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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ben Folds and Guster, PNC Bank Arts Center 7.20.13

There are few bands that define the nearly 20 year old relationship I have with my wife.  When we met she was very much into Widespread Panic, the Athens jam band.  I was still learning the rock canon before gradually moving into more left of center fare like eels.  Somewhere in the middle we met at Gomez, and ultimately, a shared fondness for Ben Folds Five.   The North Carolina band made their self titled debut in 1995 (the year we met.)  Their super successful follow up, Whatever and Ever Amen, was a staple in our house in the CD era.  We related to the angst of "Underground" and progression toward adulthood Folds warned of in "Brick" and "Jackson Cannery".    They were albums for us.  More importantly they were not angry and pessimistic.  I, for one, could not be bothered with Kurt Cobain and his reluctance to live.  That was a downer man and who needed it?  

How will I make I living?  How will I get through my 20s?  And beyond?  Unlike Cobain, it appeared I had no talent either.  That's friggin grunge my friends.  Paycheck to paycheck living and flannel shirts cause they kept you warm, not cause they look cool.  Music better lift my spirits damn it!  Otherwise, a long drive in the garage might sound tempting.  

Ben Folds Five was the up tempo piano rock the mental doctor ordered.  They were a kind of Joe Jackson for the 90s set.  They even shared Jackson's sarcasm and wit.  Robert Sledge plays a heavy bass and provides harmony.  Darren Jesse keeps the beat and does it like a professional.  Ben Folds steers the ship with lightning fast piano licks and ironic, funny and heartfelt lyrics.  It's our warm musical blanket in an ever freezing musical landscape.  

Saturday night the boys were back in NJ and brought back many good feelings.  They are the middle act in The Last Summer on Earth tour between Guster and Barenaked Ladies.  It's a good spot for them, although you can make the argument they should headline.  The truth is Barenaked Ladies have sold more records, had more hits and are indeed the bigger band.  That did not stop us before leaving before they came on.  Ben Folds Five performed like headliners and left us all very satisfied.  Their set was filled with older gems like "Alice Childress""Song for the Dumped" and the aforementioned "Brick."  That track brought tears to the eyes seated next to me.  It was good to a) hear it and then b) hear them perform it without any tricks or gimmicks.  It was played as it sounds on record.  Sometimes a faithful and true adaptation is the BEST interpretation.  

The band wasn't all ballads.  Their latest single "Do It Anyway" was high on energy and had the decent crowd pumped.  "Army", their final song, was a boisterous and joyous ending to an efficient, solid and wonderfully nostalgic set.  The format of the show prevented Folds to extend his sometimes endless song prologues.  A digital clock stared him and his bandmates right in the face and they hit all their marks.  They took stage around 8:40 and left promptly at 9:30.  Gone was the happy horsesh*t that can often plague a veteran band.   Simply put, it was well performed song after well performed song.  "Good night, thanks for coming."

No guys, thank you.  For everything.

The night started, also right on time (7:25 to 8:15 isn) with Boston band Guster.  These guys have also been making quality music since they early 90s.  It's funny, I thought I had a grasp on their catalog, and more specifically, their style.  It is, so I thought, a mix of cool, laid back rock.  Their radio hits, soft sing-a-long "Do You Love Me?" pop psych diddy "Satellite", and trippy stoner anthem "One Man Wrecking Machine" are all fun, but never really broke new ground.  Who knew they had so much more depth and a live act filled with tribal beats, blistering guitars, and epic harmonies?  Slide guitars shifted to acoustic back with a stop on bluegrass land as the night unfolded.  It was a welcome mixed back

Guster, with their rabid fan base, (including two adolescent boys who sang, danced and cherished every moment), left an indelible mark on the event.

It shows how much quality and volume is out there.  My friends and I, this blog, and everything else that espouses to know something...  it is all nonsense.

Guster has been playing and performing for decades and this was the first time I was able to see them.  They were so good it makes me question the validity of anything I do.  I should have known how good these guys are.  I should be screaming from the hills to get on the Guster bandwagon.  

But it is impossible to know all the talent out there.  It is impossible to see everyone live.  

The beauty is that at any moment you can be surprised.  You can head to an event sight unseen and with a very open mind and come out a devoted fan.  

It's like the coaching cliche every kid grows up hearing:  "You will miss 100% of the shots you don't take." 

Thanks to Guster (Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner, Brian Roseworcel, and Luke Reynolds) this summer just got a lot more interesting.  Who else can I discover for the first time?  Are their other veteran bands that may have evaded me?  Of course.  What of some newer talent?  You bet.

