Every Wednesday evening into early June, Koka Booth Amphitheatre offers light music through the Hob Knob Jazz Concert Series. The doors open at 5:30 pm, and for 3 hours, families, singles, and dogs drift in and out of the picturesque Cary campus to the mellow sounds of Jazz. On May 13, Tea Cup Gin performed to about 360 adults and 40 children (and eighteen dogs).
The concerts take place on the back veranda, across from the main stage. Smaller groups don't need the huge stage and the patio has tables. The audience has the option of sitting at larger six-seaters or more intimate two-seaters. You can sit close to the band, or at the far end of the porch. Many families bring their own chairs and blankets and sit on the lawn. Looking around, I even saw some kids playing on the back stage. The amplification system is so fine that wandering around didn’t detract from hearing the music at all. The informality of these concerts is one of its biggest draws. You can come late or leave early. There are light snacks for sale – Lumpy's Ice Cream, sandwiches, drinks, and fries. The main sponsor, Hob Nob Wines has a small display and offers tastings and full bottles for sale. I saw many groups bring quite a food spread.
Last Wednesday could not have been a nicer evening for jazz. With bright blue skies, a gentle breeze, and a soft wind, the verdant Koka Booth Amphitheatre gushed with nature. Carrboro pianist Robert Griffin opened the evening, playing a 45-minute set to a modest crowd. I was a little disappointed as it was not listed anywhere that he would be performing. I would have come a bit later. His playing was as a good as it could be on an amplified electric keyboard. A local jazz legend, I know him more from reputation and can only imagine how much better he would have sounded with a proper piano. The audience didn't seem to mind, however, and he received cheers and applause. From where I was sitting on the patio, about 100 feet away, I couldn't understand what he was saying as he announced the pieces. I recognized "A Night in Tunisia," and I enjoyed his improvisation on the melody. He owned the music.
Around 6:20, Tea Cup Gin finally took the stage. Consisting of five members, the band mainly tours and performs locally. Most of the numbers were representative of jazz classics and new pieces off of their recently released recording, "Underground Love." Their style is "pushing the boundary of jazz." Their website says that the band "crafts new pieces under the influence of deco era jazz standards, tin pan alley classics, delta blues, torch, chanson, cabaret, bossa, tango, and show tunes."
Indeed, the members are incredibly versatile musicians. Bassist Doug Vuncannon and drummer Isaiah Simpson kept a seamless groove. I noticed them only when they wanted me too – the mark of a great rhythm section. They did their jobs well as evidenced by the dancing audience members on the patio and in the lawn. Christy Benson’s voice easily carried across the venue. She belted and cooed and seduced through the various genres of the band's songs. I was particularly impressed with her wonderful diction. The two guitarists, Mike Reid and John Klonowski, stole the show many times. Reid took a great solo on one of the tunes off of their CD. Klonowski and Reid were dueling guitars on two Duke Ellington songs. The first set ended around 7:00 just as the sun was setting behind the trees bringing the soft glow of a North Carolina late spring evening.
The Hob Nob Jazz Concert Series is a wonderful, affordable outing for anyone in the Triangle area wanting to hear some great music in a beautiful outdoor setting. The entire evening was pleasant – from the parking and friendly staff at Koka Booth to the comfortable seating, great wine, and the fabulous music. For $5.00 a head (children are free) – a steal – Wednesday nights this spring just got a whole lot more fun.