Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wild Ponies at Hill Country Barbecue + Market

Wild Ponies is a trio based out of Nashville, Tennessee, with Doug Williams on guitar and vocals, Telisha Williams on standup bass and Jake Winebrenner on drums. After experiencing abuse and recovery in their native Virginia, the Williams spent a year on the road as drifting troubadours, living in their recreational vehicle. The two ultimately settled in Nashville, where they integrated into the local music scene and recorded two albums as an acoustic folk duo, Doug & Telisha. The Williams also began co-hosting a weekly East Nashville Song Salon songwriting group and a local radio show, “Whiskey Wednesdays.” Recently, the duo recruited Winebrenner and became Wild Ponies. The band’s debut album, Things That Used to Shine, was inspired largely by the healing process from the sexual abuse suffered by Telisha; it becomes available on September 10.

At Hill Country Barbecue + Market tonight, Wild Ponies brought a taste of genuine Nashville, but with a slight twist. This was not the syrupy stuff that happens in recording studios, but the raw country that happens when singer songwriters remain honest. The mix of vocal leads proved engaging, like a 1990s-style alternative version of Johnny Cash and June Carter; Doug was more of a brooder and sometimes sounded a bit on the dark side, while Telisha was bouncier and lighter. Doug is a fine rock and country guitarist and Telisha ably met the formidable challenge of simultaneously playing upright bass and singing. Wild Ponies seemed to specialize in murder ballads. Towards the end of the set, a couple came forward from the audience to dance; unpredictably, that song was in 7/8 measure, creating a bit of confusion on the floor. Yes, these ponies are a bit on the wild side.

The Dwarves at Le Poisson Rouge

Blag Dahlia reaches extended his microphone to a fan
The Dwarves formed in Chicago, Illinois, in the mid-1980s as a garage rock band, Suburban Nightmare, before relocating to San Francisco, California. The band moved in a hardcore direction before settling into an eclectic punk rock sound. The band became notorious for its graphic lyrics and shocking album covers, as well as for its history of wild behavior on and off stage. Guitarist HeWhoCannotBeNamed often played on stage wearing only a jock strap or nothing but his guitar. Whether or not the stories were true, the Dwarves gained a reputation for self-mutilation, on-stage sex, and taking hard drugs; the band is also known for its self-grandiose humor and hoaxes, however. Live shows could end after only 10 minutes, and so-called albums could last only nine minutes.

At Le Poisson Rouge tonight, none of the past mattered. A fair number of songs repeated the f-bomb in the reprise, and several songs were about sexual encounters, but there was no real matter for controversy tonight, just 45 minutes of mostly raw punk music. The microphones had been a problem for the opening bands, and continued to plague the beginning of the Dwarves show. With the vocals inaudible for the first two songs, vocalist Blag Dahlia (born Paul Cafaro, aka Julius Seizure and Blag the Ripper) told the audience that the band was going off the stage until working microphones were found. The Dwarves returned a few minutes later to resume the set, and Blag sang many of the hardest banging songs from the band’s albums. Le Poisson Rouge has a large stage for a small club, and Dahlia and the band used its open space to the max. Dahlia usually sang from the edge of the stage, often poising his microphone in front of a singing fan; he also crowd surfed twice. Tonight, the nearly 30-year-old band lived up to its reputation as one of the last true punk bands, but now based on its music alone.

The Queers at Le Poisson Rouge

Joe Queer at Le Poisson Rouge
The Queers is a punk rock band formed in late 1981 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during the first wave of punk rock. Led by guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Joe King (aka Joe Queer), the band’s name poked fun at what he called the "Art Fag" community in his home state. The Queers broke up in late 1984, but King reformed the brand with a new line-up in 1986. The band began recording during the second wave of punk rock with 1990’s debut album, Grow Up, and has since recorded 1o additional albums. King remains the only constant band member, with as many as 40 musicians having been former members in the band’s history.

The Ramones are no more, but that seminal punk rock band may have been reincarnated in the Queers. At Le Poisson Rouge tonight, the Queers captured the Ramones’ sound and sense of humor, even opening the set with a cover of the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach.”  The short and fast songs followed each other in quick succession, and the fierce pace encouraged relentless moshing by the fans. King played a bit of lead guitar on some songs, but this was barely significant, as the music was pivoted almost entirely on the Queers’ trademark power chords and goofy lyrics. King’s lyrics were all about having fun, and that message was lived on stage and in the audience. For the 45 minutes that the Queers were on stage, punk rock ruled!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Marissa Licata at Fontana's

The violin has been influential in classical, jazz, bluegrass, klezmer and rock, and 28-year-old Boston- and New York-based Marissa Licata, has been influenced by it all. With over 15 years of classical violin training and degrees from the New England Conservatory, Licata has collaborated on projects and performed on tours with Alicia Keys, Ringo Starr, Gloria Estefan, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Ben Harper and others. The 2012 album Water Level is a jazz collaboration between her and her father, composer and alto saxophonist Charles Licata.

At Fontana’s tonight, Licata’s electrifying set blended Eastern European, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Americana sounds. She wailed on what sounded like Bulgarian gypsy music, followed by a tango, then jazz, and even some playful dissonance. She demanded dancing from the audience, but most of the audience could only stare at the virtuoso whose abundant raven hair flew as she swung with the swings of her bow. The music was diverse and the musicianship was outstanding. Backed only by a standup bass and drums, however, the violin leads became a bit monotonous. Perhaps the addition of a vocalist or keyboardist could help fill out the sound. Marissa Licata performs at the Cutting Room on October 9.

The Downtown Blues Collective at Fontana's

The Downtown Blues Collective is a quartet of musicians who play local music clubs together in the larger Dee Pop’s Private World and other bands. The collective’s lineup consists of Phil Gammage on vocals, guitar, harmonica; Don Fiorino on lap steel guitar; Richard Demler on bass and Dee Pop on drums.

At Fontana’s tonight, the Downtown Blues Collective was not a traditional blues band. It would be fairer to say that the band was rooted in blues and took the sound to many other places. Gammage, for instance, sang a spectacular baritone akin to Roy Orbison, and Fiorino led most of the flying instrumental breaks while sliding his hand over his lap steel guitar, not a common blues instrument. The band played several covers, including the Sir Douglas Quintet’s 1965 hit “She’s about a Mover,” and the original songs were much along the same vein. The band played a very enjoyable set of American roots music.

Michael Zuko at Fontana's

Michael Zuko is a Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter who performs in New York/New Jersey area music clubs as a solo artist, as a duo with Jeff Phillips, and as lead singer of the Voltaires, a power-pop group based in New Jersey. He recorded a solo CD, Miles from a Kiss.

Kipp Elbaum and David Tanner presented an “American music” theme at Fontana’s tonight, and Zuko was among the performers. Zuko sported a retro look, with his cropped mop top, sunglasses and tight jeans. He then played the part, leading his four musicians through 1960s-style pop music with a country lilt similar to Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Rick Nelson, but with a garage band approach that was as 1980s as the Smithereens or the Plimsouls. The band members punctuated the Americana theme with occasional electric violin and harmonica. The 30-minute set included “Crooked Smile” and other original songs whose videos are posted on the World Wide Web. Zuko effectively helped set the tone for the rest of the American music evening.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ursa Minor at the Living Room

Ursa Minor (Latin: "Smaller Bear", contrasting with Ursa Major), also known as the Little Bear, is a constellation in the northern sky. Ursa Minor is also a Brooklyn-based folk-rock band playing the local music clubs. Ursa Minor was envisioned and founded by vocalist Michelle Casillas and is filled out with guitarist Tony Scherr, bassist Rob Jost and drummer Robert DiPietro. Ursa Minor’s debut album is called Silent Moving Picture.

Just when you thought there could not be any more original bands, Ursa Minor is an original band. At the Living Room last night, Ursa Minor showed itself to be perhaps a musician’s curiosity. Few if any of the songs followed a standard signature all the way through, at least not measure for measure. The songs told simple stories or musings, but were arranged almost like a classical suite. The compositions started here, traveled there and came back to their point of origin again. Melodies were established, then rapidly exchanged for others. Casillas sang with moody Joni Mitchell inflections, but with a boldness that the veteran folksinger never knew. Scherr was simply a brilliant lead guitarist; he hones his craft with his own ensemble at the Living Room every Monday night. The rhythm section ably drove the songs. When you think you have heard it all, Ursa Minor will surprise.

Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends Band at the East River Park Amphitheater

Larry Harlow (left) and guest Jose Alberto (right)
When salsa was New York’s most popular Latin dance music, Larry Harlow (born Lawrence Ira Kahn on March 20, 1939) was one of its celebrated bandleaders. He produced over 260 albums and recorded 29 salsa albums with Orquesta Harlow and under his own name since 1966. The irony that he was not Puerto Rican, but a Jewish man from Brooklyn, was not lost on him – he even recorded an album called El Judio Maravilloso (The Marvelous Jew).

Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends Band closed the Summerstage series tonight with a free concert at the East River Park Amphitheater. In recent decades, salsa has given way in popularity to merengue, reggaeton and other Latin musics, but you never would have known from the crowd that gathered even outside the amphitheater. Fans celebrated the return of salsa with Puerto Rican flags, maracas and cowbells, and there was plenty of dancing throughout the dense seating area. Harlow’s 11-piece band played like it was 1975 – no synthesizers, beat boxes, pre-programmed sounds or disc jockeys. Fronted by two young vocalists, one from Hoboken, New Jersey, and the other from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, singing in Spanish, Harlow played electric piano and let his various percussionists and horn players shine. Between songs, Harlow spoke in Spanish and English, reminding the audience of the legacy of salsa music and joking that he lived just outside the park on Delancey Street. Contemporary vocalist Jose Alberto, also known as el Canario (the canary), made a surprise guest appearance on one song. The 95-minute set was an exhibit of old-time Latin music in its excellence.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Vintage Trouble at Commodore Barry Park

Vocalist Ty Taylor and guitarist Nalle Colt had known each other from other local bands for 14 years when they formed Vintage Trouble in 2010. Deciding to finally collaborate, they constructed a basic home studio in Venice Beach, California, and invited their mutual friend Rick Barrio Dill to play bass for the band, and then recruited Richard Danielson to play drums. After just two weeks of rehearsals in early 2010, the group began playing local area shows and late night speakeasies. Vintage Trouble (sometimes abbreviated as VT) entered the Bomb Shelter Studio and recorded an album's worth of material in three days. These recordings were intended to be demos, but ended up being pressed into CDs, The Bomb Shelter Sessions. The band is a sensation in Europe and Australia, and is waiting to be discovered in America.

Imagine 1960s soul singer Wilson Pickett fronting a blues trio like Double Trouble. At the annual Afropunk Festival at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn this evening, Tyson dressed the 1960s part with his long sideburns and tight suit. I am not sure about the musicians’ dress but, it seemed like a scene out of Gunsmoke.  Between songs, Tyson commended the audience several times on its diversity (Tyson is African American and three musicians are Caucasian), but more often worked the crowd, encouraging the gathering to shout or dance with the music. Vintage Trouble has been compared to British neo-soul group the Heavy (which performed at the festival yesterday), but VT showed that it is doing more with less. VT’s music is locked into the stripped down 1960s era of James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Mitch Ryder, Sam & Dave and the Animals, powered with lots of sharp guitar licks. The simplicity and authenticity of the music was magic, and in today’s music world, unique.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Neighbourhood at Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom

The Neighbourhood formed in California in August 2011. The band is composed of vocalist Jesse Rutherford, guitarists Jeremy Freedman and Zach Abels, bassist Mikey Margott, and drummer Bryan Sammis. After releasing two EPs, 2012’s Thank You, and 2013’s I'm Sorry..., the Neighbourhood released its first full length album, I Love You., on April 23, 2013.

The Neighbourhood has marketed its black-and-white imagery in all its artwork, videos and stage appearances. Folks, this is not novel. Many early rockers did this, David Bowie did it again for a time decades ago and the Hives still do it. Those acts did it with classy suits and tuxedos, but the Neighbourhood is doing it with cheap casual clothing. By the way, guys, all those tattoos will one day become black and white as well. Okay, the concert. While most bands open with a fast and exciting crowd mover, the Neighbourhood opened with a soft and moody song. It was a forecast of things to come. The band’s entire set allowed for head-bobbing and hip-swinging responses, but it was never thrilling. Quite the opposite, the tone was rather dark and gloomy. Cascading soundscapes and a hard-working and charismatic front man never really lifted the music into the stratosphere, crowd participation notwithstanding. For those accustomed to color, the Neighbourhood’s musical approach might have been just too black and white.

New Politics at Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom

Originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, New Politics is a dance pop band presently comprised of lead vocalist David Boyd, guitarist Søren Hansen and drummer Louis Vecchio. Upon signing a record deal in 2009, the band members relocated to a loft apartment in Brooklyn, New York. The band has released two albums, New Politics in 2010 and A Bad Girl in Harlem in 2013. Actually, the band calls the new release an album, but clocking in at a mere 33 minutes I would call it an EP.

I have a pet peeve about bands that bring to every live song some programmed sounds that could have been played live if they had just added one more musician to the group. Come on, New Politics, take a small cut in the earnings and hire someone to play that music live. Okay, that out of the way, New Politics performed an impressive set opening for the Neighbourhood at Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom tonight. The band energetically bulldozed through power pop songs with mega-sing-along choruses. Boyd in particular caught the attention of the audience with flips, headstands and break dancing. The spirited trio did not offer anything new musically, sounded very much like 1990s pre-indie radio fare, but they performed slickly and with a determination to get the audience involved. I prefer music with a grainier edge, but the Saturday night crowd wanted fun, danceable rock music, and New Politics delivered it with color and excitement.

Wildcat! Wildcat! at Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom

Los Angeles-based band Wildcat! Wildcat! is Jesse Taylor (vocals, bass), Michael Wilson (vocals, keys) and Jesse Carmichael (vocals, drums). The trio played together in various incarnations before last year officially forming Wildcat! Wildcat! The band released a 7” single and a self-titled debut EP will be released on September 10. The band is also the subject of a documentary entitled Hello Everywhere, along with Passion Pit. Directed by Sam Jones, the film follows Wildcat! Wildcat! and Passion Pit throughout SXSW 2013, documenting both bands’ experiences at the festival—one as an emerging, developing band and the other as a more established band. The film can be viewed online on YouTube and Vevo.

Wildcat! Wildcat! performed as a quartet opening for the Neighbourhood at Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom tonight. The name of the band seemed erroneous, as the music was quite tame. The soft rocking set sounded atmospheric and ethereal, like a movie soundtrack, with falsetto vocals and layers of electronic wash generating musical mood swings. The songs recalled older bands like Supertramp and 10cc and newer artists like Sleeping at Last and MGMT. Wildcat! Wildcat! performs at Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn on September 26  and at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan on September 28 .

