Tag Archives: Chad Berndtson

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Drive-By Truckers Raise a Passionate, Poignant Racket on Friday Night

February 13th, 2017

Drive-By Truckers – Westbury Theater – February 10, 2017

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In their earlier days, Drive-By Truckers were tagged alt-country, Southern rock and even country rock, but let’s call them what they are: no-bullshit rock and roll, anxious and unfiltered, and on their best nights, one of the best live bands of the last two decades. Still more remarkable is that despite major lineup changes, they seem to get better and better, the old songs aging gracefully but with more than a bit of veteran grizzle, and the new songs finding darkness, humor and poignancy in quotidian angst without sounding topical for topical’s sake or shading (too far anyway) into rock-protest sanctimony. Truckers characters are people you know: lived-in, loaded and lumpy. Their problems are your problems. Their shots at redemption are understandable and their failures disappointing.

This mature balance—the ability to be present and unflinchingly direct about news making matters of the age without being thin or pedantic—is so crucial to the current Truckers tour, filled with set lists that focus heavily on last year’s American Band, their most overtly political album. In Westbury, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Co. gave us hails of guitar, clattering drums and passionate vocals that came from somewhere deep to frame stories of shootings in Oregon on a beautifully sunny day (“Guns of Umpaqua”), an ill-fated Mexican teenager (“Ramon Casiano”) and the long-lingering ghosts of the Civil War (“Surrender Under Protest”). Some of these songs (“Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” or “What It Means,” which addresses racism head-on) didn’t require much interpretation. Many were loud, with a sticking finger in your chest, although still others, such as Cooley’s “Once They Banned Imagine,” included acoustic guitars and had the world-weariness of protest-folk without decoupling from the band’s rambling, gnarly rock-ness. And it’s worth noting that politically potent Truckers tunes with a “to hell with this crap” edge aren’t anything new: “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” played fourth, is more than a decade old and its small-town family tragedy has never felt more acute. Same deal with “Sinkhole,” the Truckers’ epic of social class, murder and family values.

As they’ve gotten leaner—the band is now Hood, Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan, multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez and bassist Matt Patton—Drive-By Truckers have gotten meaner, filling more space with paint-peeler guitar solos and working up huge, rambunctious rackets. What’s never quite changed is how they pace a show—peaks and valleys of hard-rocking defiance and melancholy resignation that eventually give way to a runaway train of concert warhorses and an explosive finale. The last 30 minutes on Friday night served up the wry-sad “Buttholeville” with a dovetail into Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” along with “Zip City” and “What It Means.” “Love Like This,” Hood’s fist-pumping “Let There Be Rock” (greasy with the saluted nostalgia of the Truckers’ many forebears, from AC/DC to the Replacements) and the anthemic “Shut Up and Get on the Plane.” Hood told us there would be no encore—they haven’t played any on this tour, choosing to barrel through rather than pause, lest any of the loaded tension dissipate too soon—and the Truckers left with “Grand Canyon” and its protracted guitar meltdown. It was ragged and right, as the Truckers always are. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

 

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Chris Robinson Brotherhood Take Their Time at the Space at Westbury

November 21st, 2016

Chris Robinson Brotherhood – the Space at Westbury – November 18, 2016

(Photo: Jay Blakesberg)

(Photo: Jay Blakesberg)


I’ve seen the Chris Robinson Brotherhood do their pie-eyed, soulful thing plenty now, and the word I keep going back to is unhurried, which doesn’t mean slow, for this band can cook up a good old rock and roll, blues or country racket when called for. But that does mean you go at their pace: a deliberate, expansive set or two of deeply fleshed out and not-a-little-cosmic Americana that insists you groove in its orbit or that you politely leave the rocket ship. It may not be for everybody, but in every year since the band’s 2011 inception, yielding to what the CRB does has been rewarding for the willing listener.

Robinson and his band of aces—guitarist Neal Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Tony Leone—throw back to a time when rock, blues, country and folk were painted with Day-Glo and didn’t mind a layer of stardust. Their music feels nostalgic but embraceable and honest. Those wistful moments that might sound sad or might sound accepting depend on how a guitar string is plucked, meshed with those more celebratory, up-tempo, let’s-kick-it type of songs. They can be short statements or long statements or really long statements, protracted with jam segments that can veer toward an ambient soundscape or burn with the gnarly guitars of a Tuesday night at the roadhouse.

