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Desert Companion

The beat goes on

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Photography by Anthony Mair

Moanin Blacksnakes

A celebration of the diverse musicians who rock this town

Sure, Las Vegas is the Entertainment Capital of the World, but those marquee names blazing on the Strip shouldn’t get all the credit. Because on any given weekend, musicians like those in the following pages are playing their hearts out — in dive bars and concert halls, in rock clubs and community centers well away from the Sin City lights.

Jazz

The Ronnie Foster Trio

It’s never too late for a reboot — musically or otherwise

Las Vegas has blessed innumerable star entertainers with afterburner careers  — the Celines and Britneys, Mariahs and Rods, Eltons and Waynes. Just as importantly, it’s also provided bread-and-butter gigs that have allowed lesser-known but still legendary musicians to thrive creatively in the desert — musicians like those in The Ronnie Foster Trio. Jazz organist Ronnie Foster, guitarist Jake Langley and drummer Jess Gopen all have or have had regular Strip gigs to pay the bills.

But, far from the Strip glare, this Saturday afternoon show at the Winchester Cultural Center is where their hearts are, as The Ronnie Foster Trio leaps and feints through a set of vigorous organ jazz. Gopen holds it together, with smart, crisp, judicious fills; Langley stands deceptively still as he weaves nimble lines.

On organ, though, Ronnie Foster is getting a workout —

(Let me stop here and confess, what, a prejudice (?) in thinking of Hammond organs, for all the geniality and warmth of their sound, for that inviting, cushy-
sofa, safely swingin’, retro Instagram-filter and, yes, even churchy tone, as, well, passive, perhaps even sedentary, instruments. I state here publicly that I stand corrected.)

— because it’s less like Foster is merely playing his heart out on his Hammond A100 than he is athletically but methodically working the inscrutable console of a wildly complicated musical spaceship, deploying riffs and solos, marshaling melodic themes, then tossing them to Langley and Gopen for reaction, comment and elaboration.

Foster made his name in the ’70s as a respected acid-jazz artist and Hammond god, but it’s clear on this day in 2016 that he’s in anything but afterburner mode. (At 66, he vibrates with a coiled-spring energy. He plays basketball almost every day, never smoked, never got high, never really drank. “My first gig was when I was 14. The guys I was playing with were old enough to be my dad. Between sets they took me in the kitchen, leaned me against the stove and said, ‘If we ever see you smoking or drinking, we’re gonna kick your ass.’”) The Ronnie Foster Trio just recorded a live album at Cabaret Jazz in The Smith Center called, fittingly, The Reboot Project Live.

“Reboot Project is exactly what it means,” he says. “I’m rebooting and this, the organ trio, is my roots. This is where I started. This is my foundation, my first love.” Here’s to the beautiful sound of new beginnings in the city of second chances. (Monterey Jazz Festival, Sept. 18; Baked Potato, Los Angeles, Sept. 24) Andrew Kiraly

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Funk, soul, hip-hop

The LiQue

A stellar funk fusion outfit born the Vegas way — by chance

It’s an all-too-typical story for performers in Las Vegas: Artist moves to town to be a part of a flashy Strip show — in this case, Vegas Nocturne at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. Show closes unexpectedly, leaving the artist without roots or prospects in a strange city. Artist sets sights on the seemingly greener pastures of New York or L.A.

“I was kind of done with Vegas, I didn’t see a need to stay here — nothing with my solo career was really working,” says Rasar, emcee and frontman for The Lique. “The band was starting with or without me, and I wasn’t looking for a band. But we met up at UNLV and from the very beginning, it felt like we had been working together for years.”

That chance connection led to the birth of what’s perhaps Vegas’ next big export: a musical collective that blends conscious hip-hop, soul and jazz. With his slick rhymes and outsized persona, Rasar (who unironically slings phrases like “I can dig it” and “heavy cats”) is the ingredient that takes The Lique from being a merely great throwback soul-jam band to a stellar funk fusion outfit. (Check out their rousing, propulsive “Batman” for a taste of their orchestral power.) Their fast rise has already included  a Strip residency, a tour capped with a New York performance alongside spiritual counterparts Con Brio, the release of their first album, and scoring a national feature in Afropunk.

After their upcoming performance at Life Is Beautiful, The Lique will be scarce on the local scene — but only because they have their sights set on bigger horizons. “We’re trying to be road dogs,” says Rasar. “I want my friends to say, ‘Man, I haven’t seen those guys in like six months!’” (Sept. 24, Life is Beautiful) Chris Bitonti

LiQue on KNPR's State of Nevada

Electronic

Echo Stains

These introspective synth-rockers play the saddest music you’ll ever dance to

It’s been, what, 26 years since the 1980s? That’s longer than any of the members of the electro-pop group Echo Stains have been alive. Yet the era’s trademark sound — feathery, layered synths, choppy guitars, spare drums, heart-laid-bare lyrics — reverberates throughout Echo Stains’ impressive EP, Colors of Emotion.

   “We want our music to be like going to a sad dance party,” says the band’s drummer and beatmaker Ron Guillermo as we browse vintage vinyl at Downtown’s 11th Street Records. Think The Cure, New Order, My Bloody Valentine. (Proving his faith, Guillermo points to a wall display of rare records and says he recently spent nearly $100 on an original pressing of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.)

And to think the band started as a hip-hop act. “We were all into Odd Future, Kendrick (Lamar), A$AP Rocky, and wanted to stem off that,” he says. In 2012, their focus shifted to synth-driven pop, with members trading tracks and lyrics via email before attempting to perform live. “Marvin (Cantorna) had never played bass before,” Guillermo says. “He learned by playing our songs.”

They’re fast learners, apparently. Colors of Emotion sounds like the work of a seasoned (and, yes, sad) band, seven tracks of moodily soaring synths and Prozac-daydream vocals, perfect for dancing-while-crying alone. If bands such as The Killers, Imagine Dragons and Panic! At The Disco brought mope-rock to the stadium, Echo Stains is their criminally shy cousin — the weird kid, the lovable underdog that may nevertheless prove to be another breakout.

“We obviously stick out a lot when we play shows,” Guillermo says. “It was scary at first, but it’s been cool.” Chris Bitonti

Arabic

Arab Music Ensemble

They hail from different countries, but speak one language: music

Three men and two women form a cramped semicircle facing a desk in the back office of Bishr Hijazi’s hand and microvascular surgery practice. It’s after-hours, so most neighboring tenants are gone. If any are around, the exotic sounds wafting through the halls wouldn’t surprise them. It’s not the first time his seven-year-old Arab Music Ensemble has rehearsed here.

The group includes Kuwaiti-born Hijazi; Lebanese brothers Charbel and Charles Azzi, a computer engineer and businessman, respectively; Laraine Kaizer-Viazvotsev, the only American; and Zhanna (yes, just Zhanna), a nursing student from Kazakhstan. They all have other, full-time occupations, so coordinating times for rehearsals and performances is tough. But it’s worth it, they say. Why?

Charbel Azzi (percussion instruments riq, dumbek and tar): First, I get to play this style of music. Second, we all have our own instruments. These days, when you play in clubs, there’s a keyboard and drum machines and beat machines. So, you’re playing on top of percussion that already exists, and you’re restricted by that. And third is the challenge. In a lot of new music, there’s one rhythm from the beginning of the song to the end, right? This music changes. The beats and rhythms are complex.

Zhanna (dancer): Yes, the music is so rich, so deep. It has many different layers. The original pieces have up to 25 different instruments, and each instrument calls for a different type of movement. String instruments create the melody, so they call for moving in a soft, gooey way, like undulations. And then, percussive instruments call for sharp hip movements or shimmies. … So, you can, for example, focus on one instrument and express what it’s saying. Or, you can acknowledge all the instruments at once. There’s so much emotion in it.

Charles Azzi (riq, dumbek and tar): I think you get to live — not just your childhood, but your home. Because we feel away from home, and I think this music kind of reconnects us.

Hijazi (buzuq, guitar, nay and oud): There’s a huge cultural part of it. Usually, when we’re dealing with Arabic culture, especially these days, there’s a lot of stigma attached. And, I mean, we’re not going to be talking about politics, but there’s a lot of richness to this culture, and it’s not given its fair share of coverage. You only hear about the negative stuff and the horrible events that happen. And there’s a lot of beauty that’s completely ignored. As musicians, we feel and live this beauty every time we play it. This is our way of saying, “That is not who we are.” Who we are is people who like to spread beauty as much as we can.

