Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Live Review: The Rouge Royale - Sullivan Hall - June 22nd, 2013

Sullivan Hall is a beautiful and pristine rock club, which a few years ago spawned from the ashes of the Lion’s Den (circa 2008) in the West-ish Village, and in my mind, needs to be revered as a premiere place to see an up-and-coming band. On the first Saturday of Summer, 2013, Sullivan Hall hosted just that, an up-and-coming NYC band: The Rouge Royale.

The Rouge Royale is a three-piece Americana driven folk-rock band featuring singer-songwriter James Ruff on vocals/guitar, Jaxon Dillon (don’t call him Swedish) Fish on bass and Tony Rouhotas on percussion. Their music has a very West Coast relaxed flavor, blended with a very heavy and thematic storytelling vibe that only casts a shadow if you really start deeply pondering the lyrics. In that way, it’s like Jack Johnson singing a bunch of Smiths covers, with the arty aftertaste of a new-wave New York City version of The Doors. The melodies and hooks are insanely catchy and danceable, but there is a deeper meaning, which makes the music consumable on many different levels.

Lead singer and obvious The Rouge Royale catalyst, James Ruff has been writing songs for a long time. He has the feel of a seasoned singer-songwriter, with the thirst of someone who has yet to physically press a tangible album. You get the feeling right away that you’re listening to someone who wants to unveil something with meaning with every lyrical choice and sonic derivative. In a day when lyrics mean less and less, this is always a welcomed deviation.

Take for instance, the story telling on the bands opening number of the evening, “Stealing Whiskey,” which sets the campfire-y gather around quietly, and listen to the man on a rock (with a guitar)…
“Mama thought she raised a Christian
Mama didn’t know her child
Mama tried to raise me virgin
I was born for the other side
I remember stealing whiskey
I remember knee high grass
I remember pretty ladies
Getting drunk off our asshahahahhahsssssssssss”

It’s easy to see where this is going. And you have to LOVE it. The thing that makes it so compelling is it’s set to this damn near Celtic beat, and a catchy rhythm reminiscent of the “Cotton Eye Joe” hook. Ha. The lead guitar line is really imaginative (seems like a BITCH to play and sing like that…) and the song carries this feeling like it’s going to explode into some kind of cocaine fueled hootenanny, but instead twists into a beautiful and melodic bridge that kind of takes one into a sunny field that spins in echoing vocal parts, while one frolics in vast green pastures with twisting photogenic sun rays—channeling a premium portal of urban tranquility. So, if you wanted me to define how you relax and stay upbeat at the same time, I’d play this song, that meddles with that uncomfortable explosion on the horizon feeling, but stays calm and folky, perhaps Celtic-y, and lets you know everything is going to be alright. You don’t have to be rich to have fun. You don’t have to smash your guitars to rock. Take a deep breathe, we all know cheap paths to inebriation, and let’s get it on!? 

The second song I want to single out, and is arguably the most marketable to date by The Rouge Royale, is a little ditty titled “Superman.” This song has a sultry bass line that makes me want to hump a mailbox, if it were drunk, and if we had enough time alone. The vibe here reminds me of Hail to the Theif era Radiohead meets The Doors “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar).” Now, it’s very easy to make this connection as one of the first things you here on The Rouge Royale’s “Superman” is “Take a walk down to the Whiskey Bar…,” but more than that, the thing that hooks me is Ruff’s use of tonality. The thing that makes “The Alabama Song” so fucking catchy, is that “ooooh don’t ask why,” in this thirsty squalor tone that’s so annoying it’s impossible not to allow it to echo around your brain like a cartoony tuning fork. 

Embracing the marketing concept of a great commercial jingle, with that loose up-and-down keyboard beat The Doors were such masters of.  “Stealing Whiskey” kind of channels that loose and unwinding feeling more, but “Superman” rides the eccentric ways Ruff says otherwise, especially for his writing, simplistic words. In that opening phrasing the way he tweaks “ice” and “bricks” with poetic grandeur in complimentary stanzas etching that driving beat in your brain. Little things like that reign huge for catchy hooks. Like, say, the way Snoop says, “1-2-3andtothe-4” instead of “1,2,3,4,” in “Gin and Juice.” That little nugget makes the whole fucking song!?!? Apparently, that was one of Dr. Dre’s little tweaks, he said, “Snoop, try it this way.” History documented.

It’s one of those songs that even if you don’t know it…it’ll explode off a setlist and remain a highlight of the show. I’ve seen them perform it twice, and this last time they brought out a friend who adds a Ska-like hip-hop element to the song, blending his spoken word alliteration with Ruff’s provocative crooning. And they trade this element back and forth throughout the jam. I’m notoriously a sucker for Ska music, and I really haven’t seen this done since that late 90’s early 00’s era of Ska, when I lived in Grand Rapids, MI and Mustard Plug reigned supreme. Rant aside; this is a catchy pop song that should be in your rotation.


