There aren't any windows in Hell's Kitchen's new basement location, and during their shifts the servers periodically bitch about not being able to tell what time of day it is. Especially when the lights are dimmed for afternoon happy hour, usually around 3:30, one's temporal equilibrium can get murky. Then, on Thursday nights, things get weirder. As Cadillac Kolstad takes the stage, it's easy to lose track of not just the hour, but of the decade.
The instruments, the music produced by said instruments, and even the members themselves of Kolstad's band look like they could be found in a vintage store, though there's something undeniably current about them, too.
"We try to keep it where if you're listening or looking at us, you won't be able to tell if it's 1910 or 1950 or now," says Kolstad, who books all his gigs via model 500 rotary telephone, and then drives to those gigs in his 1964 Cadillac Deville. "We try to maintain a high level of appearance, we keep our suits on and look presentable. I try to keep my hair big—Murray's Pomade, that's the brand that keeps it big."
The hair. Kolstad's hair rises about four inches off his scalp, greased up and back into a coiffure. During the show, though, it tumbles from its mold as he punctuates each lyric with an exclamation point in the form of a head bob. After nearly every song, Kolstad takes his comb and quickly, but ostentatiously, re-styles.
Maybe the most conspicuous component of the show, though, is Kolstad's piano. Not just because he spends two or three hours banging out rock and blues from it, either. Before going on, the band members dismantle the baffle board—the large, rectangular piece of wood directly above the keys—from the piano's body. There are two reasons for this, the practical and the aesthetic: At Hell's Kitchen, the baffle board had been painted on, so only a minimal amount of sound was able to get out. But they do it for the looks, too—with all the strings exposed, there's a visual component when Kolstad strikes the keys and the hammers fly up.
With these implements of showmanship—the gutted piano, the pomaded hair, the manifested energy that goes into both—one imagines a deaf person could enjoy Kolstad's shows. But ultimately these are just props, which at best are only helpful tools to set the mood. The show is only as good as its performers; thankfully, watching Kolstad's band—James Wallace on sax, Scott Soule on bass, Johann Swenson on drums—is like watching a play where you forget the actors are acting. Except that they're really not acting.
"What you see is what you get," Kolstad says, referring to both himself and the music. "This is the real deal. I try to hide out a little bit when I go out. But it's the same hair and the same bad attitude and the same smart-ass commentaries. Same drink"—he indicates his tumbler of Jameson, neat—"same Coke back."
And then, of course, there's the music.
The band is in the middle of a series of performances they call "Cadillac vs. Cornbread," though it's not actually the competition that the name implies. Kolstad considers Cornbread Harris, the octogenarian jazz/blues legend, his guru. "Right now I follow Cornbread around. I watch everything he does, I listen to everything he does, and I try to copy everything he does."
On a recent night at Hell's Kitchen, though, Harris was absent from the stage, caught late at another gig. "He was over at the Dakota before this," Kolstad explained during a set break, "and I think what happened was all the pretty girls lined up to give him hugs, and he just couldn't get away, because he has to give every one of them a hug. Like I said, he's teaching me a lot about what's important."
When both pianists are present, though, watching them play is like being transported to a different age. The legend and his already-accomplished apprentice trade barbs and acoustic riffs without the aid of synthesizers or Vocoders. It's a return to something simpler than most modern music, but also something that's more lasting.
"Just like with organic vegetables that people want to eat, I think people are interested in organic music," Kolstad says. "We want the kind of music that you can roll up your sleeves and dig in your garden and weed it yourself. We can take this music out where there's no electricity, and still do it. We could drive our Cadillac in the middle of the woods and wheel everything out of the trailer, and we could do a show anywhere!"
And, one might add, in any era.