Monday, July 22, 2013

Guster, Ben Folds 5, Barenaked Ladies at Mohegan Sun

Montville CT - 7/19/13

So the 1990's are a long time ago in the rearview. Today we have Drake and Gaga, and Bieber, oh my! But back in the 1990's things were simpler. We had east coast/west coast, we had Biggie and Tupac, and we had a bunch of other great musicians. Musicians which it feels like are increasingly not appreciated for their great contributions to the art. 

So it was with some anticipation that my wife and I sauntered up to the bustling area of the Arena at Mohegan Sun to see alt-rockers Guster, The Ben Folds 5, and the Barenaked Ladies. These acts are largely distinct from one another but they all still know how to rock and roll.

There was a pretty low key opening act who we didn't make it inside in time for. I missed this acts name but the one thing I will say is that "opening act" is supposed to get the audience amped up for the show. This opener was nothing like that. A very subdued and mellow set put me in a decidedly languid mood even from the halls of Mohegan Sun.

Then Guster came out and livened things up. The still filtering in crowd responded in kind. Truthfully I had never been a fan of Guster before but I had many friends who were. However the points in their songs when people inexplicably began growling in anticipation were kind of lost on me. I mean I got it when the tempo picked up and the synth began blaring and people in the audience stood up and flailed about in a possessed trance like state but this music felt more like the symphony for a suicide for depressed girls with low self-esteem than anything else. But I guess we all have different tastes. 

Guster kind of redeemed themselves towards the end of their show when a ukulele and trumpet made an appearance for "What You Call Love." It was a catchy tune and I could see their appeal. "This Could All Be Yours" capped off their set and they left the stage in a thunderous blaze.

One spectator nearby me got up and left the show after they played. He raised his hands to the sky as he walked away and proclaimed "I can cry myself to sleep tonight," with some satisfaction. Like I said we all have distinct tastes.

The Ben Folds 5 came out onstage.

Apparently I am a lot more of a fan of Ben Folds than the Ben Folds 5. Most of their songs this night came from their collective catalog and I didn't recognize most of them. Apparently Ben Folds 5 has a new CD out so this tour is in support of that. They did play their breakout hit "Brick" as well as "Landed." But I felt cast out because I didn't recognize most of their songs. One tune "Song for the Dumped" began with a slap bass which was pretty cool. 

One thing which bugged me out was there was a digital clock on the stage that the audience could see. Ben Folds took that to heart and he counted down the last 2 minutes of the show in a narrative fashion which I appreciated.

Then came the Barenaked Ladies. Surprisingly, Barenaked Ladies still put on a good show despite the absence of former front man Stephen Page. They definitely engaged the crowd, performing both old and new tunes mixed with an abundance of welcomed nonsense & humor. This set was not what I expected, which turned out to be a good thing.

But the whole thing felt a bit truncated which kind of bothered me. I guess it's tough to get tours together that make any money but the demarcated fashion of the show really took me out of it. All in all it was great to see these acts together but I just wish there was some deeper integration. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Album Review: Leerone "Heart Shaped Bullets"

The name of the newest Leerone CD is “Heart Shaped Bullets”. This very talented independent singer/songwriter/musician saunters onto this new record, guns blazing. Listeners have been put on notice.

The first song “Use My Lips” has got a slow swagger peppered with synth. The backdrop is the perfect canvas for the singer to come in and breathlessly dominate the lyric.

Later on the record behind a charging guitar Leerone dives into the story of what the narrator would “do to you Suzanne,” were she a man.  The imagined Leerone gender-bending really hits on familiar themes for this singer. So often her songs capitalize on the guy/girl cat and mouse games in love and relationships.

Leerone takes a bit of a turn on a song like “Feel.” This tune begins with the sound of a very old-timey, clock-tower-at-midnight, last dance at the prom love song. By the songs end though the choir behind and her impressive vocal reaches high and fills up the space as though she were leading a revival chorus.

