Manhattan Beat – Steely Dan, Gwar, & More!

Steely Dan/Beacon Theatre/Oct. 29, 2018

    In 1967, while in college in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., Don Fagan passed by a café and heard Walter Becker practicing on electric guitar. They met and soon began composing songs together on the piano in the common room of Becker’s dormitory. Fagen graduated in 1969, and the two moved to Brooklyn hoping to launch a songwriting career. In 1971, the duo relocated to Los Angeles, California, where they worked as songwriters for a record company. After realizing that their songs were too complex for other artists, Becker and Fagen in 1972 formed Steely Dan. Steely Dan initially had a few hit singles, then retired from live performances in 1974 and became a studio project until splitting in 1981. Since reuniting in New York City in 1993, Steely Dan in reverse irony now tours almost annually but seldom records. Steely Dan’s ninth and most recent studio album is 2003’s Everything Must Go. Becker died from complications of esophageal cancer in 2017, leaving Fagen to carry the band’s name.

    Steely Dan’s nine-night residency at the Beacon Theatre this year once again saw the band play several of its albums in their entirety. Donald Fagen added a new member in guitarist Connor Kennedy, whom Fagen initially recruited for his Nightflyers band in 2017. Guitarist Jon Herington, keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist Freddie Washington, drummer Keith Carlock, a four-piece horn section and three backup vocalists completed the ensemble. On this night, the eighth performance in the series, the set reprised Fagan’s debut solo album, 1982’s The Nightfly, for the first set, and then mined Steely Dan’s 1970s catalog in the second set. Fagan started the first set center stage playing a melodica, framed by blaring horn arrangements and background vocals. Performed by such a large band, the music was thick and slick, presenting vintage songs in slightly newer arrangements and allowing room for many of the musicians to shine. By the end of the set, the 13-piece band was joined by former Steely Dan member Michael McDonald and Jimmy Vivino. Blending elements of pop, jazz, and rhythm & blues, Fagan and company presented a full, dynamic and sophisticated evening of soft Dad-rock.

Gwar/Irving Plaza/Oct. 31, 2018

    Gwar formed in 1984 in Richmond, Va. The band members, however, would have you believe that they are descendents of a race of barbaric interplanetary warriors from outer space sent to conquer Earth in prehistoric times; Gwar now stands against humans, who are seen as a parasitical disease that must be eradicated before they suck the planet dry. Gwar also plays heavy metal music and presents a stage show with elaborate stage designs and monsters who slime their audience repeatedly with various colored fluids. No original members remain in Gwar; the current lineup consists of lead vocalist Michael Bishop (as Blothar the Berserker), guitarists Brent Purgason (as Pustulus Maximus) and Mike Derks (as Balsac the Jaws of Death), bassist Jamison Land (as Beefcake the Mighty), drummer Brad Roberts (as Jizmak Da Gusha), and backing vocalists Matt Maguire (as Sawborg Destructo), Bob Gorman (as Bonesnapper) and Don Drakulich (as Sleazy P. Martini). Gwar released its 14th and most recent album, The Blood of Gods, on Oct. 20, 2017.

    In recent years, Gwar has been performing annual Halloween concerts at Irving Plaza, with the band’s outrageous and grotesque costumes outshining all of the costumes at the massive Halloween Day Parade four blocks away. There was a storyline to follow as the concert progressed, but many in the audience were more invested in moshing or getting slimed by the Gwar characters who shot copious mystery liquids into the audience. Even at the end of the first song, two characters were decapitated and sprayed gallons of fake blood into the audience, with far more to come as the show progressed. Blazing metal music screeched and wailed, as more over-the-top costumed characters simulated violence and bloodshed. Half of the set revolved around the most recent album, so much of the show was similar to last year’s spectacle. True to reputation, the Gwar concert was the ultimate integration of extreme music, adult comedy and shocking visuals, and the Gwar audience wanted it no other way.


Chris Stapleton/Madison Square Garden/Nov. 2, 2018

    Born in Lexington, Ky., and raised in a family of coal miners in Staffordsville, Ky., Chris Stapleton pursued a career in music in 2001 by moving to Nashville, Tennessee. There, Stapleton wrote songs for other artists and eventually sang lead in the SteelDrivers, a progressive bluegrass ensemble, from 2007 to 2010. In 2010, Stapleton founded a Southern rock band called the Jompson Brothers. In 2015, he released his solo debut album, which reached number one on the Billboard 200 and was certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). His third and most recent studio album, From a Room: Volume 2, was released on Dec. 1, 2017.

    Chris Stapleton’s All-American Road Show Tour saw him headlining at Madison Square Garden for the first time. Accompanied by guitarist Dave Cobb, bassist JT Cure, drummer Derek Mixon, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and backing vocalist Morgane Stapleton (Chris’ wife), the band was a slim, but powerful, ensemble. The music was rooted in authentic and unpretentious country, but easily inclined to other genres due to the lack of fiddles, pedal steel, and banjo. Oftentimes Stapleton’s strong, deeply emotive vocals were heartfelt rhythm & blues, his and Cobb’s guitar leads were gentle blues, the band was rocking, and this warm mélange never seemed artificially forced. The most precious take away was that the music was honestly Stapleton, with no attempt to sell out for commercial purposes. Even when he brought out opening acts Marty Stuart and Brent Cobb to join him for a few songs, the performances never seemed to be packaged as entertainment or spectacle, but rather a cozy night at the Stapleton farm. Nothing seemed more homey than towards the end of the evening when Stapleton announced mid-song that he and his wife were expecting a fifth child. Whereas many of the performers who headline Madison Square Garden come prepared with a lot of flash, the irony was how such a modest production as Stapleton’s could fill the cavernous arena so well.


Commander Cody/The Highline Ballroom/Nov. 4, 2018

    Born in Boise, Idaho, George Frayne IV grew up in Brooklyn, Queens and finally on Long Island, where as a high school student he took piano lessons. While in college in Ann Arbor, Mich., he earned pocket money playing keyboards in various bands. In 1966 he took on the moniker Commander Cody and formed his own band, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. The band was among the first to fuse retro sounds and earned a local audience by playing no-frills back-to-basics country, western swing, rockabilly, truckers songs, rock ‘n’ roll, bop, and jump blues, led by Cody’s gravely singing and boogie-woogie piano. A few years into playing Michigan bars, the band disintegrated. In 1969 the core members resuscitated the band by moving to San Francisco, California. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen performed in Berkeley bars, and a debut album in 1971 cultivated a national audience by yielding a Top 10 cover version of an obscure 1955 song, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” in 1972. With no further hits, Cody disbanded the group in 1976 and later performed with various musicians as the Commander Cody Band and Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen. Since 1997, Cody has based himself in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

    More than 50 years since he started playing in bars, Commander Cody is still playing rowdy barroom boogie woogie. Backed by a solid trio (guitarist Mark Emerick, bassist Randy Bramwell and drummer Steve Baruto) at the Highline Ballroom, Cody sang many of his 1970s stoner classics, including “Down to Seeds and Stems Again” and “Lost in the Ozone Again.” Now decades after they debuted during rock’s most experimental age, the songs were no longer as novel as they were in the 1970s, and played by an ensemble about half the size of the original Airmen, the songs lacked some octane. Nevertheless, the tongue-in-cheek lyrics generated a party atmosphere, and Cody’s speedy piano playing and spirited singing were standouts. Cody’s fun on stage permeated fluidly into the audience.