Music: Ryan Montbleau Band Live in Chicago

This space has been used a couple of times to talk about absurdly talented musicians that have flown under the radar for reasons that are totally beyond my understanding. While the music scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years–one can now do a lot of damage up on stage with a thumb drive–the ‘guy with a guitar and something to say’ still has a place in our culture and likely always will.

Last weekend in Chicago, Spring Awakening Music Festival packed thousands of people into Soldier Field to rock out to beats generated from a Macbook. Last night, a little ways to the west of Soldier Field, a couple hundred showed up to Chicago’s City Winery to listen to a songbird with a guitar sing to us with words and rhythms generated from his own imagination.

Ryan Montbleau is a singer-songwriter from the Boston area who has been plugging away for over a decade, putting out consistently phenomenal albums and playing stunningly impressive live shows through frequent tours. Montbleau is an accomplished musician technically; the man can play the shit out of a guitar, and he’s got a great voice, but his true talent lies in songwriting. Every singer wants to be a songwriter, but being able to put lyrics and songs together is another kind of skill altogether.

Montbleau has a type of clever charm to him, in that you always feel like you’re in on the joke together. “I’ve been at this for 12 years,” he said to the crowd last night between songs. “And I’ve gone from an unknown singer-songwriter from Massachusetts, to a virtually unknown singer-songwriter from Massachusetts.”

Montbleau is touring off of his new album with Ryan Montbleau Band, Growing LightThe album is a mature evolution of his band’s music, with a polished, focused 10 songs ranging from straight up rockers (“Pacing Like Prince”) to funky jams (“Glad”) to introspective slow burners (“Together”). Seeing Ryan Montbleau Band live is to experience all of these different moods within his set. Montbleau also stacks the band with great musicians–his keyboardist in Chicago, Beau Sasser, ripped off multiple flashy solos, while his guitarist Will Bernard kept a schooled level of playing the entire night.

The show last night saw a mix of old and new–Montbleau started us off with the first two tracks of the new album, “Growing Light” and “Inevitable”, and mixed in the new songs with a best-of showing of RMB hits (well, hits is a strong word), including fan favorites “75 and Sunny”, “Songbird”, and a solo acoustic version of his classic “Stretch”. He also ripped off a couple of covers, including a pretty badass and unexpected version of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Montbleau keeps it positive throughout the show, participating in some banter with the crowd–though I’ve seen him at a solo show talk much more to the audience than he did last night–but you can’t help feeling like he’s ready (and let’s face it, good enough) for bigger things. He sold out the room last night, and nearly tore the roof off with his set-closing jam on “Pacing LIke Prince” and then the encore, which was positivity anthem “I Can’t Wait”.

Montbleau did things on stage last night that can’t be done on a hard drive, but it seems we as a culture still insist on wearing down our songbirds, making them earn their living through relentless touring and hawking merchandise post-show. “I’ve been touring nonstop for 12 years,” he sighed into the microphone mid-set. “And I’m tired.”

If you take nothing else out of this: it’s so important to continue to support live music. In this era of cheap songs and short attention spans, of boom-or-bust musicians who it seems are either unknowns or playing giant arenas, there are so many great musicians toiling under the radar and plying their craft, busting their ass to create quality music. They have the talent to make you nod your head to the beat, to pull your imagination out, to wow you with the poetry of their words.

These people are still out there. Rearrange what your plans are for the night time, show up at the right time, let them sing you their songs. Sing along. Just go and see them. Ryan Montbleau would be a good place to start.

Music: Lil Dicky and the Enigma of the Funny Rapper

After talking about the kick-ass blues and spitfire talent a few weeks ago of NYC trio People Vs Larsen, I’m feeling the need today to shine my tiny little insignificant spotlight on another criminally under appreciated musician, Philadelphia rapper Lil Dicky.

Lil Dicky is a white 20-something Jewish rapper with a corny head of hair who likes to rap about masturbating, the size of his mediocre penis and being a white Jewish rapper with corny hair (“chest hair poking out of my shirt looking like taco meat”). He is also the best new lyricist in the rap game and packs a sneaky amount of talent behind his comic rhymes.

He’s established a cult following via his YouTube videos–and it’s easy to watch his music videos for “Too High” and “Ex Boyfriend” and dismiss him as a Jon Lajoie-style flash in the pan rapper-comedian, but that really doesn’t do the man justice. His 2012 mixtape, So  Hard, doesn’t have a single miss among its seventeen tracks, and I highly doubt that you’ve ever heard a song where a man has a back-and-forth dialogue with his penis (“Attached at the Hip“). It’s like Stan, with Lil Dicky’s penis as Dido. It’s funny, it’s clever, but it’s also unquestionably a good song and written by a man with unquestionable talent for rhyming.

