Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Justina Soto at Ella Lounge

Justina Soto is a jazzy rhythm and blues singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn. She attended the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts founded by Tony Bennett, where she honed her skills as a performer and musician. She opened for the Dave Matthews Band in Central Park in 2003 and has performed in Carnegie Hall. Soto recorded six songs onto an EP entitled Soul Sacrament in 2010.

I was walking to my local supermarket. The doors were open at Ella Lounge. I heard some great live singing. I thought it was Adele. I entered. It was Justina Soto. Backed by a trio, Soto skillfully blended pop, jazz and soul, sounding like a classic soul singer, but with new, original songs. The dim lights romanticized her songs of loving, longing and loss. Oh, yes, this is baby-making music.

Sky-Pony at the Living Room

Do not confuse Sky-Pony with the hundreds of other Brooklyn bands dotting the music club circuit. Although the band’s music has a bit of the indie sound, Sky-Pony is more of a contemporary cabaret act. Vocalist Lauren Worsham is an outstanding singer and her husband, Obie-Award winning keyboardist Kyle Jarrow, have created a show that includes catchy pop songs, costumes, props and choreography. The band has recorded two EPs.

Sky-Pony performed a rare unplugged concert at the Living Room tonight. Minus the blaring rock background and backed by piano, acoustic guitar, upright bass and cello, the trio of singers – Worsham with Jessi Suzuki and Megan Stern – became the incarnation of female pop vocal trios of the 1960s. The set featured original songs, but the covers were equally impressive, especially a French version of the Shangri-Las “Leader of the Pack” and Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “Little Red Riding Hood.” Sky-Pony performs at Pianos on September 21.

Earth to Aaron at the Upstairs Lounge

Aaron Conner White began writing and recording at 15, eventually performing with different bands around Boulder, Colorado, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He relocated to Brooklyn and recorded an album as Aaron Connor and the Musical Chairs. Now reduced to a duo with Sarah Pearson, the new act is called Earth to Aaron.

At a time when simple folk music seems to be making a comeback, male-female duos like the Civil Wars are gaining large audiences. Earth to Aaron seemed to have a similar pairing of voices, although here the dissimilarities were as significant as the harmonies. Unfortunately, the noise level of the patrons at Pianos’ Upstairs Lounge tonight was so loud that hearing the lyrics was a great challenge. Earth to Aaron will perform at Rockwood Music Hall on September 22 and at the Bitter End on October 6.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Lumineers at Terminal 5

In the spring of 2005 in Ramsey, New Jersey, two childhood friends, vocalist/guitarist Wesley Schultz and drummer Jeremiah Fraites began to write songs together. They played the New York club circuit, mostly under the name Wesley Jeremiah, but disillusioned by its difficulties, the two musicians packed everything they owned—a couple of suitcases of clothes and a trailer full of musical instruments—and headed for Denver, Colorado. In Denver, they placed a Craigslist ad for a cellist, attracted Neyla Pekarek in 2010, and began playing a gritty basement club’s open mic night. Neyla added mandolin and piano to the trio, and the Lumineers’ energetic Americana sound took form. Pianist Stelth Ulvang and bassist Ben Wahamaki joined the band as full-time members in 2012. A self-titled debut album was released in April 2012, eventually peaking at number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart in January 2013.

The Lumineers returned to Terminal 5 tonight and once again brought front-porch folk to a cavernous space. To accentuate the down-home feel, the Lumineers’ stage sectioned off their cello, drums, and piano on diamond-shaped platforms backed by patio railing, with large chandeliers hovering over the musicians. A show based on one album can be limiting, so the band added covers and new songs to round out its lively 80-minute performance. Who could have imagined that rustic-sounding, stomp-and-clap acoustic folk-styled songs could be so much fun? In the roots revival style of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers built its music on old-fashioned instrumentation and simple vocal harmonies. Then frequently changing instruments, the musicians injected youthful vigor into these heart-swelling Americana-inflected barn burners. Schultz in particular added passionate, heart-on-the-sleeve authenticity while stomping and hollering throughout most of the songs. Towards the end of the show, several of the musicians performed from the audience for a pair of songs as if it were a campfire-like sing-along. In concert, the Lumineers did an outstanding job taking traditional-sounding music and making it new.