“Cherry Red” has the feel of an industrial/punk song, “She’s Your Bird” and “Pleased to Meet” have the ambling westward sound and story familiar of classic songwriters like Johnny Cash, so that by the time the albums conclusion comes around with “Trouble” we are reminded why we love Leerone. Her elegant breathy voice and high register piano playing are wonderfully melded with some classy production values. The conclusion of “Heart Shaped Bullets” is reflective, sultry and celebratory so that when the talented songstress asks:

“do I wanna gamble,
sit at your table,
be able to find me some trouble?”

As the listener, you are there with her, watching her, captivated. You can’t even help the fact that your leg’s pushing the seat out opposite you.

That’s when you know that you’re about to find yourself in some trouble too.

“Heart Shaped Bullets” is available on iTunes. Connect with Leerone at her website, on YouTube, or MySpace.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Rush: Clockwork Angels Tour 2013: Mohegan Sun Arena

As the rain fell down on Uncasville, Connecticut, the band Rush was getting ready to tear things up in Mohegan Sun’s Arena. Rush are currently continuing their Clockwork AngelsTour and while some may even question where Rush has been, as evidenced tonight, there are plenty of people who follow the bands movement closely. Moreover the band is still in the sweet spot of being great performers and talented showman where they have lingered for years.

The Canadian trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have been kicking around since 1974 in their current incarnation, the band taking its name all the way back to the late 1960’s. One thing that’s clear though is that their synergy has never been stronger.

I am a casual Rush fan (I can’t pick up the title and lyrical content of each song in seconds as the vast majority of my fellow concert goers could) but I have been since I first heard them in the late 1980’s. One of the first cassette tapes I ever had was Rush’s 1981 masterpiece “Moving Pictures.” Like Michael Jackson, U2, and Rush. Those were my first three cassette tapes ever. I was an aspiring drummer and I was mesmerized by Peart’s impressive chops. Chops he still has today.

The Arena was pretty well packed, something I was a tad surprised about for a Thursday night in May. Still I shouldn’t have been taken aback as Rush fans rank high on the list of caravan devotees, somewhere between the callous disregard I noted recently atan Eddie Vedder show for the Pearl Jam lead singer and maybe a band like Phish or the big daddy, The Grateful Dead.
 Everyone inside the near capacity arena was on their feet mouthing the words bopping along such that the aluminum risers that our seats were on were waving in time with the flavor of the music.

The girl to my right was maybe 15 or so and was here with her dad; they both loved every minute of this show. Suddenly it occurred to me that dad was probably listening to Rush when he was her age or younger. They both shared the enthusiasm for the songs, mimicked the huge synth notes, guitar lines, and drum solos and sang out their favorite lines together.

Geddy Lee was gracious enough welcoming the audience but all three of them just seemed intent on playing. Lee at one point promised we gluttons for punishment that the band had “about six million songs to play,” to which the enthusiastic crowd roared. So the band got back up and began playing again.

A familiar AOR radio song like “Limelight” evoked a kind of swell from the audience that would be repeated a bunch more times throughout the evening.

Whenever Peart would hit one of his thundering cymbal crashes or Lifeson would articulate one of his signature riffs dozens of ARMS would flail wildly in the packed audience as though they were the ones controlling the sound. It was quite a sight to behold.

The band took the set in halves. Right before the end of the first half Lee began riffing some kind of an extended slap bass guitar solo followed by a musical ensemble number. Towards the end of the number though Lee and Lifeson ducked offstage and Peart took his turn playing a commanding and enchanted solo.

Rush even went so far as to set off explosions. What started out as some red flares, just before their intermission, wound up as one frighteningly big explosion.

This tour will continue now through August in the United States and Canada and may extend even beyond that. If you are looking for impressive musicianship, enthusiastic crowds, and a community who loves playing and hearing music then get out to the 2013 Clockwork Angels Tour!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Green Day - Mohegan Sun - 4/6/13

Montville, CT - 4/6/13:

Punk impresarios Green Day recently came through Mohegan Sun Casinos Arena in Connecticut. Fans young and old came out to enjoy the set. Many were here on one end of the ball field with all that rancor and discord nothing more than a distant memory. Others were still living it and caught up in the moment.