They’re encyclopedic too, and that reach goes wide and deep. This two-setter at the Space at Westbury on Friday featured songs by Hoyt Axton (“Never Been to Spain”), Jackie Moore (“Precious Precious”), Bob Dylan (“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”) and New Riders of the Purple Sage (“Last Lonely Eagle”) tucked between CRB originals and songs from Robinson’s previous associations given new life by this band (“I Ain’t Hiding,” came from the Black Crowes while “Tumbleweed in Eden” and “Train Robbers” drew from the brief, turbulent life of Robinson’s 2002-2004 era band, New Earth Mud). None of those felt out of place, but rather they were bent to the groovy CRB m.o. such that a well-trodden tune like “Baby Blue” had a livelier, hootenanny feel than the regretful folk sound it’s most often associated with. Robinson was as ever the band’s centerpiece. He’s still the charismatic hippie-with-an-edge howler he always was leading the Crowes, and with Leone and Hill keeping things humming—and from veering off course—Casal and MacDougall become its painters, working with a significant range of tones and colors both earthy (Casal’s paint-peeler slide guitar) and spacey (MacDougall’s spattering psych-out effects).

Together, the fivesome offered a few hours of vignettes: the mournful then defiant narrator of “Train Robbers,” which began as spooky country before erupting into vocal howls and volcanic guitar, the vicious rock and roll of “I Ain’t Hiding” (“Ain’t your saint, ain’t your enemy/ I’m a long shadow on the highway”), the big dreams and tortured realities of “Forever as the Moon” and “Star or Stone,” plus the drunk-on-life rambling in “Rosalee,” which began and ended the second set as effectively one long sandwich. And if there’s a newer song from the band’s rapidly growing catalog that takes its place among its best and most complete statements, it’s “Narcissus Soaking Wet,” which on this tour has been a second-set showpiece, getting really cosmic and Dead-y, a lengthy tale of myth. It’s a song to get lost in from a band really good at making them. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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Caspian Find Their Mark at Music Hall of Williamsburg

November 18th, 2016

Caspian – Music Hall of Williamsburg – November 17, 2016

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Coming out of a Caspian show, you feel roughed up and blown out, but in a good way. The post-rock band’s (mostly) instrumental sound seems to build from somewhere far away, encroaching gradually until it’s totally taken over, swarming you with a hail of guitar and other effects, roiling the floor with pummeling rhythms, pushing you over an abyss or up into a heavenly resolution of chords. It’s exhausting, cathartic and mighty dramatic—but that’s the point. You’re enthralled by the layers of sound and it’s kind of alarming, but you feel it build and build in tension, then give way to explosive release, whether on the back of a high-stacked triple-guitar melody or something more latent that takes longer to reveal itself. Dust and Disquiet, as Caspian’s 2015 release was named, and very much so.

Caspian were a buzzed-about curiosity in Massachusetts and in post-rock circles for long enough that when they finally began to mount national tours, the crowds were there to greet them. Their sound can be dense—you’re entering a sonic thicket and it’s easy to get lost in it—but the band also prioritizes melody. They’re accessible and not given to long stretches of ambient goo or merely retreading a crescendo-and-explode-over-elaborate-orchestration format. The five-piece found their mark early and often last night at Music Hall of Williamsburg, with a cinematic hour-plus set of selections that focused on but didn’t limit to Dust and Disquiet material. Some songs, such as “Rioseco” and the old Caspian favorite “Some Are White Light,” favored the long build, with layer upon layer of guitar swells crashing against a wall until they broke through, washing the senses. “Arcs of Command” and “Echo and Abyss” veered toward prog-metal, doped on guitar syncopation, letting crashing cymbals and electronic loops overwhelm the audience with inspired clangor.

They’re not all dark-night-of-terrors songs, though. Many Caspian tunes go for ominous uncertainty—inchoate guitar tones wandering around one another in a maybe-spooked, maybe-blissful haze—or for unbridled, bust-out joy, with massive builds that sound like blasts of light through a darkened tunnel look like. This is not an easy feat. Too much indulgence into a sound like this means lots of sculpted noise and guitar hail with little to hang on to. Too much composed orchestration, however, and the feeling in the music goes away—it becomes antiseptic, a tasteless recital, especially for those who’ve already taken the ride with the band. So credit Caspian for infusing so much heart into a genre that can sound remarkably numb. This is a rock-your-face sound you want to lean toward, rather than resist. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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The Coathangers Leave The Bowery Ballroom Breathless

July 13th, 2016

The Coathangers – The Bowery Ballroom – July 12, 2016

The Coathangers – The Bowery Ballroom – July 12, 2016
The crowd just eats this up: this, by the all-female punk threesome the Coathangers, which involves quirk, dark humor, reckless abandon and, occasionally, a rubber ducky; this, which has been a growing brand for years now among lovers of infectious, furious punk-rock energy; this, which loved hard on propulsive beats of all kinds: rat-a-tat, chug, boom-chick, a little swing; this, which slayed a Tuesday night Bowery Ballroom crowd and was the fastest, most delirious hour of stage time this writer can remember in a while—the equivalent of being slapped around and then smooched with a wry smile.

