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What can I say, except that Friendly Fires took the Bowery Ballroom by complete surprise and ran away with the show. Completely maximizing their allotted time, the group was in it to win it from the downbeat of “Photobooth” to the last echo of their dust-buster-fueled feedback (you can’t make this stuff up!). And the crowd was both awed and thrilled to see such maniacal dancing by lead singer Ed Macfarlane after a comparatively listless performance by Miles Benjamin. Relentless in their energy and hip shaking, they charged through catchy tune after catchy tune from their eponymous debut album.

Most electrifying was “On Board”, which seemed to charge the lead singer both sexually and emotionally, leading him to jump and thrust uncontrollably yet perfectly in time with his drummer—not to mention the percussionist with whom he always made time for a cowbell breakdown. Macfarlane was also intent on getting the audience on board with Friendly Fires and their infectiously concocted sound that mixed Prince, LCD Soundsystem, and Beck’s Midnite Vultures aesthetic and tropical beats, airdropped onto the dance floor and was readily devoured. 

It’s the “sound that you hear in the moment…” sang Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson on the opening number of his seemingly impromptu set. But it wasn’t improvised, just hastily thrown together amid spilled beers and cocktails. Announcing that he and his band, the Family Robinson, were going to play “some stuff you’ve probably never heard before,” there was an air of uncertainty throughout their brief set. One could feel the audience grimace as Robinson treated the performance as a time slot, as opposed to opening band, and they didn’t necessarily warm up to his jester-like stage presence. 

Overall Robinson abandoned the grizzled folk sound of his eponymous debut, opting for grunge, guitars, and feedback to accompany his aged vocals. Despite some shoddy sound mixing, his earnest, weathered, jaded vocal style alleviated any angst in his grungy new tone. Mostly a pounding bass drum persisted in each of his songs, suggesting more new wave than folk. But Robinson and his band did sound good when everything chilled out and he could play around with inebriated or just phantom guitar lines, where only his left hand made shadows of actual plucked notes. That, and also when he sang rusty vocals with a damning conviction over a simple chord.

Part One: Introduction (and Apology)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica,  The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

On Deck: The Starting Lineup…

As Jamie Lidell’s musical style comes full circle, one thing remains clear: It’s all about the beat. In his beginnings he was a techno master, mixing vocable-fueled beats into dub-like rhythms and melodies. Though he chose Prince as a middle-school idol—an un-cool decision that countered Morissey’s then popularity—it was only until high-school, when he bought a sampler and became the controller of his own musical destinies. Buying it, he says, was one of the best decisions he ever made.

Fast-forward to 2005 when the then-Berlin resident evolved his beatbox-techno style into a one-man soul show, with friends Gonzales and producer Mocky helping fill in the instrumental and inspirational gaps. The resulting Multiply became an underground sensation, tapping into the demand for retrograde soul melodies with an electronic twist.

It’s Lidell’s latest release, Jim, that he was – still—touring in support of that found him back in New York City. The album, in its recorded form, is the manifestation of Lidell’s throwback maturation: Handclaps, hooks, harmonies, and beats that make one long for roller-skates and disco-balls. With producer Mocky—who shares production and writing credits—Lidell was able to shed his electronic identity, forging a new one in the Jamiroquoi-esque blue-eyed soul direction.

After a lengthy PA prelude of disco-era classics, Lidell and his band took the stage and room by storm with “Where D’You Go”. Always the zealous performer, Lidell was at once dancing at all edges of the stage, sharing backup vocal duties with the front row, and helping get his four-piece band even more riled up (including simultaneous double horn playing from saxophonist Andre Vida and an Elvis-clad guitarist). Adding to his bouncy character of a skinny-white Brit singing soul was his ruffled tuxedo, thick frames, and greasy hair—a fashion nod to Neil Hamburger perhaps.

On “Figured Me Out” the band had a beatboxing face-off so intense that they jumped into the crowd leaving the victor, Lidell, to expound the beats in his head—which he would resuscitate later in a solo DJ portion of the set. But first he crooned out “Rope of Sand”, showing surprising flexibility and agility in his soothing voice.

Flexing some live variability, “Another Day” slipped into whisper quiet verses only to vigorously revive itself each chorus. Encore “Multiply” threw another wrench into his traditionally minded laid back sound, shooting the song into a heated double-time.

Though Lidell proved himself musically precarious, he was always entertaining, provoking the audience into going along with him. His solo beatboxing-sampling exhibitions meandered, resulting in a mashed up metal-noise disco sound. But because he was equally content at his console or cowbell, his unbridled funk-energy rivaled that of King Khan and paid tribute to his schoolboy hero Prince.

Buena Vista Social Club
De Camino a la Vereda [MP3]
     

Feist
Honey Honey [Video]

Shugo Tokumaru
Parachute [Video]

The Dears
Money Baby [MP3]
     

Crystal Antlers
Arcturus [MP3]
     

Sebastien Grainger
American Names [MP3]
     

White Hinterland
Chant de Grillon [MP3]
     

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