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The House Jacks Hit Drinking Age
Twenty-first Anniversary Celebration Concert, April 14, 2012, Freight & Salvage, Berkeley

OK, deep breath – confession time. Twenty-one years ago, when I first saw and heard the House Jacks perform, I didn’t “get” them. I really wanted to – it was evident that they were fantastic, freakishly talented musicians, breaking amazing new ground for vocal music. I watched them in fascination, as if seeking one magical little secret thing that would make me go “Aha!” and become a diehard fan. But for all the amazing talent and execution, somehow they just didn’t connect for me way back then.

Well, that was then. This is now. I’ve matured (really, I have!) and changed. My tastes have evolved. The House Jacks have matured and changed too – though they thankfully still know how to be silly goofs when appropriate. And when I saw them live again a few years ago for the first time since the ancient days, I was sort of shocked to find that not only did they connect, they electrified. Since then, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the cool stuff I missed being disconnected… and now I am charged (too many puns on electricity? Sorry.) with finding words to describe the 21st anniversary concert, where everyone who has ever been a House Jack performed – well, let’s just say I’m going to run out of synonyms for “epic.”

First off, this was the first time I’d been to the current incarnation of the Freight & Salvage, and it is truly a great venue for music. The seats are actually comfortable (imagine that!), and speaking as a person of fairly ample dimensions, it was nice to feel as though there was no danger that the folks in the neighboring seats would find themselves sitting on my lap. The acoustics allowed the sound to play in the space beautifully, whether amplified or not, which gave a great sense of immediacy and presence to all the performances. I want to hear more music in this place!

Now, on to matters at hand. The first indication of just how unusual the evening was going to be occurred before the show even started, as the doors to the venue opened and the line of people waiting to get in began moving. Just as I was about to walk into the lobby, I happened to glance across the street to see the assembled historical House Jacks posing for a photograph together – all fifteen of them at once. A literal House Jacks time warp, right there in front of us, live and in person.

The musical proceedings began with the original seven group members (Austin Willacy, Deke Sharon, Rob Penn, Marty Mahoney, Tristan Bishop, Bert Bacco, and Andrew Chaikin), who commenced the rockage of the house with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” trading solos among several members. This was followed by the wonderfully sexy original song “The Way It Makes Me Feel” from Naked Noise, the group’s first album. After this we heard from Andrew Chaikin (now known as Kid Beyond) in “Completely,” from the second album, Funkwich. Rounding up the opening set was a very unusual and harmonically complex arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was contemplative and stirring.

After a short break, we met the next incarnation of the group, shaved down to five members, (Austin Willacy, Deke Sharon, Bert Bacco, Garth Kravits, and Wes Carroll). For me personally, there was a marked increase in harmonic clarity with the down-size, and perhaps that’s a clue about my earlier lack of enthusiasm for the HJs. I remarked on it to my companion, a vocal musician and educator, and she seemed to agree that there was a transparency about the texture with five voices that brought further definition, refinement if you will, to the finished product. The set began with “Bam” featuring Austin’s vocal pyrotechnics and some awesomely precise syncopations on the title word. This was followed by the lush sound painting of George Michael’s “Father Figure” – preceded by the sweet story that once upon a time, after performing the same song at the original Freight & Salvage, bass Bert Bacco had dropped to one knee and proposed to his wife. Predictably, this inspired the audience to a collective “Awwwww….” Following this was the original “Dive Into You” featuring Garth doing a seemingly effortless, soaring solo. The set ended with the driving, energetic “I Want it All,” lest we had forgotten, after the mellow stuff, how well these guys can seriously rock da howse.

The third set featured 80% of the group I encountered when I came back into the fold a few years ago (Austin, Deke, Roopak Ahuja, Jake Moulton, and Antonio Medrano). They began with my favorite HJ song of all time (so far), “You Were Everything” – the urgency of the compound duple rhythm is entirely irresistible, the lyrics are compelling, and the lead vocals (by Austin) are driving and spot-on. They could perform this one several times in an evening show and I’d be happy, but I suppose there are other folks in the audience who may have other favorites. Sigh. In any case, this was followed by another distinctive original song, “Believe,” featuring Roo’s lead vocal and beginning with a nod to his musical and cultural roots in Indian classical music. If there had been any question in anyone’s mind that this event was unique up until that point, this would have convinced the staunchest skeptic. It’s simply not something one hears at a typical rock and roll show, you know? (N.B. I’m running out of superlatives, will probably have to recycle a few from here on out, bear with me.) The third song in this set was the Billy Idol classic, “White Wedding,” featuring Antonio Medrano on the lead, knocking that 80s glam-punk out of the park. The set wound up with “You’re the One” with Deke on lead, a bouncy, energetic sort of a “hand-jive” song that also features Jake Moulton’s astonishing vocal percussion “scratch” effect.

