Thursday, May 2, 2013

Live Review: Born Ruffians - Bowery Ballroom - April 16th, 2013

It felt like midnight Tuesday at Meijer as Born Ruffians took the Bowery Ballroom stage long after the sun came down, and shortly after I’d had a few (dozen) PBR’s. On this particular Tuesday, the bands’ third LP Birthmarks unveiled itself in concert, and for take out. As one would imagine the boys were in a festive mood. It had the feel of a low-key release party with the band confidently striding through a set of mostly new, intertwined around fan-favorite classics, to keep the sold out crowd frenzied.

The quirky quartet from Toronto doesn’t really take themselves too seriously, even though over the course of almost a decade their music has evolved exponentially. Any band that opens their set with a song called “Badonkadonkey” is to be given some slack in the seriousness department. It was an excellent choice by the way. Throughout their set though, there were traces of a band that’s coming together, forming a catalogue of deeper diversity, while still maintaining that zany dance party vibe. It’s really the perfect kind of show to let loose and kind of act like a fool, while maintaining some indie-pop cred for finding tasty rock goodness in the city.

Birthmarks opens with a remarkable song, the band used to close their set, “Needle” that showcases the bands’ ability to boil their sound into a bare-bones folk croon. The vocals sound eerily like that of the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, and when the song gains momentum it cascades into a bursting Vampire Weekendish excursion. In fact, there are many times during Birthmarks I feel the channeling of Vampire Weekend, though, without the patronizing hipster-hater circus that comes with ALL THAT stigma. My apologies to Born Ruffians, but I view it as a good thing, a great blend of synth-riffs that crescendo into beautiful worldly sounding harmonization.

Born Ruffians seem to have a firm grasp on their audience. They were greeted with a berserk knee jerk reaction after opening with two classic numbers from their highly acclaimed debut LP Red, Yellow & Blue (2008). Then, they launched into a handful-and-a-half new songs were received well, with the crowd even singing along to the seemingly untested hymns.

Admittedly, after the debut masterpiece, Born Ruffians had kind of dropped off my radar. I missed their follow up, Say It in 2010, which only accounted for two of the performed songs, and didn’t come across Birthmarks until a friend pointed me in the direction. I’m glad he did. And, although the new album isn’t necessarily a classic like RY&B, but it’s certainly a worthwhile listen with a steady dose of quality songs, again, extending the sound and reach of the band.     

One particular song, “Cold Pop” drives hard with a synth heavy not-so-subtle sexuality declaring with dubious debauchery, “I’ve got nothing but lust for you…” It takes many twists and turns, without losing its effervescent momentum. I’m also a raving fan of “Rage Flows,” an off-kilter mid-tempo electronic dance-y song that features handclaps, toy sounds, monotone vocal loops and a multitude of timing changes. It’s a ride that I finish, I’m not quite sure what happened, but I feel ultimately I’m better for the experience. I wouldn’t play it at my next house party, but maybe I would—if there were enough drugs. Ingested. People would have to be fucked up for me to have the guts to play this song. Title fulfills prophecy…chuuch.

The encore was another case of embattled perfection. They opened with my favorite Born Ruffians song, “Little Garcon.” It’s just a cute little ditty that starts out as a folk riff, like a more romantic Lumineers, and blossoms into a layered clap along, whirling tambourine, hootenanny, nestling around your heart’s desire. The quintessential set closer is “I Need a Life” which is a rollicking number that senses set perfection as it gains life throughout the song, climaxing on a call and response sing-a-long, bringing the evening to a majestic close. It’s certainly Born Ruffians’ “Everlong.”

Their music has matured, but the dance-crazed fun doesn’t have to. Where’s the after party?

Setlist (I’m 94% confident about accuracy):
1. Badonkadonkey
2. Kurt Vonnegut
3. I’m One of Those Girls
4. Ocean’s Deep
5. Rage Flows
6. Too Soaked to Break
7. What to Say
8. Merry Little Fancy Things
9. Retard Canard
10. With Her Shadow
11. Cold Pop
12. Barnacle Goose
13. Needle

14. Little Garcon
15. I Need a Life

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Live Review: Jim James - Webster Hall - April 29th, 2013

I spend a great deal of time feeling like a relatively average My Morning Jacket fan, as I write regularly for The Steam Engine, and MMJ is only ONE of my favorite bands, not top of the pyramid. Mind you, I’ve always considered Jim James’ work to be top-shelf, but I’ve yet to pass my fanship to that next level where I use my overzealous superlatives and Top “____” vernacular.

The first and only time I saw MMJ, was at Radio City Music Hall, during the Evil Urges tour, which was enough to put them in that legendary status. I’d consider it for my Top 5 best concerts, ever. Cha-ching! It was a tight, get your ass out of the seats and dance, rip-roaring rock show. Anything I could ever ask for was at this show. For whatever reason, I missed some of the following tours here in NYC, and that’s how bands/artists get put on your backburner and trickle into the middle shelves. Well, this time around, on the solo tour, the stars aligned and I was able to catch the solo show at a small venue. I was lucky enough to be able to get close and really experience the music, as one should—up close and personal.

What an amazing show!? A real game-changer. As if I somehow forget, I will no longer allow myself to miss Jim James when he comes to town. Noted: next time is Prospect Park June 18th. Mark it down! That particular show is with the Roots, so I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen, other than, I have to be there. Top shelf solidification. Maybe more as nostalgia simmers in my brain.

