River City Extension knows how to win an unfamiliar crowd over.
I’ve seen it.
It was in August 2012. New Jersey’s River City Extension was touring as openers for enchanting Portland rockers Blind Pilot. I was covering the Milwaukee concert for Mezzic, primarily to review headliner Blind Pilot. Prior to the show, I had never heard of River City Extension and I would assume the same went for much of the crowd at the Pabst Theater that night, but, that would change.
With most unfamiliar openers, the best reception you can typically hope for is an agreeable they were pretty good. However, that night, River City Extension came out with a parade of an opening set, one that completely absorbed the room. Frontman Joe Michelini led the then eight-piece as they charmed and excited the crowd. Their sound was a renewed blend of folk/punk/pop/alternative all powered behind a full instrumentation, including a violin and maracas. Noticeable set standouts were the fiery “There & Back Again” and Caribbean-tinted anthem “Welcome to Pittsburgh.” Both were off of the band’s promising second album, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger.
That night, when River City Extension finished their set, they received the most resounding opener applause I’ve heard in a very long time. It was quite the first impression.
Deliverance is the third album from River City Extension and it features Michelini leading a more compressed five-piece crew. However, the shift in size did not compromise the band’s ambition, energy or originality. Deliverance is a more concentrated and balanced effort than its solid predecessor, and it finds the band zeroing in more on their own distinct sound. The result is an engaging, thoughtful collection that further incorporates the uplifting peaks that were such bright spots on Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger.
“Something’s Gotta Give” begins Deliverance with a rhythmic jolt. The track is immediate and accessible but layered in a way that it’s not clean-cut or textbook folk rock. Much of River City Extension’s music is highlighted with unexpected riffs and passionate, impromptu breakdowns of melodies and instruments. It has grown to be a charismatic and beloved component of the band’s repertoire.
Much of that same edge can be heard on the excellent “Indian Summer.” The track builds off of a soft, brooding melody only to rapidly cascade into a frantic finish. It’s not a break you might normally expect but that’s what makes it such a lively tune. The beautifully sparse “I Wouldn’t Worry” encompasses a similar progression dichotomy, highlighted by the track’s soaring bridge. Michelini anchors the tune with continuously easing lyrics, singing “Maybe I’ll never be too sure/ Maybe I’m doing all I can/ I wouldn’t worry about it now/ I wouldn’t worry about it then.”
“Man of Conviction” is maybe the most surprising track on Deliverance. The easy-listening tune is void of a bustling River City hook or jagged progression; instead it finds Michelini opening up his vocal range and nailing down his soft rock side. Simple, reaching O’s dominate much of the chorus while instrumentation stays rhythmic. The song stays grounded in a way, and it’s better for it. The soul-searching power jam, “Ohio” excels in much of the same balanced completeness. It’s rich and bold, but also catchy, and completely accessible to fans of rock, pop, country, folk and everyone in between.
At times, Deliverance does lose momentum, most notably with the drawn-out instrumental opening of “Deliverance Part 2” and the slow, sparse beginning to the darker, more experimental “Vox Populi.” However, the lively “Girls” dances wonderfully as Michelini contemplates some of the unsolvable mysteries of women (“You know there’s men who’d give the world to put their arms around you”).
When I first heard River City Extension play the Pabst Theater, it was a sound I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Just when you think they settle into an acoustic folk-rock label, there’s a shattering shift, a divergence to a hook or bridge that’s more punk rock and chaotic (As heard here in Deliverance’s “Man of Conviction” and “I Wouldn’t Worry”). With their third album, River City Extension continues to be a rock band that’s impossible to sub categorize. But with that said, Deliverance signals impressive growth in the band’s ability to write encompassing and complete hit-worthy tracks. Altogether, River City Extension can be a difficult band to explain, but an easy band to like. Deliverance is a testament to that.