Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Nouvelle Vague with Clare and the Reasons

9:30 Club
Washington DC
February 20th, 2010

Clare and the Reasons
The fact that Clare Manchon, the namesake for tonight’s opening act, took the stage wearing a washboard, should give you somewhat of an idea of the multi-instrumental folk-pop that followed. Accompanied by two other band members (one of which I’ve learned is her husband Olivier Manchon), whom I presume are "the Reasons", Clare played a short, sweet set that was unfortunately drowned out much of the time by the unmistakably inconsiderate crowd at the 9:30 Club. Typically an opening band has to deal with the ego shattering vastness of an empty room, but tonight Clare and the Reasons had quite the opposite…a completely full house...but full of uninterested chatterboxes.

Experimenting with a wide array of instruments that included kazoos, a clarinet, a xylophone and even a recorder (you know…the kind you played in grade school), the band soldiered on, despite the noisy crowd, which at times was literally louder than they were. Clare tried to give the crowd a break, saying "there sure are a lot of talkers out there…but I bet there are a lot of good listeners too…you listeners get a gold star". But it wasn’t long before her Brooklyn attitude shown through as she finally addressed the louder majority, saying "if your neighbor is talking to you, feel free to tell them to shut the fuck up"…there you go Clare!

Clare and the Reasons’ sound was very mellow, at times reminding me of a lounge act. The band soothed those who were paying attention with some beautiful vocal harmonizing and with Clare’s incredible whistling. Not since Axl Rose in that "Patience" video have I heard whistling this good! Adding to that previous list of instruments, the band members took turns playing an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, a mandolin, a violin, a keyboard and a snare drum. As a matter of fact, each band member appeared to pick up something different with each new song. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until their finale, when they brought on a fourth "Reason" to play tuba that they finally figured out a way to overcome the murmur from the crowd.

Nouvelle Vague
Nouvelle Vague has one distinct characteristic that makes them completely and wholly unlike any other band or artist that I’ve written about for the Year Long Music Binge…that is, they are a cover band. Now I realize that cover bands are a dime a dozen and that you can literally find one playing in the corner of just about any old bar you happen to meander into on a given night. In my experience with these musical harbingers of unoriginality, there are three main types that I need to discuss prior to going further.

The first type of cover band is the aforementioned "faceless" band playing "Brown Eyed Girl" in the corner of the bar. These poor individuals typically go unnoticed and are forced to compete with the din of the bar patrons, a feat not unlike what Clare Manchon had to deal with tonight at the 9:30 Club. At best, they are the soundtrack to countless attempts at a drunken "hook up" and at worst, they are simply background noise.

The second type of cover band is that of the "tribute band" (coincidentally, I will be covering one of these in my next post for the Music Binge). These acts focus on recreating the sound (and sometimes even the image…yikes!) of one band and one band only. Now the tribute bands can be broken down into two sub-categories, one of which I find appealing and the other appalling. The first type of tribute band are those who choose to re-create the music of bands who have long since broken up, retired, died, what have you…think Led Zeppelin, The Beatles or Pink Floyd (these I’m okay with). The second type are those who feel the desire to "become" a band that is still very much active and creating music, i.e. Metallica, Pearl Jam, U2, etc. (these I just don’t get).

Finally, there is the third category of cover bands…the re-mixers, or those who take another artists’ work and completely transform or re-make it to fit their own style and vision. This can lead to some amazingly fresh sounds…think Jimi Hendrix’ cover of Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" or Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s "I Shot the Sheriff". Tonight’s headliner falls into this third category. However, unlike Hendrix and Clapton, they are a band whose entire catalogue revolves around making other artists’ music their own.

Nouvelle Vague, which is French for "new wave" is more a project than an actual band. The brainchild of producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, they take old school punk and new wave tunes and recreate them in a laid back, bossa nova style sung by various female vocalists. If you aren’t familiar with bossa nova, it is a traditional Brazilian style of music that can be described as samba meets smooth jazz.

