Monday, March 26, 2012
When I heard that Marcy Playground was coming to one of my favorite Manhattan music venues; all I could think was “Sex & Candy,” the bands 1997 hit song which was its only, to date, charting single.
1997. That was 15 years ago. A lot has happened in the last 15 years; for me anyway. In 1997 I was still a comparative novice to things like modern rock and was still a heavy fan of candy. Regardless the last 15 years have been something of a rollercoaster for Marcy Playgrounds lead singer/guitarist John Wozniak. Marcy Playground has written and released two other CD’s following 1997’s eponymous debut and now they are back with a fourth album “Leaving Wonderland…in a Fit of Rage.” Wozniak boasts the new album is “by far the best thing I’ve ever done.”
So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I took the A trains long journey from Northern Manhattan all the way down to the City Winery SoHo location on a brisk Sunday night in an otherwise tropical New York City winter/spring to see Marcy Playground and find out just what Wozniak was talking about.
The ambiance at City Winery was relaxed and jovial as it always is. The place was full of Marcy Playground fans because as soon as they introduced the band everyone “shushed” everyone talking and waited for the music to begin.
Wozniak came out alone at first and began playing the admittedly appropriate “All the Lights Went Out.” My wife asked me if this was a one man outfit. As though on cue the bass player and drummer entered the stage and began accompaniment following the first verse.
Maybe one of the things which most immediately impressed me about Marcy Playground was their deep bass lines and audibly vibrant tones. Because my investment with this band to this point had not been very deep the only tune of theirs I knew was kind of timid and sparse; radio-friendly as it were. There were certainly other songs they played tonight which I could see coming across on the FM dial but that wasn’t the whole deal with these three; there were sonic arpeggios and long, dissonant periods of feedback.
In the middle of the third song Wozniak made a motion to hold on for one second and he went offstage to change guitars. He would do this again. He couldn’t seem to decide which of the two identical looking guitars he liked. If you hadn't seen him walk offstage during “Devil Woman” you never would have known that he'd left. The bass player and drummer kept a rollicking beat going for 16 bars or so while he was offstage and his absence just sounded like an extended bridge.
I'm sure he wasn't intentionally trying to upstage him but I was enthralled with the drummer, Shlomi Lavie. In very minimalist fashion he had the most basic setup: snare drum, bass drum, bass-tom, hi-hats, and a ride cymbal. That's it. But watching him play was like watching Animal from The Muppets. He thrust his arms and flailed about in such a crazy way, it was mesmerizing for me as a former drummer anyway. Ask any drummer; getting a good “crash” from a ride cymbal is difficult. To compound his thrashing though many of his crashes included him banging on his open hi-hats.
The bass player, Dylan Keefe, was interactive with Wozniak and Lavie. On more than one occasion he chimed in to one of Wozniak’s musings. Carefully reminding the audience not to give Wozniak too big of an ego. Keefe also did a really nice thing and told an abridged story of Michael Dorf who founded both City Winery and earlier The Knitting Factory and gave his heartfelt thanks to the venues owner.
Towards the end of their set the three had a dissonance reckoning with everyone playing as fast and with as much extended feedback as they could for about 5 min.
When they finally got to “Sex and Candy” they were almost done with their set. Wozniak called the song an indelible gadfly. The song included a somewhat muted sing-along (their instruments were still really loud) and just like that the evening was over.
Marcy Playground are back on tour and that just makes me feel old. But if you’re like me and miss that lost generation we knew as the 1990’s, check out Marcy Playground when they swing through your neck of the woods.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
The fathers of 'modern American alternative rock' and one of the best bands to come out of the 1980's, Jane's Addiction were a group whose influence entered my life at a pivotal moment. Perry Farrell is the front man and a zany one at that but for those who don't know the band they likely know another of its members; guitarist Dave Navarro. It may have been his relationship with the likes of Carmen Electra, it may have been his work with other bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Panic Channel or it may have been his hosting reality TV shows or selling other products but Dave Navarro is one of those guys whose face is out there. I also had an affinity for Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins who was popular in the drumming world around when I was first learning the craft. They've had a bunch of bassists; Chris Chaney joins them on this current tour.
