Anticipation built as the second group, Empire State out of Athens, Ga., set up one of the most confusing and mystifying arrays of instruments that this reviewer has ever seen. Cables were strewn everywhere, from various keyboards, samplers, guitars, and mics. Strange sculptures dotted the frontline of the bunker of sound tools the band built. A processed distorted drum beat came from the sampler, a few tests ensued, and then the band started working its magic. The trio played a bit of everything, with new-wave keyboard parts, warm bass guitar, cello, plinky electric guitar, trombone, and various unexplainable devices (boxes containing car horns of different pitches, alarm-clock bells, an electric chicken device, a spinning metal tree that produced different tones when metal rods were stuck in it), and somehow nothing ever came across as out of place. Usually when a band's arsenal is that expansive, the result is a giant mess, either because of jumbled sound or because it tries to do too much, but Empire State had its act together, layering sounds and harmonizing beautifully to enchant a crowd that was obviously unfamiliar with its songs. With an eclectic batch of strong songs that ranged from moody country to synthesizer-powered new wave to quirky pop, Empire State wooed even the most jaded rocker in the crowd.
Empire State finished its set and started to shuffle its gear around; its members (alongside former Man or Astroman guitarist Brian "Starcrunch" Causey) were the backup musicians for former Archer of Loaf Eric Bachmann and his new band, Crooked Fingers. The lanky Bachmann grabbed his guitar, apologized for the length of the setup time (which was actually fairly minimal), then launched into "Crowned in Chrome," the first song of Crooked Fingers' self-titled CD. Although the Replay isn't known for its spectacular acoustics, somehow the array of musicians reproduced the dynamics of the record note for note, filling the room with a textured cloud of sound that cut through the smoke and liquor to hit not only the ears but also the hearts and minds of the crowd. A cello and violin (played by the amazing Empire State players) highlighted the record's subtle melodic shifts and upped the night's beauty and intensity a few notches. The crowd pushed forward in the already cramped Replay to be close to the man who had written some of the most amazing rock songs of the '90s. He now plays songs that rock a little less, but he still puts the same amount of intensity and heart into them.
Using a hammer dulcimer, cello, keyboards, and various Empire State-provided instruments, Bachmann ran through a number of selections from the album, a new unrecorded song, and a Kris Kristofferson cover. There was something beautiful about this scene: a man singing about the dark, disparaging world of bar life and his observations of the plight of the drunken loser, and a crowd of inebriated patrons hanging on his every word and singing the words right back at him. A rousing rendition of "New Drink For the Old Drunk" got the crowd noisy and boisterous as the liquor began to take fans into the most calmly blissed-out overdrive that the Replay's walls have seen in some time. Then, as Bachmann introduced the last song, the band had to cut its set short, because 2 a.m. grew near. The crowd beckoned, chanted, and pleaded for one more song, but the well was dry for the evening. Somehow, it was an appropriate ending to a special night of amazing music that no one in attendance will soon forget.