Following the opening act, Best Coast, who you can read about separately here, the energy in the arena began to swell. “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit the PA and the whole house began singing along with Freddie Mercury’s tender missive. The swooning chords of Brian May’s guitar line and our individual personal affiliations with the song did not get in the way of the shared experience. It would not be the last time a similar energy would take up the room.

With the house lights still up the playful “drunk Easter Bunny” alighted to the stage to the further scoring of the Ramones “Hey Oh Let’s Go.” Without further ado, Billie Joe, Mike, Tre and their backing musicians came blazing to the stage in a furious swooping energy.

They opened their set with “99 Revolutions,” and Billie Joe commanding the audience, “Let's go crazy!” He is still as full of energy and enthusiasm as a child on Pixy Stix. It would not be the last time he would challenge his audience to push themselves further, get engaged, and live the moment.

During the bridge of “99 Revolutions” he asked for the lights to be brought up and he started a wave. Speaking almost like a dictator or a fraternity brother he derided us all; “This is not a fucking computer! This is rock n roll!”

Even though there were many younger people in the audience, the fact that “Green Day” has been playing music ¼ century is not lost on the lead singer.

“Tonight this is all we fucking have right here,” he reminded us. “There is no school!” He lingered on that for a second before quickly adding “…there is no work!” He hopefully realizes that even those who were born in 1993, Green Day's breakout year, likely are out of or nearly out of school and have work obligations.  

There was a moment during “Letterbomb,” when the lyric “It’s not over till you're underground,” seemed to evoke something in him. Perhaps his frustration with his own mortality. Perhaps something else. Who knows but when he squeezed the microphone from his hand and flung it to the orchestra pit offstage, he had a moment. A stagehand quickly brought out a replacement and Billie Joe acknowledged it.

“Everybody's got a moment when it’s not fuckin perfect,” he mused. “Fuck perfect! Give me some trauma give me some hurt.” A cheer erupted from the audience, “…you know what I'm taking about!”

There were moments of candor and moments of scorn, but for the most part he was the audience’s biggest cheerleader. He kept yelling out “CONNECTICUT!!” and engaging the crowd by holding up his guitar in one-armed punk defiance.

More than once an old school moshing session got underway in the middle of the floor level audience. This one kid kept thrashing and shoving people and it would go from just him, to 8 or 9 to 20 or more and then to no one. It was quite entertaining.

Billie Joe had people coming up to sing at various points during the night. But one of the biggest audience sing-alongs of the night was the first verse of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” He set everyone up for it and when we all responded with eruptions of melody he just got down on his knees and kissed the ground to the audience as though he were praying to Allah.

He stood up, smiled, and said “Life’s not pretty but it sure is beautiful.”

It was right around this time that the band went into a mash-up session of cover songs. They started out with “Shout,” by the Isley Brothers, which led into “Time is On My Side,” and “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and another arm waving sing along to “Hey Jude,” before circling back to the "little bit louder now" portion of "Shout."

After two full hours of breaking us down and making us question ourselves, our motives, and our whole reason for living our lives,  Green Day were done with their set. One of the last songs they played was “X-Kid” which includes the lyrics:

“Hey, little kid did you wake up late one day?
And you’re not so young, but you’re still dumb
And you’re numb to your old glory, but now it’s gone.”

And when Billie Joe repeated the lyric, “here goes nothing, the shouting’s over and out over and out again,” a reasonable guess would have been that the show was over right there.

Maybe just to stick a flag in the turd they played a little longer. That is the message which Green Day carries with them on this their 20 year anniversary of songs from their debut album. We will be done playing when we are done playing.

And we will all still be here, your loyal followers, listening until that time is up.

