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Brian Blade & Friends at Highline Ballroom

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Brian Blade & Friends
Highline Ballroom
New York, New York
June 24, 2009

Brian Blade took the Highline Ballroom stage on a humid Wednesday night to mark the release of his singer-songwriter album, Mama Rosa (Verve Music Group, 2009). There was relatively little fanfare, appropriate given Blade's humble disposition and the no-frills content of Mama Rosa and the show to come. Blade wasn't even the first musician to speak. When he and guitarist Daniel Lanois ambled up onstage, Lanois introduced Blade as the master of ceremonies, and softly said, "Brian, you've made a really good album." The first understatement on a night seemingly full of them.

But, as Blade and Lanois embarked on an atmospheric jam that filled the room with music and held the audience in rapt attention, it was immediately clear that the power of the music was all that needed to be said on this night. Blade and Lanois were soon joined by Blade's Fellowship bandmates Jon Cowherd and Chris Thomas on keys and bass, respectively.

Blade is an inspiring drummer, always seeming to play exactly what is needed and to infuse the music with extra energy. He does not just play an instrument, he plays music, and this night was no exception. Though his time on drums was marked less by improvisation and more by slow drones and ostinato parts, he managed to coax the most out of his kit.

On guitar and vocals, Blade is certainly more limited in terms of what he can do, but the feel and emotion are still present in spades. At the conclusion of the jam, he switched to guitar, and Steven Elliot (guitar), Kelly Jones (vocals), Brady Blade, Jr. (drums) and Aaron Embry (piano & vocals) joined the band. They proceeded to play selections from Mama Rosa, including the album opening track "After the Revival." These were not materially different from the album tracks, but highlighted the musicians' devotion to the repertoire. For his part, Blade's face contorted with emotion even as his voice sounded effortless. Embry swayed back and forth at his keyboards, at times jumping out of his seat in fervor. Thomas alternated a gleeful smile at the music's climaxes with an intimidating snarl and deep knee bend, his imposing physical presence dwarfing that of his bass.

Mama Rosa is at its heart a spiritual album, an expression of one man's faith in life, and this concert extended that concept, becoming a celebration of sorts. Blade's father Brady Blade, a pastor in the Blades' hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, livened things up with some seductive vocals on the traditional gospel tune "This May Be The Last Time" and a version of "Amazing Grace" that included the pastor's own additional verse. Things calmed down as Lanois switched to pedal steel for another enthralling duet jam with Blade behind the kit, this with more of a country feel. The duo was then joined by singer Trixie Whitley to perform a song from a new project (called Black Dub) that the three are working on. Embry sang lead on a tune before the show closed with an uplifting take on "At the Centerline" from Mama Rosa.

This was a special show with a special vibe. Each song was more of an offering than a performance, and the band was as appreciative of the audience's warm reception as the audience was of the band's performance. There was an atmosphere of knowing and understanding what was happening making it an intimate gathering of friends, and a triumph in music.

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