The House of Blues located in Cambridge, MA, is the original site of what has become a national chain of such venues across the country. Arguments have been raised that the initial intent of the venues has been lost in a ridiculous corporate expansion, noting especially the HOB’s bowing to Disney pressure by homogenizing it’s Orlando location in accordance to big Walt’s June Cleaver like standards.
However, there still remains within the walls of this original House of Blues, which is quite literally, a converted house, a devotion to musicianship and the utmost reverence shown to the great blues ancestry. The ceiling is lined with faces that comprise a blues Hall of Fame of sorts: The stoic looks of Delta legends and jovial smiles from guitar players that have set thousands of careers in motion with the simple power of their work – all of these pictures hiding a musical vitality behind stone visages.
Palabra., a local trio made up of Ryan Montbleau on guitars, Paul Findlen on upright and electric basses and James Cohen on drums, settled in the House of Blues on July 8th with the intent of showing due reverence to the legends adorning the walls.
HOB is a fitting venue for Palabra., whose sound is steeped heavily in a blues tradition. Of course, giving these guys a single role is insulting. Hip hop, jazz, folk whatever. Every genre is bent naturally, and the sound always flows easily out of the trio.
I first saw Palabra. at the Black Horse Tavern in Faneuil Hall, and was extremely impressed. With the promise of special guest Jared Sims of Miracle Orchestra, it made the gig at House of Blues impossible to pass up.
The first set of the night began with a few slower numbers, the funky “L.I.D.S.” and “Crimes,” a tune which allowed gifted vocalist Montbleau to show his chops. The epic “Mountain” came next, with a beautiful shuffle drum beat from drummer Cohen. A personal favorite, this song has a great electric folk feel that sounds like it could be taken directly from Strangefolk’s album, “Lore.”
Some short improv work yielded to “Digging Everyone,” which was introduced by the achingly beautiful bowed bass lines from Paul Findlen. The tempo kicked in quick after the intro, and held its torrid pace for the rest of the set, which included Jared Sims on the final two tunes.
Speaking to Jared earlier in the night about his recent exploits, which include sweating out a book of transcription of Wayne Shorter’s work, there should have been no surprise at his ability to pick it up and run through any tune laid in front of him. But still, it made me wince in amazement.
Set break introduced me to two guests that were being readied for their upcoming stage presence, Moe Pope from the hip hop outfit Mission and Kabir, a microphone poet and producer from Uncle Trouble who has worked recent shows with legends like the Beatnuts and Jeru the Damaja.
Both of them made appearances on stage, with Moe Pope making his freestyle sound like a lost Hieroglyphics B-side, while the band held down a beautiful and romantic background in the form of “Lying Awake.” Kabir stepped up for a few songs after that, leaving the crowd nodding with his jaw gymnastics, most notably on his addition during the closer, “Rapper’s Delight.”
Jared Sims played the entire second set with Palabra., creating some space in the songs and then filling it in with graceful runs and smooth lines. Though they had never played together, their chemistry seemed automatic.
Highlights of the second set included a tune called “Ride,” with a tight walking bass line from Paul and sweet swinging rhythm. A Led Zeppelin cover, “Going to California,” was also a sweet touch which was followed by some smooth jams, intensified by some thick wah pedal moves by Montbleau.
Looking back at the show, it seems confusing, likely because Palabra. has a sound that is different from anything else in the jamband circuit. On the topic of lineup alone, I can’t say that I have ever seen the arrangement of guitar, upright bass and drums very often, outside of Jim Hall. Each member possesses tremendous skill in their craft, as well, which would allow them to survive on their instruments alone. But that would cancel out another thing that sets Palabra. apart: meaningful lyrics. In general, the words are modern adaptations of blues clich lost love, alienation, regret all of it genuine and presented gorgeously by the fourth member of the band: Ryan Montbleau’s voice. The vocals have a real gospel feel to them, with a whole bunch of Stevie Wonder thrown in.
When I spoke to Jared about the Palabra, he had nothing but praise, realizing that “when you can play like these guys . . . and when you have a voice like Ryan’s, you got to use’ em.” A young, but nonetheless, veteran member of the Northeast improvisational scene giving a deserved slap on the back may not be convincing enough, though. You may just have to see them for yourself.
As a performer, when you’re in a room surrounded with pictures of Albert Collins, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, that may be the toughest room you’ll ever play. It’s a daunting task to play in a club that is nothing less than a museum to the ancestry of blues and jazz music. I left the House of Blues that night knowing that the faces on the wall, whether carved with scowls or somber facades, would all be smiling if they were there to see Palabra. act as curators to their sound and keep the house moving with genuine soul.