Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with the Black Keys, Justice, Marianne Faithfull, and more
If you had claimed publicly, in 2004, that the scruffy, unpolished, blues-revering Ohio duo The Black Keys (Mar. 12, Madison Square Garden) would one day end up on stage at Madison Square Garden, the question you would have faced in response would be, "Who will they be opening for?"
There was nothing, back at the start, about Dan Auerbach or Patrick Carney that seemed ready for mass consumption—not the greasy licks they slathered all over the gutbucket blues numbers on albums like Rubber Factory, not their ungainly appearance, not their steadfast refusal to construct a chorus. And yet, somewhere in the last five years, they started taking cues from another band of blues-loving rockers: Led Zeppelin. The songs on last year's El Camino and their 2010 breakthrough Brothers felt sharper and more sculpted, offsetting grimy guitars with grand, gospely choruses. Normally, this kind of upward mobility cause faithful fans to cry "sellout," but by focusing their windstorm of riffs, the Black Keys have actually become tighter. It's a simple principle: bright hooks are nothing to be feared. Sooner or later, every tough-talking rock band needs to knuckle down and write their "D'yer Maker."
Much as the Black Keys did during the early '00s, Lee Fields (Mar. 17, Music Hall of Williamsburg) has been toiling away for years in relative obscurity. Though he issued a series of singles in the late '60s and early '70s that are revered by R&B fans, greater success eluded him. He was rediscovered in the '90s by Daptone cofounder Gabriel Roth, and has released a series of scorching soul albums on the California label Truth & Soul. His latest, Faithful Man is a typical Fields slow-burner. Focused primarily on faith—of both the romantic and the spiritual kind—each song builds a smoky layer of guitar and horns that Fields promptly clears with his impassioned wailing.
For a different shade of soul, there's the Eddie Palmieri 75th Birthday Party (Mar. 13, the Blue Note) arguably one of the most exuberant and physical 75th birthday celebrations of all time. And with good reason: Palmieri was one of the pioneers of Latin jazz, developing a style that was as lively and potent as it was fully kinetic. Palmieri took a cockeyed approach to orchestration, gilding percolating Latin rhythms with trombones and flutes. His 1970 stunner Harlem River Drive is as essential an R&B text as Maggot Brain or What's Goin' On?, a beautiful, absorbing hybrid of salsa and soul. You can hear decades of music history in each note.
American music is similarly condensed and refracted in the songs of Megafaun (Mar. 17, Highline Ballroom) and EMA (Mar. 16, Music Hall of Williamsburg). Both operate from familiar bases—Megafaun from folk and country, EMA—at least tangentially—from the blues. But both are more interested in reconfiguring than paying homage. On their stellar, self-titled 2011 album, Megafaun inlaid earthy country with sparkling electronics, calling to mind Wilco at their most obstinate. EMA takes a more aggressive approach. Though she nods toward the brittle textures of early blues (her harrowing standout "California" cribs its most poignant lines form Bo Diddley), she sears the ends of her songs with scorching blasts of white noise. The harrowing "Butterfly Knife" opens like inverted gospel, EMA—shorthand for Erika M. Anderson—moaning an eerie narrative of a self-mutilating teenager like a 21st Century Howlin' Wolf.
In that way, she's carrying on the legacy of Marianne Faithfull (Mar. 15-16, City Winery). Faithfull famously began her own career by applying her baleful croon to a series of singles in the 1960s—most notably, a cover of the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By"—before drug addiction derailed her in the '70s. She returned in full force with 1979's synth-laden masterpiece Broken English, and has maintained a modest, respectable career ever since. Last year's Horses & High Heels proved her strange power hadn't ebbed—her cover of The Gutter Twins' "Stations" is instantly unsettling, Faithfull's voice—now loaded with gorgeous cliffs and crags—delivering the lyrics like a witch speaking dark prophecy.
Both The Head and the Heart (Mar. 18, Terminal 5) and New Multitudes (Mar. 14 Webster Hall) take a more straightforward approach to American music. The former—who gained a devoted audience through rigorous touring and passionate word of mouth—deliver rococo folk-inspired songs trussed up with spiraling piano and stacks of harmony, recalling at times the lush music coming out of Laurel Canyon in the '70s. The latter—comprised of Jay Farrar, Yim Yames, Anders Parker, and Wil Johnson—trace their rambling music back further. Though the Americana bona fides of its members are unimpeachable—Farrrar with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, Yames with My Morning Jacket—on this project, they're all collaborators, writing music to accompany a batch of unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. The results, as you may expect, are gentle and pastoral, using their four voices as the locus around which the tender country songs spiral.
The music of the Chicago Underground Duo (Mar. 15, Union Pool) also owes a little something to tradition, but for them, it's the rich legacy of American jazz. Like EMA and Faithfull, their approach to their source material is cockeyed. In their songs, the ornery cornet of Rob Mazurek bleats and corkscrews across Chad Taylor's gloriously haphazard, out-of-time percussion. Squint hard enough, and you can even detect an affinity with noise music, whose patterns and shapes seem to emerge more by accident than design. Mazurek is a tough, fearless player, and his bullheaded phrases charge forward obstinately, even in the duo's more tuneful moments. The songs of Why? and Danielson (Mar. 16, Le Poisson Rouge) may be more concrete in structure, but they also have a playful experimental streak. The former's beautiful 2009 record Eskimo Snow ornamented languid pop melodies with an assortment of twinkling bells and rushing orchestral flourishes while Danielson has seemed to be after nothing less than a wholesale redefinition of pop music. Headed by—and sometimes consisting solely of—Daniel Smith, the group pastes together chords that would normally be at odds and manages to find a strange strand of melody to link them. When they began, Smith would sing in a shrill, yelping falsetto, but they've settled down over the years, proving that even the most obstinate experimentalist can have a sweet tooth for a pretty hook.
The hooks don't get much prettier than those found in the music of the Norwegian group Razika (Mar. 12, Glasslands). Their songs beckon coyly, Marie Amdam's vocal delivery part playful schoolgirl, part heartsick lover. The music that surrounds her spirals out like a pinwheel, limber guitars bouncing between buoyant beats, a perfect serving of cotton candy post-punk dance music.
Squarepusher (Mar. 15, Webster Hall) and Justice (Mar. 16, Terminal 5), two bands positioned at opposite ends of the electronic music timeline, are experts at creating music to dance to. Squarepusher, the alias of producer Thomas Jenkinson, has been making music for 16 years, figuring out new ways to build, break and rebuild elaborate structures of synth and drums. His 1997 breakthrough Hard Normal Daddy owed much to the then-burgeoning genre of drum 'n' bass—its electronics blinked like strobe lights and rhythms skittered like cockroaches across cold linoleum floors. But on 2010's Shobaleader One he proved he was able to change with the times, slowing rhythms to a precise crawl and spiking his songs with hints of contemporary R&B. If Squarepusher's songs—particularly the early ones—could feel deliberately evasive, Justice's have always been warm and welcoming (and thunderous). Their debut, †, was big and fizzy, full of hooky dance tunes perfect for summer pool parties. Last year's Audio, Video, Disco may not have raised the stakes, but thumping numbers like "Parade"—built on the same boom-boom-clap cadence as Queen's "We Will Rock You"—proves dance music can aspire to the same stadium-size success as, say, an ornery blues duo from Ohio.