Heaven & Earth

September 21, 2013
Canyon Club
Agoura Hills, CA

Review by Marianne Heath
Photos by Kimberly Annette

On a typical end-of-summer warm evening in the San Fernando Valley, I went to check out a band I’d never seen before, playing in a venue I’d never visited. Walking into the Canyon Club was like entering a cavernous den from yesteryear. With its dark wood beams and paneling, the floors swaddled in Persian rugs, it felt as if I were stepping into a time machine that took me back to the 70s of Led Zeppelin. It seemed like the perfect place to see Heaven & Earth for the first time.

The five-piece ensemble took the stage with a strong, commanding artistry, opening with the Arabic-influenced “Victorious.” I was standing further from the stage when they first began and initially thought there were two guitars playing in unison. As I got closer, I found it was actually the sound of the Stuart Smith’s guitar meshed with keyboards by Arlan Schierbaum. This was a great opening song — very powerful and intricate, almost classical sounding, but melodic and hooky which seemed to promise the audience they were in for an epic, eventful show.

The first thing I observed about the musicians was their stage presence and obvious comfort in their realm. Singer Joe Retta pranced around like a proud, scarf-wearing rooster. His strong, unfaltering vocals projected into the space like a 30-year-old David Coverdale. Smith’s stance and ease in precision of his guitar playing brought me back to memories of a young Brian May playing Wembley Stadium back in the day.

On bass, the creative Tony Franklin (he played with the Firm in the 80s) held down a very tight rhythm section along with drummer Richie Onori. The awesome, gum-chewing Onori played the obligatory drum solo in the middle of the set, but kept it fresh and entertaining. Throughout the show, Schierbaum’s Deep Purplesque keyboards added a dark, but lovely, sonic element to the entire vibe of the band.

Early into the set, Heaven & Earth kept the energy up on “Back in Anger,” another fast paced, classically influenced song meshed with hard rock riffs. On “No Money, No Love,” they held a more straightforward groove, once again utilizing catchy guitar hooks through the duration of the song.

Retta picked up a rhythm guitar on “Man & Machine,” a song with a great vocal melody and chorus. This was the first instrument the multi-talented vocalist would take advantage of during their set. Smith also added a talk box while playing his guitar to great effect. From that point on, Retta had many tricks up his sleeve, capably playing slide on rhythm guitar, bongos and a bluesy harmonica. At one point, Franklin used effects and tuning techniques to showcase a unique bass solo, which made his instrument sound almost hornlike.

The multitude of instruments from various band members created an interesting variety all through the show.

In a more low-key moment, Smith picked up an acoustic guitar for the romantic “I Don’t Know What Love Is.” The band then introduced four back-up singers from the acclaimed Agape International Choir. This was a smart and powerful choice, as their rich voices added a soulful depth and angelic clarity to the music.

From start to finish, the venue was about half full, but felt ripe with very enthusiastic fans. Mostly stocked with middle-aged rockers, there were plenty of long blonde weaves and skinny jeans rockin’ the room. People were dancing, drinking, snapping photos and generally having a great time taking in and swaying to the music.

Closing the show, the Agape International Choir joined Heaven & Earth once again for a fun rendition of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and Deep Purple’s first big hit “Hush.” With Schierbaum’s keys in the forefront, it was clear how much influence Deep Purple had on the band.

There is something to be said for skillful, experienced performers who make playing very intricate music look as effortless as drinking water…Or whiskey in a Persian-rug-filled venue in the Valley, as the case may be.


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