Review by Melanie Stangl
Photos by Randy Jarosz
Hip-hop music thumped from powerful speakers as I entered the newly-renovated James Street Gastropub Ballroom, vibrating in my ears and in the pit of my stomach. Two easels sat up front on either side of the stage, geometric designs with initial splotches of blue and pink, to be filled in by live painters Pierce Marratto and Josh Ensley throughout the show. The room wasn’t packed (yet), but a sizeable, well-dressed crowd chatted, drank, and buzzed with anticipation. It was Saturday night, September 10th, and the occasion was local jazz fusion group Eastend Mile’s brand new album, I Had A Wonderful Time. With soulful blues-rock act Memphis Hill opening—along with guest musicians Rich Robbins, Mariko Reid, Shane McLaughlin, and Scott Nadelson, joining the band for various tracks—the show was jam-packed with musical prowess and passion. The audience and the band fed off of each other’s good energy: dancing, singing, cheering, making it exactly what it was meant to be—a celebration…a wonderful time.
Things kicked off a little before 9 with Memphis Hill’s midtempo, party-starting anthem, “The Journey.” For the band (consisting of Lucy Clabby on vocals, Victor Cherubim on lead guitar, Mac Inglis on rhythm/slide guitar, Alex Holloway on bass, Collin Cherubim on drums, and Logan Randolph on saxophone), this would be their last set before a hiatus, due to drummer Collin’s relocation to Boston. This only seemed to prompt them to give every ounce of energy onstage: between Clabby’s powerhouse vocals and rock star dance moves, Randolph’s soulful saxophone parts, and how clearly every performer was feeling the music, it really was a special, insanely fun performance. “Devil’s Dance” was next, in which Clabby sang, “Oh beautiful, take me away,” and each instrument got a chance to shine. The groove was contagious, spilling into the crowd, who nodded, danced, and “woo”-ed throughout.
The third song, “Don’t Hide Your Head,” was a highlight, featuring funky, distorted guitars and a catchy beat. After this track, Clabby informed the audience about the upcoming hiatus, (to a disappointed “aww”), but ended on a good note: “That just means you’ll have to dance extra hard.” “Act 2” was another midtempo tune, with angstier lyrics (such as “You say it’s different/This time…” and “You fucked with my mind”), as well as brief pauses where Clabby sang alone, highlighting both her words and the higher end of her range. They then took time to acknowledge the headliners, commending their new album as one of “the most important pieces of art…at least this month, if not this century.”
“Too Hard” slowed things down a bit without losing ferocity, a sexy beat accompanying attack-and-retreat verses. As Inglis engaged the crowd and broke out his slide, to great effect, Clabby crooned, “Hey babe, what you runnin’ from?” A drum solo transitioned into the next track, “Blues E in D,” in which Randolph sat out but Collin shone with cool, complex beats. “Queen of the Swarm” brought Randolph back, with another funky, danceable groove, and jazzy sax riffs. The audience’s cheers (along with its size) had grown considerably, as the band slowed back down into “Tower,” which featured a killer, wailing guitar solo and octave-apart vocals lamenting, “We both know that I can’t stay.”
“Hush” was another star of the set, with emotional pain reflected adeptly in every aspect of its music. From the slower, minor-scale-heavy guitar solo from Victor, to the anguish in Clabby’s voice, to the low Bob-Seger-esque sax that paired expertly with Holloway’s bass at the end, it was the best definition of a power ballad. “Show Me the Light,” meanwhile, was a gradual climb: a sweet sax riff to start, then just guitar with Clabby’s vocals (asking “What are you so scared of?” then warning “You’ve got blood on your hands”), before exploding into full-band mode. It demonstrated the group’s intuitive grasp of energy and flow in their songs—one of their strongest attributes.
After going around and introducing the members, Memphis Hill demonstrated another unique aspect to their shows: a spoken word piece by Collin, called “Vienna for the People.” The crowd was respectfully quiet (occasional yeah’s and woo’s of agreement aside) during his heartfelt, skilled rendition. The story was about a girl, ostracized with an alien, for attempting to reveal uncomfortable truths, and delivered with conviction and an incredible sense of rhyme. After throwing some free t-shirts into the crowd, the band brought the wave of energy higher with “Open Up,” then moved into the chill, summery vibe of “Jump.”
Before their final two songs, Inglis took the mic and implored the audience, “Keep coming out here and supporting local music…Pittsburgh’s kicking ass right now, and it’s because of YOU.” “Goodbye Darlin’” was a danceable, midtempo number, with passionate performances from Randolph and Clabby in particular. “Tonight has been magical,” she gushed, before concluding their crowd-pleasing set with “Pendant.” A slower but still powerful tune that featured a soulful guitar solo, it was a fitting ending to a set I didn’t want to end. If they ever come off hiatus, they’re absolutely a band worth seeing live.
