Live Review: Jess Labus at Rockwood Music Hall

Jess Labus

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jess Labus

Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY

November 7, 2016

The Backstory

Yes, I’m in New York this week. On Sunday night, my wife and I saw an exceptional show on Broadway, Cirque du Soleil: Paramour. And last night, I was on the Lower East Side catching some great, local live music, the first of several sets I’ll be seeing — and reviewing — this week. In this case, I spent a bit of time sifting through performers on Monday’s night’s docket around the City, so I was not at all surprised to be entertained by Jess Labus. [Ed. Note: Since this review posted, Jess is now Jes Justice.]

I arrived just a few minutes before the set time, so I only heard one song of the previous artist, whose name I didn’t seek out, but who sang a stirring rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.” And then it was time for Jess to take the stage.

Jess Labus

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Concert

Jess Labus delivered a strong vocal performance at Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2 last night. Her individual songs called heavily upon a wide variety of musical styles but all centered around her own brand of pop-rock, driven by vocal power in much the same way Pat Benatar’s songs are. But the way her voice can power a song is the basis for the Benatar comparison. There was a very different band whose sound Jess and her band continually reminded me of, driven as much by the songwriting as by Jess’ voice. Unfortunately, the name of that band — a major, successful mid-tempo rock band from the last decade — escapes me. That’s the downside of writing a live review; I don’t have weeks to try to remember, as I would for an album review.

Jess Labus

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jess kicked the set off solo with her acoustic guitar, singing “Levi,” sporting the most expressive version of her versatile voice, cracking for emotional effect in the right spots. The song’s engaging texture was a result of Jess’ voice really dancing around the melody, moving around within the pocket. In the end, there was a bit of a rockin’ country-folk vibe, in part because it was a story-song, though the way she delivered it gave it more of a Gavin DeGraw (“I Don’t Want to Be”) feel.

The entire band joined Jess for the rest of the set, beginning with “California,” a mid-tempo number whose big sound came from the hooky guitar line and the keys’ rich organ sound, which supported Jess’ vocal roars. Indeed, as nice as the solo acoustic opener was, Jess’ talented, equally versatile supporting cast was the key to the breadth and depth of the set.

Jess Labus

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Next up was “Downtown,” a funky rockin’ vocal track that would fall in the power pop-rock category. It was followed by “I’ll Just Be a Prostitute,” whose bluesy vocal and guitar riff were so catchy they’d almost ensure that, by the end of a second or third listen, if it was on the radio or an album I owned, I’d be singing along. (I had started by the end of the song last night, the first time I heard it.)

“Break Me” featured a powerful, strong vocal, though the song’s engine was really its rhythm. “Come Over,” next, had kind of a funky R&B rhythm supporting Jess’ more soulfully delivered vocal. Next up was “Judgment Day,” a high-energy rocker with power guitars; this song did, in fact, feature a short, blistering axe solo.

Jess closed her set with “Quietly,” which she delivered as a bit of a torch song, continuing to showcase her vocal versatility. And when vocals are delivered with a bluesy, down-home, country edge like this, you call it crooning.

Jess Labus

photo by Geoff Wilbur

After the engaging set, Jess treated the audience to an unveiling of her new, not-yet-released video for the song “Judgment Day,” a tale of gin — or, perhaps, wine — and salvation.

An energetic performance from a powerful singer with a talented band is a great way to kick off a week of live shows. And, indeed, this performance has left me looking forward to hearing more of Jess Labus’ music.

Looking Ahead

Jess’ website has upcoming shows listed in Manchester, NH on December 2nd, in both Bennington and Barre, VT on December 3rd, and in Brooklyn, NY on December 8th. Check out the “tour” page of her website for additional information and new dates as they’re added.

The Road Back #9: Ilona

The Road Back to Music Journalism #9 (Bonus): Ilona’s Music Industry Showcase

Invitation to a Music Industry Showcase

Summer 2015

Ilona

Ilona, Tony Moore, and KT Parker at Rockwood Music Hall; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Backstory

I had discovered Ilona’s music early on during my return to new music discovery. In fact, her CD Thunderstorm was the second CD I purchased from overseas. I had also tweeted quite a bit about Ilona’s music as far back as January 2014, and she often replied with thanks. But we really didn’t start communicating until after I ordered the CDs and they failed to arrive. Sound familiar? (It would if you read Road Back #6.) Yes, twice I ordered CDs from the UK from different bands, and both times they failed to arrive the first time. In any case, thus began our communication, as the method I chose to reach out and ask about the CDs was managed by Ilona herself, not her management. Many months later, when Ilona came to the U.S., I tried to connect her with one of my industry contacts. Though it fell through in the end, I was able to be free from work on the day of her showcase, and she invited me to attend.

