Streets of Your Town: Live shows in New York, featuring the ‘Ecstatic’ festival, folk heroes and punk standbys
This week started with a rustic feel: Monday night's performance at Lincoln Center by Will Oldham, who lately records as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, started things.
If you were to plot Oldham's career on a graph, the result would start out looking like the hospital chart of a cardiac patient but would end with a peak followed by a firm straight line. In his early work under the Palace appellation (he has recorded under Palace, Palace Music and Palace Brothers) he seemed hell-bent on deconstructing country music – and not spit-shined, mainstream country music, but the wild-and-free hillbilly country music of the mountains and the deep woods. But something happened when he abandoned the 'Palace' title and began writing as Bonnie "Prince" Billy: the songs retained their strange centers, but the music got more graceful, more immediate. Richard Thompson, playing the same night at Joe's Pub, is also drifting to the center. His work with the British folk group Fairport Convention in the late '60s was strange and mystic, but his solo career has been defined by rugged electric guitar work and lyrics of unflinching intimacy.
Tonight, another British act, Mumford and Sons (Feb. 6, Barclay's Center) takes a heavier hand with rustic music. Their arena folk, with its hurried tempos and hollered choruses, is simply stadium rock in Western garb. Better are Michigan's Frontier Ruckus (Feb. 9, Mercury Lounge), who deliver rollicking folk with lyrics that feel like short stories.
Sixpence None the Richer (Feb. 6, Knitting Factory) also had a knack for narrative. Their underrated 1995 album This Beautiful Mess documents human frailty, mixing grace and darkness with the skill of Sylvia Plath. Memory Tapes (Feb. 6, Glasslands) are moody, too; last year's Grace/Confusion EP ably mimicked the bubbling, monophonic synths of early Factory Records releases. Gold Fields (Feb. 6, Bowery Ballroom) take that same formula but add muscle, working in twitchy guitars and thumping dance beats for a joyous final product.
There's joy right in the title of the Ecstatic Music Festival (Begins Feb. 6, Kaufman Center) and a sense of celebration running throughout. Over the last three years the festival, which combines forward-thinking composers and musicians, has become a reliable annual showcase of brave musical ideas. This year is no different: the genre-mashing producer DJ/rupture will join knotty indie rockers Zs for a set that combines and blends their distinctive works; Julia Holter and Laurel Halo two of the most fascinating and confounding electronic musicians working today, will collaborate on a series of electronic compositions certain to be eerie and unnerving; and classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein joins folk singer Tift Merritt for a program that combines their own works with pieces by Brad Meldhau, Leonard Cohen, Schubert and Bach.
There's just as much unbridled joy in the bands playing the Don Giovanni Records Showcase (Feb 8 – 9, Music Hall of Williamsburg). For the last nine years, the New Brunswick label has been home to some of the most thrilling, boundary-pushing punk bands around. And though they're best known – and rightly so – for the dazzling guitar pyrotechnics of Screaming Females, the burnt-out no-fi of Shellshag and the brittle tenderness of Waxahatchee warrant just as much attention. It's music, in a way, that's inspired by the same kind of spirit of recklessness and insurrection that informed the MC5. That band's guitarst, Wayne Kramer (Feb. 7, Bowery Electric) His solo work has been just as furious, full of clawing riffs and barreling tempos. Heliotropes (Feb. 8, Paper Box) are calmer and eerier, slow-moving songs powered by gut-rumbling subterranean guitars. The music of Dead Leaf Echo (Feb. 6, Shea Stadium) takes place at the other extreme: in the stratosphere. Their milky riffs and drifting, cloudlike vocals are as transporting and surreal as a summer daydream. Chrome Sparks (Feb. 7, Silent Barn) have a similarly dreamlike mood, but their songs twist and sparkle like suncatchers. While their music is perfect for refracting light, Passion Pit (Feb. 8, Madison Square Garden) absorbs and projects it. The songs on last year's shimmering Gossamer managed a clever trick, offsetting springing electropop with tart, troubled lyrics.
The trouble feels more visceral in the music of Yob (Feb. 10, St. Vitus). The doom metal band has been active for a decade, but doles out records sparingly, Each one feels more brutish and primal than the last, full of lurching brontosaurus riffs and topped with Mike Scheidt's chilling, man-in-torment vocals. Like many of their contemporaries in psychedelic metal – Zoroaster and Dark Castle come to mind – there's something mysterious about Yob's songs. The guitar that threads its way across the top of "Before We Dreamed of Two" writhes like a snake from a charmer's basket, and "Upon The Sight of The Other Shore" claws and heaves like a creature crawling out of a tar pit. Theirs is the sound of ancient revenge being exacted, one slow wallop at a time. Swans (Feb. 6, Music Hall of Williamsburg) also think menace is a dish best served slowly. The recently-reunited group excels at delivering songs that are long on malice and short on mercy, and use languorous pacing to achieve chilling results. Pilgrim (Feb. 6, Bowery Electric) trade in slow-crawling doom, too, but if Yob feel like they exist before the dawn of man, Pilgrim's music is set just a few centuries later, when medieval armies waged war in muddy fields. There are different wars taking place in the music of Rakim and Raekwon (Feb. 8, Stage 48), those mostly fought in the streets for either lyrical or territorial supremacy. Rakim, arguably one of popular music's greatest lyricists, boasted of his own skill in tricky verses packed with complicated rhyme schemes while Raekwon turned his narratives outward, writing stories of dark deeds done on midnight street corners.