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No sleep 'til Nectar's; On the road with Buffalo band Aqueous on its quest to play at fabled Vermont jam-band hot spot

"I can't feel my legs."

Halfway between Buffalo and Plattsburgh, Nick Sonricker has had enough. Crammed into the least comfortable seat in the back of a truck cabin that houses six full-grown men and tows a trailer stuffed with some $30,000 worth of musical equipment, the Aqueous drummer is not enjoying his turn in the spot his bandmates have christened with an expletive-ridden sobriquet.

"I've gotta get outta here and stretch."

If Sonricker was looking for sympathy from his friends, he was destined to be disappointed.

"It's your turn, dude, deal with it," laughs guitarist Mike Gantzer.

"Don't make me have to pull this thing over and put a beatin' on you," bellows soundman/driver/head tech Ryan Nogle.

Guitarist/keyboardist Dave Loss and bassist Evan McPhaden just giggle and shake their heads.

Sonricker deadpans something unprintable, and all six men burst into laughter. He is being a good sport -- he has no choice. Such is life on the road for an independent band. Everyone gets their time in the rumble seat.

>An Aqueous solution

Aqueous is a band. Aqueous is also a team.

Much of that team is crammed into a Toyota sedan that is following the Aqueous truck-and-trailer get-up across New York State, destined, on the third and final night of this mini-tour, for Burlington, Vt., the home of the fabled Nectar's -- ground zero for the jam-band/prog-rock movement of which Aqueous is an increasingly leading light.

It was on Nectar's small stage, after all, that a Vermont-based foursome known as Phish cut its teeth, building a rabid local following in the late 1980s that would soon spread across the country, and then the world. Nectar's is now to jam-band fans what the Cavern Club is to Beatle-maniacs -- hallowed ground.

Back in the Toyota, Josh Holtzman mans the wheel. He's the manager of Aqueous, the band's biggest fan and the guy responsible for snagging the golden ticket that is the Nectar's gig. His belief in Aqueous is both palpable and well-founded.

To Holtzman's right sits Carolyn Lesniak, promotions manager, street team leader and zealous preacher of the gospel of Aqueous.

Tucked into the back seat, surrounded by piles of "merch," backpacks, blankets, pillows and, for some reason, the world's largest jar of Tums, sits lighting director Karl Osterman Jr. He, too, is a full convert to the cause. When Aqueous is playing, Osterman simply beams.

This is a side of the burgeoning independent band that outsiders aren't often privy to. There are four musicians in Aqueous, but beyond any shadow of a doubt, they could not make it alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a zealous cult to pull a rock band up out of the muck and into the public eye. You don't see Holtzman, Osterman, Nogle or Lesniak up on the stage, under the lights or greeting fans after the gig. But without their behind-the-scenes machinations, none of this would be happening -- or, perhaps more accurately, none of this would be happening in such an effective manner.

Bands need believers, and this lot is certainly of that variety when it comes to Aqueous. All are artists in their own right, but all have taken a knee before the greater good -- that good being the zeitgeist-capturing sound conjured by Gantzer, Loss, McPhaden and Sonricker.

>Gigantic something

Stop One on this Adirondack Mountain tour is Plattsburgh, a college town, primarily, and one that appears to be mostly asleep as the Aqueous caravan pulls up in front of the venue for the evening's gig. The Monopole is a twin-level bar and nightclub, boasting that classic air of faux-English pub ambience and cheap beer aroma. It's the kind of joint more than familiar to independent bands.

Piling out of their cramped quarters -- all except for Nogle, who is faced with the task of finding a place to park the truck-and-trailer, one that won't draw the attention of Plattsburgh's finest, while the load-out/load-in ritual takes place -- the Aqueous guys boast a chipper spirit that belies the nearly eight hours they've just spent in the cloyingly intimate truck cab environment.