Ilona

Ilona, Tony Moore, and KT Parker at Rockwood Music Hall; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Why This Was a Step on the Road Back

Technically, I had already decided to start the blog by this time and had set October as the launch date for the blog, but if I hadn’t already decided, this cool event almost certainly would have “sealed the deal.” First, I received an incredibly warm welcome from Ilona, her band, and her management, even though I was “merely” a former music journalist who tweeted occasionally. I’ve been treated well on a variety of occasions with just that background, but it’s still the sort of thing that reminds me how many wonderful, nice people there are in the music biz. Second, wow, it was a very cool event. I’ll review Ilona’s outstanding performance below, but yes, this is the sort of thing that reminds me why I was involved in music for so many years, and it absolutely would have been the final push needed for my decision to return if I hadn’t already made that decision a few weeks earlier.

Ilona

Tony Moore, Ilona, and KT Parker at The Cutting Room; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Live review: Ilona at Rockwood Music Hall; Ilona at The Cutting Room

The night — or late afternoon, perhaps — kicked off with Ilona’s Rockwood Music Hall showcase. She performed a short set for a small, invited audience. The songs I recall from the set were two that show off Ilona’s incredible power vocals, energetic mid-tempo pop-rocker “Back to You” and powerful ballad “I Still Fall For You,” plus her latest single at the time, the countrified crooner “Beautiful Country.” During the set, Ilona showcased her vocals, which are every bit as strong live as they are on her recordings, and her stage presence, as she shares her engaging personality with the crowd in such a way that she naturally wins over the audience.

Later that night, Ilona had a relatively early set at The Cutting Room, and she rocked the crowd, giving another solid, skillful performance. Much of the set was similar to the showcase set, but she also trotted out “Wrong Places,” a song she ably uses for crowd participation purposes and for which she shot her most recent music video. For both shows Ilona was flanked by Tony Moore on guitar and keys and KT Parker on bass.

But that’s hardly a review. So let me tell you about Ilona’s vocals. Just wow. Her raspy voice adds edge to everything from soft rock ballads to uptempo pop-rockers. There is a hint of country in her voice at times, particularly on “Beautiful Country,” and even I suggested there was a hint of country-rock in “I Still Fall For You” in one of my tweets, but while she might be a great country duet partner (as Kelly Clarkson and Shakira have been), Ilona’s sweet spot is power pop/rock. I’d expect to hear her on radio stations that played Kelly Clarkson, Pink, and Jessie J. Songs like “Love is Stupid” and “Move (Together as One)” highlight this sort of energy, as does the newest song, almost blues-rocker “Wrong Places.” (By the way, I predict “Wrong Places” will be a live-show favorite for years to come.)

Ilona also swings a little mellower, especially with a couple of her more recent top trackes, which would place her squarely in the style of some more adult soft rock radio playlists, as well. Listen to “Back to You,” particularly the tuneful vocal wail at the 2:30 mark of the song. (In the “Back to You” music video, it’s at the 2:43 mark.) That’s a power rocker’s vocal chops with a balladic pop/rocker’s sensibilities. “I Still Fall For You” is similar. And, of course, “Beautiful Country” is a country-themed slow song.

Fast songs, slow songs, and an instantly-identifiable, exceptionally expressive, raspy, amazingly powerful voice. Ilona impresses more with each listen, and impresses even more if you’re able to see her perform live. She’s a unique, one-of-a-kind talent with a trademark sound. Exactly the sort of artist worth checking out.

My Return to Music Journalism is Complete; What’s Next for the Blog?

Those are the nine steps that brought me back to music journalism. Starting tonight, October 27th, I’ll be kicking off a series of 5 nights in London with coverage of Bob Malone’s concert at the 100 Club. On Thursday, October 29th, I’ll be at the Troubadour to hear Sonya Titus, who you may recognize as the subject of article #4 in the “road back” series. I’m still deciding where to go each of the other three nights, but I do intend to tweet about it. So if you’re in London, come out and catch some great music with me.

After that, I’ll work to get some additional writers involved, and the blog will become its long-term self, a mix of song/album reviews, live reviews, and interviews. After today, you can expect no more than one article each day, so rest assured if you’re an e-mail subscriber, you won’t be inundated. I hope you enjoy, and here’s to a nice, long run!

