Saturday, September 5, 2009

A New Obsession

Do yourself a favor: meet Pearl and the Beard (even if it's not in person for now). Listen to their music, be awe-inspired, fall in love. As one of the opening acts for Tiger City last night at Mercury Lounge, this trio was the very definition of a hard act to follow.
About half the crowd (and it sure was crowded) raised their hands to express that it was their first time seeing this gem of a band, consisting of Jocelyn Mackenzie, Jeremy Styles, and Emily Hope Price. The band is headed off on what they call the "Raise Your Glasses Tour" (as in eyeglasses, spectacles, if you will) and at its mention, they all, as if on cue, lifted their eyeglasses from their eyes. But not to worry, they will be back and playing here at home later in the fall (October 27th at Joe's Pub).

The Brooklyn-based band has a dynamic sound, layered with guitars, a cello, a variety of percussive elements (including hands and feet), an accordion, a glockenspiel, a melodica. Basically, you name it, these three play it. And on top it all they have composed beautiful harmonies, perfectly in sync, orchestrated with the precision of a concerto. Their talent is also apparent in the fact that one song sounds quite different from the next; from slow and languid ballads to poppy crowd-pleasers to crooning, passionate anthems. From a song featuring six or seven rotating instruments to one that was entirely vocals and percussion, building from claps and stomps to drums and shouts.

What makes these two girls and a guy a hard act to follow, in addition to just some great listening, is the overt sense of play they have together on stage. Their energy and passion is infectious and you only wish you could have as much fun doing your own work.

A few lines into one particular upbeat song, it became clear that they were covering the theme song to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Yes they were. It was a medley, in fact, with highlights from "Men in Black" and "Wild, Wild West" thrown in for good measure. It was a little bit of genius. Here it is: see for yourself.
Later, after some disclosure about playing a love song in a rock club, they launched into a new song (and welcomed suggestions for its title) which silenced the enthusiastic room. Only afterwards was it admitted that this was the first time they had ever played the song for anyone. And therefore, they said, comfort can be taken in knowing that it was the worst that the song will ever be played. Which sure bodes well for the future of the song. And the band, frankly.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Jenny Lewis Rocks Battery Park

"Saturday.  In the Park..." Jenny Lewis begins quietly; a gentle lullaby that is a striking change after an hour of her rocking and crooning at the River to River Festival.  But suddenly the hundreds of fans scattered throughout Battery Park know where the song is going,  as she continues a capella, "You'd think it was the Fourth of July..."  (Which it was.)

Jenny Lewis and her band seem to be the very definition of musicians.  They rotate instruments, demonstrating a range of skills that is far from common in their contemporaries.  Sure, Lewis is the lead singer and also plays the keys, plus the acoustic and electric guitars, but the other lady of the group, Barbara Gruska, for example, is equally impressive as a backup singer who also rocks on the drums and the harmonica.

The hour long set (as the opening act for their good friends, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band) featured Lewis classics such as "Acid Tongue", "The Next Messiah" and Rilo Kiley's "Silver Lining" plus one or two new songs.  And of course, they pulled Conor Oberst out to join them on one song, at which point he and Lewis pressed their faces together to share the microphone center stage.  

The most impressive thing about Lewis and her band, aside from their obvious talent, is the way that they just make you want to be a musician.  They not only make it look cool and fashionable (Lewis in her typical tight, short shorts), but also, and more importantly, they make it look fun.  That accounts for the energy that rolls off the stage and floods the audience, even one as diverse and sprawling as that on the lawn at Battery Park.  They are, needless to say, excellent performers; just enjoying doing their thing, with nothing to prove.  

At the end of the set, as her piano notes reverberated over the pulsing drums, Lewis raised her American flag, then waved, simply and shyly, and turned and walked off the stage, leaving the two drummers to a solo showdown on the empty stage.  And somehow, her humility and grace made us all proud to be American.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