Rebecca Haviland & Whiskey Heart at Arlene's Grocery

Singer/songwriters Rebecca Haviland and Chris Anderson met at the Red Lion in 2003 shortly after graduating from Purchase University, where they'd never crossed paths while students. Finding common interests and musical tastes, they began writing songs together and soon formed an alt-country blues band called Rebecca Haviland and Whisky Heart. The band plays the local club circuit and recently released an eponymous album, self-produced and co-written by Haviland and Anderson.

At Arlene’s Grocery tonight, Haviland showed that she is a bright yet low-key folk blues singer, in the style of Bonnie Raitt, as Whiskey Heart played a warm and modest backup. With little fanfare or excessive color, Haviland sang authentically honest songs with heart, soul and guts. Most of the songs tonight were soft and slow, accentuating moods and sensitivities rather than rocking the senses. Although the original songs were impressive, the one cover song was a genius reworking of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” When Robert Plant sang it in 1971, it was a driving rock song infused with sexual innuendo. Haviland’s masterful reinterpretation curiously countrified the song and made it sound like a G-rated home-spun log cabin spiritual. Rebecca Haviland and Whisky Heart will be performing at the Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 on August 31.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Gaslight Anthem at Pier 26

Brian Fallon was 13 years old when he purchased the Clash’s self-titled debut album. Little did he know that this introduction to punk rock set a trajectory that would lead him to form the Gaslight Anthem in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2006. Fallon writes soulful, impassioned, hearts-on-fire lyrics and fellow guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz on drums provide the backing force. The band’s fourth and most recent album, Handwritten, was released in July 2012.

The Gaslight Anthem has matured past its punk rock roots, as exhibited at the concert at Pier 26 tonight. The band launched full throttle and kept the muscular pace for most of the evening. Fallon’s voice failed to reach higher notes several times, however, a condition perhaps partly hindered by the rain during the first half of the show. Though the band’s 80-minute set largely consisted of pounding, blasting rock songs, it was when the pounding stopped several times and the band tried other, gentler sounds that the band sounded most interesting. Otherwise, for most of the set, Fallon’s singer/songwriter attempts were swallowed by a band that raced and slammed its repertoire. In all, it felt almost as if you had to be a fan before the concert to be a fan during the concert. To end with a bang, the Gaslight Anthem ended its set with a final encore, a punch-packed cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The Gaslight Anthem proved to be a fine live rock band, but the concert would have been even better if it had slowed down more and given additional controlled ambience to the more pensive lyrics.

The Hold Steady at Pier 26

Craig Finn (left) invited Patrick Stickles of
Titus Andonicus onstage for a song
Minnesota-raised Craig Finn and New York City bartender Galen Polivka began talking about starting a band in 2003 while watching the Band’s concert film, The Last Waltz. While Brooklyn has been the epicenter for alternative and indie rock, the Hold Steady went 360 degrees in the opposite direction of the current there, composing hard-driving music akin to 1980s arena rock. Finn wrote narrative-based songs, notorious for their dense lyrics, tackling many of life’s mysteries, including drug addiction, homelessness, religion and redemption. The Hold Steady has recorded six albums since 2004, including a live album. The band presently consists of Finn on vocals and guitar, Tad Kubler on lead guitar, Steve Selvidge on second guitar, Polivka on bass, Bobby Drake on drums.

The Hold Steady played a 60-minute set in the rain at Pier 26 tonight as the opening act for the Gaslight Anthem. While some in the audience lunged for shelter under some of the vendors’ tents, a few hundred fans withstood the downpour to sing along with the band by the stage. It was a rousing set despite the elements. Front man Finn, looking as nerdish as Elvis Costello and phrasing like Bruce Springsteen, built each song into an epic, inducing singalongs to the simple and repetitive choruses. Finn often neglected his guitar to theatrically work the songs and the audience, wrapping himself around the microphone stand, pounding his arms high in the air or pointing at fans. The music was solid, simple and arresting, with few notable flourishes. The set concentrated more on the albums’ joyful rockers and less on the softer and sadder tunes. As the band performed “Stay Positive” at the end of the performance, it sealed the hopeful message and feel of the band’s celebratory concert.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Texas Hippie Coalition at the Gramercy Theatre

Vocalist Big Dad Ritch and bassist John Exall formed Texas Hippie Coalition (also initialized as THC) in Denison, Texas, performing what they call “red dirt metal.” What is that, you ask? According to the band’s website, red dirt metal is “outlaw country, toss in a dash of Southern-fried classic rock and mix it with some potent Texas power grooves.” presently on tour promoting a third album, Peacemaker, the band is cultivating a national audience.

