The Slim Kings/Hill Country Barbecue + Market/December 26, 2015
Michael Sackler-Berner’s sister left a beat-up guitar lying around their New York home, and there an 11-year-old boy found his life path. He played in bands throughout his teen years, and studied Music Technology in Montreal, Canada, where he also founded a garage rock band called Hearts Of Palm. Following university, Sackler-Berner returned to New York City and began performing as a solo artist under his initials, MSB, and recorded an album. In 2011, Sackler-Berner cold-called the first drummer he ever saw in concert, Liberty DeVitto, who played with Billy Joel for 30 years, and a band was born. The Slim Kings’ album, Fresh Socks, was released in 2012. The Slim Kings recently became slimmer, trimmed from a quartet to a trio consisting of Sackler-Berner, DeVitto and bassist Andy Attanasio.
At Hill Country Barbecue + Market, The Slim Kings performed two different sets, so the repertoire was expansive, including new songs. The Slim Kings borrowed from classic rock in that many songs seemed to originate from a modern interpretation of blues and then added flashy guitar and hard-hitting rhythm from the bass and drums. Sackler-Berner’s breathy, soulful vocal style was also from an earlier era, when lyrics were heard clearly over the instruments. Each song was distinct, well crafted, and consistent in that they remained true to the band’s foundational rock and roll roots. While the band continues adjusting to the power trio format, The Slim Kings still command attention and deserve a listen.
As Tall As Lions/Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom/December 28, 2015
In 2001 in Long Island, New York, several high school friends were playing in a band called Sundaze. As personnel changed, the remaining musicians in 2002 formed As Tall As Lions, a more adventurous band that mixed soft rock and ambient music through thoughtful lyrics and crisp harmonies. The new band recorded three albums and nurtured a cult audience before playing its final shows at the Highline Ballroom in 2010. The musicians worked on independent projects, but after five years apart, the band announced four reunion gigs in Los Angeles and New York.
At Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom, vocalist/guitarist Daniel Nigro, guitarist Saen Fitzgerald, bassist Julio Tavarez and drummer Cliff Sarcona were joined onstage by a horn section. Throughout the set, the band’s textured soundscapes were tight and so well-rehearsed that it was easy to dismiss that the band had not performed these songs in five years. The musicians have not written new songs, so the evening was a retrospective, with about half of the songs coming from the band’s self-titled album. The musicians followed their old formula, backing Nigro’s soft vocals with a powerful backup that repeatedly escalated and deescalated as the mood demanded. If Nigro was in danger of forgetting his lyrics, he had the support of the audience, which sang along loudly for most of the songs. When the band performed its farewell concerts in 2010, the showroom was the much smaller Highline Ballroom; the reality that the band now was playing its largest venue ever in New York indicated that its audience has only grown over time and As Tall As Lions’ unique take on commercial alternative rock is more in demand than ever.
Clutch/Terminal 5/December 29, 2015
As high school friends in Germantown, Maryland, the members of Clutch began rocking in 1991. After an early change in vocalists, Clutch solidified as Neil Fallon (vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards), Tim Sult (lead guitar), Dan Maines (bass) and Jean-Paul Gaster (drums). The band began as a hardcore punk band because those were the easiest gigs to get, but quickly transitioned into a hard rock band. Clutch released its 11th studio album, Psychic Warfare, on October 2, 2015.
Headlining at Terminal 5, Fallon’s raspy vocals were deep and bellowing shouts that burst over ZZ Top-styled guitar power chords and a hard, driving rhythm section. Short-haired, full bearded Fallon commanded all the attention, pacing the stage and exaggerating postures; the other band members were efficient but stared at their instruments and barely moved. Fallon did not speak much, but introduced “Noble Savage” to the recently deceased Lemmy Kilmister, recalling that Clutch opened two tours for Motörhead. Like Motörhead, the fundamental core of Clutch’s music was blues-rooted rock and roll, like 1950s Bo Diddley given maximum speed and volume and a gritty singer. In total, eight of the 18 songs were from Clutch’s current album, and four were from the previous album, leaving six songs from four older albums. Clutch was grooving in the present, not dwelling in the past. Some 25 years in, Clutch performed better now than ever.
Phish/Madison Square Garden/December 30, 2015
Blackwood Convention began by playing Grateful Dead songs at the University of Vermont in 1983. By the time the band lineup solidified in 1986, vocalist/guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman became Phish and transferred that sound onto original compositions. Tours and albums followed, and Phish went on hiatus in 2004, but was greeted by an even larger following upon its return in 2009. Phish released its 13th and most recent studio album, Fuego, on June 24, 2014.
Phish headlined four sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden to close out 2015 and welcome 2016. On opening night, the band performed for close to three hours as one song melted into another amid extended jams. Opening with “Sample In A Jar,” Anastasio sang well and played dizzying leads on his guitar that were as spellbinding to hear as to watch. For nearly three hours, the interplay between his guitar and McConnell’s keyboards was masterful, as if they were playing with one mind, whether it was a bass-triggered funky number or a dreamy interlude. Early in the set, as the band played “Simple,” McConnell teased a bit of “Magilla,” his piano-based jazz instrumental that was his first original song contribution to the band’s repertoire. Phish surprised even the most die-hard Phish fans in the second set by suddenly dropping a bouncy new Dead-sounding honky-tonk boogie, “Can’t Always Listen,” in the middle of the funky “Ghost.” Phish ended the second set with “Weekapaug Groove,” which inserted “What’s The Use?” and into which Anastasio teased a bit of “Auld Lang Syne.” By the end of the encore, a comparatively brief “Character Zero,” Phish had proved that there has been no better jam band in the 21st century.
The Dictators NYC/The Bowery Electric/December 31, 2015
The Dictators formed in New York in 1973 as a punk band before the punk scene existed and gained a following, but mainstream success never materialized. After several near splits, the band finally ended in 1981. Many reunions later, a core Dictators lineup in 2011 became Manitoba, then in 2013 became The Dictators NYC; the new band consists of vocalist Richard “Handsome Dick Manitoba” Blum, guitarists Ross “The Boss” Friedman (also known as Ross Funicello) and Daniel Rey Rabinowitz, bassist Dean “The Dream” Rispler and drummer J.P. “Thunderbolt” Patterson.
At The Bowery Electric, the ever-verbose Manitoba said he was 61 years old, but he and the band rocked stronger and with more heart than bands one third of their age. Manitoba’s outsized humorous personality dwarfed his limited vocal range and rallied the audience to chant along to the choruses. Rey and The Boss played fiery leads that powered the front of the locomotive and the heavy rhythm section exploded dynamite at the back end. The set ranged from old Dictators songs to several songs from Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom and a cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams”; the only new song was the recently released single “Supply And Demand.” The Dictators NYC brought big fun back to New York rock and roll.