The Ballroom was noticeably fuller now, people refilling drinks and bubbling with excitement over the set they’d just witnessed, and what was still to come. The canvases were half-full, fans coming up to chat with the artists, as well as mulling around the Thrival Festival and FoundSound sponsor tables in the back. The pounding hip-hop beat had returned while Eastend Mile set up for their performance. The group (comprised of Roger Romero on saxophone, Caleb Lombardi on keys, Christoffer Thygesen on bass, and Dhruva Krishna on drums) blends elements of jazz, rock, hip-hop, funk, and soul together in a smart, fun, and absolutely unique way. No one else sounds like these guys, yet they’re not so far off the map as to be alienating. They have a unique vision and they know how to get there—and how to bring you along for the ride.
They kicked things off appropriately with “First Things First,” then moved swiftly into the new album’s second song, “15 Seconds to Move.” Several patterns that would emerge throughout the set became clear immediately: the skilled, inventive musicianship of all members; the sheer contagious excitement they brought to the crowd; and the irresistibly funky groove of their tracks. “Blood Moon” was up next, a standout both on the album and in the show. Frequent tempo changes (handed skillfully by Krishna) and a refreshingly in-your-face bassline from Thygesen got the now-packed room dancing. Lombardi and Romero also killed their solos, highlighting the group’s keen instinct for when to attack and when to back off.
“In Transit” brought things down slightly with an appealing midtempo groove, in which the bass shone again. Following this, the first guest musician was brought up: “Please welcome, one of my best friends, all the way from Chicago…Rich Robbins!” Encouraging the audience with, “If you’re alive right now, make some noise,” Robbins then performed his featured track on the album, “I’m the Realest.” A hip-hop-influenced jam with swoony keyboards and smoothly delivered lines like, “One day, we’ll take, off our, masks/Until then, we ain’t comin’ back, don’t ask,” it was a dreamy treat with a head-nodding beat.
They fittingly followed that with an instrumental cover of The Weeknd’s smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” Romero covered the synth and vocal parts alternatingly on saxophone, and they complicated its familiar beat to truly make the song their own (though this didn’t stop the audience from clapping along.) Their second guest musician, vocalist Mariko Reid, came onstage next for the new track “Twisted.” This was another highlight of the set, its cool, slow, sensual beat pairing beautifully with Reid’s smooth, soulful voice. Romero’s sax solo in the bridge added a relaxing, lounge-like feel to this gorgeous tune. Both the sax and the relaxed vibe recurred in the next number, “Song for Nana.”
This was promptly switched up in what followed, “Bmsg.” Standing for Big Man Says Go, everything certainly went. A recurring slow piano part exploded into fast, intricate riffs from every instrument that still didn’t sound cluttered. The last song of the first set, “Other Side of Mt. Washington,” appeared on the group’s earlier release, City Limits. Alternating between high- and low-energy moments, again with the sax highlighted, their knack for non-alienating inventive musicianship was on full display, and the dancing, grooving audience was so into it. As the band themselves put it in an Instagram post, “We’ve never seen that kind of passion out of a crowd.”
A fifteen-minute breather divided the two sets, giving attendees and musicians alike a chance to crowd the bar and amplify the good vibes. When Eastend Mile took the stage again, the audience had thinned out somewhat, but their energy was undiminished. A lively intro led straight into “JPA” and its engaging, midtempo groove. Thygesen’s bass took the spotlight in a Death Cab for Cutie cover, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” bringing things to a slower, funkier place. The following track, “Manhattan,” was equally funky, and demonstrated something about this group: as great as the studio tracks are, seeing the band live is an even more enjoyable experience. You get to see firsthand how much heart they put into their performance. You also get to dance along (I certainly couldn’t resist) and watch them improvise, blurring transitions between songs.
Reid’s gorgeous, soulful voice and Robbins’ flow reappeared for the next track, “Lovely Day,” an unabashedly fun cover of a Bill Withers tune. The crowd and the singers moved freely to the rhythmic, uptempo drumbeat, and the back-and-forth of both the rapped and sung lines, and the jammed-out sax and keyboards, made this another highlight of the show. Next, the third guest musician, guitarist Shane McLaughlin, provided a sick, shredding electric guitar solo in an intense, alluring new song called “Junglecat.” It demonstrated their rock chops, alongside every other genre they adopt.
With two songs left to go, the group’s unrelenting energy proved their stamina, and they carried the crowd with them. They thanked everyone for coming out and sticking around, before moving into the impressively complex “Overdrive,” for which Beauty Slap’s skilled, spirited trumpet player Scott Nadelson joined them. Krishna adeptly handled an intricate, ever-shifting drumbeat that never relaxed for a second, while Thygesen’s bass solo halfway through prompted cheering from the audience. They cheered afterwards too, repeating “One more song! One more song!” to get the group back up for their encore. A final cover (the fun, danceable “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles) closed out the show, ensuring the night ended at the same energy level at which it started.
In that Instagram/Facebook post, Eastend Mile appropriately called the night “straight up LIT,” continuing: “It was heartwarming to see so many people dancing, singing, screaming, and feeling the music…That community feel…that’s all we could ever ask for and more. You all really made us feel loved.” This album release show was unbelievably fun, full to the brim with staggering talent, and a welcome reminder of just how many boundary-pushing artists (and their appreciators) call the Steel City home.