By Michael Lello
Photos by Pati Bobeck
PLAINS, Pa. — On paper, the concept of The Ringers sounds like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Three world-class guitarists, vying for alpha-dog status and stepping all over each other’s toes? But as the supergroup displayed Sunday night at the River Street Jazz Cafe, magic can happen if you don’t force things.
The Ringers — guitarists Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz and Michael Landau, bassist Etienne Mbappe and drummer Gary Novak — played a diverse and inviting set that served as a genre travelogue, traipsing from jazz fusion to Southern rock to straight jazz to blues to world music. The music was, save for two songs sung by Landau, instrumental, and while solos and instrumental prowess were keynotes of the set, the show never devolved into overly jammed-out wankery. Indeed, despite the lack of vocals, the songs had a lyrical quality, some of them with clear verse and chorus structures, that made the music easy to follow, even if it was for the most part unknown to the audience.
From the band’s opener, a cover of The Meters’ “Pungee,” through its closing “Lord Of The Ringers” and encore “Slopes” by bluegrass supergoup Strength In Numbers, each individual showed the chops their known for, but, like all great bands, the total was greater than the sum of the parts. The highlight might have been “New Ring,” a new Krantz tune, which featured irrestible Southern-fried and effected licks played by Herring on the choruses and jaw-dropping work by his six-string cohorts.
Herring, with his jam band pedigree, was the biggest draw, but each guitarist was equally represented on stage and complemented one another’s styles. Herring was the most overtly rock player, Krantz was the most “out” player, and Landau, the least known of the three, was somewhere in between. Landau, whose staggering, 500-album-plus session discography includes everything from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” to Miles Davis, played ripping, smooth rock leads and jazz runs all night, and was a perfect bridge between Herring and Krantz’s divergent approaches.
Sunday’s show was the last night of the tour, and the crowd, while sizable, was not at capacity. In some ways, The Ringers had to provide their own energy, as compared to larger crowds in larger rooms, but it worked, and the audience members were the beneficiaries.
It will be interesting to see where the band takes this project — maybe into the studio, where The Ringers can create more music and get back on the road again soon. As the band’s music and reputation spreads, it’s doubtful we’ll get to see them in such intimate settings as the Jazz Cafe again — we’re guessing this will become a consistent small theater and festival draw — but as long as they’re playing, it’s of little consequence where.