Black Crowes co-founder, Rich Robinson rolled into Napa’s lovely Uptown Theatre this weekend along with his handpicked band to perform songs off of his critically acclaimed album, “The Ceaseless Sight.” The night began for a handful of lucky Bohemian contest winners with a behind-the-scenes look at the band’s rehearsal process which included a taste of songs that were to be performed that evening. The group was then escorted into the theater’s courtyard, where they were treated to an intimate acoustic set provided by a rather under the weather Robinson, who apologetically stated that the set would be solely instrumental due to the fact that he needed to rest the vocal chords for the evening’s performance. The informal set was followed by a brief meet and greet with the performer and a chance for guests to have their memorabilia signed by Robinson.
At around 9 p.m. the band emerged onto the unassuming stage, save the musical instruments and necessary accoutrements. For Robinson it is all about the music. This latest album is an amalgamation of life experience and a story of musical evolution. It is evident that Robinson is in his element, with the guitar (which he changed with almost every new song) on the stage playing his music. Like the earlier acoustic set Robinson performed, there was an intimacy to the show, as if the musician were letting us into his arena, his vulnerabilities portrayed through the music.
Robinson says he is in a very positive place in his life and wants that optimism to be reflected in the music. At one point in the show, he invited those guests still glued to their seats to get up and move, which they did, motivating almost everyone in the crowd out of their seats and onto the floor. It didn’t take much considering the band’s high-energy performance.
Before he took the stage I had a chance to interview Robinson:
“My first record was more of an experiment,” he said. “I had just stepped away from the Crowes for the first time in my adult life, but I still had all of these songs and I didn’t want them to go to waste.” Not wanting to go through the arduous process of putting a band together, Robinson decided to write the music and lyrics himself and take lead on vocals. “For PAPER it was more like, let’s just see how this goes, you never really know until you do it.”
Immediately after that first solo record came out, the Crowes re-united and the band went back on tour. During this time, Robinson felt more comfortable singing, so by the time he was ready to put out his second solo album, “Through a Crooked Sun,” he had become more confident in his abilities. “By the time that record (Through a Crooked Sun) had come out, I had been through a lot, I had just come out of a divorce, and I had a lot more to say. It was more of a reflection of where I had been in the last five years.”
This new album (“The Ceaseless Sight”) is more about “moving forward” according to Robinson. He had lost most of his equipment and guitars in Hurricane Sandy, which was more of a sign to him that it was time to move on more than anything, “I felt slightly relieved. It was very cathartic in a sense.” The lack of instruments of course did not deter him from making another record, “I went in to make this record with, literally four or five guitars, something I had not done since I was a teenager, and it felt great. I found myself feeling more positive about (this experience).”
Although the album began almost spontaneously there is a cohesive quality to it, which Robinson credits to his longstanding relationship with drummer Joe Magistro (who also performed on “Paper”) “I know what he’s going to do and he knows what I am going to do, it’s very intuitive. Being in a band is being very intuitive and knowing where things are going to go.”
The album was recorded in Woodstock, where he had recorded previously with the Black Crowes, so it felt only natural to record this new record in an environment that was familiar and comfortable to him, “I tap into something there. I like the energy of the place.”
It only seems appropriate that the milieu would reflect his commitment to creating work that is authentic and sincere. In a cultural climate that reveres fame it can be difficult for an artist who actually want to create something substantial.
“It is easier for bands to get started now and just put their stuff on YouTube. There are a whole faction of kids out there who are making some really good music, but there are a lot of people making really, really shitty music.” Robinson declined to give specific examples. He adds that a lot of the bands out there seem to be devoid of anything that is in some way, culturally or artistically relevant, “Where are the Bob Dylans? For years, artists have strived to create something greater than themselves (until recently). There is a responsibility, as an artist to try not to suck.” Robinson adds that he can’t “write things for other people. (That is) flawed immediately.”
