Halfway through “Swagga Like Us,” Torman Jahi hopped on stage at the MYC, got the people on their feet, and then passed the mic one by one to a group of young rappers for a full-on all-ages posse cut. Some of ‘em killed it, some of ‘em rapped the alphabet, and some essentially trainwrecked, but all of ‘em got cheered. Come to think of it, the guy who trainwrecked got cheered the loudest.
This is the philosophy of the MYC, or Marin Youth Center, in San Rafael. Everyone gets a shot, and everyone gets support no matter what. This would be laudable enough by teen center standards, but there’s the extra added benefit that the shit happening at the MYC is actually completely cool. Forget cookies and punch; over the last two years, they’ve been hosting jazz groups, school-of-rock band camps, hip-hop sessions, recording workshops, acapella groups, art programs, breakdance troupes, cooking classes and far, far more.
On Friday night, the MYC opened the doors in downtown San Rafael and invited the public for an open house. It’s got that Emeryville loft thing goin’ on, with exposed rafters and ducts in the main performance room. Elsewhere, the walls boast posters of Malcolm X, bulletin boards warning of the dangers of smoking, a framed certificate for the current champion of the pool table, and tons of photos chronicling the varied activity that takes place here. It’s a new building, with a tinge of the municipal. That feel will surely and eventually lose out to the very communal and cutting-edge spirit of the place.
The band, from the Oakland School of the Arts, was ruling it. Three female singers with stellar pipes, all still in high school. Three guys on bass, drums and keys, layin’ it down on covers of “American Boy” and “Crazy in Love.” To close the night, ‘Til Dawn, an acapella group who rehearses at the MYC, took the stage. They sang “Tell Me Something Good,” “Steal My Kisses” and “Something to Talk About”—and were great. As I left my too-brief visit, kids with cameras ran back to the high-tech studio to edit their video footage while visitors and young staff were clustered around a pool game, dancing and singing “Ms. Jackson.”
I know it must be a common reaction, but where was this place when I was a kid?
More photos below.
Plenty of acapella groups these days, especially college acapella groups, revel in the cheekiness of performing unlikely songs in an acapella style. So many, in fact, that the “offbeat” performances are the majority, and the unlikely becomes likely, and the old-timers in the audience long to hear “Heart of My Heart” or “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” instead of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” This doesn’t make hearing fantastic versions of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” or John Legend’s “It Don’t Have to Change” any less enjoyable, but it does mean that sometimes, acapella groups act more like a DJ whose sets are all about selection instead of technique. Mika’s “Grace Kelly” is not necessarily made good simply because it has been chosen, nor is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” going to further bless an overly “Hallelujah”-ized world due solely to being performed without instruments.
Many of these interesting experiments reside on YouTube, but last night, they arrived live and in-person at Napa Valley Union High School’s theater. The 4th Annual Acapella Extravaganza contained plenty of vocal-only jams by Toto, the Beatles, Eric Carmen and the like, though the real reason I made the one-hour drive was the addition of OC Times, who are currently the world’s greatest barbershop quartet. That’s not just superlatives falling out of my mouth, either; they truly are the world champions according to the foremost authorities: S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.
Why the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, after existing 76 years with the beautiful acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., changed its name to “Barbershop Harmony Society” is beyond anyone’s imagination. Refreshingly, a sizable backlash contingent still calls the organization S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., while the main thing is that there’s even an organization at all that promotes a dying part of our heritage. The core ideals remain the same—sing the hell out of that tag!—and the annual contest is a fine determiner of the barbershop quartet with the most talent and style. So when it was announced that current S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. champions would be performing in Napa, how could I stay away? (Lots of my friends and family have already discovered quite a few reasons, thank you.)
OC Times opened their set with “Oh! Look at Me Now,” from 1941, which paved the way for a concert more Brill Building and less MTV Music Awards. Contemporary hits were limited to “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” by John Michael Montgomery, from 1995, and then going back to “What a Wonderful World,” which entered the barbershop repertoire long ago. Plenty of 1950s doo-wop songs peppered the set—“So In Love,” “Teddy Bear,” “Sixteen Candles”—but it was classic barbershop arrangements of “Come Fly With Me” and “Blue Skies” that highlighted most a sharp performance.
Part Elvis, part Sinatra; part Nashville and part Los Angeles, OC Times has such a pitch-perfect blending of voices and timbre that it’s no wonder they’re the country’s best. Words can’t really convey how absolutely in step each phrase sounds. A little too-corny patter helps, too, and they keep one of the great S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. traditions alive by holding afterglows (casual receptions with singing and mingling) after their performances. By the time they sang their final number, “A Fool Such As I,” I was glad I made the drive, and ventured back to Santa Rosa with a heart, as they say, full of song.
