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On the Stereo: Anita O’Day’s Golden Era

Nov 20, 2008 | No Comments

Anita O’Day was at the very top of the most thrilling jazz singers to ever walk the face of the earth, and I’m glad to see that she’s finally gotten her due with a documentary, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. Though I love her singing, all I really know about Anita O’Day’s personal life is that she once claimed while drunk that her dog was her manager, usually barked condescending orders at whatever band with which she appeared, and had her uvula accidentally cut out of her throat in a tonsillectomy accident when she was a child, resulting in her characteristically husky voice. Oh, and that she was a heroin addict. But everyone knows that.

The definitive live footage of Anita O’Day remains her performances of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” from the great film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a beautifully artistic documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. (She admits to being high on heroin during the concert.) But this documentary sounds pretty good, and in anticipation of the film opening at the Rialto in Santa Rosa this Friday, I’ve been throwing her records on the turntable every night this week. Here are her best, and yes, they’re all on Verve.

 

Anita Sings The Most (1957): This is O’Day in great style with a supremely great backing band of Oscar Peterson’s quartet with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. A wonderful song selection and fantastic performances. The whole album is loose with plenty of interplay, and O’Day is especially inventive on songs like “’S Wonderful”—and rips it up on “Them There Eyes.” A too-slowed-down version of “I’ve Got the World on a String” is the album’s only misstep, especially coming just before the perfect closer, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

 

This is Anita (1955): Anita O’Day’s stellar first album for Verve Records—and in fact, the very first album released by Norman Granz’s then then-brand-new Verve Records. Contains O’Day’s incredible version of “Honeysuckle Rose”—it saunters like syrup—and a buoyant take on “You’re the Top” revised with jazz references to Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Art Tatum. A delicate “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is the quintessential wintertime song, with wonderfully drawn-out consonants and vowels. If you don’t have any Anita O’Day records, this is a damn good place to start.

 

Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day (1956): Still one of my favorites, after all these years, not the least because it contains her well-known version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” from the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Make sure to hit up the lesser-known tunes on this fantastic session: “I Never Had a Chance,” “I Used to be Color Blind,” and the bouncy “Let’s Begin.” Buddy Bregman is the arranger, adding a Latin feel to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (and Ellington interpolations here and there), and overall, O’Day rides along smoothly with skill and frivolity. Yes, it looks like she’s shoplifting a toaster on the cover.

 

Anita O’Day Swings Cole Porter With Billy May (1959): As close a pop album as O’Day ever came to, combining the widely recognized songwriter with one of the brawniest arrangers of the day. The results work remarkably well, and May’s creative arrangements keep the jazz spirit alive and well. “Just One Of Those Things” kicks the album off like a horse out of the gate, and it rarely lets up from there as O’Day dominates Porter classics like “”I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and the wink-wink “All of You.”

 

Anita O’Day and The Three Sounds (1963): Sounds crazy but after all these years of listening to Anita O’Day, I reach for this album most frequently. In 1962, O’Day was saddled with drug problems and just about through with her Verve contract. She only sings on about half of the songs here, with the Three Sounds providing instrumentals for the rest. There’s something addictive about O’Day’s detachment on this record; it’s the very rare sound of her “phoning it in,” which of course sounds better than most singers when they’re trying. I consider it Anita O’Day’s equivalent of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, providing the most beautiful wrinkles in a wasted fabric. I’ve talked to other O’Day fanatics who have the same feeling of affinity for it. Worth seeking out.

 

Anita O’Day at Mister Kelly’s (1958): Recorded in her hometown of Chicago and opening with the rarely-heard verse of “But Not For Me,” this nice nightclub date is notable for containing three tunes by Joe and Eileen Albany: “I Have a Reason For Living,” “My Love For You,” and the poignant “Loneliness is a Well.” O’Day goes out of her way to introduce the composers on each of these songs, causing one to wonder exactly what kind of backroom deal she struck with the Albanys. The person who previously owned this LP wrote an exclamation point on the track listing after “The Song Is You,” but it’s actually kind of a wack closer. Still, a good live record.

