If you told me that a dude who’s about to turn 64 was capable of drawing 20,000 Philadelphians out to the Wells Fargo center (that’s right, the place that unabashedly charges about $8.00 for a slice of Lorenzo’s pizza that would normally run you $3.00, but I’m not bitter) on a Monday night during an Eagles game no less, I’d crack a smile and say, “good one”. But that joke is a reality and that dude is Tom Petty, a man who is undoubtedly the world’s most offhand rockstar. But Petty wasn’t alone in his blithe glory; his quintessential almost all-American (drummer Steve Ferrone hails from Brighton, England) backing band, The Heartbreakers, was not just equally old, but equally killin’. Continue reading →
It’s been a year since Lorde’s “Royals” topped the musical richter scale, and her streak of teenage stardom has shown no signs of slowing anytime soon. Her show at The Mann Center last night kicked off a second US tour in support of her subsequent Pure Heroine LP, which still has some fans reeling. Continue reading →
There’s probably no indie rock group surrounded by more enigma than Neutral Milk Hotel. Their second record, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is considered by many to be one of those elusive perfect albums. I’m not quite sure about perfect (maybe it’s just that I have a minor beef with “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2”, but not 3), but it’s certainly a record unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. To add to the intrigue, the band’s auteur, Jeff Mangum, played white rabbit in a magic trick and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the public eye a year after Aeroplane‘s release. After a decade of near hermitage, Mangum started playing shows, and has just recently reunited the original Aeroplane lineup for a reunion tour. Even though he’s no longer in mysterious hiding, he refuses to give an interview, record a followup record, or even be photographed. I guess it’s a case of wanting the music to speak for itself, but the world may never really know. So just as with any great indie rock show, music geeks, hipsters and fans of beards alike made their way out to The Mann Center on a beautiful midsummer evening to hear the most mystifying act in music. Continue reading →
Epic (adj): heroic or grand in scale or character. It is perhaps one of the most over- and misused words in the English language. Yeah, that grilled cheese may have been tasty, but it wasn’t quite as monumental as Odysseus. But I’ll tell you what was epic: English prog-rock legends Yes’ concert at the Tower Theater. It would have been easy to doubt a group whose 46 years together do not by any means belie them, not to mention that founding singer and frontman Jon Anderson left the group in 2008. I don’t think Yes cared about these things. When you’re the band that played the most attended festival-style show in United States history here in Philly (the “Spirit Of Summer ’76” show at JFK Stadium on June 12, 1976 for 130,000 fans), a few grey hairs (or more precisely, a full head of white ones, but who’s counting?) aren’t going to get in the way of putting on a show of, that’s right, epic proportions.
Yes opened up their extremely sold out Tower Theater show with their 1972 Close To The Edge LP played in reverse. What became immediately clear as they rumbled their way through “Siberian Khatru” was that Yes’ sound is massive, which has a hell of a lot to do with founding bassist Chris Squire’s bold playing (and as it happens, his appearance isn’t much different). And while guitarist Steve Howe may have gained a few wrinkles here and there, his hair is as long as ever, and more importantly, he still knows his way around a guitar like his 5 consecutive “Best Overall Guitarist” victories in Guitar Player magazine would suggest. That, or the 3,000-odd fans bellowing out their love for him during the intricate flamenco guitar solo piece that is “Mood For A Day”. Oh, and Jon Anderson’s replacement, the similarly named Jon Davison, wasn’t half bad. Wait, scratch that. He was, to use appropriately English lexicon, bloody amazing. I can honestly say that I have never seen a frontman gesticulate, prance about and sing more passionately that Davison did. His oriental patterned shirt was pretty cool too.
After playing a couple new songs, both of which were decent enough, Yes made their way through all of the 1971 LP, Fragile. All of it. The thing about that album that I didn’t realize until I saw it live is that each song seems better than the last. Sure, the record’s opener, “Roundabout” was a hit, but “South Side Of The Sky” easily makes my top 10 guitar riffs list, and “The Fish [Schindleria Praematurus]” is probably the second best rock song ever to be written in 7/4 (“Money” by Pink Floyd takes precedence in my book, and so would Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean”, but that song isn’t really in 7/4). They encored with the timeless classic, “I’ve Seen All Good People”, which, come to think of it, includes one of the best 3-part harmonies known to rock & roll. As for the final encore, “Starship Trooper”, I’m going to have to refer you back to the beginning of the review, because no word describes it better than “epic”. Keytar and guitar (or should I say, geetar) solos from Geoff Downes and Steve Howe respectively were unbelievable. I left the room in shock. Yes still rocks.