The Atlanta-based band, which includes Meredith Franco on bass and vocals, Julia Kugel on guitar and vocals, and Stephanie Luke on drums and vocals, allegedly started as a joke nearly 10 years ago—their name a wildly inappropriate, purposefully vulgar reference for an all-female band. If this is, or really was ever, a joke, it’s a great one. These three have found the heart of the Venn diagram where danceable punk meets subversive rock and roll meets earnestly delivered songs called “Squeeki Tiki” and “Don’t Touch My Shit”—long may it play out. Sometime around the release of their 2014 album, Suck My Shirt, they found themselves hammering away at what they’re good at, without ever losing the wink-and-gun humor in songs that, on any given night, might be about punching someone in the, y’know, twat. (You won’t hear it on their albums, but you get the feeling they could write a damn good bubblegum pop hook too.)

Last night, a throttling hour left us with much of their recent album, Nosebleed Weekend, squeezed rubber-ducky sound in “Tiki” and all. That was the set-closer, actually, before it came whipcrack crowd-rousing numbers like “Make It Right” (Luke’s raspier vocals in gnarlier contrast to Kugel’s chirpier vocals) and “Watch Your Back,” which indulged in more of an art-punk sensibility with its balance of dynamics vs. straight pow-pow-pow. Not that straight pow-pow-pow is anything less than needed in these fraught times. In the last quarter of their set, the band began to get nuts, switching instruments and baiting the crowd. Franco handed her bass to Kugel, moved to lead vocals and then executed an exceptional stage dive all while singing “Nestle in My Boobies,” which goes back to 2007. She next went to bass, bringing drummer Luke out to prowl the front of the stage. Franco and Luke returned to their instruments and that’s when Kugel went not for guitar but for the ducky—“Tiki” time. Sometime before that had also come the band’s sparking cover of Gun Club’s “Sex Beat.” You’ll have to consult a printed set list to know exactly when—we were captivated by their blur of aggression and there wasn’t much time to catch a breath. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

Photos courtesy of Adela Loconte | adelaloconte.com

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With a New Album Wussy Graduate to The Bowery Ballroom

July 11th, 2016

Wussy – The Bowery Ballroom – July 10, 2016

(Photo: John Corley)

(Photo: John Corley)

Wussy, the Cincinnati fivesome, write fractured love songs, bittersweet tales of woe, knowingly dire kiss-offs, fist-pumping rockers that turn regret into a hail of guitar noise. That they’re some of the best in the business at doing this sort of thing—sad-eyed but still rock-out-ready indie rock, pop and alt-country—and have until somewhat recently been a secret shared among their hometown fans, Robert Christgau and the handful of other critics who handed them accolades long before the crowds appeared. And then, at long last, audiences did begin to show up, and after years of daylong drives to play 30-minute showcase sets whenever possible, Wussy returned to New York City with bigger audiences and, as of Sunday, have graduated to The Bowery Ballroom. Oh, have they earned it. Their songs are emotional wrecks, lived in without being weighed down. Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker and Co. have written and recorded so many of them now without compromising what makes a hard-edged rock song with a tender core such a sturdy thing in the first place. They’re a bit odd—the songs and the band—but by about 15 minutes into a set, you’re enthralled, living in the little, hardscrabble, honest worlds these songs call to mind.

No Wussy show I’ve ever seen has been too long: Always, when they’re leaving the stage for the last time that evening, I’m thinking, “I could really use one more of those.” Last night’s headlining show focused on Wussy’s most recent album, Forever Sounds, and served up tunes like “Gone”—with its pinched, Pixies-like narrative singing over loud guitars—“Hello, I’m a Ghost,” “Sidewalk Sale” and the gently shoegaze-y “Dropping Houses.” Intermixed with these came the throttling “Pulverized,” plus older favorites like “Maglite” and “Pizza King” (“KOA all night or forever if you want it/ We’re catching air outside the value supermarket”—such a Wussy kind of line). Late in the set, Walker claimed the spotlight, with only guitarist and pedal-steel player John Erhardt to accompany her, for the devastating “Majestic-12”—she sang like someone who had only recently discovered she could and wanted to see what such a gorgeous, slightly scuffed voice could do. And they did their typically superb version of New Order’s “Ceremony” as a closer, an esoteric cover that was just the right fit for a band that doesn’t do many of them.

Wussy come off as a lovably dysfunctional family: They banter wryly, Cleaver and Walker draw in most of the energy, and behind them comes an assured foundation from bassist Mark Messerly and drummer Joe Klug, in addition to color and shading from Erhardt, who holds back his steel playing from its traditional role of narrating sad songs, instead making it a racket-bearer, washing what the rest of the band is doing in frothy guitar tones. It wouldn’t work for other groups, but it does for Wussy. And these cracked-poetry songs wouldn’t work for other groups, but they do for Wussy—a band that knows how good they are but never once shed the humility they had before people started to show up.
—Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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Sarah Jarosz Is Sure of Her Talents at The Bowery Ballroom

June 28th, 2016

Sarah Jarosz – The Bowery Ballroom – June 27, 2016

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Sarah Jarosz’s superb new album is called Undercurrent, which, perhaps, you already knew because of all the critical praise it’s received. The LP is a gorgeous document—something you yield to, swooning over her deeply affecting soprano—and simply great in how its songs come across complete, but not overadorned. More pronounced, less intimate arrangements would be needed if the songs couldn’t stand on their own, but whoa, can they: Jarosz, at 25, sounds more knowing, worldly and pragmatic than many accomplished folk singers twice her age. Brilliantly, she can also transfer this honest, lived-in vibe to the stage, and did during a nourishing show at The Bowery Ballroom last night.

