New York Music Daily

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Tag: greg wieczorek

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

Matt Keating and Band Put On a Clinic in Purposeful Janglerock

Last night Matt Keating put on a fiery, jangly, two-guitar full-band show. Beyond the catchiness of the tunes and the cleverness – and frequent ferocity – of the lyrics, it was a consummate display of musicianship. Keating is a perfectly good lead guitarist in his own right, but he’d chosen this time to give that job to Steve Mayone, who put on a clinic in good taste and judicious use of as few notes as possible. Rare in a guitarist, rarer still in a lead player. Mayone’s first solo was a blue-flame scorcher that ended in a flurry of tremolo-picking, so it seemed that he’d take it even higher after that. Nope. As it turned out, he stayed on the counterintuitive tip, first choosing his spots through a series of short, bluesy, single-note leads, often using a vintage analog chorus pedal for a deliciously watery, ominous tone. As the show went on, he switched on and off between that and more of a biting, distorted timbre, finally cutting loose and blazing his way to the top of the fretboard on one of the closing numbers.

Meanwhile, bassist Jason Mercer filled the role of second lead guitarist with his lithe slides, slithery upward runs and stairstepping moves toward the looming, foggy bottom of his hollowbody Danelectro SG copy. Like Mayone, drummer and longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator Greg Wieczorek was all about counterintuitivity, throwing elbows and unexpected accents when a space would open up. To max out the textures, he cushioned his snare with a cloth on one of the early numbers and varied his attack from song to song: sometimes he’d be hitting the snare with a stick and the rest of the kit with a bundle, or with brushes, or he’d switch from mallets to sticks as a song would rise from misterioso to anthemic. Keating began on acoustic and then switched to Strat for couple of the harder-rocking, more Stonesy songs, although he saved his most intense wailing for the acoustic on the loudest number of the night, an unhinged, practically brutal version of They’ve Thrown You Away. It’s classic Keating, a searingly imagistic Flyover America narrative that ponders a lot of things, not the least whether or not the guy with designs on the damaged woman at the center of the narrative can drive her home from her job at the roadside corporate chain since he might have gotten his license revoked for giving a cop the finger.

And where did the band decide to show off all this artistry? The Beacon? City Winery? Nope. Hifi Bar in the East Village, in the old Brownies space where Keating had played, probably more than once, twenty years ago. If that isn’t keeping it real, you figure out what is. The songs ran the gamut from some of the catchiest material on Keating’s characteristically dark new album, This Perfect Crime, to a pair of jangly powerpop set pieces – Saint Cloud and Louisiana – from his brilliant 2008 double cd, Quixotic – to the ghostly Coney Island 1910, to a slowly crescendoing take of the old crowd-pleaser Lonely Blue, on which Wieczorek started out by transforming it into trip-hop before picking up with a stadium-rock drive as the band reached for the rafters. Watch this space for upcoming hometown shows from this killer group.

Karla Moheno Brings Her Literate Noir Menace to the Mercury

If Karla Moheno‘s most recent show at the big room at the Rockwood was any indication, she’s going to turn the Mercury Lounge into a Twin Peaks set this January 22 at 10 PM.

Moheno personifies noir. The opium mist and airconditioned chill in her alto voice channels a lurid menace that never lifts. At the Rockwood, right from the opening bars of the first song, Silver Bucket, the band – Dylan Charles on guitar, Dan Parra on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums – teamed with her to keep the red-neon ambience simmering. That song, on Moheno’s brilliant new album, Gone to Town, clangs along with a dirty, vintage Gun Club swamp blues feel. This time out, the band gave it a lurking, nocturnal Smokestack Lightning groove until Charles launched into a screaming, lurching solo before returning back to earth with Moheno’s lilting “Ride the night to here” refrain.

The high point of the night came early with an especially menacing take of Time Well Spent, a little more vigorous than the bluesy dirge on the album. It’s a mystery story to match any creepy narrative set to music in the last few years, an allusive, ambiguous account of two killers on the run. Moheno makes it clear that she’s willing to dispose of her conspirator the minute she gets the chance: “I just can’t let it slide,” she intoned with a knowing swoop upward, eyes closed, gently swinging her Telecaster back and forth. Likewise, she put a little more playful innuendo into a slightly amped up version of the sultry oldschool soul ballad Blacked Out and Blue, Charles jaggedly reaching for the rafters again.

