Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with Jimmy Cliff, the Walkmen, Pusha T, and more
Jimmy Cliff (June 5, Prospect Park) begins Sacred Fire, his collaboration with Rancid's Tim Armstrong, by asking, "When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come?/ With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?" He's covering The Clash's "Guns of Brixton," of course, but the decision to open the album this way was a sly one. The lyric in question instantly conjures Cliff's most famous role—as the reggae singer-turned-vigilante Ivanhoe in The Harder They Come—while also creating a little pop-culture funhouse mirror. Follow the moebius: He's a reggae singer covering a reggae song written by the Clash, a punk band, on an E.P. that was produced by the frontman of Rancid, a punk band inspired by The Clash—who were, themselves, huge reggae fans. That something as simple as a cover song can be so endlessly refracted is a testament to Cliff's influence. His brisk, buoyant take on reggae borrowed the brighter elements of ska and, eventually, filtered down to inform third wave punk. And though he played a fugitive in his breakout role, Cliff's best songs, like "You Can Get it If You Really Want" and "The Harder They Come," speak of sunny optimism and perseverance. "Goodbye yesterday, welcome today," he sang on the title track of his 1970 album of the same name, "I know everything's gonna be fine." In his sweet, soaring voice, the line comes off not as cliché, but as deeply-held conviction. If Cliff skews optimistic, Lindsey Buckingham (June 4–5, B.B. King's) takes the other tack, examining the fractures that begin to appear in love as it is steadily eroded by the passage of time. Alejandro Escovedo's (June 5, Bowery Ballroom) songs are closer in spirit to the Clash than to Cliff's, though his ragged bar rock has earned him just as many high-profile admirers, among them Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams. It's the same renegade attitude that will certainly be on display at Max's Alumni Reunion (June 7, Bowery Electric), where veterans of the storied punk club, including Jayne County, regroup to raise havoc. A remembrance of sorts will be happening at The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, (June 4, Brooklyn Bowl) where a score of musicians—among them Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady, Nicole Atkins, Phosphorescent, and Family Band—will gather to pay tribute to the late Levon Helm.
Helm was adept at reconfiguring classic American music like folk and country and making them sound simultaneously weathered and fresh, which is, to some degree, what the Walkmen (June 6, Bowery Ballroom) are attempting on the just-released Heaven. The band's previous outings were booming and surly, frontman Hamilton Leithauser's parched baritone plunged into rivers of echo. Heaven by contrast is sparer and dryer and, in a way, sweeter. The apocalyptic doomsaying of old songs like "The Rat" has been replaced by clear-eyed declarations of love, happiness and contentment. The band has surrounded such sentiments with some of the loveliest music of their career—twirling tango guitars that dance across "Love is Luck," in "Line By Line," a single guitar flutters like a ribbon in the breeze. Leithauser's voice has gone from panicked howl to smoky croon—the equivalent of growing out of Evan Williams and into a finely-aged Macallan. "I’m not your heartbreaker," he swears in the song of the same name, further underscoring the fact that his reckless days are behind him. It's telling that he follows the line with "These are the good years, the best we'll ever know." King Tuff (June 9, 285 Kent) isn’t quite as ready to grow up—his revved-up garage songs have all the spunk and snarl of a rebellious '50s teenager. Sourpatch (June 4, Death By Audio) are sloppy, too, but their best songs have the gleam and glide of late '90s noise merchants like Tallullah Gosh. It's a formula practically invented by legendary New Zealand band the Clean (June 5, Le Poisson Rouge), whose rickety songs match woozy melodies with tumbling guitars. Jonas Reinhardt (June 7, Cake Shop) applies the same studiously unpracticed approach to synthpop, yielding churning, clattering music that sounds like it could accompany a child's homemade science-fiction film, where action figures stand in for aliens.
There's something simultaneously basic and futuristic about the music of Omar Souleyman (June 4, Webster Hall) too. The Syrian vocalist performs a style of music known as Dabke, a kind of Middle Eastern take on techno in which blinding flashes of synth flare madly around rhythms that sound like someone hurling 500 super-bounce balls into a large tin trash can. It's a dervish of sound that demands movement—Souleyman's previous shows were less performance than frenetic, sweaty dance parties, the singer smiling and clapping along from the stage while his audience went into giddy seizures in front of him. In "Lansob Sherek," a single, oboe-like synth line curls upward angrily before plummeting suddenly back down to earth. In the midst of all this chaos, Souleyman's voice acts as a kind of centering force. His bell-clear tenor bounces along the top of the rollicking electronics like a rubber raft navigating wild rapids, as much along for the ride as the people for whom he's performing. The group ESG (June 7, Le Poisson Rouge) tap into a similar spirit of abandon. The sister act from the South Bronx scored '80s cult classics with bobbing, echoing numbers like "Moody" and "You're No Good," which had a second life as backing tracks for classics by the Wu-Tang Clan and the Beastie Boys, among others. Scottish singer Emeli Sande (June 4, Bowery Ballroom) prefers a quieter storm, applying her insistent voice to buttery, gospel-inspired R&B. Tom Krell, who performs as How to Dress Well (June 9, Public Assembly) also uses R&B as a jumping-off point, but his synth-based music liberally employs distortion and reverb, making it feel ghostly and remote.
Ghostly and remote are not words anyone would use to describe the Cult (June 8, Terminal 5). The British band rode an improbable line between post-punk and hard rock, writing bruising songs built on muscular guitar and singer Ian Astbury's unholy bellow, which was one part Jim Morrison, one part Glen Danzig. Though they're best known for skyscraping anthems like "She Sells Sanctuary" and "Fire Woman," their newest album, the surprisingly-sturdy Choice of Weapon, showcases their other great gift, an ability to bulk up sinister pop-goth melodies to fighting weight. There's just as much buzz around opening act Against Me! Their singer, who used to be named Tom Gabel, revealed in Rolling Stone last month that he was in the midst of gender transition. These shows will be the first she's played as Laura Jane Grace, and while there was some speculation on how this might impact the group's hyper-adrenalized live show, YouTube clips from previous performances on this tour featuring a beaming, confident Grace suggest the impossible: that one of the best working live bands has somehow gotten better. The doom band Witch Mountain (June 8, St. Vitus) go about their business much more slowly, smearing down a layer of thick, tarry riffs that vocalist Uta Plotkin stalks, witchlike, across. Merzbow (June 4, St. Vitus) forgoes melody entirely. In their notoriously deafening live shows, sole member Masami Akita cranks a series of punishing, static-clogged drones to punishing volume. Pusha T (June 4, Irving Plaza) prefers a different kind of assault. The rapper, who is one half of the acclaimed group Clipse and is currently trading barbs with Lil Wayne, casually delivers deftly-constructed rhymes over requiem-like synths.