LIVE REVIEW: CMJ 2015-Cosmo Sheldrake


On my second venture to Williamsburg’s Living Room, I encounter an even stranger sight than the Anglomania days prior. A lanky, rather stunning gentleman is flung upon a couch like the lead dandy of an Oscar Wilde play. He wears foppish Chelsea boots, a rust red sweater with a hole in the elbow and a slate, Nehru-necked vest. A conical birthday hat tops his mop of curly hair, making him look like a dunce or the subject of some Balthus painting. At a glance, one would reasonably question his country (or era) of origin.

This could only be Cosmo Sheldrake, a man whose name and music are as eccentric as the scene I just described. He’s also one of the acts I was most thrilled to see this year. So why was the headlining act sprawled flat on a sofa? Was he drunk? Ill? Strung out? I suspect he was just trying to squeeze in a bit of shut-eye before his set-which didn’t start until 1:30 am.

But, as things go at these sorts of events, Sheldrake’s set didn’t actually commence until 2:30 am. The vibe at this show was quite different from when I saw him at Piano’s two nights before, where a packed crowd beamed and shouted “Cosmo!” long before his set time. Instead, as Sheldrake parted the curtain to enter the listening room he muttered: “oh fuck, there’s like no one here.” He turned and looked to his friend with a nervous but lighthearted chuckle: “shitballs!”

At Piano’s, Sheldrake had come on stage wearing the exact same outfit, sans birthday cone. He spent a good half-hour setting up keyboards, sequencers, a laptop and some semblance of a Kaoss Pad or effects station. I remember thinking that it may have been more useful for Sheldrake to perform in a dog pit so onlookers could gaze down and see what the hell he was doing.Having read that Cosmo has savant-like musical abilities, (he plays around 30 instruments and having composed film and play scores by age 24) I was really hoping he’d be outfitted with a full band, or at least juggle a few different instruments. I’m sure both scenarios would have been a logistical pain in the ass, so the electronic motherboard it was.

Despite the one-man-show feel of the gig, I certainly can’t say Cosmo disappointed. He’s so engaging, charming and humble that it’s mildly infuriating; this level of talent is supposed to be reserved for the unattractive and socially inept, both of which Sheldrake is the opposite. He takes the time to introduce certain elements of his compositions, all of which are comprised of self-recorded sound bytes (a couple are borrowed) and oft-improvised vocals.“These are some sounds I want to introduce,” he says sweetly like a 3rd grade science teacher. “This is a sheep I recorded in Bulgaria.” Sheldrake presses the bleat button and glances sideways, making the crowd giggle. “This is a recording of me breaking some rocks in Wales. This is the sound of the sun sped up 42,000 times. These are some sounds from a cave in Bulgaria-there’s a rabid dog in there if you listen really close.” I don’t hear it. Sheldrake’s arrangements are so densely woven that you wouldn’t necessarily guess what the component parts are. But I like it that way. An enigma, much like Cosmo himself.

At Living Room Sheldrake mostly improvises. He is still wearing the birthday hat, with one helium balloon fastened to his keyboard. As it turns out it’s Luisa Gerstein’s (of Landshapes) birthday. I’m less taken with his improvisational vocals as they tend to venture on the scat/beatbox side of things, but I appreciate where he’s coming from. At one point he says that improvising is how he centers himself, and I find that as inspiring as I do rare. Making up a song in front of a bunch of strangers sounds more like a nightmare to me than a spiritual device.

Sheldrake is someone who seems constantly inspired, almost plagued by creativity. I imagine him finding a perfect rhythm while sweeping his flat, or hearing a rhapsody in rush hour traffic, or chewing to a beat. And just as I begin to cast off these thoughts as ridiculous, Sheldrake pulls the balloon towards him: “this should have helium in it!” He bites a tiny hole in the rubber, sucks in, and sings a song in a whole new key.



