Friday, February 28, 2014

Jillette Johnson at the Bowery Ballroom

Jillette Johnson began taking piano lessons at age six and began songwriting at age eight in her small hometown of Pound Ridge, New York. She started playing live venues in New York City at the age of 12. The musician moved to New York City at 18, and began performing at Lower East Side and Brooklyn music clubs. She auditioned for the first season of The Voice, but three days before her flight to Los Angeles chose not to pursue this track, believing she had to be true to her own music trajectory. Johnson released her five-song debut EP, Whiskey & Frosting, in 2012. Her debut album, Water in a Whale, was released in June 2013.

At the Bowery Ballroom tonight opening for Wakey! Wakey!, Johnson had musicians backing her, but her own talent commanded the bulk of the attention. Johnson showed herself to be a gifted singer-songwriter, demonstrating deft classical musicianship, warm and even haunting melodies, and poetic lyrics that induced sweet and melancholy images. Often she looked down at her fingers quickly gliding across her keyboard, then lifted her head, eyes closed, and belted out passionate, aching lyrics. A highlight of tonight's performance was "Cameron," a song that told of a transgendered teen struggling to be genuine and accepted. Yet it was this same collection of pensive, surging, piano-driven pop songs tonight that showcased that she is also a vocal powerhouse. Her colossal singing was the summit of her many talents and lit a bonfire. Particularly when the musical arrangements turned soft and sparse, her soaring voice hit the ceiling and then filled the room with embers. Today's music scene has no shortage of female singer-songwriters, but Jillette Johnson is special.

Visit Jillette Johnson at www.jillettejohnson.com.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nick Waterhouse at the Bowery Ballroom

Nick Waterhouse was born in Santa Ana, California, and raised in Huntington Beach, California, the son of a fireman and a saleswoman. He learned to play guitar at age 12, and as a young teen gravitated to soul, blues and jazz crossover artists. While in high school, Waterhouse wrote, sang and played guitar with local bands in the Orange County underground music scene. After enrolling in the state university in San Francisco to study film theory, Waterhouse began playing soul music as a disc jockey, performed in local bands and recorded a few studio sessions. With the release of his debut album, he relocated south again to Los Angeles in 2012. His second album, Holly, will be released on March 4.

At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, Waterhouse revived a brand of soul music that pre-dated Motown. Waterhouse borrowed from the soul music epoch that thrived under the radar before Berry Gordy polished it for mass consumption. With an aura of humility, Waterhouse sang honestly, not like he was trying to make an impression, and his musical arrangements were similarly focused on what the band could create as a robust unit. Save for the advantageous benefits of professional practice space and road experience, Waterhouse's band sounded very much like the combos that played high school dances circa 1960. Waterhouse sang naturally in the unpresumptuous style of Solomon Burke, Bobby "Blue" Bland and many other soul singers of that era. Stepping back from his microphone, Waterhouse wailed on his sunburst, hollow-bodied electric guitar like a Chicago blues man, alternating harmonic chords with rapid solos. He then retreated to let his organist, horn section or backup singers shine. The retro-soul sound was lean, propulsive and dazzling. Early in the set, Waterhouse's songs were of the sensitive singer-songwriter ilk, made larger by the horns and backing vocalists. As the show progressed, the songs increasingly turned into longer and longer party jams, as the band grooved, Waterhouse interjected croons and howls, and the audience danced in place. Waterhouse took a vintage sound and twisted it enough to reinvent the sound and reinvent himself along the way. The neo-soul movement has a new full-tilt member in Nick Waterhouse.

Visit Nick Waterhouse at www.nickwaterhouse.com.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Falls at the Bowery Ballroom

This is not the British band known as the Fall, nor is it the Canadian band Falls. This is the Australian folk duo known as the Falls. Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown met at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney straight out of school. Kirwin was studying classical saxophone, and Rudston-Brown was studying guitar. Over the next eight years, they wrote beautiful songs about their love and performed locally, particularly on Wednesday nights at the Hotel Hollywood. Then, six months before recording their debut EP in 2010, the couple split apart. Kirwin and Rudston-Brown discovered that they were better band mates than bed mates, and maintained a friendly and professional relationship. As a music career looked more promising, the band recorded a second EP, Into the Fire, and moved to the United States. The EP was released on February 18, and the duo is opening a national tour for Delta Rae.

At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, most of the Falls' musical arrangements were comprised of Rudston-Brown on acoustic guitar and Kirwin and Rudston-Brown harmonizing on vocals. Contemporary music seldom gets more naked than that. A few songs were ever so slightly embellished when Rudston-Brown sporadically tapped an electronic pad with his right boot to get a bass drum effect, Kirwin played a melodica on one song, and a string quartet accompanied the duo on four songs. Reminiscent of the Civil Wars and Over the Rhine, the Falls matched a deeper male voice with a lighter and sunnier female voice to create a dreamy, heartfelt warmth that felt like a down-filled blanket by a sputtering fireplace on a cold winter's night. Lyrics were easy to distinguish, which grew increasingly more curious when this pair of ex-lovers sang about the pain of heartbreak -- were they singing to and about each other? Though the duo was largely unknown by the audience at the start of the set, by the end the Falls had the Delta Rae fans cheering.

Visit the Falls at www.fallsofficial.com.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sick Puppies at Irving Plaza

Emma Anzai and Shimon Moore
Shimon Moore and Emma Anzai met in 1997 in their high school music room in Sydney, Australia. They began jamming on some cover songs and by the end of the week, Anzai invited Moore to start a band with her. They added a drummer, became Sick Puppies, and began writing original songs. To support their ambitions, Anzai worked as a telemarketer and Moore held a sandwich board advertising two-for-one shoes at an outdoor shopping mall. Through this income and with help from Shimon's father, Sick Puppies recorded and released its debut EP, made a popular "free hugs" video and soon began playing local clubs. Rock photographer Robert Knight asked the fledgling band to be in his documentary, Rock Prophecies, and then persuaded Moore and Anzai to pursue their goals by relocating to Los Angeles, California. The band's fourth studio album, Connect , was released in July 2013. The band presently consists of Moore on vocals and guitar, Anzai on bass and Mark Goodwin on drums.

Headlining at Irving Plaza tonight, Sick Puppy headlined Revolver magazine's Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock Tour, featuring Sick Puppies, Lacuna Coil, Eyes Set to Kill, and Cilver. The highlighted musician in Sick Puppies was not the woman, however, it was Shimon Moore who dominated the band's spotlight. As the Sick Puppies front person, he seemed to be equal parts vocalist, musician and cheerleader. Firstly, he was a dynamic vocalist, not necessarily due to an outstanding vocal range, but simply in vocal style. His voice was rather ordinary, but he sang earnestly, passionately and expressively. Secondly, Moore led the charge musically as the band's sole guitar player in front of a rhythm section. He often moved away from the microphone to play extended guitar leads at center stage. Lastly, while the fans applauded Emma Anzai each time she moved to the edge of the stage for a bass riff, Moore commanded the spotlight for most of the show, speaking with the audience between and during the songs, acknowledging and appreciating the fan response, and encouraging the fans to sing, bounce, mosh or cheer. The crowd was putty in his hands.

As a unit, Sick Puppies performed a set that was as big as it was heavy. The trio often exploded from a bare arrangement into a massive wall of sound and then, having hammered the audience, regressed to a sparse simplicity. These skilful start-stop blasts filled the room and possibly raised the roof. The songs varied from mellow to hyper, atmospheric to epic. The set was built around choruses more than on instrumentation, but Goodwin's bombastic percussion, Anzai's slap bass style and Moore's aggressive guitar licks more than filled out the segments between lyrics. Moving from dynamic to dynamic, Sick Puppies' concert sounded like the soundtrack to a wrestling tournament.
Visit Sick Puppies at www.sickpuppies.com.

Friday, February 21, 2014

H.R. at the Studio at Webster Hall

Bad Brains was the granddaddy of the afro-punk movement. The four-piece band from Washington, D.C. started as a jazz fusion band, but then joined the punk rock movement in the late 1970s. Once exposed to reggae music, the band incorporated this music in the set as well. By the time the London-born Paul Hudson, a.k.a. H.R. (Human Rights), joined the band, Bad Brains was alternating between hardcore punk and reggae songs during the live shows. The unrestrained fury of the shows often went out of control, and Bad Brains was banned from many local clubs. The band relocated to New York for a time. The music became heavier and funkier. Bad Brains split apart and reunited several times, and recorded nine studio albums. A converted Rastafarian, H.R. left (and rejoined) Bad Brains four times to record reggae albums, the most recent being 2007's Hey Wella, but he always remained the iconic figurehead of the band.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bad Brains put on some of the most intense concerts anyone could catch. The band was the leading hardcore punk band because of the ferocity of the live set. H.R. was a wild man, spitting out harsh vocals while flying off the stage. The H.R. that headlined at the Studio at Webster Hall tonight seems like a different man. It was a mild winter night, and he came on stage wearing more layers of clothing than necessary. Years ago H.R. was a high energy, threatening fireball, but tonight he barely moved one step all night, aside from a slight bounce to the reggae and funk music played by his three-piece band, the Dubb Agents. His movements were very slow and stiff, as if these sways were the extent of his mobility. He often offered a beautiful smile to his cheering audience, but he did not speak except to announce a few songs. His voice, both speaking and singing, was feeble and barely audible. There seemed to be a medical or mental health issue here. Has H.R. suffered a stroke or other debilitating condition? The show featured a couple of more rocking numbers at the end, but no punk or hardcore music, and it seemed that tonight's H.R. could not have handled that anyway. Can H.R. make a comeback -- both physically and musically?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Black Joe Lewis at Irving Plaza

