A Review: Homegrown talent ignites stage

By BRIAN COSNER and REBECCA NEIPP

“Unconditional Life,” a pop/rock group with local roots, held its album release concert last weekend, and the band was just one of three groups performing that night at the Historic USO Building. Opening acts were local band “Alas de Liona” and “Levi Petree and the Radio Publica.”

The most pressing thought on my mind coming away from Unconditional Life’s performance was: why aren’t we hearing these guys on the radio yet?

Now based in the Los Angeles area, the band was formed by Burroughs High School grads Albert Bermudez and Brent Boberg, whose string of professionally-crafted, catchy songs is sure to earn them a growing fan base in the coming years.

With a sound reminiscent of ’90s acts like R.E.M. and Matchbox 20 (who Bermudez named as a big influence), they’re sure to capture the hearts of a generation yearning for the sounds of its youth.

Their set included nearly every song from their latest album, “The Beginning,” with a few covers thrown in. The result of their self-produced original work is a rich, layered soundscape of guitars, mandolins and backup vocals from Boberg that compliment Bermudez’s powerful vocals. Songs like "Get to Know Me," "Summer’s Gone" and "Original" all boast great harmonies, anthemic choruses and catchy hooks that can’t help but get stuck in your head.

Their cover of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” got the whole crowd up and dancing and Bermudez’s ability to channel Rob Thomas through Matchbox 20’s “3AM” was uncanny at times.

Bermudez broke up the sets with an acoustic beautifully-sung original titled “Long Gone.” Sounding more like a George Strait than anything else, he introduced it as one of the first songs Boberg showed him and the beginnings of Unconditional Life.

The band announced early on during the concert that the band was experiencing some “technical difficulties.” Apparently some of the the additional prerecorded harmonies and instruments that can be heard on the album were absent.

But the performance wasn’t lacking anything. If anything, it ended up being proof of their live performing chops and ability to improvise. The band put out a tremendous amount of energy and fun, maybe some of the most I’ve ever seen on the USO stage.

(A super important note for posterity – the drummer also didn’t bring any drum rods. Mine were in my car so I loaned them out and told him to remember me when they got big.)

It was evident that both Bermudez and Boberg were happy to be home and were having a blast doing what they loved. Bermudez also took a moment to give a shout out to his mom for her birthday, as well as his former band teacher Mr. Simon Austin, who was also in the audience.

Filling out the band for the local gig were Jaewon Kim on drums, Paul L. Cline on bass and Tanner Ritter on lead guitar. While not full-time members, their outstanding musicianship made for a truly impactful performance.

Unconditional Life’s “The Beginning” is available on iTunes, Amazon Music and Google Play.

Opening for Unconditional Life (in addition to local act Alas De Liona, continue reading) was Levi Petree and the Radio Publica. Fronted by the Louisianan singer-songwriter Petree, the trio just about brought down the house with their raw, unfiltered rock and roll.

What Petree and his band lacked in polish and musical complexity – they more than made up for with stirring songs with genuine, honest lyrics. Many of their songs sound as if they’re anthems that have been belted out by bar patrons across the nation for the last hundred years.

While their latest album is simply titled “It’s Country,” the group is really much more than that. Petree and his band, drummer Chad McKinsey and bassist Sean Novak, merge the narrative singing style of Johnny Cash with their special mix of old-school-punk and americana rock for a sound that makes you just want to get up and dance. And for a lot of the audience, that’s just what they did.

Maybe the album title is a hint to Petree’s lyrical sense of humor. Songs like “The Rapture” and “Habenero Do-Si-Do” are chock full of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, but you’ll also sing along until your voice is raw.

The ballad “Neverwas” highlighted Petree’s baritone voice and had a very Cash-like quality (and he even tagged the song with the refrain to “I Still Miss Someone” just in case anybody didn’t pick up on it). The band may have only used three instruments and as many chords, but that didn’t impede them from putting on a great show.

Petree and company may have even given Unconditional Life a run for their money as to who was having the most fun that night. It seemed like they were never quite finished playing any of their songs. As soon as it was over, the middle eight chords would just start right back up and they danced around the stage to the audience’s clapping.

The band brought a lot of noise, a lot of fun and a lot of heart to the USO stage. I don’t know how Mr. Petree found his way to Ridgecrest from Louisiana, but I hope he and his band do it again. I’ll be there in the front row.

More about Petree and the Radio Publica and their music can be found at www.levipetree.com.

— Brian

After observing an elevated performance last Saturday by Alas De Liona, I’m predicting her days as an opening act (and possibly as a regular on the local stage) are numbered.

Alas captivated the audience from the set-opener, “September’s Ghost,” and held the standing-room-only crowd in the palm of her hand for the next hour. From her gossamer voice to her mesmerizing melodies and whimsical lyrics, Alas is an original that seems more likely to have descended from the ether than grown up in our own desert town.

Her compositions combine elements of folk and alternative rock to weave together story-driven ballads into a tailor-made vehicle for her unique vocals. The authenticity of her delivery is only enhanced by what appears to be a purely intuitive gift for song.

While Alas sounds unlike most contemporary singers, both her voice and tunesmithery are reminiscent of Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. Incidentally, the de Liona ensemble performed a great cover of the iconic Irish band’s “Dreams.”

And speaking of ensemble, if Alas is the exquisite voice (and face) of this group, Bobby Steele may be the backbone. He plays guitar, sings and produces other effects in real-time without ever commanding focus for himself. According to Alas’ blog (alasdeliona.com) he is also the producer of her next album, “Lightning and Fire,” scheduled for release in May.

Lea Patrick adds complementary back-up vocals for most of the numbers in the set. Brian Cosner (who only got out of reviewing the gig on account of his complicity in this harmonious act) plays keyboard, percussion, trumpet, as well as singing and whistling harmony and counterpoint — sometimes in combinations of two and three at a time.

Each contributes to a gorgeous texture that sounds richer than the sum of its parts without overwhelming the acoustic feel.

Alas downplays any predilection for patter between songs, but her dry sense of humor (like introducing “Aphrodite” as a song named for the Greek goddess, Hera) and subtle manner have their own quirky charm that seems to have a warming effect on her listeners.

A final acknowledgement goes to the Historic USO Building staff and volunteers, who created a space that provides quality entertainment for our remote community while giving our local artists an opportunity to thrive. Both Alas and Unconditional Life reportedly trace their beginnings to that very stage during the biweekly Open Mic Nights. While the talents of these musicians will surely carry them to much grander and far-away stages, we can count ourselves lucky to be early witnesses.

— Rebecca

Story First Published: 2017-03-31