First of all, I gotta get something off my chest.
Music festivals, by nature, suck.
Aside from expensive food and no free water and long hours and huge crowds, there’s a very important reason to be bummed out on the rampant proliferation of festivals: the music suffers. When you go to a festival, you don’t get to see a show. Instead, you see a showcase.
Bands play festivals so they can play in front of a whole bunch of people who would never check them out otherwise. This is great for the band’s exposure, and it’s the reason why more and more managers send their bands on “festival tours”—that is, driving around from city to city and playing for a bunch of people who aren’t their fans. But it’s terrible if you are, in fact, a fan.
Once upon a time, festivals were easy to avoid, dominated by horrendous crapola like Phish, String Cheese Incident and Blues Traveler. But there are now more festivals than ever, all across the world. It’s gotten to the point where if you want to see a great band, you’ll most likely have to suffer through festival hell to do it.
Festivals are like the superstores of music, except without the attraction of cheap prices, and without cheap prices, why would anyone go to superstores? The selection, I guess. Isn’t that what festivals provide? A huge selection?
But that, in itself, is another problem. Too many bands. It means that either you have to cough up $85 to help pay for Widespread Panic’s guarantee when who you really came to see is Wilco, or else you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to cram in Sharon Jones and K’Naan and Bon Iver, all playing at the same time, missing most of each set but knowing you’d die if you didn’t try and Little Brother is on the same time as Broken Social Scene and it sucks because you love them all and god, I’m getting thirsty, why isn’t there a drinking fountain around somewhere?
I’m getting all of this out of the way from the get-go, because that’s exactly what I have to do in order to enjoy going to something like the Outside Lands Festival. I admit that I am powerless over the immense suckiness of the festival, and I believe that only the chance to see amazing music can restore me to sanity.
With all that said, I declare the inaugural Outside Lands Festival a success. Those who only went to Friday night’s Radiohead show won’t agree, but as the weekend progressed, the organizers made key changes, like adding staffers to the ID Check booths and widening the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow. As for the sound briefly going out during Radiohead (twice) and Tom Petty (three times), that’s notable and all but was it really so bad? Not really. As for it being crowded, what did anyone expect?
By the end of Sunday, I was exhausted but in the best possible way: knowing that I had beaten the festival beast and come away with some irreplaceable experiences.
Top Five Best Bands at Outside Lands:
2. The Walkmen
3. Broken Social Scene
5. Manu Chao
With honorable mentions going to Lupe Fiasco, Sharon Jones, the Coup, Lyrics Born, and. . . see? When you can’t decide, you know it’s been a good weekend.
Jump to Outside Lands Festival – Day One.
When Jim Henson and Frank Oz decided to write a Bert & Ernie skit with drums, or with a disco ball, or with horns, or dancing, how could they have possibly predicted that technology would someday allow for advances like this?
I guess the best way to describe Nellie McKay’s show last night is this: in one minute, she pounded the hell out of her keyboard and screamed into the microphone, “Die, motherfucker, die!!” And in the next minute, she picked up a tiny ukelele and sang a beautiful, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop version of the jazz standard, “If I Had You.”
To a half-full house, Nellie McKay thrilled the Mystic Theater with a firestorm show of original songs from all ends of the spectrum, proving herself yet again as one of the craziest and talented songwriters around today. But it was McKay’s selection of cover songs that offset her quirky material in perfect fashion. “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins, was sung in an amazingly authentic old-British-lady voice, along with “I Love to Laugh,” from the same soundtrack.
After her own topical songs about gay marriage, animal rights and feminism, McKay turned to the crowd and announced, “Here’s a song about illegal immigration!”
The song? “Don’t Fence Me In.”
In a similar sly maneuver, McKay performed the old Ella Fitzgerald tune “Vote for Mr. Rhythm,” with the lines: “Vote for Mr. Rhythm / Let freedom ring / Then we’ll all be singing / Of thee I swing.” This led into a mild he’ll-have-to-do endorsement of Obama—which then mutated into a ferociously passionate endorsement of Ralph Nader (??!). McKay even gyrated with mock lust when she described talking to Nader on the phone, and went on and on about how he’s full of great ideas, and sort of, like, failed to mention his overshadowing legacy to this country of viciously crippling the Democratic Party in the most important election ever. “Oh. Hey!” McKay exclaimed, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Does anyone here have chipmunks?”
