At the Fringe – 9/18/16 – The Crooked North and Passive Aggressives Anonymous

At this year's First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival 2016, I review two shows at Bernunzio Uptown Music; The Crooked North and Passive Aggressives Anonymous.

At the Fringe – 9/18/16 – The Crooked North and Passive Aggressives Anonymous

Last night at Fringe, I decided to take in two show at Bernunzio Uptown Music.

The first show was a 4pm performance by bluegrass and folk band The Crooked North. This ensemble has five members, Ben Proctor on banjo, dobro, and vocals, Jon Itkin on guitar, and vocals, Rita Proctor on vocals, rhythm mandolin, Jordan Kleiman on bass, and Tahlia Cott on fiddle. In a time when so many bands are looking to put a “twist” on music, it’s cool to hear a band that refreshingly sticks to the traditional form, and breathes great life and energy into it.

All are excellent instrumentalists, and true to the bluegrass style, they all took solos (aside from R. Proctor on the mandolin). Kleiman in particular received a great ovation for his solos, and he made the most of the few he had that night.

Beyond doing the standards of bluegrass and folk, most of which are “traditionals” described by the band as “tunes so old that no one knows who wrote them”), they also do originals, mostly written by the two founders of the band, B. Proctor and Itkin. These tunes also included completely new originals that made their debut at this performance. Playing these tunes is when The Crooked North is at its best, as they break just enough out of the bluegrass mold to create and develop news ideas, like unison melodic licks, rhythmic variation and kicks, and harmonic chances.

The band picked up steam as the show went on. They ended up playing for an hour and a half, but it was fun all the way. Their musicianship was excellent; their tempos were rock-steady, harmonies tight, and style impeccable. These guys clearly love what they do, and it showed for a great performance.

Despite the band’s excellently written description on the Fringe Fest website, it’s hard to totally prepare yourself for what Passive Aggressives Anonymous does. A six piece band with John Valenti on vocals, and guitar, John Delmonico on cello, Elena Ryck on violin, Reilly Solomon Taylor-Cook on upright bass, Chris Coon on electric piano, and Evan Wormwood on drums, say they have a love of early jazz but with a dry wit.

Throughout the first few numbers, it’s hard to put on a finger on what was exactly going on. Valenti’s low and breathy sprechstimme – with some higher crooning notes – over music that is 1930’s European pop with an indie rock flair (for example, it seemed as though Wormwood was playing brushes on a drum kit so small it looked like a toy) is weird, but completely enjoyable.

What makes the illusion work is that the exceptionally funny lyrics (with tunes about a ninja’s heartbreak, a man’s need to talk about Jesus while women are seducing him, sex in space, to name a few) are performed in a completely straight way by the band, and are anchored by Valenti’s Johnny Depp-esque charm and quirkiness, from oddly shifting eyes and dance moves to his muttering vocals. Musically it’s impeccable, as the string players take these classically influenced European pop lines with some more modern drum patterns.

These guys are an absolute treat, and they were a perfect concert for this Fringe Festival.

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