The Killers/Madison Square Garden/Jan. 12, 2018
Vocalist/keyboardist Brandon Flowers was fired by his first band, a synth-pop trio known as Blush Response, in 2001 in Las Vegas. After attending an Oasis concert, Flowers felt affirmed that his calling was to be in a rock band. He responded to a classified ad by guitarist Dave Keuning, who had moved to Las Vegas from Iowa a year earlier. The two bonded and immediately began writing songs together in Keuning’s apartment. After a few shifts in personnel in 2001, the Killers stabilized in 2002 with Flowers, Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. Since then, the Killers sold more than 22 million records worldwide and won numerous awards. The Killers released a fifth studio album, Wonderful Wonderful, on Sept. 22, 2017.
The Killers returned to Madison Square Garden, but with a new lineup. Flowers and Vannucci were present, but Keuning and Stoermer declined to tour. Guitarist/keyboardist Ted Sablay, bassist Jake Blanton, keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Robbie Connolly, guitarist Taylor Milne, and three backing vocalists filled out the sound. The musicians took the stage to the thunderous groove of “Wonderful Wonderful,” all dressed in black except for Flowers’ bubble-gum pink leather sports jacket. From that ostentatious moment, it appeared the Killers was all about Flowers. He stalked the stage left and right, raised his hands in outsized gestures while standing on monitors at the stage’s edge, and plainly played the rock star, while the musicians supported his skyrocketing vocals. No solos or instrumental breaks were particularly spotlighted save for Vannucci’s impressive drumming. Nevertheless, this was solid rock and roll, cleaned and polished for the masses, given added dynamics by video screens and confetti cannons. The Killers’ concert was air-tight and rehearsed for perfection, but perhaps it would have sounded more authentic if the performance had been just a wee bit dirty and sloppy.
Deerhoof & Wadada Leo Smith/Le Poisson Rouge/Jan. 17, 2018
Deerhoof formed as an improvisational bass/drums duo in 1994 in San Francisco. Quickly becoming a quartet, the band currently consists of founding drummer Greg Saunier, bassist and singer Satomi Matsuzaki, and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez. Initially performing improvised noise punk, Deerhoof began adding pop melodies and experimental arrangements to create off-kilter and avant garde rock. The band’s fourteenth and most recent studio album, Mountain Moves, was released on Sept. 8, 2017.
In 2009 in Los Angeles, avant-garde jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith joined Deerhoof onstage and improvised for nearly their entire set. Adam Schatz, co-producer of NYC’s Winter Jazzfest, reunited the artists to close this year’s festival. Deerhoof performed 12 songs, mostly from the past 10 years’ catalog, allowing extensive room for impromptu improvisation, exploration and playfulness. Periodically, they signaled for Wadada Leo Smith to add trumpet lines, fills which sweetly softened Deerhoof’s often crash and burn clamor. The collaborations freely and deliberately wandered and soared, feeding off each other for both angular and elliptical whimsy. The post-punk art-rock that erupted spontaneously could never be reproduced even with the most measured intent.
Alejandro Escovedo/City Winery/Jan. 18, 2018
Vocalist/guitarist Alejandro Escovedo was born into a musical family in San Antonio, Texas. His father played in mariachi bands in Mexico in the 1930s, and later sang in East Bay bands. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alejandro’s two older brothers, Pete Escovedo and Coke Escovedo, both percussionists, played with Latin-rock bands Santana, Azteca and Malo. Two younger brothers, both guitarists/vocalists, Mario Escovedo fronted the hard rock band the Dragons and Javier Escovedo was in the punk rock band the Zeros. Alejandro started his professional music career in the mid-1970s in a first-wave punk rock group, the Nuns. He then left San Francisco for Austin, Texas, where he adopted a roots rock/alternative country style in the bands Rank and File in 1980 and the True Believers (with Javier) in 1983. Alejandro became a solo artist in 1992. He was awarded the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing in 2006. Cured after a 20-year battle with deadly hepatitis C and receiving therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving a hurricane on his 2014 honeymoon, Escovedo relocated to Dallas, Texas, and in 2016 released his twelfth and most recent studio album, Burn Something Beautiful.
Alejandro Escovedo returned to City Winery to begin a three-night engagement where he would perform his 2001 album, A Man Under the Influence, plus additional songs. He brought a big band; there were 14 musicians squeezed onto the venue’s small stage. Together, they performed a rather mellow track-by-track rendition of Escovedo’s album. This was followed by a public service video for an Escovedo-linked not-for-profit agency, and then the harder rock and roll songs came to play, assisted by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and ending with a tribute to David Bowie. Overall, Escovedo’s performance was bright and bubbly, with sincere lyrics and tuneful melodies that appealed to the heart, mind and soul. The weakest link was Escovedo’s vocals; while his delivery was earnest and solemn, his voice carried little power or broad appeal. This seemed forgivable, however, due to his personal integrity and lively band support.
Milky Chance/The Hammerstein Ballroom/Jan. 19, 2018
Clemens Rehbein and Philipp Dausch met in an advanced music course in the eleventh grade in Kassel, Germany, when Rehbein played bass guitar and Dausch played guitar in a jazz quartet known as Flown Tones. The group disbanded after the drummer left, but Rehbein and Dausch continued to collaborate, with Rehbein on vocals and acoustic guitar and Dausch providing electronic beats. After only two performances in 2013, Milky Chance recorded an album in Rehbein’s childhood home, then posted videos on social media that went viral and ultimately received more than 320 million hits. They packed a guitar and a set of decks into their car and performed more than 100 concerts throughout Europe. Antonio Greger joined in 2015, playing electric guitar, harmonica, and bass. Milky Chance released its second and most recent album, Blossom, on Mar. 17, 2017.
Headlining at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Milky Chance used so much blinding backlighting that the band was barely visible other than in silhouette form. The sound was clear and bold, however, as the band cleverly mixed soft-impact acoustic folk sounds with smooth reggae rhythms and then punctuated the music with booming, danceable beats. With the help of a touring drummer, the core trio invested deeply in grooves that became more rollicking as the songs developed. The result was a set of lilting, soft-rocking singer-songwriter songs with a quite unique surround-sound. The set consisted of seven songs from the debut album and 10 songs from the more recent album, but even with this diminutive catalog, Milky Chance demonstrated that this band is harnessing a unique and enthralling pop sound that should appeal to a wide range of tastes.