The Psychedelic Furs/Highline Ballroom/January 11, 2015
Vocalist Richard Butler and his brother, bassist Tim Butler, formed The Psychedelic Furs in their native England as the punk scene was beginning to take off in 1977. The Furs went on hiatus in 1991, and the Butler brothers evolved back into The Psychedelic Furs in 2000. At the Highline Ballroom, The Psychedelic Furs performed 18 songs that spanned the band’s career, from Butler’s early, cathartic and austere art-school poetry in motion to the later new wave pop tunes and even to an as-yet-unrecorded song. The band has not recorded a new album since its initial split in 1991, but “Little Miss World,” which has been in the band’s live set since 2012, hints at the possibility of forthcoming new music. Four decades in, Richard Butler’s hoarse lower-register talky-style of crooning, the inclusion of bright saxophone riffs in nearly every song, and the poetic avoidance of catchy choruses offered depth to the uptempo rhythms and melodies. The clean middle-of-the-road rock delivery was no longer driven by an aggressive, punk desperation, but instead worked the audience into a mellow spell. Although in their time “Pretty In Pink” and “Heartbreak Beat” were better selling songs, the audience seemed to respond more strongly to “The Ghost In You” and “Love My Way.” The catalogue was solid and the performance was exuberant, but hopefully the Butler brothers will be inspired to write and record a new set of music or risk becoming an “oldies” band.
Veil Of Maya/The Marlin Room At Webster Hall/January 13, 2015
The Chicago-based deathcore band Veil Of Maya faced a challenge when lead singer Brandon Butler left in September 2014 after seven years with the band. Veil Of Maya featured a new vocalist, Lukas Magyar, at The Marlin Room At Webster Hall. Except for one new song, all of the set was composed of songs originally sung by Butler. No two voices are ever alike, but Magyar did a masterful job of recalling Butler’s growling vocals and yet adding a flair of his own. Behind Magyar, a scant three musicians created a wall of metal turbulence alternating between jagged guitar leads and Meshuggah-esque “djent” riffs, a heavy bottom from a seven-string bass and a swarm of blast beats. Opening with four songs from the most recent album before visiting the older catalogue, Veil Of Maya mixed elements from an array of metal subgenres, from technical death metal and progressive metal to melodic death metal, with connections to classic thrash and hardcore brutality. By and large, the switch in singers changed the look of the band more than its sound.
Dr. Dog/Bowery Ballroom/January 15, 2015
Guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman began writing songs and playing music together in the eighth grade in West Grove, Pennsylvania. Over the course of eight albums since 2001, the band grew popular enough to headline New York’s cavernous Terminal 5 last year. This year, rather than play the bigger venues, Dr. Dog headlined eight nights in two smaller New York venues, with four nights at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg followed by four nights at the Bowery Ballroom, never playing the same set twice. At the second night in the Bowery Ballroom, the two principal members took turns as usual leading songs, with all members contributing harmonies. On this particular night, the setlist featured only a few songs that appear on the live album, but included songs that dated as far back as 2005’s Easy Beat album (“Easy Beat” and “Today”). To label the band as indie would be a misnomer, as much of the sound dated back to scrappy 1970s-style folk rock akin to The Band or Little Feat. At times Dr. Dog was a garage pop band with catchy hooks, at other times a psychedelic jam band, and at other times a groove-laden funk band. The unifying factor was the dynamic joviality and good-time spirit in which the bouncy music was presented. It is good that Dr. Dog has released a live album; their barnstorming concert experience is worth preserving.
Umphrey’s McGee/Beacon Theatre/January 17, 2015
Guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins founded Umphrey’s McGee in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. Although more of an improvisational jazz fusion band, Umphrey’s McGee soon was discovered and embraced by jam band fans. Umphrey’s McGee made its third annual pilgrimage to the Beacon Theatre, this time for two sold-out nights. The bill listed the band’s friend, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, as a special guest for both nights. On the second night, Umphrey’s McGee’s two sets (separated by a 15-minute intermission) were largely instrumental, as music was presented in continuous waves and movements with few breaks between songs. Except for a few trippy guitar licks that seemed to borrow inspiration from blissful psychedelic Phish or Grateful Dead space licks, the rest of the show was more akin to the 1970s improvisational jams of Frank Zappa, the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report, albeit with a much harder edge. Umphrey’s McGee used conventional song structures from which to launch into loose and extended progressive rock instrumentals only to regroup with a portion of another song which in turn led to more energetic free-form ensemble work, often with no pauses. At times the music shifted to hard driving rock, but then drifted back to smooth jazz grooves, calming to what could have been a George Benson concert. The second set even included a cover of Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way.” Psychedelic effect was provided not so much from the musicians but from the lighting designer, Jefferson Waful. While his lighting schemes were spectacular, they often left the band playing in complete darkness as Waful’s ebulliently colorful lights swayed onto the walls, ceiling and audience. Nearly three hours after the band began, as if to remind the audience of its rock credentials, Umphrey’s McGee closed near midnight with a faithful rendition of Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla.” The diversity of Umphrey’s McGee’s technical proficiency and genre-bending skills proved to be most unique.
Cracker/B.B. King Blues Club & Grill/January 18, 2015
When the quirky alternative country rock band Camper Van Beethoven disbanded in 1990, vocalist/guitarist David Lowery began developing songs with his childhood friend, guitarist Johnny Hickman, in Richmond, Virginia. They recruited area musicians to form a more guitar-driven roots rock and country rock band with oddball lyrics, and chose the name Cracker by 1991. Camper Van Beethoven reformed in 1999 and opens for Cracker on tour; Lowery performs in both bands. At B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, Camper Van Beethoven performed old songs and new. After a brief intermission, Lowery returned on stage with Hickman, CVB’s rhythm section and additional musicians. Cracker revolved around Lowery’s singing and Hickman’s playing, although Hickman also sang a couple of songs. Unlike contemporary singer-songwriters, Lowery spent little time on vulnerable lyrics and crooned instead to largely lighthearted lyrics. Cracker opened with about a half hour of country songs and then rocked for another 45 minutes. The approach to the two genres was radically different. Both the country and the rock songs independently were standard fare party tunes, but the few songs that combined the two genres inclined towards innovation. Diehard fans were treated to a surprising encore, when the accomplished accordionist Kenny Margolis joined the band on accordion. Overall, enjoying the Cracker concert required a sense of humor and an openness to diverse music.