LIVE REVIEW: Angel Olsen @ Summerstage

Angel Olsen

The crowd wears sunglasses until the day gives in to night. The VIP’s are elevated in the front under umbrellas sponsored by Hendricks gin, or in the very back penned off in a Aquacai holding area. Teenage volunteers run around, excited and sweaty in contrast to the stone-faced security guards (well, it is summer in New York- everybody’s a little sweaty). It’s a Wednesday night and this is Summerstage, the outdoor concert series in Central Park where fans can see their favorite bands, communing with nature on a floor of astroturf.

When you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with your fellow listeners, feeling the claustrophobic of the makeshift rock arena inside the huge, open space that is Central Park, trying not to spill your eight-dollar, twelve-ounce cup of craft beer, it’ll never be more clear that while you hate large crowds, you love live music more than almost anything. The music of Angel Olsen seems to come floating down from the trees behind her instead of the speakers mounted on the stage. She is equally impressive live as she is on record, though she lamented that she had “a summer cold for Summerstage.” Her voice is both delicate and powerful, wavering and twisting itself from note to note over the foundation of her band.

Though charismatic, she lets her music carry the performance – her songs are not conductive to onstage antics or theatrics. That’s for the best, because the next act was the complete opposite, Father John Misty. Frontman Josh Tillman crooned his heart out, and left no syllable unaccompanied by a gesture, shimmy, sashay of the hips or another abuse of the mic stand. Just when you think the crowd is too big, and you’re too far to get the full effect of his performance, you hear him sing “You’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with” and feel like he’s talking straight to you. You think that crowds aren’t so bad after all. And anyway, you’re in Central Park on a gorgeous night: if you can’t see the stage, you can just tilt your head back and stare at the fading sunset, letting the music wash over you.


LIVE REVIEW: The Juan MacLean @ Union Pool


I’ll be honest: when I hear the genres “house,” “techno,” or “dance” being used to describe a band, I picture a couple of dudes posturing behind laptops. But when The Juan MacLean took the stage at Union Pool on Thursday, I knew this show would be different. John MacLean, the core of the project, immediately put to use a theremin attached to his keyboard stand. Nancy Whang, of LCD Soundsystem, gripped the mic and sang brooding vocals, over endless synths and a beat by a drummer, who, though seriously overworked, never seemed to tire.

Apparently, MacLean decided after the first song that we weren’t dancing enough. “It’s very Thursday night in here,” he taunted the crowd, who countered with whistles and shouts. “It’s a very thirsty night in here,” Whang shot back, chugging a water bottle. The group had recently played three nights at the Cameo gallery, and on their first of three shows at Union Pool, they weren’t satisfied with just easing into their set, or letting the audience do so either.

Whang played percussion with a serious, stony look on her face. It never wavered, even when hitting a springy, rattling instrument earned her cheers. “That was a vibraslap,” she deadpanned, to more cheers. When she and Maclean began to trade vocal lines on “One Day,” it felt like at any minute the band was going to break into “Don’t You Want Me Baby”– they had all of the epic synths and a tense, emotional performance that had the whole room dancing as hard as they could, but none of the song’s cheesiness. And, no laptops.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

LIVE REVIEW: Slim Twig + U.S. Girls @ Cake Shop

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”]

Photo by Meg Remy
Photo by Meg Remy

All I want is a hot toddy, but the more patient half of me says now’s not the time to order one. Despite my polite efforts and hacking cough, something of greater urgency than a breathing statistic of flu season needs tending to.

The bartender zips along the length of the counter clamping a cordless phone between her ear and shoulder. Her bar back frantically cleans tumblers and disappears periodically. Meanwhile Max Turnbull and his wife Meghan Remy (aka Slim Twig and his wife U.S. Girls) are schlepping amplifiers through the front door of Cake Shop 20 minutes after opener Ryan Sambol-who is sitting right next to me-is supposed to start.

It’s been a rough night for everyone.

Things settle down. The bar is calm. I have booze; the warm, honey and lemon accessorized kind that allows you to be a lush and say “this is good for me!” at the same time.