Quite simply…this is a band that has all the elements. James Ruff looks like a lead singer, which unfortunately is more important than one would ever think. They have a diverse back catalogue to draw from: Ballads, driving rockers, storytelling anthems, spoken word weirdness (a song called “The Chronic,” I want to hear a studio version of this cataclysmic festival). All in all, it’s a unique sound, that’s teetering on the Americana movement that’s still trending, and has room for a few more before the falling action coincides, but also, there is depth in white space their three piece version of this typically overcrowded sound gives them. The song writing is personal, yet artfully cryptic and the rhythms are tight and punchy like pop songs should be. I envision Jack Johnson playing The Smiths “ASK” on a mystically crafted piece of driftwood. Dig your toes into the sand and enjoy the chill wind chimed melodies…

Stay tuned for more, because there will be more, but for now, I ASK thee to give these guys a listen.

Upcoming show: Saturday, July 13th at Rockwood Music Hall
Listen to The Rouge Royale on Soundcloud


Monday, June 24, 2013

Live Review: Jim James + The Roots - Prospect Park, Celebrate Brooklyn - June 18th, 2013

Jim James and The Roots played a benefit show for Celebrate Brooklyn with the conceived notion and billing of a “collaborative concert.” People have been clamoring for this ever since the “Dear God 2.0” mash up. These, folks, are what I live for. It’s to me, the exact opposite of the “festival” set. Something, that, most likely you will never be able to see again. It doesn’t get any better than that.

As it would turn out, things played out in an, “ok…I guess that’s what it said…and that’s what they did” kind of way. Jim James played his standard solo set. It rocked. The Roots played their idiosyncratic set of fluid vast diversities. It was unreal, tight and everything I could ask for in a first Roots viewing. Then, they came together to play their collaborative number and three imaginative and well executed covers. Something you’re probably not going to see often, or most likely…ever again.

Everything you’d want in a Jim James/Roots collaborative event. I mean, I could ask for a bigger collaborative portion, but what Brooklyn received was a succinct, highly entertaining, high energy collaboration between two power houses, one of which, are local heroes and international legends.

Jim James

I recently saw Jim James on his solo tour at Webster Hall, and called the concert a “gamechanger,” along with pontificating that I had NO CHOICE but to see the upcoming Jim James/Roots show. If Jim James is in town, that’s a must see event. Everytime. All the time. Mark it down. I will now live by this, and in that write up, I was more or less furious with myself that I hadn’t made this effort and paved that path a long time ago. I know things come up, but seriously, clear the Jim James path y’all. You won’t regret it.  

This set, was pretty much the same set as Webster, only an opening set (shorter) and outdoors. And, in particular, with RAIN. James seemed to be enjoying the waterworks, like youth that pray for rain football. Cue the Jack Johnson, relax, and enjoy a delightful summer concert in the perfect summer mist. I had a similar experience when I went to Celebrate Brooklyn to see Wilco last year. When the rain comes down, keeping everyone cool, but not really being a detracting soaker, it’s just glorious. One or two times a year, I am perfectly fine with this arrangement. I just put all my electronics in a plastic bag, which coincidently wasn’t even totally needed until some dimwit spilled an entire beer right on my cargo pocket!? Wow. Thank God for Ziplock, and my luck in THAT ordeal. That could have been disastrous; instead, there was enough rain to slowly but surely, cleanse my leg and my Ziplocked electronics.

Jim James, or as I have branded his solo stage presence, floating Duck Dynasty Jesus, spent the majority of his set doing his thing from side to side, singing to guitar to sax to floating—all the while donning a rag roof over his dome. He would just wear his sweat rag over his head as a…well that’s what was kind of funny. HE WAS UNDER THE ROOF. Ha. It seemed to be a solidarity play with the audience. He took a moment early in the set between songs to fire up the crowd, bantering about how everyone was making a delicious rainbow, and it was a sight to behold, and basically branded the rain set as a special event as I did above. Everything in moderation, right?

I figure there is no need to waste a ton of space detailing this particular set, as I covered it pretty well in the Webster show, and I have more compelling takes on the back half of the show. Either way, it was amazing to see this set again, and I stand by the fact that I could watch this set every night and stand mesmerized, jaw to the floor. Even if I don’t think it’s the BEST possible setlist Jim James could play. The new album is spectacular, one of the best of the year thus far, but I could use some Yim Yames George Harrison covers, or perhaps a few MMJ songs in the mix. But, I get it. This is “solo time” and the material he has, and plays, certainly holds court.