Jim James floats around the stage with an unhinged hillbilly edge one might find on Duck Dynasty combined with a sexy, suited and booted dance-y Jesus. He really makes getting from stage left to stage right and back look as effortless as omnipresent walking on water. I could just sit there in awe, at just how ridiculously awesome he looks doing it. You just have this solidarity, knowing you are in the hands of a badass. A metrosexual, Duck Dynasty, blue-ribbon badass.

There was also a degree of varying weapons of rockness. Sometimes, he’d set himself up on the right side of the stage, almost basking in the darkness like Batman, manning myriad different electronic devices (writer's note: I realized he doesn't really tinker with electronics after seeing him perform the same set at Prospect Park. Perhaps I was just too fucking high. Ha.). A “Flying V” guitar on a stand anchored itself around mid-stage and would occasionally find itself arched in the air like a spry Yoga back, to a sea of flailing hair in a severe rock head bang. As a Foo Fighters fanatic, Jim James is the only person I’ve ever seen that does this as feverishly as Dave Grohl. And, when things needed that extra oomph, he’d appear with a saxophone. Yes, a saxophone. A rare move for a bearded, long-hair rocker, but much obliged for those that enjoy anyone channeling their inner Jethro Tull. Ok, it was much sexier than that, but you get the point. Solos were all over the place, like silos in farm country. A glorious night for prog-rockers.

The opener to the show, and his debut LP Regions of Light and Sound of God, “State of the Art” is a new, updated, technologically approved take on humans and their relationship dubious with technology. I think it’s an interesting opener to the album, because to it sounds to me like James is delving further and further into technology (excluding “A New Life”) with MMJ and his solo work alike, and he admits as much when talking about this particular song, but it remains bizarre to me how much the album doesn’t feel like a rock record. It feels like a soul, and easygoing needle drop sonically, until you see this shit come alive on stage. This is one of the great ideologies to being an addicted concertgoer. The music, occasionally, is represented in such a muscular fashion live, it’s hard to remember what the music sounded like before it punched you in the face in person.

Will I ever be able to listen to this album with soulful relaxation after this rock show?

I loved the light show and presentation to this concert as well. The backing lights looked and emoted varying bright lights in the array of the suns’ glorious rays. It felt as if James was performing at the heart of the big mass of incandescent gas, and the rays were changing colors frenetically warming the audience with Earthy, yet strobe-laden pastures of retina confusion and excellence. If you were lucky enough to be blazed at this particular show, I’m sure you were taken into another dimension. You didn’t need it, but if there were a clutch time to partake in such debauchery, this was your sublime stage.

Until the encore, the whole show revolved around the new album. He opened the encore with, “Movin Away” off the Gossip Girl, err, I mean Circuital. Truth be told, I always kind of forget about this song, as I think of Circuital as an album with three amazing songs, a couple good ones and a few I’d like to forget. This particular song might make me reconsider that take, and begin with FOUR amazing songs when describing the album. Peering behind the vast shadows of: 1) “Victory Dance” 2) “Holding Black Metal” 3) “Circuital,” but it was so beautifully done, I have no other discourse but to romanticize it for life. I’m glad Gossip Girl fans will get to this same place, albeit in a different way. And, somewhere out there, there was someone(s) (I realize that doesn’t work plural) who appreciated this moment for both sentiments.

James then serenaded the packed Webster Hall audience with four consecutive Monsters of Folk numbers. Many of them seemed to take on a life of their own through silo seesawing jams, and of course only having a quarter of the band (M.O.F.) on stage, vocally. I’ve always felt like that was an underrated album. Obviously, with a super band, the expectations are out of this atmosphere, but I’ve never really heard it talked about in the positive way it should (the 80 on Metacritic seems higher than I remember). People are always hating and falsely superseding expectations. I think Mojo covered this sentiment the best with their M.O.F review, “this record is way better than we had any right to expect.”

He closed the show with another super band number, from New Multitudes, a Woody Guthrie cover album, “Changing World.” It has this kind of Lion King sound to it, but with some campy feel good lyrics. I could see it being a song for closing out a summer camp conference. It chimes, “Change the pen, change the ink/Change the way you talk and think/Change the tubes and change the tires/And change the thing your heart desires,” which brings the journey of this show full circle, almost playing ying-yang with “State of the Art.” If that was intentional, then, bravo!?

This is the kind of show that set the bar and upped the ante for everyone I see for the summer, and perhaps beyond. That feeling of a life changing show can’t be beat, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off the summer concert season. An upbeat and fluid mindset and new technology, to take things to the next level—life always finds a way to be better. Even against the grains of my own nostalgic naysaying, truly superseding my own expecations. Things are happening around the world, by the nanosecond, that are special and documentable. This show eased into those good graces without trepidation.

What else could a boy want?


1. State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)

2. Know Til Now

3. Dear One

4. A New Life

5. Exploding

6. Of the Mother Again

7. Actress

8. All Is Forgiven

9. God’s Love to Deliver

10. Movin Away (MMJ cover)

11. Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.) (Monsters of Folk cover)

12. His Master’s Voice (Monsters of Folk cover)

13. The Right Place (Monsters of Folk cover)

14. Losin Yo Head (Monsters of Folk cover)

15. Changing World (Woody Guthrie, New Multitudes cover)

The Headbangers Ball Series:

A few more: