Monday, March 30, 2015

alt-J at Madison Square Garden

Gus Unger-Hamilton & Joe Newman
Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) met in 2007 at their university in Leeds, England. Forming a soft indie rock band, they first called themselves Daljit Dhaliwal and then Films, until the band settled on the name alt-J (also known as , the symbol produced by pressing "alt" and "j" on older Mac keyboards). After graduating, the four musicians moved to Cambridge, where they claimed Jobseeker's Allowance, and dedicated two years to composing, rehearsing and performing local gigs. The band's debut album, An Awesome Wave, won both the 2012 British Mercury Prize and Album of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards. Sainsbury amicably departed the band in early 2014, leaving alt-J as a trio. A second album, This Is All Yours, was released on September 22, 2014.

Headlining Madison Square Garden tonight after only two albums, alt-J's rapid ascent remains as mysterious as the band's lyrics and musical arrangements. With a repertoire limited to two albums, the set list produced no surprises. Engulfed in frequently recurring fog and made miniscule by a huge back screen projecting moving geometric shapes, colors and images, the mostly obscured band opened with "Hunger of the Pine." It would be several songs before the musicians could be clearly seen. Supported by Cameron Knight on guitar, bass and samples, alt-J played a dreamy and complex music that drew from folk melodies and harmonies but was injected with angular guitar breaks and atmospheric synthesizer fills. The intrigue was built in how all this weaved in and out of odd time signatures, off-kilter syncopations and contrapuntal arrangements. Comparisons could be made to Radiohead and mid-period Pink Floyd, yet alt-J's music was perhaps even more eccentric. Yet while the music and the video projection seemed composed of many moving parts, this could not be said for the static musicians, who barely moved; were it not for the drummer's arms flying around the drum kit, the front of the stage looked like a still photograph for the entire 80-minute show. The bright back lights made it hard for most of the audience to see the performers anyway. There was no rock star posing here, just inventive music.

Visit alt-J at www.altjband.com.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Coal Chamber at Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom

Dez Fafara
Vocalist Bradley "Dez" Fafara and guitarist Miguel "Meegs" Rascón formed the band She's in Pain in 1992 in Los Angeles, California. Within two years, the duo moved into a more nu metal direction and formed Seal Chamber, soon to be renamed Coal Chamber. Coal Chamber was possibly the first darker-themed nu metal band, featuring a gothic image rather than the more common street image. Internal disputes, including a violent altercation onstage in Lubbock, Texas, fractured the band in 2003 after three albums. Fafara formed Devildriver and has so far recorded six albums with the band. Fafara and Rascón settled their differences in 2008, and began reforming Coal Chamber in 2011. Coal Chamber presently features its 2002-2003 line-up, with Fafara, Rascón, bassist Nadja Peulen and drummer Mikey Cox. Rivals, Coal Chamber's first album in 13 years, will be released on May 19, 2015.

Headlining at Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom tonight, Coal Chamber rediscovered its mojo. The 15-song set pivoted on older work, introducing only two new songs: the first single, "I.O.U. Nothing," and the title track of the forthcoming album. The set included deep cuts and a few surprising omissions (no "Shock the Monkey," Coal Chamber's biggest radio song). Coming on stage to emergency-like flashing red lights, backed by three large video projection screens, Coal Chamber launched into the band's first two singles, 1997's "Loco" and 1998's "Big Truck." Fafara sang, rapped and screamed into a vintage-styled radio microphone, as Rascón and Peulen paced back and forth across the stage, alternately standing on risers or spinning around. Rascón tuned down his guitar and used flanger, phaser and delay effects for a gritty, hard and heavy sound; sometimes it crunched, and other times it leaned towards an industrial resonance. Overall, Coal Chamber successfully recaptured its crass and crude metal sound for a new generation of fans.

Visit Coal Chamber at www.coalchamberofficial.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kid Creole & the Coconuts at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill

Bronx-born Thomas August Darnell Browder left his older brother's successful band, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, and formed Kid Creole and the Coconuts in 1981. Choosing to go by his two middle names, August Darnell adapted the moniker of Kid Creole for the new band from the Elvis Presley film King Creole. The Kid Creole image was inspired by Cab Calloway and the Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s. He styled the new band as a campy rock cabaret act, with the men wearing zoot suits and the women backup singers dressed in skimpy outfits. Darnell and his large band fused kitschy pop songs with Latin American, Caribbean and big band arrangements. Kid Creole and the Coconuts' 14th and most recent studio album, I Wake Up Screaming, was released in 2011. Darnell is now based in Sweden.

