As the Monday sun descended behind the monolithic Southwest towers, long shadows cast themselves over the Hampden courtyard, glancing rays of fading sunlight off of the lacquered finishes and shiny surfaces of electric guitars and cymbals. The waning of daylight and the creeping approach of dusk was the perfect curtain call for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s Paper Jam, a six-act battle-of-the-bands style concert.
Kicking off the first day of festivities of Southwest Week, Paper Jam was not only a heavily attended success, but a rocking good time as well.
Local hip-hop duo Solo Sexx hosted and emceed the four-hour-long event. In addition to performing between the featured acts and providing occasional comic relief, Solo Sexx got the crowd pumped and ready to roll with party-style raps and frequent interaction with the audience.
The first band to play was Leisure Colony, a Noho based alt-indie style band with a sound that features jangly lead guitar, airy vocals and quirky melodies delivered in a somewhat ambient, synth-laden aura. Leisure Colony sounds like the Beatles if they were playing in a big top carnival, with poppy and catchy hooks resonating through tripped-out sounding keyboards and guitar. For a band with a somewhat diligent approach to melody, their dynamic song structures and impressive mid-song meter changes have a sense of rhythm lacking in most modern indie bands. They closed with a jammed-out spacey number called “Letters From Mars” with perfect timing just as the setting sun slipped below the low hanging clouds.
Second up were the ever-funky Bubonic Souls hailing from Amherst. They sported a brilliant style complete with fiery sax solos, ankle-snapping rhythmic breakdowns and sublime dual male-female vocals. Somehow, the seven-piece outfit managed an incredibly tight live performance while keeping a sweet and sultry sway about them, as if a cool summer breeze seemed to pour straight off the stage. Combining uber-sexy funk with jazzy keyboard interludes and soulful, horn-dominated middle eights, the Souls music was more danceable than a 50’s sock hop, causing more than a few people to bust a move during their performance. With their laid-back funk approach and up-tempo crescendo grooves, watching the Bubonic Souls play a live set is about as close as one could get to living through an episode of the television show “Shaft.”
Third to play were natives The Telephone Company, a sparse power trio that combined the enigmatic dissonance of grunge mixed with a no-strings-attached punk rock mentality. If Nirvana and the Strokes made sweet bromance love with each other in Jack White’s basement, you’d most likely get some incarnation of The Telephone Company (or Tele Co, as colloquially referred to). Front man Nick Bush vocally delivers like Cobain channeling Dylan with a poetic, almost bluesy harshness rounding out Tele Co’s raw, no frills sounds perfectly.
Fourth in the lineup was the insanely talented string-rock quintet Darlingside from Northampton. One of the more unique acts of the night, Darlingside, while containing only five members, produced a fantastically lush, layered sound, mostly due to their interesting relatively unheard-of instrumentation in rock music. In addition to drums, bass, guitar and vocals, Darlingside also featured various string instruments, such as violin, mandolin and electric cello. With their distinctive instrument choices, Darlingside seamlessly melded hook-drenched classical-rock melody lines with substantially infectious grooves, thanks in no small part to arguably the meatiest drums one has ever heard played under a string section. Even more impressive is that despite the overwhelming instrumental presence, the vocals were, if anything, even more noteworthy, as they resonated clearly and truly without being buried by the amazing instrumental skills. Arguably, Hampden Courtyard has never heard such serene and well executed harmonized vocals, much less from a quintet of string rockers. While Jethro Tull first comes to mind in terms of potential inspiration, Darlingside shared some of their more modern influences, closing their set with a bang with a blistering jam-funk Ke$ha/Lady Gaga cover medley.
` Number five on the bill was rapper On Trak, backed by three-piece band Malado. Winner of the University Programming Council’s 2009 Battle of the Bands, On Trak delivered as usual with a batch of crowd-pleasing, super-groovy instrumental hip-hop. Malado delivered where most live rap acts seldom do – instrumentally. In addition to competent keyboard and heavy synth work, killer bass and drum work made for an amazing overall performance. On Trak was everything live hip-hop should be: fist-pumping, foot-stomping rhythmically hard-hitting music that features spitfire verses over rhythms too nasty for an R rating, leaving the crowd begging for more.
If Darlingside was one of the evening’s most unique acts, Bella’s Bartok, the self-described Western Massachusetts premier Gypsy Balkan Rockabilly Fusion Party in a box was easily the most unique. Imagine Serbian pirates singing up-tempo sea shanties. That is, if Serbian pirates liked blazing electric blues guitar and almost-too-catchy brass section lines. Oh, and the lead singer pirate also looks strangely like Borat. That’s pretty much Bella’s Bartok in a nutshell. Bella’s Bartok may have had a rather strange approach, but it’s hard to say that it didn’t work; by the end of the first speed-polka tune about a city in Poland, nearly the entire audience was dancing a merry jig. If that’s not a proper musical aspiration, then what is?
By the end of the night, Paper Jam proved to be a huge hit, with basically the entire crowd sporting looks of exhausted satisfaction. Featuring everything from instrumental hip-hop to rock string quintets to Balkan rockabilly, the audience certainly got a little taste of everything, and Southwest could hardly ask for a better start to their week of festivities.
Dave Coffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.