Words by Dennis Cook
Falling through the clouds on a red eye from California, New York winks at me. The archetypal city, it dares one to take it on. Without a knack for tuning out the constant clatter and push, a person gets tossed around like a leaf in a hard wind. Tall, vast, and complex, New York City sizzles with thousands upon thousands of volts - charged, breathing, alive, a power that feeds the arts like no other spot on Earth. On any given night there's a dozen amazing, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experiences waiting for music lovers. As a visitor from the other coast, in town for New Year's Eve weekend, I did my best to avail myself of this embarrassment of riches.
Assembly of Dust, The Hackensaw Boys, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals :: 12.29.05 :: Irving Plaza :: New York, NY
Wearing a shirt stolen from Linda Ronstadt's closet circa '74, Grace Potter stomped her foot hard enough to leave bruises. On her tongue, words trembled and ached as she transformed an East Village nightclub into a revival meeting. She asked the rapt crowd, "How much better is a song with a tambourine?" The unrestrained howls that greeted her hip-bangin' solo version of "Nothing But The Water" was all the answer she needed.
The first band on a particularly sympathetic line-up of acts hungry to make the leap to the proverbial next level, Potter and her Nocturnals know how to have a good time. And they'll be damned if you won't join them. Their brand of funkified '70s-leaning rock harks back to Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and John Mayall's Jazz-Blues Explosion. What they've got that the other kids don't is a powerhouse vocalist the likes of which we only hear once in a blue moon. Potter stops you in your tracks. All over the room, I caught folks stalled mid-sip, staring at this soulful banshee. In an era where women singers don't get much play without shaking their ass for the camera, Potter is old school – straight hair and blue jeans, girl-next-door cute but infinitely more focused on her music than her make-up.
This band smolders. They understand foreplay and orgasmic release and flirt with the audience shamelessly. Steady gigging has made them roadhouse ripe with a nicely coiled group dynamic. Sure, their drummer could tighten up a bit, but when the harmonica is wailing or the guitar and Hammond organ strut together, you won't want for much. As they continue to grow into a national touring outfit, hitting festival stages everywhere, Grace Potter and her boys will continue to make folks like my NYC buddy say, "Where have they been hiding?"
The Hackensaw Boys are always a good time. Sometimes they'll reach in and squeeze a bucket of tears from you too. At Irving Plaza, they did both. Having released one of the finest albums in 2005, Love What You Do, they've got a lot to work with lately. Holding down the middle slot, they blew in hard, grit in the wind, fiddle bows raised ecclesiastically. Much of their oeuvre is like a punk-powered Carter Family – all woo-hoos and flailing limbs as they revamp the Appalachian 78 rpm spirit of earlier days. Acoustic instruments gathered around broad-headed mics, one feels present at a radio broadcast out of time, say the Hackensaw High Times Follies, generating grins from coast to coast with minimal amplification.
The Hackensaw Boys :: 12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman
As usual, when they slowed things down for their Band-quality weepies the bar scene clinked and murmured intrusively. But something deep still emerges through the barley haze when they perform "Sun's Work Undone" or "High Faller." In this way, they remind us of the Pogues – fully capable of wild energy but possessed of a loudly beating poet's heart. If folks could stop partying long enough to calm down and listen intently, they'd find themselves stirred in places that aren't often touched by a stranger.
Without pause or apology, the Boys upended things from tune to tune, making for an unpredictable ride. They insert funny stories from the road and offer us opportunities to yell things like "Cannonball!" at the top of our lungs. That they also excel at tender observation makes them one of the most well-rounded groups currently bucking the boards. Their brief set in New York was a fine reminder of that fact.
