Trust me. This review is very much about the Vintage Trouble concert 8/12 at the Fonda Theater in nuestra ciudad de Los Angeles – gig that fell in my lap when @TouchVinyl so kindly comped me a couple tickets via their Instagram feed. But as I approach covering Vintage Trouble for their celebratory in support of their first album for the Blue Note label, I thought it would be kinda fun to revisit a few words from an unpublished review I wrote after my first encounter with Ty and the lads. It was about five years ago in the barrio of Venice (can you still call Venice a barrio?) back when The Stronghold was still fighting the good fight to keep music on the westside.
As they say, there’s never a second chance to make a first impression. And this was the moment that made me a Troublemaker For Life …
“Vintage Trouble” … vintage trouble? Sounds like a trio of geriatric gangstas … a bad Tim Allen film … a Time Life CD collection … a Golden Girl blooper reel. Thank God almighty, the band itself is nothing of the sort.
Lead singer Ty Taylor has meticulously crafted a retro aesthetic that finds its most obvious foundation in a young James Brown – slim suit, skinny tie, cocksure swagger, and the hair – oh my, dude’s lettuce is tight! Keeping with the throwback vibe, he’s got that 2″ to 3″ mini-fro. Not the late 60’s Linc from Mod Squad fro, but the early 60’s Greg Morris from Mission Impossible cut. Very sharp.
In the intimate confines of the Venice Stronghold, most of the sandy crowd is waiting for beloved barefoot local Brett Dennen to take stage and isn’t quite sure what to expect from the members of Vintage Trouble. As the very well-shod Ty Taylor steps forward to the mic, he breaks the ice with a little smooth crooning, just enough to grab everyone’s attention and silence the background chatter that’s become so ubiquitous at any live show in LA. But it’s just a taste, just enough to show off a set of church-choir pipes that pay homage not only to James Brown but to Wilson Pickett, Bobby Byrd, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding … in Ty’s voice you feel a smooth blend of style and skills that draws upon an entire spectrum of the masterful talents who played a part in turning church music into the foundation for not just soul and funk but for every genre that sprouted from those two seminal traditions.
As the ballad waxes and wanes, we’ll soon learn that Ty is playing his own vocal version of “just the tip”. Backed by what looks like a murderer’s row of session musicians, he doesn’t waste time engaging the crowd and saturating the room with his unrelentingly charismatic presence. And as the crooning ebbs to a close, VT unleashes a fat can of sonic whoopass: soul screams mixed with unadulterated rock guitar, velocity shooting from zero to electric in the timespan of a thunderclap. Our ear holes are now balls deep in vintage trouble and by the time Ty wraps the set by belting out an ecstatic and transcendent cover of Joe Cocker’s “Help From My Friends” nobody is quite sure what the hell just happened…
Five years later and what’s changed? My writing hasn’t gotten much better… but Vintage Trouble has managed to pull off the seemingly paradigmatic feat of getting infinitely better while staying exactly the same. It’s not like they’re doing anything that radically different. It’s just that every time they do it, it feels that radically fresh, that radically awesome, that radically…rad. How much? THAT much. But things have changed. Whatever distance I might have perceived between Ty and his bandmates back in The Stronghold has now entirely evaporated. These guys have lived together, loved together, and they’ve rocked together. Ty, guitarist Nalle Colt, bass player Rick Barrio Dill, and drummer Richard Danielson are a cohesive strikeforce of Rock & Soul, a Band of Brothers tasked with reclaiming sonic gemstones of the past in order to save the future of music from the banality of its … of itself. When they take the stage at the Fonda Theater in matching black on black tailored suits, their sartorial coordination is a natural extension of a profound fraternal bond.
The crowd has changed a little too. Mostly in magnitude. Vintage Trouble has long since outgrown the intimate confines of their epic residencies at Harvelle’s and Tar Pit, having sold out shows at the Troubador, the El Rey, and now filling the Fonda. Of course, that’s just LA. Their management made the brilliant observation that Europe gets the value of retro soul a lot more readily than the US market. So over the last five years, VT has been blowing out venues across the Continent and the British Isles, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of faces they’ve melted while opening for the likes of Bon Jovi, AC/DC, and some old coots who call themselves The Who.
