“He’s going to destroy your venue.” “I hope you’re well insured.” “I heard he almost burned the place down last time.” “Do you have any idea what you’re in for?” These musings were expressed with a genuine level of concern as the days ticked down to Andy Frasco’s return to the Crazy Horse Saloon. Did I have the slightest tinge of fear? Sure. But only the kind you get before riding a roller coaster for the first time. One thing I did know is that crowd-surfing was an inevitability and when that point arrived, Frasco’s flailing limbs better be nowhere near our Turkish chandelier.
Over the six years since Frasco and his band The U.N. first made their way through Nevada City, he’s become one of the most buzz-worthy live performers in the country. Whether whipping audiences into a frenzy at many of the country’s best festivals, claiming the mantle as JamCruise spirit animal or schwilling Jameson while perched barefoot atop his piano, he does it all with an unabashed rock star flair. The band was red hot, coming off a four-night run opening for Umphrey’s McGee. Prior to that was a co-headlining tour with Big Something. Considering all this, it was interesting how many people in this area still hadn’t heard of them. As is often the case, people waited until the last minute when the ticket demand went through the roof. The show was sold out well before doors opened.
Frasco is adored by his peers and fans and his musical talent only tells part of the tale. Devoid of the ego one might expect, the guy is just downright lovable. As the host of the successful World Saving Podcast, he shamelessly reveals his demons which include copious volumes of anxiety, depression and self-doubt. It’s refreshing to have someone in his position highlight their own vulnerability and be proactive in helping others to realize that they aren’t alone in their struggles. At some point early in the show, he asked the audience to raise their hands if they are dealing with these issues. My hand went up along with many others. It was very comforting and unifying.
The timing was auspicious as Frasco and The U.N. swung into the Crazy Horse on the last weekend before Corona chaos swept the nation. We kind of knew it was coming, but we were still clinging to hope that it would pass us by. Now that our venue is temporarily closed, I reflect on that night with a tremendous amount of gratitude. On Thursday, March 5, the worries of the world evaporated as we were all whisked into a whirlwind of transcendent entertainment, primal energy and mischievous fun.
This is not a band that requires any warm up. They hit the stage with the wheels already smoking in fifth gear. While any description of a Frasco show has to focus on the over-the-top stage presence, humorous banter and renegade shenanigans, this wouldn’t go too far if it wasn’t an extension of a captivating musical performance. Cover songs were plentiful throughout the night, woven together seamlessly like a psilocybin-fueled jukebox. The originals are refreshingly disarming with a strong emphasis on lyrical resonance and heartfelt connection. The opener “Change of Pace” set a tone of, “we’re all in on this journey together.” The new single “Keep On Keepin’ On” later broke through the medley of madness for a reminder of Frasco’s ability to write what sounds a lot like a big radio hit (or whatever the heck that is these days). And then there were barroom jaunts for our shear amusement like “Blame it on the Pussy.”
There are a few things you notice right away at a Frasco show. The dude loves to stand on his piano (or faux organ) and address the crowd. With his ample fro to account for, the low soffit of the Crazy Horse ceiling made this a tad challenging. In these moments he’s both a comedian, a sage and that guy you met at the end of the party who instantly becomes your best friend. We don’t normally have bands passing a bottle of Jameson around but this was an endearing Guns ‘n Roses type of phenomenon appealing to our reckless side. The other thing you learn pretty quickly is that the members of The U.N. aren’t just passengers on this ride. They are right there with their captain, tearing through every moment like rabid wolverines and refusing to let the crowd settle into any degree of complacency.
One of the descriptors for this music is “party rock” and it couldn’t be more accurate. There are also forays into the blues as witnessed with “It’s Been a Struggle.” This was our first testament to how the band loves to do stream of consciousness cover mash-ups as they did here with Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Reeling off blistering licks on the latter, guitarist Shawn Eckles showed why he’s the kind of guy anyone would covet in their band. He has perfected the art of inflicting damage with efficiency, precision and bravado. He matches Frasco’s boundless energy and authentic enthusiasm. The band showed off its versatility – pulling off two instrument rotations during “Struggle,” which featured Eckles’ ability to wail on the organ.
Integrating a tenor sax in a rock band is a rare treat. Few can do it effectively. Not only does Ernie Chang offer a punchy brass counterpoint within the melodic pocket, but his character adds to the prankster dynamic that defines the band. (He also surprised us with his seductive crooning.) Over the years, three musicians have strutted their stuff on our bar. One was a sexy country singer who is welcome any time. The other is a guy who didn’t read the room and will never be back. The third is Ernie Chang who narrowly averted decapitation by a ceiling fan to treat us to a riveting call-and-response session with Frasco. The pianist introduced him as “the Asian David Hasselhoff” which was both hilarious and unquestionably astute.
Rhythm sections don’t tend to get enough attention because really, what do you say? Bass and drums are something you feel. When the groove is locked in, you’re dancing and losing yourself in the bliss of the moment. Well, that was definitely the case with Chris Lorentz on bass and Andee Avila on drums. They effortlessly swung from hard rock intensity to a funky ska bounce. The dynamics were all over the place, yet always grounded and in control, even when things felt on the verge of spinning off their axis.
The effect this show had on the audience was a wondrous thing. Bands love coming to Nevada City because the fans are so ready to give themselves fully to the magic of spontaneous artistic creation in its variety of forms. This was one of those nights where you looked around the room and people were literally bursting with joy and awe. When they pulled out snippets of “Tom Sawyer,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “We’re An American Band,” we had no choice but to process the overwhelming stimulus with unfettered fist pumping and/or dance moves reserved for the most bachanalian occasions.
Rock and blues have already been mentioned. Of course there had to be funk and soul. A splash of old school hip hop? Why not! But what we also got was a plunge into a realm we generally prefer to steer clear of – hardcore punk. On this night, it was the sweetest of ear candy. Nirvana’s “Breed” was the initial ice pick shattering our comfort zone of normalcy. Then it was the pair of Rage Against the Machine nuggets – “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name” – which catapulted the place into euphoric pandemonium. Both felt so aligned with the angst of the political climate and uncertainty in the world. Frasco and Co. delivered the goods like their lives depended on it. This show was case in point as to why our motto continues to be, “music is medicine.” This was a group therapy session in the best kind of way.
Frasco finally did his long-awaited stage dive during “Killing in the Name.” Much to my relief he was headed towards the bar and away from the chandelier. But the previously packed crowd had grown sparse by this time and didn’t have the numbers needed for a proper surf. I tracked him but could only carry him so far. He later said this was the first time he didn’t make it back to the stage. Hopefully that doesn’t tarnish the Crazy Horse’s reputation too much. Remember us instead for our “Hava Nagilah” gusto or commitment to the classic Animal House “Shout” scene.
Even if this band was a lounge act with no performance quotient, they could still entertain us to the moon and back. Frasco’s instrumental and vocal chops get overshadowed by everything else, but there is no mistaking his passionate sparkle on the ivories. Nothing is ever normal when this man is in the room. Nothing is routine. When they sent us off with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered,” it was poetic in the way it tied everything together after the wild ride we’d experienced. One can be sure this Frasco freak is channeling all of his emotions – both positive and angst-ridden – into what is perhaps the most orgasmic live shows on today’s music scene. Like most of our favorite experiences here, it had a wide-ranging appeal which reminded us yet again how music is the thread which connects us all. How long can the band keep going at this pace and intensity? Well, if they’re as super human as they seem, hopefully forever.