Returning to New York after a 14-year absence, Kid Creole & the Coconuts reprised many of its signature songs and rhythms tonight at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill. Fourteen vocalists and musicians squeezed onto the stage to present a colorful and genre-defying cavalcade of sights and sounds. Wearing a grey fedora, two-toned shoes and a purple suit of long coat and high-waist trousers, Darnell and his Coconuts began the set with "Caroline Was A Dropout," featuring a solo by original tenor saxophonist Charlie Lagond. The new generation of Coconuts, Eva Tudor-Jones (Mama Coconut of 18 years from London), Roos Van Rossum of the Netherlands and newest member  Jessica Forsman of Finland, sashayed in unison, sang choruses, and were the foil for Kid Creole's egocentric ladies' man persona. Never smiling at or patronizing the Kid, they instead feigned intolerance and ridicule. The musicians also shared the spotlight, frequently coming forth for solos big-band style. The versatile multi-national ensemble was at times a funk/soul revue band, and at other times a tropical band playing Latin, calypso or reggae-inspired songs. "Don't Take My Coconuts" segued into "Lifeboat Party" and "Flip, Flop and Fly," a jump blues-style song originally recorded by Big Joe Turner in 1955. The band revisited disco when featuring guest vocalists Stephanie Fuller, Cory Daye and Fonda Rae for one song each. The musicians jammed on songs from the its 1980s catalogue, including "Stool Pigeon," "Endicott" and "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," ending with "My Male Curiosity," the band's contribution to the soundtrack of the 1984 film Against All Odds. While the personnel has changed over the past 30 years, Kid Creole & the Coconuts presented a pleasing concert with spectacular flair, brilliant showmanship and ace musicianship.

Visit Kid Creole & the Coconuts at www.kidcreole.com.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mat Kearney at the Best Buy Theater

Mathew "Mat" Kearney was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, but began playing music while attending university in Chico, California. Using a roommate's guitar, he tried covering songs by other artists, but realized he was not very good at it and began writing his own compositions. Kearney performed at local coffee houses, fusing his simple guitar playing with spoken word or rap. He then accompanied a friend's move to Nashville, Tennessee, not foreseeing that he also would relocate there and launch a professional music career. Kearney's fifth album, Just Kids, was released on February 24, 2015.

At the Best Buy Theater tonight, Kearney used a variety of sounds to highlight his insightful, poetic lyrics. On many songs, he played acoustic guitar for a sensitive singer-songwriter approach. On other songs, he put down his guitar so that he and his soft-rocking band could propel a more dynamic force. Often his vocal delivery was talky, on many occasions even straight-out hip hop. His rather unique style as a soft-rocking folkie rapper clicked well, maintaining a mellow mood with a bright pop sound. His set introduced six new songs and a dozen older songs. A little past the halfway point of the 90-minute set, Kearney invited opening act Judah & the Lion to join in a banjo and mandolin-infused bluegrass and hip hop take on Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars’ "Uptown Funk." This was followed by a clever interlinking medley of Kearney's "Runaway" with U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." Overall, Kearney proved himself to be a credible performer with a pleasant collection of tunes.

Visit Mat Kearney at www.matkearney.com.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jefferson Starship at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill

Paul Kantner
Jefferson Airplane ruled psychedelic rock from its origin in 1965 until its dissolution in the early 1970s. Late in the Airplane's iffy period, vocalist/guitarist Paul Kantner launched a side project with a fluid membership that eventually by 1974 became known as Jefferson Starship. In the mid-1970s, Jefferson Starship had a string of middle-of-the-road hits, and by the 1980s had become more of a commercial MTV-era rock band. Once past the hit period, Jefferson Starship regrouped and  returned to its original folk rock sound. Meanwhile, another spin-off of the group, Starship, still tours occasionally with a different set of former members and is centered on the music of the band's 1980s pop tunes. Jefferson Starship's most recent album is 2008's Jefferson's Tree of Liberty and tours with a lineup of Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), recurring members David Freiberg (vocals, guitar) and Donny Baldwin (drums), and newer members Cathy Richardson (vocals), Chris Smith (keyboards, bass synthesizer), and Jude Gold (lead guitar).

The Jefferson Starship concert tonight at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill was billed as a tribute to Jefferson Airplane's 50th anniversary. The band advertised that it would not perform "We Built This City," one of the band's biggest hits from its commercial rock history. This added gravitas to its Jefferson Airplane credentials and distanced Jefferson Starship from the pop band it later became. The evening did not live up to its advertising. Out of 18 songs, only seven were Jefferson Airplane songs, and some were relatively obscure. Another six songs were from the Jefferson Starship catalogue, and the rest were either new songs or covers. The evening included a credible version of the Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and an interesting mash-up of John Lennon's "Imagine" with Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," but otherwise Jefferson Starship was a lukewarm affair. A feeble-looking Kantner, who turned 74 last week, hobbled on stage a bit hunched-over, leaned on an instrument case for support and left the stage for several songs in the middle of the set; his contributions seemed minimal.(Later note: Kantner had a heart attack three days later and dropped out of the tour.) Richardson was a capable singer and Gold was a sizzling guitarist when the songs gave him room, but overall the band performance was tepid and uninspiring. The retreaded Jefferson Starship was best suited for a nostalgia that lives better in our memories.