As those who’ve seen her before can attest, McKay is plainly talented. . . and firmly sardonic about it. At one point, the crowd began hooting at a particularly flashy piano solo. “Oh, I’m just faking it!” McKay protested, and then went into a series of famous piano quotes—“Für Elise,” “Take the A Train”—to demonstrate? To refute? Who can tell?
Dressed in a red tasseled flapper dress and playing a Roland keyboard, McKay also told the crowd a long story—in a zombie voice, no less—about her grandma who used to drive up from the armpit of the Bay Area known as Milpitas after it took that title from Pacifica to come to Petaluma to sell Tupperware to ladies in Petaluma and she’d drive her Ford Galaxie which ran so smooth you could balance a dime on the hood and it was the same car her mom would drive years later when she was on acid and it was a great car but the terrible thing is that when her grandma left the ladies from Petaluma said they’d send her the money for the Tupperware but then they never did.
McKay’s own material, like set opener “Ding Dong” and encore “Clonie,” was brilliant as always. “Mother of Pearl,” with its 5,000 tongues in cheek about feminists not having a sense of humor, brought the house down, and “Work Song” turned into a three-part audience sing-along at the end. Nice also to hear “I Wanna Get Married,” previously discussed as a possible Gertrude Niesen tribute, and probably my favorite Nellie McKay song of all time, “Manhattan Avenue.”
Nellie McKay plays this Saturday at the Outside Lands Fetsival; be sure to haul ass from the Lupe Fiasco stage to catch her set.
I’ve been holding back on this one, waiting for a Monday morning. Nothing to erase the beginning-of-the-week doldrums like an animatronic pizza parlor band doing a spot-on Usher jam. Right?
Warning: pretty much NSFW. No boobs or anything, but you probably don’t want your co-workers to see you losing your shit to a bunch of rapping muppets.
There’s more, including the Arcade Fire, 2 Live Crew, and the White Stripes, over here.
First of all, the prize of the night I think goes to the young kid in a wheelchair who, while his friends formed a wall around him to guard him against flailing bodies, tilted his head back and sang along to every line of “Born to Die.”
Never mind that MDC slowed the song down to half-speed, or that they changed the lyrics to “I Remember,” or that they said fuck it to the iconic bass intro to “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” or that they sang entirely different lyrics to “Chock Full of Shit,” or that they kinda mangled “Chicken Squawk” or that in fact they played their first five songs acoustically. MDC were still great, and despite revisiting just about all of side one of their first and best album, 1982′s Millions of Dead Cops, they didn’t have the pathetic reliving-the-past feel like so many other old punk bands still on the touring circuit today.
Personal data: Dave Dictor is almost as old as my dad.
“I spent most of the late ’90s in a methamphetamine haze,” Dictor announced to the crowd, about 4 or 5 songs into the set. “Walking around the streets of San Francisco, wearing this big yellow rubber poncho, pushing a shopping cart. Those were my peeps. But you know, I got into rehab“—spitting out the word like it was an obscenity—”and got myself straightened out.”
How could we have not guessed that Dave Dictor was gay? “America’s So Straight,” “My Family is a Little Weird,” his flamboyant costumes and incessant prancing around on stage in the ’80s? “There’ve been people coming up to me tonight,” he told the crowd, “reminding me about playing the Cotati Cabaret in 1988. And apparently I took all my clothes off, and traded underwear with a girl.” See?
Personal data: One of the first songs I learned on the guitar was the entire flamenco solo intro to “Chock Full of Shit” from Millions of Damn Christians.
Even when MDC ditched their acoustic guitars and started playing loud, it still wasn’t, uh, “loud.” But listen to their records—they’re not loud either. MDC: the sheep in wolf’s clothing. They always were kind of a hippie band. The message of health food and sustainability in the liner notes to the Millions of Dead Children 7″? Ahead of its time.
Some guy brought a zucchini the size of a bazooka from the gardens and stood in front of the stage, beaming. It wasn’t long before it wound up smashed and battered on the floor under the shoes of the pit. “My mom always told me not to play with food,” quipped Dictor. The pit wasn’t too out of control.