Friday, August 23, 2013

Amy Grant at Irving Plaza

Amy Grant was born November 25, 1960, in Augusta, Georgia, the youngest of four sisters. In 1967, her family relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where she is still based. There, while in high school in 1976, Grant wrote her first song. She was offered a recording contract five weeks before her 16th birthday. In 1977, she recorded her first album, which was released in the spring of 1978, one month before her high school graduation. Since then, from her original Christian base to the later pop audience, Grant has sold over 30 million units worldwide, won six Grammy Awards and 25 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, and had the first Christian album ever to be certified platinum by the Recording Industry of America Association. Grant's 15th and newest album, How Mercy Looks from Here, was released on May 14, 2013.

Although Grant was honored with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame as recently as 2005 for her contributions to the entertainment industry, it is clear that she has not retained the popularity she enjoyed in the 1980s. Back then, she headlined Radio City Music Hall; now she performed to a half empty Irving Plaza, the first time she ever played a stand-up club, she noted from the stage. Nevertheless, tonight’s concert gained her back the crown of “Queen of Christian Pop.” While remaining true to herself and her musical identity, Grant seemed to reinvent herself for two hours and fifteen minutes, including an encore of six songs. She scored well both with low key versions of songs she originally recorded as electric and with rocking versions of songs that were originally more folky. That her voice cracked from time to time (her backup vocalists sang better than she did) seemed to humanize her songs. Not exactly a greatest hits show (she did not sing some of her biggest hits), she sang much of what her audience wanted to hear, interlaced with new songs. Most of her directly Christian songs, included “Thy Word” and “El Shaddai,” were grouped at the end of the set. From music to between-song chatter, the entire evening felt endearingly homespun. My best concert buddy, a secular Jew, thought it was a great concert and I, the observant Catholic, agreed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chimaira at the Gramercy Theatre

Hunter on vocals and Werstler on lead guitar
Chimaira is a heavy metal band formed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1998. The band's name is derived from the Chimera or Chimaera, a monstrous creature in Greek mythology which had the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a dragon. The beast breathed fire and fear into the hearts of many. The band has released seven albums, the latest of which is the new Crown of Phantoms. Like so many heavy metal bands, Chimaira has been plagued with a revolving door line-up, leaving vocalist Mark Hunter as the last original member. The other present members consist of Emil Werstler on lead guitar, Matt Szlachta on rhythm guitar, Sean Zatorsky on keyboards, synthesizers and backing vocals, Jeremy Creamer on bass and Austin D'Amond on drums.

At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, Chimaira played a groove metal that stood out among the current crop of metal bands. While remaining faithful to the band’s defining crunch riffs, the band seldom sped very fast, perhaps disappointing those who wanted an out of control mosh scene. Unlike many metal bands that play with such fury that a listener can barely hear the individual instruments, Chimaira was consistent in producing a clean sound behind Hunter’s growl. At times, the use of synthesizer at the beginning and end of songs seemed to add outer space eeriness to the structure. In a field where so many acts sound alike, Chimaira seems to have carved out a comfortable niche.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Andy Bell at Irving Plaza

Andy Bell was born in England on April 25, 1964. In 1985, he was working in a meat packing plant, when he responded to Vince Clarke's classified advertisement in a newspaper. Clarke was looking for a singer. Together, Bell and Clarke formed the synthpop duo Erasure, which sold over 20 million albums worldwide. Bell also launched a solo career in 2005 with the album Electric Blue and 2010’s Non-Stop. He is headlining the Regeneration Tour with Howard Jones and opened the tour tonight at Irving Plaza.

At Irving Plaza tonight, Clarke was in the audience, but did not join Bell onstage. Bell made his entrance wearing a moo-moo. By the end of the show, he stripped down to what looked like a black corset and glitter pants. Bell was accompanied by two musicians, an inaudible percussionist and a keyboardist, and a whole lot of pre-programmed synthesizer music; midway into the show, he was joined on stage by two drag queens with mountainous hair who did a bit of background singing and a few choreographed moves. Erasure videos were projected onto the large back screen as Bell sang the songs. The music? Well, being that most of it was prerecorded, let us just say that Bell mimicked the Erasure hits karaoke-style. Bell’s singing was mediocre, but he carried himself with a lot of flash. His adoring fans danced in place and sang along to the dance club hits. The show clocked in at only 50 minutes, and that included a two-song encore. Maybe it was more like an evening at La Cage aux Folles than a rock concert.

Redlight King at the Gramercy Theatre

Mark Kasprzyk grew up in the hardworking Canadian steel town of Hamilton, Ontario. He wrote his first song at the age of 7 and began recording music as a 16 year-old. In his teens, music took a back seat to judo, eventually earning admittance into Canada's Olympic training center to prepare for the 2000 games. He did not make the team, though, and returned to music. He morphed into rapper named Kazzer, and had a hit in Canada with “Pedal to the Metal.” The song was used in Canadian television shows and movies. After struggling with substance abuse and hitting rock bottom, he cleaned up, sold everything he had, and relocated to Los Angeles in a rebuilt '49 Mercury pick-up in 2008. There Kasprzyk, now reinventing himself as “Kaz” for short, began writing songs and gathering musicians to form the band Redlight King, and recorded a debut album called Something for the Pain.

At the Gramercy Theatre, Redlight King was recreated as a rock band, not a rap band, although many of the songs did showcase Kaz’s rapping. The set showed the band to be a story-telling rock band, in the style of Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne. This was a good move, since Kaz’s singing is better than his rapping. Another good move was that although the album sampled fellow Canadian Neil Young’s 1972 “Old Man” chorus; in concert the chorus was sung live. The reworked song, with Kaz’s own verses, emoted about his reverence for his father. Another standout, “Bullet in My Hand,” told of Kaz’s struggles with drug addiction and his frustration about narrowly missing out in the 2000 Summer Olympics. The performance was not all shimmer, however. If Redlight King is to focus on songwriting, then we could have done without the drum solo. Many of the other songs sounded good but sounded alike. Redlight King is a very promising act, but needs time to mature and refine its strengths.

Icon for Hire at the Gramercy Theatre

Ariel of Icon for Hire
Icon for Hire was forged when Swedish-born fashion designer and vocalist Ariel met guitarist Shawn Jump in Decatur, Illinios, in 2007. They chose the band’s name as a satirical comment on the state of the music industry. The band's current lineup also includes bassist Josh Kincheloe and drummer Adam Kronshagen. Icon for Hire has two EPs and released its debut album, Scripted, in 2011. Icon for Hire premiered its new single, "Cynics and Critics," via lyric video last week, and announced that its second album, the self-titled Icon for Hire, will be released on October 15.

Returning to the Gramercy Theatre tonight on Live Nation’s Ones to Watch Tour with Redlight King, Icon for Hire played older songs and introduced new songs from its forthcoming album. Ariel told the audience that the band learned all the rules with the first album and broke all the rules with the second. Hence, the new songs and the evening’s performance were more expansive than one might expect from a budding hard rock band. Sorry, band members, but Ariel’s angst-laden vocal style continued to bring to mind inescapable comparisons to other female-fronted hard rock bands like Paramore and Flyleaf. On the other hand, however, the occasional electronic bookends on some of the songs recalled Skillet and Linkin Park, and the frequent hip hop raps brought in a whole other dimension to this strange brew. Ariel often spoke candidly to the audience and stated that the new songs showed her more vulnerable side, and they did, especially when she accompanied herself solo on the keyboard. Fortunately, the slick mix worked well, and Icon for Hire offered a fresh take on commercial radio-ready hard rock.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Snake Canyon at Arlene's Grocery

New York's Lower East Side has been the local heartbeat of live music for decades – sorry, Williamsburg. Dozens of music clubs, sometimes several on the same block, still feature the best of the up and coming bands. Snake Canyon is the neighborhood’s newest homegrown hard-rock band. The group presently consists of lead vocalist Morgan Liebman, lead guitarist Joe Hogan, rhythm guitarist AJ, bassist Vance Garcia and drummer Texas Clamp.

