Livemusic reviews 2019: week 11

My goal for 2019 is to write at least a little something about every show I see, preferably by the next day, we’ll see how it goes. I will compile weekly and post here as-is.

So, in that spirit, this is the tenth of hopefully 52 posts…


Ryley Walker (Zachary Cale opens) @ Union Pool

I missed the first week of Ryley Walker’s March residency at Union Pool which was, by all accounts, a jam-heavy doozie, but you can’t catch ’em all and thankfully Ryley has already made the most of his move to NYC and perhaps is just getting rolling with regular gigging in town. Really glad to see him embrace the scene here already and have a good feeling about the potential for greatness. I’ve already seen him about 4 or 5 times since he’s become a local and if one thing’s for sure, it’s that you really have no idea what you’re going to get, in the best way possible.

If week 1 was a 45 minute single jam, last night was the exact opposite, a more song-centric set. Ryley prepped the crowd kind of joking that he was going to “play the hits” but that was sort of true. He played a lot of his regular songs, the big guns off the last couple releases including “Halfwit in Me” and “Telluride Speed” among others. The wrinkle last night was that he played these songs in a duo, just him on guitar and Ryan Jewell on drums. Apparently Ryan is his go-to drummer these days which based solely on his playing last night is totally fine by me. You might expect the songs to be stripped-down things in the format, a focus on singer-songwriter Ryley Walker, but in fact, there was a bit of noodling and atmospheric instrumental sections. The focus wasn’t so much on the songs as it was on Walker’s song-based guitar playing. The songs he played were some of his more adventurous, proggy (for lack of a better word) compositions and he really dug in. As such, he was able to show off the “full Ryley,” great songs, great singing, superlative guitar playing, excellent interplay with his “band.” The music was really phenomenal.

But when you get the “full Ryley” you get so much more than music. Anyone that follows Walker on Twitter or has been to his shows know that he is one hilarious, bizarre dude. His shtick is not a shtick at all, and while sometimes it feels like he’s forcing the humor a little bit, saying weird shit for the sake of saying weird shit, when he’s on, he’s on. Well, rest assured he was as on as I’ve ever seen him last night. Maybe a third (maybe even half?) of the show was dedicated to his banter, which, well, “banter” maybe doesn’t quite do justice to it. His Twitter persona come to life, imitations of people and bands, ridiculous anecdotes, an amazing story about taking acid and trying to go see King Crimson when he was 18, and quick one-liners, often in response to something someone in the crowd would say… it was too much, but it was just absolutely perfect Ryley.

It’s like a Jeckyll and Hyde thing, his music has a very serious feel, it’s weighty, there’s a lot of there in there, but it’s in direct opposition to the goofy dude blathering on in between songs. Just the kind of thing I could go see week in and week out and probably never ever tire of. Not sure if I’ll be able to catch any more of the Union Pool shows, but I’m not too worried, he’ll be playing again and again in town, sometimes freeform jamming, sometimes doing some weirdo experimental stuff, sometimes playing straight “Ryley Walker” sets with his band, sometimes blowing your mind with gorgeous acoustic guitar picking, but always, always worth checking out.

He closed the show with a bustout of Primrose Green, a song he acknowledged he hadn’t played in a while, but left unsaid was his comments in interviews recently about how much he hated that album. He did say something about the cover photo for the record and how he took himself too seriously back then, but it was good to see him revisit that song/album that turned me and so many others onto Ryley in the first place. He fucking nailed it, a perfect close out to an excellent set of music.

The opener was Zachary Cale who in some ironic twist strongly reminded me of Cass McCombs. His songs were great, he had a nice voice and his guitar playing was rather hypnotic, the kind of thing when you’re watching his fingers and hear the music coming out and somehow the two things don’t match up right. Made me dizzy in a good way. Would definitely check him out again. A great match for the set Ryley played.

Subtonics @ Letlove Inn

As good as the Ryley Walker show was, we still had a little petrol left in the old livemusic tank, so we headed to not-too-far-out-of-the-way Astoria and the Letlove Inn where the Subtonics were just about to start their final set of the night in their Tuesday residency. This is one of the better NYC residencies for its kind of out of the way location, somewhat stable/somewhat rotating cast of musicians, smallish crowd on a weeknight with some people clearly there for the music and some people clearly there in spite of it, and, of course, the music is top notch.

