Flag/Gramercy Theatre/June 28, 2016
Guitarist Greg Ginn formed Panic, soon to be renamed Black Flag, as a punk rock band in 1976 in Hermosa Beach, California. Ginn was the band leader, primary songwriter and sole constant member through Black Flag’s three EPs, six albums and ever-changing personnel until the band dissolved in 1986, just when it seemed like the band was finally about to break into the mainstream market. Ginn revamped the brand briefly in 2003 with a new lineup, and then again in 2013-2014 for another album, What The…. Meanwhile, despite legal action by Ginn, four of the 20-odd ex-members, none of whom were in Black Flag at the time of its initial split, formed a new group, Flag, that would relive the music of their former band. Flag consists of original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris (1976–79) and bassist Chuck Dukowski (1977–83), with later drummer Bill Stevenson (1981, 1982, 1983–85) and guitarist/vocalist Dez Cadena (1980–83, 2003), plus guitarist Stephen Egerton, who was recruited for Flag from the Descendents. Flag has performed live since 2013 but has not recorded.
To Flag’s credit, the bulk of the set at the Gramercy Theatre was comprised of the band’s early Morris-Dubrowski and Dubrowski-Cadena years, only once going as far as Dukowski’s “My War” from 1984. That said, the set list remained firmly entrenched in Black Flag’s hardcore punk era, even though the band’s more experimental later years were more popular. Morris sang 18 songs, including “Don’t Care,” which he originally sang with Circle Jerks after leaving Black Flag, and Dubrowski’s “You Bet We’ve Got Something Against You!,” afterwards asking Dubrowski if the song really was written about him. Cadena, who is reportedly battling cancer, sang five songs from 1981. In the end, any Black Flag reunion without Greg Ginn and vocalist Henry Rollins is not going to look like the Black Flag known to most punk fans, but this version of Flag did a more than fair job of paying tribute to the early sounds and legacy of one of the most pivotal punk bands of all time.
Edison/Pianos/June 29, 2016
Vocalist/guitarist Sarah Slaton, originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2008 relocated to Denver, Colorado, and soon began performing her original songs locally as a solo artist. In 2012 she became the opening act for Brave Song Circle, which included drummer/vocalist/trumpeter/mandolinist Dustin Morris. Morris was originally from Dallas, Texas, but had relocated to Denver in 2009 and also was performing locally. By the end of the tour, Morris was playing backup in Slaton’s set. They became a duo named Edison in 2014. In 2015, former Lumineers guitarist Maxwell Hughes (of Fort Collins, Colorado) performed as a solo artist on dates with Edison on the road to South by Southwest; he too joined Edison. Edison released the Ghost EP in 2015; a debut album, Familiar Spirit, is scheduled for release on September 16, 2016.
In the midst of a four-Wednesday residency at Pianos, Edison brought a soft and sweet to a stage that is often booming with loud rock. The songs themselves sounded simple, with clear lyrics and whispering accompaniment, but the arrangements were subtly progressive, with Hughes finger picking adeptly and Morris switching from kettle drums to trumpet to mandolin and back. Many of the lyrics vividly navigated through painful life passages, but always with the encouraging spirit of growth and self-empowerment. The most compelling attraction, however, was how the sparse arrangements allowed emotions to fill the empty spaces. This unique approach to indie folk makes Edison a keen band on the rise.
Pere Ubu/Bowery Ballroom/June 29, 2016
Protopunk garage rock band Rocket From The Tombs, based in Cleveland, Ohio, split in 1975 after only a year together. The various members then formed the Dead Boys, the Saucers, and Pere Ubu. Only Pere Ubu remains, and vocalist David Thomas has been the sole constant of the “avant-garage” band. Pere Ubu briefly disbanded in 1979, reforming later that same year. The group disbanded again in 1982, while Thomas worked on a solo career, but he again retooled Pere Ubu in 1987. The band’s 16th and most recent album is 2014’s Carnival of Souls. Pere Ubu presently consists of Thomas, new guitarist Gary Siperko, synthesizer player Robert Wheeler, bassist Michele Temple, and drummer Steve Mehlman.
The concert at the Bowery Ballroom was billed as Pere Ubu: Coed Jail! Songs from 1975-1982. This meant that the newer generation of musicians was going to perform many of the band’s earliest songs. Indeed, Thomas sat on his stool for the entire set, singing and speaking with his eyes closed, and sipping red wine and sharing anecdotes between songs, while the musicians recreated music composed before their engagement in Pere Ubu. The set began with “Heart of Darkness,” one of the band’s oldest songs, launching a 23-song retrospective of Pere Ubu’s first five albums and the singles before the albums. Thomas spoke, sang, yelped, and howled, while the band played Pere Ubu’s obtuse art-punk rock, demonstrating how this propulsive music was a precursor to grunge and yet peculiarly different. The concert was not so much a representation of Thomas’ present vision as it was a rear-view mirror to what was once Pere Ubu.
Soul Asylum/Irving Plaza/June 30, 2016
Alternative rock band Soul Asylum formed as Loud Fast Rules in 1981 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Soul Asylum, the band recorded five albums that met with little commercial success. In 1992, Soul Asylum released Grave Dancers Union, featuring their Grammy Award–winning single “Runaway Train,” and the album went triple-platinum. Soul Asylum also scored platinum with the album Let Your Dim Light Shine three years later, but never again achieved the success of 1992. The group went on hiatus in 1998; sole remaining original member Dave Pirner reassembled the band in 2004. Soul Asylum presently consists of vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner, guitarist Ryan Murphy, bassist Winston Roye and drummer Michael Bland. Soul Asylum’s 11th and most recent album, Change of Fortune, was released on March 18, 2016.
Opening for the English Beat at Irving Plaza, Soul Asylum was one of the few 1990s bands that still sounded relevant. The set was not designed to be a full retrospective; no songs were played from Soul Asylum’s first four albums. Half of the set was born from the band’s platinum period, with a sprinkling of later songs and four songs from the current album. Soul Asylum spaced its better known hits about four songs apart, beginning with the opening “Somebody to Shove,” then spiking the set with searing versions of “Misery,” “Black Gold” and “Runaway Train.” Sometimes the choruses leaned a bit towards cutesy pop, but the band never forgot that it was primarily a rocking guitar band. The alternative rock era may have winded down, but Soul Asylum has not yet relinquished the sonic attack.