Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Sharrard with Connor Kennedy, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 1/20/17

Scott Sharrard
Last Friday, at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, guitar ace Scott Sharrard and a group of musical cohorts marked the occasion of the Presidential Inauguration with a scorching performance of Pink Floyd's classic album, Animals.  By his side was guitarist Connor Kennedy, with whom Sharrard previously played this material at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and who, additionally, handled much of the vocals. The band also included friends and frequent collaborators including Scott's bandmate in Gregg Allman & Friends, Brett Bass on bass, along with Eric Finland on keyboards, Fab Faux drummer Rich Pagano, erstwhile Ratdog sax player, Kenny Brooks, and Broadway performer, Joshua Kobak, providing additional vocals and spoken word interludes. Together, they blazed through the entirety of Floyd's scathing work of progressive rock socio-political criticism, making no bones about where they stood in regards to the events of the day.

The band bookended the set with other memorable Floyd pieces which highlighted the evening's theme. Opening  with "Us and Them" from Dark Side of the Moon, the show began on an apocalyptic note as the band vamped behind Kobak while he recited the classic Robert Frost poem, "Fire and Ice," in which the author asks himself in which of these two will the world end, and whether it will be brought about through passion or hatred. Segueing into the song, the sonic tone of the evening was firmly established. The dynamics inherent in the original material were even more emphasized in this intimate setting as the band glided between delicate passages and dramatic bursts of incredible power and flesh-melting volume.

The set ender, "Comfortably Numb" from The Wall, arguably one of Pink Floyd's most well known songs and a crowd-pleaser, provided a cathartic conclusion, and the audience was encouraged to sing along. The song, originally about a jaded rock star, took on a new meaning in the context of this performance, and contributed to the theme of the evening.

Sharrard and Kennedy
The event was organized as a benefit for ProPublica, a New York based, public interest oriented, non-profit newsroom. Sharrard was intent that the evening was to be "a celebration of freedom of speech and transparency in media that is vital for our collective survival." The band pulled no punches, musically or politically, but in the end, the feeling in the room was of unity and not anger. And though Roger Waters'  caustic lyrics on Animals seem even more relevant today, I felt that the real theme of the evening was summed up by the first and last songs, and that we must recognize and heal the divisions between us, that we must be vigilant and aware, and not allow ourselves the luxury of simply becoming "Comfortably Numb."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Brand X at Iridium, NYC 1/3/17

Founding members John Goodsall and Percy Jones
"Thanks for having us back... Especially after last time."

Sometimes it's tough to figure out English humor. The "last time" to which John Goodsall, founding guitarist of the classic progressive/fusion band, Brand X, was referring was the band's appearance in October at New York's Iridium jazz club, their first gigs in the city in over a decade. Goodsall's self-effacing jibe notwithstanding, the hotly anticipated reunion shows went off brilliantly, with the band proving that they were still a powerful force, musically: Tight, yet free, aggressive, yet ethereal. Brand X was back.

It was the initial run of shows with this new line-up, which featured Goodsall and co-founder Percy Jones on bass, along with Kenwood Dennard on drums, who had done a stint with the band in the late 70s (after the previous drummer, Phil Collins, went back to his day job in Genesis), and two new members, Chris Clark on keyboards, and Scott Weinberger on percussion. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of their live LP, Livestock, the set lists of those shows had centered around material on that album and their previous studio releases: 1976's Unorthodox Behaviour, and 1977's Moroccan Roll. The reconstituted  band executed the material admirably, and the music felt energetic and fresh.

Percy Jones
However, the band that returned to the Iridium stage last Tuesday was even more confident, more cohesive. It was clear from the start that the band was gelling even more than they had in October, and the unique skills and personalities of the new members were becoming more evident. "We're a real band," Goodsall announced, and if the shows last fall had a feeling of testing the waters, on this evening the band's future seemed brighter and more certain.

Still largely basing their set around Livestock era material, in the past several months, the band began expanding their repertoire, opening this show with "The Poke," from their 1978 Masques album (the first time with this current band, I'm told), and later including a playfully funky instrumental cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Also, the band continued to assert its musical identity by playing the older material based not on how it had been done before, but based on the styles of the current members. The differences were sometimes subtle, drastic at others, but always noticeable.