 

An Evening With Anita O’Day (1956): Hell yes, a very great nightclub recording from early on in her Verve contract. Stellar guitar work by Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel runs a close second to O’Day’s own impeccable singing on songs like “From This Moment On” and “Let’s Fall In Love.” The recording quality is outstanding, the songs are well-chosen, and O’Day even chimes in with an original—“Anita’s Blues.” It’s amazing how perfect O’Day’s voice could be in concert.

Live Review: Whispertown 2000 at Susie’s House

Nov 16, 2008 | No Comments

It was a good sign when Whispertown 2000 soundchecked with “Look at Miss Ohio,” but it just got better from there: tight, country-soul harmonies from the two frontgals; full-on kazoo solos; a drummer that astonishingly played guitar, drums and harmonica simultaneously; a bassist that managed to quote “Dazed and Confused” without malice; and basically a shitkickin’ good time. The two gals kinda reminded me of Those Darlins, and hey, didja hear one of ‘em is a Nagler? And that she was on Punky Brewster? No shit.

Polaroids, stitching, paintings and collage art hung on the walls, all of it excellent; cassettes and horses. Out in the kitchen, vegan cupcakes for sale, and the most gigantic mushroom I’ve ever seen in my life. Slung from a side door, $3 cocktails mixed on the spot. Dancing in the halls. “Bring it on Home to Me” on the stereo. (Thanks for the Darondo tip, Nick.)

All in all, a sweet way for the residents of the house to go out with a bang, seeing as they hafta move at the end of the month. And a fine way for Paul Haile and Lauren Harkins from Not to Reason Why to celebrate their just-announced engagement—the diamond ring was busted out on Saturday at Crane Creek Park! Congratulations, you crazy kids.

Live Review: Marnie Stern’s Kissing Booth

Nov 15, 2008 | 41 Comments

I had heard about Marnie Stern’s Kissing Booth idea a couple hours before tonight’s show with Gang Gang Dance in San Francisco, and sure enough, when we arrived at Bimbo’s, we discovered this sign at the merch stand:

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Apparently, in addition to the speeding tickets, some seatbelt violations were involved as well, which can get pretty expensive (“Michigan, man,” said Stern). Discriminating kissers will note the detailed price breakdown: $3 for a peck on the cheek, $10 for full lips, and $100 for the big-spender French kiss.

So — were there any takers?

At the end of Marnie Stern’s set, a sizable group of people crowded around her side of the stage, declaring their love and asking for hugs. But to my dismay, I went out in the lobby later on and witnessed a similar group of people just, uh, standing around. And though the kissing offer was literally on the table, they were just, uh, awkwardly talking to Marnie Stern. And, um, buying a shirt, I guess. And, do you. . . think I could have another hug?

It was excruciating. Goddamn indie hipsters are a bunch of pansy-ass Holden Caulfields who can’t get over their own imagined degradation of giving a girl $10 for a kiss, I grumbled to myself. Whatever happened to all the fun in the world?!

But after about 10 minutes, a good sign walked into the room. To be precise: a tall mid-20s boy, with a slender face and large eyes. Lanky, plaid shirt. He approached the table and conspicuously pointed to the sign.

“Is the kissing booth open?” he asked.

Finally! Marnie Stern jumped up, pointed her arms in the air and let out a “whoo-hoo!” while doing a small, excited dance. A customer!

The boy pointed to the “lips” option, and handed a $10 bill to Stern, who was more than willing to deliver the goods. Boy, did he get his money’s worth:

Yowza!

I chased him down afterwards. “I had to,” he told me. “She’s beautiful, you know? It was awesome.” He was beaming from ear to ear.

Please, indie rock nation: more kissing booths!

Photos: The New Trust, Ole Hole, Anchor Down at the Casbar

Nov 14, 2008 | One Comment

The New Trust.

Ole Hole.

Anchor Down.