The man can do no wrong.

State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)
Know Til Now
Dear One
A New Life
All Is Forgiven
God's Love to Deliver
The Right Place (Monsters of Folk cover)
Changing World (New Multitudes cover)

The Roots

Tight. Fluid. Eclectic. Does any other band practice as often as The Roots? They are on another level, perhaps even a level and a half in cohesive lucidness.

I seriously think The Roots could cover a Girl Talk song if they wanted to. They are really in a special time and place for a band. Being NYC and worldwide legends for starters. They, for a couple of years now, have made about 1,000ish episodes of Jimmy Fallon (858 according to Wikepedia as of June 21st), to which they have to CONSTANTLY come up with little nuggets of music everytime the show comes in and out of commercial breaks. Think about it!? 858 shows!? About SIX times a show they have to come in and out of commercial break. Let alone, most of those TV bands warm up the audience before taping by playing some songs, or if they are changing production sets during tapings. During tapings, it’s not like they HAVE to come back within two-and-a-half minutes of commercials. Often times, it’s much longer. That’s a TON right there. Then, practicing for all of that. Then, there is recording albums. Tours. Practice, practice, practice.

It makes me think of Malcom Gladwell’s assessment of the Beatles in his 10,000 hours to become a master thesis. Detailing how they would have to play eight-hour marathon shows with covers, different styles and so forth. I think this situation trumps that. Mostly, because this was a legendary, veteran, POPULAR band before all of that started around 2009. So, that separates them from any of the other TV show bands right there. Even Paul Schaffer, who has been playing everyday on TV for like 35,000 years. The Roots must have like 50,000 hours in. I haven’t done the math on it, but I’m going to say they have at least went platinum FIVE times on the 10,000 hours rule. Though mathematically impossible, I stand by the fun arbitrary stand at the ultimate superlative.

I think everyone in the audience could write down a song and Questlove could pull them out of a hat Whose Line is it Anyway? style, and they’d simple count, “1,2,3…” and begin playing song after song after song. At times, their set would do JUST THAT. They would play one of their songs, let’s just say for pun glory “The Next Movement” and then all the sudden they will merge into “Jungle Boogie.” This will lead into some sort of Jazzy improv song which will somehow blend into Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin song will bleed into a sheering tuba solo. Yeah, I said a TUBA SOLO. A damn good one too. That tuba player runs and jumps around the stage like he’s playing a flute. It’s a TUBA!? How does one jump so freekin’ high with a TUBA!? Anyway, tangent aside, the tuba solo transitions smoothly into “______” Top 40 pop song. That song will then become a guitar solo that bends itself into a Frampton-esque talk box solo. When that’s finished, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter will freestyle. Then, they will jam a “BIG ROCK FINISH” of improv excellence. End song sequence.

Exhausting. How the hell did that happen? And…what’s next?

The Roots have often been branded as the “first legitimate hip-hop BAND.” Which I like, because it seems weird to see an MC like Jay-Z up there with just a Mic and someone turning knobs. More power to the ability to command, sure, but The Roots have two keyboards, two percussionists, an out of control tuba (did I mention this?), guitar, MC and bassist. It’s a FULL BAND. And, they played live at Prospect Park, like a bunch of kids cooped up watching TV all day in the rain. When the stage lights came up, it was sunny, and they wanted to PLAY. The tuba player, bassist and guitar player myriad times were engrossed in full out synchronized dance movements. Shit like that is just so fun to me. The stuff you get when you see a show, and performers are bringing so much more to the performance. That’s the addiction, ladies and gents!

My favorite part was towards the end, again, just a little nugget from the show, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, as I’d never seen anything like it. The secondary percussionist (I don’t think being called “second percussionist is a slight, when the “first percussionist” is Questlove) ran to center stage and joined Black Thought during a very fast rhyme session. Only, he knew the cadence so well, he was able to gyrate next to him in perfect precision to the words and feeling of the enunciations. Kind of a tough thing to describe, but again, I found myself mesmerized by this little jamming moment. It looked really fucking fun!

I didn’t write down a setlist, because I didn’t know all the songs, and with all the moving in and out of song movements they did, I think it’d be quite a task. Setlist FM didn’t even really come up with a sufficient answer either. I know they closed with “The Seed 2.0” which is pretty much everyone’s favorite Roots song. I remember going CRAZY when that song came out (late college for me…), and really tapping into that feeling when they brought it out on this particular evening. It’s just an invigorating little ditty packed with oodles of soul and an impeccably catchy hook.

I think Jay-Z said it best, without a full band on, The Black Album, “What more can I saaaaaaaaaaaayyyy…”

 The Roots + Jim James 

This moment is what all the ballyhoo was about, right? Four songs. Let the magical moment begin!?