Personal data: One of the first shows I ever went to, at the River Theater in Guerneville, was MDC playing with All, Nuisance, and a very young and very stoned opening band called Green Day. It was September 23, 1989. I was 13.
I wandered outside near the set’s end. MDC has a reputation for playing long-ass sets, and I figured I’d try to stave off potential boredom. Plus there was some crazy acoustic music emanating from the campfire, like there usually is, so I walked over and there it was: a bongo player, a trombone player, a saxophone player, and a beatboxer. A small kitten meowed along. The Boogie Room is amazing. Amazing, I say!
Quotes of the Night:
Young punk girl, with a cigarette, to a mellow-looking guy in blonde dreadlocks: “Hey! Are you the hippie who told me not to smoke?”
40-year-old guy to MDC’s drummer, before the show: “I graduated in ’86, and I listened to you every day! You guys are the best, man!”
Guy to another guy, outside after the show: “Consider that you might not be allowed to come back here, okay?! Do you realize what you’re doing?”
Girl, leaning out of her car: “Hey, do you want to punch me in the face for $8?”
And it’s not a quote, but I’m always heartened—I don’t know why, I’m too young to legitimately care—to see a Jak’s jacket in the throng:
I bought a Millions of Dead Cops cassette for $5 and walked back to my car. Came home and listened to Horace Silver. The next morning, I smelled like shligs and had weeds in my hair. Right on.
One of the reasons, I’ve finally discovered, why I love Nellie McKay’s “I Wanna Get Married” so much is that while it operates as a satire, it doesn’t operate as a blatant, overt satire. It’s just a 19-year-old girl reacting to the idea of the 1950s housewife, that’s all—nothing more, nothing less. Young precociousness has a long tradition of successfully regurgitating the world’s own ideas back in its face without trying to color or polarize them with extemporaneous messages. The regurgitation itself is the message.
Here’s Nellie McKay, on The View, singing “I Wanna Get Married”:
I can think of no way Nellie McKay could have written “I Wanna Get Married” without having first heard Gertrude Niesen’s trademark of the same name, although considering McKay is such a dizzying creative force, well, hell, anything’s possible. Niesen’s “I Wanna Get Married” follows a similar meter, and it, too, is vaguely satirical. It comes from her smash role as the stripper Bubbles LaMarr in “Follow the Girls,” opposite Jackie Gleason, among others.
It took me forever to find this record, but click on the cover below to hear Gertrude Niesen, in 1944, singing “I Wanna Get Married”:
The liner notes of the Gertrude Niesen record tell of Niesen’s side career in flipping houses, a story that brings to mind the housing boom of 2002 as much as it recalls 1944: “Gertrude has been successfully dabbling in real estate for a number of years, buying a piece of property here and selling one there—at a substantial profit. People joked about her “white elephant” when Gertrude picked up a 50-room $2,000,000 Newport, RI mansion for $21,000 a few years ago. They laughed even more when the water pipes froze and burst. But Miss Niesen had the last laugh when she sold the estate a short time later for considerably more than she had paid for it.”
After releasing her stunning debut album, Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay, as this week’s Bohemian interview by Joy Lazendorfer points out, soon felt Sony’s enthusiasm for her brazenly inventive tin-pan-alley songwriting dwindle. She got dumped quickly. She’s put out a couple of not-as-good albums since, and she’s been appearing on and writing songs for Broadway. I’ve seen her live twice, and she’s fucking incredible. Go see her when she comes to town on Monday, August 18 at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma.
Riding with our good Irish correspondent Fionnan Sheridan around the city of Dublin—where, as you can imagine, U2 are revered—my brain settled on a perfectly reasonable question. “Do any members of U2,” I asked, “still actually live in Dublin?”
I say “perfectly reasonable” because in 2006, U2 notoriously moved their enormous assets out of Ireland and into a Dutch tax shelter once the famous Irish tax exemption for artists was capped. I’d say that constitutes a pretty big “up yours” to Ireland, especially when just months before, Bono had loudly appealed to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to increase Ireland’s overseas aid. Following the money, wouldn’t the band’s members leave Ireland behind and move to France, New York, or—in Bono’s apparent wishes—a mansion in Heaven next door to Jesus?
