Backstage on Sunday, in the late afternoon, Jack White shows up and waltzes through the cluster of bands, fans, and hangers-on. It feels a little bit like the royal family making a grand entrance, and for all the “it” bands chilling back here—Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River—White goes straight to Jason Pierce, from Spiritualized. They spend a good 10 minutes or so together, and everyone watching is wondering what in the world they’re talking about before White disappears with the rest of his band mates to the backstage tent.
Okkervil River saunters out with confidence and poise, and then immediately realizes that they’re not in tune. Whoops. A few seconds go by, the bass player lifts a total Merle Haggard & the Strangers intro, and with “Singer Songwriter,” we’re off and running. You heard that song, man? I tell you, it’s the most scathing thing since “Idiot Wind.”
The Stage Names—not into it at first. Four listens went by. Then it grew on me. I read the lyrics, and it grew on me even more. After seeing them live, I’m a dyed in the wool fan. Singer Will Sheff is a natural with the crowd, mentioning after a break on “Pop Lie” to change his guitar strap: “A lot of the sets here at this festival are very professional. We hope you appreciate the difference.”
“Lost Coastlines” is the big hit from Okkervil River’s new record The Stand Ins, and when bassist Patrick Pestorius comes in with his baritone lines, there’s an audible “Whoo!” from the crowd. Sheff ambles over and tickles Pestorius’ beard while he’s singing, then pulls the microphone from its stand and serenades the crowd up close.
“Our Life is not a Movie or Maybe” gives way to “Unless it’s Kicks”—just like on the album, bro!—and shit gets heavy. Sheff is really working the crowd: “It’s a beautiful day, we’re on an island, there’s water on all sides, there’s birds flying through the trees, and I want you to put your hands together! All the way back to the Ferris Wheel!” He ends the set by knocking the mic stand into the photo pit and leading the band in a pummeling outro. I’d say they left their mark.
There used to be this band called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Then there was this other band called My Morning Jacket. Now there is a band called Fleet Foxes.
Warming up with Dylan’s “Sara,” Robin Pecknold jokingly chides mother nature for its interference. “I’m hearing a low rumble,” he says. “Is that the wind? Can you turn the wind down?”
“Sun Giant” starts the set, a long acapella about living life in the summer and spring and the sun and the seeds and the clouds. The four-part harmonies are perfect, just absolutely dead-on. “White Winter Hymnal” conjures snow, strawberries, the summertime. The wind keeps blowing from the bay and rumbling into the microphones. It can’t be turned down.
“The Dodos are playing today!” says Pecknold, enthusiastically. “I think they’re… uh, I could really blackmail them. But I won’t.”
Okonokos is the third greatest live album ever recorded.
The last time I saw Spiritualized, in 1997, right after Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space came out, the band was buried in fog and lights. I didn’t understand the concept of noise as bliss, nor did I see any reason to intentionally obscure what would otherwise be a great song in mountains of effects, layers of wrong notes and a shit-ton of feedback. I distinctly remember thinking that they weren’t very good.
I usually vehemently argue that musical impressions are a matter of opinion, and I always give other people a lot of leeway for personal taste. But I think in this case, it comes down to actual facts. In 1997, I was dead wrong.
There haven’t been too many chances to see Spiritualized since, and after Jason Pierce’s near-death experience from bilateral pneumonia three years ago, I’m surprised that I get to see them at all. But lo, here they are, on stage and starting their set with “Amazing Grace,” which evolves, naturally, into a shower of feedback and noise.
You know how sometimes songs can give you a brief endorphin rush of absolute happiness? There’s moments in certain songs—bridges of Operation Ivy songs, choruses of People Under The Stairs songs, solos from Charles Mingus songs—that I can always count on to do that to me for a few seconds. But when Spiritualized plays “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space,” that feeling lasts constantly, throughout the entire song, for a whole four minutes.
Afterwards, backstage, I actually run into Pierce. There’s a million things I’d love to ask him, but I keep it short. “It’s a nice little festival here,” he tells me. “I could watch San Francisco across the water from the stage. I only wish we could have played longer.” I second that emotion, but while it lasted, it was heaven. Here’s the set list:
You Lie You Cheat
Shine a Light
Soul on Fire
Walking With Jesus
Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
Death Take Your Fiddle
Lay Back in the Sun
The Dodos are great and I missed them. Luckily, for your viewing pleasure, Liz didn’t. Here’s what they look like. Go, Dodos!
Sarah Palin, compulsive liar, on ABC with Charlie Gibson: “Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.”
Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: “Why would you lie about how much coal you have / Why would you lie about something dumb like that?”
The last time I saw Vampire Weekend—the very same week their record came out, to overwhelming praise—they were utterly fantastic. They were also sort of timid, and bewildered at the sudden attention thrust in their direction, and yet it didn’t seem at all like more attention would be a problem for them. I knew even then that I was watching a great young band on the cusp of stardom.
More attention arrived. And arrived. And arrived. Hype usually puts me off, but in the case of Vampire Weekend it’s well-deserved. Their album is going down in history as one of the best debuts ever, and though I don’t listen to it three times a day like I did in that first week, it keeps delivering with each intermittent listen.
On stage, Vampire Weekend are naturals, veritable veterans. The songs aren’t as stiff as they were back in January, and amazingly the band doesn’t seem bored of playing them. Poor guys have been on tour so constantly that they only play one new song, but it’s a good new song, at least.
How crazy are people about Vampire Weekend? This crazy. Crazy enough, too, to shout the loudest and most high-pitched screams at them of the whole weekend. Ezra Koenig thanks the crowd profusely, and mentions that the festival has “a very 1963 Dharma Bums kind of feel.” Boy, I hope their next album is good.
The former bass player for Tegan and Sara tells me that while he was in the band, he was instructed by their manager to play the exact same simple bass lines from the album every night. “We don’t want the girls to get confused,” he was told. “Also, don’t move around on stage. At all. Stay in one place. You can’t upstage Tegan or Sara.”
So he soldiered on for a while, staying in exactly the same place, playing the exact same precise simple boring bass lines until one day he realized, holy hell, what in the world am I doing with my life?
He quit a few months into a two-year tour. They dropped him off on the freeway. In solidarity, I want to hate Tegan and Sara, but their first few songs on Sunday night actually sound pretty great.
It doesn’t last. They start talking about The Lost Boys, and how I’ve probably never seen it, and about premature ejaculation, and The Lost Boys, and that part at the carnival with the saxophone player, and about playing in San Diego, and The Lost Boys, and how I probably don’t know what they’re talking about, and oh sweet Christ it just goes on and on. Blah, blah, blah.
Coincidentally, the songs go downhill. They play “Walking With a Ghost,” but Jack White doesn’t come out and sing like everyone hopes he will. They end their set with their current, uh, “hit,” “Back in Your Head.”
At one point, I notice the replacement bass player break the rules by sneaking a few steps forward during a song, then taking a few steps back. Busted!
I met Alison and Jamie in 2001, when they were first playing together, in a small flat in Brixton. We hung out every night downstairs with Sean and Ben, probably the funniest two guys in all of London. One day Alison and I spent hours together around London, going to museums, dinner and a movie. She was rad, but after staying in London for a week, I still didn’t know anything about the music she and Jamie were working on. Nobody did.
Seven years and three albums later, The Kills are a household name in England and a force to be reckoned with live. They take the festival hostage to a thundering, thick-as-hell version of “U.R.A Fever,” and damn, it’s like a guitar-driven cobra slithering through the tall grass of your mind, of your legs, of your guts. I can’t explain what they’re like on stage. Explosive? Unpredictable? Maybe they don’t even give a shit? Maybe who cares?
I’d heard the Kills records, but records don’t do the Kills justice at all. Go see them live. If possible, go see them after a few too many drinks. Hey Jamie, you get your passport back you lost the night before?
Until Robert Plant relents and Led Zeppelin finally embarks on a full-fledged reunion tour, The Raconteurs are the closest anyone’s going to come to seeing dirty, gnarly, lemon-down-your-leg rock ‘n roll in the world today.
In 2005, I covered a White Stripes show, stating that Jack White needed to find a band. “He’s an enigmatic character, a possessed performer and a great songwriter with an emotive voice, but even he himself has admitted that the White Stripes could run out of steam someday,” I said. “That day may be soon.”
I’ve always thought that the White Stripes peddled too much in the hipster ideal of potential greatness. By limiting himself to playing only with a drummer, and one of below-average ability, Jack White constantly held himself hostage to possibility and possibility alone. And yes, there’s a beauty in what could’ve been, but there’s a greater triumph in what actually is.
In the Raconteurs’ set on Sunday night, during “Blue Veins,” that triumph arrives. White hovers over the organ delivering a tortured, wailing plea, and the band is right on. It’s a haunting, captivating, and truly special moment, and instead of being White Strip-ily quaint, it’s almost scary in its depth.
We take the shuttle back to the city. It’s been a good weekend.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward)
Note to all other festival promoters: please find your festival manual. Turn to the page that says “Treasure Island Music Festival.” Rip the page out. Study it. Apply.
In the past, I have been a harsh critic of the untamed proliferation of music festivals. There are now more festivals than ever across the country, and in my opinion, the fans generally lose while the bands and promoters win. Maybe festivals are fun if you don’t care about music, but for the most part, the more of a fan you are, the more being at a festival seems like work.
The Treasure Island Music Festival is different. It’s in a picturesque location, and it’s small enough to be manageable. You don’t need to worry about claustrophobia, or running from stage to stage to catch your favorite bands, or trying to find parking.
