Old Crow Medicine Show/The Town Hall/November 14, 2019

Born in Missouri and raised in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a teenaged Ketch Secor enjoyed bluegrass and old-timey festivals. In the late nineteen-nineties, he formed an Americana band, the Route 11 Boys. The band split, and an 18-year-old Secor enrolled in college in Ithaca, New York, where he found a lively old-time music scene. He recruited an old schoolmate, Critter Fuqua, formed Old Crow Medicine Show, and started busking throughout North America. In 2000, folk icon Doc Watson heard Old Crow Medicine Show busking in Boone, North Carolina, and invited the band to perform at his MerleFest in nearby Wilkesboro. Shortly thereafter, Old Crow Medicine Show was hired to entertain audiences between shows at The Grand Ole Opry, so the band relocated to Nashville. Old Crow Medicine Show has eight studio albums in its catalogue; the band’s most recent product is its fourth live album, Live at the Ryman, released on October 4, 2019. The band presently consists of Secor (vocals, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, guitar), Fuqua (slide guitar, banjo, guitar, vocals), Joe Andrews (pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, dobro), Charlie Worsham (guitar, banjo, vocals), Cory Younts (mandolin, drums, keyboards, vocals), and Morgan Jahnig (upright bass). 

At the Town Hall, Old Crow Medicine Show worked from the ageless framework of a rural string band yet delivered with the intensity of a modern-day rock show without ever losing its traditional grounding. Crisp, multi-part harmony was arranged to build crescendos. Instrumental solos rotated rapidly from guitars to upright bass to banjos, mandolins, and fiddles. In between song chatter featured a country cornball charm. Heart-rending, sad songs were minimized and uptempo jump tunes proliferated. The set consisted of pre-war jug band songs plus original songs that sounded like they could have been written a century ago, all played fast and hard. Nevertheless, several of the band’s original songs had socially conscious lyrics, rocking the audience into the 21st century. Part campfire circle and part minstrel show, Old Crow Medicine Show performed a lively performance that bridged an old world with the new world.

Peter Himmelman/City Vineyard/November 18, 2019

Peter Himmelman played in bands since sixth grade in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. As a teenager, he was in Alexander O’Neal’s rhythm & blues band and in calypso/reggae band Shangoya. As a young adult in 1979, Himmelman formed a new wave band called Sussman Lawrence. In 1984, Sussman Lawrence relocated to Ridgewood, New Jersey, in order to penetrate New York City’s thriving club circuit. The band became the Peter Himmelman Band, almost immediately launching Himmelman’s solo career. Over the years, Himmelman’s 13 singer-songwriter albums received critical acclaim but little radio play or commercial success. In the late nineties, however, he achieved success with children’s albums and musical scores for television programs. His most recent album is 2017’s There Is No Calamity; he hopes to soon release a crowd-sourced album, Press On. Himmelman currently is based in Santa Monica, California.

City Vineyard’s small stage barely fit Peter Himmelman with his acoustic guitar and Matt Thompson, Himmelman’s accompanist, with his upright bass. Nevertheless, the corner stage could not confine Himmelman’s outsized personality. Throughout his performance, his pattern was to tell a charming anecdote that led the audience to smile, laugh, or applaud, then impress the audience with a pensive, introspective song, and repeat. The songs, all performed at modest pace and volume, were imaginatively panoramic, profoundly speaking the language of the heart and soul. He also was successful in bringing wit to his lyrics; at one point he summarized highlights of his previous tales with an improvised song. Somehow, his riveting, well-articulated images of struggle and joy found a dynamic and transcendent balance in songs that filled the room.

Tool/Barclays Center, Brooklyn/November 19, 2019

James Keenan was born in Ravenna, Ohio, and lived there with his mother until he was about 12, then moved into his father’s home in Scottville, Michigan. He took on the name Maynard James Keenan while serving in the U.S. Army. After his military service, he worked as an interior designer for a pet store in Massachusetts and was transferred to Los Angeles, where he was promptly fired. While working in set construction, he played in several local bands and met drummer Danny Carey when both were in the comedy rock band Green Jellö. They formed the progressive metal band Tool in 1990 with guitarist Adam Jones. Justin Chancellor replaced the band’s original bassist, Paul D’Amour, in 1995. Tool went on to sell 13 million albums in the United States. Tool released Fear Inoculum, its fifth studio album and first in 13 years, on August 30, 2019.

Tool enforced a strict photography ban at Barclays Center, so radically severe that security patrolled the aisles throughout the concert and forcibly ejected anyone caught taking photographs; even fans who were seen checking the time on their cell phones were interrogated. Good photographs would have been challenging for most fans, however; for half the show, the band performed behind a curtain of threads, and Keenan seldom performed under a spotlight, singing from the darkest back corners of the stage. The set meshed songs that spanned the band’s career, from the earlier metal, the middle-period prog-rock, and the later ambient work. Despite the massive stage, the musicians barely moved throughout the performance, instead relying on an extravagant video presentation behind them to draw the audience’s vision. The arena’s sound was magnificently crisp as the complex and cerebral arrangements pushed unusual time signatures into jarring cycles. The guitar leads were enhanced by chiming arpeggios, the bass lines were resplendent in thick tones, and polyrhythmic drums completed the drive. Keenan’s elastic, moody vocals often took a back seat to the majesty of the complete sound. The constant and overly-zealous security efforts remained an extreme downer, however. One may favor a photography ban in principal, but ultimately what is more distracting, happy fans taking photographs or angry fans being unwillingly removed from the premises? Keenan, who hardly spoke during the concert, surprisingly invited fans to take photographs during the final song, when he introduced and brought on stage the artist Alex Grey.

Carbon Leaf/Sony Hall/November 21, 2019

In 1992, several students started Carbon Leaf in a college auditorium in Ashland, Virginia, 16 miles north of Richmond. The band played backyard parties, mixers, and fraternity and sorority parties. After graduation, the band relocated to Richmond and spread to the regional college circuit before moving onto the club circuit. In 2002, the musicians left their day jobs in order to dedicate more time to recording and touring. Carbon Leaf’s profile increased thanks to airplay on adult contemporary radio stations, television scores, commercials, and also with vocalist Barry Privett’s roles in four feature films. The band currently consists of founding members Privett (vocals, guitar, penny whistle), Carter Gravatt (mandolin, guitar, violin), and Terry Clark (guitar), along with recent members Jon Markel (bass) and Jesse Humphrey (drums). In 2018, Carbon Leaf’s 25th anniversary year, the band launched a four-part series of new recordings called Gathering, starting on June 1 with The Gathering: Volume 1, the band’s first new songs since 2013.

At Sony Hall, Carbon Leaf performed a homogenous blend of alt-country, Celtic, and folk-and-pop-infused indie rock. While many of the instruments on stage, including the banjos, mandolin, pedal steel, and fiddle, would be affiliated closely with country music, Carbon Leaf was not essentially a country music or Americana band. Privett sang clean, bouncy pop tunes that were enhanced by the sweet sounds of traditional string instruments. Towards the middle of the set, the musicians gathered around an old-time microphone to showcase their vocal harmonies. Towards the end of the set, Privett played various pennywhistles for a few songs anchored with an Irish folk sound. Carbon Leaf leaned on several genres while centering on natural instruments and traditional rhythms. This was perhaps the band’s charm; the songs were well-developed as mature works for older audiences instead of for the more lucrative younger audience. Played tightly and smoothly by a band of seasoned musicians, the lively set roused the audience to sway and sing along to a wholesome feel-good concert.

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