I am now wedged between a Tinder date and a semi-bilingual French-lesson date (how you say, Tinder?) taking notes in my journal, which I’m sure doesn’t look odd at all. I might as well be chiseling a stone tablet and wearing badger fur.

Collecting cash and stamping hands for the evening is Cake Shop co-owner Andy Bodor, perched on a stool by the venue door. Ryan Sambol emerges from downstairs, despondently shaking his head:

“You know what man, I don’t even wanna play tonight.”

Bodor looks shattered.

“What do you mean???”

“Y’know, it’s just, I come all the way from Texas and I just don’t think….”

I realize that though the dust from earlier has settled, a whole new sandstorm is about to kick up; and then Sambol cracks a smile.

“I’m just kidding!!!” Bodor sighs: “Jesus man, you really got me there.”

Two warm alcohols deep I make my way to the show space. I’m met by a hush crowd politely watching the tricky Texan. It’s not easy to captivate audiences these days, and it’s even harder to do so with such modest and arcane things like a guitar and microphone, but Sambol seems to have this covered. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good lookin’ boy from the Lone Star State with a voice like Nashville Skyline era Dylan.


His stage presence reminds me of a less-tortured Jeff Buckley…a more lighthearted, plucky Buckley, if you will.  Buckleyness aside, Sambol’s ability to work a room makes sense: he’s been in the biz for over a decade. He helped form The Strange Boys as an eighth grader and subsequently toured with everyone from Julian Casablancas to Spoon. After Strange Boys dissolved in 2012, Sambol and co. reemerged as Living Grateful releasing two LPs in 2014.  I’ve yet to find anything about a forthcoming solo record from Sambol, but if one ever surfaces it will probably sound like his live set: sweet, melty and melancholy.

Sambol played a mix of originals as well as a few covers, announcing them with familial ease: “You can thank Sly Stone for that one.” And I guess we can thank Mr. Sambol for coming all the way from Texas and playing after all.

During the set, I couldn’t help but notice Meg Remy and Max Turnbull at the end of the bar. It made me wonder if it’s difficult to tour with your spouse. Do you bicker over who’s headlining? Take turns on merch table duty? Get jealous when your better half’s record sells more copies than yours? I guess it depends, but judging by the highly collaborative artistic relationship Remy and Turnbull have had, they seem pretty supportive. They lugged the gear together, and played integral roles in each other’s performances for the night.

U.S. Girls was up next. For those unfamiliar with Remy’s music, it is paradoxical in many ways. She goes by a plural, so you’d expect a full band, or at the very least a duo. You wouldn’t guess it was just her by listening to GEM, her FATCAT release from 2012, which is full-bodied, textural and pleasantly schizophrenic.

The self-sufficient musical project is far more achievable these days given the ease of home recording and distribution, but it does make for an interesting dilemma; how does one perform live?  According to Meg Remy: with a Moog and a microphone

It doesn’t sound great on paper, but it’s difficult to describe someone like Remy, who might be made of charisma. A bit dazed while performing, she is focused and calculated. Her body language and voice seem siphoned straight from the 1960s, and I wonder if she really is in trance-watching a mirage of Nancy Sinatra at the back of the room and mirroring her every shimmy.

An equally enigmatic musician, Max Turnbull recorded his sinister pop-opera A Hound at the Hem all the way back in 2010 as a contract fulfillment to Paper Bag records. Unfortunately Paper Bag deemed it too weird, causing Turnbull to shelve the LP and record Sof’ Sike instead.  Hound did have a limited co-release via Pleasance Records and Remy/Turnbull’s own imprint Calico Corp, but it was reissued last year thanks to New York’s own DFA records. DFA saw the album’s brilliance and pressed 600 copies-100 of them on Pepto Bismol pink vinyl.

Hound is a complex and beautiful record. It’s been called chamber pop, psych rock and garnered many other comparisons.  As an impulse evaluation I’d say there are heavy notes of Nick Cave and Van Dyke Parks throughout.

