The air outside Sportsmen’s Tavern on Friday night definitely felt like January in Buffalo. But inside, when George Cole & Eurocana started playing, you could’ve sworn it was April in Paris.
The concept of this percussion-less Bay Area jazz quartet is apparent in its name. Under the guidance of songwriter and lead guitarist Cole, the group appeals to Francophiles and Cole Porter junkies alike, delivering white-hot gypsy jazz rhythms in the form of Tin Pan Alley pop songs – music that longs for the Left Bank and Central Park, simultaneously.
The latter was evident on the opening song, an ode to the pinstriped past of Gershwin’s New York called “Riverside Drive.” When the group launched into the subsequent tune, the smoldering flamenco instrumental “Valentino,” the band’s bi-coastal dichotomy was in full force.
While a majority of the songs shared Friday were proper pop constructions inspired by Cole’s crooner heroes – he specifically referenced Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby in between songs – his singing and songwriting abilities were not what made this show special. Cole’s lyrics, while pleasant enough, aren’t exactly original (e.g. “Walk down the street/My heart skips a beat”). No, this night was all about musicianship. Of the highest order.
Cole’s guitar playing is a marvel to see up close, his fingers leaping all over the fret board, his pick churning out the notes with a velocity and verve that would make Django Reinhardt proud. The fact that his resume includes teaching Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt (who went on to form Green Day) and touring with classic rock doofus Joe Walsh is a credit to his versatility.
Rhythm guitarist Mathias Minquet (a Parisian for real) held his own as well, including on a gorgeous solo snippet where he played nothing but harmonics. Violinist Stephan Dudash gave the music a distinctly American kind of grit – that is until he broke into an inspired rendition of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5.”
And bassist/vocalist Kaeli Earle shared the spotlight with Cole in most, harmonizing, singing lead, walking with command, and slinging out an amazing scat solo on the second-set number “Girl From Minnesota.”
Just as crucial as the people on stage was the venue itself. For all of its energy, this is the kind of music that could be seen as nothing more than some frothy retro fun, stuff that would blend into the background of a Prohibition theme party. But the way the Sportsmen’s is built, letting you feel right on top of the stage whether you’re on the floor or balcony – along with the appreciation of music that oozes from its 8 x 10 glossy-laden walls – makes it impossible not to respect the craft.
For its encore, George Cole & Eurocana took full advantage of this intimacy, stepping off the stage and delivering a pair of songs away from the microphones. It was a generous gesture from these talented people, one that the small but adoring crowd took to heart. As this unamplified music filled the space, its melodies reverberating off the pitched wooden roof, its warmth left us ready to step out and face the cold midnight with a smile.