Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cracker at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill

David Lowery
Vocalist/guitarist David Lowery enjoyed alternative rock success with Camper Van Beethoven in the 1980s, but the group disbanded in 1990. He then connected with lead guitarist Johnny Hickman, whom he had befriended as teenagers in the music scene in Redlands, California. They relocated to Richmond, Virginia, formed Cracker in 1991. Cracker rode the wave of guitar-driven alternative rock in the early 1990s; the band's first two albums were hits and the band later had tracks on film and television soundtracks. Camper Van Beethoven re-formed in 1999, so Lowery now performs in both bands. Cracker is based currently in Athens, Georgia, and consists of Lowery, Hickman, pedal steel player Matt "Pistol" Stoessel, bassist Bryan Howard, and drummer Carlton "Coco" Owens. The band's 10th and most recent studio album is 2014's double Berkeley to Bakersfield.

Cracker followed Camper Van Beethoven's set tonight at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. The similarities in Lowery's two bands was that the songs spun on his frequently wry, clever lyrics, and both sets hinted at alt-country-rock roots. The notable difference was that Cracker sparkled with Hickman's brash, rocking guitar leads and Stoessel's sliding pedal steel. Lowery's folk-styled vocal delivery ranged from doleful to playful, and was core to each song, but the band's brawny contributions lifted the songs with oomph and color. Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven also played fiddle on a few Cracker songs. It also helped that the whimsical lyrics of "Teen Angst" and "Euro-Trash Girl" were still amusing after 20 years. Cracker's music ranged from grunge to Americana, but all of it uniformly light-hearted and sharp-witted, making Cracker a unique band still.

Visit Cracker at www.crackersoul.com.

Setlist:
  1. Loser (Jerry Garcia cover)
  2. Almond Grove
  3. One Fine Day
  4. Gimme One More Chance
  5. California Country Boy
  6. El Comandante
  7. Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)
  8. Wedding Day
  9. Low
  10. Sweet Potato
  11. This Is Cracker Soul
  12. Euro-Trash Girl
  13. Beautiful
  14. Another Song About the Rain
  15. Encore: Mr. Wrong

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Isley Brothers at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill

Ronald Isley (left) & Ernie Isley
Encouraged by their southern-raised parents, four young brothers, O'Kelly Isley, Jr., Rudolph Isley, Ronald Isley, and Vernon Isley began singing gospel songs in church in 1954 in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Isley Brothers won a talent contest on a national television show and began a East Coast tour of churches. Then, the vocal quartet's lead vocalist, 13-year-old Vernon, died after a car struck him as he rode his bicycle in his neighborhood; devastated, the remaining trio disbanded. In 1957, the brothers decided to regroup and record secular music, with Ronald taking the lead vocals. The Isley Brothers moved to New York City and hit in 1959 with "Shout" and in 1962 with "Twist and Shout." The brothers then moved to New Jersey in 1964, during which time an as-yet-undiscovered Jimi Hendrix joined the band for a year. By the late 1960s, younger brothers Ernie Isley (guitar) and Marvin Isley (bass) began contributing to the music. Over the years, Rudolph left music to work in Christian ministry and O'Kelly and Marvin died. The two remaining Isley Brothers are Ronald and Ernie Isley. The Isley Brothers' 21st and most recent studio album is 2006's Baby Makin' Music.

Tickets were a whopping $125, but B.B. King Blues Club & Grill was packed tighter than ever. The Isley Brothers is the only artist to have had songs chart in Billboard's Hot 100 (in fact, that chart's top 50) during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, so even with no new album to promote, the Ronald and Ernie had sufficient ground to cover. The 75-minute set opened with a rocking "Fight the Power" and "That Lady," with Ronald singing in a nasal Al Green-type tenor and Ernie wailing like Carlos Santana on the guitar. Tempos then simmered for the most of the performance, highlighting mid-career "quiet storm" hits such as "Between the Sheets" and covers of "Summer Breeze" and "Hello, It's Me." The Grammy Award-winning "It's Your Thing" sparked the set again and shortened versions of "Twist and Shout" and "Shout" were rousers. Ronald Isley demonstrated that he was still a smooth, classy vocalist, but the under-utilized Ernie Isley was the band's not-so-secret weapon, rocking the house by injecting melodic guitar leads into some songs. Perhaps the 63-year-old music act is obligated to give the audience a familiar catalogue, but the concert might have been better balanced with more Ernie-rock and less Marvin ballads.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nathaniel Bellows at the Mercury Lounge

Nathaniel Bellows was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where he drew pictures and played piano as a youth. He attended a school where students were required to keep a journal, and he began to see writing as a natural extension of the arts. He relocated to New York City during his college years, and became a broadly published poet, novelist, and visual artist. He is the author of two novels, On This Day and Nan, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?, along with numerous short stories and poems. His debut album, The Old Illusions, will be released on January 22, 2016.

