“So, I have this friend, John Dimaggio, who is internationally known as a voice over actor. He has worked on so many projects like Futurama where he is the voice over for Bender. He has also appeared on many well known cartoons, as well as movies and video games. Anyway, John got to hear us one day and he just blurted out “you guys sound like a colossal street jam!” He was referring to our diverse musical backgrounds when he said that. Well, the name stuck and it has been with us ever since.”
Gene Potts, Lead Singer, Colossal Street Jam
New Jersey has been known for producing some great homegrown talent (e.g., Springsteen, Bon Jovi, etc.) and with their latest release Jersey-homegrown band Colossal Street Jam continues that lineage. The band’s most recent effort is entitled Living Free and on it lead singer Gene Potts and crew show why they are one of the mainstays in a highly competitive East Coast music market.
To be clear, Colossal Street Jam is not a newbie to the Jersey rock scene. The band’s origins go back to the early 1990s. Fast forward to Living Free, Potts talked about the writing of the band’s latest album:
CSJ is comprised of a solid line-up of seasoned Jersey rock veterans. Starting with Potts, he’s simply not your average singer. His voice is distinct. It is edgy. It is also indicative of a singer with some passion….serious passion. As they say in baseball, a lot of guys can throw 90 mph but to get to the major leagues you need more; you have to have movement on your fastball. Potts’ vocals have “movement” and as such, they are major league worthy.
Sal Marra heads up the guitars for CSJ and on Living Free Marra’s style is clear…..crystal, that is. Marra is an intriguing player whose melodic feel is reminiscent of Slash as well as other master shredders. What I liked most about Marra’s playing is that it really fits the music. Coupled with Marra’s mastery of effects which are used oh so appropriately, he really commands the music and on Living Free, he just can’t be missed. The guitar work is outstanding.
Flora, though not flashy, works so well in tandem with Halpern that the two become one in an inseparable rhythmic mesh. Together, Flora and Halpern form the critical foundation that allows this band to groove as well as it does. This is the kind of chemistry (sans rhythm guitar) that certain groups like Van Halen–in the Michael Anthony days–could pull off. For CSJ, it’s a very effective style and it works.
Rounding out the lineup is Jersey’s own Eric Safka, a versatile, well known, and talented keyboardist. Formerly of the Matt O’Ree Band, rather than dazzle with special effects and electronic gimmickry, Safka is pure talent. Safka’s wheelhouse is the live gig and the man is not only a passionate showman but he will also take to a solo as good as anybody.
As a group, CSJ fits like an assembled puzzle. The chemistry of the talent is quite evident on Living Free but, make no mistake about it, in addition to all that, the album contains some really well written songs. (All the songs on the album were written by the band except one). Succinctly, Living Free sports these 11 tracks:
1) Won’t Last This Way (4:40)
2) Skies Above (4:21)
3) Living Free (5:21)
4) Songbird (5:00)
5) Hanging Around (5:24)
6) Be Good To Yourself (3:07)
7) Monday Morning Mass (3:28)
8) I Can’t Take It (3:35)
9) Let It Go (2:55)
10) Runnin’ (4:28), and
11) Sweet Little Lady (live) (5:57).
Won’t Last This Way gets the Living Free party started CSJ style. This track offers a nice rhythm and an excellent use of open space by Halpern and crew. The open space lets Potts’ voice breathe nicely. Here’s a sample of Won’t Last This Way to check out:
Skies Above follows and here the group shows off their ability to write music. The chorus on this track is very good; in fact, I guess it has the proverbial “hook.” It’s on this tune that you start to realize that this group is more like a national act than a local one. Up next is the title track (Living Free) which features some nice work by both Marra and Safka. Living Free also features some gutsy backing vocals by local crooner Laura Catalina Johnson of Strumberry Pie. Definitely a nice touch.
“Marra’s lead guitar work is loyal to the structure of the song while also being distinctly melodic in and of itself. You can almost feel where he is going before he gets there.”
Songbird follows and the tune is a nice change of pace. This track showpieces a different side of CSJ in terms of dynamics and progressions. I also found this song to be particularly well written. To see what I mean, check out this short clip:
Hanging Around is next and it shows another side of CSJ with the hint of a blues overtone. Following that is a song which was not written by the band, Be Good To Yourself, but it is a highlight, for sure. The soul on this track is riveting and uplifting. Check out this sample of Be Good To Yourself:
Monday Morning Mass is next and this was my sleeper pick to be frank. The tune came out of nowhere and my first thought on this track was “man, they sure don’t sound local.” This song is Potts with an edge; here, you can hear the “movement” on the voice. Additionally, Marra’s solo really works well on this track; it is refreshing when a guitarist wins us over with rhythm and melody rather than pure speed and the mastering of rapidly played (and perhaps pointless) mechanical scales. The marriage of Marra’s guitar work on this track with Potts’ vocals is the proverbial “killing it.”
I Can’t Take It is a further exploration in style for the band. Flora really shows on this track how he can hold down a rhythm section with some really nice bass work. Also worthy of mention is Halpern’s ability to punctuate accents with the band. Again, the effectiveness of the CSJ rhythm section cannot be understated; Messrs. Flora and Halpern are the musical table setters that support strong vocals and guitar and for CSJ, that’s a winning combination. I have to admit that Let It Go, the next song on the album, is a real interesting track. Sung by guitarist Sal Marra (who is endorsed by Oriolo Guitars) the track is a nice retreat for CSJ to a different style much like when Led Zeppelin neatly snuck into Hot Dog on In Through The Out Door. Runnin’–the final studio track on the album–is sometimes the spot on an album where quality starts to fade however, that’s not the case on Living Free. Marra’s guitar work is really good on this one. In fact, Marra’s style and feel is so good that he almost could completely dispense with a lead part and the song would still work.
The final track on the record was recorded live at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park which is arguably the unofficial launching site for icons Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Sweet Little Lady pretty much states what must be an almost obvious conclusion to most listeners; that is, that this band is great live.
Frankly, Living Free was really a pleasure to review. I have to admit that I don’t know the members of the band but I would like to after hearing this record. These are some very talented musicians who have surrounded themselves with individual and collective styles that go round and round much like a trending carousel. The songs on this record are well written and well executed and again, although they were introduced to me as “local” band, I think they are much more than that.
This is the kind of group that I would like to see more of beyond this record. Their material is that good and if I was in management, I would not lose their number. Momma always said “go big” and Peter Gabriel even sung of the “big time.” Well, these guys did better than that. They went Colossal. Check them out peeps, you won’t be disappointed.
Ken “K Bo” Biedzynski, Editor