Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Jesse Malin Comes Home: Velvet Elk Records First Anniversary Holiday Party

Early this morning, as the first annual Velvet Elk Records Holiday Show was winding down, headliner Jesse Malin recontextualized remarks he made earlier in the show (and on many other occasions, in song and elsewhere) and dedicated a rare cover to two people who died suddenly very recently. One of them was Nick Alexander, his former merchandise manager who was killed at Le Bataclan in Paris during an Islamic terrorist attack in November while he was working at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. The other was Lemmy Kilmister, the legend from Hawkwind and Motorhead (and a close friend of several friends of mine) who died on Monday, four days after his seventieth birthday and two days after he was diagnosed with cancer. Jesse fondly remembered his friend and employee. He told the packed Bowery Ballroom not to mourn Lemmy’s death but to celebrate his relatively long life (especially considering his life’s style and pace). He commented that they heard the news about Lemmy after finishing rehearsal Monday night, implying the performance of the next song might be less than stellar. It wasn’t. Harry, Jesse’s assistant, placed lyric sheets onstage, and Jesse, multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz, bass guitarist Catherine Popper, and drummer Randy Schrager launched the perfect tribute to both men: Motorhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew”.

     It has been quite a year for Jesse and company. In addition to releasing two albums and experiencing much else (some of which is summarized above), Jesse and his collaborator Don DiLego launched a new record label. In 2015. (Jesse humorously considered it “the worst decision” they could make.) Both of Jesse’s 2015 albums were released on it. Although they both own (or at least manage) The Bowery Electric nearby and traditionally perform a holiday show there, they decided to hold a first annual holiday show for Velvet Elk Records at the larger Bowery Ballroom nearby (formerly a shoe store, according to lifelong New Yorker Jesse). Jesse headlined; Hollis Brown, Don, and Hidden Cities opened.

     Jesse’s set was similar to the one he played in Philadelphia on December 17, but it was longer, better, and had many more special guests, including members of Hollis Brown. Although he didn’t play on the aforementioned cover, an extra keyboard player not present in Philadelphia, Everett Forman (if I heard Jesse correctly), played during most of Jesse’s set to resonant effect. Also, Jesse’s usual loquacity returned at home. (“A former manager told me not to talk so much.”) Although New York was at least as loud and often as raucous, the slower songs were a little more subtle, and the horns and Derek’s vocals were much more audible and felt. (Don’s extemporaneous set was significantly different from his opening set in Philadelphia and included Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.) I have written about and praised Jesse and his music at length, and I don’t have much to add anymore. His themes of “P.M.A.” (positive mental attitude) and reveling in the joy of being alive were never more acute and emphasized than they were last night and this morning. He has peeled the “P.M.A.” tape off of his black Les Paul, but his attitude has never been more positive. Highlights last night included Ryan Adams, the producer of “The Fine Art of Self Destruction” (Jesse’s first solo album), joining the band with his black Fender Mustang or Jaguar on four songs from the album. The magnificent and exuberant “Oh Sheena”, one of the best songs on the two new albums, was not played in Philadelphia. And the self-described “Mr. Rogers of emocore” entered the audience and exhorted its members to sit down during the reflective “Bar Life” (also not played in Philadelphia), turning the Bowery Ballroom into a kind of secular church. Jesse has frequently commented that he is not religious and that the live music venue is his church. He said it again last night during “Bar Life”. While I would never put words in his mouth, my notes include his remark, “People go to war over this shit.” He was talking about religion. I think he was commenting about his reluctance to embrace religion. His art and his secular sermon early this morning indicate that he understands religion’s destructiveness as well as what is good about it that must be salvaged and secularized.
     If you enjoy or tolerate rock music, do yourself a favor and give Jesse Malin a listen.

Jesse Malin
First Annual Velvet Records Holiday Show
The Bowery Ballroom
New York
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Support: Hollis Brown, Don DiLego, Hidden Cities

She’s So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
The Year That I Was Born
Fall From Grace [? unidentified cover--title from stage setlist]
Mona Lisa 
San Francisco
The Fine Art of Self Destruction [with Ryan Adams]
Downliner [with Ryan Adams]
High Lonesome [with Ryan Adams]
Wendy [with Ryan Adams]
Turn Up the Mains
Whitestone City Limits
She Don’t Love Me Now
Here’s the Situation
Bar Life
Death Star
All the Way from Moscow

Oh Sheena
Society Sally [with Don DiLego]
Winter [with a member of the Counting Crows]
(We Are) The Road Crew
You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray [with Don DiLego]

*The setlist says “Frankie”; I think it’s D Generation’s “Frankie” (and I think D Generation’s Richard Bacchus joined for that one). It might have been a cover of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”.
The disco ball hovers over the disco stomp of "Boots of Immigration".

The neck of Jesse's guitar obscures the visage of Ryan Adams.

Jesse amongst the audience for a solemn discussion during "Bar Life".

"Brooklyn" in Manhattan

"(We Are) The Road Crew"

Don DiLego covers "State Trooper".

Friday, December 18, 2015

Jesse Malin "Turns Up the Mains" in Philadelphia

UPDATE, 12/21/15: Johnny Brenda's is, in fact, featured fairly prominently in Creed, the new film featuring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa.

It was loud and raucous.

     That is the most succinct way to describe Jesse Malin's set at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia last night. Jesse and company were splendid (as usual) but some of the nuances of the slower songs were lost (the only serious criticism, if indeed that's what it is, of the festivities).

