Manhattan Beat: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Ulver, Max Frost, and Southside Johnny

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy/City Winery/March 25, 2019

In the 1980s, Scotty Morris performed in punk and alternative rock bands, and was conceiving the idea of starting a swing revival band. One night after a concert, he asked Albert Collins to sign a poster, and the blues guitarist wrote, “To Scotty, the big bad voodoo daddy.” Now, Morris had a name for a band; he only had to assemble the players. He formed Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in 1989 in Ventura, California. In its early years playing clubs and lounges, the band concentrated on the swing of the nineteen-forties and fifties, soon adapting those arrangements to similar sounding originals. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s first break was when three songs, “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)”, “I Wan’na Be Like You” and “Go Daddy-O,” were featured on the soundtrack to the 1996 comedy-drama Swingers. The band has sold more than two million records and showcased its music in films, television shows, parades, and football half-times, even performing before three U.S. presidents. For the past 25 years, the band has consisted of vocalist/guitarist Scotty Morris, drummer Kurt Sodergren, bassist Dirk Shumaker, baritone saxophonist Andy Rowley, trumpet player Glen “The Kid” Marhevka, saxophonist/clarinetist Karl Hunter, and pianist Joshua Levy.

At City Winery, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was a nine-piece band, with the aid of touring members Alex “Crazy Legs” Henderson (trombone) and Mitchell Cooper (lead trumpet). Horn players comprised more than half of the ensemble, and so most of the songs featured horn solos during the extended instrumental sections. The band promised its fans that this tour would feature songs the band has seldom performed live, but even for first timers, the set was filled with crowd-pleasing, jumping songs executed authentically, as if the band was first generation swing. Both on originals and covers, Morris’ singing and Levy’s arrangements embraced vintage American musical traditions for a vibrant collection of high-flying jazz, swing, and Dixieland dance tunes. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s set made a statement: well-played swing music may outlive most other forms of contemporary music.

Ulver/Irving Plaza/March 22, 2019

Born in Oslo, Norway, but raised in Cascais, Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg was 16-years-old in 1993 when he formed Ulver (Norwegian for “wolves”). The band started as a folklore-influenced black metal band, but quickly left behind black metal and evolved into psychedelic, ambient, gothic, jazz, electronic, film noir, and avant-garde metal. Relentlessly reinventing itself, the band’s eclectic output ultimately would incorporate symphonic and chamber traditions, noise, progressive, and experimental music. Ulver has sold in excess of half a million records. Ulver released its 11th and most recent studio album, 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar, was followed later in the same year by the three-song Sic Transit Gloria Mundi EP. Ulver will release a live album, Drone Activity, on May 11, 2019. Ulver presently consists of three programmers, Rygg, Tore Ylwizaker, and Jørn H. Sværen.

After 26 years of existence, Ulver finally performed live in America for the first time with two concerts at Irving Plaza. Rather than perform a career retrospective, however, Ulver performed only its most recent album and EP in their entireties. Five musicians performed in almost total darkness, gathering light only from a few blinking LED poles and a light show that played above and behind them and even on them. Most of the audience probably never had a good look at the musicians’ faces. For more than two hours, Ulver’s music was equally dark and mysterious, yet generously fluid with gothic-sounding vocals and layers of melancholic electro-synthpop melodies, usually over mood-inducing cinematic soundscapes and occasionally over thick industrial grooves. This was trippy music, like Pink Floyd meets Carpenter Brut and Meat Beat Manifesto. The weakest element, however, was Rygg’s haunting vocals, which frequently did not hit the higher range he attempted and fell flat. The performance was intriguing and hypnotic but did not provide something for the audience to hook into until the final moments, when Ulver gave the audience a melody for the commute home, a heady cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love.” Even the black metal fans in the audience had to acknowledge that Ulver’s present state of music is next level.


Max Frost/The Bowery Ballroom/March 25, 2019

Max Frost was born and raised in Austin, Texas, where he learned to play drums at age four and guitar at age eight. At age 12, he started performing in bands, including Joy Ride (a rock group) and Blues Mafia. Typically, he was the youngest member of all the bands he joined. In his late teens, Frost began combining modern hip-hop rhythms with the classic blues and rock he had been performing, recording his music onto his computer. Just before a performance at SXSW in 2013, someone stole his guitar and his backpack containing his laptop and the hard drive which contained all the music he had worked on for two years. Three days later, by coincidence, a popular music blog found his website and starting streaming his falsetto-strewn song “White Lies,” effectively boosting Frost’s professional music career to a national level. Re-working several older songs from memory, he re-recorded songs for his debut EP, and some of these songs were licensed for commercial use. After two EPs and tour dates opening for Twenty One Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Gary Clark Jr., Max Frost released his debut album, Gold Rush, on October 5, 2018. Frost now resides in Los Angeles, California.

Frost performed a one-man show at the Bowery Ballroom, darting around the stage to station himself at his guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. Often he would start a song on one instrument and loop whatever he played, doing the same at the next instrument and the next, building the song as he added layers. Frost crooned and swooned his vocals, even when some of his lyrics dwelled on unconventional Topics (“High All Day,” “Adderall”). On the surface, a casual listener could have dismissed his music simply as commercial Top 40 pop, but digging a bit deeper, one would find that even his contemporary electro-soul songs showed retro roots, channeling cohesive influences from vintage blues, funk, and rhythm & blues. The multi-instrumentalist’s pop songs and dynamic live show will find favor with the 20-something crowd.


Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes/City Winery/March 28, 2019

“Southside” Johnny Lyon was born in Neptune, New Jersey, and grew up in Ocean Grove, where his father played bass in local bands. In the early nineteen-seventies, Lyon sang in numerous short-lived bands along the Jersey Shore, several of which included Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bongiovi (later to be known as Bon Jovi), Steven Van Zandt, and most of the musicians who wound up in those artists’ bands. Once Springsteen’s star started to rise, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes advanced from the house band at the Stone Pony to a national touring band with a debut album that featured contributions from Springsteen, Van Zandt, and other members of the E Street Band. More than 100 musicians can claim to have been members of the Asbury Jukes; the present band consists of vocalist/harmonica player Lyon, keyboardist Jeff Kazee, guitarist Glenn Alexander, trumpet player Chris Anderson, saxophonist John Isley, trombonist Neal Pawley, bassist John Conte, and drummer Thomas “Goose” Seguso. Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ 15th and most recent studio album is 2015’s Soultime! The band also has released 12 live albums.

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ albums have occasionally changed direction, but at City Winery for a two-night stand, the band was back to its classic sound with a set of vintage-sounding rocking rhythm & blues. The set included audience favorites from the band’s earliest albums, deep cuts, and several familiar covers. Lyon interchanged well with his band, allowing the horn section in particular to flesh out the songs. He belted from the soul a husky voice that projected emotive and enthusiastic deliveries equally well. A responsive audience sat inches from his feet, and Lyon was perhaps overly comfortable in these intimate circumstances, such that he took the liberty to draw out many songs with seemingly excessive mid-song chatter and commentary. Nevertheless, he recaptured his audience by articulating their sentiments in songs like “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Having a Party.” Indeed, this time it’s for real.