It’s been said time and again: the Philly jazz scene is dead. Proof? Last year, Chris’ Jazz Cafe, what should probably be known as THE Philadelphia jazz club, equivocated on a name change with the hopes of drawing larger audiences. Even the best home-grown artists have been known to relocate to Brooklyn in the pursuit of a feasible jazz career. But jazz in Philadelphia is not dead. What I saw last night at the Philadelphia Art Alliance convinced me of it. In fact, it’s very much alive.
In an unlikely marriage of the visual and performing arts, French brothers Zach and Axel Mathieu-Mathias (the former a jazz drummer, the latter a painter) curated “Two Arts – One Story”, an evening of jazz and live painting. Zach has been drumming since his toddler years, and moved to Philadelphia in 2012 to form his own jazz combo, the Zach MAMA Motherhood Band. Featuring predominantly original compositions by Zach and trumpeter Dan Nissenbaum, the sextet dug into 90 minutes of jazz that was at once notably diversified in style and distinctly unique in identity. Several songs, including the all-too-familiar “La Vie En Rose” and Zach’s own “Pork Wapa” (a knock on the classic American mispronunciation of “Pourquoi Pas?”), were infused with Franco-American flavor unique to the Mathieu-Mathias brothers. “Lighthouse”, a Nissenbaum original, evolved into an in-the-pocket hip-hop groove of which Philly’s own Questlove would be proud. At one point, I felt like I could have been down in New Orleans listening to the Rebirth Brass Band. But I wasn’t. I was in Philadelphia, listening to great jazz.
Riding on an early career marked by unsurprising hype and a guise of anonymity, UK electro-funk sensation Jungle could certainly be said to be making waves. The release of their debut album is less than a month away, yet somehow, what NME is calling “the UK’s most mysterious act” has been raising eyebrows and questions left and right. What we do know is that the two front men are lifelong friends named T and J (the J stands for Josh; the T can be left to your imagination), and are not in fact Black, as one would presume with Jungle’s music videos and promotional pictures in mind. They aspire to mystery and have crafted a musical experience that in many ways succeeds fellow British white-funk and R&B superstars, Average White Band, without forgoing a discernible sonic identity of their own and most importantly, being fluent in the universal language that is the power to make a crowd dance.
Probably the most common critique of Jungle is the homogeneity of their musical vocabulary, and I’ll admit that they might just chalk up to be a one or two trick pony. At last night’s show at Union Transfer, the second part to “The Heat” borrowed rhythms and chord structures from their previously-released single, “Platoon”, though the latter was infused with expectable encore gusto, and percolated into a contrafact medley of songs played earlier in the evening. In a sense, what is described as homogeneity by many is in fact a deliberate unity that speaks not to a lack of creativity on the part of T and J, but to the presence of a well-groomed harmonic recipe that takes into account with striking clarity the R&B and funk artists of the 1970s that inspired them.
Opening for Jungle was Beat Connection, the Seattle-based combo that fuses the rhythms of Afro-Cuban jazz with the sounds of the dance floor. Though slightly less in-the-pocket than the headliners, the group was a win in my book, and their live sound was an unexpected departure from that of their records. As for Jungle, I was thoroughly impressed. The criticism of their music being rather samey is real. The underlying question of race with regards to their videos and photos is an interesting one, albeit irrelevant for our purposes. But here’s the thing: who cares about all of that when the music is smart, groovy, and makes everybody in the room abandon any inkling of self-consciousness and dance? And dance they did.
José James could best be described as a musical presence, rather than simply an artist. He’s done everything from latin to hip hop, from jazz to soul, and he’s done it extremely well. His voice is nothing short of classic, and his band is one of the tightest in the business. So what happens when the first show of his 2014 tour features music from his forthcoming album, While You Were Sleeping, a bona fide rock project?
After warming up an intimate crowd with a soulful opener, James introduced his project and keyboardist Kris Bowers dished out some sizzling warm keyboard oscillation. “If you ain’t trying to make babies to this song, y’all better leave,” joked James. The title track of James’ new project, “While You Were Sleeping” unabashedly evokes the acoustic rock goodness of Nirvana’s “Oh Me”. It cannot be ignored that José James is the king of making the works of his musical influences his own, be it borrowing Freddy Hubbard’s chef d’oeuvre groove of “Red Clay” for his free-styling backbone, “Park Bench People” (which featured a mind-blowing guitar solo from Brad Williams) or the melody of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” for an interlude on “Trouble” (both of which were rock solid live).
