Tom Jones – The Bowery Ballroom – May 18, 2013
Tom Jones dominated the charts in the ’60s and ’70s with megahits like “It’s Not Unusual,” “Delilah,” and “What’s New Pussycat?” But you may also know him from his covers of Prince and Talking Heads, or from James Bond, or even from the Carlton dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Now, though, take everything you know about Tom Jones and throw it out the window. He just released a new album, Spirit in the Room, that, at the age of 72, completely transforms the singer. It’s the second album Jones has made with producer Ethan Johns, and it’s stunning. Like their first highly acclaimed collaboration, Praise & Blame, it puts Jones in a minimal setting. Forget the ass-shaking, panties-throwing go-go music of yesteryear—this is Jones, stripped down and personal.
But that’s not to say that Jones stopped being himself: He put on a phenomenal show at—of all places—The Bowery Ballroom on Saturday night. If you were lucky enough to snatch a ticket to the sold-out show, you could hear him in top form. His voice still booms across the room, he still swings his hips onstage and he still screams like James Brown when the moment calls for it. But he played not one of his hits, and it didn’t matter. He’s still got it. Jones opened with Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” singing softly to an enraptured crowd: “Well my friends are gone/ And my hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play.” The song served as a sober reflection on his life and career, which, after 50 years, is still going strong. And Jones is enjoying it. “It’s Saturday night, isn’t it?” he asked. “Sometimes I can’t even remember if it’s Saturday night or not. Every night is Saturday night for me. Every day is Christmas Day.” —Alex Kapelman
Photos courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com
The Staves/Escondido – Mercury Lounge – May 17, 2o13
Late night at Mercury Lounge on Friday found the room sold out for two great sets of roots music. First, Escondido, a country duo from Nashville, began with a handful of nice, pretty country songs ably handled by Jessica Maros and Tyler James and backed by James’s brother on bass and keys. Both members looked resplendent in amazing retro all-white suits, James’s with silver metal buckles and trimming, and Maros’s a full white country-and-western jumpsuit with two-foot tassels lining the sleeves. Halfway through, the music caught up with the duds, “Rodeo Queen” being a minor-key highlight. After a short trumpet-and-guitar interlude of “Tennessee Waltz,” Escondido were joined by a full band of NYC ringers, including Scott Metzger on guitar and Tony Leone on drums. With the extra oomph, the band went “full Nashville” with songs like “Don’t Love Me Too Much.”
Between sets, Neil Young’s entire Harvest Moon played over the PA, and the headliners took the stage to “Walk On”—off another Young album, On the Beach—which may have been the best walking-on music I’ve witnessed in a while. The Staves, a trio of sisters from Watford, England, singing folk harmonies very much in the style of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but better looking and with just the right level of sardonic British wit. (My favorite line, regarding the show not starting until after midnight: “…had to be careful not to get smashed beforehand.”) Singing songs like “Gone Tomorrow” and “Icarus” with just a single acoustic guitar, the beautiful harmonies seemed to shock the audience to silence. Bass and drums joined in to heft up songs like “The Motherlode” and “Tongue Behind My Teeth” (“about someone we hate”).
The dynamic range of the music was awe-inspiring: from a single voice, to three-part harmonies overlapping with acoustic guitar, to getting loud with the full band and additional banging on a floor tom. As the set continued, the Staves loosened up with banter about the playful comedy of three sisters spending life together on the road. The best was saved for last, the Staveley-Taylor sisters around a single microphone singing “Wisely & Slow” in absolute gorgeous harmony before the song transformed into a rocking section with drums and handclaps. The encore featured the first song they’d written together, when they only knew the bottom two strings of the guitar, the title track of Dead & Born & Grown, before finishing with the last song on that album, “Eagle Song.” The latter tune used all six strings and featured a dreamy middle section, literally a pitch-perfect ending to a night filled with them. —A. Stein
Tags: Crosby, Dead & Born & Grown, Escondido, Harvest Moon, Jessica Maros, Mercury Lounge, Neil Young, On the Beach, Scott Metzger, Stills & Nash, Tony Leone, Tyler James
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Kurt Vile and the Violators – The Bowery Ballroom – May 16, 2013
Kurt Vile cares a lot about his sound. This could be said of most musicians, of course, but anyone familiar with Vile’s work knows that it’s all those little details that make his music so remarkable. All those guitar ditties that weasel their way into your head and never leave end up defining his songs as a whole. A lot of bands tend to leave these nuanced details out of their live show—or bury them sonically so that they’re hardly audible under everything else. But with Kurt Vile, he ensures that all those nuances are accounted for. And with the help of his backing band, the Violators, and a stage littered with effects pedals and guitars of every stripe, there’s an impressive depth to his live sound that’s easy on the ears.
