J. Cole schools mumble rappers and trap stars alike at Jmblya

This weekend marks the sixth year of Jmblya, the hip-hop festival launched by local promoter Scoremore that visits Dallas, Austin and Houston over three days. Last year, the festival graduated from the Statesman’s parking lot to the Circuit of the Americas parking lot, expanding to two stages and welcoming top-dollar headliners like Chance the Rapper, Migos and Gucci Mane. This year’s outing corrected some of last year’s growing pains, such as a perilous lack of water, but it still had its hiccups.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Young Thug was a last-minute sub for a pregnant Cardi B, which stings a little extra because her fall itinerary opening for Bruno Mars doesn’t include Austin. (Mars will perform alongside Britney Spears at Formula 1 weekend in October.) But Thugger proved a worthy alternative, whipping the crowd into a fine frenzy despite his nearly inaudible microphone and a disconcerting craaaaack that emanated from the stage’s speakers during every bass drop. The crowd erupted nonetheless, hurling food and drinks into the air and literally blotting out the stage with smoke from various apparatuses.

Thug also proved a much better fit than Jmblya’s other last-minute replacement: T.I., who took Kevin Gates’ late afternoon slot with a day’s notice. (Gates’ name still appeared on the lineup cards handed out to attendees.) To his credit, the 37-year-old trap progenitor barreled through his slew of hits, including “Bring Em Out” and “Whatever You Like,” with verve and precision. Still, there was no ignoring the fact that he hasn’t had a proper hit in almost a decade (or since half the audience was in elementary school), and attendees seemed to be saving their energy for the new-school trap kings, Migos.

RELATED: Scoremore’s Jmblya taps into youth movement 

Migos perform Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Lucky for fans, the superstar Atlanta trio delivered big-time during their second consecutive Jmblya visit. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff seemed to barely break a sweat as they sauntered across a stage adorned with strobe lights and bursts of fog, unloading the staggering treasure trove of hits they’ve amassed in just a few years. “Hannah Montana” and “Fight Night” gave way to “T-Shirt” and the chart-topping “Bad and Boujee,” mapping the group’s ascension from internet sensations to rap elites and reinforcing their steadfast refusal to tweak their sound in the slightest. Their iconic triplet flow showed signs of strain on their eighth-best single, “MotorSport,” which exists solely to showcase Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and becomes literally pointless in their absence. Thankfully the group ended their hit-filled set just as they risked outwearing their welcome, proving their mettle as bonafide headliners.

After the mass exodus that followed Migos’ set (the only biblical thing about the day’s proceedings), one could have reasonably suspected the crowd to look considerably thinner during J. Cole’s headlining performance. But one would have been dead wrong. The impenetrable throng stretched nearly to the food vendors in the back of the parking lot—roughly twice the size of Migos’ crowd—all awaiting what would easily be the best set of the day.

Cole wasted no time warning up, throttling his microphone stand and leaping into the air as he rapped his first song with vicious determination. It only takes a cursory glance at Twitter to see the split opinions on Cole’s music: Fans consider him an intellectual and top-tier MC, while detractors find him lyrically corny and musically boring, the most damning insult of all for a rapper. And while his new album, “KOD,” drags and sputters in places, Cole spat fire and fury throughout his entire hour-plus performance.

FASHION FESTIES: See what people wore to Jmblya 2018

The Fayetteville, North Carolina, native’s lyrical dexterity offered a reprieve from the sound issues and marble-mouthed rapping that characterized the rest of the day. He barked the chorus to “Motiv8” and spat the dizzying flows of “ATM” until his voice grew hoarse. A masterful backing band lent an urgency to some of his drearier compositions, and the audience answered Cole’s call-and-response chants with gusto. Couples cozied up to each other during “Kevin’s Heart,” either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that the song is a candid reflection on the consequences of infidelity, inspired by Cole’s friend, Kevin Hart.