Onstage at the Gramercy Theatre, it seemed like everything about the band was large. Big Dad Ritch is a huge man. He has long hair and a long thick beard, and when he wrapped his two extra large fists around the microphone, there was very little face to see above his black leather vest and under his big-brimmed black leather hat. His microphone stand was crafted to look like an oversized two-barrel rifle. Introducing one of the songs, he talked about being the proud owner of a gun, and there were a fair number of other songs about weed and whiskey. Ritch’s projection of the redneck image was larger than life, and for a Yankee audience, maybe ridiculously over the top. Nevertheless, the band did a good job in marrying hard rock and heavy metal to a southern outlaw sensibility. Imagine Pantera headbanging a Willie Nelson song. I left unsure that it clicked, but convinced that Texas Hippie Coalition was taking southern rock to its heaviest level ever.

Robert Plant at Prospect Park

Robert Plant has refused to be identified solely as the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin. That band went on to become the most popular hard rock band of the 1970s, due in large part to Plant’s trademark high-pitched bluesy screams and charismatic rock-god presence on stage. Since the breakup of that band in 1980, he has recorded solo albums, experimented with ethnic music as varied as bluegrass and Middle Eastern music and greatly toned down his stage persona. Rather than going on a concert tour on his name alone, he has attached the names of several different bands to his on the marquee. (This time around, the act is billed as Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters.) When he first launched his solo career, he refused to perform Led Zeppelin songs, but in recent years has added them to his repertoire, although he has rearranged them so they are not played as they were in the original band.

For those in attendance hoping to relive a Zeppelin moment, that is what they got, a moment here and there. At Prospect Park tonight, Plant showed that his trajectory continues to spiral away from his Zep base. Long gone are the days of hairy-chest-revealing open shirts and crotch-demonstrative tight pants. His singing included little if any of his Zeppelin’s high-pitched and excessively emotive vocals. This was a mature Plant, now 65 years old and still creatively strong. The set included blues, folk and country-tinged songs from his solo albums, and unusual renderings of Zep songs “Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You”, “Black Dog”, “Going to California”, “Four Sticks”, “Friends”, “What Is and What Should Never Be”, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll.” Several songs were combined with old blues songs, and other songs were played with extended Moroccan-style instrumentation. Although some of these songs seemed to drag on just a bit too long, Plant made them all interesting. After 40 years in the spotlight, Plant continues to reinvent himself, and that is far better than becoming a Zeppelin karaoke machine.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Bob Dylan at Pier A

One could explore Bob Dylan’s 50 years of music for pages. He initially became known during the protest years in the 1960s, when his folk-styled lyrics seemed to chronicle the social unrest of the period and several of his songs, such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” became anthems for the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements. He then made the controversial move of combining folk with rock in 1965 with “Like a Rolling Stone.” Since then, he has intermittently recorded classic albums, while others were quickly forgotten.

At Hoboken’s Pier A tonight, the reclusive musician pulled a few surprises. First of all, while virtually all of his trademark photographs have shown him playing an acoustic guitar, Dylan only played keyboards and harmonica tonight. As he often does, he reworked the arrangements on some of his better known songs to the point where they are barely recognizable (“Tangled Up in Blue”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Simple Twist of Fate”). He never spoke to the audience, except once to introduce the three guest singers on a cover of the Band’s “The Weight” (Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band and Jim James of My Morning Jacket). The stage was dimly lit throughout the concert, making it hard to see him clearly (worse for taking photographs). So here is the problem. Did Dylan make any attempt to give value to the ticket holders who paid $90 to see his perform? It did not seem like it. His voice sounded bad – really bad, like stay-home-from-work bad. It is okay to perform a set comprised of barely known songs and reworked songs if you make them interesting, but the band simply chugged along. The concert only became engaging for the last three songs, “The Weight”, a rocking “All Along the Watchtower” and an encore of “The Ballad of the Thin Man.” The rest of the performance was simply blowing in the wind.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

