On a perfect summer night to watch the sun set into the Niagara River, North Tonawanda’s Gratwick Riverside Park greeted a crowd of thousands on Friday night for the kickoff of the Rockin’ on the River free concert series, featuring a trio of bands headlined with a bang by Toronto-based dance-rock duo Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker, aka USS.
Set comfortably on a flat patch of riverfront grass, the sprawling space was lined with carnival-style food and drink vendors aplenty and two organizations running raffles (the Buffalo Zoo and SPCA of Niagara County), completing a scene well-suited to welcome the entire community.
Opening the show was Albany-raised journeyman pro hockey defenseman Matt Lashoff, whose quartet’s short set of original barroom blues-rock suggested his prospects on stage are similar to those on the ice – a somewhat gritty, stay-at-home player whose slapshot and Stratocaster chops are both good enough to go pro.
Toronto-area quartet Stereokid followed with a warm mix of rap, rock, reggae and funk that won the crowd from the opening catchy hook of its debut album’s title track “Mission for Love.” A prime-time prospect, the quartet’s well-received 30-minute set could easily have gone twice as long had it started earlier; though the Rockin’ on the River website lists opening bands starting at 5 p.m., Lashoff’s opening set began at 7 p.m.
USS owned the night with an engaging and relentless nearly two-hour set, its “campfire after-party” sound juxtaposing the meditative grunge and home-run hooks of singer-guitarist Ash Boo-Schultz with the big beats and hype-man shenanigans of EDM turntablist Human Kebab, all kept in time by tireless drummer Matthew Murphy.
The opening nostalgic sing-along “Yo Hello Hooray” set the tone, followed by Kebab’s handstand antics as his laptop did the heavy lifting on “Anti-Venom” and Boo-Schultz’s acceptance of existential angst in “This is the Best,” all Canadian hits across their three latest albums.
Two mid-set singles cut to the core of their unique sound and live appeal. In “Laces Out,” Kebab’s opening sample of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” sent Boo-Schultz skyward before giving way to a driving beat that stirred the song’s seemingly sober progression, leading to a wild mutual outpouring between artist and audience. That was propelled by Kebab kicking around the stage in full commitment to carrying the collective frenzy.
As Boo-Schultz concluded the song by collapsing at center stage, Kebab quickly segued into their most recent hit, “Nepal,” in which the recovered Boo-Schultz – who mainly sang with eyes closed – nodded and pointed out to those singing along to his populist preachings, after which Kebab scratched a solo with his elbow.
USS played to the partying crowd with plenty of covers – mostly tongue-in-cheek snippets such as a few skewed bars of the allegedly underrated Miley Cyrus banger “Party in the U.S.A.,” as well as a spot-on full run through Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” The band also paid homage by name to many in attendance who have supported it locally over five years of frequently playing around Western New York, Kebab calling out to one in front who sang along and stirred many in the crowd behind him to wave their arms during the closing “Damini.”
If USS can keep living up to their name like this, their audience is bound to keep growing.