“I feel like I’m at Disneyland or something,” was where it started as (Sandy) Alex G entered the stage: Alex Giannascoli with his bandmates Samuel Acchione on guitar, John Heywood on bass, and Thomas Kelly on drums, “Project 2” the opening track for the night. Two girls behind me were exchanging observations that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Disneyland? Could it have been the blues and purples of the lights? Or was I folded into a crowd of disillusion about what our generation defines as Disneyland pertaining to the whinny grit of (Sandy) Alex G?
On the formidably haunting Hollywood Boulevard, just shy of Halloween, the sold-out crowd led me on as much of a journey as the band did for where we’re at, what we’re seeking, how we’re reacting, and what comes of it.
Opening with “Gretel,” the entire crowd was in singsong, a warped comparison of “It’s A Small World” coming to mind. At the drums, Kelly somehow managed to look as though he was conducting with his sticks, expanding wingspan while the theater echoed “I don’t wanna go back.”
Any observation outside of Giannascoli is shocking to me now, for the way he commanded the room’s attention, energetic through clenched teeth, as he sang newer songs like “Southern Sky” and “Hope.” He helmed the night onward, tongue licking his top lip between phrases in heightened concentration.
The view was unassuming, the guys all in various shades of muted blues and greys. The album art for House of Sugar idle in the background, slightly changing tone with the lights. A simultaneous quiet of color that somehow met the lo-fi nature of Giannascoli’s music. Harmonies like nervous songbirds blended into lyrics like, “The colors blue and purple start / To bleed into an endless dark” on the twangier “Bobby,” brimming with intention.
Fading out into the crowd, akin to the mentality of the Philly-based rocker, the comradery was evident. Palpable as the pressing of bodies and intent nods of heads in the quieter moments of the night and enlivening on songs like “Kicker” when the floor morphed into an all-out mosh pit. Stepping out and looking in, no one was keen on cheap thrills from an overeager shove or jab of an elbow to a rib. Falling into motion myself, all we wanted was the ability to feel the meter shift from that ephemeral waltz of 3/4 back into the common time grind for the rest of the jam. Everyone saw it coming, stepping in time, hands raised in excited syncopation.
Earlier in the evening the songs poured out without pause, the band riding a high met fully by their audience. It wasn’t until nearly ten songs into the set that Giannascoli finally paused, saying only, “This next one is an original. It’s about one of my favorite restaurants.”
Giannascoli on the keys, Acchione riffed into “Brick,” and the entire floor came alive as if the rest of the set was merely a polite psalm. He yelled as he slammed the keys, a hunched-over beast, lurching and calling out, “I know that you’re lying.” Everyone was losing it. The whole moment called to everyone watching, in the floor, on the outskirts, at the balcony, behind the bar. The lights came up on the crowd, a blurred mosh with every participant active, looking for that same way to get all the pent-up energy and angst out.
Maybe this was Disneyland my peers were seeking after all. The night surely was a critical outlet for those working through the climate of current affairs, personal as well as universal. A way to rage, to cope, to heal. Giannascoli sipped from a red Solo cup before diving back in, rocking back and forth on the bench in diminishing repose as they transitioned to “Bad Man,” which Sarah Beth Tomberlin (of opening band Tomberlin) joined on. The two acts collaborated numerous times throughout the night.
It was hard to concentrate on any sole element as the evening continued, the sonic vitality aligned above and below. Even during “Mis” a lone crowd surfer worked her way toward the stage before meeting with a security guard, greeting her with a smile stretching cheek to cheek. Everyone was united and synchronized. On songs like “Walk Away,” bodies bopped to and fro, following Giannascoli as he wide-stepped, dancing from foot to foot, stomping each into the stage with every down beat.
Tomberlin returned to the stage for “Crime” – another slower movement into the folksy side of House of Sugar. Her harmonies floating sweet in the monotone moments of Alex G’s verses, she even began doing a little side-step of her own along to Kelly’s snare and bass drum kick exchange throughout.
Following “Sugarhouse,” Giannascoli burst into a sudden diatribe, yelling out about the sound guy and silencing the audience, before leaving the stage abruptly with his bandmates.
“How Far is Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys played in its entirety before the guys returned. “I was just kidding about everything I said a minute ago,” Giannascoli joked.
So began the encore, with many deeper cuts such as “Fell” and “Fay” – the latter a request from the crowd to which Giannascoli casually responded, “Yeah okay, I think we can do that one.” The “wee-oohs” of their voices mimicking cop sirens a mesmerizing droll of legal formality and approach.
The encore continued with songs such as “Sarah” and “Harvey,” cut from his earlier releases Trick and DSU, respectively. Giannascoli began retuning his guitar. Another quieter moment of anticipation, he finally said, “I got this distortion pedal so this one rips,” before diving into “Animals” – the notable guitar lick digging in and setting him up for that iconic opening line: “I get sick when I get stoned.”
The encore began to conclude, with Giannascoli thanking all kinds of people such as “Kyle in back doing merch” and eagerly talking more with the crowd.
“It’s not a request, but you’re really gonna like it,” was the phrase that caught me most in the evening. Giannascoli was referring to another earlier track, “Icehead,” that was met with enthusiasm to no surprise. Maybe it wasn’t what anyone thought to ask for, but he doled out what he felt was needed to be heard, an interesting window into his drive when creating his music, for whom and with what purpose.
Tomberlin reentered for the last two songs, “Brite Boy” and “Change,” winging it with the microphone on the prior, and meeting Giannascoli’s falsetto with such endearing bliss on the latter. The final dig of “I don’t like how things change” murmured a recurrent outburst for each and every person out there that night. The lights began to strobe as they resolved, like stars burning out, like it doesn’t matter what you’re really seeing in the end. Maybe it’s all just an illusion and you’re aboard the train chugging through it.
And even with the pomp of finality, the night ended with a stage of four guys, having ridden along for the journey as much as they conducted it. They humbly handed each of their setlists to individuals in the crowd and left the stage with no obvious demeanor. The Rascal Flatts’ cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” rose up in the speakers as the lights poured over The Fonda, and that was the end of it: a curious affair, a trip in some alternate universe to Disneyland with (Sandy) Alex G.