Manhattan Beat: Blondie, The Melvins, Poptone and More!

Blondie/Beacon Theatre/August 1, 2017

Born in Miami, Florida, and raised in Hawthorne, New Jersey, Deborah Harry moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where she worked as a secretary, waitress, and Playboy bunny. She joined her first band, the Wind in the Willows, in 1968, and then the Stilettos in 1973, where she would meet future boyfriend Chris Stein. Harry and Stein formed Angel & the Snakes, quickly renamed as Blondie, in 1974. The name derived from comments made by truck drivers who catcalled “Hey, Blondie” to Harry as they drove past. Blondie was among the first bands to play the New York punk circuit, subsequently selling 40 million records worldwide. The band split in 1982, and Harry pursued a solo recording and acting career while also caring for Stein, who was diagnosed with pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease of the skin. The band re-formed in 1997, and presently consists of vocalist Harry, guitarists Stein and Tommy Kessler, keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen, bassist Leigh Foxx, and original drummer Clem Burke. Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The band’s 11th and most recent studio album, Pollinator, was released on May 5, 2017.

Blondie started as a punk band, and in its early years ventured into new wave, pop, disco, reggae, and early rap music, but live the songs were unified by a ragged garage touch. Upon reassembling in the 1990s, Blondie evolved into a professional rock sound, which regrettably lacked the rawness of the original band and made the band sound rather ordinary. At the Beacon Theatre, Blondie turned virtually all of its catalog songs into hard-driving power rock songs, propelled largely by the inexhaustible Burke’s outstanding percussive energy. Harry arrived on stage wearing a bee mask and black cape; the 72-year-old vocalist looked and sounded strong, even though the openers, “One Way or Another” and “Call Me,” showed that limitations were sneaking into vocal range. This weakness was recompensed by sheer dynamic energy from her and the musicians. The band rocked so vibrantly that “Heart of Glass” was hardly the disco-infused track it was in its first lifetime. The surprises included covers of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and an Unkindness’ “Fragments,” and the addition of a youth brass band on the encore of “The Tide Is High.” This was the best Blondie has sounded in several years.


The Melvins/Irving Plaza/August 3, 2017

Guitarist/vocalist Roger “Buzz” Osborne, also known as King Buzzo, formed the alternative rock Melvins while in high school in 1983 in Montesano, Washington. The band was named after a despised supervisor where Osborne worked as a clerk; the band’s members felt it to be an appropriately ridiculous name. A year later, Osborne recruited drummer Dan Crover, and the band’s rehearsals moved to a back room of Crover’s parents’ house in Aberdeen, Washington. The two musicians usually have worked as a trio with ever-changing bassists. The band started by playing fast punk rock and quickly graduated to sludge metal and droning noise rock, influencing the grunge movement that would soon begin in nearby Seattle. The Melvins released its 22nd album, the double A Walk with Love & Death, on July 7, 2017. One disc, Love, is a 14-song soundtrack to an unreleased film of the same name. The other disc, Death, is standard Melvins fare. The band currently is based in Los Angeles, California.

Headlining at Irving Plaza, Osborne and Crover were joined by OFF!’s bassist Steve McDonald. Completely bathed in red lights throughout the night, the trio opened and ended the 16-song set with selections from the 1992 Lysol album. Osborne, dressed as usual in a floor-length black velvet robe with gold trimmings, played angular guitar riffs and sang gruffly, often to the shaking of his head of wiry blond hair. The rhythm section frequently countered with what seemed like wild jazz retorts to Osborne’s frenetic, scathing guitar licks. Just as a song settled into a comfortable groove, someone in the band improvised an awkward dissonance or squealing distortion to odd-ify the arrangements. The band covered David Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” and the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but twisted them to such a raucous degree that there were few parallels to the original versions. The only way to meet the Melvins’ music was on the band’s own terms. The Melvins’ statement was that nothing in the blaring, abrasive music was standard or ordinary; the only tradition was to be untraditional.


Poptone/Irving Plaza/August 5, 2017

Guitarist/vocalist Daniel Ash and drummer Kevin Dompé (better known as Kevin Haskins) met while attending nursery school in Northampton, England. Both played instruments as youth, and were inspired to play together during the late 1970s punk movement. They first played in the Craze and Jack Plug & the Socketts before forming Bauhaus 1919, soon to be renamed Bauhaus, the first gothic rock band to cross into the mainstream. Ash and Haskins continued to play together in Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets, and the Bubblemen. More recently, the two have DJed together. Early in 2017, they formed Poptone with bassist Diva Dompé (Haskins’ daughter), who performs with her sister in Blackblack and also performs in Yialmelic Frequencies. Poptone, based in Los Angeles, California, has not yet recorded new music.

Poptone was expected to revive the Ash/Haskins collaborations which Ash wrote or sang in previous bands, but at Irving Plaza fans had to wait until the second encore to hear the one Bauhaus song, “Slice of Life.” The rest of the set consisted of Tones on Tails and Love and Rockets songs plus a few cover songs. Hardly a trace of gloomy gothic rock was present, profoundly overtaken by the brighter and experimental wash of these later bands. The opening cover of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” was stark, fuzzy and brooding. Previously, the song was performed by Tones on Tail, and from there Poptone performed eight more Tones on Tails songs and four Love and Rockets songs in the main set, closing with a hard-to-recognize take on the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” On a few songs, Ash played saxophone instead of guitar and Dompé moved from bass to synthesizer, but the sparse arrangements remained simple yet sharp and cutting. Poptone did an extended take on Tones on Tails’ American dance hit, “Go!”, but did not perform Love and Rockets’ American hit, “So Alive.” Except for an occasional reunion tour, American audiences have not heard Ash and Haskins perform all these songs since 1999, so there is a new audience living in a new era for these sounds.


Moshav/Highline Ballroom/August 7, 2017

The musicians in Moshav grew up playing music together in a cooperative community of farmers known as Moshav Mevo Modi’im, a musical village in Israel founded by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In 1995, vocalist Yehuda Solomon and guitarist Duvid Swirsky formed a band that would blend traditional Jewish music with contemporary rock. A year later the band performed its first public concert for an audience consisting mainly of American students studying abroad. Not knowing how to publicize the show, the organizer of the event billed the musicians as the “Moshav Band,” and the name stuck. A group of American students traveling in Israel heard the band play and raised money to bring Moshav to the States for a college tour in the late 1990s. In 2000, Moshav relocated to Los Angeles, California. Moshav’s seventh and most recent studio album is 2014’s Shabbat Vol. 1, influenced by their sabbaths with Rabbi Carlebach. Moshav presently consists of Solomon, Swirsky, guitarist Geoffrey Parry, bassist Matt Cheadle and drummer Tamir Bar Zeli.

“Are you Jewish?” a man in the audience asked other men as he assembled a minyan for night prayers during intermission. Moshav is more than a band, it is a collective of musicians and audience sharing a singular heartbeat. At the Highline Ballroom, the band, along with additional musicians and a guest spot by rapper Kosha Dillz, celebrated how a youthful, joyful approach can marry the traditional with the modern while remaining steadfastly loyal to the soul and essence of its genuinely heartfelt music. Some of the musical arrangements leaned towards an ephemeral, exotic folk music, while other songs were more closely aligned with alternative rock, funk, and even reggae. Whether sung in English or chanted in Hebrew, and whether the songs built to a crescendo or meandered into a groove, the energetic and the pensive songs were equally stirring. Enjoying the live performance made one a part of a Moshav community, at least temporarily, regardless of one’s gender or religion.