BeBe Winans at Prospect Park

The Winans are to gospel music royalty what the Jacksons were to pop and the Johnny Cash and June Carter families were to country music. The two younger Winans siblings, BeBe and CeCe Winans, made an initial splash in 1984, as background vocalists for Jim Bakker's television show, The PTL Club. After five years on the show, BeBe and CeCe left to pursue a full-time singing career and recorded six albums together. BeBe and CeCe opted for solo careers in 1995, but reunited in 2009 to record the album Still. Benjamin "BeBe" Winans has recorded seven solo albums, and was the host of the weekly  syndicated BeBe Winans Radio Show and then The BeBe Experience for Sirius/XM Radio. BeBe also authored a book about his close friend Whitney Houston, entitled The Whitney I Knew, which will be on sale on July 31.

Gospel music has no shortage of great vocalists, but Bebe Winans ranks among the best, evidenced at his concert in Prospect Park tonight. Winans is gifted with a distinctively masculine and soulful singing voice, and this velvet tenor gave his 30-year catalog of songs new life. He danced to his music and charmed his audience with amusing anecdotes about his early bed time and how couple always want him to sing at their weddings. He also shared how his faith helped him cope with the loss of his father. In the end, the 50-year-old impressed with his modesty, in that he did not show off his talents, but simply used them to provide an uplifting evening for his audience.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

P.O.D. at the Highline Ballroom

Sonny Sandoval asked H.R. of Bad Brains to sing with him
P.O.D. (Payable on Death) began in San Diego, California, in 1992. Much like Bad Brains on the East Coast, P.O.D. cleverly married punk and reggae music, but then also weaved in rap and hard rock anthems for a unique mix. During P.O.D.’s peak years, 1999-2003, “Youth of the Nation”, "Southtown", "Rock the Party (Off the Hook)", "Alive", "Boom" and "Satellite" attracted larger audiences to rapcore and nu metal. The band has recorded eight studio albums. The band's present line-up consists of vocalist Sonny Sandoval, guitarist Marcos Curiel, bassist Traa Daniels and drummer Wuv Bernardo.

Just a few years ago, P.O.D. was headlining venues as large as the Roseland Ballroom. Tonight the band performed at the Highline Ballroom, a much smaller venue, and there was room to spare. Nevertheless, P.O.D. proved that while fickle music audiences gravitated away, the band remained true to its rock hard core and performed it well. The band crushed from the opening “Boom” to the closing “Satellite,” with Sandoval himself frequently appearing to get lost in the music, jumping to the heavy rhythms behind him. Newer songs like “Murdered Love” and “Eyez” were performed well, but it was the better known songs like “Alive” and “Youth of the Nation” that rallied the audience to the edge of the stage. As a singer, Sandoval did not exhibit a vocal range that would allow him to stand out in rock circles; his unique gift was in the passionate story-telling style of his vocal delivery. Unfortunately, the vocals were mixed down and the Curiel’s guitar chords were overwhelmingly loud, making for an uncomfortable balance of sound. In the end, P.O.D. showed it continues to be a formidable band, whether or not rapcore regains popularity.

Flyleaf at the Highline Ballroom

Kristen May crowd surfed while the band pounded the music
Flyleaf is a Texas-based hard rock band, formed in 2002. The band released its eponymous debut album in 2005, and it sold more than one million copies. The band released its second album, Memento Mori, in November 2009 and third album, New Horizons, in October 2012. With the release of the third album, lead singer Lacey Sturm announced her departure and the band announced the new lead singer for the band, Kristen May. The new lineup released an EP, Who We Are, on July 9, featuring May’s vocals for the first time.

