After the demise of D Generation at the turn of the century, New York troubadour Jesse Malin traded electric for acoustic and has toured hard ever since. Traveling black tar rivers wherever they flow, plying his trade to all who will take the time to sip a beer and nod their heads. Along the way, he has written and recorded with the likes of Ryan Adams, Billy Joe Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen.
Last year saw him collaborate with Lucinda Williams on his 7th (or is it 8th?) studio album. The critically acclaimed ‘Sunset Kids’ is an introspective set of songs exploring death, departure and a host of character observation. It was one of my favourite albums last year and possibly his finest work. Jesse and his band have been touring hard since the release and this is the first of 3 separate visits he will make to our side of the pond this year.
Situated in Leeds city centre just a few doors from Crash Records, Headrow House is a new venue to me. With a 150 capacity, it’s a cool sized room on the first floor of a building that also houses a restaurant and a drinking establishment. As I catch the band soundchecking prior to an arranged interview with the frontman, I already get the feeling this could be a great show. It feels like a good space and the fact that it has recently sold out makes it even more exciting.
As the room fills up nicely, fellow New Yorker Don Dilego tales to the stage and warms us up with a fine set of pop-laced Americana. Cut from the same cloth as Jesse Malin, his between-song stories are engaging and his melodies memorable. Joined by keyboard player Michael Hesslein, Don channels alt country sensibilities with pop suss coming on like Joseph Arthur meets Talking Heads to the casual listener, which ain’t a bad place to be in my book.
His passion for collecting old, turn of the century photographs from thrift shops, which he uses to adorn his studio in NY is interesting and leads into the best song of his half hour slot, which for the life of me I can’t recall the title of. Guess I’ll have to check out his discography to find it, eh!
Sometimes the stars align at just the right moment and it all comes together. Sometimes the sound guy gets it just right, the band are tight and play the songs you really wanted to hear. Sometimes the room is dark and crackling with just the right atmosphere, the vocals cut through the instruments and you catch every last word the singer sings. Tonight is one of those nights.
A Jesse Malin show is always an immersive experience, full of stories and crowd interaction. I remember a show back in 2008, at Fibbers in York, where he had the whole crowd sat on the floor enraptured by his every word. That was a more intimate, acoustic based show, tonight is a rock ‘n’ roll show with a tight 5 piece band who bring the NY groove to Leeds.
It’s evident from the strummed chords of opener ‘Shining Down’ that tonight is going to be one of those great nights. With a smart, dark shirt and waistcoat adorning his slight frame, his black corkscrew hair in his eyes from beneath an oversized flat cap, Jesse looks the essence of New York rock ‘n’ roll cool. His vocals sound spot on, just the right amount of echo and reverb accentuate his voice, and the accompanying licks from long time collaborator Derek Cruz have the most marvelous tone to my ears.
Recent single ‘Chemical Heart’ follows, the jangly, upbeat melody inciting crowd movement and Rob Clores cool keyboard refrain giving it that kooky feel. The Pogues classic ‘If I Should Fall With Grace From God’ follows and fits the upbeat party vibe of the set just right. A perfect opening trio of songs.
Jesse tells stories about the album between songs and announces they are going to play lots of new material and a few surprises are in store. ‘Black Haired Girl’ is an early highlight, yet it’s the groovier, funky stuff such as ‘She Don’t Love Me’ and ‘Dead On’ that really shine tonight. When Jesse loses the guitar and takes to the mic, he becomes edgy and the old D Generation punk rock attitude shines through. You can take the punk outta Queens, but he’ll always have some of that fire in his belly. He stands on the bass drum, stalks the stage and he’s off in the crowd. Jesse has the ability to make every person in the room feel like they are involved.
‘Russian Roulette’ is my favourite Lords Of The New Church song and I was not expecting it tonight. The singer’s cinematic introduction reels off his tongue like poetry, referencing Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now like some punk rock Gil Scott Heron, before he’s off in the crows yet again. This is one of those rock ‘n’ roll moments I will remember for a long time to come.
The main set ends with the song that opens ‘Sunset Kids’. It’s no nonchalant decision that ‘Meet Me At The End Of The World’ was re-recorded to open the album. Personally, I feel it is one of Jesse’s finest moments. It has that New York groove, that Lou Reed feel to it, it’s a modern rock ‘n’ roll anthem for these trying times.
That was a killer set! The old, the new and the obscure rub shoulders. How could you not dig the likes of ‘Hotel Columbia’, ‘Turn Up The Mains’ and ‘Cigarettes & Violets’?
Jesse returns solo, with his acoustic for a chilled run through of The Clash classic ‘Stay Free’, before inviting the band back for an emotive ‘Broken Radio’. And while The Boss was a no show tonight, it’s still a classic Malin tune that deserves more recognition than the minimal Radio 2 playlisting it got on release. A high energy ‘Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio’ sees the singer ditch the guitar for good to give the Ramones classic anthem the full on treatment it deserves, before sending us off with his chilled ode to The Pogues frontman that is ‘Shane’.
Tonight Jesse and his band set the bar very high indeed. He’s been at this game for a long time now, and has honed his storytelling and performance to perfection. He has the songs and he has the players and they delivered the kind of show I feel every rock ‘n’ roll band worth their salt wish they could deliver.
Author: Ben Hughes