10:16 am Nov. 30, 2011
A city where jazz musicians play next door to punk shows, unknown MCs open for superstar DJs, and winsome balladeers play alongside performance artists deserves a concert roundup where they all get to do the same. These are the streets of your town.
Anyone looking to contrast the early era of indie rock with what's popular in the increasingly polite genre today would do well to look upon the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Nov. 29, Maxwell's). The band became beloved in the '90s by dismantling blues, garage, and R&B and creating odd, unwieldy monsters from the broken pieces. You can get a quick glimpse of their entire ethos in "Afro," the first song on their first proper record: A chicken-fried blues lick roars to life, collapses, roars to life again, sputters out, then gives it one last try, dragging the entire song into a slow-simmering cissy strut while Spencer coos unintelligible come-ons over top. If their recent live shows are any indication, they've lost none of that potency. Spencer oozes both sex and charisma live, the rare rock frontman who actually looks more threatening now than he did in the band's prime. The setlist contains no new material, but that's of little consequence. A full 20 years since its inception, the Blues Explosion remain an anomaly—the elder statesmen who can give up-and-comers a thrashing.
Though she's often cited for her skill as a lyricst, Suzanne Vega (Nov. 29-30, Joe’s Pub) rarely gets the credit she deserves for her sonic restlessness. Perhaps taking cues from the British duo DNA's percolating remix of her hit "Tom's Diner," Vega figured out ways to make her folk songs groove. Her 1992 album 99.9 F was a stubborn little oddity, a nasty, snapping fusion of brittle folk and grinding industrial music. Follow-up Nine Objects of Desire softened the attack somewhat, but still found room for moseying bossa nova and chiaroscuro chamber pop. Over the past few years, she's turned back to concision, performing and releasing stripped-down, acoustic recordings of songs from across her catalog as part of a series she's dubbed Close-Up. But even in these sparer settings, Vega's songs are still peculiar; they curl and press like kept secrets.
At a time when nearly every broken-up band from the past two decades has broadcast its reformation through every available media outlet, the Hot Snakes reunion happened quietly (Dec. 1, The Bell House). This is more than a little ironic: over a six-year run starting 1999, very little about the band was quiet. The group fused the white-hot ire of hardcore with the ragged tunefulness of such punk bands as the Wipers, the Saints, and the Weirdos. Earlier this year, they announced just three stateside performances, meaning this pair of area shows—one in New York at the Bell House and one in New Jersey at Maxwells—are the only remaining opportunities to see them before they head to Europe for the better part of next month. Whether they'll return remains to be seen—frontmen Jon Reis and Rick Froberg are busy with their new bands, The Night Marchers and Obits respectively. It's best to think of them as a flash fire, striking fast and furious and leaving a trail of scorched earth in their wake.
Last week, the Roots caught no small amount of flak for what essentially amounted to an in-joke for music dorks: playing an instrumental version of "Lyin' Ass Bitch" by the L.A. punk band Fishbone as entrance music for Michelle Bachmann on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where they serve as the house band. Whether the joke was a gauche one is up for debate (both the show and its network issued an apology); but in both concept and execution it reflected the group's personality—rewarding those whose love for and knowledge of music is as deep and fervent as their own with a devious little wink. That obsession with detail has played out most clearly over the group's 11 full-length albums, where they routinely pepper limber, acrobatic playing with quotes from songs across drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's notoriously intimidating record collection. Their latest album Undun might be their most ambitious to date. It tells the story of Redford Stephens, a troubled Philadelphia teenager who drifts slowly from bad circumstance to poor choices and, ultimately, to tragedy. Slyly though, the narrative unspools in reverse, making the final-act arrival at a turbulent but happy childhood that much more heartrending. There is a tendency to think of them as little more than a crack team of musical hired guns, but when it comes to album-making, The Roots are master craftsmen, as fascinated by the possibilities of sound and as prone to pushing the limits of genre convention as Radiohead or Wilco. This start-to-finish live performance of Undun (Nov. 29-30, Dec. 6, Highline Ballroom) affords the rare opportunity to see both strengths on display.
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