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Monday, 21 April 2014 16:43

Concert review and photos: Hip-hop septet Sidewalk Chalk (with JBomb and Tiffany Elle) gets bodies moving at the Kranzberg Arts Center, Saturday, April 19

Sidewalk Chalk at the Kranzberg Arts Center Sidewalk Chalk at the Kranzberg Arts Center Wil Wander
Written by Wil Wander

Since late last year, the Studio room at the Kranzberg Arts Center has become home to a special treat for St. Louis hip-hop fans: an intimate sitting room that's already hosted many of the local scene's most instrumentally focused artists.

This past Saturday, the tiny room extended beyond the local scene to invite Chicago's seven-piece Sidewalk Chalk, who mixes a smooth jazz-styled fusion with the way of the rhyme in a blend that boasts some of the finest musicianship in the genre. Without abandoning the local scene entirely, the night also featured sets from the soulful Tiffany Ellle and lyricist-songwriter JBomb.

After a piano tuning delay, which proved a fortuitous opportunity for the musicians and crowd to mix it up in the lobby, the crowd filed in and JBomb took the stage. Half of the local hip-hop duo Brett Gretzky, Jason Bommarito has spent much of the past couple years focused on writing lyrics, but this set gave him the opportunity to revisit his distinctive vocal style that dances between melodic lyrics and rapped verse, as featured on his 2011 release "Civilized People." While his style is commendable, JBomb's most purely impressive moments come during improvisations, breaking from the original or simply letting miscues work themselves out. His set released the audience from any stress or worry that may have followed them to the venue, leaving the crowd in a roll of joyous laughter.

After a short break, the crowd returned from gathering their drinks and the majority of the headliners took the stage, not for their own set, but to offer a rare treat in the form of support for Tiffany Elle. Joined by Phillip "Dr. Phil Good" Graves on the keyboard in addition to the full line of instrumental support, the vocalist still seemed to stand alone on stage, captivating the attendees. She presented the crowd with a sampling of her own music plus a few covers that included Stevie Wonder and Beyonce, supported flawlessly as if they had been performing together for years. After JBomb set the mood, Elle's selection stimulated the crowd's senses and set the tone for a night of musical mastery.

A soft, improvised segment lead by Sam Trump fused Elle's set with the beginning of the headliner's show. This seamless blend developed from freeform trumpet into the intro to "Fearless Passenger," a selection from Sidewalk Chalk's newest release "Leaves." The Chicago-based septet features a combination of musicians with such skill and chemistry, it's difficult to discern if there is truly a leader or star among them. In addition to the nearly eponymous trumpet player that opened the set, they feature David Ben-Porat on the trombone, armed with both finesse and grace on a traditionally clumsy horn. The back line hosts Garret McGinn on bass, who offers a solid foundation for the band in a classic jazz role and Tyler Berg on drums, who mesmerizes the crowd with creative percussive combinations and a true appreciation for the rest as much as the beat.

Disappearing in the shadows, Charlie Coffeen made use of the house piano over his traditional keyboard, as well as a synthesizer often handling ambient chords and soft arpeggios that highlighted the rest of the band. Sidewalk Chalk then integrated the two-part vocal punch of Marga Vagle's jazz-styled lyrics and hooks into the songs. Her delivery was sultry enough for the prototypical Chicago jazz club, as Rico Sisney handled the rapped verse and other spoken style elements. While vocals may be prevalent throughout hip-hop, in this case, the band makes them a part of the mix, truly creating a uniform sound as a group.

They opened the show with a four-song set, culminating in "Deciduous," which embodied much of the style and message of the new album, but after a short break, they returned to play a much fuller set. While highlighting the new album, they incorporated a fair selection of favorites from their earlier release and even filled a special request from a young fan that reached out to them via e-mail for a rarely performed piece titled "Ananda."

While Sidewalk Chalk elicited crowd participation throughout the show, the fans simply couldn't be contained by their seats; they shouted and cheered at the transitions and solos and freely exchanged hugs, high fives and fist bumps. By the time the show ended, the rows of seats had dissolved entirely, leaving only a few small paths through the wreckage. The fans of Sidewalk Chalk can simply not be contained by a sitting room.

Photos by Wil Wander.

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