The Nude Party/Berlin/January 6, 2017
Guitarist Shaun Couture and keyboardist Zachary Merrill are brothers who in their youth moved from Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina. There they met bassist Alec Castillo and drummer Connor Mikita in high school. A few years later, Mikita attended college in southern mountain town of Boone, North Carolina, where he met and recruited vocalist/guitarist Patton Magee. The quintet began jamming in 2013 at Castillo’s house just off of Lake Norman in Mooresville, North Carolina. Percussionist Austin Brose joined the band later. The Nude Party released a second EP, Hot Tub, on January 1, 2016.
Headlining at Berlin, The Nude Party played 1960s-styled garage rock. Reverberated vocals, jangly guitars and a rolling organ propelled the songs with simple, repetitive grooves. The guitar leads sounded like they came from surf or spy movies. Mixing tempos, sometimes in the middle of a song, the band weaved a thread that distinguished the songs from one another yet prohibited them from sounding alike. The primitive arrangements chugged pleasingly without crying for modernity or polish. It was fitting that someone projected a psychedelic light show onto a white sheet behind the band. But what was with the musicians all having their fingernails painted black?
Lee Fields & The Expressions/Irving Plaza/January 7, 2017
Elmer “Lee” Fields sang in Sunday church services as a boy in Wilson, North Carolina, but he grew up wanting to sing the rhythm and blues he enjoyed on the radio. Seeking a musical career at age 17, he packed a duffel bag and arrived in New York City with only $2 left in his pocket. He started earning money at his very first gig and was nicknamed “Little JB” for his physical and vocal resemblance with James Brown. Fields recorded his first single in 1969 and his first album in 1979, both to little commercial success. Since 2009, Fields has gained traction fronting Lee Fields & The Expressions; the band’s fifth album, Special Night, was released on November 4, 2016. Fields, now 65 years old, is based in Plainfield, New Jersey.
The audience at a Lee Fields show comes to hear new songs with an old soul sound, and that is exactly what they experienced at Irving Plaza. Fields did not venture through a time warp, but instead adopted the signature musical patterns of the Stax/Chess/Motown era and updated them into a contemporary context. As the very able Expressions backed him with horns, backup singers, and silky rhythms, Fields poured himself into his songs. Fields constantly moved around the stage, animating the audience by crouching and leaning into the audience and pointing to fans as he sang romantic lyrics. Fields sang the romantic songs with a clear, smooth voice that occasionally soared for the sky. For some of the funkier songs, his voice turned a bit more raucous without sacrificing tenderness. Some may have called this throwback, but it was what Fields has been doing consistently for nearly 50 years.
Hazmat Modine & Alash Ensemble/Highline Ballroom/January 8, 2017
Wade Schuman began playing harmonica at age 10 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He moved to New York and in the late 1990s formed an eclectic blues and roots band, Hazmat Modine. “Hazmat” is a portmanteau of “hazardous material”, and “Modine” is the name of a company that manufactures commercial heaters but may be used to refer to the heater itself. Hazmat Modine’s varied combination of source music led to the band touring remote areas of the world. The band’s second CD was awarded the Charles Cross award in France for best blues album of the year, and topped number one on the World Music Charts in Europe. When home in the New York area, however, Hazmat Modine usually performs in modest venues. Hazmat Modine released its third studio album, Extra-Deluxe-Supreme, on June 3, 2016.
Hazmat Modine is a large band—at the Highline Ballroom it comprised 12 musicians—and it seemed each musician offered his or her own personal journey to the band’s brew. As leader and main vocalist of the band, Schuman accentuated a southern barrelhouse blues and jazz, but then there was a musician playing a banjo and a banjitar, giving the same songs a country feel as well. The more dance-oriented songs had a touch of swing, and a trio from Tuva known as Alash Ensemble played their culture’s folk music with native acoustic instruments as well. Hazmat Modine played the most intriguing music. It seemed like anything musical was possible and probable. Hazmat Modine is a roots band, but apparently the roots could draw from any culture and any time period.
Nathaniel Bellows/Mercury Lounge/January 10, 2017
Nathaniel Bellows was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where he drew pictures and played piano as a youth. He attended a school where students were required to keep a journal, and he began to see writing as a natural extension of the arts. He relocated to New York City during his college years, and became a broadly published poet, novelist, and visual artist. He is the author of two novels, On This Day and Nan, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?, along with numerous short stories and poems. His debut album, The Old Illusions, will be released on January 22, 2016.
At the Mercury Lounge, Nathaniel Bellows proved to be a pensive songwriter, a fine finger-picking guitarist, and a muscular vocalist. Accompanying himself solely on an acoustic guitar with no effects, he followed the tradition of early folk singers, but with content that was often more cerebral and more mysterious. Much like his drawings, his poetic lyrics and his unadorned vocals revealed an artist who expressed himself subtly and unobtrusively. The rich artistic juices continue to flow in Bellows; his set consisted of songs from his album and songs that have never been recorded, including at least one that made its public debut tonight. Bellows proved that it is possible to write and perform peaceful, meditative music in the midst of Mad City.