Interestingly, they took The Return, a vicious and deliciously swinging kiss-off song on record, down to an almost Weimar blues pulse that rose and fell over Wieczorek’s rimshot beat. “Carry me up the stairs/I’ll make believe someone cares,” she purred on the quietly murderous Mexico, a swaying 6/8 ballad set in a sleazy bordertown where everyone is on the take. And she reinvented Girl Next Door, a blackly blithe escape anthem, as a morose soul tune that Charles used as a springboard for a Marc Ribot-style axe-murderer solo.

Moheno also did a couple of older, more rock-oriented songs: Drive, which would have made a good upbeat track on Neko Case’s Blacklisted album, and Stand Back, a lingering, bucolic ballad. She closed the set with a gently pulsing, deadpan cover of the Velvets’ Femme Fatale, which had all the right touches, the guys in the band doing spot-on harmonies on the backing vocals. But Moheno also left room to believe that she wasn’t just being self-effacingly funny. Much as she joked and bantered with the crowd between songs, the extent to which she was being unserious was never clear. Go to the Mercury and decide for yourself.

The Best New York Rock Show of 2014 and Its Aftermath

The best New York rock show of 2014 was a couple of weeks ago at Bowery Electric – there’s  no way there’s going to be anything this good coming up in the next few weeks, end of story. The triplebill of folk noir singer Jessie Kilguss, lit-rock songwriter/bandleader Ward White (the two playing the album release shows for their latest ones) and Americana vet Matt Keating made for a transcendent and surprisingly thematic night of hard-hitting, emotionally potent songcraft. Much as their styles, and sets, were vastly different, they share a power and individuality as singers, as tunesmiths and lyricists.

Kilguss played first, backed by a terse, expertly tuneful band with Jason Loughlin on lead guitar, Andrea Longado on acoustic guitar, John Kengla on bass and Rob Heath on drums. Kilguss has one of those voices you hear maybe once every ten years: it’s that affecting, and sad, and unselfconsciously deep. It’s a little misty, yet direct to the point of being scary. Her new album is titled Devastate Me, but ultimately it’s the listener who’s devastated – in a good way.

Kilguss went up high when a chorus would kick in, because that’s where her songs are the most anthemic, but she doesn’t belt very hard – or at least didn’t seem to. She opened with the new album’s title track and its regretful “I let myself fall” refrain. Then she played the the single best song of the night, Red Moon. On one level, it’s a Hunger Games milieu, rebels hiding from an unseen gestapo, but on another it’s a chilling portrait of personal decline as vivid as anything Bukowski ever wrote.

The rest of the songs were just as memorable if not quite as intense: Loughlin’s guitar, always hovering around a central tone, fueled a lingering sense of unease. Kilguss followed the downcast resignation of I’m Your Prey with the indelibly catchy Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – on the surface a wistful reminiscence of a country childhood, but ultimately a tale of urban claustrophobia. The band added a resonantly psychedelic edge to A Safe Distance From You, and a couple of louder, more powerpop-oriented earlier songs, then took that to a peak on Train Song, with its towering Pink Floyd grandeur and cynically eerie narrative inspired by the time Kilguss passed out on the subway.

You might think that someone who writes songs like hers might be distant and introverted, but when she talked to the crowd she was conversational and funny. She related that recently, she finally broke out her guitar for a live show – at a hospital ward. And Wynton Marsalis was there – visiting, not convalescing, as it turned out. So her attempt to make her debut with the guitar in a low-pressure situation kind of fizzled when the famed jazz trumpeter heard her play…and then he invited her to a rehearsal at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the kind of endorsement that just falls into your lap. Kilguss and band are at Red Hook Bait & Tackle on a twinbill with Matt Keating on Dec 12 starting at around 9.

Where Kilguss is disarmingly direct, nobody writes songs that stand up to more repeated listening – or for that matter require more repeated listening – than Ward White does. The images and changes in narrators in the songs in his all-too-brief, roughly fifty-minute set flashed by in rapid succession, to the point where it made the most sense just to enjoy the suspenseful builds to the anthemic choruses, the jokes that would jump out, and the raw yet ornately orchestrated power of the band onstage. The night’s single most intense musical moment was toward the end of the fiery, pounding Bikini, where violinist Claudia Chopek built a shivery crescendo evoking the nuclear holocaust on the uninhabitable island of its title. Keyboardist Joe McGinty’s elegant electric harpsichord (yeah, harpsichord, just like on all those old Doors albums) gave both surprising gravitas and tongue-in-cheek drollery to the surreal Bacharach S&M pop of Alphabet of Pain and the jazzy Rash, which had its own torture references.