Best Coast - Mohegan Sun - 4/6/13

Montville, CT - 4/6/13

Green Day was the entree of the day but their opening act came first. Working in their favor the opening act, “Best Coast” came onstage three minutes early which was really great. 

Best Coast is a surf/pop outfit from California and from all accounts they appear to just be a duo though there were 4 musicians onstage tonight. 

The lead singer and guitar player Bethany Cosentino, came out saying she was “wearing a sparkly dress.” We were all just glad that she came out not just on time but even a few minutes early!

The first song that they played was the song “Crazy for You.”  The song was okay but I just couldn’t get over how tiny they all looked on this pretty sizable stage. I understand that it’s not “their” stage but the lighting designers could have done something for them so that they didn’t appear so spread out. I mean, at the very least, just stand closer together!

As I mentioned Ms. Cosentino sang the lead vocal and played some guitar.  Her vocal line reminded me a little of The Breeders, Jen Trynin or a half-hearted Lucinda Williams.  She really sounded like she was giving it her all but her vocals were very much overpowered by the wash of loud guitar and bass.

They played a few other songs, all of which generally sounded the same. We were in the seats that lined the floor and it was a little sad epitaph for the times because as the set progressed and people’s interest waned you saw so many tablets and cell phone screens illuminated on the floor of the arena.  At least there was a time for opening acts when you could think you had your audience engaged.  Today apathetic audiences just flip open their phones akin to turning  the cold shrug shoulder.

"Best Coast" weren’t bad. It’s just a lot of their songs were awash in sameness. And you are going to have a tough sell somewhere like Eastern Connecticut when you say you're from California and you call yourself "Best Coast."  

However they were quick to get on and they honored their half hour time slot and they got offstage quickly enough.

A restless audience for sure, the biggest applause thus far this night happened as soon as they said goodnight.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oak Ridge Boys - City Winery - 3/11/13

Manhattan, City Winery, 3/11/13:

40 years is a long time to do almost anything. It should take some people aback when they learn that The Oak Ridge Boys are out on their 40th anniversary tour. The fact that these guys are able to stand one another and stand the repetition of the songs for so long is saying one thing. But for the grueling life of a touring band of musicians, 40 years is really saying something.

Legendary, is one word. The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues. These are just some of the bands who have been out touring in one form or another for around as long. Of course The Oak Ridge Boys play a different kind of tune from any of those other acts. They recently rolled in on their impressive tour bus to show their very best on the “It’s Only Natural” tour.

For those unfamiliar the current incarnation of The Oak Ridge Boys, at least as I saw them was as a 10 piece lineup in full. The four main musicians are the main attraction. The other six musicians onstage played drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, and everyone seemed to swap in with various instruments at different stages.
As we descended on our seats they were just saying one of the four singers’, Richard, had recently tore his Achilles tendon.  Richard was the bass vocalist and he had to remain seated.

From their first song out of the gate, “One in a Million,” this audience was really receptive. The audience was small but they were lively. Some of the other favorites they played this night included songs like “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” “Ozark Mountain Jubilee,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” and “Gonna Take A Lot of River.”

I enjoyed the simple twang and toe tapping harmony of the band, but I have to say that for a concert, at times the whole thing felt like a bit of an infomercial. They kept mentioning how they were streaming on “Sirius,” and they were “sponsored by Cracker Barrel,” and whomever else. It was a little off-putting for sure.

But like the band said this was their “All hits show.” And for all their blatant consumerism and seemingly reflexive sponsorship-speak, these guys also know how to get an audience clapping and the audience which was here really wanted to be here.

Their music is pure, simple, and infectiously catchy. All the choreographed moves and onstage theatrics show this band still knows how to put on a show.