The principals of the band are the guitarist Costas Baltazanis and the sax/flute player and maybe the drummer is regular. Last night there was a keyboard player and a second sax player who seemed to be sitting in for at least the set we were there for. Costas is one of those underrated/unknown guitar players in the city who would probably be the best musician in about 95% of the rest of the country. His style, particularly last night, combines elements of Jimmy Herring and Eric Krasno, which isn’t to say he’s necessarily as good as those guys are (but not to say he isn’t either), but he is very deft at mixing a subtle groove while easily getting out there in a hurry when necessary. Following his lead, the set last night was both a serious late night headtrip as well as a dance-if-you-want groove-out. The second tune they played was a headspinner, keys and drums and guitar all kind of doing their own thing and yet somehow locked into each other, different colored Legos snapped together to create something wild and awesome, out of the weird creativity of a child. We stayed for about 40 minutes worth and it really is a perfect late night music, my mind wandered sleepily and then snapped to attention as certain neurons in my brain fired up trying to follow a certain groove or fusion-freak-out. If you’re looking for something on a Tuesday night and are feeling Queens-adventurous, there’s probably no better option than the Subtonics @ Letlove Inn, especially considering the couple-bucks-in-the-hat-if-it-suits-you price of admission, copious parking on the block, plenty of room in the friendly confines of the bar and decent beers on tap. Check it out!


livemusic in New Orleans

I go on a few work trips every year, actually more now than I used to, and naturally, I always try to hit a show or two when I’m visiting another city. Lots of fun exploring the scenes in other towns and you get a good feel for how much of a “livemusic city” each place is by merely looking at your options. This week I spent three nights in New Orleans and the comparison to other cities I’ve visited in the past few years is, to say the least, stark. For a random Wednesday in March there was a plateful of show options stretching from early evening to late at night. Every knows NOLA is a great music town, but if you weren’t sure, just looking at the listings, it’s quite obvious. And I might add, it is easy to find out what’s going on down there, multiple websites and people aggregating concerts going on on any given night. This is non-trivial, during my last visit to Boston, it was almost impossible to find out what was going on and the shows I ended up going to weren’t really listed anywhere. For a visitor from out of town, this is kind of a big deal.

So, yeah, New Orleans is a no-doubter Tier 1 livemusic town, but I don’t think I really appreciated to what extent that was true until this past week. I had visited several times, but every time I’ve gone down there it was either for Jazzfest or Widespread Panic Halloween shows, which gave me a limited/perhaps-warped view of what the day-to-day scene is like down there. I’d never just visited and walked around town. What struck me immediately is how much livemusic is basically the culture in NOLA, it’s everywhere, it’s immersive. Walk out of the hotel to meet your colleagues for a drink and there’s a second line with a marching band blaring, walk into a cocktail bar and there’s a band playing, every third street corner has someone playing music with a bucket looking for money, walk into the hotel lobby the next day, there’s a woman singing backed by a band, jazz band in the restaurant, stumble back to hotel at 1:30am an and a guy is walking down the middle of the street blaring a saxophone etc. etc. Mind you, this was on nondescript weeknights in March(!?!). If you don’t like to listen to music being played live, you’re best not going to New Orleans, because it is all but unavoidable. Needless to say, I loved it. Also, perhaps worth noting, is that it’s all pretty damn great! Even the two random dudes playing on the street corner, a guitarist and a sax player who looked like they had no business playing music together, sounded good. I was most fascinated with a guy playing solo violin in Jackson Square Saturday morning, playing in a pitch-perfect Andrew Bird style with loops and plucks, but performing his own original instrumental music.

The week was very busy workwise and I was with a group of people and so I didn’t have a lot of time to get away, but I did find myself Wednesday evening with one colleague and he was game to check out a show. We attempted the late set at Preservation Hall, but the line was pretty long and we didn’t have the energy to deal with that, so we headed to Frenchman and I suggested Walter Wolfman Washington. Before my trip I had heard that he either “still gots it!” or “kind of snoozy” and let me just tell you that it was snooooooooozzzzzy. Yikes. I’ve seen Washington a couple times in NOLA/Jazzfest/NYC, but it’s been a long while and while my memories are of some sweet, gritty, high-energy New Orleans guitar, this was some tepid, smooth jazz that didn’t hold my attention for more than a few songs. Oof. We stayed for a beer and then ended up walking into the Apple Barrel for a band that I don’t know the name of featuring a few musicians I probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup, but were much, much better. Great mix of originals and covers (from Stormy Monday to Hound Dog to I Wish), bassist doing lead vocals and a shreddy Stevie-Ray-wannabe on guitar. Perfect fit for the tiny space and cold bottled beer. That was fun. Sadly didn’t make it out to anything else, but did eat and drink pretty well and will be back next year for a longer visit. It had been like 15+ years since I’d last been to New Orleans, but I think this random week visit has me interested in picking another non-holiday to just go down and enjoy the immersive musical steady state of the city.


