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live music review: ian axel, bowery ballroom, 6 september 2011

Every once in a while, you hear a piece of pop music that really excites you. I am not talking about the kind of typical pop music that circulates on the radio and into your head until it becomes maddening (the compositional similarity between “Super Bass” and “Teenage Dream” comes to mind). I am talking about music that is unabashedly pop that manages to connect with the audience on a deeper level that makes you really excited about being alive. Few musicians can really capture that – Elton John, the cast of Glee perhaps, cheesiness notwithstanding – but when you hear talent that appeals both to the mainstream and to something at the core of your humanity, you take notice.

Ian Axel is one of those musicians.

When I was first approached to cover his September 6, 2011 show at New York City’s famous Bowery Ballroom, I only had a couple of videos to go on to decide how I felt about his music. The first video I saw was his endearing, acoustic version of “You’ll Be Okay” in Brooklyn Bridge Park. In the summer, NYC charity Sing For Hope puts “pop up pianos” all over the city that people can randomly sit at and entertain the crowd. As you can tell in the video, Ian’s got a lot of raw talent, a nerdy endearing quality, great songwriting and solid musicianship. Take a look at the people watching Ian and his collaborator Chad Vaccarino at the end of the performance – they are a wide range of ages, nationalities, etc. But something about his music is just, well, appealing to us as humans. The second video I saw featured really more of Ian with his backing band, performing “This Is The New Year” on The Rachael Ray Show. Again, same pop sensibility, great musicianship and songwriting, but here there is his backing band. The official “This Is The New Year” video better captures what the song is like and what his live show is like.

Ian’s show on September 6 was somehow a cross between a rock-and-roll concert, coffee shop performance and celebration with his closest friends. It was clear that the entire audience was captivated by him, it was fun to watch him pick people out of the crowd to come up and sing with him and the way he could change the mood from intimate and introspective to bursting with joy was really exciting to watch.

My personal favorites from the show were “Amazed” for its masterful mix of Elton John melodies and truly honest songwriting, “Waltz” because you can hear the classical musicianship with intense arrangement that really electrified the crowd and might make Regina Spektor jealous, and “Gone” because it is a little quieter and the progression of the beat really shows off what Ian and the band can do. My dad used to always say that REM is a thinking man’s band; “Gone” is something I’d like to call a thinking man’s pop song.

Given Ian Axel’s overwhelmingly positive reception, solid musicianship, honest songwriting, endearing personality and talented cast of collaborators, I literally cannot imagine a world where he doesn’t become huge in the next year. The songs off This Is The New Year are perfect for everything from walking to the subway to showing up at the end credits of the next epic love story. He’s talented, you can see how hard he works at his craft and the joy he radiates while performing is contagious. I could’ve sat at the Bowery for six more hours watching. Lip will feature a Q&A with Ian to follow.

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