Manhattan Beat: Band of Skulls, Wolfmother, Justin Townes Earle, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Band of Skulls/Mercury Lounge/June 5, 2019

During their college years, two childhood friends, guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden and drummer Matt Hayward, both from Southampton, England, recruited bassist Emma Richardson and formed a musical trio called Fleeing New York. The band played night clubs in the Greater London area and recorded demos in Hayward’s father’s shed-studio. In 2008, the band renamed itself Band of Skulls. Hayward left the band in 2017, and since then, a series of professional collaborations in studios led Marsden and Richardson to move away from the band’s earlier blues-garage sound to a more synth-pop direction. Band of Skulls released its fifth and most recent studio album, Love Is All You Love, on April 12, 2019.

Before launching a headlining tour of larger clubs, Band of Skulls performed a more intimate show at Mercury Lounge. Backed by a touring drummer, Julian Dorio of the Whigs, much of the band’s live sound shifted between vintage-sounding blues rock and hook-laden pop melodies. Some songs were hard enough to become metal headbangers. Other songs were led by radio-friendly hooks, but still featured brief but gritty guitar licks. Interspersed throughout the set, the lighter songs allowed breathing space after the hammering of the heavier songs. The mix worked fine, allowing the music to sound alternately fierce and chill. One can only wonder where the band will lean with the next album.

Wolfmother/Irving Plaza/June 10, 2019

Three friends in Sydney, Australia, jammed informally for four years before they became Wolfmother in 2004. Wolfmother’s success was rather immediate after the release of the band’s debut album, and the band soon won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.  Personnel changes happened quickly, however, and the band briefly went on hiatus at least once as the one remaining original member, vocalist/guitarist Andrew Stockdale, navigated his musical trajectory. Wolfmother presently consists of Stockdale and two former members of the Vines, bassist Brad Heald and drummer Hamish Rosser. The band’s fourth and most recent album is 2016′ Victorious.

Wolfmother was accompanied on this tour by a keyboardist, Lachy Doley, who helped mellow the band’s pounding hard rock and gave credible substance to its early 1970s classic rock sound. At Irving Plaza, Stockdale’s high-pitched bluesy vocals and heavy guitar riffs embraced and embodied an early era when acid rock was king of the underground. Wolfmother recreated rather than refreshed the vintage vibe, adding few modern elements to  the mix. The set pivoted on early tracks, as Wolfmother played most of the band’s self-titled debut album and only a couple of songs from the most recent collection. The songs were simply frameworks for Stockdale’s guitar jams, however. Stockdale with his big hair, bluesy vocals, and lead guitar prowess commanded the spotlight, and powered by his band, offered the audience a good helping of heavy, raunchy hard rock.

Justin Townes Earle/City Winery/June 11, 2019

Justin Townes Earle grew up in South Nashville, Tennessee. He occasionally touring with his father, alternative country artist Steve Earle, eventually moving to eastern Tennessee with other songwriters. Earle played in a rock band called the Distributors and a ragtime/bluegrass band called the Swindlers. Earle also played guitar and keyboards for his father’s touring band, the Dukes. The younger Earle emerged as a solo artist in 2007. In 2009, Earle received an Americana Music Award for New and Emerging Artist of the Year. In 2011, he received the Americana Music Award for Song of the Year. Earle moved to New York City in 2009, then returned to Nashville for several years, and now lives on the west coast. He released his eighth and most recent album, The Saint of the Lost Causes, on May 24, 2019

Justin Townes Earle’s performance at City Winery was puzzling. Promoting an album with a solo acoustic concert may not be the most strategic move. The same can be said about performing a set that introduced only three songs from the three-week old album. Earle was intent on foregoing basic marketing moves by doing things his way, even to the point of responding curtly to fans who called out requests. Picking and slapping his acoustic guitar, augmented by some pre-programmed accompaniment, Earle played a hybrid style borrowing from folk, blues, and country. The sound was rustic and homey, and his light bluesy vocals gave the songs a gentle, summer sway, perhaps leaning more pop than Americana. The set was pleasant enough, but never really ignited a fire.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real/Webster Hall/June 12, 2019

Born in Austin, Texas, and raised in Maui, Hawaii, Lukas Nelson began playing guitar as a youth in an attempt to better connect with his hard-touring father, country music legend Willie Nelson. By age 13, the younger Nelson had joined his father’s band, touring as his rhythm guitarist. In 2007, Nelson enrolled in university and relocated to Los Angeles, California. There, he met some of the musicians with whom in 2008 he would form his own band. A year later, Nelson rejoined his father on tour, this time as the support act, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. In 2015, Nelson and the band also became Neil Young’s band. Nelson highest profile gig, however, was as co-writer with Lady Gaga for the 2018 film remake of A Star Is Born, with Nelson and his band doubling on screen as Bradley Cooper’s band. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, based in Seal Beach, California, presently consists of Lukas Nelson (lead vocals, guitar), Anthony LoGerfo (drums, percussion, vocals), Corey McCormick (bass guitar, vocals), Logan Metz (keyboards, lap steel, guitar, harmonica, vocals), and Tato Melgar (percussion). Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real released its fifth and most recent studio album, Turn Off the News (Build a Garden), on June 14, 2019.

At Webster Hall, Lukas Nelson’s younger brother, vocalist/guitarist Micah Nelson, opened the night with his own band, Particle Kid, then joined his brother’s band for the rest of the night. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real launched its set with a familiar song, “Something Real,” and immediately locked into a simmering groove. Lukas Nelson’s soulful vocals sometimes channeled his dad, but much of the younger Nelson’s material hinged on blues-based boogie more than on country swing. Nelson’s ample guitar leads energized each song, with fretwork that often was rooted in heartland rock until he blazed into hard riffs and extended jams that rocked with fierce bravado. The other musicians kept up with him well, but Nelson was by far the drive of the band.