By Michael Lello
Photos by Robin Palmer
NEW YORK – King Radio had a few things to prove last Friday night. Performing to a packed crowd for a relatively early set at the intimate Rockwood 2 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the group was debuting a new 8-piece lineup and playing songs from its yet-to-be-released debut album, including one it had yet to share publicly.
It seems that King Radio didn’t see it that way, however, as it played its 11-song set with an easy confidence usually reserved for players who have worked together for years. It certainly helped that the core of Justin King (vocals, guitar, piano), Mark Kiesinger (bass) and A.J. Jump (drums) are not only familiar with each other, but the material as well, having recorded the record last year with the renowned Jim Scott (Ryan Adams, Wilco, Tom Petty, Grace Potter, etc.) in Los Angeles.
Opening with the slow-rolling alt-country-flavored “Jenny,” King’s vocals and the pedal steel of Jon Graboff, who is known for his work as a member of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals, were the focal points. “Sister” was equally hushed, and while King’s acoustic guitar fingerpicking was impressive, it only went to serve the song – a theme throughout the evening, as the world-class players each worked to form a cohesive song-backing unit rather than a flashy chops-fest, of which they are undoubtedly capable. The Brooklyn-based band continued with “1,000 Yard,” another low-key number which was haunted by Graboff’s pedal steel.
“Lonesome Nights” was the first rocker of the evening, with King on piano, leading the group to the pre-chorus buildup of “It won’t let me be.” The three-piece horn section of Nick Driscoll (saxophone), Ian Carelton Schaefer (trumpet) and Robert Donnelly (trombone) fleshed out the song’s inherent soulfulness and gave the big band a big sound in the small room.
While King Radio – not just this lineup – is a relatively new outfit, “The Valley” has become a centerpiece of its shows, and Friday’s performance was no exception. King’s knack for placing soul and gospel idioms into a “pop” (for lack of a better word) song is remarkable, and the arresting tune is always an emotional showstopper.
King opened “Don’t Wait For Me” with just his vocals and piano, singing of his native Oregon, before Graboff slid into the conversation on pedal steel, opening a door for the rest of the band. New guitarist Justin Mazer, of New York/Pennsylvania jam and roots band Leroy Justice, deserves credit for what he did not do here and elsewhere – play his balls off. Again, the individual parts of King Radio are all standouts on their own, but they have swallowed their musical pride to serve the songs. And when the songs are as good as these, it’s a smart move.
Someone in the crowd yelled Northeastern Pa. area code “570,” a reference to NEPA natives Kiesinger, Jump, Mazer and Driscoll, before King Radio closed with a brand new song which was built on an in-the-pocket rhythm and bolstered by the horns. The three-guitar interplay between King, Mazer and Graboff was nicely done, with Kiesinger’s bass bubbling underneath.
Friday’s show was further proof that King Radio has the songs and the talent – and that will be solidified when the album is released. All that’s left for this group is for the business side of the music business to do its work, and we all know how that can go. But even though we’re talking about a new band with just one album, and an unreleased one at that, under its belt, any discussion of potential is past-due – King Radio has already arrived.