In any case, James’ new sound took some getting used to. Maybe it was that James’ trumpeter, Takuya Kuroda, was missing from the mix (Kuroda is on a tour of his own), or that the band just hasn’t had enough time with the new material. Don’t get me wrong; everything James and his band played was musically interesting, sonically rich and generally killer, which is kind of what we’ve come to expect. One song drew from Buddhist philosophies and featured a jazzy twist on a classic blues structure. Another based on Muslim spiritual culture eschewed funkier rhythms and grooves in favor of crisp synth textures and a distorted, rocking chorus.
Opening for José James was, well, his band. Read: this is a good thing. Led by adroit keyboardist Kris Bowers and joined by ebullient singer Julia Easterlin, the group grooved its way through a diversified set featuring some clever covers of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and The Roots’ “A Piece of Light”. Bowers and company filled a near-empty room with luscious sound and proved that the young jazz world has some new tricks up its sleeve.
We’ve seen artists and songs take the world by storm before, but never a song like “Royals” by an artist as young as Lorde. The story you haven’t been hearing, however, is how her entire album, Pure Heroine, has stolen the hearts of so many, and how her live performance will steal the hearts of many more yet. I’ll say it now: Lorde isn’t just a precocious pop singer with one Song of the Year already under her belt, but a remarkably talented singer and songwriter whose success has only just begun.
Last night at the Tower Theatre, Lorde greeted a crowd screaming with excitement alone, singing the first few verses of “Glory And Gore” in a way that only teased at the richness of her mellifluous alto before the curtain behind her rose to reveal her simplistic two-man synth/drums band. “Biting Down”, the digitized interpretation of one of those call-and-response gospel songs, felt just like, well, a gospel song, as the crowd sang in near worship of their queen. “I really like you guys a lot,” she said after her voice finished cutting through the warm mix of “White Teeth Teens”, “it feels like a festival in here.”
Before breaking into “400 Lux”, a song about simply killing time in the suburbs of Aukland, New Zealand, Lorde shared that she had been out driving in Philly’s suburbs earlier, and was struck by how similar our area is to her own.
“Bravado” was sonically huge, and “Easy” (a collaboration with Son Lux) quite possibly even more so, relying on crunchy percussive elements and the implementation of her own voice in orchestral chordal arrangements. In one song was the electronic musical gusto of groups like the XX or Atoms For Peace and the remarkably mature, full-bodied voice of a 17-year-old.
If Lorde’s previous remarks weren’t enough to add a personal touch to an impressive night of music, the story behind “Ribs” certainly was. It goes something like this: her sister decides to throw a house party that ends up being a whole lot bigger than they expected, and Lorde ends up trying to fall asleep with her friend, frightened by how difficult it is to keep two feet in completely different worlds. The orchestration, she added, was written to be “soft and comfortable sonically”, because interestingly enough, she was the one that needed comforting, but was happy to share that comfort with the world.
“Royals” was all you expected to be and then some. The minimalist backing from her band speaks to the extent that Lorde’s voice is an instrument of its own, and a unique one that. “Team” was filled with energy and topped off with a barrage of multicolored beams of light, a prolonged instrumental interlude during which Lorde left the stage, and bursts of confetti cannons as she returned donning a shimmering gold robe. “A World Alone” was, lyrically, quite an apt finish to the night, Lorde singing the opening lines: “I feel grown up with you in your car, I know it’s dumb.”
It’s easy to doubt that Lorde’s success will continue, especially given the almost absurdly widespread popularity of “Royals”, but her show at The Tower convinced me otherwise. To begin with, she’s an excellent songwriter, and her lyrics address some difficult issues. Her voice, even regardless of her age, is one of the richest, most unique instruments out there. Lastly, Lorde puts on a remarkable show, even if her dancing is a little, well, different. Lorde is one of those rare instances of a truly complete artist, and I doubt this is the last we’ll be hearing of her.
It’s quite the contrast when, on a grey, snowy Sunday evening, a golden man with a golden guitar and a golden voice takes the stage (outfitted with touches of gold, of course) to play some of his sunny musical gold.