As the audience lifted I couldn’t help but notice that it was s weighted mix of older men with long gray hair in flannels shirts wearing baseball caps and a smattering of younger folks. These youngsters sat with the intensity of youth but were also already brimming over with the tell-tale signs that they would one day swap places with the other folks in the hall.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Dedication at The Paper Box, Brooklyn

Meadow St. Brooklyn: 3/8/13:

Brooklyn has got some scary places in it. Map software can’t tell you what a deserted, vacant warehouse district is going to look like after a couple of days of snow, but that was what we came upon as we left Union Avenue, left Grand Street, and located The Paper Box. It’s not far from civilization but on this night it might as well have been a world away.

So it was with some apprehension that I came upon this Williamsburg staple which is probably much more welcoming on a night when there’s not snow and cold in the air. We were there this night to see this band The Dedication. They were first on the docket tonight so we didn’t have to hang around all night.

The Dedication are lead singer and guitar strummer Matt Booth, pianist Drew Hansen, guitarists Jimmy Petro and Anthony Scanzano (though Anthony was not there tonight), Jake Coupart on bass, and Brittany Mac on drums.

They were late to the stage by a good 30 minutes though it wasn’t their fault. The Paper Box held them back because the crowd was so loose this night. I was talking with their biggest fan-girl and she pointed them out all sort of sitting alongside the stage, looking rather bored. I wondered how they would sound and how frustrating that must be for them to just be kept on the holding dock when all they wanted to do was play.

When The Dedication finally did emerge to the stage they were none the worse for wear. There was an exciting energy and electricity to this seemingly mismatched group of musicians.

The first two tunes they played really rocked. Check their Facebook page though and they call themselves “pop rock/acoustic.” Their fan-girl even went so far as to call it “folk.” I'd have to disagree and say they are much more alt-rock-punk, following closely in the shadows of band like 311, No Doubt, Green Day, or Foster the People. They had the lazy pop sound of a catchy band like Sugar Ray with also some of the harder edge of a band like Sublime or even Rage Against the Machine. Most of their set didn’t sound like any “folk” I am familiar with. I am a big fan of all kinds of folk, but just because you have an acoustic guitar doesn’t mean that you are at all folk. Even acoustic music can be cagey and deceptive. Fans of popular music from the early 1990’s may remember the song “More Than Words.” On the surface that song and that band, Extreme, may sound like a harmonic, acoustic duo. However listen to the rest of their body of work and they are a pretty hard-core hard rock/metal band.

I drive home this point so directly because I really liked what this band did when they were a full five piece and I’d hate for them to be held back by the weight of their own hubris.  When Booth got up twice and played two solo acoustic songs (one song and one “mix-tape” with riffed lines from popular music) it really took me, as an audience member, out of it. Even Booth’s dancing brother and the girl he was there with who rocked out when the band rocked didn’t seem to know what to do during these lighter moments. I get it that you want to show off virtuosity but that’s what B-sides or hidden tracks or free tracks on your social media page are for. When you’re playing a live show you only have a half hour or 45 minutes to wow your audience. I would have been far more blown away had they used these digression periods more to their advantage.

Overall Booth gives an earnest effort and his singing is good.  His warbled vocals wound up somewhere between his best Justin Timberlake and Mike Patton from Faith No More with a little bit of that Jason Mraz flip-kick in his rhyme. If he put down the guitar and focused on being more of a band leader and a singer, he and The Dedication would be better served for it.

There was a solid bedrock of rhythm lain down by Mac and Coupart. If you looked at her before the show you might have been shocked to hear the sounds coming out of the drum kit. However Mac apparently learned her fundamentals very young. Her skills shone the night I saw The Dedication. Coupart didn’t overstep his bounds but his solid bass lines were heard and honored. He wouldn’t let the more prominent instruments shut him out, nor should he have.

Another area I was pleasantly surprised by was the pianist Hansen. His line oscillated between and often overlapped with a small whiny KORG synth and the graceful accenting of ivories on his Casio. The first song they came out with had a strong synth line which took me back to bands like Depeche Mode or Tears for Fears.

I understand that the guitar players were at half-staff and that may have been another reason that Booth felt so brazen with his guitar. However Petro played a thoughtful, deliberate lead guitar line. I’d really love to see this band at full force.

