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‘Weird’ Al Yankovic’s New Album is Insult Comedy Gold

Jul 15, 2014 | No Comments

“Weird” Al Yankovic is turning into a fantastic insult comic.

He has released two videos so far from his latest album, “Mandatory Fun,” and aside from being spot-on parodies of two of the most popular songs of the year, they are beautifully dickish in an inarguable way.

“Tacky,” a riff on Pharrell’s “Happy,” highlights the terrible fashion trends of Crocs, stripes and plaid, and the idea of taking selfies with the deceased at a funeral. The video features several comedians, mostly notably Jack Black, who is tacky defined with his high-waisted pants, rhinestoned fanny pack and obsessive twerking. It does such a good job of pointing out the stupidity of all these actions and looks, that anyone finding themselves associated with anything mentioned in the song should feel immediate and extreme shame. Then never do that thing again.

“Word Crimes,” a take on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” is basically Yankovic being a grammar Nazi. Dangling participles and contractions aside, he belittles those who use numbers for letters and single letters for full words (unless you’re Prince). It’s sweet release for that inner word cop that wants to spring out and beat the mob of uneducated slobs senseless with their own words. Yankovic has saved us much embarrassment and heartache.

The videos are part of his 8 videos in 8 days project, which in itself is a riff on Beyoncé’s latest release. Bey put out an album of 15 songs and 17 music videos available only on iTunes in December, with complete secrecy before its release. It sold a million copies in less than a week. Yankovic will release a full album in physical form, but has hinted that this album, the last under his current record contract, might signal a change. He says on his blog that he’s “weighing his options.”

Here’s hoping those options include a deeper delve into insult comedy.we

Live Review: Judy Collins and Santa Rosa Symphony at Green Music Center

Live Review: Judy Collins and Santa Rosa Symphony at Green Music Center

Jul 6, 2014 | One Comment

American songstress Judy Collins knows how to celebrate America’s birthday: Sing, sing sing.

July 4 was full of patriotic mainstays at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center, with songs that celebrated both the country and Collins’ long career. Her touch on the Cole Porter songbook brought tingles of nostalgia to the crowd, and a John Denver medley was superbly arranged and executed. The show-stopping Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” the song Collins is perhaps best known for, was nothing short of marvelous.

“I said, ‘I want to do this song,’” she recalls telling her manager upon hearing it. “He says, ‘It’s been recorded 200 times already,’ and I told him I don’t care.”

Even at 75, Collins’ voice still has a good amount of power. The Santa Rosa Symphony kept up with her and her piano accompanist, but took a well deserved break during an a cappella rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” The lawn patrons were less enthusiastic with the sing-along, perhaps because it was not as loud in the back of the sloped grass as inside the main hall.

The relaxing atmosphere is really the best way to experience a concert like this one; it’s relaxing to be able to lay back, watch the clouds and enjoy food and drink while tuning in and out of the concert. Intensive listening can be exhausting after a couple hours, and the casual setting provided perfect respite during Collins’ storytelling breaks between songs, which took up about one-third of the show.

The fireworks went off without a hitch this year, a welcome change from last year’s celebration at the GMC, when the light show was cancelled due to a technical difficulty. This year’s production was only marred by unusual July fog, but the explosions were still invigorating and loud enough to rattle ribcages.

Bottlerock’s Back, Baby
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Bottlerock’s Back, Baby

Jun 24, 2014 | No Comments

Weezer at Bottlerock 2014. Photo by Katie Stohlmann.

Like the Terminator, Bottlerock proclaimed it would be back. The official announcement today made good on that promise.

The Napa music festival will return in 2015 again as a three-day festival, May 29–31. It will again take place at the Napa Valley Expo, according to an official statement made today by Latitude 38 Entertainment, the festival’s producers. Bands have not yet been announced.

“We’re thrilled to be back at the Napa Valley Expo with the support of our community of music, wine and food lovers for 2015,” says L38 CEO Dave Graham in a press release.

