Michael Franti & Spearhead/PlayStation Theater/July 15, 2016

Michael Franti was born in Oakland, California, but began his journey into music by writing poetry while attending college in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, he purchased a bass at a pawn shop and started creating music inspired by the hip-hop, punk, and reggae that he heard on the campus radio station. He formed the Beatnigs in 1986, and released an album and an EP before the band split in 1990. The following year Franti formed The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, expanding his vision of social commentary set to a fusion of industrial music and hip-hop until that band split in 1993. Franti formed Spearhead in 1994, leaning initially on funk and soul sounds and later on hip-hop and reggae. The band was renamed Michael Franti & Spearhead in 1999. The San Francisco-based band presently consists of Franti on vocals and guitar, guitarist Jay Bowman, keyboardist Mike Blankenship, bassist Carl Young, and drummer Manas Itiene. Michael Franti & Spearhead’s ninth and most recent album, SoulRocker, was released on June 3, 2016.

Headlining at the PlayStation Theater, Michael Franti probably spent as much time on the stage as he did in the audience. By the beginning of his third song, the barefoot Franti was already singing, strolling, high-fiving and hugging fearlessly through the audience, finding his way to a small platform and microphone stand in the center of the room. His delivery was all about connecting with his fans, and repeatedly taking his time through the audience was more than a token gesture. Franti sang songs from his four most recent albums (eight songs from his most recent album) and eschewed his first five albums entirely. His vocal range was truncated, and he sounded off-key on many songs, but the positive energy he projected made it easy for his fans to forgive these trespasses. Many of his newer songs embraced electronic dance music, and fans responded by jumping to the rhythms with him. There were serious moments as well, some of which featured him playing solo on acoustic guitar. During a quieter period, the chatty Franti alluded to recent dark national events, encouraging his listeners to positivity over despair. Perhaps that aspect of who Franti is, the social activist, cool dad, and all-around upbeat guy, in the end was even more endearing than his musical performance.

 

Cowboy Junkies/City Winery/July 17, 2016

When a band called Hunger Project fell apart in Toronto, Canada, guitarist Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton recruited Michael’s sister, singer Margo Timmins, and brother, drummer Peter Timmins. The quartet became Cowboy Junkies in 1985, combining folk and rock instrumentation with Margo’s bluesy vocals. The band released 16 albums between 1986 and 2012 and earned a platinum album in the United States in 1988. Cowboy Junkies’ most recent product, Notes Falling Slow, was released on October 30, 2015; it is a box set that contained re-mastered versions of three previously released albums and a fourth disc with new recordings of songs written during the making of the earlier albums.

For its three shows at the City Winery, Cowboy Junkies included multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, who played acoustic and electric mandolins, harmonica, percussion, and samples. The musicians took to the dimly-lit stage and barely moved, with Margo’s right arm leaning on her microphone stand for much of the set, obscuring her face from the audience. Generally soft music matched the somber mood, but occasionally spun into elegant, cutting guitar runs or harmonica riffs. While Margo’s soulful singing was the center of gravity on every song, the instrumental breaks between her lyrics were more innovative, expansive and enchanting. Nonetheless, the tone retained a consistently passive tranquility, with this instrumentation sometimes injecting rolling waves of subtle intensity. If this was rock at all, it was alternative Mom-rock.

 

The Feelies/Rumsey Playfield/July 18, 2016

In the early 1970s, vocalist/guitarist Glenn Mercer, bassist Bill Million, and drummer Dave Weckerman played in a band called The Outkids, based in Haledon, New Jersey. By 1976, The Outkids evolved into The Feelies, the name taken from a fictional entertainment device described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The Feelies created shimmering soundscapes with multiple guitar layers that set them apart from most of the punk/New Wave bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band recorded four albums and ultimately disbanded in 1992. The classic mid-1980s lineup of The Feelies (Mercer and Million on guitars and vocals, Brenda Sauter on bass, Stanley Demeski on drums and Weckerman on percussion) reunited in 2008, and in 2011 released the band’s most recent album, Here Before, the band’s first album in 20 years. The Feelies reunite sporadically to play concerts.

Headlining a Summerstage concert at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park, The Feelies reveled in its vintage sound, performing 11 songs from its 1980s albums. The jangly guitars, garage-rock rhythms and talky vocals that made way for later bands like R.E.M. were still the backbone of The Feelies sound. The grooves were hypnotically repetitive, interrupted by a droning lead vocal or a swash of lead guitar. The sound that The Feelies mined 40 years ago became the basis of many future indie bands, but after 16 original songs, The Feelies in its encores paid tribute to its own inspirations with covers of songs by the Modern Lovers, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles and Television. The Feelies concert shone light on the history of rock before and after the golden era of punk.

 

Zakk Wylde/Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom/July 19, 2016

Jeffrey Wielandt was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, and grew up in Jackson. He started playing the guitar at age eight, and as a teenager he would practice almost non-stop between coming home from high school and leaving the house the next morning, subsequently sleeping through the school day. He played locally with his first band Stone Henge, then later with another local band Zyris. He sent Ozzy Osbourne a demo tape in 1987 and was hired; renamed for rock star purposes, Zakk Wylde played in Osbourne’s band until 1995. Based in Los Angeles, California, Wylde led Lynyrd Skynhead and Pride & Glory from 1991 to 1994, auditioned for Guns N’ Roses in 1995, released a solo album in 1996, then formed Black Label Society in 1998. He returned to Osbourne’s band in 2001 while continuing Black Label Society. Wylde’s second solo album, the acoustic Book of Shadows II, was released on April 8, 2016.

Wylde is known for his wild guitar playing in Osbourne’s band and Black Label Society, but his skills were used differently at Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. As the lights dimmed and his band came out, fans cheered a silhouette of a man with a long beard, long hair and a tall top hat. Members of Black Label Society comprised the band: guitarist/keyboardist Dario Lorina, bassist John DeServio and drummer Jeff Fabb. They launched the set with an extended version of “Sold My Soul,” with Wylde ripping at his trademark Warhammer guitar for about 10 straight minutes, including playing it behind his head and with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix. Halfway through the set, Wylde refueled with a 15-minute “Throwing It All Away,” during which he walked through the audience while playing dizzying lead runs. The entire program was culled from his two solo albums, so most of the concert was surprisingly much milder than his reputation would suggest; the audience was introduced to a softer, more introspective Wylde. Even more so than with Black Label Society, several songs featured Wylde on piano or acoustic guitar, and even on the electric songs the tempos were slow. The evening was not the concert of a metal master, but of a Southern-style singer-songwriter with mean guitar licks.

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