The setlist pretty much says it all…

Dear God 2.0
I Could Never Take Place of Your Man (Prince cover)
Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Instant Karma (John Lennon cover)

Bam! Feeling Jim James with THAT big of a backing band was an experience in itself. I’m loving that I got to hear THAT voice sing “Instant Karma,” which is a belter of all sorts. It was sad, because when you heard it, you KNEW that was the end. You just really can’t top that from a vocal/closing/showmanship standard. It has “these are the credits” written all over it.

“Dear God 2.0” was really the only moment you saw James and Black Thought share the stage together. Hypothetically, I would think they would be able to come up with SOMETHING they could do together that would be unique. Not a complaint, but really that’s the only thing I walked away scratching my head about. In fact, Black Thought pretty much left the stage after that song until he came back out at the very end to wave and help Questlove throw autographed books, drumsticks and setlists into the crowd.

The Bill Withers song was just so FUNKY! That’s all I really have to say about that. Ok, I’ll add, I didn’t really know “Use Me” prior to the set, but it’s a classic 1972 funk song that was taken to new heights by the vocal prowess of Jim James. He was meant to sing songs like this. It takes me back to the Evil Urges tour. To be honest with you, I thought this was like a Prince song or something. Actually, as it would turn out, they had just played Prince’s “I Could Never Take Place of Your Man,” a song MMJ plays from time to time. It sounded familiar, but I walked away from the show having not a clue what it was. If you don’t know exactly, you don’t know. That’s how it goes with setlists. Ha.

All in all, quite an eclectic encore as bill, collaboration fulfilled. It lived up to the epic hype proportions. Of course, I want them to play forever. I was hoping for FIVE songs, if you put a gun to my head, that was my expectation. This was done very well though, and the moment they were all on stage was as aggrandizing as one could ever imagine. The stratosphere in Brooklyn had to bend a tad, to hold it all in. It pained mother nature, but everyone has to make sacrifices. Perhaps, that’s what all the crying was about early on. It was a birth!?

Until next time, I guess you’ll just have to settle for these two amazing bands on their own respective tours. Which, in itself is worth the price of admission. It’s always the little something extra that takes a night to the top, though isn’t it? I feel like both of these acts did that in their own ways, and then together, to make something a little extra special, and raising a little something special, in the name of Celebrate Brooklyn.

Those involved couldn’t be more proud. Or entertained. Yes, please, more things like this!?  

Author's note: I really didn't spend much time taking pics, and only had my portable camera. I DID, however realize my portable camera has a better zoom than my big-dog, though the pics come out kind of grainy, it is sort of nice. My buddy Scott was next to me with a nicer camera, and I was just going to use his pics. Then, I looked at these and decided they conveyed the message of the visual I wanted, though not really stunning as photographs as art by themselves. Good enough, and kind of more me, and fitting to the style I wrote this piece in. Kind of loose and off-the-cuff. Freewheeling. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Live Review: Born Ruffians, The Spinto Band, Turf War - Brooklyn Bowl - June 16th, 2013

Brooklyn Bowl hosted a compelling ensemble of bands Sunday night: Turf War, The Spinto Band and Born Ruffians. The most interesting storyline of the evening, for me, is my own association, or in this case, dissociation, with The Spinto Band—directly in correlation with Born Ruffians. They had an album, Nice and Nicely Done (2005), that was very symbolic of my move from Michigan to NYC, and was in constant rotation in the same vein as Red, White & Blue (2008) by Born Ruffians a few years later. I would say 2005 and 2008 were Indie Rock “baby booming” times in my life, where I took on a shit-ton of new bands in a music feeding frenzy of insatiable portions. These particular albums were staples of said times, yet my fan-ship of the bands didn’t seem to latch on, which is sad, because both bands carried on without me. Not to say they should have stopped, but I am certainly glad they didn’t, and am elated to hitch myself back on based on these rock shows I’ve seen. Nostalgia transcends itself beautifully into new music merriment.

I think the best way to approach this show, is to respect the ensemble cast and unveil the evening like an ascending red carpet of rock goodness…

Turf War 

Image stolen from: www.rollograndy.com
 They are a five-piece indie pop punk band from Augusta, Georgia. One can certainly feel the southern slather to their easy-on-the-ears punk sound. I was kind of taking their set in from the distance while my group of friends arrived, and as the Game 5 of the NBA Finals was beginning, but even without isolated attention their music seemed legit. Definitely a great opening band, setting an upbeat tone for the evening. Being the most “rocking” band of the evening, things were off to a proper start. They have a great classic rock sound and many of their songs, I felt like I could pick up and sing along, though I had never heard the songs before—a handful had catchy “ooo-oooh-oooh,” and “Yeah-yeah-yeah…” type backing vocals. I chanted along from a distance when I could.