Stay tuned to this blog for more discoveries.  And should you want me to take a chance on somebody we are all all ears.

Special Thanks to Rory C for the amazing seats and for contributing the beautiful photos below.  

Ben Folds Five, 7.20.13 PNC Bank Art Center   photo by Rory C

Ben Folds by Rory C

Darren Jesse by Rory C

Robert Sledge by Rory C.  This upright howled during a flawless 'Brick"
Guster, by Rory C

Ryan Miller of Guster, by Rory C

Adam Gardner of Guster, by Rory C

Ed from Barenaked Ladies joined Guster, by Rory C

Friday, July 19, 2013

Wire and Bear in Heaven, Bowery Ballroom 7.16.13

Last week the country became obsessed once again with Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, thanks to the unholy spectacle that is Sharknado.  It was a welcome diversion to the wasteland that is summer television and the disastrous summer movie season.  Big budget "blockbusters" (see Pacific Rim, Lone Ranger and After Earth) have lost millions of dollars at the box office.  And with the exception of weekend cable staples, Dexter, True Blood, and FINALLY The Newsroom, summer is easily forgotten on the tv dial.   These are the dog days in the sporting world too.  The ESPY's?  Really?  

It was with that knowledge my wife and I took a dare from an old friend and bought tickets for Tuesday's show at Bowery Ballroom.  "Sure, why not?"  we thought.  Literally nothing better to do.  It also gave us an opportunity to eat at Supper in the Lower East Side.  Try the bolognese! 

What did we know about venerable Brit punk/new wave act The Wire.  Nothing.  What of their opening act, Brooklyn's Bear in Heaven?  Still nothing.   Maybe even nothing-er.  

We may not have known the bands prior to Tuesday.  But we do now.

Let's set the record straight.  First, both acts had far too many quiet moments during their sets.  Bear In Heaven, who have been around for about a decade, suffered a bit from song sequence selection and had too many slow moments  The trio incorporates synths and tribal beats to create, what some call "space rock."  Their single, "Sinful Nature", from last year's LP I Love You, It's Cool, has flashes of the 80s Manchester sound with a side of Jan Hammer.  They rely a bit too heavy on the pre-programmed computer for my tastes, at least in terms of their live performance.  Singer/keyboardist/founder and frontman Jon Philpot has enough charisma and vocal chops to get your attention.  Drummer Jason Nazary and bassist Adam Wills are solid, if not spectacular compliments.   The styling of the group needs some work, especially if they are going to make a living with a slower paced show.  If there are down moments you cannot help look at Wills and his oddball hat and creepy mustache.  My better half had two of the best lines of the evening.  First, Bear in Heaven might be her favorite "Bear" band.  Apologies Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Bear Hands etc...  No apologies to Barenaked Ladies.  You suck.  She was particularly happy she could share that thought with Nazary on Houston St after the show.

Second,  "Wills might be the most unattractive bassist she had ever seen."  Ouch.  It need not be that bad.  Wear the hat like an adult, not child of the 1950s.  And please note, only John Waters can wear a mustache that thin.   Sadly, although Nazary is talented and super friendly, his look (a cross between Woody Allen and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys), does not scream rock star.  

For more check out "Idle Heart"  Great percussion beat throughout and Philpot shows nice, subtle delivery.  A wonderful ode to 80s mood synth.

Also, "The Reflection of You" is a nice example of easy going pop that might make you think of New Order or Joy Division.  

At first glance the youngsters, Bear in Heaven, seem an odd choice to open for vet rockers The Wire.  After all, Wire became a band in 1976 or so.  The members of Bear in Heaven were all BORN in the 1980s.  Differences aside,  these two bands complimented one another surprisingly well.  Long regarded as an important and influential act (very much news to me) The Wire delivered an entertaining, if not awe inspiring set.  Singer/guitarist Colin Newman, bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed are the original members and have more than stood the test of time.  Newman rocks the Joe Jackson/Elvis Costello look.  For a great deal of the show he looked at a mounted iPad between every note/lyric.  This is a bad, bad thing and let me tell you why.

Even if he was not using it for lyrics (it was probably used for the mix and sound- in addition to words), it is, without question, anti rock and roll.  And, since The Wire are noted as forerunners or creators of the post-punk revolution, it can be said with much certainty that an iPad is ANTI punk.  Newman would have been better suited mounting the Ipad in front of his microphone, rather than off to his right. He never made eye contact with his audience and, for much of the evening, had the look of a Jr school talent show instead of the legend many think he is.  His biggest sin however was singing each sung with the same tone and inflection.  If you are not going to look at the crowd your voice had better represent.  Sadly, it did not.

