Friday, February 27, 2015

Sleater Kinney at Terminal 5

Carrie Brownstein & Corin Tucker
Guitarists/vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein met in 1992. Tucker was a member of the influential riot grrrl band Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein was in the queercore band Excuse 17. The bands often played at gigs together and, as a side-project from their respective bands, Tucker and Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney in 1994 in a brick duplex in Olympia, Washington. The group's name was derived from Sleater Kinney Road in Lacey, Washington, the location of one of the band's early practice spaces. When Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 disbanded, Tucker and Brownstein focussed entirely on Sleater-Kinney. Upon Tucker's graduation in 1994 from Evergreen State College (where Brownstein remained a student for three more years), she and then-girlfriend Brownstein took a trip to Australia. Their last day there, they stayed up all night recording what would become their 22-minute, 1995 self-titled debut. Sleater-Kinney had no bassist, but both Tucker and Brownstein tuned their guitars one and a half steps down (D tuning), such that Tucker's tone and style enabled her to fulfill the role of bass. After going through several drummers, Tucker and Brownstein met Janet Weiss of the band Quasi; Weiss became the band's longest lasting and final drummer. Sleater-Kinney recorded seven albums in 10 years, then went on hiatus in 2006; the trio reunited in 2014 and released a new album, No Cities to Love, on January 20, 2015.

Nearly every group that ever existed in the 20th century has reunited in the 21st century, and the returns are lucrative. When Sleater-Kinney performed a farewell tour in 2006, the band performed one night at Webster Hall. Eight and a half years later, the band sold out two shows at Terminal 5, a venue nearly twice the capacity of Webster Hall. In just under two hours on both nights at Terminal 5, Sleater-Kinney performed 23 songs, although four songs were different tonight, the second night. This was not to be a nostalgia tour, however. The band could have gotten away with performing a hits package, but instead performed eight of the 10 songs from the new album, and even the older songs were not necessarily the anticipated ones. For most of the set, the band did not play more than two consecutive oldies before introducing a new song. For the most part, the band remained a trio, although touring member Katie Harkin played guitar, keyboards and percussion on a few songs. For the most part, Sleater-Kinney 2.0 was more refined than ever. The band stepped down the punky rawness of its music and consistently presented slicker workouts. The musicians perfected and polished the loud-quiet-loud dynamic common among alternative rock artists of the 1990s. Even the two early songs from the band's second album were less riot grrrl garage band and more classic rock. With shredding guitar leads, barreling percussion and sweet harmonies, Sleater-Kinney preserved its integrity with a solid foot in the past and one in the present. Once a clawing, biting band, however, this slicker presentation of Sleater-Kinney has evolved into a more domesticated pop act.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Swans at the Bowery Ballroom

Michael Gira
Michael Gira was born in Los Angeles, California, but as a youth relocated to Europe with his father. He hitchhiked across the continent, and spent four and a half months in an adult jail in Israel for selling drugs. He turned 16 when in jail. He then came back to California and worked at a bakery, and later supported himself through college by painting houses. He moved to New York City in 1979, where he played in Circus Mort before forming the experimental band Swans in 1982. Initially part of the no-wave movement, Swans recorded 10 albums before Gira retired the noise-rock band in 1997. In 1999, Gira formed another band, Angels of Light, and years later, while playing in that band, he felt inspired to revamp Swans, although this desire materialized years later, in 2010. Throughout its history, Swans changed members than 20 times, and presently consists of Gira on guitar and vocals, Norman Westberg on guitar, Christoph Hahn on guitar and lap steel guitar, Christopher Pravdica on bass guitar, Thor Harris on drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, and keyboards, and Phil Puleo on drums, percussion and dulcimer. Swans' most recent album is 2014's To Be Kind.