At Arlene’s Grocery tonight, Snake Canyon performed a 45-minute set of heavy-bottomed hard rock. Liebman, who can often be found working in local clubs like the Niagara or Boss Tweed’s as a heavy metal disc jockey, proved to be a fine front man for the band, and Hogan was a very capable lead guitarist. The band’s sound has been refined and defined, mixing metal with a taste of grunge and sludge. Some of the songs performed tonight, including “No Apologies”, “Life on Mars” and “Devil,” can be heard in demo form on the band’s website. The band returns to Arlene’s Grocery on August 26.

Thornes at Arlene's Grocery

Thornes is a hard rock quartet formed in New York by Virginia-raised Antoinette Michael Thornes. Learning to play guitar at an early age, Thornes wrote songs, waiting for the day when she could front a band, perform before rock audiences and record her songs. Then a crushed larynx in 2006 robbed Antoinette’s ability to sing. She underwent surgery, recuperated and resumed singing by 2011. She wrote and recorded the Issues EP in 2012. The band Thornes now features her powerful voice fronting a heavy guitar and rhythm section. The band presently is comprised of Thornes on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Abel Garcia on lead guitar, Steve Steele on bass and Kevin Lee Roth on drums.

At Arlene’s Grocery tonight, Thornes showed that the singer’s journey helped give her a context to her songs. Her singing style was born of the Motown her mother loved and the rock in her roll came from the Led Zeppelin her dad loved. Her lyrics revealed her struggles in love, loss, finding the inner strength to overcome life’s obstacles, and her rock fan identity. The band has a killer guitarist in Garcia, who seemed to avoid the spotlight but played sparkling and speedy leads on every song. Thornes herself was more than a token guitar-toting blonde, however, opening several songs with her own impressive riffs. Overall, the band Thornes demonstrated that it is among the new generation of New York bands poised to lead a 1980s-style hard rock revival. Thornes performs again at the R Bar on September 26.

Kira Alejandro at the Living Room

Kira Alejandro is 17-year-old aspiring songwriter and her talent already has matured beyond her years. The native New Yorker attends a fine arts boarding school, the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and participates in its Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, first for songwriting, and then for creative writing. She is completing her training at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where she is a singer/songwriter major. Alejandro already has received some major attention, however; Ringo Starr’s manager included her song "Better Days" on a compilation album, along with Starr, Paul McCartney, Dave Stewart and others, to benefit the Brooklyn community after Hurricane Sandy.

At the Living Room tonight, Alejandro sang a collection of her songs, several of which were written when she was 14 years old. She performed solo, accompanying herself on her ukulele and the house piano, so her lyrics were easy to hear. What does a teen-ager sing about? Apparently, she has already been smitten by teen love and infatuation. That is not so unusual, but her remarkable talent was showcased in how her heartfelt singing finely articulated her passions, adventures and inquiries of life. After impressing the audience with her seriousness, perhaps to remind us of her youth, she closed with a goofy song based on the movie Star Wars. She is a child after all.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Adam Ant at Irving Plaza

Adam Ant (born Stuart Leslie Goddard in London, England, on November 3, 1954) gained popularity as the lead singer of the pioneer punk rock band Adam and the Ants from 1977 to 1983 and, after the demise of the band, as a solo artist and as an actor, appearing in live theater and over two dozen films and television episodes from 1985 to 2003. He then disappeared from the limelight again and spent time in psychiatric wards. Ant rejuvenated his musical career in 2010, performing live and recording a new album. He also is involved in the Black Dog campaign, which promotes better understanding of mental illness.

Ant made a colorful MTV-enhanced splash in the United States during the punk, new wave and new romantic invasions of the early 1980s, but Ant’s greatest musical success remained in his native England and in Europe, with only marginal response on American shores. Nevertheless, it appears an American cult following has remained faithful to him and cheered him on for two nights at Irving Plaza. Dressing again in his pirate wardrobe, although now bespectacled and noticeably pudgier, a charismatic and energetic Ant tonight kept his audience bopping to the dance beat of his catalogue of songs for nearly two hours. Ant’s vocals were flatter than ever, to where often it sounded like he was rapping rather than singing, and he put that new style to best use, not as a failure but as a new direction. Meanwhile, the music was uncannily modern. Ant’s four musicians built the songs around contemporary sounds, borrowing a bit of inspiration from contemporary punk and even metal sounds. To his credit, although his early songs comprised a large art of the set, Ant’s concert never felt like a nostalgic trip to his gravy days. His underlying statement was that he was now healthy and that his live performances were ready to try to conquer the new world again.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals at the Gramercy Theatre

Phil Anselmo was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 30, 1968, and is best known as the former lead singer of the ground-breaking heavy metal band Pantera. He was actually the band’s fourth lead vocalist, but it was during his term that the band reached its greatest success. He joined the band in 1986 and remained until its breakup in 2003; other members of the band have blamed him for the band’s demise and even indirectly for the assassination of his former band-mate, guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott. Before, during and after Pantera, Anselmo fronted a countless number of hardcore punk and metal bands, the most successful being the metal band Down, which he helped form in 1991. Anselmo’s most recent project is Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals; this year the band has released an album, Walk through Exits Only, and a split EP, War of the Gargantuas (with Warbeast).

Anselmo’s great passion for underground and extreme metal was evident at the Gramercy Theatre tonight. If his fans were looking for the next Pantera, this was not on tonight’s menu. Hardcore hooks barely held the framework of a song together as Anselmo grunted and growled and the band pounded away with scraping riffs and sometimes atonal discordance that were challenging to get a firm grip on. For those in the audience who simply wanted to bang their heads or mosh in the pit, Anselmo and company adequately provided both the impetus and the soundtrack. For those who wanted to hear great new metal songs, the show was lacking. Perhaps those who knew the band’s recorded work were able to hang on for the ride, but for us newbies, the concert was fast, furious and vacuous. With just three musicians and a vocalist on stage, it should have been easier to hear the singer and the individual instruments. The music was a brutal wall of jackhammer sound that was less cohesion and more a bold wave of a rallying flag for the extreme metal community; the message of “look how wild we can get” successfully registered as loud and as proud as possible.

Mike Farris at the Mercury Lounge

Mike Farris began using drugs and alcohol from an early age, and almost died from an overdose before he was 21 years old. He recovered and went on to form the rock band Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies in 1990 in Nashville, Tennessee, and recorded three albums as the lead singer. After that band's breakup, Farris sang with SCW, Peaceful Knievel and for a time fronted Double Trouble, the backing band for Stevie Ray Vaughan. Farris became a practicing Christian, disavowed drugs and alcohol, and released his first solo album in 2002. He won the Americana Music Association's New and Emerging Artist of the Year Award in 2008 and the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for Traditional Gospel Album of the Year in 2010. Farris has released four albums rooted in early gospel, soul and blues-flavored songs.
Farris owns one of the most unique, soulful and octave climbing voices you will ever hear. In Nashville, Farris often sings and records with a nine-member ensemble, including female backing singers. At the Mercury Lounge, he sang much of his set accompanied only by his acoustic guitar; on other songs he invited to the stage two percussionists, one of whom kept a beat by slapping a metal garbage can on his lap. In the quiet stillness of the room, Farris made every song sound like a knee-slapping old-time gospel hymn. Even when he sang a reworked version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” his soulful singing made it sound like he was leading a Holy Ghost-inspired prayer in a Pentecostal church. Whether it was a traditional hymn, an original composition or a medley of both, every song was enthralling due to his spectacular vocals, and yet each song seemed to beg for a backing choir. To call him a gospel singer would be too limiting, as his diverse catalogue of songs tonight defied any narrow genre; instead, simply say that Mike Farris is one of the finest American roots singers you will ever hear.

