(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

It’d be difficult to guess just from the stage setup who you were seeing. With the sprawling Persian rug, two holstered guitars and the stool at center stage, it looked like the setting of MTV Unplugged. On appearances, you wouldn’t immediately suspect this to be the playpen for Frank Ocean: R&B wunderkind, Odd Future crew member and, most recently cultural sensation. But, it also makes sense. Since his arrival by way of the debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean has separated himself from the pop pack by infusing lyrical sincerity, crafty songwriting and infectious personality into his music. So creating an intimate setting for the most highly sought after concert in New York City in some time felt like a clever personal touch, unexpectedly expected.

Frankophiles, the legion of fans who sang aloud with every song and pointed their iPhones toward the stage to record every moment of the show, accounted for the vocal majority of the sold-out crowd last night at Terminal 5. Before Ocean took to the stage, they chanted,
“Franky, Franky,” in a familiar sort of way. And from his quiet melodic opener of “Summer Remains” to the not-your-average-10-minute-single “Pyramids,” he wooed the floors of people individually and collectively. The immediate impact of his masterful debut album, Channel Orange, was displayed as fans sang along to most of the varied set list. He gave a vocal performance that made one hour feel like an entire night: chanting to “Super Rich Kids,” emoting on a tweaked version of “American Wedding” and mystifying with “Bad Religion.” It affirmed that Frank Ocean has the talent for stardom and the vision for greatness.


(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

It’s obvious, but I’ll write it anyway: What I hear is not what you hear. My ears are different than yours. Recently, I’ve felt a small pressurized balloon squeeze against my right cochlea. I pinch my nose and blow out through my ears to clear the tubes. I get a pop, crackle and then nothing. It stays the same. So, what I’m about to tell you is what I heard.

Live, Lotus Plaza is dense. It doesn’t necessarily follow from the latest album, Spooky Action at a Distance. On it, Lockett Pundt, guitarist for Deerhunter and project manager of Lotus Plaza, balances vocal melodies and guitar work. The result is a somewhat heavy, often breezy set of songs, kissing cousins with Real Estate’s surf-rock update. That was not so much the case live. From the wailing guitar bends on show-opener “White Galactic One” onward, the four-man stage crew supporting Lotus Plaza buried Pundt’s vocals in a downpour of instrumentation. Gone was the light touch that gave Spooky Action at a Distance a summer-soaked feel—in its place was a broad sonic singularity.

A blanket of sound covered the audience by the time the band got to “Strangers.” I felt reverberations at the edge of my skin and on the back of my head. And while a machine-gun cadence of drums periodically peaked out of the mix, the music echoed the lighting: a soft red glow, which left the room mostly dark but with a hint of visibility. My mind wandered to visions of fields and ocean, which seemed like the point. If shoegaze, a working title for Lotus Plaza’s brand of music, is taken literally, you look down and get lost in your thoughts and the floor. You’re locked into a rhythm, so your head starts to bob. It is loud, hypnotic music for daydreamers. And it sounded good to me.


(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

The guys in Unknown Mortal Orchestra aren’t a chatty bunch: They said more on Twitter before the show than during their set last night at Mercury Lounge. Save for a couple “thanks” and a promo for another show, it was all business. And for UMO, business is orienting dense psychedelic rock for an authentic live experience—recreating the highly effected sounds on their first and only album, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It takes work, but they’ve intently dedicated themselves to the task.

Lead singer Ruban Nielson is at the center of the three-piece band. His demos spawned UMO. And, live, his noise making is noticeably the most captivating element. Although it was nearly impossible to parse his actual singing voice from swaths of feedback and echo, it was fun to get lost in the sound. The lyrics usually complemented the melody, so distinguishing the verses to “Ffunny Ffrends” wasn’t necessary to enjoy the song’s giddy feeling. It was also in the moments when things felt like they’d fall apart—the drums and bass slipping in and out of time signature on “Strangers Are Strange” and “Thought Ballune”—when the band seemed most comfortable.

For the most part, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s songs hit somewhere in between Beatles psychedelia and Hendrix rock. It is the music of a bygone era, but classic-rock revivalism is on the rise. As witnessed by the attendance of Joseph D’Agostino and Jonny Rogoff, the lead singer of Cymbals Eat Guitars and the drummer for Yuck, respectively. They, too, came to support the community: one that speaks quietly and carries loud guitars.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Ross | jeremypross.com


(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Nick Lowe strode across stage. At 63, he looks different than his younger self: thick-frame glasses and sculpted white hair give him an older, cartoonish appearance in comparison to his long-hair, bug-eyed days of the ’70s and ’80s. He is an acoustic-guitar man now with a classic sunburst model slung over his shoulder from beginning to end. And last night at Town Hall, it began with “Stoplight Roses,” a song from the new record, The Old Magic, that Lowe is keen to promote. “Quality entertainment is what we’re here to bring,” said Lowe. His pitch included mentioning being “on the radio and indeed the television” and optimistically stating, “record sales are up” since the start of the tour. It is delivered with a wink and a nod—the way Lowe usually tosses off subtle humor and pastiche candor.