P.S. One of my favorite acapella renditions right now is Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” memorized and medleyized by The Stereotypes, from Washington University:
And so it’s happened. The residents at the Boogie Room, home of some of the most exciting subcultural activity of the past two years in Santa Rosa, have received a 60-day notice to vacate. They’ll pack up and call it a day in mid-April.
Speculation that the property might go on the market had been brimming for a while, and to be fair, most everyone so far seems surprised that the Boogie Room lasted as long as it did. “I’m one of them,” Bryce Dow-Williamson, a heavily-involved volunteer, told me today. “I thought it was gonna be, like, two months.”
“But I’m grateful for what we were able to do,” he added, proposing that perhaps now that the Boogie Room has set the example, “people have seen how it can work. Maybe someone’ll come along and do it right.”
There’s a handful of house concerts left on the calendar, and then the Boogie Room’s two-year run culminates on April 10 in a farewell show with the Crux, Pete Bernhart from the Devil Makes Three and more. It’s also Bryce’s birthday the next day, so a slumber party is rumored, along with a “memorabilia sale.”
I suppose it goes without saying, but Santa Rosa isn’t going to be the same.
My friend Jeff over at Waxidermy has just posted some clips from a record made by the Sonoma Valley Jazz Band in 1974, and man, it’s worth a listen. There’s some seriously crazy drums on “Spinning Wheel,” and the arrangements are out of this world for a high school band. Who knew this stuff was happening in Sonoma in 1974?
In related news, the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival has announced its lineup for 2009. Count the jazz artists.
This is good for a million laughs: The glory days of ridiculous rap album cover art, recounted in Legacy Document’s look back at the finer moments of Pen & Pixel.
Pen & Pixel was the graphic “design” outfit responsible for the most preposterous Photoshop jobs in the history of the music industry, most notably on CD art by Mystikal and and the rest of the No Limit label. As previously discussed, I’m a huge fan of Master P’s Ghetto Postage, but Aesop over at Legacy Document has unearthed some true gems of absurdity.
I said everything I needed to say regarding the experience of seeing Philip Glass play live in this concert review from the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, in 2007. That said, seeing Philip Glass play the piano is not an opportunity to be missed, because his music is more about how one reacts to it than what it sounds like, which is, pointedly: the same as it always does.
Philip Glass had performed his 3 1/2-hour opus Music In Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall a few nights earlier, so playing a solo piano show for 90 minutes in Napa might not have seemed like a big deal to him. It was a huge deal, however, to the full house on Thursday night, who in the wonderfully intimate theater were treated to Mad Rush, Metamorphoses No. 4, 3 and 2, some Etudes for Piano (even Glass humorously forgot which ones), and Closing, from his Columbia album Glassworks. Some people leaned forward, enraptured. Others either sat politely, or swayed back and forth to the repetitive patterns, or fell asleep. I closed my eyes and got lost in it all, thinking about love, family, and the future.
Margrit Mondavi, whom the Napa Valley Opera House theater is named for, was sitting way up in the balcony, and afterwards, when Glass came out to the lobby to meet his fans, she presented him with a few bottles of wine. Watching Mondavi, who has done so much in support of the arts, share a warm conversation with Glass, who essentially personifies “the arts,” was pretty intense. Glass then took a good half-hour or so to sign autographs, answer questions, and take photos with his fans. Again, this mightn’t have been a big deal to Glass, but everyone was happily surprised that he’d be so accommodating, and it transformed a great concert into a special night.
Dear Jay Pullman,
You’re a neat guy and all, which is why I’m completely confused by your pick of Wiggle as your Screeching Weasel album of choice. You say, and I agree, that “You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Screeching Weasel album.” Here’s how I might break it down:
The person who picks BoogadaBoogadaBoogada is most likely someone who still embraces their juvenile side and makes a lot of fart jokes. May have trouble in relationships, may also have trouble in any academic pursuits. However, it must be noted that this person is insanely fun to be around.
The person who picks My Brain Hurts is a no-nonsense pragmatist who occasionally dabbles in pseudo-intellectualism—while admitting to the “pseudo” part. Could possibly describe themselves as a “serial monogamist” since they’re too romantic to notice that love dies. Is balanced, but incidentally loves to drive fast.