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The place is looking good, folks.

Mad props to Ephriam Nagler, for making it sound way better than ever, and to Jayshree, for holdin’ it down.

In News

Schwarzenbach, Cometbus, and the Thorns of Life

Nov 14, 2008 | 15 Comments

Well, shit, here we go: Blake Schwarzenbach has started a band with Aaron Elliott and Daniela Sea called the Thorns of Life. No joke. There’s photos posted here from the band’s grand debut at the Jerk House in Brooklyn this past weekend.

What does the band sound like? According to a recent punknews.org post, Blake is said to have written via Facebook that “I can say only that it’s loud and tender and we’re called the Thorns Of Life. whether it’s more Jetsesque or Breaker-like I honestly don’t know; It sounds like a storehouse of fond hatred from the last few years and in the now.”

It’s tempting to pessimistically predict that they’ll play three more house shows, record a 7″ and then break up; however, in a message to fans recently, Blake said he looked forward to coming “to a town near you.”

Needless to say, this is exciting news.

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UPDATE, 11/15: Thorns of Life played again last night at another house show in Brooklyn. There’s three videos below. More on the band by clicking here.

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UPDATE, 1/31: My interview with Blake regarding the band is here.

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In News

Free Tickets: No Age in San Francisco

Nov 13, 2008 | No Comments

This just in: No Age is playing a launch party for Shockhound on Thursday, Dec. 4 at the Rickshaw Stop, and tickets for the show are FREE.

All you have to do is click here, fill out a simple form with your name and email, and you’re on the list +1.

Are you down? I’m down. Everybody’s Down.

I’ll keep this post up for as long as tickets seem available.

There Are Girls Camping Out For The Hanson Show

Nov 12, 2008 | 6 Comments

Mary Wieczorek has been sitting on this bench, outside the Phoenix Theater, since Monday afternoon. Wrapped in a sweatshirt and red coat to keep away the evening chill, she’s first in line to see Hanson, who are playing here Wednesday night. All told, from the time she arrived here yesterday at 2pm, with a sleeping bag, to the time Hanson plays their first note on stage, she will have waited 56 hours in front of the Phoenix Theater.

Sound strange? She’s not alone. There’s people here lined up from Los Angeles, from Gilroy, from the other side of the country, all camping out on the sidewalk for the Hanson show tomorrow night.

Mary is from Vallejo. She doesn’t go to school. Instead, she drives around the country seeing Hanson; this will be her 51st time seeing the band. Explaining why she would wait for so long in front of a venue for a show that is definitely not sold out, she offers two simple words: “Front row.”

Mary first heard Hanson during the “Mmm-bop” era. On August 16, 1998, at 1:54 in the morning, she met Taylor Hanson outside of a hotel in New York City after she and her mom followed the Hanson tour bus for three hours. He was wearing a tight blue shirt, dark blue tight cords, silver boots, and had a red rubber band in his hair. Ten years later, he’s still her favorite Hanson.

Sitting on the same bench, wrapped in a coat, is Mary’s mom. She stirs some takeout soup in a Styrofoam container, keeping warm. “It’s fun,” she says.

How does Mary think this Hanson show in Petaluma is going to be any different than the 50 or so shows she’s already seen? “There’s not a big crowd the night before,” she says, looking down the length of the sidewalk. “And there usually is. So yeah, I’m, like, wondering what’s going on.”

Getting ready to sleep on the next bench down is Nicole, from Philadelphia, who has been following the band for the last two and a half months. By the time Hanson takes the stage in Petaluma, she will have waited 30 hours outside the theater. Nicole, who does not want to give her last name, estimates that she’s seen Hanson 300 times.

300 times.

Explaining what she would be doing back home in Philadelphia were she not following Hanson around on tour, she, too, offers two simple words: “Being sad!”

Like Mary, Nicole has met the band numerous times; they often recognize both girls. She says that she likes all of the band members equally, but that her favorites sometimes change: “It depends on the day,” she says, “and their attitudes.”