But, aside from his joking, Lowe looked particularly pleased and suited for the Town Hall stage. He was quick to note the iconic significance of the venue and, with an acknowledging sweep of his hand, often took in the rows and tiers of audience members. It was a seasoned showman move of which he has many: big smiles, waves and witty banter. He was attentive to the crowd the way a talented dinner-party host makes everyone feel welcome. And mixing in “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” with new songs, he managed expectations, giving fans what they wanted as well as what they might like. For Lowe, it’s been a long musical journey, but there are no signs of stopping. As long as stages will have him, he aims to perform.

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

SBTRKT isn’t interested in the question of identity. He avoids it all together. A semicircular tribal mask covers the top half of his face, protruding forward. It shifts in relation to the movements of his head. It’s a layer of protection, although seemingly unnecessary. The name is actually the alias of UK producer Aaron Jerome. He explained last night at Webster Hall that the mask and the anonymity of the pseudonym are used because “I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself.” Which is what he did, and in the process proved that SBTRKT belongs in the company of electronic music’s most acclaimed artists.

The music speaks with immediacy, but it’s not as easily categorized. On his eponymously titled debut, the songs touch on a number of genres: electronic, dubstep, soul and house. But when played live, the distinctions are meaningless. With the assistance of frequent collaborator Sampha, the two splayed the album onto the crowd. Jerome was constantly in motion—programming, adjusting and, presumably, improvising sections of electronic layers. He also added live drumming. Snare hits skittered across a broad pond of bass. Sampha’s voice, somewhere between James Blake’s without the puberty cracks and Antony’s without the pomp, wailed from below the depths. It felt natural until you realized that each sound filtered through many 1’s and 0’s and heavy amplification.

But the strength of the performance was in the immediacy of the arrangements. From show and album opener “Heatwave” to Sampha’s strong offerings of “Something Goes Right” and “Trials of the Past,” each song felt denser while remaining as approachable and fundamentally the same. Sampha rhetorically asked, “What would you like to hear?” midway through the set. The crowd responded in full, with multiple answers leading to auditory mush. The pair ended up playing a remix of “Wildfire” featuring Drake. This seemed to be the right answer. But SBTRKT’s choices, questionable as they may be, all seem to be the right answer, for himself and for his fans.

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert is the self-proclaimed inventor of reggae. As the story goes, his 1968 recording of “Do the Reggay” is among the first songs to use the word and classify the style of music. But regardless of whether he is the genre’s rightful originator, he is certainly one of its oldest and most successful practitioners. At 66, Hibbert is still creating and performing to critical acclaim and large audiences. And on Sunday night at Brooklyn Bowl, Toots and the Maytalsplayed with relentless energy to a sold-out crowd.

The set opened with Hibbert’s widely known “Pressure Drop.” In the years since appearing on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, the song continues to stay in the public consciousness, with second life from covers by the Clash and other artists. For this show, the band’s straight-up midtempo performance established a solid foundation to build on. And as the group sped up and extended such hits as “Funky Kingston” and a “Louie Louie” cover, the crowd willingly followed suit, dancing and yelling with each call and response.

Throughout the show Hibbert stayed attentive to the band and the audience. “I have a big voice,” he told all, supporting the claim for close to two hours, closing with the semi-autobiographical crowd-favorite “54-46 (That’s My Number).” At the “Give it to me” part, Hibbert improvised and asked the crowd to “Give it to me 13 times.” After approximately thirteen responses of “Hey,” he responded with genuine surprise, “No one has ever done that,” he said. But as long as Toots Hibbert continues to perform, this record is sure to be broken: If he gives it to us, we’ll give it to him.

Photos courtesy of JC McIlwaine | jcmcilwaine.com

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

There are two types of bands, those that focus on recording and those that focus on live shows. It is the rare exception when both are an active priority, but Dr. Dog appears to strive for overall excellence. Last month the band released its sixth album, Be the Void. As is the case with previous discs, the consistent output contains kernels of pop brilliance: rock that extends the Beatles’ signature sound. The next step was to test the material on the road, and on Friday night, Dr. Dog stopped at Terminal 5 to work out new songs and revisit old ones in front of a sold-out crowd.

The set’s first two songs mirrored the new album’s first two, “Lonesome” and “That Old Black Hole.” Apropos of the band’s established formula, bassist Toby Leaman sang the first song while lead guitarist Scott McMicken sang the second. The trade off and interplay between vocalists is one of Dr. Dog’s more unique and compelling aspects. Leaman’s style is gruff and labored. He chugs through songs with physicality and maximum effort. Contrastingly, McMicken’s voice is brittle yet sweet. During a jubilant performance of “Shadow People,” the crowd pushed with its collective weight to hold up his relentless plea, “Where did all the shadow people go?”

The shadow people are unaccounted for, but the people who came on Friday night made themselves known. Many of those in attendance held on to secret (and not so secret) desires for favorite songs like a hopeful lottery-ticket holder. And the encore performance of “Heart It Races” looked to be a winner for many. But Dr. Dog possesses a deep catalog and most songs seemed to connect with the diverse audience.

Photos courtesy of Ahron R. Foster | ahronfoster.com