Another refreshing feature, which cannot be overstated in this world of SafeCo Field and Petco Park and Brought To You By Miller Genuine Draft: No corporate sponsorship. There’s a couple Heineken signs at the beer stand—that’s the only kind of beer they sell—but that’s it. It’s a subtle touch that makes a huge difference.
My friend Hoyt really, really wants me to point out that the shuttles to and from Treasure Island are the nicest shuttles that he’s ever seen. (Since Hoyt has ridden his bike to work for the last 25 years, I can’t front him for being impressed.) What’s amazing also is that they run efficiently—between this year and last, I’ve never waited longer than 10 minutes in the shuttle line—and even better is that parking at the ballpark is free. The promoters could have raked in a bundle charging $5 per car, but they consciously chose not to, and that deserves kudos.
Yeah, the bathrooms are poorly placed, and yeah, my main gripe is that there’s no free water, but otherwise: hooray for the Treasure Island Festival.
We get there on Saturday just as Aesop Rock is going on; he’s introduced by the British-accented announcer as “Aesop Rocks.” Aesop Rock moved to San Francisco a few years ago but he’s still wearing a Yankees cap. He’s with Rob Sonic, who is one large dude.
I saw Aesop Rock in 2001 at the Justice League on Divisadero, right after Labor Days came out, and he was totally baked. Disoriented and disheveled, he struggled to stay on point and to keep the sold-out crowd’s attention. Technically, he wasn’t bad, but having been a huge fan of Float and Labor Days, it was uncomfortable to watch; I subsequently put Aesop Rock in the “troubled genius” file.
That was seven years ago. These days, as made apparent during his set, Aesop Rock has traded some of his lyrical esoteria for servicable stage presence; he cooperates with the idea that he’s on stage to perform for people, and that’s good. Throwing a few bones to longtime fans, he rips through the rapid-fire “Big Bang” and drops a remix of “Daylight.” A decent rapper by the unfortunate name of Yak Ballz shows up and joins in on “Getaway Car,” from Aesop Rock’s not-bad recent album None Shall Pass.
“Y’all into turntablism out here in the west?” asks Aesop Rock, which, like, uh… didn’t we kind of help invent it? As it’s defined now, at least?
So DJ Big Wiz starts cutting it up on the 1200s, even though I haven’t yet seem him flip a record in the entire set. Yep, folks, it’s Serato Scratch Live—the vinyl emulator program that makes it possible to cut and scratch mp3s through a laptop using the turntable as an interface. For reasons too complicated and probably stupidly purist to get into here, I’m against it, even though it’s endorsed by lots DJs that I love—Mix Master Mike, J-Rocc, Jazzy Jeff, Rob Swift, Peanut Butter Wolf, ?uestlove, 45 King, Afrika Bambaataa, Numark, Ollie Teeba, DJ Spinna, Z-Trip.
DJ Big Wiz does his thing, making a beat with software and loop effects, and I think nostalgically to last year’s Treasure Island Festival when DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist did the same thing. Except with original 45s and no tricks. For an hour and a half.
“How much time we got?” asks Aesop Rock. “I keep lookin’ at my watch like I’m waitin’ for my girl’s pregnancy test.” Then he busts into “No Regrets,” a brilliant ode to living the artistic life without compromising personal integrity, and at the end, struts off the stage aping Chuck Berry’s famous leg-kick air-guitar maneuver.
Welcome to the Bay Area, Aesop Rock. We love you. But lose the Yankees cap. Deep down, you know they suck.
The Nortec Collective plays next, the first in a line of groups that probably belongs on NPR instead of a festival populated mostly by young hipsters. Recurring throughout the day, this realization hits me: that the hundreds of 19-year-olds in neon glasses, tight jeans, turquoise t-shirts and white vans aren’t having it.
In front of an empty drum set upstaged by laptops, the members of Nortec Collective play guitar, accordion, and trumpet. The two main guys also hold up these things that kind of look like Speak ‘n Spells, and which seem to make the same blippy noises. They’re the Mexican equivalent of the Gotan Project—infusing electronica with traditional music from their home country’s culture—and it is a sad representation for Mexico that they do not present their country’s beautiful music nearly as sonically rich nor as emotionally deep.
Antibalas continues the strange NPR-ing element of the festival. They’re totally danceable, but no one is dancing. At all.
Attention, Justice fans! There was this guy named Fela Kuti, who was, like, the James Brown of Africa, and he had a zillion wives, and he fought the corrupt Nigerian government with a miraculously headstrong dedication, and he put out a bunch of amazing albums, and he influenced the entire world before he eventually died of AIDS.
Antibalas makes no reference to Fela Kuti, even though they’re hella copping Fela’s pioneering sound from the ’70s and ’80s. An 11-piece band with a heavy horn section, they play songs that sound like Fela Kuti with horn arrangements that sound like Fela Kuti and they go on for a long time like Fela Kuti and they’re politically charged like Fela Kuti. Such is the spiral of influence.
Antibalas’ latest album, Security, is fanastic; it’s produced by John McEntire from Tortoise, and it doesn’t adhere lock, stock and barrel to the Fela Kuti sound. But the best song of their set comes from their previous record, Who is this America?, which vocalist Amayo—clad in a crazy pink bellbottom getup—dedicates to John McCain and Sarah Palin. It’s called “Indictment.”
Dick Cheney – Indictment!
George W. Bush – Indictment!
Bill O’Reilly – Indictment!
Sean Hannity – Indictment!
Who are Foals?
Foals are foals.
Foals are Foals!
Say it. Foals. Fun to say. Foals, Foals, Foals.
There are girls in the front row who are crying at the sight of Foals. There is a member of Foals who is holding the hand of a girl and leading her to the backstage while the wind from the bay blows her dress up above her waistline. The people gathered to see Foals are laughing at this. Foals!
Foals begins. Foals are modern! Foals go nn-tsst-nn-tsst-nn-tsst on the drums like the bands with the haircuts also do since 2003. Foals are from England, which explains the crying girls. There are always girls in America who will cry when they see a band of young boys from England like Foals.
The bassist of Foals should be the singer. The real singer of Foals looks bored. The drummer of Foals looks like a girl I know. During the second song of Foals, the power goes out. Foals are resourceful, and make a drum circle around the drums. They do not go nn-tsst-nn-tsst-nn-tsst. Foals go bang bang bang around the drums.
“This is the solar-powered stage,” says Foals. “That’s what happens.”
I absolutely adore Amon Tobin’s music and have been in love with his records for years. But watching him at an outside festival is dull; he stands at a laptop with turntables, and the more I pay attention to what little he’s doing on stage, the less I enjoy the brilliant sounds coming from the speakers.
I close my eyes.
With my eyes shut, I turn my head towards the sun, above the San Francisco Bay. A bright, bloody red fills my view. It becomes brighter the longer I keep my head directed in the sky. Then I turn my head to the ground, and a slow fade to black ensues. Back up to the sun, swiftly, and a flash of white occurs. What happened to the red?
I open my eyes and pick up a remnant of grass from the ground. I stare at it. Isn’t it amazing how some grass grows, and then stops to shoot a new tangent from its former self, and the “skin” of the former grass dies, yet still supports the ongoing process of growth?
Amon Tobin’s music is the best shit I’ve heard all day. How do people dance to Amon Tobin? I decide to walk around and find out.
1. A gentleman in a Richard Nixon mask does the running man.
2. Two guys laugh and dance like Cossacks, arms folded flat and kicking each other’s feet.
3. A guy in a track suit with a polka-dot hood shadowboxes, does handstands, performs push-ups, and kicks the air.
4. Two people on ecstacy—a guy with a perma-smile, a girl with purple hair—hug.
5. Some people put their hands in the air during particularly thick segments of sound.
6. A boy makes out with a girl in a purple velvet top and striped knee-highs.
7. A girl in a violet tutu over bellbottoms with rainbow shoelaces and a butterfly T-shirt stands there and stares directly at the ground, unmoving.
Goldfrapp is like the Cocteau Twins, but if the Cocteau Twins were only one girl and did cocaine. I like it. Alison Goldfrapp is bathed in ribbon, and I can’t tell if it’s homage or coincidence, but two teenage girls also covered in ribbon dance by the side of the stage to their set. Alison Goldfrapp’s band is dressed entirely in white, and I can’t tell if it’s homage or coincidence, but a skeezy-looking thirtysomething dude in an all-white jumpsuit approaches the ribbon girls and starts gyrating near them. The ribbon girls hang with it for a while, but when the skeezy white suit dude starts making humpy thrusts at them with a gross smile, they get the fuck outta there.
There’s only a few bands that play this festival who are better on record than they are live—Aesop Rock, Amon Tobin—but for the most part, I’m finding that almost everyone is way better live than they are on record.
Case in point: TV on the Radio.
I never, never understood what was so great about TV on the Radio until seeing them live. They play like the world’s about to end. Fire. Grace. Tumult.
We discuss exactly how one could broadcast a TV on the radio, live, with minimal interference, and after pondering modern uses of iPods and Internet streaming, I think we settle on running a cable to a VCR with RCA audio jacks from the VCR running into a ham radio or a small radio transmitter. Voila.
It’s time to head to the bathrooms which all have very long lines. A security guard standing watch does not do anything as people walk behind the port-a-potties to unzip their pants in a small clearing. While Liz waits in line, I start counting. 10 minutes later, 76 guys and 14 girls have all walked behind the port-a-potties and pissed on the ground.
CSS takes the stage playing “Jager Yoga,” the first song off their most recent album—which almost always works on me. It helps that singer Lovefoxxx makes her entrance by releasing a huge cluster of helium balloons and wearing a coat made of… oversized confetti? Crumpled aluminum foil? Shredded federal documents?