Nicole admits that most Hanson shows are the same—“they throw in a curveball every now and then,” she says, “but for the most part, it’s pretty standard.”

So. . . why is she camping out overnight for the show?

“They’re the greatest band ever!” she gushes. “They make me happy.”

Live Review: Crooked Fingers at the Great American Music Hall

Nov 12, 2008 | No Comments

Hey John,

It’s too bad that you didn’t come down to the Crooked Fingers show. I didn’t like their new album at first, either, but it started sinking in these last few days. The big question is: why did we convince ourselves that they’d only play a bunch of new songs? The show was amazing, and they played stuff from every album.

Eric Bachmann came out, strapped on his nylon-string and played “You Must Build a Fire,” from Dignity and Shame—a beautiful start. The band picked up their instruments for a completely reworked rock version of “Bad Man Coming,” from Red Devil Dawn, then “Crowned in Chrome” from the first record, then fucking “Islero,” and then “Man of War” from To the Races!

I’ve got this thing sometimes where if I know that a friend of mine would have really, really loved a show, I try to downplay how wonderful it was, you know, “Aw, you didn’t miss much.” But I can’t lie, man. Crooked Fingers last night was something very moving and special.

I know that you’re a big Red Devil Dawn fan—me too—and part of what’s great about that album is that it’s so serious; it’s a real deep meditation on love and redemption. That’s the way it hits me, at least, and it coulda just been the time frame that it came out and what was going on in my life and all—Perfecting Loneliness and Tallahassee were both around the same time—but anyway, Crooked Fingers weren’t all super-serious onstage, and it was cool.

Eric Bachmann announced that he’d hit a deer in the van last night, and everyone at the Great American Music Hall sighed this big “awwwwww” of sorrow, which made him laugh. “Yeah,” he said, “this is San Francisco. I’m from North Carolina. We’re like, jaded.” (Or maybe he said, “Didja eat it?’” It was hard to tell.)

They had this really cool girl, Miranda Brown, in high-rise jeans and brown leather boots playing bass and singing; there was this other girl Elin Palmer who I think’s been in the band a long time playing violin and singing, too, and occasionally, for songs like “Sleep All Summer” (which was fucking AMAZING) they’d stand like angels with their hands behind their backs, cooing wordless backup vocals while Bachmann was all, “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?”

The high-rise jeans girl sang this funny tune between songs about cocks and balls being strung across the ocean, which I guess was her response to the front wheels falling off of their tour van or something, it was pretty funny.

All in all, they only played five songs from their new album, which come on, it’s not that bad. Please listen to it some more. Oh, and the Great American was only half-full, which was sad, in a way. At one point, I stood at the back, during “New Drink for the Old Drunk,” looking at the sparse crowd, thinking, “Can this be for real? Like, am I wrong, or is this one of the world’s greatest songwriters and performers here right now and, like, only 150 or so people are here?”

It coulda been that it was a Tuesday night, maybe, or I wonder if it has anything to do with Crooked Fingers currently not having a label that could give them some good tour support. It’s interesting and all that they did their own record, but c’mon. Merge! Why would you leave that?!

Oh, shit, I almost forgot, they did three Archers of Loaf songs. “White Trash Heroes,” which was really great, and “Harnessed in Slums,” fuckin’ a, and believe it or not, “Web in Front.” Dude! They closed the night with “Little Bird,” and it was so sweet and awesome.

I hate to rub it in, but you really missed out. Maybe you could drive to Los Angeles to see ‘em tonight, it’d totally be worth the eight-hour drive.

Anyway, see you around. Interpol still blows.

Love,
Gabe

Live Review: Mel Graves Tribute at SSU

Nov 10, 2008 | One Comment

When I arrived at Warren Auditorium tonight, there were already more than 20 people standing in the hallway outside the theater, craning their necks to see through the doors. There were additional seats, full of people, placed behind the stage. There were speakers going out into the lobby, where even more people stood.

You shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.