Lewis and Gotobed on the other hand carried the evening with booming bass lines and rapid drum lines.  Clearly they have been doing it for a while.   Gotobed has the arms of a young Gilad and Lewis is a cockney version of Lawrence Tierney circa Reservoir Dogs.  "What do you mean you don't tip??"

Looks aside The Wire's hour and half set was well worth a blind taste test.   Was it an Earth shattering event that has converted me into their biggest fan?  No, clearly my buddy that brought me here has that title wrapped up.  But it sure beat the hell out of Hell's Kitchen or Wipeout, or whatever happy horsesh*t might have been playing that night.

Yeah I suppose I could read once in a while.  But who has time for that??  Except you of course.  Thank you sincerely!

Bear in Heaven, Bowery Ballroom 7.16.13

The Wire, Bowery Ballroom 7.13.13

Graham Lewis, not be be confused with Lawrence Tierney

Add caption

Bear in Heaven's Jon Philpot

Adam Wills of Bear in Heaven

The Wire

Ive been standing on Delancey, and Bowery

Friday, July 12, 2013

Savages, Webster Hall 7.11.13

There were plenty of moments prior to last night's sold out Savages show at Webster Hall that made me wonder if the hype and/or buzz was going to lessen the event/experience itself.  The post punk English girl rockers (singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton) has erupted onto the alt rock scene following the release of their debut, Silence Yourself.  They have been touring non stop and both selling out each gig and gaining a reputation as a venerable live act.  They have already booked Terminal 5 later in the fall and will likely sell that massive house out too.  When I got behind Rolling Stones music critic David Fricke in line yesterday I was even more skeptical.  So I asked him, "Have you seen these ladies yet?"

"Oh yes, several times" he quickly answered.  "In London, and other places."

"Are they really that good?" I wondered.  "I would trust your judgment."

"Yes" was all he said.

A simple one word review that pretty much sums up the machine that is Savages.  Poised.  Talented.   Well. Worth. Your Time!

Beth (real name: Camille Berthomier) is a fierce and volatile presence on stage.  She prowls and pumps her fists like Billy Idol.  She looks a bit like Lori Petty (Circa Point Break)but sings a lot like a Patti Smith.   She is a bona fide rock star and commanded every bit of Webster Hall's historic stage.   She is a manic pixie in the best kind of way!

After they opened with the powerful "Shut Up" and boldly announced their presence with authority Beth glanced over at the engineer.  For a few moments she gestured with her thumbs way up and pointed to the bass.  Really?  More bass?

Hassan's instrument was already jacked up.  Dare we have more?  Soon the floors at Webster Hall were moving and chests were being pounded with fierce bass lines.  Power chords played all night and Beth's vocals played along nicely.  She was tough when needed yet able to hit the high notes accordingly when called for.

The highlight of the evening, the potty mouthed "Fu*kers", showcased the bands advanced skills.  Note, these ladies formed the band 2 years ago and are all in their early 20s.  They do not lack confidence and have more balls than many more established acts.  The song does not appear on their record.  If it did it would probably never sound like it did last night anyway.  It is roughly eight minutes of female empowerment played with youthful machismo.  Beth, who kept the between songs banter to a bare minimum, simply announced it's title.  "Don't let those fuc*kers get you down" she roared as her bandmates pushed full throttle.  The epic jam that ended the song brought down the house and converted all non believers.  Truth be told by that point the crowd was in their beyond component hands.  It should be noted for an up tempo punk show the audience was very well behaved.  They took the hard charging tracks with a reverence not usually associated with this type of show.  

Alas, the rumors are true.  These girls rock!  You could go the simplistic route and make fun, but ultimately unnecessary comparisons.  Are they an all chik Joy Division?  Or perhaps Sinead O Connor meets Smashing Pumpkins?  New Order with a dash of Bauhaus?

Leave that nonsense for David Fricke and his peers.  

Before we ended up at the show we had a few beers.  Don't judge!  We are all adults here.  We got to talking about how much we tend to "over-analyze" a show.  We often expect too much and are often times let down as a result of unrealistic expectations.  Sometimes you have to put the note pad down and listen/watch.

Last night Savages provided perfect execution for that well thought out plan.  As guitarist Gemma Thompson said earlier this year about the critical acclaim they have gotten:  "It's music to break sh"t and fu*k on the floor too."  Who doesn't like that?  And these days who doesn't need it???

For more please check here:

Savages official site 
Savages "Husbands" live on Jools Holland
Savages "She Will" live on KEXP

Rock and Roll at Webster Hall, Savages style

Savages, Webster Hall 7.11.13

Jehnny Beth is a force behind the mic.  