“Meeting Paris Hilton” comes next. Everyone’s heard the story by now of CSS playing the song at Coachella last year while Paris Hilton was actually there (sample YouTube comment: “hahaha! A Paris Hilton é a personificação de ‘Bitch’… Fico imaginando se o pessoal do CSS imaginava que um dia ia ficar assim, cantando pra musa inspiradora da música, hahahah!’) and maybe the joke is a little bit old by now, but you know what? I don’t care.
CSS have made a slick-sounding album, Donkey, that they’re taking some heat for. The songs aren’t as raw or impulsive and the overall sound is a little more commercial. But, you know, big whoop. I used to be on the anti-overproduction train, but then I realized that records sounding good is not necessarily a bad thing. At the heart of things, Vacation was just as good an album as Beauty and the Beat. Well, almost.
“Where my bitches at?!” Lovefoxxx yelled. “Where my gays at? That’s all we need. Bitches and gays!”
The rest of the set included “Alala,” “Left Behind,” Off the Hook,” “Alcohol,” “Let’s Reggae All Night,” and lots more. A hella fun band, CSS.
Justice is a big deal and I have no idea why (for enlightenment, we turn to Pitchfork, which describes Justice as “the rat-a-tat rhythms of electro scraping like Freddie Krueger’s fingertips along the slimy walls of some basement dungeon”). I never got Daft Punk either. So kill me.
It’s made weirder that their stage setup consists of empty Marshall amplifiers and a huge illuminated cross. We squint our eyes, but we can’t see any actual human beings on stage. Boy, are people going crazy for it.
We get in line for the Ferris Wheel and run into the members of CSS—they’re very nice—and hop on the ride to take a cold, windy cruise over the Bay, gazing at San Francisco’s skyline at night and the thousands of people down below, grooving out to Justice. A nice way to end the day.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward; Goldfrapp and Justice by Gabe)
Right from the start, I suppose I should admit, I hated Section M magazine. I didn’t want anything to do with it, I didn’t think it was helping the music scene, I wrote irritated letters to the editor, and I talked shit about it as much as I could.
Mainly, though, I was jealous, both of the writers—because I wasn’t writing about music at the time—and of the bands covered, because I wasn’t playing music at the time either. When Section M hit the stands in 1998, I was coming off a four-year spree of constant touring, and I was in a weird space. I was fueled by Tanqueray, mid-20s cynicism, and avant-garde jazz. I talked a lot, but I wasn’t doing much of anything, really.
Also, at the time I was convinced, and not entirely erroneously so, that there were no good bands in Sonoma County whatsoever. Section M came along and seemed convinced otherwise. It proclaimed: Bands are great! We like all these bands! Bands, bands, bands!
Now, looking back with more clarity, I have a lot of respect for what the many volunteers at Section M pulled off. I marvel at how Section M ever could have been produced in the first place, let alone lasted as long as it did—from 1998 to 2003.
After all, this was the magazine that would hire basically anybody. When you’ve got an open-door policy, you open yourself up to flakes, crazies, egomaniacs, and just plain unqualified hopefuls. Put all those people in an room together, and they’ll either start screaming obscenities at each other or having sex in the bathroom—both of which happened, in fact, at Section M’s offices.
The inside workings of Section M often found their way into the pages, and staffers hooking up together wasn’t rare. What was rare was them staying together. After torrential, reckless flings came to a crashing halt, work at the magazine could be painfully uncomfortable until one or the other quit. (To add to the tension, hookers prowled outside the office at all hours of the night.)
Phone calls to the magazine were either weird or very weird, culminating in the members of Derge leaving repeated, insane messages on the machine revealing their obsession with gay sex and racial epithets. On a similarly bizarre note, the band Bungworm once sent Section M a bag full of actual shit, which totally confused everyone at the magazine until an astute reader wrote in to point out that they’d been running an ad for months which read “Send Us Your Band’s Shit.”
Accompanied by this rare gift was a letter that demanded the magazine never write about the band ever again; in what amounts to the best example of Section M’s attitude that I can conjure, the next issue was filled with as many references to Bungworm as possible. Yes, for all of its faults, this was Section M’s greatness: it blatantly did not give a fuck about bands that took themselves too seriously, and instead devoted lots of column space to absolutely unserious bands like the H.B.’s or Rhino Rape.
Section M petered away in 2003 without fanfare—no official final issue, no grand goodbye. One could argue that it didn’t really go away, living instead in the human form of Michael Houghton, the magazine’s founder, who continued in social situations to casually remind people years afterwards of the many thousands of dollars of credit card debt he was still saddled with from running the magazine. It was hard to tell if these repeated references to the magazine’s legacy of debt were subtle pleas for financial help, or if they pointed to something deeper—indicators, perhaps, of how hard it is to say goodbye to something that never got the chance to truly die.
Last weekend, Michael got that chance, as did about 400 other people who crammed through the doors of Daredevils & Queens for a night that was a reunion, a nostalgia fest and a damn good time rolled up into one. Over a dozen bands from the late 1990s got back together to perform. Michael, ever the dapper stylist, even got gussied up for the occasion—in a pair of jeans with a hole in the crotch, and a “F*ck Section M” T-shirt.
I showed up a little bit late, but immediately the “reunion” aspect was made clear. I ran into people, now married and pregnant, who I once stayed up drinking gallons of gin with until 3am. I ran into people who asked, “So, how’s it going?” who didn’t bother to explain if they were asking how it’s been going for the last 10 years or the last 10 minutes. And I ran into people who referenced incredibly esoteric jokes I’d made back in 1999 with pinpoint precision—and this was all before I could make it out back to watch some bands.
Thus, the night was a blur, but in the best possible way. I played bass with the Blockheads, who hadn’t played in a decade and whose bassist Mark Aver has since moved to the East Coast. It was the most satisfying 35 minutes of fun I’ve had in a while. To Dave Fichera, Paul Fichera, and Steve Choi, the Blockheads, the only local band I truly loved besides Cropduster in the late 1990s—thanks, bros.
I caught 20 Minute Loop, Cropduster, Brian Moss, and the Paranoids, but I think the greatest slice of reunion nostalgia for the night was the Reliables, who were all, like, 13 years old when they formed and maybe 17 when they broke up. It was just like an old Reliables show—equipment failures, not knowing how to use a tuner, confusion over which song was being played, the microphone stand falling over—except that instead of standing around dumbfounded, as most people did in 2001, the large crowd showered them with love.
The Reliables’ set list canvassed the trajectory of adolescence, from early songs about suburban angst like “Sad Man” (“My mom just won’t let me be / I know that I’m kind of a loser / Masturbation is only for Godzilla”) to the totally awesome and bittersweet “Another Shitty Day” to the very last song the band ever wrote, “Houses Without Windows,” a depressing, existential rumination on life at midnight as seen from an airplane window which asks the question: “Don’t you wish sometimes you’re dead?”
Not many people cared about the Reliables when they were around, but at the Section M reunion, bolstered by guest drummer Caitlin Love, they were basically superstars. “I think this is the most people we’ve ever played to,” noted Jeremy, and he was right.
Piles upon piles of old Section M magazines were being given away at the front door (Worst cover ever? Issue #10: Halou, Cohesion, Kabala, and Skitzo) and I even saw a very dazed but very validated Michael Houghton for a second. “Can you believe this?” he asked, motioning to the incredibly packed Daredevils & Queens. “Look at all these people!” It’s true. It was pretty amazing.
One final note: in honor of the 10-Year Anniversary of the magazine, Michael has allowed me to finally spill the beans about the “Scene & Heard” column in Section M, the gossipy, newsy column written by the elusive “Jane Sez.” No one ever knew who Jane Sez was, and since “Scene & Heard” was easily the most popular column in every issue, there were many, many guesses over the years.
Now it can be told: Jane Sez was Michael Houghton. Well, for some issues, at least. The first few were written by Christine Alexander from Little Tin Frog, after which it turned over to Michael and then became a communal effort by Michael and the rest of the upper staff of the magazine, including Sara Bir. Keeping the Jane Sez identity a secret was almost as fun as writing the column itself, Michael says. “The best part about it is that so many dudes came up to me at shows, when I was doing most of the ‘Scene and Heard’ writing,” he recalled the other night, “and they’d say to me, ‘I’m so in love with Jane Sez. I totally wanna fuck her.’”
There’s an excellent photoset from the night, taken by Caitlin Childs, over here.
A few members of the staff from the magazine share their thoughts and opinions here.
Section M’s official website, still up and running, is here.
Two years ago, when Santiago decided to learn and perform Built to Spill’s album Perfect From Now On in its entirety, I would have never guessed that Built to Spill themselves would one day book a series of shows doing the same exact song-for-song tribute to their own masterpiece.
I also would have never guessed that through a series of events both deliberate and unpredictably farcical, Doug Martsch would ever hear a live audience recording of the show where we played Perfect From Now On; or that, years later, when Built to Spill took the album back on the road, that he’d track us down and personally invite us to the show.
It was one of those heart-stopping answering machine messages: “Look, Doug wants to put you and your band on the guest list for the show next week, so gimme a call back.”
I was agog. I called back, and sure enough, Doug Martsch had heard the Santiago recording of Perfect From Now On. And he wanted to meet us.
“I can’t believe you did it,” Doug told us backstage, smiling. “It even took us a long time to re-learn some of those songs.”
We said to him, fumbling over our words, I’m sure, how much we loved the album, and how grateful we were to him for making it, and what a satisfying project it was to learn it in its entirety. Nick explained that it took the better part of a month, “locked in my bedroom,” to figure out the insanely complex guitar parts, which perked Doug’s interest. “Did you learn any new formations?” he asked, unaware of how accurate his suggestion was.