Assembly of Dust has some of the most passionate fans around. By the headliner's third number, the front ranks were hopping - hell, they were frolicking with unrestrained joy. AOD slinked into a slowly uncurling groove that took about a half-hour to really ignite, but once it did it was easy to understand why a growing constituency has chosen them as their favorite band. Former Strangefolk frontman Reid Genauer and his sterling coconspirators make feel-good music with no elements that make you feel bad. It's all here – strong songs, powerful vocals, impeccable arrangements, inspired playing, and a shared vision that's positively uplifting.
Reid Genauer - Assembly of Dust
12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman
Tunes like "Roads" and "Fountain" have a majesty similar to the Dead's "Eyes of the World" – bardic hymns able to lift us above the muck, drudgery peeled away by melodic beauty and gentle philosophizing. The versions of both at Irving Plaza were as good as they get. Genauer's "singing and searching for himself" expands to include the listener in his quest for wisdom and peace. To look at Reid, you don't expect such power to burst forth every time he opens his mouth. But it's in him, and the collective power of this quintet really sends the message home. Perhaps it's the combination of their musical sure-footedness and Genauer's openly expressed doubts that pushes these songs under our skin. Even as he admits there's "nothing ever certain in this life," one senses they won't give into the hopelessness such realizations often produce. It's just a bump on the way to something better, and they excel at convincing us of it too.
It's not all heavy though. AOD knows how to have a ball as evidenced by a bursting-at-the-seams version of "Harrower" that summed up many of their virtues – irresistibly tuneful, tells a good story, stinging guitars, a pushing backbeat, imaginative keys, and a together quality that tied everything up in a beautiful knot. The bridge on this one always makes me sigh, "I caught hope one handed. It was two days old in the dirt. My arms grew weak in their sockets like tender stalks of longing and hurt." I couldn't help thinking that one day AOD is going to make an album like The Band's second sepia-covered masterpiece or maybe like Dylan's Desire. They've got all the potential they need to do it, and one senses it's just a matter of time before they find the right circumstances.
Assembly of Dust :: 12.29 :: NYC by Robert Chapman
The Slip with Apollo Sunshine :: 12.30.05 :: Southpaw :: Brooklyn, NY
Disoriented from a subway ride from Manhattan and confused wandering on the Brooklyn streets, I stood in the glacial line outside. Happy pandemonium leaked through the club walls. As I passed the gatekeeper inside, a pedal steel player urged form from chaos, birthing a shining ivory pop thing I later learned was called "The Egg." Way to juggle the raw materials of creation!
Folks I trust had been telling me to check out Apollo Sunshine, and it wasn't two songs in before I knew they had me. Their sound bears the influence of the Flaming Lips, Ween, and Galaxie 500 but avoids their ennui and smirking post-modernism. Their brand of Sunshine is a bit more like Radiohead's first couple releases. They're noisy and catchy - a bewitching, shattering clangor that busts through the usual definitions of pop music.
As their opening set progressed, they stripped off layers of clothes like a thrift store version of Cher. Look away and you might not recognize the same person a minute later. This move fit their generally kinetic demeanor. More than a few folks ran, not walked, to the merch table after their set to pick up their new eponymous release on Spin Art, which nicely extends the powerful vibe of their live presence.
The Slip is a sweaty, heavy-breathing animal that claws at you from minute one. Like most of my favorite bands, they never come on the same way twice. In Brooklyn, the trio further delved into the pop territory they've been exploring with Surprise Me Mr. Davis. Those who first discovered Brad Barr (vocals, guitar), Marc Friedman (bass, vocals), and Andrew Barr (percussion) in their exploratory jazz-minded early days will likely not recognize them today. There's a palpable desire to be heard of late that's pushed them into somewhat more conventional forms. Thankfully, in their capable hands these forms become resplendent. The simple sentiments of "Poor Boy" remind us of rock's phoenix-like gift for renewal when coaxed and courted by hyper-talented lads like these. Even without their Mr. Davis foil Nathan Moore, who admittedly was missed, the song still shimmered with direct, intentful drive.
The Slip :: 12.30 :: Brooklyn
By Jon Bahr
There are always a few elements that catch you off guard with this band. This night it was the smooth integration of a drum machine (an antique beatbox purchased at a yard sale in Canada) and the New Order-ish segues between a few songs. So boundless is their imagination that all things are fair game. Even as they streamline their sound for greater market penetration, The Slip remains engaged and curious in a way few can compete with. It's near impossible to not be swept up by their music, especially "Even Rats," which climbed like perfumed smoke towards the heavens. This song may be familiar to video game folks due to its inclusion on the crazy popular Playstation 2 game Guitar Hero, whose designer is a longtime Slip fan and recognized the air guitar potential of this soaring tune.
Appearances like this speak to the growing accessibility of their music. I've said several times lately that they are one song on the hip youth-oriented television show The O.C. away from breaking big. Listening to the Brooklyn crowd belt out, "I hate love!" with goofy grins, I was more convinced than ever that The Slip have the potential to grow beyond their long toiling in the trenches. And what a nice surprise for the kids that find them through a TV soundtrack to discover the country fantasias and pummeling Velvet Underground-style heat they generate live. If mainstream music can be saved, The Slip may well have a hand in it. If we're lucky, that is.
RANA :: 12.30.05 :: The Knitting Factory :: New York, NY
Sad to leave while The Slip were still playing but consumed by the playful energy of NYC, I bounced early, piling into a cab, tipsy and laughing with fellow scribe Aaron Stein. Across the bridge into Tribeca we rolled, yammering at our indifferent driver about how we NEEDED to get there in time for the first notes. RANA inspires this silly, reckless feeling in me. Despite originally hailing from Jersey, there is no more New York band today. They ooze scruffy, bohemian cool backed up by chops and great tunes that tickle the part of us that inspires tequila drinking and defiant fists in the air. RANA is old-fashioned rockin' in the vein of the New York Dolls or the Replacements – sloppy in the sweetest way, in need of a shower and a clean shirt, and true as anything anyone ever bled out on a stage.
Lead singer and keyboardist Matt Durant announced they'd be playing "late, late, late" at the start of their post-midnight shindig. With that they were off, hitting hard out of the gate, Durant shaking with a Joe Cocker fervor, bumping the mic and egging on guitarist Scott Metzger, who consistently reminds us why the electric guitar has the cult it does. As I poured my second shot of firewater down my parched gullet, I felt myself snatched up by the bass and drums. Andrew Southern (bass) and Ryan Thornton (drums) provide a polished, enveloping counterpoint to Metzger and Durant's tangents. Just when the whole thing seems about to jump the track and kill us all, the rhythm team reins it in and steers us to safer ground.
It'd been more than a year since I last experienced RANA rock, and the new material is categorically great. The songs from their second long player What It Is have taken on a raggedy heft live. It's a testament to their talents that, not knowing a good chunk of the songs beforehand, I still found myself totally absorbed. Part of that draw is Durant's incredible freedom as a singer these days. Think Johnny Thunders crossed with a young Bryan Ferry, and you're in the ballpark. Words are chopped and spat with unfiltered passion. His wild eyes and softly mad non sequiturs mark him as a singer born to the job. At one point, he remarked, "This is all being filmed by very small cameras in the black keys of my keyboard." Uh, yeah, sure, Matt.
Scott Metzger - RANA
The second set had a fun sit-in from two of the sax players from Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, who helped push things even further into the red. Older cuts like "It's So Hard" and "Buy, Sell Or Break" had a nitrous tank thrust that made them harder, faster, nastier. Metzger took a couple appealing lead vocals including an especially nice cover of Ween's "What Deaner Was Talking About." Time shuffled off, abandoning us to the moment, lost to a one-night stand. Left to hover in the moment, the entire room surrendered to a melting haze that had the walls dripping.
