Alan Haber

There is a certain safety in knowing that you are in good hands–hands that have seen much the same landscape as you, hands and heads and hearts that have witnessed what you have, even if such witness comes from a slightly different perspective. In our lives, especially as we get older, we are either strong in our resolve to carry forth with a determined effort and create art that lives and breathes with a force of strong will, or we coast on our past triumphs, our heads held in our hands and pointing down, down, down.

Thankfully, the team of Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel, Spongetones and Van DeLecki’s and writers and co-writers and solo and duo performers on the world music stage, have the strength and resolve to carry on swinging for the fences. Their guitars and mandolins and percussion instruments tuned and strung and subsequently alive, they continue to perfect their sound, always looking to raise their bar and achieve something new and grand and simply outstanding.

When, not too long ago, the power went out in the venue they were playing one fateful night, Jamie and Steve took the ball and punted. They created, on the spot and in the moment, the concept of circling, of eschewing the stage and performing on the floor, the patrons surrounding them–circling them–as they hung their acoustic guitars over their shoulders and simply played. Lit candles, their flames glowing, added more than a touch of intimacy to the proceedings. The duo played and sung their hearts out, and those patrons, witness to a new and exciting concept in performance, came away with an experience they would remember always.

In this newly-charged manner of performance, the audience circles around Jamie and Steve, who become the inner circle. This concept of circling, a term which, if all is fair, will enter the various dictionaries that watch the language of the world, has given way to the fourth Jamie and Steve release, an EP calledCircling, a six-song collection in which the duo applies the very idea of circling to their always fertile imaginations. Just as they have invented a new way of performing, they have come up with new ways of giving birth to songs, of surrounding them with their deep skill and delivering a new experience to their audience. Thus, at least two of the songs on Circling take the collective output of Jamie and Steve and turn it on its very head.

The opener, the upbeat, propulsive, sort-of psychedelic “Origami Woman,” is one example of Jamie and Steve’s bold new approach. With electric guitars that sound like they were borrowed from Queen’s Brian May, the song starts out with a pseudo-Who vibe and quickly sports a complex chord structure and a couple of rhythmic shifts. Steve’s bass is a standout as the story of the vision of a woman who appears through the smoke and mirrors of, perhaps, a dream is laid out: “like a paper just unfolding/turns to vapor as I’m holding/bits and pieces tiny creases/revealing secrets of/my Origami woman.” Mysterious and tantalizing–a dream turns to reality turns to…

Another song that surprises with new touches of bold creation is the rather amazing and vital “Spin Drift,” which begins life as a pretty ballad, telling the story of perhaps the most perfect place on earth and then the sudden, as the music turns dark and stormy and percussive, tumbling down into waves of turmoil: “Down down to see the headlights next to bones of Atlantic sea flights/Cold and darkness it bubbles up eventually to see the…Sunlight!” and then calmer seas and sky erase the scare of the ocean… “Such a perfect place to be found/Bleeding me of desire to ever go home/I’ll spin and drift.” The moral of the story: Even paradise has its dark corners. But never has paradise, even with its hidden treachery, seemed to exciting.

Two of Circling’s songs are straight-ahead, linear pop numbers with lovely melodies and, especially in the wonderful “You,” delicious chord changes and harmonies. “Wonder Girl” sits firmly in A Hard Day’s Night ballad territory, with a delectable guitar solo pulled straight out of the 1964 George Harrison playbook. The rather contemporary, upbeat pop song, “Skeletons,” and the gorgeous ’60′s vibe of the title song, a jazzy specimen thanks to an understated horn arrangement, complete the latest Jamie and Steve package.

What occurred to me as Circling played through was that if musicians are on top of their game, they will deliver disc after disc of purely magical songs. Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel have been on top of their game for more than three decades. Here, for 21 minutes, they are more than on top of their game. They are just about floating above it. They have worked hard on these songs, and it shows. You, thankfully, don’t have to work as hard. You just have to listen.

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