Growing up in the small town of Round Rock, Texas, Joe Lewis was more inclined to playing football than to playing rock and funk music. Then one day, working in a pawn shop, he took home a guitar and began teaching himself to play it. Friends encouraged him to perform as a solo artist in the local open mic circuit. Seeking to connect with other musicians, Lewis then immersed himself in the local Red River blues/garage scene. He recorded EPs and albums, but nothing clicked until he met Zach Ernst in 2007. Ernst formed the Honeybears around Lewis, naming the band after a crusted container of honey they found on the floor of their rehearsal room. Four weeks later, the Austin-based Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears played its first gig. The band played its blend of contemporary rock and vintage soul music at many festivals and gained a following, leading to the band's most recent album, 2013's Electric Slave.

At Irving Plaza tonight, Lewis commanded the stage with charisma and showmanship. As the Honeybears churned out ragged blues and funk rhythms behind him, Lewis launched a love affair with his guitar and microphone. Despite a recent foot injury, he hopped and boogied hard to his own rhythms, and sang, grunted and shredded his throat like Wilson Pickett or similar 1960s soul singers. By the second song, Lewis was playing the guitar strings with his teeth. Later he played the guitar with it held over his head. His shirt was drenched in sweat by the end of the set. The rhythm section and three-piece horn section kept an eye on Lewis and took their supporting cues from his dynamics.

The band's 16-song set, which featured 10 songs from the most recent album, had a swamp rock southern character. Both the vocals and the instrumentation lacked polish and finesse, and this rawness seemed to grant the songs greater integrity. There was no intention of making, nice pleasant music; the band rocked with grit, grime and grease all over the songs. Lewis kept it raucous through distortion-heavy and feedback play. Building grooves that had booties moving in the audience, the cornerstone of each song was to support Lewis' shouts with repetitive guitar chords and horn riffs, and then mine the guts of the rhythms with jolts of electric guitar riffs and punctuating sonic blasts from the saxophone, trumpet and trombone trio. The songs simmered and seethed, and seemed to end only when Lewis felt ready to get a new groove on. Just when it seemed that the band exhausted its vault, the musicians walked off stage, only to come back on stage to play two more grooves.

Visit Black Joe Lewis at www.blackjoelewis.com.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Robert Ellis at the Mercury Lounge

This Robert Ellis is not the best-selling author of the novel City of Fire. This Robert Ellis is a singer-songwriter who grew up in a small industrial town in Texas. In 2010 he entered the Houston music circuit as Robert Ellis & The Boys, playing country music standards on a weekly showcase called "Whiskey Wednesday." Gradually he introduced original songs and recorded an album which he sold at shows. He received greater attention when American Songwriter magazine named his second album as one of the top 50 albums of 2011. A year later, he and his wife sought a fresh start and a new sound by relocating to Nashville, Tennessee. His third album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, was released on February 11.

Tonight at the Mercury Lounge, Ellis fused together many sounds. Primarily a songwriter with a guitar, he sang his songs with an urgency that demanded respect for his focused lyrics and soft melodies. The set showcased his original compositions, almost entirely from his new album, but towards the end included covers of songs written by Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. Ellis' small band gave the songs character, fleshing out the sonics with folk, country and even bluegrass nuances. The pedal steel player guaranteed the southern imprint. Yet, just when it seemed like country music was Ellis' niche, the band erased the footprint with a bossa nova beat or a free jazz improvisation, as if Ellis was willfully breaking down any limitations placed on his music. For example, he introduced one of his last songs as a bluegrass standard, yet he and the band started the song with an extended free jazz improvisation that was nearly as long as the bluegrass portion of the song. Nevertheless, the performance revolved around the axis of the songwriter, who locked his intriguing lyrics in simple folk pop melodies; the experimental arrangements then added a wide palate of flavor. In the end, this experiment clicked successfully; if this was country music, then Nashville has met an expanded horizon.

Visit Robert Ellis at www.robertellismusic.com.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Moonspell at the Gramercy Theatre

Heavy metal band Moonspell formed in 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, originally known as Morbid God. The band renamed itself Moonspell in 1992. Moonspell released its first EP in 1994, a year before the release of its debut album. Through its early years, the band moved from folk-tinged black metal to gothic metal to experimental metal and back to doom metal. Vocalist Fernando Ribeiro is the sole original member in the band; he also is the author of three poetry books and a collection of short stories, all in Portuguese, and a bilingual autobiography of the band, XX 20 Anos/Years. The band's ninth and most recent studio album is 2012's double CD, Alpha Noir/Omega White. The band is presently comprised of Ribeiro, guitarist Ricardo Amorim, keyboardist/guitarist Pedro Paixão, bassist Aires Pereira and drummer Miguel Gaspar.

