Black Label Society/The PlayStation Theater/Jan. 31, 2018
    Born in Bayonne, NJ, Jeffrey Phillip Wielandt started playing the guitar at the age of eight. While in high school in Jackson, NJ, he practiced as much as 12 hours per day; reportedly, he often would play the guitar almost non-stop between coming home from school and leaving for school the next morning, then sleep through the school day. He played locally with Stone Henge and then Zyris. In 1988, Ozzy Osbourne hired the 19-year-old, now known as Zakk Wylde, as lead guitarist, and they performed together for nearly 20 years. Wylde formed Pride & Glory in 1994, recorded his first solo album in 1996, and formed Black Label Society in 1998 in Los Angeles, Calif. Black Label Society’s tenth album, Grimmest Hits, was released on Jan. 19, 2018. The band presently consists of Wylde, rhythm guitarist Dario Lorina, bassist John DeServio and drummer Jeff Fabb.

    Headlining at the PlayStation Theater, Black Label Society’s Zakk Wylde shook his mane of blond hair over his face as he sang muscularly into a mic stand decorated with shrunken head skulls. Opening with the hefty chords of “Genocide Junkies,” the band established that this was going to be a high-fevered, testosterone-dripping heavy metal experience chock full of grungy riffs and dark grooves. As the show progressed, it was increasingly all about Wylde’s ripping guitar leads. Yes, there were strong songs from six of the band’s albums and yes, there were three other solid musicians rocking on stage, but Wylde’s extended lightning runs commanded virtually all the attention. Fast, flashy and fluid, Wylde dominated his instrument without a dependence on foot pedals or other distortions or effects. It was not simply about speed, however, it was about a sharp, clear tone that was seldom murky. Wylde’s played his lengthiest guitar lead behind his head as he walked the audience and back to the stage. Pepper Keenan of openers Corrosion of Conformity joined Black Label Society onstage on “Suicide Messiah,” delivering key vocal lines through a megaphone. The concert was a headbanger’s delight.

 

The Wood Brothers/Irving Plaza/Feb. 1, 2018
    During their childhood in Boulder, Colo., brothers Oliver Wood and Chris Wood listened to their father perform classic songs at camp fires and family gatherings, while their mother, a poet, instilled in them her passion for storytelling and turn of phrase. Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he played guitar in cover bands before earning a spot in Tinsley Ellis’ touring act. Oliver began to sing and then founded the blues-rocking King Johnson. Chris, meanwhile, studied jazz bass, moved to New York City and, in the early 1990s, formed Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW), performing contemporary jazz and abstract music. When the two brothers played on the same bill one night, they realized that they could combine Oliver’s songwriting and Chris’s forward-thinking musicianship. The two formed the Wood Brothers, a folk and Americana trio that includes multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. The trio presently is based in Nashville, Tennessee. The band’s sixth studio album, One Drop of Truth, was released on Feb. 2, 2018.

    The Wood Brothers headlined two consecutive nights at Irving Plaza, and both nights welcomed keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood for much of the set. The core of the music was rooted in Oliver Wood phrasing his vocals akin to Willie Nelson and Chris often adding the kind of harmony twinning that has clicked for many sibling singers before them. Rix added vocal harmony, melodica, and percussion on his drums or on his self-designed “suitar,” a guitar re-fabricated as a percussion instrument. Medeski’s contribution were far more than frill; on some songs his extensive keyboard fills reshaped and even dominated the compositions. The symbiotic intertwining of his mastery of the keys with the Wood Brothers’ country-folk style took flight, taking simple songs and frequently turning them into barnburners. The support act, the Stray Birds, also joined the Wood Brothers around an old-timey microphone for the traditional “Down by the Riverside.” The eclectic program swung from country blues to folk influences and included elements of gospel to jazz for a warm and spirited program.

 

Tommy Emmanuel/The Town Hall/Feb. 2, 2018
    Born in Muswellbrook, New South Wales, Australia, Tommy Emmanuel received his first guitar at age four and was taught by his mother to accompany her as she played lap steel guitar. When Tommy was six, his father created a family band, the Emmanuel Quartet, sold the home, and took the family on the road. With the parents and two sons living in two station wagons, much of Emmanuel’s childhood was spent touring Australia, playing rhythm guitar, and rarely going to school until the authorities intervened. After Tommy’s father died in 1966, the Emmanuels settled in Parkes and then Sydney, where Tommy won a string of televised talent contests in his teen years. By the late 1970s, he was playing drums in Goldrush while doing session work on albums and jingles. In the late 1970s, Emmanuel was the lead guitarist in the Southern Star Band, the backing group for vocalist Doug Parkinson. He launched a solo career in 1979, but during the early 1980s, he also joined the reformed lineup of 1970s rock group Dragon. His most recent album, Accomplice One, was released on Jan. 19, 2018.

    Tommy Emmanuel headlined the Town Hall, and his jaw-dropping virtuoso performance on acoustic guitar would make one wonder why he is not as well known here and he is back home, where he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). Taking the stage alone with only a stool, a microphone and three acoustic guitars, each with a different tuning, Emmanuel performed a set of instrumentals and songs that featured his ornate finger-picking technique with no foot pedals or other distortion devices. Clear and pure, Emmanuel translated his hybrid finger-picking style to pop, blues, bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, and folk compositions. Like a piano player, he often used all 10 fingers as his left hand flew up and down the fretboard of the guitar neck and his right fingers simultaneously played bass, chords and lead melodies. Emmanuel was a magnetic and animated performer, slapping his guitar as a percussion instrument at times, singing well, and sharing charming anecdotes between songs, but the cascading harmonic progressions he played on the guitar were unmatchable and riveting. Opening act and sometime collaborator Rodney Crowell joined Emmanuel on stage for the set closers.

 

Ruthie Foster/Zankel Hall/Feb. 3, 2018
    Ruthie Foster came from a family of gospel singers in Gause, Texas. At age 14, she was a soloist in her hometown choir. Foster later studied music and audio engineering at college in Waco, Texas, and fronted a blues band. Foster then joined the U.S. Navy, singing pop and funk hits in the naval band Pride. After the military, Foster relocated to New York City, where she performed American roots music at local folk venues. When her mother fell ill in 1993, Foster returned to Texas to be with her family. She reignited her career there, in due time winning seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, a Living Blues Critics’ Award, and the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France. Her eighth and most recent studio album, Joy Comes Back, was released on Mar. 24, 2017.

    Roseanne Cash is a creative partner in the American Byways roots music series at Zankel Hall, and she introduced Ruthie Foster by relating how impressed she was with Foster’s inventive reinterpretation of Johnny Cash‘s “Ring of Fire.” Foster on guitar and vocals was backed by her trio (Scottie Miller, keyboards, mandolin, vocals; Larry Fulcher, bass guitar, vocals; Samantha Banks, drums, vocals) and instantly began to smoke with a combustion of red-hot soul, blues, rock, folk, jazz and gospel, all within a set of only 10 songs. Foster’s rich and hearty vocals were gutsy and gripping as she blazed through original songs and covers. The quartet came together for ensemble singing on Homer Banks/Bonnie Bramlett/Bettye Crutcher’s poignant “The Ghetto,” but she handled Son House’s “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” as a mostly solo a cappella. Like Foster’s variation on “Ring of Fire,” the entire performance was, well, blazing.

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