(photos by @bro.cco.li)
Friday night was probably the earliest I’ve ever showed up to El Club for a show, partly because it has an early start time (7pm doors for a 7:30 start), and partly because I had a feeling the musicians would be prompt, which as we all know is not always the case.
A few things struck me as I made my way around the room; for one thing, it seemed like most fans had gotten the same feeling that I did, because the place was pretty packed even before the first band went on. The makeup of the crowd was pretty much what I expected given the genre of music being played, but I was surprised by the age range. El Club emphasizes that their space is “all ages, all the time,” but for most shows I attend there it’s largely 20-30 somethings with a few people that are slightly older than that. However, on Friday there were groups of pre-teens out with their friends, parents with their children, a portion of the same 20-30ish crowd I’m used to seeing, and even parents and grandparents of performers. The atmosphere was very welcoming, and those initial impressions set the tone for how I would experience the rest of the night.
Funksmanship started off the night with a contagious energy that got people moving right away. It’s always good to have an engaging performer open things up, and with a full stage of instrumentalists that seemed to be very comfortable playing together, the crowd definitely responded well. Nina & the Buffalo Riders were up next, bringing a similar multi-instrumentalist force to their stage presence, mixed with a little bit of fire as lead singer Nina Ledesma powered through emotions from the aching to the triumphant, touching on subjects both personal and societal. Both acts were fun to watch in and of themselves, but as a whole the three groups that performed that night were similar enough to fit well together and unique enough to keep things interesting, making for a very well-rounded lineup.
All of this was leading up to the main event of the night, a video premiere and performance courtesy of John Kay & Who’s to Say. Based on the feel of the room and the bands that preceded them, both the result of deliberate curation from the band themselves, even people who were unfamiliar with their music might’ve had a clue as to what to expect: high-energy and musically robust playing, bolstered by thematic choices in song and speech that made it clear what their values were, as much as it can be after only one night.
Group founder and bandleader John Kay came out to address the fans before the video premiere, thanking them profusely and preparing them for what they were about to see. The point of premiering the video in person was to reward the committed supporters that attended the show, a move that is consistent with the way that the band engages with their fanbase, who they’ve affectionately named “bullfighters.” Out of respect for that special gesture, I won’t go into too much detail, but the video and the story behind it is a feat of organizational and emotional dexterity, and served as an opportunity for a lot of different people to get involved in something that they believed in, for a cause that they feel is important.
The performance that followed gave weight to what John had told me about the bands dedication to quality; in their own words, from their website: “In March 2018, after taking two years to build a solid foundation and rehearse an undeniable live show, Kay debuted his most ambitious effort yet…John Kay & Who’s To Say.” That’s right, the band was writing and practicing their work for a long time before they ever shared it with the world which requires a lot of patience and belief in the process.
The group is musically tight, which of course comes from a lot of practice, but it’s also more than that. John’s commitment to building a team that centers around shared values and mutual accountability, and the band’s willingness to pursue a shared vision together is a connection that goes way beyond music, but it makes the music really good, too. Showcasing a range of emotions and styles, incorporating a variety of instruments (with several members changing between instruments throughout the set), and crisply executing a well thought out set, the performance was impressive for the newcomers, reaffirming for the longtime fans, and enjoyable for everyone that attended.