Roger Alan Wade at the Mercury Lounge

The name Roger Alan Wade even sounds country, doesn’t it? In the 1980s, Wade was a budding song crafter for Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and George Jones. Hank Williams, Jr., took Wade’s song, “Country State of Mind,” to #1 on the country charts in 1986. The Nashville music scene changed in the 1990s, however, and, coupled with some detrimental personal vices, left him with a substance abuse problem and without a career. His cousin, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, included some of Wade’s music on his television series and movies, and encouraged Wade to embark on a solo career. Wade’s first album, 2005’s All Likkered Up, was a collection of wild, almost R-rated satirical songs with a sense of humor. Since then, Wade recorded four more albums of serious outlaw-style country music, included his most recent album, 2012’s sobriety-inspired Southbound Train. Wade does voice-over work for WUUQ 97.3 and 99.3 FM in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and with his cousin Knoxville hosts an hour-long weekly show, Big Ass Happy Family Jubilee (named after a Wade song), on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel.

Wade is a poet with an acoustic guitar, as he demonstrated at the Mercury Lounge tonight, opening for Mike Farris. Wade’s simple music recalled the era of singer songwriters who wrote of the landscape and the man-scape of the American heartland. “Chickamauga Creek” painted a tender portrait of a Tennessee family. “The Reckless Kind” was similarly a study of human nature. “The First Time I Saw Waylon” and “Johnny Cash Has Died” were not only tributes to his country music heroes, but shined a light on human longing. This was genuine outlaw country music, yet not from the perspective of a successful music celebrity but from a struggling musician who is not sure if the great American promises will be achieved.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Baroness at Irving Plaza

Peter Adams (center) and John Baizley (right)
Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist John Baizley remains the only remaining original member of Baroness, a heavy metal band formed in 2003 in Savannah, Georgia. The band’s third album, 2012’s Yellow & Green, was the group’s biggest commercial and critical success and the band seemed headed for international fame when everything changed on August 15, 2012. The band’s tour bus fell an estimated 30 feet from a viaduct near Bath, England. Nine passengers were injured, but the band and crew miraculously survived the incident. Baizley broke his left leg and his left arm was made operable with the insertion of two titanium plates, 20 screws, a foot and a half of wire, and almost 50 staples. The band’s new line-up is finally back on tour, promoting its new Live at Maida Vale EP. Baroness presently is Baizley, Peter Adams on lead guitar, and new members Nick Joston on bass and Sebastian Thomson on drums.

Baroness’s concert at Irving Plaza tonight, one night short of the first anniversary of the accident, was as much a celebration of life as it was a showcase of the band’s musical history. The band has not written new material since the accident, so the concert was made up of older material. Baroness’ distinctiveness was in that the band avoided all metal clichés. Consequently, it is easier to describe what the concert was not rather than what it was. First of all, Baizley sang; not that he had a particularly special vocal delivery, but there are so many growling metal singers that hearing a rather ordinary voice was refreshing. The songs were not fashioned as radio-ready anthems, but followed the less commercial and more innovative path of being simply a framework within which the musicians slammed an impressive variety of chunky chops. Secondly, the band did not propel its sound with twin guitar leads and double bass drums. Baroness’ music was consistently very heavy, yet the song structures appeared to be slightly influenced by the kind of complex charts often found in classical and jazz compositions. This was only possible because the band members were competent players, students of their crafts. Most evident tonight, however, was the enthusiasm with which Baizley led the band; after nearly a year of recuperation, he appeared to be all about playing live music again with his team.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kevin Seconds at the Bowery Electric

Kevin Seconds was born Kevin Marvelli in Sacramento, California, on March 24, 1961. As a teen-ager, he relocated with his family to Reno, Nevada. There he founded and fronted the hardcore punk band 7 Seconds in 1979 with his younger brother, bassist Steve Youth, in 1980. The band released 15 albums through 2005. Seconds, however, relocated back to Sacramento in 1988 and began performing also as a solo acoustic artist starting in 1989. He has recorded five solo albums. Besides his musical endeavors, Seconds is an artist and illustrator and makes his artwork available at his live shows and via his website. He also sporadically hosts an online radio show called Sound Salvation Radio with Kevin Seconds, via Spreaker.com, usually doing it live from his van. It is primarily a music show with Seconds playing tunes from some of his favorite bands but it is also a vehicle for him to discuss politics, social issues and the current state of the music scene, amongst other things.

How does one make the transition from hardcore punk to acoustic, almost alt-country music? I do not know, but Kevin Seconds has done it well. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, his wife Allyson Seconds on vocals and harmonica and a drummer, Seconds’ show at the Bowery Electric tonight showed that he found the path and journeyed it well. Seconds has foregone his former shaved face and head in favor of straggly beard and hair, and his new music fits the look. He has replaced his skinhead suspenders for baggy cargo pants that ended below his knees. Most importantly, he has traded his socio-political rants for positive down-home lyrics. Seconds strummed simple chords and, eyes closed or squinted most of the time, passionately belted upbeat lyrics and melodies that seemed to have been cultivated in a log cabin. Having evolved into this metamorphosis, is it possible for him to return to hardcore punk music? Time will tell, but the new Kevin Seconds probably has not completed this life cycle yet.

Parachute at Irving Plaza

Will Anderson of Parachute
Parachute is a pop band whose members met at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. Originally named Sparky's Flaw, around graduation time in 2008 the band changed its name to Parachute. The band has recorded three albums, the latest of which, Overnight, was released today, although the lead single, "Hearts Go Crazy," was released on iTunes on February 26. The new album features a new electronic direction to the band's sound. Parachute presently consists of Will Anderson  on vocals, guitar and keyboards, Nate McFarland on guitar, Kit French on saxophone and keyboards, Alex Hargrave on bass and Johnny Stubblefield on drums.

Parachute began its concert tour tonight at Irving Plaza, and showed how well polished a band can be after a few rehearsals. Everything was exceptionally smooth. Anderson had the right look for the young women who made up the bulk of the audience, and he was in excellent voice. Each energetic song built on its dynamics. This is perhaps where Parachute stopped being a rock band and became a pop band. Every part of every anthem was immaculately polished, often designed to build to a singalong crescendo (the fans supplied resounding back-up vocals) and ended begging for applause. This was not quite a teen band, but it was too slick for genuine rockers. Listen for this band to turn up wherever mainstream radio-ready music is heard, including prime-time dramas, late night variety shows and commercials.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bobby Rush at Damrosch Park

Bobby Rush was born Emmit Ellis, Jr., in Homer, Louisiana, on November 10, 1935. As a young child, he began playing music using a sugar-cane syrup-bucket and a broom-wire diddley bow. Around 1946, his father, a pastor, moved the family to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where the young Rush would become friends with blues masters Elmore James, Boyd Gilmore (Elmore's cousin) and Moose John Walker. In 1953, his family relocated to Chicago, and there Rush became part of the local blues scene. Since 1979, Rush has recorded 25 albums, the most recent being this year’s Down in Louisiana.

At Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center this evening, Rush performed a slick set of blues and soul songs. Often he proved he was a solid blues crooner and harmonica player, but other times he was a ham bent on entertaining with chit chat, much of it sexually suggestive. Although he looks great for his age, it eventually becomes hard for a mature audience to see a nearly 80-year-old man repeatedly grab his crotch and hear him talk, even jokingly, about his prowess. In the end, Rush compromised his musical integrity with cheap burlesque. Play the harmonica, Rush, and curb the player.

Allen Toussaint at Damrosch Park

In the early 1960s, Allen Toussaint (born January 14, 1938) was already influential figure in New Orleans rhythm and blues, writing and producing for Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Lee Dorsey and other local artists who were becoming known nationally. Starting in the 1970s, he gravitated to a funkier sound, writing and producing for the Meters, Dr. John and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. He also began to work with non-New Orleans artists including B.J. Thomas, Robert Palmer, Willy DeVille, Sandy Denny, Elkie Brooks, Solomon Burke and Mylon LeFevre. Over the years, his songs have been covered by dozens of pop and rock artists. Since 1958, he has recorded 13 solo albums, the most recent being 2009’s The Bright Mississippi.

At Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center tonight, Toussaint played solo at a grand piano. Having no other musicians to crowd the sound, a listener could hear immediately how quick Toussaint was at the piano keys. Playing in a Dixieland honky tonk style, Toussaint masterfully tore up the notes with nimble fingers. He sang well as well. It was a pleasure to hear the composer sing stark naked interpretations of his own songs, including "Working in the Coalmine" (a hit for Lee Dorsey) , “Yes We Can Can” (a hit for the Pointer Sisters), "Get Out of My Life, Woman" (covered by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Iron Butterfly, the Jerry Garcia Band, the Doors, Gerry Rafferty and the Derek Trucks Band), and "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" (recorded by Robert Palmer, Ringo Starr and Phish). He also performed songs by other composers that mentioned his hometown, like Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” all with a down south flourish missing in many of the original versions. Even after 55 years in the music business, Allen Toussaint still has more than enough style to impress music audiences.

Shuggie Otis at Rumsey Playground

Shuggie Otis was born Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr., in Los Angeles on November 30, 1953, the son of soul singer Johnny Otis and his wife Phyllis. The name "Shuggie" (short for "sugar", according to his mother) was coined by Phyllis when he was a newborn. Otis began playing guitar when he was two years old and performing professionally with his father's band at age 12, often disguising himself with dark glasses and a false mustache so that he could play with his father's band in after-hours nightclubs. Shuggie Otis released his first solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, in 1969. His second album, 1971’s Freedom Flight, featured "Strawberry Letter 23," which became a hit for the Brothers Johnson. His third album, Inspiration Information, originally released in 1974, was re-released earlier this year coupled with Wings of Love, a collection of previously unreleased material written from 1975 to the present, including live material from some of his rare performances.

A good turnout came to Otis’s free Summer Stage concert in the Rumsey Playground at Central Park this afternoon. Otis’ return was staggered, however. He spoke to the audience a lot, but had little of interest to say. He played extended blues guitar leads well, but spent more time allowing his other musicians to play seemingly improvised leads. Otis is an unrefined singer, and his uncultivated vocals were sometimes abrasive to the common ear. Lastly, his catalogue of blues and soul songs were enjoyable but not outstanding. Considering that admission to the concert was by free-will donation, it was a lovely afternoon in a beautiful park. Professionally, it was a presentation that needed some fine-tuning in order to become a major league performance.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ron Pope at Irving Plaza

New York-based singer songwriter Ronand Michael "Ron" Pope (born on July 23, 1983 and raised in Marietta, Georgia) has a song that got 20 million views on YouTube and was played on several television shows, yet he remains unsigned and a virtual unknown. How did this come to be? While studying at New York University, Pope joined a songwriting circle that included fellow students and future band mates Zach Berkman and Paul Hammer. They formed the District with Chris Kienel, Will Frish and Mike Clifford. Following success as a college band, the band toured America for two years and recorded four albums. In 2005, Pope and Berkman wrote "A Drop in the Ocean." The song became an internet hit and was featured on The Vampire Diaries, 90210 and So You Think You Can Dance. Javier Colon, season 1 winner of NBC’s The Voice, covered the song as the first single off his debut album. The song’s success led Pope to pursue a solo career. A prolific writer, he has released nine solo albums independently since 2007.

Pope performed for his largest crowd yet as the headliner at Irving Plaza tonight. Much like Billy Joel, Elton John and Jackson Browne, Pope showed that while his greatest strength was in his sensitive side, he was also more than eager to pump the beat and rock out on his guitar and keyboard. While the average New York man is prone to be guarded about his emotions, Pope swung in the opposite direction with soul-penetrating and seemingly personal lyrics about love, loss and finding one’s inner path back to a healthy and harmonious being. The deep and delicate ballads accentuated his solid and sincere singing voice. Despite these strengths, Pope gave up something for the guys, and that was a few searing guitar-based rockers. Pope proved tonight that he was a worthy example of an up-and-coming artist who, via an internet-savvy public, has found his unique path to success without succumbing under the mercy of powerful record companies.

Marty Balin at the Bitter End

In the late 1960s, rock music took a turn to what was then called psychedelic music, and Jefferson Airplane was among the originators of this genre. Marty Balin (born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 30, 1942) was a founder of the maverick San Francisco-based band. He shared lead vocals at first with Signe Anderson but then famously with Grace Slick from 1965 until the band’s breakup in 1971. In 1974, fellow Airplane alumnus Paul Kantner asked Marty to write a song for his new offshoot group, Jefferson Starship, and together they wrote "Caroline" for the Dragon Fly album. Balin formally joined Jefferson Starship in 1975, and contributed to several hit songs ("Miracles", "With Your Love", "Count on Me" and "Runaway"). In 1978, Balin left the Starship and in 1981 released his first solo album, Balin, featuring "Hearts" and "Atlanta Lady." Balin sporadically rejoined the Starship from 1995 to 2008, but continued recording solo albums as well, all of which are available on his website, www.martybalinmusic.com.

In a rare concert appearance the Bitter End tonight, the pony-tailed Balin looked great for his age and sounded very well as well. For his faithful fans, he sang many of his best-known songs and some little-heard songs, and presented them all in a new fresh way. Accompanied only by two amplified acoustic guitars and two percussionists, the songs took on a softer, more personal delivery and highlighted Balin’s distinctive vocals more than any other instrument. Starting with the Airplane’s "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and running through his history (including “Today”, “Volunteers”, “Miracles” and “Count on Me”), his iconic tenor remained smooth and even romantic. Nevertheless, the bulk of the two-hour show consisted of lesser known songs. Perhaps because the approximately 65 people in the storefront-sized venue sat less than 15 feet from him, Balin captivated his audience, both with hits and bombs. Most satisfying of all was that the showcase demonstrated that after 48 years in music, Balin is a legendary rock pioneer that still proves his worth. Balin will return to New York for a show at the Cutting Room on November 8.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra at Damrosch Park

