A Performance From the Heart: Sammy Boller Live at The Sanctuary in Detroit

Sammy Boller’s Spotify Bio reads simply “I play completely from the heart.” and nothing else. After seeing him live, I can safely say that nothing more is needed. Boller attempts (and succeeds in) blending multiple instrumental genres together to defy a common label, while sticking to several fundamental, cohesive themes throughout his growing body of guitar-driven work. 

At times reminiscent of guitar gods of old like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Steve Vai, Boller’s sound tends to emphasize the old-school saturated, amp-based distortion tone perfect for soaring leads and often capped off with massive bends that would be right at home in an 80s session demo reel. At other times, Boller calls to mind a new breed of guitar virtuoso like Plini and Nick Johnston with his unique method of creating melody from clean tapping and legato passages throughout the bulk of his work. Throw in some tight, almost-djent rhythmic passages and reverb-drenched, tremolo-picked shoegaze textures, and you have an almost-adequate summation of Sammy Boller’s sound… almost. Whether leaning on new or old, Boller forges a new path impressively all his own.

I recently got a chance to catch him live at The Sanctuary in Detroit, and I was struck not only by the refreshing quality of his playing and composition, but also his unique and earnest stage presence and the overall cozy atmosphere of the venue that evening.

Call it a hometown advantage, but there’s something to be said about the overall vibe of a concert when the headliner is local. In this case, the evening’s entire bill had that advantage—was it because they were all hailing from the same studio space? That never hurts, but the connection felt deeper than that. Openers Gold Crayon featured multiple alumni from Detroit indie-pop group Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, and showcased a jangly, poppy indie sound perfect for fans of The Strokes and Phoenix.

Then came The Messenger Birds, fellow Rustbelt Studios artists who defied labels with their brand of brash rock—at times grunge, at other times electronic, but always heart-palpitating with the deep sonic resonance coming from guitarist/vocalist Parker Bengry and drummer Chris Williams. I’d list more band members, but they get their chest-rumbling sound from only two! I (and my cardiologist) would love to know how they do it, though my guess would have something to do with Bengry’s extensive pedalboard setup and dual-amp rig, along with some behind the scenes mojo. The duo are great for fans of Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, and early Muse. The night’s festivities showcased the scope and spectrum of Detroit’s current rock talent; lucky for me, there was much more in store with Sammy Boller’s set.

After a short, efficient soundcheck, Sammy and company took to the stage. With a huge, beaming smile that would become common throughout the evening, Boller launched into his first track of the night, Spellbound. A vibey mid-tempo jam heavy on rhythm work, the track featured Boller’s trademark use of tapping and delay to create passages more akin to piano or synth than guitar, building a rich tonal palette right before jumping off at the midway point with a speedy, yet teasingly-brief solo full of trills, vibrato, and assorted guitar heroics.

Met with raucous applause, Boller was once again all grateful smiles and even a touch of bashfulness as he continued through newer tracks like Path of the Heart, Ritual Lights, and Midnight Garden. This veritable charcuterie board of shred worked remarkably well together, and gave me hope that a sophomore follow-up to 2020’s Kingdom of the Sun may be on the horizon (no pun intended). Highlights included a wonderfully blistering yet bluesy solo section in Path of the Heart, as well as the gorgeous lead melody from Ritual Lights that sounded far bigger than any song in such a venue had any right to sound.

Midnight Garden offered the biggest departure (so far) from Boller’s sound, with a backing track full of synths and tight production that shone through. The track also showcased the talents of drummer Miguel Gutierrez, who tirelessly punished the kit by laying down countless grooves mixed with powerful breakbeats and huge, satisfying fills. His talents, along with those of bassist Brendan Hengle, were increasingly on display after this halfway point and were only picking up steam. The crowd loved every second of it.

Heading towards a crescendo, Boller paid homage to his work on Kingdom of the Sun with the remainder of the set. Intricate passages of shred were once again interspersed with fragile tapped rhythms in tracks like Sunrise/Sunset, while Cloak of Light provided a beautiful choir of echo-laced tapping that evolved into glorious, neoclassical weirdness. That is to say, it was a highlight of the evening for me. 

With the final track, Kingdom of the Sun, we were treated to a long, driving buildup towards an explosive solo that featured Boller at his best–incorporating multiple techniques that shouldn’t sound so damn good together, while still managing to make all the sense in the world. The equivalent to the finale of a fireworks display, Boller pulled out every tool in his kit for this final song and took us collectively to the brink of musical collapse–just so he could resolve that tension into a giant, singing melody ringing out through the remainder of the song. In that same way, his stage presence mirrored his music as well. Cheery and playful, but with a deep intensity that was activated as soon as those first notes crackled from the speaker cones, Boller dove into his intensity only to come back up once again with a friendly smile and lighthearted saunter around the stage afterward. There was an earnesty in his performance that convinced me he was having the time of his life up there, and for a brief moment we got to share in that. 

Though he has just finished up his 2024 Winter Tour and no future dates have yet been announced, I strongly recommend checking out Sammy Boller’s work in concert, Youtube, Spotify, or wherever you can hear him. It may do your heart some good.

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