Many musical performers these days combine genres, perhaps blend two or three different styles to create their own hybrid. Then there’s Sammy Rae and the Friends, who seem to play in every style they can conjure up, and against all odds make it work.
Even that gig at the new 3,500-capacity rock venue is head-turning proof of the septet’s burgeoning appeal as they sold out Boston’s Royale (capacity 1,300) last March, and, before the pandemic, they were still playing The Sinclair (capacity 525) in Cambridge. All of these touring dates are a big step up from the open mikes and playing for tip jars that marked their first sessions as recently as 2016.
To provide a brief roadmap, Sammy Rae and the Friends’ music might encompass, pop, rock, funk, swing, jazz, country, punk rock, electronic dance, folk, or world music at any given time, and certain songs might veer between several of those genres. The Friends include Max Zooi on tenor sax, James Quinlan on bass, Kellon Reese on alto sax, Debbie Tjong on keyboards, Will Leet on guitar, and Sebastian Chiriboga on drums.
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But the band, and especially vocalist Samantha Bowers, who performs as Sammy Rae, also injects a broad swath of musical theater into its performances. Whether on stage or in the group’s stunningly dramatic videos, the vocalist might be gleefully jumping around in one moment, and then singing from flat on her back at the next. If the secret to forging a new style all your own is making an indelible impression on the audience, Sammy Rae and the Friends have mastered that art by constantly surprising their fans.
“We are very excited to play Roadrunner,” said Bowers, 28, from her Brooklyn digs last week, just before the tour that will keep them on the road until Thanksgiving began. “We didn’t realize Roadrunner was so brand new, but it is nice to see the growth in our audience and be able to track it. We are such a big band we didn’t know how we’d ever do on the road, but Boston was basically our first out-of-town place to play, and it has been nice to see how enthusiastic those Boston fans have been.”
A musician since childhood
Bowers was born in Derby, Connecticut, but she arrived in New York City at age 19 to study music at Manhattan College. A lifelong music nerd, she’d begun writing her own songs at age 12, and become quite proficient not just at singing, but also at piano, ukulele, banjo and guitar. In between waitressing jobs, she threw herself into finding opportunities to perform around the Big Apple. Gradually, she began meeting and bonding with other musicians and inviting the braver ones to join her.
“The thought I had before the beginning of this band was that, on the Lower East Side, they let everyone play,” Bowers explained. “People look onstage and see a community. Although I started out as just me, I finally figured out what I wanted to do. I realized I need as many people as I could find onstage with me. So, I began telling people I knew or met that I was trying to start a band and why didn’t they come over and sit in and try it out. Most of them stuck around.”
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“Our first real gig was at Rockwood Music Hall, which has very small stage,” Bowers. “There was barely enough room for the band, but we quickly made a name for ourselves, simply for being so big. But the thing about a bigger band is that it is financially difficult to be able to travel, so we didn’t play outside of New York City for awhile.”
'Denim Jacket' and more
The release of “The Good Life” EP in 2018 raised the band’s profile in a big way, with its effervescent pop and sheer variety. A succession of absurdly energetic singles continued to make people all over the internet notice the band, including 2019’s irresistible “Denim Jacket.” Just as the band seemed on the cusp of breaking out, with fantastic shows like that early 2020 show at The Sinclair, the pandemic put the brakes on their ascent. Instead of worrying about it, Sammy Rae and the Friends used the down time to craft another superb EP, 2021’s “Let’s Throw A Party,” as vibrant an antidote to lockdown blues as anyone in any genre ever concocted.
Singles from that latest EP have continued to entice new fans, Spotify had the band featured over and over again on its Discover Weekly program, and by the time they were able to tour once more, their fanbase had expanded dramatically. Some of those more recent singles include “Jackie Onassis,” a peppy salute to an independent female icon of Bower’s, “Follow Me Like the Moon,” a love song first penned when she was 16, and the latest, “If It All Goes South,” an anthem to taking the big chance in love and life.
