Manhattan Beat: Nitzer Ebb, Michael Schenker Fest, The Who, and Tom Morello

Nitzer Ebb/Elsewhere, Brooklyn/May 10, 2019

Vocalist Douglas McCarthy, synthesizer player Vaughan “Bon” Harris, and drummer David Gooday were childhood friends in Chelmsford and Essex, England. They formed Nitzer Ebb in 1982 to play post-punk and electronic body music (EBM). The trio built a reputation on the British Hard Beat and Acid House scenes and toured as an opening act for Depeche Mode. Gooday left the band in 1987, and McCarthy and Harris continued as a duo, periodically adding other musicians. The band quietly went on hiatus in 1995, returning with product in 2006. After 11 studio albums, Nitzer Ebb’s most recent new recording is 2011’s Join in the Rhythm of Machines EP. In 2018, Nitzer Ebb released deluxe reissues of the band’s full catalog on CD plus a pair of giant vinyl box sets.

Nitzer Ebb reformed late in 2018 and played a handful of European dates in December, with Gooday back in the lineup for the first time since 1987. Nitzer Ebb’s first North American tour since 2010 intended for the band to perform as a quartet, with the addition of Stark’s Simon Granger. Unexpectedly, however, U.S. Customs denied visas to Gooday and Granger, so McCarthy and Harris performed as a duo at Elsewhere; Harris and McCarthy had no visa issues because they live in Los Angeles, California. The 90-minute set ignored Nitzer Ebb’s later work, instead focusing on songs from the band’s prime era, 1989 to 1991. McCarthy sang, scowled, working the audience as he paced back and forth incessantly across the stage like a predator stalking its prey, while Harris provided programming and played synthesized percussion. The majority of the music was prerecorded, such that McCarthy basically was singing to tracks that pulsed, throbbed and cascaded through layers of electronic waves and hard beats. These vocals sounded sinister and his constantly-moving body appeared to be menacing, well fit for the cold, aggressive, mechanical nature of the seductive dance music. Perhaps the set would have been more electrifying if half of the band had not been missing, but after a nine-year wait, the live performance was good enough.

Michael Schenker Fest/Irving Plaza/May 11, 2019

Michael Schenker was born in Sarstedt, Germany, and started playing guitar in 1964 at the age of nine, joining his first band when he was 11. When he was 14, he and vocalist Klaus Meine started a band named Copernicus. A year later, they both joined Michael’s older brother Rudolf Schenker in the Scorpions. In 1972, at age 17, Michael left the Scorpions and joined UFO, turning the British psychedelic band into a hard rock band. Schenker left UFO in 1978 to rejoin the Scorpions temporarily and then form his own band, the Michael Schenker Group (MSG), from 1979 to 1984. In 1986, Schenker formed the McAuley/Schenker Group with Robin McAuley until 1992. Schenker then embraced a more experimental musical life, recording acoustic instrumental albums and experimental electric instrumental albums. Throughout the 1990s, Schenker toured with UFO, the Scorpions and the Michael Schenker Group. In 2007, Schenker formed Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock, which went on hiatus in 2016. Since 2017, Schenker’s current project, Michael Schenker Fest, features four of his past singers, Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley, and Doogie White, along with guitarist/keyboardist Steve Mann, bassist Chris Glen, and drummer Bodo Schopf. Michael Schenker Fest’s debut album, Resurrection, was released on March 2, 2018; a second studio album, Revelation, will be released on August 23, 2019.

Michael Schenker seemed happier than ever at Irving Plaza; he was all smiles throughout the nearly three-hour set. Coming on stage with his band, he introduced himself and named all his earlier band affiliations, and then shared his condolences over the demise of his late drummer, Ted McKenna, and his former UFO and Michael Schenker Group bandmate, Paul Raymond. Then he began the rocking. As his three musicians maintained steady grooves, Schenker’s extended guitar leads were frequent and flawless, and played with dazzling wizardry. Distortion and effects were kept to a minimum, as his hands did all the swift magic. In an unusual move, Schenker had his floor monitor to the side rather than in front of him; this way he could play at the edge of the stage and work the cheering audience all night. Meanwhile, the cast of four vocalists rotated alternately and also sang in varying combinations, keeping the show lively and colorful. Some 30 songs into the set, the band closed with UFO’s “Rock Bottom,” with Schenker wailing and ripping into an extraordinary lead for close to 12 minutes; the vocalists came back to conclude the song, and Schenker resumed his scorching leads for another five minutes. Schenker has performed with many band line-ups, but this tour may be the pinnacle of his career.