Bassist Bryan Smith supplied the equivalent of a second lead guitar to bolster White’s own sometimes searing, sometimes aching lead guitar lines over Everet Almond’s crushing drums while Victoria Liedtke’s backing vocals added another layer of punch and poignancy. Meanwhile, White teased the crowd with one narrative voice after another. There was the narcissistic gay boss (Rudy Giuliani? Michael Bloomberg? Bill DiBlasio?) kicking the male hooker out of his place over a faux-disco beat on I’ll Make It Up to You; the quiet sadist ready to grill his prey in the Lynchian Dolores on the Dotted Line; and the dotty, aging protagonist intent on buying a mylar balloon for a granddaughter? girlfriend? The answer wasn’t clear. That’s not White’s style lately. For more intrigue, he’s playing Mercury Lounge at 7 PM on Dec 2 with this band.

Matt Keating brought the night full circle, both with his band and his songs. Lead guitarist Steve Mayone echoed Loughlin’s defiant refusal to resolve, to allow any easy answers, throughout Keating’s restless, uneasy but explosively crescendoing songs. There was a lot of new material on the bill, no surprise since Keating has a new album due out early next year. Bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek alternated between a steady backbeat and a slinky soul groove as Keating opened with an angst-fueled narrative focusing on a woman who did some time behind bars for “giving the finger to a uniform” – Springsteen and Tom Waits only wish they wrote stories of the down-and-out this vividly.

From there Keating led the group through the metaphorically-charged Maker of Carousels – a devastatingly sad waltz – to a searing, anthemic take of his concert favorite Lonely Blue, then a departure into Coney Island soul, then lushly gorgeous janglerock with the airy but chilling Saint Cloud and Louisiana, a biting post-Hurricane Katrina narrative. Keating joins Kilguss on the bill in Red Hook on Dec 12.

Reconstructing Jenifer Jackson

Bad Cop: Welcome to another episode. This one really is an episode.

Good Cop: And it’s all your fault.

Bad Cop: Being the B team at this blog has its rewards. We get to see a lot of good shows…

Good Cop: We get to see the best shows. What’s been happening lately is that we’ve taken on the job of covering concerts by artists who’ve gotten press here before. Considering that they’ve been designated for coverage on multiple occasions means that they’re got to be pretty good. Psychedelic Americana songwriter Jenifer Jackson is one of those artists, and she has a show coming up at the small room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 21. It’s a good lineup, with jazz singer Joanna Wallfisch at 9 and then noir guitar legend Jim Campilongo and his trio doing their weekly show at 10.

Bad Cop: Are we going?

Good Cop: I hope so. We saw her show at the other space here on Allen Street back in March and it was amazing, one of the best ones I’ve seen this year.

Bad Cop: I’ll second that.

Good Cop: And this doofus [motions toward Bad Cop] lost the recording. Which means that in order to explain what she sounds like onstage, we basically have to reconstruct what happened several months ago, and to be honest, I can’t remember a lot of it. If I’m correct, this was the show where Jenifer announced that she had a new name for her band: the Denim Bridge. As she explained it, that phrase popped up randomly in conversation, one of those “wow, great band name” moments, and she grabbed it. And I think it makes sense: this is an Americana band, a lot of Jenifer’s songs are about people connecting – or not connecting – and there’s another level of connectivity here, between this group, which is based in Austin, and the core of musicians who made up her New York band who usually join her when she comes back to town.

Bad Cop: I don’t like the name. Too dadrock. The ninth album by Piscataway Watershed: Denim Bridge!

Good Cop: You’re not supposed to like it. But you did like this show, which is unusual because you’re such a grump. And now you’ve made me a grump because I’m grasping at straws to remember what happened. As I remember, it was a really cold night, but there were a lot of people there. I don’t want to drop names, but there were at least a half a dozen of the best rock songwriters in town in the room.

Bad Cop: Like who?

Good Cop: I’m not going to say. I don’t want to come across as a starfucker. Let’s just say that Jenifer Jackson is revered by her peers. A songwriter’s songwriter, you could say.

Bad Cop: What I remember is having to hit the bathroom beforehand, and there being a grand total of one bathroom for two rooms here – and having to compete with women for it.

Good Cop [speechless- shakes her head slowly, back and forth]

Bad Cop: That and Kullen Fuchs. He’s the lead guy in the band, basically. He was playing vibraphone. When’s the last time you saw a country band with a vibraphone? And he was fast and furious and amazing. And then he’d switch to accordion, and then trumpet. Sometimes in the same song.

Good Cop: Matt Kanelos played piano. I had no idea that he was so good at honkytonk. He channeled Floyd Cramer.

Bad Cop: Do you think that people in general have any idea of who Floyd Cramer was?