One Woman Who Draws A Crowd

Julia Weldon is one of those transparent performers who wears her heart on her sleeve.  Her lyrical songs speak beautifully to her unique sense of humor and perspective  ("I wanna write like Bobby Dylan and go to jail like Johnny Cash").  Even her guitar strumming seems dictated by her impulses, alternating between big and passionate and quiet and gentle. 
    Playing for the first time at Rockwood Music Hall on June 30th (to a full house despite her admitted fears that no one would show up), Weldon was candid about her nerves.  "I'm gonna forget some lyrics," she warned before one song, mid-set, "Just get ready for it."  
And yet there is something about her that is charming and comforting despite all nerves.  As an audience, you feel well taken care of.
It was a well thought out set, even visually, hinting at Weldon's career as an actor.  "Apparently there are sitting and standing songs," she mused as she found herself moving to and from the stool. 
She threw in one song a capella, short and sweet, and later invited Alyssa Robbins, a friend and peer in the singer/songwriter scene, to join her onstage.  This duet hinted at a good idea for Weldon and her one-woman show; she shares the stage just as well as she holds it on her own, but some of her songs benefit from additional harmonies and instrumental layers.
   She is a woman of surprises: the things that come out of her mouth are never what you're expecting.  Even her songs go in unforeseen directions, such as "One of These Days" which dissolves pleasantly into her own version of "Over the Rainbow".  
    So who knows what to expect at Weldon's next show?  Other than a charming performance. And probably a stool. 

Photo credit: Rebecca Greenberg

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Play Away...

I don't know what it is about the Bowery Ballroom that brings out the off-the-wall playful energy of musicians.

The members of both Jukebox the Ghost and the Jenny Owen Youngs band who played there on May 27th were no exception.  They may have been, in fact, the pinnacle of the statement.  
The two bands, who were finishing up a three week tour, collaborated at both the end of Youngs' set and at the end of Jukebox's headlining set.  This put eight passionate musicians, who had spent three weeks on the road together, onto the same stage and, needless to say, their camaraderie and joy was palpable.  They beat each other with tambourines, they laughed and shimmied and flirted, and at one point, three of Youngs' musicians (two guitarists and the drummer I think it was) ended up piled on top of each other on the stage floor.  Mid-song, mind you.
During the single cover that Jukebox played ("Temptation" by New Order), dozens of black and purple balloons were released suddenly from the balcony.  As they were tossed around the ballroom, the sense of bliss and play sky-rocketed.  Fans (and presumably friends of Jukebox pianist, Ben Thornewill) at the foot of the stage found great amusement in pounding Thornewill with balloons as he energetically sang through the song, pausing to shout: "It's hard to play with balloons!".
Perhaps.  But it's certainly not hard to find the play in playing the Bowery Ballroom.  
Photo of Bowery Ballroom by curtis w. on

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Steve Martin and the Banjo Band

Who plays a banjo in a suit and tie?  Steve Martin does.  (Who else would, really?)  Well maybe not always in a suit and tie, but yes, he does play the banjo.  Quite well, in fact, as evidenced by his new album, The Crow, ranked at the top of the Bluegrass chart.  The suit and tie was more a formality (literally) of a benefit concert for the Los Angeles Public Library, which he played at the Club Nokia theater downtown L.A. on May 11.  He shared the bill with the brilliant North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers and later shared the stage with his old friend John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  The show opened with an interview (turned battle of the wits) conducted by humorist Dave Barry.

Although the concert flirted with stand-up comedy, Mr. Martin is a serious banjo player.  And yet he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  On more than one occasion, he mocked himself for his lack of skills with the microphone (and even necessitated being rescued by a technical director).  “It’s still the amateur night for me,” he reasoned, “It didn’t cost that much to get in.”

Typically in bluegrass music, the sense of play far outweighs the sense of order.  Yet this was not the case on stage at Club Nokia, where it felt as though these bluegrass boys were playing by the rules: focused and serious with no time for knee-slapping or hooting and hollering.  The audience was equally well mannered, seated as if at a classical recital rather than a toe-tapping celebration of life.  Martin left the stage for two songs, allowing the Carolina boys two songs on their own, at which point they flocked to a cluster around the microphone and played with the real charm and energy of a bluegrass jam band.

Most of the songs were from Martin’s new album, one written decades ago while living in Aspen and, admittedly, “probably high” (“Pitkin County Turnaround”); one within the last few years while on vacation in the Caribbean (“I have $35,000 invested in this song” he proclaimed).  Most were instrumental, as he acknowledged his shortcomings both in writing lyrics and in singing them.  The Steep Canyon Rangers demonstrated their mastery of both of these skills, however, in catchy songs, exhibiting beautiful three part harmony.  The result was an amusing contrast between their harmony and Martin’s monotone one line interjections.

