Local rock n’ roll delivers sublime show

By Dave Coffey

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On Friday night, local boys Darlingside brought the house down at the Iron Horse music club in Northampton. With the festivities starting relatively late, it was a very special night for Darlingside. Not only is NoHo home turf for the string-rockers, but the show also happened to be the group’s 100th live performance to date, giving them a reason to rock extra hard for their loyal hometown crowd.

Boston-based opener Tallahassee started off the evening for the anxious, packed-house crowd. Filling in for another opening act on the fly, lead singer/rhythm guitarist Brian Barthelmes and lead guitarist Scott Thompson gave a stripped-down, acoustic performance of half-dozen or so of Tallahassee’s tunes. While the band is usually a five-piece act, Barthelmes and Thompson skillfully laid out an intimate yet rousing set of southern-fried indie folk that was as simplistically melodic as it was earnest.

 As Darlingside took the stage at their respective instruments, a wave of anticipation and applause ripped through the crowd. After four clicks of drummer Sam Kapala’s sticks, the evening was off to a nonstop crazy train of live musical ecstasy. Opening with the mellow-turned-jammy “Blow the House Down,” Darlingside set the stage for a night of their usual genre hopping, melodically compelling and rhythmically rambunctious rock n’ roll. Styles ranging from reggae-pop to classical jam band – and everything in between – were traversed before the first song even came to a close.

By their second number, “Good Man,” a swelling and harmonious number featuring the perfectly lingering guitar of main axe man Don Mitchell, they had the crowd in the palm of their hand. The audience could barely keep up with the lively quintet, however. You’ve never seen anyone rock a classical instrument like a cello or violin quite like Darlingside. This was especially true of multi-instrumentalist Auyon Mukharji, who seemed like Eddie Van Halen if he had a more eclectic taste in stringed instruments. One minute he was shredding the violin like a Les Paul, and the next he was trem-picking a mandolin with distortion – all while dancing like Charlie Daniels on steroids.

On the other side of the stage, Harris Paseltiner kept up, somehow managing to smoothly churn out the melodies on electric cello while rocking out and providing back-up vocals. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Darlingside was that they could really let loose, have fun and give the house a show, all the while maintaining a near-virtuoso level of musical integrity.

While many songs on Friday’s set list were off Darlingside’s recording debut “EP 1,” the quintet also presented a considerable chunk of brand new material, so fresh that, according to Mitchell, “We don’t even have names for them yet.” The audience immediately recognized strong album cuts such as the riveting ballad “The Catbird Seat” and the swirling “Surround,” which were executed at near-recording level perfection. The band’s new songs, however, proved to be just as strong as the tried and true numbers. “Up The Wall” and “Eva” served up some unheard of but no less moving pieces that will no doubt leave fans hopeful about future recording plans.

Just like Darlingside’s on-record music, the most astonishing aspect of their performance was that in addition to providing some of the most melodically interesting and expertly played music this town has seen, they do so while boasting seemingly effortlessly perfect vocals. Backed by superb harmony vocals from the entire ensemble as per usual, lead vocalist Dave Senft might literally be a singing machine. Displaying impressive range while not missing a single note all night, he also held down the low end on the bass guitar, keeping up with the slinky grooves of drummer Sam Kapala’s masterful percussion.

 Kapala was everything you could ever want in a live drummer. With their eclectic instrumentation and melding of styles, you need someone who can move with the ebb and flow of the twisting and turning song structures Darlingside is known for. Kapala exceeded all expectations. At times tastefully minimalist and others furiously funky, he provided a colorful backbone to the group’s fantastically organic live sound.

Always keeping the audience guessing, towards the end of their set, Darlingside set their instruments down and performed a hauntingly beautiful a capella version of the Irving Berlin classic “How Deep” complete with rich four-part harmonies. After picking their instruments back up and thanking their hometown for their undying support at their centennial concert, they finished their main set with the tumultuous, foot-stomping folk-punk number “All That Wrong.”

No more than thirty seconds after leaving the stage, the building’s foundation shook with cries for an encore. Never ones to upset their local fan base, Darlingside once again stormed the stage and – after a super-sonic guitar-string replacement by Mitchell – the string-rockers closed out the night with a larger-than-life rendition of the strongest track off of “EP 1,” the classical-rocker “Malea.”

In terms of a 100th performance, fans of the Noho-based five-piece couldn’t really ask for anything more than the usual: amazing instrumentation with a few curveballs here and there, all topped off with sublime vocals. Needless to say, Darlingside delivered.

Dave Coffey can be reached at [email protected]