Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Hold Steady @ Bowery Ballroom AND the Music Hall of Williamsburg

The Hold Steady; J. Roddy Walston & The Business
@ Bowery Ballroom
New York, NY - April 17, 2010

The Hold Steady; The Oranges Band
@ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Brooklyn, NY - April 17, 2010

In the most notable one night-two gig cross-water event since Phil Collins played London and Philadelphia at Live Aid, the Hold Steady wrapped up a short tour as they continue to integrate the songs from their upcoming record, Heaven is Whenever. The shows were a study in contrasts, none of it to do with the band (except for having almost completely different setlists). The early Bowery show had a composed, almost subdued audience. When the band came out and Craig began with "Positive Jam" (a first in my experience), the audience was silent, in rapt attention - something that never happens at New York shows anymore. Amazing. The later Music Hall show had a more typical Hold Steady crowd - excessively exuberant in the middle but generally respectful (most mosh pits have guys sticking their middle finger in the air, Hold Steady mosh pits have guys - and gals - using their index finger). Even the types who seem liked yuppie scenesters just-to-be-there were actual damn fans of the band.

The big story of course, besides the new record, is that the Hold Steady are now Franz-less. The character that was the sharply dressed, bewhiskered, accordion playing keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who deliberately stuck out like a dandy version of a sore thumb but fit right in musically and wonderfully at that) is off to other pastures. He had to be replaced by two guys for the live show. Steve Selvidge on guitar (twin guitar attacks - at one point at the Williamsburg show, Craig had a fit of joy on having guitar solo in stereo) and Dan Neudstadt on keyboards and various accoutrement. The lack of an accordion wasn't really noticeable. The replacement of the harmonica with a guitar solo on "Southtown Girls" wasn't bad but it definitely wasn't the same.

When the band (and/or Vagrant) decided to release news of the new album, they said it would be a less hooky and sing-a-long affair. Then they promptly leaked 3 songs, two of which are not just hooky and sing-a-long but are produced slickly enough to qualify as pop songs - "Hurricane J" and "The Weekenders". The latter number - a sequel to "Chips Ahoy" as Craig pointed out at the Bowery show - is already an instant classic that belongs in the canon. And the former isn't too shabby either. The production value was striking and a little much upon first listen but "Hurricane J" is a terrific song and as expected, it - and "The Weekenders" - and the straight up old time rocker "Rock Problems" - all kill live. The shows also included other new songs from Heaven is Whenever - and these are the ones that are a little less insta-rock, and a little more sit-and-listen, namely "A Slight Discomfort" (heard at Bowery) and "Barely Breathing", "The Sweet Part of the City", and "We Can Get Together" (heard at MHOW).

It cannot be promised that all of Heaven is Whenever will be what someone like me wants it to be, but there is nothing to indicate so far - and certainly nothing in the continued caliber of the live show to indicate - that the Hold Steady are going to be knocked from their perch any time soon.

I caught the last few songs of the J. Roddy set at the Bowery and one day The Business will have to decide if they will be one of those one-note bands (a la AC/DC and the Ramones) or shock the world and change up their sound. In the case of their Lynyrd Skynyrd style-rock either choice wouldn't be a bad one. I will forever associate them with having CALLED IT. Seeing them at a Merc show, saying to myself "Hey these guys could open for the Hold Steady" and turn my head and see Craig Finn rocking out to 'em.

The Oranges Band have been around ten years but I have never heard of them. They are at times hard driving and at times a little more laid back (though not much). They are mature, substantive, and professional but also full of life and piss and vinegar. In other words, if I had seen them play somewhere small some time ago, I'd have said "Hey these guys could open for the Hold Steady" and I'd have CALLED IT AGAIN!

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Death @ Europa

Death; Rough Francis; Sister Anne
@ Europa
Brooklyn, NY - April 2, 2010

Once upon a time in the 70's ghetto of Detroit, the three brothers Hackney made loud, bellicose, but soulful stabs at the gut of rock n roll and were ready to turn the world of rock on its head. And the record industry knew it. But the brothers called themselves Death and the lord almighty of records (Clive Davis) said thou can'test call thyselves Death for tis unsellable. And maybe he was actually right but we will never know for Death chose not to compromise and with that promptly concluded themselves. They moved to Vermont and became a diverse concept of projects, namely gospel and reggae, the name of Death having been retired. One of the brothers passed away, and the world seemed destined to not know the word and sound of Death until one of the surviving brothers' sons (Bobby Sr. begat Bobby Jr.) discovered the work of his father and uncles and so began the crawl from out of the ashes and history and the rebirth of Death.

For The Whole World To See overwhelmed the Indie rock world last year. Treated as a fresh, new release because it actually sounded fresh and new, the short LP of what would have been, could have been, the most critical rock record between Fun House and Never Mind The Bollocks, ushered in not only a renaissance of Death appreciation (to say nothing of outright discovery) but the return of Death itself. Death alive again. Bobby Sr. and Dannis Hackney playing shows.

So Death came to Europa. And those years of rural Green Mountain gospel and reggae definitely had an effect on the brief explosion of urban melodic noise that was the reason we all came to see Death. Despite coming to the stage in the dark, in Grim Reaper cloaks, with a gospel-era photo of their late brother David overlooking them, all giving us a taste of the rock spectacle that might have been, the reincarnation of Death is mellower, tamer than what was put on wax all those years ago. This is best encapsulated in "Keep on Knockin'". What was an utter hurricane of controlled fury has become a more laid back, jammy affair. So it was a bit of a come down from the anticipation. But - the spirit was there, and the brothers Hackney were graceful and eloquent and warm and loving to the unbelievably packed crowd. It was a giant family experience and for that it was worth it.

And it really was a family experience. Bobby Jr. brought his band Rough Francis to the stage and they really captured the essence of that original burst of Death. Perhaps better called "Son of Death", Rough Francis started off like a sloppy garage band but became tighter and tighter as their set went on, peaking in a rampaging cover of the Damned's "New Rose". Who knew how rowdy things got up in Burlington.

Sister Anne are a local straight-from-the-source punk band. Mixing badass heavy riffage with girly delight, Sister Anne could be compared too easily but not offensively to the Slits. And the presence and ferocity of a soul-tinged lead singer also easily draw comparison (in all the good ways) to the Bellrays. But there is a spark of originality and showmanship in this band, and an appeal all their own.

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