The image of a young Steve Martin sitting around, high up in the mountains (pun intended) with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (and maybe Jack and Hunter and other notorious Aspen locals) is striking.  It feels truer not only to the essence of the music, but also to Martin himself, than this dressed-up version that seemed desperate to free itself of the suit that just doesn’t fit.  


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Behind the Music with Pete and J...

"I was terrified.  Actually, I wasn't terrified until I met you."
-Pete, of Brooklyn band Pete and J, talking about J

Read the story of Pete and J, excerpted from an interview at the Second Sundays Series at Rockwood Music Hall:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Leah Siegel Lets It All Out

Brooklyn singer Leah Siegel knows how to draw a crowd.  At the Living Room on February 6, the room was filled beyond capacity with Leah-fans, old and new.  The set started late (much to her apologies) as they waited for Steve Elliot, the guitarist, to arrive (he was, as she promised, well worth the wait).   
Leah is a rockstar, in the most unconventional, charming and humble way.  She cradles the lyrics of her songs, and you can sense the emotion they illicit as they roll off her tongue.  Everything about her music, in fact, is dictated by her emotion: from her volume, to her pitch to her tempo.  It is music that moves you, both physically, as well as emotionally.  Every note pulls you in closer, as her voice soars delicately to the top of her range, or she throws back her head and opens her mouth, releasing a sound so powerful and resonant that everything else seems to disappear.
Her band is no less talented or innovative.  Especially Elliot, who, in one song, picked up a bow which he ran across the strings of his electric guitar during a particularly striking solo.  That was unique in and of itself, but also because it is about the only thing that could steal attention away from Leah.   
Check her out for yourself, before her rockstar-dom makes her shows too hard to see.  It's already getting to be a tight squeeze at the Living Room...
Photo from a previous show at the Living Room; posted on artist's Myspace

Get on this PAPER ROUTE

In one of those sets that flashes by, ending prematurely, the Nashville band Paper Route set the bar high as an opening act for the new Indie-wonder-band, Passion Pit, at the Bowery Ballroom on February 4th.  They played back to back songs, with little time wasted on chitchat, and their energy was both thrilling and infectious.  Their performance was so impressive, in fact, that they not only worked up the crowd for Passion Pit (which is the mark of any strong opening act), but also built up the expectations.  Could the headliners top their opening act?  (They did, but it was close).  The dramatic energy of Paper Route's performance was accented perfectly by their last moment on stage:  the lead singer, in his small bowler hat, shoved the microphone away triumphantly while the last notes of the song lingered in the air.  The image lasted longer than the band, for as soon as the microphone stand returned to its upright position, the musicians were gone, leaving the audience in breathless awe.
Photo by Brandon Chesbro, from the band's Myspace

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Christina Courtin: New York's Best Kept Secret

A few years ago, it seemed Christina Courtin was all people in the New York music scene were talking about, as they followed her around the downtown circuit, on stage everywhere from Joe's Pub to Rockwood Music Hall. But somehow I always seemed to miss her; until last week, when I quite fortuitously stumbled upon her as the opening act for Andrew Bird's show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Ms. Courtin is a very physical performer: she holds her ground center stage, but rocks back and forth on her legs, as if with a little more momentum she could launch directly forward into the audience.  This physicality, combined with the quivering, slightly dissonant sound of her voice adds up to some sort of hybrid between Bjork and Jodie Foster's legendary character, Nell  (and, misleading as that may seem, I mean that in the very best of ways).  
Courtin's repertoire runs the gamut from rock to blues to gentle ballads, but it is the twangy country melodies that seem most improved by her unique, irresistible vocal style.  Striking as that is, however, she is firmly supported by the men in her band, all of whom play and sound like a true ensemble of equally important parts.
Let me say one more thing as further testament to the unique character that is Christina Courtin.  She stepped out on stage in front of a house of Billyburg hipsters/Andrew-Bird-lovers wearing a tight gold one-piece, with a black belt and black boots.   She claims it was because it was bassist Ryan Scott's Golden Birthday.  
"Am I the only one wearing a gold one-piece tonight?" She interjected between songs, "I hope so.  But I also... don't hope so".     
I don't think Christina has to worry much about the risk of blending in, in any sense or on any level.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wakey Wakey at the Living Room