Visit Jefferson Starship at www.jeffersonstarshipsf.com.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Enslaved at the Gramercy Theatre

Grutle Kjellson
Vocalist Grutle Kjellson (also known as Kjetil Grutle) was 17 years old and lead guitarist Ivar Bjørnson was 13 when they formed Enslaved as a black metal band in 1991 in Haugesund, Norway. They are the only remaining original members. After many personnel changes, the line-up solidified in 2004 with guitarist Arve "Ice Dale" Isdal, drummer Cato Bekkevold, and keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen. Enslaved's 13th and most current album, In Times, was released on March 10, 2015. The band is now based in Bergen, Norway.

At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, Enslaved demonstrated how far the group has graduated musically. Enslaved became perhaps more of a progressive metal band, with lengthy songs incorporating sharp dynamic shifts, both clean and guttural vocals, ambient keyboard sounds, and guitar melodies that ranged from atmospheric to crunching. At times a touch of doom metal and at other times Viking metal influenced the heavy sound, much of it harsh enough to be branded extreme metal. The mix of headbanging and dreamy moments was curious and epic.

Visit Enslaved at www.enslaved.no.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All Sons & Daughters at the Gramercy Theatre

Sandra McCracken (left) and Leslie Anne Jordan
All Sons & Daughters this year joined the ranks of many Christian recording artists who moved beyond the congregation walls and into traditional rock concert halls. While many of these artists reach out to larger audiences by obscuring their spiritual beliefs, All Sons & Daughters did the opposite at the Gramercy Theatre tonight. Led by are vocalist/pianist David Alan Leonard and guitarist/vocalist Leslie Anne Jordan, both worship leaders at their church in Franklin, Tennessee, All Sons & Daughters performed unpolished acoustic and folk rock music as smooth as a whisper while singing praise and worship lyrics. Separately and harmoniously, their outstanding vocals were big, passionate and engaging, with light arrangements and sparse backup helping to accentuate the lyrics projected on a large screen behind the band. Leonard and Jordan's pastor, Jamie George, came onstage to speak words of encouragement and to promote Feed One, an initiative to combat world hunger, and guest artist Sandra McCracken also performed beautifully both alone and as part of the ensemble. Amidst bars and rock concert lighting, the evening was not a full-on church service, but was effectively a deeper experience than that provided by the usual entertainment at the venue.

Visit All Sons & Daughters at www.allsonsanddaughters.com.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Pop Group at the Bowery Ballroom

Mark Stewart
Disenchanted with the increasing conservatism of the punk movement in 1977, five teenagers formed the post-punk Pop Group in Bristol, England. Determined not to copy the trimmed-down garage punk sound of the time, the Pop Group drew on an eclectic range of influences from free jazz, funk, dub and avant-garde experimentalism, with socially conscious, politically-charged lyrics and literary influences. The Pop Group released two studio albums before disbanding in 1981. In 2010, three founding members, vocalist Mark Stewart, guitarist Gareth Sager, and drummer Bruce Smith, regrouped with later bassist Dan Catsis and added second guitarist Alexi Shrimpton. The Pop Group released its first studio album in 35 years, Citizen Zombie, on February 23, 2015.

At the Pop Group's comeback appearance at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, the set list was divided fairly evenly between old and new songs. Faithful to the band's original sound, the Pop Group performed lengthy songs which spun on funk/dub beats and somewhat noisy guitar riffs while Stewart shouted, grunted and shrieked. The band opened with its two strongest songs, "We Are All Prostitutes," and the new "Citizen Zombie." The sound often went from propulsive funk grooves to aggressive free jazz. The experimental nature of the compositions was often engaging but often abrasive to the ears. The Pop Group offered an interesting soundtrack to our chaotic times, but the band's anarchic sound will have to win over new fans one at a time.

Visit Pop Group at www.thepopgroup.net.

Monday, March 16, 2015

James Bay at the Bowery Ballroom

James Bay’s obsession with guitars began at home in Hitchin, England, around the age of 11. He found an old guitar with rusty strings that his father had buried in a cupboard for 15 years. He and his dad visited a local guitar shop to spruce up the instrument. Copying what he heard on his father's old records, the pre-teen taught himself to play by ear. He started playing in bands with his brothers and friends, but decided at 16 to go solo. A talented and accomplished painter and drawer, he had long planned to study fine art, but at age 18, Bay relocated to the seaside city of Brighton to study guitar. He began busking and playing open mics five nights a week in the town’s many small music venues. After Brighton, the next professional move was to London, where he built a solid reputation. Following three EPs in 2013 and 2014, Bay's debut album, Chaos and the Calm, will be released on March 24, 2015.

