Burlington’s Higher Ground club looked like a UVM frat house on Friday night, sweet-dude backwards hats rivaling the husky-man beards for attention. Though various anti-war groups vied with the merch table for space, patrons seemed to ignore both in their anticipation of State Radio, current project of ex-Dispatch frontman Chad Urmston.
Before the crowd could collectively bro out, however, they had to get bored out (of their skulls) by Zimbabwe four-piece Bongo Love. If a group of ethnically dressed musicians playing smooth bongo jams sounds like your idea of hell, you would have been in good company among the glazed-over crowd. Music as ethnically authentic as anything you’ll hear in your local Starbucks or high-rise elevator, it was one soft midtempo blur, the Kenny G of percussion. I claim no expertise on Zimbabwean music, but anyone in the crowd could have been forgiven in thinking this rasta-esq melodies were from Jamaica, and the band’s bland “No Woman, No Cry” cover didn’t help matters. Though the performers seemed to be having a blast onstage, indulging in the occasional dance move, and being admittedly proficient at their instruments (which also included cowbell and – shudder – steel drum) texture and tone did not make up for content.
All was forgiven upon the arrival of the State Radio threesome, however. A jam band for frat dudes, they rocked out in a controlled way that kept the crowd with them on every note, reggae verses leading into punk choruses. If most songs sounded the same, it wasn’t for lack of energy as the bassist played busy lines and a badass drummer never passed up an opportunity for a furious fill. If Urmston’s talents were overshadowed, however, so too was his previous band. Though many in the crowd were presumably Dispatch fans back in the day, they proved no less devoted to this new group, singing along with every State Radio song without a request for “The General” to be heard. Bringing Bongo Love out for the tour-closing encore proved misguided, but the crowd’s admiration was willing to forgive a little anticlimactic jamming in their support of Urmston’s collegiate rock.