Will Butler/Bowery Ballroom/March 5, 2015
For the past 10 years, Will Butler has played synthesizer, bass, guitar and percussion in Arcade Fire. During the last week of February, Butler teamed with The Guardian to write and release a song each day based on the British newspaper’s articles. He then released a solo debut album, Policy, on March 10, 2015.
As it turned out, Butler’s concert was miles apart from his Arcade Fire catalogue. Backed by a band that consisted of his wife’s sister, keyboardist Julie Shore, Antibalas’ drummer Miles Arntzen and two backup vocalists, Butler performed the entirety of his quirky solo album plus songs from his Guardian series and a cover of Violent Femmes’ “American Music.” Much like his performances in Arcade Fire, his energetic, joker-like presentation charged the songs and enlivened the stage show. Sounding very much like a 1960s rave-up garage band, Butler moved from guitar to keyboards and sang with the jittery vocals turned up way high. Nevertheless, while he introduced a previously-unseen side of his musical creativity, he entertained but did not eclipse his history.
Gretchen Peters/SubCulture/March 6, 2015
Gretchen Peters was born in Eastchester, New York, a northern suburb of New York City, and was raised in Boulder, Colorado, but in the late 1980s relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. There, she found work as a songwriter. She won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award for Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” in 1995 and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. Peters’ 11th album, Blackbirds, was released on February 10, 2015.
At SubCulture, Peters finger-picked her acoustic guitar and sang softly and sweetly, accompanied by her husband, Barry Walsh, on piano, accordion and acoustic guitar. The simplicity of the setting allowed the majesty of her mature lyrics and vocals to penetrate profoundly. Many of the 57-year-old singer-songwriter’s newer songs opened a view to aging and mortality. Her characters were trapped in darkness. “When All You Got Is A Hammer” told of a veteran’s difficult struggle to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas. In “Black Ribbons,” a fisherman laid his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill. The main character in “The Cure For The Pain” was ill in a hospital. Peters opened her second set solo at the piano, singing a stirring “Independence Day,” a song about domestic abuse. All of the characters in her story songs were personified in vivid detail and tender empathy, as the lyrics captured the delicate beauty and hope of their journeys. As such, although many songs revealed the dark night of the soul, they were built around moving, uplifting arrangements. Gretchen Peters proved to be a unique master craftswoman of Americana country-folk songs.
Ellis Ashbrook/The Bowery Electric/March 6, 2015
Vocalist/guitarist John Barber and drummer Alex Major began collaborating musically at the age of 10. Naming their band after a pet guinea pig and a street name, they formed Ellis Ashbrook while in high school in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. By 2003, the band was playing rock clubs around Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts. Since then, the band has released three albums and relocated to Brooklyn, New York. Ellis Ashbrook presently consists of Barber, Major, Jonathan Granoff (bass guitar), and Natalie Lowe (keyboards, vocals). The quartet’s most recent album is 2011’s Meridia.
At The Bowery Electric, Ellis Ashbrook’s original songs were a combination of classic rock, grunge and hard funk, a collage falling somewhere between Frank Zappa’s 1970s guitar-based prog-rock and wailing, hip-shaking 1990s alt-rock. The psychedelic pop and rock music at times became very riff heavy and street dirty, and then intricate arrangements led to new and unanticipated complexities. It succeeded impressively because of the imagination and technical ability of the musicians. Ellis Ashbrook showed itself to be a fresh, dynamic and very creative band in search of a non-traditional rock audience.
Gang Of Four/Irving Plaza/Irving Plaza/March 7, 2015
Gang Of Four formed in 1977 in Leeds, England, during the punk era. The politically-charged quartet took its name from a newspaper account of four Chinese Cultural Revolution leaders ousted in 1976 after Mao Tse-Tung’s death. The band split in 1983, was revived in 1987 and split again in 1997. The original lineup reformed in 2004, but currently the sole remaining original member is guitarist Andy Gill. Gang Of Four released its ninth album, What Happens Next, on February 24, 2015.
Gang Of Four performed its first New York concert in 20 years at Irving Plaza. While eight of the 16 songs in the set were from Gang Of Four’s first two albums, the songs’ youthful aggression was replaced by an industrial-tinged electro-pop sound. John “Gaoler” Sterry was a fair singer, Gill played engaging syncopated and jagged guitar licks and the rhythm section held down a stripped-down funk and dub backbone. This spare-sounding mix of punk rock, funk and dub was performed well, but it lacked bite. Perhaps part of the lull in dynamics was credibility; the new vocalist must have been a toddler when most of the songs were written. Gill’s searing bursts of frayed metallic guitar kept the show energized, however. With only two new songs in the set, the show was more a retrospective than an entry into the new world.
Red Baraat/Bowery Ballroom/March 7, 2015
Sunny Jain, born in Rochester, New York, grew up listening to his parents’ Indian classical music, devotional songs and 1960s Bollywood music. Jain learned to play the dhol, the double-headed dance drum of northern India often heard in Bollywood musicals. When he formed Red Baraat in 2008, he designed a big band rooted in Punjabi percussion and the Indian brass band tradition. The Brooklyn-based band’s third and most recent studio album, Gaadi Of Truth, was released on January 20, 2015.
Red Baraat sparked a lively rhythm and dance party at the Bowery Ballroom. Nine musicians jammed on that stage: five horn players, three percussionists, and one guitarist. Red Baraat harmonized the ancient sounds of Jain’s cultural heritage with modern electronic sounds to create a mix of Bhangra, Latin, world, jazz, funk, hip-hop and go-go music. Their high-energy beats-and-brass world music even included traces of trance-inducing South Asian Qawwali and South American cumbia. Pushing the dohl and the sousaphone through electronic effects led to exciting new turns in the midst of the core indigenous sounds. The fiery, propulsive dance-friendly blend provoked the multi-national audience to shake hips while waving swaying hands to the sky. Brooklyn has never had a stronger party band.