Previewing an upcoming sold-out tour with a warm-up performance at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, James Bay proved to be a promising artist. He is a singer-songwriter at heart, but wails like a gospel singer and plays a mean guitar. It does not hurt that he has the chiseled features of a model and dresses like a rock star, complete with long hair peeking out around the ears under a wide-brimmed wool hat. Backed by a small band, he projected a low-key charisma through his warmth and humility as he sang sensitive folk-styled lyrics that explored the discovery of a young man's journey through love and loss. He performed 11 of the 15 tracks from his new album, two songs from his most recent EP, and a surprising rendition of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You." This cover seemed to sum up Bay's aspirations. While some of the songs were rocking anthems with intentionally catchy choruses, like "Hold Back the River," Bay's trajectory seemed primarily rooted in bittersweet heartache-drenched soul-pop radio ballads. A highlight was "Scars," a song he wrote after a lover abandoned him. Overall, Bay had the strong, achy vocals to power his moving lyrics, making him a artist to watch in 2015.

James Bay will perform at Irving Plaza on April 29. In the meantime, visit him at www.jamesbay.com. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

moe. at the Best Buy Theater

moe. formed in 1989 originally as Five Guys named Moe, named after a Louis Jordan song, for a Halloween party at the University at Buffalo. By the following year, moe. had evolved into a popular bar band around Buffalo, New York. The band's first album, Fatboy, in 1992 established moe. as a favorite of the 1990s jam band and improvisational rock scene. With popularity growing, the musicians recorded Headseed in 1994, officially quitting their day jobs and relocating to the more fertile music scene around Albany, New York. Gaining national attention, moe. won five of Relix magazine's Jammy Awards from 2001 to 2008. moe. presently consists of Al Schnier (guitar, vocals, keyboard), Chuck Garvey (guitar, vocals), Rob Derhak (bass, vocals), Vinnie Amico (drums), and Jim Loughlin (percussion). The band's 11th and most recent studio album, No Guts, No Glory!, was released on May 27, 2014.

moe. brought its 25th anniversary to New York with one night at le Poisson Rouge and two consecutive nights at the Best Buy Theater, performing an entirely different set each night. The music ranged from easy-flowing Grateful Dead-style jams to more intricate rhythms on jazz-infused intonations and basic riffs on harder rocking interludes. Energetic drive and innovative vitality generated a synergy among the musicians that sparked 15-minute songs with fresh, airy sounds rather than hammering a groove. All five musicians had their moments in the spotlight, but the center of gravity was grounded in the technical abilities of the two guitarists. Schnier and Garvey consistently provided the fireworks with fluid and mesmerizing leads for nearly three hours. Brief lyrical interjections were more like breaks in the extended guitar solos than compositional frameworks. Closing the final night, moe. was joined on stage by the Conehead Buddha horn section (Shannon Lynch on saxophone, Terry Lynch on trumpet, Shaun Bazylewicz on trombone) for three songs, "Not Coming Down", "Threw It All Away" and "Dr. Graffenberg." Grounded in innovative musicianship and dynamic energy, moe. demonstrated that it may be the preeminent progressive jam band on the music scene today.

Visit moe. at www.moe.org.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Hubby Jenkins at the Penthouse at the Standard Hotel, East Village

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Hubby Jenkins took his passion for old-time music to the streets and subways of the city as a busker. Through research into his Southern roots, he discovered and learned to play early country, blues, jazz, ragtime and African-American string music on acoustic guitar, banjo and other instruments. He found compatriots in his mission to revive this music when he joined the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2011.

Tonight at the Penthouse at the Standard Hotel, East Village, Hubby Jenkins shared his deep love and vast knowledge of old-time American music through performance and dialogue. In spoken word and song, he followed the thread of African American history that wove itself through music in the 1920s and 1930s. Singing with eyes closed, masterfully finger-picking an acoustic guitar or banjo, Jenkins' passion gave flame to his authentic and soulful interpretations of traditional American music. He was joined by several musician friends, including Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Malcolm Parson. After an hour, the audience left having heard seldom-heard roots music and having learned much about how music figured in the lives of African Americans nearly a century ago.

Visit Hubby Jenkins at www.hubbyjenkins.com.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Liza Colby Sound at the Bowery Electric

Liza Colby
Liza Colby grew up in a musical family in Avon, Connecticut. Her parents perform as the Colbys. Her father, John Colby, is a Grammy and Emmy Award winning producer and composer of hundreds of television and film scores and was the music director and band leader for the late Clarence Clemons. Her mother, Beverly Rohlehr, sang in several jazz bands and was the only woman ever to sing in the a cappella group the Persuasions. Liza originally studied to become a corporate event planner, but then decided she needed to try music. She relocated to New York City, began singing hooks on rap tracks, and finally joined forces with comic Denis Leary's band, the Enablers: guitarist Adam Roth, his brother, drummer Charles "C.P." Roth, and bassist Alec Morton. They became the Liza Colby Sound in 2009. The band's second and most recent EP is 2013's Live.