Undercurrent material figured heavily in a set that unspooled, song by song—visits with an excited but weary mind, narrating stories like “Lost Dog,” “Take Another Turn” (with the line “What does it mean to be lonely?”), “Everything to Hide” and the gently swampy “Back of My Mind.” It’s accurate to call these songs and older Jarosz gems, like “Build Me Up from Bones,” country-rubbed folk, with just enough blues and New York City noir in there to keep them from sounding old-timey. Here, too, were they unadorned—guitars and bass, mostly, in a trio format, and dressed up only by Jarosz’s own voice. As a performer, she seems self-aware, sure of her talents and sure of not wanting to gild the lily.

Well, OK, even Jarosz can’t argue with a bit of lily-gilding: Late in the show, she summoned her I’m with Her bandmates, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, and for a few minutes, we were transported back to an equally magical show from December 2015, at this same venue, with that same trio of dazzlingly talented female folkies, each wanting to share the stage, each performer’s individual charisma making that seem impossible to do, until they expertly balanced one another. Their delivery of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House”—one of Jarosz’s best covers—at first felt like a visit from an entirely different concert, and then felt of a piece with the rest of the set, another visit that you come away from learning more than what you’ve brought to it. We’ll be hearing more from Jarosz, from I’m with Her, from every interesting possibility these combinations of musicians seem to yield. And possibly soon: Sara Watkins is at Rough Trade NYC tonight. Just saying. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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The Jayhawks Sound Ageless at The Bowery Ballroom

June 16th, 2016

The Jayhawks – The Bowery Ballroom – June 15, 2016

The Jayhawks - The Bowery Ballroom - June 15, 2016
It’s inspiring that Gary Louris and the Jayhawks can still do this: hit that sweet spot where good-time rock and roll, sweet-and-sour folk and scuffed country are the same music and hold on that spot for the duration of an entire show. You find yourself embracing the voices, but it’s as much the vibe, too—those mesmerizing, Everlys-style harmonies laid on a Flying Burrito Brothers bed, but with the frayed edges of ’90s alt rock present to keep things from getting too comfortable. Louris himself—surrounded by a further-revised version of the band that includes Marc Perlman, Tim O’Reagan, Karen Grotberg and new guitarist Kraig Johnson—is making age work for him.

Louris’s singing sounds a bit more lived in, but as he and the band peeled off songs last night at The Bowery Ballroom like “Waiting for the Sun,” “Leaving the Monsters Behind” and “Stumbling Through the Dark”—the first three to begin a 25-song evening—it’s clear that he’s become the gritty veteran troubadour he could only nod toward when he was a much younger man. Even the Jayhawks classics, from “Blue,” and “Tomorrow the Green Grass” to set-closer “I’d Run Away,” have a more knowing, perhaps pragmatic tone than they once did, made that much more potent by the fact that the singer, 20 years or more later, now knows these things he thought to be evident, rather than speculated. Give Louris this, as well: That Jayhawks sound stayed remarkably consistent, right up through this year’s guitar-y, gently experimental Paging Mr. Proust, one of the band’s best albums.

That newer material—“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces,” “Ace,” “Isabel’s Daughter”—nestles comfortably among the old, with fewer emotional triggers for a crowd weaned on classic-era Jayhawks albums like Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, but in time, becoming of a piece with those decades-old tunes. Indeed, throughout this very sold-out show, Louris and Co. seemed to draw on as many Jayhawks flavors as possible to demonstrate the common thread, from “Tailspin,” which was served up roadhouse-Dylan style, almost a fist-pumper, to “Settled Down Like Rain,” which Louris delivered solo, plus “Tampa to Tulsa” and “Angelyne,” each with an assist from opening band Folk Uke. The Jayhawks—and Louris, personally—have been through a lot of changes since those heady days of Hollywood Town Hall. But shows like this one confirmed what we always suspected about the band back then: The Jayhawks’ sound is ageless, and their mission is a sure one, even as time marches on. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

Photos courtesy of Mike Benigno | mikebenigno.com

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Aubrie Sellers Confidently Walks the Line at Rough Trade NYC

