If I hadn’t been told this was the very first Songwriters Round at Brignole Vineyards, I would have believed it was a community institution. It’s a great idea, the brainchild of Connecticut neo-classic rocker Sage King, who exudes ambition and efficiency, along with gutsy arena vocals and hard rock riffs.
The set-up is simple: you go to Granby, a quaint foodie suburb of Bradley International Airport, with bears. Brignole Vineyards is in East Granby, out a woodsy road that looks exactly like every other woodsy road in the dark, so use your GPS. The building is easy to spot: it looks like Thomas Jefferson built it as a New England getaway. Park in the generous parking lot. Go up the stairs to a large, peaceful room with a bar and order yourself some wine. The wine menu is printed on a laminated mat with pictures, so any confusion is on you. (I couldn’t decide what I was in the mood for, so I ordered rosé and was happy.)
Now that you have your wine, it’s time for your Songwriter Sampling Flights. There are two flights of three songwriters each, taking turns singing a song and telling a little about it, for a total of three songs per songwriter, nine songs per flight, 18 songs for the evening. If you cannot do this math, stop ordering glasses of wine.
Since my incentive to check this out was pop artist Alex2e, who was kind enough to make sure I could get a ticket, I knew the event wasn’t going to be gentle Americana (which I love and see a lot of, but I was up for something different). It turned out to be both eclectic and well-paced.
Flight One was our white-wine performers, where the sparkle and nuance are satisfying yet don’t overwhelm the palate for what’s to come.
Daniel Lefebvre, the key songwriter for hard rock band Arc City Angels, is first up–and he’s a great choice to get the party started. His first song, “Falling Into Now,” he announces as something he rarely plays live because it’s not hard rock (again, good choice, tantalize us with something unusual), and it turns out to be convincingly soft rock.
When Lefebvre said it was a rare performance, I reached for my phone to take video, only to discover the low lighting gives me a screen of shades of gray, with a vaguely musician-shaped blur in the distance. I’d love to see less video-hostile lighting, unless it’s a deliberate choice to make sure videos are low-quality (which I have no problem with artists or venues deciding to do). My photo choices are also less about favoritism and more about when stabbing at the advanced controls in ProCamera got me anywhere.
Lefebvre’s songs got harder, darker, and more passionate over the course of the flight, ending with the deliciously dark “You Were My Life,” where the asteroid crashes into the moon, Meat Loaf descends in a gothic chair with Amy Lee on his lap, and we all make rock horns in the cold November rain. It was epic (on acoustic guitar, no less). This guy has grit, passion, and a knack for diffusing inner rage into outer noise.
Alex Hiller, second up, is the newbie of the night: he got serious about music within the past year or so and has been playing gigs since July. His sound strikes me as similar to Thomas Rhett, with 20% more pop — and though he plays a lot of acoustic shows, I’m hoping his studio version of “Spotlight” has richer instrumentation and more production.
I may not be alone in this thought, as partway through the song, the other musicians started a clapping beat, which the audience eagerly picked up, and then the guys provided back-up vocals. It sounded really good that way, so if y’all are at one of Hiller’s acoustic shows, you know what to do.
Greg Eichler of experimental rock/jam band Scantic is the energetic embodiment of how the Connecticut approach to music (spoiler: accretive of all sorts of music styles, with an extra side of snark). His show-stopper is his first song, “Albedo,” because the background story is that it’s a joke on libido, and it goes from there. At the point when point in the evening when the non-drivers are working on their second or third glass of wine, albedo has become the room’s in-joke euphemism for libido, and twenty years hence, people’s children will be wondering why the family talks funny. It’s all Greg Eichler’s fault, and his music is a ton of fun.
With the second Songwriters Sampling Flight, we get into the reds, with stronger flavors aimed at leaving the audience sated and exhausted.
Alex2e is who I’m there to see. His idiom is a moody pop with evocative lyrics and slow builds to revelations. No matter how many times I hear his voice, I never expect it — there’s a wonderful magic-realist quality, like he’s his own dream-pop. He’s a great choice to lead off the second flight (and not just because I’m eager to hear him), as he’s intense beyond the mood of the first flight and also the musician in this round whose lyrics benefit most from engaging in a good think.
Something I learned from the background story–I like that the performers talk a bit about their songs–is that “Bring Out the Ghost” is intended to comment on our culture as a whole. My tendency is to put individual personalized meanings to songs unless I’m hit over the head with references to coal miners or bass fishermen or whatever.
Alex2e ended with “a banger” — and it really is — “Drunk in London,” which even has a rap section. Because he’s the musician here whose discography I have the most knowledge of, I got to have a good think about how song choice gets used in this kind of setting: you have to grab the audience by the heart and ears, you want to promote current or upcoming singles, the evening as a whole needs to have a loose emotional arc. Individually and across musicians, I was very impressed with how this was accomplished.
Austin James is the mystery of the evening. The entire second row–and most of the first, and possibly the entire third–consists of his fans. He’s charming, he’s engaging, he’s passionate. His music is deliberately unclassifiable by genre, though something clicked when I looked at his Facebook description and saw that Hozier is one of his benchmarks. It’s not precisely that he sounds like Hozier, but that he’s got the Hozier thing with a strange fusion of classical, jazz, and pop elements going on.
The highlight of his set was the touching and angry song inspired by the death of his sister–called “Anhelo” for the Greek breathe. I’d love to own the song, so fortunately, it’s going to be his next single. (I’m not so sure about yelling “you already got me pregnant” during the story of this song, but much wine was consumed, and the guy yelling it was obviously a fan.)
Sage King took the anchor spot, performing two power ballads before closing the evening with “420,” a more party-time ditty about exactly what you think it’s about. He’s a convincing songwriter with all the hooks and riffs in the right place for a modern classic rock feel. My favorite of his set was “Out of Season,” where in extending the metaphor (it’s about a troubled relationship), he brings the Connecticutian snark.
When the lights went up, there was merch in varying amounts, though not a huge rush for it. (Buy more merch, people! Neutral-colored indie band T-shirts go with everything!) I’m happy to have my Alex2e shirt: this is a design where I’m comfortable with the artist’s face on my shirt.
I loved this event and would go again to see totally random songwriters and sip my one-glass-of-wine-after-a-full-meal. I have a vague hope that with time, there’ll be a mild shift toward a more listening-room vibe. (That’s a passive-aggressive way of saying “I’m here to hear all the musicians, so it’d be great if conversations were not too loud.”)
How to get notified of the next session and get tickets: follow Brignole Vineyards or Sage King on social media.