Vile kicked off his show last night at The Bowery Ballroom with the title track to his latest album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. He came out wearing a white denim jacket, white denim jeans and white Converse. All this white made his iconic gnarled mop of hair all the more noticeable. And when the jacket came off by the second song, you could see that it was lined with leopard print. For such an unassuming fellow, Vile’s got some subtle swag. While watching his guitar skills on “Jesus Fever,” it became noticeable that he comes from the J Mascis school of “let me throw down a huge and searing guitar riff without making it look like it takes any effort at all.”
Vile’s guitar playing is fun to watch, in part for how unconventional it is. At times during “Was All Talk,” he bent his thumb over his guitar neck to assist his other fingers. Toward the middle of the set, the Violators left Vile behind with just an acoustic guitar to play softer renditions of “Snowflakes Are Dancing” and “Peeping Tomboy.” The band returned for the loudest moment of the set, “Freak Train,” played with such krautrock momentum that the song seemed unstoppable. It eventually wound down out to an end, as did the show, but for the Kurt Vile train, this thing’s just starting to pick up steam. —Dan Rickershauser
Growing up in Idaho, Josh Ritter heard the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version of “Girl from the North Country” on his parents’ copy of Nashville Skyline and knew he wanted to become a songwriter. Some dreams do come true, because years later, Ritter was named one of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste magazine. The folk-leaning singer-songwriter has earned favorable comparisons to Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen (or as Mary-Louise Parker says, he “is usually compared to the legends, the ones you have been listening to since you were 15, the ones you love most”), and he’s put out a considerable amount of material on EPs and full-length albums. The most recent of which, The Beast in Its Tracks, written in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage, came out earlier this year. In praising it, American Songwriter calls it “a gracious, relentlessly honest, post-breakup record.” And Josh Ritter (above, playing “Joy to You Baby” on Late Show with David Letterman) has been out on the road, touring with the Royal City Band, ever since. See them tomorrow night at Terminal 5. And as an added bonus, the Felice Brothers, on their last night on the tour, will open the show.
Bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson and lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill met back in elementary school, bonding over shared tastes in music. And beginning in middle school they started to meet the others, drummer Ryan Berty, percussionist Kenneth Brownell and keyboardist Patrick O’Shea. The band is based in Northern Virginia, where the five of them live, but since the quartet’s first album came out a decade ago, there’ve changed names—dropping Soldiers of Jah Army for SOJA—and embarked on countless tours, plus saxophonist Hellman Escorcia and trumpeter Rafael Rodriguez have come on to deepen the socially conscious group’s sound. Reggae isn’t as big in the U.S. as it is in other places. In fact SOJA plays before thousands in South America. But SOJA, whose fourth LP, Strength to Survive (stream it below), came out last year, don’t even always stick to reggae. Watch them cover “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” above, and then head directly to Webster Hall tomorrow night to kick off your weekend right.
Tags: Bobby Lee Jefferson, Hellman Escorcia, Jacob Hemphill, Kenneth Brownell, Patrick O’Shea, Preview, Rafael Rodriguez, SOJA, Soldiers of Jah Army, Strength to Survive, Video, Webster Hall
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MS MR – The Bowery Ballroom – May 15, 2013
MS MR set the bar high for their first headlining tour by playing a sold-out show at The Bowery Ballroom last night one day after the release of Secondhand Rapture, the New York City–based electro-pop outfit’s highly anticipated first full-length album. Following a splendid set from openers Magic Man—who endeared themselves to the crowd with infectious energy and great rock and roll sensibility—MS MR took the stage to uproarious applause. Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow, the MS and MR behind the band’s moniker, took hold of the audience from the outset and delighted us with a set that sent emotional electricity pulsing through the air.
Crowd favorite “Bones” opened the set, instantly sending the audience into an enraptured state. Eerie candelabras that produced syncopated lighting furnished the stage, and the lights changed color throughout the set to reflect the evolution of MS MR’s symphonic sound. The performance bloomed with renditions of “Salty Sweet,” “Think of You” and “BTSK.” The cover of Patrick Wolf’s “Time of My Life” that followed garnered plenty of adoration. Plapinger and Hershenow danced mischievously during “Fantasy” and then dipped into a darker realm for “Dark Doo Wop” and “Head Is Not My Home,” both of which are filled with apocalyptic visions and brooding lyrics.
Plapinger then launched into the simple, anthemic “Ash Tree Lane.” To the crowd’s surprise and delight, the next song was a clever cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean.” “We’ve always wanted to do that!” she said, beaming at its conclusion. “Hurricane” provided the ideal finale for a theatrical journey through the band’s repertoire. MS MR’s music is simultaneously tragic and euphoric, making the nuanced experience of hearing the music live greatly satisfying. The band brought an appealing sense of humility to performing a sold-out show at a venue they so admire. MS MR make their television debut tonight on The Late Show with David Letterman, and they’re sure to continue their tour with the same gusto and grace they showed us last night. —Schuyler Rooth
Foxygen – Mercury Lounge – May 15, 2013
Bicoastal buds Sam France (Olympia, Wash.) and Jonathan Rado (New York City) comprise the duo known as Foxygen. And after hearing their song “San Francisco,” this City by the Bay native couldn’t help but get hooked on the sounds reminiscent of late-’60s Haight Ashbury. After a close call at SXSW, the boys have rested and recovered to play a trio of New York City shows this week, culminating in a sold-out Mercury Lounge gig last night. Appropriately, the venue served as the breakthrough for the band since they passed along their Take the Kids Off to Broadway EP to eventual We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic producer Richard Swift (the Shins, Damien Jurado) at a Mynabirds show at the Merc in early 2011.
Amongst a largely male crowd, France greeted the crowd with an ecstatic “Wassup?” followed by a scream that opened into “Jesusss.” Clad in black, France pranced around stage singing “On Blue Mountain” and emphatically thrusting his fist into the air. His usual stage antics had him confessing, “I don’t care if I’m in trouble at all. I’m an idiot. I don’t care. I don’t blame you. I suck.” Fans soaked up his banter and rocked along to “In the Darkness” and “Make It Known.”
As bassist Justin Nijssen sipped from his bottle of wine, France took a moment to introduce his onstage cast of characters before getting into fan favorite “Shuggie,” to a sea of bobbing heads, and then Foxygen’s recent single, “No Destruction.” The remainder of the evening was set to a cacophony of France’s screeching vocals, organ chimes and heavy basslines. The frontman climbed atop amps and the drum kit for their recent LP’s title track, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.” No encore was played: “Our shit’s broken,” announced France. But that didn’t seem to bother exiting concertgoers. One even playfully concluded, “I want what they are on.” —Sharlene Chiu
Tags: Damien Jurado, Foxygen, Jonathan Rado, Justin Nijssen, Mercury Lounge, Photos, Review, Richard Swift, Sam France, Take the Kids Off to Broadway, the Mynabirds, the Shins, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
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Matthew E. White – The Bowery Ballroom – May 13, 2013
What is it that Teddy Roosevelt said? “Speak softly and carry a big stick”? Well, Matthew E. White sings softly and carries a big stick, namely his backing band. It’s hard to call a six-piece outfit a small band, but for Virginia Beach, Va., native White, who’s played and recorded with literally dozens of musicians at a time, the sextet he played with at The Bowery Ballroom last night was a decidedly slimmed-down affair. Still, when you’ve got a guy who’s equally up to playing some delicious countrified pedal steel as he is a rollicking piano, and a bass player who grooves like he backed Herbie Hancock in his Headhunters prime, in addition to the drummer, percussion and keys players locked into your sound, six is a big enough stick.
The group walked out to Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” which, on Wonder’s birthday, seemed plenty deliberate for White, who matches soul with a Wonder-esque funkiness and whose music is accented by his personal faith. The set got moving with “One of These Days” and the ultragroovy “Steady Pace,” from last year’s Big Inner. These were prime examples of White’s style: soft, heartfelt vocals that melted into a steady buildup by the band, typically climbing to a surprising, ecstatic off-center climax. The band’s country-funk chops were on full display in a perfect cover of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country,” featuring the highlight pedal steel playing in a set filled with them. Although his vocals sounded great, White confessed it was a heavy dose of steroids that were keeping his sick throat up to the task and warned the side effects included extreme crankiness and irritability. Of course, he said this in his sweet, give-me-a-hug demeanor. It seemed perfect that White’s self-proclaimed “drinking song” was called “Hot Toddies” and featured a gorgeous, quiet minimalist section before a punchy finale. This is a groovy party band almost in spite of itself.
The heaviest hitter of the set was “Big Love,” a White masterpiece, mixing all the elements, in one high-energy heart-pumper, the band playing it loose, showing the clear comfort of musicians who know they’ll all get back to the same place, regardless of the different paths they take along the way. The set closed with a powerful one-two whack from the stick—“Gone Away” and “Brazos,” the latter a 10- minute mountain of a song that built upon a percolating bassline that appeared to lack a beginning or an end. It’s one of those songs that seems fit for a hundred musicians in a church in Virginia to do its climactic coda justice, but on a Monday night in NYC, White and his band were plenty big. —A. Stein