Unsure of how far off sunrise was or where I stood in relation to the apartment at which I was crashing, I stumbled into the trash-strewn alley. A snippet from one of their new ones kept running in my head, "I want milk and cookies. I want a little girl to lull me to sleep." Such delicious bliss to ponder, delirium welcomed and caressed. Ah RANA, how I love ya!
The Insane Luchadors :: 01.01.06 :: The Knitting Factory :: New York, NY
After being rocked to my core by the Black Crowes on NYE, even I was vaguely surprised when I poured out of a cab around 10:30 on New Year's Day. Déjà vu slapped me as I recalled being (out of it) in front of the same venue on Friday night. I knew I should be sleeping, healing up from my excesses, but the music called and I am a very weak man when that siren beckons. A first time, and possibly last meeting of four jam all-stars isn't to be lightly missed, especially when the self-proclaimed supergroup consists of Marc Brownstein (bass, Disco Biscuits), Jamie Shields (keyboardist, The New Deal), Joe Russo (drum powerhouse in the Benevento/Russo Duo), and Scott Metzger (guitarist, RANA). Calling themselves The Insane Luchadors, this configuration promised rock-inflected trance to kick start 2006.
Marc Brownstein by John Smrtic
The sweltering heat of the capacity crowd hit me as I entered. Glasses steamed up and all I could do was listen, absorb, and wait until my vision came clear again. A Caribbean wind curled around my ear, and instinctively I veered towards the bar to order rum. Peeking through the fog, I sipped sugared heat, nostrils flaring from both the booze and the thick music. Metzger jabbed and slashed at the island techno, recalling Robert Fripp with the Orb or Steve Hillage in System 7. Finally able to see again, I was a bit disappointed they weren't shirtless and wearing capes and Mexican wrestler masks a la Santos, but you can't have everything.
Without pausing, they curved into Latinismo that suggested Weather Report if they drank more electric Kool-Aid. In fact, Shields frequently brought to mind a modern Joe Zawinul – less constrained by a '50s upbringing and armed with the dizzy possibilities of contemporary keyboards and samplers. Brownstein, looking stylish in an urban tracksuit and snazzy hat, provided thick jungle cables for the others to swing on. As in the Biscuits, he was omnipresent but in a way that melded well with Russo's authoritative drumming.
Jamie Shields by John Smrtic
Watching their faces, it was evident these boys know they're good. They are the modern equivalent of Pete Cosey sitting in with Joe Chambers, Ron Carter, and Chick Corea – dark forces and light invoked with skill and freewheeling drive. Yes, it was often amorphous. Yes, the patches of melody came and went without much logic. But the emotional core, especially Metzger's parts, was sound. Like the first Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars shows, one senses the potential and is willing to let them wander. Chilled out downtempo, spy music, electro fuzz, gentle dub, breakbeats, full bore space rock, "that Bisco shit" (as one loaded RANA fan shouted from the rear), and the other flavors already mentioned were explored. Like a DJ working from an unfamiliar crate of vinyl, there were stutter stops, but more often than not, they found the pocket. If you were patient, the music always found interesting vistas in time. The Insane Luchadors provided inspiration to finish up any leftover bindles before the Monday-through-Friday world returned. As their own ad copy announced, "come out and defiantly drive your hangover from the merely egregious into the realm of the truly legendary, all to the sounds of one of the baddest-ass improvising units imaginable."
Joe Russo by Kevin Quinn
After the first set I hung outside for a bit, but my appetite had finally returned after days of nibbling for survival's sake and weariness permeated my whole body. Despite rumors of Mike Gordon and other surprise guests arriving for the next patch, I found the lure of Holiday borscht at Velseka, a 24-hour Ukrainian diner I'd discovered, more compelling. New York had been awfully good to me, the music varied and deliriously satisfying on the whole. But the demands of the flesh and the promise of deep sleep and long dreams after a big meal won out over further exploration. Home beckoned, a whisper from the Western shore drawing me away. Goodnight, big city, goodnight.
JamBase | NYC
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