If you didn’t know the chronology of Hound’s lifespan, you might be surprised to see Slim Twig live.  On the album’s sleeve is a clean-shaven kid with a pompadour. Behind the microphone at Cake Shop was a mustached matchstick with long tangled hair. Ever evolving, Turnbull’s look wasn’t the only thing drastically different from his Hound days.  His set didn’t include any songs from the album, which I must admit bummed me out a little.

That’s not to say the music wasn’t exciting and well played, but it was much more straight-forward seventies rock n’ roll- a far cry from the bizzarro orchestra of Hound.  That being said, I can sympathize with a musician not wanting to play songs written five years ago.

Slim Twig’s set was both humble and satirically contradictory. “This song’s about not fetishizing the past” was an intro that struck me as aggressively ironic, since fetishizing the past is what millennials, including myself-are best at.

Though the set was more melodic than I’d expected, there was no shortage of precision and energy.  And fortunately, any deficit of strangeness was made up for by the little eccentricities that can only be experienced at a live show.  While introducing one song Turnbull curtly quipped: “This song is about Jesus Christ.”  To my left a middle-aged Hasidic man clapped and cheered in his seat, occasionally using his cocktail straw as a conductor’s wand; other times bringing it to his lips to take a long drag.

I guess the night was a success after all.


LIVE REVIEW: Valerie June @ Beacon Theatre

As lights went down over a sold-out Beacon Theatre on Feb. 6th, Valerie June sauntered to center stage and assumed the mic without much flourish. The hall was big—and fancy! With seats! And you should have seen the bathrooms! And June looked like she would have just as soon played in a whiskey-sticky dive in the middle of nowhere. She might have felt that way, too: the Jackson-born June played gospel music at her church in Memphis as a kid, took her first job hanging posters around town for her music promoter father, and made her bones as a country-folk singer weathered by hard times and hard work. June’s sensibility expanded markedly with her signed debut, Pushing Against A Stone, which doesn’t channel gospel so much as ragged, rough-edged soul, spiny Appalachian traditional music, and a noisy rock and roll edge courtesy of the album’s co-writer and producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys).

And though Pushing Against A Stone was huge for June’s career, and she’s been busy with shows ever since it came out, she still stood in front of Thursday’s crowd like a green performer. She didn’t say a word to the audience. That wasn’t a bad thing in this performance: set against the glamour of the Beacon, her rumpled presentation was actually pretty refreshing. June began her set alone in front of the stage curtains, banjo at her feet and her band members’ stools behind her, unmanned for the moment. Dressed in a lightly patterned floor length dress, her head of dreads piled over her shoulders like Medusa’s snakes, June put her hands on her hips and began to sing “Goodnight Irene.”

She had a sore throat, but you’d never have known it. After her three-man band joined her on stage, the horsepower behind her vocals picked up, and June’s voice expanded to maintain focal status on stage. The songs were louder, weirder, and better than their studio versions. Sung live, the normally mournful “Somebody To Love” was devastating and a little pissed off. The songs were plaintive on Pushing Against A Stone, but carried the meanness and swagger of much louder songs when June performed them live.

“I love you, Valerie June!” a male voice called, while she was between songs. June cast up her eyes in the vague direction of the voice and paused, finally answering, sort of half-heartedly, “That’s more’n I can say for…the man who put the ring on my finger.” It was sort of a half-baked exchange.

“Uh, they don’t let me out much. Can’t take me anywhere. And I can’t be told, neither,” she continued, promptly launching into the last song of her slim set, “You Cant Be Told.” It made sense as a closer: it’s the heaviest, catchiest rock song in June’s arsenal, though the strange power of her voice in songs like “Workin’ Woman Blues” trumped any bass line. When the song was done, June stepped away from the mic, slung her purse over her shoulder, and stalked off the stage.

