New York summers are often hot, sweaty affairs lived out in steamy subway passages and brick-oven apartments on the 5th floor of old walk-ups. The grime and stifling temperatures create a potion so toxic that the city wisely offers its residents a wide range of free seasonal events, as though in apology. From film screenings in parks to outdoor concerts, New York’s public establishments invite us to celebrate these dog days, when most of us might rather be curled up in the fetal position next to our window ledge air conditioners.
These past few weeks have been especially brutal, and it was with considerable reluctance that I made my way through the dog-breath of the F train to Hudson River Park for their free River Rocks Thursday concert. New York came through, though, and managed once again to prove itself a city of both the worst and best surprises, offered side by inexplicable side.
The “gates open” time was posted as six o’clock with the concert at eight; I arrived at about seven, not knowing what to expect, but there was plenty of both time and space to spare. The evening’s crowd never grew to be overwhelmingly large, and it was easy to negotiate a spot close to the front throughout the concert. Though if you do arrive early, there are many delicious treats to indulge in, including: empanadas, ice cream, lobster rolls, and beer stands. These are all at your elbow, ready to help you pass the time and fill your stomach.
The night’s music opened with Dawes, a band of young “dudes” from Los Angeles. They took the stage around 7:30 and played a healthy 45-minutes set. Though in recordings their sound is rootsy and Carolinian, in concert they are pure classic rock and reminded me by turns of Jackson Brown, Elton John, and the Eagles. This is a solid combination that, in the right hands, could lend itself to some interesting reinvention for today’s audiences.
Unfortunately, rather than allow those predecessors to act as fertilization for something new, Dawes has an old sound that is just that and not much more. With lyrics like, “If I wanted someone to clean me up/I would have got a maid,” these boys are unapologetically writing songs for the masses. While writing easily accessible songs is not in itself an unworthy endeavor, offering them in forty-year-old packaging, without refurbishment, may be. In order to gain the attention their eager performance so clearly seeks, Dawes needs to find a way to freshen their material, whether lyrically or musically, to captivate the modern music-saturated listener (many of whom were texting while waiting for the main act to take the stage.)
Phosphorescent is (conveniently) a great example of what Dawes fails to achieve. Self-categorized as “Experimental/Gospel/2-step,” Phosphorescent draws on a wide base of genre influence and, depending on the album or song, could be described as honkytonk, country, swing, blues, choral gothic, and even, yes, classic rock. As someone who has seen Matthew Houck and his crew a few times in various venues, I can say that this is a band of good ol’-fashioned bar boys who need to rage a little against the dying light. Given the impersonal distance of the Hudson River’s elevated stage, complete with advertising banners, I was concerned that the spirit of their musical howling might be lost in transmission.
Their opening numbers seemed to confirm that fear as a few numbers from this May’s Here’s To Taking It Easy were played politely, and a little deflated. Houck struggled with his guitar through a track from Pride before laying it aside; his reluctance was palpable and for a moment I thought the concert, insofar as the musicians’ investment in the music, was over. But this is one of the greatest strengths of Phosphorescent as a live act: when these guys play, they are living the music.
The deceptively “simple” task of concentrating on the work at hand, allowing circumstances to inform but not dictate, is something any good performer knows how to practice. So Houck, by now a semi-seasoned tour veteran, showed his stripes and to his credit the momentary technical frustration seemed to lodge something loose and propel him forward into the songs with new energy. By the time the band played their third encore, “At Death, a Proclamation,” the distance between stage and audience felt smaller, the water’s breeze felt cooler, and a summer night in New York felt beautiful again.
*Immediately after this show, Phosphorescent’s van was stolen with all of their gear inside. After a weekend spent canceling the first couple shows of their six-week run and scrambling to re-equip, supported by donations from their generous fanbase, the van was recovered with everything inside and intact.
Hudson River Park River Rocks Free Shows
August 12 – Deerhunter w/ Real Estate
July 23 – Maxwell’s – Hoboken, NJ
July 24 – Montauk Surf Lodge – Montauk, NY
July 27 – Rumba Café – Columbus, OH
July 28 – WFPK Waterfront Wednesdays (FREE) – Louisville, KY
July 29 – Capitol Theatre – York, PA
July 30 – Sherman Theater – Stroudsburg, PA
July 31 – Newport Folk Festival – Newport, RI
July 23 – Kessler Theatre – Dallas, TX
July 24 – The Foundation – Lubbock, TX
July 26 – Plush – Tucson, AZ
July 27 – The Troubadour – Los Angeles, CA
July 28 – Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco, CA
July 30 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
July 31 – Crocodile Café – Seattle, WA
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– Britt Sondreal