Manhattan Beat: Rainbow Kitten Surprise, The Bakersfield Breakers, Dawes, and more!

Rainbow Kitten Surprise/The Hammerstein Ballroom/February 2, 2019

In the Blue Ridge Mountain college town of Boone, North Carolina, two guitar-playing and singing university students, Sam Melo and Darrick “Bozzy” Keller, began writing and composing music together in 2013. They created a local buzz with both an EP of acoustic music they recorded in a dorm room, and with appearances at open-mic nights at their campus coffee shop. Before one of those gigs, they visited a friend who was being treated for bacterial meningitis in a hospital room; they asked him to name the band, and he responded Rainbow Kitten Surprise, a combination of three words that each sparked good feelings. Over the next year the duo expanded in size and sound by adding three fellow students, lead guitarist Ethan Goodpaster, bassist Charlie Holt, and drummer Jess Haney. The band’s third album and first major-label release, How to: Friend, Love, Freefall, was released on April 6, 2018.

Rooted in jangly, harmony-driven, folk rock yet inclined towards the adventurous curves of indie-rock, Rainbow Kitten Surprise performed a lively 22-song set of imaginative original music at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Melo’s quizzical lyrics sometimes touched on sensitive topics: “Fever Pitch” was inspired by his youth as the child of Pentecostal missionaries in the Dominican Republic; “Holy War” was sparked by North Carolina’s constitutional prohibition of same sex marriage; “Hide” was written after he came out publicly as gay. The sunny, joyful presentation of these wordy songs and their curious phrasings (think Milky Chance or Deerhoof) commanded attention. Visually, Melo was a captivating front person, dancing non-stop with his wavy, slithery full-body moves. In the end, it was Melo’s strong, soulful intonations matched with the band’s inventive arrangements that made Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s performance thoroughly magnetic.

The Bakersfield Breakers/Otto’s Shrunken Head/February 2, 2019

Keith Yaun played jazz guitar in the Keith Yaun Quintet in the 1990s, but in the 2000s began exploring vintage guitar styles in surf and twang music. This led in 2010 to the formation of the New York City-based instrumental trio, the Bakersfield Breakers, with bassist John Hamilton and drummer John DiGiulio. From the beginning, the band’s mission was to reawaken the guitar-driven sound of the 1950s Bakersfield twang and 1960s surf rock. The band’s second and most recent album, released under the name the B Breakers, is 2017’s Dune Buggy.

Unsteady Freddie presents the Surf Rock Shindig at Otto’s Shrunken Head on the first Saturday of every month, attracting bands from around the world who expand on the classic form of reverb-saturated surf rock. The Bakersfield Breakers tonight reached for dimensions akin to and yet beyond the confines of the surf rock genre. Locked into an instrumental trio format, each musician was required to do heavy lifting consistently throughout the set. With the full support of his hefty rhythm section, Yaun hung melodies on the periphery of original songs and covers, and then used these textures to launch into intriguing leads and spirals. Hamilton and DiGiulio then brought an undercurrent of balance, linking with stomps, shuffles, and softer grooves as necessary. The guitar leads were not fashioned to dazzle, but they accomplished this feat nevertheless. This is how a cool trio works.

Dawes/The Beacon Theatre/February 5, 2019

Based in Malibu, California, vocalist/guitarist Taylor Dawes Goldsmith and his younger brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, are sons of Lenny Goldsmith, a singer in Tower of Power in the 1980s and more recently in the New Olds. Taylor started playing guitar at age three and piano at four, while Griffin started playing drums at age 15. Taylor and Griffin formed Dawes in 2009 from the former band Simon Dawes, moving from a post-punk sound to a typically Laurel Canyon yacht rock format. Dawes was consistent with that sound until 2016, when the band alienated longtime fans by turning toward a poppier, more synthetic sound. Dawes patchworked its two sounds on its sixth and most recent studio album, Passwords, released on June 22, 2018. In addition to the Goldsmith brothers, Dawes presently includes bassist Wylie Gelber and a new keyboardist, Lee Pardini.

Billed as “An Evening with Dawes at the Beacon Theatre,” the band performed two sets with no support act or encore. They performed songs from each of its albums, plus Taylor Goldsmith started the second set by playing the as-yet-unrecorded “Between the Zero and the One” as a solo acoustic song. Some songs rocked with searing guitar licks, while some were mellower, but the unifying factor was Taylor Goldsmith, as the songs pivoted on his vocal melodies and his lyrics. As the band’s chief composer, Goldsmith proved to be a singer-songwriter backed by a rock band, and together the musicians performed pop songs, often through a country rock filter. Dawes’ performance was buoyant and squeaky clean, refined with dynamic flourishes that recalled 1980s pop rock radio artists like Bruce Hornsby and Toto. Dawes performed with such immaculate burnish that the extended instrumental breaks were most refreshing when they introduced a little aggression to stain the polish that permeated the set. For pop radio fans, the set was perfect, but the rest of us perhaps would have preferred a bit more rock ‘n’ roll grit and soot in the execution of the songs.

Kasey Chambers/City Winery/February 6, 2019

Kasey Chambers was born in Mount Gambier, Australia, and spent nine years of her youth living off the land with her family in the remote Nullarbor Plain; there the parents hunted foxes and rabbits for pelts. At night, she and her older brother sang old American country songs with their parents around the campfire. After nine years, the family returned to society and performed publicly from 1992 to 1998 as the Dead Ringer Band, named for the children looking like their parents. The parents divorced in the late 1990s, ending the family band, and Kasey Chambers started a solo career in 1998. Five of her 12 studio albums have reached No. 1 on Australia’s ARIA Albums Chart, she has won 14 ARIA Music Awards, and in November 2018 she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Chambers released her 12th and most recent studio album, Campfire, on April 27, 2018. Chambers currently lives in Copacabana, Australia.

On her current tour, Kasey Chambers attempts to bring her family’s back-to-the-land years to her audiences. At City Winery, Chambers—on vocals and guitar—was joined by the Fireside Disciples, comprised of her dad, Bill Chambers, on resonator guitar, Grizzly Train guitarist Brandon Dodd, and Alan Pigram on mandolin for a mostly acoustic set. (Chambers’ brother, who doubles as sound engineer, also performed on a couple of songs towards the end.) The four musicians performed on stools as photographs from the outback projected on screens. Between songs, Chambers told the stories behind many of the photographs, many for humorous effect (one photograph showed her holding a dead rabbit that she had found; she explained that this dead rabbit became her pet for three days). While it seemed that half of the performance was comprised of stories, Chambers performed songs from many of her albums in the same campfire spirit. Chambers sang well, and the sparse, acoustic accompaniment was stimulating. The campfire experience was a uniquely animating vehicle for presenting a thoroughly engaging modern country music concert.