Photos courtesy of Alexis Maindrault | rockinpix.com
Brandi Carlile and her band sat in their New York City hotel room late last October and focused on the weather report. Hurricane Sandy had finally hit town, and it was much worse than anticipated. As it became evident that New Yorkers (and millions of others throughout the East Coast) would lose power, transportation, and—in a few heartbreaking circumstances—their lives, the shows were canceled. Carlile, devastated like the rest of America, was forced to skip the Big Apple and continue with her tour. But she didn’t forget about us. Instead, the singer-songwriter rescheduled the shows and even shipped up a massive backdrop of duck camouflage to bring a little “white-trash” feel, as she described it, to the Upper West Side on Friday night.
The show felt even more important, given the tragedies and difficulties many New Yorkers have faced since Sandy, and Carlile clearly exhibited a little extra oomph: “I think we’ve all officially beaten that hurricane,” she shouted to the crowd at the gorgeous old Beacon Theatre. Cheers reverberated throughout the acoustically perfect hall. And Carlile, keen enough to recognize that aspect of the venue, walked to the very front of the stage with her band. “It would be stupid,” she said only a few feet away from the front row, “not to use this room for what its meant for—great acoustics.” They launched into a terrific unplugged version of “What Can I Say” and received a standing ovation from the previously seated crowd for their efforts. It was a moment of delayed catharsis for ticket holders, one that highlighted the transformative power of music. And, really, that’s all any of us can hope for in a live show. —Alex Kapelman
Remember how Bon Iver’s heartbreak record, For Emma, Forever Ago, became part of indie-rock lore, straight from a Wisconsin cabin into an awkward Grammy speech? Zach Williams, lead singer of the Lone Bellow, may give Justin Vernon a run for his money with his own self-titled album. Williams was encouraged by a friend to write when his wife suffered a near-paralyzing fall from a horse. And early journal entries became the foundation for songs that grace his album. Williams has said of his work, “We write songs from personal experiences in our lives. Tragedy, hope, betrayal and redemption ebb and flow throughout this record.” He and his band even went up to a cabin in upstate New York to film a video for “Two Sides of Lonely.”
With mandolinist Kanene Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist, the Lone Bellow created a robust hug of harmonies around the audience of The Bowery Ballroom on a chilly Tuesday evening. The band sauntered onstage to the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Suzy,” and the audience joined in with uproarious cheers and applause as they began their set with “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional.” Williams offered “another sad country” as an introduction to “Two Sides of Lonely,” in which one onlooker yelled, “Make me cry!” A cadence of hand claps erupted for the rollicking favorite, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.” In a playful interlude, Williams and Co. covered Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” and bits of Brian McKnight’s “Back to One.” Returning to a country croon, the Bellows continued with “Bleeding Out” and a steel-pedal accompanied “Looking for You.” Williams proposed a new song, with opening chords similar to Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” which (you guessed it) they played. It seems as though the Lone Bellow has quite the repertoire of ’90s R&B tunes.
As the end of the night neared, “Teach Me to Know” closed the set with the group’s fans singing along. For an encore, the Lone Bellows covered John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” before finishing with “The One You Should’ve Let Go,” and The Bowery Ballroom was transformed into the set of Nashville, with feet stomping and the crowd chanting: “Come on, my love / I’m not the one that you were looking for / I’m not the shoulder you should cry on / I am the one you should’ve let go.” But despite those lyrics, the Lone Bellow won’t be let go anytime soon. —Sharlene Chiu
Tags: Beacon Theatre, Blackstreet, Bon Iver, Bowery Ballroom, Brandi Carlilie, Brian Elmquist, Brian McKnight, Everly Brothers, John Prine, Justin Vernon, Kanene Pipkin, Mariah Carey, the Lone Bellow
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Brandi Carlile grew up outside Seattle with an affinity for country music, ’70s rock and a desire to perform, which she first did—with her mom—at just eight years old. She began writing music in her teens, and following stints backing an Elvis impersonator and working in other bands, Carlile (above, playing “The Story” for Austin City Limits) released her self-titled debut LP in 2005. Despite the singer-songwriter’s influences, she considers herself a folk musician, and her following two albums, each acclaimed, got some big-time support with T-Bone Burnett producing 2007’s The Story and Rick Rubin at the helm of Give Up the Ghost two years later. Her most recent disc, Bear Creek, released this past summer, is filled with Carlile’s soaring voice and stories of her family history. See her—along with freak-folk Americana purveyors Blitzen Trapper—on Sunday and Monday at the Beacon Theatre.