Opening for P.O.D. at the Highline Ballroom tonight, this was Flyleaf’s second New York appearance with May this year. The band performed its familiar songs and also introduced the new songs recently recorded with May as vocalist. P.O.D. vocalist Sonny Sandoval joined May and the band for “Something Better,” as he did on the current EP. The musicians played ferociously, jumping off stage monitors and racing across the stage to pump up the audience’s enthusiasm. May belted her vocals with conviction and accuracy, able to hit a high register cleanly as the energy level increased among the band’s musicians. May proved to be a very gifted singer, but she appeared to be the stepmother of the songs that were created with Sturm’s primal growl in mind. The band’s former vocalist was too unique, and the old songs just did not sound the same without her. It will take some time for the band’s new line-up to create new music that is organic to their present instead of their past.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

fun. at Pier 26

Vocalist Nate Ruess formed Fun (stylized as fun.) in New York City with bassist Andrew Dost and guitarist Jack Antonoff. Fun has released two albums: Aim and Ignite in August 2009 and Some Nights in February 2012. The band is best known for its three hit singles: "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monáe), "Some Nights" and "Carry On." Earlier this year, Fun won Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Song of the Year for "We Are Young."

Tonight’s concert came on the night after a week-long heatwave, making Pier 26, surrounded on three sides by the Hudson River with a brightly lit New Jersey skyline in the background, an especially enjoyable summer night venue. Fun came on stage shortly after the sun set and performed exactly what one would expect from a Top 40 band – a 90-minute energetic set of hits and dance-able anthems. The trio, joined by three additional musicians, having toured for a year and a half off the same album, used the stage well, often dashing across the stage and up the ramps alongside the drummer. Bright lighting on the stage and a large video projection above the musicians helped focus the attention of the audience. Ruess’ banter between songs was family-friendly and endearingly charming, assuring the audience that the musicians love what they do and that they were happy to be perform in their hometown. Ruess’ singing initially was a bit grating, then improved after a few songs, allowing him facility to climb into the higher octaves. Nevertheless, his was not a particularly unique voice. Herein begins the band’s inherent problem; beyond a lively performance and a few polished radio anthems, the band’s music was not especially above the ordinary. Overall, however, for those who attended the concert, Fun delivered what it advertised, instant-gratifying fun.

Tegan and Sara at Pier 26

Tegan Quin and Sara Quin are 32-year-old identical twins from Canada and they are both gay. Once you get past that, we can move on and talk about the music. The duo started playing guitar and writing songs at age 15, and released a debut album independently in 1999. Tegan and Sara’s music was the kind of indie-folk one might easier hear in small clubs like the Living Room. With its seventh and most successful album, Heartthrob, which was released in January, the duo reinvented itself to become very much a pop band.

At Pier 26 tonight, Tegan and Sara appeared small in front of a video backdrop that featured a variety of quickly-moving graphics, including spilling ink and tearing paper, that often spelled out partial lyrics of the songs being performed. Both are known to be talkers and story-tellers, and this they did again amply, charming the large audience that had primarily come to see the headliner, fun. With a full band behind them, the twins straddled between old and new songs, enough that one could hear the folk roots, but it was the dynamic energy of the newer teen-pop material that clinched the performance and won over new fans. Tegan and Sara are having fun (pardon the pun) with this tour; one might wonder if the sisters will ever scale back their music again.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Stupid Naturals at Tompkins Square Park

Some say punk music is making a comeback, others are saying that it never really died. In any case, while plenty of post-punk bands from the 1990s and 2000s borrowed the basic fury of punk music and morphed into something else, I am seeing an increase in the number of new aggressive bands recreating the original unfiltered look and sound of hardcore punk. These bands are rallying a new generation of youth who were not yet born when the original punk music culture started in the 1970s. This downtown scene is as far as you can get from the Julliard School of Music uptown.

Take the Stupid Naturals for instance, a three-piece punk band formed in the Bronx in 2012. The band has been playing clubs in Brooklyn and today returned to Tompkins Square Park for a free outdoor show with Yo!Scunt and others. The Stupid Naturals performed a finely-played set of original songs that were designed to be loud and simple expressions of an estranged youth. Yes, this has been done before, but the youth that gathered in the park today seek a new generation of spokespersons and events to rally the growing neo-punk community. The human person is engineered to crave belonging, and bands like the Stupid Naturals, playing good, solid punk music as a tool, may be effective in anchoring this local punk revival.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Krief at the Bowery Electric

Based out of Montreal, Canada, Patrick Krief, the guitarist with the alternative rock band the Dears since 2004, has juggled two other musical projects, Black Diamond Bay and Krief, on and off since 2007. The 32-year-old singer/songwriter recently released his third album away from the Dears, A Hundred Thousand Pieces, and is promoting it on a concert tour, where Krief the man has morphed into Krief the band.

