Manhattan Beat – Howard Hewett, The Underhill Family Orchestra, & More!

Howard Hewett/City Winery/August 31, 2018

Raised in Akron, Ohio, Howard Hewett started singing as a child fronting his older sisters in the Hewett Singers, touring the local gospel circuit, and as a teen, he sang in a funk band called Lyfe. In 1976, Hewett moved to Los Angeles, California, where he co-founded a show group called Beverly Hills and toured throughout Europe and Asia from 1977 to 1978. In 1978, however, he was invited to join Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel in Shalamar. From 1979 to 1985, Hewett sang lead on a streak of hit songs. When the trio split in 1985, Hewett launched a series of solo recordings, a trajectory which started with a bang but subsequently fizzled. In the mid-1990s, Hewett was back on the airwaves, singing on albums by Joe Sample, Brian Culbertson, George Duke, the Rippingtons, Teena Marie, and others. His most recent album, Howard Hewett Christmas, was released in 2008.

Howard Hewett returned to New York City after an extended absence to headline at City Winery. Accompanied by a keyboardist and backing tracks, Hewett’s concert pivoted on the sweetness of his tenor vocals. Operating now apart from Hollywood’s music industry manipulators, Hewett’s performance was all about who he is in real time. Throughout the set, Hewett’s style transcended times and trends; although Shalamar started during the disco era, Hewett was always the classic balladeer, crooning romantic songs for those who beheld and believed in the mysterious power of love. Whether engaging the audience from the edge of the stage or sitting reflectively on a stool, his songs pondered and celebrated the draw and the challenges of an amorous relationship. Towards the end of his set, he began singing from the audience, singing to his fans almost eyeball to eyeball. When he concluded with a string of Shalamar hits, he sang the familiar lyric, “This is for the lover in you.” Actually, his tender vocals had carried that message all evening.

The Underhill Family Orchestra/The Bowery Electric/September 1, 2018

Guitarist Steven Laney and vocalist Joelle Rosen conceived of the Americana-rocking Underhill Family Orchestra in 2010 in Mobile, Ala. Underhill was a name in Laney’s family tree, Family because that is what they hoped to build with both the other musicians and their audience, and Orchestra because at one time they had about 10 members in the band. Early on, the rapidly-changing lineup recorded two albums, but recently scrapped all of these early recordings and even the band’s history from the internet so as to reconstruct a new identity with the release of the Tell Me That You Love Me album on May 4, 2018. The band’s roster presently consists of Laney, Rosen, guitarist/mandolin player Ben Cook, bassist Joe Grove, and drummer Roy Durand.

Backstage at the Bowery Electric, the band members as usual painted white stripes on their faces as a sign of solidarity. Onstage, this solidarity was articulated musically by Appalachian-styled four- and five-part harmony. The band performed a raucous set of uptempo stomp-and-holler folk tunes that sounded like they originated on a familial, rural back porch or in a barn. While not at all sounding old-timey, the performance had an organic, roots-infused grit that captured the essence of America’s heartland. Big, soulful vocal arrangements and bombastic drums then turned many of these songs into anthem-like arena-rockers. Presumably, once the band gains a New York following, we shall see many in the local audience joining the family and painting white stripes on their faces.

Etherius/Mercury Lounge/September 2, 2018

Hailing from Perth Amboy, NJ, Jay Tarantino was 13 years old when a friend started playing guitar. Tarantino wanted to learn to play drums so that they could form a band, but fearing the racket Tarantino’s parents instead gave him an acoustic guitar and paid for his lessons. Tarantino played in the New Jersey metal circuit and received his first professional opportunity when virtuoso guitarist Angel Vivaldi hired him as his rhythm guitarist. After nine years with Vivaldi, Tarantino had collected a sufficient amount of original riffs and melodies and decided in 2016 to record demo tapes for a solo album. He sought musicians to help him realize his goal, but then the four musicians became an all-instrumental band, Etherius, in 2017. Etherius’ debut EP, Thread of Life, was released on Aug. 24, 2018. Etherius presently consists of Tarantino, guitarist Jon Perkins, bassist Chris Targia and drummer Zaki Ali.

Etherius was a studio project before it ever became a touring band, so the performance at Mercury Lounge proved limited in stage dynamics but protein-filled in musicianship. Although the audience was very close to the rather low stage, the band was disconnected. None of the musicians ever really acknowledged or played to the audience; instead they usually closed their eyes or looked at their instruments or at each other. The perfection of the music, on the other hand, was the ultimate take away. Tarantino’s musical arrangements often latched onto power metal melodies and old school metal riffs. The compositions were strong and somewhat novel in today’s market. Many songs were fast, but this was not necessarily the band’s signature sound. The band fluidly embraced long-standing thrash, prog and neo-classical structures without resorting to the newer djent, electronic and symphonic elements trending in instrumental metal circles. As such, the songs were relatively short in length but long in shredding. Once the musicians learn to feel comfortable at working their audience, Etherius may grow far beyond niche status.

Orgy/The Gramercy Theatre/September 4, 2018

Born in San Francisco, vocalist Jay Gordon formed Orgy in 1998 in Los Angeles Orgy hit immediately with a remake of New Order‘s “Blue Monday”, as the track sold more than one million copies. After three albums, however, Orgy splintered in 2005, but Gordon reformed the brand with a new lineup in 2011. The present Orgy lineup consists of Gordon, guitarists Carlton Bost and Ilia Yordanov, bassist Nic Speck, and drummer Ryan Browne. Orgy released a single, “Army to Your Party”, on May 11, 2018, ahead of its forthcoming album, at present entitled #newmusic.

“Orgy Tuesday”, the only two words on the marquee of the Gramercy Theatre, might have raised the curiosity of neighborhood residents, but the hard rockers and industrial music fans inside the venue knew the score. Orgy’s Bring Your Army tour saw the revamped band play many of its best-known songs plus its one new single. An animated Gordon sang the familiar mid-tempo pop melodies to the band’s grinding riffs and banging beats, and the new song showed that Gordon viably used Orgy’s signature sound responsibly to lead the new roster into trademarked territory. Orgy’s set was tight and energetic, but without solos or playfulness from the musicians, the show seemed overly centered on the singer, as the musicians crunched the appropriate backing. On every song, Gordon incessantly and pointlessly paced the stage left to right and back again and again and again, dozens and dozens of times. This reviewer found this activity exceedingly aimless and annoying, and would have enjoyed the concert more if he was not constantly twisting his neck to follow the singer’s non-stop side-to-side strides.