As a young Lauryn Hill once wisely rapped, “Seasons change, mad things rearrange.” Temperatures are beginning to rise, the album releases lacking through the cold winter are picking up, and bands around the country are preparing to make the annual pilgrimage to Austin, followed by the festival circuit for a lucky few. Even with snow falling outdoors, there’s a sense of warmer, brighter days ahead at a sold-out Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night with an impressive bill of hometown bands on the verge of various respective moves.
For the Men, it’s the celebration of a week that saw the release of their fourth album in as many years that’s marked by a notable change in style. Once their set closes, they’ll head off to the warmer pastures of Los Angeles for a West Coast show release party to kick start a long spring tour. Meanwhile, Brooklyn transplants Parquet Courts are riding the positive reception of their recently re-released debut LP and hopping a plane to Mexico City in search of the “Light Up Gold” they’ve been looking for, with a stop at Festival Nrmal in Monterrey followed by an array of SXSW appearances. While both bands’ seasonal transitions are physically getting a jettisoned advance, the burning question of the night is how the Men’s stylistic shift on New Moon toward a folksier, Americana sound will affect the loud, aggressive live shows for which they’re known.
As a last-minute change, Parquet Courts take the stage first with an eye on catching their flight south of the border on time. Thanking the crowd, co-singer/guitarist Austin Brown reflects on it being their first time playing in Manhattan “since being kicked out of Cake Shop.” At this point in its young career, the band doesn’t have much material to burn through but clocks in with “Stoned And Starving” early in the set, picking up steam with each reprise. Halfway through, they test drive a new relentless punk song with such breathless pace that it puts every piece previously written about their frenetic energy to shame. Closing with a medley of “Master Of My Craft” and “Borrowed Time,” they hit short with the same charm as the album. Brooklyn’s Nude Beach follows with a heartfelt and engaging set of country-fried punk, with singer Chuck Betz’s howling vocals easily sticking out as the best performance of the night.
In both celebratory and symbolic fashion, the Men’s Nick Chiericozzi swigs a bottle of bourbon while setting up the stage, conjuring the image of the rock idols whose influence is the forefront of their new record. The stage is already set with an electric piano, one of the several new instruments employed on New Moon, with two gentlemen carrying saxophone and trumpet, respectively, joining the crowded stage as the set time approaches. For a band that has been championed as a savior of “no-frills” punk, it was clear that there would be plenty of added luxuries to the night’s performance. Initially, the horns are used as just as another layer in a cacophony of noise that opens the set with each member wailing on their instrument.
The brass fades from the stage, and the Men carry into a more or less typical show for them, albeit with Mark Perro sitting in on electric piano with occasional harmonica outbursts, such as on new song “Without A Face.” They blast through “Electric” and rousing rendition of crowd-favorite “Open Your Heart,” and the floor responds by going wild. On “Open The Door” and “I Saw Her Face,” the band gets their real Crazy Horse moment, drawing out the already classic-rock-leaning songs into full-blown instrumental jams. At this point I’m prepared to believe that this new sound could work, but then things take a turn.
The guys regretfully bring the two-man horn section back out and incorporate them into their classic, hard-nosed rockers like “Turn It Around,” like some ill-fated attempt to be the E Street band. It’s an entirely counter-intuitive addition to the grit and growl of the original tracks. Having a desire to create a bigger live sound isn’t a crime on its own, but the Men are not the Boss and their attempts at being that arena type of band come off as cheesy and highlight the shortcomings of their traditional talent. It didn’t take much to decipher the crowd’s reaction as it came to a complete halt for the remainder of the show and just barely eked out enough of a reaction to merit an encore.
Especially with the pace with which they’ve released albums, it’s admirable that the Men take the challenge of moving the needle forward with their music so seriously. New Moon may edge out some of their earlier fans, but the record seems to be exactly what they wanted and includes some impressive displays of their songwriting abilities. But at some point, for all the talk of change, it should be assessed how much of what has made the Men great they’re wiling to leave behind. As it turns to spring and they embark on a long tour, testing out their new sound on loyal fans and catching the interest of new ones each and every night, hopefully they’ll have the sense to leave the horns back at home.