Concert review: Nicolay and the Hot at Nights cook up jazzy experiments at Lola, Friday, July 13
In the world of music, often producers and songwriters get overlooked in the shadows of the performers they support, but that’s hardly the case with Nicolay.
The crowd at Lola made sure he knew how much St. Louis loves his work and his passion. Every table in the downtown club was reserved well in advance, and the bar was full long before the music started as the staff tried to accommodate the quickly growing crowd, buzzing with stories and expectations for the night’s show.
Nicolay, born Matthijs Rook, started his life and much of his musical career in the Netherlands, playing with a variety of relatively-unknown bands starting in his youth. As his delight for music blossomed, he developed as a multi-instrumentalist and started composing and producing his own work. In a testament to the global community created by the Internet, an online forum brought him together with Phonte Cole, a talented emcee with the hip-hop act, Little Brother (with 9th Wonder and Big Pooh), and the Foreign Exchange was born.
Now residing in North Carolina, Nicolay has produced three albums with the Foreign Exchange in addition to a half dozen other releases and is looking for the next step in his musical journey and “bring back the lost art of listening to music.”
While live instrumentation has dominated both his production and performances, it’s been calculated and refined to perfection in the studio and rehearsals, and certainly without complaint from the fans. Nevertheless, to advance beyond that, Nicolay joined up with the Hot at Nights, a North Carolina jazz trio that included the Foreign Exchange’s touring guitarist, Chris Boerner, and together they’ve approached many of his original works in a live-jazz interpretation, including releasing the “Shibuya Sessions EP,” a direct reworking of Nicolay’s 2009 “City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya.” With a bit of improvisation and creative detours from the originals, this new arrangement brings a natural element to the performances and a true connection to the audience.
The Hot at Nights opened the show with a short set of their own releases. Boerner leads the group playing an eight-string guitar, combining three bass strings with five guitar strings on a single neck, and handles both the bass-line and guitar parts, much like Charlie Hunter and his similarly-fashioned seven-string. To add a special element to his sound, Boerner utilizes a self-made, rotating organ-style amplifier, mixed in at tastefully appropriate times. Matt Douglas joins him with an alto sax, visually dull, but audibly brilliant in tone. Douglas used a variety of delays and other effects through a microphone to create much of the group’s signature, experimental sound. The trio is completed by Nick Baglio on drums and an electric keyboard that often added distinctive breaks and ambient sequences to the mix.
Their five-song set included many originals and a groove styled cover of the Police’s “Roxanne,” with Douglas covering Sting’s vocal part on the sax. It offered Boerner a unique challenge as he attempted to handle both the guitar chords and bass-line, but his mastery of dexterity and timing proved the musician capable. They closed their set with a song titled “AC Slater,” a track that brought an extra element of humor to a roller coaster of tempo and style changes. Baglio was given his chance to shine in this closing number, as he mingled poppy drum rhythms with cleverly placed electronic drum beats, much in the style of the ’80s’ Casio keyboards.
After endearing themselves to the crowd and a short set break, Nicolay joined them on stage with a pair of keyboards and a synthesizer of his own and immediately captivated the collective attention of the audience. They eased into their set with an ambient, experimental sound that built slowly intensity, and played directly into their second song, “Satellite.” Here, the Nicolay groove began to develop, and a pandemic of deep-motioned head nodding took over the musicians and spread through the crowd.
As the set continued to blossom, the band started to cover a few of the Foreign Exchange’s tracks in addition to songs they’ve released together. Starting with “Happiness,” a song of the 2004 debut album “Connected,” the already energized crowd sang along with the hook, despite the show’s instrumental format. They touched each of the three Foreign Exchange albums amidst a strong demonstration from the “Shibuya Sessions EP,” and included a new song, which Nicolay used to introduce the other band members with up-tempo solos and demonstrations of their skills.
While the entire set was a treat, the audience was brought to tears of laughter and joy as the band let loose to “The Answer,” another track off the Foreign Exchange’s 2004 album. In addition to a high energy performance from everyone on stage, the track featured Nicolay adding an almost unprecedented vocal element using a vocoder and his synthesizer, making use of the full range of pitches and effects at his disposal, as well as the largest possible smile his face could hold.
They closed with a cover of Sufjan Stevens’ “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!,” and took advantage of Lola’s post-show atmosphere to mingle with the crowd. Nicolay announced working on a fourth Foreign Exchange album, and promised to bring the whole group back to town in the near future. It’s clear that not only does St. Louis love Nicolay, but Nicolay loves St. Louis, and we should have a long list of future shows ahead of us.