The live version of Nouvelle Vague features guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and two female singers. For this tour, those two singers were Brazilian Karina Zeviani from lounge/electronica act Thievery Corporation and Belgian actress/singer Helena Noguerra. From the minute the band took the stage, the atmosphere was more like a party than a concert. No doubt this was partly due to the fact that this was the last date on the American leg of Nouvelle Vague’s tour and they seemed ready to pull out all the stops. That same crowd who were completely inattentive during Clare and the Reasons’ set were all ears now. In fact, if you couldn’t hear Nouvelle Vague singing Depeche Mode’s "Master and Servant", it wasn’t due to rude chitter-chatter, but rather because of the deafening screams from the primarily female audience.

The band played through an interesting set of covers ranging from the upbeat and danceable, "Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes to the downright depressing, "Bela Lugosi’s Dead" by Bauhaus, making all of them distinctly their own. The musicians were perfectly content to stay in the background, allowing Karina and Helena to flit and flirt around the stage, much to the delight of the males in attendance tonight. Renditions of The Police’s "So Lonely" and New Order’s "Blue Monday" were well received crowd pleasers, but it was the pogo inducing poppiness of Nouvelle Vague’s take on "Too Drunk to Fuck", originally by The Dead Kennedys, that turned into quite possibly the most interesting crowd sing along I’ve ever witnessed. Also especially notable was Nouvelle Vague’s version of Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart"…I mean how do you make that song peppy?

The enthusiastic crowd refused to leave the 9:30 Club, calling the band out for multiple encores, which they in turn seemed more than willing to oblige. By the time Nouvelle Vague did finally call it quits, there wasn’t a face in the crowd left without a smile. Honestly, you’d be smiling too if you’d just seen two bombshells in skin tight dresses doing their best Johnny Rotten impersonation while rocking out to The Sex Pistols’ "God Save the Queen". As I’m finding more often than not with this project, I was pleasantly surprised with the performance I chose for this week’s entry into the Music Binge. And as the French often say when they’re surprised…ooh la la!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hollis Brown with Scott Lucas and the Married Men

The Red and the Black
Washington DC
February 13th, 2010

My intention this week was to go see metalcore stalwarts Killswitch Engage lay waste to Sonar in Baltimore, Maryland, but due to my pitiful procrastination in buying advanced tickets, I found out the day before the show that it had in fact sold out. Luckily, I had a plan B, which was to check out Scottish indie rock outfit We Were Promised Jetpacks at the Rock n Roll Hotel, but much to my chagrin, they too sold out, on the day of the show no less! Sooo it was back to the drawing board for the Music Binge, and after some careful perusing through the local listings, I happened upon a third promising option. So it was that I found myself in the tiny, upstairs room at The Red and the Black on Saturday night, a room literally smaller than my own living room, for an interesting double bill featuring two distinctly different styles of rock n roll.

Scott Lucas and the Married Men
What initially caught my eye about tonight’s show at The Red and the Black was the tagline on the venue’s website that read “featuring Scott Lucas of Local H”. Having been a fan of Local H’s brand of indie-grunge back in the mid to late 90’s, I figured it might be fun to see what Mr. Lucas was up to these days. As it turns out, his new outfit, the interestingly dubbed “Married Men”, is a far cry from his “High Fiving MF” days in Local H.

Gone are the crunchy guitars and long hair of the old days (Scott’s still rocking the flannel though), as they’ve given way to a violin, a slicked back, 50’s style greaser do and of all things, the honky-tonk sounds of an accordion. The band packed the tiny stage and opened with a very mellow number called "Cut a Hole" which features only Scott’s vocals and guitarist Pete Muschong’s gentle plucking. When the rest of the Married Men (Tom Szidon on bass, Randy Payne on drums, Rebecca Manthe on violin and Aaron Duggins on accordion) entered the fold for their second song, the result was a well orchestrated, lush sound that completely filled the room. Scott Lucas and the Married Men practice a folksy sort of countrified rock with a little bit of twang and a whole lot of harmonizing, particularly between Lucas and Szidon (who has an amazing voice in his own right). The band played through a handful of originals from their forthcoming album "George Lassos the Moon", as well as a very cool cover of David Bowie’s "Absolute Beginners".

I had an opportunity to talk with Duggins after the show and learned that he met Lucas when the bass player from his other band, The Tossers, was unable to accompany them on a recent European tour. By chance, The Tossers happened to share the same producer as Local H, who recommended Scott Lucas as a potential fill-in bassist. Apparently everything worked out well enough to complete a six week European tour, during which the seeds were sown for both Duggins and Manthe, who also plays in The Tossers, to join Lucas in the Married Men.