The phenomenon we often encountered, I explained, was that we’d listen to the songs and imagine, in our heads, how they’d be played. But then, when we actually picked up our guitars, we realized that our fingers had to be arranged in completely different patterns in order to play the parts correctly. “So it was an amazing and indirect learning process,” I said.
“If you’ve got time,” Doug offered, “if there’s some parts you couldn’t figure out, I could get my guitar and show you some stuff.”
Jesus Christ, we all thought. Is this for real? But by that point, after hanging out for a while, it was time for the show to start. The band walked by, up the stairs and to the stage, and Doug thanked us again before strolling behind to perform one of the greatest albums ever made.
As I’ve said before, the greatest asset Perfect From Now On so brilliantly brandishes is a complete sense of mystery. Learning it didn’t change that, and seeing Built to Spill play it in its entirety didn’t change it either. Even onstage, the album still emits, from just about every song, the themes that everyone ponders when they first spend a long night gazing up at the stars and talking to a good friend about life:
The universe is infinite. You are small, and your life is relatively insignificant. It’s wrong to go through life acting otherwise. Imagination is useful. The world is noisy. Sympathy is a luxury. Beauty is random acts coming together. Other people can be cruel simply by thinking the thoughts that they think. No one knows for sure what happens when we die. When you feel the darkness shining through, what are you gonna do?
I dare any major label A&R rep to scout out an album like Perfect From Now On today. I further dare them to release it. Think about it: this was Built to Spill’s major label debut, those three feeble words which give the record company carte blanche to respond with those five familiar words—”we don’t hear a hit.” Did someone at Warner Brothers in 1997 actually see the artistic value of Perfect From Now On?
The show was magical, hitting a stride with “Stop the Show,” completely coming unhinged with “Velvet Waltz,” and slicing through the previous 45 minutes with “Untrustable / Pt. 2.” Cellist John McMahon, who played on the original album, added immensely to the sound; as did Brett Netson, who’s rightfully been cited as Built to Spill’s secret weapon. Songs became elastic, speeding up and slowing down with even more freedom than on the record, and the band’s legendarily long jams were kept short but no less sprawling. There was a lot of open-mouthed gaping in the crowd.
They played three more songs: “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Car,” and “Stab,” and then the lights came up. We drove back to Santa Rosa in awe, and I stayed up until 4am thinking about the unbelievable circle of events that life sometimes throws us.
One thing especially sticks out from the night. I had tried not to be too interrogative with Doug Martsch backstage at the show, but I couldn’t help but ask him a burning question. Did learning Perfect From Now On again, I suggested, bring up any old emotions for him?
“No,” he said, calmly. “I don’t really look at music that way. I just play it.”
I recently sat down with Steve Weisz, the CEO of InTicketing, for a Bohemian article on the laudable measures the Bay Area ticket company has taken towards environmental responsibility and low service charges. Both of us are huge fans of music, so we rambled amiably about the industry for almost an hour together.
This quote stands out. After a question about anti-scalping safeguards, Weisz said:
“We’ve incorporated some new practices for that. We haven’t really had the demand as much in the U.S., kind of because a lot of times the promoters, they know the secondary ticket market is going on. Sometimes they’re secretly involved in it as well. So there’s not as much pressure to do that. It mostly comes from an artist, like Tom Waits. I applaud him for going to those lengths. We certainly have a whole host of measures to prevent scalping.”
You read that right: the CEO of one of the Bay Area’s biggest ticket companies confirms that promoters scalp their own tickets. And that promoters aren’t interested in the anti-scalping measures that InTicketing offers because they scalp their own tickets. And that promoters won’t do anything about scalping unless an artist demands it because they scalp their own tickets.
It’s the end of the summer
Come to the time when we have to say goodbye
After watching seven different bands at Daredevils & Queens tonight, and after spending three days watching countless bands at the Insect Carnival last weekend, I have to say: summertime’s elusive promise, that delicate combination of freedom and togetherness so impossible to contain, has come and delivered its sweet kiss just in the nick of time. Soon it will be October, and we’ll spend our nights at home, and read Neil Gaiman novels and watch Richard Widmark movies, and talk about them to computer screens. But these last few weekends, at least, have been a last gasp of what living in Santa Rosa is all about.
It’s hard to put into words, these shows at the Insect Carnival and Daredevils & Queens, aside from saying that they’re probably best not put into words. They breathe, but how do you describe a breath? You inhale air, you exhale air. Right? Is it that simple?
The oldest of friends, the newest of strangers, the coldest of beers and the truest of bands. All under a sky just enough unclouded by city lights to allow a few stars to poke through. Shooting stars, even—the kind that you catch in their split-second streak, and when you discover that the person you’re next to saw it too, for a moment you are bonded if not by the music or the laws of attraction than at least by the very fact that you’re both under the same big sky.
The end of the summer means that people play John Prine and Jesus Lizard songs in the middle of a field, next to a mud pit full of naked people. The end of the summer means Jolie Holland ballads and clanging chains and bullhorns and a floor bending under the weight of people jumping up and down in rhythm. The end of the summer means sharing amps and sideways smiles and a hundred hugs. The end of the summer means a downtown alley full of people drinking free beer and fuck it if it’s Coors.
And the end of the summer means that as the wig-wearing auctioneers of Wine Country Weekend raise money by clowning their own dead counterculture of the 1960s, there are walls both concrete and wooded, both inside city limits and out, where a new culture is constantly being reborn. Where fresh blood is funneled into art, and music, and community, and life, and where money does not rule all. I repeat: where money does not rule all.
So thanks to the bands, and the people like Travis and Bryce and Kyle, and the hordes of people in this town who know a good thing when they see it and who seize it while it lasts.
Today, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I feel compelled to share an interview with one of New Orleans’ native sons.
In April of last year, Harry Connick, Jr. called my house to talk, I imagine, about his upcoming appearance in Sonoma. All we could manage to talk about instead was the disaster in New Orleans. Throughout our conversation, he came off as incredibly authentic, speaking about the catastrophic situation with a compelling combination of depression and hope.
Below, you’ll find Connick, who regularly performs at Republican functions, casting shame on President Bush for not visiting New Orleans sooner. You’ll also read about how he was down there the next day, and how he wasted no time helping out to raise money to rebuild his city. And of course, I couldn’t help asking just one music-related question at the end.
Interview with Harry Connick, Jr. – April 14, 2007
Q: Where were you when Hurricane Katrina hit?
A: I was in Cape Cod, visiting some friends, and I immediately went back home to New York to try and figure out a way to get down there.
Q: Was it easy to get on a plane?
A: No, it was impossible, ‘cause no flights were going down there. So I had to – my friend Bob Wright, who at the time was the president of NBC, was kind enough to let me use the NBC plane to get down there.
Q: And you flew into the regular airport?
A: We flew into Baton Rouge.
Q; In those first hours, after the news started coming in about how bad it was, about the levees and everything, what sort of thoughts were going through your head?
A: Well, I was just helpless, you know. When they said 80% of the city was flooded, it’s just hard to imagine. So I was in shock, man, I was just really concerned about my family and seeing what I could do to help them out.
Q: You had family and friends all over the city.
Q: So, it was what, a couple days before you were able to get down there?
A: No, I was down there the day after the flood. So I got down there on Tuesday – it flooded on Monday, I got down there on Tuesday.
Q: In the liner notes to your new record, you describe meeting someone on the street – Darryl is his name, this guy who showed you around. Was he really just a stranger that you met on the street when you were walking around?
Q: Well yeah, he was on the corner, and he recognized me and asked me if I had been to the convention center, and I told him I hadn’t. And he brought me over there and showed me, there were probably 15,000 people just waiting around to be helped. And they had been there for three or four days.
Q: One of the first things you saw when you got the convention center was two dead bodies covered in sheets. How does an experience like that – how did that change you?
A: I don’t know how it changed me, to be honest with you. It just… it’s like if somebody hit you in the head with a baseball bat and you happen to survive it, you know. You, you… I mean, I don’t know how that changes you, it’s just a painful experience that you go through and eventually get over. It was rough to see.
Q: In your song, “All These People,” you kinda make reference to this guy Darryl, how ordinarily he might just be a crazy person and you might be scared, but because of the circumstances you were brought together in, like you said, “he wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t scared” – did you see a lot of that common, human brotherhood going on?
A: Oh yeah, definitely, man. I mean, I’m always… I feel like I’m like that all the time anyway, and most people are – especially down there, there’s such a great sense of community down there – but it was a heightened sense of fraternity down there, everybody just tryin’ to make it, man, tryin’ to figure out what to do. I mean it was profound, it felt like the end of the world. I mean it really did. It was a similar feeling to after 9/11, how people just kinda came together and tried to help each other out.
Q: Also, in your official press release from Columbia, it states that you have a focus on solutions rather than casting blame. But don’t you think that just a little bit of blame could be cast?
A: Oh, I cast plenty of blame, I just don’t do it in public. I don’t think there’s any reason to. ‘Cause it doesn’t change anything. There’s no reason to do that. Plus, I’m ignorant to most of the information that transpires between people that do that for a living – I’m not privy to all that stuff. So it would be easy for me to say “oh, this person didn’t do this, this person didn’t do that,” but nobody – I mean, I’m not in those meetings, I don’t know the reasons for that stuff, know what I mean? So it’s just pointless to cast blame, it’s not my business.
Q: Do you think… I mean, it really did take a long time for people to get down there. If you were able to get down there on an NBC plane, then Bush probably could have gotten down there a little quicker than he did.