The Who/Madison Square Garden/May 13, 2019

Vocalist Roger Daltrey formed his first band, the Detours, in 1959 in London, England. Daltrey met bassist John Entwistle by chance and recruited him into the Detours. In 1961, Entwistle suggested Pete Townshend as a guitarist. The band became the Who in 1964, and after a few personnel changes recruited drummer Keith Moon that same year. This quartet became the Who’s classic lineup. The Who rode the British Invasion in America with several hit singles, built a reputation as a wild live act, and helped pioneer hard rock music in the late 1960s. The band soared in 1969 with the release of a double-LP rock opera, Tommy, and sustained its popularity through several more albums, tours and festival performances. Moon died in 1978, and the band continued until a farewell tour in 1982 and then split in 1983. In later years, the Who reunited sporadically. The Who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Entwhistle died in 2002; the Who continues as Daltrey and Townshend plus session musicians in the recording studio and touring musicians on the stage. Townshend announced a second final tour in 2015. The band’s most recent studio album is 2006’s Endless Wire; an album of new songs reportedly will be released later this year.

The Who brought the Moving On! Tour to Madison Square Garden, with Daltrey and Townshend joined by guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete’s brother), keyboardist Loren Gold, violinist Katie Jacoby, bassist Jon Button, drummer Zak Starkey, backing vocalist Billy Nicholls, and a symphony orchestra of 48 musicians covering the arena’s massive stage. Daltrey swung his microphone like a propeller and Townshend swung his guitar-strumming arm like a windmill, providing the rock theatrics; visually, the orchestra, stacked in stadium seating and playing as an orchestra does, was grandiose. The orchestra performed on all but five songs in the center of the two-hour, 24-song performance, and the orchestrated arrangements sounded bold and massive. The first part of the show centered on Tommy, followed by a core-band-only mini-set of “golden oldies, just like we are,” as Daltrey phrased it, and the concert concluded with a Quadrophenia-centered set with the orchestra. The highlight of the concert was in the mini-set, Daltrey and Townshend’s no-frills acoustic version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” So then, the question might be posed, “Why was there an orchestra?” The end result was that the orchestra, as mighty as it was, was maybe a touch too much and as such, the Who’s repertoire often did not achieve maximum rock drive.

Tom Morello/Irving Plaza/May 14, 2019

Born in New York City and raised in Libertyville, Illinois, Tom Morello at age 13 joined a cover band as the lead singer. Around 1982, he purchased a guitar, taught himself to play, and formed a band called the Electric Sheep. After college, he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he first worked as a stripper, and later worked for a senator. In 1991, his band Lock Up disbanded, Morello met rapper/singer Zack de la Rocha, and the two founded Rage Against the Machine with bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, achieving international success. De la Roche quit in 2000, so the remaining members paired with former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell to form the likewise successful Audioslave. Cornell left in 2007, and the other members rejoined de la Rocha for a series of Rage against the Machine reunions. Morello also moonlighted as a solo acoustic artist known as the Nightwatchman, played in a short-lived duo Street Sweeper Social Club with Boots Riley of the Coup, and performed with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. In 2016, Morello formed Prophets of Rage with Commerford, Wilk, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord, and Cypress Hill’s B-Real. Morello’s most recent project is his first solo album, The Atlas Underground, released on October 12, 2018.

In October 2018, Tom Morello introduced his new music with listening parties where he jammed to tracks at the end of the night. This time around, Morello brought fans a real concert experience, backed with a small band, the backing tracks, and politically provocative video projections. At Irving Plaza, the concert began with Morello wailing on guitar in the center of the venue, surrounded by fans. The wailing continued as he took the stage, crafting a set with Rage against the Machine medleys, a tribute to the late Chris Connell, and covers of social commentary songs by Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. The sound was consistently hard and heavy, even the newer bass-drop ,EDM-influenced tracks, as Morello used varying guitar styles, feedback, and effects. Morello demanded a quiet moment, however, when he strapped on an acoustic guitar and performed “Save the Hammer for the Man” and “The Garden of Gethsemane.” Even with a bassist and drummer on stage with Morello, much of the backing music, including Connell’s voice on Audioslave’s “Cochise” and “Like a Stone,” was on pre-recorded tracks. Nevertheless, this was a highly imaginative and extraordinarily ambitious live concert presentation.