Savages, in all black

They can surely fill a bigger venue and sound great doing it.  But what a great place to see them.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cayucas, Mercury Lounge 7.5.13

A few songs into Friday nights sold out Mercury Lounge's Show, Cayucas lead singer Zach Yudin informed the crowd "this our first show ever in New York City."  In fact, it was Yudin's first ever trip to the City.  Both the announcement and crowd reaction was tepid.  And therein lied the dilemma.  The SoCal band was at times too timid,  or too reserved, and in the end too damn lax to fully engage/ignite the crowd.

Yudin, his twin brother Ben (bass), Christian Koons (guitar), and Casey Wojtalewicz have made a memorable and entertaining debut record, Bigfoot.  It is  a vibey, surf sounding pop meditation on Beck, Vampire Weekend, and Weezer.  It is full of tongue-in-cheek lyrics sung with sweet harmonies over lullaby-esque acoustic guitars.  It goes down nice with a tall glass of lemonade and a Saturday afternoon poolside nap.  They even have scored an alt "hit" with "High School Lover."  

There is no shame in getting assistance from a quality producer or computer.  The best artists have done it (Beatles- Sgt Peppers for instance.)  Take a look at the top 20 songs in America right now.  Half probably use auto tune, right?  How else can you explain Jason Derulo's career?  The trick is to reinvent the studio work into something fresh, inventive, and daring on stage!  Get into it!  Do a cover if your only have 8 or 9 songs.  When you do play your "hit" make it a stand out!  Be excited!  Be overwhelmed to be there!  Never take it for granted and always perform as if it might be your last time on stage.

Yeah, it is hard work!  It is why there are only a handful of super successful rock bands/artists in the ever changing landscape that is pop music.  In the blink of an eye you can go from the early show at Mercury Lounge to disgruntled hipster barista.  

These kids are at the tail end of their biggest tour in easily their biggest year.  They have only making music together for about 18 months.  So far, so pretty darn good.

The critics adore their debut and without question they will end up back in NYC this fall.  Look for them at a bigger venue like Webster Hall or Bowery.  

Improvement is required before they hit a grander stage.  Too often their songs sounded too familiar from one to another.  My favorite tune,  "Cayucos"  was too up tempo and never found a great stride.  By the time they played  "High School Lover" (which the audience was begging for 2 songs in) the crowd seemed ready to hit the exits.  They got what they came for, although deserved more.

We get the SoCal laid back attitude, really we do.  But this is NYC damn it.  If you don't bring 100% there is another band begging, clawing and scratching to fill your spot.  Downloads alone will not pay the rent in this day and age.  Unless of course you write "Gangham Style" or some shit.

Cayucas, Mercury Lounge 7.5.13


Canadian born and New York based Jessie Marchand (stage name: JBM) opened the evening.  Ge was alone with an acoustic guitar, harmonica and big voice.  His music felt like Neil Young Harvest album with a touch of Ryan Adams.  Other than stand up comedy it is difficult to find a more ballsy thing than getting on stage alone and performing your own music.  No bandmates.  No nets.  No one else to blame if/when things go wrong.

JBM was thankful to be home after what he intimated was a pretty trying tour.  The rigors of touring can beat a man down.  There must have been a few crowds/venues that were more raucous than this receptive and polite NYC crowd.  It was silent!  He was thankful and was more than competent.   His act is more coffeehouse than rock club.  His classical guitar filled, heart wrenching ballad that ended his set was an odd choice too.  It draped the night in gloom which was somewhat unfortunate for both his, and Cayucas sake.

They both may have deserved better.  Good news though!  They can only go up from here.

 For a sample of JBM check here.
Sold out crowd stands to the music.

Mercury Lounge is always good on sound.

Gentleman, please leave your backpacks at home when you head out for a show.  Ladies, you get something of a pass, but you should probably have a small purse only if truth be told.  What the hell could you have in those bags?  You need your id, a credit card, some cash, and maybe keys.  That is it! Should you need smokes, lighter and/or other drug paraphanalia you should allow for the necessary pockets.  NO! BACKPACKS! EVER!  Simply put you forget they are now part of your body.  And you can't control that shit.  Soon they are banging into open beers and womens' breasts and just about everywhere.   Keep them home and pack smart.  When the show is over you can go back to strapping it over your shoulders and doing your best Zach Morris.  

Should we put age limits on them?  After 18 backpacks can only be permitted on college campuses?  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Overrated and Underrated (the 80s)

Time can do tricky things to your memory.  Last post my disdain for The Eagles brought about some varied feedback.  Some folks piled on and agreed that Glenn Frey and Don Henley suck.  Others (including my wife, damn!) wrote fondly of the band and how listening to their songs provided warmth and comfort.  My memory of the band is clouded with Don Felder's account of his sentence with them and how he was miserable for most of it.  Oh, and their songs were, for the most part, rubbish.  Not all of them, just most!  And, in a word, they were overrated.

The 80s are a little trickier.  That is, no one expected much musically from that decade.  The 60s set the bar high for innovation and rock and roll legends.  From it we got The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Janis, Jimi, Clapton, et al.  The 70s continued to build that foundation with venerable acts like Zeppelin, Rush, Yes, Floyd, etc...  Rock and roll was here to stay.  When the 70s punk scene emerged and synths became more commonplace it became obvious the 80s would have a different feel.

Indeed, U2 and The Police established themselves as "rock" acts.  Bruce and Bon Jovi carried the torch a bit too.  But more often the 80s were less about songs and more about performers.  Madonna, Michael and Janet Jackson, and Prince are 80s stars and icons.  The look of an artist had as much to do with their success than other intangible factors.  Would Madonna have thrived in the 70s without MTV?  Doubtful.  The scene changed and, cliche as it is, video killed the radio star.

Before you knew it legendary radio stars had embraced the new medium.  David Bowie, always theatrical, was making narrative short films to his carefully manufactured score.  Were we supposed to watch or listen?  Take the short form art that is "Let's Dance" or "China Girl" for instance.

Sting and his mates employed these tactics too.  "Wrapped Around My Finger" and "Every Breath Your Take" are as much examples skillful lighting, expert cinematography and sheer tantric sexiness than genius song making.

That said, Bowie and The Police get a pass.  They have enough quality in their respective catalogs.  Case closed.  Ziggy Stardust and "Walking on the Moon" are really all they needed.

Sadly, a few bands' songs and cassettes do not stand the test of time.   One band in particular looks particularly suspect held up to higher scrutiny.  Genesis...  Phil Collins....  Mike Rutherford and/or your Mechanics....  we look to you.

Collins, Rutherford and Tony Banks actually started the band in the late 60s/early 70s.  From the beginning they were a progressive rock act with some blues tendencies.  Peter Gabriel popped in and out of the band in the 70s in addition to some other member turnover and general dysfunction.  It was not until the 80s that they found enormous commercial success.  To which we are left asking:  Why?  How?

It cannot be the music, can it?  "Invisible Touch?"  Be honest, if this popped on your radio would you  listen to all of it?  "Follow You, Follow Me" is a redundant and nauseating bore.  Collins' voice assaults your ears like a toddler begging to be fed.

It's all a goof and we were fooled!  "It's no fun/being an illegal alien?"  "It's always the same/It's just a shame/That's all?"  "Throwing it All Away?"  I would like to!  The songs are sophomoric, uncomplicated, and boring.  Collins was a showman though and that showmanship went a long way.  He appeared on Miami Vice.  He sourced those goofy BBC puppets for the "Land of Confusion" video.   He was full of personality but lacking in memorable hooks and melodies.  A short, balding crooner not unlike "Weird" Al.   The difference is "Weird" Al was always in on the joke.

British contemporaries Wang Chung shared commercial success like Genesis.  Their mega hit "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" could not be avoided and still has legs nearly 30 years later.  Ugh, that hurts to write.  Sure it isn't 10 years ago?

Dig deeper into Wang Chung's catalog and you might be surprised.  "Dance Hall Days" is a sweet and wonderful piece of nostalgia about nostalgia.  There is more to their efforts than party anthems and overplayed 80s filler.  Wang Chung's (guitar/vocalist Jeremy Ryder a.k.a Jack Hues and bassist Nick Feldman) debut record also gave us brilliant, and mostly unheard tracks "Wait" and "Don't Let Go".

Then there is the oft forgotten and largely ignored soundtrack to the oft forgotten and largely ignored film To Live and Die in LA.  "Wait" also appears on this record.  So too does the brooding, haunting title track.   The movie, with a very young Wilem Dafoe and thinner William Peterson, is a fairly run of the crime drama.  There are your traditional car chases and shoot-outs.  Love scenes and gritty LA location shots are prevalent as well.

What you remember most of all is the score.  You remember the songs.  It is a charismatic band somehow slighted by critics and largely ignored by mainstream.

Not sure why really.  Fate?  Bad timing?

Or maybe they weren't as amusing, colorful on camera.  That does you little good when you simply want to listen to a song and remember easier days.

Better like this or like this?

Case closed.