Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

In Memoriam – Billy Cohen

One of New York’s most talented emerging musicians, guitarist and composer Billy Cohen died this past June 29 after a long battle with cancer. He was 23. A founding member of the charismatic rock band the Brooklyn What, Cohen was an integral part of their original three-guitar sonic cauldron, and also served as one of the group’s main songwriters. Both his guitar work and his compositions on the band’s landmark first album, The Brooklyn What for Borough President, offer a cruelly tantalizing glimpse of an already formidable talent that would have only grown, had he lived.

As a guitarist in the band, Cohen played with an edgy, brash intensity that both meshed and contrasted with John-Severin Napolillo’s purposeful powerpop sensibility and Evan O’Donnell’s slashing lead lines. Cohen was extremely adept at abrasive noise, yet was gifted with an uncanny sense of melody that he’d often employ when least expected, as demonstrated by his purist lead work on The In-Crowd and We Are the Only Ones. The shapeshifting, focus-warping song Soviet Guns illustrates another, more abstract side of his compositional skill. Cohen was also responsible for the delectably unhinged scream on the song Sunbeam Sunscream.

A musician’s musician, Cohen listened adventurously and widely throughout his life, immersing himself in styles ranging from garage rock to contemporary classical music, cinematic soundscapes and tongue-in-cheek mashups. At Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, Cohen played guitar in the jazz band as well as in the Brooklyn rock band Ellipsis; afterward, he attended the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he majored in Music Therapy and Music Composition. A song from his Ellipsis days as well as two atmospheric keyboard pieces, and a couple of clever, satirical mashup videos – including a direct and very funny one featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger – are all up on his myspace page.

Cohen’s uncompromising originality, creativity, absurdist humor, fondness for the Kinks (he picked out the band’s signature cover song, I’m Not Like Everybody Else) and devotion to his beloved New York Mets lifted the spirits of his bandmates and friends and left an indelible mark. The surviving members of the Brooklyn What are playing a memorial show for Cohen at Bowery Poetry Club on August 13.

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July 21, 2010 Posted by | music, concert, New York City, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review: LJ Murphy and Band at the Knitting Factory, NYC 12/11/07

Ironic that some of New York’s best rock songwriters – Jerome O’Brien of the Dog Show, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, and now LJ Murphy – basically play with what amounts to a pickup band whenever they do a live show here in town. Although it’s not all that common in rock, jazz players have been doing this since the beginning. And it works more often than not, undoubtedly because musicians who are good enough to follow the changes and hit the stage without much rehearsal usually bring a lot of imagination and their own signature style. This show was a vivid reminder of how good things can get when you put together a bunch of good players who’ve never played with each other before. Tonight the dapper New York noir songwriter was backed by the hard-hitting drummer from the sadly disbanded garage rockers the Dark Marbles, along with the bass player from Erica Smith’s band the 99 Cent Dreams.  Playing lead was the guitarist from System Noise, who revealed himself to be a terrific blues player, channeling a lot of Hendrix into Murphy’s Stax/Volt-inflected melodies. But it wasn’t Star Spangled Banner Hendri; instead, the audience was treated to a lot of thoughtful, introspective, licks and tersely unwinding solos evocative of the Little Wing/Castles Made of Sand side of Jimi.

Perhaps because the band didn’t get a lot of time to rehearse, Murphy bookended the show with a couple of solo acoustic songs, the tongue-in-cheek Man Impossible and a somewhat drastic reworking of his haunting domestic-abuse saga, Don’t You Look Pretty When You Cry. In between, the band careened through a mix of newer material and songs from Murphy’s latest cd Mad Within Reason. It was a cold night, and Murphy’s guitar had gone out of tune by the time he finished his first song and brought the band to the stage. The crowd was impatient as Murphy retuned: “He’s a musician,” the bass player said sarcastically: shades of Stiv Bators sticking up for Cheetah Chrome on Night of the Living Dead Boys? You never know. This is New York, after all.

Like Marcellus Hall, (recently reviewed here), Murphy sets intelligent, witty lyrics to somewhat retro melodies. While Hall draws on 60s country and folk-rock, Murphy is a disciple of blues and jazz, Ray Charles in particular. At the end of a rousing take of the snide, somewhat caustic Imperfect Strangers, Murphy led the band on an obviously improvised, extended outro as he jammed out the vocals. Later in the set they did a boisterous version of the sharply literate, cabaret-ish minor key blues which serves as the title track to the cd, in addition to a soulful take of the gently swaying, mournful 6/8 ballad that’s perhaps improbably Murphy’s biggest audience hit, Saturday’s Down, a chronicle of how the week goes by so slowly but the weekend is gone in a nanosecond. The band turned their last song, Barbwire Playpen into a blazing rocker, Murphy roaring through his chronicle of a Wall Street tycoon whose “ugly little secret turns up again and again in the barbwire playpen,” where some dominatrix has him by the short and curlies and isn’t about to let him get up anytime soon. Despite a rainy, gloomy evening outside and an unusually sparse turnout – Murphy packed the place the last couple of times he played here – the man was his usual charismatic self and the band was clearly feeding off his energy.

December 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments