Last year was a banner year for indie alternative jam rockers Ghost Light. They debuted a slew of fantastic material on their west coast spring tour and then dropped their stellar sophomore album, The Healing, in October. That was followed by a run of eastern fall dates and now another west coast run to close out the touring year that brings them to Harlow’s Nightclub in Sacramento on this chilly Wednesday evening of 14 December.
On the one hand, there’s a surging momentum from the release of the new album. But then there are also some bittersweet vibes in the air due to the recent news from keyboard wizard Holly Bowling that she’ll be departing the band after these December tour dates. Though she was vague about the reasoning, fans can’t help but suspect that touring in a van probably doesn’t mesh so well with being the mother of a young toddler.
The stunning announcement was something of a shock to the system for the Ghost Light’s devoted fanbase. The sudden emotional void felt like when one of your hometown sports teams suddenly trades one of your favorite players whom you had previously considered untouchable due to their immense talents and contributions to the team. But life happens, plans sometimes change, and rock ‘n’ roll must ever carry on.
Ghost Light are dialed in right from the start on “This Ain’t Going Nowhere” as lead guitarist Tom Hamilton weaves melodic lines over a snappy groove from drummer Scotty Zwang and bassist Taylor Shell. Hamilton and rhythm guitarist/singer Raina Mullen harmonize on vocals that give way to Bowling’s artful piano plunking as the band gives her space to lead an extended jam. Then Hamilton starts ripping liquid leads as everyone syncs in behind him for a glorious opening jam that sounds so good here with Harlow’s ultra-crisp sound system and perfect acoustics.
Mullen steps into rock goddess mode on “Don’t Say Goodnight Just Yet”, a dynamic song from The Healing with an infectious groove and alluring vocals that draw the listener in like a moth to the singer’s charismatic flame. Hamilton’s guitar solo gives way to a multidimensional jam where Ghost Light lead the audience on a tantalizing sonic journey. There’s a blissful trancey section with Hamilton and Mullen trading licks and knowing smiles as they revel at how locked in the band is early on. Bowling adds psychedelic synths while the rhythm section keeps a pulsing groove going.
There’s a vivid sense that Ghost Light are one of the most talented rock ‘n’ roll bands, and why don’t more people get it? The title of their debut album, Best Kept Secret, would seem all too prophetic at this juncture. Everyone here at Harlow’s is getting it, though, as the audience falls into a collective groove while Hamilton and Bowling weave uplifting celestial melodies that ignite the soul. When the band returns to the triumphant chorus, and Mullen sings of how “The sun’s about to rise”, it feels like rock ‘n’ roll will indeed help save the planet.
Ghost Light follow with “The Healing”, a dynamic number where Hamilton and Mullen sing of transcending challenging personal issues. Bowling steps up with a dazzling piano solo, showing again how much she’ll be missed when she’s gone. There’s another dazzling multidimensional jam that feels like a cross between 1970s classic rock psychedelia and modern indie rock, with vibrational healing of sorts in effect.
Another great song from the new album follows with “Sweet Unlimited”, as Shell opens with a signature lead bass line that Mullen sings over before the rest of the band comes in with an electrifying jolt. Mullen sings her heart out about a tumultuous relationship. Then there’s an incendiary jam with Hamilton tearing it up on a big crescendo, which makes four straight great songs with four stupendous jams.
This sets Ghost Light apart from most of their peers: great jams AND memorable songs. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, as the quintet proves every time. The jam segues into “Joelene”, with Hamilton taking the lead vocal on another dynamic tune that closes the first set with a flourish, even as it turns out to be the only number of the five-song set list that doesn’t go beyond ten minutes. It’s a festive break because everyone is stoked about that sensational first set. Harlow’s has a nice back patio area where fans can congregate for a smoke or fresh air rather than hanging out on the sidewalk out front, as is the case at so many venues.
The second set opens with Raina Mullen in full rock goddess mode as she leads Ghost Light on her anthemic classic, “Diamond Eyes”. It’s one of her most epic songs as well as one of their most dynamic jam vehicles, making for a great set opener. Mullen sings of battling darkness as she works to weld words into stars that shimmer, and she’s succeeded here even as she declares herself “the queen of the moral victory”. She’s undoubtedly a queen of the modern music scene, as there are few other female vocalists belting out rockers like this.
Everyone in the group dazzles on the jam here, starting with a psychedelic organ solo from Bowling. Then Shell steps up with a heavy bass line that feels similar to the low end in Phish’s classic minor key banger “Sand”, which spins the jam in a fresh direction that gets the dance floor grooving on a deeper level. Hamilton rips on a hot solo as the band keeps moving deeper into a sensational jam space as Ghost Light own the night once again.
“What Does It Mean to Be” is another winner, with Hamilton singing a universal tune of youthful soul searching, as a mesmerizing sonic landscape is conjured. Ghost Light are like tone scientists journeying through time and space in search of keys to a higher dimension, and it feels like they’re finding them at every turn. The jam turns on a dime into “I Dare You”, where Mullen sings of finding her way and being the “force of nature” that she and Ghost Light truly are. It’s one of those incredible jams where the entire quintet seems to be all soloing at once, yet in a unified direction that generates a powerful sonic wave where the whole feels even greater than the considerable sum of the parts.
