Thursday, December 1, 2016

Best Of 2016: Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Like Herding Cats, St. Marilyn, Blank Spaces, Janet Devlin

As 2016 comes to a close the prevailing sentiment among some insist this year has been something of a downer. Although true we have lost more than a few iconic musicians since January, there has also been much to be thankful for. For instance if you can be counted among the currently healthy, relatively productive individuals still pursuing what is personally meaningful, that alone is reason for hope. Being able to cover your daily life expenses in a free society should never be taken for granted either. With that glorious freedom, opportunities to select the entertainment option of your choice becomes paramount. Presented here are live shows and recorded music that shine focus on The Best of 2016.

Friday, November 18 saw the arrival of kaleidoscopic jam band The Chris Robinson Brotherhood to The Space At Westbury on Long Island.

Since opening in September 2013, this venue has presented a steady diet of less-trendy more established classic artist to a suburban NYC community that continually supports it.

There’s an industrial elegance to this building, dating back to 1927 when it opened as the Westbury Movie Theatre. After falling on hard times the landmark theater was shuttered for more than 10 years. It was purchased in 2004 and underwent a $10 Million renovation including the restored ticket window from the original theater, eight custom-made chandeliers hanging from the original ceiling, and an illuminated five columns of old brick, bookended with velvet curtains on each wall giving the room a combined modern feel with historical character.

The first thing you notice about the CRB is how casual and laid back they are. As each member quietly ambles out onto the stage and picks up or sits behind their respective instruments, Chris leans in to the mic and looking out into the packed audience says “nice to see everybody.”

As the band prepares to open their show a ceramic owl can be seen perched atop bass player Jeff Hill’s amp, with a “crown” of 4 burning incense sticks. Throughout the first set they would burn completely down, only to be replaced at the start of the second set.

Kicking things off with "Leave My Guitar Alone", from their 2016 release “Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel," drummer Tony Leone lays out an easygoing alternating bass drum and double stick flam-tap beat while Chris chugs a classic rock and roll groove on his guitar. Soon the first of many unexpected high pitched moog synth tones emerge from Adam McDougall’s cosmic keyboards.

After Chris sings through a litany of things you might be able to get away with as far as he’s concerned, the title comes in clearer focus with the resolving line “Do What You Want To But Leave My Guitar Alone.”

Robinson had written this song nearly 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until this current group of improvisational collaborators did it come to life on the latest record and played live nearly every show.

Although he’s dialed down the dominant frontman personna from his more youthfully exuberant Black Crowes days (opting to blend in as a relaxed band leader) the unmistakable voice and vocal cadence of Chris Robinson is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been a fan from the beginning.

When the lyrical refrain “I'm here to give you baby anything,” with the wry twist “besides that guitar only has 5 strings,” lead guitarist Neal Casal rips off short burst of brilliantly fluid licks that would be the first of many extended solos throughout the two set, over two and a half hour show.

Woven seamlessly within the set were a selection of hand picked covers (two each from the Black Crowes catalog as well as Robinson’s New Earth Mud period) like the soulful rendition of Jackie Moore’s “Precious, Precious.” While the dynamic vocal performance is clearly the songs centerpiece, lengthy instrumental tradeoffs between guitarist Casal and keyboardist McDougall (especially on his Hohner Clavinet D6 here) are the moments instrumental jam band enthusiasts crave.

After playing an 8 song set lasting an hour and a quarter, Chris announced they'd be taking a break and be back in a little while.  So, with time to stretch one's legs, it was down to the lobby to take a bathroom break, mingle with fellow CRB fans and check out the available merchandise designs.

There's an obvious continuation on the psychedelic imagery created by The Greatful Dead and the culture that surrounds it. Having become friends with both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, Chris Robinson’s natural transformation over time has him now sharing in the spirit and vibe (and at times the actual sound) of that acid Americana movement.

With their forty-five minute break completed, the band came back on to do another eight song, hour plus set .

Playing their most identifiable song "Rosalee" (from debut album Big Moon Ritual, and which they would reprise briefly at the sets end), the refreshed audience were ready for yet another musical journey.

