Julian Casablancas + the Voidz/Hammerstein Ballroom/November 25, 2014

Vocalist Julian Casablancas co-founded The Strokes in 1998 in New York City, playing Lower East Side clubs like the Spiral, the Luna Lounge and the Mercury Lounge. Since the release of the debut album in 2001, The Strokes sold over five million albums and helped revive the garage rock movement. Casablancas released a solo album in 2009 and formed Julian Casablancas + The Voidz as a side project in 2013. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’s headlining show at the Hammerstein Ballroom bore little resemblance to The Strokes or even Casablancas’ solo material, however. The Voidz launched into ambitiously experimental music that was heavy on deep, sprawling grooves, extended hypnotic jams and jarringly odd arrangements. As the musicians exercised most of the heavy lifting, Casablancas often remained in the background with his back to the audience, barely registering a presence. No spotlight ever shone on Casablancas; his silhouette remained in the dark for the entire set. When he sauntered forth to sing, he often crouched from the waist, making it difficult for the audience to get a good look at him. He sang and spoke into a low-fidelity microphone that deliberately muffled his vocals, such that his singing sounded tinny and fuzzy. The Voidz’s set consisted of nine songs from the band’s debut album, plus “River Of Brakelights” from Casablancas’ solo album, and two Strokes songs, “Ize Of The World” and “I’ll Try Anything Once” (a variant demo version of The Strokes’ “You Only Live Once”). Overall, with all its cascading, dizzying music on the fringe of cohesion, the concert performance at best was eccentric and curious and at worst was a scrappy, avant garde assembly of noise, simply weird for weird’s sake.

Pepper/Irving Plaza/November 26, 2014

Vocalist/guitarist Kaleo Wassman and vocalist/bassist Bret Bollinger were friends since middle school in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. Playing a combination of dancehall, reggae, hip-hop, and pop, they formed Pepper in 1996, convinced drummer Yesod Williams to join the band, and relocated in 1999 to San Diego, California. Pepper brought sunny beach rhythms to a cold winter night at Irving Plaza. Originating from a simple combination of vocals, guitar and rhythm section, Pepper’s music surfed a wave of grooves and melodies. The sparse, flowing sound encouraged dancing and singing along. The buoyant songs ranged from soft reggae and funk to hard-edged guitar rock, always sounding clean and direct, even when the lyrics were not as wholesome. The variety of influences prevented the musicians from sounding repetitive, but this undercurrent also tugged away from the band attaining a uniquely signature sound. Pepper was all about diving into a lively party spirit.

Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds/The Bowery Ballroom/November 29, 2014

Arleigh Kincheloe was born and raised in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where she began singing in her parents’ band at the age of nine and writing songs by her teen years. As her songwriting matured, she imagined a big sound behind her songs. She became Sister Sparrow, and with a seven-piece soul/rock band behind her, the ensemble became Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds in 2008. At The Bowery Ballroom, Kincheloe was a big voice in a small frame as she belted out original songs about love or loss, happiness or heartbreak. While she was a commanding presence on stage, smoldering embers burned behind her. She brought the swagger and the musicians brought the twang. The soaring vocalist was ably supported by her brother Jackson Kincheloe on a wailing harmonica and Sasha Brown driving a hard-edged lead guitar, along with a bright horn trio and a rhythm section. The band harkened back to the days before synthesizers, when musicians stretched out on a simple rhythm and blues song by jamming wildly and cohesively on natural instruments. This proved to be more than backup; this was a tight and powerful collective playing sassy, brassy and classy grooves ranging in style from sharp New Orleans funk to muddy Memphis soul.

Death/Best Buy Theater/November 30, 2014

Vocalist/guitarist Chuck Schuldiner founded the pioneer death metal band Death in 1984 in Orlando, Florida. The band featured countless members over the years but ceased to exist when Schuldiner died of a brain tumor in 2001. Since 2012, however, the brand named has lived on in the form of Death (DTA Tours), also known as Death To All. Schuldiner’s estate has emphasized that Death (DTA Tours) is a tribute celebrating the life and music of Schuldiner and Death by the people who knew Schuldiner—his musicians, family & manager—and is not an attempt to re-launch the band without Schuldiner. The current month-long Swamp Leper Stomp ’14 tour features vocalist/guitarist Max Phelps, guitarist Bobby Koelble, bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Gene Hoglan, who joined after Sean Reinert left after a few shows for health reasons. Performing songs from the Death catalogue, the Death (DTA Tours) performance at the Best Buy Theater showed that Death was extreme in its day and continues to be relevant in today’s metal scene. When the vocals were gruff and the guitars and rhythm section were ripping, the crowd responded with moshing and hair-whipping. The songs frequently were complex, however, featuring intricate guitar progressions and changing rhythms more often than many jazz fusion bands. For fans of extreme metal, this effort to keep alive the music of Death was an epic event that archived what was once the avant garde.

Hot Tuna (acoustic duo)/Highline Ballroom/December 1, 2014

More than 50 years ago, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady met as teenagers living in Washington, D.C., and soon began jamming together. Kaukonen moved to San Francisco, California, and when he was invited to help form Jefferson Airplane, he recruited Casady as bassist. The Airplane went on hiatus in 1969, so the remaining members began playing live as Hot Tuna. Hot Tuna outlived the Airplane, frequently changing personnel and alternating between acoustic blues and electric rock. The two-night engagement at the Highline Ballroom was billed as “Hot Tuna Acoustic Duo feat. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.” On the second night, Hot Tuna performed two sets of a dozen songs each. The two sat on stools as Kaukonen sang and played acoustic guitar and Casady played electric bass. The repertoire featured songs from Hot Tuna and Kaukonen solo albums and even two Airplane songs, “Trial By Fire” and “Good Shepherd.” Leaning in the direction of Kaukonen’s forthcoming acoustic solo album, the evening’s set focused more on songs by Rev. Gary Davis (seven songs!) and other traditional folk and blues songs than on Hot Tuna originals. Virtually all of the songs were nearly a half century old and many of the songs, including “Hesitation Blues,” “Mama, Let Me Lay It On You” and “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” were first recorded before any members of Hot Tuna were born. Their performances were classic, however. Kaukonen had a natural voice for down-home blues and his finger-picking skills were extraordinary. The only ambience missing was a wooden porch and a swing.

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