Everynight Charley’s Manhattan Beat: Ween, The Used, Michigan Rattlers, Spencer Ludwig

Ween/Terminal 5/February 14, 2020

Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo met in 1984 in a junior high school typing class in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Discovering a compatible interest in music, the duo formed Ween as an alternative rock band. They invented the band’s name from an amalgamation of “wuss” and “penis.” Inspired by the Ramones, the duo adopted stage names, Freeman as Gene Ween the vocalist and Melchiondo as Dean Ween on lead guitar. For the first 10 years, Ween performed most often as a duo backed by pre-recorded backing tracks from a Digital Audio Tape (DAT). In 1994, Ween expanded to include other musicians more regularly. After 28 years, Freeman quit the band in 2012 to focus on his recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. Ween reformed for touring purposes in 2015 with no stated plans to record new music as yet. Since the band’s 2015 reunion, Ween has consisted of Dean Ween, Gene Ween, keyboardist Glenn McClelland, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and drummer Claude Coleman, Jr. Ween’s ninth and most recent studio album is 2007’s La Cucaracha.

Even Ween’s most ardent fans are unable to predict what the next Ween show will be like. Headlining the first of two nights at Terminal 5, Ween performed an eclectic two-hour set that was comprised of songs from all of the band’s studio albums except, oddly, the most recent album. The biggest surprise of the evening, however, was that Ween performed “Oh My Dear (I’m Falling in Love)” live for the first time since 2005. Otherwise, the band was its usual unusual. Starting with the opening song, “Take Me Away,” Dean Ween animated excitement by wailing extensively on his guitar, bending high notes quickly and repeatedly. Adding offbeat lyrics, a wide range of musical styles, and a jaunty spirit, the set list proved to be alt-expansive: alt-funk, alt-country, alt-prog rock, alt-punk… alt-everything. Longtime Ween fans were in bliss; newcomers had their heads spun around, because few rock bands are this experimental and slickly polished at the same time.

The Used/The Gramercy Theatre/February 11, 2020

In 2001 in Orem, Utah, bassist Jeph Howard, along with a guitarist and drummer, wrote some music but had no lyrics or vocalist. The auditions for a lyricist and vocalist, held at Howard’s residence, did not produce the desired results. Bert McCracken was impressed with the music the band had created and wrote accompanying lyrics to what would become “Maybe Memories.” The musicians invited him to be the band’s vocalist. The Used released its debut album in 2002, and several subsequent albums received gold and platinum status. The Used will release its eighth studio album, Heartwork, on April 24, 2020. The band presently consists of McCracken, Howard, guitarist Joey Bradford, and drummer Dan Whitesides.

For its 2020 tour, the Used is playing some of the smallest venues the band has played in a decade, including the Gramercy Theatre. The set list introduced the Used’s new song, “Blow Me,” and centered prominently on the band’s first three albums. The band’s alternative hard rock was bombastic, sometimes approaching heavy metal but more often hovering in post-hardcore. McCracken’s hearty angst-filled vocals shouted, screamed, and pleaded powerfully and melodically, backed by a hammering wall of sound. Bradford, Howard, and Whitesides had few extended musical spotlights; the charismatic McCracken ceaselessly commanded the spotlight to the point where the other members became almost invisible. He frequently spoke between songs, showering the fans with appreciation and encouraging fans to defeat negativity with positivity. As the Used approaches its 20th anniversary, the songs and the band’s performance have stood the merciless test of time; the Used concert was rock solid.

Michigan Rattlers/Mercury Lounge/February 12, 2020

Guitarist Graham Young and bassist Adam Reed were childhood friends playing soccer together in Petoskey, Michigan. They started learning guitar about the same time, and while in high school performed as Orange Magic on nights and weekends in local coffeehouses and bars. After graduating high school in 2011, both enrolled in college for music; Young moved to Chicago, and Reed moved to Gambier, Ohio. A few years later, Young persuaded Reed to move with him to Los Angeles, where they could form a band with professional aspirations. Michigan Rattlers was born during that four-day cross-country road trip. The duo began playing local clubs and in 2017 recruited their hometown friend, Christian Wilder, to join the group on piano. Drummer Tony Audia is the most recent addition. After two EPs, Michigan Rattlers released an album, Evergreen, in 2018. The band recently released a single, “Desert Heat.” Between tour dates, the band is recording a second album.

The homespun music of Michigan Rattlers has evolved with the addition of each new member. Michigan Rattlers is now a quartet, and the band has moved beyond the folky sound started by the original duo. At Mercury Lounge, the vocal harmonies and musical arrangements still hearkened to America’s heartland, but the performance now cooked with warms rays of California sunshine. Thanks to the full band sound, the vocal phrasings and melodies bore a generous resemblance to Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Michigan Rattlers performed original songs and also covered Leonard Cohen, Hoyt Axton, and Warren Zevon. For the most part, the only lead instrument besides the vocals was the piano, which sometimes gave the songs a honky-tonk cadence and other times a slightly Cajun twist. Michigan Rattlers’ music could be described as alt-country with pop leanings, but more than ever before it now matches well with the Laurel Canyon breed of singer-songwriters.

Spencer Ludwig/Mercury Lounge/February 13, 2020

A musician since childhood in Los Angeles, Spencer Ludwig began playing saxophone in the fourth grade, performed in his middle school’s jazz band, then moved to french horn and trumpet while in high school. He studied jazz in college, paying his way by playing in local bands and teaching trumpet part-time at his former high school. In 2012, while playing in a band called Sister Rogers at a local music festival, Capital Cities invited Ludwig to become its trumpet player. Ludwig recorded and toured with Capital Cities for the next three years. Ludwig also performed with Foster the People, Portugal. The Man, Fitz and the Tantrums, RAC, St. Lucia, Cherub, and the Wailers. Going solo in 2016, his songs stood on their own but also were placed in film, television, and game soundtracks, and were featured in advertising campaigns; his songs have been featured in nearly 100 film and television placements. Ludwig also won a Latin Grammy for his collaboration on a Fonseca album. Now based in New York City, Ludwig hopes to release a debut album.

Spencer Ludwig announced at Mercury Lounge that this was his first ticketed concert as a headliner. This may have been but a small landmark for an artist on his way up the ladder of success. His funk/pop/jazz songs electrified the room with his wide vocal range, wailing trumpet lines, gripping dance grooves, and charming personality. Even his breakup lyrics sparkled with up-tempo grooves. Up to now, Ludwig has specialized in horn-based party music; midway through the set he surprised his audience by playing guitar and showing a previously hidden side, the sensitive singer-songwriter. Ludwig promises to be a pop music phenomena, bridging the contemporary pop and jazz worlds like few musicians before him.