The second set progressed with a similar blending of songs from their entire catalog like "New Cannonball Rag" (from their very recently released EP "If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now" - who's title is taken from a line in prior albums centerpiece track "Narcissus Soaking Wet") and "Wheel Don't Roll" (from their second record "The Magic Door")

Neal’s exquisite slide guitar work triggered memories of attending numerous Allman Brothers Band “Peakin At The Beacon” shows, carrying on the spirit of Duane, Dicky and ultimately Derek

A key moment of the night was the gloriously extended jam cover of Bob Dylan's classic "It's All Over Now Baby Blue"

Once again the improvisational soloing of Casal and McDougall delivered on the promise of jammy instrumental bliss.

In addition to traditional piano and organ textures, McDougall's unusual (by jam band standards) synth tones implied jazzier elements, bringing to mind Joe Zawinul's work in the legendary fusion ensemble Weather Report.


Instrumental brilliance aside, essential background vocals from the other band members (especially Neal) add rich emphasis to Chris’s distinct vocals.

The set fully peaks on the eighth and final song (before encore) with "Narcissus Soaking Wet" from their latest full-length.  Marking the first co-write between Robinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall, the lyrics touch on trappings of egotism and false idolatry.  Midway through it's eight and a half minute length, Chris plays a sweet harmonica solo and then again two minutes later.

While Neal’s echo-heavy soloing there comes off sounding downright Pink Floydian.

The encore closed out the night with an inspired cover of New Riders Of The Purple Sage's "Last Lonely Eagle"

Check out all the upcoming CRB tour dates and anything else you need to know about the band here.

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A few days earlier another significant live show event took place at popular Lower Eastside NYC venue The Mercury Lounge.

Darkwave/Gothic rockers Like Herding Cats brought their unique blend of crisp, structured pop on stage, providing the necessary environment for their impressive instrumental expansion.


Having previously attended LHC shows during CMJ and Northside Fests (which were both quite good) the high quality sound and lighting of The Mercury Lounge stage seemed their best fit yet.


Blending in songs from their debut EP ("Touch" "Rich Girls") with newer one's from the forthcoming follow-up ("Easter Song" "Falls Apart" "Morning Sun" "Affliction") a number of high points were reached during the performance.


Frontman Dom P commanded the stage as he smoothly transitioned between guitar and keyboards, enhancing his nuanced vocal delivery.

Along with his impressive bass guitar work (which frequently mirrored the tonal quality of The Cure's Simon Gallup) Tim Jansen also played a bass synth at one point, giving the proceedings a heavy buzz electronic feel. 

Quietly making his presence felt, lead guitarist Sebastian Briglia provided each song with layers of textures and fluid riffs.  Creating a noticeable expansion on the initial EP recordings, and eager anticipation for the recordings soon to come.


Drummer Kevin McAdams (whose finely honed skills come by way of time spent with seminal indie rock band Elefant) kept everything anchored while still adding colorful flourishes of his own.

The Set List

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Previous DaveCromwellWrites Features on Like Herding Cats can be found here:

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Opening the evenings performances was a relatively new band that just recently began appearing on this sites radar.

Brooklyn-based recording artists Saint Marilyn brought their own version of modernized 80's retro synth pop into the live environment.

Vocalist/synth-stabber Che Houston (who also has a background in drums and percussion) and synth tech-head/vocalist (and live bassist) Kevin Marksson are the creative duo behind this project.

Adding a live drummer to sync with Kevin's funky-pocket bass lines created an uptempo dancy groove under Che's appealing vocal delivery.

The set included tracks from their 2015 EP Shoshone as well as more recent material from their anticipated full-length album to be released in 2017.


Though Che is the primary vocalist, there is a playful aspect of back and forth foreground/background interplay with Kevin.


The highlight of the set was their showstopping latest single "Frustrate Me" which appeals on a number of levels.  In addition to their official video of the song (just recently released) there is a wonderful 360 degree view live-in-the-studio version.  Not only does it capture the essence of the band and song, but it really is a lot of fun to move around the studio at will.

Check it out:

Lively post-performance chatter.

Find out much and more about Saint Marilyn through these links:




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Closing out this night was a band also new to the DCW universe, proving once again the seemingly infinite opportunities for musical discovery.

BL_NK SP_C_S (that's Blank Spaces, who besides the obvious literal application, perhaps drop the vowels for easier internet searches on their name) are a structured power trio fronted by UK expat now living in New York songwriter/guitarist Daniel Gallagher.

With the rhythm section comprising of Warren Stubbs on drums and Ray Milo on bass, the tightly coiled unit played through a set of occasionally poppy, frequently oblique songs.

While more than a few moments conjured up the New York City early 80's street vibe of prime era Talking Heads, another band from across the ocean seemed even closer in spirit.

