Many more people will crowd into the Prudential Center on Saturday to see Demi Lovato and Christina Perri, but don’t be fooled by the numbers. The big show in the Garden State this week happens 20 miles to the south. On Wednesday night, the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville hosts Gerard Way‘s return to the stage under his own banner. The last time Way sang at Starland, he was fronting My Chemical Romance, the band he founded in Northern New Jersey at the turn of the millennium. MCR made Way into an international star, and although the group disbanded, an international star he remains. This year, Way comes to town in support of Hesitant Alien, his first solo album. If setlists for prior shows on this tour are any indication, fans who are coming in the secret hope of hearing old My Chemical Romance favorites are going to leave a little frustrated. In Boston this weekend, Way played no MCR songs, choosing instead to perform every track on Hesitant Alien and a few other solo compositions, too. At least for now, he’s determined to establish an identity outside of a band that was sometimes treated as a punching bag for those outside its immense cult audience.
So what should fans expect? Last week, I wrote 3,000 words on the occasionally difficult Hesitant Alien. Here’s the capsule version: the solo set consists of angular, sinister, sludgy rock (“Juarez,” “The Bureau”), shameless Britpop revival (“Brother”, “No Shows,” “Get the Gang Together”), fuzzed-out pop-rock not far removed from the final My Chemical Romance album (“Action Cat,” “Maya the Psychic”) and a compassionate and beautifully constructed power ballad (“Drugstore Perfume”) that, stripped of its murky production on Alien, ought to shine in concert. He’s also been closing shows with “Snakedriver” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. The final MCR album made Way’s interest in British rock manifest; on Hesitant Alien, it’s more like an obsession. By most accounts, the My Chemical Romance split was, as rock band breakups go, not a terribly acrimonious one. After circling the globe one too many times, Way and his former bandmates weren’t disenchanted — they were exhausted. I think chances are good that MCR relaunches about as quickly as Fall Out Boy did, and when they do, Hesitant Alien is going to look like a peculiar but compelling chapter in a ongoing story rather than a detour into the heart of the woods. Even if they don’t get back together, Way’s new project is a heck of a lot better than the Black Cards was.
While we’re on the subject of former Bamboozle and Skate and Surf main attractions, New Brunswick’s effortlessly entertaining ska-punk outfit Streetlight Manifesto plays Starland two nights later. The combative Streetlight frontman Tomas Kalnoky memorably denounced his record label from the mainstage at Skate and Surf 2013 while representatives in a nearby merch booth looked on aghast. Actually, The Hands That Thieve, the album he told the audience not to buy, is very good — as is The Hand That Thieves, the acoustic version he cut under the Toh Kay name. In concert, the group is all exuberance: fast beats, a four-piece horn section blaring and Kalnoky hollering his alternately political and personal lyrics over the top. They never make those lists of Top 10 Jersey bands, but they probably should.
If you like the flamboyant and dramatic elements of My Chemical Romance, there’s a pretty good chance you’d appreciate gospel, too, since no American music goes over the top as consistently or as gleefully as gospel does. Surely it does not get much more dramatic than Richard Smallwood‘s “Jesus, You’re the Center of My Joy” and “Total Praise,” two songs that build from hushed beginnings to towering climaxes. Smallwood, a terrific pianist and choirmaster, headlines a Saturday night gospel showcase at Symphony Hall in Newark — the same historic building in which the organizers behind Gospelfest set a record for assembling the largest praise choir. Smallwood, who has been recording since the early ’80s, knows Newark and the local gospel tradition: He was one of the surprise performers at Cissy Houston’s 80th birthday party at New Hope Baptist Church.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Maria Muldaur was one half of a husband-and-wife singing duo that presented a sunnier, if less gripping, version of Richard and Linda Thompson’ folk-rock. Geoff and Maria Muldaur made one outstanding album — Pottery Pie, released in 1969 — followed it up with another that was nearly as good, and then split. Maria’s solo career took off, albeit accidentally, when the slyly provocative “Midnight at the Oasis” became a hit in 1974. By the ’80s, she was no longer a star, but she never stopped recording and performing blues, jazz, folk, gospel and a little children’s music, too. On Wednesday night, she’ll be the main attraction in a room where venerable styles are always welcome: The Stanhope House.