“We had our first national tour all lined up when the lockdowns hit,” said Bowers. “We were opening for another, bigger band, but it was all canceled. It was an emotional, sad time, and we didn’t really know if we’d be able to continue as a band, or if live music would ever come back. We put our efforts into the EP, and kept releasing singles. Luckily, when we could come back to live shows, we had not only retained our audience, it had grown by so much. Earlier this year we did a five-week tour of venues in the 1,500-capacity range. Now this tour is at even bigger venues.”
'Over the moon' to play Levitate
Sammy Rae and the Friends also hit the summer festival schedule hard, including Marshfield’s Levitate Festival and Martha’s Vineyard’s Beach Road Weekend. On the latter, rainy weather wiped out their mainstage show, but they simply moved it to a 200-person club, and had a ball there.
“This year’s festival schedule was crazy – like cramming three summers worth of shows into one,” Bowers said. “Levitate was amazing. It was one of the biggest crowds we’d ever played for and the way it was organized so that everyone could see every band play was so efficiently laid out. We were over the moon with our Levitate experience, probably our favorite festival of the whole summer.”
Inspired by Freddie, Bruce and Ella
Bowers has said her musical icons are Freddie Mercury for his fearlessness, Bruce Springsteen for his ability to lead and use the skills of a whole band, and Ella Fitzgerald for her vocal ability.
“Seeing Bruce relate to (the late) Clarence Clemons and Steven Van Zandt, where he always let them do their thing within his songs resonated with me,” she said. “Fans react to Clarence or Steven as well as Bruce and he didn’t want to be a solo act. They were all committed to the band and it was all hands on deck every night, and they all stuck with him. It was so inspiring to see Bruce give people room to be themselves, and that's what I always wanted to do.”
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Bowers herself seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the band, or at the concert.
“Oh, I’m having a helluva lot of fun up there,” she said. “It’s always been like that ... Our band’s songs are so devoted to visibly celebrating life and art and I am really excited and grateful to be up there singing them. It is really only really ‘a show’ if the audience shows up.”
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THURSDAY: Legendary guitar ace Jeff Beck is at MGM Music Hall, and he has Johnny Depp in tow. Vanilla Fudge rocks The Narrows Center. Ken Yates and Stephanie Lambring sing at The Spire Center. Dublin power-pop/punk quintet Fontaines D.C. at The House of Blues. Manila Killah brings hip-hop to Royale.
FRIDAY: Glenn Tillbrook from Squeeze sings at City Winery. Country star Dustin Lynch takes over MGM Music Hall. Jonatha Brook sings at The Spire Center. The hot quintet Metronomy gets down at The House of Blues. Ruthie Foster’s sizzling blues and jazz at The Narrows Center. Marco Benevento’s Trio at Soundcheck Studios. South Africa’s St. Lucia warms up The Paradise. Greyson Chance is at Brighton Music Hall. A Youth Band Showcase at The C-Note.
SATURDAY: Aldous Collins Band shakes up John Alden Sportsman's Club in an afternoon show. Crusading songwriter Billy Bragg headlines The Wilbur. Songwriter Mary Gauthier at the Spire Center. Of Montreal rocks The Sinclair. Rapper Denzel Curry is at Roadrunner. Lloyd Cole and his bag of songs at City Winery. Superb songwriter, and guitarist Mark Erelli headlines the Narrows Center. Barns Courtney rocks The Paradise. The Blushing Brides’ premier Rolling Stones tribute at The C-Note. Moody electronic pop from Two Feet at Big Night Live. A super trio of Boston rock stars when Sal Baglio, Jon Butcher, and Allen Estes celebrate their new CD at the Regent Theater. The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at Soundcheck Studios.
SUNDAY: The female quartet L7 rocks Big Night Live. Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow at MGM Music Hall. Aussie electro band The Avalanches at the House of Blues. Colombian singer Seb Yatra at the Orpheum Theater. Japanese guitar ace Miyavi at Brighton Music Hall.
'Sammy Rae and the Friends'
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 15
Where: Roadrunner, 89 Guest St. in Brighton
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Sammy Rae and the Friends coming to Roadrunner Boston