Hey Guy/Mercury Lounge/Nov. 16, 2018
Boris Pelekh was born in Russia and moved to New York City in 1991, at age 9. He played classical guitar as a child, rocked on electric guitar in his early teens, and studied jazz and composition in his late teens. In 2008, Pelekh conceived of a rocking musical project he called Hey Guy with himself as vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, and then drew a changing cast of musicians to help him bring it to life. He also worked with the Nickelodeon duo Nat and Alex Wolff from 2008 to 2011, and toured in American Idiot: The Musical from 2012 to 2013, but Pelekh is best known for playing guitar in gypsy-rock band Gogol Bordello since 2015. Hey Guy continues to be Pelekh’s side project, however; in 2011, Hey Guy released a self-titled album, in 2015 a four-song EP, hey guy III, and most recently a single entitled “Reason” on May 15, 2018. The band presently consists of Pelekh, guitarist Jason Binnick, bassist Gill Alexandre, and drummer Oskar Häggdahl.
At Mercury Lounge tonight, Hey Guy demonstrated how a band simultaneously could throw a party, rock hard and maintain a sense of humor. Pelekh sang alt-pop melodies, often cleverly off-kilter, backed by progressive arrangements and in-your-face intensity. The songs were complex compositions, intricately crafted and executed, but nevertheless retained a consistently high-energy excitement. This sonic approach was more alternative than most alternative rock, and injected with Pelekh’s party-activating antics, made for an evening of intelligent and fun music.
The John Butler Trio+/The Beacon Theatre/Nov. 20, 2018
John Wiltshire-Butler, professionally known as John Butler, was born in Torrance, Calif., to an Australian father and an American mother. In 1986, after his parents divorced, Butler’s father moved the family to Western Australia, where the family eventually settled in a small country town called Pinjarra. At age 16, Butler’s grandmother gave him a 1930s dobro belonging to his deceased grandfather, and Butler learned to play music. After high school, Butler travelled to Encintas, Calif., where he began his music career in a band called Vitamin. Returning to Australia two years later, Butler became a busker, playing his compositions on the streets of Fremantle. There in 1998, he formed the John Butler Trio, a roots and jam band. The John Butler Trio has recorded seven studio albums, including three that reached number one on the Australian charts; his most recent album, Home, was released on Sept. 28, 2018. The John Butler Trio presently consists of vocalist/guitarist Butler, bassist/keyboardist Byron Luiters, and drummer Grant Gerathy.
The John Butler Trio is not nearly as well known in the United States as it is in Australia, yet the band tonight was able to headline the Beacon Theatre, its largest venue in New York so far. (Butler told the audience that the only other time he had played the venue was 15 years ago, opening for moe.) On this tour, the band is being billed as the John Butler Trio +, with the plus being percussionist/vocalist Lozz Benson and percussionist/vocalist/synthesizer player Michael Hardy. Butler seemed to be the equivalent of many musicians, however, switching throughout the set between a custom-made 11-string guitar, several six-string guitars, a pedal steel, a lap-top, a banjo and a harmonica. Even with the use of electronic effects, the band kept the music sounding earthy, although defining its genre of music would be challenging and unfairly limiting. Was it folk, rock, blues, funk, classical — or something somewhere in the midst of it all? Many songs featured Butler employing fingerpicking techniques, others with him utilizing a slide, and it was all accomplished with mastery. Almost half of the set consisted of songs from the band’s most recent album, but the band also performed at least one song from each album as well, giving the audience a taste of the band’s 20-year career. Seamlessly, it all sounded like roots music, although perhaps not always American roots. The John Butler Trio likely will find a growing audience among those music fans who enjoy a dynamic acoustic-driven percussive rock sound.
Hot Tuna/The Beacon Theatre/Nov. 21, 2018
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady discovered guitar and a love of the blues, country, and jazz as teenagers in Washington D.C. Kaukonen left for college in Ohio and there learned the elaborate Piedmont fingerstyle guitar picking. Casady, meanwhile, stayed in D.C. and continued his study of guitar and then bass, often playing with local club bands. After college, Kaukonen took a work-study program in New York City, where he joined the burgeoning folk, blues, and bluegrass scene. He then traveled a bit and landed in California. In the mid-1960s Kaukonen was invited to play in a rock band that was forming in San Francisco; though roots music was his passion, Kaukonen joined what was to become Jefferson Airplane, and invited Casady to play bass in the band. Jefferson Airplane became a leader in the new psychedelic rock scene. In 1969, while Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus, Kaukonen and Casady formed a side project called Hot Tuna to play Airplane songs, roots music and original songs. From a commercial standpoint, Hot Tuna failed to rival or eclipse Jefferson Airplane and its successor, Jefferson Starship, but nevertheless outlasted those bands, both of which are now defunct.
Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theatre is an annual pre-Thanksgiving given, as year after year the band performs pretty much the same set to the same audience. With no new album to promote, the band relied on older originals and covers of vintage folk blues tunes, along with a smattering of Airplane songs. Backed by drummer Justin Guip, the trio dazzles because Kaukonen may be the foremost remaining guitarist of the Piedmont style. Without being flashy, Kaukonen tastefully used alternate bass thumb techniques, along with runs, bends, double-stops, bass walk-ups, turnarounds, blues licks, and ornamental notes. Casady, meanwhile, floated his right hand in a relaxed position, often striking the strings close to or over the end of the fret board, sometimes plucking with two or three fingers for thicker tones. Kaukonen’s deep, bluesy vocals gave the songs an anchor, but once the musicians jammed, a symbiotic chemistry between the three musicians made the performance far more than lyrics and music. Guitarist Steve Kimock joined the band for several solos and added a new twist to the familiar songs. Hot Tuna’s roots music is out of fashion these days, but the band’s dedicated fans always will be ready for yet another Hot Tuna concert.
VNV Nation/Irving Plaza/Nov. 24, 2018
Born in Dublin, Ireland, a young Ronan Harris loved electronic and classical music, and started playing a synthesizer when he was 13 years old. At age 21, he had his first sampler and dove deeper into experimental music. In 1988, he relocated to London, England, where he worked as an IT manager and moonlighted as a journalist and webmaster for an industrial-electro music website. By 1990, he had a vision for an alternative electronic project that would become VNV Nation, for which he would be singer, songwriter and producer. The “VNV” in the name stands for “Victory Not Vengeance,” in keeping with the group’s motto, “One should strive to achieve, not sit in bitter regret.” In 1990, he relocated to Toronto, Canada, then in 1994 moved back to Europe; he presently lives in Hamburg, Germany. Since 1995, VNV Nation has released 10 studio albums; the most recent, Noire, was released on Oct. 12, 2018.
At Irving Plaza, Ronan Harris was joined by two keyboardists, David Gerlach and Michael Wimer, and a percussionist, Chris Roberts. Harris sang and worked the audience, with his musicians, lined across the back of the stage, providing a throbbing wall of sound. Harris’ approach to electropop and synthpop was a clever amalgam of industrial, gothic, and darkwave influences. The set pivoted electronic dance beats on haunting new-romantic-styled melodies, propelled by dynamic post-classical and trance arrangements. Harris crooned often, but also shouted, creating high drama by quickly spinning from melancholy to anger. Harris’ passionate singing gave a tremendous amount of emotional warmth to an otherwise cold, mechanical framework. When the pulsing music grew subtle, Harris’ delivery became even more intensely climactic. As such, VNV Nation live took electronic body music beyond the dance floor to a thrilling cutting edge.