I showed up to the newly remodeled Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville for Working Breed’s release of Hieroglyphica on August 24th. Working Breed is one of those insanely talented bands that should be on a world tour somewhere – like the world. Every time I see them play live, that point is again driven home. Really, Pittsburgh, you’re hiding far too many of your musical gems.
The first song in the set was “Mo Fo Ro Ro”, which despite sounding like something from a Scooby-Doo episode, is a seriously grooving piece, reminiscent of Steely Dan but with a much better singer. Lead singer and head songwriter, Erika Laing, is a sultry songstress with a steamy voice. Starting a show with such a grooving piece might be a bit of risk. There is an arch to most shows – start off heavy, slow it down in the middle and pick it back up toward the end. While “Mo Fo Ro Ro” isn’t exactly slow, it’s not exactly the kind of all-out banger with which a lot of bands would start. Just one more reason why this band is awesome – creativity and art above expectation. It’s also a solid reminder that great guitar doesn’t need to shred. Every now and then I think we all need to remember that not all guitar gods are shredders and guitarist Michael Dugan is that reminder. He pulls out the speed and agility when he needs it and then settles quietly back into the pocket grooving with great jazzy precision.
Horns feature prominently in this tune, as well, and I am a life-long fan of brass instruments. The warm tones coming from the lips of a great horn player can soothe even the harshest of days. While Erika is far too humble to say it, I’ll say it for her: This woman can play brass. Listening to her slick, silky melodic lines is easily one of the best drugs you can do.
Next up was “Sensitive Plant”. Another solid groover, this makes me want to dance. Judging from the rest of the audience, I wasn’t the only one. For me, it was Chloe Wiecz’s keyboards that made this song, and that says something in a band this talented. Almost understated, the keyboards seem to hold the entire piece together. Like glue, they are subtle and almost unnoticeable until they aren’t there. Then you realize how important they are to the work as whole.
It was right about here that I finally noticed Erika’s outfit. Up until this point, I was totally enraptured by the music. With an album title like “Hieroglyphica”, you might expect an Egyptian-inspired theme, and you’d be at least partially right. How about an Egyptian-inspired jumpsuit that looks like it came from the Roaring 20s? It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it totally worked. It was this moment that made me realize how much time and effort was taken to actually create this experience. While every live show is an experience, this show was so immersive that the audience became part and parcel of the art as a whole.
The third offering was “Cicada”. More straight ahead than the previous groovers, this song belongs in a smoky bar room scene in a movie with its vacillation between soulful, sultry ballad and pure rocker.
Saying that Erika’s vocals take front and center might seem like a “DUH!” moment, but her voice really shines on this one. Powerful, raw and emotional, she drew the audience into her world and kept them with her throughout the entire song.
Of course, the saw rocks. Yes, you did read that correctly. There are few things that produce such wonder as pulling out a saw and playing it with a bow. Ironically, the saw does a near-perfect imitation of a human voice. I actually thought Erika was singing with the saw for a moment, until I realized that what I was hearing was pure, beautiful saw.
Since I like horns so much, hearing the bleating of the brass at the beginning of “My Chimera” sent shivers down my spine. “My Chimera”, long one of my Working Breed favorites, is even better live. This song reminds me of why I like jazz. Emotional and experimental, smooth and rough, powerful and soft, all at the same time. There was even room for a little guitar shredding. Just a little. Somewhere in the middle of “My Chimera” it dawned on my how incredibly amazing Jeremy Papay is on drums. Through all of the grooves and the rock, his technique is flawless. Even more important, his drum lines enhance the songs. Jeremy doesn’t merely keep the beat – he creates ambience and mood, opens up spaces and fills voids. It’s not very often that drummers are referred to as “creative”, yet that is exactly the word to describe Jeremy’s playing.
“Daffodil” was the fifth song of the set. Jonah Lee Petrelli brought the bass front and center for this song. Back in the 60s and 70s, bass took a much more prominent role than it has now. Jonah’s amazing bass lines are a near-perfect throwback to those lines. There ain’t no root-five patterns in this song.
I am going to start the rumor that Erika Laing is half my age, just so I have an excuse to have half her energy. Aside from a powerful voice, electric presence, and an uncanny ability to be able to make any instrument sound amazing; Erika never stops moving. A stage the size of Thunderbird’s may limit some performer’s movements, but not Erika’s. She had a stage and she was going to use it.
Besides being talented musicians, Working Breed has one of the best on-stage chemistries that I have ever seen. To watch the band interact with each other is nothing short of enthralling. The band functions as a unit. Again, that may seem like a bit of a “DUH!” moment, but many bands will play together and just stand there. A band that truly interacts creates a feedback loop. That feedback loop keeps ratcheting the energy up and up and up. When that happens, the audience can’t help but to get caught up in the show and add their own energy to the feedback loop.
Thus are born the truly great shows of our or any other era.
“Turtle Race” never disappoints. It is tale of a betrayed woman rising like a phoenix. Erika’s normally smooth and sultry voice becomes raw without sacrificing any of it’s power or emotion. I remember being frozen in time and space, entranced by the song and its accompanying video when I attended that release last year. Just like last year, Erika completely held the audience in her hand. There wasn’t one person in the room that wasn’t completely transfixed on the spectacle of the powerful woman who had finally had enough. The performance was so powerful that one could almost see the flames engulf the stage, only to see the band rise and reform from the ashes.
The set closed with “Orange Fluff”. I’m not sure what inspired this song, but if anyone ever does another remake of Grease, this song belongs in it. Somehow, “Orange Fluff” reminds me of one of those Sci-Fi movies from the 50s. A perfect blend of Rockabilly and good, old-fashioned Rock’n’Roll, this song brings a smile to my face every time I listen.
Oh, wait. Did I say the set closed? Well, to be fair, it did. But then it re-opened for an encore.
Now, before I prattle on about the encore, there is one very important thing you should know. Kansas is one of my favorite bands EVER. I grew up listening to Kansas. Do not mess with my Kansas. And so you can imagine my shock and near horror when Working Breed started the opening notes of “Carry on Wayward Son” for their encore. Did I mentioned I was shocked? They were messing with my Kansas. Except that they weren’t. This was one of the best performances of “Carry on Wayward Son” that I had ever witnessed. And that includes all the times I’ve seen Kansas play their own song. While the rest of the set was an emotional roller coaster from start to finish, this was pure fun. While I will admit to missing Steve Walsh doing a headstand on his keyboard (hey, Chloe – maybe next time?), I didn’t really notice the lack of violin which is one of the main reasons I really loved Kansas from the first I heard them.
So kudos to you, Working Breed, for not messing with my Kansas.
If you want to check out Working Breed (and you should!), check out their website!
Photography by Craig Ferry