At the Bowery Electric tonight, with a week-old beard, an open-chested white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, jeans and a vest, Krief the man looked to be carrying on the working class legacy of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. His performance suggested that his is an equally intense persona. His lyrics were soul searching and his time signatures and musical arrangements were more complicated than the average indie band. Although the vocal delivery was quite different, Krief performed his songs similar to how Neil Young has been done for decades; one the one hand, Krief the man sounded like he was desperately pleading for someone to commiserate with the seemingly dark conflict of his anxious lyrics, but then he would drop the hammer on your face with hard rocking music from Krief the band. Krief’s performance was more left of center than what Young does, however, and at this stage, more experimental. With the right exposure, Krief has the potential to empower a community of wounded rock fans on a quest to unravel complications in the lyrics of life.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Savages at the Webster Hall Ballroom

Vocalist Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton came together in London in October 2011 to form Savages, an all-woman four-piece post-punk art-rock band. After four months of rehearsals, Savages performed its first concert in January 2012 and released its first two songs by June. The buzz about the band quickly became intense. The band released its debut album, Silence Yourself, on May 6, 2013, and it immediately charted at number 19 in the United Kingdom’s album chart. Now the buzz has begun to make its way to American shores.

Savages will be huge, if tonight’s concert at the Webster Hall Ballroom is any indication. As the band prepared to come on stage, the roadies set only one microphone stand. The audience would only hear from the vocalist. The four very pale band members all wore black; the stage lighting toyed with sparse and dim white lights only; altogether this made for an eerie appearance. The band began to rock, led by a heavy bass and drums bottom and Thompson’s haunting guitar sound. The guitar leads were often a few slow notes, sometimes even one note, resounding into feedback through electronic gadgetry. Sometimes these guitar fills played between songs as well, adding to a mysterious and foreboding atmosphere. After a few songs, Beth spoke to the audience in poetic prose, a la Jim Morrison or Patti Smith. Beth hardly spoke after that, but sang each song in a passionate yet limited range. These compositions were not built around catchy choruses and perhaps were not meant for an audience to sing along. Maybe they were composed to be a swirl inside one’s head. Some concerts are designed to be entertainment; this concert was a psychotic experience. There is no other act presenting music quite this way, so Savages could become “the next big thing.”

Sly and Robbie at Metrotech Commons

Sly and Robbie with vocalist Bunny Rugs
Drummer Lowell "Sly" Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are the most renowned and prolific rhythm section and production team not only in their native Republic of Jamaica, but perhaps throughout today’s music world. Since the mid-1970s, the duo has appeared on an estimated 200,000 recordings, the majority of them for reggae artists, but also for Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Sting, Carlos Santana, No Doubt and many other non-reggae musicians. The duo changed the face of reggae several times: in 1976, Sly and Robbie introduced a harder beat called "Rockers", which quickly replaced the then-prevalent "One Drop" style. They then introduced the "Rub a Dub" sound in the early 1980s. They then innovatively fused the Jamaican dancehall tradition with Latin music and hip hop in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Manhattan Beat made a rare trip to Brooklyn today to see Sly and Robbie perform as part of the free Thursday noontime outdoor summer concert series sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the Metrotech Commons. The first half of the 90-minute concert was largely instrumental, a low-key collection of smooth body-moving grooves with a few lines of vocals and an occasional blast from the guitar, keyboards or trombone. The second half of the performance introduced guest vocalist William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke of the popular Jamaican reggae band Third World. What songs did they perform? It did not matter. The public came to enjoy the sound and the vibe; at least a few fans brought recording gear in order to relive the music again later. Sly and Robbie perform again tonight at Irving Plaza.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sanctuary at the Gramercy Theatre

Sanctuary is a heavy metal band from Seattle, Washington. The band formed in 1985 and was discovered and promoted by Dave Mustaine of Megadeth; Mustaine produced and played guitar on Sanctuary’s debut album and signed the band with his own management. Sanctuary had little commercial success, however, and by the early 1990s was pressured by its record company’s moguls to fit in with the flourishing Seattle grunge scene. Sanctuary resisted and disbanded in 1992, with several members forming the band Nevermore. Sanctuary reformed in 1990 and released its third album, The Year the Sun Died, this year.