At the Mercury Lounge tonight, Nathaniel Bellows proved to be a pensive songwriter, a fine finger-picking guitarist, and a muscular vocalist. Accompanying himself solely on an acoustic guitar with no effects, he followed the tradition of early folk singers, but with content that was often more cerebral and more mysterious. Much like his drawings, his poetic lyrics and his unadorned vocals revealed an artist who expressed himself subtly and unobtrusively. The rich artistic juices continue to flow in Bellows; his set consisted of songs from his album and songs that have never been recorded, including at least one that made its public debut tonight. Bellows proved that it is possible to write and perform peaceful, meditative music in the midst of Mad City.

Visit Nathaniel Bellows at www.nathanielbellows.com.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hazmat Modine & Alash Ensemble at the Highline Ballroom

Alash Ensemble & Wade Schuman
Wade Schuman began playing harmonica at age 10 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He moved to New York and in the late 1990s formed an eclectic blues and roots band, Hazmat Modine. "Hazmat" is a portmanteau of "hazardous material", and "Modine" is the name of a company that manufactures commercial heaters but may be used to refer to the heater itself. Hazmat Modine's varied combination of source music led to the band touring remote areas of the world. The band's second CD was awarded the Charles Cross award in France for best blues album of the year, and topped number one on the World Music Charts in Europe. When home in the New York area, however, Hazmat Modine usually performs in modest venues. Hazmat Modine released its third studio album, Extra-Deluxe-Supreme, on June 3, 2016.

Hazmat Modine is a large band -- tonight at the Highline Ballroom it comprised 12 musicians -- and it seemed each musician offered his or her own personal journey to the band's brew. As leader and main vocalist of the band, Schuman accentuated a southern barrelhouse blues and jazz, but then there was a musician playing a banjo and a banjitar, giving the same songs a country feel as well. The more dance-oriented songs had a touch of swing, and a trio from Tuva known as Alash Ensemble played their culture's folk music with native acoustic instruments as well. Hazmat Modine played the most intriguing music. It seemed like anything musical was possible and probable. Hazmat Modine is a roots band, but apparently the roots could draw from any culture and any time period.

Visit Hazmat Modine at www.hazmatmodine.com.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Lee Fields & the Expressions at Irving Plaza

Lee Fields
Elmer "Lee" Fields sang in Sunday church services as a boy in Wilson, North Carolina, but he grew up wanting to sing the rhythm and blues he enjoyed on the radio. Seeking a musical career at age 17, he packed a duffel bag and arrived in New York City with only $2 left in his pocket. He started earning money at his very first gig and was nicknamed "Little JB" for his physical and vocal resemblance with James Brown. Fields recorded his first single in 1969 and his first album in 1979, both to little commercial success. Since 2009, Fields has gained traction fronting Lee Fields & the Expressions; the band's fifth album, Special Night, was released on November 4, 2016. Fields, now 65 years old, is based in Plainfield, New Jersey.

The audience at a Lee Fields show comes to hear new songs with an old soul sound, and that is exactly what they experienced tonight at Irving Plaza. Fields did not venture through a time warp, but instead adopted the signature musical patterns of the Stax/Chess/Motown era and updated them into a contemporary context. As the very able Expressions backed him with horns, backup singers, and silky rhythms, Fields poured himself into his songs. Fields constantly moved around the stage, animating the audience by crouching and leaning into the audience and pointing to fans as he sang romantic lyrics. Fields sang the romantic songs with a clear, smooth voice that occasionally soared for the sky. For some of the funkier songs, his voice turned a bit more raucous without sacrificing tenderness. Some may have called this throwback, but it was what Fields has been doing consistently for nearly 50 years.

Visit Lee Fields & the Expressions at www.leefieldsandtheexpressions.com.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Nude Party at Berlin

Patton Magee
Guitarist Shaun Couture and keyboardist Zachary Merrill are brothers who in their youth moved from Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina. There they met bassist Alec Castillo and drummer Connor Mikita in high school. A few years later, Mikita attended college in southern mountain town of Boone, North Carolina, where he met and recruited vocalist/guitarist Patton Magee. The quintet began jamming in 2013 at Castillo's house just off of Lake Norman in Mooresville, North Carolina. Percussionist Austin Brose joined the band later. The Nude Party released a second EP, Hot Tub, on January 1, 2016.

