Liz Phair/House of Vans, Brooklyn/July 20, 2018
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Liz Phair lived her early childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, until age 9 when her family relocated to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. After college in Ohio in 1990, she attempted to start a musical career in San Francisco, but returned to her home in Chicago, where she self-released three widely-circulated audio cassettes in 1991 initially under the name Girly Sound. She joined the alternative music circuit in Chicago and began recording under her own name in 1993. Phair had sold more than three million records worldwide. Phair released Girly-Sound to Guyville, on May 4, 2018; the set is a 25th Anniversary retrospective of her debut album, Exile in Guyville, and includes remasters of the Girly Sound demo tapes. Phair resides in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
After nearly a decade of recluse, Liz Phair re-entered a very different music scene in 2018 than when her debut album perhaps unexpectedly waved the flag of feminist music in 1993. Opening for Blondie at House of Vans, Phair seemed to link the past with the present and possibly the future, showcasing her self-made identity as a solid female rocker without adopting male rock star postures or sexploitative female stereotypes. Backed by four male musicians, Phair played her guitar and sang in a clear voice, her lyrics unapologetically articulating her womanly desires and vulnerabilities. The set consisted of five songs from her pivotal debut and five later songs that with age now sounded more like pop songs than indie rockers. Regrettably, Phair performed only songs from the 1990s; while these songs retained their integrity and significance, it would have been interesting to hear new compositions as well.
Blondie/House of Vans, Brooklyn/July 20, 2018
Vocalist Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein founded Blondie in New York City in 1974 and the band quickly became a pioneer in early punk and new wave music. By 1975, Blondie was a recurring headliner at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s. After a string of hit singles from 1978 to 1980, Blondie disbanded in 1982 as Harry cared for Stein, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease of the skin. Harry spottily pursued a solo career in music and film until she and Stein re-formed Blondie in 1997. Blondie has sold 40 million records worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The band’s eleventh and most recent studio album, Pollinator, was released on May 5, 2017. The band presently consists of Harry, Stein, guitarist Tommy Kessler, keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen, bassist Leigh Foxx and longtime drummer Clem Burke.
Brooklyn’s House of Vans will be closing at the end of this summer, and so the venue is hosting a House Parties series with big name artists performing free concerts for fans who are drinking free beers. Blondie’s concert tonight doubled as a photo exhibit for Chris Stein, showcasing prints from his forthcoming book, Point of View: Me, New York City and the Punk Scene, on the venue walls. Behind the stage, visual artist Rob Roth’s brief video mash-up of Stein’s photographs looped repeatedly before Blondie walked on stage about 10 p.m. Blondie’s performance consisted of only 12 songs, and it pivoted on the bigger hits, with only three songs from the band’s more recent catalog. While the older songs once sounded edgy, here they sounded like classic pop rock, with polished instrumental flourishes nearly drowning out any nuances in Harry’s vocals. Blondie did well at animating old songs with fresh leads by the band’s newer members. Blondie’s performance provided good time music for an audience seeking exactly that, a good time; the concert wound up becoming a sing-along event mobilized by a legendary pop band.
The Emily Duff Band/Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 1/July 22, 2018
Born in Flushing, NY, and raised on Long Island, Emily Duff wrote her first song at age 7 or 8, after her mother taught her to play four chords on the guitar; the song was about trading baseball cards. In high school and college, she played in several bands. She then moved to New York City and in 1996 joined guitar wizard Gary Lucas, formerly of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, in his avant garde band, Gods and Monsters; Duff replaced Jeff Buckley, who had left Gods and Monsters to embark on his brief solo career. After a year and a half with Gods and Monsters, Duff gravitated towards roots music with her trio Eudora, and later, another band called Sweetfeed. Duff then went on hiatus from music and started a family. She returned to writing and performing in 2013 with the Americana-oriented Emily Duff Band. Duff released an EP in 2015, and a debut album, Maybe in the Morning, on March 24, 2017. She has initiated a GoFundMe campaign to help her finish recording a follow-up, Hallelujah Hello.
Performing an early evening set at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 1, Duff was accompanied by guitarist Scott Aldrich, accordion player Charlie Giordano, bassist Skip Ward, and drummer Kenny Soule. Singing tender, melancholy lyrics that included clever, wry twists, Duff’s vocals were bluesy and soulful, while the band gave her tunes a country twang. Low-key yet foot-stomping, this was a mature urban take on earthy, southern-fried traditions. On this occasion, Duff wore a Ramones tradition, and indeed, except that it was a steaming hot New York evening, her seasoned dynamic was more punk biker jacket than cowboy fringed jacket. Do not lock Emily Duff into an outlaw country ghetto; her rock and rumble music has the potential to appeal to a much wider audience.
Arctic Monkeys/Forest Hills Stadium, Queens/July 24, 2018
Alex Turner grew up in High Green, a suburb of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, where he took piano lessons until he was eight years old. At the age of seven, Turner bonded with his neighbor and classmate Matt Helders over rap music and spent their weekends making hip-hop beats; they became interested in guitar bands following the breakthrough of the Strokes in 2001. When Turner was 15, his parents bought him a guitar as a Christmas present. Inspired by their friends in local bands, Turner and Helders formed Arctic Monkeys in 2002 and became one of the first bands to capitalize on public attention via the Internet. In 2006, the band’s debut album became the fastest-selling debut album by a band in UK chart history, and the band maintained its popularity with a succession of number one albums. Arctic Monkeys’ sixth and most recent studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, was released on May 11, 2018. The band presently consists of Turner (lead vocals, guitar), Helders (drums, vocals), Jamie Cook (guitar) and Nick O’Malley (bass, backing vocals).
Headlining at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, the core Arctic Monkeys quartet was joined by touring musicians Scott Gillies (acoustic guitar), Tom Rowley (keyboards, guitar), Tyler Parkford (keyboards), and Davey Latter (percussion). Best known for energetic bangers with catchy but insightful lyrics on romantic complications, the band’s most recent album radically changed directions and is comprised mostly of softer space-themed songs. In concert, Arctic Monkeys alternated between the two flavors, only briefly meeting in the middle by reworking the older “Do Me a Favour” into lounge fare and animating the new album’s title track. While the standing crowd in general admission floor space might have preferred more danceable songs, the calm grooves of the newer material gave greater prominence to Turner’s smooth David Bowie-like croon. Overall, the audience responded favorably to the mix of old and new songs, but notably moreso for the older adrenalin-pumping anthems and for the Strokes cover in the encore. A curious question remained unanswered: did the fans enjoy the new songs because they were good songs or because they were Arctic Monkeys songs?