Hailing from Chicago, Scott felt entitled to throw a few digs at our fair city’s ability to handle a snow storm, saying "we were worried about you DC…what did you get, a foot of snow?" Ha ha Scott…try something more along the lines of four feet…I think my arms are still tired from all the shoveling! That may be small potatoes over in Chi-town, but around here we’re talking an all time record snowfall. But enough about the weather…tonight marked only the second date on Scott Lucas and the Married Men’s tour in support of their debut album. By my account, they’re off to a good start and Scott has himself a side project worthy of putting both Local H and The Tossers on hold until the snow melts.

Hollis Brown
Having no idea what to expect from tonight’s headliner, I was eager to document my findings for the Music Binge. To my surprise, when the four guys in Hollis Brown (Mick Monti - vocals/guitar, Jon Bonilla - guitar, Michael Wosczyk - bass and Mike Graves - drums) took the stage, my ears were treated to what has to be the finest southern rock being made north of the Mason Dixon line. Sounding like a dead ringer for Chris Robinson and the Black Crowes, the band (who takes their name from the Bob Dylan song "The Ballad of Hollis Brown") proved to everyone in attendance that you don’t have to be from the south to play this style of music.

Watching Hollis Brown at The Red and the Black on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think I was catching a band on the ground floor, before the rise. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these guys playing a much larger venue in front of quite a few more than the thirty or forty in attendance tonight, the next time they come to DC. Despite the somewhat shy demeanor of their vocalist, Hollis Brown played like seasoned veterans and sounded as though they’d been together for decades. Imagine my surprise then when I learned that this was in fact their first tour and first time ever playing in DC.

The band played a number of songs off their self-titled, debut album, which is completely worthy of checking out, if I do say so myself (they gave me a copy at the show…how cool is that?). In addition they covered "Trouble No More" by the Allman Brothers and "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash…both excellent examples of where this band comes from musically. I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that Hollis Brown is the most original act to come out of New York City, but I can honestly say that if you want some good, old fashioned rock n’ roll played with a healthy dose of swagger, then look no further…Hollis has it in spades.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shadows Fall with 2 Cents, The Condemned and Big Whiskey

Baltimore, MD
February 4th, 2010

Big Whiskey
Well I’m glad that tonight’s show was all ages, otherwise Carroll County, Maryland’s Big Whiskey wouldn’t have been allowed into the venue. Looking as though their average age was all of 16 years old, the youngsters whipped through a quick opening set of metal-tinged hardcore, each song barely distinguishable from the next. Musically, I suppose the kids sounded decent, albeit unoriginal, but they didn’t get much help from their vocalist, who spent the majority of the band’s set staring at his shoes as he grunted incoherently into the microphone. One would think that an opening slot for Shadows Fall would be a dream come true and a chance to really showcase your band’s talents and personality. I’m not sure Big Whiskey took full advantage of that opportunity.

The Condemned
The second act on tonight’s bill was another local metal band also plagued by that nasty unoriginality bug. Hailing from Deale, MD, The Condemned suffered from a muddled sound that had way too much bass, an over-abundance of distortion and a mix of headache inducing screams and guttural growls. The band’s blend of hardcore and metal was a mess to say the least. Whether or not the sound quality could be blamed on the venue is unclear, but The Condemned offered nothing new to these ears.

2 Cents
There’s no better cure for monotony than a set by Los Angeles’ own 2 Cents. These boys truly know how to put the fun in dysfunctional and like their name implies, they are always willing to throw in their "2 Cents". Hamming it up from the minute the band took the stage, vocalist/drummer Adam O’Rourke immediately let the crowd know what kind of atmosphere his band expected when he singled out a guy in front for not smiling, saying "dude…chicks don’t dig the tough guy look".

If you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now and skip ahead to the Shadows Fall discussion. The guys in 2 Cents, who also include Adam’s brother Dave O’Rourke on guitar, Jason Wendell on bass and Adair Cobley on guitar, are unpredictable to say the least. Musically, they straddle the age old line between metal and punk, seamlessly taking the best of both worlds and throwing them into the blender…and boy do they have a good time while doing it.

How else can you explain a band who announces their arrival by saying that they’ve come "to get naked, get drunk and get fucked"? The hilarity ensued throughout 2 Cents’ set, from Cobley shaking his hand as if it were on fire after scorching through a guitar solo, to O’Rourke (the vocalist) informing the crowd that "he’s black from the waste down…meaning ashy"…and then following that up with the disclaimer "I can say that because my guitar player is black", referring to Cobley.

But before you get the idea that the band is all fun and games with no substance, I have to mention the sincerity with which they approach their craft. Having seen the band twice now, I’ve noticed on both occasions that Adam is always certain to thank the crowd for supporting heavy music and the community that surrounds it. Tonight, he mentioned that "metal lives up here (pointing to his head) and in here (pointing to his heart)".

Of course the vocalist followed up this bit of seriousness by promptly pointing out a guy standing against the back wall with his arms crossed and saying "ooh…you’re so tough, I bet you’ve never even seen a vagina". And therein lies the beauty of 2 Cents…that dichotomy between taking their music seriously and having a great time while doing it. To drive the point home one final time, the band was joined by Brian Fair (vocalist for Shadows Fall) for a beautifully, bludgeoning rendition of Pantera’s "Strength Beyond Strength" just to reinforce their belief that heavy music is in fact "stronger than all".

Shadows Fall
Tonight’s headliner has been blazing the trail for American heavy metal for the past 15 years. Vocalist Brian Fair, guitarists Jonathan Donais and Matt Bachand, bassist Paul Romanko and drummer Jason Bittner took the stage amidst a swirl of smoky, fog and immediately launched into the aural assault that is Shadows Fall. If you aren’t familiar with them (then stop reading this and go check them out!), the band plays an old school style of thrash metal that would fit perfectly alongside 80’s mainstays like Megadeth, Anthrax and Exodus, but they’re no nostalgia act, as they manage to make the music sound incredibly fresh and on time.

Unfortunately, Fair was struggling with a pretty nasty head cold tonight, which I can only imagine must be hell when you make a living by screaming your ass off every night. But as he informed the Baltimore faithful tonight, he’d "have to be in a coffin to cancel a gig", so the boys from Boston soldiered on. Despite the vocalist’s physical ills, he and the rest of the band sounded great as they played songs that spanned their impressive catalogue. As a matter of fact, the only hint of any sickness was Brian’s incessant phlegm spitting between songs, which he noted at one point by saying "damn…I’m spitting oysters up here". Now that’s metal! Otherwise, Fair was a ball of energy, flailing his trademark dreadlocks all over the stage and commanding his loyal audience to mix it up down front.

Having seen these guys multiple times in larger, festival type environments, I’ve never had the opportunity to really witness the band’s dynamics up close and personal. Tonight, I realized that despite the immense talents of each band member, there isn’t a whole lot of personality onstage other than their vocalist. Donais, Bachand and Romanko all tend to stand idly by, focusing on their instruments and backing vocals, without ever addressing the crowd or so much as cracking a smile. Of course watching Donais when he breaks into a solo is entertainment enough as he is honestly one of the best guitar players I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing or hearing.

Drummer, Jason Bittner also lives in his own little world behind the drum kit, but that’s easily forgiven seeing as the man hits the skins like a relentless machine throughout the entirety of the band’s set. He is literally a flurry of arms and legs and expends so much energy during each song that he has to spend each break sucking wind, chugging water and catching his breath. In fact, at one point during tonight’s show, the drummer broke something on his kit, prompting Fair to comment, "He hits the damn things so hard" that he’s always breaking something.

Shadows Fall gave their small, yet faithful audience exactly what they came to see tonight at Sonar…a quality metal show full of impressive guitar wizardry, gut rattling bass, pummeling drums and enough screams and growls to scare away the neighbors. This is a band that loves heavy music, loves being a part of the scene revolving around heavy music and does everything possible to garner support for it. So it wasn’t surprising when, towards the end of their set, they paid homage to one of heavy music’s legends as they launched into an incredibly fun cover of Ozzy’s "Bark at the Moon". Fair asked his audience frankly, "if you know the words, sing along…if you don’t, what the fuck are you doing here"?

