Puss N Boots/The Bowery Ballroom/February 15, 2020

Norah Jones’ debut album in 2002 wound up winning five Grammy Awards and selling 27 million units. She was a singer/songwriter known for playing piano, but a few years after her big wins she wanted to learn to play guitar. About the same time, her friend, jazz singer Sasha Dobson, also wanted to learn to play guitar. In 2008, the two of them decided to join forces and play mostly for friends at low-key gigs in New York City venues. They recruited Catherine Popper, who had been a bassist but was eager to try out the pedal steel guitar. By 2014, the three musicians thought they were sounding like a real band so they recorded a debut album under the name Puss N Boots. The trio released its second album, Sister, on February 14, 2020.

In its infancy, Puss N Boots leaned towards alternative country, largely because that was the easiest route for budding guitarists. Now approaching 12 years of collaboration, the trio performed a wider scope of music at the Bowery Ballroom. The anchor might have been country and Americana, but the musicians took many sidesteps to folk, pop, and indie rock. While most of the songs were played on guitar, bass, and drums, Jones, Dobson, and Popper rotated frequently on these instruments. They alternated on lead vocals, and also grouped for two-part and three-part harmonies. Performing two sets allowed the trio to perform a lengthy catalogue that included several covers. For the most part, the set was well-rehearsed and professional, yet by contrast the between-song chatter fueled an intrinsic informality, like the musicians still were leading a party for their friends. Puss N Boots is no longer simply a side project for Jones, Dobson, and Popper; it is a serious yet fun outlet for their experimentation.

Villins/Stimulate at the Delancey/February 16, 2020

Villins’ vocalist/keyboardist, the single-named Jesyka, saw Kareem “Jesus” Devlin on television in 2010, playing lead guitar in Lady Gaga’s band. Jesyka wondered what working on a music project would be like with someone like Devlin. From 2011 to 2016, Jesyka was the front person for a New York City-based hard rock band, Syka, and Devlin became one of the band’s two guitarists. The two left Syka to become Villins in 2017. Villins has seven songs available for streaming; the band does not have a projected date for an album.

After performing in numerous New York area venues, Villins might have found a sweet spot in the Stimulate parties curated by Xris SMack!, where the DJs specialize in darkwave and similar electro and noir rhythms. While Villins’ recordings lean on a softer and safer radio-friendly sound, the live performance took on much more gravity. This seemed to be where the heart of the collaboration lived. Backed by backing tracks and a drummer, the singularly-named Matsu, Jesyka sang dark pop melodies to which Devlin added blazing guitar leads. The result was danceable hard rock with a gothic edge. The duo also brought sexy back to the rock stage, with Jesyka’s skimpy skin-tight wardrobe and Devlin’s bare six-pack chest rubbing against each other during many songs. Villins also incorporated a few unusual laser effects to enhance the visual element. The band you get on recordings sounds unlike the band you get live, and vice versa, but Villins is a young and promising project that will work through this dichotomy.

Sonsombre/Stimulate at the Delancey/February 16, 2020

Born in Dothan, Alabama, a 10-year-old Brandon Pybus started playing metal and punk covers with his brother. In 1991, he relocated in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., and Pybus began playing in metal and gothic bands while simultaneously piloting several solo projects. He started the solo project that would become Sonsombre (from the French words “son” and “sombre,” loosely translating as “it is dark”) by experimenting with gothic concepts in 2016. Pulled in other directions, he put aside Sonsombre for two years and completed the debut album in 2018. Pybus released the third and most recent Sonsombre album, One Thousand Graves, on January 21, 2020.

For the Stimulate party at the Delancey, Sonsombre grew into a trio with the addition of guitarist Dave “Bu” Butry and synthesizer player/programmer Charity Bonney (whose instruments were situated in a casket). Sonsombre evoked the retro sound and feel of new wave and gothic rock, with bellowing, macabre vocals in the forefront and a wash of pulsing electronics and stinging guitar leads supporting from behind. Pybus punctuated the dark lyrics by singing with an understated angst, sometimes unaffected and other times writhing in inner turmoil. The 12-song set list featured three songs from the new album, and these songs fit well into the overall aural aesthetic of the band’s performance and of the gothic-inspired ethos of Stimulate parties. The challenge for Sonsombre now is to break beyond the underground goth circuit to a wider alternative audience.

Sasha Dobson w/ Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr/Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2/February 17, 2020

Sasha Dobson came from a household of established jazz musicians in Santa Cruz, California. Her father was a pianist, her mother was a singer, and her brother was a drummer, tenor saxophonist, and vibraphonist. The family performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1991 when Dobson was 12. Following her family’s jazz muse, she became a scat singer. She moved to Brooklyn at 17 and quickly assimilated into the New York City’s jazz scene. After her father died in 2001, she learned to play guitar and joined the local singer-songwriter community, with diminishing references to her jazz background. In 2008, Dobson, Nora Jones, and Catherine Popper formed an alt-country trio that would come to be known as Puss N Boots. Dobson intends to release an EP under her own name this spring; her most recent recordings are 2014’s Into the Trees EP and various releases with Puss N Boots. 

Celebrating Rockwood Music Hall’s month-long 15th anniversary celebration, Sasha Dobson returned to Stage 2, accompanied by Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Many in the audience may have been surprised to hear her return to her jazz roots. Unlike the more direct singer-songwriter approach of recent years or the bouncy swagger of her songs in Puss N Boots, this collection of songs was alternately moody, melancholy, and mild. The pronounced backup by Scherr, who played his electric bass as if it was his guitar, and the easy sashay of Wollesen’s percussion guided the songs far more than Dobson’s guitar. This was not hybrid music; the take was vintage jazz from decades past, approaching a bit of the free-form era but eons before amplified fusion restructured modern jazz. Dobson’s vocals were huskier than those of many cocktail lounge singers, and remained within a traditional range without sprinting skyward. The 40-minute set held its charm.

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