Watching guitarist Bob Kinney open for pianist Bob Malone at the Upstage Center Saturday, I thought he looked like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon and sang with a Tom Petty-like tone.
Maybe that was just my mind trying to understand a new person by cramming him into existing characterizations. But because it was my first show at the Upstage, my little brain was wrestling with a lot of "new."
I was impressed by the tasteful decor. The stage reminded me of a late '90s "MTV Unplugged" jam with its all-black background, small white string lights and groups of tall candles burning on stools. The hallways leading into the auditorium were clean and new with framed posters of concerts and musicians like the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers "breakfast served at dawn" print and the head shot of Carlos Santana deep in a jam trance.
And the sound was excellent -- sharp and well-balanced.
Kinney sounded great. Strumming away on his steel strings, singing about "the edge of where you end and the start of me," he gave the crowd a fun evening.
His guitar was at its best during tender playing, like his Eddie Raven cover of "Joe Knows How to Live," but he proved he can rock with a stormy version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine."
Between Kinney and the headliner, Bob Malone, I noticed there is no smoking in the Upstage. For a lot of folks, live rock and blues are very much a smoking environment, but I find the clean air refreshing. New Yorkers now are doing what Californians were doing back in '98 -- complaining about the right to smoke cancer sticks. We've heard it all before. So the Upstage is a place that's good for your ears and lungs (and OK for kids, too).
There is a small bar in the back corner, where bottles are pulled from big plastic coolers. I was impressed they had Widmer's Hefeweizen -- "America's original" --but a bit peeved at having to wait for my receipt to print in a back office. Cash is the way to go at the Upstage.
So Bob Malone got right into it with one of those "I know he's your husband, but he don't know I'm your man" tunes. Curly mop raging, Malone was bouncing his feet 5 inches off the floor and banging on the keys so hard a water bottle on the piano was dancing. The crowd started dancing, making use of the open areas at the sides of the stage.
Malone can tell a story. I felt like I was the one in the cheap motel when he sang, "This one's called the Gold Rush Inn, and it ain't no different than the last 10 flea bags I been in... there's cigarette burns on the night stand."
He got kind existential, too, in a "Dharma Bums" kind of way, when he described the frustration of performing on the road and waking up and not knowing where you are. "Wonderin' how these places all look so the same after you'd come so far... These hotel rooms protect my body, but they a danger to my soul."
Bob Malone is a vital musician who has something meaningful to add to the discussion. Not having "hit the big time" so far might have saved him from being corrupted. I can imagine him being thankful he's not famous or rich. "There's CDs for sale out front," he mentioned between songs. "And, uh, I'm not gonna beat around the bush. I need the money."
Coming up at the Upstage are more dharma bums -- Van Morrison's Shana Morrison on May 2, and the Trailer Park Troubadours later that month. I can't wait for the honorable Jack McQuirk weenies-and-bean roast in the parking lot. That IS poetry.
Call the Upstage Center at 882-8900 or go to www.theupstagecenter.net/.
Call Karl Horeis at 881-1219.