Guitarist/vocalist Andrew Clinkman and bassist Jesse Heasly started playing music together in Cowboy Band when they were 18-years-old and living in Boston. Katie McShane moved to Boston in 2013 and began singing and playing guitar in multiple bands with Heasly, about the same time that Clinkman relocated and started playing in bands with drummer Phil Sudderberg in Chicago. In 2016, McShane and Heasly toured America’s Midwest in a band called Listening Woman, and Clinkman subbed on a few shows. Despite logistical challenges (McShane and Heasly are based in New York City, and Sudderberg and Clinkman are in Chicago), the four musicians started creating music together as Spirits Having Fun later that year. Spirits Having Fun recorded its debut album, Auto-Portrait, in one day and released it on June 28, 2019.
At Mercury Lounge as part of the venue’s 25th anniversary, Spirits Having Fun performed an avant-garde set of original, quirky songs. These songs featured scattered vocal melodies floating over choppy rhythm patterns that then sometimes collapsed into dissonant chaos. The intricate song structures landed somewhere between math-rock and improvisational jazz, and somewhere between Captain Beefheart and Deerhoof, yet they uniquely carved their own creative niche. The band breathed new life into the album’s songs, as tempos were bent and interrupted, time signatures were manipulated, and jams were reinvented. McShane’s vocals at moments grounded the very detailed music, but at other times added to the odd and elastic syncopations. When she found herself deep in the groove, she jumped and kicked her own butt with both heels. With this much in-the-moment improvisation happening, it is a sure bet to predict that no two Spirits Having Fun shows will ever be the same.
The Psychedelic Furs/The Rooftop at Pier 17/July 12, 2019
Vocalist Richard Butler and his brother, bassist Tim Butler, began rehearsing in their family’s front room in London. They initially called their band RKO, then Radio, then vacillated between the Europeans and The Psychedelic Furs, playing gigs under both names before permanently settling on the latter in 1977. Spawned from the British post-punk scene, the band gained immediate popularity in Europe but in America achieved mainstream success in 1986 when filmmaker John Hughes used the song “Pretty in Pink” for his movie of the same name. The band went on hiatus in 1992 and regrouped in 2000. The Psychedelic Furs’ seventh and most recent studio album is 1991’s World Outside. The current Psychedelic Furs touring line-up includes Richard and Tim Butler, guitarist Rich Good, saxophonist Mars Williams, keyboardist Amanda Kramer, and drummer Paul Garisto.
The Psychedelic Furs co-headlined a summer tour with James, which stopped at the Rooftop at Pier 17. Under clear skies high above the tall ships at the South Street Seaport, surrounded by views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, several band members came on stage wearing jackets, clearly overdressed for the hot summer evening. Ever the pop stars, all but Good wore shades even after the sun sunk into the horizon. The set began with the familiar “Love My Way,” as Richard Butler sashayed across the stage in his long frock coat, singing a bit coarsely with his baritone voice. The James fans in the audience might have thought Butler sounded hoarse, but that was his signature delivery, a seemingly disaffected yet distinctive melancholy. Offsetting Butler’s brooding gravel, Williams punctuated many songs with swooning saxophone fills which rallied a classic rock ‘n’ roll dynamic into the fold. The band has not released new music in 28 years, but debuted a fine new song, “The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll,” with Butler saying that it would be on a forthcoming album. Even with the new song, the Psychedelic Furs proved the value of eighties music for 75 sparkling minutes.
The Empire Hideous/The Red Party at Mercury Lounge/July 13, 2019
In New Jersey in 1988, Myke Hideous founded the gothic rock band The Empire Hideous, fronting the band, composing all its music, and conceiving its theatrical staging. The band quickly developed a regional buzz, not only for its music but also in part because select performances featured Hideous being whipped between songs, donning a crown of thorns, or inserting hypodermic needles into his flesh. After numerous personnel changes over its 10 years, the band split in 1998. Hideous moved on and fronted the Misfits as lead singer for three months, saving the band from cancelling its pre-booked South America and European tours. Upon his return to the states, Hideous formed his punk rock/gothabilly/death lounge band, SpySociety99, and sang lead for the Bronx Casket Co. In 2002, Hideous reformed the Empire Hideous with new musicians, with himself as the one original member. The Empire Hideous’ fourth and most recent studio album is 2011’s The Time Has Come.
The Empire Hideous made its return to the New York City stage, performing at the long-running monthly goth party known as the Red Party at Mercury Lounge. The new Empire Hideous focused entirely on music, foregoing its former shock rock tableaus. Hideous embraced dark lyrics and a rich, ominous vocal delivery, backed by a solidly rocking quartet (veteran Hideous guitarist Jeff Austin, guitarist Fred Haze, bassist Joe Rossi, and Hideous/SpySociety99 drummer Byron Barbieri) that played thick rhythms and hard beats. The interplay between Austin and Haze created a mysterious aura that permeated numerous songs, swirling ethereally above Hideous’ deep vocals. With much of the dark music scene currently gravitating towards synthesized music, hearing a gothic rock band perform live was refreshing.
Okkervil River/City Winery/July 17, 2019
Vocalist/guitarist Will Sheff grew up in Meriden, New Hampshire, then attended university in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 1998, he and two friends from Meriden decided to form a band and relocate to Austin. They called the trio Okkervil River, from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. The band attracted attention with a performance at the SXSW festival in 2000 and became a regional fixture before achieving national success in the mid- to late two-thousands. Sheff is the only remaining original member of Okkervil River; the band presently consists of Sheff, guitarist Will Graefe, keyboardist Lip Talk (Sarah K. Pedinotti), bassist Benjamin Lazar Davis, and percussionist Cully Symington. The band released its ninth and most recent album, In the Rainbow Rain, on April 27, 2018.
Okkervil River performed two very different sets (with separate admissions) in one night at City Winery. The set lists covered a wide span of the band’s eclectic catalog. After struggling with some personal issues, Sheff is happier these days, so the early set was bright and buoyant. The band shifted away from pastoral Americana in favor of inventive indie rock and electronic-tinged psych-pop. The band’s former bucolic folk signature was not entirely missing, but sometimes a rowdy and left-of-center experimentation transformed its trajectory into something a bit different. Fortunately for the band, the audience responded favorably to the new direction, perhaps because this new exuberance was injected into old songs rather than introduced with new songs. The early show, at least, did not even feature any songs from the most recent album. After 20 years leading Okkervil River, Sheff has evolved the project in a rather curious manner.