Scott Weinberger 
This band's reading of "Euthanasia Waltz" was more driving than its original recorded version, with drummer Kenwood Dennard creating a more propulsive groove while percussionist Scott Weinberger played on top and in between, alternately adding elegant splashes of color and jarring counterattacks. Weinberger's unique percussion rig, self-constructed of numerous disparate pieces, including an actual mounted garbage can lid, was sight to see, an ingenious construction, and he used it to great effect.

Meanwhile, "Born Ugly," from the band's debut album Unorthodox Behaviour had been taken down in tempo, with Dennard burrowing in deep alongside Jones' bass which churned out deep, gurgling, bubbling tones to create a raunchy, swampy funk that gouged right into the gut. All the while, Chris Clark's piano dexterously danced on top, weaving the melody in unison with Goodsall's guitar.

Kenwood Dennard
The band pulled out the stops on the concluding song of their first set, "Nuclear Burn." The hyper-
kinetic performance dazzled listeners with its frenetic pace and the band's ability to start and stop on a dime. Did I say a dime? I meant a goddamned ha'penny (look it up). Meanwhile, Dennard was playing with such head-shaking intensity, that his plastic New Years Eve prop hat fell off his head.

Jones opened the second set with a bass solo that exhibited his dazzling technique and his capacity to generate atmospheres. Improvising over a loop that evoked a digital didgeridoo, his bass work ebbed and flowed, harshly percussive one moment, lyrical and harmonically dense the next.

Dennard joined in with Jones and the two set off on a high energy, be-bop fueled duet , before the rest of the band came in to play "Nightmare Patrol," the opening track on Livestock. Co-written by Dennard, he displayed here an energetic, flamboyant showmanship that would appear distasteful on a lesser musician. As it stands, though, his pure, uncut chops stand above all else, and the visual element of his performance is simply icing on the cake.

Chris Clark with Jones, Goodsall, and Dennard
New member Chris Clark, on the other hand, showed himself to be the complete opposite, visually. In contrast with the with the cliché of the prog rock keyboardist, instead of hunching behind a giant array of keyboards, he sits high above his noticeably scaled back rig (after all, you can do more with far less these days)  perfectly postured, poignantly free of eccentricity while his interprets the songs with a dexterous ease (his reserved onstage demeanor is fitting given his time John Entwistle's solo band). His solo piano interpretation of "...Maybe I'll Lend You Mine after All" from Moroccan Roll, was a stand-out performance, working dazzling improvisations into the haunting, simple melody.

They concluded their set with "...And So to F...," arguably the band's best known song (mostly due to the fact that former drummer Phil Collins frequently would include it in his shows when he went solo). A good old fashioned rave-up, or at least the closest thing you'll find in the prog/fusion world, the high energy workout had the crowd enthused and chanting along with its wordless chorus.

After the band bid the crowd good night, the more astute members of the audience not only knew that there had to be an encore, but knew exactly what it would be. There was just a feeling like something was missing, like there was unfinished business. Sure enough, the band returned to the stage and broke into "Malaga Virgen." Originally featured on Moroccan Roll featuring Collins on drums, Dennard's version on the Livestock album reinvented the track with a mind drilling beat which he was more than ready, willing, and able to recreate here. For a band that refuses to be pigeonholed, "Malaga Virgen" does a great job of encompassing their style and strengths. At times propulsive and at others atmospheric and then somehow managing to be both at the same time, it features a delicate, tickling, crystalline melody dancing over an intense groove with sudden changes of mood and vector.

John Goodsall
In all, it was another excellent show by band that is continuing to coalesce. In retrospect, I think it was a bit strange that they ended their set with "...And So to F... " and encored with "Malaga Virgen." It was a little like having crème brûlée for dinner and a forty ounce porterhouse for dessert. But at the end of the day I'm always glad to see a band changing it up. They're trying out new things, rediscovering instead of rehashing, continuing to explore. After the show, Jones told me that they are going to continue to expand their set lists, both through further digging into the back catalog as well as writing new material for this current band. That, of course is welcome news indeed.

In short, Brand X came back, they delivered, and they showed that they still have more to deliver.

Photos by Jeremy Gordon