A: Yeah. I think he should have been down there. I don’t know why he wasn’t. He’s our president, I think it’s nice to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think he absolutely should have been down there and had his sleeves rolled up. If you look back 40 years ago, there was another president from Texas [Lyndon B. Johnson] after a hurricane in New Orleans who was trudging through the sludge tryin’ to help people. And I think President Bush probably should have been down there. But he wasn’t, and it’s over, and that’s what it is.
Q: What one displaced musician’s story affected you the most, where you really just said, “This enormously gifted person has no home now, and that is a shame?”
A: Oh, I’ll leave him nameless, but one of my good friends, a great trumpet player. I was actually trying to help sponsor him for a house out of town, with his three children and his wife, and the person, when they found out he was black, they said “we don’t want those people here.” I mean, it’s 2007. You just don’t… I don’t understand that, it doesn’t make any sense. It just makes no sense at all.
Q: At what point did you know that you had to do something major to help?
A: Immediately. Immediately. I called my dad, asked him, “What do I do?” I said, “Can we form some kind of committee to help rebuild New Orleans?” He said, “Well, it doesn’t work like that, you can’t just rebuild a city.” Then my manager suggested that we help the musicians, and so that’s how the idea of the Musician’s Village was born. It’s going great now. It’s been a big success.
Q: How many houses have been built in the village so far?
A: I think 40 or 50, probably.
Q: And you’ve got room for about 300 or so?
A: I don’t know how it works – it’s gonna be 70 houses and 10 duplex apartments. I’m not sure how many people that works out to be.
Q: I hear that during the jazz festival you were there, helping paint houses.
A: Yeah, I mean I can’t take any credit for any manual labor down there, but I do certainly go down to keep the awareness level up about it. I think I have a moral and ethical responsibility to stay on that, because those types of situations have a tendency to get on the back burner and fall apart over the years, and we’re just not gonna let that happen.
Q: Speaking of programs falling apart and everything, I know there’s a lot of charity donations for Katrina relief that get tied up in bureaucracies, there’s the Road Home program and the money for that is still in waiting – how does it feel to directly, in person, rebuild houses in a hands-on fashion?
Q: It’s great. It’s not rocket science, man, you just need to get a bunch of people. Well, that’s not fair, because Habitat For Humanity has been around for a long time and they’ve developed the system of doing this and they’ve got it down to a science. So I walked in at the tail end of that and in a sense we made it look easy – so in fact, it is kind of more like rocket science. But I think there doesn’t have to be a bunch of red tape. You just raise the money, put your mind to it, and get the work done, and that’s pretty much what we did. It just goes to show you that it’s possible.
Q: You took the Neville Brothers’ place and closed out the jazz festival this year. How was that?
A: Oh, it was great. I like playing JazzFest in any capacity. It’s sad that the Neville Brothers couldn’t do it, but I was happy to do it and I had a great time. The crowd was great and people were real cool, so we had fun.
Q: I know that… the vibrant mood of the jazz festival might not be the best barometer, but can you describe the mood of New Orleans, the city, right now – what would you say is its spirit right now?
A: Depressed. I’d say depressed, in a word.
A: Yeah, man, they can’t live in their houses, most of the people. The majority of the population can’t come home. No, it’s bad. It’s really bad.
Q: There’s probably a lot of people around America that… the state of the city is sort of out of sight, out of mind at this point – it doesn’t get told on the news that much anymore. And at the same time I hear about official tour buses that you can sign up for when you go to New Orleans that’ll take you around the 9th ward to see the houses, and the buses are packed. People want to see this for some reason.
Q: Well, everybody has a job, and my job it to keep people aware of it. So I try to tell ‘em during the show, and I don’t want to make it a forum for politics or social issues, but most of the time I get up and just say a few words about New Orleans, and people are very responsive. Shoot, we’ve had 25-30 thousand volunteers come from all over the world come and help, and those tour buses, the last stop on their tour is the Musician’s Village. So, you know, we’re doin’ all right. It’s just gonna take a long time. If you look back in history at catastrophes, natural disasters in other places – I mean, we ain’t even reached two years yet. Those things take sometimes decades to repair themselves, so I think we’re on track. It’s just frustrating for the inhabitants now because they’re in the middle of it.
Q: One of the songs you recorded on your album, it’s a great song, “Yes We Can Can” by Allen Toussaint.
A: I love that song.
Q: You said that if you could choose the official song for the City of New Orleans, you would make it that song.
A: Yeah, I mean especially right now. It’s so simple in its sentiment. It basically says, “I know we can do this.” As cliché as it sounds, that’s kind of what we need to be saying.
Q: “Make this land a better land.”
A: Exactly, I mean it couldn’t be more prophetic.
Q: I just have one more question for you, Harry, and then I’ll let you go. James Carroll Booker III: Was he or was he not the baddest motherfucker you ever played with?
A: The baddest, bro. The baddest. There was nobody who could come close to him. I’ve played with some serious people, you know… nobody could come close to him. He was the baddest.
Q: Alright, hey, thank you so much for giving me a call and taking the time to do this.
A: Yeah, bro, after the show, man, come say hey. I appreciate the work you did for this interview, man, you know what you’re talking about.
Here we go: Day Three. If I can survive three-week camping trips, I can survive a three-day festival. I’m getting a little tired, and today is going to be full of the most frenzied running around of all three days, but it’s also going to be the most interesting. It’s full of lesser-knowns that for the most part I’ve never seen before, although obviously, I’d much prefer to see them in a dark club instead of a dry field.
This is the day that the festival conception of ‘showcase’ rather than ‘show’ is at its most maddening. I see a lot of bands I want to see, but I have to race my ass off to do so.
First up is the Mighty Underdogs, the latest Quannum supergroup with Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef from Latyrx. When the Latyrx album came out around the same time as the Black Star album, I remember participating in long discussions with friends about who was the greater MC of each collaboration. Mos Def or Talib Kweli? Lyrics Born or Lateef?
At the time, I voted vehemently for Kweli and Lateef. I liked their lyrics, but I’d be kidding if I didn’t say I also adored their sense of urgency—both rapped as if something really bad was going to happen, and soon, if we all didn’t do something quick. It was the late 1990s.
Lateef has kept his attraction basically intact after all these years. He’s still got that same urgent demeanor, if not more so. He’s purely at home on stage, to the extent that seeing him walk down the street would be unsettling, almost worrisome, and you’d want to prop a monitor on the sidewalk and hand him a mic just to put him in his natural element. His finest hour, still, is Latyrx, although his overlooked album Ambush isn’t much to shake a stick at, either. I’m always rooting for the guy.
Gift of Gab made the defining Quannum album, Nia, and for that alone he will always deserve respect—the lyrics, the conception, the fantasy, the arrangements are all pure brilliance on that record. Live, he’s often inclined to rev his vocal chords and scream his way to crescendo, a characteristic tendency which gets tiresome after the second or third go-round. These two things generally balance out to a level medium.
We catch the Mighty Underdogs’ last couple songs as they’re finishing their set, but from what I can gather, it’s basically a semi-interesting reworking of Blackalicious, for whom Lateef was a touring member for years. They’re still doing the “speak to me” thing (stale), and the songs are good enough to check out when the album drops but not enough to totally hop on the Miyata and jam down to the store to buy the day it comes out.
These one-time idols, how I wish they’d bounce back and hit the world with bullets again.
On our way over to the Lands End stage, we pass a girl in a bikini and shades, holding a homemade sign: “Got Fungi?”
On my left arm, if you look closely enough, you will be able to make out a scar, created by a relentless safety pin, spelling out the words “Pressure Drop.” This is etched into my arm for a very simple reason. To wit: I was obsessed with that song when I was 18. When you’re obsessed with a song at the age of 18, it’s only natural to pick up something sharp and carve the song into your arm for posterity.
It’s also natural, at the age of 18, to think that “Pressure Drop” is a song by the Clash.
I’ve heard numerous reports of Toots and the Maytals being a phenomenal live act, with Toots Hibbert in particular as an effortlessly gymnastic frontman. That’s heartening, considering how old Toots must be these days. All that matters to me is hearing “Pressure Drop.”
Toots hits the stage, jumps right in to the opening lines of “Pressure Drop,” and everything is great. The crowd goes nuts. Then, in a re-creation of Lupe Fiasco’s one-two the day before, he sets it up for his next biggest hit: “Reggay Got Soul.”
He’s not moving around with any kind of nimble abandon, but he’s happy and healthy-looking, and I’m glad that the guy who inspired me to drive a sharp object into my skin all those years ago in tribute is still doing okay. I’m doing okay, too, old friend.
K’naan is a Somalian-born poet and rapper who fled the “lake of blood” district of Mogadishu during the Somalian Civil War. He’s also delivered the most gripping hip-hop album this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, an autobiographical document of growing up in a warzone and clinging to Nas and Rakim CDs for escape. The record is hip-hop’s Graceland: djembe drums, group chants and slit gongs provide the addictively unique texture, while the beat to Dusty Foot‘s opening track, “Wash it Down,” is comprised entirely of feet stomping and sloshing through water. With the metaphor as water for life, the track concludes with the clever poke: “People need water like Kanye need Jesus.”
I’ve had The Dusty Foot Philosopher on a cassette, with Grip Grand’s Brokelore on Side B, in the car for the last three months. Grip Grand deserves an entirely separate review on how just completely fucking brilliant his album is; in short, Brokelore makes me feel totally fantastic and full of joy every single time I listen to it, which so far has been about 15 or 20 times and counting.