Two years ago, David Byrne gave a lecture in Brooklyn titled “Creation in Reverse,” a warm-up for his presentation at TED Talks. His thesis boiled down to the claim that music is determined by context—that is, the venue where music will be played influences and shapes the songwriting process. At the time, as a member of the audience, I was skeptical. Byrne’s argument seemed to have a misguided premise that didn’t sit right with me. I understand music to come from emotional states, rather than careful analytical thought, and Byrne was saying the exact opposite.
Two years later, sitting in the three-tiered, high-ceilinged and ornate Beacon Theatre, it all came together. Byrne and his latest collaborator, Annie Clark, known by the stage name St. Vincent, played each other’s music as well as songs from their excellent new album, Love This Giant. The project features plenty of horns, which serves as a glue and counterpoint to their distinct styles. And in the sprawling theater, the two brought an eight-piece brass section, along with a drummer and keyboardist, which reflected a level of forethought I didn’t think possible: They made and executed the perfect performance for the space.
Every detail of the show seemed planned for a maximal audience experience. Byrne, Clark and their band dressed in slightly varied arrangements of formal black-and-white clothing. They moved together and separately in choreographed patterns. It was visually striking in addition to being sonically engaging. But the greatest pleasure was definitely the sound—towering vocals with Byrne’s signature falsetto and phrasing complemented by Clark’s airy harmonies, her glitchy, menacing guitar solos and huge swells of orchestral horns.
Byrne’s Talking Heads classic “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” had all the charm and original sweetness of the original but with bounciness from the new arrangement. Clark’s recent singles “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” retained their off kilter yet melodic power, but with a largess befitting the night and space: Because this space and this night were special. Although the band could have easily stopped after playing “Burning Down the House” for the first encore, they came back and finished with “Road to Nowhere.” It was emotional to hear the song in the context of the night, capping off such a monumental performance. They finished and took a final bow. Those in the crowd, who had been on their feet since the first encore, roared with applause. It was over, and we knew it. But to finish, they walked out playing a little reappraisal. The band played on. —Jared Levy
(David Byrne and St. Vincent play the Beacon Theatre tonight.)
Photo courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com
In a 2005 interview by the Onion’s AV Club, the interviewer mentioned to Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü and Sugar) that another interviewer had once referred to Mould as “the most depressed man in rock.” “He’s never met Stephin Merritt, obviously,” replied Mould. Merritt, the songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields, is one fascinating individual. Known for his morose bass voice and an effortlessly dry sense of humor, his onstage presence is oddly captivating. “Hello, Warsaw,” he said last night, greeting the audience packed into the Beacon Theatre, where the Magnetic Fields were playing their second of two shows.
Standing no taller than the cello to his right and donning a rainbow-colored Big Gay Ice Cream T-shirt, Merritt’s hilarious interludes between songs more than made up for his short stature. Alongside his longtime friend and pianist-singer-accomplice-band manager, Claudia Gonson, the two provided nonstop playful banter one might expect from a married couple. While the band’s songs often incorporate wit, they also contain some incredibly tender moments. And some achieve both, with Merritt’s humorous lines matched to a musical soundtrack that provides his lyrics with a sense of poignant sincerity. This was especially true during the restrained “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” a charmingly contemplative song about what it means to grow old.