Realizing that the band will be performing upstairs -- a lofty height that can be reached only by a disturbingly steep and narrow staircase -- doesn't seem to dampen the spirits of anyone but your humble narrator, who has volunteered to help haul equipment throughout the tour and whose back spasms reflexively in anticipation of the work ahead. (This ain't my first rodeo, as the saying goes. But it's been a while.)

Gantzer, Loss, McPhaden and Sonricker appear to be undaunted and not at all bothered by the Herculean task ahead, but Nogle is none too pleased with the prospect of hauling all of his PA equipment -- as well as the band's guitars, amps, drums, keyboards and the merchandise and merch table that Holtzman and Lesniak man at every Aqueous gig -- through such a prohibitive space.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Nogle hollers to no one in particular.

Then he unfastens the padlock holding the trailer closed, whips open the sliding door and gets down to it. Everyone pitches in. Miraculously, within an hour, all of the equipment has made it up the staircase, the band members are connecting patch cables, mounting drums on stands and tuning guitars, and Nogle is busy assembling his sizable PA system.

Come show time, the place is not exactly packed, but it's not empty, either. Holtzman looks at the Monopole gig as a good introduction of the band to that particular market, and also, as a bit of a warm-up for the Saranac Lake and Burlington shows. So there's no real pressure on the guys on this night. They are planning to play two full sets, and it's to their credit that they consider this opportunity a luxury. It's inspiring to realize that, more than anything else, the Aqueous brood loves to play music together.

And then, shortly after 10 p.m., this writer is hit full-on by what feels like an epiphany. I'd seen Aqueous live only once previous to this tour, and was well acquainted with the band's debut CD, "Giant Something." It was clear to me that these guys had incredible potential, which is why I'd pursued the tour opportunity. Even so, I was not prepared for the incredible transformation the band had undergone in the many months since I'd seen it live.

Two songs into the set, and the joyful noise generated by the quartet has wrapped itself around me. The songs themselves are adventurous, smartly composed, inventive, exuberant; the jams and improv sections add immensely to the experience, as Aqueous heads off in directions heretofore unknown and previously unexplored. Like all great bands before them, Aqueous breathes as one organism when it is in full flight. The level of musicianship in the band's improvisations is very high, daring, even. All in their early 20s, Gantzer, Loss, McPhaden and Sonricker have clearly found rich soil in which to plant their musical ideas. By the end of the first set, I'm blown away by their open, welcoming sound, a blend of progressive rock, psychedelic music and flourishes of world beat.

It's a sound that has clearly been influenced by the likes of Phish, Umphrey's McGee and Buffalo's own moe. But it's far from derivative. Rather, it seems to be picking up the baton from those bands, eagerly attacking its own portion of the relay race. Complicit in the musical magic is soundman Nogle, who turns the Monopole -- a small room with odd angles less than conducive to the purest of acoustical alchemies -- into a high-caliber concert-club setting. The sound is simply incredible -- rich, full, round and warm. The show goes well, and the band makes new fans.

Gig No. 1 is a success.

By the time we do the load-out and get back to the hotel, it's 5 a.m., and everyone is cooked. By 8:30 a.m., I'm already one cup of coffee into the day. Burlington and Nectar's feel like a lifetime away.

>Returning to Forever

The trip to Seneca Lake from Plattsburgh is marked by giddy camaraderie, precisely because it's short, easy, scenic and everyone is pumped from the night before. These guys are indeed like brothers, with Nogle the slightly older, mildly curmudgeonly member of the tribe. He's hilarious in a sort of "I'm the only one in this vehicle who knows what he's doing, and you guys would be hopelessly lost by now if I wasn't driving" way.

The dynamic works, very well. A band whose members can tease each other mercilessly without anyone's feelings getting hurt is a band that's built to last. The ride is notable for many things, principal among them Nogle's DJ-ing skills.

