SHORE’S CHAMPIONSHIP BLUESBUSTER BRINGS O’REE-LY BIG SHOW

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, February 7 2019

It was some time in 2006 when Shore music fans came to the sobering realization that, effective immediately, they would have to share dibs on Matt O’Ree with the rest of the planet.

The clincher was Guitar Center’s annual King of the Blues competition for that year; a contest that the young blues-rock guitarist from Holmdel aced over a field of thousands of contenders for the throne. In addition to the instantly conferred cred, it was an accolade that netted O’Ree a cash prize, a Gibson Guitars endosement, a personal Guitar Center shopping spree — and a brand new Scion automobile, about which more in a bit.

It was a sure shot in the arm for the young veteran who’d made his rep playing in just about every indoor or outdoor setting to be found on the regional scene — from the portable parkside stages of the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation’s summer series, to the hallowed halls of BB King’s, and pretty much every barroom, bistro, barn, backyard BBQ or boardwalk bench between.

“I was using credit cards to finance my career up to that point,” recalls the guitarist who formed his first edition of the Matt O’Ree some 25 years ago, in 1994. “So no matter how much mileage I get out of that win, being able to pay off those cards was the greatest feeling!”

That said, the single greatest thrill of Matt O’Ree’s career arguably occurred nearly a decade after that, when he was tapped by Bon Jovi to serve as an onstage guitarist for the mega-band’s Burning Bridgestour of major international markets.

“Suddenly I went from playing to a couple of dozen regulars at a local bar, to being in front of anywhere from 50 to 70 thousand people,” he says. “It was an awesome perspective to be able to experience…truly a magic moment.”

As the hometown guitar hero confesses, the aftermath of the Bon Jovi tour was an interval that “took a bit of adjustment,”while he resumed a schedule of hyper-local gigs that included a first-Friday monthly set at the music-friendly Red Bank bar Jamian’s — a tradition that he maintains to this day.

At the same time, a sold-out “homecoming” show at the Stone Pony served to “O’Ree-inforce” the fact that the guitarist was operating on a newly heightened level of play —  a fact borne out by the release of his 2016 album Brotherhood.

A followup to such multiple Asbury Music Award-winning opuses as Shelf Life, the long-player found the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist (then newly named to the NY/NJ Blues Hall of Fame) working within some rarefied company — in particular Bon Jovi charter member David Bryan, with whom he cemented his friendship and professional partnership via their co-authorship of the album’s breakout track “My Everything Is You.”

The keyboard man would go on to make several guest appearances at O’Ree gigs — and listeners would soon enough discover that the cut “Black Boots” boasted backing vocals by one Bruce Springsteen. In addition to the legendary Memphis guitarman Steve Cropper, a deeper delve into the recording sessions revealed additional collaborations with Blues Traveler harpist John Popper and Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell— with O’Ree divulging that he’s “still sitting on”tracks featuring those artists, whose contributions were cut from the final release due to legal issues.

Even with all of that collaborative energy zinging about, the most significant partnership of Matt’s career was soon to manifest itself — and when the Matt O’Ree Band takes to the stage of Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre this Saturday, February 9, audiences will key in on a genuine labor of love in big, bluesy bloom.

Photos by CouCou Photography, courtesy of Estelle Massry

Scheduled for 8 pm, the concert represents an exceedingly rare opportunity to catch with O’Ree and company in a theater-format setting, sans beer bottles and barroom chatter (not that there’s anything wrongwith that). It’s also, believe it or not, the bandleader’s first time performing on the West Long Branch campus, from which his brother and sister both graduated.

“It’s a great, beautiful theater, and I’m looking forward to playing there,” says O’Ree of the venue that has hosted everything from the most exotic/esoteric performing artists from around the world — to such denizens of our own big beautiful back yard as Southside Johnny, Pat Guadagno, Jody Joseph, and The Weeklings.

Joining Matt for the occasion will be regular O’Ree band drummer John Hummel, recently added bassman Lex Lehman, guest keyboard player John Ginty (a veteran of Allmans tours; recently seen at the Wonder Bar in a well-received gig with Anthony Krizan and Sandy Mack) — and the band’s not-so-secret weapon; a double-barreled dose of vocal vivaciousness that boasts not one but twoequally star-powered peers.