J. Cole performs Saturday, May 5, at Jmblya at Circuit of the Americas. Robert Hein/For American-Statesman

Even with five chart-topping albums under his belt, Cole remains an anomaly in the rap game. Sporting baggy t-shirts and shoulder-length dreads, he eschews the flashiness of his peers, and he only makes headlines when he drops new music. The singular success of his last two albums, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only,” turned the phrase “platinum with no features” into a proper boast and evergreen meme. Appropriately, Cole dazzled on his own at Jmblya, the most poignant moment of his set coming during “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off’,” which listeners have interpreted as an admonishment of young SoundCloud mumble rappers Smokepurpp and Lil Pump.

“I love these little dudes, I really do,” Cole insisted before spitting the second half of the song a cappella. He resisted the urge to punch downward at rappers barely half his age, instead dropping the knowledge he’s earned from over a decade in the business—while also talking himself up.

“I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a Black man get paid / And plus, you havin’ fun and I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?” Cole asked a spellbound audience. And then: “I’ll be around forever ‘cause my skills is tip-top.”

In that moment, nobody doubted him for a second.

Ingrid Michaelson got a tattoo before her show in Austin

Ingrid Michaelson is in town, and everybody knows there’s only one way to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon before playing a show at Stubb’s: Mosey on down the street and get tatted up at True Blue, of course.

A-list: Ingrid Michaelson at ACL Live, 6.8.15
A-list: Ingrid Michaelson at ACL Live, 6.8.15

The singer, in town on her “Hell No” tour, got a tattoo of a firefly in memory of her mother, Elizabeth Egbert. Egbert was a sculptor and the executive director of the Staten Island Museum before she died in August 2014 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

She tweeted the photo of her new ink, writing, “In memory of mama who I see in the fireflies.” It’s a reference to lyrics in her song “Light Me Up” — “And I want to see you with my eyes / But I see you in the fireflies / And how extraordinary is that.”

It’s not the first time Michaelson has gotten a pre-show tattoo for her mom. She got one in November 2014 before a show in Calofrnia, according to her Instagram.

What a sweet tribute.


Joey Purp paints portrait of an artist as a young man

Rapper Joey Purp from Chicago,Ill., performs on the Tito’s Handmade Vodka Stage on the second day of weekend two of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 8, 2016.  Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Rapper Joey Purp performs Saturday during Weekend Two of the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

By Steve Scheibal, special to the American-Statesman

It’s Purp, “like the color purple, like the word ‘purpose,'” Joey Purp explained as he neared the end of his remarkable ACL Fest showcase.

When the Chicago rapper took the stage early Saturday, it had all the trappings of a dance party. His DJ fired up the crowd with extended cuts from Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, and then Purp bounded out to beats that were fine-tuned to make people bounce.

So it was jarring when he broke into the first track from his mixtape “iiiDrops,” rapping about witnessing a murder, seeing what it meant to both the victim and the killer, and living under the cloud of untimely and violent death.

Purp’s arresting flow and clear voice sucked the crowd into the story, so much so that the dance party had pretty well ground to a halt when the song wrapped up.

“You still with us, Austin, Texas?” he asked.

“There’s a lot going on in Chicago right now,” he said. “It’s up to us to have a critical discourse about it.”

To some degree, Purp’s set was dedicated to that conversation. He was the only one with the microphone, but he welcomed his audience into his songs and stories, gave them chants to repeat and made it as easy as possible to dance.

If the party occasionally got a little serious, Purp’s bright presence, big smile and sharp raps kept it from dragging. For a lamentably short 45 minutes, he propelled the audience with the exuberance of an artist who has a story to tell and knows how to tell  it — and who’s risen to the point that he can at least see the brass ring.

As he closed, he had someone take a picture with the audience. “Put your twos up for Tupac Shakur,” he said, and the crowd gleefully threw peace signs in the air.

Everyone, from Joey Purp on back, felt lucky to be in the shot.