 

The Road Back #8: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

The Road Back to Music Journalism #8: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings at Rockwood Music Hall

Spring 2015

Discovering a New Band at a Bar

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

photo by Larufoto; photo courtesy of Bridget Davis

The Backstory

I was spending a weekend in New York, and the friend with whom I was having dinner on Saturday evening suggested catching a few sets at Rockwood Music Hall. We arrived mid-set for one group and stayed for two more. The second of the three groups that evening was Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings. Between sets, I found myself standing next to Bridget and struck up a conversation, complimenting her on the band and offering a couple thoughts I had during the set. Even in the decade-plus away from music journalism, I still always examined the music I listened to; I wrote reviews in my head whenever I was at a show or spinning a new CD. And even with all those years away, I still felt compelled to share what I thought, particularly with the musicians themselves. I, of course, was able to quickly share my background, and that has been enough both online and in person to get the attention and appreciation of the musicians with whom I share my thoughts. I enjoy this part of being involved in the music business. And that night in June was no different.

Why This Was a Step on the Road Back

It’s one thing to share thoughts and exchange notes online, but it’s quite another to do it in person. This is what I used to love so much about being a music magazine publisher. Of course, in that moment, I merely signed up for Bridget’s mailing list and planned to look more closely into the music when I got home. But that night, combined with all of the previous steps on the road back (and indeed I had started to consider the thought of a return), was the event that cemented my decision to finally launch this blog. The decision didn’t exactly come immediately. In a sense it did, but it took a few more weeks for me to convince myself. For the launch date, I picked out a week in late October, a time when I would have some vacation days, as a good time to get the blog started with a complete set of informational pages and a flurry of posts. As you can see, that’s what I’ve done. So, even though it wasn’t immediate, step #8 was essentially the last step on my road back. (But yes, there will be a step #9 article. One more thing happened that would have sealed the deal, if it had been necessary, and it certainly convinced me not to reverse course on my decision. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Live Review: Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings at Rockwood Music Hall

June 13, 2015

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings

photo by Geoff Wilbur

First of all, apologies for the blurry photo. I bumped a setting on my camera during the evening but didn’t realize it until later that night. But you can sort of make out Bridget and her bandmates in the picture, can’t you? OK, then let’s start the review.

Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings songs’ have what I refer to, for lack of a better phrase, as “engines” – those often-song-long rhythmic hooks that seem to be BD+VKs’ signature (sometimes a bass line, sometimes a guitar line, occasionally drum-based, once in a while even vocal) are the band’s strength, what sets them apart from other bands in their genre. Bridget has great vocals, of course, but I think their songs (not just the songs themselves but their unique songwriting style, namely their songs’ “motors” or “engines” – yes, I can’t decide which word is more descriptive) are their real advantage.

Indeed, when I sought out Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings’ music after the show, I started with the most recent EP, January. And I instantly recognized the songs that had drawn me in during the live show, “The Breakdown” – I easily that song’s “motor” from a couple days earlier – and “January.” Also, perhaps “Jonas,” though I didn’t take any notes at the show, so I can’t be sure. But if you want an introduction to the band’s music, there is no better introduction than “The Breakdown.” The song is one long hook, with a pulsing acoustic rhythm you’ll be hearing long after the song is done and vocals that rise and fall perfectly with the melody and as called for in the lyrics.

As a whole, the folk-rock style embodied by Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings – a sort of alt-rock folk with a pinch of Americana – tends to be song-driven rather than vocalist-driven. And while Bridget’s voice is sweet and clear with an odd waver when called for (well-suited to, perhaps, a Chris Isaak style tune), it’s not the band’s calling card. In fact, it’s just a part. It’s the songwriting, notably the hooks (or “motors”), that define BD & the VKs. This is a band whose music – as expressed through its well-crafted songs – is the reason you can identify the artist so easily when you hear the songs. And I give the group immense credit for forging its own path; I’ve heard so much folk-rock and Americana that just sits on the record sounding pretty but doesn’t distinguish itself. That’s why I’m so high on Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings, a strong band with catchy songs… and a unique sound in a genre in which it’s hard to sound unique.

Looking Ahead

Actually, this is looking ahead to a future article but looking back for the band. About a month ago, Bridget Davis and the Viking Kings released a full-length album, I Wasn’t Planning on the End. My commitment to buy that album when it was released was the last financial musical commitment I made before deciding to return to writing. About a month ago, on the day it was released, I purchased the album. You can look forward to a review of it in the next few weeks. Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed.