Friday, February 27, 2015

Sleater Kinney at Terminal 5

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

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

Visit Sleater-Kinney at www.sleater-kinney.com.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Swans at the Bowery Ballroom

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

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bush at the Best Buy Theater

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

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

Visit Bush at www.bushofficial.com.

Monday, February 23, 2015

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

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

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

Visit Marian Hill at www.soundcloud.com/marianhill.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

JJ Grey & Mofro at Terminal 5

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

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

Visit JJ Grey & Mofro at www.jjgrey.com.

Marc Broussard at Terminal 5

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

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

Visit Marc Broussard at www.marcbroussard.com.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Los Dudes at the Bowery Electric

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

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

Spanking Charlene at the Bowery Electric

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

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

Visit Spanking Charlene at www.spankingcharlene.com.

Faith at the Bowery Electric

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

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

Visit Faith at www.faithny.com.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Helmet at the Bowery Ballroom

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

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

Visit Helmet at www.helmetmusic.com.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill

George Clinton
George Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1955, Clinton formed a doo wop group called the Parliaments, rehearsing in the back room of a Plainfield barbershop where he straightened hair. The Parliaments had one rhythm & blues hit in 1967, but in 1968 morphed into the far more experimental Parliament, Funkadelic and (in the 1980s) the P-Funk All Stars, selling millions of acid-funk albums. Due to legal issues with the band names, Clinton began recording and touring under his own name in 1982. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and, with fifteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Clinton's most recent album is 2008's George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love. Clinton currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida.

At B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill tonight, Clinton was more of a conductor than a performer for three hours of jams by a collective of nearly 20 musicians and singers. When he sang, his voice was grating. Nevertheless, he orchestrated a danceable and mesmerizing groove, allowing singers and musicians to improvise on his tunes on lengthy stretches. He had no baton, but he led the funkestra, much like Clinton's forbearer Frank Zappa sometimes led later versions of his band, the Mothers of Invention. Highlights included ""Flashlight", "One Nation under a Groove" and "Atomic Dog," songs that have had a second life in the samples used by contemporary rappers. Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars were not locked in a time warp, however. The set often incorporated 21st century hard beats, synthesizer riffs and hip hop raps. Towards the end of the set, Clinton brought out an 11-year-old boy who played dazzling blues guitar licks. At 73 years of age, Clinton still forges the path for future funksters.

Visit George Clinton at www.georgeclinton.com.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Father John Misty at the Bowery Ballroom

J. Tillman
Joshua Tillman, also known as J. Tillman and more recently as Father John Misty, grew up in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Early on, he had ambitions of becoming a pastor, but then religious rebellion set in. He began playing drums, then picked up the guitar at age 12, and began recording home demos of original songs at age 21 after relocating to Seattle, Washington. He launched a solo career as J. Tillman, performed locally and recorded more albums. Six years later, Tillman joined the local folk rock band Fleet Foxes as their drummer and stayed in the group for nearly four years. Upon returning to solo work, he relocated to Los Angeles, California, recording and performing under a new moniker. Father John Misty released a second album, I Love You, Honeybear, on February 10, 2015. At age 33, he and his wife now live in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In interviews, Tillman has stated that Father John Misty is a band name and that it is not a put-on persona of himself. At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, he was wrong on both counts. Father John Misty's concert was not about a band, it was centered around one person, and that person never seemed real, but rather an alter ego. Crooning, dancing and throwing himself on the floor several times, Tillman seemed to be overdoing the stage work for dramatic effect. He sang a set of odd songs, many with playful titles such as "This Is Sally Hatchet", "Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow", "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment", "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings", "Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)", "Funtimes in Babylon", and "Now I'm Learning to Love the War." He sang eight of the 12 songs from the first album and 10 of the 11 songs on the newer album, plus a cover of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man." The songs were mostly soft and slow, filled out with a lot of "woo-oh-oh-ooohs." Tillman sang soulfully, and this was the strong centerpiece of the performance. Well composed songs built nicely as his singing became more dynamic. The unanswered question that lingered was whether this was a middle-of-the-road pop rock concert or a campy lounge act.