Good Cop: Country people all know. At least people who like classic country music. Which is one side of this band: they did a couple of honkytonk-flavored numbers, but the vibraphone gave them a fresh, new sound.

Bad Cop: You wouldn’t expect it to work but it did. Most of the songs, as I remember, were from the new album, TX Sunrise. My favorite was White Medicine Cloud, which is one of those hypnotic, quiet numbers that Jenifer writes so well. This one’s kind of epic, at least the way they played it. And it’s got an antiwar, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along message that actually isn’t mawkish or trite. It was rather touching, actually.

Good Cop: One of my favorites was Your Sad Teardrops. A honkytonk kiss-off anthem with some really cool slip-key piano.

Bad Cop: Another really good one was All Around. Big, sweeping, angst-fueled anthem. An uneasy, windswept seaside tableau. Blog Boss said that this one sounded like Steve Wynn, which I think is right on the money. And if memory serves, this was the show where Jenifer broke out a bunch of the southwestern gothic stuff: On My Mind, and Picture of May, an awesome, creepy bolero.

Good Cop: Speaking of creepy boleros, she encored with Mercury the Sun and Moon, that minor-key psychedelic noir Vegas song from her first album that was such a big hit with her fans.

Bad Cop: I have a recording of that song from the show.

Good Cop: If that’s all you’ve got, let’s hear it! [Bad Cop hits the play button]. Well, that’s a vibraphone, but this isn’t Jenifer Jackson.

Bad Cop: You’re right, that’s Tuatara [hits fast-forward]. OK, here it is…

Good Cop: You cut off the beginning.

Bad Cop: Guess so. Too bad I lost everything else. This would have been a great show to listen back to.

Good Cop: Any shortcomings on our part you can blame on HIM [smacks Bad Cop in the stomach; Bad Cop doubles over in pain]. Hmmm…piano and vibes. Glittery gorgeousness. And all those scampering drum fills: do you remember who the drummer was?

Bad Cop [gulping]: Greg Wieczorek. Guy’s a genius.

Good Cop: I should have figured that out for myself. He has a very distinctive style. Omigod, the way Jenifer’s voice just went up with a harmony on the chorus, against the melody line – and then she does it again, That’s what I love about this band: they never play anything the same way twice.

Bad Cop: That’s the jazz thing. Jenifer’s dad is a famous jazz disc jockey, at least to the extent that a jazz dj can be famous.

Good Cop: They did an album together. And it’s really good.

Bad Cop: So are we going to this show on Monday?

Good Cop: I’m gonna bug the boss about it!

A Welcome Return Engagement from Jenifer Jackson

How many of you caught Jenifer Jackson’s most recent New York show last week at the Rockwood? The place was pretty full. As usual, the crowd was a lovefest, a bunch of A-list New York musicians coming out to revisit one of their own who was ubiquitous here ten years ago. But since she moved to Austin, return engagements have been limited. It was great to see so many familiar faces, everybody amped to see Jenifer. But was this a nostalgia show? No way. She debuted three new songs (which so far haven’t made it to youtube). The first, In Summer, related how summer babies don’t like the cold (Jackson is one: she speaks from experience), over a pensive janglerock verse that gave way to an only slightly restrained chorus filled with unexpected major/minor changes. She’s very eclectic: the next new one, a hypnotic, slow anthem, reminded of Australian rockers the Church, bassist Jason Mercer picking it up with a swoop out of lead guitarist Oren Bloedow’s counterintuitively biting staccato solo. And the last one was a western swing tune, Bob Wills without the horns or the pedal steel.

She sang with her usual combination of nuance and smoldering soul, the band – which also included the tremendously subtle Greg Wieczorek on drums and Matt Kanelos on piano – pretty much jumping out of their shoes to get the chance to play with her again. And as much as the new material was a lot of fun, the best song of the night was Trouble Fire, a sad country ballad from her Birds album that she started subdued and defeated before bringing it up and teasing the audience with allusions to a harmony on the chorus that she hinted and hinted at and finally nailed at the end just to make everybody happy.

Back in the day, you could catch her playing at Fez, then a week or two later she’d be at the Mercury, or the Living Room before it moved and became a tourist trashpit. Or maybe she’d do something at Pete’s Candy Store. Memo to anyone who has a favorite New York band or performer: carpe diem and see them now before they move to Austin or somewhere the same.

Matt Keating’s Wrong Way Home – Best Rock Album of 2012?