May 18th, 2016

Aubrie Sellers – Rough Trade NYC – May 17, 2016

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Aubrie Sellers has described what she does as “garage country,” and that’s on point. It’s not that her music sounds bashed out or particularly raw, but it’s clear from the first notes—and even in her tenderest songs—that we’re not dealing with the side of Nashville that favors slickness, polish and a packaged sound. No, in Sellers’ hands, country songs get nice and scuffed, sometimes with a honky-tonk bent, sometimes with an infusion of indie rock, sometimes with punk’s burnt edges, sometimes mindful of ’70s AM rock and sounding perhaps a few clicks over from Fleetwood Mac. She’s part of a six-piece band, but there isn’t a keyboard, or a fiddle, in sight, and a whole lot of guitars kicking up some principled racket. There’s a steel player—used to great effect during last night’s set at Rough Trade NYC—but he’s just as likely to blow harp through a tricked-out microphone made from what appears to be an old telephone receiver. Cool. 

These distinctions are important because Sellers, who’ll be described here and probably in every profile, feature and review for years as the daughter of Lee Ann Womack and Jason Sellers, knowingly put extra pressure on herself by following her parents into the biz. But she’s neither a Nashville country supplicant nor a rebel. The songs on her debut album, New City Blues, walk the line between both of these poles. Over the course of an hour’s headlining set, Sellers tried them out on us: winking blues rock in “Sit Here and Cry,” sweet yearning in “Something Special,” moody country angst in “Light of Day,” cautioned romance in “Just to Be with You.”

Sellers explained that most of her set is usually sad or sarcastic songs but then sneaked in some reservedly happy ones. She pulled in a few covers, some obvious (Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips a Beat”) and some far less so, but well chosen, including the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” which the band turned into a misty-morning electric-folk song while Sellers mined its sensitive beauty. Throughout, and in any of those modes, she displayed able command of a big-sound band, knowing when to keep a tight rein so her vocals could be the main focus and when to let those gnarly guitars overwhelm her singing a bit. The confidence in that balance is working for her. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Are Categorically Fun on Saturday

May 16th, 2016

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – The Bowery Ballroom – May 14, 2016

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It wasn’t even two minutes into King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s latest headlining show in New York City, and you were already pogoing, maybe even head-banging, as if your body didn’t know any other reaction. That’s the thrall—and the thrill—of the Gizz, only a handful of years from buzzed-about Australian psych-rock curiosity to legitimate headliner, selling out The Bowery Ballroom well in advance and owning the tightly packed crowd from the second they stepped onstage (fittingly, to Motörhead). Gizzard are a seven-piece, a multifarious rock band, and that’s about where a suitably tight description ends. They’re a psychedelic band, for sure, and they’re also a raging punk band, or maybe a pop group with razor-sharp edges but also a jam band, or maybe just a bash-it-out garage band with a love of swirling keyboard effects, purple-shitstorm guitars, and unexpected snatches of harmonica and flute that can push their music toward more of a roadhouse-blues feel or a prog excursion when the current mood calls for it.

In roughly 75 minutes at Bowery, the focus was on the band’s new album, Nonagon Infinity—the latest evidence that they’re as prolific as they are adventurous, having released new music at least once a year since 2011. Songs like “Robot Stop,” “People-Vultures,” “Big Fig Wasp,” “Gamma Knife,” “Trapdoor,” “Evil Death Roll” were roared through rather than neatly packaged and placed, sounding remarkably like their titles suggest: a journey through a Spielbergian universe of space and jungles and deserts and past and future and love and death. The point is that you’re invested, that you’re self-aware, but not self-conscious. You’re in the cockpit with them through every set of lines, like “I distort the notion of the place, the universe’s other face/ The speed of light has slowed apace, the universe’s other face,” and they’re training you to respond to every swerve, hairpin turn and meltdown, whether it’s a harmonica break, an anthemic fist-pumping chorus or a slowed roll into something quieter, more folkie.

Nonagon is King Gizzard’s most ambitious work yet. It’s the one where the Australian rockers are finally sure they can pack all of this cultured madness into a coherent statement without it feeling too eclectic. Remarkably, their live show has evolved in kind, putting infectious energy behind that complex sound and turbo-charging it to where you’re scarcely aware an hour’s gone by but you’ve been bopping along—moshing, maybe, and on Saturday, possibly even surfing the crowd as more than a few revelers did—the whole time. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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Peter Wolf Knows How to Get It Done at The Bowery Ballroom

May 9th, 2016

Peter Wolf – The Bowery Ballroom – May 6, 2016

(Photo: Duke Levine)

(Photo: Duke Levine)

Peter Wolf is an old school kind of showman. If you live in the Boston area and frequent the handful of clubs in Cambridge and Somerville where the local-music scene thrives, it’s not uncommon to see Wolf—a world-renowned rock star who’s fronted one of the great live bands of the age—hanging out by the stage, and, if the spirit so compels him, jumping up to sing a few. Among his strengths are that he exudes an easy intimacy. He commands a stage as a singer and a performer and yet, whether it’s an arena-sized crowd, a shoebox of a place or The Bowery Ballroom, where Wolf was on Friday night, he still comes off like the dead-serious-committed frontman of the local guys who, when the house is rocking and the crowd’s into it, can do no wrong. He struts, he dances, he kneels, he sings with gusto and owns his moment, with relish.

