The Lab/Grant Essig | 12.3.05

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Cicero's, St. Louis
You’d never tell by the audience, but tonight was billed as a co-headline. Grant Essig, former frontman of pop favorites Sevenstar, was putting on his new solo acoustic show, complete with backing loops and harmonica. But it was the imminent breakup of St. Louis supergroup the Lab that drew out the crowds.

Since its debut earlier this year, the Lab had garnered nothing short of a buzz, with fans and critics alike singing the band’s praises: Kevin Barry’s soaring vocals, Jon Armstrong’s big guitar sound, Matt Hickenbotham’s solid beat, Jeff Church’s groovin’ bass. Tonight, though, marked the last time these four would perform together, as Armstrong and Hickenbotham were leaving the band.

Essig went on first, delivering a rich and textured performance—especially considering he was just one person, trying to hold the animated crowd’s interest. Trouble was, the crowd wasn’t buying it. They were boisterous and loud, talking incessantly throughout his set. This was a shame, as Essig truly delivered. There’s a richness, a variety to both his voice and his guitar playing. The frenetic nature of his strumming conjures images of shredded knuckles scraped raw from the intensity. He plays hard, recording and looping himself both vocally and with the axe so that, at times, it sounds as if an entire band’s onstage.

Still, with any acoustic performance, there’s an element of understatement, and many moments of quiet. Tonight’s loudly chattering crowd was both distracting and downright rude, frequently drowning out the singer completely. Drawing from a new collection of original songs, highlights included “Minnesota” and “Two Step.” The night’s two covers—the Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” worked amazingly well, leading me to the following two observations: (1) Grant Essig is too good a songwriter to be doing covers. (2) That said, he completely owns these songs somebody else wrote, injecting his own sense into the sound. The Fleetwood Mac song was the perfect showcase for his vocal range.

Up onstage, bandless and alone, Essig proved he’s more than still got what it takes—the songwriting chops, stage presence, vocal ability, and guitar prowess—to rival and even surpass any of today’s adult-alternative artists. Let’s hope that, after tonight, his days of straining to be heard are behind him.

The Lab’s set began with two solo songs from Kevin Barry. Without the self-accompaniment, Barry was easier to drown out than Essig; luckily, the crowd afforded him a bit more respect. Hicko’s drums kicked off the band’s final set. They put on a solid show from start to finish; still, it was hard to watch without knowing you were watching something die. The guitar interchanges between Armstrong and Barry were spot on; indeed, Armstrong was completely on target tonight—playing the songs, one could say, as if for the last time.

As the Lab began “Juliet” and Barry sang, “It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to you,” the words rang eerily true. Still, tonight’s presentation was positively haunting: The lights dimmed, the music ebbed, and Barry’s lilting vocals soared. As Armstrong laid down the guitar line after the bridge, his arm became all muscle, transforming into the guitar he stroked. As for “Laguardia,” a song I’ve always enjoyed, for some reason tonight it just wouldn’t leave the ground. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the band: All the parts are there, but something’s holding it down, keeping it from soaring.

Though the tension onstage—and I imagine there must have been plenty—wasn’t palpable, it came through in small signs. When he wasn’t singing, Barry moved around the stage with his guitar. He jammed with Church, then moved into the space between Armstrong and Hickenbotham to play—but not with either of them. And while Armstrong’s always been self-absorbed as a player, tonight he seemed even more so, not looking up at the audience or his band mates, not addressing the crowd. His habit of bending low over his instrument doesn’t lend itself well to stage bonding, anyway.

On “Speeding Race Cars,” the final song, Armstrong leaned back into his amp, riffing like a metal master. The final chord struck; he bent forward, whispered in Barry’s ear, and the two embraced, briefly. Yeah, it’s like that for us, too. The Lab, we hardly knew you, and maybe we won’t hang out in the future, but it was fun while it lasted.

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