Amanda Palmer (born April 30, 1976) is New York-born and Boston-based performer who began performing publicly in street theater and as a living statue called "The Eight Foot Bride" in Harvard Square, Cambridge (also in Scotland and Australia). At a Halloween party in 2000, Palmer met drummer Brian Viglione and turned to music as the lead singer, pianist and lyricist/composer of the duo The Dresden Dolls. The Dresden Dolls recorded five albums between 2002 and 2008. Palmer now performs solo, as one half of the duo Evelyn Evelyn (which recorded an EP in 2007 and a self-titled album in 2010), and as the lead singer and songwriter of Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. Her most recent album is 2012’s crowd-funded Theatre Is Evil.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra’s free concert tonight at Damrosch Park might be the most outrageous show Lincoln Center has showcased in decades. Her outfit on stage consisted of a see-through bra, corset and a long skirt that was split behind up to, well, there. Well, at least everything stayed in place, unlike her controversial Glastonbury show where a “wardrobe malfunction” caused her to continue performing with a breast escaping her bra. But this was about music, right? Potty-mouthed Palmer sang a set of songs that included expletives and sexually-graphic lyrics. Unlike many contemporary rappers, however, the scenario described in her lyrics did not seem to be designed to be gratuitous or shock inducing, but were the landscape of her own sometimes-dark adventures. Playing keyboard and ukulele, she and her three-piece band performed Cars-sounding pop rock and Rocky Horror Show-styled campy cabaret. They rocked hardest with their cover of Nirvana’s “(Smells Like) Teen Spirit” and softest with an eight-minute ballad with Palmer on stage alone with her ukulele. The show concluded with members of the Hungry March Band in all its circus attire singing and dancing with her onstage. Ultimately, Palmer demonstrated that notwithstanding several colorful controversies in her musical career, she is foremost a performance artist who engagingly uses the stage and her music as her canvas. Her audience is invited to enjoy, participate and sing along to that epic avant garde canvas of work.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Stumblebum Brass Band at Rodeo Bar & Grill

The Stumblebum Brass Band, aka the Stumblebums, shows up at the most unexpected places sometimes. The trio, made up of Smidge Malone on vocals and trumpet, Disco Ronnie on tuba and Hitomi on a snare drum, are known to kamikaze subways, parties and bars, suddenly breaking into punky jive music. Occasionally they even play a legitimate music club. Together, they appear to be absolutely mad, but they play great music. The band has a new CD, F*** You Lady Gaga, except the “f” word is spelled out.

Is this a marching band? Is this a New Orleans Mardi Gras band? You have never seen anything like this, so imagine the following. At the Rodeo Bar tonight, Malone, the hot-wired guy with the dyed Mohawk haircut, sang fast be-bop songs gruffly like Louis Armstrong. When he was not singing, he was blasting his trumpet with fury. Ronnie, looking rather cowpunk, played bass lines on his tuba. Hitomi played a full set of drums tonight instead of just a snare. The high octane songs seemed frantic, like a Cab Calloway 33 1/3 rpm record played at 78. Too punk for guitars and amps, the bare-bones music was left raw and assaulting. Live at the Rodeo tonight, the Stumblebums were loud, rowdy and brilliant.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cloud Control at the Mercury Lounge

The four members of Cloud Control, an alternative rock band, grew up in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia. They met at the rehearsals for the Pirates of the Penzance, formed the band and soon thereafter won a “Battle of the Bands” contest. Cloud Control released its self-titled debut EP in 2008, received local radio airplay and opened for Supergrass on an Australia concert tour. A string of festival appearances and tours with several Australian bands followed, and the band finally released a debut album, Bliss Release, in 2010. Cloud Control won its first major accolades at the Jägermeister Australian Independent Music Awards in 2010, winning Best Independent Album and Breakthrough Independent Artist. The Sydney Music, Arts & Culture (SMAC) Awards then named the band Best Live Musical Act and Record of the Year. Bliss Release also won the Australian Music Prize in 2011. Cloud Control’s second album, Dream Cave, will be released on August 9. The band is Alister Wright on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Heidi Lenffer on lead vocals and keyboards, Jeremy Kelshaw on bass and backing vocals and Ulrich Lenffer on drums and backing vocals.

Many contemporary bands are categorized as alternative when they are not the least bit alternative. At the Mercury Lounge tonight, Cloud Control lived up to the title. The youthful band performed a 60-minute set of original songs featuring simple but innovative arrangements that were somewhat left of center, sometimes sounding a bit like early Talking Heads. While a dance rhythm was fairly constant, the vocal melody lines and musical breaks within the songs were often unconventional or experimental. The pop lead vocals and harmonies were soft and charming, yet constructed creatively in such a manner that the songs became too arresting to be simply background music. Whether the songs were memorable or the choruses were catchy was left to the individual listeners, but the general audience seemed impressed by band’s overall indie ingenuity.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Psychedelic Furs at Irving Plaza

As the first generation of punk rock slipped into more commercially viable, soft-serve New Wave in England in 1977, two brothers, vocalist Richard Butler and bassist Tim Butler, formed the Psychedelic Furs. The band went through several phases, from an initially austere art rock sound, later touching on new wave and even a bit of hard rock. The Psychedelic Furs’ self-titled debut album was released in 1980 and created a buzz in new wave circles, but the band only launched to international attention in 1986 when the film director John Hughes used the song "Pretty in Pink" for his movie of the same name. After a few personnel changes, the Furs went on hiatus in 1991, and the Butler brothers formed a new band called Love Spit Love. The Psychedelic Furs later regrouped in 2001. The Psychedelic Furs recorded seven studio albums, and Richard Butler released a self-titled solo album in 2006, but the band has not released an album since World Outside in 1991. The current touring line-up is Richard Butler (vocals), Tim Butler (bass), Rich Good (guitar), Mars Williams (saxophone), Amanda Kramer (keyboards), and Paul Garisto (drums).

At Irving Plaza tonight, with no new album to promote, the Psychedelic Furs performed a best-of set, each song faithfully close to the recorded versions. Front man Richard Butler was always less Johnny Rotten, more David Bowie, and so he appeared all but a mannered gentleman onstage, wearing black trousers, a dark blue open-necked button-down dress shirt, black vest and thick black glasses. He led the Furs through songs he has performed hundreds of times over three decades, yet he danced a bit, gestured grandly as he sang and smiled a lot, looking like he was having more fun than anyone in the venue. Regrettably, however, his uniquely raspy growl missed a lot of notes, and I mean a real lot. Nevertheless, his signature snarly, craggy, cockney-accented voice still commanded the core of the show. Meanwhile, Mars Williams, the second-busiest man in the six-piece band, fleshed out the songs with his saxophone and provided lively visual appeal, and Tim Butler also hovered over the edge of the stage, singing without a microphone to the audience while plucking his bass. The concert was well-performed, but left an inevitable question: how long can a band remain viable without introducing new material?

David Peel and the Lower East Side at Tompkins Square Park

David Peel and the Lower East Side has been playing free concerts in downtown parks since 1968. Back then, I was a 15 year old who thought it was pretty cool to walk to Washington Square Park every weekend to hear this tongue-in-cheek folkie sing radical social commentary like "Have a Marijuana." Peel recorded his first controversial album, Have a Marijuana, later that year, followed by The American Revolution in 1970. Not surprisingly, the albums went nowhere. Frankly, his flat talkie singing was grating to the ear. John Lennon discovered him in Washington Square Park in 1971 and produced Peel's third album, The Pope Smokes Dope. Peel has recorded and released many independent albums since then, and has continued to perform free concerts in downtown parks and, until its recent closing, in the counter-culturally-inspired Yippie Cafe.

