Van Ghost offers a soulful, smooth and slickly produced take on pop rock on its new album, “The Domino Effect.”
The Chicago-based newcomers sound like old pros on the album, crafting a melodic, guitar-based sound that mixes ‘70s rock with a modern, catchy Top 40 style. If they sound like they know what they’re doing on their crisp debut, it’s because the band’s leader, Michael Harrison Berg, has been working in music for years. He just hasn’t been center stage before.
Berg is a lifelong musician, but he’s been backstage since high school. He’s spent the last decade managing bands, promoting concerts and festivals, while putting his own musical pursuits aside.
That’s all changing now, as Berg is fronting Van Ghost on a tour that stops at Belly Up on Thursday, Nov. 29.
When Berg’s backstage projects began to falter, he took solace in writing songs of his own again. Surprisingly, the songs were strong and kept coming. He was confident enough in the material to put together a band and give it a go on his own.
“I didn’t plan my future,” Berg says in the band’s official bio. “I found inspiration in writing a song and I took that inspiration and multiplied it. I found I could deal with demons through music.”
As he put together Van Ghost, he found an ideal compliment to his songs with vocalist Jennifer Hartswick, a longtime member of Phish frontman Trey Anastacio’s side project, the Trey Anastacio Band. With a silky voice that booms even when it lowers to a whisper, Hartswick brings soul to Berg’s pop hooks and optimistic lyrics on songs like the album standout, “Drowning.”
The haunting ballad slows down what’s otherwise an all uptempo affair, in danceable songs built to be played for live audience.
The band has built a strong local following in Chicago and landed opening gigs for the likes of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Grace Potter. They’re taking their act on the road through Colorado for the first time this month, with stops in Aspen, Boulder and Denver.
Return of the Rev
Rock-a-billy, swing music, punk rock and death metal aren’t often meshed together on purpose.
And the idea of throwing them all together seems less than advisable. But those are indeed the disparate ingredients to the phenomenon that is the Reverend Horton Heat. Fronted by the reverend, off-stage name Jim Heath, the band sings about whiskey, women and cars – the standard country fare - with a sneer and amps turned up to 11.
Through 25 years of non-stop touring and nine albums, the three-man band has built a cult-like following – and through regular stops in Aspen, seeing “The Rev” has become a local wintertime tradition.
This year he’s coming to town twice. First, this Saturday, Nov. 24, in a free 6:30 p.m. show at the base of Aspen Mountain, and again on Jan. 31 at Belly Up.
The Texas-bred Reverend is a pioneer of the “psychobilly” genre. He plays like a meaner and punked-up version of Johnny Cash, with material plucked from Delta blues, ‘50s big band and the Sex Pistols. The Rev has a zoot suit aesthetic and an upright bass player in his backing band, but pulls it off with a Sid Vicious attitude.
The result is a manic, enthralling experience. It’s hard to pin down whether the Rev’s good ol’ boy Texas routine is tongue-in-cheek or if it’s for real, or if the swinging ‘50s style side of the Rev’s music is there for irony’s sake or if it’s genuine, or what the hell to make of this sweaty Pomade-headed “reverend” and the menacing sneers he’s shooting in your direction. But in the end, most of us like what we see at the show. And then we come back for more.
Weird as it probably sounds on paper, the band’s high-energy musical alchemy produces a downright irresistible sound. It’s well-suited to kick off the Aspen Skiing Co.’s winter concert series, where you’re outdoors at night in the winter and need music to get you jumping and moving. If anybody can make people sweat in the freezing climes of an outdoor Aspen Mountain show, it’s the Reverend Horton Heat.