October 28, 2015

Aztec Two-Step Returns to Ithaca

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The Dock is a clean and cozy venue. The stage is lit by blue and purple lights and one side of the room is filled with intimate circular tables that go right up to the stage. At the other side of the room is the bar, but most people are usually far more interested in the other side of the room. When Aztec Two-Step came onto the stage, nearly all of the seats throughout the room were filled and cheers erupted. The group smiled and waved, their edges colored by the stage lights. Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman, the two men who founded the folk-rock duo, exclaimed: “We’re so glad to be back in Ithaca!”



With my limited knowledge of folk music, I dug around to learn more about the famed group; legendary among folk-rock listeners. Formed in 1971 at an open mic night in Boston, Aztec Two-Step garnered increasing critical acclaim as their career continued, receiving the New York Music Award for Best Folk Album and having a documentary, No Hit Wonder, made about them (just to name a few).

They have seen continued success in recent times, performing at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival in 2007, a hallmark event celebrating the 50th anniversary of On the Road. But what is most impressive is the longevity of group, which celebrated its own hallmark 40th anniversary in 2012 with a new studio album Cause and Effect. They have also seen continuous and successful annual tours for the near half-century they have been active. While they may not be as commercially famed as contemporaries like the Rolling Stones or Simon & Garfunkel, Aztec Two-Step has and has maintained a strong and loyal following, and they create solid music which has kept them together for decades.

The subtle changes in their songs gave some indication to the times that the group has seen together. Opening with war songs like “Dad Came Home,” the group made apparent to everyone there the influence of the ‘60s and ‘70s, both through their war motifs and the distinct folk-rock style. And yet, some of their later songs might pleasantly surprise people with more contemporary tastes; their recent tunes hint faintly of popular acoustic ballads, with vaguely familiar sounds subtly infused into the distinct Aztec Two-Step color. Their lovely, harmonica-heavy songs, light and endearing tunes, unexpected drops of witty comments and great lyrics, kept the audience simultaneously hooked on the show, and relaxed and comfortable.

Perhaps as a testament to the years the group has spent together, the lyrics of the songs they played were engaging for people of many ages. Their tracks focused on universal themes such as love, individuality and change. The diverse audience at The Dock reflected this, with college students and older members of the community alike thoroughly enjoying thmselves.

The two group members themselves were highly engaging, chatting about their previous shows in Ithaca (they once performed at The Unicorn), cracking eccentric jokes with the audience members and hearing out a few song requests. They delivered a large range of songs over the two hours, and the audience clapped, stomped their feet, sang along and danced throughout.

The show ended on a wistful note: the encore was comprised of songs ranging in topic from being lost in New York City to personal growth. Despite my personal unfamiliarity with the group’s discography, the night ended on a pleasant note. Relatable songs and relaxing rhythms were marked by the fun and sassy comments by Aztec Two-Step. It is easy to see why the love for this duo’s distinct sound has endured. Their easy guitar riffs and smooth vocals always impress, and there was a constant run of captivating songs that they played throughout the evening. One can easily understand why the duo has survived and excelled over the years, as their honest music transcends era and appeals to so many people, even today.

Catherine Hwang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].