Peel and a small cult of his disciples as his background chorus were among the guests who performed in Tompkins Square Park today for the commemoration of the riots in the park 25 years ago. Still in true comedic tradition, he restated his social commentary through songs including "Die, Yuppie Scum" and "A Riot in Tompkins Square Park," closing with his signature "Have a Marijuana." A handful of policemen patrolled the surrounding area, and their smiles and chuckles indicated that they appeared to enjoy the absurdity of it all as well. Peel may have been disappointed because the second American revolution did not unravel here today, but even after 45 years of playing in public parks, he continues to have a heck of a good time waiting for that revolution to happen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Maylene and the Sons of Disaster at the Studio at Webster Hall

Dallas Taylor was one of the founders and the original vocalist of progressive metal band Underoath, appearing on the band’s first three albums. The band reportedly asked Taylor to leave in 2003. Although he was originally from Ocala, Florida, he then formed Maylene and the Sons of Disaster in 2004 in Birmingham, Alabama. The band name and concept were based on the legend of the criminal gang of Ma Barker and her sons, with Taylor noting that the lesson of the story is that evil lifestyles will be met with divine justice. Maylene and the Sons of Disaster released its self-titled debut album in 2005 and its fourth and most recent album, IV, in 2011. Taylor remains the only remaining original member of the band.

At the Studio at Webster Hall tonight, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster showed it was a very hard rocking band. Deep underneath Taylor’s growl and the band’s thrusting music was the root of a bluesy bar band, like the Iron City Houserockers or the J. Geils Band. To that, the band added a grenade’s touch of southern rock, turned the amps up to 10 for a wall of sound and ultimately produced a bombastic sound with more depth than the average metal band. Although the vocals and music were radically polished for the most recent album, live tonight Taylor and the band returned to its earlier raw and grungy sound, to great effect. Taylor shouted, the band blasted, and fans heard and sang along with the better known songs. In a market that is cluttered with far too many similar-sounding metalcore bands, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster showed that it has the ability to carve a unique path due to its distinctive sound.

Man on Earth at the Studio at Webster Hall

Man on Earth is a relatively unknown New York-based rock band, but its accomplishments so far include being rated one of top live local bands by The Deli magazine, having a song featured on the NBC Winter Olympics broadcast, a national television appearance on Fox’s Fearless Music, a mention in Time magazine and the song “All We Want” became a staple at all New York Islanders home games. Man on Earth’s debut album, The Time Spent Wondering, was released in 2009, and the follow-up Things They’d Never Believe was released in 2011. A digital-only collection of demos and early recordings, In Case You Haven’t Heard, was released in December 2012. The band presently is comprised of Steven Nathan on vocals and guitar, Steve Gregoire on guitar, Adam Root on bass and Angelo Modica on drums.

Opening for Maylene and the Sons of Disaster at the Studio at Webster Hall, Man on Earth proved to be a promising radio-rock band. Playing with muscle and polished by Nathan’s singing and showmanship, Man on Earth may have found the right balance to draw a mixed following of pop fans and rockers. Tempered verses led to spirited choruses which built into melodic anthems that could fill larger venues. The band has been touring the country incessantly; maybe if the band just worked the home turf for a while it could build a strong local following.

Descender at the Studio at Webster Hall

In typography, a descender is the portion of a letter that extends below the baseline, as in p, q or y. Descender, however, is also a metal band made up of four Brooklyn-based graphic designers. Beginning with its first gig at the Lit Lounge in 2008, the band averages about two gigs a month at local venues and has released three EPs.

At the Studio at Webster Hall tonight, opening for Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, the band played a brief but impressive set. Drawing on hardcore and progressive metal influences, Descender shouted and pummeled through aggressive and abrasive songs that, like many progressive metal bands, sidestepped traditional verse/chorus conventions. Unlike similar bands that build energy by speeding up the pace, however, Descender performed slow burners, somewhat like early Black Sabbath. The raw but tightly-composed sound remained uncompromisingly thick and intense, as dense as a brick and as doomy as a moonless midnight. Descender performs next at Grand Victory in Brooklyn on August 31.

TriBeCaStan at the Rubin Museum

New York ethno-fusion collective TriBeCaStan performs a unique and eclectic hybrid of folk, jazz and world music inspired by New York City’s cross-pollinating musical and cultural communities. Led by multi-instrumentalists John Kruth, Jeff Greene and Matt Darriau, the ensemble uses acoustic instruments from all over the world and yet simultaneously draws structure from American jazz, blues, folk and rock. TriBeCaStan’s fourth album, New Songs from the Old Country, becomes available on October 1.

TriBeCaStan’s performance tonight at the Rubin Museum was unique in that it was designed to explore the connections between the band’s music and the Rubin Museum’s collection of Himalayan art. Each composition was inspired by a piece of art displayed in the museum, and a photograph of that piece was projected behind the band as the music played. (Oddly, in the photograph right, the band played danceable world rhythms to what seemed to be a Betty Boop-type black and white cartoon of skeletons dancing.) Tonight, TriBeCaStan’s rotating membership consisted of nine musicians performing on acoustic instruments with no microphones, effects, sound cables or amplifiers. Kruth directed the virtuosic bandmembers, allowing the musicians a few moments of improvisation within the pieces, but maintaining the focus of the compositions. Many of the instruments were familiar – stand-up bass, accordion, banjo, harmonica, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, sitar and table, for instance – but many were native to southeastern Asia and may never be seen again by the people in the audience. Most of the set was instrumental, but one lyrical composition sounded somewhat like the Beatles’ Indian raga-favored “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Radically multicultural and poly-stylistic to the marrow, the evening was refreshingly free from restraints and expectations.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Strange Talk at Santo's Party House

In Melbourne, Australia, vocalist/keyboardist Stephen Docker and bassist/keyboardist Gerard Sidhu met on MySpace. They added Gillan Gregory on guitar and keyboards and Travis Constable on drums in February 2010 to form Strange Talk. A classically trained violinist, a dance producer with a DJ background, and two funk/soul musicians became a four-piece synth pop band. Strange Talk released a self-titled EP in April 2011 and a debut album, Cast Away, will be available on October 8, 2013.

At Santo’s Party House tonight, Strange Talk recalled 1980s music from the Human League and the Thompson Twins along with contemporary electronic dance bands like Daft PunkPhoenix and Passion Pit. For most of the 40-minute set, three of the musicians played synthesizers while Constable stayed put at the drum kit. Occasionally, Gregory would play guitar and Sidhu played bass. Docker often left his synthesizer to dance or work the audience from the edge of the stage. His lyrics were smothered by the music, with only the most repetitive chorus lines audible from time to time. For Strange Talk, the essence of the live performance was built on pulsing hook-laced electro-pop songs, occasionally spiked with a crisp guitar lead or a heavy bass line, made for relentless, euphoric dance floor raves.

Kid Karate at Pianos

Kid Karate is a two-piece band from Dublin, Ireland, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Kevin Breen and drummer Steven Gannon. Kid Karate’s debut Lights Out EP was released in North America and Ireland on July 23rd. There is no way around it, any rock band composed exclusively of a hard riffing guitarist and a sternum-shattering drummer is going to be compared to the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Now that we have that out of the way, we can talk about Kid Karate’s performance at Pianos tonight.

The Pianos showroom usually features young bands just getting used to playing live. Kid Karate played the small room like it was a stadium. The music was gritty, raw, brutal and bombastic. Breen simultaneously juggled rough riffs and stinging leads on his guitar, howled lyrics into the microphone like an old blues singer in tremendous pain, and jumped around continuously like an aerobics leader. Across the stage, Gannon was smashing the drums and pummeling the cymbals. With just two people on stage trying to make an impression, they could not help but be charismatic. They were set on claiming the audience’s attention, and they succeeded. This was aggressive, thunderous, noisy, plus sized rock and it was very, very good. We should be hearing a lot more about Kid Karate in the near future.