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Ryan Lee CD Release Party (Saturday, March 12th, 2005, Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis)
Ryan Lee (center) with band - Publicity Photo


By Cyn Collins

Eerie bleeps, pulsing rhythms, and mysterious shadows poured through colorfully backlit white sheets which were draped in front of the BLB stage. The immediate drama of Ryan Lee’s CD Release show mirrored the depth of the band’s excitement to unveil the result of their two plus year effort. I was mesmerized by the theatrical elements which were sustained throughout this show with the aid of the masterful lighting. At times spooky and mysterious, at others playful, the lighting was perhaps the best I have seen at a show in some time. I realized how integral it can be as to a great live performance, actually an instrument in and of itself.

The music of guitar/keyboards/vocalist/songwriter Ryan Lee and band mates, bassist Matthew Freed and drummer Eric Smith, defies definition . . . not rock, nor pop, nor folk . . . simply mysterious and compelling. It encompasses numerous influences from East Indian to Spanish to industrial to Calypso to Celtic, and everything in between, yet never sounding sounding scattered. Every time their music swings within reach of a label, it veers back away. Lee’s quote says it aptly, “Think traditional rock music and then go the other way.”

Lee’s skillful guitar was infused with Spanish and classical references. At various times the band reminded me of Dead Can Dance or Calexico. Sometimes the bass and drums reminded me of those of Big Hat or of Siouxie and the Banshees. At others, I could hear Santana-esque rhythms. There was a clear, solid bass groove thread provided by Freed. Smith’s drums were also exceptional.

The immediacy of first song “Instant Confession” featured Lee’s simple keyboards accompanied by his warm, gravelly voice exposing raw emotion. The light show of white rings and beams of color contributed to the intricate beauty of the show. Compelling layers served to make a big sound richer with so much stuff going on that it seemed it was being created by more than three guys. The cool sound effects and sampling made the music particularly mystifying and futuristic. On some songs, I was reminded of some of the best futuristic techno music of Star Trek and science fiction movie soundtracks.

At times, Lee’s voice was ominously stark, with a huskily emotive whisper emerging from a depth of anguish. At others, he barely harnessed unresolved bitterness, such as in “Too Close To Home” (to a parent) – “If you won’t ask me how I feel, I can’t tell you I’m hopeless . . . frustrated . . . scared of everything.”

The band included a faster, poppier version of Bonnie Raitt’s, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” It retained the plaintive blues of the original and the acoustic blues guitar riffs, accented in this case by a glockenspiel.

Red-headed Lee, a warm, personable guy talked with the audience between songs and shared stories of the songs and the making of their first CD, The Pride Before the Fall. Lee revealed, “I’m shy. I write songs because I’m shy.” Then he asked, “Have you ever sat outside someone’s house for hours in your car?” which drew surprised laughter from the full theater house. He quickly added, “Neither have I! But this is about someone who has.” And with that he went into, “I Pretend.”

I liked Lee’s music most when it visited darker places (which was often), and when it incorporated layers of industrial samples and soaring vocals that often sounded Celtic in origin. There’s a passion in Lee’s voice that effectively gets emotions out in the open. Lee informed me after the show that he loves to write songs about his personal life, his family, his work. He writes frequently whether he’s at home or in his car. I felt lucky to have experienced the unexpected treat of of a Ryan Lee show. This is one group that seems quite likely to go places.

Check Ryan Lee out again when his band plays at the Fine Line, opening for Leroy Smokes and Nothing Static on April 2nd.

For more information, go to http://www.ryanleemusic.net

Cyn Collins is at cyn.collins[at]howwastheshow.com