Manhattan Beat – The The, Owl City, & More!

The The/Brooklyn Steel, Brooklyn/September 16, 2018

    Matt Johnson spent much of his youth in or around his family’s pub in London, England. At age 11, he was in a band, Roadstar, and at age 15 left school in order to learn his trade in a recording studio. In 1977, the teenager posted a classified ad in a local music newspaper seeking like-minded musicians to form a band with him. While trying to get his band going, in 1978 Johnson recorded a demo solo album. The The began performing live as a duo in 1979, using backing tape tracks for the drums and bass.  In 1981 Johnson became a solo artist using the group moniker. The The then became a full band in 1988, and then a duo in 2002, before Johnson went into recluse in 2003, quietly recording numerous film soundtracks. Some followers might argue that the The was always a singular entity, a nom-de-studio vehicle for Johnson. In any case, Johnson has been the The’s only constant band member. The The’s fifth and most recent non-soundtrack studio album released (in contrast to numerous albums that were recorded and never released) is 2000’s Nakedself.

    The The’s first full tour in 18 years included New York shows at Brooklyn Steel and the Beacon Theatre, with a band that consisted of vocalist/guitarist Matt Johnson, lead guitarist Barrie Cadogan, keyboardist DC Collard, bassist James Eller and drummer Earl Harvin. The set comprised songs from each of the band’s released albums, including “I Saw the Light” from a 1995 album of Hank Williams covers. What has changed is that the music was no longer new wave, post punk or any sort of alternative rock. The songs were performed in largely mellow and mainstream dad-rock arrangements, with Johnson’s rich baritone leading the way and the band supplying the oomf to make them burnished and buoyant. Electronic, mechanical and synthesized sounds were diminished compared to earlier recordings and tours. Many of the social commentaries in the Thatcher-era lyrics remained relevant (1986’s “Heartland” included the lyrics: “Let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey/Let the bums count their blessings while the rich count the money”), but now the tone was more reflective than resistant. For nearly two hours the The performed a warm and classy set of songs with clever arrangements for the contemporary age.

MC50/Irving Plaza/September 17, 2018

    MC5 (an acronym for Motor City Five) formed in 1964 in Lincoln Park, Mich. In contrast to the British Invasion pop music popular at the time, the teenagers who comprised the band (originally known as the Bounty Hunters) began incorporating free jazz into their garage rock, and with time also embraced the emerging hard rock, blues rock, and psychedelic rock trends. By 1967, the MC5 was known locally for its loud and energetic back-to-basics rock and roll, its radical leftist political ties, and its anti-establishment lyrics. The band first gained national notoriety for performing at the riotous protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The band gained additional national attention later that year when its debut album, Kick Out the Jams, included profanity. The MC5 was short-lived, however, and split in 1972. Decades later, reunions included various original members. This year, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer formed a new band, MC50, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s debut album. MC50 also includes vocalist Marcus Durant (of Zen Guerrilla), guitarist Kim Thayil (of Soundgarden), bassist Billy Gould (of Faith No More), and drummer Brendan Canty (of Fugazi).

    MC50’s “Kick Out the Jams: The 50th Anniversary Tour” came to Irving Plaza, and as promised the set consisted of the complete Kick Out the Jams album (which was only eight songs) plus a sampling from the band’s less successful 1970 and 1971 albums. Despite the solid credentials of his musicians, the show seemed to be all about ringmaster Kramer. Seeming extremely happy throughout the set, the frequently smiling Kramer rocked extended lead guitar riffs that powered every song, and his flashy stage manner often dwarfed the showmanship of his vocalist. Kramer’s glittering guitar work merited the attention, rebirthing the old songs with electrifying magnetism, while the other musicians more than ably supported him and the vintage songs. The performance was far more than a revisit to a 50-year-old album; this was an opportunity for an exceptional ensemble to offer tribute to a rock and roll rebellion.

Hippo Campus/Public Arts/September 18, 2018

    The members of Hippo Campus met as students in a performing arts high school in St. Paul, Minn. Vocalist/guitarist Jake Luppen and bassist Zach Sutton played in a band called Blatant Youth and guitarist/vocalist Nathan Stocker and drummer Whistler Allen were in a band called Northern, and the two bands played shows together. The two guitarists started jamming together secretly during senior year and ultimately formed a new indie rock band that would be called Hippo Campus in 2013. Trumpet player DeCarlo Jackson, who attended school with the other members, performs on the band’s live dates. Hippo Campus released its second full-length album, Bambi, on Aug. 23, 2018.

    Hippo Campus headlined Public Arts with a set of lively pop tunes that had more spring than a trampoline. Even a song with a morbid title, “Suicide Saturday”, was packed with more rebound than a bounce house. The songs featured a full wall of sound, with carefully planted anthem-like crescendos designed for crowd sing-alongs. The arrangements also allowed for unexpected bridges and breaks, including several trumpet excursions and complex chord progressions. Below the overarching waves of happiness that flavored the entire set, these young musicians (all in their early 20s) crafted a conspicuous undercurrent of interesting vocals and intriguing musicianship that made the songs far more than Top 40 fodder. Hippo Campus is bound to be added to major festival lineups next summer.

Owl City/Irving Plaza/September 19, 2018

    Adam Young was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, but raised in Owatonna, Minn., where he began composing melodies in his head while loading trucks at a shipping warehouse. Suffering from insomnia, he would come home from work and record these melodies in his studio in his parents’ basement and upload the finished songs to social media under the moniker Owl City. Young compiled some of his songs first for an Owl City EP in 2007 and then a debut album in 2008, both of which received some national attention. Owl City gained mainstream popularity in 2009 with the six-time platinum single “Fireflies” and the platinum album Ocean Eyes. Owl City’s sixth and most recent album, Cinematic, was released on June 1, 2018.

    The stage at Irving Plaza tonight was littered with a vast array of musical instruments, all of which were played by Adam Young, even on the opening song. Throughout the evening, Young moved quickly from various synthesizers to keytar to guitar to vibraphone to drums and then back to keyboards, looping some of his riffs along the way in order to build multi-layered rhythms. Though Young established early that there was hardly a need for a band, he was accompanied by two nearly invisible musicians for part of the set, and opening act Matt Thiessen (of Relient K) dueted on vocals for the encore. The set was loaded with new songs, with Young playing 10 of the 15 songs on Cinematic, plus eight songs from previous albums. Young sang in fine voice, and his shuffling between instruments was almost acrobatic, keeping the stage show vibrant. With so many musical washes happening at once, Young’s sailing melodies provided the anchor for his dense arrangements. Owl City’s good-time brand of soft synth-pop indietronica could not have been executed any better.