"I've got something you guys need to hear," he says, and then cues up the prog-jazz-fusion masterpiece "Romantic Warrior," from Return to Forever. If there was actually room to move, I might have fallen out of my chair -- this is an album I grew up with, and I'm frankly a bit surprised that Nogle is aware of its existence. None of the Aqueous guys have heard the record before, but they are well aware of RTF leader Chick Corea, a giant in the world of jazz.

Listening to the album with them, as they enthusiastically devour its complexity, makes me feel like I'm hearing it for the first time myself. This seemingly endless curiosity about music is part of what makes Aqueous special. These guys, though still a few years shy of their first quarter century on earth, are clearly "lifers" -- the sort of musicians who will be playing forever, having transcended the mere hobbyist's fascination before they were even out of high school.

The Saranac Lake gig is at a place called the Waterhole, which, as it turns out, is a far more posh joint than its name might suggest. The town is quaint, laid-back, New England-ish, hip. The load-in stands in stark contrast to the previous night's affair at the Monopole. This one is as close to ideal as these things get -- there is a side door that opens right onto the stage, and Nogle is able to back the truck-and-trailer right up to it. We're finished in half an hour, which gives us time to fully enjoy the club -- a cathedral-ceilinged second-floor room with a balcony running around the whole place, and an inviting, woodsy atmosphere.

The short drive also leaves plenty of time for a casual set-up and soundcheck, as well as a run-through of what the band is calling "Karl's debut." This entails light-man Osterman "conducting" an Aqueous improvisation from his humble lighting booth halfway across the club, through a series of hand signals denoting key changes and modulations either up or down the scale in question. It's a fun bit, reminiscent of similar activities promulgated by the likes of Frank Zappa and Trey Anastasio of Phish, both clear and present influences on Aqueous.

Then there's time to kill before the gig. Finding the home of a band friend who is hosting the whole motley crew for the overnight eats up most of it. We were given an address via text message, and told to "walk right in, it will be open," though our host would be otherwise engaged at work. All fine and dandy, save one small problem -- it was the wrong address, and when Sonricker and Nogle waltz into the house, they are met by the confused stare of a young boy playing with his toys on the living room rug, and a baffled and slightly alarmed mother.

Happily, like pretty much all of the people we meet in Saranac Lake, the mom is kind, mellow, reasonable, as if this sort of thing happened routinely. Everyone is little freaked out, though. When we finally get the proper address, and make it to the right house, all claim spots on the floor, set up bedrolls and attempt to steal a quick nap.

This gives me some time to catch up with manager Holtzman, who has some big news to share -- Aqueous has been chosen to play this year's moe.Down festival, the annual camping-and-music jam-band affair hosted by Buffalo-born moe., and a huge deal for jam-bands and alternative musicians alike.

This is a serious feather in the Aqueous cap -- a chance for the guys to strut their stuff before tens of thousands at the Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin, N.Y. (Aug. 10-12). At moe.Down, Aqueous will be sharing the bill with the likes of Umphrey's McGee, North Mississippi All Stars, and of course, moe.

Holtzman is thrilled, and he should be. This is a game-changer for the band.

Back inside, the acoustic guitars have emerged from their cases, nap time has been kicked to the curb and an informal jam session has begun. Sonricker finds the dense chord voicings for a Steely Dan tune -- pretty nifty for a drummer! Loss and Gantzer fool around with ideas for new songs. In a flash, the cramped quarters have assumed a homey feel. Music works its magic, once again.

>Willy Is 40

The show at the Waterhole tops the Plattsburgh gig, even if the band plays only one set in its opening slot for Albany's Timbre Coup. The acoustic properties of this room have been fine-tuned, and Nogle is in his element here, once again bringing a rich, well-rounded mix to the party, and giving Aqueous an arena-sized sonic oomph well matched to the band's intricate, ebullient music. The group is working a new song into its shows, and it's a winner, clearly.

"Willy Is 40" takes its name from graffiti sprayed on an overpass in the Wheatfield/North Tonawanda area where the four band members grew up and went to high school together. It's a complex piece devised as a call-and-response between Loss and Sonricker's harmony-laden query and Gantzer's answer -- the lyrics denoting a sort of midlife existential crisis.