At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, Moonspell did not fall easily into any metal subcategory. Performing many songs from its history which were never before played live in the United States, Moonspell sometimes cranked Judas Priest-styled songs, at other times crunched Metallica-type heavy creepers and still at other times sounded like a lofty progressive metal band, building a song's dynamics through changing rhythms. In the middle of the set, a series of songs slowed the tempo for so long that the moshers took a long break. Synthesizers and programmers are uncommon in metal, but here they were used to enhance the eerie atmosphere of many of the songs' flourishes, almost like a spooky movie soundtrack. The unifying sound throughout the performance was a dark, mysterious gravity to Ribeiro's singing and the band's musicianship. Ribeiro both growled and sang in deep, ominous tones. Chugging, down-tuned guitars riffs and double-bass drum percussion often shadowed Ribeiro with heavy, driving force. All in all, the scope and depth of Moonspell's concert proved fascinating. Ribeiro fittingly ended the set by acknowledging a defunct New York band with a similar sound; he dedicated the last song, "New Tears Eve," to the late Peter Steele, the deep-voiced singer, songwriter and bassist for goth-metal outfit Type O Negative.

The Grahams at Chez Andre

Alyssa Altschul and Doug Graham met in grade school in a small town north of New York City. As teen-agers, the two celebrated their love for American roots music by singing and strumming guitars by many upstate mountainside campfires. The duo founded an Ithaca-based six-piece psychedelic rock band during their college years in the 1990s, but after five years, Altschul broke away to pursue studies in jazz voice and contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music. The now married Grahams moved back to New York City in 2003, where they entered the jazz and singer-songwriter circuit. Billed as a solo artist, Alyssa Graham released an album of jazz standards in 2005, a second album featuring folk, jazz and pop influences in 2008 and a third folk-country-inspired album in 2012. A recent life-changing  Mark Twain-style adventure through America's backwoods led the Grahams back to who they were way back by the campfires -- a country music act with bluegrass roots. The result was the Grahams' Riverman's Daughter album.

At Chez Andre in the Standard Hotel East Village tonight, the Grahams showed no sign of a criss-crossing musical journey. The Grahams presented a 60-minute set of Americana-rooted original songs. Perhaps there was a lingering remnant of jazz training in Alyssa Graham's powerful voice, but coming from underneath her wide-brimmed cowboy hat, it sounded pretty country tonight. Alyssa is a small woman, but her voice was big, evidenced by her acoustic-guitar-playing husband Doug repeatedly asking the sound engineer to lower the volume of her vocals on his stage monitor. Doug flamed the campfire feel by adding rich lilting harmonies, and a fiddle player ramped up the barn dance feel, particularly on the sing-along "Revival Time." The quintet, steeped in ageless backwoods sensibilities, skillfully brought a blissful set of earthy rural sounds to a city of hipsters.

Visit the Grahams at www.thegrahamsmusic.net.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Richie Ramone at the Bowery Electric

Richard Reinhardt is best known as Richie Ramone, the drummer for the Ramones from 1982 to 1987. During those years, he also performed as Richard Beau on albums by Velveteen and Fred Schneider. He then disappeared from the music scene. Twenty years later, he debuted a classical composition entitled "Suite for Drums and Orchestra," based on themes from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, with the Pasadena Pops in 2007. (He is proposing another “Suite for Drums and Orchestra,” this one based on James Bond movie songs.) He recorded with a few little-known bands beginning in 2011, and in 2013 released his first solo album, Entitled, which featured new songs written by Richie as well as new recordings of songs he wrote for the Ramones.

Sometimes it seems like anyone who played in the Ramones even briefly has been limited to tribute performances to the punk rock icons. While CJ Ramone and Marky Ramone have specialized in covering Ramones songs for new audiences, Richie Ramone has in part moved on. Tonight at the Bowery Electric, Richie led a 20-song set comprised of newer songs he introduced on his solo album along with songs he wrote or performed with the Ramones. The show opened with "Criminal," the lead track from his solo album, followed by two songs he wrote for the Ramones, "Somebody Put Something in My Drink" and "Smash You." He later sang additional songs he wrote for the Ramones, including "I Know Better Now", "Humankind", "(You) Can't Say Anything Nice", "I'm Not Jesus " and the unreleased "Elevator Operator." Ironically, when he covered Ramones songs that pre-dated his period with the band, he did not pick the best known songs, except perhaps "Loudmouth", "I Just Want to Have Something to Do", "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Cretin Hop." Nevertheless, the significant element of this evening's performance was that it was a new presentation of older works. Very much like the Ramones, the music was fast, simple and thrusting power pop; very unlike the Ramones, a great many of the songs featured stinging hard rock leads by guitarist Alex Kane. The quartet was more than ably completed by bassist Clare Misstake and guitarist Ben Reagan, who moved to drums on the songs when Ramone left his kit for the microphone at the edge of the stage. In the end, the package worked; fans who came to hear Ramones got what they came for and also graduated to a new band with new songs and more musical virtuosity.

