When was the last time you found yourself immersed in an art house-hosted double set of folk originals, Badfinger covers and sublime interpretations of Puccini opera offerings – all from the same trio of seasoned Buffalo musicians?
Those who squeezed into a packed Pausa Art House on Friday night now have an answer to that question, as local performance royalty John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey joined renowned pianist Joe Rozler to roll through an eclectic performance inside one of Allentown’s most intimate venues.
Seeing Lombardo and Ramsey together is no rare occurrence. As John and Mary, they have regularly performed and released four albums (including “Peace Bridge” with the Valkyries) over the past two decades. As 10,000 Maniacs alumni, they both own their own stamp on that band’s existence, with Lombardo a founding member and with Ramsey’s viola work on the group’s televised cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night,” just as vital as Natalie Merchant’s stunning vocal.
But teamed with their Valkyries keyboardist Joe Rozler – a Buffalo Music Hall of Famer who has lent his chameleonic studio talents to the yin of the Goo Goo Dolls and the yang of sorcery-obsessed metal gods Manowar – they certainly had the freedom to take Friday’s performance wherever their whims dictated. To the delight of the Pausa crowd, they did just that over two entertaining and engaging sets.
Flanked by Rozler on a black baby grand and Lombardo on his Guild acoustic, Ramsey filled the evening’s early program with the same soothing vocals and five-string violin work that area crowds have come to expect. Such was evident on John and Mary’s “We Have Nothing,” with Ramsey supporting Lombardo’s winter-tinged lyrics with backing vocals and balancing chords. On the trio’s subdued cover of Frank Zappa’s “Valerie,” Ramsey switched to her sturdy viola to complement Rozler’s deft key work before returning to the violin for Lombardo’s nautical tale within “Clouds of Reason.”
The evening’s cover-heavy set list proved to be a roll of the dice with every new number, but with every turn came a winning combination. When Lombardo and Co. wanted to honor the late Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle with a stirring tribute of “Heart Like a Wheel,” they did it, with Rozler trading his piano keys for an accordion. When Rozler wanted to lead his bandmates through a rendition of Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” he played it with gusto while Ramsey substituted the original version’s wah wah-pedaled licks with bowed violin notes. And when the three wanted to end their first set with a nod to Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, they did that, too, eliciting a round of “bravos” from the Pausa house.
Those who stayed for the second set were treated to even more surprises. Ramsey transitioned from singing “Happy Birthday” to Rozler into an unexpected jaunt through ABBA’s “Waterloo”; Rozler’s vocals and piano remade the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues”; and Lombardo’s fluid acoustic work offered an earnest delivery of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s somber “Alone Again (Naturally).” And for those who filled the shadowed standing room space of Pausa to hear Ramsey and Lombardo revisit their time under the Maniacs moniker, they got theirs with a helping of “The Wishing Chair” and “More Than This,” the band’s successful take on the 1982 Roxy Music classic.
To seamlessly weave through such an encyclopedic set is no simple task. But, over a night spent shifting through eras and styles within Pausa’s coffeehouse-like setting, Lombardo, Ramsey and Rozler made it look as easy as one, two, three.