It is unfortunate that one of the greatest listening experiences to be had in Sonoma County all year had to come with a tinge of sadness. Mel Graves, the great bassist and composer, died on Saturday of terminal cancer, just one day before the big farewell concert that he’d organized and looked forward to. The music heard tonight—presented by Mel’s alumni, close friends and colleagues—was so incredible, so blossoming and full of life. It was an utterly fitting tribute for a passionate, funny, smart, brilliant man.

I was lucky to be able to hang out with Mel a couple times in the last year. He was a no-nonsense soul who was at equal ease discussing the difference in the 1964 and 1965 versions of Charles Mingus’ “Meditations” as he was accepting life’s ultimate key change. The last time I stopped by his Petaluma home, his girlfriend Pam was taking care of him with what was obviously a great deal of love. He was surrounded by notes, preparing for this farewell concert, suggested by his friend Jessica Felix and which he himself titled, in pure Mel fashion, “Movin’ On.” He was at peace.

My only wish is that he could have seen the gales of love that were showered on him tonight. Hopefully he felt it.

Among the highlights: Denny Zeitlin, recalling the phone call he received in 1968 from a young Graves who said “I’ve just come out from the Midwest, and I love your stuff on Columbia, and I want to play with you.” (Graves and Zeitlin would go on to play together for 40 years.) Zeitlin sat down, chalked up his hands, and played a commanding, emotionally charged improvisation which led into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before it ended, hanging in air, unresolved.

Mel Martin, recalling the inconvenience of working so often with someone who shared his name. Both Mels eventually discovered that Martin’s Melvyn was spelled with a Y; Graves’ Melvin with an I. “He’d call me up, and say ‘Hey there, Y,’ and I’d say, Hey, I.’ I will miss that.” The band then kicked into “Flamenco Sketches,” and Martin played a razor-sharp cascading solo.

One of Graves’ specific requests for the night’s program was for Zeitlin and guest pianist Art Lande to sit together and play a four-hand piano duet, and he would have been bowled over at the results. Assuming the “missionary position” with crossed arms, the two oscillated from battling each other to cooperating on the keys in what was the night’s most freewheeling and humorous moment.

But most of all, every player on stage seemed to exhibit a certain extra empathy. There was a lot of listening going on between the players, and perhaps this was why they were so wonderful to listen to. During the final number, a solitary chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ beautiful ballad “Goodbye,” each member of the bandstand was united in the cause to properly bid farewell to their friend. The standing ovation from the full theater was overwhelming.

Aw, you shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.

We Did It.

Nov 5, 2008 | One Comment

We went to the polls and filled in the small rectangle with the weird purple pen they gave us. Stared at it for an extra second, and then an extra five seconds, just to let the sight sink in and burn in our memory.

We tried to go to work like it was just another ordinary day. Threw the idea out halfway through. Needed to share in the experience. Stopped by the bike shop, the deli, the record store, the coffee stand, anywhere there were other people to see. The buzz. In the air.

We glued ourselves to the news, and we waited. The TV, the Internet, the BlackBerry, the iPhone. Each little drop hitting like an IV drip. It had been years. Years. Years. Years. Years. Years.

We made brownies, cake, pizza. Baked pies. And we watched it come: Pennsylvania first. Then, Ohio. Sweet Lord. Yes we can.

We screamed. We threw our arms in the air. We danced in the streets. We kissed complete strangers. We cried on our couches. We howled at the night. We called our loved ones. We shook with excitement. We lit off fireworks.

We did it. We stood up and said no to the criminal abomination of the Bush presidency. To the war that never, ever made sense. To the damnable offense of torture. To the contemptuous campaign of McCain. To the farce of the Palin pick. To the wrongheaded policies. To the outright lies.

We had a long, amazing night. And then we woke up, lagging a little. Did it really happen? Glugged down some coffee, threw on the new People Under the Stairs record. Opened the blinds. Slowly realized it wasn’t a dream. The world is new. Goddamn.

We did it.

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