The Spinto Band

I can’t believe I forgot about The Spinto Band!?

I still reference that album all the time in rotation and conversation, as I love to frame a situation warranting much fanfare with a quintessential, “Nice! And Nicely done!” in direct reference to that “Zerfas classic.” 2005’s Nice and Nicely Done was a breakout album on Bar/None Records, after putting out four albums on their own label Spintonic, dating back to their high school days in the late 90’s when they were just getting started. The single “Oh Mandy” (played towards the end of the set...) was used for a commercial by Sears, and subsequently funded the bands European tour. Somehow I missed the follow-ups with intriguing album names: Moonwink (2008), Shy Pursuit (2012) and Cool Cocoon (2013).

Shy Pursuit is just a lovely album name, reminding me of my all-too-patient and quiet puppy dog crushing. Sigh. And Cool Coccon just makes me want to snuggle with someone, with a melodic and relaxing musical backdrop, which coincidentally, is exactly what the album’s tone conveys. I wouldn’t mind a cuddle convoy right now. Throw it on and line ‘em up! 

It seems the band is at a creative explosion lately, putting out two albums in consecutive calendar years, again returning to their own label, Spintonic. Shy Pursuit and Cool Cocoon have a matured sound from the Strokes-y sound so many bands had in that ‘05ish period. The band has moved to a more relaxed, electronically driven sound, much in the way of Born Ruffians, with crystal clean worldly vocals reminiscent of Vampire Weekend.

The Spinto Band seems to have a great dueling dynamic to the band, with the more mature lustrous sound coming from guitarist Nick Krill and the more driving, dance-y songs coming from the buoyant stage presence of bassist Thomas Hughes. On this evening he was flannelled up and rocking his ass off, in an upbeat jubilant manner, contagious as hell. It was near impossible to not want to dance right along with the set. They had a very commanding, stalwart stage presence, reminding me that they are, in fact, veterans of the game. Not underground greenhorns. Not to be ignored. These guys can play and these songs are so pretty.

I can only hope this spark in creativity and recorded music is more than just a last hurrah for a band that deserves much more acclaim than they’ve been given (myself included) over the years. The Spinto band is a dynamic live presence and versatile force in the studio—it baffles me they don’t have a more universal audience. I know I will ratchet my fan-ship up a notch and cusp faith these boys will catch fire. They are worthy of the cause. 

 Born Ruffians 

I was debating whether to go to this show or not, being that I just saw Born Ruffians at Bowery Ballroom in April. I figured they would play a similar set, but given that Brooklyn Bowl is one of the GREATEST places on Earth, the show was affordable, my nostalgia for The Spinto Band—I figured if I had the night free, this was the place to be. And I was right, however, I didn’t expect such a reciprocal set from Born Ruffians.

I use the term “reciprocal set” to mean a set that perfectly compliments the previous set. Often times useful if you see a band a number of nights in a row, or on the same tour, when you can find different things about the show that you missed the first time—to complete the experience. Typically, this is done with a varying setlist. Recently, I missed one of my favorite bands Say Anything as they toured with a concept of playing “rarities and b-sides” on their latest jaunt. That would have made the perfect reciprocal set to the Anarchy My Dear set I saw last time.

This particular occasion, Born Ruffians played, I’m pretty sure, the EXACT same set from the Bowery show, and most of their tour really. This typically would kind of bum me out, but the audience reaction at Brooklyn Bowl was completely different. The Bowery Ballroom show seemed to be PACKED with diehards, and anytime an old song would be played, the place would go berserk!? When Born Ruffians opened with “Badonkadonkey” the crowd was actually kind of quiet and seemingly not very amused. 

Luke Lalonde’s voice at times can be quite shrill, especially on those old numbers. I love it, but following some of those glossy Spinto Band songs, it kind of echoed through the darkness with unease. I assured my friend they would “win over the crowd.” Slow and steady, that’s exactly what the Canadian quirky quartet accomplished, song-by-song in methodical fashion, the crowd came around. The rallying cry this time though was the newer, more electronic, more of today’s era cuts off 2013’s Birthmarks. At the Bowery show, the Birthmarks songs were certainly well received, but the anticipation for the debut album was undeniable. 

The first three songs were off their debut EP and LP respectively. After that, there were a number of cuts in a row off Birthmarks that continued to gain steam with the audience. By then, the songs were soaring, the disco ball was spinning and Lalonde was floating from stage right to stage left and vice versa, jamming on stopping for an occasional, well-timed “HEY!” into the microphone. It was a beautiful evening to be at Brooklyn Bowl. Not quite as dance-y and eccentric as I would have expected, but it’s a wonderful thing to watch a band at their craft. I don’t even know why I was worried, or had a hint of doubt, I realize these guys are professionals and this is what they do, but I can’t help but want good things for these guys.

If they were born ruffians, they certainly have proven to grow up to be refined dignitaries—gentleman of their craft. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Live Review: Aoife O'Donovan - Mercury Lounge - June 11th, 2013 (Fossils release and review)

“I feel like it’s my birthday or something…I guess it’s my album’s birthday,” remarked Aoife (pronounced “ee-feh”) O’Donovan sheepishly at the early show Tuesday at Mercury Lounge. She later commented that after YEARS of playing shows under her name in NYC, it’s nice to, “finally have something to sell.” She’s referring to her debut album Fossils, which is a full band effort that harnesses her sharp, yet breathy vocals with a genre bending sound that ranges from upbeat Alison Krauss country rock, the folk beauty of old-school Jewel, to singer-songwriter ballads in the vein of an inebriated Norah Jones.

Fossils is chock full of really catchy melodies and a genuine sensibility that shall, if you choose to let it, slather itself into the nooks and crannies of your life. I'm telling you right now, if you hit play, it may not be much of a choice, so listener be warned!!?

O’Donovan was the lead singer of an alternative bluegrass band called Crooked Still, who have produced high energy tours and innovative acoustic instrumentation for over 10 years. They recently disbanded to pursue solo projects. I discovered Aoife as part of the Chris Thile umbrella, laying down scintillating vocals on The Goat Rodeo Sessions (a super-band with Thile, Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, etc, etc), as well as Noam Pikelny’s latest solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. I saw her perform as part of the Punch Brothers Super Pass Day 2, closing out 2012 at Bowery Ballroom, to which I reviewed coyly, “And Aoife told stories and wrote songs, much in the way the Punch Brothers do that involve an adult beverage or seven throughout, which tends to tug at my soul oh so gently. Keeping me eternally warm and fuzzy.

I came to Mercury Lounge with one particular song in my head that resonating eternally clear since that fateful January 30th evening at Bowery. I remembered it was this sweet little ditty about sticking your toes in the sand, being sung to sleep on the beach and being warm and seeing stars (bonus points for this KILLER double entendre?) romantic on the 4th of July. It’s one of those times when you hear a song and it just cuts you to the core with a visceral hug of addiction. You HAVE to hear that song again. I was waiting for it all set, and was starting to wonder if somehow, this amazing song kind of missed her “cut” if you will? That would be TRAGIC!?!?! Turns out, she saved it for the end of her set, and even brought out fellow Thile umbrella-er, from Nickel Creek, Sara Watkins to help her out. The song is called “Red & White & Blue & Gold” and it’s just so pretty. One of the most heartwarming, lost in a moment you can’t control, songs I’ve ever heard. Just a gem.

“Come on lie next to me
I’ll sing you to sleep, I’ll sing you to sleep,
There’s a band on the boardwalk, you’re tapping your feet
But I’m too drunk to daaaaaaance

Black and blue all on my face, I wanna follow you home
I wanna see your place
I wanna take you in my arms, float down a river with you
I wanna buy the farm

 Swoon. Stay still sensitive Zerfas heart.

She recently had her track “Beekeeper” (also a title of a FANTASTIC Punch Brothers song) featured on iTunes as the “free download of the week.” Good press and an even better song. It’s one of those songs that will convey instantaneous emotional investment. It seems heavy from the incarnation and lyrics like “I wanna know all of the ribs in your cage/two by two, part of me lives in you and I’m a goddamn fool/just make your move, or get out of the game.” I look at it as a compelling song about the chase, and the ride you take throughout that whole process. And, if you’re anything like me, it’s quite a process. The song, like the process, seems to topsy-turvy itself giving power to each side of the narrative in a true push-pull result tally of sort. God, I hate being so emotional, but I love how she seems to soundtrack this maniacal moment to song, in such a visceral, yet down to Earth and realistic way.

The song that to me shows her range as a vocalist is “Pearls,” a song that, to me, plays off like a more complete “Fashion Coat” by The National. The song builds and builds in a methodical folk-rock song with elegantly stretching breathy vocals like a rubber band. Around the 3:10 mark in the song, there is a dramatic turn and she majestically sings the hook in a way I can’t get out of my head. It’s just so damn pretty…

everywhere I wanna go
you’re never where I wanna go”

Which directly links to me to the aforementioned favorite National hook, from the album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers

Everywhere I am is just another thing
Without you in it

The emptiness is directly correlated and exquisitely concurrent. I want a DJ to mash these together, because I think those two voices would blend PERFECTLY. Either way, I love the feeling transmitted with lonely affection, and live for the moments when it happens on the song and/or album. The Aoife version just showcases how she can cascade her voice into your ears and throughout your brain with delicate grace.

