Live: Nico Vega

Nico Vega pic #1
(l to r) Rich Koehler, Aja Volkman, & Dan Epand. Photo by Stephen Albanese.

HOUSE OF BLUES -- 5/24/2009: I got the chance to hear some of Nico Vega's first full-length album they released earlier this year and was very impressed. Their heavy, melodic sound and in-your-face vocals had me pondering what kind of live performance they would give. With that kind of genre, it was going to be either sloppy or brilliant, so when I heard they were coming to the House of Blues, I jumped at the opportunity.
Contrary to what most would assume, there is no "Nico Vega" in the band. The name comes from ex-drummer Mike Pena's mother, who, in addition to having a wonderful name, was very inspirational to the group. Actual names are: Aja Volkman on vocals, Rich Koehler on guitar, and Dan Epand on drums. The band hails from California and only got started a few years ago, when Pena, upon seeing Volkman perform, invited her to sing with him and Koehler. Epand replaced Pena soon after the group formed.
The House of Blues upstairs venue is one of the best in town. There isn't a bad spot in the place, and being flanked on all sides by bars with attentive staff makes it even better. Unless you want to be right up front or grab one of the handful of tables with stools to numb your ass on, there really is no reason to get there early and wait in line. Be aware that House of Blues performances are very punctual, though, so arrive on time.
At straight-up 8 o'clock, Koehler walked on stage, tested a few notes on his SRV-styled strat, and started into the ringing riff of "Wooden Dolls." A perfect opening for a band, still largely unknown, as it begins soft, gives Volkman a chance open her pipes, and gets heavier towards the bridge. I could see this was a first experience for many in the crowd, including myself, because of all the smiles and wide-eyed looks that followed Volkman's initial vocal delivery. My wife, who had no previous knowledge of the band, put it best when she leaned over and said, "She's awesome." Volkman is a powerhouse. She belts out angelic tones that are soulful, angry at times, but never once ugly. With a delivery somewhat like a mix of early Maynard James Keenan and Siouxsie Sioux, she, needless to say, is also very original.
Don't get the impression this is the Aja Volkman show, however, because Koehler and Epand are integral and good performers in their own right. In other words, they don't just back Volkman but are the kind of musicians that make a performance more organic and cohesive. The band lacks a bassist, but you don't miss it. Epand provides a steady stream of heavy beats to move the rhythm, and much of Koehler's riffs contain alternating low notes that also provide a base (pun intended). Epand plays right up front with the rest of the crew, and they're moved in tight. They may not have had much room given to them, but with the way their eyes move from one another, I have to feel they like playing close. You get the feeling they depend on one another not only on stage, but in their personal lives, as well.
The set continued with all of their best songs, including "Gravity," "Burn Burn," and "Beast." The latter is a hard-driving political anthem that'll have you pumping your fist in the air and nodding your head; it's the kind of tune that's going to give it to you hard and make you like it. There wasn't one song I disliked, and all of them left me eager for more. The small lesbian contingent among the crowd made me wonder if I had missed something, so after the show I looked the lyrics up just to confirm what kind of Kool-Aid I was drinking. There is some girl-power flavor, but not near enough to alienate the males.
The band hasn't been around long, and they're paying their dues, as evidenced in the brief 45-minute set. But this performance is one of many, I'm sure, that will lead to longer sets and higher ticket prices. My recommendation: pick up their CD and make sure to catch them live as soon as you can. This is one band you don't want to miss. END