“Some of them still live here,” said Fionnan. “Right up here a ways is Larry Mullen’s house, actually.” And in minutes, we were driving down a narrow street of large houses with big front yards, stone fences, and locked gates. Fionnan continued: “Phil Lynott’s mother lives somewhere on this road, as well.”
My heart skipped. Really? “Oh, sure,” he replied, like he was talking about the shopkeeper down the way, or the guy who sells newspapers on the corner. He then pointed out the church in Howth that was the site of Lynott’s funeral, and quickly thereafter we were driving by Saint Fintan’s Cemetery, where the great Thin Lizzy frontman is buried.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t pass up a celebrity grave—and certainly not the one of Phil Lynott. So we hoofed it across the long, flat cemetery with flashlights, trying in the dark to locate where he’s buried. Like most celebrity graves, it was easy to spot from far away: flowers, guitar parts, leather necklaces, steel bracelets, and handwritten and photocopied tributes piled all around.
I reflexively sang the riff to “The Boys are Back in Town,” which is naturally the first Thin Lizzy song I ever heard. But then I remembered the vast catalog of great Thin Lizzy songs I’d discovered about five years ago, thanks largely to my friend Josh, and so I hummed one of my favorites: “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Sort of apt, actually, under the dwindling Dublin skies.
I talked with Fionnan’s brother a little bit about Phil Lynott, and what it was like growing up in the same neighborhood. “When I was little,” he told me, “you’d see ‘em walking on the beach here together, Phil and his mom. And you’d just think, ‘wow.’”
“He’s got a pretty unmistakable profile,” I offered.
“Oh, yeah. An’ in that time especially, seeing a black person in Dublin was unheard of. It’s still rare now, but back then you really noticed it.”
On this graveyard expedition with us was my 15-year-old niece Qiana, who had never heard of Thin Lizzy at all. So I tried to explain that they were this total kickass rockin’ band that was known for these crazy rockin’ songs, and I air-guitared the solo to “I’m a Rocker” to demonstrate, but that they also had this really tender side, too, with tortured pleas like “I’m Still in Love With You,” and come to think of it, their first album was pretty weird and psychedelic and had this great song called “The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle.”
Qiana just laughed at me. I guess I can’t blame her. She’s into Zac Efron and Kanye West.
When we got back to the house and to a computer, I showed Qiana some Thin Lizzy videos, but I’m pretty sure it only cemented my looniness—especially when I showed her the video for “Sarah,” a.k.a. the most amazingly dorkiest video ever made. Seriously. Watch it, and try to imagine any 15-year-old in the world today thinking that it’s at all cool.
Greetings from the drizzly grey skies of Dublin, Ireland, where last night I saw the greatest Tom Waits show I’ve ever seen, hands down, holy shit, it was INCREDIBLE.
We actually saw Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen on the street in downtown Dublin yesterday, before the show, coming out of the Georges Arcade. Said hi, kept walking. Running into them on the street isn’t such a rare thing back home in California, but it is a truly surreal thing on the other side of the world.
You want surreal? How about a six-tiered circus tent in the middle of a park? ‘Cause that’s where Waits played last night. Christened “The Ratcellar,” it was every bit the Barnum & Bailey spectacle you’d think: purple and yellow stripes, a grand marqueed entrance, red velvet curtains, raked seating on all sides. Built just for these shows, Waits booked three nights here, under the big top.
Tom Waits must really love Dublin. The strolling around town, the building of a special tent, the three-night stand—and undoubtedly one of the greatest shows he’s ever performed. Two and a half hours, 26 songs—the set list, below, was unbelievable—and most of the time, he made the enormous tent of 3,000 feel like an intimate parlor. He certainly seemed honored, and more than a little grateful, to be in Dublin.
Tickets to the show were 138 Euro—about $215 each (the highest price I’ve ever paid for tickets). There was a lot of grumbling about this in Dublin. After the show last night, I can’t imagine anyone grumbling about it anymore.
