Them Crooked Vultures, Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Wingdale Community Singers and We All Have Hooks for Hands

Them Crooked Vultures aims to restore the luster to the supergroup in the new millennium. Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) and Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) are pretty potent new generation ringers on guitar and drums, but

Nov 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Taking a break from my month-long kidney adventures (and they’re getting more adventurous, believe you me), I ventured out Nov. 14 to experience “Man of Music,” Tebbe Farrell’s lovely tribute to her longtime personal/professional partner Michael Riley at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center. The music portion of the evening was DJ’d by Michael himself — Tebbe worked furiously for weeks to mix and master taped excerpts from Michael’s longstanding and much-loved WAIF radio show, Danceable Solution — and it was a magnificent soundtrack for the event, dominated by Michael’s beloved Rolling Stones.

Tebbe had made copies of the iconic photograph of Michael and Keith Richards to give away at the door, and it’s a framable treasure — Michael looking absolutely blissful at his proximity to one of his avowed musical heroes and Keith looking happily addled and barely tethered to the planet, as if he could drift into the path of low-flying aircraft if not for Michael’s firm grip on his shoulder. And it was great to see so many of Michael’s old friends in attendance, people who had clearly known him through all of his various incarnations and affiliations over his long and notable presence in the Cincinnati music scene.

For me, the highlight of the evening was the slide show of Michael’s playlists and flyers he'd created over the years, a few of which I probably have stashed away somewhere in my massive archive of stuff pocketed from record store counters and telephone poles over the past three decades.

Michael’s flyers for H-Bomb Ferguson were always a blast, and his playlists were always great — to know what he’d played that week on his show and simply as art. Michael was completely tapped into the Punk design zeitgeist of the time, and he had a brilliant talent for collage and an intuitive sense for combining graphic elements that were amusingly compatible and jarringly dissimilar. I vividly recall walking down Ludlow Avenue in the mid-’80s and seeing the town crier bulletin board next to Graeter’s plastered with band flyers and always being able to pick out Michael’s work from a block away.

The Nov. 14 was a potent exhibition of Michael’s formidable gifts, proof of his incredible contributions to Cincinnati’s music scene as well as the void that has been left by his passing. If there’s music in heaven, Michael is making a flyer for H-Bomb right now. And it’s amazing.

The Beatles were never well represented from a live perspective while they were active, but Paul McCartney has gone out of his way during his solo career to rectify that by recreating as much of The Beatles' catalog as possible within the context of his live set list. McCartney’s latest live album, Good Evening New York City, might well stand as the Cute One’s best live cross section of his various musical personae over the past five amazing decades.

This album documents the first night of a three-night stand that McCartney and his crack band performed this past summer at Citi Field — built adjacent to the old Shea Stadium, site of The Beatles’ historic 1965 concert. McCartney put together an incredibly diverse set list for the occasion, from the revival of “I’m Down” (which was one of the 13 songs The Beatles played at Shea) to “Something” (which McCartney played on the ukelele given to him by George Harrison) to a medley of “A Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance” (an emotional tribute to John Lennon).

In addition to brilliantly executed versions of a broad spectrum of Beatles classics (including “I Saw Her Standing There” with Billy Joel sitting in on piano and vocals), McCartney and company roared through Wings nuggets and some of his most recent solo material from the surprising Memory Almost Full and his outing as The Fireman.

Just a month after his 67th birthday and in great voice, Sir Paul put on one of the landmark concerts of his career and nailed it from beginning to end. The accompanying DVD reinforces that opinion (a deluxe version includes another DVD with the traffic-stopping set McCartney and band did on the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater during their David Letterman Show appearance two days before the concert). Any way you choose to experience it, the proof that McCartney — at an age when most people are retreating into their golden years — is still a commanding Rock presence is all over the emotional and powerful performances on Good Evening New York City.

The primary problem with most of this generation’s version of the “supergroup” is that they’ve largely neglected to factor in any significant amounts of “super.” Jack White is a major presence in The Raconteurs and Dead Weather, to be sure, but he's supported by hugely talented yet comparatively obscure bandmates, nearly relegating the bands to glorified solo projects. Monsters of Folk offers a certain amount of commercial firepower and an interesting hybrid of talent, but neither Bright Eyes nor My Morning Jacket has laid claim to any lasting greatness. Slavish fanboys aside, name one song by either.

Them Crooked Vultures aims to restore the luster to the supergroup in the new millennium. Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) and Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) are pretty potent new generation ringers on guitar and drums, but installing Led Zeppelin’s iconic John Paul Jones in TCV’s bass-and-everything-else slot is audacious brilliance, resulting in a trio that effectively crosses Rock’s modernity with its classicism. TCV’s eponymous debut pulses with fresh inspiration and roils with hammer-and-tong intensity, from the new Rock blister of “Dead End Friends” and “New Fang” to the classic thunder of “Elephants,” the Cream-like lilt of “Scumbag Blues,” The Move-meets-Bowie rumble of “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up” and the modern Zeppelin gyrations of “Bandoliers.”