Kaizer-Viazvotsev (violin): For me, it’s like learning another language, musically, which is a great challenge. I just really fell in love with the combination of raw emotion and beauty. In some other traditional music — for example, Indian music — it’s almost overwhelming, the number of ornaments. It’s so unbelievably complex. This is also complex, but it’s matched by simplicity and elegance. Heidi Kyser

Arab Music Ensemble on KNPR's State of Nevada

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The Ronnie Foster Trio
Photography by Anthony Mair

The Ronnie Foster Trio

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Echo Stains
Photography by Anthony Mair

Echo Stains

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The LiQue
Photography by Anthony Mair

The LiQue

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Arab Music Ensemble
Photography by Anthony Mair

Arab Music Ensemble

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The Moanin' Blacksnakes
Photography by Anthony Mair

The Moanin' Blacksnakes

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Hassan
Photography by Anthony Mair

Hassan

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Moonlight Chan
Moonlight Chan

Moonlight Chan

Blues

The Moanin’ Blacksnakes

One of the valley’s longest-playing blues bands continues to keep it real

August 5, 9:35 p.m. Led by guitarist and singer Scott Rhiner — doing his dashing-rogue thing in blazer, jeans and boots — The Moanin’ Blacksnakes are powering through Jimmy Thackery’s “Cool Guitars” (“I’m gonna sell the bitch’s car/ And buy myself a cool guitar”) at the Barefoot Bar & Grill near Sunset Park. If The Moanin’ Blacksnakes seem to be playing with a certain seasoned looseness, a certain, shall we say, lubricated élan, sure, that may be the whiskey flowing through their veins — or it may be because they’ve been serving up raucous blues-rock in the valley for 20 years. See what I mean: Here’s Rhiner now on a solo, wringing his ’63 Stratocaster like a rag — offhand and casual, sure, but, oh, how cutting and sweet the notes sound. See what I mean again: It tractor-beams two women to the dance floor to start prancing and shuffling.

10:07 p.m. Between sets, Rhiner commandeers a barstool, whiskey in hand, to catch up on what is no doubt an exciting, fulfilling 20-year career playing the blues scene in Las Vegas. Right? “We’re kinda like furniture,” he says, unleashing the hearty, sniggering laugh that’s become his signature. “It’s like sitting in your favorite chair. We’re ingrained. And the band — we’ve been playing together so long, it’s like family.” Now 52, Rhiner once had designs on being a professional musician, but also wanted to, you know, feed his wife and two kids. “When I stopped trying to play every night and was turning down gigs, all of a sudden I started getting offered way more money. I’m like, why didn’t this happen 10 years ago?” That hearty laugh again. Today, Rhiner works as a communications technician for the Water District.

12:18 a.m. But it wouldn’t be fair to call these guys mere weekend warriors. More like Clark Kents whose transformative phone booth is the blues: Now Rhiner’s ripping through a slide guitar solo with a frothing bottle of Bud (“Kinda reminds me of last night,” he quips), and keyboardist Mike Hepner has busted out, seemingly from nowhere, a keytar, and the dance floor is awhirl with pairings, intrigues and come-ons. Rhiner surveys it all with a look of satisfaction. “Don’t you just love live music?” he says. “It ain’t always pretty, but it’s always real.” (Sept. 9, Barefoot Bar & Grill; Oct. 15, Sand Dollar Lounge) Andrew Kiraly

Hip-Hop

Hassan

The “fat, black and awesome” rapper and MC — in his own words

Now here’s a little introduction to the topic of discussion/ Hailing from Downtown rocking stages like it’s nothing/ Fat, black and awesome Mr. Hassan Hamilton/ Honored to be featured inside the Desert Companion/ Originally from Southern California born and raised/ Family was full of music-lovers whose radio played/ Anything from Earth Wind and Fire to Grateful Dead/ But thanks to my brother Rob my body moved instead/ To the sounds of a new style of music called Hip-Hop/ I loved how the rappers rhymed whenever the beat dropped/ The DJing, breaking and graffiti was also dope/ Groups like Run DMC would become my Hall & Oates/ BDP, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim/ LL and albums like Straight Outta Compton/ Sparked my interest in writing lyrics and rocking mics too/ Idolized A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and Ice Cube