In one of her frequent engagements at the Bowery Electric tonight, the Liza Colby Sound combined the soulful dynamics of Tina Turner with the rock intensity of the Who. Wearing nothing but a black leotard-style one piece, golden high heel shoes and jewelry, the very lean Colby accentuated her sex appeal, several times squatting wide-kneed to the ground while holding her microphone at her crotch. While this commanded eyeful attention, her commanding mega-watt vocals penetrated the ears and the heart. Performing a dozen original songs, Colby and her classic-rock-sounding band generated both fist pumping from the males and butt shaking from the females in the audience.

The Liza Colby Sound returns to the Bowery Electric on April 30, opening for the Bluebonnets. In the meantime, visit the Liza Colby Sound at www.thelizacolbysound.com.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hollywood Undead at the Gramercy Theatre

Rap-rockers Hollywood Undead originated in 2005 in Los Angeles, California, when Jorel "J-Dog" Decker and former member Aron "Deuce" Erlichman posted a song entitled "The Kids" on an online social network. To create a band around the song, they gathered friends, including George "Johnny 3 Tears" Ragan, Jordon "Charlie Scene" Terrell, Dylan "Funny Man" Alvarez, and Matthew "Da Kurlzz" St. Claire; Daniel "Danny" Murillo was added later. The band has sold over 2 million records in the United States, and about 3 million records worldwide. The group's fourth studio album, Day of the Dead, will be released on March 31, 2015.

In the darkness at the Gramercy Theatre tonight, as the audience chanted "undead" in unison, blue lights shone on a backdrop showing a bird in flight carrying a grenade. The six band members (plus touring member Tyler Mahurin on drums and percussion) appeared on stage wearing new masks, most still based on the common hockey goaltender design. Hollywood Undead launched into a new song, "Usual Suspects," followed with the more familiar "Undead", "Tendencies" and "Been to Hell" before removing the masks. As the band members rotated between instruments and weaved in and out of the songs as rappers, singers and screamers, there was constant movement on the stage. The supporting music behind the singers and rappers was hard and heavy, as hip hop married alternative rock and nu metal. Midway through the set, Hollywood Undead performed a mash-up that began with a brief cover of the Beastie Boys' "Intergalatic" and included a taste of Snoop Dogg’s "Gin and Juice" mixed in with the crew's original songs. Keeping the fans engaged and enthused by constantly whipping up the energy level in the room, Hollywood Undead entertained well using a refined formula for metal-infused hip hop.

Visit Hollywood Undead at www.hollywoodundead.com.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dropkick Murphys at Irving Plaza

Dropkick Murphys formed as a Celtic punk band in 1996 in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Boston-based band, named after professional wrestler John "Dropkick" Murphy, first began playing in the basement of a friend's barbershop. Starting as a punk rock band, the band members found that their Irish music roots influenced the way they sounded and eventually embraced and enhanced that element. Dropkick Murphys gained a reputation for its raucous live shows, especially around St. Patrick's Day. The band also became known for its socio-political activism, particularly regarding labor unions, and for its philanthropy around American war casualties. The band's eighth and most recent studio album, Signed and Sealed in Blood, was released in 2013. The band presently consists of sole remaining original member Ken Casey on bass and vocals, vocalist Al Barr, guitarist James Lynch, multi-instrumentalists Jeff DaRosa and Tim Brennan, drummer Mat Kelly, and Scruffy Wallace on bagpipes and tin whistle.

Bringing the U.S. leg of the Celtic Punk Invasion Tour to Irving Plaza, Dropkick Murphys sounded exactly as one would expect. The approximately 90-minute set was equal parts punk and Celtic-rooted music, about as blended as a lumpy Irish porridge. As a recording of the Irish ballad "The Foggy Dew" played  over the venue speakers, the audience saw the silhouettes of musicians in Irish caps taking their positions. The band opened with 2013’s "Out of our Heads" and tore through four high-energy songs in less than 10 minutes, initiating waves of both beer toasting and crowd surfing in the audience. This was the start of a loud and brash 28-song 19-year retrospective, during which the energy increased in tandem with the audience's blood alcohol level. About halfway through the set, Casey and Barr invited the audience to call out requests. In addition, a list of cover songs was projected on a screen, and fans standing in the front were invited to through a dart to a dartboard to determine which cover song the band would perform; tonight it fell on AC/DC's "T.N.T." The set closed with a rowdy sing-along of "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," and after an audience chant of "Let's go, Murphys," the band returned and invited audience members to climb on stage for the three encore songs, closing with a cover of Sham 69's "If the Kids Are United." It would be hard to believe that anyone did not have a blast with Dropkick Murphys.

Visit Dropkick Murphys at www.dropkickmurphys.com.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Red Baraat at the Bowery Ballroom

Sunny Jain, born in Rochester, New York, grew up listening to his parents' Indian classical music, devotional songs and 1960s Bollywood music. Jain learned to play the dhol, the double-headed dance drum of northern India often heard in Bollywood musicals. Forming the Sunny Jain Collective in 2002, Jain was designated a Jazz Ambassador by the U.S. Department of State and the Kennedy Center, for which he toured West Africa. Jain received the Arts International Award in both 2003 and 2005 to enable touring India with his jazz group. In 2004, Jain played dhol in the first Indian Broadway show, Bombay Dreams, and made his film debut playing dhol in the 2008 movie The Accidental Husband. Jain has performed at the request of the White House, Peter Gabriel, and the Olympic Games. When he formed Red Baraat in 2008, he designed a big band rooted in Punjabi percussion and the Indian brass band tradition. The Brooklyn-based band's third and most recent studio album, Gaadi of Truth, was released on January 20, 2015.