Jones’ contributions to TCV can't be overstated. The multi-instrumentalist might well be the most musically adept and intuitive bassist in Rock history, and his dual value to this enterprise entails his roles as a forward musical thinker and as a direct conduit to Rock’s most fertile and evolutionary period. As a result, Them Crooked Vultures swaggers and storms into Rock’s future with some amazingly effective side trips into its past, just like the supergroups of old.

Politics and music make strange bedfellows. Five years ago, avant Folkie David Grubbs, Art/Folk chanteuse Hannah Marcus and novelist/musician Rick Moody combined talents in an unlikely and wonderfully quirky aggregation they christened the Wingdale Community Singers. Their 2005 eponymous debut was a gorgeous hybrid of psychedelic Folk, Gospel, Bluegrass and Chamber Pop that pushed sonic buttons similar to the ones pressed by early Jefferson Airplane, Peter, Paul & Mary and Clem Snide.

In the interim, WCS has added a second potent female lead, vocalist/visual artist Nina Katchadourian, whose presence expands the band’s harmonic capabilities even farther on their atmospheric sophomore album, Spirit Duplicator.

As songwriters, Moody, Marcus and Katchadourian craft slice of life songs that are further enhanced by the trio’s collective ear for lyrical and musical detail. “Naked Goth Girls” begins as an interesting Folk short story punctuated by a Brecht/Weill interlude; “Aviary,” a lovely commentary on being safely kept as opposed to being dangerously free, could have been a cool B-side for a 1972 Carly Simon single; and “AWOL” is a Gospel/Chamber Folk hymn that serves as an indictment of organized religion, an interesting dichotomy.

Elsewhere, “Roses at Night,” co-written by Moody and Magnetic Fields diva Claudia Gonson, blends poetry with a gardening guide in a lilting Folk ode; “Tears in My Tequila” is an atypically typical Country drinking song; and “Montreal” is a fantastic Chamber waltz that wouldn‘t sound out of place in Loudon Wainwright’s set list.

The Wingdale Community Singers don’t drift too far afield musically or lyrically from their debut, but Katchadourian‘s voice — as singer and songwriter — exponentially deepens the group’s colors and textures, making Spirit Duplicator that rarest of musical entities: a sophomore album better than its brilliant predecessor.

We All Have Hooks for Hands began as a busman’s holiday away from Sioux Falls, S.D., Hardcore groups that went by the names of The Coxxx and Los Assos Waxos and quickly grew into an Indie Pop collective that incorporated two drummers, three guitars, bass, keyboards and horns, creating an impossibly stripped back sound for a nine-member group. The group’s 2007 debut, The Pretender, was a 26-minute foray into homemade Indie Pop weirdness, like Brian Eno conducting a shambling orchestra made up of Pavement, Ween and The Shins.

Hooks for Hands’ sophomore release, The Shape of Energy, the group sounds slightly more cohesive and directional without losing any of the whimsical passion that fueled The Pretender. From Energy’s first track, “Howling and Bellowing,” they steam and swagger with the off-kilter Pop/Punk power of Couch Flambeau while weaving in the expansive baroque Pop effervescence of Polyphonic Spree.

Where The Pretender found Hooks for Hands careening off in a number of cool but often cross-purposed directions, The Shape of Energy shows how the band has channeled their eclectic sonic blurt into a wonderfully batty singularity, from the Hollies-meets-Shins tingle of “Made Up of Tiny Lights” to the Indie Pop/Eno/Stones hybrid of “Better to Live Than to Die.” The Shape of Energy is a quantum jump from the naive Pop palette of The Pretender — it will be fascinating to see where We All Have Hooks for Hands steers their eccentric orchestral Pop from here.

John Mayer has enjoyed the best of all possible musical worlds since debuting with Room for Squares in 2001. His early success as a sensitive singer/songwriter led to platinum sales and Grammy wins, but the Berklee-schooled guitarist soon tired of the Pop treadmill and began dabbling in Hip Hop and Jazz and eventually assembled the John Mayer Trio to explore his inner electric Blues child. When the Trio’s Try! was an enormous success as well, Mayer took a crack at combining his dual directions on 2006’s Continuum, which was an effective (and Grammy-winning) blend of his Blues and Pop aspirations.

Over the past three years, Mayer’s dating activities have been given nearly as much attention as his music, so it might come as little surprise that the focus of his new album, Battle Studies, is heartbreak in its various and sundry forms. Given the subject, it’s natural that Mayer should lean more toward his Pop side, even though the Trio (bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Steve Jordan) is the band on Battle Studies.

There are moments when Mayer’s edge shines through, as on the melancholy yet upbeat “Perfectly Lonely” and the Mark Knopfler-tinged “Half of My Heart.” And Mayer leavens his Blues with plenty of the soulful Pop he’s perfected from the start (“All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye,” “Friends, Lovers or Nothing”).

At the same time, there are some interesting asides on Battle Studies: the Bob Dylan/Jonathan Edwards acoustic lilt of “Who Says,” the U2-trimmed “War of My Life,” the Sting-touched “Edge of Desire,” the Funk/Hip Hop-fueled treatment of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” Mayer has his detractors to be sure — former Columbia chief Don Ienner’s dismissal of Continuum nearly made Mayer change careers — but Battle Studies shows a potent and engaging diversity in his Pop/Blues translation.