The person who picks Wiggle is confused and misguided, who pushes on doors clearly marked “pull” and returns time and again to a restaurant that gives them food poisoning. Stuck between making clever threats about the real world and snide pop-culture jokes. An utter bore.
The person who picks Anthem for a New Tomorrow is idealistic, and is as interesting as one can be who follows the pack. May wear nice shoes and have an education, with luck in love and with snappy repartee. Does not care what others think, but most certainly conforms to a set of internal rules.
The person who picks anything after Anthem for a New Tomorrow or who picks the obscure self-titled debut is either completely retarded or is lying.
So: You picked Wiggle. However, I have hung out with you, and you do not seem confused, nor misguided, nor a bore. Is it a Chicago thing? I can’t tell you how excited I was when Wiggle finally came out, and how completely shattered me and my girl were when we brought it home from the record store. It’s such a lazy record, musically and thematically. I got rid of it a few years ago, and immediately felt much better.
Please explain. (And by the way, I’d pick My Brain Hurts.)
Are you just as surprised as most people that you turned out to be a winemaker?
It doesn’t surprise me too much, ‘cause anything can happen. I went from being a cross-country runner, to being recruited to West Point, and then all of a sudden being in art school, and all of a sudden being in an international touring rock band, and then a second one, and now a third one. I tend to just kind of latch onto something and go for it.
Tool came along and really revolutionized popular rock music in a lot of ways. In what ways, if any, do you hope to revolutionize winemaking?
Ooh, gee. I don’t know about ‘revolutionizing.’ I think if I can apply what I’ve applied to everything else I’ve dove into, I think it’d be more about being true and honest with my perceptions and what I’m experiencing. Much the same way a good grape-grower or winemaker pays attention to the terroir, rather than trying to make wines that are for mass consumption. Kind of what we did with the music, where we remained true to what was happening in the room when we write. There’s only two things that myself and a musician, and my partners, there’s only two things we really have to do. All we have to do is remain true to what’s happening in that room between the four people. How we record it, what format it comes out on, what we wear, who sells it—that has no bearing as long as we remain true in that room, and focus on what’s happening in that space. And the second thing we have to do is make sure that when we go to present it live, it’s the same thing. I think with winemaking it’s a similar approach. We have to remain true to what’s happening in the vineyard, and what’s happening in the winery once we start to process those grapes. If I can have a hand in helping someone else come along with 20 times the talent that I’ll ever have in winemaking, if something that I did inspired somebody to pay attention, great. I’d love to have a hand in that.
Recording music these days can be very malleable – you have a chance to manipulate the finished product afterwards through digital software. With wine, you get what goes in the bottle, and you can’t tinker with it when it’s done. Do you appreciate that immediate, must-get-it-right-the-first-time process with wine?
Yeah, absolutely. For sure. But I also appreciate the getting it wrong the first, the second and third time. You learn along the way. But I definitely do like that, that you have to get it right.
How’s your learning curve been in Arizona? What’s your major obstacle to vineyards in Arizona?
Cold weather. We’re up in the high desert, so we planted on a lot of developed, agriculturally-zoned areas that we thought would be okay, thinking that we would have more problem with heat than cold. As it turns out, we’re a similar terrain and climate as Paso Robles, but cooler. So we had a lot of winter kills. We pretty much learned the hard way the first few years, not even realizing that we had winter kills the first year. It was like, why aren’t these things budding?
Is there a water usage issue in Arizona?
Absolutely, you have to have land that has prior ditch rights, and grandfathered-in irrigation, or a well that predates any of the salt river project claims, or any of that stuff. It really is a mess, like anywhere else. The good news is that the more the United States develops its understanding of vineyards and winemaking, I think the more they’re going to come around to encouraging people to put in vineyards rather than tract homes.
Tell me a little about Eric Glomski, and the yin he brings to your yang.
He has a memory. I’m pretty bad when it comes to hearing something and having it stay with me—my short term memory’s not so good. He’s that guy who can hear something once and remember it, so he’s able to really build upon his experiences over the years making wine. He’s a great chemist, he understands geography, geology, and his senses are all firing at the same time. His perception of what’s happening in the moment is accurate. And he can remember those exact experiences, or altered experiences over the years. He’s great in that way; he’s definitely a great guide. What I bring to him is that shotgun, bull-in-a-china-shop approach, that he wouldn’t have normally tried. I come up with crazy combinations and silly ideas that actually tend to work, because I don’t know the rules.
What are some of those crazy ideas? Obviously you’re limited by your musical projects, but how involved are you in the actual growing-to-picking-to-fermentation-to-bottling process?