Wolf’s shows these days, when he’s on the road, are a banquet of his favorite sounds, primarily, although not exclusively, blues, roots-y rock and roll and R&B. His 90-minute Bowery show drew generously from A Cure for Loneliness, Wolf’s eighth solo album, but mixed in chestnuts from throughout his career, including the inevitable dips into the J. Geils Band catalog, which included “Cry One More Time” and, inevitably, a raucous “Musta Got Lost” to close. That Wolf would bring a crack band was a given, and this night it included a gallery of Boston regulars, from guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry to bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Tom Arey, each a local legend in the land of Red Sox. They were a malleable unit, led by Wolf through roots and country (“Wastin’ Time,” “Always So Easy”), no-hurry rock (“Nothing but the Wheel”), desperately hurrying rock (“Can’t Get Started”) and ruminative soul (“Fun for a While”).

One of the new album’s curiosities—a bluegrass reinvention of the Geils chestnut “Love Stinks”—was paired with Bill Monroe’s “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold,” for an unexpected left-field highlight. Sometimes you just don’t argue with the old school, and why should you? You look at Wolf, you watch him eat for dinner a set like that, and you nod, thinking, “Yeah, that’s how it’s done.” —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

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Cate Le Bon Harnesses Tension at Rough Trade NYC

May 6th, 2016

Cate Le Bon – Rough Trade NYC – May 5, 2016

Cate Le Bon – Rough Trade NYC – May 5, 2016
Cate Le Bon is an alt-folkie with an art-punk problem. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Or maybe it’s neither and that she’s sort of an outgrowth of ’60s psych pop with a generous helping of unknowable, but still accessible Nico-style experimental rock. Or maybe you’re already pigeonholing her. Genre smashing is itself a pigeonhole: It implies a sort of off-the-rails collision of ideas and splattering of preconceived notions of what an indie-rock or indie-pop act might sound like. And as you watch Le Bon strut her stuff—torture that guitar, head bang, smile mischievously, artfully tease her bandmates in a faux flirty way—there’s no question she’s not only not off the rails, but of course well in command of whatever you call this, which can be poppy or delicate, sweet or tangy, angst-y or gnarly, but is definitely rock and roll with a touch of cultured madness.

Two of the songs late in her hour-long set last night at Rough Trade NYC, “Cuckoo Through the Walls” and “What’s Not Mine,” ended with protracted excursions, Crazy Horse–style peels of guitar noise and screwy-sounding sonic effects that Le Bon appeared lost in, and then smiled about, resolving guitar chaos into calm, goosing the audience that it was OK to look up from the bliss and applaud. Le Bon’s performance—including her usual three-person backing band mixing drums, percussion, basses, guitars and keys—was organized around the just-released Crab Day, perhaps her most complete expression yet in album form. So many of its songs, including that scraped-beautiful “What’s Not Mine” and its stabbing beat, the chilly “Wonderful,” the remorseful “Love Is Not Love” and the psychedelic and sinister “We Might Revolve,” find her not so much battling demons as trying to rationalize a whole set of wrongs and disappointments—trying to take the high road regarding certain problems, but maybe struggling to hold back the feral-cat anger, too.

The album sits on that tension, but Cate Le Bon the live show harnesses it, and you feel it in every song. That’s not to say she’s overwhelmingly heavy, either. Most of her songs feel like flexible things built to be stretched a bit. And where the band really connects isn’t in overindulged jamband-style progressions or endless build, build, build—that wouldn’t suit them—but in those snatches of improvisation and moments when it yields to a throbbing rhythm and the glory of a guitar squall, with or without Le Bon’s solemn, dark-tunnel vocals soaring above. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson

Photos courtesy of Silvia Saponaro | www.saponarophotography.com

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Landlady and Sex Mob Help Rough Trade NYC Dance Away the Pain

April 22nd, 2016

Landlady – Rough Trade NYC – April 21, 2016

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Landlady take over a stage to the point of spilling off of it, and their music sounds something like that, too—avant-pop, garage rock, funk, Afrobeat, heady jazz, pushed and pulled, knocked around a bit, sloshing like a too-full cocktail glass sitting on a wobbly table. This is a good thing: The New York of 2016 needs more of these risk-taking bands going for broke when it comes to blast-it-out improvisation and collective genre-smashing, somehow finding tasty melodies and total brain-fuck engagement in what to a passing-by ear could sound like blotted chaos. (The word surprise is used on their Facebook page as the group’s genre.) And that Landlady opted to share last night with one of the OG purveyors of this kind of sonic assault—Sex Mob—made for a wonderfully odd and unhinged show at Rough Trade NYC.

