Peter Wolf & The Midnight Travelers/City Winery/February 7, 2015
Peter W. Blankfield grew up in the mid-1950s in the Bronx, New York. As a young art student, he relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where a gig as a fast-talking late-night disc jockey led to the renamed Peter Wolf joining The J. Geils Band in the late 1960s. In the 1980s, after 17 years, Wolf and The J. Geils Band parted ways. Since then, Wolf has led The J. Geils Band on several reunion tours; a tour opening for Bob Seger ended January 31. Peter Wolf & The Midnight Travelers headlined three nights at City Winery a week later.
Backed by a stand-up bassist, an acoustic guitarist and a multi-instrumentalist, the first curiosity of the evening was that Wolf resigned himself to a largely acoustic two-hour set. The second curiosity was that all photography was prohibited. (The photographs here are from Wolf’s performance with The J. Geils Band at Madison Square Garden in December 2014.) The third curiosity was that the man known for non-stop pacing on a big stage made good use of a few square feet of space to dance and drop to his knees as he poured out his passion for his catalogue of songs. The set was comprised of obscure blues, soul and country songs, as well as songs from his solo albums and six songs from The J. Geils Band. These latter songs were given an unusual twist through soft instrumentation; surprisingly, “Love Stinks” was transformed into a bluegrass song. Overall, Wolf’s vocals were modest, but he delivered an outstanding performance as a revivalist of classic American music.
Born in the small Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky, Sturgill Simpson is the son of a coal miner’s daughter. He played his first guitar when he was eight years old simply because playing an instrument was a local custom. In 2010 Simpson and his wife moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
At the Bowery Ballroom, Simpson shined a fresh light on a vintage roots country sound. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by his road band—an outstanding guitarist in Estonia-born Laur Joamets, along with bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller—Simpson kept his songs fairly simple. He opened with “Sitting Here Without You” from his debut album, setting the tone for an authentic, un-glossed and electrified set of more than 20 twangy story-songs. Not locking himself into outlaw country, Simpson added hillbilly soul to both the heartfelt ballads and the rowdier yee-haa rockers. On the one hand he ably handled mountain bluegrass, like on his cover of the Stanley Brothers’ “Medicine Springs,” but sometimes he latched onto a rocking groove, to the point where midway through one rocking jam he mentioned T. Rex and the band gravitated into what sounded like “Bang A Gong (Get It On).” The true star of the performance, however, was what Joamets brought to all the songs; formerly a rock and blues guitarist, he was brilliant on the country slide guitar. The public will be hearing more about Simpson, but Joamets has an equally promising future.
Steve Conte NYC/The Bowery Electric/February 12, 2015
Steve Conte was playing drums at age seven and writing songs on a guitar at age 10. As an adult he played in countless rock and jazz fusion bands, but started getting noticed when he joined the revamped New York Dolls for six years. He left the Dolls in 2010 to back former Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe. Recently, Conte began work on what was to become Steve Conte NYC.
At The Bowery Electric, Steve Conte NYC performed a set of original pop songs driven by Conte’s rocking guitar work. The compositions were tightly crafted, sporting traditional rock and roll verse/bridge/hook chorus, with vocals up front. It was all rooted in 4/4 rock and roll. Occasionally Conte ripped on the guitar, but never for long and never flamboyantly. The performance was perhaps a bit too clean; perhaps a slightly dirtier, grittier approach would have better matched his rock and roll haircut and tight leather jacket. Conte is building on something solid, however, and all signs point to him becoming a formidable force in the New York club scene.
Mike Farris/Midtown Live/February 13, 2015
Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Mike Farris’ use of drugs and alcohol landed him in reform school as a youth, and an accidental overdose nearly killed him before he was 21 years old. He freed himself from his addictions, and began playing guitar and writing songs, and formed the Southern boogie jam band Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies in 1990. The band split, and in 2002 Farris launched a solo career. His fourth solo album, Shine For All The People, won the 2015 Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album.
Midtown Live is Manhattan’s newest stage for Americana and roots music. Farris performed solo, accompanying himself with just one acoustic guitar. The set was comprised of songs from his years with The Wheelies, more recent original songs, and several cover songs. Farris intertwined Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” and imaginatively excavated the hollows of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” turning it into a very slow and dark murder ballad. He introduced a new composition, “Something Keeps On Telling Me,” by saying that hearing a preacher break into song inspired him to turn the preacher’s message into a universal song of encouragement. Over two and a half hours, there were many stories and many songs, but through it all, his mesmerizing vocals demonstrated a seemingly unlimited range and unbridled power. His honeyed yowl fluidly eased back and forth from a smoky-blues Saturday night to a gospel-revival Sunday morning. Listening to someone sing this well was thrilling.
Father John Misty/Bowery Ballroom/February 14, 2015
Joshua Tillman, also known as J. Tillman and more recently as Father John Misty, grew up in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Early on, he began playing drums, then picked up the guitar at age 12, and at age 21 after relocating to Seattle, Washington, launched a solo career as J. Tillman. Six years later, Tillman drummed in Fleet Foxes for nearly four years. Upon returning to solo work, he relocated to Los Angeles, California, recording and performing under a new moniker, Father John Misty. At age 33, he and his wife now live in New Orleans, Louisiana.
At the Bowery Ballroom, Father John Misty’s concert was centered around one person. Crooning, dancing and throwing himself on the floor several times, Tillman sang eight of the 12 songs from the first Father John Misty album and 10 of the 11 songs on the newer album, plus a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” The songs were mostly soft and slow, filled out with a lot of “woo-oh-oh-ooohs.” Tillman sang soulfully, and this was the strong centerpiece of the performance. Well composed songs built nicely as his singing became more dynamic. The unanswered question that lingered was whether this was a middle-of-the-road pop rock concert or a campy lounge act.