This past Thursday, I journeyed out to the World Café Live in Philadelphia to see Riley Road perform in their first headlining show. Readers might recall my earlier interview piece about Riley Road, but for those who missed it, I’ll talk briefly about the band.
Riley Road is made up of three 15-16 year olds from the Philadelphia area: guitarist/vocalist Nick Cianci (son of Tony Cianci, Swarthmore ’86), drummer Isaiah Weatherspoon, and bassist Brandon Walker. They’ve been playing music together for about two years and have steadily won local competition after competition. They play a brand of bluesy rock and have great chemistry and a real sense of camaraderie as well as talent to spare. Expect big things from this local trio.
I had previously seen Riley Road for the first time at this same venue in August, when they were competing in a Battle of the Bands Competition, which they won handily. I was blown away by the charm and energy the three boys displayed on stage. Performing seems to come naturally to them, and they clearly enjoy one another’s presence onstage and off.
The boys played a mix of covers and original material on Thursday night, introduced several new songs, and balanced the blues, blues-rock and rock aspects of their set quite well. They opened their set with an instrumental groove, a cover of “Cissy Strut” by The Meters that got the crowd energized immediately. They then segued into their debut of a new song, called “Better Man.” “Better Man” is already a huge step forward artistically and creatively for this young band; it is an up-tempo number with a heavy drumbeat courtesy of Isaiah, and a catchy, compelling smoky vocal line from Nick complemented by an impressively technical guitar solo, also from Nick, that really showed his guitar chops. Riley Road then played another cover, this one of “The Letter” (made famous by the Box Tops), which was a bluesy track with soulful vocals, followed by cover of “Worried Down With the Blues” (written by Warren Haynes, who was in both the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, two of Nick’s favorite bands), this one a slow, melting jazzy number. A highlight of the night soon followed: Riley Road’s well-executed cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” done with a more rock edge. The crowd’s enthusiasm grew with each song.
The band then took a short break, and Nick addressed the audience, thanking us for coming to support Riley Road. He reflected on it being “surreal” hearing Riley Road on the radio. His sincerity and appreciation of the band’s loyal cadre of fans earned the band another round of applause.
The boys then jumped back into performing, playing “Tied to Me” (which has received lots of play on WXPN), the opening track from their EP. I’d heard this song so many times before that it even felt like a classic already. This song in particular demonstrated the band’s perfectly attuned ability to jam with each other and not drown out any of the other members. This earlier track in the band’s discography focused less on technical prowess and more on the band’s natural ability to gel. They then played another track from their EP, titled “Easily”, which compared to their other songs had a more bluesy and ballad-y feeling with chugging guitars. Another highlight of the evening came next, a new track that is still untitled. This new song was a leap back into the past sonically for the boys. It was more rock than blues and even seemed to have a 1950’s dance-hall feel, but still was anchored by deep bluesy undertones. Brandon’s bass in particular shone during this new track.
The boys then finished out the night with a mix of originals and covers and concluded with an extremely enjoyable number, a cover of “Rocking Horse” by Gov’t Mule with a long instrumental section where the boys really showed off their technical abilities. Isaiah’s drum solo was absolutely incredible, with changing tempos and time signatures that roused the crowd again and again. The band thanked the crowd and left, only to return for an excellent encore, joined by another guitarist, Conor McCarthy, and an organ player, Devin Calderin. This cover of “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers had a full, rich sound and a thrilling building intensity. It made for a splendid encore.
This small, intimate concert displayed a trio of boys with a big sound. Riley Road is sure to hit it big soon and they will deserve every inch of their success.