Visit Richie Ramone at www.richieramone.com.

For Today at the Gramercy Theatre

Mattie Montgomery of For Today
For Today, a metalcore band formed in 2005 in Sioux City, Iowa, is known for playing heavy music with a Christian message. When Mattie Montgomery, a native of Mobile, Alabama, joined For Today in 2007, he insisted that the band have a Bible study together every day and that he be allowed to minister to the audience. Montgomery has released two solo albums and a book, and preaches as a traveling evangelist when not recording or on tour.

For Today found itself in controversy a year ago when former guitarist Mike Reynolds published comments on Twitter such as "homosexuality is a sin" and "there was no such thing as a homosexual Christian." The immediate backlash prompted Montgomery to post an apologetic counter-response on YouTube directed to everyone offended by Reynolds' comments. In the video, Montgomery gave his phone number and offered his heart and time to anyone who wanted to talk. Reynolds and For Today parted ways the next day.

For Today is currently comprised of  Montgomery, lead guitarist Ryan Leitru, rhythm guitarist Sam Penner, bassist Brandon Leitru and drummer David Puckett. For Today's fifth album, Fight The Silence, was released on February 4 and intends to raise awareness about human trafficking. Proceeds from the album and the band's current tour will be donated to the A21 Campaign to stop human trafficking.
At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, For Today established why the band appeals to a new generation of metalheads. From the moment the band hit the stage, it was a ferocious beast in search of a prey. Just a few minutes into the set, Montgomery jumped from the stage to a narrow audience barrier and sang intensely from his gut while the fans below balanced him. The ambitious high-energy performance was relentless thereon, as the impact never diminished for long. The quintet embraced exceptional technicality and musical aggression, combining melodic sweeps with massive breakdowns over heavy, bombastic instrumentation. Near the end of the one-hour set, Montgomery encouraged the audience to become the revolution that the world needs, a revolution that can only be rooted through the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. He recalled that people saw him as a hopeless addict until he embraced Christ, and that Christ was bigger than anyone's personal obstacle. Cheers arose from the audience and the band returned to slamming breakdowns and scratch-your-face-off metalcore.

Visit For Today at www.fortodayband.com.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tom Pacheco at Hill Country Barbecue Market

How is it that one of America's greatest songwriters has recorded more than 20 albums and most music fans have never heard of him? Growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Tom Pacheco began learning to play classical and flamenco guitar at age 10. During his college years in the mid-1960s, he relocated to New York and began performing in Greenwich Village clubs. In 1965, at age 19, Tom released his first solo album, a collection of original folk songs. Pacheco's songs were recorded by John Hall, Jefferson Starship and Richie Havens in the 1970s. Since then, the troubadour relocated to Mount Tremper, near Woodstock, New York, where he attracted interest and recorded with Rick Danko and Levon Helm of the Band. He then pursued music careers in Austin, Texas, on to Nashville, Tennessee, and even Dublin, Ireland, before returning to Woodstock. His most recent album is 2012's Luminol - the Houston Sessions.

At a rare New York concert appearance tonight at the Texas-themed Hill Country Barbeque Market, Pacheco demonstrated that his mastery over songwriting has only matured over the decades. Singing with a deep, masculine voice, and accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar, with a guest keyboardist joining him only on a few songs, Pacheco's performance was so committed to the craft of storytelling that his lyrics were deeply honest and eye opening, challenging his listeners to deep self-exploration as well. Pacheco's songs were so opposite of the commercial trail that they proved riveting. The careful word selection, integrated nuances and dark articulation were contrary to those sought by an audience that simply wants to enjoy a few casual beers and wiggle its designer-jeaned hips. Mass audiences generally do not gravitate to the riveting poetic panoramas in Pacheco's lyrics. He sang about departing a messy relationship, described the lives of odd and possibly unpleasant people, and noted the moral poverty of the American government's political system. The messages were hopeful and enlightening. He closed the set with a melancholy song reminiscing the folk-rock era in Greenwich Village. Pacheco's integrity abounded. This was a powerful experience.

Visit Tom Pacheco at www.tompacheco.com.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dead Meadow at the Bowery Ballroom

Jason Simon of Dead Meadow
Vocalist/guitarist Jason Simon, bassist Steve Kille on bass and drummer Mark Laughlin met while attending all-ages punk and indie concerts in and around Washington, DC. They formed Dead Meadow in 1998 from the remnants of two indie bands, determined to craft a new sound utilizing classic rock sounds. They combined '60s psychedelic rock  and '70s heavy metal with themes from fantasy and horror authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft. A debut album was released in 2000. The band members relocated to Los Angeles, California, and after a few personnel changes the band is back to its original line-up. The band's sixth and most recent studio album is 2013's Warble Womb.

Everything old is new again. At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, Dead Meadow's heavy-bottomed, guitar-driven sound hearkened back to the power trios of the late 1960s like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Recreating the ambience of that era, Dead Meadow played before a low-tech light show projected onto the large screen at the back of the stage. Again imitating the hard rock pioneers, Simon spent almost the entire performance playing lead guitar with his fingers and altering the sounds with his numerous foot pedals, ranging the distortions from wah-wah to fuzz to reverb to echo to feedback. Simon sang just enough lyric to label the compositions as songs; he was more focused on playing extended guitar leads. These blues-influenced leads ranged from sludgy, monolithic heavy metal drones to hypnotic, trance-inducing shoe-gaze riffs. The booming blues cadences were seduced by ethereal guitar improvisation, evoking an otherworldly atmosphere.  At the end of the set, Simon removed his guitar and the band walked off stage, but the guitar effects continued to echo until the encore began. Dead Meadow's love of tripped out riffs showed a band mastering a crunchy, dark, cerebral space-rock. The band only needed to defeat monotony by giving the singing an equivalent amount of depth and punch.

Visit Dead Meadow at www.deadmeadow.com.

The Autumn Defense at the Highline Ballroom

John Stirratt was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in nearby Mandeville. He performed with the Hilltops, a band that included his twin sister Laurie Stirratt and her husband Cary Hudson. During this time he met and befriended the band Uncle Tupelo and joined that band in 1992. After vocalist Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo in 1994, the remaining members founded Wilco. Stirratt circa 1998 wanted to work on some songs that he knew would not become Wilco songs. He met producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone in a New Orleans recording studio, they worked on the songs together and by 2000 formed the Autumn Defense. In 2001 the duo recorded its debut album, The Green Hour. Sansone joined Wilco in 2004, giving Stirratt and Sansone more opportunities to collaborate. The Autumn Defense is now based in Chicago and the group's fifth album, Fifth, was released on January 28, 2014.

At the Highline Ballroom tonight, the Autumn Defense showed that it stands apart from Wilco. John Stirratt and Pat Sansone are somewhat invisible in Wilco behind band leader Jeff Tweedy, but they were very much in the forefront in the five-member Autumn Defense tonight. While Wilco is largely driven by Jeff Tweedy's alt-country vision, the Autumn Defense focused on a 1960s/1970s adult contemporary sound. Stirratt and Sansone took turns singing lead on the songs, and the songs all featured multiple part harmonies. Here is the first area where the band needed work; while the recording studio is designed to correct any damage, the live stage does not offer these privileges. Tonight neither individual sang well, and together they were worse. Fans may have overlooked the less-than-stellar vocals in favor of the warm and gentle pop grooves of the songs. The songs occasionally incorporated brief folk and country licks, but largely they were delivered as soft, sweet and sunny tunes with obligatory catchy choruses. Yet, for all their signature imprint, the songs lacked bite. They became much like the bland music one hears in the background while visiting retail stores. This may appeal to shoppers, but in rock clubs an audience often expects a livelier and more innovative performance.

Visit the Autumn Defense at www.theautumndefense.com.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sarah Dooley at the Gallery at le Poisson Rouge

Not to be confused with the popular author of the same name, the budding singer/songwriter Sarah Dooley was raised in Valparaiso, Indiana. As a child, she played piano and violin in the school orchestra and as an avid journal-keeping teenager began writing pop songs. Reaching adulthood, she relocated to New York in 2008 to study playwriting. This training helped her write and star in And Sarah, a mockumentary-style web series that was featured in the New York Times "Freakonomics" blog and attracted more than 160,000 views on YouTube. Inspired by the poetic introspections of pop balladeers like Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple, the Brooklyn-based artist gradually realized that performing songs was her ideal storytelling vehicle. She recorded a debut album, Stupid Things, at her alma mater, Columbia University. The album will be released tomorrow.

With colored streamers across the stage and throughout the room and many balloons on the floor, Sarah Dooley enjoyed an album release party tonight at the Gallery at le Poisson Rouge. She even supplied peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her guests. In a scant 35-minute solo performance, Dooley proved to be an accomplished singer and pianist. She sang and played as impressively as the best cabaret artists in town. The most refreshing aspect of her performance, however, was her lyrical wit and whimsical storytelling. Her charming songs had comical musings on courting a lover by watching Goonies together and excusing youthful behaviors like going gay for a day. Several forgotten-lonely-wallflower songs about unrequited love or being scorned by an ex-lover were more reflective and sometimes more assertive, but placed within the context of the other bouncy pop songs did not take the concert to a dark or angry space. Rather, the overall message seemed to be that we make lemonade from life's lemons and enjoy the reward of good times through nurturing relationships. Maybe that was emphasized by the large turnout of friends that came out to cheer her on tonight. Dooley's joyful personality and pop songs cheered back.