Red Baraat sparked a lively rhythm and dance party at the Bowery Ballroom tonight. Nine musicians jammed on that stage: five horn players, three percussionists, and one guitarist. Red Baraat harmonized the ancient sounds of Jain's cultural heritage with modern electronic sounds to create a mix of Bhangra, Latin, world, jazz, funk, hip-hop and go-go music. Their high-energy beats-and-brass world music even included traces of trance-inducing South Asian Qawwali and South American cumbia. Pushing the dohl and the sousaphone through electronic effects led to exciting new turns in the midst of the core indigenous sounds. The fiery, propulsive dance-friendly blend provoked the multi-national audience to shake hips while waving swaying hands to the sky. Brooklyn has never had a stronger party band.

Visit Red Baraat at www.redbaraat.com.

Gang of Four at Irving Plaza

Andy Gill
(with John "Gaoler" Sterry in the background)
The rock band known as Gang of Four formed in 1977 in Leeds, England, during the punk era. The politically-charged quartet took its name from a newspaper account of four Chinese Cultural Revolution leaders ousted in 1976 after Mao Tse-Tung's death. The band played hard, funky rock with angry messages about social ills, and so road the coattails of the British punk rock movement. The once-angry, politically-charged quartet was a buzz band until it had a minor dance-pop hit with "I Love a Man In a Uniform" in 1983, for which its core audience abandoned the group. The band split in 1983. A new version of Gang of Four was revived in 1987 and split again in 1997. The original lineup reformed in 2004, but currently the sole remaining original member is guitarist Andy Gill. He is joined currently by vocalist John "Gaoler" Sterry, bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Jonny Finnegan. Gang of Four released its ninth album, What Happens Next, on February 24, 2015.

Gang of Four performed its first New York concert in 20 years tonight at Irving Plaza. While eight of the 16 songs in the set tonight were from Gang of Four's first two albums, the songs' youthful aggression was gone and the overall sound was more like the band's industrial-tinged electro-pop albums of the 1990s. Sterry was a fair singer, Gill played engaging syncopated and jagged guitar licks and the rhythm section held down a stripped-down funk and dub backbone. This spare-sounding mix of punk rock, funk and dub, with its emphasis on the social and political ills of society, was performed well, but it lacked bite and urgency. Perhaps part of the lull in dynamics was credibility; the new vocalist must have been a toddler when most of the songs were written. Gill's searing bursts of frayed metallic guitar kept the show energized, however. With only two new songs in the set, the show was more a retrospective than an entry into the new world.

Visit the Gang of Four at www.gangoffour.co.uk.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ellis Ashbrook at the Bowery Electric

Vocalist/guitarist John Barber and drummer Alex Major began collaborating musically at the age of 10. Naming their band after a pet guinea pig and a street name, they formed Ellis Ashbrook while in high school in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. By 2003, the band was playing rock clubs around Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts. Since then, the band has released three albums and relocated to Brooklyn, New York. Ellis Ashbrook presently consists of Barber, Major, Jonathan Granoff (bass guitar), and Natalie Lowe (keyboards, vocals). The quartet's most recent album is 2011's Meridia.

At the Bowery Electric tonight, Ellis Ashbrook's original songs were a combination of classic rock, grunge and hard funk, a collage falling somewhere between Frank Zappa's psychedelic guitar-based prog-rock and wailing, hip-shaking 1990s alt-rock. A live 1960s-style light show was projected live onto a screen hung behind the musicians. The psychedelic pop and rock music at times became very riff heavy and street dirty, and then intricate arrangements led to new and unanticipated complexities. It succeeded impressively because of the imagination and technical ability of the musicians. Ellis Ashbrook showed itself to be a fresh, dynamic and very creative band in search of a non-traditional rock audience.

Visit Ellis Ashbrook at www.ellisashbrook.com.

Gretchen Peters at SubCulture

Gretchen Peters was born in Eastchester, New York, a northern suburb of New York City, and was raised in Boulder, Colorado, but in the late 1980s relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. There, she found work as a songwriter, composing songs for Martina McBride, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Anne Murray and Neil Diamond, and co-writing songs with Bryan Adams. She won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year award for McBride's "Independence Day" in 1995 and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. Peters' 11th album, Blackbirds, was released on February 10, 2015.