The question remains: can a band that did not gain a substantial following or commercial success during heavy metal’s heyday reform in today’s indie-saturated world and succeed? Sanctuary’s performance at the Gramercy Theatre tonight indicated that this would be a formidable challenge. First of all, the room was less than have filled, showing a dearth of interested ticket buyers in the New York area. As in Sanctuary’s early days, vocalist Warrel Dane hit Rob Halford-like shrieks and high notes, the band’s rhythm section pounded away and the two guitarists traded impressive guitar licks. Nevertheless, the epic-styled performance was only marginally interesting or engaging. Not all 1980s heavy metal bands are classic.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Flamin' Groovies at the Bowery Ballroom

The Flamin' Groovies helped create a new music scene in San Francisco in 1965, predating even the more successful Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The Flamin’ Groovies released several albums between 1969 and 1979, developed a cult following, and inspired the late 1970s power pop movement. The band made a brief comeback in the late 1980s and, after revising its lineup many times, disbanded in 1992, although since then there have been several brief periodic reunions. Ensuing solo and splinter group albums had minimal success. Now nearly 50 years since it all began, the Flamin’ Groovies completed a tour of Japan and Australia and still is having a blast without ever having achieved major success. The present lineup consists of original member Cyril Jordan on guitar, long time members Chris Wilson on guitar and George Alexander on bass, and new member Victor Penalosa on drums.

The Flamin’ Groovies returned to the United States for a brief tour that included the Bowery Ballroom tonight. The band held strong onto its musical roots — 1950s American rock and roll and 1960s British pop — with simple metered singing backed by simple chord changes. The band reached back into its catalogue to perform its best known songs from the 1970s, including “Shake Some Action”, “Teenage Head”, “Tallahassee Lassie” and the anti-drug song “Slow Death.” Throughout its career, the band was a bit of a 1960s revival group, and tonight was no exception, with the inclusion of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” first recorded by the Byrds in 1965. Onstage, it all came alive with energetic enthusiasm. Most importantly, the musicians enjoyed themselves, joking among themselves and with the audience throughout the show. The Flamin’ Groovies last area show will be tomorrow night, July 7, at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Paul Collins' Beat at the Bowery Ballroom

Paul Collins spent his pre-teens living in Greece, Vietnam and Europe before returning to his native New York and studying at the prestigious Julliard Music School. He then moved to San Francisco and formed one of the pioneer bands of punk rock, the Nerves, in 1974. The Nerves disbanded in 1977, and Collins moved to Los Angeles.  Two years later, he formed a power pop band called the Beat, later to be called Paul Collins’ Beat and the Paul Collins Beat. The band became among the most well-known bands from Los Angeles charging the new wave movement, touring often with popular bands and recording albums, but never had a signature hit song. The band changed lineups many times and disbanded in the 1989. Collins relocated to the New York area. For a time, he formed the Paul Collins Band and played Americana roots-based music. Collins revived the Beat brand in 2006 and periodically assembles musicians for shows and recordings.

Opening for the Flamin’ Groovies at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, the Paul Collins Beat returned to its original 1970s power pop sound. Only the skinny ties and white sneakers were missing. Unlike many power pop bands, the Beat focused away from the garage band sound to unclutter and emphasize each song’s vocal melodies and harmonies. The tunes were short, with guitar leads relayed in bites. The set list included compositions going way back, even “Working Too Hard,” which was recorded by both the Nerves and the Beat, but did not include “Hanging on the Telephone,” which became popular when Blondie covered it on its Parallel Lines album. The Paul Collins Beat’s performance was energetic and polished; if the world is ready for a power pop revival, the Beat is ready.