Drummers do all the heavy lifting and usually get none of the credit, so this is to give credit where it’s due. As dynamic as Jenifer Jackson and LJ Murphy are, each got to take their shows this past weekend to the next level because of who was behind the drum kit. Each show was intense, in a completely different way: Jackson dreamy and hypnotic, Murphy careening through one catchy, blues-infused rock song after another. At Rockwood Music Hall Friday night, Jackson was unselfconsciously blissed out to be playing with most of the New York crew she’d made her 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town album with: Matt Kanelos on piano, Elysian Fields’ Oren Bloedow on guitar, Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek behind the kit. The original Rockwood space is small, and some drummers just don’t get it, hammering away like John Bonham. From his first suspenseful brushstroke, Wieczorek set a mood and never wavered, sometimes pushing Jackson’s often inscrutable grooves with just a shaker and a muted kick beat. And when a chorus would rise to a swell, he’d let the band take it. He was just there enough to swing the beat, almost imperceptibly shifting it into bossa nova, or adding quiet, counterintuitive cymbal splashes or hi-hat accents: had he not been there, it wouldn’t have been the same.
The rest of the band seemed to be just as blissed out to be playing with Jackson. Mercer’s moody, sepulchral solo on the night’s opening song, Maybe, set the tone right off the bat; Kanelos’ tersely majestic chords gave a mesmerizing glimmer to I Remember – done here as part Beatles, part countrypolitan – and a long, psychedelic take of The War Is Done. Jackson has been a great rock singer for a long time: she’s a great jazz singer now. The way she suddenly leaped off the page impatiently as the chorus rose on the brisk bossa shuffle Suddenly Unexpectedly, and the way she spun clever little circles around the ridiculously catchy chorus of Bring on the Night was impossible to turn away from. She ended the show with a mostly solo acoustic version of The Beauty in the Emptying, a wistful country ballad on the surface, underneath a characteristically resilient, tenacious resolution not to concede defeat. From a bon vivant like Jackson, it was a logical way to end this particular reunion with a crowd of longtime fans who were just as psyched to see her as she seemed to be to see them.
Saturday at Otto’s, Murphy went in a completely diffferent direction: this time it was drummer Andrew Guterman who kept the machine from jumping the rails. It’s not like Murphy had been freed from being behind a guitar – it’s an important part of his stage act – but on account of a recent hand injury, he had to stick to just vocals at this show. But instead of doing the crooner set, Murphy pulled out all the stops and all his big rockers, seizing the opportunity to unleash some of his inner James Brown, scatting along with outros, bringing the band almost to a stop in a split second and then back up again. And for what amounted to a pickup band, these guys – Patrick McLellan on piano, Tommy Hoscheid on Les Paul and Nils Sorensen on bass – were amazingly on top of their game. And Guterman kept the energy level going through the roof without drowning out his bandmates, whether elevating the bitter Same Trick beyond mere Stax/Volt homage, or giving the inscrutably caustic Nowhere Now a drive that went over the edge into punk.
Murphy is a 99 percenter to the core, and his lyrics resonated more than ever considering what was happening in Foley Square. Whether snarling about how “crosses and pistols are slung at our hips,” ridiculing the one percenter – an “elegant tormentor stripped of all his polyester” – getting his freak on in a dungeon just a stone’s throw from Wall Street, or warning of the day when “a sermon blares all night from the roof of a radio car,” there was a defiant I-told-you-so in his carnivalesque, blues-drenched vocal assault. The band careened through the afterwork nightmare scenario of Happy Hour with a deliciously sarcastic, blissed-out attack, only to follow with the tense apprehension of Bovine Brothers, a look at the kind of future that the Occupy protestors are also warning us about, where “the hand that you’ve been pumping turns into a handsome snake, with only one regret because he’s running out of bones to break.” After winding up the set with a punishing version of the surreal late-night psychology session Blue Silence and then encoring with an equally raucous Barbed Wire Playpen (the one about the S&M hedge fund guy), the crowd still wanted more. But the excellent Highway Gimps – sort of a cross between Motorhead and My Bloody Valentine – were next on the bill.