I made many allusions to many different artists because this band were so hard to pin down. They can literally go off in any direction they want. Their rhythm section are tight and even with just one guitarist and keys taking the melody line, the sounds just pop off the stage. The Dedication play shows all up and down the Hudson River Valley. Connect with them on Facebook or Twitter and come check this fresh band out.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Neomythics "Beautiful Blackout"

If you're wondering what's happened to music lately, recent samplings from Neomythics give rock and roll some kind of hope. Call it post-modern rock with plaintively descriptive lyrics wrought from and borne of a world brought up behind the shadow of their laptop screen.

This video "Beautiful Blackout" is a wrenching account and it tells the story of star-crossed lovers even if it's not a mutual cross. Taking its cues from the Japanese animation Anime, the press kit says this song is said to explore "the beauty and darkness of a relationship."

Neomythics is the project of Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe. Their 12 song release is called "New Corporate Resistance," and is something that disillusioned grunge rock fans who still opine for 1992 should certainly keep an eye on.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Charlie Mars at City Winery: January 2, 2013

For the first Wednesday night in 2013 the mood at City Winery in Lower Manhattan was surprisingly subdued. The room traffic was light and the show began mostly on time as the very fun Charlie Mars was in for a set on January 2.

Mars emerged onto the stage and leapt right into his somewhat droll storytelling; something he would do quite often throughout most of his 2 hours+ set. He marveled right off the bat that this morning he woke up in his bed in Mississippi and suddenly, he’s here for his 8pm show in New York City.

His first song, he said, was about a relationship where he had “possibly behaved badly.” It was this self-deprecation that he would return to again and again; whether it be in discussing his marijuana smoking, intoxication, reverence for and double talking to the Almighty, or his most popular spoof, relationships.

He used a harmonica a couple of times alongside his acoustic guitar. He remained tethered to his ax save two songs at the ivories. 

His forlorn longing would rear its head again and again; even as he was a lot more dubious than his descriptions let on.

Before tonight’s set I was not familiar with Mr. Mars and while his down home Mississippi attitude shone through, his fingerpicking and slap guitar style evoked many of my folk favorites. The lyrical line shifted a number of times from the howling at the moon like Michael Penn or Mark Olson to his more slick lyrical hyperbole of Jason Mraz.

The guitar playing drew influences from any number of sources; Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Matthew Sweet or many others. But it was the guitar line combined with the poppy melody which drew out tones of Bob Marley and a far less produced sounding Mraz.  There was no pomp and fanfare here; only a guy and his stories which he played out on his guitar.

Mars’ invocation of acoustic guitar musicianship used slow plucking, slap technique and the vacant spaces between his breaths to tell stories all their own.

Unlike many other guitar players in that vein his was a tight narratives line; many of his songs simply stopped dead once they were over; very much like Evan Dando of The Lemonheads. This was somewhat jarring yet also strangely refreshing in a style of music, folk, which is beleaguered with long rambling listless narratives which seem to stretch on indefinitely. The artistry in Mars playing lies not in complexity or over-layering but in deceptively simple accents and arpeggios of which he has gotten quite good in his six album career.

His set was just over two hours and I must confess, as the evening weaned on, I began to tire to a lot of his tropes and clever little lyrical tricks. He asked us to do a call and response sing-along towards the beginning of his set. I thought that was cute. But when he asked us to do it four or five times; to four or five different songs; it seemed to be a little much. 

Towards the end of the night though, he did lay himself bare in a rather surprising turn when he leaned right into a small vignette of Bruce Springsteen’s “I'm On Fire.” He then told a story about how the record “Nebraska” was one of "...three or four albums which changed my life." While I didn't hear much of The Boss in Mars performance this night, the musicians early influences offer a bit of insight into who the performer has become.

Charlie Mars comes through City Winery regularly enough. If you’re looking to sing along or just enjoy some tunes, give him a shot the next time he’s through. To hear some of his stuff, check out his webpage or YouTube page.