Helmet/The Highline Ballroom/May 23, 2018
Born in Portland, Oregon and raised in Medford, Ore., Page Hamilton moved to New York City to study jazz guitar. At first he played in avant-garde composer Glenn Branca‘s guitar orchestra and joined noise rock band Band of Susans but in 1989 he formed his own alternative metal band, Helmet. Helmet’s second album, Meantime, sold more than two million records but the band dissolved in 1998. In 2002, Hamilton relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he joined David Bowie‘s touring band and began playing on film scores and producing music for other music artists. He periodically returned to New York to work with his rock band Gandhi, but the fledgling band never released any music. In 2004 he revived the brand Helmet with new personnel; the band presently consists of Hamilton, guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Dave Case, and drummer Kyle Stevenson. Helmet has released eight studio albums, the most recent being 2016’s Dead to the World.
Co-headlining at the Highline Ballroom with Prong, the evening was a homecoming for both alternative metal bands, contemporaries who both started their careers with regular gigs at CBGBs. Helmet began with 1994’s “Wilma’s Rainbow,” and followed with 1990’s “Bad Mood” and 2016’s “Bad News.” The transition from the oldest material to the newest seemed seamless, with Hamilton’s vocals and guitar leads harnessing and dominating the blazing sound. The music was hard, heavy, and blistering, but stayed far from metal clichés. Songs often were played in minor keys with drop-D or drop-C tuning for deeper effect, and Hamilton’s heavily distorted and sometimes dissonant leads fueled the flames. The other three musicians supported the boom and crunch of the songs. Towards the end of the performance, Hamilton fielded song requests from the audience, reserving the biggest hit, “In the Meantime,” for the evening’s closer. Through Hamilton’s leadership, Helmet provided an antidote to formula hard rock while preserving the scorching guitar-based rock of the most adventurous of the 1990s alternative rock era.
Hammerfall/The Gramercy Theatre/May 24, 2018
Guitarist Oscar Dronjak was born in Mölndal, Sweden, and played the accordion and the trombone before starting on guitar at age 14. Shortly thereafter he assembled his first band, the Hippie Killers, then in Striker he mixed his original songs with heavy metal covers. He founded the death metal band Desecrator (later Ceremonial Oath) in 1989, but quit the band to form melodic heavy metal band HammerFall in 1993 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Vocalist Joacim Cans joined in 1996 and HammerFall began recording. After many personnel changes the band presently consists of Dronjak, Cans, guitarist Pontus Norgren, bassist Fredrik Larsson, and drummer David Wallin. HammerFall’s tenth and most recent studio album is 2016’s Built to Last.
At the Gramercy Theatre, HammerFall specialized in a facet that has been disappearing rapidly in many metal subgenres — the band’s old school metal was built on clarity instead of muddle. The razor sharp vocals soared without screeches or growls and the rapid guitar leads and riffs were lucid without distortion and effects. Cans’ vocals rose and fell for dramatic effect and the guitarists balanced solos with coinciding twin leads. The band embraced the visual and interactive possibilities as well, with Cans making many exaggerated facial and body gestures and the guitars-and-bass triumvirate synchronizing body movements and hair spinning. The band performed songs from all of its albums except the first, providing a broad scope of its past 20 years. HammerFall may be the band to reference when bookmarking a band that has studied and faithfully replicated the spirit of late 1970s hard rock and heavy metal.
Roger Alan Wade/Opry City Stage, Second Stage/May 26, 2018
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Roger Alan Wade relocated to Nashville to write songs for George Jones, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Wade’s biggest hit was 1986’s “Country State of Mind,” which he co-wrote with Hank Williams, Jr. Changes in the country music landscape left Wade with little hope for sustained success, so he moved back to Chattanooga in the early 1990s, where he began collaborating with his cousin Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame. Knoxville occasionally featured Wade’s more whimsical and humorous music on his television series. Knoxville and Wade host an hour-long weekly show, Big Ass Happy Family Jubilee, named after a Wade song, on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel. Wade currently does voiceover work for a classic country radio station in Chattanooga. His sixth and most recent album is 2014’s Bad News Knockin’.
New York City’s newest country music venue, Opry City Stage, has two performance spaces, a main room on the fourth floor and a restaurant on the second floor. Wade and his sextet performed three nights this week in the restaurant. As the venue is located in the Times Square area, the restaurant drew a number of tourists who came for dinner with live country music in the background and left after dessert. Wade seemed to cater to that clientele, performing two sets and scattering a dozen classic country covers in his set; many of those covers were sung by his accompanists. Those present who came specifically to hear Wade’s music got what they wanted in between those cover songs. Wade is a fine songwriter, articulating joys and sorrows with pensive word twists and a poet’s wisdom. Other songs played light-heartedly with redneck themes and honky tonk culture. His fiddler and lead guitarist gave spunk to the songs. In a dimly-lit downtown venue, Wade’s performance might have leaned towards a serious folk-styled concert; at this midtown venue, it was a country music hoedown.
Dirty Projectors/Public Arts/May 30, 2018
David Longstreth, born in Southbury, Conn., began creating experimental music when his older brother went to college and left behind his four-track recorder. Longstreth enrolled in music and art studies at Yale University in New Haven, but besides attending classes he stayed in his dorm room making complex indie music. He found no community with which he could share his compositions, however. He dropped out of school, moved in with his brother in Portland and completed his debut album in 2001. He returned to Yale to finish his degree and started using the professional name Dirty Projectors for his next recordings. Longstreth has since collaborated with David Byrne, Bjork and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The band Dirty Projectors has had dozens of members but the present lineup consists of guitarists/vocalists David Longstreth and Maia Friedman, keyboardists/vocalists Felicia Douglass and Kristin Slipp, bassist Nat Baldwin, and drummer Mike Daniel Johnson. Dirty Projectors’ ninth album, Lamp Lit Prose, will be released on July 13, 2018.
In a pre-Governors Ball concert, Dirty Projectors headlined the new Pubic Arts performance space, and proved there is no band more indie. Just as the band smoothed the way for a soul crooner, an off-kilter arrangement would throw train off the rails. Focusing primarily on new compositions, the band’s music was chillwave until it got quirky and pop until a musical bridge tossed in odd rhythms. Longstreth led most of the singing, but when he drew in his bandmates the vocal arrangements were often based on harmony but had no predictable trajectory. Longstreth’s own vocals featured unconventional chamber-like phrasings and the band’s jagged rhythms paralleled the mindset of progressive rock or jazz fusion, but ultimately Dirty Projectors’ performance was none of the above. The indie genre has no parameters, so that may be where the classification where the eccentric music of Dirty Projectors will live and die.