Waits came out to thunderous applause, threw himself and his band into “Lucinda,” and we were off and running. “Raindogs” was a good sign right afterwards, and it soon became apparent that the set had changed drastically from the time I saw him last month in Phoenix: “The Other Side of the World,” from the film Night on Earth, with an excellent flamenco-guitar solo by Omar Torrez, and “I’ll Shoot the Moon” from The Black Rider, with a please-call-me-baby long spiel mocking modern telephone communication. “Your phone is also a camera,” Waits quipped, “but my sunglasses are also a tricycle.”
“This is a song about family reunions,” Waits said next. “I hate family reunions. There’s so much family there. All these people I’ve been avoiding all year show up. . . Uncle Bill, I owe him money. Look away. No, wait, he owes me money! Get his ass over here. And of course, the infamous. . .”—and starting “Cemetery Polka”—“Uncle Vernon, Uncle Vernon, independent as a hog on ice. . . “
“Singapore” wrapped up with Waits falling over horizontally and banging like a kid on the highest keys of a toy piano, ending with a gargantuan gong-like thud that rumbled dramatically throughout the tent, which became the perfect venue for a long, spoken-word freeform about the circus. As the band played “Russian Waltz” in the background, Waits spun taut yarns about carnival characters such as Yodeling Elaine, Funeral Wells, Little Tiny, Poodle Murphy and Tripod (“how he got the name Tripod is another story altogether”). Interspersed with a snippet of “Tabletop Joe,” the inspired number ended with Waits shouting, like a howling broken wino, “Leave the bum! Leave the bum! Leave the bum!”
True to tradition, Waits dissected the various laws, both real and imagined, native to Dublin: “A lot has changed since I was here last,” he said. “It’s now illegal to force a monkey to smoke in Dublin, for example. And it’s against the law to get a fish drunk here! I used to come here just for that.”
Pointing out that the beginnings to many of his songs sound the same, Waits plowed into “God’s Away on Business,” one of many newer songs that benefited from fresh arrangements. Being on the road has invigorated Waits’ more recent material; they’re looser, more open. They breathe more. “Metropolitan Glide,” “Hoist That Rag,” “Lie To Me”—I saw these songs last month in Phoenix and they’ve changed, drastically, for the better. “Hoist That Rag,” in particular, was amazing, with beautiful Stravinskyesque piano solos by Dublin’s own Patrick Warren, possessed electric guitar soloing by Torrez, and blistering saxophone work by a rejuvenated Vincent Henry, playing and joking astride Waits’ youngest son Sullivan on second tenor sax.
On the subject of the band, I gotta say, Casey Waits on drums has come through like no one could have ever imagined. Much like Denardo Coleman backing up Ornette, it seemed a novelty at first, back when Casey was 14—but now, Casey’s grown into his own, and he’s perfect for his dad’s behind-the-beat style. Kudos, my friend. And bassist Seth Ford-Young, who came in just a week or so before the tour to replace Larry Taylor, very well may have secured himself a permanent place in the band. He’s excellent.
The band was given a break when Waits sat down at the piano to deliver the highlight of the night. “This was a request. . .” he announced. “. . . my own request.” A beautiful, beautiful “Tom Traubert’s Blues” ensued, to a ridiculously wild standing ovation. It didn’t stop there. “On the Nickel,” an overlooked gem from Heartattack and Vine, came next, and then “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which slaughtered the sentimental hearts of everyone in the crowd. He started “House Where Nobody Lives,” but then ditched it. “That’s a short one,” he said, “sometimes the short ones are the best. Why don’t we do one we can all sing on?” Alas: “Innocent When You Dream.”
“Green Grass” had Waits in a low whisper, while “Lie to Me” brought him strutting around his dusty pedestal. “Dirt in the Ground” was played in a striking new meter, sort of a 6/8 over a 4/4, as Waits loosely whispered the words in a low, ominous tone, and “Make it Rain” became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the tent started pattering away with raindrops from above. Long, drawn-out, and heavenly, the song came to a close with Waits cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting “Make it rain!” back up to the obliging sky. Upon the final chord, a hailstorm of glitter showered down from the top of the tent. “Good night!” said Waits, and as the crowd bumrushed the stage, he made his way across the entire front row, reaching out over the edge and touching hands with the devoted, clearly overwhelmed.