Visit Father John Misty at www.fatherjohnmisty.com.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mike Farris at Midtown Live

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Mike Farris' use of drugs and alcohol landed him in reform school as a youth, and an accidental overdose nearly killed him before he was 21 years old. He moved in with his father, gradually freeing himself from his addictions, and began playing guitar and writing songs. Upon recovery, he formed the southern boogie jam band Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies in 1990, but the endless touring through the bar circuit sent him back to his old habits. The band split after three albums, and Farris went on to sing in several bands, including a brief stint fronting Double Trouble, the rhythm section for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Finally, while attending the funeral of a friend, Farris decided he had enough, became a practicing Christian and rejected drugs and alcohol. He launched a solo career, singing a blend of New Orleans-style blues, soul and spirituals, 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. Suffering from back surgery, he recently found himself hooked again, this time on prescribed pain medication; his fourth solo album was the catharsis of getting clean again. Shine for All the People was released in September 2014 and won the 2015 Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album.

Midtown Live is Manhattan's newest stage for Americana and roots music. Farris performed solo tonight, accompanying himself with just one acoustic guitar for nearly two and a half hours. The set was comprised of songs from his years with the Wheelies, more recent original songs, and several cover songs. As he has done on previous occasions, Farris intertwined Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" with Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds", and imaginatively excavated the hollows of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and turned it into a very slow and dark murder ballad. He introduced a new composition, "Something Keeps on Telling Me," by saying that hearing a preacher break into song inspired him to turn the preacher's message into a universal song of encouragement. Over two and a half hours, there were many stories and many songs, but through it all, his mesmerizing vocals demonstrated a seemingly unlimited range and unbridled power. His honeyed yowl fluidly eased back and forth from a smoky-blues Saturday night to a gospel-revival Sunday morning. Listening to someone sing this well was thrilling.

Visit Mike Farris at www.mikefarrismusic.com.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Steve Conte NYC at the Bowery Electric

Steve Conte
Perhaps inspired by his mother, who is a jazz singer and voice teacher in New Jersey, Steve Conte was playing drums at age seven and writing songs on a guitar at age 10. With his brother John Conte on bass, the Conte brothers played in bands at dances, school variety shows and church "folk" masses in their youth. At 17, Steve accepted a music scholarship to Rutgers University and learned to play jazz guitar. As an adult he played in countless rock and jazz fusion bands on the New York music circuit and also began getting studio work, playing on commercials, soundtracks and other artists' albums. He also toured in Willy Deville and Eric Burdon's bands, but started getting noticed when he joined the revamped New York Dolls for six years. He left the Dolls in 2010 to back former Hanoi Rocks front man Michael Monroe. In between tours with Monroe, Conte began work on what was to be his first official solo album, naming the project Steve Conte NYC. The self titled debut album was released on February 28, 2014.

At the Bowery Electric tonight, Steve Conte NYC reunited the Conte brothers for a set of original pop songs driven by Steve's rocking guitar work. Ironically, while much of Conte's past has been in impromptu jams, the compositions performed tonight were tightly crafted. The songs sported traditional rock and roll verse/bridge/hook chorus, with vocals way up front, much in the style of the Rolling Stones and other 1960s rockers. Some songs had a honky tonk feel, some even a country feel, but it was all rooted in 4/4 rock and roll. Occasionally Conte ripped on the guitar, but never for too long and never flamboyantly. The performance was perhaps a bit too clean; perhaps a slightly dirtier, grittier approach would have better matched his rock and roll haircut and tight leather jacket. Conte is building on something solid, however, and all signs point to him becoming a formidable force in the New York club scene.