As the set came to a close, it was obvious that Fair had expended about as much energy as he had to give. He gave a final wave to the crowd, threw the sweaty dreads out of his face one last time and said "thank you…we’re Shadows Fall…I’m gonna go throw up and have a beer" before tossing the mic needlessly to the ground. And with that, one of the hardest working bands in metal left the stage and left me and the rest of the crowd grinning from ear to ear.

Ben Sollee with Carrie Rodriguez

Iota Club and Café
Arlington, VA
January 29th, 2010

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I must say that tonight’s show at Iota was one of the more impressive musical acts I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the course of this project. I realize that I’ve probably made this sort of grandiose statement about more than a few of the artists that I’ve covered here, but that’s irrelevant. If I told you that a guy from Lexington, Kentucky would bring down the house armed with nothing but a cello, would you believe me? Read on…

Carrie Rodriguez
The evening got started with a heartfelt set from the beautiful and talented singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez. Hailing from a music town (Austin, TX) and coming from a music family (her father David Rodriguez is a singer/songwriter and her aunt Eva Garza was a popular Latin artist in the 50’s); it isn’t surprising that Carrie Rodriguez makes a living with a guitar and her remarkable voice. When she took the stage on Friday night, Rodriguez treated the capacity crowd to an energetic blend of folk rock, with just enough twang to keep her inner Hank Williams (that would be Sr., not Jr.) satisfied.

Swapping between her fiddle and both acoustic and electric tenor guitars (meaning they only have 4 strings) and using a very effective boot-stomp technique as her sole source for percussion, Rodriguez played her songs with purpose and passion, mesmerizing the audience all the while. In fact, Carrie was most impressive when singing those songs that obviously had a huge emotional impact on her. For example, before playing “Seven Angels on a Bicycle”, the singer was very solemn when she explained that she had written the song about a close childhood friend who she lost way too soon at the young age of 25. Apparently, her friend had once ridden his bike all the way from Seattle to Austin, hence the title of the aforementioned song.

Later, towards the end of her set, Rodriguez played a cover of a song that her father had written and sent to her via email from Holland where he “went on tour when she was 15 and never came back”. The song was an autobiographical account of a “wandering troubadour”. Hearing these slices of Carrie Rodriguez’ life put to music, it’s evident that she too has become that wandering troubadour from her father’s song. The result of these collective experiences is an amazing singer/songwriter and tonight, those of us in the audience were the lucky beneficiaries.

Ben Sollee
Alright, as impressive as the opening act was at Iota tonight, nothing could top the headliner. Ben Sollee took his seat onstage, picked up his cello and proceeded to pluck, pop, strum, beat and bow the instrument into submission. The results were amazing, and it was immediately obvious that we were watching a master seamlessly demonstrate his craft. To be sure, I know nothing about the cello, but I can honestly say that I saw one of (if not the) most impressive cellists in the world at Iota on Friday night…I know it.

Let me explain this a little better…Sollee picked up his instrument and played it like a guitar, slapped the hollow body of it for percussion, used a bow in the traditional sense, plucked it like an upright bass and basically made it do anything he needed it to do. As if that weren’t enough, Ben managed to lay down some smooth, soothing vocals over the top of each song, creating an astounding mix of folk, bluegrass, R&B and rock. With an ever present smile, the headliner managed to make the cello seem like an obvious choice for any budding rock star…guitar, who needs a guitar? To be fair, Ben did play some impressive guitar during his set, but its that cello that makes his music so noteworthy.

After his inspiring solo set, Ben took a short break before bringing Carrie Rodriguez back onstage with him for an encore set of duets. Ben’s cello and Carrie’s fiddle made for a perfect combination and the duo continued to delight the Iota crowd with their folksy mix of down home, Americana music. By the time Ben closed the show with an improbable, hilarious and yet rousing rendition of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”, every jaw in the place had to be picked up off the floor.

Before I close, let me just say that the Music Binge continues to introduce my ears to new and exciting music from all over the world. As I said at the beginning of this write-up, despite the amazing acts I’ve been lucky enough to see over these past few months, tonight’s performance was on a different level altogether. Do yourself a favor and check out Ben Sollee (and Carrie Rodriguez) if and when they come to your town. Artists like this are few and far between…and besides, don’t you want to know what Jay-Z sounds like on a cello?!?