The festival mostly cleared its name this year after a fun-filled first year took a nasty turn after the founders failed to pay nearly $10 million in debts after the five-day event. They sold the brand to the new owners, who hosted the event with just three months of planning and addressed nearly every complaint of the previous festival. Many vendors returned after cajoling by the new owners, and the only major issues seemed to be the exit line on the festival’s second day, owing to about 35,000 fans trying to exit to shuttle buses at the same time.

Slow Gherkin Reunites for NYC Show, Announces Phoenix Theater Date
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Slow Gherkin Reunites for NYC Show, Announces Phoenix Theater Date

Jun 9, 2014 | 2 Comments

Still wearing that same Oxford T-shirt after all these years!

After 10 years of touring the world, Santa Cruz ska band Slow Gherkin called it quits in 2002. The group was immensely popular in their time, playing to crowds of hundred of hair-dyed, skankin’ skaters and giving high school band kids who played saxophone at Friday night football games something “cool” to aspire to. But since their last gig in 2002, Slow Gherkin has played precisely two shows: one was three years ago in Santa Cruz, and one just last week a the Rock Shop in New York City. And the big news: the band says they will be playing in December at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma.

Slow Gherkin was one of the best ska bands at a time when fellow skankers the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less than Jake, Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish were all over the airwaves, both on radio and television (remember when MTV shows music videos?). They were one of the top acts in the Bay Area, relentlessly touring for six years and gaining a following across the country as well as in Europe throughout the ’90s. “Trapped Like Rats in Myers Flats,” from their second album, Shed Some Skin, is still a singalong hit, as shown by their sold-out New York performance. And to this day, their version of Hava Nagila is one of the best tracks on my “These Songs Will Make Everyone Dance” playlist.

They wrote really good songs, not just fun, dancy teenage punk diddies with poppy, upstrummed guitar. If stripped down to acoustic guitar and voice, they’d be the best song of the night at any cafe’s open mic session. Their lyrics are deep and music moving; songs stands up to any by those who made it really big, and it always felt like it would just take that one catchy lick, that one un-erasable melody to cement Slow Gherkin’s place in music lore.

But, alas, they remain mostly a local memory for Bay Area music lovers who grew up in the Clinton era. Do these two shows in one year—double what they’ve played in the 13 years leading up to this point—signal a full-fledged reunion? One can only hope. But one thing’s sure: if you plan to attend their December show at the Phoenix Theater, it might be good to start polishing those Doc Martins now—they’re probably pretty dusty.

Live Review: Bottlerock Day 2 with Outkast, Weezer & Smash Mouth

Live Review: Bottlerock Day 2 with Outkast, Weezer & Smash Mouth

Jun 1, 2014 | No Comments

Outkast at BottleRock Festival. Photo by Matt Crawford.

It’s 2am and this is what I’m feeling after getting home from Bottlerock’s biggest and best day: tired, deaf, a little hungry, tired, thirsty as hell, musically fulfilled, nostalgic, sore, tired, and, most of all, happy.

Local Bands Play Big Part of Bottlerock Lineup
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Local Bands Play Big Part of Bottlerock Lineup

May 30, 2014 | No Comments

The three-day extravaganza known as Bottlerock began today in Napa, the city known more for restaurants and winetasting than music. To wit, the festival, now in its second year and under new ownership, has focused more on music this year—in addition to bringing internationally famous acts like the Cure and Outkast to Napa, there will also be over two dozen local bands playing at the festival, meaning that over one-third of the bands playing will be from the Bay Area.

This isn’t a new idea—local acts were featured at last year’s festival—but there are more of them this year, and it’s more than just an afterthought. Latitude 38, the company behind this year’s Bottlerock festival, says including local bands was the plan from the start.

“A lot of people didn’t know there were a lot of bands in Napa,” says Latitude 38 CEO Dave Graham. He says they’ve made a new tradition of kicking off the festival with a local band on the main stage. This year, it’s the Napa–based group Grass Child.

On Saturday, the first band to strum a chord, pluck a note, or bang a drum will be local favorites Trebuchet, the indie-folk quartet known for its original songs with glorious harmonies and wide-ranging instrumentation. They’ll be playing on the City Winery Lounge stage at Noon, greeting attendees just inside the main entrance with their explosive tunes and catchy melodies.