Longtime observers of the Shore music scene know Layonne Holmes as the ultra-versatile “woman of a thousand bands” whose myriad projects have ranged from collaborations with her late mom (and early-times Bruce bandmate) Delores, to sublime salutes to Billie Holiday and other legendary ladies of jazz — plus memberships in everything from Love Among Freaks, Tim McLoone and the Shirleys and Holiday Express, to Motor City Revue and Gonzo’s Funky Family.

Then there’s the artist formerly known as Eryn Shewell — and known since 2017 as Eryn O’Ree or simply Eryn. The dynamite singer, whose solo endeavors married a bloozy roots-rock grit to a savvy sense of classic glamour (and who performs her own spotlight set to open Saturday’s show),  brought the best of all those worlds and more to her union with the guitarist — a union born when the musical (and literal) matchmaker Sandy Mack “gave an extra push for Eryn and I to get together.”

“They’re their own stars…I almost feel bad that they’re singing with me,” laughs Matt, in reference to Eryn and Layonne. “But then I remember all that they bring to our sound, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Having recently returned from Los Angeles, where he looked in on some Ginty studio sessions with the Grammy winning producer-engineer Jim Scott (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks, Wilco), O’Ree is “hoping to do a new record over the winter…in my heart, I still want to put out albums!”

At the same time, the guitarist plans a possible spring 2019 audio and/or video release based  on his most recent headline show at the Stone Pony — a December 2018 set that saw Bryan sitting in with the band, and which served as “a great showcase for our energy.”

“A friend of mine has an original 1959 Gibson Les Paul, and he brught it to the show for me to play that night,” says the connoisseur of vintage instruments. “The results were amazing.”

“I was originally a (Fender) Stratocaster guy…and now I mostly use a Les Paul,” he adds. “A great Les Paul plays better than just about anything else.”

“I’ve always loved the Pony…The Saint always sounds great…and I love to sit in at the Wonder Bar, with  Sandy or with an act like Bell Bottom Blues,” says O’Ree, name-checking some of his favorite Shore places to play. “The Langosta is great for acoustic music…and the new stage at Asbury Lanes is awesome.”

Then there are those intimate watering holes, like the aforementioned Jamian’s (“one of the real gems”) — and the Rumson neighborhood landmark Barnacle Bill’s, where a recent duo set by Matt and Eryn attracted the attention of an eager-to-catch-up Jon Bon Jovi.

O’Ree isn’t “burning bridges” with the Bon Jovi band by any means — and has indicated that JBJ has “left things open” regarding any future projects together. But as Matt approaches both his 47th birthday and his silver anniversary as a bandleader, the emphasis in the here and now is on building up from the bedrock-solid foundation of the 2019 model year Matt O’Ree Band — a sporty vehicle with plenty of headroom for assembled starpower and skillsets;  one that’s able to tackle any stylistic terrain.

All of which brings to mind the question: just whatever became of that prize Scion — you know; the car from the Guitar Center contest?

“Oh, that,” laughs O’Ree. “I went to the dealer to pick it up, took it for a test spin, drove it back to the dealer and asked, how much you gonna give me for it?”

“I decided to stick with my ‘78 Pontiac Trans Am — which I still have!”

SCENES: 4thAnniversary Party at Asbury Festhalle 

On a weekend that boasts several  hyper-local happenings of signifying stature — including three days worth of Lakehouse Music Academy “Big Gig” showcases at Asbury Lanes, a Boss book launch at Danny Clinch’s Transparent Gallery, and a Saint-side release party for Blew Money whose support group features the bated-breath return of Joe Harvard’s Velveeta project — the folks at Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten mark the fourth go-round for the latter-day landmark that’s very quickly taken its place as one of our born-again burg’s genuine destination attractions. It’s an Asbury-style four-day weekend that commences TODAY, February 7, with a special promo in which 10% of each check will be donated to a local charity. Friday features an all-day Happy Hour, with live music from Steve Reilly and “darts for prizes” — while  Saturday spotlights the next-gen horn/showband Ocean Avenue Stompers (pictured) at 2 pm, and at 5 both men and women comptete in a traditional Masskrugstemmenfeat of strength (being from Bavaria, it involves holding a beer stein). Sunday is Family Day, with more live music, kid-friendly competitions, and grand prizes (including giant blow-up pretzels)!

STAGES: THE ATTIC and GO FISH at Jersey Shore Arts

A double dose of mysteries — one in which a found letter connects its present-day discoverer to a past tragedy, and one in which a card game holds the key to a murder — is on the bill at Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center, as the resident artists of La Strada Ensemble Theater present the latest in their ongoing series of intimately scaled, original stage presentations. Featured on the program is the NJ premiere of UK-based playwright Robert Scott’s The Attic, in which a woman finds a letter that could be anything from a suicide note to a confession.

