have been in the Milwaukee music scene for a while and with quite successful bands. The New Seven consists of Tony Smith on guitar and vocals, Jeff “Muska” Purcell on mandolin, Timothy Koehler on upright bass, and Morgan Montesanto on vocals. The New Seven is essentially the brainchild of front man Tony Smith, who was in well known Milwaukee jam band Gypsy Kitchen, alongside mandolin player Muska (who played keys in Gypsy Kitchen). Between the time that group broke up and Monday, Smith suffered a serious injury to his fretting hand, one that lead to the potential of never being able to fully play like he used to again. Through a surgery and countless physical therapy sessions, Smith came back stronger than ever. Quietly writing songs in his downtown loft and casually jamming with Purcell, he then recruited Koehler and Montesanto to bring his vision to fruition.
As they loaded their equipment in, Muska glanced over at me with a grin and told me to check out what he brought from home for the stage. In the trunk of his car was a hat rack, with an old red barn lantern hanging from it (which they lit on stage during the show) and a vintage gin barrel. As they made their way onto the stage the audience began to boisterously applaud. Smith strapped up his high set guitar, casually approached the microphone and introduced the band. They began with the light, airy folk song “Hold My Fingers”, which had Smith singing, “We’re gonna make it…alive and well.” It was an appropriate song choice as to not rush the audience into their faster-paced folk-bluesgrass set. The next song “In Light of” was a slow paced instrumental, which had Smith laying down a finger picking intro, followed by a faster paced chord progression with Purcell strumming chords and playing individual notes over it. The upright bass playing of Koehler was spot on, as he followed with what Smith was doing on acoustic guitar.
Most of these songs were being played for the first time for an audience and the response was tremendous. The pacing of many of the songs was built up, just to be torn back down. Highs and lows. Extreme to fragile. In “Run in Circles”, Smith started out by singing “You long for the end of the morning sun!” and then Montesanto joined in with her spot on harmonizing. It seemed like the song would never slow down, until it hit a stop and Muska began to gently pick individual notes. The closer “Old Vincent” had a Tom Waits influence and I couldn’t help but picture him listening to it on a steam-punk boat, nodding in approval. The driving force behind the song’s faster moments was Koehler’s bass playing and proved to all the haters why this band doesn’t need a drummer.
It’s really hard to put an exact genre on the kind of music The New Seven plays. Is it folk? Yes. Is it bluegrass? Yep. Do some of the songs have that Tom Waits-esque idiosyncratic musical style? For sure. Is that why Milwaukee should be excited about up and coming band The New Seven? Absolutely.