The opening slot at a festival is a blessing and a curse. “We don’t have any headliners to contend with,” says Eliott Whitehurst, the band’s mandolinist, guitarist and lyricist. “But at the same time, it’ll be a challenge because we’ve never been in that situation where it’s like, ‘Oh, look there’s all these people,’ and they continue to walk by.”

Whitehurst, who lives in Napa, says he is excited for this year’s festival—not in the least because he’ll be playing in it, but also because the concerns of last year are being mitigated. “Last year, we actually got out of town,” he says. “People in Napa were of one of two minds: either this is going to be awesome… or oh my god, we do not have the infrastructure to handle what is going to be thrown at this city.” With a festival expecting 30,000 people per day for an entire weekend, in a city of 78,340, that’s to be expected. Though he’s sure there will still be challenges, Whitehurst says, “I’m not as afraid of it this year as I was last year.”

Local acts playing in the festival come from as far away as San Francisco, and Whitehurst says about 150 bands sent entries to Thea Whitsil, who also organizes the annual Napa Porchfest, to fill 32 spots. Instead of having an “in” or being owed a favor, as is the case when so many bands are booked for a festival like this, Trebuchet and the other local acts were picked on merit. “That’s why we’re so stoked on it,” says Whitehurst, who knows the industry well, coming from a musical family.

The group made a one-shot montage video as an homage to the big names at Bottlerock, rearranging pieces of about a dozen songs into their own style. It was a hit—garnering over 1,200 Youtube views in just over two weeks. “It didn’t take us too long,” says Whitehurst. “We practiced for a day and maybe did 10 shots of us doing it live.” The festival is filled with nostalgia for those who grew up with the soundtrack of the ‘90s. Whitehurst is no exception. “I can’t deny how fun it will be,” he says. Outkast and Weezer will be great, and, because they’re a sure-fire way to heat things up, he’s also stoked to see Blues Traveler.

Live Review: Charlie Hunter & Scott Amendola Duo at Sweetwater

Live Review: Charlie Hunter & Scott Amendola Duo at Sweetwater

May 23, 2014 | No Comments

Charlie Hunter, man of 1,000 faces

Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola Duo have released vinyl records, a series of cover tunes on CD, and even their own lip balm. Maybe their next release should be a coffee table book—you know, one of those oversized ones with really nice photography—of the faces they make while playing live.

Watching the two is only half the fun, though, of their live show. The music is always going to be different from the recordings, and they’ll throw in jams, unexpected cover tunes, and jaw dropping solos, to boot. Watching the pair together at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall on Wednesday was like seeing a finely polished, but largely improvised, comedy duo. After performing together for over 20 years, they know each other pretty well. They’re both so talented, that they’ll make little musical jokes inside solo sections, just to make each other laugh. And the crowd laughed along with them, because the jokes translate to non-musicians, too.

Plenty of covers dotted the evening, and each was in their own style. The thing about cover bands is that it is tempting to just be a karaoke cover band—that is, playing the song exactly as it was recorded, with maybe a couple twists for live performance. But these guys take them apart and leave only the melody, the memorable hook and some chords underneath, and make the tunes completely their own. When the crowd realized the refrain they were playing during “Walk On By” was the hook from “California Love” by 2Pac Shakur, some giggles broke out from the back of the intimate room. The mashup was so well put together that it took about six turns through to realize they were two very different songs.

Although they play instrumental music, there was a bit of singing. Before the Cars’ classic, “Let the Good Times Roll,” Hunter urged the crowd to sing along, especially during the chorus. They did so, with rising enthusiasm, and when the duo was ready to wrap up the song, Hunter proclaimed to the crowd, “Ladies and gentleman, let’s tag that shit!” Not one to disappoint, the crowd continued its sing-along three more times, holding the last note while Hunter and Amendola played out the ending. Hunter was quite pleased.

They played two sets, allowing the crowd to buy records, order fancy drinks from the bar or dinner from the cafe (I suggest the pork posole and fried calamari). Just before the break, they played a blazing bop tune, with Amendola leading on the hi-hats, grabbing them with his left hand to open and close. His fills in the two-minute jam were even faster—faster than I could even think.