Headlining tonight at Berlin, the Nude Party played 1960s-styled garage rock. Reverberated vocals, jangly guitars and a rolling organ propelled the songs with simple, repetitive grooves. The guitar leads sounded like they came from surf or spy movies. Mixing tempos, sometimes in the middle of a song, the band weaved a thread that distinguished the songs from one another yet prohibited them from sounding alike. The primitive arrangements chugged pleasingly without crying for modernity or polish. It was fitting that someone projected a psychedelic light show onto a white sheet behind the band. But what was with the musicians having all their fingernails painted black?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Urgent Fundraiser for Church Street School for Music and Art at City Winery

The Church Street School for Music and Art, the only not-for-profit school for the arts in Manhattan south of Canal Street, called on TriBeCa celebrities to assist at a fundraiser tonight at City Winery. Sugarland vocalist Jennifer Nettles, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, actor/author Eric Bogosian, screenwriter/producer Ed Burns, and DJ Spooky’s Antartica Symphony performed at the benefit concert, titled Urgent Fundraiser for Church Street School for Music and Art. Another neighborhood activist, actor Harvey Keitel, currently in Los Angeles, sent a note of encouragement and support, read aloud to the audience by the school's director, Lisa Ecklund-Flores.

Between performances, Ecklund-Flores explained that the school is a victim of the transition between "old TriBeCa" and "new TriBeCa," and is "between a rock and a very hard place" due to escalating rents. The hope for the future is in how the local councilwoman and the community board are working towards acquisition, construction and renovation of a new space for the school. Fundraising now helps to stabilize the school's present programs and assists in creating a foundation for the future building.

Meanwhile, the mission goes on, as it has since 1990. Several of the performers spoke about how they are parents of students at the school. Ecklund-Flores told of a young student who registered for piano lessons but was afraid of the instrument. For a few weeks, teacher and student had their lesson under the piano, tapping its legs with drumsticks, until he was comfortable approaching the keyboard. Today, conductor/pianist Oliver Hagen is a master musician.

For more information about the school or to make a contribution, visit www.churchstreetschool.org.

DJ Spooky's Antartica Symphony
Eric Bogosian
Ed Burns & the Blue Jackets
Jennifer Nettles
Lee Ranaldo

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Joseph Arthur at City Winery

Joseph Arthur began writing and playing music in his early teens in Akron, Ohio, after inheriting an electronic keyboard from his aunt. At age 16, he played bass in a blues band called Frankie Starr & the Chill Factor. Days after his high school graduation in the early 1990s, Arthur relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, working by day as a guitar salesman, performing at night at local music clubs, and recording home demos whenever possible. Peter Gabriel heard Arthur's debut EP, signed Arthur to Gabriel's record company and released Arthur's debut album in 1997. Arthur led a band, the Lonely Astronauts, in 2006, and joined Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison in the trio Fistful of Mercy in 2010. None of these projects gained Arthur any significant commercial success. Arthur has since gone completely solo, accompanying himself in concert on guitar and piano and backing himself with looping techniques. Arthur released his 14th solo album, The Family, on June 3, 2016. He is based in Brooklyn, New York.

Joseph Arthur tonight performed his seventh annual New Year's Night gig at City Winery. Much like previous years, he performed as a one-man band, thanks to an array of foot pedals and other effects. Many of his songs were stripped down to just vocals and guitar or piano, but other compositions saw him looping vocals, guitar lines and guitar-slap percussion so that he could layer or harmonize with himself. The effect was fascinating, but only succeeded because his slurring vocals, poetic lyrics and fluid melodies were pleasingly solid. His set included covers of George Michael's "Freedom" and Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," both of which Arthur pre-arranged and then played on his smart phone as he sang along. As usual, he also drew and painted a simple painting on a canvas while he sang a song. Joseph Arthur demonstrated his impressively imaginative and creative artistry with a multimedia palette.

Visit Joseph Arthur at www.josepharthur.com.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Phish at Madison Square Garden

Guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman formed Blackwood Convention in 1981 while attending university in Burlington, Vermont. Blackwood Convention became Phish, keyboardist Page McConnell joined in 1985, and Holdsworth left after graduating in 1986, solidifying the band's present lineup. Phish built a following among Grateful Dead fans and surged in popularity after the death of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia in 1995. Phish went on hiatus in 2000, regrouped in 2002, split again in 2004, and reunited in 2009. Phish has sold over 8 million albums and DVDs in the United States. Phish's 16th and most recent studio album, Big Boat, was released on October 7, 2016.

