Mr. Bongos darts between the closing subway doors at the last possible second. What follows is a four stop history lesson that could rival a college level course. It’s the first day of black history month and Mr. Bongos is happy to lecture the subway car on the importance that drums played in aboriginal peoples lives, punctuated by musical covers of Bob Marley on, you guessed it, bongo drums.
Ah, New York, it’s been too long.
I bring up the appearance by Mr. Bongos because I’m on my way home from the Darren Jessee and Lowpines show at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s rather apropos when you consider that much of Jessee’s fame comes from his drumming: Ben Folds Five, Sharon Van Etten, Hiss Golden Messenger and The War On Drugs to name a few. Jessee has stepped out from behind the drums for years, the creative force behind Hotel Lights, and now as a solo artist. His concerts are sadly, far and few between. This show with Lowpines had been canceled late in 2018 when the arranged venue shut down. Thankfully, both artists kept at it and found another date and a much more stable space to perform at.
Rockwood Stage 3, also known as the basement, is one of the most intimate spaces I’ve been to yet. Tables no bigger than a laptop computer that seat two are scattered about the floor space while a waitress navigates between them to eagerly collect the two drink minimum orders. All but three of the tables are full; the exceptions being those closest to the stage. You would most likely get hit by strumming arms if you sat in those seats, they are that close to the stage. A beaten piano is pushed to the side and red lights illuminate the stage. You know how much photographers love red lights.
A long haired, heavily bearded Lowpines opens the night with a 45 minute set. Oli Deakin loops electric guitar parts alone on the stage. I’m struck not only by his effortless skill, but the fact that he plays to the room. I can’t tell you how often an artist blasts out a small space like Rockwood, but tonight, I don’t even need to wear earplugs. Lowpines reminds me of Iron and Wine, if Iron and Wine were trapped in a pit of despair. Deakin jokingly acknowledges the heavy songs and says that he’s getting all the bummer ones out of the way. He engages the audience sparingly and apologizes for leaving his merch at home in England, but reminds them that his work is available on streaming services, not that people buy music any more. I beg to differ; this crowd is exactly the type that will gladly purchase the newest vinyl release.
There’s a brief intermission as the musicians swap positions from the back of the room to the stage. Darren Jessee is alone on stage with his beat up acoustic guitar and opens with the title track from the 2016 Hotel Lights release Get Your Hand in My Hand. The soft spoken songwriter performs his ethereal tracks with such delicacy that you find yourself leaning forward to take it all in. There are a couple of new, unreleased songs in his set, as well as a song I’ve seen him sing 19 years ago in his first solo performance, “You Come and I Go.” Jessee takes even longer to address the audience, but this is the most relaxed and confident I’ve ever seen him on stage. He even smiles a few times and the applause.
As stated earlier, Jessee is not one to perform often, but he does have a show in May at the Sugar Magnolia Cafe & Emporium in North Carolina. He also told us to spread the word that he was heading to Chicago around the same time. Keep an eye out and if you’re fortunate enough to be in a town that Jessee heads to, don’t miss it.