Live Review: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg (7/18)

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“Do you remember the 1990s?” Jon Spencer snarls midway through “Bag of Bones”, the supercharged second track from his latest album, 2012’s Meat + Bone. Given that it’s the Explosion’s first LP following an eight-year gap, it’s easy enough to twist that line into a punchline or snark: “Well, of course he remembers the ‘90s — he’s living in them.” But then comes “Do you remember the 1980s?” and “Do you remember the 1970s?” and you realize: despite its 1991 genesis, the Jon Spencer Blues was never really attached to any era outside of the literal sense. Nor was the band ever associated with a wider garage-rock revival movement, the way the White Stripes and the Strokes were. “Bag of Bones” sounds like it could have been recorded in 2012 or 1992 or 1979, because not all rock comebacks need to be reinventions. Having revved to life last year after an eight-year absence, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is simply resuming where it left off.

On Thursday night, as the band emerged with a stench of pot smoke at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, I reveled in the band’s strange timelessness. Clad in black boots, tight leather trousers, and a striped vest — and already drenched in sweat — the dark-haired blues singer clutched his guitar and looked like he could have performed alongside Iggy and Bowie in the glam era, or have been a relic from a hair metal outfit. But the music summoned influences that precede both. Without a word to the crowd, Spencer plugged into his vintage amps and — nodding to his bandmates, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins — launched into Extra Width’s blistering “Soul Typecast”, a track that dates back to the trio’s days opening for the Jesus Lizard. Between the crackling tube amps and Simins’ drums, which have always bared a subtle hip hop influence, the band closely mimicked the pounding blues-punk textures of its recordings. You had to wonder what Spencer was doing during those several (mostly) inactive years, given the unbridled joy he took in stalking the stage and coaxing noise out of his amp.

First, though, credit is due opening act We Are Hex, an Indiana-based noise-rock quintet who managed to summon the sweat and vinegar to warrant JSBX’s opening slot. Vocalist Jill Weiss yelped and screamed like Corin Tucker 20 years younger, finding herself out of breath in between tracks, but the group’s secret weapon turned out to be its guitarist’s surprisingly dense arsenal of feedback effects — which runs from rhythmic bleating (“Birthplace of the Mystics”) to more melodic wah-wah textures (“Lewd Nudie Animals”).

It’s difficult to document a Blues Explosion show with great precision. The band shies away from determined setlists, and anyway, it all blends into a continuous blues-filth racket. Not that that’s such a bad thing. Naturally, cuts from Meat + Bone — “Black Mold”, “Bottle Baby” — fit seamlessly with the band’s classic era. 1994′s Orange was in particularly high supply: the band railed through “Dang” at double-speed, then stretched their groove muscles on “Bellbottoms” and the aptly named “Sweat” (“That’s the sweat! Of the Blues Explosion!” indeed). There were covers, too — of Dead Boys’ “What Love Is”, which found Simins taking the lead on vocals, and of James Brown’s “Tell Me That You Love Me”, during which Spencer swaggered towards the audience and babbled like a wound up auctioneer.

Towards the end of his band’s unrelenting 70-minute-or-so set, Spencer leaned out over the crowd, clutched at his microphone, and began ranting — mid-song, and somewhat incomprehensibly — about the heat and whether or not New York would see a hotter day all summer. Sweat beads formed, fittingly, on his face, dripping down onto lucky members of the front row. “Are we gonna wait until November and another hurricane hits?” Spencer demanded. “No, we’re gonna do it now,” “it” apparently referring to “the Blues Explosion,” like doing the hustle or doing the jitterbug. After that eight-year vacation,  now seemed as good a time as any.

But despite his unabashed rockstar-isms, Spencer still seemed humbled by the audience’s cheers. “Thank you very much, everyone, that feels very nice,” he blushed. Then: “We’ve got time for a couple more. I think we’re gonna play the blues” — because what else?