It is often said that musicians speak in a different language than “regular” people. Hunter spoke to the crowd without a mic (in English), and since Sweetwater is so small it was perfectly audible. But these two musicians have refined that to their own musical language, and other musicians may be able to discern what they’re saying but cannot speak it back to them. That’s fine, because I wouldn’t be able to top the poetry of their language, anyway.

Meet Kurt Stenzel, Soundtrack Composer to ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

Meet Kurt Stenzel, Soundtrack Composer to ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

May 14, 2014 | 2 Comments

Unless it’s a rockumentary like Sound City or 20 Feet From Stardom, the soundtrack to a documentary usually isn’t much more than an afterthought. But for Jodorowsky’s Dune, the new documentary about one of the greatest films never made, the music is an essential part in bringing to life a film that doesn’t exist. San Francisco composer Kurt Stenzel has done exactly that with his synth-laden, spooktacular mood setting composition for the film.

The performance artist/musician had never been asked to make a soundtrack before, but his work in the electro-art group Spacekraft caught the attention of the filmmakers. His synthesizer list is extensive, ranging from Radioshack toys to Moog to custom Dave Smith creations. The result is pulsing, warped and sometimes eerie sounds that create a sense of uncertainty. It would have had a big impact on Jodorowsky’s film vision for the epic science fiction novel, had it ever been made.

Stenzel’s ambient music is non-offensive and, like abstract art, can be interpreted in many ways—unlike his former project, the New York punk band Six and Violence. The self-taught musician admits he doesn’t have “chops” in the traditional sense, meaning he won’t bust out with a Chopin etude on request. But he does know his way around a synthesizer, and his music these days is about texture and timbre more than virtuosity.

Stenzel’s texture on Jodorowsky’s Dune is reminiscent of Isao Tomita, the pioneering Japanese musician who rose to popularity with his futuristic synthesizer renditions of Holst’s Planets suite and pieces of the Star Wars soundtrack in the 1970s. Stenzel grew up in a “classical music household,” and is familiar with Tomita’s work. He’s also a big fan of the Krautrock genre, especially Rodelius and his group, Cluster. When Dune director Frank Pavich was looking for a “Tangerine Dream type soundtrack,” Stenzel was the obvious choice.

Spacekraft’s music is also represented in the film. About nine minutes of the group’s music was left in the film after Stenzel sent over some music “as a placeholder” to Pavich, while he worked on more original music. “Some things just kind of stuck,” says Stenzel. The group is largely performance art these days, with a whole crew of “flight attendants” and more accompanying the experience of a Spacekraft show, which can be seen usually at art galleries and grand openings. Listeners can sit in airline chairs and control the music with their own iPhones, or take personality tests during the performance. “The whole thing is designed to take you somewhere else,” says Stenzel. “We’re kind of weird and make some drug references here and there,” he cautions. Sometimes, the public doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. “People ask if we’re a software company, or Scientologists, or whatever.” For the record, they’re neither.

“We’re somewhere between the pretentious art world and the happy-go-lucky-Bay-Area-friendly-lets-just-do-this-for-fun kind of thing,” says Stenzel.

The soundtrack will be released soon in full analog glory on a double-LP. Stenzel says he’s now interested in writing more music for film. “I like to be challenged,” he says. “This one, I was already doing this type of music… I would love to do a drama or something different.”

Listen to Stenzel’s work in this trailer for the film:

Live Review: Good Friday Stabat Mater at St. Vincent’s Church

Live Review: Good Friday Stabat Mater at St. Vincent’s Church

Apr 18, 2014 | No Comments

The rear windows at St. Vincent's Church in Petaluma were designed by Tiffany.

Sitting, eyes closed, in St. Vincent’s church in Petaluma, the usual first world annoyances do not penetrate my skin, neither physically nor mentally. The uncomfortable wooden pew, the cell phone ring—they hold no power now, not while countertenor Chris Fritzche and soprano Carol Menke sing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Marilyn Thompson transcribing the full score, on sight, to church organ.

