Light of Day gets underway in Asbury Park with loud and lively Kick-Off concert

by JAY LUSTIG
light of day fantastic cat

JOHN CAVANAUGH

Fantastic Cat (featuring, from left, Michael Hesslein, Brian Dunne, Anthony D’Amato and Mike Montali) performed at Asbury Lanes, Jan. 18.

The annual Light of Day WinterFest has been presenting a Kick-Off concert for years. It originally was a more modest affair, but it has grown into a marathon, mirroring the festival’s centerpiece concert: 10 acts, including Fantastic Cat and Williams Honor, performed for about 3 ½ hours at this year’s Kick-Off, which took place at Asbury Lanes, Jan. 18.

JOHN CAVANAUGH

Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown, far right, of Williams Honor, with Jake Thistle, far left, and James Maddock.

It was lively, it was very loud (at times), and there was hardly a second of downtime as short acoustic sets were offered as the bands were setting up, behind them.

Fantastic Cat performed last, and for almost twice as long as anyone else. This is a unique — or, at least, very unconventional —band, made up of singer-songwriters Mike Montali (of the band Hollis Brown), Brian Dunne, Don DiLego and Anthony D’Amato, who all sing either lead or backing vocals and switch off on guitars, bass and drums from song to song. (Michael Hesslein also played keyboards for them at Asbury Lanes.) All four have followings of their own, but for the last several years have also been performing collectively as Fantastic Cat. Rolling Stone has dubbed them “a mysterious Americana supergroup.”

I did a series of previews for this year’s WinterFest — interviews with Joe Grushecky, Willie Nile, Glen Burtnik and Williams Honor, talking mainly about what Light of Day means to them — and one word that kept coming up was “camaraderie.” That’s a good word to use for Fantastic Cat, too. These guys are first-rate, serious songwriters, but put them together and they come off like a bunch of goofy frat brothers, cracking silly jokes as they drift from instrument to instrument, nonchalantly nailing whatever part they’re being called on to play. Their music at Asbury Lanes ranged from propulsive power-pop to the delicate ballad “Fiona” (on which everyone sings a verse), DiLego’s dreamy soft-rock song “New Year’s Day,” and D’Amato’s Dylanesque rant, “C’Mon Armageddon.”

JOHN CAVANAUGH

Fantastic Cat’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame countdown clock.

These guys really commit themselves to their jokes. Their last song, the honky tonk-style “Goodnight My Darling,” ended with a series of faux-dramatic fake endings, and at the side of the stage, a digital countdown clock gave the amount of time, down to the second, in which they will be eligible for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, more than 22 years from now.

“Camaraderie” is also a good word to use for Williams Honor, the second-to-last band on the bill. This group often performs as a country duo: singer Reagan Richards and guitarist and backing vocalist Gordon Brown. But this was a boisterous full-band show, with eight musicians (including backing vocalist Emily Grove, who had performed her own solo set earlier) creating a big, brawny sound.

Guest star James Maddock also contributed some stylish lead guitar to the bluesy “Let’s Stay Up All Night and Fight,” and the eight expanded to 10 with him and another guest, Jake Thistle (who also performed his own full-band set, earlier) on the closing number, a joyful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghosts” (check out video below).

Meanwhile, Bob Polding’s acoustic set (also featuring violinist Gary Oleyar) included a powerful, yearning version of Springsteen’s “My Lucky Day,” and Jarod Clemons’ solo opening set featured the show’s sentimental highlight: a heartfelt acoustic take on his father Clarence Clemons’ hit, “You’re a Friend of Mind.”

JOHN CAVANAUGH

Lisa Bouchelle with members of her band The Bleu (Dan Neary, left, and Hal B. Selzer) at Asbury Lanes.

Lisa Bouchelle and her band The Bleu exuded infectious energy in a set that ranged from the bouncy pop anthem “Jump In!” to the country ballad “Only the Tequila Talkin’,” a playful take on the standard “Fever,” and an acoustic-trio reinterpretation of her own “Love Is for the Making.” The Adam Ezra Group had a distinctively folky/funky sound, and brought the show to an early high point with “The Devil Came Up to Boston” (watch video below), a frequently obscene re-write of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” sung by Ezra in a comically exaggerated Boston accent, and featuring some dynamic violin playing by group member Corinna Smith.

This was a Kick-Off concert, by the way, in the sense that it was the first major show in the festival’s main city, Asbury Park, which will host many other shows through Jan. 21. Other major 2024 WinterFest concerts had already taken place in other cities, and this year’s centerpiece extravaganza, with 17 acts (including Max Weinberg’s Jukebox) scheduled to play for 5 hours, will be tonight at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank.

For information on all Light of Day shows, visit lightofday.org.

Here is a Kick-Off photo gallery and, below it, some videos from the show.

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