Manhattan Beat: Steve Miller, Greta Van Fleet & More

Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan & Charlie Musselwhite/The Rose Theater/Dec. 2, 2017

    Steve Miller was born into a family of musicians in Milwaukee, Wis., and at age five learned his first guitar chords from his godfather, electric guitar pioneer Les Paul. In 1950, the Miller family moved to Dallas, where blues legend T-Bone Walker taught the nine-year-old Steve to play lead guitar. As a young man, Miller moved to Chicago, Ill., where he further developed his blues chops, playing with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Paul Butterfield. After leading several blues-rock bands, in 1966 Miller formed the Steve Miller Band (initially called the Steve Miller Blues Band) and enjoyed a series of hits in the 1970s. Miller was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. The Steve Miller Band’s seventeenth and most recent studio album is 2011’s, Let Your Hair Down.

Miller moved to New York three years ago and is the curator for a series of nine blues concerts for Jazz at Lincoln Center. The third program, entitled The Blues Triangle: Memphis, Texas, Chicago, sold out two consecutive nights at the Rose Theater and featured a shared collaboration with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan (The Fabulous Thunderbirds) and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. They were joined by pianist Shelly Berg, organist Mike Flanigin, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Sonny Emory. Together, they took the audience through a concert program inspired by Miller’s own musical footsteps. Between songs, Miller offered a condensed history of the blues and explained the differences between the music created in the three blues hubs decades ago. Hence, rather than showcasing new songs and flashy musical prowess, the program was committed to the education and preservation of an American art form. As such, the program succeeded, in that Miller and company ably performed personalized treatments of obscure and vintage compositions.


M.A.K.U. Soundsystem/Dröm/Dec. 2, 2017

Transplanted in New York City, two natives of Bogotá, Columbia, guitarist Camilo Rodriguez and drummer Andrés Jimenez, met at a workshop on traditional music from the northern coast of Colombia. They played together for nearly four years before they arrived at a concept for M.A.K.U. Soundsystem. This would be a band that would fuse traditional Colombian rhythms and 1970s West African afrobeat with reggae, hip-hop, funk, and jazz. They adapted the band name as a tribute to the Nukak Maku, an indigenous tribe in their native country that lived with no outside contact until the late 1980s. Formed in 2010 in Queens, New York, M.A.K.U. Soundsystem presently consists of Rodriguez, Jimenez, vocalist/bassist Juan Prodigio ArribetiaoOspina, also of Bogotá, and two natives of Barranquilla, Colombia, vocalist/percussionist Liliana “Lana Baja” Conde and percussionist Moris Cañate. M.A.K.U. Soundsystem’s third and most recent studio album, Mezcla, was released on May 27, 2016.

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem performed a midnight set at Dröm, melding tribal vocals, psychedelic guitar, hoodoo rhythms, and a dance-party spirit into a genre-defying trance-like jam. Many of the lyrics were in Spanish, but many times the choruses seemed to be repetitious interjections designed to boost the band’s prominent percussion-led grooves. Particularly now that the band no longer has a horn section or a synthesizer player, the scaled-back band relied more on sway than punch, and the now simpler arrangements were smooth, bouncy and hypnotic. Ultimately, this was a borderless world music for freeing the mind and shaking the body.


Greta Van Fleet/The Bowery Ballroom/Dec. 5-6, 2017

Three brothers, vocalist Joshua “Josh” Kiszka, guitarist Jacob “Jake” Kiszka and bassist/keyboardist Samuel “Sam” Kiszka, formed the hard-rocking Greta Van Fleet in 2012 in the Kiszka family garage in Frankenmuth, Mich. Daniel “Danny” Wagner replaced the original drummer in 2013. The band chose its name when one of its members heard a relative mention Gretna Van Fleet, an elder resident of Frankenmuth; she gave approval for the band members to adapt a variation of her name. This year the band has garnered national attention. In October 2017, the band won Best New Artist at the Loudwire Music Awards. The band has recorded three EPS; the most recent, a double EP entitled From the Fires, was released on Nov. 10, 2017.

On Greta Van Fleet’s third visit to New York in 2017, the band sold out two nights at the Bowery Ballroom, a commendable merit especially since the band has not yet recorded its debut album. The band’s limited catalog has received radio play and word on the street has been strong, principally because everyone seems to be saying the same thing — Greta Van Fleet sounds very much like Led Zeppelin. Indeed, judging by this week’s rocking live sets, Greta Van Fleet has studied the Zep remarkably well. Josh’s Robert Plant-styled vocal wails were particularly arresting, simultaneously sounding so familiar and yet also so new, and Jake’s guitar riffs and the rhythm section’s bombastic approach was so classic rock, even down to the hopeful hippie lyrics. A cover of Howling Wolf‘s “Evil” was a distant cousin to “Ramble On,” but “Lover Leaver Taker Believer” was a kissing cousin to “Whole Lotta Love.” Hard rock fans have been waiting nearly 50 years for a Led Zeppelin reunion, but it is not going to happen — ever — and this has opened the market for the birth of a smoking doppelganger, Greta Van Fleet. The next tour could be an arena tour.


Jake Bugg/The Town Hall/Dec. 7, 2017

Jake Kennedy was born in a musical family in Nottingham, England; his parents separated when he was young and he took his father’s surname and renamed himself Jake Bugg. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 after being introduced to the instrument by his uncle. By the age of 16, he was writing and performing his own songs. Bugg was selected to perform on the “BBC Introducing” stage at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival at age 17. Bugg won Best New Act at the 2013 Q Awards, Best Solo Artist at the 2015 NME Awards, and Best Male at the 2015 Silver Clef Awards. His fourth album, Hearts That Strain, a largely acoustic effort, was released on Sept. 1, 2017.

Bugg did not cheat on his solo acoustic concert at the Town Hall. He finger-picked and strummed a plugged-in hollow acoustic guitar and sang into the one microphone on the stage, with no assistance from additional musicians, tape loops or electronic gimmickry. Early in his career, Clash magazine celebrated Bugg as a “precocious talent fusing retro folk with blistering contemporary rock riffs,” but this was his tour is his opportunity to show that his songs can stand alone as simply as they were written. His signature snarly voice made the songs distinctly his own, but his intricate finger work proved he is also a very accomplished guitarist. Traces of the retro rocker were in evidence in Bugg’s dynamic delivery, but he fared well as a self-contained busker on a naked stage.