Review: The Semis, John Q. show love for 'I Love St. Pete'
You name an event "I Love St. Pete," you maybe expect a little more passion in the air.
ARTpool's annual celebration of the Sunshine City was poised to be a very cool event, and it sort of was. Some 120-150 people showed up to drink, nosh on food from Shackleton's Folly and check out St. Pete-themed artwork. A few pieces got sold, which is nice for the artistic community.
Maybe it was the weather, which by the end of the night was cool and blustery enough to blow cups and papers across the outdoor parking-lot stage. But the crowd didn't exactly seem to be bursting with civic excitement. Aside from the folks inside rifling through half-off vintagewear, it was a relatively calm, civil affair.
Nevertheless, the Semis, above, and John Q. both put on crowd-pleasing sets from early evening until about 10:30 p.m., giving the music fans in attendance something to chill to (albeit from a healthy distance from the stage).
(I missed Ryan Wendell Bauer's set to open the show, but I heard good things from those in attendance. And the Sheaks were also on the bill, but dropped out at the very last minute. I heard at least three possible reasons for this, ranging from equipment problems to intra-band strife. Oh well. More stage time for the other guys, I guess.)
St. Petersburg's own John Q. was an interesting choice for the bill -- they play a much more mainstream style of bluesy roots-rock than your typical indie band that might play a stylish art party like this one. But they've certainly had some success this year, and if your event is called "I Love St. Pete," they're a logical choice, since their music would sound right at home in a relaxed Pinellas beach bar.
The first half of their set was marked by groovy roots jams in the vein of late-'90s Sister Hazel, Duncan Sheik or Rusted Root. Frontman John Allison's got a growl that falls somewhere between Everlast and Ray LaMontagne on the rasp-o-meter, and the band was nice and tight behind him*.
Then Allison took a seat and strapped a slide guitar across his lap, and John Q.'s set took a hard turn for the hot 'n' hardscrabble, with the slow-burn blues jam Brushfire sounding especially delicious. As soon as the set ended, a few folks in the crowd went up to buy CDs, so the bluesy stuff must have worked.
Then came the Semis, who are enjoying tons of praise for their new CD, the shimmering Back to the Beach.
This was the band's second gig of the day -- the first was a WMNF-sponsored daytime set at the Shops at Wiregrass outdoor mall in Wesley Chapel, which is about as far from the Semis' natural environment as you could imagine, but hey, a gig's a gig.
Sporting specs and facial hair that made him look a bit like Eels' Mark Everett, frontman and recovering on- and offstage hellraiser Billy Summer led his four-piece outfit on a loud, live tour of Back to the Beach, his gentle tenor (think the Thrills' Conor Deasy) surfing atop curls of jangly hooks and gnarly guitarwork.
A couple of years ago, the band's live shows were raw and raucous, more rock than roll, but on Saturday, the more musically mature sound showed the band entering Pavement/Feelies territory. A good example was Back to the Beach, the new album's title track, which found Summer and guitarist Matt Simmons meshing bombastic riffs and swirly solos to create a whip-crackin' Britpop/powerpop/indiepop toe-tapper.
"I've been sinking for too long," Summer sang. "Back to the beach where I belong."
"Back to the beach." Not a bad sentiment for an event titled "I Love St. Pete," right? Even on a breezy January night, when the love in the air seemed more platonic than passionate, visiting the beach sounded like a pretty nice idea.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*
* Of note: This was John Q. drummer Brian Oliver's final gig with the band. But they've already found a replacement, said bassist Scott McAtasney, and they shouldn't miss too much of a beat, gig-wise.