The song range of Fossils is dynamic in genre as well as instrumentation, with a shit-ton of variety including: Guitars, banjo, lap steel, pedal steel, accordion, fiddle, trumpet, Wurlitzer, mellotron, organ, and “Oh, Mama” even has what’s been billed as a “bourbon choir?”

Schlotzsky’s Deli has a slogan: Funny name, serious sandwich. I can’t help but think of that when I see the name Aoife O’Donovan. Her sister sings on the album too, with the name Fionnuala O’Donovan. I want to make name tags at that family reunion?!!? Perhaps her parents are Bob and Mary or something and have much childhood drama about having common folk names. Anyway, the album is a serious, legit, must have piece of art for the summer. July 4th is coming up. Dig your toes into the sand, water and THIS ALBUM!

(It’s only 6.99 on iTunes.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Live Review: The National - Barclays Center - June 5th, 2013

It was a big night for The National Wednesday night at the Barclays Center. Brooklyn is a place of great pride (just ask anyone from there, or that lives there currently, I’m sure they’ll shout about it at you), and it’s no secret the new arena was quite a leap in many ways for a band that’s big, but are they, THAT big? I enjoyed quickly retorting any friend who countered my concert-going excitement with a, “who are they?” confidently, “blah blah blahSOLD OUT BARCLAYS CENTER!?!?” Oh snap. Turns out, it wasn’t quite sold out, but it was quite full, raucously loud and thirsty (no pun intended) for a top grade rock show.

I can’t imagine anyone outside the Brooklyn Vegan peanut gallery didn’t get the concert they desired.
·       A rip-roaring start to the evening putting “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” and “Sea of Love” early in the set, really getting the crowd behind the band.
·       Speaking of “Sea of Love,” I always kind of swoon, and stop in my tracks at the vocal performance toward the end of the song when Berninger blends a monotone croon, with a clean scream. He heaves this vocal contortion a number of times, dueling banjos style, through the end of the song. It’s always been an effect I’m a sucker for (Grohl, Clapton, Polar Bear Club), and it’s just joyous to hear live.
·       Best joke: “It’s good to be back at the Barclay’s Centerwhere it all started.” Second best: “(before playing “Sorrow”) We know this song better than any of our other songs right now. We’re well rehearsed.” (Alluding to a six-hour performance of the song early in May, in which they played “Sorrow” 105 times in a row. They DID play an encore at this set. Yes.)
·       Anytime lead singer Matt Berninger screams. It’s like a symphony of awesome in my brain. Especially on songs that don’t have scream parts on the studio version like “Terrible Love” and “Squalor Victoria.” Those improv screams delight me to no end.
·       State of the art light show, complete with full graphic backdrops. Some of which have been used for a while, but live, have become as much a part of the songs as the notes.
·       I’m a raving fan of anytime they add more. More horns. More band members doing more things. Full Orchestra. Lay it on me, boys!  
·       The sound was good throughout the arena. Berninger sounded great and it seemed like it was a good show even for those not close and on the floor. The obvious sentiment taking a show to the arena level.
·       The new material was seamless! What a blue ribbon album Trouble Will Find Me is turning out to be.
·       Why did it ever have to end?
·       No songs off Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers which is not only my favorite National album, but it’s a Top 5 worthy by ANY band in my book. Not to hear even ONE song off your favorite album by a band you’re seeing is kind of peculiar.
·       The pressure of the evening perhaps took away from more joking around, story telling and deep cuts?

This is GOOD NEWS from a band known for communicating frowns and sunken heads. I can’t tell you how sick I am of people chastising The National for “being too sad” and that every note and thread of the music and personas are just drenched in depression. I mean, sure it’s kind of funny to sardonically sunshine blow songs like “Sorrow” and a whole new batch of tunes on the new album Trouble Will Find Me like: “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Humiliation,” “Graceless,” or “I Should Live in Salt.” I get it. It’s sad. It’s amazing. It’s amazingly sad, yet in its own way can be quite therapeutic and/or uplifting, but I’ll be damned if anyone seriously takes in a National show and calls them ONE-DIMENSIONAL!?

One thing nobody can take away from The National, is the notion that hard work and talent always rise to the top. This is a band, a story, a testament to that in every sense of the word. Busting their ass making albums that fit their astronomical expectations. You feel in every progressive album they are doing, there is an increased standard, or mindset to try new things, expand horizons and top anything they’ve ever done. Not to make hits, but to work fucking hard at their craft. They’ve toured their asses off, playing shows to “nobody” (referenced with that exact word by Berninger before playing “Abel”) and now they can ride their bikes HOME, to one of the biggest venues in the city and own it proudly. This is the kind of work ethic Brooklyn, New Yorkers, the American Dream and all bands alike should look to as an example. Respect.    