Set in two distinct time periods, the play is directed by La Strada co-founder Evan Black, with a cast featuring Tara London, Sarah Osman, Alexandria Pascucci, Ankit Sharma and Leon Weyhknecht IV.

The program continues with the world premiere of the CharLee Mares play Go Fish, with  Ali Dupris, Corynn Fazio, and Becca Lettice featured in the cast under the playwright’s direction.

Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, plus Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets ($25 adults; $20 seniors and students) can be reserved by visiting lastradaensemble.org, or calling 732-455-2748.

SIGHTS: Bob Camp at The Groovy Graveyard

The cartoonist and co-creator of Ren & Stimpy joins author, artist and pop culture expert Mark Voger (Groovy; Monster Mash), plus The Popculturist Robert Bruce (AMC’s Comic Book Men) and other personal appearance guests, for a Shock Show Winter Edition Mini-Con on Saturday, February 9. Rescheduled from January 19, it all happens between the hours of noon to 5 pm at the downtown AP source for vintage comics, records, magazines, movies, toys and other creepy collectibles (located on the upper level of The Shoppes at the Arcade, 658 Cookman Avenue).

STAGES: THE JUNGLE BOOK Ballet at Axelrod PAC

Running one more weekend at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center, the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater production of The Jungle Book continues the world premiere engagement of the professional dance troupe’s adaptation from the classic Rudyard Kipling tales.

Directed and choreographed by Gabriel Chajnik, the “exotic fusion of east and west” incorporates elements of classical Bharatanatyam dance in a way that’s described as “a wholly immersive experience that incorporates lighting and modern projection technology with costumes and headpieces designed by world famous artists, an ensemble of live musicians, and a distinguished troupe of professional dancers.”

David Felicie stars as Mowgli, the foundling who grows to manhood through the lessons of his friends and mentors in the animal kingdom. Working in partnership with Indian dance choreographer Sudha Shekhar Devulapalli and composer/ sitar player Neel Murgai of Brooklyn Raga Massive, music director Jason Tramm leads an ensemble that features Murgai and tabla percussionist Shivalik Goshal.

Performances of The Jungle Book continue on Saturday (8 pm) and Sunday (1 and 5 pm). Tickets (adults $48 and $54; seniors $40 and $46; students $26) can be reserved by calling 732-531-9106 (ext. 14), or visiting axelrodartscenter.com.

STAGES: Golden Gays Valentine’s Drag Brunch at The Asbury

Formed as “a loving tribute to the world’s most beloved bosom buddies (TV’s Golden Girls),” the comically cross-dressing trio The Golden Gays NYC returns to The Asbury Hotel as special guest attraction for a second annual Valentine’s Drag Brunch that begins at 12 pm on Sunday, February 10. Jason B. Schmidt channels the late and legendary Bea Arthur as Dorothy during the live entertainment interlude that starts at 1 pm, with Andy Crosten as Blanche, and Gerry Mastrolia as Rose. So who’s the “Token Sophia?” That’s where the interactive aspect of the floor show comes in — so “drag” your Significantly Other out to The Asbury for a memorably mimosa-fueled matinee that just might find your date stealing the show out from under this threesome of hilarious performers! Tickets ($40 in advance; $50 day of event) available from eventbrite.com).

SOUNDS: Octane Accelerator Tour at the Wonder Bar 

Sponsored by Sirius XM satellite radio (home of the Octane channel) and Live Nation, the inaugural edition of the Octane Accelerator Tour is a national package designed to further the channel’s mission of offering listeners “the chance to see new and emerging artists pushing the sound of Hard Rock music forward.”  All well and fine — but perhaps more siginificant is the fact that, smack dab in the middle of an itinerary that takes the multi–band bill to major markets (the kind that boast pro sports franchises) coast to coast, the Accelerator bus puts the metal to the pedal here in Asbury Park, as good a validcation of our city’s standing on the national soundscape as any. The Circuit landmark Wonder Bar plays host to headlining act Like a Storm  (pictured), the band of Kiwis who pioneered the use of didgideroo in their  crunch mix. Royal Tusk (Alberta) and Afterlife (Florida) fil out the Sunday evening fight card, with tickets ($15 in advance from wonderbarasburypark.com) are $18 at the Ocean Avenue door.