Here’s What’s Upstate

June 23, 2020
Marty Halpern

Upstate - photo: Patrick Capriglione

When Upstate released their second album, Healing, in February 2019, they knew they were going to tour to support it. What they didn’t know is that tour would allow their music to expand on stage to the point they wanted to release a live EP highlighting it. The result is Live at ArtsRiot.

 The 4-song EP showcases the band’s ability to shift thematically throughout their live shows while still keeping the vocal harmonies center-stage. Vocalist/Guitarist Melanie Glenn says a live release had been in the back of everyone’s mind, but was not a certainty. The early support from fans on the road ultimately led the band towards this release.

 “We definitely blossom live and love to play live as much as we love to be in the studio. We love arrangements, working on arranging,” Glenn states. “There are definitely different ways we arrange to tailor from in studio as opposed to live because I feel there are two different listening experiences.”

The recording is from a November, 2019 concert at ArtsRiot in Vermont. Healing’s ultra-catchy “Marietta” starts things at a furious pace that opens space for each musician to expand on the album version. Song creators and fellow bandmates Mary Kenney (vocals/guitar) and Harry D’Agostino (bass) stand out in this live version.

Glenn adds, “ ‘Marietta’ is one of the songs that had more of a pop punk feel behind it. It brings a different energy that’s not always on the stage. It feels great to play it live and have that extra beat.”

The vibe turns dramatically jazzy with “Mother.” The vocalists shine again, increasing the tempo before saxophonist Greg Blair unleashes a mammoth solo. The vocals take over at the end as they plead “Stand up to him” over and over in a song that’s personal to the band members.

As Glenn explains, “It’s laid back and eerie. What we’re pushing in that song is a feeling of discomfort. Facing a truth that might be hard to face.

“Personally, ‘Mother’ is my favorite song. I love going into areas I haven’t been to in terms of creating. So, it was a wonderful thing to sing more dissonant harmonies through that. It really pushes and allows a lot of expression to come out. It feels really good.”

“Who Knows” takes a journey through several genres starting, off with an alt-rock vibe from a plugged-in guitarist, Dylan McKinstry. The vocals stay true to form as they mesh nicely with more outstanding sax work from Blair. This live version shows off the growth the song has taken since first being released on Glenn’s solo album Bathroom Tracks.

The closer, “Healing,” puts to end any question whether Upstate has the chops to be a live band. The über-peppy tune unleashes perma-happy percussionist Dean Mahoney, who adds some new toys to his live arsenal.

Upstate - photo: Patrick Capriglione
Photo: Patrick Capriglione

While the vocals remain on point, what really stands out is the musicianship behind them. Blair temporarily moves to keys, meshing with McKinstry’s mandolin grooves. The jam moves back through Mahoney and Blair, who transitions back to sax.

The only thing Live at ArtsRiot needs is more. It’s a true representation of how far the band has come since they started as Upstate Rubdown a few short years ago.

Over the years, there have been some changes to the structure of the band. Vocalist Allison Olendar moved on to pursue a solo career not long after this show was recorded. With her departure, the “core four” original bandmates (Glenn, Kenney, Mahoney, and D’Agostino) decided not to replace her and move on with Glenn and Kenney on vocals. The band also decided to use a rotating bunch of musicians of their choosing for recording and touring.

Glenn states Upstate is “definitely loving and enjoying our ability to work with other musicians and change the lineup as we go. There are definitely a couple of people in our lineup that we know we want to have them on our next album.”

Losing vocalist Olendar and therefore the three-part harmony is a slight step back for the band. Glenn says she and long-time friend Kenney can handle things moving forward.

“We will miss the three-part harmonies. It’s such a special force. We have been playing and singing together for so many years and are ready to tackle any extra writing. We’re excited to write new material with a different perspective of writing a dyad vs triad in the harmony and still pack a punch.”

Like almost every band trying to find their footing, Upstate has had a few twists and turns along the way. What the “core four” and friends put forth in Live at ArtsRiot proves they are definitely on the right path and can handle the ongoing curveballs the music business will throw at them.

Live at ArtsRiot is out on Royal Potato Family Records on June 26.

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