Matt Berninger is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite stage presences. I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I think in some ways he’s a lot like Jim Morrison. Wait, hear me out here. First off, the voice is deep and mumble-y at times, just like Morrison. Classic baritone? It’s so fun to walk around a room and mumble as deep and internally as possible National songs. It makes me giddy to do this. Especially, when the lyrics are something like, “If you want to see me cry/play “Let it Be”/Or “Nevermind.” Something about doing this in an internally boisterous manner, amongst the walking zombies of this great planet makes me happy.

Second, the scream-to-baritone mumble ratio and their complimentary concurrency? How about the poetry and moonlit song and dance? L.A. Woman meet Mr. November? The effect when Morrison screams is perfectly correlating to that of Berninger’s. The blues improv ending of “Roadhouse Blues” is equal to the repetitive advertising freak out of, “My mind’s not right/My mind’s not right/My mind’s not right!!!” It’s surprising how rocking it is, when you don’t believe  they’re capable of doing it to the degree they do. Berninger’s voice isn’t meant to scream (neither is Morrison’s, but his use of inflection gives the music such a mood swing). I would say, “he can’t scream” and mean it, yet, when he does it, I think it’s the BEST. THING. EVER. I wait patiently every show to watch Berninger to go berserk. It’s my favorite thing in LIFE right now. Yes, it’s that fucking special!!?!?

Third, the man is eccentric as all breaking hell Jumanji. It’s easy to get lulled to sleep by the lullabies of tears and sadness, then in an instant the guy is flying off the fucking handle. Then, you put in strobe lights, and kinds of flashing shit on stage; he seems to wander in and out of darkness and viewpoint in chunky robotic spazzes. Like a caged animal, circling the stage and being herded by band members and other physical barriers on stage, psychotically stuck in stereotypic movement. I remember reading someone saying he’s boring on Brooklyn Vegan, to which another countered that, he’s borderline “scary” due to lack of transition or pronounced reason of movement. I think he’s just an extremely shy, awkward human being, that has to charge himself up to perform on such a grandiose scale. It really seems at times like he’s going to just leave the stage, from pure shyness, and everybody looking at him. I thought this before seeing the documentary from the Alligator tour to which he did just that


All in all, I couldn’t ask for a better front man. He is commanding with that tall posture and the different ways he grabs the microphone and seemingly pours his heart out. He always plows into the audience during set-ending “Mr. November,” (The National's "Everlong) and is literally WITHIN the audience screaming a line that’s impossible not to rally around, as crowd and band become ONE, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November!” That’s the kind of shit that makes you want to carry a front man like a herd of cheerleaders.

I think it’s ironic that Trouble Will Find Me, stylistically, is a return to their first self-titled album, to which they seem to have abandoned completely. That first album has an alt-country Wilco vibe to it and some of the songs are so simple and delightful. Perhaps, they are hard to recreate with a full band, but still, there doesn’t seem to be any hope of hearing “Bitters & Absolute,” “The Perfect Song,” or even “John’s Star” anytime soon. But, the new album certainly seems to have exhaled a tad from the dense tension conveyed throughout High Violet. I might be the ONLY National fan in the world that would rate High Violet last on their discography list. I don’t dislike the album. I like it a lot, but find very few songs on it I enjoy all the way through, or that I crave on a regular basis, aside from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Conversation 16.” Something just didn’t stick with me on as a whole. I love the moods and sonic atmosphere many of the songs create, but struggle to find complete enjoyment out of ALL the songs. Trouble Will Find Me finds the National finding a comfort zone within themselves, that’s utterly transcendent in the product, leaving the listener at ease, able to kick their feet up and relax. It’s only music. Beautiful music. Awe-inspiring soundscapes of vast tracks of land and anecdotes of name-riddled detail. Graceless my ass, Matt, your majestic moment has arrived.

Now, for the 16th time, I don’t know what all the trouble is for, but I’m glad it keeps finding you.

1. Don’t Swallow the Cap
2. Bloodbuzz Ohio
3. Mistaken for Strangers
4. Sea of Love
5. Sorrow
6. Demons
7. Heavenfaced
8. Afraid of Everyone
9. Conversation 16
10. Squalor Victoria
11. I Need My Girl
12. This is the Last Time (with Annie Clark)
13. Abel
14. Apartment Story
15. Pink Rabbits
16. England
17. Graceless
18. About Today
19. Fake Empire

20. I Should Live In Salt
21. Humiliation
22. Mr. November
23. Terrible Love

24. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic)