Joseph Arthur/City Winery/January 1, 2016
Joseph Arthur took piano lessons as a youth in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and began composing songs by his early teens. At age 16, he played bass in a blues band. Days after graduation from high school in 1990, he moved with his band to Atlanta, Georgia, supporting himself with day jobs at a music store and tattoo shop, while recording home demos and playing in nightclubs. In 1996, one of these demos reached the ear of Peter Gabriel, who signed Arthur to his record company for a short time; Arthur had been discovered. Arthur’s 11th solo studio album of original songs is 2015’s Days Of Surrender. Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Arthur is also a painter and designer.
Arthur headlined his sixth annual New Year’s night concert at City Winery, accompanied again only by his guitar and its sound effects. To create a layered sonic palette for his poetic lyrics and soft singing, Arthur frequently began his songs by playing a guitar lick and then looping it electronically. He sometimes added percussion by hitting the guitar strings and looping that rhythm as well. Twice he looped his subtle vocals as well so that he could harmonize with himself later. These effects became his backup as he sang and played lead guitar. These songs were moody, soulful observations of our world and its human interactions. For his final song, the singer/songwriter turned artist again, using a black marker and a brush with white paint to add to a previously marked barrel at the back of the stage as he sang and the music loops played. It is a pity that Arthur’s talents remain unknown to a larger audience.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe/Irving Plaza/January 1, 2016
Karl Denson grew up in San Diego and Santa Ana, California. Working as a funk and jazz saxophonist, flutist and vocalist, Denson met Lenny Kravitz during a recording session in 1988, and then played in Kravitz’s touring band and on three albums. Denson launched a solo career in 1992, and in 1997 formed Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (KDTU). KDTU presently includes Denson, guitarists D.J. Williams and Chris Mule, keyboardist David Veith, trumpeter Chris Littlefield, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Alan Evans. The band’s third and most recent album, New Ammo, was released in 2014. In recent years, Denson also has played sax in the Rolling Stones, Slightly Stoopid and the Karl Densen Trio (KD3).
Headlining a Phish New Year’s night after-party at Irving Plaza, Denson and company played into the early morning hours. Rooted in hip-moving funk and soul, the band sounded very much like the revue bands that supported old-time rhythm and blues vocalists. The set was comprised largely of originals and most were instrumentals, but also included covers of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” Band Of Gypsys’ “Power Of Soul,” and for an encore, a reworked version of the Mission: Impossible theme. Most of Denson’s work was on the tenor saxophone, although he occasionally sang and towards the end he played his flute. The strength of the set was that the compositions’ loose structures allowed for many dynamic solos and energetic jams. The occasional vocals served only to give random identity and melody to the more prominent and prolific instrumentations; had the vocals or lyrics been emphasized, the set would have been a much different kind of performance. This was a 1970s funk jam revival.
The Vivisectors/Otto’s Shrunken Head/January 2, 2016
Surf rock from Russia? The Vivisectors formed as a solo project in 1999 in Moscow, when Mike Antipow assembled tracks on his home computer using live guitar and organ sounds with drum loops. He recorded five albums that included lo-fi psychedelic surf rock instrumental versions of traditional Russian prison songs that were banned by the Soviet government (“gulag tunes”). The Vivisectors first performed live in 2004. Antipow later relocated to Brooklyn, New York, and forms a trio for live performances that can include Ivan Antipow (bass) and New York native Ronan Berry (drums).
Unsteady Freddie has hosted surf nights at Otto’s Shrunken Head on the first Saturday of each month for 16 years, leaving no surf untouched. Not only did The Vivisectors play the Dick Dale/Ventures guitar-based instrumentals expected on a surf night, the trio fired some blues and twang, but most impressively incorporated heavy sounds that approached death metal. When The Vivisectors crunched the chromatic rhythms of the theme song from the gore film Grindhouse, at least for the moment The Vivisectors were perhaps the darkest surf band around.
Dopapod/Gramercy Theatre/January 2, 2016
Dopapod originated in 2007, playing at college basement parties in and around Boston, Massachusetts. It was an odd mix of musicians—various members were committed to heavy metal, progressive rock, jazz and funk—but they discovered that if each brought his inspiration, they created a unique collective sound. The band’s fourth and most recent album is 2014’s Never Odd Or Even. Dopapod presently consists of keyboardist Eli Winderman, guitarist Rob Compa, bassist Chuck Jones and drummer Scotty Zwang.
Dopapod performed a Phish after-party at the Gramercy Theatre. Dopapod played for over two hours, extending songs that were partly structured and partly improvised. Guests Adrian Tramontano of Kung Fu and The Breakfast played congas for the full concert, and Craig Brodhead of Turkuaz played guitar on “Piazole.” Towards the end of the evening, however, Tramontano moved to the keyboards, Winderman played drums, Zwang played the congas and Brodhead returned to play bass on “Onionhead.” Throughout the set, songs melted into each other without pause, driven by steady funky bass lines. The biggest surprise was the band’s debut of Talking Head’s “Burning Down The House.” Dopapod also mysteriously sneaked in quick snippets of what sounded like Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” Phish’s “Bathtub Gin” and AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” Overall, the complex jams were crisp and fiery from beginning to end. The sporadic lyrics provided both hooks and hinges through the set. Luke Stratton’s spectacular light show was perhaps a bit too much, however, possibly distracting from the music itself. Nevertheless, even when the musicians could not be seen due to the blinding lights, the band’s deep grooves and intricate interplay stood out mightily.
Dwele/City Winery/January 4, 2016
Andwele Gardner, better known by his stage name Dwele, was raised in a musical family in Detroit, Michigan. He played piano from the age of six, later learning to play trumpet, bass and guitar. When he was 10 years old, his father was fatally shot outside his home; seeking inner healing after this trauma, Dwele learned to put his emotions into his music as a form of therapy. In 2000, he recorded in his bedroom a demo of his original rhythm and blues songs, and within a week sold all 100 copies from the trunk of his car. Dwele’s sixth and most recent album, Greater Than One, was released in 2012.
Headlining at City Winery, Dwele’s performance was silky smooth. Whether his rhythm and blues styling leaned towards jazz jams or rap, it was always rooted in vintage soul. Tempos were often soft and slow, and emphasized the signature finesse of the contemporary neo-soul movement. Seated at his organ for much of the show, he invoked gentle moods and grooves, and through this foundation led his band into tasteful, spirited jams, much like the late Donny Hathaway. Frequently, Dwele moved away from his keyboard to the edge of the stage, injecting the songs with a more intensely expressive dynamic, and near the end of his set, he performed a lengthy song from the audience, dancing with his fans. Dwele is a class act.