One more break before the current group hit the stage – Deke and Austin, of course (I wondered if they were getting tired by this point!), Troy Horne, Nick Girard, and John Pointer. The guys stepped a little outside the box with their first offering of the set, placing Austin on “body slap” percussion and putting down their mics for the meltingly sweet “Storybook” with Troy singing lead – another of my favorite moments in the whole show. Beautifully performed, and with lyrics that can’t help but touch the heart – and, if you’ve read any of my previous concert reviews, you know I loves me some unamplified sangin’. At this point we got a chance to hear from the two “new guys,” who are both multi-talented and do both singing and beatboxing with great skill and precision. Nick offered the lead on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (a song that had reached saturation point for me prior to this, but Nick can sing it for me anytime), and John showed off his melodic chops with the original song “Confessional” (neither of which are available on a recording yet). For anyone who may have been concerned that these two would have trouble upholding the HJ standard, all worries were dispelled by these performances. All is well in House Jack Land, moving into the future.

Another short break and then the entire House Jack Universe came to the stage for the traditional “audience request improv jam.” I’m always pretty non-plussed with what the guys can put together with no advance preparation, and the results are by turns surprising, hilarious, and spellbinding. High point for me was when someone requested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and in response to Deke’s request for a style in which to sing it, Troy jumped in and led off a full-bore reggae treatment – out of the blue and astonishingly true to the form.

Another wonderful treat came in the form of Deke’s famous (infamous?) rendering of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” It’s always great to hear him step out of his usual spot as an “inner part anchor,” and it’s particularly great when he really gets a chance to wail away on a trumpet solo (sans trumpet, of course). The set ended with “Feelin’ Funkae,” an Andrew Chaikin original that showcased Austin and his ability to deliver the funkae scream (how he does it without maiming his cords, I have no idea!).

All fifteen guys left the stage amid tumultuous applause, but we all knew what was coming. You can’t have a House Jacks show without a beatbox solo, right? It’s one of the things we love best. Only here’s the thing about this time – it wasn’t just “a” beatbox solo.

Not one. Not two. Not three… but FIVE awesome beatboxers jamming together. From the iconic trailblazer Andrew/Kid Beyond to the extraordinary techno John Pointer, the cool Wes Carroll, the off-beat but always ON Jake Moulton, and the precise and charming Nick Girard. All on the stage together, by turns taking a moment in the spotlight and then weaving back into the fabric of sounds – many of which should not have been able to be made by human bodies.

Every now and then when you go to see/hear live music performed, if you’re lucky, you experience a moment in time that stands out in shimmering relief, and you know there never has been a moment like it before then, and there never will be another like it in the history of time. This nexus of the best beatboxers in the business was one of those moments. Unprecedented, unparalleled, unable to be reproduced. There’s nothing more that can be said about it.

Once the beatbox jam was concluded, we got another “never before and never again” moment, this time with the full complement of the gathered House Jacks, performing the Led Zeppelin smash “Kashmir.” Deke noted that they had been told this was a song that could never be done a cappella, but that they did it anyway. Not an unusual occurrence in the HJ catalog, I think. I’d have to say that this was the one song all night that not only worked with the big group of fifteen voices, but really benefitted from the amplitude. Would it be overstating to say that it sounded way better than the original to me? Hmm, maybe. The original certainly couldn’t have topped this rendition, though.

How do you follow a couple of performances like that? There’s really only one way: with the early-on iconic original HJ ballad, “Gone,” performed by the whole gang, unamplified. This was the one song that DID connect with me way back in the beginning, even when I couldn’t find a thread in other songs. Even thinking about the performance now, the goosebumps come back. Simple, universal, human, classic. And one last never-to-be-repeated moment to pile on top of all the others.

Thanks, House Jacks – past, present, and future. What a night!

About the writer:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical?  These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.

[photo: www.debphoto.com]