Considering that be-bop singer Mark Murphy has the status of an elder statesman of jazz, the single twinkling earring he sported seemed oddly out of place. The stab at youthful fashion might have been better left at home. His singing, however, was another matter entirely. No throaty vestige of lost youth, his voice was lithe and in fine form for his one-off show at Nighttown Thursday night.
Murphy devoted the first set -- the better of the two -- to Miles Davis. He and the band blew through tunes associated with the trumpet player, though confined them largely to Davis's mid-century hard bop/modal period. "All Blues," "Summertime," and "Bye, Bye Blackbird" all got the uptempo treatment, which suited Murphy just fine. His consciously horn-like vocals and clipped, short-phrase singing style actually resembled Davis's playing: melodic, asymmetric, and completely engrossing. Only on the self-penned ballad "Miles" did Murphy trip up. Too pumped on the previous burners, he couldn't keep the somewhat cloying scat bursts in check. The situation was resolved immediately thereafter, as Murphy and company hit another brawny cover of the Davis classic "Milestones."
Murphy's band, an all-state conglomeration, included local tough guys Greg Bandy on drums and Dave Morgan on bass. They were joined by fellow Ohioan Steve Schmidt at the keys. The band absolutely crackled, and Murphy deserves props for giving up plenty of solo space. Bandy's pinpoint snare snap and Schmidt's bluesy chording were right on, but most of the out-front time went to Morgan -- and deservedly so. Bassist and chart man with the Jazz Unit, Morgan seemed to dig breaking out on the standards. Between his mad interval jumps and double stops, the bassist just couldn't drop an indifferent solo.
The second set, more of a mixed bag with some blues, ballads, and the Latin thing, brought the energy level down a bit. Nevertheless, with tunes like Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" and cuts from Murphy's Song of the Geese vibrating in the phosphorescent glow of the first set, Murphy had plenty more to offer. -- Aaron Steinberg
Even though she predates them, Juliana Hatfield has been a bridesmaid for other women in rock -- namely Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette -- for the better part of the '90s. Though she spent a short time on Atlantic Records, her music's honesty and alternative swagger were never fully grasped, which explains why she has been left toiling in the underground, playing small clubs, while Liz and Alanis get the mainstream exposure. This time out, the lanky singer came to the Grog Shop without a band, and while die-hard fans might have enjoyed this intimate treat, it didn't have any wider appeal.
Looking quite weathered, Hatfield languidly walked onstage and began nonchalantly tuning her guitar to Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" while her fans patiently waited. The appeal of the former member of the late-'80s indie group Blake Babies has always been her earnest lyrics and unusual voice, so the lack of bandmates didn't seem to matter. "I Got No Idols" set the pace for her set -- with eyes closed, Hatfield sang away, as if she was at a rehearsal or a coffeehouse's open-mic night, and her facial features made her look like a constipated drunkard with a cynical sneer.
Like Phair and Morissette, Hatfield played the explicit sexual language card ("Rider"), leaving little to the imagination. She continued along the same lines with the gentle alternative hit "Sister," a song that details all the painful elements of sibling rivalry. Halfway through, she stopped to clear her throat. "I love to kill the mood," Hatfield said jokingly. Sorry, but there was very little mood to begin with. As if the loud people in the back weren't distracting enough, Hatfield played and sang off-key.
To some degree, there is something to be said about seeing an artist in such a small venue and having her play a song and forget the lyrics -- and even tell you beforehand it would happen. But those special moments are only special when they are differentiated from the rest of the show. Songs such as "Somebody's Waiting for Me" and "Sneaking Around" didn't stray far from the majority of her set. The latter featured a pseudo tongue-in-cheek attempt at a guitar solo. "Sometimes I miss my band," she said carelessly, not realizing that the rest of us missed the band, too. Hatfield definitely has a voice that should be heard, but she needs to be more focused and less choppy if she wants to be heard by a large audience. -- John Benson
Shutdown, an up-and-coming hardcore act from New York, didn't need a big turnout to put on an energetic show. The band's first song, "Decide," set the tone for the entire set, giving credence to the press release, which describes the band as "old-school music with an updated twist." Indeed, Shutdown's songs possess schizophrenic structures with fast, catchy progressions interspersed with slower moments, surrounded on all sides by super-tight stops and starts. Drummer Jimmy McCormack kept himself busy on the toms, accentuating buildups with gloriously long rolls that recalled Pittsburgh legends Half-Life.
Although suffering from the flu, vocalist Mark Scondotto still managed to shout out his high-end vocals. The band's whole attitude toward hardcore comes from a decidedly positive perspective. At one point in the set, Scondotto described Shutdown's message as being "family, friendship, and fun." Insipid as it might seem, Shutdown backed up the claim by putting an authentic sense of community, energy, and action into its set. Sappy or not, songs such as "We Will Not Forget" (written for the late Raybees of Warzone) came across as being absolutely genuine.
Although Fokus had the crowd chanting its name in unison before arriving onstage, its hip-hop/hardcore approach failed to deliver the goods, as the band sounded too much like Rage Against the Machine, and its compositions suffered from a lack of diversity. Factor 69's set was equally derivative, consisting of elements of Korn, Black Sabbath (minus the soul), and White Zombie. -- Matt Trahan