James Bay/Bowery Ballroom/March 16, 2015

Around age 11, James Bay found his father’s old guitar at home in Hitchin, England. He taught himself to play by ear, copying what he heard on his father’s old records. At age 18, Bay relocated to Brighton to study guitar and began busking and playing open mics. After Brighton, the next professional move was to London, where he built a solid reputation. Following three EPs in 2013 and 2014, Bay’s debut album, Chaos AndTthe Calm, will be released on March 24, 2015.

Previewing an upcoming sold-out tour with a warm-up performance at the Bowery Ballroom, James Bay proved to be a promising artist. He is a singer-songwriter at heart, but wails like a gospel singer and plays a mean guitar. It does not hurt that he has the chiseled features of a model and dresses like a rock star. Backed by a small band, he sang sensitive folk-styled lyrics that explored the discovery of a young man’s journey through love and loss. He performed 11 of the 15 tracks from his new album, two songs from his most recent EP, and a surprising rendition of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” This cover seemed to sum up Bay’s aspirations. While some of the songs were rocking anthems with intentionally catchy choruses, like “Hold Back The River,” Bay’s trajectory seemed primarily rooted in bittersweet heartache-drenched soul-pop radio ballads. A highlight was “Scars,” a song he wrote after a lover abandoned him; Bay had the strong, achy vocals to power his moving lyrics. He will perform at Irving Plaza on April 29.


Pop Group/The Bowery Ballroom/March 17, 2015

Five teenagers formed The Pop Group in Bristol, England, drawing on free jazz, funk, dub and avant-garde experimentalism, with socially conscious, politically-charged lyrics and literary influences. The Pop Group released two studio albums before disbanding in 1981. In 2010, three founding members, vocalist Mark Stewart, guitarist Gareth Sager, and drummer Bruce Smith, regrouped with later bassist Dan Catsis and added second guitarist Alexi Shrimpton. The Pop Group released its first studio album in 35 years, Citizen Zombie, on February 23, 2015.

At the Bowery Ballroom, The Pop Group’s set was divided fairly evenly between old and new songs. Faithful to the band’s original sound, The Pop Group performed lengthy songs which spun on funk/dub beats and somewhat noisy guitar riffs while Stewart shouted, grunted and shrieked. The band opened with its two strongest songs, “We Are All Prostitutes,” and the new “Citizen Zombie.” The sound often went from propulsive funk grooves to aggressive jazz and rock. The experimental nature of the compositions was often engaging but often abrasive to the ears. The Pop Group’s sound will have to win over new fans one at a time.


All Sons & Daughters/Gramercy Theatre/March 18, 2015

                All Sons & Daughters this year joined the ranks of many Christian recording artists who moved beyond the congregation walls and into traditional rock concert halls. While many of these artists reach out to larger audiences by obscuring their spiritual beliefs, All Sons & Daughters did the opposite at the Gramercy Theatre. Led by vocalist/pianist David Alan Leonard and guitarist/vocalist Leslie Anne Jordan, both worship leaders at their church in Franklin, Tennessee, All Sons & Daughters performed unpolished acoustic and folk rock music as smooth as a whisper while singing praise and worship lyrics. Separately and harmoniously, their outstanding vocals were big, passionate and engaging, with light arrangements and sparse backup helping to accentuate the lyrics projected on a large screen behind the band. Guest artist Sandra McCracken also performed beautifully both alone and as part of the ensemble. Amidst bars and rock concert lighting, the evening was not a full-on church service, but was effectively a deeper experience than that provided by the usual entertainment at the venue.


Enslaved/Gramercy Theatre/March 21, 2015

Vocalist Grutle Kjellson (also known as Kjetil Grutle) was 17 years old and lead guitarist Ivar Bjørnson was 13 when they formed Enslaved as a black metal band in 1991 in Haugesund, Norway. They are the only remaining original members. After many personnel changes, the lineup solidified in 2004 with guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, drummer Cato Bekkevold, and keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen. Enslaved’s 13th and most current album, In Times, was released on March 10, 2015. The band is now based in Bergen, Norway.

At the Gramercy Theatre, Enslaved demonstrated how far the group has graduated musically. Enslaved is perhaps more of a progressive metal band, with lengthy songs incorporating sharp dynamic shifts, both clean and guttural vocals, ambient keyboard sounds, and guitar melodies that ranged from atmospheric to crunching. At times a touch of doom metal and at other times Viking metal influenced the heavy sound, much of it harsh enough to be branded extreme metal. The mix of headbanging and dreamy moments was curious and epic.


Jefferson Starship/B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill/March 22, 2015

                Jefferson Airplane ruled psychedelic rock from its origin in 1965 until its dissolution in the early 1970s. Late in the Airplane’s iffy period, vocalist/guitarist Paul Kantner launched a side project with a fluid membership that by 1974 became known as Jefferson Starship. In the mid-1970s, Jefferson Starship had a string of middle-of-the-road hits, and in the 1980s became more of a commercial MTV-era rock band. Jefferson Starship’s most recent album is 2008’s Jefferson’s Tree Of Liberty and tours with a lineup of Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), recurring members David Freiberg (vocals, guitar) and Donny Baldwin (drums), and newer members Cathy Richardson (vocals), Chris Smith (keyboards, bass synthesizer), and Jude Gold (lead guitar).

The Jefferson Starship concert at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill was billed as a tribute to Jefferson Airplane’s 50th anniversary. The band advertised that it would not perform “We Built This City,” one of the band’s biggest hits from its commercial rock history. This added gravitas to its Jefferson Airplane credentials and distanced Jefferson Starship from the pop band it later became. The evening did not live up to its advertising. Out of 18 songs, only seven were Jefferson Airplane songs, and some were relatively obscure. Another six songs were from the Jefferson Starship catalogue, and the rest were either new songs or covers. The evening included a credible version of the Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” and an interesting mash-up of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” but otherwise Jefferson Starship was a lukewarm affair. A feeble-looking Kantner, who turned 74 last week, hobbled on stage a bit hunched-over, leaned on an instrument case for support and left the stage for several songs in the middle of the set; his contributions seemed minimal. (Later note: Kantner had a heart attack three days later and dropped out of the tour.) Richardson was a capable singer and Gold was a sizzling guitarist when the songs gave him room, but overall the band performance was tepid and uninspiring. The retreaded Jefferson Starship was best suited for a nostalgia that lives better in our memories.

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