Three-piece music ensembles, also known as trios, have been a popular format since the Middle Ages.
Vivaldi and Bach composed trio sonatas for one bass and two treble instruments during the first half of the 18th century; jazz musicians popularized the piano, bass and drums trio beginning in the 1940s; and “super groups” of the late 1960s such as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience used guitar, bass and drums.
The current alternative band New Politics features only lead vocals, guitar and drums on its hit “Harlem,” a challenging lineup given there is no bass to hold down the bottom end.
On a similar note, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Tim Hockenberry took the stage Saturday night at Cotati’s Redwood Café with a guitarist and drummer supporting his lead vocals and electric piano and only the foot pedals of the piano providing a bass line.
Hockenberry’s trademark gravelly voice sounds like a hybrid of several iconic performers: Louis Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Cocker, Jackson Browne, Bryan Adams and Bob Seger.
A crowd of about 40 people was composed of 40-somethings and older.
“I listened to Tim in coffee shops in the early 1990s and made a personal connection,” said Bob Love of Marin County. “He touches my heart every time I go.”
Hockenberry was an accomplished jazz trombone player in the Midwest before relocating to Marin County 20 years ago to focus on songwriting, vocals and piano.
He was the lead vocalist of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra circa 2008 and a finalist on “America’s Got Talent” in 2012 where he was, according to his bio, “unseated by five dogs, a sand artist and a comedian.”
Hockenberry’s sidemen at the café carry considerable pedigrees as well. Drummer Jeff Campitelli has performed with Joe Satriani, the groups Rage and Blitz, and was selected by Rolling Stone magazine as “the 50th greatest drummer of all time.”
On guitar was Tal Morris, a virtuoso with roots in rock, blues, jazz and fusion who has performed with a who’s who of San Francisco Bay Area talent: Carlos Santana, members of Journey, Narada Michael Walden, Norton Buffalo and Tommy Castro.
He creates a signature sound like that of Pat Metheny with an ax by b3 Guitars and a plethora of outboard effects.
Guitarist Richard Flynn of Benicia, an experienced player in his own right, was in the audience and said: “Tal Morris’ guitar playing is like icing so good you forget there was ever a cake.”
The trio played two 45-minutes sets, and both were composed of about two-thirds cover tunes and one-third originals. Morris’ guitar playing stole the show on just about every occasion.
After an opening ballad featuring Hockenberry on piano and vocals, the trio launched into a new-age rendition of “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure where Morris introduced his melodic style of punishing strings without blowing out the vehicle or the venue.
A few songs later, Hockenberry offered exceptionally soulful singing as the trio transformed Bruce Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl” into medium-slow rock ballad of their own.
Like most of their songs, this one featured a guitar solo in the center of the arrangement per protocol established during the “dinosaur rock era” of the 60s and 70s.
Morris left for parts unknown as he super-imposed a long run of notes in what sounded like the 5/4 time signature over the stock 4/4 rock rhythm of the song.
The first set ended with a unique half-time version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”
This excellent composition presented the widest appeal for 20-somethings had they been in attendance.
Morris came through with a cerebral guitar solo that captured the sensation of “walking on cumulus clouds” while Benna Corinne of Santa Rosa said the song sounded like a “beautiful dirge.”
Set two began with a turbocharged version of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.
Several songs later, the trio played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with bluesy, soulful singing and great instrumentation.
Lyrics from the second verse were eerie: “Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you / She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne, and she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the hallelujah.”
The trio also covered “Mad World,” a song written and recorded by Tears for Fears and later made into a haunting rendition by Gary Jules, with exceptional prowess.
Here, the full potential of the band was realized as Hockenberry provided “music noir” vocals, Morris contributed guitar sounds a la David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Campitelli showed his progressive rock roots with polyrhythmic drum fills.
Hockenberry has a “million dollar” voice in a somewhat limited range, and he showed wisdom in hiring accomplished sidemen, but he needs to replace a majority of the cover songs with original compositions if he wants to take his career to the next level.
Thousands of musicians have carved out successful paths covering other people’s tunes, but Hockenberry would be better served doing his own thing.