New York’s Most Purposeful Psychedelic Band at the Top of Their Game Last Night

by delarue

If there’s any psychedelic band in New York who deserve a Saturday night gig at a good Manhattan venue, it’s the Academy Blues Project. They got one at Joe’s Pub last night, celebrating the release of their characteristically protean new album Let’s Brunch, Vol. 1 and made the most of it.

For a band who can go on as epically as these guys do, they don’t play a lot of notes: they’re the world’s least noodly jamband. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy took a bunch of solos, from pensive jangle to ferocious volleys of purist blues to some southern-fried boogie to buffoonish bluegrass and menacing chromatics, and no matter how fast he was firing off notes, he was always going somewhere. Keyboardist Ben Easton’s expansive, punchy piano chords, marionettishly echoing Fender Rhodes riffs and swirly organ gave the music an orchestral expanse while bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom added subtlety and color, especially when the music got quiet.

The highlight of the night might have been a new instrumental, 1001, from the new album, a mashup of psychedelic cumbia and soul as the Meters might have done it, Levy’s sharp-fanged chromatics echoing Easton’s phantasmagorically icy keyboard intro. Another standout, which underscores how amazingly diverse this band can be, was another new song, possibly titled Christmas in the City. It came across as the great lost tune from Born to Run, right down to Easton’s spot-on, glimmering evocation of Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan. Levy subtly evoked the tension between fearlessness and conformity in an economically imperiled metropolis where no matter how much this time of year might be a reprieve from global warming-era swelter, it’s not hard to imagine being “homeless shaking hands with the unemployed.”

In the wake of that one, a practically punk take of the Kinks’ Father Christmas packed a punch. They revisited that powerpop stomp later in the set with an anthem that could have been Blondie with a male soul singer out front.

Another unselfconsciously poignant moment was The Wrong Thing, a towering oldschool soul ballad in 6/8 time capped off by a long, searing Levy solo. By contrast, Little Birdie, a surreal account of Levy encountering a peacenik feathered friend with a cautionary tale for all us humans, was more playful, even if the music masked a sinister undercurrent. Levy saved his most calmly breathtaking intensity for the bracing chromatics and whole-tone scales in the night’s most unpredictable number, constantly shifting between doublespeed and back. There was an awful lot more going on, but it would take a small book to include it all. Watch this space for upcoming shows by a this astonishingly un-self-indulgent band.