“It’s Only Time,” played second to last during the set, is such a delicately beautiful and honest love song that it’s hard to imagine how it was written by Merritt without any accompanying tongue-in-cheek levity. It made for an interesting capstone to the performance, before the band finished off things with a cover of Merritt side project the Gothic Archies’ “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel.” There were, of course, also plenty of love-song vignettes of the opposite variety, including “Chicken with Its Head Cut Off,” “Boa Constrictor” and new song “Andrew in Drag.” It’s somewhere within this spectrum between the comical and emotional frankness that you’ll find the brilliance of Stephin Merritt. His ability to effortlessly dip into both of these worlds is unmatched in songwriting. And he’s not as depressed as you might think. —Dan Rickershauser
Photos courtesy of Mike Benigno | mikebenigno.wordpress.com
Gillian Welch’s sold-old performance at the Beacon Theatre on Saturday night was a study in the perfection of simplicity. Welch and her long-time musical partner, David Rawlings, stood side-by-side before a black backdrop on the large stage, empty but for some microphones, guitar stands and Rawlings’ weathered guitar amp—a minimal and striking tableaux. The duo’s musical collaboration on a modern blend of country, bluegrass and Americana is perhaps most remarkable for its ease and comfort. As they performed new material from Welch’s recent album, The Harrow & the Harvest, along with favorite cuts from her catalog and some choice covers, the duo effortlessly harmonized, weaving their guitar (and occasional banjo) lines and voices and into a seamless tapestry.
Some of the evening’s high points included a riveting rendition of “Revelator,” with Rawlings masterfully reaching out his hand to tune a string in the midst of a shredding guitar solo (and still managing to keep time), a lovely rendition of “Hard Times,” highlighting the interplay of banjo and Welch’s delicate voice, and the spirited addition of Welch’s percussive clapping and shuffling of her cowboy boots over Rawlings’ harmonica and banjo during “Six White Horses.” Toward the end of the second set, the duo mixed in several verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” during Rawlings’ “I Hear Them All,” and ended the night with a powerful version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
Welch and Rawlings’ performance was proof that the duo needs little more than a handful of instruments and an audience to put on a great show. With these simple elements in place, the stage was perfectly set to showcase the music itself, at times delicate and nuanced and buoyant and cheerful—the most wonderfully complex element of the night. —Alena Kastin
Last night after a rousing performance by singer-songwriter Amos Lee, whose smooth, soulful voice resonated within the expansive Wellmont Theatre, Lucinda Williams began her set with some upbeat numbers from 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her band getting right into the groove. Williams seemed to be feeling pretty good, swaying as she listened to the twang of the guitar and driving drum beat.
After rocking for a few more songs, Williams introduced the song “Copenhagen,” acknowledging that it was written to address her shock and sadness at the death of her longtime manager, who passed away when she was touring in Denmark. Befitting our New Jersey setting, Williams also took a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band before beginning to sing the song’s earnest and poignant lyrics, adorned with a beautiful solo from guitarist Blake Mills. As the song rang through the venue, the large space began to feel charged, heavy with the sentiments of the tune—a reflective moment not just for those onstage, but perhaps for many in the audience as well. Williams followed the song with a duet with Lee, the sweet and nostalgic “Little Angel, Little Brother,” afterward joking, “We’re gonna make y’all cry, then we’re gonna take y’all up.”
Indeed, the sad songs kept coming, with renditions of “Fruits of My Labor,” “Born to Be Loved” and “Unsuffer Me,” the last of which showed Williams at her most raw, her palms outstretched toward the sky as she sang, as if providing an offering. Of course, true to her word, Williams did take us up again and ended the show with versions of “Honeybee,” “Joy” and “Changed the Locks,” songs that all perfectly depict her signature swagger and take-no-prisoners attitude. By the night’s end, the only constant among the full range of subjects and styles within the music was that incredible voice of hers. Whether upbeat or weighty, Williams always manages to powerfully convey the range of emotions within her music. —Alena Kastin
(Lucinda Williams and Amos Lee play the Beacon Theatre tonight.)
The Decemberists played their first of three sold-out shows at the Beacon Theatre last night. Their brand new record, The King Is Dead, is more of a folk, acoustic affair than their previous couple of releases, and so Colin Meloy and Co. took the stage with a lute, fiddle, acoustic guitar, upright bass and accordion to open with two of the stronger cuts off the CD, “Down by the Water” and “Rox in the Box.” Sara Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, has been enlisted for this tour, adding fiddle and vocals and plenty of country credentials. Meloy was his usual chatty and affable self from the start, playfully urging the audience to stand up early on, which served to move the show from folk performance to the rock concert that most had been hoping to be a part of—clapping, singing, song requests and shouting soon ensued.