Could there be a better act to play the uniquely Northern California festival BottleRock than Santa Cruz’s own Camper Van Beethoven, with their conjoined twin band Cracker in tow?
After all, Camper is the group that on their 2013 album La Costa Perdida delivered “Northern California Girls,” perhaps the ultimate NorCal anthem—meaning an anthem that’s way too laid back to actually be an anthem.
“Right, it takes seven minutes to get where it’s going,” admits David Lowery, the frontman for both Camper and Cracker. “The drums come in a little bit like three times before they finally kick in about three-and-a-half minutes into the song.”
Lowery had already written his share of great California songs for both Camper and Cracker over the years—most recently, “Where Have Those Days Gone”—in which he mistakes Good Times’ astrologer Rob Brezsny for Thomas Pynchon in a bar in Mendocino County—but also “Big Dipper,” “Miss Santa Cruz County,” “Come On Darkness” and more.
But with his latest cycle, he’s outdone himself. While La Costa Perdida was a NorCal-influenced album, the songs on Camper’s latest, El Camino Real (which comes out June 3), are all set in, or otherwise related to, SoCal.
“We wrote these songs at the same time, then thematically we broke off most of the Northern California ones for the last album, and then kind of took these songs that were Southern California, and built another album around them, by adding another five songs or something like that,” says Lowery. “There’s kind of this opus going now, this theme going. There’s also a Cracker album, which comes out next year. It’s a double disc—one is Berkeley, one is Bakersfield. One is the punk side of the band, one is the country side.”
So, basically, four albums worth of California songs. And it all started because of…Joan Didion?
“I think it started with me and Victor [Krummenacher] and Jonathan [Segel] reading a bunch of Joan Didion,” confirms Lowery. He can’t remember which collection of essays specifically sparked it, but it would almost have to be the first section of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, in which Didion rips to shreds the “golden dream” of the Inland Empire—where Lowery, his Camper bandmates Krummenacher and Segel, and Cracker co-founder Johnny Hickman all grew up.
“Those essays really captured the feel of it. It’s not really that flattering about the area, but that’s sort of what people from the Inland Empire are proud of,” says Lowery. “There was actually some sort of referendum on a theme for the Inland Empire, like ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ or how California is the Golden State. And we all wrote in: ‘We will kick your ass.’”
The most noticeable difference between the two Camper albums is the overall feel—La Costa Perdida is more easygoing and gentle, while El Camino Real is darker and more intense, with a deep streak of paranoia that runs through songs like “The Ultimate Solution,” “It Was Like That When We Got Here” and “I Live In L.A.” Clearly, Lowery has very different views on the two halves of the state.
“Yeah, but I like ’em both,” says Lowey.
At the BottleRock festival in Napa May 30-June 1, Lowery’s bands will join an eclectic mix of five dozen other acts across four stages, including the Cure, OutKast, Weezer, LL Cool J, Robert Earl Keen, TV on the Radio and Smash Mouth. Some of those musicians have been around longer than Camper, while others benefited from the college-radio-to-gold-records trail that CVB and Cracker blazed in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s very likely, however, that Camper is the only band on the schedule that has been reunited longer than they were originally together. After recording their first album in Santa Cruz in 1985, the band imploded on a European tour in 1990. But after reforming in the early 2000s, they’ve been back together now for over a decade. Part of the reason, Lowery says, is that they all agreed to do the band on a more part-time basis, or at least do fewer tours, which puts less pressure on them as a group. But maybe it’s even simpler than that.
“Jonathan says it’s just because we’re not in our twenties,” says Lowery. “And it’s kind of true.”
Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker play BottleRock Napa, which runs May 30-June 1 at the Napa Calley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa. Tickets are $149 for single-day passes, $279 for a three-day pass, at bottlerocknapavalley.com. 877-435-9849.