Giovanni Pergolesi composed his Stabat Mater in 1736, just a couple weeks before his death. The piece shares life timing with Mozart’s Reqiuem—his was composed on his deathbed, supposedly finished by another’s hand. Both are each composer’s most moving efforts. The pieces even share similar setting—the death and rebirth of Jesus—but Pergolesi’s is about half as long as Mozart’s, but still packs the same emotional wallop.

The music descended from the rear balcony as Good Friday churchgoers filed in the the noon mass. We saw no musicians but heard ethereal voices telling the story of a mother’s pain of watching her son die at the hands of another, holding him in her arms after his final breath had been taken. The English translation of the Latin text was read from the pulpit between movements, but otherwise not a word was spoken.

Religious or not, it was a very moving afternoon.

The 45-minute piece is divided into twelve movements. It’s quite varied, but the somber duets are the most transcendent moments, especially with the low bass of St. Vincent’s organ resonating the ribs while the notes resonate the heart. Gosh, that a cheesy take on such a magnificent piece, but sacred music is meant to be evocative.

Mozart’s Reqiuem is one of the most celebrated pieces of music ever composed. The D minor Mass is the most moving piece of religious music in the Western world, but it has a predecessor that moves me even more: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Fritzche and a few other very talented singers in the North Bay perform this piece semi-regularly, and any chance to see it should not be passed up. It is traditionally performed with a small Baroque orchestra, but the arrangement is inconsequential to the music. It’s one of those pieces that’s just plain beautiful.

Live Review: John Legend at the Wells Fargo Center

Live Review: John Legend at the Wells Fargo Center

Apr 2, 2014 | No Comments

John Legend is a hard working performer. His two-hour concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa last night showed off not only his work ethic, but showcased his velvety voice and storytelling prowess in an intimate setting that was designed to feel like his living room. The only difference being, as the exquisitely dressed singer said during the show, “I don’t normally wear a suit in my living room.”

He really hammed it up at times for the crowd, who ate up his every word—except the gaff toward the end, when he said, “I mean, this is the Napa Valley, right?” This led to applause, briefly (because he was so charming, everything he said resulted in applause), but soon turned to boos. That’s right, Sonomans are so passionate about terrior they booed John Legend for making a minor geographical error. When he corrected his error with an embarrassed smile, “Oh, Sonoma Valley, right?” the applause resumed.

He mostly sat at the Yamaha grand piano, tickling the ivories with a young string quartet on the right of the stage and a guitarist to the left. When he brought the mic downstage and perched on a stool to serenade the crowd, women—and men—started squirming in their seats. Every John Legend song is a recipe for “making little tax breaks,” as he says, and though he doesn’t guarantee anything at the end of the night, “ya know…” he trails off before a knowing shrug, “you know.”

The intimate evening was staged with five loveseats occupied by couples who won tickets through radio promotions, with huge Hollywood movie lights towering above, lighting Legend from the back. Lighting against the back wall changed colors, and was especially useful during “Green Light,” one of his best songs of the night. The sound in the newly renovated space was crisp and loud. It felt like a larger space, but we were so close we could see the lack of sweat on Legend’s face. (Prince also lacks sweat glands, maybe they went to the same voodoo doctor for their musical talent.)

Women did a lot of the hooting and hollering through the night, but the fellas were cheering especially boisterously after a powerful solo piano cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” He told a aw-shucks story about performing it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at the behest of that show’s musical director, the drummer ?uestlove, but never hearing if the Boss liked it or not. Months later, he says, he received a hand-signed letter asking him to play it at an awards gala. “I guess he liked it,” Legend said with a smile.

He paced the show perfectly, with some segments featuring three or four songs back to back, and some getting breaks between while he told stories. My favorite was when he met President Obama last year. After getting married to supermodel Christine Teigen earlier in the year, he asked Obama for marriage advice. Michelle chimed in, “How long had you been together before you got married?” He said about five years. “What took you so long?” the President asked, which earned Legend a glare from his new wife. Legend turned to the chuckling crowd, deadpan, and said, “Thanks, President Obama.”