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Fresh off her Tony award winning role as Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, Lena Hall can now be found performing (through April 18th) cabaret style at the Café Carlyle. The venue’s producers allowed her to have free reign over her selections which allowed her to sing the songs she wanted to sing because they touched or inspired her as her backing band, Watt White on guitar, John Deley on keys, Lee Nadel on bass and her future brother-in-law Brian Fishler on drums, supported her. Her seventy minute set was fun and varied, with a bunch of the newer material probably going over the heads of some older folks in the crowd. She joked, “I’m doing very appropriate songs for this room. But you know, I’m Lena Hall so, I do what I want.” to audience applause and laughter.

It had been a long time coming for some San Diego music fans: a rock ‘n’ roll show in a spacious venue in the city’s hippest neighborhood. The city has sadly been venue-challenged for years. Most shows either take place 25 miles up the coast at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, downtown at the cramped House of Blues with its poor acoustics and non-fan-friendly policies, or at tiny clubs like the Casbah or Soda Bar that can barely handle 100 people. But now, the North Park Observatory seemed poised to save the day and just in time for a Saturday night show with San Francisco rocker Jackie Greene.

A Friday night in the City of Angels with Umphrey’s McGee in town at the historic Wiltern Theater is an occasion that will draw music fans from all over the Golden State. Some were coming from San Diego, since they either had no desire to see the band at the cramped House of Blues the night before or were dedicated enough to attend both shows, while others were down from the Bay Area to make a run of it with the next night’s show in Oakland.

This show would also feature the guest appearance of virtuoso saxman Joshua Redman, an occasional collaborator with the band who always adds some extra musical fireworks to the mix. The combo of Umphrey’s McGee with Joshua Redman has become one of the present day’s top showcases of sonic wizardry. This led to a festive vibe of anticipation early on, as some fans started lining up in the five o’clock hour to obtain the evening’s coveted limited edition show poster from renowned artist Chuck Sperry. This one was a gem, featuring one of Sperry’s trademark psychedelic cartoon hippie women on a silver foil paper stock print that soared exponentially in value by the end of the night. 

The Koreatown area around the Wiltern isn’t quite as happening as the resurgent East Hollywood scene around venues like the Fonda Theater or Hollywood Palladium, but the vibe is coming along with establishments like Beer Belly. The gastropub up the street on Western Avenue features what some fans would call a heady craft beer selection and has thus become a popular pre-game spot for the Wiltern.

Umphrey’s McGee like to collaborate, having shared bills in recent years with musical compadres like Widespread Panic, STS9, Galactic, and others, so it was fitting to see them welcome a rising band to open the show here in the Revivalists. The seven-piece New Orleans-based rhythm and blues outfit delivered a rewarding opening set for those who ventured in early. The band mixes New Orleans soul with vintage blues and rock vibes, conjuring an authentically old school sound to provide a contrast with what was to come.

Umphrey’s McGee may be steeped in an classic rock, but old school they are not. The band has been moving in a cutting edge direction in recent years that has seen them chart a bold course through the sonic byways and highways of the modern music scene. The band’s sound is not for everyone, with guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss known for wicked prog-rock guitar pyrotechnics and hard rock riffage that may not appeal so much to those looking for more danceable funk. But the virtuoso sextet has carved out a niche with the devoted “Umphreaks” who can’t get enough of the unique way the band blends guitar-heavy hard rock with advanced syncopation and high energy grooves.

The band warmed things up with the melodic rock of “Bridgeless”, seguing into the tight staccato riffage of “Gents” before landing back into “Bridgeless”. The over-the-top metal guitar on “Rocker Part 2” threatened the eardrums of some in the audience, but many reveled in the energy. The set went to another level however when the evening’s special guest was introduced. “Ladies and gentleman, the fifth Beatle, his name is Josh Redman”, Bayliss said to introduce the dynamic saxman. The band jumped into a groovier vibe with “Professor Wormbog”, a tune that features some more sonic space where keyboardist Joel Cummins could make an impact with his skillful piano plunking while Redman started to conjure his horn magic.

The energy level surged on “Bad Friday” with the band rocking on a tight arrangement that featured a platform for Redman to weave in and out with dazzling lines to elevate the group’s sound to another level. There’s something about adding a sax to a jamband that triggers a higher dimension of sonic magic and this jam was a dazzling case in point, with Redman and Cinninger trading lines as if flying in tandem on a Quidditch team. The effect was even more pronounced thanks to the Jedi level psychedelic light show from lighting man Jefferson Waful, easily one of the best in the business. There was a tangible energy in the crowd as the Wiltern audience synched into a collective groove as the band led the way on a trip through the light fantastic with Redman playing Pied Piper.

The second set followed a similar pattern, with Redman absent again at the beginning while the band rocked out in an edgier fashion. Cinninger and Bayliss sizzled with their twin guitar melodies on “Miss Tinkle’s Overture”, sort of like a heavy metal Allman Brothers Band. The rhythm section shined on “Hajimemashite”, with bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Meyers, and percussionist Andy Farag locking into a simple yet impactful heavy groove. The band executed another masterfully seamless segue into “In the Kitchen”, where they seemed to throw in everything but the kitchen sink with the fiery guitars blending with trippy keyboards for a psychedelic jam that ignited like a flambé dessert.

“Are we having fun yet?” Bayliss asked the elated audience at the end of the jam before welcoming Redman back to the stage. “Wife Soup” featured more sonic space for Redman to shine, setting the stage for the biggest jams of the evening. “California, you guys are into weird shit, right? Alright let’s get weird”, Bayliss said as the band launched into “1348”. The dynamic tune soared with the addition of Redman’s sax, which veered from following the guitar melodies to leading his own jazzy forays into time and space for a true sonic spectacle.

A sharp cover of the Police’s “Driven to Tears” closed the set in style, with the band nailing the Police’s sound but elevating the groove to another level. The evening was another dazzling showcase of the rare air that Umphrey’s McGee occupies in the modern music scene. The music may be overly challenging to process for some, but there are few touring rock bands who can execute such intricate arrangements with jazzy jams and a guest sax player on board to boot.

Splash image: concert shot of Umphrey’s McGee courtesy of their press page. Concert poster by Chuck Sperry.

Björk, along with collaborator Arca, is currently nearing the end of a series of shows in New York City in support of her latest album, Vulnicura. After a couple of nights at Carnegie Hall and a couple at the new Brooklyn venue King’s Theater, Björk will wrap up the mini-residency at NY City Center (two performances remain). So far, every night has featured almost the entirety of Björk’s latest album Vulnicura, a breakup record, with the addition of the Alarm Will Sound string ensemble and Manu Delago on percussion. Although I had never seen Björk before, I know she’s a cutting edge artist on many levels—visually, fashionably, sonically. So it was no surprise to see some of her fans have a unique fashion sense of their own. Of course, their attire couldn’t be topped by Björk’s own—she had donned a unique spiky headdress from designer Maiko Takeda for the first half of her performance.

Though established acts like Tove Lo and Bleachers made appearances at South By Southwest in Austin this year, the music festival is more about discovering artists looking for more exposure and/or promoting new releases. Among the 40-plus bands I saw this year, these 15 new(ish) artists stood out for their energy and originality.

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