Get yourself down to the Living Room one of these last two Mondays in January to see Brooklyn locals Wakey Wakey rock the room during their month-long residency. The five-piece plus band delivers music that makes your toes tap and your heart ache all at once. Mike Grubbs is the man more or less at the center of the sound. His banter and laughter between songs is charming to no end, but it is the music that will really win you over. Grubbs starts many of the songs with a simple folkloric melody on the piano and then, cued with perfect accentuation by Jamie Alegre on the drums, the songs take on a richly textured sound, layered with electric instrumentation (the electric-violin tends to upstage the electric guitars) and nuance.
Wakey's songs flirt with some bright piano chords a la Ben Folds, but stand out on their own due to the vulnerable and honest quality of the lyrics and the passionate and raw crooning of Grubbs' vocals.

Wakey Wakey are true performers: their gracious and playful nature is comforting and amusing and their skills as musicians have the ability to awaken your senses, your passion, your emotions. Like an addiction, they'll leave you wanting more. Thank God for month-long residencies.

Photo by Frank Celenza from the Mercury Lounge CD Release party

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Word with Andrew Bird

Written for
Photo from Bird's show at Hiro Ballroom, NYC, October 2008

Andrew Bird’s literate brand of pop is carried out with virtuoso talent and enough eccentricity to ensure that his music is idolised by some and misunderstood by others. Because of this complexity it’s not surprising that Bird speaks in adjectives and broken sentences – taking his time to make sure his message is correct, yet moving in and around points. This is particularly so when Bird describes his new album, Noble Beast.

Compared to past efforts Noble Beast was produced relatively quickly. Bird strived for this streamlined recording to ensure that the initial idea behind the album was maintained. “I wanted it to be more woodsy, kind of mossy, earthy, kind of like that kind of steamy decay of things”, Bird explains.

When asked about the album’s lyrical themes and his characteristic vocal phrasings – part stream of consciousness, part neurotic tales and, on Noble Beast, partly songs of hope – Bird states that he makes a point of visiting Natural History Museums when he’s on tour for inspiration. “[The Field Museum in] Chicago is, like, older and mustier and heavier and darker. [New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where the interview is taking place] is kind of light and airy. But there are more dinosaurs in New York. " That’s cool, right? read more...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Blitzen Trapper is Returning to NYC!

If you missed these Portland, Oregon up-and-comers in November, don't worry: they will be back to play the Bowery Ballroom on February 27 and the Music Hall of Williamsburg the night after, February 28th.

Review written for

The live show that Blitzen Trapper put on at Terminal 5 in Manhattan on November 17 was something like watching a road race. The gun goes off and the band fires out of the gate,
with high energy rock songs, well executed but very focused and mostly devoid of emotion. With their sights set so firmly on the track, it’s hard to tell if they’re actually enjoying themselves. But after a few songs, the sextet settles in, finding their own rhythm (which is accented in each of their six bodies in unison) and exposing more and more of their unique sound.
With a combination of shaggy beards and tight hipster jeans, it comes as no surprise that the music from these Portland, Oregon men is a cross between blues/country and rock/funk. Eric Earley sets the mark as the lead singer, who at times croons with the whiny resonance of the best Country singers, only to later bust out a grating opening chorus, screamed into the microphone, flirting with heavy metal associations while maintaining the precision of a classic rock band.
It is not only the vocals from Earley, however, that stand out. Many of Blitzen Trapper’s songs are colored with striking three-part harmonies, pulling the sound back towards blues and country no matter how hard it’s trying to veer away (the occasional introduction of Earley’s harmonica has the same effect).
Their live set was diverse and spanned more musical genres than their typical album; like a sampling of all the options open to them as musicians. This appeared to be more fun for the audience to experience than it was for the young men onstage, as Earley rushed each song’s ending with a cold “Thank you” and the band exited the stage somewhat hurriedly and anti-climatically to allow for Iron & Wine (the headliner) to set up.
For a band that can so clearly hold their own in one of the biggest venues in New York City, they could afford to relish in the moments a little more. Take a lesson from the tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. It helps to make it fun along the way as well.