Early on in the Robyn Hitchcock tribute show last Thursday at the Fillmore, a smiling Rhett Miller recalled when first saw the British songwriter, opening for R.E.M. in the ‘80s. “I’ve loved Robyn Hitchcock ever since I was weird,” he said, to scattered applause.
While the line between mainstream and subversive are not as clear these days, the offbeat, neo-psychedelic songwriter is undeniably a cult figure, which was evident on this belated 60th birthday bash planned by longtime fan Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. The bulk of the mixed-age crowd (filling only about ¾ of the venue) was clearly unfamiliar with his repertoire beyond minor hits like “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps”. Predictably, Meloy and former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck received the most applause (Fan: “I met you at a show in Fresno in 1984!”/ Buck: “It wasn’t me.”).
Me? I knew about five Robyn Hitchcock songs walking in, which made the evening an exhilarating journey similar to a star-studded Harry Smith tribute show I attended back in college. Viva Hitchcock was the best kind of crash course on an artist with 30-plus years of material, and I do believe the singer can count dozens more as fans after last Thursday.
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Saturday, at the first of two concerts at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, Madonna showed the near-capacity crowd exactly why she was the most enduring star of the video age. For nearly two hours, the 54-year-old dynamo out-performed the gaggle of dancers half her age (and sustained a forehead gash from her guitar in the process) and outshone the varied multimedia spectacles that accompanied each song, from the murder-noir hotel set of “Revolver” to the catwalk-video combo of “Vogue”.
In fact, her palpable charisma alone seemed to buoy the performance, which leaned a bit too heavily toward her recent, mostly homogenous EDM material, especially her dark, divorce-inspired MDNA selections. Any artist deserves kudos for living in the now, but Madonna only offered up a handful of actual hits, including a rare “Everybody” to commemorate the debut single’s 30th anniversary and the show’s highlight “Human Nature”, which ended with a g-string-revealing strip tease downstage.
Merrill Garbus may be indie rock’s luminary of the moment, but some credit for last year’s acclaimed whokill album is due to the tUnE-yArDs’ other member and songwriter, Oakland’s own Nate Brenner. The bassist and multi-instrumentalist, also a part of experimental trio Beep!, is currently touring to promote Dirty Glow, his solo debut. The album, released October 9th under the moniker Naytronix, is a more subdued, mostly EDM song cycle that highlights Brenner’s gift for layered textures and oddly compelling grooves. In advance of his show Tuesday at Café Du Nord, we chatted with Brenner about the new album and juggling his various endeavors.
Steel Panther are a lot more fun than Tenacious D, plain and simple. Instead of ironic fanboy shtick, you get four of the Sunset Strip’s finest cock-rock veterans combining authentic ‘80s hair-metal riffs with a cartoonish brand of hyper-chauvinistic raunchiness not seen since the golden age of hip-hop. While their brand of hard rock is a throwback to the age of hairspray, Steel Panther’s hilarious tales of groupies, drug abuse, and all-around debauchery have once again made it cool to pump your fists to power chords and boneheaded arena-rock choruses.
Already much-buzzed about in their native Maui, the Freeradicals Projekt are (now) a septet who seamlessly blend funk, soul, reggae, and hip-hop into a potent blend of ass-shaking, feel-good musical gooeyness. A huge reason the group’s fusion actually works is the inter-playing swagger of its co-vocalists, MC Francisco Perez and charismatic soul singer Shea Derrick – whose pipes and charisma alone could buoy the band’s shows. As their tour hits the mainland (they play Mill Valley’s Sweetwater this Friday, followed by shows in SF and Santa Cruz), we caught up with guitarist/band leader Ramas Cavarrubias to learn the benefits of making music in an idyllic bubble.
I had the pleasure of meeting Adam “MCA” Yauch, along with Mike D and the King Ad-Rock, at a San Francisco press roundtable back in August 2007. The Beastie Boys were in town for two shows promoting The Mix-Up, their only album comprised of instrumentals and devoid of samples. What happened was one of the most enjoyable and bizarre journalistic experiences of my life, with the smart-alecky trio christening me the “Debbie Downer” of the room for my questions regarding “porno music” and Tibetan freedom. I couldn’t help but ask about Yauch’s Milarepa Foundation efforts because the first Tibetan Freedom Concert at Golden Gate Park in 1996 was such a memorable part of my young life. The two-day event was a key accomplishment in Yauch’s—and the band’s—very public maturation.
It was also my first Beastie Boys show, and it was a revelation. The band delivered an incredibly diverse set that included their punk songs, jazzy numbers, funk excursions, and of course their hip-hop hits. There are so many highlights, all of which I’ve struggled to devote ample brain power to since that weekend 16 years ago: A vibrant opening with the one-two blast of “Jimmy James” and “Sure Shot”; a rare live “Get it Together” with Q-Tip busting up in laughter after forgetting half his lyrics; a cover of “Red Tape” by the Circle Jerks; Biz Markie leading the 100,000-strong crowd in a raucous rendition of his classic Check Your Head intro “The Biz vs. the Nuge”; and most beautifully, MCA’s performance of “Bodhisattva Vow” alongside a Tibetan monk’s live chanting.