At SubCulture tonight, Peters finger-picked her acoustic guitar and sang softly and sweetly, accompanied by her husband, Barry Walsh, on piano, accordion and acoustic guitar. The simplicity of the setting allowed the majesty of her mature lyrics and vocals to penetrate profoundly. Many of the 57-year-old singer songwriter's newer songs opened a view to aging and mortality, an uncommon topic for women to approach publicly. Her characters were trapped in darkness. "When All You Got Is a Hammer" told of a veteran's difficult struggle to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas. In "Black Ribbons," a fisherman laid his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill. The main character in "The Cure for the Pain" was ill in a hospital. Peters opened her second set solo at the piano, singing a stirring "Independence Day," a song about domestic abuse. All of the characters in her story songs were personified in vivid detail and tender empathy, as the lyrics captured the delicate beauty and hope of their journeys. As such, although many songs revealed the dark night of the soul, they were built around moving, uplifting arrangements. Gretchen Peters proved to be a unique master craftswoman of Americana country-folk songs.

Visit Gretchen Peters at www.gretchenpeters.com.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Will Butler at the Bowery Ballroom

Will Butler was born to a musical family in Truckee, California, and raised in The Woodlands, Texas. His mother is Liza Rey Butler, a jazz and classical musician and singer playing clubs in Maine, and his maternal grandfather was guitarist Alvino Rey, a swing era musician and pioneer, often credited as the father of the pedal steel guitar. While at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, Will was a disc jockey at the radio station and served as the poetry editor of its literary magazine. For the past 10 years, he and his brother Win Butler have led Arcade Fire. Will plays synthesizer, bass, guitar and percussion, and received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the original score of the film Her in 2014. A month ago, he dj-ed as DJ Windows 98 for a fundraiser at the Bowery Ballroom. All last week, Butler teamed with The Guardian to write and release a song each day based on the British newspaper's articles. Will Butler's solo debut, Policy, releases on March 10, 2015.

With his solo album still a week from release, the audience at the opening night of his tour may have attended curious to see who is Will Butler apart from Arcade Fire, and perhaps hoping for some Arcade Fire traction. As it turned out, Butler's concert was miles apart from his Arcade Fire catalogue, except that he wore a blood-stained white tuxedo jacket that he sometimes wore on that band's most recent tour. Backed by a band that consisted of his wife's sister, keyboardist Julie Shore, Antibalas' drummer Miles Arntzen and two backup vocalists, Butler performed the entirety of his quirky solo album plus songs from his Guardian series and a cover of the Violent Femmes' "American Music." Much like his performances in Arcade Fire, his energetic, joker-like presentation charged the songs and enlivened the stage show. Sounding very much like a 1960s rave-up garage band, Butler moved from guitar to keyboards and sang with the jittery vocals turned up way high. Nevertheless, while he introduced a previously-unseen side of his musical creativity, he entertained but did not eclipse his history.

Visit Will Butler at www.butlerwills.com.

Water Seed at the Drom

In New Orleans, Louisiana, future Water Seed drummer Lou Hill began playing the alto sax in fourth grade and over subsequent years became immersed in rhythm & blues, funk and jazz. Down the road, Water Seed keyboardist J. Sharp learned to play piano at the age of five and trained for concertos. Both played in local bands before bonding and forming Water Seed while attending university in 2000. Cinese Love of Pasadena, California, an orchestral-trained flautist who switched to jazz, later found her way to Water Seed. Born in Houston, Texas, blues and gospel-influenced singer Shaleyah sang in her university's Philharmonic Society; she found her way to Water Seed as well. The attraction for these and many other artists who play or have played in Water Seed has been the opportunity to marry many musical experiences into a contemporary urban hybrid. Water Seed's fifth and most recent album, a remix project entitled Retro Electro, was released July 22, 2014.

Showcasing at the Drom tonight, it was common for the seven-piece multi-genre Water Seed to take an original song and make it last between five and 10 minutes long. Most songs had a funk rocking skeleton that grew flesh through cascading vocal interplays and jazz-like interpretive instrumentation. The joyous rhythm and groove was for gyrating hips on the dance floor, while the sophisticated instrumental flourishes fed the head and the big, soulful vocals nourished the heart. The sound was old school cool, recalling the golden era of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. While this sound no longer moves major music sales in the present era, Water Seed as a live entity did a fine job of sparking an exuberant New Orleans party spirit in New York.

Visit Water Seed at www.waterseedmusic.com.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

John 5 at the Gramercy Theatre

John 5
John William Lowery was born in 1971 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where at age seven he was inspired to play guitar after watching Buck Owens and Roy Clark perform on the television series Hee Haw. On the condition that John's grades remained high, his parents supported his passion and accompanied him to evening performances in local bars. John's first middle school band, Dirty Tricks, won a battle of the bands contest. Early on, he began to experiment with ghoulish facial make-up in another band, Vampirella. With stars in his eyes at age 18, he drove to Los Angeles, California, and was robbed of all his savings on his first night there, forcing him to find refuge in abandoned warehouses. Undeterred, his start with a band called Alligator Soup led to session work on television/movie soundtracks, commercials and infomercials. He later played in bands with Rudy Sarzo, Lita Ford, Randy Castillo, k.d. lang, Rob Halford, David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. Lowery was renamed John 5 with his Marilyn Manson gig, and has kept the name. John 5 also has released seven guitar albums, the most recent being 2014's Careful with That Axe.