Throughout the night, Meloy indulged in the crisp sound of a 12-string guitar so often it seemed he would have been twice as happy with 24 strings. After the opening stretch of new songs, the Decemberists delved backward into their catalog, with “We Both Go Down Together” and “Engine Driver” off the Picaresque album. “Los Angeles I’m Yours” was electric, figuratively and literally, and punctuated by a grooved-up bass and electric piano, it was one of the highlights of the night. Playing along with the sunnier and warmer theme on the coldest day of the winter (so far), they followed their “January Hymn” with “July, July!” Chris Funk colored the show all night, switching between electric and acoustic instruments and adding wonderful pedal steel to “Rise to Me,” off the newest album.
With the crowd properly heated and the set drawing to a close, Meloy was in good form, bantering between songs and belting out his engaging lyrics. Finishing with a flourish, he finally hit on those middle albums, The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife with a raucous “The Rake’s Song” and a crowd-pleasing “O Valencia!” Not to leave them wanting, the Decemberists encored with a standout version of the epic “The Island” suite off Crane Wife and the promise of two more nights of engaging thesaurus rock. —A. Stein
Levon Helm is a member of rock royalty. He grew up in Arkansas but headed to Canada after high school to join rockabilly-star Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, the Hawks. Eventually he played alongside Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson before those five struck out on their own. By the mid-’60s, Bob Dylan was looking to go electric and he decided the Hawks were the perfect musicians to accompany him. While Dylan’s plugged-in takes on his folk classics would eventually gain widespread acclaim, it certainly didn’t happen overnight. As the audience’s booing and catcalls intensified, Helm decided to leave the band rather than face that negativity night after night.
In the meantime, Dylan and the Hawks headed to Europe and then to Woodstock after Dylan had a disastrous motorcycle accident there. While they were in upstate New York, they recorded a slew of material—eventually released as The Basement Tapes—at Danko, Hudson and Manuel’s house, affectionately known as Big Pink, in West Saugerties, N.Y. With things going so well musically, Danko invited Helm to rejoin them and write their own music, and somewhere along the way the band became the Band. They toured and released seven studio albums—including their spectacular debut, Music from Big Pink, and their fantastic sophomore effort, The Band—and one of the greatest live albums ever, Rock of Ages.
With their supreme musicianship, vivid storytelling and three of the finest voices (Danko’s, Helm’s and Manuel’s) in the history of recorded music, the Band went on to influence countless musicians and songwriters, and their songs, including “The Weight,” “Ophelia,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” are an enduring part of the rock canon. But, alas, all good things must come to an end. And so the Band closed up shop at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. It was, quite literally, The Last Waltz.
Following the Band’s breakup, Helm toured and recorded music and dabbled in acting, appearing in Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada among others. And after a successful but costly bout with throat cancer, he began to stage monthly Midnight Rambles at his home studio in Woodstock. Helm sings, entertains and plays the drums and mandolin, accompanied by an all-world backing band of his own, led by sideman extraordinaire Larry Campbell and Helm’s daughter, Amy. And if that weren’t enough, Helm has even put out two new albums, the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, since 2007. But here’s the best part: Levon Helm (above, playing “Ophelia” on PBS) is bringing his Ramble to the Beacon Theatre on Friday, with Steve Earle, and Saturday, with Bettye LaVette. Do your best to make it there. But be warned that your face will hurt the next day from smiling so much the night before. —R. Zizmor
Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (of Bright Eyes), Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward have put together their significant talents to form Monsters of Folk and to record a terrific self-titled album (stream three songs here) that has taken them out on the road and earned them favorable comparisons to the Traveling Wilburys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They recently played Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, and tonight they’re performing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. But if you want to see these MoFos in person—playing a mix of originals, covers and songs from their respective catalogs—you’re got two chances: They play United Palace on Friday and the Beacon Theatre on Sunday.
(Check out the the video for “The Right Place,” above.)