Concert Review: Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins (Valentine’s, Albany, New York, May 9, 2001)

Where were you last Wednesday night?

Were you at the Pepsi Arena, being deafened by AC/DC or bored by Buckcherry? Were you at home, watching Felicity while taping The West Wing? Were you tiptoeing through the tulips, or slurping at a sushi bar, or tripping the light fantastic? Or were you participating in a three-hour orgy of music at Valentine’s with Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins.

Now don’t lie to me: if you were at the Keneally show, then I would have known it, since there were only about 40 people in the room, and seven of them were on the stage, and I’m pretty sure that was the theme from Felicity I heard you whistling at the coffee shop the other day, and you don’t own any dogs. But more fool you, in this case, because the few dozen of us who did make it out to Valentine’s were treated to an extraordinary evening of music from Keneally, a deeply gifted composer, singer and guitarist who first gained public acclaim as the last in a long line of lead guitarists with the late Frank Zappa’s touring and studio bands.

And speaking of bands, Beer for Dolphins were every bit as tight and talented as the best of those long-lamented Zappa line-ups, doing absolutely marvelous things with Keneally’s knotty — yet imminently accessible — compositions, proving that there are still some players’ players our there with the chops, training and fortitude to go as long and deep as this show went.

The Valentine’s show marked the public debut of new drummer-vocalist Nick D’Virgilio (formerly of Spock’s Beard, and one of two drummers on the post-Phil Collins Genesis disc, Calling All Stations), who worked magnificently well with percussionist Tricia Williams to drive this show, and drive it hard. Williams also excelled on vibes, mirroring Keneally’s glittering leads and adding color or spice (in equal measure) to the proceedings, creating a rich collage of soundscapes with keyboardist Marc Ziegenhagen and saxman Evan Francis. Bassist Bryan Beller and second guitarist Rick Mussulam added heft from the right side of the stage, pushing Beer for Dolphins to rock far harder than most other like-minded, but less-capable, outfits.

Keneally did his thing front and center, singing and playing the melodic leads that made this potentially difficult music so easy to embrace and enjoy; his ability to wring clarity from convoluted song structures and to prise pop from a prog and pomp matrix evoked the work of Adrian Belew (another Zappa alumnus) or the early, more rewarding, recordings of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Toss in a boss cover of Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” for light relief and you’ve got one of the tastier shows I’ve heard in quite some time. Too bad you missed it.

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