Last year, Lil Dicky started taking things a little more seriously to show his chops as a legit rapper, and one of the resulting tracks — “Russell Westbrook on a Farm“–is hot fire, a song about how he discovered his own talent for rapping and a song in which he uses a completely absurd metaphor with such skill and precision that I’m having a lot of trouble trying to think of a single other rapper that could have pulled it off. Just listen to it, come back and tell me this kid wasn’t born for this.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be avoid being pigeonholed as a clown, and to deftly manage to blend comedic rapping and this porn-obsessed Lil Dicky persona with legitimate respect as a real artist. Lil Dicky should never abandon what put him on the scene–he is really, really funny–but it would be a shame to box him into the ‘comic rapper’ corner and leave him there.

His songs are usually about normal guy things that make him feel like a real person, whether he’s watching way too much porn or going out to clubs and having a terrible time: “Bout to quit but I’m bitter I paid that cover, have to stay in this stupid club a bit longer, and I’m sweating like a Jew in a multicultural sauna, they’ve been playing fucking dubstep for ten consecutive songs. Then I bumped into a guy, he was roughly 6 foot 5, pretty sure it was his fault but I apologized.”

The thing is, despite the hilarity, he’s not Weird Al. Can a rapper be both hilarious and well-respected? In a genre of music as ridiculously self-serious as hip hop–where Eminem is viewed as a ‘funny’ rapper–is there room for Lil Dicky to get the respect he deserves?

I think he will, as his cult following appears to be starting to pay off. Last week Lil Dicky released his first ‘official’ single, “Lemme Freak“. The song is really Dicky–it’s a great song, catchy in and of itself, and unquestionably hilarious (“Look,” an exasperated Dicky says midsong when denied sex from his girlfriend. “I just turned off The Departed for a movie about a bee. I’ve been cutting back on farting, Tweeting, arguing and weed. Yesterday I wore a cardigan.”). It’s his wordplay that again makes this song–the song itself is funnier than the music video, and that’s because, even while sophomoric, it’s so well written and performed that his true talent shines through.

I just copped some tickets to see him live when he’s in New York, and I’m curious as to what the experience will be–will it be like a standup act? A real concert? Will it be filled with fifteen year olds trying to smoke their first joint and failing to properly roll one in the crowd, or will there be real hip hop heads there with an appreciation for Dicky and what he’s trying to do?

Who knows, man. Regardless where he ends up, I’ll be there, beer in hand, seeing a great rapper ascend and rooting for the kid to make it. Guess you could call me a Dickhead.

Music: People Vs Larsen

Today, I’m going to use this space to talk about something that absolutely makes no sense whatsoever: the fact that NYC blues trio People vs Larsen is not more popular. They are better than my favorite band, your favorite band or your hipster roommate’s favorite band. Singer Tom Larsen sings and plays guitar with more soul, mind-blowing technical precision and ear-fucking rhythm than just about anybody you’ve seen live. It is impossible to hold a conversation while they are playing and you find yourself getting upset at people who do so. They have a regular gig at several bars in the NYC area, including every Friday at 1AM and Saturday at 2AM at the ultra cool Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, home of the intense theatrical experience Sleep No More (more on that, perhaps, later).  

And yet, this band currently has 170 followers on Twitter and just under 800 fans on their Facebook page. Their YouTube videos number their views in the hundreds (though one video has broken 2,000), scarce info about them is found online, and they don’t seem to have a following like, at all. To this I have to ask: what the fuck?

Granted, after having purchased their debut (and only to date) album, the self titled People vs Larsen, it’s clear they are better live than on record, at least so far in their fledgling career.  The album is a solid if somewhat forgettable blues album with just seven songs on it, most of them covers of old blues songs. You can see the talent there, but nothing to blow your socks off.

Seeing them live is a different story. Skinny, unassuming singer/guitarist Tom Larsen struts up to the stage with an unbelievable intro song carried solely by his bluesy voice, with the only backing instrument being a quiet drum beat, and immediate shuts up half the room. His talent is the showstopper from then on, his guitar and voice alternating the spotlight, as his bassist Dylan Shamat and drummer David Tedeschi  provide the backbone every good blues band needs. By the time he ends the hour-long set with a fiery rendition of “See My Jumper”, the whole crowd is in. Women are batting eyelashes at Larsen onstage, guys are all having the same conversation about his guitar playing and all of them have forgotten that it’s 3:15 and probably time to go home.

I’ve seen a lot of good live music–I’ve lived in two cities (Chicago and New York) that are hotbeds of music of all kinds, and this is one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, period. If you’re in New York and you love music, blues or otherwise, make it a point to go see them out. In 10 years, when they’re one of the biggest bands in the country, maybe you’ll get to say you saw them when they had 170 Twitter followers, in a crowd of 60 people, on a summer night in NYC at 2 AM.