Visit Steve Conte NYC at www.stevecontenyc.com.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sturgill Simpson at the Bowery Ballroom

Born in the small town of Jackson, Kentucky, which is seated on a plateau in the Appalachian Mountains, Sturgill Simpson is the son of a coal miner' daughter. He played his first guitar when he was eight years old simply because playing an instrument was a local custom. About 10 years ago, he formed the bluegrass band Sunday Valley and recorded an album, but the band disbanded shortly thereafter. In 2010 Simpson and his wife moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and in 2013 he self-funded and self-released a solo debut album, High Top Mountain. His second and most recent album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was released on May 13, 2014.

Simpson's popularity has steadily increased even in New York, where he has headlined the Rockwood Music Hall, Joe's Pub, and City WineryAt the Bowery Ballroom tonight, Simpson shined a fresh light on a vintage roots country sound. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by his road band – an outstanding guitarist in Estonia-born Laur Joamets, along with bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller – Simpson kept his songs fairly simple. He opened with "Sitting Here Without You" from his debut album, setting the tone for an authentic, un-glossed and electrified set of more than 20 twangy story-songs. There was merit in Simpson's vocal comparisons to Waylon Jennings, although Simpson's singing is more challenging to understand. Not locking himself into outlaw country, however, Simpson added hillbilly soul to both the heartfelt ballads and the rowdier yee-haa rockers. On the one hand he ably handled mountain bluegrass, like on his cover of the Stanley Brothers' "Medicine Springs," but sometimes he latched onto a rocking groove, to the point where midway through one rocking jam he mentioned T. Rex and the band gravitated into what sounded like "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." The true star of the performance, however, was what Joamets brought to all the songs; formerly a rock and blues guitarist, he was brilliant on the country slide guitar. The public will be hearing more about Simpson, but Joamets has an equally promising future.

Visit Sturgill Simpson at www.sturgillsimpson.com.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Peter Wolf & the Midnight Ramblers at City Winery

Peter Wolf
Peter W. Blankfield grew up in the mid-1950s in the Bronx, New York, to the sounds of his grandmother's Yiddish theater, his father's classical chamber music, his mother's jazz, his sister's early rock and roll and his neighborhood's doo-wop music. As a youth, he frequented the Apollo Theater to see rhythm and blues singers and shopped for blues records on Times Square. As a young adult, he desired to study art and relocated to Boston, Massachusetts. There, a gig as a fast-talking late-night disc jockey playing obscure blues and soul music on a local radio station led to him fronting a band called the Hallucinations, which backed many touring blues and rock and roll pioneers who came through Boston. That band split and the renamed Peter Wolf joined the J. Geils Band. Wolf led the J. Geils Band from obscurity in the late 1960s to hit machine in the 1980s. Success was finally at hand, but Wolf wanted to pursue the blues and the band went for the golden promise of pop. After 17 years without a personnel change, Wolf and the J. Geils Band parted ways. Since then, Wolf has led the J. Geils Band on several reunion tours, but over the past 30 years also has released seven solo albums, the most recent being 2010's Midnight Souvenirs.

This fall and winter, the J. Geils Band opened an arena concert tour for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, ending January 31. Not one to rest, Peter Wolf & the Midnight Travelers headlined three nights at City Winery a week later. This engagement was to be a sudden and radical change for Wolf. Backed by a stand-up bassist, an acoustic guitarist and a multi-instrumentalist, the first curiosity of the evening was that Wolf resigned himself to a largely acoustic two-hour set. The second curiosity was that signs throughout the venue indicated that all photography was prohibited. (The photograph above is from Wolf's performance with the J. Geils Band at Madison Square Garden in December 2014.) The third curiosity was that the man who is known for non-stop pacing on a big stage was restricted to the confines of City Winery's small stage. Nevertheless, he made good use of a few square feet of space to dance and drop to his knees as he poured out his passion for his catalogue of songs. The set was comprised of obscure blues, soul and country songs, as well as songs from his solo albums and six songs from the J. Geils Band. These latter songs were given an unusual twist through soft instrumentation; surprisingly, "Love Stinks" was transformed into a bluegrass song. Overall, Wolf's vocals were modest at best, but he delivered an outstanding performance as a revivalist of classic American music.

