SYLVAN ESSO, KILBY COURT, Friday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m., $12
Electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso are one of the buzz bands of the year so far, thanks to the strength of a self-titled debut that showcases a savvy way with melody from Amelia Meath and an ornate array of sounds from her partner and producer Nick Sanborn. The set is all the more impressive considering the duo put the songs together in a Durham, North Carolina, bedroom. The multi-layered sounds and lyrics tackling multiple aspects of love and loss make songs like “Hey Mami” and “Play It Right” immediately stand out in a cluttered music landscape. Listening to Sylvan Esso’s set now makes their spring tour opening for like-minded genre-masher tUnEyArDs make a lot of sense. I missed that one–I suggest you make a point of seeing them in the cozy confines of Kilby. Dana Buoy of Akron/Family opens the show.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART, PIONEER PARK, Thursday, Aug. 28, 7 p.m., $5
For Seattle folk-rockers The Head and the Heart, the past five years have been a remarkable blur. And even though the band has grown from an ad hoc collective playing open mic nights into a band capable of headlining for thousands of people at events like the Twilight Concert Series, one has the sense that there is still plenty of exciting things to come from the group. The Head and the Heart recorded their first album before they had a record deal, selling them in handmade denim CD sleeves at shows and at local Seattle record stores. Soon, the stores couldn’t keep them in stock, their shows started drawing huge crowds and a bunch of record labels came calling in hopes of signing the band. They ultimately decided to sign with Seattle label SubPop Records, and their debut was released nationally in 2011. They toured nearly non-stop for almost two years, headlining clubs and opening for the likes of My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists and Vampire Weekend. When they opened for the Dave Matthews Band here in Utah, they added a late-night show at the Urban Lounge after playing at the Usana Amphitheatre in West Valley City, and that not-so-secret gig was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They should be a fine choice for the finale of this year’s Twilight Concert Series. San Fermin open the show.
If any of the animosity that led Dave Alvin to leave his brother Phil and their old band The Blasters behind back in the ’80s still exists, it was nowhere to be found at the brothers’ incredible show Friday night at The State Room.
Instead, both took turns praising the other–Dave much more often, as Phil saved his voice largely for his killer lead vocals–as the duo tackled songs from their recent collaboration paying homage to blues dude Big Bill Broonzy, Common Ground, as well as plenty of Blasters tunes, songs from Dave Alvin’s lengthy solo career and other covers.
Common Ground is the duo’s first recording together in about 30 years, and the set was full of the Broonzy covers that brought the Alvins back together. That doesn’t mean the music lacked diversity due to its reliance on songs recorded between the 1920s and 1950s. Quite the contrary, the Alvins did excellent work showcasing the wide range of sounds that can fall under the label of “the blues”–even when the songs all come from one artist. Clearly Broonzy was an incredible talent, and he couldn’t find any better advocates than the Alvins to showcase his legacy.
They opened with the first song on the Broonzy set, “All By Myself,” and it was immediately clear that Phil Alvin is in fine voice at 61, while “little brother” Dave, 58, remains a guitar-hero of the roots-rock scene, able to play any style, acoustic or electric, and bring songs to incredible life.
Dave Alvin did the vast majority of the talking between songs, educating the crowd about Broonzy’s influence on he and his brother, and talking about the different styles of music the man incorporated into his music way back when. Phil plays a pretty mean guitar himself, picking at his acoustic with incredibly long fingers when he’s not blasting on a harmonica, as he did on follow-up “Key to the Highway.” In introducing “Saturday Night Rub,” a vibrant instrumental of Broonzy’s, Dave Alvin informed the crowd that “you’re going to hear a lot of different blues in a lot of different styles,” and he wasn’t lying. The Alvins and the Guilty Ones ultimately played more than two hours.
The first non-Broonzy song was a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Never No More Blues,” a song the Blasters did on their debut album; on Friday, Phil proved a remarkably spry yodeler on its live version. Dave’s “King of California” followed before it was back to more Broonzy as Dave Alvin switched from acoustic guitar to electric for the first time–and stayed there.
“I Feel So Good” and “You’ve Changed” were both excellent, as was “Southern Flood Blues.” The Blasters’ “Border Radio” was easily one of the show’s highlights, in no small part because Dave Alvin told of a Blasters show at the Utah State Fairpark in 1982 that got so crazy, the band jumped in their van after and drove straight back to California rather than spend the night in Utah–“there might have been felonies.”
After telling the crowd the band was going to play extra-long since this was the last tour date for the brothers for a month or so, they ripped through an incredible batch of songs. Phil’s voice stayed true, and Dave’s electric solos just got better and better through songs like “The Stuff They Call Money,” “Truckin’ Little Woman” and “One Bad Stud.”
The encore included a couple of must-plays in “Marie, Marie” and “4th of July,” and the packed venue didn’t seem to lose many fans over the course of the lengthy show. Not only were those on hand treated to an incredible performance–they also got the Alvin brothers to say they plan to make another new album together. That might have been the best thing I heard all night.
THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THE DEPOT, Friday, July 22, 9 p.m., $20
I never would have thought 20 or so years ago that the Presidents of the United States of America would still be touring in 2014. Even though the Seattle band was massively successful when they burst on the scene with their self-titled debut, their catchy singles like “Lump,” “Peaches” and “Kitty” seemed like they would be most remembered for their quirky videos and subject matter, rather than as the calling cards of a long-running band that has found a new lease on the life the past few years. After spending the better part of a decade apart, the Presidents reformed for sporadic gigs in their hometown before slowly expanding to full-blown U.S. tours. Earlier this year, they released an album of new material, Kudos to You, that captures the trio’s power-pop chops in fine form–just like the old days. July Talk opens the show.
DE LA SOUL, PIONEER PARK, Thursday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m., $5
This has been a big year for the Twilight Concert Series and legendary hip-hop crews. The Wu-Tang Clan came through a few weeks back to deliver their tales of hardened street life. Now comes their stylistic opposites in De La Soul, a trio that helped pioneer a jazz-inflected brand of hip-hop back in the late ’80s that stood out from their pack of peers on Yo! MTV Raps! Originally formed in New York in 1987, the group’s debut album, 3 Feet High & Rising, introduced the world to a visually striking crew who loved bright colors and crazy samples, courtesy of producer Prince Paul. And while that album got more attention that the releases De La Soul have put out since, the trio is consistently one of the most creative hip-hop acts, and a top-notch live attraction as well. They should make for a fine headliner at the Twilight Concert Series. Rapsody and 9th Wonder open the show.
DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN, THE STATE ROOM, Friday, June 22, 9 p.m., $25
To a whole generation of old punk rockers and roots-rock fans, Dave and Phil Alvin are living legends. The brothers formed a band called The Blasters back in 1979. Along with fellow Southern California bands like X and Los Lobos, The Blasters helped forge a style of music that had all the edge of the punk rock popular at the time, but remained rooted in traditional blues and old time rock and roll. The Blasters released a few albums through the early 80s, earning critical acclaim and an increasingly large audience. Like many bands featuring brothers, though, Dave and Phil Alvin couldn’t get along well enough to sustain their musical partnership. Dave left The Blasters in the mid-’80s to embark on a successful solo career that continues to this day. And Phil Alvin continued on leading the Blasters.
Earlier this summer Dave and Phil Alvin released their first album-length collaboration in nearly 30 years, and it’s a passion project for the brothers, who both sing and play some mean guitar. It’s a collection of songs by blues man Big Bill Broonzy, who the Alvins have been fans of since they were kids and Phil brought home a record of Broonzy’s music for them to share. The album is called Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. It’s a long title, but the set breezes by in 12 songs drawn from Broonzy’s long career. The Alvins will be joined by members of Dave Alvin’s regular band, the Guilty Ones. The Far West opens the show.
While Toto and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald were literally bringing the Cali yacht-rock vibe to Red Butte Garden Tuesday, Jenny Lewis was playfully evoking the same era at her Depot show in downtown Salt Lake City.
From her flowing purple robe draped over a retro pastel pantsuit to the sunny pop vibe of most of the new songs from her latest release, The Voyager, the 38-year-old Lewis on Tuesday seemed like an artist who preferred the psychedelic glow of the ’70s to her own generation’s music. A close listen to her lyrics, though, reveals a woman clearly living in the here and now, managing to create plenty of laugh-out-loud couplets even within tales of heartbreak and woe.
That ability to combine the sour and the sweet is what makes Lewis one of my favorite songwriters, and her concerts live up to my high expectations as well. At the Depot, Lewis led an excellent five-piece band through songs heavily drawn from The Voyager, but touching on her other solo albums and years fronting Rilo Kiley as well.
In fact, she opened the show with Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining,” a choice that immediately got the crowd into the show, even as Lewis paused after to do a little artistic direction with the venue’s lighting.
“Can we make it a little ‘vibe-ier’ up here?” she asked, hoping for some darkness on stage. “And can we turn down the lights on the crowd? I love seeing you guys, but this is a little too real. Mystery. Illusion!”
With that, Lewis was off and running through a slew of songs from The Voyager. “Just One of the Guys,” the first single, was a welcome early performance. Lewis switched from guitar to keyboards for “Head Underwater” before returning to center stage for “Slippery Slopes,” one of the new album’s best tracks.
On “Pretty Bird” from her Acid Tongue album, Lewis showcased a truly impressive vocal ability as she prowled the stage. She seemed to get more and more comfortable as a frontwoman throughout the show. By the end, she was standing up on monitors, raising her hand and working the crowd from side to side–even as she contended with the bright spotlights that made her feel “like I’m part of a salad bar. We’re not quite to the soft-serve station yet.”
Rilo Kiley fans will be happy to know “The Moneymaker” and “A Better Son/Daughter” were both prominent parts of the show. As a fan of Lewis’s first solo collection, Rabbit Fur Coat, I was was happy to hear both the gorgeous harmonies of “Rise Up with Fists!!” and the pretty “You Are What You Love.”
The songs from The Voyager were the well-deserved highlights of the show, though. “The New You,” “Late Bloomer,” “Aloha & the Three Johns” and “Love U Forever” were all excellent, as was the final encore song, “She’s Not Me.”
All told, it was 17 songs of excellent performances serving as a potent reminder that Lewis is an artist who’s been worth watching for a long time already. And she’s only getting better.