K’naan’s album is no less brilliant, but in a different fashion. I’m not always in the mood to listen to it, but when I am, it’s the greatest album in the world. You don’t know about weird looks from strangers until you’ve walked down the street singing about being stabbed by Satan on the day that you were born. Addictive.
Moreover, K’naan’s approach to songs is intensely poetic, a gripping sequence of metaphor and connectivity that enhances instead of diminishes the reality of his subject matter. With his vivid descriptions of life in Somalia; of being shot at by police; of seeing military tanks drive down the beach; of clinging to hope against all odds, he’s able to find the most effective, if not always the most direct, way of explaining his life thus far.
K’naan comes out on stage with a smile and a double thumbs-up for the dedicated fans who’ve staked out their front row positions, and goes into “Hoobaale,” a soft, undulating chant about waiting for disaster before implementing change. Next is an extended spoken-word poem, seemingly improvised, about coming to America from a tormented country and finding the famed open arms of lady liberty just as crippled. It’s the sort of powerful thing that dissipates into thin air as soon as it’s over, and I wish that I could have written it all down before it left.
“In the Beginning”—if you’re only gonna download one K’naan song, this is it—is amazing, inciting the crowd to put up their fists on the extended bridge and chant along. A newer song, about getting older and feeling stronger, comes next, with the audience providing the chorus. Then K’naan apologizes for his set needing to be cut so short, performs “Soobax,” and that’s it. Five songs.
Except that’s not it. There’s no hope of an encore, but there’s a buzz in the air that people can’t simply walk away from. A gathering of about 20 or 30 people cluster to the side of the stage, and after five minutes or so, K’naan comes out and personally talks to every one of them. Still flabbergasted by his performance, I have no choice but to pull out my notebook and ask for his autograph.
He writes two words. “Justice. K’naan.”
Last year, Justin Vernon went into a shed in rural Wisconsin, cleared his head, chopped some wood and recorded nine quiet songs under the name Bon Iver that have since turned just about every indie critic into a drooling, superlative-oozing pile of gush.
I still don’t get it.
Sharon Jones—who could have ever predicted that she would be playing a huge stage in front of thousands of people? I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I’ve still got some of her early 45s on Daptone. Dap-Dippin’ was an alright album, but it was 2005’s Naturally that really did the trick for me. Whereas Dap-Dippin’ is a lot of James Brown-inspired textbook funk, the songwriting on Naturally takes it over the top into greatness. For a time, it seemed as if the pinnacle of the underground funk revival, which started with Brainfreeze, had finally been achieved. Then Amy Winehouse came along, heisted Jones’ backup band, called her album Back to Black, for cryin’ out loud, and ran away with the prize.
While Winehouse rots in the tabloids and the UK tries to cough up more blue-eyed soul sensations while their iron is hot, Jones has been getting more attention, and that’s a great thing. While I think the songs on her latest album 100 Days, 100 Nights fall short of Naturally’s instant magnetism, it’s still an important example that newer is not always better, and that fancier recording technology doesn’t always mean a better-sounding record. Plus, Jones can sing the hell out of any song in the world.
The Dap-Kings come out and run through a couple instrumental numbers, including “Tighten Up.” Everyone’s waiting for Jones to hit the stage, and when she does it’s like an earthquake. She shimmies, struts, glides and hollers her way through “How Do I Let a Good Man Down.” She complains about her legs being shorter than Tina Turner’s. She calls out to people in the crowd like they’re all distant cousins. It’s amazing.
Jones then finds someone in the wings who says his name is Tuesday and starts schooling him in the art of getting down. Singing directly to him, she places his hands on her hips, gyrating in rhythm and instructing him to do the same. It’s fantastic theatre, and the band keeps a steady beat throughout it all.
The Cool Kids are a full-on guilty pleasure minus the guilt, a complete throwback to the earliest hip-hop records that I was into when I was twelve years old. I wrote about them back in January, when all they had were two great songs on their MySpace page, likening them to hip-hop’s midlife-crisis Porsche and predicting that they’d burn hot for a short while before fading away.
Time will tell what the future holds for the Cool Kids, but it’s not like they’re concerned about it at all. Fun is the name of their game, and they take turns making fun of each other, or themselves, by saying things like “My beatboxin’ ain’t very good, I gotta be honest.” But their beatboxing is good, and they’re on top of their shit, and they rule the Panhandle Stage.
The two songs I catch are “88” and “Black Mags.” They sound as great as they did eight months ago—better, in fact. I rescind my prognosis about their short shelf life, and hope that their one foot in the past will equal a brighter future for hip-hop in general.
Broken Social Scene, right from the get-go, is totally likable and awesome. There’s nine people on stage and I have no idea which is which until some guy in wrinkled clothes and a trilby hat starts talking about how San Francisco is his favorite city in California. Must be Kevin Drew, I think to myself, who is the sort of ersatz leader of this huge collective.
I haven’t seen Broken Social Scene before, but I love, love, love their records. I can’t remember the first song they play, because the second one, “KC Accidental,” renders all of my memory obliterated, and I scream “fuck yes” and close my eyes and I feel like I’m diving down into a sea of bliss. There’s so much activity on stage, and I try to drink it all in while I can.
“7/4 (Shorelines)” brings out Amy Millan from Stars on guest vocals. Emily Haines plays guitar on a lot of songs, and sings much better than Millan. There’s a guy who looks like Bigfoot, dressed all in white, on bass, and a guy who looks like Paul Bunyan on guitar. “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” and a couple of new solo songs are all good. But it’s Kevin Drew, treating the enormous crowd like a regular old group of friends, who steals the show.
“Remember to vote!” he tells the crowd at one point. “Vote for Canada! Vote for every country!”
Near the end of the set, it almost seems like Drew is joking when he makes a special announcement. “Hey, Spiral Stairs is here, everybody! Spiral Stairs!” he says, but sure enough, Spiral Stairs from Pavement walks on stage and straps on a black guitar. I’m hoping for “Lover’s Spit”—longshot, I know—but even when the drumsticks click off the tempo, I realize what’s happening: the first song from Broken Social Scene, “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day).” It’s a bonkers title, but man if it isn’t a goddamn great song.
So we get the gigantic, epic send-off for the band, and during the breakdown, Drew slips into full-on Springsteen mode. “For all the hurt in your life; for all the hurt you’ve caused in others’ lives; for all the love you feel and for all the love others feel for you. . . scream so your whole entire city can hear you, San Francisco!”
Wilco, who Kevin Drew refers to as “the greatest band in America,” comes on next. I’ve seen Wilco four times, and each time I’ve liked them less. Jeff Tweedy has seemed grouchier as time has gone on, which I could probably deal with if their new musical approach wasn’t so hackneyed.
The last time at the Fillmore, I figured it out. Whereas on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band combined beauty and chaos fluidly and simultaneously, their newer material sequesters the two into awkwardly arranged factions. They’ll get a not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song going for a while, and then they’ll let Nels Cline freak out in the middle, and then they go back to the not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song.
Needless to say, I’m one of many who believe that Being There is their best record.
But Jeff Tweedy actually seems like he’s in good spirits, jogging around the stage a little bit during “Hummingbird” and joking with Nels Cline about how his maroon pants are held up by a safety pin. When someone yells “I love you!” he responds with the deadpan zinger, “We love you too, random guy in a massive crowd of people!”
“I am Trying to Break Your Heart” benefits from drastic new textures, and I take a walk through the crowd during “Jesus, Etc.”—just about everyone sings along to themselves, quietly. “California Stars,” unfortunately, comes a little too early before the nighttime, but lots of people look up at the California sky nonetheless.
Wilco once meant a lot to me, and I have to admit to feeling terrible about our falling out in recent years. I’m glad that they’re good tonight. It’s been a memorable weekend, and making amends with an old confidante is a nice way to wrap things up.
Photos by Gabe Meline – Lots More Photos After the Jump.
I run into a friend of mine who is working, in some capacity or another, at the Crowdfire tent. Most of the photos I see on the screens around the park seem taken by the official Crowdfire photographers and not, as the concept goes, by fans who feel like wasting their time in front of a computer screen by uploading photos inside a big tent. I ask him what the Crowdfire tent is all about.
“It’s really hot in there,” he says simply, “and it smells like weed.”
Boots Riley, from the Coup, doesn’t seem to have any more of a handle on the Crowdfire idea either.
“I guess there’s this thing where you film a song on your. . . your phone, or something?” he says to the crowd. “And then you go and. . . upload it in that tent?” The genius of it is that he’s not phrasing his sentences in question form because he’s unclear on how the process works. It’s because he’s clearly asking why anyone would want to do such a stupid thing in the first place.
I interviewed Boots Riley in 2006, shortly after the Coup’s tour bus crashed one week into a nationwide tour. While the bus was sideways on the side of the freeway, everyone scrambled out just in time to watch the bus—and everything on it—become engulfed in flames. Riley was still audibly shaken by the experience, but his personal resolve was strong as ever.
“Different members of the band are like, ‘Well, you know, we survived for a reason.’ This and that. But I have always felt a reason for my life,” he told me, determinedly, “and I’ve searched to make a reason for my life when I didn’t know what it was.”
That’s exactly how Riley is on stage. He’s here for a reason, and he knows it, and he’s not about to let the audience forget that. Moving around the stage using every part of his body but his feet, in a green military shirt with “Revolution Rock” on the back, he even needs to ask for a longer mic cord at one point.
Riley and Silk-E command the live band through a solid set of mostly new songs. “Ride the Fence” goes into a barreling breakdown, and “The Shipment” has the musicians in full-on Band of Gypsys mode. “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” makes for a nice breather, and Silk-E delivers a solo song, “Do You Give Her What I Got,” showcasing her Aretha-like vocals.