Nothing But Thieves blends influences behind a powerful voice

Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves plays the Honda stage at ACL Fest weekend on Saturday October 1, 2016. Dave Creaney/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves during Weekend One of ACL Fest. Dave Creaney/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

By Steve Scheibal, special to the American-Statesman

Nothing But Thieves took ACL Fest’s big Honda Stage early Saturday afternoon sounding like a band that would’ve been quite happy blaring out of a ’90s alternative rock station. But right around the time that the uninitiated were steeling themselves for Stone Temple Something-or-Other, Conor Mason started singing.

Mason sings with sweeping range and spot-on pitch without ever sounding technical. He packs fury into the band’s rockers and heart into its ballads, and his falsetto rovings are impressive without ever seeming contrived. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley are apt, though Mason sings with more fire.

That kind of voice is a handy thing to have around, and the English band takes full advantage of it. Rather than reheated grunge, Saturday’s set blended those punk and metal elements with full-throated Brit Rock. It created a fierce, full sound infused with clever hooks, propelled by sharp musicianship and an especially tight rhythm section.

Certainly, there were influences to pick out — a bit of Soundgarden here, some Blur there. But Mason’s voice makes it something else. It’s not necessarily different, but it still sounds new.

The Monkees ride new wave of popularity to Paramount Theatre

By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman

The Monkees, featuring original members Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork, play the Paramount Theatre. Matthew Danser for American-Statesman
The Monkees, featuring original members Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, play the Paramount Theatre. Matthew Danser for American-Statesman

The year 2016 has thus far brought many things, many of them tumultuous, disturbing and horrid. But there’s been at least one pleasant surprise: Against all odds, 2016 has also been the Year of the Monkees.

Or at least it’s shaping up as one of their best years since the 1960s. Amid so many other 40th and 50th anniversaries of cultural landmarks, you’d assume that the so-called Prefab Four’s golden anniversary tour (their TV show premiered in 1966) would have been a slam-dunk in any case, in which a crowd-pleasing heritage act jogs through a victory lap in one last nostalgic go-round for their aging fan base.

But add to the mix their new, surprisingly delightful hit album, “Good Times!” — which avoids the disappointment of their other post-‘60s recordings and is winning general acclaim as their best since their swingin’ heyday — and you’ve got something special. Like their contemporary Brian Wilson, the seventysomething trio of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – reduced at the Paramount last night to the duo of Dolenz and Tork plus backup band, because Nesmith played what was billed as his last show as a Monkee earlier this month – found new life collaborating with younger musicians who had grown up on their early work and knew how to craft new variations on their distinctive sound. Songs by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), who also produced the album, Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Andy Partridge (XTC) blend seamlessly with compositions from Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. The album deftly bridges the decades, as if 1968 was followed directly by 2016.

That was much the case at the Paramount, too. Dolenz’s 71-year-old voice has held up remarkably well; close your eyes and you could imagine the decades melting away. The show wasn’t dissimilar from their 2013 Long Center concert. A movie screen still showed scenes and images from the TV show, often in sync with the song being played. But there were a few differences: Along with Nesmith’s absence and the new songs, instead of the band inviting an audience member onstage to sing “Daydream Believer,” the late Davy Jones appeared onscreen to provide the vocal as Dolenz and Tork accompanied him, along with a good portion of the transported audience.


The Monkees started out, of course, as comic entertainment, and Tork, a wizened if still spry elf with the soul of the Greenwich Village folkie he was, isn’t afraid to go for laughs by telling occasional bad jokes and cavorting. Old showman Dolenz, affable as ever in porkpie hat and vest, relied on tried-and-true shtick like donning a replica ‘60s poncho for “Randy Scouse Git.” He also mentioned to cheers that his mom grew up in Austin and attended UT, “and told me many stories about doing unspeakable things at Barton Springs.”

Like any successful veteran band, the Monkees can call on both the hits they have to play (“Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I’m A Believer”) but also the decidedly more minor-key deep cuts favored by longtime fans. One of the better moments was “Shades of Gray,” again using Jones’ recorded vocal, with Dolenz facing the screen in contemplation. Musically, the Monkees were always more quirky and experimental than casual observers gave them credit for, with their fusion of pure ‘60s bubblegum pop, the still-underrated Nesmith’s early country-rock fusion, and entry-level hippie psychedelia, not to mention the casual anti-establishment tone of much of the TV show and their 1968 plot-free cult movie “Head.”