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:
After several times trying to connect with Santa Cruz reggae rockers, Thrive, I had all but given up on our scheduled interview. It was Day 2 of Cali Roots and text messages aside, I figured there wasn’t much hope linking up with all the activity going on. Until that is, I ran into lead singer Aaron Borowitz hanging out backstage covered in a bunch of ladies.
Thrive has performed at every California Roots Music & Arts Festival since it’s inception. They have been representing their adopted Santa Cruz and now managed by festival co-producer Dan Sheehan, the band is touring non-stop. Thrive just dropped their new album Relentless, so I wanted to find out what its been like on the road.
Bohemian: Tell me about Cali Roots, are you enjoying yourself?
A.B.: Everyone has been really nice and everywhere I go people are smiling back at me.
How did you feel about your show?
Oh man, it was so awesome. That was one of the funnest shows I’ve ever played, personally. Not necessarily the musicality of it, but the vibe in the crowd.
Did you see a difference within the crowd? There are a lot of people up here from So Cal.
Yea, I see a difference in the people, but I see a connection in the message. It’s positive and everyone just wants to chill, no bad vibes, no fighting.
Santa Rosa trio the New Trust has released a stunning video for “Marigolds,” a song from their forthcoming fifth album, Keep Dreaming. The entire thing is one long, time-lapse shot of flowers sprouting, growing, blooming and then dying. Below, guitarist and photographer Sara Sanger describes the process of making the video, the challenges of photographing plants and why her sister probably now hates both flowers and photography.
How long did this take to shoot, start to finish?
I started the photography in early November, and finished in March. Almost four months.
What was your setup and process?
I searched seed catalogs for dwarf variety marigolds, as most grow almost 12-18 inches tall and that wasn’t going to work out. I ended up planting a few varieties that I found that grew under 8 inches tall.
I started with a shallow Tupperware storage box, added some drip/soaker tubing underneath the soil, with a tube to get water under the dirt, as opposed to on top. I used a good tripod, a constant source of power for my camera (plugged in direct, battery wouldn’t last more than a half day), and an intervalumeter that was set to take a photo every 10 minutes.
Once the files were done, I found out that Photoshop CS6 has some pretty good basic movie editing capabilities. I was pleasantly surprised by the way that the growth and movement of the flowers moves along with the song pretty well. I had visualized that it might work out, but I don’t have any experience with time-lapse so I really didn’t know. I did not know that plants moved as much as they do, and was really happy to find a lot more motion than I had ever expected.
I shot about twice the amount of frames than I needed. Our song is 3:40, or 220 seconds, so for a standard 30 frames per second I needed 6,600 frames total. I was lucky I had shot more than I needed, since I have found the antique electricity in my house fluctuates pretty wildly—I had to sit and edit out frames that appeared to have less light or more light. Those few days staring at these flowers was hallucination-inducing.
Merrill Garbus may be indie rock’s luminary of the moment, but some credit for last year’s acclaimed whokill album is due to the tUnE-yArDs’ other member and songwriter, Oakland’s own Nate Brenner. The bassist and multi-instrumentalist, also a part of experimental trio Beep!, is currently touring to promote Dirty Glow, his solo debut. The album, released October 9th under the moniker Naytronix, is a more subdued, mostly EDM song cycle that highlights Brenner’s gift for layered textures and oddly compelling grooves. In advance of his show Tuesday at Café Du Nord, we chatted with Brenner about the new album and juggling his various endeavors.
Extended Play: Esperanza Spalding on Justin Bieber, Jazz Purism, Drone Strikes and Playing With Prince
Esperanza Spalding plays this Friday, Aug. 24, at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa. I caught up with her on the phone for this week’s music column, but she clearly had much more of interest, and of eloquence, to say than would fit in the paper. Here’s our interview, below:
I read and loved your profile in the New Yorker, and specifically your respect for and appreciation of jazz. But beyond that, I was interested in your comments about playing with McCoy Tyner, and how it reinforced your beliefs that jazz should not be a dusty museum piece, and more a music that needs to be for the present time. I wondered what McCoy Tyner thought of those comments. Did you ever hear from him about it?
