Manhattan Beat: John Mellencamp at the Beacon Theatre, Procol Harum at City Winery, and more!

John Mellencamp/The Beacon Theatre/February 25, 2019

Born in Seymour, Indiana, John Mellencamp formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at age 14 and later played in the local bands Trash, Snakepit Banana Barn, and the Mason Brothers. Mellencamp came to New York City in the mid-1970s with the intention of studying painting if his music career aspirations did not manifest. Reportedly unknown to Mellencamp, his manager in the late 1970s issued a debut album under the moniker Johnny Cougar, claiming that the public would not be interested in someone named Mellencamp.  Gradually over the course of several albums, Mellencamp changed his name to John Cougar and John Cougar Mellencamp before he reclaimed his birth name as his public name. Under the various names, Mellencamp had 22 Top 40 hits in the United States starting in 1982. He holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven. He won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Performer in 1983 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. Mellencamp lives five miles outside of Bloomington, Indiana on the shores of Lake Monroe, but he also has a vacation home on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. In 2018, Mellencamp purchased an 1,800-square-foot loft in New York City for $2.3 million; he is using this space as an art studio. Mellencamp released his 24th and most recent studio album, a compilation of cover songs entitled Other People’s Stuff on December 7, 2018.

John Mellencamp headlined three nights at the Beacon Theatre, where his opening act was a mini-documentary of his journey through music and painting. Similarly, he peppered the concert with anecdotes about his inspirational grandmother and an early brush with the law after a night at a New York music club. The defining moments were his songs, however, and while his set was heavy on the hits, it also featured more recent and less heard songs. Backed by guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, violinist Miriam Sturm, keyboardist/accordionist Troye Kinnett, bassist John Gunnell, and drummer Dane Clark, Mellencamp sang rollicking, bluesy rockers and homey folk-rockers with a rich, raspy voice. Impressively, several songs were powered not by guitars but by fiddle and accordion leads. The most intriguing moments may have been his solo acoustic interpretation of “Jack & Diane,” completed with an audience choir, and his a cappella call-and-response interpretation of Louis Armstrong’s “Long Gone (From Bowlin’ Green),” which he reprised at curtain call. Overall, “The John Mellencamp Show,” as the tour is titled, was plainspoken heartland rock at its finest.

Procol Harum/City Winery/February 26, 2019

Born in East London, England, Gary Brooker grew up in Hackney before the family moved to Middlesex. As a child he learned to play piano, cornet, and trombone. In 1962, Brooker founded the Paramounts in 1962 and had one hit song, but—unable to generate any follow-up success—the group disbanded in 1966. Then, Brooker founded the Pinewoods, which in 1967 became Procol Harum, named after a Burmese cat owned by their recording engineer. The band’s best-known recording, 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” is one of the few singles to have sold over 10 million copies. After several personnel and style changes, Procol Harum ended in 1977 and Brooker launched a modest solo career in 1979. Although Brooker many times reformed the band for brief periods, there was no consistency until 1991. The current band of vocalist/pianist Brooker, guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, organist Josh Phillips, bassist Matt Pegg, and drummer Geoff Dunn, has remained stable since 2006. Procol Harum’s 13th and most recent studio album, Novum, was released in 2017.

Procol Harum headlined three consecutive nights at City Winery, promising slightly different set lists each night. On the second night, the set list concentrated on the wealth of material during the band’s first era, from 1967 to 1975, plus five songs from the band’s 2017 album. The band reached for deep cuts, with “Homburg” and “Simple Sister” as the most recognizable songs in the first set, and “A Salty Dog,” “Conquistador,” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in the second set. Brooker’s soulful, smoky vocals carried the melodies, and then Whitehorn’s expanded on the melody with his guitar leads, as Phillips’ organ added body and weight to the arrangements. Lightly Baroque, lightly progressive, with a touch of melancholic soul, it was beauty all around.

Fawn/The Bitter End/February 26, 2019

Fawn Segerson trained as a classical pianist back home in Roxbury, Connecticut. She moved to New York City, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in media scoring and launched a career as a singer-songwriter simply named Fawn. Fawn occasionally works as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, including on a recent episode of television’s Ray Donovan, but more often performs a regular residency at both the Bitter End and the Algonquin Hotel with her backing band, the New Old Fashions. Behind the scene, Fawn is also writing music for television and film. She released her fourth and most recent album, Vis-à-vis, in 2017.

Fawn looks like a pin-up girl from the WWII era when she performs at the Bitter End on the fourth Tuesday of each month. On her most recent engagement, she played piano (on other occasions she also played guitar and ukulele) and was accompanied by bassist Neville L’Green and drummer Mark Greenberg. Her persona on stage was serene and subtle, not at all showy, and when she sang her original songs, her light-as-air vocals floated soothingly through the room. The throwback acoustic performance perhaps leaned closer to cabaret than to rock, as her vintage jazz nuances married bouncy pop melodies. New York City is home to countless singer-songwriters, but Fawn is more than this; she is a stylist with a captivatingly new old-fashioned sound.

The Lord Calverts/Otto’s Shrunken Head/March 1, 2019

New York-based Jed Becker played keyboards in local bands Surface to Surface and Combo Yeah in the 1990s but then left the stage and moved behind the scenes to underscore music for children’s television shows and advertising campaigns. Becker met guitarist Askold Buk, who similarly scored television documentaries. Their friendship grew and they decided to recruit musicians and form a rock and roll band. Having no history together, they concocted a fake back story about being a garage rock band from Baltimore, Maryland, who had a few obscure albums in the 1960s. They called their band the Lord Calverts, the name crafted after the 17th century Lord Baltimore, Sir George Calvert. Since its earliest days, the Lord Calverts has consisted of Becker and Buj, vocalist Kevin Lydon, bassist William X. Harvey (Urban Verbs), and drummer Rich Capitelli (Gary U.S. Bonds, Jon Secada, Brian Setzer). The Lord Calverts in 2015 released its one album, The Lord Calverts… Now!

The Lord Calverts came on stage at Otto’s Shrunken Head wearing finely-pressed black suits and ties, but from the first notes, the band ripped into grimy, slimy, rock ‘n’ roll. Lydon put on his best bluesy vocals, utilizing advantageously an expansive range that allowed him to build songs to a high crescendo, while his band mates blasted away with fast and fiery rock ‘n’ roll rhythms. The music was intentionally as raw and primitive as 1960s garage rock, but with a dueling guitar attack that was more stinging and grinding than typical music from that period. The passion and immediacy of the music made impact with a wallop, leading the band to jump around on the small stage and the audience to get out of their chairs to shake their hips impulsively. The Lord Calverts’ spit-and-polish set was incendiary.