Swans' style of noise rock went through many transitions over the decades, from loud and abrasive brutality to ominous and ethereal soundscapes to more conventional rock. At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, the sonic thrust of earlier times often was replaced by more tranquil sounds. Hypnotic repetition was still the fabric of many compositions, even as the set started with an extended Chinese gong solo. Songs were lengthy and intentionally monotonous dirges. With a lack of directional buildup or crescendo, it was difficult to determine when a song should or would end. This ironically became the downfall of the performance. While the audience had the sense of entry into the mind of a creative artist, ultimately these drawn-out compositions passed the saturation point and marched into headlong boredom. Listeners became spectators, and Gira and company could not always sustain the attention of audiences traditionally attuned to entertainment on stage. Not that Gira's artistry was suspect or incredulous, but a bit of dynamics would have brought his musical fruits to a more satisfying end.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bush at the Best Buy Theater

Gavin Rossdale
Born in London, England, Gavin Rossdale learned to play bass guitar after hanging out with his sister's boyfriend, who was in a band called the Nobodyz. Rossdale switched to rhythm guitar, and at age 17, he formed a band called Midnight. In 1991, Rossdale moved to Los Angeles for six months, lived where he could and took whatever part-time jobs were available, including production assistant on video shoots. After a brief time in New York City, he returned to England and formed Future Primitive in 1992. The band changed its name to Bush in 1994, naming themselves after Shepherd's Bush, London, where the band members used to reside. Bush's debut album, Sixteen Stone, was certified six times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Bush became one of the most commercially successful rock bands of the 1990s, selling over 10 million records in the United States, but achieving little success in its native country. The band split in 2002 and reformed in 2010. Bush presently consists of two original members, Rossdale on lead vocals and rhythm guitar and Robin Goodridge on drums, plus Chris Traynor on lead guitar and Corey Britz on bass. The band's sixth and most recent album, Man on the Run, was released on October 21, 2014.

Bush's early albums were strongly influenced by grunge, but for a time the band experimented with electronic dance music influences. On the large and brightly lit stage at the Best Buy Theater tonight, Bush returned to its rock roots, with coarse vocals clearly up front, and fuzzy, grungy guitars backing the melody and crunching the choruses. The set consisted of five songs from the first album, eight songs from the between period and six songs from the most recent album, plus a surprising cover of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime." The accent was on the rockers, but they were cleaned up for a more commercial and accessible sound. Towards the end of the show the band seemed to loosen the song arrangements a bit, first with a gritty-sounding "Insect Kin," followed by a nearly seven-minute, Nirvana-sounding "Little Things." During "Little Things," Rossdale walked, sang and pogoed through the tightly-packed audience all the way to the back of the theater and back to the stage and bid farewell. The encores of "Machinehead", "Once in a Lifetime", Rossdale's fuzz-laden solo rendition of "Glycerine" and "Comedown" all inspired sing-alongs and the mass lifting of camera-phones. The fans left happy that Bush was once again a hard rocking band.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Marian Hill at the Penthouse at the Standard Hotel, East Village

Samantha Gongol
Jeremy Lloyd, the son of a conductor and an opera singer, first heard Samantha Gongol sing at a school talent show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Years later, Lloyd studied music theater and composition at Yale University and Gongol studied music business at New York University. The two reunited and started writing and recording original music together as Marian Hall, with Gongol on vocals and Lloyd on synthesizer. The electronic duo released the Play EP on March 4, 2014.

Joined by bassist and saxophonist Steve Davit tonight at the Penthouse at the Standard Hotel, East Village, Marian Hill performed uncommon electronic music; most of the songs were slow and sparse rather than multi-layered dance floor anthems. Lloyd started many songs with a skeleton bass line and drum beat and gradually filled them with a wider backdrop of modern electronic sounds as the compositions progressed. Meanwhile, Gongol sang in a soft and sultry voice, recalling old-time after-hours speakeasy jazz influences. Together, the duo married the two disparate decades-apart generations of music into a smoky pop blend. Supported by the addition of Davit's warm saxophone and subtle bass lines, Marian Hill presented an imaginative approach to electronica.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

JJ Grey & Mofro at Terminal 5

JJ Grey
Born and raised in and around Jacksonville, Florida, John “JJ” Grey began his professional music career in the 1990s leading his initial southern roots band, Mofro Magic, through Europe. He returned to northern Florida, assembled local musicians and adopted his nickname, Mofro, as his band's name because it sounded southern. After two albums, Grey expanded the band name in 2007 to JJ Grey & Mofro when his grandmother asked him if he was ashamed to use his own name. JJ Grey & Mofro is composed presently of JJ Grey (vocals, electric piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmonica), Andrew Trube (electric guitar and slide guitar), Anthony Farrell (organ), Todd Smallie (bass guitar), Anthony Cole (drums) and the "Hercules Horns," Dennis Marion (trumpet) and Jeff Dazey  (saxophone), with guest Marcus Paisley (trumpet). JJ Grey & Mofro's most recent album, Ol' Glory, was released on February 24, 2015.