The three-song encore ended with “Time,” and there was no more perfect way to end the night—except, perhaps, wandering out into the raining Dublin night with 3,000 other fans utterly dumbfounded with bliss. It was about a mile-long walk to the nearest pub to meet up with our ride, and we were soaked. It didn’t matter. Last night was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, and worth every step through every rainy night in any blustery city in the world.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Lucinda / Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well
On the Other Side of the World
I’ll Shoot the Moon
Get Behind the Mule
Cold Cold Ground
Circus / Tabletop Joe
God’s Away on Business
Tom Traubert’s Blues
On the Nickel
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minnneapolis
House Where Nobody Lives (false start)
Innocent When You Dream
Lie to Me
Hoist that Rag
Bottom of the World
Way Down in the Hole
Dirt in the Ground
Make it Rain
Jesus Gonna Be Here
A city so terrifically entrenched in the past and yet so ahead of us in a million little ways. Music in London, especially, is such a silly thing. Robotic techno songs dominate the Top of the Pops and yet they use Ernie K. Doe’s New Orleans funk classic “Here Come The Girls” to sell shampoo on BBC 2. There’s no less than 26 different subgenres of House in every record store (Post-House, Funky House, Classic House, Post-New-York-Jazzy-House, ad nauseum) but then they sell De La Soul’s 3 Ft. High and Rising on vinyl for, like, four bucks. Primal Scream is still popular.
I walked over to Cargo, a club I went to eight years ago to see Coldcut and the Herbaliser, to stop in and see Ratatat. Sold out. I don’t like ‘em that much anyway, but I lingered in the bar area and listened through the curtain for a while, reading the club’s little newsletter. Just when I couldn’t fathom why Ratatat was so huge in England, there it was on the flyer: “Daft Punk fancied them to open on their recent tour!” So I wandered back to our hotel, passing Favela, a club blaring Brazilian Baile funk, a pub with Vampire Weekend on the stereo, and numerous multimedia street murals. Banksy’s influence is everywhere, even though Banksy himself is passé. Everyone I talk to hates his guts.
Stopped in at Rough Trade to visit my old friend Sean Forbes, who incidentally is one of the funniest people I have ever known. We record store types tend to stick together, providing crucial information like which shop in town might have a copy of Thatcher on Acid’s The Illusion of Being Together 12″, or how many copies of the A Touch of Hysteria LP might still be left. He filled me in on the goings-on of London friends, like my old pal Ben Corrigan, who had the Black Keys, Joanna Newsom and the Kills all play at his deliciously debaucherous wedding last month, and Jamie, who I miraculously hadn’t noticed from the glut of free tabloids everywhere in London is now dating Kate Moss.
Because most of my European travels thus far have involved being on tour with bands, I haven’t seen a lot of things that one “should” see over here. I’ve been to Rome twice and have never seen the Colosseum. Likewise, I’ve been to London a number of times but had never been to the Royal Albert Hall. Ever since Sgt. Pepper’s, when I was 10, and on up to The Man Who Knew Too Much and even into The Odd Couple Sings, I’ve had a longstanding back-burner fascination with the Royal Albert Hall. So it was with a great deal of excitement that I bought tickets, way up in the nosebleeds, for just 6 pounds each, to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall last Wednesday.
90-year-olds tailgate the Royal Albert Hall. Seriously. There was a gang of them in the parking lot, silver haired, diamond festooned and pouring champagne for each other before the show, against a fence.
Inside, the place is unbelievable. No photo could do it justice. We were in the very last row, with a full view of the building. I was pleased to see that the large floor was full of people standing up. Apparently the Albert Hall keeps the Globe Theatre tradition alive, where the standing-room cheap seats are closest to the stage—which is the way it should be, in my book. The program opened with the William Tell Overture and ended with Elgar’s first symphony, sandwiched with Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and I couldn’t have been more juiced. Check it off the list, Jeeves.
Avoid: Basshunter – “All I Ever Wanted.”
Pursue: The Ting Tings – “That’s Not My Name.”
Next Stop: Dublin via Bras-d’Asse.
Borrowed laptop battery: nearly dead.