There were many live Beastie highlights after that—the trio letting thousands sing EVERY WORD of “Paul Revere” at Oakland Arena in 1998; the group’s giddy rendition of “High Plains Drifter” at the Bill Graham Civic in 2004—but nothing like that day. In the 1990s, the Beastie Boys’ TV culture lyrics and seamless blending of disparate musical styles reflected the culture as well as Pulp Fiction or Lollapalooza or Seinfeld or The Real World. Seeing them bring it all to life was a thrill.
That weekend, Yauch not only assembled the largest U.S. benefit crowd since 1985’s Live Aid and many of the day’s finest musical icons to urge a boycott of Chinese goods. He also began an enduring post-Tiananmen-Square-Massacre dialogue in pop culture consciousness about the ethics of the U.S.’s partnership with the brutal government of China. This call for Generation X and Y to “follow the money” and make a difference through everyday restraint was incredibly profound to the 16-year-old me. I could no longer look at “Made in China” labels without remembering the monks onstage whose teeth were all knocked out by a Chinese police cattle prod, and the distance between my high school and far-off sweatshops would never be that vast again. I kept the effort up long after my “Free Tibet” bumper sticker was stolen off my Honda’s bumper.
It makes me sad to think how Westerners can still be shocked by things like the installation of suicide nets at Apple’s Chinese factories. But I must admit that I don’t boycott Chinese goods as much I can, and with the Internet, there’s really no excuse. At the roundtable in 2007, I didn’t look closely for sweatshop wear on the Beasties, but Yauch did express some disillusionment with the Tibetan Freedom concerts he produced, particularly in the apparent lack of other bands’ long-term commitment.
Following the farcical press conference, Yauch was hanging outside near the garage as everyone headed over to UC Berkeley for that night’s Greek Theatre show. Despite strict instructions to the contrary, another writer asked for a cell phone picture and Yauch kindly obliged. After he left, it was only me and MCA. Still star struck, I asked him if he was going to the student-led Tibetan freedom protest the following day at the local Chinese embassy (I’d heard about it on the news). Surprisingly, he had no idea about it. But he looked interested and asked me for more info. Then I told him how the 1996 Tibetan Freedom Concert made a big impact on the Bay Area, and that many locals were still fighting the good fight. He just looked at me, nodding.
When his ride pulled up, he went to leave but stopped and asked if I and the other writer were going to the show. I told him I was but that the other guy couldn’t get a press pass. He asked for the guy’s name, nodded to register it, and then bade me farewell.
I never got a picture, which would’ve been cool. But at least I got to tell him that something he did made a difference for others. At least I got to do that.
Despite a low turnout the night after a packed show in San Francisco, Matthew Sweet gave an inspired, no-frills performance at the Mystic on Sunday, playing his classic 1991 Girlfriend album in its entirety. Sweet and his trio of backing musicians—including longtime drummer Ric Menck—were astoundingly on point, replicating every guitar lick, vocal harmony and drum fill from the power-pop masterpiece.
The show, like the album, started out strong with “Divine Intervention,” “I’ve Been Waiting” and the rocking title track. Getting the hit singles out of the way early allowed the crowd of diehards to relive the incredible album cuts, including the beautifully harmonized “Your Sweet Voice” and the lovely ballad “Winona” (and no, there wasn’t a mention of Petaluma’s own Winona Ryder, who was falsely rumored to be the song’s inspiration back in the day).
Although my repeated calls for “Superdeformed” fell on deaf ears, those in attendance were treated to an encore of favorites from Sweet’s ‘90s heyday, as well as “She Walks the Night,” the charming single off Sweet’s latest album Modern Art.
Sweet himself seemed to truly enjoy the intimacy of the small crowd, joking with a fan who suggested giving Altered Beast the concert treatment and being generally chatty throughout the set. After a blazing “I Wanted to Tell You,” he told the gathering, “You guys are so fun and rowdy; if we had more people, it would only drag us down.”
Many Sweet fans (like me) are deeply connected to the album, having loved, lost and longed amid its song cycle. This bond to Girlfriend was surely strengthened for some by the lengthy post-show meet-and-greet that followed the shimmering performance. Each concertgoer received ample time with the writer of these incredible love songs. I’d like to believe these exchanges helped heal a little romantic heartbreak for someone—maybe even Sweet himself.
I’ve Been Waiting
Looking At The Sun
Day For Night
Thought I Knew You
You Don’t Love Me
I Wanted To Tell You
Your Sweet Voice
Does She Talk?
Sick of Myself