Phish once again headlined a series of year-end concerts at Madison Square Garden, and ended again with a grand spectacle. The band opened standing together center stage and singing a cappella barbershop quartet-style harmony on a cover of Fraternity of Man's 1968 song "Don't Bogart Me" (also known as Little Feat's 1997 "Don't Bogart That Joint"). From there, the concert turned into one long electric jam party, with Phish performing three sets instead of the usual two. The music was all over the genre spectrum, crossing hard rock, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, folk, country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, funk, reggae and pop, as one song melted into another. Improvisations ruled, some worked within epic multi-faceted suites. The third set and encore saw the band temporarily enlarged with the Trey Band horns, featuring Natalie Cressman on trombone and vocals, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet and vocals, and James Casey on saxophone, along with Jeff Tanski on keyboards and Andres Forero on percussion.

The visual spectacle began 20 minutes before midnight. As Phish returned to the stage for a third set, the quartet launched into an immaculately calculated "Petrichor", which eventually formed a medley with a midnight "Auld Lang Syne" and a horn-centric "Suzy Greenberg." As the band played, some 20 masked and suited choreographed dancers at the edge of the stage danced and juggled with umbrellas under a simulated rainstorm. The dancers then filed off stage and suspended umbrellas danced to Phish's music. Finally, at midnight, to "Auld Lang Syne," a massive balloon and confetti drop, including globe balloons, three-foot inflated animals and foam raindrops, covered the stage and audience about five feet deep in some spots. The band played several more songs and concluded with an encore of the Rolling Stones "Loving Cup." Just wow!

Visit Phish at www.phish.com.

Setlist:
Set 1:
  1. Don't Bogart Me (Fraternity of Man cover) (a cappella)
  2. Your Pet Cat
  3. Kill Devil Falls (>) Back on the Train (>) My Soul (Clifton Chenier cover)
  4. Lawn Boy
  5. The Divided Sky
  6. Ya Mar (Cyril Ferguson cover)
  7. Character Zero
  8. Walls of the Cave

Set 2:
  1. Also sprach Zarathustra (Richard Strauss cover) (>) Carini (>) Twist (with 'Low Rider' tease) (>) Piper (>) Ass Handed (>) Piper reprise (>) Sand (>) Slave to the Traffic Light
  2. More

Set 3:
  1. Petrichor (>) Auld Lang Syne (Robert Burns cover) (>) Suzy Greenberg
  2. No Men in No Man's Land
  3. Breath and Burning
  4. Tide Turns
  5. 555
  6. Ocelot
  7. First Tube

Encore:
  1. Loving Cup (The Rolling Stones cover)

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Dictators NYC at the Bowery Electric

Ross the Boss (left) & Handsome Dick Manitoba
The Dictators formed in New York City in 1973 in the shadow of hammering Detroit-styled rock and roll bands like MC5 and the Stooges. In short time, the band's roadie and occasional singer, Richard "Handsome Dick Manitoba" Blum, was given a more prominent role and became the proto-punk band's iconic front person. The band experienced breakups and several significant personnel changes, and now the renamed Dictators NYC consists of Manitoba, original guitarist Ross "The Boss" Friedman (aka Ross Funicello), guitarist Daniel Ray (formerly of Manitoba's Wild Kingdom), bassist Dean Rispler, and drummer JP “Thunderbolt” Patterson (formerly of Manitoba's Wild Kingdom).

The Dictators NYC has not recorded music, but in concert revisits the catalogue of the earlier band. At the Bowery Electric tonight, the Dictators NYC performed the Dictators' entire third album, 1978's Bloodbrothers, plus additional songs from the Dictators catalog. Two nights earlier, the Dictators NYC recreated the Dictators' 1975 debut, Go Girl Crazy, at Berlin. As such, these shows required the new band to learn songs that had not been played live by any band in decades. Fortunately, neither the Dictators nor the Dictators NYC are known for precision. Tonight's concert started with the nine songs from Bloodbrothers and concluded with five songs from the band's regular set. Manitoba introduced most of the songs with a humorous anecdote or a loose cannon rambling. Led by Manitoba's wry personality and able musicianship from the rest of the band, the Dictators put on a show that both rocked and generated laughs. That is what the audience gets at a Dictators NYC show, and that is good.

Setlist
  1. Faster and Louder
  2. Baby, Let's Twist
  3. No Tomorrow
  4. The Minnesota Strip
  5. Stay with Me
  6. I Stand Tall
  7. Borneo Jimmy
  8. What It Is
  9. Slow Death (The Flamin' Groovies cover)
  10. Who Will Save Rock and Roll?
  11. Weekend
  12. Two Tub Man
  13. Next Big Thing
  14. Kick Out the Jams (MC5 cover)