At the Gramercy Theatre tonight, John 5 & the Creatures consisted of 5 with bassist Ian Ross and drummer Rodger Carter. The 90-minute set began with face-painted musicians playing in the dark and 5 with a green light held in his mouth. The lengthy instrumental track ended, and 5 tossed his light into the audience. Henceforth, the rest of the set was similarly all instrumental, with 5 playing proficient lead guitar non-stop from the beginning to the end of the performance. Although his metal drop-d tuning style was forefront, the show was also a display of his diverse abilities, featuring sojourns into jazz fusion, industrial, bluegrass, country, and much more. For one song, 5 played an LED-covered Fender guitar, but for the most part, all the flash was in how his fingers slid across his Telecaster fretboards with surgical precision, speed and finesse, ranging from the rockabilly "Jiffy Jam" to the flamenco-inspired "El Cucuy." Perhaps the down point was an overly long instrumental version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" but this was followed soon afterwards by a medley of heavy metal riffs which included Iron Maiden's "The Trooper," Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," Black Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell," Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight," and Dio's "Stand Up and Shout." All evening, John 5 said little between songs and never sang a note; the dazzling guitarist's talented hands impressively spoke all the necessary verbalization.

Visit John 5 at www.john-5.com.

Show Me the Body at the Marlin Room at Webster Hall

Julian Cashwan Pratt
Vocalist/banjo player Julian Cashwan Pratt and bassist Harlan Steed met in high school when they were 15 years old and began making music together, combining their influences of hardcore punk and hip hop. By their 16th birthdays in 2010, they had formed the concept of Show Me the Body, an experimental banjo-led punk rock power trio. Cashwan Pratt described the music as "New York sludge." The band has issued an EP entitled Yellow Kidney. The present trio consists of Cashwan, Steed and drummer Noah Cohen-Corbett.

Opening for Trash Talk tonight at the Marlin Room at Webster Hall, Show Me the Body sounded like no group ever before. The bassist and drummer laid down progressive grooves and the one lead instrument, the banjo, was used in a far from traditional manner, making gnarly, tinny-sounding atonal lines. Meanwhile, Cashwan Pratt shouted jarring slam poetry with unhinged passion. The result was a raw, low-fi, avant-punk dissonance that was weirdly unique and beyond indie. This band is young and curious and harnesses an aggressive and exploratory energy that will become its best creative advantage.

Visit Show Me the Body at www.showmethebody.com.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Third Day at the Beacon Theatre

Mac Powell
Vocalist Johnny "Mac" Powell and guitarist Mark Lee met in high school in Powder Springs, Georgia, and became involved in the local band Nuclear Hoedown. As Powell began writing songs that expressed his faith, the duo formed the Christian rock band Third Day in 1991 in Marietta, Georgia. The band's name was a reference to the biblical accounts of Jesus' rising from the dead on the third day following his crucifixion. The band has sold over 10 million albums in the United States, was inducted in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and has received four Grammy Awards and 20 Dove Awards. Third Day's 12th and most recent album, entitled Lead Us Back: Songs of Worship, was released on March 3, 2015. Third Day presently consists of Powell and Lee along with bassist Samuel "Tai" Anderson and drummer David Carr.

Third Day launched its 2015 tour at the Beacon Theatre tonight, and it was a radically different set from when the band first played the venue in September 2013. The set a year and a half ago was a rock set with a few hymns. This tour promotes the band's first worship album in 12 years, and so the full 90-minute set was comprised entirely of worship songs, most of them original and many of them new. Oddly, many of the obvious songs from Third Day's catalogue, like Powell's "Cry Out to Jesus" and the band's stirring remake of the traditional "Blessed Assurance," were not included in the set. Many songs from the new album, including "Soul on Fire," were performed live for the first time, and other songs were brought back after a long absence. Yet while the song list seemed somewhat curious, it was made strong by Powell's brilliant vocals and the backup from extra musicians and vocalists, including a local choir for many of the songs. Whether on raucous barn raisers, like on the cover of Bob Dylan's "Saved," or on mid-tempo, somber compositions, as in "Mountain of God" and "Show Us Your Glory," it became evident why Powell won the 2001 Gospel Music Association award for Male Vocalist of the Year. His uber-masculine, heartfelt singing was intensely compelling. Although on this tour all the songs are worship songs, opening night was still very much a concert rather than a church service, with blazing instruments far outnumbering the sing-alongs and Powell's talks between songs more of an affirmation of faith rather than a sermon. Even on this turn as a worship band, Third Day is still a dynamic rocking band, and possibly the best Christian rock band in history.

Visit Third Day at www.thirdday.com.