Born in Chicago, Illinois, John Splithoff recently earned a degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Miami, where he studied music theory and honed his songwriting skills. Splithoff moved to New York and is teaching at the School of Rock. Opening for Liam Hayes at the Mercury Lounge, Splithoff presented an innovative mix of original songs with rhythm & blues vocals and pop melodies with jazz and rock backdrops. The impressive nature of his eclectic vocal style was that it was broad enough to have fit equally at a folk club, a big band stage or a discotheque. Velvety smooth, it went searching for a hook and then it grabbed it tenaciously. In time, John Splithoff will find his audience.
Liam Hayes/Mercury Lounge/January 25, 2015
Milwaukee-based Liam Hayes, professionally known as Plush since 1992, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where he began learning to play classical piano at age seven. Four years later he gravitated to the guitar, with rock stardom in his eyes even then. Yet, over the course of five albums beginning in 1998, his music has ranged from lush orchestral pop to singer-songwriter ballads and garage rock. At the Mercury Lounge, Hayes presented a refreshed vision of his music as a guitar-based collection of short and scrappy power pop songs. Hayes’ songs aimed left of center, however, a bit on the quirky side, less the Carole King of his past and presently more akin to Elvis Costello. Backed only by a simple rhythm section, Hayes’ vocals and guitar lines fluctuated between seductive melodies and more intricate compositions. This direction could make Liam Hayes the new darling of the indie movement.
Billy Idol/Beacon Theatre/January 28, 2015
William Michael Albert Broad immersed himself in the burgeoning 1970s punk rock scene in London, England, spiked his bleached blond hair and traveled around to Sex Pistols concerts. In 1976, he renamed himself Billy Idol and co-founded a punk rock band, Generation X. Idol then moved to New York City in 1981 and launched a solo career, with ace New York guitarist Steve Stevens at his side. At the Beacon Theater, the 59-year-old singer was much like the 26-year-old punk who launched his solo career. The larger than life look, with blond spiky hair, rebel outfits and rocking sneer, almost disguised his increasingly leathery facial features. He opened with “Postcards From The Past,” a speedy, driving rocker from his most recent album. In the prior week, Idol had cancelled several dates due to a cold and sore throat; tonight Idol’s Jim Morrison-styled vocals started with dynamic power. As the show progressed, Idol proved to be a riveting performer, and Stevens shone like a diamond on his guitar solos, but by the fourth song, “Dancing With Myself,” Idol’s voice started to sound as if his cold was smothering his voice. He made up for this loss with increasingly more guttural and more effective growls, emitted from deep within at maximum force. Idol’s best songs were his better known songs from the 1980s. Even a cover of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” was engaging but not gripping. Nevertheless, he provided a rousing ending with “Rebel Yell,” “White Wedding” and “Mony Mony.” Idol played acoustic guitar on “Sweet Sixteen,” shared a few anecdotes, had more between-song costume changes than Diana Ross and in the end wound up showing off his ripped chest. For one hour and 45 minutes, Idol captivated the audience with his magnetic swagger and attitude. Even when he is not at his best, Billy Idol is still the consummate rock star.
Machine Head/Irving Plaza/January 30, 2015
Robert Conrad “Robb” Flynn (born Lawrence Matthew Cardine in Oakland, California) in 1991 helped form and became the lead vocalist and guitarist for Machine Head, one of the pioneering bands in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. “An Evening With Machine Head” at Irving Plaza meant the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with an extended set and no opening act. 19 songs were drawn from all eight Machine Head albums, even one song from each of the two turn-of-the-century albums that hardcore metalhead fans deplored for being commercial hip-hop-influenced nu metal. Tonight’s pummelfest showcased an expert blend of traditional heavy metal with thrash and groove metal. Machine Head opened with “Imperium” and “Beautiful Mourning” before introducing “Now We Die,” the first of five songs from the most recent album spread out through the set. Flynn’s full-throated roars alternated between clean vocals, screams and death growls, and Demmel followed the dark verses and choruses by bringing fine melodic guitar leads to the front. Between songs, Flynn took every opportunity—perhaps way too liberally—to appreciate the audience and exhort the fans to sing, scream, jump, raise their metal horns or form a circle pit. He did not need to do any of that; the ultra-heavy music was strong enough that the fans would have freely offered those responses. After 20 years, Machine Head may be at its peak.
Alestorm/Gramercy Theatre/January 31, 2015
Alestorm, a folk metal party band from Perth, Scotland, has capitalized on the image and legend of sea pirates rather than on performing the criminal acts of raiding and plundering. Originally formed in 2004 by Christopher Bowes (vocals, keytar) as Battleheart, the band changed its name to Alestorm in 2007 in time for its first album. At the Gramercy Theatre, Alestorm literally set the stage for the piracy premise with two cannons in the back center of the stage. A bearded Bowes came on stage wearing a black leather three-cornered hat, torn t-shirt and plaid kilt. As if the theme was not yet evident enough, the band’s original songs began with the newer “Walk The Plank” and the older “The Sunk’n Norwegian” and “Shipwrecked.” Written as if they were old folk lyrics with sea-shanty melodies, they were delivered with the thrust of power metal, even when Bowes’ keytar sounded like an accordion. A sense of humor was mandatory to enjoy songs like “Nancy The Tavern Wench,” “Wooden Leg!” and “Wenches & Mead,” and there was a fair number of songs that celebrated alcohol, including “Drink,” “Rum” and a cover of Taio Cruz’s “Hangover.” Bowes often spoke to the audience, encouraging the party spirit, and his introductions to the songs enhanced their swashbuckling mystique. All the songs were four-minute fist pumpers, with the musicianship strong enough to fire a persistent mosh pit. Bowes ended the set by crowdsurfing over the audience. Alestorm’s songs were freshly innovative and unique, and their novelty never grew old or tiresome.