Hamilton inserts a cathartic ballad breather into the set with “Bring It in Close”, singing of working through a pain that does no good and how the sun follows the rain, before ripping a smoking guitar solo to drive the point home. This leads into the blissfully triumphant vibe of “Synth Driver” to close out the set, featuring an extended psych-rock exploration that builds from a gentle calm to a gloriously stormy climax.
Ghost Light quickly return for a sensational encore with “Take Some Time”, yet another instant classic from the new album that showcases Mullen as a queen of shamanic rock power. Singing “Hear me out like the lightning and the thunder”, it feels like she’s catching lightning in a bottle on infectious tunes like this one that seems like a lost classic from the 1970s. Mullen graciously appears at the merch booth afterward for meet and greets with adoring fans, a silver lining of the fact that the band hasn’t yet moved up from clubs to theaters. She also assures them that the band is not breaking up, a relief to some who were fretting over the matter.
Twenty-four hours later, Ghost Light are ready to rock Thursday night at the Independent in San Francisco’s central part of town. Opening with “Best Kept Secret” seems to acknowledge the situation with how this show really should be at the Fillmore instead of a room half the size with spotty acoustics. But Ghost Light destroyed this room in 2019, so there’s no doubt they’re ready to rock, as this hot opener attests. The soaring jam fires the audience up, as the band moves right into “Leave the Light On”. Shell and Zwang propel a fierce groove here, with Hamilton and Bowling laying down surging melodies. The jam swirls to a peak with Hamilton laying down some whammy bar squeals as the band moves back into “Best Kept Secret” to conclude a stellar sequence to open the show.
Mullen stars next on “Dig a Hole” from The Healing, a song that starts off at a bluesy simmer before building into a powerhouse prog rock jam as Mullen sings of finding a way to break free from what keeps her down. Bowling opens a cosmic wormhole, and Zwang propels a furious rhythm before Hamilton starts shredding fierce riffage on a smoking jam that wins a big cheer from the fired-up audience when the wave crests. Then it’s off the races again on the soaring “Fever Dreams”, with a jam that traverses wide sonic ground as they demonstrate their improvisational powers at a high level before landing back at the triumphant chorus.
Ghost Light typically aren’t going to repeat songs from the previous night, but opening the second set with “Don’t Say Goodnight Just Yet” doesn’t feel wrong after what a great jam the song had in Sacramento’s first set. Seeing Mullen in rock star mode here in San Francisco conjures psychedelic visions of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. They soon move into another blissful jam through time and space that dazzles the senses, with Shell crushing it in a lead bass mode that brings the great Jack Casady to mind as well.
A different twist here comes with Hamilton leading a scintillating tease on Radiohead‘s “National Anthem” during the surging jam before Ghost Light drop back into the last chorus for a big finish. The mystical “Isosceles” follows with Hamilton opening the song on acoustic guitar as he and Mullen harmonize with voices that sound as if coming from another dimension. It’s one of the band’s more complex arrangements with a vibe conjuring the 1960s psyche rock counterculture, yet with heavy moments that feel like more of a 1990s alt-rock attack. Bowling’s electric piano is the connecting glue here while Mullen and Hamilton trade knowing smiles again.
“The Healing” is repeated too, but it still sounds fresh as it features some of Hamilton and Mullen’s best harmonies. Bowling crushes the piano solo, and there’s a sense that the band is really dialed in again as Hamilton rips an acoustic guitar solo. This leads to a funky throwdown on “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, one of Ghost Light’s signature jams from their first tour in 2018 that never fails to ignite the dance floor. Shell and Bowling are really laying it down here as the audience revels in the groovy vibes.
The hot jam eventually turns in a spacey direction before segueing smoothly into “Sweet Unlimited”, another repeat from the night before, except Ghost Light are entering the song differently by jamming into it, which demonstrates a creative change of pace. They also jam it back into “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” to get the dance party going again, with the audience wooing back at the band when Hamilton and Mullen sing, “Let me hear it if you want it!” A beautiful jam on “Don’t Come Apart Just Yet” offers one more chance at bliss, with Bowling’s melodic piano lines hitting just right before the band launches into an interstellar jam. A swinging “Bullseye Blues” encore indeed hits the mark to close out another fabulous night with Ghost Light.
Ghost Light had two more shows with Bowling in Los Angeles the next night and then in Denver on 29 December. The saving grace for local fans here in the Bay Area is that Bowling is a San Francisco resident who can still be caught in action around town. Recent sightings include a sensational guest appearance with Greensky Bluegrass at the Warfield Theater on 29 October, as well as dates with Phil Lesh & Friends at the Warfield on 27 December and Railroad Earth at the Fillmore on 20 January.
For Ghost Light, the search is on for a new keyboardist. But with the dynamic duo of Tommy Hamilton and Raina Mullen still in place, backed by the outstanding rhythm section of Scotty Zwang and Taylor Shell, the band’s future still remains so bright they’ve gotta wear shades.