Pretty involved; I spend most of my time out there. I try to work touring schedules around getting home at the end of August, so I can be there for crush. We have a little bit of downtime when it comes to late December, January, February, everything’s kind of put to bed and we’re starting to prune at that point. So I can sneak off and do musical stuff, or we can do promotions, or I can run around like I’ve been doing with these Whole Foods events. I’m pretty involved. I have a wine under my Caduceus label called Premier Paso, which is predominantly Shiraz, but it has 6 or 7 percent Malvasia in it, somewhat like a Côte-Rôtie. Eric probably wouldn’t have tried that. I was the one going, ‘Hey! I wonder what this would taste like in here!’ He was like, ‘You can’t. . . well, fuck it, let’s try it.’ And it’s great! It’s fantastic! It definitely has that Côte-Rôtie style, but I think it has more floral character on the bouquet, so it draws you in. That wine was my idea to get some of the non-wine drinkers, the more music fans, to get them in the door, because it’s such an enticing smell coming out of the glass. It’s not intimidating, and they can have it with almost anything.
When one thinks of rock ‘n’ roll guys making wine, one thinks more of the baby-boomer generation—guys from the Doobie Brothers or Journey that are starting to make wine. Do you think it’s important for more daring, risk-taking bands to start making wine?
Just in general, I think it’s a shame, our whole marketing concept of a band. There’s this artist that’s expressed themselves in some way, and because it’s so much easier for magazines, and press, and record companies and PR firms, for them to present this artist—this is what his head looks like, this is how he walks, here’s what he wears, and he only sings these songs in this way. It’s undermined the ability to move around. Peter Gabriel and David Bowie have somehow been able to say, ‘Nah, nah, I’m gonna be a painter now. I’m gonna do some acting.’ You would think that as an artist, and as a person who understands how to express, and understands their role in their environment, you’d think people would want to see them express themselves more in those areas. It’s not necessarily that musicians can’t go off into vines, or become painters. I think it’s that they don’t know they’re allowed to.
Do you appreciate the anonymity you have when talking with other winemakers, people from the wine world who may not know who you are?
It’s perfect, it’s great. I’m just some snot-nosed kid, asking questions.
What’s your reaction to wine snobs who may look down on Arizona as an inferior winemaking region?
I mean, that’s a natural reaction. If you don’t understand the area, of course you’re going to say that. The first thing people think of is cactuses and scorpions. So of course they’re going to pooh-pooh it, but they haven’t been presented with the correct information. Can’t really fault ‘em.
Is there an extra challenge with being organic and environmentally-friendly in Arizona?
No, not necessarily. We get to go ahead and break new ground where there hasn’t been stuff, and we get to start from scratch. Our southern Arizona vineyard has been farmed chemically from day one, back in the early ’80s, so it’s going to be a chore for us to slowly wean that off the chemicals and into a more organic approach. But it’s possible. I don’t think there’s anybody looking at it to trip us up on technicalities or anything. We’re doing it the best way we can.
At these Whole Foods appearances you’ve been doing, you must understand that a lot of people are there because of your musical projects. But are Tool fans receptive to wine at these things?
There’s a couple places we’ve gone back to a second time, and it’s actually been pretty encouraging. The first time around, of course, the kid with the star tattoo on his neck is freaking out a little bit, and trying the wine. But then the next time around, people actually have tried it, and they actually have genuine questions about pairings; they’re curious about how long they should lay this one or that one down. So they’ve actually come back, and you can tell when they’re speaking that they have in fact tried the wine, and they have in fact had an experience. So that’s good, We’ve basically just cultivated a whole ‘nother set of wine drinkers. We’re just expanding their perceptions of the world in general.
You’re a big wine collector. Is there a particular bottle that you’re most proud of in your cellar?
I have a 1934 Romaneé-Conti from the Doris Duke collection. That’s the only thing I have that’s of any note, other than I collect all the Grange through the years.
And since you’ve been making wine, has your collecting mentality fallen off at all?
Yeah, actually. I haven’t been first in line going to get some of the first growths pre-ordered. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve been spending so much time making my own wine. It’s put a skip in my step for collecting. It’s so expensive to get this industry off the ground in an uncharted area. You don’t have the barrel shop down the street, or the guy who understands how to fix a German grape press in the area. It really is expensive, and you have to have guys around who know what they’re doing. Everything you do ends up coming n a truck from another state. I kind of stopped collecting, focusing all my energy into making sure the nuts and bolts are in place.
