Sensory Overload: Hotel War

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

By talking with Hotel War's Curtis Apwisch before his band's show last Thursday at Rumba Cafe, I learned that the blues rockers have shuffled through five drummers in as many years.

Apwisch credited this Spinal Tap-worthy succession of timekeepers with spearheading the group's evolution, a growth process he said took the band from bruising garage rock to the smoky, Black Keys-style jams they currently kick out.

Since Thursday was my first experience with Hotel War, I didn't bear witness to all that history, but I did see them embark on a new era with the incorporation of soul singer Angela Siciliano, who joined them halfway through Thursday's set to sing backup.

Before Siciliano stepped on stage, the band played a few songs as a power trio, with Apwisch on bass and vocals, Justin Nash on guitar and Stucco Jones' Tommy Conway on drums. That opening stretch was somewhat hampered by some frustrating realities of musical economy: You gain a little something here, you lose a little something there.

At first I appreciated the way Apwisch's high-register riffing on the bass interacted with Nash's guitar work. But eventually the songs began to seem thin because they lacked the rock-bottom foundation of the low register. Even a few quick blasts on the low E could have created some cool dynamic shifts.

As if sensing my disappointment, the band soon busted out some songs that featured Apwisch holding down the low end and letting the guitar do most of the exploring. It's a time-tested formula because it works. The music hit significantly harder from then on out.

The biggest upgrade, though, was Siciliano. A rock star she was not - she seemed tentative, as if she doesn't usually perform for people - but her harmonies and free-form outbursts injected a lot of personality into music that was otherwise pretty middle-of-the-road.

Adding soulful backup vocals ain't exactly a revolutionary move, but if they stick with it, it's going to help separate Hotel War from the pack in a very crowded genre full of carbon copies.

Later the bar played host to a pair of performers from Big Bang piano bar. I found both of their performances disappointing for different reasons.

First was Matty Monk, who was just supremely lame. I prefer to avoid performers who ask if there are "any cougars in the house tonight?" And the lily-white scatting of "Doo Wop" was nearly as distasteful.

As for Andrew Varner, I enjoyed his squeaky-clean songwriting on last year's "Make Believe" EP, despite my distinct feeling that those songs belonged in an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." So I was dismayed that after opening number "King and Queen," Varner launched into a piano-heavy cover of Cold War Kids' "Hang Me Out to Dry."

He makes a living playing other people's songs at the piano bar; I thought this was supposed to be a chance for him to play his own stuff. When he followed that with a groan-worthy rendition of Modest Mouse's "Float On," I walked out.

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