Brooklyn Bowl’s highly anticipated annual musical event The Freaks Ball returned on Friday for its seventeenth year. This time around, the NYC venue amassed quite the evening of instrumental improv, in pairing an opening set from supergroup Hola! with a headlining set from psychedelic groove rock band Circles Around The Sun.
Hola! is one of the most recently conceived musical projects of drummer Joe Russo, and it features himself beside fellow JRAD member Scott Metzger on guitar, along with former Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess and jazz guitarist Avi Bortnik. The quartet packed into one tiny corner of Brooklyn Bowl’s stage for their opening set, which wrung out the best of all four musician’s energetic yet sophisticated abilities.
The music of this supergroup blends multiple, like-minded styles of jam into one suave package, with a range stretched across Meters-esque funk rock, lounge jazz tinged with harsh blues, to Metzger’s own recognizable brand of surf punk rock. The quartet hit a high point on a cover of a tune from the Wolf! songbook. In moments such as in that tune, Russo burst into action unexpectedly, mixing in with Hess’ licks smartly, and the band bridged a sense of concentrated frenzy between themselves and the excited crowd that is not unlike that which one finds in JRAD sets. Metzger and Bortnik playing side by side was a special treat to hear, as the two were a real mutual admiration society in their back to back gritty guitar solos.
After the band had dropped a couple of sizzling numbers, JRAD and Wolf! guitarist Scott Metzger took to the mic to Freaks Ball number eighteen, conveying gratitude and bemusement. He also made sure to brag about having one more Freaks Ball appearance under his belt than his bandmate Joe Russo.
Circles Around The Sun picked up the headiness where the opening segment left it, and carried it, along with the sold out Brooklyn Bowl room, further down the night’s path of mesmerizing jamming. At their base, CATS is pure ear candy. The band displays a comfortability in their cohesiveness that rivals the most of all other major jambands playing today.
And on this night, they ventured in their pieces into musical territory sometimes dark and swampish and other times downright furious. Like the Hola! guitar gunslingers just before, Casal displayed an incredible tone of his own instrument, a wry, cosmic twang. Yet in the more charging sections of his band’s jams, his guitar was buzzing with an angry, awesome fuzz, and his sonic fury was matched by an intensity from the other three members.
The band also performed what sounded like newer material this night, and these songs were highly received—for both their melodic composed sections, and the way that Casal and gang improvised on them, as creatively as on their more familiar songs. Circles could probably play nothing but the same small list of compositions for a long time to come, and there would be little in any complaint, because of the newness with which they bring to the material show after show. One of the newer tunes, coming near the close of this terrific set, featured a very cool descending funk riff on repeat, which cemented itself as a backbone for some kooky keyboard soloing from Adam MacDougall.
In an experience similar to the set from Hola! just before, Circles connected a few times in ways that caused them to rocket up the improvisation to spastic stretches of rocking. The jam to end the night displayed just such a feat, in which the band spun a one-eighty spin on a more mellow section into a directly intense, and supremely crowd satisfying, funky finish.
The Freaks Ball comes round once a year, and while every year has brought it’s unforgettable lineups and eighteen should stand as equally memorable. As for Hola! and Circles Around The Sun, live appearances from both are also almost as rare, and they’re not something to miss if one can help it.