I’m here in Santa Rosa, California, where there’s sort of a friendly debate between Sonoma County and Napa County over who makes better wine. Do you care to weigh in on it?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. I like a lot of stuff coming out of all over California. If you’re looking for a consistency and something that’s the same every time you drink it, there’s a bunch of wineries that do that. I prefer wines that reflect whatever year that was, and that specific region. So in that, I think there’s great wines that come from both of those places. As long as the winemaker and the farmer express that region naturally, then I can’t really separate them.
Okay, a couple non-wine questions. Being a big wine collector, you must understand the mentality of the record collector as well, and all my friends down at the local record store want to know: Will we ever see the day that Ænima is repressed on vinyl?
Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those who-knows stories.
The record company probably owns the rights to it. . .
What record company? It’s the Titanic going down heavy. They pretty much blew it. That’s what I’m trying to do with Puscifer, is trying to figure out what the next step is, where’s the outlet, where’s the audience, where are people looking, and of course just having fun making music without somebody breathing down your neck wondering about the numbers.
Do you ever wish that people didn’t have to pay $250 for your records on eBay?
Well, they don’t really have to pay for them. That’s a shame, but yeah, it’s just a matter of repressing them, I guess, and we haven’t gotten around to it.
One last question, since it’s just days before the inauguration. What are your feelings here on the cusp of Barack Obama being put in the White House?
I think things are a mess. I think that he’s got a lot on his plate, and you can see it in his eyes. He knows that there’s so much to do. I don’t envy his position. He’s definitely got a big problem on his hands, and everyone who would not want him in that office is going to milk every, every, every, every drop of juice out of any shortcomings that he has. And of course, he’s gonna have ‘em, because there’s no way in four years that he can fix this. We just have to set aside whatever we want out of it and hope that somehow he can put out the fires.
The recipe for a fantastic lunchtime concert is pretty basic. When it comes down to it, all you need is a Fender twin reverb, a vintage Gibson, a Gretsch drum kit, a standup bass and some damn fine songs. That’s all James Hunter brought to the Russian River Brewing Company today, and it was enough to bring the house down.
Parked behind the place on Fifth Street was Hunter’s large tour bus, which leads me to believe he’s normally got a pretty impressive stage production, horns and all. Today, however, on the tiny stage in the corner, Hunter pared down to a three-piece and worked overtime on the guitar to fill in the missing sound. It wasn’t what he was used to, but man, it was great.
In blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a denim jacket, Hunter announced songs in his thick British accent and then sang them like Sam Cooke or Otis Redding; just pure, beautiful soul. Near the end, he even unpacked “The Very Thought of You,” and, instructing his band in an aside to take it at “the usual stupid speed,” a ripping three-piece version of “Talkin’ Bout My Love.”
Filling in extra chords and licks on his guitar, Hunter took a crazed, half-picking half-fretboard-tapping solo with his bare palms. He played a little hand-jive, and then, when the tank-topped hippie dude in beads who’d been dancing the whole time was joined by a long-haired female, Hunter clasped his hands together in thankful prayer toward the sky. “Oh!” he cried. “A girl!”
The crowd went nuts at the end, a testament to Hunter’s engaging charisma and talent. He plowed through the shoulder-to-shoulder house to get to the bathroom, and by the time he finally came out everybody was still clapping and screaming. Hunter played the Fillmore last night, and you gotta think he loves doing these little shows—he certainly seemed like he was having a blast. So it was one more song, and one more great noontime concert by the KRSH. Thanks, guys, for brightening everyone’s Wednesday.
I was waiting for this. Etta James slams Beyoncé.
It’s not so much that Etta James is jealous of someone else singing her song; she couldn’t be, after the thousands of versions of “At Last” played at weddings every single weekend in America. At some point, you hand your signature song to the public, and are glad for the supporters (and royalties) of the original instead of threatening to whoop their ass. James signed off on Cadillac Records, and knew Beyoncé would be in public, promoting the film with her likeness.
But: “He ain’t my president.” ‘the fuck? If that’s the way she feels, then she never deserved to sing “At Last” for Obama anyway, and she and other cantankerous rock critics can sit in a corner complaining about how Beyoncé needs a ladder to kiss the hem of Etta James’ skirt—with intelligence and hope as collateral damage.
Realistically, Etta James needs some scaffolding to reach Beyoncé’s shoes. She isn’t the vocal powerhouse who recorded Etta James Rocks the House anymore, and frankly, if she’d sung for the Obamas, she only would have embarrassed herself. She’s since offered a halfhearted semi-retraction, but I don’t think anyone feels it. A sad twilight to a great career.