Better believe. Photo by John Gilhooley
Better believe. Photo by John Gilhooley

Live Review

The way the press sheet tells it, Nino Moschella emerged ready to go from a tiny town in the Northern California woods after long winters warming up the four-track, which made him a seasoned and versatile songwriter before his first release ever came out. Recent EP The Real Better Believe (on Ubiquity) bounces Nino's voice—elastic like Van Morrison, smooth like Marvin Gaye—through several generations of fidelity, from a home demo that sounds like a hissy Liquid Liquid to a super-slick Sa-Ra remix just glowing with studio reverb, and it all still sounds unmistakably like the same guy, a kind of can-do-anything style that must survive only in the remotest hills these days. Tonight it's one more of the many moods of Mr. Moschella: bongos and light percussion stage left and a guy with Predator dreads on bass and tuba (which tuba bowed and retired early after some understated funky honking) to make a Zony Mash Meters backing band playing to punchy pre-set drums. But Nino's acrobat vocals—dressed out here with little scribbles of guitar and a light touch on the keyboard—still carry; after a few songs since Gnarls Barkley marches through the sound system and maybe after a few deep breaths, his shotgun-shack soul had the crowd pointed in the right direction. He's a modest, friendly-looking guy who sits up there like he's tending bar—casual but on-the-clock professional, goofing with the customers before getting down to business and singing like he should be wearing a sharkskin suit, not a leather jacket.

Though Moschella seems to pull a lot from West Coast funk like Tower of Power and War, he's also something of an East Coast-style soul auteur—someone studied up on Motown or Gamble/Huff sophistication—and he finds his own balance between the hard, quick sound of the one and the super-composed sound of the other. There's something about the stripped-down all-rhythm-section backing that suits Moschella very well, and his live Real Better Believe songs—as well as new ones likely off his just-about-released full-length The Fix on Ubiquity—were confident, propulsive and arranged to the dots and lines to fit what sounded like never-before spontaneous improv into (apparently?) pre-programmed drum tracks; you don't often see a band apparently able to coax their own drum machine to ride the momentum of the room up and down, but there Nino was, leading the tuba and the bongos and a stack of microchips exactly where he wanted. You can imagine then the kind of effect he has on living things.

His best may have been his last, an aw-okay-guys encore where the band took their break and Nino—after securing permission to do a "ballad"—tiptoed back across his keyboard and sang with his eyes shut, a low-key way to let the light fade on a set and a good moment to wonder about what exactly he does. Though Stevie Wonder has been making cameos in Nino's reviews, remember also that Astral Weeks was recorded by a jazz combo for a guy who grew up on Solomon Burke and Ray Charles, and there was that same sense of iconoclasm (or eclecticism, which is probably more accurately just education) in the last song: Nino as someone completely at home in his own music, able to tap a note to match a word or a space within a word just as the instinct found him, finishing off what started as a tuba-funk set with just a private number on his keyboard. Sometimes his fingers wouldn't even be moving as he sang, and I feel like I missed something by falling out of the song enough to notice.


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