Jane's Addiction has a few songs which may ring a familiar chord ("Been Caught Stealing" and the songs chorus of guard dogs may be the most familiar). Jane's Addiction has broken up and gotten back together they've even taken an extended break for Farrell and Perkins to team up with others for Porno for Pyros (MTV aficionados of my era my remember their song "Pets" which got video and radio airplay). But Jane's Addiction was always bigger than that. They were pretty influential; they remain pretty amazing. The Lollapalooza Tour was founded by Farrell and it's always been their live shows which have drawn the most intrigue. Intrigue was in the air when I reviewed their live show in Waterbury Connecticut at the Palace Theatre.
The Jane's Addiction portion of the evening started out with the Pink Floyd song "Welcome to the Machine." Anyone who knows that song knows that it's kind of long and strange with this building crescendo of synthesizers and guitar. The crowd grew restless as the seven minute song droned on and all I could think was what a waste it would be if indeed the band did not show up onstage. After several minutes of stops and starts from the audience though they finally did show up.
I must admit; I am a Jane's Addiction fan from their first incarnation: "Jane's Addiction," "Nothings Shocking," & "Ritual de lo Habitual." Those are the three albums I'm familiar with and those are the three albums most fans know. There are some others; the album "Kettle Whistle" is a live/rare one with a few new tunes and they just put out a new record. But by and large it's the first three that matter. So a few of their initial songs I was not totally familiar with.
The second song they played though; "Mountain Song" I knew very well. When Farrell screams "Everybody has their own opinion," it's as though he's singing it for the first time. One couldn't help but notice that they were really quite loud. Farrell had some kind of a monitor for his vocals onstage and it was during the guitar line in "Mountain Song" that he first dove into getting feedback from the bass guitar; it was reverb city.
Farrell then told a story about how he was stealing and was confronted by a police officer. His bravado seemed genuine enough if for no other reason than a mystique has always surrounded him. And of course one of the most well-known Jane's Addiction songs is "Been Caught Stealing."
Right after that they dove into "Ain't no Right." It was during this song that I noticed how so many of his words were getting lost; primarily because of Farrell's cavorting with the crowd. More than once he dove into the audience and at the very least was up front high-fiving everyone. This loss of vocals actually didn't matter because everyone in the audience knew every word. Perkins, Chaney and Navarro were also so bombastic, loud, and unrelenting. It was almost as though they were playing a festival show or an arena show in the few thousand seat Palace Theatre.
During the song "Nothing's Shocking" was when Dave Navarro took off whatever shirt he'd been wearing to show off to the audience all the lovely artwork all up and down his body.
I was sitting in the middle of the mezzanine and noticed that everyone in the audience stood up before the first song. Even though the Palace is a "theatre-proper" with seats even up in the mezzanine everyone wanted to get as close to the action as they could.
They moved a drum-set skeleton downstage for a couple of songs. "Classic Girl" was the first and Navarro and Chaney sat down on stools. The drum kit had electronic steel drums which are the signature instrument in the song "Jane Says."
Farrell noted that it's not a concert; his shows are a "carnival. We drive in on the bus and they say to me, 'Do you wanna go to a party?' and I say sure." That is what is most impressive about this band; after 30 years together and breakups and makeups they still have a festival atmosphere. There are girls in leather (one of whom is reportedly Farrell's wife) and they still get all the sound and atmosphere out of each other that made them famous on the Sunset Strip in the early 1980's.
For our portion of the evening there were two more songs I'd like to mention; "Three days" and "Stop." "Three Days" is one of the best songs in their whole catalog and one of my favorites. Seeing this song played out live was also one of the coolest musical performances I've ever witnessed. There is an almost unassuming bass solo line that's flipped around in the intro. The song on the album is part of a second-side that's like a symphonic movement. But when the four played it this night it worked well as a standalone track. Navarro's got a pretty amazing extended solo which he took on for an extra 32 bars or so. Most of the songs remained largely as they are on the record but with this solo Navarro and Perkins both showed off their chops. During the songs drum break towards the end, Perkins really took it home. I could imagine thins song being the way Jane's Addiction began the end of plenty of sets in the past.
After the exhausting, extended mix of that long song they played "Stop." Farrell addressed the crowd by saying "Good night Connecticut; now the real party starts!" and they walked offstage.
I couldn't hang around to see their encore; stupidly I'd parked in a zone which from November 1 - April 1 had to be cleared out for snow removal, so by the time they finished their main set it was already half-past 11pm.
I stepped out into the warm Waterbury March twilight, saw a wonderful near full moon in the sky, and considered myself privileged to have been a part of the musical-carnival of Jane's Addiction in this way, on this night. My temples were throbbing, my head was ringing, but my mind could not stop dancing.