Nels Cline/Chris Lightcap Duo @ Rivergigs

Nels Cline and Chris Lightcap in someone’s apartment? To think a 4-hour flight delay almost forced me to miss this show! Holy crap, that would’ve sucked, definitely in my top 10 for the year so far…

Made it to this very-upper-Manhattan apartment later than I’d hoped, but enough time to relax and enjoy the vibe. I’d been to a couple “living room shows” before and they are pretty great. Sort of a potluck energy, random food on a table, crammed into someone’s living space and a very homey feel. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what a Riverside Dr. apartment of a couple that could convince musicians of the Cline/Lightcap variety to play in their domicile, but it was cozy and warm and lived-in, could easily have been the home of any of my friends. Not too big, not to small, very relaxed… perfect for this “gig.” They do them regularly at their place and I’d definitely go back to see pretty much anything. The hosts were superfriendly and totally accommodating when I showed up with my suitcase straight from the airport.

Before they started playing, the quality of the music was almost a secondary consideration, especially after the long day of travel I’d just endured. But once the crowd — about 50 people ranging from a couple middle-school-aged kids to some more senior musiclovers — settled in, sitting on couches or folding chairs or the floor or standing, in a living room or the hallway or the adjoining kitchen, once we all settled in and Lightcap and Cline took their spot and started playing, well, at that moment the apartment transformed into something much more than an apartment. It became both an intimate jazz club and a salon from the Enlightenment for the exchange of ideas and a sort of magical alternate reality. Magic, yes, that’s what it was. Lightcap played upright bass and Cline was on a lightly-amplified electric guitar with an almost acoustic-guitar sound (gear nerds can let me know what he was playing), a guitar that seemed to be built to be played by Nels Cline in an apartment in upper Manhattan. It was the most uptown I think I’d seen music played before and that was also how I felt about the tone and sound coming out of Nels’s guitar, it was very uptown, rich, gorgeous, perfect, his tone alone a work of art to be hung on the wall. Lightcap and Cline have great chemistry. Not the kind of mindreader chemistry that you sometimes see shared between two musicians, but more the easygoing admiration of two musicians who just really like to play with each other. I was even more thankful that I was able to make that Superette show at Littlefield a couple weekends ago, this was like the stripped-down duo version of that show, that vibe. The music — some originals, some covers — was absolutely stunning. They started with a long introduction that could have been its own song, breathtaking. The songs were jazzy but transcended the genre. There was a very ECM vibe to the sound, they even did a Carla Bley song that was covered by Bobo Stenson/Jan Garabek on an ECM release (which prompted the funniest banter from Nels who more or less went through every liner-note detail of the album and then joked he wasn’t sure who had done the lettering on the cover art or something like that). As transportive as the music was, you were always aware you were in an apartment, in someone’s home, and I really dug that energy. Sirens blared outside at one moment, every once in a while when the thermostat called for some heat in the room you could hear the hot water start to flow through pipes int the wall, it got warm and the host opened a window which brought the cool outside air inside, just on the verge of being uncomfortably cold, but somehow a perfect heightening of the senses. Between the sounds and the temperature and the food on the table next to me, grabbing bits of fruit or cheese or chocolate during the show, it was a full-sensory thing. Gloriously show. What a unique experience, what an experience period. The show was a happening of the highest order, one of the greatest guitarist in the world drinking beer in the same kitchen you’re hanging out in and then bending the entire island of Manhattan around his guitar, wrapping the city itself around those plucked strings… to see those strings vibrate at such close proximity by a guy sitting in the corner of a living room, affably chatting between songs and then playing this music from another dimension. Make no mistake this was peak Nels. Lightcap was just as stellar, a perfect foil, channeling Gary Peacock in all his peak ECM-ness, but Nels fucking Cline was as good as I’ve seen him, even as he was loose and probably made a handful of slip-ups and missed notes… he joked about being unfocused after looking at his cell phone, but he did this after an absolutely gnarly solo. I think he was so great because of this looseness, because it was somewhere in between… Nels has all those axes, that free-for-all weirdness in one direction, that deepjam improv in another, straight American-rock guitar in another and too-beautiful-it-hurts in yet another and so on and so on and last night he somehow found the exact center of all of that multidimensional space, the origin, if you will. Damn, that’s a sweet spot, for sure.

A great night.