The Stray Cats/The Rooftop at Pier 17/August 6, 2019
As pre-teens, guitarist Brian Setzer, bassist Lee Rocker, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom lived a few blocks from each other in the New York City suburb of Massapequa, Long Island. Bonding over a shared love of roots rock ‘n’ roll, they starting playing Long Island bars in 1979, alternately calling the trio the Tomcats, the Teds, and Bryan and the Tom Cats before settling on the Stray Cats and hitting New York City’s punk rock circuit. With a revival of the nineteen-fifties Teddy Boy youth subculture bubbling in England, in 1980, the Stray Cats moved to London, where the musicians initially couch-surfed, or slept in Hyde Park and on the tube. The Stray Cats started to draw celebrity audiences to their pub gigs and enjoyed three hit singles before returning to the United States and repeating that success here thanks to heavy rotation on MTV. The debut American album, 1982’s Built for Speed sold a million copies (platinum) in the U.S. and was the #2 record on Billboard‘s album charts for 26 weeks. Setzer split the Stray Cats in 1984, and the three moved onto other projects, reuniting sporadically. To celebrate the Stray Cats’ 40th anniversary, the band reunited in 2018 to record 40, the first collection of new songs from the Stray Cats in 26 years, followed by the trio’s first concert tour in nine years.
The Stray Cats stuck to the basics at the Rooftop at Pier 17, with no extra musicians, no gimmicks, and no multi-media presentations except for the venue’s projection screens. Still dressed and coifed like fifties cool cats, the trio performed in the spirit of the rockabilly pioneers. Setzer twanged his guitar, Rocker slapped his upright bass, and Phantom towered over his small drum kit, playing all their hits, new songs, and covers of classic songs by Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, and Dorsey Burnette. Setzer crooned soulfully on the slower songs and hit the gravel on faster songs. The set included a fair amount of jamming, reminding the listeners that Setzer in particular is an outstanding musician, mastering a vintage Sun Studio style rarely heard in contemporary music. As this tour closes, the musicians will return to their other projects (Setzer will tour in late autumn with his 19-piece big band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra), but it always will be good to see the Stray Cats reunite.
Queen + Adam Lambert/Madison Square Garden/August 7, 2019
Beginning in 1968, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor played in a band called Smile in pubs in London. Vocalist Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) was a fan and left his job working as an airport baggage handler shortly after joining the band in 1970. Mercury suggested they call themselves Queen and encouraged the other musicians to experiment with more elaborate stage and recording techniques. John Deacon became the band’s permanent bassist in 1971. Queen became one of the world’s best-selling artists, with record sales estimated at between 170 million to 300 million units. The band earned many awards, including a Brit Award, the Ivor Novello Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, plus induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Mercury died in 1991 from AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia, and Deacon retired in 1997. Beginning in 2004, May and Taylor began touring with other vocalists, initially as Queen + Paul Rodgers and currently as Queen + Adam Lambert.
“I am not Freddie Mercury,” Lambert told the audience, referring to the proverbial elephant in the room a few songs into Queen + Adam Lambert’s second of two nights headlining Madison Square Garden. He went on to declare himself a fan of Mercury’s, humbled to have the opportunity to work with the remaining members of Queen for the past nine years. To his credit, Lambert affected a vocal style similar to Mercury’s but perhaps intentionally did not replicate the songs exactly. May and Taylor were brilliant in their musicianship. The music was made full with the help of keyboardist Spike Edney, bassist Neil Fairclough, and percussionist Tyler Warren. Mercury appeared on a couple of songs via video. What Lambert said earlier rang true all evening, however, in that no one could replace Mercury’s phenomenal voice, innovative songwriting, and over-the-top performance skills. The band revived all the well-known and several little-known songs with flash and talent, but in the end, Queen + Anyone could never be as exciting as when Mercury was creating new songs and pumping up the audience with his unbeatable showmanship.