Visit Peter Wolf at www.peterwolf.com.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Black Water Rising at Irving Plaza

Rob Traynor
Brooklyn-based Black Water Rising has been playing hard rock in New York area music clubs since 2006. Vocalist/guitarist Rob Traynor spent two years writing the songs that would appear on the band's 2008 debut album. The band built a following through a video for the single “Brother Go On” and radio play on Sirius Satellite’s Octane station. Black Water Rising's second and most recent album is 2013's Pissed and Driven. The band presently consists of Traynor, guitarist Dennis Kimak, bassist Oddie Mclaughlin and drummer Mike Meselsohn.

At Irving Plaza tonight, Black Water Rising proved itself to be a contender in New York's under-the-radar hard rock scene. Performing a brief set of eight songs (four from the debut album, two from the later album and two unreleased songs), Traynor sang his dark blue-collar lyrics with gutsy, full-throated passion. Meanwhile, the musicians polished the songs with searing guitar licks, gritty riffs and a thick anchoring bottom. Fat grooves like the powering riff in "Dance with the Devil"  and "No Halos" were as heavy as metal, but with accessible melodies and bridges that amplify Black Water Rising's radio potential. If hard rock fans are open to post-grunge grooves, Black Water Rising is poised to lead the way.

Visit Black Water Rising at www.blackwaterrising.com.

Anti-Flag at the Gramercy Theatre

Justin Sane and Chris Barker
Vocalist/guitarist Justin Sane and drummer Pat Thetic started Anti-Flag as an anarchistic punk rock band in 1988 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but disbanded after just one performance in 1989. A second try in 1993 proved more successful. Since then, the band has recorded nine studio albums and participated in countless political actions and causes. A 10th studio album, American Spring, is proposed for May 2015 release. Anti-Flag presently consists of Sane, Thetic, guitarist Chris Head and vocalist/bassist Chris "Chris #2" Barker.

Prior to the band's performance at the Gramercy Theatre tonight, Anti-Flag introduced and interviewed a panel of representatives from Amnesty International. Together, the band and speakers encouraged the audience to engage in human rights awareness and activism. When Anti-Flag moved to music, the band protested war, fascism and American foreign policy, and touted class struggle and rebellion. The band started by performing all 14 songs of  its fourth album, 2003's The Terror State. This string of politically charged songs featured titles including "You Can Kill the Protester, But You Can't Kill the Protest", "When You Don’t Control Your Government, People Want to Kill You", "Wake Up!", "Tearing Down the Borders", "Death of a Nation", "Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.)", and "One People, One Struggle," where band and audience in unison chanted "The people united will never be defeated." After The Terror State, Anti-Flag performed 10 more songs.  It was Occupy Wall Street with banging, slamming punk rock momentum and a whole lot of F-bombs. The sociopolitical message was not what generated the very active mosh pit, however; fans responded to the fast, loud and explosive blare of energetic power-pop melodies and the thrust of the anguished vocals shared by Sane and Barker. The concert ended with Thetic bringing his drum kit into the audience and Barker standing on his bass drum singing in the midst of a moshing crowd. If live music had the power to fuel a revolution, it would have begun with tonight's Anti-Flag concert.

Visit Anti-Flag at www.anti-flag.com.

The Cringe at Irving Plaza

John Cusimano
While John Cusimano was in high school on Long Island, New York, he formed a garage band that he says sounded so bad that it made people cringe. Now 47 years old, he is a Manhattan-based lawyer, television producer, and husband to television's celebrity chef Rachael Ray, but continues to seek his stride in the music industry. He recalled his youthful experience by naming his current band the Cringe. Over the past 10 years, the Cringe has recorded four albums, the most recent being 2012's Hiding in Plain Sight. With Cusimano on vocals, guitar and keyboard, the New York City-based rock quartet presently includes guitarist James "Roto" Rotondi, bassist Jonny "Blaze" Matais and drummer Shawn Pelton.