Although vocal cadence were similar in style, Gallagher's precise arpeggiated chords were superior to anything David Byrne played.  

Instead measuring closer to the combined output that Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp delivered on early 80's King Crimson albums like "Discipline"

Their latest release "Note To Self" being a prime example of this.

Other styles were touched on as well, with a more traditional bluesy jam happening in one song.

Follow the continued progression of BL_NK SP_C_S here

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While it might seems unusual to open a Christmas record with a sadly introspective original composition, that is exactly what the innovative and talented Irish singer Janet Devlin has done with her recently released “Little Lights” EP.

Perhaps the records title implying a less overt side to the holidays (as opposed to big, blazing grandiose lights) might serve as an early clue to what’s inside. However in the tradition of George Winston’s gentle piano driven holiday season music, opening track “Wake Up It’s Christmas” becomes a tender pep-talk to those without (or recently separated) from a special someone on that day.

Already well-known for reinterpreting a wide range of covers from across the decades, Ms. Devlin takes on the biggest UK Christmas hit of all time in Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.” However the songs original effusive party atmosphere is replaced with a starkly intimate approach that renders the track almost unrecognizable from the original. One of the most compelling aspects of Janet’s vocals is her uniquely expressive phrasing and pronunciation of certain words. It’s addictively charming to hear “stocking,” “wall,” “ball” and “everybody” stretched out with seemingly extra vowels. Or how her voice rises in pitch in the middle of the word “Merry” (before “Christmas”), displaying both craft and emotion in one single intuitive moment. In addition to adding her trademark ukulele on subsequent verses, inspired use of a double string quartet arrangement on the center bridge, reshapes that passage in the sonic footprint of The Beatles' “Eleanor Rigby.”

Another heart-tugging original is the beautifully written “Merry Christmas Mum and Dad.” As the melody is introduced on electric piano, tinkling bell notes follow like falling snow. Its central theme pivots on the initial wonder parents provide their children at Christmastime, and the innocence of not knowing who to thank for it all. Now grown up, the author understands how they were given “all you had – even when the times were tough,” and how “we always had more than enough.” A gorgeous sentiment sung with that inimitable Devlin phrasing (the word “deserve” being particularly delightful) that serves as the sincerest “thank you.” There’s even another “Eleanor Rigby-like” moment with the quickened pace string accompaniment behind the second “I don’t forget to say thank you” bridge. Celestial bells return for a tender open space expression of gratitude.

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How does one go about reinterpreting the single most covered Christmas song of all time? While Bing Crosby may have ushered Irving Berlin’s composition into the world on Christmas Day in 1941, “White Christmas" has since been recorded more than 500 times in several different languages. Undaunted by this challenge, Janet applies her own unique phrasing to words most everyone have known for years against a backdrop of piano and syrupy strings. Clocking in at just over two and a half minutes, it is the shortest track on the EP. However, it doesn’t lack for special moments like when her voice rises in pitch on the word “Christmas,” or simply how she says the word “all” like no other before her.

Things take a turn into a more upbeat realm with the quicker paced “Something Beginning With Christmas.” Accompanied by her trademark ukulele sound, a brisk one-two-three 6/8 (or is that 9/8) “sea shanty” time signature paces this joyful little ditty. And much like those historical shanties, it’s a densely worded little affair that even includes the spelling out of the word C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S. As if right on cue, a chorus of salty sailors (or reveling tavern patrons) enter the fray singing backup on “the holidays are coming, can you feel them coming?” section. Yes, this one will go down well on boat or in a bar.
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The final track “Christmas Kiss” (which was a digital only release previously) builds from a near acapella opening minute (complete with “Oh, oh, oh” vocal hook) that reads like a letter to Santa. An amusing reference to not needing “a brand new Ferrari” softens the polite request that “a Christmas kiss would be nice.” It all picks up quickly as accordions and handclap percussion enter the mix, creating the aura of a joyous Irish folk song. A worthy collection of tracks that is perfect for this time of year.

Janet Devlin’s ‘Little Lights’ is a perfect stocking stuffer and has something special for everyone on your list this Holiday Season. The EP is available for digital purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Bandcamp. The EP is available for streaming on Spotify. It is also available for physical purchase at music retailers nationwide. ‘Little Lights,’ as well as ‘December Daze,’ is available in the OK!Good Records Shop. Exclusive merchandise is available through Pledge Music.

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