Note: We were excited at the opportunity to see the band play in Brooklyn, and hear great music at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.  With all the bright, shiny lights, loud music, and dazzling stage routines, audiences sometimes forget that a musician is actually performing during a concert. Professional artists make singing and dancing across the stage seem effortless and easy. But, in reality, the musicians performing in the limelight are really working hard to entertain us. Since 2005, a photographer and a journalist have been developing a photographic project to captured the sweaty and exhausted backstage moments of famous musicians, scenes that regular audiences don’t generally get to witness. About 100 bands have participated, and their excitement is evident when they all agree: “That’s the only way to show who we really are.”   We hope to bring some of those images here to share them with you.

Phoenix Take Brooklyn by Storm with New Album and Explosive Energy

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French rockers mix older favorites with songs from ‘Bankrupt!’

Phoenix is a rock band from Versailles, France, consisting of Thomas Mars (vocals), Deck d’Arcy (Bass & Keyboards), Christian Mazzalai (Guitar) and Laurent Brancowitz (Guitar & Keyboards).

Phoenix have the most amazing drummer. His name is Thomas Hedlund, he’s not even an official member of the band, but he’s toured with them since at least the last album and he’s absolutely essential to their being such an electrifying live band. Dude is a monster behind the kit, attacking it with a ferocity you just don’t see in pop and his energy is Phoenix’s dynamo.

That energy was needed, a bit, yesterday (4/5) for the band’s surprise, free show at Music Hall of Williamsburg which was being taped by Sirius/XM to air on the satellite radio network next week. (The band are in town for an SNL appearance tonight.) The show started at 6 PM, which is not your normal Friday concert time (though I could certainly get used to having a show be over at 7:30) and folks maybe weren’t given enough time to prime. But by the time of mid-set appearance of “Girlfriend,” the crowd was ready to dance.

That said, Thomas Mars had no problem working the crowd. Dressed as usual in low-slung jeans and an untucked oxford, his preferred stage position was standing on top of his monitor, a move that never failed to elicit screams. He also jumped into the crowd for a couple songs, spent most of the new album’s mostly-instrumental title track (which was smooshed with “Love Like Sunset”) laying on the stage resting his head against that monitor, and finished the night atop the soundboard in the back of the room, thanking the crowd.  They came, performed and conquered many hearts!

The first sound the audience heard off Phoenix’s Bankrupt! was a deep, disquieting synth pulse that grew flecked with fairy dust, only to fade out just as it revved up. Last night at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg  the French dance rockers offered the intro to “Love Like A Sunset” before serving up the full version of that first song – a sprawling, expanding instrumental that imploded into a nebulous rumble that was resuscitated back into the final refrain of  Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix  cut with its teardrop guitar conclusion.

Current single “Entertainment” opened their MHOW set, which was rather heavy on the new album, still two weeks away from release. Bankrupt! is awash in glistening, ’80s style synths and I’m not sure if it has anything as immediately winning as “Lisztomania” or “Consolation Prizes” but a number of songs wedged into my brain last night: “The Real Thing,” with its “In the Air Tonight” backbeat; and the ELO-ish disco of “Trying to Be Cool” sound like singles to me. “SOS in Bel Air” is pretty catchy too. We got most of Bankrupt! — minus record’s two closing songs “Borgeois” and “Oblique City.” The band seemed to be having fun playing the new material, at least from the side of the stage I was on.  Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz was all smiles all night.

There were also established favorites too, banging out “Lasso,” “Lisztomania,” and “Long Distance Call” early in the set and finishing the night with “Armistice” and “1901” from Wolfgang Amedeus Phoenix and then an encore of “Countdown” and “Rome.” I woulda liked to have gotten “Consolation Prizes” and “Everything is Everything,” but those are quibbles. Really good show… and over before dark.

They have two other  upcoming NYC shows  at the  increasingly large:  The Apollo on May  (sold-out) and then Barclays Center on October 2 (tickets). And you can watch them tonight on SNL.  Look out for the drummer!

All in all, Friday was a great night. Seeing Phoenix play  in Brooklyn, where the Grammy Award winning band presented some of the songs from their upcoming  Bankrupt! was a much appreciated gift. This is no small thing, considering the French band is headlining Coachella and Lollapalooza this year, and that the last time they played in New York, it was at the sold-out Madison Square Garden.

