Live Music Remembered: City of the Sun

Nell’s Jazz & Blues – Friday 11th December 2019 with support from Leon of Athens

One of the few benefits of the current lockdown is the opportunity to catch up on a few reviews that for whatever reason never got written.  One of those was the eagerly anticipated debut UK performance by New York instrumental group City of the Sun.  

I was curious about what sort of crowd to expect; the gig was a sell-out so I knew it would be a full house, but consisting of whom? My son and daughter had both bought tickets (my son travelling down from Leeds for the occasion) so, potentially a young demographic.  The only reason I’d come across the band was due to my son’s incessant playing of their music so, as well as the opportunity to gate-crash the youngsters’ event and turn it into a family occasion, I was intrigued to see what they were like live; the intimate setting of Nell’s was an added attraction.  There was a definite air of excitement in the venue and having secured a front of stage spot in order grab a picture or two I was joined as time went on by some very cheery groups, all much younger than those at most blues gigs I attend (not saying much of course), with lots of students in attendance, and the majority being very attractive females (so, as far from a blues gig as, say, the Tiger King is to Harold Wilson!). 

Now, the group are very nice-looking lads, with a hint of the male model here and there, but their music is not of the type that I would expect to have attracted such a crowd.  It gets described in different ways but their limited number of recordings are solely acoustic-based, ambient soundscapes that have a cinematic quality, distinguished by spacey and distinctive melodic lead lines that have a heavy echo on them and which are frequently repeated to create a mantra-like effect.  There is a definite world music vibe, if a heavy Spanish influence can be described as such, mainly evident in the flamenco feel and styling to some of the rhythm guitar. 

Rather than being new age chill music, although there is a bit of that going on, to be honest, the recordings have a moody and passionate feel that gives them a more mysterious allure.  So, asking those around me what had brought them to the gig, the same answer was given; they’d come across them on a Spotify, or similar, playlist and had got hooked (which is how my son had come across them), which, given the narrow niche that their music sits in, is quite something.  So, what were they like in the flesh?  You would be forgiven for expecting on the basis of their recordings that the group would be quietly playing, introspectively musing over their instruments, perhaps protectively ranged around 3 stools. 

The reality was quite different, driven by a highly energised performance from the main soloist of the three, the curly-haired John Pita, who ran around the small stage striking poses as if auditioning for the lead guitarist spot in a serious heavy metal combo.  The moodily handsome drummer Zach Para alternated between whacking a rhythm box that he sat on at the front of the stage and a small kit further back.  Second guitarist Avi Snow was a more static figure stage right, focusing on his fretboard, and keeping his 1980s indie cut in tight control. Ironically, given that for the most part (a bass player appeared for a few numbers) they were playing acoustic guitars, the performance was electric. 

They were terrific, immediately creating a feel-good vibe as the delicious interplay between the two guitarists recreated the recorded versions with added dynamism and had the crowd immediately reacting to their performance. Don’t ask me what they played as, even though all their material was recognisable, other than an enthusiastic cover of Santana’s “Jingo” I couldn’t put a name to any.  Given that the band have been together since 2011 their output has not exactly been voluminous; so, with one album, the fantastically titled “To the Sun & All the Cities in Between” and a few EPs only to their name, I’m pretty certain that they must have played virtually their entire repertoire.  It was really enjoyable and while it’s impossible to listen to them without acknowledging the homogeneity of their sound, the tunes were quite distinctive played live. 

At the end, after several encores, the surrounding chatter was full of words like “amazing” and phrases like “one of the best gigs I’ve been to”.  So, well worth investigating when they return to the UK later in the year (circumstances permitting). 

Earlier in the evening the support act “Leon of Athens” had done what every support act should do, entertain with a distinctive sound (melodic international indie in their case) that makes you want to hear more, and warm the crowd up nicely for the main event.  They were led by a charismatic frontman (more eye candy for the ladies that evening) and driven by a female drummer that played with superb sensitivity and groove.  They contributed to a really excellent evening; well done to Nell’s for combining two such good bands.  Let’s hope that this and other venues are able to resume normal business once the current crisis is over.

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