At Irving Plaza tonight, the Cringe mixed the guts of traditional rock and roll with trimming of grunge and alternative rock. It made for a hard-rocking, blues-kissed set of original songs showcasing Cusimano's heartfelt vocals and savvy songwriting skills. With these commanding vocals in front, the Cringe's crunching riffs hooked into mid-tempo and up-tempo rockers, much like many successful 1990s radio rock bands. Driving and melodic, artful and aggressive, the set had its heady moments and its thrash moments. The Cringe offered a little bit of everything that the average rock fan craves.

Visit the Cringe at www.thecringe.com.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Napalm Death at the Gramercy Theatre

Mitch Harris and Mark "Barney" Greenway
Napalm Death formed in 1981 in Meriden, England, and helped define the extreme metal subgenre of grindcore. Birthed from the marriage of hardcore punk and death metal, grindcore is a fast and noisy subgenre that produces a grinding effect through heavily distorted, down-tuned guitars, pummeling blast beats and virtually incomprehensible growls and shrieks. No original members remain in Napalm Death, but the lineup of vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway, guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera has remained consistent since 1991. Napalm Death's 15th studio album, Apex Predator - Easy Meat, was released on January 27, 2015.

At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, Napalm Death lived up to its 34-year reputation. In an era where bands try to outdo each other, this was about as extreme as music can get. Although a few moments were slowed down to riff-based death metal speed, the band did not rest here comfortably. Most of the set operated at two velocities, either as fast as humanly possible or approaching the speed of light. The band's recorded music was meant for listening; the live versions were meant for obliteration. The short length of the songs ("You Suffer" lasted less than two seconds), helped prevent mass heart arrests or the implosion of the venue. As for the music, itself, the title of the band's opening song, "Discordance," defined the direction for the rest of the set. This was a mad, brutal and abrasive metal concert.

Visit Napalm Death at www.napalmdeath.org.

Voivod at the Gramercy Theatre

Denis "Snake" Belanger
Voivod formed in 1982 in Jonquière, Quebec, Canada, at a time when adventurous new bands were drawing together the formerly polar camps of hardcore punk, speed/thrash metal and progressive rock. Voivod gained a national audience with 1989's Nothingface, but then started to fall apart in the 1990s. Vocalist and founding member Denis "Snake" Bélanger left Voivod and isolated himself to battle his drug problems and eventually to start a new band, Union Made. A tire blow-out turned over the tour van and nearly killed the band. Voivod briefly disbanded in 2001 until Snake returned to the band and Jason Newstead of Metallica filled in on bass. Then in 2005, guitarist and founding member Denis “Piggy” D’Amour died suddenly of colon cancer, and Newstead left the band in 2012. Voivod presently consists of Snake, guitarist Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain, bassist Dominique "Rocky" Laroche and drummer and founding member Michel "Away" Langevin. Voivod's 11th and most recent studio album is 2013's Target Earth.

At the Gramercy Theatre opening tonight for Napalm Death, Voivod continued its 33-year legacy of making music that does not fit neatly into a category. Snake is a punk rock singer and Chewy is a speed metal guitarist. The result was lightning fast and head pounding music with a rebellious snarl. There were no nuances or subtleties in this aggressive, brash presentation. Unlike some of Voivod's more polished recordings, the band's performance was raw and obliterated all the smooth edges of the songs' original versions. It was so searing that fans were in danger of getting their heads ripped off. Introducing the band's namesake song, Snake told the fans that they had only one word to remember, and that word was "Voivod." Songs that sported intricacies, including "Psychic Vacuum", "The Unknown Knows" and "Order of the Blackguards," were among the more effective songs, all songs from the late 1980s. Refreshingly, Voivod did more than relive the past; the band made the present more explosive.

Visit Voivod at www.voivod.com.