Bryan Ferry/United Palace Theatre/August 9, 2019
Bryan Ferry was born in Washington, England, and later studied fine art at a university in nearby Newcastle upon Tyne. During this period, Ferry was a member of several bands, including the Banshees, City Blues, and the Gas Board. In 1968, Ferry moved to London and taught art and pottery at a school while pursuing a career in music. Ferry formed the glam-art rock band Roxy Music with a group of friends and acquaintances in 1970, achieving hit songs in the United Kingdom and a cult following in the United States. Ferry began his solo career in 1973, while still a member of Roxy Music. Roxy Music first disbanded in 1976 and reformed from 1978 to 1983, with several brief reunions since then—most recently in 2019 for the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2011, Ferry was made a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors for his contribution to the British music industry, and in 2012 he was awarded the French national honor of Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Combining his sales as a solo artist and as a member of Roxy Music, Ferry has sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Ferry’s 16th and most recent album, Bitter-Sweet, released on November 30, 2018 under the moniker of Bryan Ferry and his Orchestra, contains remakes of older songs by Ferry and Roxy Music.
For this tour, which hit the United Palace, Ferry’s set pivoted on Roxy Music’s 1982 swan song, Avalon. Perhaps inspired by Roxy Music’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ferry and his band performed eight of Avalon‘s 10 songs, plus 10 other Roxy Music songs and only four songs from his solo catalogue. Alternately standing at the microphone or sitting at an electric piano, Ferry’s seductive lounge lizard vocals sometimes brooded or languished on slower songs, yet on more upbeat, danceable songs, his understated, subdued delivery came alive. Longtime collaborator/guitarist Chris Spedding provided much of the juice for the rockers. With the focus almost entirely on 20th century Roxy Music songs, however, the concert showed little evidence that Ferry has a trajectory for future music.
Hootie & the Blowfish/Madison Square Garden/August 10, 2019
Guitarist Mark Bryan was impressed when he heard Darius Rucker singing in the dorm showers they shared in the mid-nineteen-eighties as university freshmen in Columbia, South Carolina. The pair began playing cover tunes as the Wolf Brothers, but by 1986 they formed a band and adopted the name Hootie & the Blowfish, the name being a conjunction of the nicknames of two of their college friends. Jim Sonefeld replaced the original drummer and since 1989 this quartet has remained the core of the band. Hootie & the Blowfish won the Best New Artist award at the 1996 Grammy Awards. The band’s major-label debut, Cracked Rear View (1994), went on to become the 19th-best-selling album of all time in the United States, and in May 2019 was certified platinum 21 times. Hootie & the Blowfish went on hiatus in 2008 so Rucker could pursue his solo career as a country music performer, although the band reunited several times for special occasions. This year, the band reunited for the current Group Therapy Tour to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release of Cracked Rear View. The band’s sixth studio album, Imperfect Circle, will be released on November 1, 2019.
On the first of two headlining nights at Madison Square Garden, Hootie & the Blowfish was all about having a good time. The band performed all of its better-known feel-good hits from the nineteen-nineties, introduced a new song, and partied through a playful choice of cover songs. What has changed since the last time the band toured roughly 10 years ago is that in the interim Rucker became a country music success; a taste of twang now permeated much of the performance, with the help of touring musicians from Rucker’s solo group, Peter Holsapple on mandolin and Gary Murray on banjo. Rucker told the audience that Holsapple had played acoustic guitar on the original version of the next song the band was going to play, then announced they would perform a tribute to R.E.M. with guest Mike Mills of R.E.M. Rucker and Mills began by trading lead vocals on R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Mills then spoke about seeing a then-unknown Hootie & the Blowfish playing in a South Carolina bar in the nineteen-eighties and being impressed that the band was performing an R.E.M. song. Mills then led the band in R.E.M.’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.” Hootie & the Blowfish kept the show fresh by frequently interrupting its string of hits with covers and mash-ups, some of which featured members of the opening act, Barenaked Ladies. Hootie & the Blowfish really knew how to make a comeback.