Here, everything Aqueous does so well -- the assertive rhythm section groove, the surprising shifts in time signature and harmony, the top-flight musicianship, the impossible-to-miss vocal hooks -- is rolled into one epic piece. At the Waterhole, this song is revealed in flawless form, and even if the audience members aren't familiar with it, they clearly dig it, and respond in kind. It's easy to imagine this wonderful song going down like gangbusters at moe.Down in August.

Aqueous leaves the stage to rapturous applause, and everyone grabs a drink and gathers to take in the set from Timbre Coup, friends who have shared gigs with Aqueous in the past. This band's impressive set stands in contrast to the Aqueous performance that preceded it -- where the Buffalo band plays warm, inviting, welcoming progressive music, Timbre Coup is all business, a serious troupe given to dark-hued, muscular virtuosity. Very cool stuff, and a sound that has made the whole Aqueous collective into solid fans. And yet, I find myself longing for the pure joy so evident in "Willy Is 40" ...

>The golden road to unlimited devotion

Morning comes quickly, and with an attitude. I'm suddenly grateful for Osterman's gargantuan tub of Tums. Yet everyone is in good spirits. A delegation volunteers to run for coffee, and the acoustic guitars come out again. We all jam a bit, everything from Jeff Beck to simple blues, but ultimately, Loss and Gantzer take over, and they play together -- even in this unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed condition -- like one guitarist with four hands.
The excitement for the big gig at Nectar's hangs in the air like a potently seductive perfume. Burlington is only a ferry ride away, and everyone is eager to get there. When we do, it's easy to understand why. Burlington might best be described as a hippie Mecca -- its beautiful, laid-back, welcoming, clean and elegantly Bohemian.

We pull into town and head immediately for Nectar's. Everyone wants to see the fabled club. Nogle finds a kind and indulgent proprietor of a gas station across the street from the club who happily obliges us with a spot for truck and trailer. We head to the club, and in the foyer, we stop as one to take in the gorgeous piece of artwork that is the poster for the evening's concert -- headlined by jam-band dignitaries Moonalice, but there it is, in only slightly smaller type just below the headliner: Aqueous.

The guys are abundantly stoked. We go in, meet the welcoming committee -- yes, Nectar's actually has one, unlike a revered club in, say, New York City, where hostility is the only thing that greets a band of weary travelers of the independent band variety. The soundman is an Eastern European dude with a long ponytail and a true gentleman. He welcomes Nogle, is eager to show him the intricacies of his immense sound-mixing desk.

Meanwhile, the band members gather in dignified silence in front of the Nectar's stage, letting the lingering resonance of those who performed here in the past wash over them. I mention that, as ridiculous and overtly romanticized as it may sound, there is indeed a vibe in this room, and it's a good one. The Aqueous guys agree. It is at once solemn and celebratory, this feeling.

Just as it should be, the Nectar's gig is the finest of the three-day tour. Moonalice, the evening's headliner, prefers to play first and be finished early. So Aqueous takes the stage in the nominal headliner spot. Incredibly, though this is the band's first time playing here in what in reality amounts to an audition for a return invitation, the place is packed.

The band plays an energetic, deeply musical set. Those assembled dance and cheer as if they'd been listening to Aqueous for years, and yes, "Willy Is 40" brings down the house.

At the merch table, Holtzman is simply glowing, he's so thrilled, and even the always detail-oriented Nogle looks more than pleased.

Nectar's proves to be a major success for the band. Even the dismal dump of a hotel we file into at 4 a.m. can't dampen the enthusiasm.

Morning, then, and time to shuffle back to Buffalo. Somehow, Sonricker is back in the torture seat. Yeah. It's tough to be the drummer.

As I'm putting this story to bed, I get a text from Holtzman. Nectar's called. They want Aqueous back. Onward!