Foregoing all rock star posing at Terminal 5 tonight, JJ Grey & Mofro's stage set included five scattered table lamps, intentionally lending a homey living room feel. Opening the set with a backyard jam-sounding "Your Lady, She’s Shady," JJ Grey & Mofro translated northern Florida's sprawling farms and eddying swamps to sprawling, swampy rooted music. Expanding the southern sound further, Grey sang like a 1960s Memphis Stax singer and the band sounded like they were from the famous recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As a warm and engaging Grey powered through his soulful songs somewhere between Otis Redding and Delbert McClinton, the musicians backed Grey's catchy choruses with a combination of Southern rock, soul, funk and blues. Grey led the band through blue-collar lyrics, then often slipped out of the sight lines in order to let the band members stretch. Songs were filled out with numerous guitar licks, organ solos and horn fills; New York-based former Mofro member Adam Scone even joined the band on Hammond organ for an extended version of "Ho Cake." JJ Grey & Mofro's performance was a well-executed rhythm and blues rave-up.

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Marc Broussard at Terminal 5

Raised in Carencro and Lafayette, Louisiana, Marc Broussard is the son of Ted Broussard, a Louisiana Hall of Fame guitarist and former member of the Boogie Kings. In 2001, Broussard started his professional music career as a member of Y, a short-lived Christian band from New Iberia, Louisiana. A year later, Broussard became a solo artist with the release of several independent efforts. Broussard in 2005 released a live album, Bootleg to Benefit the Victims of Hurricane Katrina, with all proceeds helping to rebuild Broussard’s home state, and in 2008 founded the Momentary Setback Fund to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Broussard married his wife, Sonya, on the Rock Boat VII cruise in January 2008, and they reside in his hometown of Carenco with their four children. He released his sixth studio album, A Life Worth Living, on July 29, 2014.

Opening for JJ Grey & Mofro tonight at Terminal 5, Marc Broussard played a style of music sometimes described as "Bayou Soul," a gumbo of Southern-style blues, rhythm & blues, rock, funk, and pop. These diverse resources made each song distinct and captivating. At heart, however, the now-bearded Broussard was a singer-songwriter sorting out the complications of life through his thoughtful lyrics. Switching between electric and acoustic guitar, eyes closed on every song, he concentrated on his soulful vocal delivery and his sensitive lyrics while his guitar/bass/drums band jammed powerfully as the backup. New Yorker Steve Conte played dazzling lead guitar fills on every song. Conte's sparkling guitar licks were so prominent that it was hard to imagine the songs without this strong input.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Los Dudes at the Bowery Electric

Jesse Bates
There is a band called Los Dudes based in Ventura, California, and another band with the same name based in Brooklyn, New York. The Brooklyn band formed in 1993, and released a self titled album in 1996 and a second album, Hipster Retirement Home, in 2013. The band consists of vocalist Jesse Bates, guitarists Eric Hartz and Eric Ambel , bassist Bob Cerny and drummer Todd Irwin.

Los Dudes self-describes itself as basement rock, so it was fitting that the band performed in the basement of the Bowery Electric tonight. Lighthearted and jovial, the band performed clever novelty songs like "Let's Get the Band Back Together" and "TV Nut" that spoofed youthful priorities. Far from polished, the punky garage band created and indulged in a good time party spirit with humorous compositions performed well.

