Streets of Your Town: this week’s concerts, with Nicki Minaj, Wynton Marsalis, Phish, and more

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Nicki Minaj plays Webster Hall Dec. 25. (Flickr via NRK P3)
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It’s a well-known truth of the holiday season that wondering what’s in a particular package is often just as satisfying as actually finding out (and, depending on the thoughtfulness of your relatives, sometimes even more so). There’s more than a little of that element of surprise at play in an event elaborately (and somewhat awkwardly) billed as Nicki Minaj Hosting Christmas Extravaganza (Dec. 25, Webster Hall). The wording here is key: the term “hosting” assures that Minaj will, at the very least, be present at the event, but the role she’ll play is decidedly fuzzy. Will she show up at the beginning, welcome the revelers and disappear for the rest of the night? Will she pop out repeatedly, between acts, a cotton-candy Master of Ceremonies? Are there any other acts? Will Hot 97 Peter Rosenberg swoop in dressed as the Grinch on an animatronic sled self-righteously accuse people of showing up for the wrong reasons? Like all oversized, shiny, skillfully-wrapped packages, the contents are a mystery. But it couldn’t hurt to calibrate your expectations. Remember: the box that could contain an iPhone is also about the right size to hold a pair of loud wool socks. Action Bronson (Dec. 26, Brooklyn Bowl) is just as unpredictable, but his capriciousness is generally a bit more rewarding. Though his Twitter persona that is just as likely to offend as delight, his live show is consistently strong, letting his big, bear-like voice barrel up the middle of dusty golden age beats. If Bronson is a big, booming Santa Claus, Butter the Children (Dec. 27, Glasslands) are a gaggle of impish elves. One of New York’s best-kept secrets, their clawing post-punk fits the loose bounce of groups like Girls At Our Best and the Au Pairs with sleeker pop instincts. The French Kings (Dec. 28, Glasslands) are even more rococo and grandiose. Their songs have the same glammy posturing and operatic vocalizing as more mainstream bands like fun., but they savvily scale it down, trading bombast for a simple, winning foppishness.

Like the French Kings, the Wynton Marsalis Tentet (Dec. 26–31, Jazz at Lincoln Center) also remake the music of their forerunners in their own image, but their homage is more specific. On these dates, they pay tribute to the music of Louis Armstrong, by playing selections he performed with his first two ensembles, the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens. Those songbooks formed the foundation of New Orleans jazz, full of the kind of loopy, loose-limbed playing that immediately calls to mind jam-packed dancehalls thick with smoke and busy with swinging skirts and jittery bodies. Perhaps because it is so closely associated with speakeasies and gin joints, there is still a whiff of scandal to the music, something that decades of familiarity cannot entirely eradicate. And who would want it to? The inimitable lurch and dawdle of “West End Blues” and the freewheeling stroll of “Heebie Jeebies” are meant to be served sloppy and saucy—qualities Marsalis’s group would do well to preserve. The music of pianist Cedar Walton (Dec. 28, Village Vanguard) is slightly more polite—better suited to supper than swinging, but the casual elegance of his playing—his penchant for restless, wandering lines—gives it a velocity of a different kind. There’s some of that same open-endedness in the music of Old Monk (Dec. 28, Cameo Gallery). Though songs like “Warm Moustache” have all the gristle of classic indie rock, they frequently detour into tightly-wound improvisational workouts that allow Joshua Carrafa’s guitar to twist maniacally, like a kite in a hurricane.

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That kind of improvisation, of course, is the sort of thing for which Phish (Dec. 28 - 31, Madison Square Garden) are revered. To retell their history would be a waste of space—since they were founded in 1983, the group has practically become a genre unto themselves. What has been more fascinating to observe has been the gradual shift in the way they are perceived. Though the band was once considered rightful heirs of the hammock absented by the Grateful Dead—and all of the attendant skepticism and scorn that comes with it—lately they’ve been keeping stranger company. Last year, frontman Trey Anastasio shared the stage with beloved arena indie group The National, and the group has been known to cover indie rock staples like Pavement’s “Gold Soundz” or the even-holier “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. While this hasn’t had significant impact on the group’s own work—they still excel at low-key, open-ended roamers that nestle jazz progressions inside parched Americana—it does indicate that there might be a bit more commonality between their dawdling jams and the more sprawling end of indie rock than smug fans of the latter would like to acknowledge. Case in point? My Morning Jacket, (Dec. 27–29, Capitol Theatre) who began firmly in the latter camp with the spooky, spectral The Tennessee Fire before slowly evolving into an updated version of The Allman Brothers. Alberta Cross (Dec. 27, Brooklyn Bowl) build on that same roots rock foundation, but keep piling on layers, fusing the wryness of Tom Petty with the grandeur of U2. The Punch Brothers (Dec. 29, Bowery Ballroom) prefer a more understated read on virtuosity. Although they count among their numbers a certified genius—mandolin player Chris Thile, who was also in Nickel Creek, received a MacArthur grant earlier this year—they never sacrifice songs for showing-off. As a result, their oak-aged old-timey bluegrass feels more like a boozy hootenanny, less like a recital.