Disappear Fear and The Samples at Phoenix Hill Tavern

By Bob Bahr

It was a perplexing double bill, pairing the earnest acoustic rock of Disappear Fear from Baltimore with the thickly textured pop of The Samples from Boulder. The crowd at Phoenix Hill Tavern assembled slowly during Disappear Fear's set, perhaps due to the Vice Presidential debate that ended less than a half hour before the beginning of the trio's set.

Sisters Cindy and Sonia Frank are the heart of Disappear Fear, getting the music over with beautiful harmony and solo vocals. Their music is folky only in that it is performed simply by two vocalists, an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar in a supporting role. Streams of blues, swing and rock vie for space in their sound, with memorable melodies serving as the bedrock.

At the October 13 show, the diminutive, dreadlocked Sonia infused the music with urgency during her turns at the mic; her equally attractive sister providing stronger, near perfect lead vocals for more than half of the songs. Guitarist Howard Markman contributed somewhat tentative electric guitar flourishes and fills. The group's vitality, honesty and completely unpretentious stage presence edged out the show's lack of brilliance to produce a solid set.

Cindy Frank's world-class voice was the vehicle for occasionally provocative lyrics, such as the heart-wrenching, universal sentiments expressed in "I Won't Be Looking Back." But often, the specific words used could have stood some revision and polish. The two women's vocal harmonies benefited from their sisterly compatibility, similar enough to give the sound fullness, and different enough to spark interest. Yet overall, the act lacked a certain power to make the performance riveting and unforgettable.

The Samples wasted no time in indelibly branding their unique sound on the eardrums and minds. The band worked together to create big, unified grooves for each song, every instrument intent on creating one rhythmic current. Even keyboardist Al Laughlin opted to play the keys more like a percussion instrument than a lyric counterpoint to the overriding groove.

Guitarist/singer/songwriter Sean Kelly was the focus, his guitar and voice drenched in electronic echo. While a quick perusal through the lyrics sheet for The Samples' new album No Room revealed above-average poetry (which translates into superior lyrics in today's pop world), a listener at this show could only make out about every eighth word. After four or five songs, the Police-influenced, polished sound grew old.

As if on cue, the band started into songs with double-time passages in them, waking up the audience -- and in fact, puzzling a large part of the them. The Samples did not relent, instead doing a song with what seemed like a quadruple-time section. When the crowd refused to thrash about, or even move, Kelly asked, "Aren't we loud enough?"

Reggae, calypso and ska spiced the lunch meat-like bulk a bit, with bassist Andy Sheldon providing much of the groove. Jeep MacNichol gave a flawless if unadventurous performance behind the drum kit. It all added up to an extremely tight, well thought out brand of music that defies description. But while The Samples' uniqueness was commendable, their basically monochromatic approach provided little excitement.