Visit Sarah Dooley at www.sarahdooleymusic.com.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sadie Jemmett at Chez Andre

A singer-songwriter needs a story to share, and Sadie Jemmett has had more experiences than all of the population born in her village in Cambridge, England. Throughout her childhood, she was shuttled between her father, an actor, a mother who also was an actor and became a priest, and a succession of families with whom she boarded. By age 11, she’d already run away from half a dozen homes. In yet another foster home at age 12, she discovered music and subsequently taught herself guitar, her first anchor in life.  At 16, she started life on her own and moved to Edinburgh, from where she began a year on the road as a backing singer for a reggae band. She became an au pair in Switzerland, enrolled in and dropped out of a drama college in London, spent a year working with adults with learning difficulties in Scotland, joined a band in London and another band in Berlin, hitchhiked through Spain and sang in bars, wrote the music for a couple of plays and wrote songs and poetry in various cities in Ireland. Now 21, she returned to Sussex, England, enrolled in a drama course and formed the band Soil, then joined a touring theatre company, writing the music and performing in the show around Europe as far as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. She settled in Paris and collaborated on the music for Resonance, which won a Moliere award. It led to more theatre work, including writing the music for a production of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setchuan. In the meantime, however, she had a child. Back in London, living with her daughter Thalia in a two room flat in Camden, she began performing as a solo artist. Jemmett's debut solo album, The Blacksmith's Girl, was the distillation of Sadie’s life story. Mostly written over 2010, the confessional songs were about coming to terms with her often traumatic past. These Days is her 2014 follow-up album which tells about her maturation into the life as a working mother playing and living in London, England.

In more recent times, Sadie Jemmett performed in a stage production at the Ellen Stewart La Mama Theater in Manhattan's East Village. Tonight she returned to the neighborhood to perform at Annie O.'s invitation-only music series at Chez Andre in the Standard Hotel. Performing solo on acoustic guitar, many of the songs offered panoramic views of people and places in northern London or evoked universally-shared sentiments of love and loss. The songs were moving and beautiful, and her soft and soulful vocal delivery was honest and compelling. At times, she sounded like a traditional balladeer, a poetic troubadour from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Her lyrics revealed someone who was sorting out her jagged life but who was also in the process of coming to peaceful terms with it. Ironically, Jemmett's performance was less confessional or cathartic than one might have expected from someone with such a remarkably peripatetic journey. She barely scratched the surface of the unique and wildly restless spirit that nurtured her to find expression in the arts. This indicates that an even richer wealth of creativity is yet to come from the talented and accomplished singer-songwriter.

Visit Sadie Jemmett at www.sadiejemmett.com.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at the Beacon Theater

For about 12 years, the heavy-touring Brooklyn-based Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings brought 1970s-style funk and soul music to an increasingly larger fan base. The band's fifth album, Give the People What They Want, and its supportive concert tour were to spearhead the revivalist movement even further in the spring of 2013. Suddenly, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and everything stopped. The album's release was placed on hold and Jones and the band members were silent for nearly a year. Jones had surgery in New York City, then received treatments and recovered from June 2013 to January 2014 in Sharon Springs, New York. She completed her chemotherapy treatments a month ago, and two weeks ago, she announced that she was cancer-free. The long-delayed album was released on January 14 and a victory tour was launched tonight at the Beacon Theater.

The disease that attempted to silence Jones seemed to have made her stronger in the end. In the group's first show in nearly a year, Jones shared with her audience that "this past year was hell." She joyfully celebrated her return, joking about how she was nervous about coming on stage again because she worried if people would like her without hair. No longer sporting braids, she added "Since I don't have hair, I'm gonna shake my head!" Back to doing what she loved best, Jones sang her trademark soul songs with seemingly bottomless lungs, kicked off her shoes several times and throughout the 90 minute show danced energetically to the music in a nonstop soul marathon. There was little need for seats in the theater, as most of the audience danced and grooved with her for the entire show. She called on friends, including a fellow cancer survivor, to dance with her on stage. Several times in the show, she asked for the  house lights to be turned on so she could introduce her oncologist, relatives, and even residents of Sharon Springs.

As the Dap-Kings played crisp funk stompers, powered by a blaring brass combo and a feel-good rhythm section, Jones remained in fine voice, singing with the kind of sweet passion one finds in a gospel choir. Perhaps the greatest standouts were not her original songs, but her steaming fuel-immersed cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," followed by a reinterpretation of a Motown standard, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." During the encore, Jones sang about (and demonstrated!) popular dances from the 1960s -- the jerk, the twist, the pony, the boogaloo and the camel walk. For Jones and the Dap-Kings, the year of darkness was defeated. It was all about having a good time now. The audience was invited to share in this special celebration.