The truth is, when we were invited to attend a “private/free show” and that the band will be “presenting new album,”  I expected a 5-song affair (max) that will only include new songs and maybe, with a bit of luck, one old hit. Shockingly, this was not at all the case on Friday; the band delighted the very enthusiastic audience with a full-force concert that lasted about an hour and a half, and included a perfectly combined mix of new tracks and well-known, beloved hits like “1901,” “Lasso” and “Lisztomania.”

Retiring backstage for a few minutes, Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai returned for a stunning, stripped-down “Countdown,” before the rest of the group joined them for a riotous rendition of “Rome” that crumbled and resurrected itself into the cherry blossom synths of “Entertainment.” The band played on as Mars hopped off the stage, plowed his way through the crowd and re-emerged atop the sound booth, where he offered heaps of thanks. As he rejoined his band, Phoenix brought the reprise to a suitably explosive finish marked by thundering down beats, giant leaps and the kind of applause that could have filled an arena.

Next week they headline Coachella. But an amped-up crowd is an amped-up crowd, and this crowd was suitably amped-up as Phoenix emerged to synths that rumbled their way into Bankrupt!‘s first single, “Entertainment.”

Altogether, Phoenix have all the “ingredients” they need to succeed – they are amazingly  innovative and creative,  young and talented,  have a charismatic leader, good management and, very important, lots of exposure. But keep the drummer! He’s a monster behind the kit.


Tame Impala Live in Brooklyn, NYC

Photos by Ebru Yildiz.

“I’m sorry guys, I woke up and my voice sounded like… this,” croaked Kevin Parker, lead force for the Australian psych-rock outfit Tame Impala, last night at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. “We sound more like Ted Nugent Impala.” But he needn’t have apologized; except for a few of the high notes on “It Is Not Meant to Be” and some froggy moments during “Alter Ego”, Parker sounded exactly like he does on record– like someone trapped John Lennon’s vocal take from “A Day in the Life” in a jar and taught it to sing new songs.

In fact, the entire Tame Impala live experience is eerily close to the Tame Impala record experience. They are a powerful, flexible live unit, but even rumbling at full “Manic Depression” lilt, they sound pleasantly drowsy: the guitar fuzz is thick but underwater-sounding, like someone draped a horse blanket over the amp. Just like on Innerspeaker, all of the music– the wailing, the ghostly vocals, the glazed “Communication Breakdown” guitar attack, the organ– seemed to be pouring out in one warm thin drizzle from a transistor radio. The appropriate Winamp visualizer squiggled on the wall behind them. They looked like Stillwater. Failing to get stoned before the show suddenly felt like a serious oversight.

Photos by Ebru Yildiz

Across the board, it was a “whoa, dude” kind of night: Before Impala, Brooklyn’s Young Magic blew my mind slightly, sounding twice as singular and intense live than on record. The music was loose and free-form, but the sound was so loud and tar-thick that I felt it in my throat. Behind them, jarring film clips– a near-naked woman snake-charming a snake, a woman swinging from a rope hanging from the side of a building– added to the disorientation.

So by the time Tame Impala got to their third or fourth eye-dilating, throbbing boogie-rock vamp, marijuana felt superfluous. The band makes stoner-friendly music, for sure, but there’s also something cough syrup-y about it– the glassy mix of low-end dirty riffs and sky-scraping clean leads in the guitars have a pinwheels-for-eyes effect. (A kid behind me whose pupils resembled the visualizer on the wall went backward, arms straight, onto the floor, and had to be removed by security like a bag of laundry.)

Photos by Ebru Yildiz

In this context, the material from their upcoming Lonerism was rougher, coarser, and groovier. Their new jam “Elephant” swung hard, revealing its peacocking “Jeepster” heart. Up to that point, everyone had been nodding their head in delirious, languid unison. But the minute the “Elephant” riff broke out, a pack of girls near me snapped out of their stupor and began dancing, hard.

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