It around this point that I notice that the foam covering on the speaker, two feet in front of my face, is flapping off of the cabinet with each heavy bass note. My ears are already shot from years of this, but a rare burst of responsibility sets in. Might be a good idea to move.
The last time I saw the Liars was at the Greek Theater in 2006. It was horrible. Just horrible. One of the most grating things I’ve ever sat through.
I have friends who swear by them, though, and I’m willing to give them another shot. They’re on the Panhandle Stage—the smallest stage at Outside Lands—and they’ve got a huge crowd. They seem less on heroin than they did two years ago, which is good.
The most unlikely trend in indie rock: the Second Drummer Playing Not Exactly In Rhythm.
“That song was called Alcatraz and There’s No Place Like Home!” says a smiling Angus Andrew. I’m not sure if it’s a continuation of the song title, but he also says something about it being a beautiful night, which, at three in the afternoon, is sort of strange.
I think about a Gang Gang Dance album that I used to have, and make my way to the Lupe Fiasco stage, which has already amassed a huge throng.
By rights, no one in a goddamned Dodgers cap should be allowed to stand in front of a San Francisco crowd and succeed in getting them hyped. But Lupe Fiasco’s guitarist does just that. Over and over. For ten minutes or so.
You know it’s a hip-hop show when nothing is happening on stage for way too long, there’s some guy telling you to make some noise even though you just did a few minutes ago, and the star doesn’t come out to the stage even remotely on time. Of all the hip-hop acts at Outside Lands, Lupe Fiasco is the only one who does this. I stand there, staring into space, wondering why I still put up with this kind of stuff.
I didn’t really understand the fascination with Lupe Fiasco when he put out Food & Liquor. Maybe it’s because back here in the Bay Area, we already had the Pack, who are of a much more sensible age group to be wearing neon and rapping about skateboards. The production is alright and all, and “Kick Push” is great, but really—“hip hop’s whiz kid”?
It was earlier this year when I was interviewing DJ Ignite for an article on Santa Rosa’s Latino hip hop scene that I changed my tune on Lupe Fiasco. “That song, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life,’ that’s my favorite song right now,” he told me. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I sought it out and lo and behold, he’s right. It’s a great song.
Lupe Fiasco comes out late but makes quick amends by playing “Kick Push” and “Hip Hop Saved My Life” right off the bat. Dude is smooth as butter. Opening tours for Kanye West will do that to you, I guess. The crowd is in the palm of his hand, and I haven’t seen so many arms windshield-wipering in unison since the 1900s.
When he finishes his set, the P.A. speakers go back to playing the Grateful Dead.
“With all of the money and influence in Washington,” muses Nellie McKay on the Panhandle stage, “it’s a miracle we even have a pseudo-democracy left.”
Last night, we’d gotten the text message from Barack Obama announcing that Joe Biden would be his running mate. And this morning, we’d watched the speech in Springfield, cringing at each blunder by both Obama and Biden. Obama called Biden “the next President. . . the next Vice President of the United States of America!” while Biden kept blowing it, calling Obama “Barack America” and using the word “literally” way too many times.
I’ve been pretty headstrong during this election season. I don’t care how close the media wants to paint this election. There is no way that McCain can possibly win. Even disregarding his asinine policies, he’s still a wooden, blobby multimillionaire who abandoned his wife after she got in a car accident to have an affair and marry a pill-popping, thieving beer heiress. Fuck that guy. He’s a loser.
But watching the speech in Springfield, my faith started to lapse. Especially when I noticed the campaign sign: “Obama Biden.” From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t look good if your brain factors in an “S,” an “N,” and an “La.” When Biden called this campaign “literally incredible,” I fell apart inside.
The Democratic Party’s biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is its own self-doubt. For some reason, Democrats can’t just come right out and declare themselves the inevitable winners, even though according to all logic, the results of the November election are a totally foregone conclusion. Instead, they have to look at polls and wring their hands and worry about what Hilary supporters are thinking and what black America is thinking and what people in church are thinking.
For all of his blunders, Biden seems to have that extra needed boost of confidence. He also seems like he might make a bad cop to Obama’s good cop when it comes to attacking McCain, which is such a sensible and easy thing to do. In fact, if we care at all about the future of the world, we should all be attacking McCain as often and as gleefully as we can.
I already reviewed Nellie McKay’s show in Petaluma just five days earlier, and you can read it here. But standing in the crowd, watching people fall in love with McKay for the first time, is like seeing it through their eyes. All the zingers that never fail bring a new set of smiles to my face, and her cover of “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” leads into the brightest spot of political hope of the day.
“A lot of people say McCain is too old,” she reports to the crowd. “But it’s not that McCain is too old. It’s that his policies are FUCKED UP.”
Next up is the Walkmen, who I’ve never seen before but who I’ve loved since their impeccable 2004 album, Bows + Arrows. This week, they’re at the top of the Pitchfork ‘Best New Music’ list, for what that’s worth—after all, every single record store has a used, discarded copy of Pitchfork’s #1 album of 2006, The Knife’s Silent Shout, which is a totally faceless pile of boredom that almost single-handedly destroyed Pitchfork’s reputation overnight.
The Walkmen’s new album is called You & Me, and after listening to it a few times, I’m not that into it. It’s wimpy, and too ruminative, and not in the good way that “No Christmas While I’m Talking” is ruminative. I made a tape of it for the car, and skipping over a few songs to conserve space on the 45-minute cassette wasn’t exactly a nail-biting decision to make.
But the Walkmen take the stage and right off the bat, the wimpiness works on me. I’m transfixed. They open with a slow song, just guitar and singing, and it’s an irresistible invitation into their world. When the next song comes in and the band fills out the sound, it’s like heaven. They’re the very definition of a unique aesthetic, playing the same vintage instruments as the Monkees—Vox bass, Gretsch drums—but sounding unlike any other band on Earth.
They play almost all songs from You & Me, and those same songs I’d previously dismissed are immeasurably better live. Hamilton Leithauser plays the perfect frontman, high-rise jeans and all, clutching a beer and crowing at the skies while each song gets stretched and bullied along. Also, in an amazing triumph of stage direction, each member of the band appears to be thinking about algebra, or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, or the Spanish Civil War instead of about the fact that they’re playing music. Really—check the additional photos below.
At the end of the set, I’m thoroughly indulged. A screaming version of Bows + Arrows’ “Thinking of a Dream I Had” has me soaring on cloud nine, and I chalk it up as the top experience of the day.
Strolling along Speedway Meadow, I see a fistfight break out right next to me. Seriously, dudes are wailing on each other, trying to punch each others’ lights out. I’ve got this impulse, left over from high school, to break up fights, and it isn’t until I’ve helped push the one guy away from the other that I notice a Four Square court on the ground. They were fighting over a Four Square game. For reals.
When we walk across to Lindley Meadow, we notice that the organizers have thoughtfully widened the corral that was unmanageably bottlenecked the day before. It’s so uncrowded, in fact, that a trio of frat guys marches drunkenly down the path, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing “I Will Survive.” It must be weird to be known for a deadpan cover of a disco song.
Cake is playing, but they’re on the Sutro stage—a.k.a. The Inaccessible Stage—and we can’t see them at all behind the sound tent. They play “Frank Sinatra” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.” John McCrea’s monotone voice, which is so charming on record, is downright condescending in a live context and I can’t explain why.
“We’re Cake and we’re here to serve you!” he says. “This next song is from our very first album, which we’re re-releasing. We got it out of the steely claws of the record company and it’s ours again. Are claws steely? Some of them, I guess.”
They play “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle,” we get hungry, and the 100-page Outside Lands Festival booklet lets us know that they’re going “above and beyond the standard festival food.” This has resulted in food booths selling weird items like Three-Cheese and Figgy Jam sandwiches, but we see a hamburger stand and jump on it.
Tom Petty closes out the night. I like Tom Petty a lot, so this is a great thing, tainted only by the long and not very interesting story of our running around backstage trying to figure out why Tom Petty’s management will happily grant a photo pass to some no-name event website but not to an actual weekly newspaper with a large circulation throughout three counties in the Bay Area. Because of this, Tom Petty, you are represented in this review by this totally shitty photo. Hope you’re happy.
The show starts and it’s a steady steam train of Greatest Hits, which is just fine by me. “We got a lot of songs we’re gonna cram in before the curfew tonight!” Petty says. “We’ll play as many as we can!” And sure enough, they keep coming, one hit after another: “Listen to Her Heart,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Even the Losers,” “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”
People are flaming up joints. People are singing “Oh my, my, Oh hell yes.” People are twirling and dancing and doing what people do at Tom Petty concerts, and then people are hearing Tom Petty tell them that they have to take a five-minute break so the sound guys can replace a generator or something.
But it isn’t all for naught: “While we were back there, ” Petty says upon returning, “we ran into one of our favorite musicians in the world. Steve Winwood! So we asked him to come help us out on a couple songs. ”
So Steve straps on a guitar and sings “Can’t Find My Way Home” with the Heartbreakers, and then really tears the nonexistent roof off with “Gimme Some Lovin’.” It’s a song I’ve heard a million times, but I think, today, that I have heard the best version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever performed—Tom Petty and the band know that song like the backs of their Rickenbackers, and Winwood is on fire all the more because of it.
But when “Saving Grace” goes on and on into a long jam, I feel like maybe Petty was just kidding around by saying they’d try to cram as many songs as they could into their set. “Refugee” lasts forever, with the predictable last-song-before-the-encore guitar jam in full effect.
