Article by Joy Rose
Blue Café, – Long Beach – Sunday, August 30, 2009
I hadn’t seen Moonalice before this two-night run, but a trusted friend kept telling me that the band was so good, she would never miss a Moonalice show in the L.A. area. Plus, various band members’ names kept dropping in front of me one after another until I couldn’t wait to hear what the ensemble would sound like. John Molo’s in the band? Cool. Love Molo. Barry Sless? Ooh, that Phil ‘n’ Friends sound…now we’re talking. GE Smith…like, from the Saturday Night Live Band? In-ter-es-ting. Add in Pete Sears, veteran of…well, pretty much every band I love? Bring it on!
There were many other interesting and innovative things about this band that I didn’t know, including their approach to business (read “Chubby’s Op-Ed” essay on the band’s philosophy on their website), the fact that it features Roger and Ann McNamee of a band called the Flying Other Brothers, that Ann, a music professor, writes most of Moonalice’s songs, that the rotation sometimes includes Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna, and that—and this is the cool part—the members of the band (except Molo) actually take turns singing and playing many of the instruments throughout the set. The result is that each tune sounds distinctly unlike the others. No resting on any laurels or hiding in any well-worn grooves. This band is out there, constantly moving, searching for new sounds within the tried-and-true. And somehow, it works. With six musicians on a tiny stage, they do have to move over occasionally to avoid feedback errors, but in an intimate venue it makes for a rollicking party that feels like nothing more than a jam session among friends.
The Mint is the quintessential darkened supper club with candles on the table, sparkly curtains behind the stage—the whole nine. Management got it right when they moved the usually fixed tables away from the stage for the night so people had room to dance. Moonalice is a band where the atmosphere is so relaxed it feels like family, and Roger McNamee takes a break every few songs and reads a new installment from the ever-evolving “Moonalice Legend.” He somehow incorporates each night’s city into the legend, as well as some mention of hemp agriculture and a traveling hippie tribe (go figure). The legend related at the Mint had something to do with USC’s president Stephen Sample. Sunday’s show found the legend dealing with Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose. It’s a funny interlude that keeps the vibe loose. How can you stay serious when your front man is calling himself by the nickname Chubby Wombat?
Moonalice’s songs are mostly originals, with some choice covers and a song about a Connecticut waitress and her boyfriend thrown in. Feel-good lines pop out of certain songs, like, “Good things happen in the nick of time.” But it’s not bubble-gum pop. It’s original but classic-sounding country and houserockin’ blues played by some of the greatest musicians of our time, channeling legends and characters from a romantic, good-timey America where people rode horses, gambled in saloons, drank whiskey, and played guitar round the campfire. Saturday’s Mint set ended with a really sweet and true “Stella Blue” that had me hugging the people around me.
Sunday’s show at Blue Café featured a great opening set by the duo Nate LaPointe and Cece Sherman. There was a huge turnout for Nate because besides having his own band (The Nate LaPointe Band), he is the “Bobby” of southern California’s greatest Dead cover band, Cubensis. A whole pack of ‘heads showed up for this one, and got treated to a really nice set of some Nate originals, with him on acoustic guitar, and Cece knocking everyone’s socks off with some sultry blues. Barry Sless joined them onstage twice, for two Dead covers: “Cassidy” and “Wheel.” No question about it, Sless was channeling Garcia on that pedal steel. Even good old Steve Parrish gave props as he introduced Moonalice from the stage before their set. He said he’s been around the Dead for forty years and it warms his heart that the music is being kept alive in such a beautiful way by so many people. Another warm, fuzzy bear moment courtesy of the Grateful Dead family.
Moonalice’s Blue Café set included a jazzy version of the Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and a funk/blues version of the Procol Harum classic “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Sears growled out an original he wrote with his wife, “Kick It Open,” in a kind of Leonard Cohen voice over a groove that reminded me of “Just a Little Light” from Built to Last. In this band, you hear all the musicians each member has ever played with, influenced, or been influenced by. A Moonalice show is like the best stuff of the last four decades thrown into a blender and mixed along with some jazz jams, cowboy-and-Indian movies, and well, heck, a little bit of Hollywood showmanship (this is L.A., after all). But, minus any pretense. Ann McNamee never stops smiling and they give away different free posters at every show. These guys make it look really easy. And it is—you just have to let yourself go where the music is going. You can travel down memory lane, or if you weren’t there, you get the highlight reel. You just have to trust this Chubby Wombat guy for a few hours, but you’re up for it, right?