Spanking Charlene at the Bowery Electric

Charlene McPherson
Vocalist Charlene McPherson knows she has a big fanny. The name of her band, Spanking Charlene, pokes fun at that attribute. The rock band was formed in 2007 in Brooklyn, New York, and almost immediately released a debut album. Little Steven Van Zandt featured the music on his Underground Garage radio program and then named Spanking Charlene as the "Best Unsigned Band in America" after he had the three finalists perform in a contest at Pianos. The grand prize was having Van Zandt produce two songs for the winning band. These two songs, “Dismissed with a Kiss” and “Canarsie," appeared on the band's second album, 2012's Where Are the Freaks? Spanking Charlene is comprised of McPherson, guitarists Mo Goldner and Eric Ambel, bassist David Leatherwood, and drummer Eric Seftel.

At the Bowery Electric tonight, Spanking Charlene played straight-up, no frills pop rock music. Much like mid-1960s radio music, everything boiled down to a tight ensemble of musicians supporting songs that revolved around catchy hooks and gripping vocals. McPherson's sweetly soulful and sultry vocals were kept up front, soaring above the rocking guitar-based rhythms on uptempo songs about life and love in New York City. The jagged-edge guitar sounds kept the songs from becoming overly slick. While not really a punk band, Spanking Charlene's set included a cover of X-Ray Specs' anthem from 1977, "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" Spanking Charlene made old-styled music sound fresh again.

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Faith at the Bowery Electric

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Felice Rosser  relocated to New York in the mid 1970s to attend college, and quickly gravitated to the local music scene. She played bass in bands with singer/guitarist Deerfrance and performance artist Jennifer Jazz. In the 1980s, Rosser played in Sistren, an all female reggae band. She also played with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and new wave artists Bush Tetras, Gary Lucas and Ari-Up of the Slits. In the 1990s, Rosser started Faith, which has released two albums, 2001’s Time to Fall in Love Again and 2007’s A Place Where Love Can Grow. Faith also recently released a four-song EP, Soul Secrets. Faith presently consists of Rosser, guitarist Nao Hakamada and drummer Paddy Boom.

At the Bowery Electric tonight, Faith combined several ingredients to concoct a new broth. Rosser interpreted a soulfully emotive vocal style reminiscent of Nina Simone, Laura Nyro or Joan Armatrading. The singer/songwriter's lyrics sounded like poems attached to light melodies. The power trio hit warm grooves with Rosser playing sparse funk and reggae bass lines, Hakamada playing stinging alternative rock guitar leads and Boom playing jazz-styled drums. Together the rock and soul trio produced a matured sound for matured audiences.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Helmet at the Bowery Ballroom

Page Hamilton
Raised in Medford, Oregon, Page Hamilton studied guitar at the University of Oregon before moving to New York in the early 1980s to study jazz guitar at the Manhattan School of Music. While there he played in avant-garde composer Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra and joined the noise rock band Band of Susans. Hamilton sought musicians through a classified advertisement in a New York newspaper and formed the successful alternative rock band Helmet in 1989. The band split in 1998, Hamilton relocated from New York to Los Angeles, California,  and in 2004 formed a new band and branded it with the same name. Hamilton is the sole remaining original member of Helmet. Fifteen musicians later, the band presently consists of vocalist/guitarist Hamilton, guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Dave Case and drummer Kyle Stevenson. Helmet released seven studio albums, the most recent being 2010's Seeing Eye Dog.

Helmet launched a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band's third album, Betty, with three concerts in New York; two at the Bowery Ballroom and one at Saint Vitus. The band first performed the 14 tracks from Betty; curiously, they played the 45-minute album in 45 minutes. The band then played 16 additional songs spanning Helmet's career, focusing mostly on songs from the 1990s. Live, the songs were rawer and coarser than the recorded versions. Clipped block-chord riffs, minor keys, and drop-C and drop-D tunings produced super heavy, crunching rhythms. Accordingly, the rock-steady, low-rumbling metal grooves highlighted Hamilton's piercing guitar licks and his gravelly and sometimes monotone barks. Many of these grooves were mid-tempo or slow, punctuating rather than distracting from Hamilton's avant garde and jazz-inspired fretwork. For nearly two hours, this version of Helmet respectfully and impressively re-energized the earlier lineups' rich, abrasive and nearly-chaotic-sounding catalog.

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