At this point, after a very long day, all I really want to hear is “Here Comes My Girl.” Instead, to my great shock, Tom Petty plays “Gloria.” As in, the song that every bar band in the world plays on any given night in any given city in the world. I’ve heard of Petty playing some great covers—Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” comes to mind—but “Gloria”?!
We bail. Tom Petty is still okay in my book. I’m glad I saw him. Ending the set with “American Girl” is probably the best thing he could have done, and we sing along as we wind our way back out onto 19th Avenue.
Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.
Even before entering the park, the publicity begins: “Hey, are you guys here to see Radiohead?” asks a too-cheerful girl in jeans and suede boots on the dirt path behind Lloyd Lake. “Do you want a free download card? Do you want to be photographed for their fan gallery?”
Then there’s the Crowdfire tent, brought to you by Windows, where festivalgoers are asked to upload their photos from the day to be projected onto digital screens around the festival grounds (“and while you’re at the pavilion,” says the 100-page festival program, to anyone who’s been asleep for the last ten years, “stop by the Windows Experience, to see how Windows brings your digital life together, from your PC to your phone to your living room!”). The whole idea feels overwhelmingly like a ruse for ticket-buyers to also do work and provide free web content, but it’s not nearly as insulting as the tent nearby, called the “Social” tent, “brought to you by Heineken.”
There’s a Visa Signature tent, a Dell Dome, a PG&E booth. Even at 5:30, the lines for the bathrooms are long and the lines for the ID Check are longer. Official-looking people are running all around. Black Mountain plays the Twin Peaks stage while hundreds of people wait in the Will Call lines. In one 30-second span, four golf carts pass by me. It’s not getting off to a very promising start.
Then Manu Chao plays, and I remember why we’re all here: because music is fucking awesome.
I’ve been stoked on Manu Chao since Clandestino, and although I knew he fronted the raucous world-punk band Mano Negra years ago, I’d always figured his performances these days would lean towards the blissful, kicked-back groove of tunes like “Welcome to Tijuana” or “Je Ne T’Aime Plus.” I prep Liz by telling her that his music is the unwatered-down version of all that Putumayo stuff that Starbucks plays.
When the show starts, I realize that I couldn’t be more wrong. Chao hits the stage with a fury, leaping all over the place in an “Africa Unite” T-shirt and throwing his fist in the air in time to the band. Did he hire these guys from the Dropkick Murphys?
It’s easy to see why Chao is a star the world over, and it’s thrilling to see a crowd of Americans, who’ve been jockeying for position for Radiohead, held as a captive audience and won over by his energy. He’s been at it for so many years that his blend of reggae, punk and world music is as natural as breathing, and his disregard for borders (anyone have one of his “No Work Visas” tour shirts from the Greek Theater?) and understandable disgust for George W. Bush make him a right-on dude in my book.
Chao is killing it, pogoing in unison with his band and firing up the crowd, when I hear the noise of something falling on the ground at my feet. I look, and it’s a 22 oz. can of Budweiser. Seconds later, another one comes flying over the fence and lands on the grass. Then four hands clutch the top of the fence, and while it buckles under the weight, the struggling faces of two hopefuls come into view. One guy makes it over by sliding head-first into the grass, and the other guy throws himself over in a sideways roll. By this point, a small group of onlookers has gathered, and they all applaud while the guys grab their cold ones and run off into the crowd.
Damn, I think. Those guys just saved themselves $170—and they got a standing ovation for it.
Lyrics Born has just made an album I don’t like all that much, but that’s fine—he’s a great performer that I’ve seen time and again, and he never disappoints. I was sold on Lyrics Born long ago, in 1999, during a Latyrx show at the Justice League on Divisadero. Lateef and Lyrics Born utterly devastated the room, and it helped that they had a guy from Arizona named Z-Trip as a guest DJ.
Not long afterwards, Quannum Spectrum came out, “I Changed My Mind” was a sleeper hit, and everything changed for Lyrics Born. He’s a soul singer now, albeit in a certain Bay Area fashion that’s inimitably his. And he’s still a great performer.
Backup singer Joyo Velarde worked the stage in a pink-striped jumpsuit and heels, throwing her hands back and forth while Lyrics Born elevated his live band to various climaxes. (Funny thing: last time I saw Joyo Velarde was at Max’s Opera Café on Van Ness, where she was working as a singing waitress.) They played all new stuff, but it was good to check in on the old dog again and see that he’s still teaching new tricks.
What’s there to say about Beck other than he’s fallen off a log into a stinky-ass pile of Scientology-ridden algae?
I guess there’s also this to say: he forces every photographer to sign special waivers allowing his management final say over photos to be used for publication. Actually, we don’t really have any idea what the waiver says. It could be an enlistment form into a deranged science-fiction cult, for all we know. But the upshot of it all is that we bring you this photo, from one of the digital screens, instead of a true-to-life, up-close photo.
Not that anyone can get anywhere near the stage. First of all, the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow is jam-packed and moving at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, a guy stands guard over the cluster of people, sitting on top of pallets full of bottled water.
Second of all, the stage sinks down into the landscape, meaning that if you’re not in the front 15 rows or so, you’re stuck behind the sound booth tent with no visibility. The sound itself isn’t much to write home about either, and Beck is playing drab new songs. I recall reading an interview with him, post-Odelay, where he articulately explained how he was compelled to write happy, uplifting music because he’d had such a brutal home life as a child. It made a big impression on me then, as did his music. When I saw him on the Sea Change tour in 2001, I was struck at how he flipped the equation; he was completely at home with depressing songs like “Paper Tiger,” and awkwardly going through the motions for “Where It’s At.”
But now, it seems the knee-jerk is working in a diagonal direction—the question isn’t ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ anymore. It’s as if he’s reacting to his charmed life in the spotlight by imposing bland music on his fans. We trek back through the narrow corral, moving at about ten feet per minute while others break through the fence and trample the foliage, cringing at each new song Beck starts. Oh well. Hope he snaps out of it someday.
Before Radiohead plays, the jumbotron comes alive with a shot of a girl straddling someone’s shoulders in the crowd. As soon as she realizes she’s onscreen for all to see, she immediately throws up the devil horns with both hands and sticks her tongue way out, down to her chin, in the universal sign of “I am a brain-dead idiot with no creative thought in my head whatsoever.”
I like Radiohead and all, but I’m confounded at the suggestion that they’re the world’s most popular band. It simply can’t be true. Their music is way too weird for the average person, like the devil-horn girl, to honestly enjoy. The crowd estimate tonight is 60,000, and of that, I’d wager to say that 20,000 truly love Radiohead. The rest are here because they feel, for some reason, like they should be. Maybe they’re afraid to be apathetic about Radiohead lest they appear unintelligent, or unsupportive of “art.”
I’m also aghast at the comparison that Radiohead is the next U2. My friend Kim puts it best: “They managed to get really big by not doing anything except for playing bigger places.” Which means: No giant lemons. No vacuous dance-club albums. No pompous charading. Just sticking to the guns, making the music that seemed most interesting at the time, and against all odds watching the world go crazy falling all over itself for it.
Before Radiohead comes on, I overhear two guys talking. One of them says to his friend, “I like Beck, but live, he’s not that good. But this, this is going to be great. It’s like my highlight of the year. And I love the weed smell. San Francisco’s so cool.”
During the first couple songs, a very drunk guy topples over the front barricade and into the photo pit. He’s out cold, just completely unconscious, crumpled on the ground. A public-relations girl working the festival runs over and motions security to join her, and they build a wall around the poor guy, making sure that no photographers can snap a photo of him.
There are glistening moments in Radiohead’s set where, for a brief passage or chorus, they still seem like that scrappy little band who sat down and made an mind-shattering album called OK Computer. The sense of discovery is still there; the feeling of urgency hasn’t been lost. It’s like watching David Murray, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or Rakim.
Then, I look out across the field and wonder what in the hell is happening, and just how on Earth so many people can possibly be passionate about what is obviously a very weird orchestration of sound. I suppose this is a familiar sensation for people who’ve listened to Radiohead in their bedrooms alone for years and then go to see them for the first time, but outdoors in Golden Gate Park, it’s especially bizarre.
In fact, the defining moment of the band’s set is when I come out of an air-conditioned bathroom trailer, walk down the steps, and look up at the back of the concrete Polo Fields bleachers. There’s a beautiful old architectural arc pattern, reminiscent of a church cloister hallway, and Thom Yorke is wailing out the final stanzas of “Karma Police”—“For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself. . .” Horse stables are to the left, and a big blue glow fills the sky to the right. It’s surreal, and I can’t explain why. But it fits in nicely with the fact that the last Polo game actually played on the Polo Fields here wasn’t by actual Polo players on horseback, but by a bunch of guys on Segways.
During “Airbag,” the sound goes out. It’s back on after 40 seconds or so, and it’s not really that much of a big deal, even though it’s all anyone is going to be talking about the next day. It goes out again a few songs later. I like it. It lends an air of unpredictability to the experience. Plus it forces Thom Yorke, looking like a decomposed rubber walrus, to actually address the crowd. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he says. A wasted guy next to me screams, “Me too! Me and Thom Yorke have so much in common!”
We walk around after a while, noticing the hordes of people who’ve scaled the Port-a-Potties to get a better view. For my money, Radiohead’s best album is The Bends, and luckily, they play two songs from it. During “Fake Plastic Trees,” I’m sitting, staring at the trees surrounding the Polo Fields. They’re lit up by huge, colored lights, and they look synthetic. It’s beautiful.
All I Need
Talk Show Host
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Exit Music (For a Film)
You And Whose Army
Fake Plastic Trees
Everything In Its Right Place
Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.