The band powered through the set with panache like the seasoned pros they are, rocking harder in the post-intermission set. If the mostly mature (45 to infinity) audience sat puzzled by the psychedelic excursions of “Circle Sky” and “Porpoise Song” from “Head,” with some of the oldest fans driven early to the exits, they roared their approval of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” famously covered by the Sex Pistols; Tork stuck his tongue out at the finish in a seeming acknowledgment.

They’re not saying it’s their farewell tour, but it’s hard to imagine the Monkees reaching a higher point than they’ve achieved in 2016. In a year when so many musical bright lights have gone dark, it’s reassuring to realize there are still a few good times left in, of all things, an occasional touring band that began as a fake rock group on a silly TV show and existed as such for only two years, a very long time ago. Along with helping to move the culture forward – and oh, yes they did, via pioneering rock videos, the indirect influence of “Head” on avant-garde cinema, and providing millions of kids with a gateway to the counterculture – they’ve also provided us with more than a fair share of inspiration. Talk about keeping it weird.

Against all odds, the Monkees abide. Hey, hey, indeed.





Review: Sam Smith tears curtains down and blows the roof off the Erwin Center

What I want to know is where to get giant curtains with the outline of my face on them. When Sam Smith — Grammy winner, platinum-record-haver, mainstream soul revivalist — first spoke from behind such flamboyant drapery at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday night, the audience response came as an ear-splitting scream of catharsis. Then, the curtain came down, and the noise really started.

A few bars into “Life Support,” the unlikeliness of the whole evening struck. For one thing, a babyfaced 23-year-old everyman packed the Erwin Center for a show that at times veered into smooth jazz territory. For another thing, a gay man sang love songs about men and recounted brazenly queer experiences in that same almost-full Texas arena, where throngs usually squeeze in for Longhorns basketball games.

8/15/2015 Sam Smith performs in concert at the Frank Erwin Center.
Sam Smith performs in concert at the Frank Erwin Center. (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/American-Statesman)

Every single person — well-coiffed moms; black, white and Hispanic families; jumping teenage girls; gay men, women and teenagers; an adorable father-daughter pair compulsively dancing in the general admission section on the floor — sang and swayed and shouted. Underestimate the unifying power of radio-friendly ballads at your peril.

For his part in selling those arena tickets, Smith cashed every check his big-voiced reputation has ever written, gushing with appreciation and emotional clarity. On “Leave Your Lover,” the first big hit of the night, Smith’s falsetto was a crystalline mortar shell, the power of lines like “Leave your lover/leave him for me” hitting the stands like a blanket of diamonds at gale force. Smith’s technical ability has never been in question. His songwriting and connection to those big notes, however, has. When Smith sang a scornful kiss-off like “I’m Not the Only One” or a longing come-on like “Lay Me Down,” it was not sexy, really. It was gutsy, it was candid, it was vulnerable. But unlike his forebears in soul, it was not babymaking music, as they say.

Smith emphasized often over the course of evening the honesty, personal vulnerability and diaristic nature of his debut album, “In the Lonely Hour.” With repeated assessment of pre-“Hour” music as sub-par, Smith obviously found personal and artistic liberation in recording. That was most apparent in “I’ve Told You Now,” a somber tale of drunk dials gone wrong. The scorching “Nirvana” was a good thesis for Smith’s oeuvre, too: pure feeling on rafter-shaking blast, coming out of a face that wore every insecurity contained in the lyrics.

Though the rafters certainly shook Saturday night, Smith didn’t. Almost a year ago, he brought his stationary soulfulness to ACL Fest, and the uneasy, stagebound shuffling was apparent. Time did not loosen Smith’s boots: a stiffness to “Like I Can” (despite a blistering drum solo) gave way on “Restart” to the same weird, shoehorned-in electric slide tutorial he brought to Zilker Park in 2014. We wouldn’t ask “Crazy”-era Britney for vocal coaching, Sam, and we won’t ask you to teach us how to death drop.

