Chris Thomas Band
If you are ever driving home from Great Adventure on Route 537 in Millstone you might like to stop off at Tommy’s Inn at Millstone for a decent burger and a pint. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch the Chris Thomas Band, a fun, talented group of musicians with a solid sense of rock.
While enjoying a pint of Smithwick’s, which I hadn’t been able to find on tap all summer, I sat near the bar while a small, enthusiastic group of dancers assembled in front of the band. As I finished my cheeseburger, one of the more reliably satisfying things on the menu, according to the wait staff, the band took a break, and I was able to chat with some of its members.
Refreshingly friendly front man Chris Thomas has been playing guitar since he was a kid. His experience and obvious love for music shine through immediately. Bluesy riffs come easily as he lends his own enthusiastic style and mellow vocals to the tunes of the greats like Eric Clapton, James Brown, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. His wife, Melissa, who played photographer for the evening, says their house in Monroe is full of guitars. Thomas "lives and breathes music," she says. Watching him play, I have to agree. All of the band members seem to be enjoying themselves, playing their favorite songs.
Georgia native Ron Miller wields a cool bass, sharing Thomas’s passion for playing by creating smooth, groovy lines with just the right amount of grit. Anthony Facchinei plays a laid-back, confident drum set, showing his versatility as he transitions easily from Stevie Wonder’s "Superstition" to "Blister in the Sun," by the Violent Femmes. The crowd appreciates the varied set list, which runs the gamut from "Hey Jealousy" by the Gin Blossoms to "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley.
Soccer moms mix with a bachelorette party to bust a move on the small dance floor during the band’s second set. The young bride wears her veil as the revelers (either warming up or winding down for the evening) giggle and dance. Thomas chats conversationally with them as they shout requests.
The group is a cover band with a sense of self. Their sound is balanced and genuine as individual musicians’ experiences combine to create a fun, jam band vibe that is firmly grounded in rock n’ roll. The style suggests Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Wes Montgomery, and it would be great to see them try their hand at some original tunes in those traditions. The crowd-pleasing Chris Thomas Band song list sticks to reliable favorites, both classic (the Beatles’ "Come Together") and currently popular (Joss Stone’s "Some Kinda’ Wonderful"), branching out occasionally to the slightly eccentric (Cake’s "Never There"). Throughout the evening, however, the band strikes a nice balance between familiarity and personal musicianship that sets them apart from other like ensembles.
The Chris Thomas Band creates a casual and unfussy atmosphere for those looking for a laid-back evening during which they can sing along to some of their favorite tunes, played by people who have an obvious love and aptitude for it.
Chris Thomas Band, www.christhomasband.com. Upcoming dates include: Saturday, September 10, at Bandito’s, 4095 Route 1 South, South Brunswick Square Mall, Monmouth Junction, 732-335-1030. Friday, September 23, Big Shots, 304 Main Street, Keansburg, 732-495-1646.
Foxy Moon Baby
I didn’t quite know what to expect as my posse and I ventured down the long, ominous hallway leading to the inner door of the Triumph Brewery in Princeton early one Saturday evening. The band of the evening was Foxy Moon Baby, and I thought, with a name like that, it has to be good. For me it conjured up images of astronauts in bikinis nodding their heads to the sound of fingers tapping on bongos. At 9 p.m., the eight-piece ensemble was already setting up for the 10:30 show. A young, friendly hostess invited us to seat ourselves near the bar. As we enjoyed our well-poured pre-dinner cocktails, we drank in the urbanely casual atmosphere of this Princeton hotspot.
Triumph Princeton has a decidedly more dramatic flair than its sister venue down in New Hope. The central space is wide open, with cathedral ceilings that float over the main dining room and the labyrinth of smaller, more intimate spaces that surround it. Flanking the bar is a long staircase that leads to a loft from which diners can survey the eclectic mix of young professionals, mid-career corporate types, and college students down below. The best place, however, to take in the entertainment, is the area immediately surrounding the bar, where one can enjoy a late dinner (think comfort food with a kick), keep an eye on the football game, and enjoy some quality music.
Foxy Moon Baby is an eight-piece jazz-fusion group that has recently undergone a lineup change. Having settled at last on a combination that includes two guitars, two percussionists, bass, tenor sax, trumpet and keyboard, they are finally beginning to settle into their sound. The flyer on the table describes FMB as a "multidimensional group combining elements of jazz and world fusion with playful guitar work, percussion and horn."
The players offer a variety of backgrounds in training and experience that contributes to its eclectic feel. The band’s credentials move from the scholarly (guitarist and co-founder Dennis Roberts recently received a masters degree in composition and arranging from Five Towns College) to the legendary (hand percussionist Chuggy Carter has performed and recorded with Steve Gadd, Donny Hathaway, and Patti LaBelle, to name a few). Other band members have performance and education majors from schools including Long Island University, CW Post and the New School.
FMB is jazz-fusion for people who know jazz-fusion. Roberts describes the structure of most of the tunes as eight-section forms that allow for exploration. The vibe is organic evolution within a symmetrical framework. While at times encumbered by a rigidity that one could easily attribute to the relative newness of the current personnel combination, the musical conversation is meditative, marked by soloists with obvious talent for improvisation. As the group warmed up, the grooves became danceable and the solos flowed more easily into one another. The second set was especially memorable, including a mix of classics like Wayne Shorter’s "Footprints," as well as the crowd-pleasing original "Eclectic Fanfare," an upbeat tune that reminded me of Buddy Rich’s "Dancing Men."
It is during this tune that I realize that the venue has failed its performers. There is no dance floor, so patrons are unable to fully enjoy the music as it was intended. This is a recurring problem, as I have seen many a danceable band relegated to the role of dinner music at Triumph. However, one could still enjoy the music of FMB for its cool confidence, interesting solos, and experienced musicians. Roberts’s short-version description of the FMB concept is the "next chapter of music history." He has certainly assembled the right people for the task.