This man, no wonder, is Mathew Houck, or Phosphorescent (dictionary definition: emitting light without appreciable heat), as you may know him. Despite having broken his guitar just before the show, Houck radiated his way onstage, “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” slithering its way between the numerous candles scattered about before anyone picked up any actual instruments. “I’m going for a balance between Buddy Holly and Green Day;” joked Houck, “It’s the first thing they teach you in guitar school.” It seemed to me that Phosphorescent is less the intersection of a rock and roll pioneer and punk rock poster boys, but bare bones alt-country music cloaked in water color ambiance and candle smoke warmth.
The evening prominently featured tracks from Phosphorescent’s 2013 release, Muchacho, including a distilled “The Quotidien Beasts” and an earnest solo rendition of “Muchacho’s Tune.” (Note: the lyrics “I’ve been fucked up, and I’ve been a fool” rather ironically harkened back to an earlier remark, “I’m a broken man with a broken guitar”, regarding his instrument mishap, a nice emotional touch to make the night just that much warmer). Of course, the back-to-back double threat that is “Song for Zula” followed by “Ride On / Right On” were surefire crowd pleasers.
As the wicks of those candles burned on, Houck’s band left the stage, allowing him to show off some of those denuded folk/country songs that lay at the heart of his music. I’m a sucker for “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, Houck’s cover of Willie Nelson’s cover of Hank Cochran’s country classic, but his extended vocal loop pedal version of “Wolves” was, at the very least, unique, and rocked the crowd into a fluorescent trance.
Joining Phosphorescent were New York alt-rockers Caveman, who took a little while to get the crowd engaged, but once their music finally percolated, fans seemed invested in their percussive, syncopated style. Frontman Matthew Iwanusa did a good job of keeping a shivering audience attentive, though I’ll admit that some of his ventures into more comedic banter were less than amazing.
Muchacho is much more than a very critically venerated record by a guy who writes great songs; Houck and company have clearly mastered the substantiation of their latest album, and Phosphorescent’s live music has a lot more dimension than you get with, say, candles and incense (though candles and incense certainly had their role).
It’s music that shimmers with a golden gleam and wraps you in so much warmth that you practically forget just how cold it is outside.
Rainbows, sunglasses, action! PA natives Dr. Dog took the stage for the second of two nights before a sold-out Electric Factory crowd, touring in support of their 2013 release of B-Room. Dr. Dog is a band of dichotomies: they’re tight, but radiate loose vibes; they rock, but in a delicate kind of way; they’re passionate, but don’t take themselves too seriously. What’s more, bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken share the role of lead vocalist; Leaman’s soulful, passionate timbre acting as somewhat of an antithesis to McMicken’s idiosyncratic sound.
After opening up their set with a relatively vanilla performance of their latest sweet-like-candy track, “The Truth”, Leaman showed off his classically rock-and-roll voice and rollicking bass line on “These Days”. For fans who came with the intention of dancing and clapping along, the latest and greatest “Broken Heart” featured some boiling hot energy and one of those signature Dr. Dog double guitar solos that we all so adore (for which we have but Steely Dan to thank). The next three tunes were a stylistic trifecta, jumping from Beatles-y rock goodness (“Ain’t It Strange”) to a first-rate soulful blues (“The Beach”) to pure jammed out psychedelia (“Say Ahh”).
Remember that bit about loose vibes? Unfortunately, in what I believe to be an effort to be that feel-good band Dr. Dog aspires to be, certain songs ended up being so loose as to unravel. “Twilight”, whose true identity is a subdued ‘60s psychedelic ballad, simply sounded out of place and poorly rehearsed. “Worst Trip”, which channels the likes of George Harrison on the recording, was, to put it in a word, noisy, and I couldn’t quite appreciate the true greatness of another one of those killer double guitar solos. All that said, Dr. Dog still puts on a hell of a show. “Lonesome” was an all-out party, fans greeting the band with well-syncopated “Hey’s” and Leaman letting out his inner rockstar, leaping into the hands of audience members to crowd surf. They even brought out the much-beloved Philly Phanatic (who was probably a better dancer than most of us) for “Oh No” during the encores.
Joining Dr. Dog was Saint Rich, the up-and-coming New Jersey residents whose rock solid riffs rival those of the great Keith Richards. What these guys lacked in rainbow light shows and colorful getups, they made up for with some the best stage presence in the game, frontman Christian Peslak climbing to the edge of the Electric Factory balcony and mingling with fans. All told, if you’re into rock, blues, prog, psychedelia (or just about anything else that emerged from the 20th century stylistically), and you don’t mind some high-voltage stage antics and rainbow beams of light flooding the air in all directions, I’d say a Dr. Dog show is the best place you could be.