(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman)
(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/For American-Statesman)

In a show where weepy ballads were the meat, the flashy, pop-minded potatoes came at the right time toward the end. A roaring cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own” turned into a medley as Smith give his backup singers the stage for their own rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The star took backup duties. “La La La” provided the arena with its most kinetic moment of the night; if Smith is taking career advice, it would be nice to circle back on the next album to the house-inspired electro-pop that made him famous in the first place. The last number before the encore, “Money On My Mind,” broke into CeCe Peniston’s triumphant “Finally,” the welcome return of a trick Smith pulled out at ACL Fest.

The encore’s reliably lush acoustic version of “Latch” caused couples across the arena to latch onto each other. A unifying “Stay With Me” closed the evening out with the kind of kumbaya sweetness that only a bonafide radio juggernaut can. However, the most memorable moment of the night, for this writer’s money, came halfway through the set. Smith, fresh off of that Winehouse cover, explained that the inspiration for his debut album was his unrequited love for a person he had fallen head over heels for. When the singer mentioned that that person was a man, a teenage boy next to me threw his arms up and cheered.

Smith’s show tore down curtains of all kinds, and that’s worth a cheer from a single voice or from an entire arena.

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015: Listen to the playlist

Clockwise from left: Jane's Addiction, CHVRCHES and Wu-Tang Clan. (American-Statesman file photos)
Clockwise from left: Jane’s Addiction, CHVRCHES and Wu-Tang Clan. (American-Statesman file photos)

Now in it’s 10th year, Fun Fun Fun Fest promises exponential fun levels and a Generation-X-friendly lineup for 2015.

To celebrate the big one-zero, you’ve got to go big or go home, and FFF is definitely going big, offering an array of one-time-only experiences. Alt-rockers Jane’s Addiction will be performing their 1990 release, “Ritual de lo Habitual,” in it’s entirety, and Gogol Bordello will no doubt pull out all the stops to theatrically play all of “Gypsy Punks.” Festival headliners Wu-Tang Clan will have all members present to perform, and hardcore band Dag Nasty will be reuniting just for FFF.

This year’s fest will also have everything from trance-y synth acts like Slow Magic and Grimes to skate park staples NOFX and Skinny Puppy.

And keep an eye out for lesser-known names like Peaches and Shamir, who both know how to churn out a catchy hook that will get stuck in your head all day. You’ll also want to groove to local artists Roger Sellers and Ringo Deathstarr, two great names from your own backyard.

Jam this playlist while you start raiding your closet for the perfect “indie-but-not-trying-too-hard” outfit.

Listen to our Fun Fun Fun Fest playlist, now on Spotify.

SXSW Spotlight: Empires

Empires performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday Oct. 4, 2014.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Empires performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday Oct. 4, 2014. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From: Chicago

Online: Artist website; official SXSW page

About the artist: The kind of rock that Empires specializes in has a heartfelt, elbow-greased charm to it, like if Bruce Springsteen had a very sensitive son with The National. The group, who released third LP “Orphan” last year, also played an energetic but limply received first-weekend ACL Fest set in October. From that review:

The connection between band and crowd Saturday afternoon was oddly mismatched … Lead singer Sean Van Vleet radiated earnest excitement and worked the crowd like a pro, searching out human connections and eye contact like a heat-seeking missile as he tore through songs like “Orphan.”… But aside from a dedicated cluster of Empires diehards by stage left and cluster of dancers on stage right, polite nods reigned despite Van Vleet’s best efforts. … Van Vleet’s vocals sit somewhere in between Bono and Kurt Cobain (to whom he bears resemblance). Belting reigned, though sandpapery growls made an appearance. 

Though at one point lending themselves to Gaslight Anthem comparisons, Empires has thrown on a woozy pop sheen with “Orphan” that serves them well. Hopefully, the more club-oriented SXSW will give them the kind of crowd ACL denied them.

Could share a bill with: Bronze Radio Return, Young the Giant, Jukebox the Ghost, Bad Veins