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Tag: Academy Blues Project review

A Sharply Amusing New Record From One of New York’s Best Psychedelic Bands

For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.

Although they’ve released a  handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.

The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.

Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.

The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.

Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.

All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:

And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade

Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.

They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.

A Long Awaited New Album and a Long Harlem Residency From the Unpredictable, Psychedelic Academy Blues Project

The Academy Blues Project are New York’s hardest working psychedelic band. They’ve got a gig somewhere just about every week. As a result, their sprawling epics and slinky soul jams have become incredibly tight: it’s rare to see a group with this kind of chemistry. And they finally have a long-awaited new ep, Let’s Brunch Vol. 1- the first in a series of three – streaming at their music page. The group like residencies: this month and next, beginning on Jan 7, they’re playing Monday nights at 8 PM at a favorite haunt, the comfortably scruffy Shrine in Harlem.

The first of the new tracks is a tasty instrumental, 1001, which sounds like a heavier Chicha Libre covering the Meters. Ben Easton’s carnivalesque organ gives it the Peruvian psych flavor, echoed by frontman/guitarist Mark Levy over a tight, trebly strut from bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom.

The album’s second cut is Boo, a briskly shuffling, 60s Motown-tinged soul tune. Easton’s prickling clavinova adds wry Sly Stone flavor. just when Levy’s chicken-scratch guitar solo really gets cooking, they fade it down.

Pyewacker, another instrumental, is a surreal mix of proto-metal and heavy soul – it could be early Santana fronting Rare Earth, Levy’s spiky guitar contrasting with Easton’s smoky organ. The final cut, Into the Blue, has a gorgeously wistful guitar-and-organ intro straight out of the Nektar playbook, then straightens out into vampy post Blonde on Blonde rock, a broodingly nocturnal New Jersey scenario. It’s a tantalizing moment of clarity, as Levy puts it, amid the group’s innumerable stylistic shifts. You can bet this blog will be in the house for at least one of the Shrine gigs.

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

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.

The Academy Blues Project: Great Psychedelic Band in Need of a New Name

Saturday night at Shrine, the Academy Blues Project put on a kaleidoscopically psychedelic, boisterously entertaining and sometimes LMFAO funny display of killer chops and deliciously unpredictable songwriting that spun through pretty much every good style of music from the 1970s, other than punk. The bandname is a misnomer: there’s absolutely nothing academic about them, nor are they particularly bluesy. If you’re into psychedelic rock and you’re in New York right now, they should be at the top of your bucket list along with Greek Judas.

Throughout two long sets, intros and outros constantly shifted away from whatever the song in between was. It was like Baskin-Robbins and Ben & Jerry’s combined – although it was straight-up Coffee Ice Cream that might have been the night’s best song, a biting, glittering, rhythmically tricky art-rock instrumental that recalled Nektar at their most epic, The band have a Big Lebowski fixation, and are playing a tribute to The Dude on Oct 28 at 10 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

A raven-haired beauty at one of the front tables confided that she’d spent a good portion of her freshman year at NYU watching Gentle Giant videos with the core of the band. Which made sense – there was plenty of that band’s epically matter-of-fact, crescendoing sensibility in the songs. Peter Gabriel-era Genesis was another obvious influence, particularly in keyboardist Ben Easton’s carnivalesque neoromantic cascades, along with plenty of sly funk, eerie noir soul, balmy tropicalia and the occasional menacingly tidal organ interlude.

Guitarist/frontman Mark Levy has chops to match, shifting effortlessly through deep-sky spirals, leering Steely Dan funk, roaring four-on-the-floor Stonesy rock, a little chicken-fried southern boogie, and a gritty, hard-hitting oldschool New Orleans soul tribute to Allen Toussaint that suddenly shifted gears in midstream into a tantalizing, rhythmically tricky maze. He led the band out of a Keith Richards stadium rock stomp into a similar acid Lego passage, made latin soul and then a hammering, almost motorik drive out of a popular Disney film theme and then swung the band through Dylan’s The Man in Me, from the Big Lebowski soundtrack.

The funniest song of the night was Little Bird, Levy talking his way through a surreal encounter with a peace-loving feathered friend who hates the “human stink” of plastic and burning trash and bombs: it’s hard to think of a more gently apropos antiviolence anthem for this  year.

The night’s most epic number flowed in and out of a tongue-in-cheek, mariachi-tinged surf theme that the band sped up until they’d practically brought it full circle, when doublespeed was regular speed again. It was that kind of night. Drummer Jim Bloom and bassist Trevor Brown kept a tight pulse in sync with all the crazy changes; Brown finally danced some suspenseful octaves on an intro to one of the later numbers. All of the great psychedelic bands – the Dead with Phil Lesh, Nektar with Mo Moore, the Move with Ace Kefford and then Rick Price – put the bass out front a lot, and it wouldn’t hurt for this crew to keep that tradition going.