Near the end of their roughly 75-minute set, Landlady—the core five-piece with guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussion—tucked into “The Globe,” off their superb 2014 album, Upright Behavior. It’s an encapsulating song: Adam Schatz’s deceptively triumphant (or cheerfully weary?) vocals over a pie-eyed, finger-snapping melody delivered in service of a song that has something to do with living under stars but slouching toward, not Bethlehem, but a black hole. And that sort of happy-downtrodden balance frames so much of what Landlady do. Their tunes don’t force themselves on you, but once they grab your attention, then comes the rewarding variation, from manic percussion jams—drummers and percussionists Ian Chang and Booker Stardrum love to change positions and switch instruments with each other—to swirls of Farfisa and Wurlitzer to unexpected stabs of metallic guitar from Will Graefe. There were dynamic changeups left and right. “What’s the matter with my girl?” asked Schatz, sort of pained, sort of delirious, during “Girl” as a prelude to a full-stop beat of silence before he quietly built back the melody and then the whole band slammed into a refrain. “Dying Day” included a stab-y, aggressive melody and a format full of syncopation, yet its edges were smoothed with psychedelic keyboards.

Landlady are adventurous, but, crucially, don’t seem to get drunk on their own mojo. In fact, you never get the sense, even when their music spirals out into noisy, carnival sonics that they are anything but in control. The band paused to acknowledge Prince and the crowd cheered some heartfelt words from Schatz about playing songs because “that’s what we do” at a time like this: an invitation to dance the hurt away. When it came time for the hoped for Landlady-Sex Mob crossover, the collective turned not to Prince but to another recently fallen icon, adding most of Sex Mob to the Landlady cocktail for a vigorous version of David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” that included a free-form jam studded with trumpet and sax and a percussion summit with Chang and Stardrum on the percussion rack and the incomparable Kenny Wollesen behind the kit. There was so much glorious noise at one point it sounded like the band would need to stop and restart the song, but with Landlady, as with Sex Mob, that’s usually where the song comes back out of the woods, surprising and gently chiding you for your concern about the musicians’ ability to not get lost. It was a lovely arrival from two groups that seem sort of insane but, as the poet wrote, are so sane they’ve blown your minds. —Chad Berndtson | @chadberndtson

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Ween Throw a Raging Party at Terminal 5 on Thursday Night

April 15th, 2016

Ween – Terminal 5 – April 14, 2016

Ween – Terminal 5 – April 14, 2016
It was clear even before these Terminal 5 shows sold out immediately that Ween’s return to New York City would be a capital-E Event. The band’s recent years were messy, with a full-blown breakup in 2012 and then a range of interesting commitments for each member until the rumor mill began to churn and whispers of a reunion turned into possibilities, then confirmations, then hard tickets and, finally, actual shows played, in the form of a three-night run in Colorado back in February. Now it’s NYC’s turn, and the first show of another three-night run, this time at a sold-out Terminal 5, was a raging party. In this season of can’t-believe-it reunions, from LCD Soundsystem to Guns N’ Roses, Ween’s might be the tastiest of all, at least to those who know every iota of songs like “Roses Are Free,” “Bananas and Blow,” “You Fucked Up” and “Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain.”

You don’t so much embrace Ween’s diabolically diverse catalog as reckon with it. Their repertoire culls from some nine different studio albums, covers, obscurities and new songs, too, and they do a remarkable job during their live show of splaying it all out there, multifaceted as it is, without losing energy or muddling the pace. Opening night at Terminal 5 moved—pinballed, really—from the giddy grooves of “Roses” and smart-alecky island maneuvers of “Bananas and Blow” to the sludgy, stomping rock of “The Grobe,” the curled-lip honky-tonk of “Japanese Cowboy” and the cheeky whimsy of “Boys Club.” The song count topped 30, as it often does at Ween shows that, like this one, stretched to two-and-a-half hours. One moment we were in the twisted-Beatles pop of “Little Birdy,” another we were singing along to the rage-burnt folk of “Baby Bitch.” Another still we entered the Floyd-ian psychedelic muck of “Mushroom Festival in Hell,” which flirted with a full devolution into noise rock in a hail of guitar fire.