     And festivities they were. When he introduced "Turn Up the Mains", perhaps the loudest and most raucous song from either of his two 2015 albums, Jesse noted that the song and song title was about celebrating life and being alive (I hope my memory is accurate and I'm not paraphrasing too much). The chanteur of P.M.A.--positive mental attitude, as he calls it--delivered it again.

     Perhaps the artist knew what he was doing being loud and raucous in Fishtown, the "working class" Philadelphia neighborhood of Rocky Balboa. Perhaps it was a flaw in the sound design. Either way, it wasn't such a flaw at all because the show's dynamics fit the rough-and-tumble neighborhood well. Johnny Brenda's Tavern and its neighborhood look like a scene from Rocky or Rocky Balboa. The small, high stage is on the second floor, and a balcony serves as a third floor. It's an intimate venue and a perfect one for an extended evening of art and entertainment from Jesse Malin and friends.

     Don DiLego, a songwriting and production collaborator of Jesse's, opened the show with a thirty-one minute set that was much more relaxing, even after he brought his band on after the first song. His music is new to me and has a folkish feel to it; a pedal steel backing brought effective texture and lightness. The rest of his band was filled out with keys, a weather-beaten Fender bass, and a four-piece DW kit. Jesse's trumpet player Indofunk Satish made an appearance during Don's set, reinforcing the connection and communion between the two artists. Don noted that one of his musicians was furious because he had a ticket to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he can still see that. (Naturally, "Death Star", which Don co-wrote, was included in Jesse's set.) This was a much more intimate and irreplaceable experience, and it won't be repeated. Don told the audience that his next disc will be released in the spring, and several of its songs were being debuted. He told me after his set that all but two of the songs in his set were from the forthcoming disc; he also told me a bit about working with Jesse. What I heard last night inspired me to purchase his new album when he releases it (I bought one of his older discs). One of the old tunes used the A-Bminor-D chord progression of "Never Say Die", the most optimistic Black Sabbath song, effectively amidst an evening of Jeffersonian forlorn optimism (see my review of Jesse's albums linked above). Fittingly, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence about two miles away.

     The Black Sabbath relevance continued with Dead Heavens, the second opening act, who are sort of a hybrid of Pink Floyd and the aforementioned bone crushers from Birmingham. Their set sounded like a series of Almost Famous outtakes, which means they're better than most of their peers these days. I had never heard of them, but they're apparently attracting a following. Their forty-two minute set included their most recognized song, "Adderall Highway", and songs called "Basic Cable" and "Hyacinth".

     Then the master took the stage at 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time for ninety-nine minutes of high volume. He opened with this year's "She's So Dangerous", which sounds like a quiet song on disc. Nothing was quiet last night. I sympathize with those who didn't wear ear plugs and wonder how their day is going. By song two, 2015's frenetic stomp "Boots of Immigration", the theme of the night was more than established. Jesse was backed by multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz (as usual), bass guitarist Catherine Popper, drummer Randy Schrager, and, intermittently, saxophonist Danny Ray and trumpetist Indofunk Satish. All of them were integral performers on his latest, Outsiders, and Derek and Catherine co-wrote some of its songs. Unfortunately, it was often hard to hear the horns on account of the guitar volume (I couldn't really hear Danny at The Viper Room last August either, but the slower songs were more effectively mellow and felt that night). The explosive band played eleven songs from the two new albums, several old ones, and a seasonal Rolling Stones cover to compliment the Rolling Stones-inspired "Turn Up the Mains". Jesse entered the audience once or twice (as he often does). He didn't talk as much as usual, but he did include one of his humorous "bits", mocking his father's criticisms of some of his more outlandish, spirited, manic, and youthful stage movements ("Jesse, you're in your forties!"). There was no encore, and an impertinent woman took Jesse's Sharpie-penned handwritten setlist that was right in front of me before the lights came up. Fortunately, a stage hand gave me a pen-scrawled setlist from Randy's drums (as usual, Jesse didn't follow it to the letter).

     After the show, I thanked Jesse for his continued art and artistry and requested "In the Summer", my favorite song from Outsiders, for the forthcoming December 29 Bowery Ballroom hometown gig. He said it was a possibility, but he implied they hadn't rehearsed it yet on account of the season. I did ask him about the "Cassavetes bar" reference in the song, and I was pleased to hear that his favorite Cassavetes films overlap mine. His merchandise manager informed me that the vinyl edition of Outsiders has a unique bonus track.

     Overall, it was a rewarding night of music, community, and camaraderie in the Stallone bar. I expect December 29 to be even better.

     Rock music may or may not have been a mistake, and some of the louder and more frenzied moments and forsaken nuances of last night's set were difficult for me to overlook. But rock unquestionably has its empowering moments, art, and artistry, and Jesse Malin, turning up the mains with his P.M.A., is a master of all of the above. Surely the Endarkenment needs such enlightenment.

Jesse Malin
Johnny Brenda's
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Support: Dead Heavens, Don DiLego

She's So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
Mona Lisa
High Lonesome
Death Star
She Don't Love Me Now
Whitestone City Limits
Turn Up the Mains
All the Way from Moscow
The Fine Art of Self-Destruction
Almost Grown
Here's the Situation
Society Sally
You Know It's Dark When Atheists Start to Pray

Indofunk Satish brought out his trumpet during Don DiLego's opening set (apparently to Don's surprise).

Jesse Malin and Catherine Popper

Derek Cruz soloing

The horns

I listed "The Fine Art of Self-Destruction" (not planned and not listed above) as "26" in my notes. It had something to do with Jesse's spoken introduction to the song, but I can't recall the details now.