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For The Mike + Ruthy Band, show is no gimmick

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., June 3, 2015

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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A recent gimmick of veteran artists has been to hit the concert trail by playing a chestnut album in its entirety from start to finish. Lots of acts have done it seemingly to give the fans a rarity. Cynics would say that it's a blatant effort to get the Jacksons dropping their way.

The Mike + Ruthy Band displayed the same exact MO during their opening show of their new tour - they played "Bright As You Can" in order from start through its 14 songs, only a day after its release.

But the principals, who are based in Woodstock, N.Y., certainly could not be accused of milking it in, as their following is small even if they did pack the club.

Instead, the idea of playing the entire album live was a chance to give the fans something special, Ruthy Ungar said after the very generous 110-minute show. Offering an entire album for the faithful is generally considered risky because of the crowd's unfamiliarity with the material. That may have been true as well for the Mike + Ruthy Band, but the fact was that the music, which is in the country, rootsy vein, was quite easy to sink one's ears into with enough alterations of sound, style and instrumentation to keep the night moving.

They went from country to a bit of a folkier sound to a few songs that tended to rock a bit more (this is an acoustic room by and large after all). At times, one could imagine Dylan ("Word on the Street") or Tom Petty ("What Are We Waitin' For") singing these songs.

Mike Merenda and Ungar, who are husband and wife, tended to take turns on lead vocals with Ruthy having the majority of opportunities. She did not waste them as she is a very good singer. At times, she was a bit soulful. They also sang harmonies for each other and at times dueted as well. They also did a good job in giving the back story to a few of the songs. In talking about "The Ghost of Richard Manuel" (Manuel was a member of The Band), Ungar informed the crowd that she performed in a high school musical version of "Oklahoma" with Manuel's son.

Enough can't be said of the backing band, especially pedal steel player and trumpeter Charlie Rose, who lives in the area, on one of only three gigs he was doing with the band. Rose has been a top player on pedal steel in the Greater Boston area for years, and he showed yet again why he is most deserving of that mantle. He's fluid, not necessarily overpowering (the music by and large did not call for that).

In fact, Mike + Ruthy employed the same folks who played on the new album While the disc was recorded about a year ago and they only had a few hours on Tuesday to prep for the show, the lack thereof resulted in no ill effects at all. Drummer Konrad Meissner set the pace, while Merenda added banjo to a bunch of songs. Ungar trotted out a ukulele ("Goin' Out") and fiddle (the opening song of the night, the title track), which also had the welcome effect of changing up the sonics.

With the 14 songs finished, the band offered four more songs of older material, including "I'm Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail," to round out the evening.

The Mike + Ruthy took somewhat of a calculated risk in presenting a show of pretty much unknown songs, but with songs that are accessible and a crack band, the chance to hear all of "Bright As You Can" indeed was a welcome gift.