Tag Archives: Stevie Wonder

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Matthew E. White Quietly Delivers

May 14th, 2013

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

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Jim James Is a Force of Nature

February 20th, 2013

Jim James – Music Hall of Williamsburg – February 19, 2013


Fans of My Morning Jacket’s perpetual motion machine, Jim James know there are (at least) three sides to his music. There’s the arena-rock star, there’s the folk crooner … and there’s the sexy soul machine. And while all three sides of his equilateral triangle were in evidence last night at the sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg, it was the latter that was in full force as James grooved and swayed his way through songs from his solo release Regions of Light and Sound of God. He took the stage beneath swirling crushed-velvet purple lights, and opening with “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U),” his voice was equally violet: half cool blue, half red hot.

This was a powerful start to the set. His band—heavy on the slinky electric piano and bass—seemed fully formed, well rehearsed and up to the task in only their fourth gig. The lights were perfectly synched to the song, going to black for dramatic effect when James sang “power going out” over and over in the coda. The energy only built from there with James singing “Know Til Now” and “A New Life” like the second coming of Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. “Of the Mother Again” was a highlight, with its distorted scratch-your-back guitar solo from James melting into some sugary keyboards, leading to the inevitable, and effective, use of the disco ball hanging above the packed dance floor.

Like all of James’s projects, this felt like anything but “something on the side.” Songs like “All Is Forgiven” had the band behind the man displaying a range of sounds, this one digging darker and mysterious with a sultry Arabian Nights changeup. The set closed with a long, seething slow-burn jam led by the superb bass player, as James eventually walked offstage while the band kept churning along. Of course, being supersexy can eventually become a tease if you don’t give ’em what they want, so the encore was an audience-gratifying miniset of My Morning Jacket songs: a solo acoustic “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” followed by “Wordless Chorus,” “It Beats 4 U” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2,” all perfectly handled by the band. While that would have been a complete 90 minutes of music, with Jim James, there’s always room for one more, so he went full rock star, closing out the night with a high-energy “Victory Dance,” the sexy snakeskin shed for one song, but not for too long, I’m sure. —A. Stein

Photos courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com

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A Crowd-Pleasing Night at The Bowery Ballroom

October 16th, 2012

The Mountain Goats/Matthew E. White – The Bowery Ballroom – October 15, 2012


It was an evening built to please as the Mountain Goats played The Bowery Ballroom last night in their third of four sold-out New York City appearances. But before John Darnielle and Co. took the stage, there was the matter of the opener, the crowd-pleasing Matthew E. White and his stage-filling band. Playing music from White’s excellent Big Inner (sounds like beginner), the collective of Richmond, Va., musicians included a full horn section, a percussionist, two keyboard players and a pedal steel. It was a more soulful version of a band Miles Davis might have put together in the early ’70s. “One of These Days” was exemplar of the set, starting with a kind of indie-rock love-song vibe then entering a head-bobbing center that had White and crew channeling Stevie Wonder before building to a gospel rave-up climax. “Big Love” highlighted the deeper funk, with some straight-from-the-butcher meaty bass hooks and cosmic harmonies. The set ended with an epic creeping version of “Brazos,” which had the band firing on all cylinders, and one reviewer wondering how the headliner could top one of the better opening sets he’d seen in a while.

Of course, pleasing the crowd was no problem for Darnielle, who had the full house enrapt before the first note. The Mountain Goats opened with “Love Love Love,” off 2005’s Sunset Tree—Darnielle’s voice a liquid, filling the container of The Bowery Ballroom completely. As the set weaved through back-catalog hits and a healthy dose of the group’s newest release, Transcendental Youth, the audience hung on each lyric. The words seemed to float above their heads like the dialogue in a graphic novel, with the crowd torn between quiet, loving admiration and enthusiastic loud sing-alongs. Requests were shouted out, and some, like “San Bernardino” were granted, while others were ignored. Throughout, Darnielle showed a penchant for taking unpleasant source material and giving it an upbeat musical sheen. He introduced songs about bitter divorce (“First Few Desperate Hours”), experimentation in satanic ritual (“In Memory of Satan”), waking up in a hospital room (“White Cedar”) or literally climbing out of the pits of hell. But with the constant churn of the Mountain Goats’ rhythm section, many of these were up-tempo and happy despite their dark undertones. The secret weapon was bassist Peter Hughes, who was like a waitress in a diner keeping Darnielle’s coffee cup filled with a steady stream of caffeinated licks.

Late in the set, Darnielle paired off in duos with bass and then drums, and he even played a few songs solo, including a Wye Oak cover and “Sax Rohmer #1,” which followed a long introduction that included apologies for any forgotten lyrics and a short political rant on the failure to defeat anti-gay-marriage legislation in his home state of North Carolina. Late in the set, the Mountain Goats invited Matthew E. White’s horn players out to join in and, ironically, bring the mood down to finally match the lyrics. But not for too long, as the set closed with “No Children,” from 2002’s Tallahassee, which featured the lyrics “I hope you die, I hope we both die” accompanied joyfully by the crowd singing as loud as they had all night. —A. Stein