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April 11, 2013

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“It’s taken us two years to figure out how to write a song without killing each other,” said Corey Snipes, singer and guitarist with the Chattanooga-based band, Rigoletto. The remark drew hoots of knowing laughter from his bandmates, bassist Chris Williams and guitarist Dave Griffis.

Their debut album, Delusions of Grandeur, was released to retail last Tuesday, and they’re celebrating with a show at Rhythm & Brews on Thursday, April 11. They’ve been playing together since meeting at Covenant College a couple of years ago. Griffis and Williams are music majors at Covenant, as is drummer Kirk Ellis. Snipes, the band’s singer and lyricist, is an art major. It was while he was in New York studying design last summer that he began writing the songs on their first album.

Like many before him, Snipes found the city’s size and ceaseless momentum disorienting, intimidating and irresistibly exciting. These conflicting emotions—and the girl he sought there—are captured in the album’s 10 songs. But while Snipes wrote the lyrics, all four band members wrote the music and arranged the songs.

The album opens with a throbbing guitar figure over Ellis’ one-two bass drum punch and Snipes’ distorted vocal, which introduces the muse who drew him to the city only to dash his dreams. “(Left me) Sweat sleeping in a dream honey / (Hold me) Cause I’m tossing in this air mattress / (Told me) You were too afraid to fall in love.”

Following that tense opening verse, the song swells into a full-throated rocker with the band adding a high harmony behind Snipes, as Griffis’ guitar powers the tune into full flight. Like the rest of the songs on the album it takes unexpected turns, as when everyone else drops out and Williams plays a deeply funky chorus alone. Gifted musicians with a keen grasp of dynamics and melody, Rigoletto are one more reason why people everywhere have begun to pay much closer attention to the music coming out of Chattanooga.

Another group of conservatory-trained musicians will play at Barking Legs on Dodds Avenue at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, April 15. Called Ezekiel’s Wheels, they’re a five-piece Klezmer band from Boston. Klezmer originated as the music played by eastern European jews at weddings and other celebrations in the 19th century. They brought the music here in the early part of the last century and began fusing it with jazz. The music faded in the 1930s and ’40s before being revived in the ’70s.

Ezekiel’s Wheels—featuring clarinetist Nat Seeten, fiddlers Jon Tannen and Abigail Reissman, trombonist Pete Fanellim and bassist Kirsten Lamb—is a second-generation revivalist band. “Our approach to Klezmer has always been to bring in lots of different genres,” Lamb said in a recent phone conversation. “We like taking the most popular tunes of the day and doing our own thing with them … fusing it with different styles, trying to keep it fresh.”

All except Fanelli are classically trained musicians who yearned to break free from the constraints of the orchestra. They all wanted to play in a smaller ensemble that would allow them to improvise rather than simply following a score. The result—freewheeling jazz-based improvisations in which everyone has an equal voice—sounds like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven with an eastern European accent.

“The thing I really appreciate about this band,” Lamb said, “is the way we bounce the melodies from person to person and the way we all trade being a lead player at times with a more supportive role at others. It’s refreshingly democratic.”

Freed from the prison of the page, these five talented players sound like children at recess, dashing, shouting and laughing at play. The bright, breezy, traditional tunes are given fresh life in their hands. This isn’t musty folkloring, but music making at its most liberated and enthusiastic.

The band won both Best Klezmer Band and Audience Choice Award at the October 2012 International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam. By all accounts, the judges were won over by their improvisational skills and democratic spirit.

It’s very likely that anyone in the audience at Barking Legs will be, too.

Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.

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April 11, 2013

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