Chris Rockwell is well known as the Monmouth County scene-stealing poet and rock-hop artist. Wherever there is an art-filled event in the area, it’s a good bet you’ll find Chris Rockwell deep in the middle of the action. But it doesn’t stop there. Rockwell is an equal opportunity tunesmith, jumping between commercially viable genres and peppering the audience with free-flowing displays of original style and delivery.
Chris Rockwell And The Stickball Social Club are an unapologetic blend of Spaghetti Westerns, Cake, Slick Rick, Super Fly and G Love. Calling Rockwell a literal hip-hop artist is a completely distorted description. Sure, there are influential ghosts that fly throughout his music, but the truth be told, Rockwell is more akin to Jim McCrea than he is to KRS-One or 2 Chainz. When you look at the national acts his band has shared the stage with, that statement gets even more complicated. From Bootsy Collins to DasEFX, Alien Ant Farm and Keith Murray, Stickball Social Club is anything but a predictable hip-hop “Party All Night” creation.
Rockwell is a passionate performer. I first noticed him as part of Jason Sales’ guest crew in Moon Motel, but if truth is told, he had already established himself as an independent contender long before our paths crossed.
Chris Rockwell And The Stickball Social Club may be new in a formative time frame, but their list of high visibility performances is pretty impressive for a freshman group. Festivals have filled their schedules, seeing them at the CBGB’s Festival in New York City, the Ballyhoo Festival out in Ohio, the Soulsational Music and Wellness Festival here in New Jersey as well at the New York City Marathon celebration. Locally, they’ve headlined The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and Philadelphia’s famous Trocadero Theatre.
The band is out in support of their 2014 Asbury Music Awards “Top Album Release” Home Team Animals. Going from the past nominations for “Avant Garde” to “Top Album” is a telling example of how Rockwell has used the band to make the transitional shift into a true, mainstream connection. I took a listen to the EP and here’s what I discovered.
The first song up is “Whiskey Shambles,” which is a title that pretty much says it all. Internal strife mixes with the seething frustration of addiction and loss of relationship direction as the band marches in hypnotic purpose. The bass and drum pulsations of Jason Portizo and Andrew Oliva send out a code red warning as Rockwell growls distemper in the vein of Rise Against vocalist Tim McIlrath. The song is very visual, pulling out dark and untethered American realities in its 4:37. The trumpet work of Sean D’Antoni clears the skies and is the focal point for this edgy composition.
“John Bender” is up next and tosses gritty R&B soul into the mix. Once again, Rockwell’s theme is an assault on the mundane. Whether Rockwell is talking about the infamous serial killer John Bender (1870s) or the fictional rebellious character from The Breakfast Club, it’s clear that the subject is an independent contractor of mayhem. Guitars are funk-inspired along the lines of Al McKay from Earth, Wind, and Fire and I like their classy, supportive role. Horn work of D’Antoni leads the verse and bridge work, guiding the song and keeping the focus on Rockwell’s lyrical gunplay. I especially have interest in the chorus line, “We don’t give up and we don’t surrender, and every one of us is a repeat offender, we just do what we do and we break all the rules ‘cause every one of us is a criminal.” Between the delivery and the heavy, vamping guitar work, this is a danger-laden syndicate favorite.
“Beach House” is a combination of everything from Digital Underground to Cake and every Ennio Morricone Western from the 1960s. Orbital-pulled guitars feedback into the bridge (courtesy of Zack Bednarak) and it’s a palette cleansing focal point for this raucous tune. Rockwell utilizes a plethora of vocalists for his choruses, mixing the popping bass work of Portizo with the Spanish flair of D’Antoni. This is a song that I can relate to. Growing up in Toms River means right of passage takes place in Seaside Heights. And that right includes all-night parties, hot girls, fist-fights, cheese steaks, micro-dot and anything else you can imagine. But eventually, you have to grow up. I love the line, “It was the summer when I was 19, my whole future was a fight scene.” “Beach House” is the perfect song about the glory of youth, and it’s an unbeatable ode to our illustrious summertime days of reigning royalty.
“Float Away” slips from the speakers with bare bones electric guitar and stark bass and drums as D’Antoni lays smooth, melodic horn work over the top. Rockwell is an underrated singer, and it shines through the hip-hop swagger that he employs. His lyrical imagery is toned, urgent and tragic as he laments the loss of someone he desperately tried to save. In between, bridges sway like vast, windswept pines before Rockwell comes back in with his final chapter of oppressive loss. A decidedly tough subject, this is a song layered in breezy, summertime music that serves as a bed for Rockwell’s exorcised pain and tragedy. “Float Away” is a somber reminder of the finality of drug overdose, and a brief pause for all of us to think about what has happened within the music community recently.
Rockwell and crew are back in action with “Turn The Lights On.” A groove-oriented alt prog funk piece, “Turn The Lights On” blazes and dips into furious pockets of riffage and the most memorable set of choruses to date. Guitars twirl in an updraft of trumpets, bass and drums grinding like an F5 tornado of demonstrative talent before the big choruses are back. This is also a performance highlight for drummer Andrew Oliva, who displays some of the best chops in the state. Think of anything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they actually mattered, and you’ll be smack dab in the middle of this non-stop action.
Last but not least, “We Don’t Play To Win” closes out this whirlwind EP. The one true song that actually mirrors the EP’s moniker, the “Home Team Animals” are back with palpitating bass, drums and horn pads as Rockwell jags in for his “we showed up for blood” rally cry. Dark and laced with in-the-pocket hip-hop angst, Rockwell and clan tell you, “We don’t play to win—we play to beat the other team.” And while this song would be a great thematic charge for just about any sporting event, it just doesn’t possess as much feel as the previous tunes. The lyrical portion is kind of interesting, seeing Rockwell pull out the ultra tough guy persona and lying it down with all the enthusiasm of a crazed high school quarterback, but out of everything on the disc, the band seems to be flat-lining through 4:17 of alt-metal bravado, and it doesn’t fit with the forward direction that the rest of the disc shines with.
Chris Rockwell And The Stickball Social Club have weighed in and scored quite high with a very original direction with Home Team Animals. Filled with imaginative compositional savvy, Home Team Animals is a record that you should look into grabbing for your personal exploration into the minds of this cutting Monmouth County alternative machine.
You will have a chance to see the band live this Jan. 23 at The Saint in Asbury Park. Joining Stickball Social Club will be Foxanne, 1L, Rachel Rourke and June Canon. Spoken-word artists Savon Bartley, Rachael Ewan and Dogmatic will also be on the mic, and there will also be a poetry open-mic during the night at some point.
Doors are at 7 p.m., and the price is $8 for entry. There is a discounted price of $5 for open-mic poets.
For more on Chris Rockwell And The Stickball Social Club and Home Team Animals, head over to facebook.com/stickballsocialclub.