Raised in Boulder, Colorado, guitarist Oliver Wood and his brother, bassist Chris Wood, listened to their father perform classic songs at campfires and family gatherings. When it was time for the younger Woods to make music on their own, Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he played guitar in cover bands, in Tinsley Ellis’ band, and in his own band, King Johnson, while Chris studied jazz and moved to New York City, where he co-founded Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW). After 15 years apart, working on separate music careers, King Johnson one day wound up opening for MMW. Oliver sat in with MMW that night, sparking a collaboration within the brothers that shortly thereafter would become the Wood Brothers. They recruited percussionist Jano Rix, and eventually relocated to Nashville. The trio released its eighth studio album, Kingdom in My Mind, on January 24, 2020.
On the first of two headlining dates at Webster Hall, the Wood Brothers introduced four new songs and played songs from each of the earlier albums, with an emphasis on the earlier work. The music was a composite of many American roots music. Recurrently, for instance, the vocal melodies sounded country while the music underneath was blues-influenced. Especially for a three-piece unit, the arrangements varied significantly from song to song, peppered with multi-part harmonies, complex bass showcases, and the ultimate killer, Rix playing keyboards with his right hand while hitting percussion with his left hand and two feet. Oliver Wood did most of the lead vocals, with Chris Wood singing “Jitterbug Love.” Towards the end of the performance, the three musicians gathered around one old-time microphone for a mini-set of acoustic instruments and triple-harmony. Throughout the finely honed set, the Wood Brothers’ brand of Americana felt richly authentic and compellingly homespun.
John the Martyr/The Bowery Electric/January 31, 2020
In 2015, guitarist Kyle Ridley relocated to New York City from New Orleans. He had written a few songs and was hoping to find someone to sing them. He found Harlem-raised William Hudson on a subway platform busking in an a cappella doo-wop group called Spank. Ridley asked Hudson, who was weaned at the Apollo Theater since early childhood and had fronted several local groups, to audition for a project he would assemble. Ridley and Hudson recorded demo tapes, and these helped recruit other musicians, including Ridley’s New Orleans buddy, drummer Dustin DiSalvo. John the Martyr, named after a Manhattan church, where Ridley had stored his equipment, was born in 2017. Personnel has changed several times, but Ridley, Hudson, and DiSalvo remain the axis on which the music spins. John the Martyr released its self-titled debut album on June 14, 2019.
At the Bowery Electric, John the Martyr’s skeleton was reframed with two backing vocalists and no horn section. A thinner lineup than the previous 10- and 11-piece ensembles, Ridley, Hudson, and DiSalvo were joined by vocalists Chloe Borthwick and Mike DeLouis, keyboardist Darren Denman, bassist Aiman Mohd Radzi, and conga player Misia Vessio; two guests, trumpet player Tom Killacky and trombonist Will Hawley, jammed with the band at the very end of the performance. Throughout the set, John the Martyr played vintage-sounding soul songs with a rocking backdrop. The hinge of the music was anchored on Hudson’s deep vocals and Ridley’s lyrics and melodies, with the rest of the musicians supporting and supplementing. Hudson’s mighty vocal power was impressive, and the band did well in following his leads with a strong punch. The musicians were not necessarily building on old rhythm and blues traditions, but with Hudson singing so soulfully, the comparisons became inevitable and nostalgia ran rampant. John the Martyr married new songs and arrangements with a classic sound, and this was a winning combination.
Cold War Kids/Webster Hall/February 5, 2020
The original members of Cold War Kids met while attending university in La Mirada, California. In 2004, vocalist/guitarist/pianist Nathan Willett, bassist Matt Maust, and others started making music together in an apartment above a restaurant in nearby Fullerton. Willett had started a teaching career and became aware that he felt compelled to make music instead. Maust suggested the band’s name, inspired by a visit to a playground in Eastern Europe. As the project grew more serious, the band in 2005 relocated to Whittier, California, and began recording and releasing EPs. In 2007, Cold War Kids relocated to Long Beach, California. The band released its seventh studio album, New Age Norms 1, the first part of a trilogy, on November 1, 2019. Cold War Kids presently consists of Willett, Maust, guitarist David Quon, keyboardist Matthew Schwartz, and drummer Joe Plummer.
On the second of two consecutive headlining nights at Webster Hall, Cold War Kids rocked with rhythm and blues vocals and indie-pop melodies. A handful of newer songs were intermingled with a career-spanning repertoire that included deep cuts from early EPs. Willett was a soul shouter, climbing scales to hit some fairly high notes rather rapidly, leading to choruses that sometimes featured multi-part harmonies; Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell of the support act Overcoats helped with harmonies on two songs. Several lyrics, particularly the slow burners Willet sang while seated at the piano, were built around panoramic narratives. The rest of the band played subtle yet intricate arrangements behind the vocals, seldom settling for simple chord patterns. The songs were so structured around the vocals, however, that the musicians locked into their backing role and only momentarily stretched beyond that. As this was a live show, the songs could have benefitted from a few expanded musical interludes. Nevertheless, despite rare moments for breathers, Willett’s voice remained strong for the entire set. Cold War Kids’ compositions were more than catchy radio songs; Willett and company demonstrated a uniquely mature profundity that should increase the band’s profile in the indie rock community.
Sons of Apollo/The Gramercy Theatre/February 6, 2020
Since leaving Dream Theater in 2010, drummer Mike Portnoy has played in several supergroups. In 2012, Portnoy began jamming with his former bandmate, Derek Sherinian, who left Dream Theater in 1999, and bassist Billy Sheehan (Talas, Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big) in an all-instrumental band called PSMS. The band was short-lived but led to Portnoy and Sheehan playing together in the Winery Dogs later in 2012. By 2017, Portnoy and Sheehan reunited with Sherinian to form another band, Sons of Apollo, recruiting vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, ex-Journey, Soto, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (ex-Guns N’ Roses, Metal Allegiance, Asia). Sons of Apollo’s second studio album, MMXX, was released on January 17, 2020.
Sons of Apollo’s concert at the Gramercy Theatre was partly a homecoming, as Portnoy, Soto and Bumblefoot originally came from the Tri-state area. From the start of the two-hour, 14-song performance, Bumblefoot came on stage with a double-necked guitar and Sheehan had a double-necked bass. Bumblefoot bent pitches on the fretless guitar on top and finger-tapped leads on the fretted neck below. Sheehan played his basses as if they were lead guitars, playing chords, picking with three fingers, tapping with both hands, and controlling his feedback. Similarly, Sherinian’s leads on the keyboards also simulated guitar leads, with distortion, harmonics, and palm-muting. Portnoy’s technical precision included triplets and other masterful techniques. While the band’s complex music could be categorized as progressive metal, melodies were at the forefront, thanks in large part to Soto’s soaring vocals. Musical talent of this magnitude is not often found on one stage at one time. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of music; the band Sons of Apollo may be the deity’s offspring.