When I began 2 write I sounded exactly like these cats/ But couldn’t relate to consciousness or gangsta rap/ I was a weirdo who got bullied for being fat/ The type of guy the pretty boys and ladies were laughing at/ Couldn’t fit in no matter how much I tried 2 pretend/ So I took my frustrations out on my pad and pen/ And started writing with witty humor and brutal honesty/ People heard me freestyle and said it was promising/ Felt elated being celebrated I was dedicated/ Summer of 2005 took my talents to Vegas/ In the midst of all the casinos and the Strip/ I discovered Downtown where the local scene was hip/ And spots like Money Plays, Cooler Lounge, Cloth & Canvas/ At open mics around town my seeds were planted/ Hooked up with Macro-Fi, Brain Jelly, Rap Is Fun/ Made a few albums also collaborated with a bunch/ Of other artists and bands most notably Phil A/ Our album “Rap Songs” is a Vegas classic to this day/ Well enough from me, hope you enjoyed my story and its details/ It’s time 2 disappear like a Hillary Clinton email. (Oct. 14, Bunkhouse Saloon)

Soul

Jessica Manalo

The indie soul artist finds power in upsetting expectations

For all the power of her voice, Jessica Manalo is surprisingly frank about feeling vulnerable. “One of the hardest things in my experience is being a female, being little — really little — and being Asian,” she says. “All those things combined affect the way people view you.” But it’s exactly those misperceptions that motivate her. “I know I have to up the ante because of people’s first impressions of me. I have to prove them wrong.”

Being proven wrong never sounded so good. Manalo’s strong but supple voice — with just a hint of soulful burr — becomes a medium for songs about breaking hearts, splitting up and moving on. She herself is certainly on the move. She recently quit her job to pursue music full time and wasted no time, finishing her first full-length album, logging a month-long tour and scoring some high-profile Vegas shows. (Sept. 10, Bunkhouse Saloon) Chris Bitonti

Cellist

Moonlight Tran

Art is long, life is short

 

A friend of the family said, “Go to Las Vegas. There’s free coffee and buffets, and you’ll never be hungry.”

Picture a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl with her parents and three siblings entering the U.S. after the war in 1975, political refugees. An immigration agent asks the girl’s name. Anh Nguyet, the mother replies. Too complicated; what does it mean? Light of the moon. Oh, Moonlight? OK, we’ll put that on her papers: Moonlight Tran.

 

I came back to Las Vegas after my bachelor’s in music at USC, but I didn’t work as a musician right away. It’s very hard to break into this business.

When Moonlight smiles, her eyes light up mischievously. But she’s not smiling this day. She’s in her 30s, emptying out her garage, and the garage door has slammed down on her cello, crushing the case and damaging the instrument. It’s the cello that got her through college, her first gig backing up Joan Rivers at Caesars, where she works days as a clerk to support herself. Moonlight has saved enough money to try doing music full-time. She’s got an audition at the Las Vegas Philharmonic that will land her second chair. She needs a new cello.

 

We’re like gypsies. The work comes in strange form, and we take it wherever it is.

Here is Moonlight Tran in her 50s, still with the Philharmonic, living the dream of supporting herself through music. Life is a carousel of gigs: two years of Lion King, Smith Center shows, conventions. And on the side, the constant pursuit of artistic growth. She joins an all-women’s trio, Zirna, which gives talks about and performs music by female composers. She helps form a Chinese music ensemble including the same classical instruments her grandfather had played in Vietnam. She takes an interest in tango, going so far as to produce a fundraiser at Winchester Cultural Center with professional dancers from California.

 

Red, red, a bleeding rose, but with no pain, powerful, masculine, sensual …

This is how Moonlight says tango music feels. You can see her swaying to the rhythm, lost in a memory, as she plays her cello with the group Firenze. The French took tango to Vietnam, and it became part of the culture there. Moonlight thinks of her father and mother dancing. They are young and happy, and she is still a child. So much music still to come. (Date TKTK, venue TKTK) Heidi Kyser

 

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