Matt Keating’s new Wrong Way Home (streaming in its entirety at the Sojourn Records site) is the best album he’s ever done. It’s a landmark in tunesmithing and songcraft to rival anything Elvis Costello or the Beatles ever recorded. Which is an even more impressive achievement considering the sweep and power of Keating’s 2008 double cd, Quixotic, a feast of lush, lyrically rich janglerock. This one is considerably different: blending elements of 1960s soul, country, ragtime and even jazz, it’s far more musically diverse. Lyrically, it’s his darkest album: as with Joy Division or late-period Phil Ochs, an encroaching, inescapable sense of doom pervades this record. Keating has always been an uneasy writer, able to dissect the fatal flaw in a relationship with a few sharp words: here, he takes his role as psychopathologist to a new level. He’s also never sung better – there are other singers who get called Orbison-esque, and most of those comparisons fall flat, but Keating’s nonchalant but wounded-to-the-core croon packs the same kind of emotional wallop.

The songs themselves are mini-epics, seldom going on for more than four minutes, arranged so that they begin sparsely and gradually add layers of strings, guitars, keyboards and horns until they reach an angst-driven orchestral grandeur. The musicianship is what you would expect from an A-list of New York players. Keating is a strong guitarist, but he’s a brilliant pianist, nimbly switching from blithe ragtime to tersely jeweled, incisive rock riffs, to torchy jazz on Baby’s Mind, a number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chet Baker songbook, both compositionally and vocal-wise. Tony Scherr’s guitar channels a hundred styles, from Memphis soul to artsy metal, to psychedelia and country, alongside Jason Mercer on bass, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Greg Wieczorek (of Jenifer Jackson’s band) splitting duties on drums, Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section, Cassis on accordion and Keating’s wife Emily Spray’s exquisite harmony vocals.

The opening track, Just About Now, a pulsing, piano-driven Burt Bacharach-esque soul song cruelly captures the moment where what seems to be redemption at last goes completely to hell. “I don’t remember facing a day so unafraid…when you’re in love you’re not on the take,” Keating observes, facing what appears to be an abrupt, cold ending. Punchline introduces a furtive clenched-teeth dread that will recur later on:

I’ve been using the back door
Keeping my own score
Scraping the bottom
Off of the top floor
You know I keep minimizing
All those expectations
On the horizon
In each situation

Scherr’s indulgent Comfortably Numb quote does double duty here as comic relief and deathblow as Keating runs the song’s mantra, “just leave it alone.”

Nobody’s Talking, a crushing portait of rural claustrophobia that you have to “claw your way through,” has a country sway and one of Keating’s signature allusive plotlines. Nobody’s taking out the trash or doing the dishes here: did somebody get killed, die, go on a bender or what? Likewise, the aphoristic Too Good to Lose – with lively dixieland from trumpeter Shane Endsley and the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Sewelson on baritone sax – could be completely sarcastic, or it could actually be one of the few bright spots amidst the gloom. It’s hard to tell. And the narrator of the wistfully Tex-Mex flavored title track – the most overtly Orbisonesque song here – might actually be the rare guy who actually wants to nurture communication in a relationship, or he could be a total control freak/stalker type.

Maybe He’ll Meet You, a shuffling country crooner tune, might be the album’s most haunting track. Keating shuffles his lyrics and his images artfully: the snakecharmer forgets his song and then dies of snakebite as the hope of finally being able to connect with someone slowly and inevitably slips away. Another real haunter is Maker of Carousels, Keating’s devastating portrait of self-inflicted emotional depletion, pulsing along with phantasmagorical carnival organ. Jersey Sky, a homage to Danny Federici, the late E Street Band organist, works a hypnotic, elegiac ambience, as does the ragtimey 1913 Coney Island, an understatedly brooding graveside scenario.

There’s also the absolutely hilarious, doo-wop flavored Back to the Party, an ominous tale of a clueless doofus whose ending is delivered with a riff rather than a lyric; the lavishly arranged, death-fixated Here and Then You’re Gone; the bitterly sardonic, Elvis Costello-inflected soul waltz Go to the Beach; the brightly shuffling Sound of Summer Days, which could be the great lost track from the Kinks’ Village Green; and the Springsteen-esque blue-collar lament Factory Floor, featuring Spray’s electrifying, vibrato-fueled soul harmonies. Even on the album’s closing track, a Lennon-esque piano ballad, Keating is apprehensive, unsure what’s going to happen to him if he allows himself the chance to salvage the remains of a relationship. How many people who heard London Calling, or Highway 61, or Armed Forces knew immediately that they had a classic in their hands? This album is one of those records: every time you hear it, there’s something new to reflect on and enjoy.

Two Drummers Make a Difference

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.