Though June and headlining act Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings had plenty in common—they’re both soulful, female-fronted groups with blues influences—Jones’ performance was spectacularly theatrical. Flanked by a large, swanky assembly of horns, strings and vocals, Jones danced all over the stage, bending down to touch her fans and exchanging warm shimmies with her band members. The night’s performance was a celebration: Sharon Jones fought cancer in 2013, causing the release of her new album Give The People What They Want to be pushed back to January of this year. She only recently started playing shows again, but Jones went hard. She appeared at the Beacon triumphantly bald in a glitzy gold dress, unabashedly vocal—and funny—about her struggle to get back to music. “I don’t want you to look at my feet,” Jones proclaimed, pointing down towards her shoes. She’d turned her insecurity on its head, rocking out wiglessly and pushing her endurance with a long, acrobatic set.

“Get up and dance!” Jones commanded. The entire house obliged and began to dance. The high-energy performance included a lot of new songs off Give The People, polished and boisterously strong. The set was long, and neither Jones nor the dancing audience showed any signs of slowing down. After about an hour and a half of the bluesy soul music—the brass, the dancing, the acrobatic vocals—I was exhausted. Sharon Jones was not. As I slipped out the back, the party raged on, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones and her soul party were still whooping it up on the Beacon’s stage right now.

LIVE REVIEW: Quilt @ Mercury Lounge


Quilt’s show on Feb. 28 was supposed to take place at Rough Trade, so obviously it took place at Mercury Lounge instead. It was an early show, with Quilt mounting the stage promptly at 9pm, but that seemed to suit the night’s comfortable vibe.

Natalie Mering, otherwise known as Weyes Blood, opened the show, joining Quilt for the remaining duration of their North American tour. She sings with her eyes closed, swaying gently as she grasps the microphone or strums her guitar, alone on stage but completely captivating the audience nonetheless. Her deep, ‘60s vocals bear a strong resemblance to Nico’s, but her loose-fitting, all white pantsuit somehow made her seem like a female John Lennon that night. Mering closed her set with a spellbinding cover of “Everybody’s Talkin,” originally by Fred Neil but made famous by Harry Nilsson. She infused the frequently covered track with her own soulfully haunting style, spinning it into some kind of trippy gospel song.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”]

Weyes Blood

Then came one of my favorite moments of every show: the moment when the venue’s lights are dimmed and the audience hushes its tones, turning away from its conversations to look towards the stage in anticipation of the main act. Quilt are a band that know how to milk that moment, and they appeared on stage with quietly reverberating guitars, framing their entrance with an ambient sound that whooshed all around the room, building up tension slowly but surely. The four-some took their time syncing up to each other, leisurely allowing themselves the right moment to start playing. And then, they started.

Opening with recently released Held In Splendor’s last song, “I Sleep in Nature,” Quilt used the hazy, lazy song to settle into their groove. Their live performances make it clear that their tunes hardly follow a pattern, which means their shows are equally as schizophrenic: you may be flailing to try and keep up with their guitar freak-outs one second, and the next, you may be gently swaying with arms floating listlessly by your side. “Saturday Bride” was a particularly memorable display of this ability, as Quilt flipped from one pace to another in virtuosic fashion, coaxing some dancing out of the laid back crowd. At a live show, you start to wonder how the band are able to keep up with their own compositions.

Many of their songs bled seamlessly into one another, with Quilt hardly saying a word other than “Thanks.” In fact, it was only about halfway through the show that the band greeted the crowd, adding a complaint about the bitter cold. But the room was warm and aglow with Quilt’s vintage folk sounds and Anna Fox Rochinski’s hypnotizing, honeyed vocals. Her gorgeous voice shone with songs like the popular “Arctic Shark.”

The brick walls and intimate size of the Lounge made for a great setting, but with music like this, you can’t help wishing you were outside in the sunshine, your bare toes dancing on fresh grass and the sun melting through your eyelids. Quilt’s songs truly come to life when played live. You get the feeling that the band are just having a great time jamming with one another, and they warmly invite the audience to have a great time with them.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]