And yet through it all, you look around the Fonda and somehow, while the quantity has blown up, the quality of the fan has maintained its integrity. Regardless of age and background, whether pretty people, music geeks, elder hipster elites, or some combo of the above, you get the feeling that everyone at a Vintage Trouble show really knows music. It’s an intelligent music fan. And I don’t mean snotty or judgmental. Farthest thing from it. If you’re at the show, you’re an insider bearing witness to something special; but as a Troublemaker, you’re a member of a club that by its very nature wants EVERYONE to be a part. Because the VT vibe and the community it creates is all-inclusive. That said, however, this brand of music, a brand so instinctively accessible, does seem to attach to a more dialed-in listening public. Because on some level, conscious or subconscious, you have to get that it’s not necessary to dismantle the past to move into the future. You understand that a faithful re-exploration of the moment when soul and rock intersect is more than homage, it’s an open door to realizing a massive pool of untapped potential.
And if you don’t know music, a Vintage Trouble show is an education. The technical precision, the execution, the passion, the choreography, and the pure unbridled energy will bring you forth from darkness into light. Especially the energy. It’s both the consequence and the genesis of every other component. And the secret is that it never ever fades. Not from start to finish, not from show to show. It speaks volumes of the band that the intensity they bring to a sold out Wembley Stadium of 72,500 is the exact same energy they bring to a show in front of 100 sweaty souls in a packed Harvelle’s nightclub. Doubt me? Check the YouTube clips. This is what makes Ty such a special dude. Not that I want to separate him from the rest of the band but I don’t think VT can argue when I do.
The band is phenomenal. But Ty … he is a phenomenon. Beyond his unimpeachable talent, he genuinely wants to know and love every single person in that room. When he says that they couldn’t do it without the support of the Troublemakers, he’s not just spitting the obligatory cliche you hear from every musician. He speaks from a deep place. He means it. He doesn’t stage-dive to showboat. He does it because he wants to connect. Each hand holding him up is a bond, a relationship, a friendship. In fact, I’ve never been to a Vintage Trouble show (and if you can’t tell yet, I’ve been to a few) where Ty didn’t hop off the stage at the end of the night and just … hang out. Talk to whoever was still around. No rush. That’s the kind of dude he is. He thrives on the dialogue. Dialogue births community. Community is family. Family is love.
On this night, the family needs no warm up. Taking the stage in black on black on black, they rip the room in half with a supersonic rendition of “Total Stranger”. The whole house knows the words and is ready to keep up with the frantic pace of Danielson’s drums. Considering how remarkably fucking polished these guys were the first time I saw them, it’s hard to imagine that they’ve managed to step their game up by a full order of magnitude. So tight and yet still so unmistakably raw.
Now that everyone is paying attention, they slow it down for a couple beats. This is where you get the chance to really appreciate Nalle’s guitar, Rick on bass, and Ty’s amazing voice. The steeze with which Ty holds notes is so sick and so delicate, you just kinda shake your head…and your hips. Which is exactly what VT wants as they prod the crowd to get all “pressed up” against each other. After all, a VT ballad is straight baby making music, so why not get started on the dancefloor?
Once everybody’s all buttered up, Danielson digs into the drums and cranks up the tempo, abruptly reminding us that the ballads are more about what we all should be doing later on. The here and the now is always first and foremost a party. So we’re going to move. Fast. In a celebration of their homecoming, VT breaks into “Angel City, California”, a track off the new album that is a flat out rock anthem. An uptempo mashup of some “Honky Tonk Women” vibes with VT’s singular brand of goodness that lays bare the band’s pride and stoke in the beautiful mess of a metropolis that birthed them. Proof positive that mothers don’t need to be perfect to deserve all our love.
The evening continues on in this sensual and rhythmic pendular swing: Ty wielding the stainless steel mic stand like a broadsword as he falls to his knees to belt out a Percy Sledge-style power ballad, then leaping off the stage to crowd surf while Nalle and Barrio and Danielson push the red line on an ass-shaking sweat-making rock-out-with-your-schlong-out rock and roll freight train. Everybody non-stop “pelvis-pushing” as VT would say, just a little jostling of the throttle to adjust the velocity.
Throughout it all, the band keeps reminding the crowd that tonight is special because Los Angeles is home. There are shoutouts to the days at Harvelle’s and Tar Pit, old school call and response, serious talk about hard times and how the Troublemakers kept VT afloat. Blow by blow, they break down the artificial membrane between band and fan, making it very clear how aware they are that a live show in a vacuum is lifeless, that the crowd -in their eyes- is a part of the process, not subordinate to the musicians but very much their equal in the creation of the experience.
Such a class act.
At the end, Ty seems legitimately disappointed to wrap the set but he promises to stay after and hang out and party with…everybody. The Troublemakers erupt because they know he will. He then grabs the mic and starts spinning like a whirling dervish as they break into their blowout finale.
Homecoming. So sweet.