Visit Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at www.sharonjonesandthedapkings.com.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Doobie Brothers at Roseland Ballroom

Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McFee
The Doobie Brothers formed in California in 1970 and went on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide. It would appear that the band also has had as many line-up changes in its 43 on-and-off years, a time period that included at least two farewell tours. Original guitarists and lead vocalists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons are back and leading the brand name. The Doobie Brothers' most recent album is 2010's World Gone Crazy, and a documentary, Let the Music Play: The Story of the Doobie Brothers, was released in 2012.

Four decades ago, the Doobie Brothers started as a guitar-based rock and rhythm band, became a softer and jazzier Steely Dan-type band with the addition of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and then later evolved into a neo-soul band when Michael McDonald assumed most of the lead vocals. Baxter and McDonald are not members of the present configuration, so at Roseland Ballroom tonight, the Doobie Brothers pretty much ignored this period and returned to its original driving rock sound. Headlining what was billed as the MVP Party and following a panel discussion with four past National Football League Super Bowl Most Valuable Players from New York, the Doobie Brothers performed its earliest hits and newer songs for an audience that had paid $1,000 per ticket.

The band launched the set with a trio of its hits from 1972 to 1975, beginning with a cover of the Art Reynolds Singers' "Jesus Is Just Alright" leading into "Rockin' Down the Highway" and a cover of Kim Weston's "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)." Rather than simply reproducing the radio staples, the band elongated the live versions with instrumental breaks and longer choruses. The newer songs that followed similarly showcased the Doobie Brothers' blues, country, roadhouse boogie, rock and roll and even jazz jam roots. This was more than filler; it gave depth to the band's current incarnation. Simmons especially proved to be an accomplished finger-picking guitarist and multi-instrumentalist John McFee added authentic bluegrass flavor on pedal steel on two songs. If the band lost any listeners during the instrumental interludes in this segment, the Doobie Brothers recovered its audience with a McDonald-less version of " Takin' It to the Streets ." This was followed by an extended sing along on the band's first number one hit, 1975's "Black Water," as Johnston and Simmons repeatedly encouraged the audience to sing "I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand." "Long Train Runnin'", "China Grove" and "Listen to the Music" likewise rocked the old-school fans. McDonald's signature "It Keeps You Runnin'" and "What a Fool Believes" were noticeably missing, as much as McDonald himself was noticeably missing. Nevertheless, this generation's Doobie Brothers performed a set that was vintage, lively and worthy of the classic brand name.

Visit the Doobie Brothers at www.doobiebros.com.

Paramore at Hudson River Park's Pier 40

Hayley Williams of Paramore
A 13-year-old Hayley Williams moved in 2002 from her hometown Meridian, Mississippi to Franklin, Tennessee. Soon she became a vocalist in a funk cover band called the Factory. The teenager secured a major-label record deal in 2003, but she refused to become the record company's newest teen pop singer; she insisted on fronting an alternative rock band. Paramore formed in 2004 with a 15-year-old Williams, her former band mate Jeremy Davis on bass, a local friend Josh Farro on lead guitar and his 12-year-old brother Zac Farro on drums. Paramore went on to sell millions of records; the band's fourth and most recent album is 2013's Paramore. The official band lineup now consists of Williams, Davis and guitarist Taylor York; on tour the band is supplemented by additional musicians.

Paramore was among the many big name acts performing unadvertised concerts in the New York/New Jersey area prior to the Super Bowl. The band followed a DirecTV-sponsored celebrity flag football game on a fabricated sand pit inside a building on Hudson River Park's Pier 40. The show was free to the public -- for those who found out about it in time. On the large makeshift stage this afternoon, Paramore performed a full set, much like its headlining concert at Madison Square Garden about 10 weeks earlier. While Paramore strives to be a cohesive band and not a vehicle for its singer, all eyes seemed to be on the orange-haired pixie-ish Williams throughout the performance. She sang well, but the way she threw herself intensely into the band's driving rock was the spotlight stealer, as she danced, jumped, and crunched her body to the rhythms. Williams' youthful spirit endeared her to her fans, and bringing up a random fan from the audience to sing with her toward the end of the show seemed to seal the bond. As for the music, it was a fine hair line between alternative rock, pop punk and emo. Though the songs were polished enough to be called corporate rock, the able musicians added fine chops that gave the songs significantly more edge than on the original radio-ready recordings. Opening with "Fast in My Car" and "That's What You Get," and ending with "Still into You," Paramore revved up all of its most popular songs and performed them dynamically. Perhaps disappointing to the band's earliest fans, Paramore nearly buried its raw punk origins in favor of an arena-rock sound, but as witnessed today, the sacrifice has its appeal as well.

Visit Paramore at www.paramore.net.