The hard-partying crowd went wild for almost every song, and the band—throwing knowing smiles and shit-eating grins at the audience like the smart kids in the back of the class they’ve always been—seemed genuinely touched by the hero’s welcome. Ween are part of a rock lineage that’s brutally hard to define but you know it when you see it. Whatever that thread is that connects Frank Zappa and the Aquarium Rescue Unit to Phish and Gogol Bordello—dazzling musicality, technical prowess and songwriting depth beneath a sense of humor, heaps of personality and a few high jinks here and there—it’s in Ween’s stitching, too. A Ween-less world is a less exciting place, and what a happy thing that the band remembers that, too. —Chad Berndtson | @cberndtson

Photos courtesy of Joe Papeo | www.irocktheshot.com

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The New Deal Take Music Hall of Williamsburg on Wild Two-Set Ride

March 25th, 2016

The New Deal – Music Hall of Williamsburg – March 24, 2016

The New Deal – Music Hall of Williamsburg – March 24, 2016
The New Deal have long been a connoisseur’s choice among lovers of jamtronica, beloved for their chops, sonic inventiveness and forward-thinking jams that go places, not just vamp for hours on top of an endless untz-untz and a trippy light show. That they’ve been back at it for about two years now—and have just released a new studio album, Mercury Switch, for the first time in more than a decade—makes it easy to forget that for a while, the New Deal had hung it up, convinced the tide of production-heavy EDM performers and celebrity DJs were cropping out their more organic approach to highly danceable, marvelously textured improvisation. Instead, something more interesting happened: Jamie Shields and Dan Kurtz, along with 2014 recruit Joel Stouffer, returned to find EDM, electropop and the jam worlds in, well, if not harmony, an agreeable balance, such that the New Deal’s nearly faultless live show draws from each in nearly equal measure. The trio corral electro-shocked house, techno, dance rock, breakbeat and drum-and-bass and make them forcefully whole in such a way that would just as easily fit the vibes and crowds of Bonnaroo or Jam Cruise as as Electric Daisy Carnival or Coachella.

By the time the New Deal came on at Music Hall of Williamsburg last night, it was suitably late, and Shields, Kurtz and Stouffer didn’t so much settle in as they got down to business right away, teasing a series of layered keyboard sounds, rumbling bass and drums and percussion that caromed right into a highly danceable groove. It was as much fun to watch them work as it was to listen. In part, you got a light show filled, on this night, with penetrating green and purple beams arranged in a series of morphing lattice patterns. In part you also got the three principals, arranged more as a row of pods conjoined to one another—Shields in a fortress of keyboards stage right, Kurtz in the middle and Stouffer angled behind the tricked-out drum kit stage left—such that the members looked more like they were manning the weapons against TIE fighters than playing in a band.

Set list? Hmm. There were a number of thoroughly explored passages through New Deal cuts old (“Technobeam”) and new (“Mercury Switch” and “Quattro,” both off of the new album), plus a wide range of melodic and sonic textures over two potent sets. But for the New Deal, set list is kind of beside the point. Song beginnings don’t so much elicit pogo-ing crowd reactions as do peaks in the jams: EDM-style drops, soaring flights of keyboard, slippery-slap bass, drums that throttle. The New Deal are as at home in a world of wobbly notes and reverb as they are in gnarly dance rock, synth-studded techno or straight-up breakbeat. You drive, fly or swim down the dark tunnels with them and somewhere along the way—10 minutes? 20? 30?—you’re deposited at the bottom of the chute, laughing and thoroughly spent. —Chad Berndtson | @cberndtson

Photos courtesy of Pat Tabb | pattabb.com

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The Cactus Blossoms Fill Mercury Lounge with Perfect Harmonies

February 19th, 2016

The Cactus Blossoms – Mercury Lounge – February 18, 2016

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“It’s the country in it, but really the harmonies,” a friend told me about the Cactus Blossoms. “Like Hank Williams crossed with the Everly Brothers.” High—and pressure-packed—praise, but in the case of the Cactus Blossoms, it was decidedly accurate. The Minneapolis duo of Page Burkum and Jack Torrey, brothers in life and in music, blend their voices and demonstrate a command of traditional country that, astonishingly, sounds nostalgic and modern, particularly live. They didn’t so much play a 70-minute headlining set as stop time for a little bit, hypnotizing a packed audience with bittersweet romances, sad-eyed waltzes, bristled cowboy songs and snatches of Western swing.

The Cactus Blossoms dipped expertly into Hank Williams (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”), Waylon Jennings (“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”) and others, but let many of their own tunes carry the night, from “A Sad Day to Be You” and “You’re Dreaming” to “Powder Blue” and “Stoplight Kisses.” But he standout may have been “Queen of Them All,” a swooning ballad that turned into a deeply felt romantic declaration with a happy ending.

Why did this work so well? The brothers let those rich, blended singing voices breathe, underpinning gorgeous harmonies with only the necessary amount of electric and acoustic guitar accompaniment and the insistent but never overpowering rhythm work of upright bassist Andy Carroll and drummer Chris Hepola, rounding out a new touring lineup. You could feel the heart in it—the authenticity and appreciation for this form of Americana and the potency of voices and spare instrumentation, without tricks or embellishment. And if you missed it, they return next week. —Chad Berndtson | @cberndtson

(The Cactus Blossoms play Mercury Lounge again on 2/23.)