Oh, no, I didn’t. But I honestly doubt he’s too concerned about it either way. We talk about it as a conceptual thing, the art form, and that’s good. It’s good to keep the creative juices flowing, the cerebral aspect of it, and thinking about what it means, and where we’re headed with it, and blah blah blah. But the day-to-day reality of making music is just to do it. I mean, that’s the priority, is to sit down every day and explore it. I think there’s a place for every kind of practitioner of the craft. I really have come more and more to believe that, traveling as much as we get to travel—and even living in New York, seeing how much diversity there is of concepts and philosophies about the music, and having those philosophies boil down to the music that’s actually being made.
You have those folks who are total bebop heads, who really see that as the pinnacle of the music. And then there are people who don’t want to have anything to do with that, and say, “Well, that was the language of back then, and now we live in today. We have to keep cultivating the idiom, and forget about that. That was one strand in the stream of what music is, so let’s keep on evolving and not clinging to that.” And the beautiful thing is, there’s really room for everything.
Sheer exposure to some of the world’s finest reggae musicians is reason enough to hit up WBLK’s Monday Night Edutainment dancehall party in Sebastopol. South American songstress Alika with Oakland-based selector DJ Stepwise gave an outstanding performance to a packed house last Monday at Hopmonk. Hosted by local DJs Jacques and Guacamole, Alika was fresh off Reggae River where she played with L.A. band Quinto Sol. DJ Stepwise opened the show with an incredible cultural history lesson in current Latin American music, mixing reggae and cumbia artists from Argentina to Panama, Mexico to the Caribbean.
Clearly laying down a precedence for Latin American reggae at the weekly dance party, Alika sang the entire two hour set in Spanish. Her message of universal rights was received by a crowd as diverse as the county offers. Although many folks couldn’t understand the lyrics, the good vibes united us across cultural divides.
Performing selections off her fourth album “Educate Yourself” along with several tracks from her newest mix tape “Unidad y Respeto” (“Unity and Respect” mixed by DJ Stepwise), Alika proved confident in connecting with a U.S. audience. Considered the No. 1 Spanish-speaking female reggae singer in world, her six album catalog features such artists as Mad Professor, Anthony B, and Mexico’s leading rapper Akil Ammar.
The seamless mix of roots reggae, hip hop, and cumbia rhythms incorporate Alika’s blend of streetwise female rapper with the air of a Rasta empress – at Monday’s show she donned a black Adidas jacket, high-top Nike kicks in pink, and a shirt with a artist’s rendering of Haile Selassie’s image under which read “Babylon Shall Fall”.
Before the show, Alika sat down with me in the green room to talk about the Reggae on the River music festival, her latest album, and why she loves people who pirate her CDs.
Steel Panther are a lot more fun than Tenacious D, plain and simple. Instead of ironic fanboy shtick, you get four of the Sunset Strip’s finest cock-rock veterans combining authentic ‘80s hair-metal riffs with a cartoonish brand of hyper-chauvinistic raunchiness not seen since the golden age of hip-hop. While their brand of hard rock is a throwback to the age of hairspray, Steel Panther’s hilarious tales of groupies, drug abuse, and all-around debauchery have once again made it cool to pump your fists to power chords and boneheaded arena-rock choruses.
Performing a brilliant vintage set in the late-night dancehall at last weekend’s SNWMF was infamous London reggae selector Sir David Rodigan. A classic, articulate British sort in his early sixties, Rodigan has the intonation and inclination of a musical elder. With a successful radio career that spans three decades on London’s premier radio stations, the selector holds a position in the U.K.’s Radio Academy hall of fame and an appointment to the Order of the British Empire. It has been said an endorsement from Rodigan can launch an artist’s career worldwide.
Yet, it is clearly obvious the man has seen his life’s work, and that of other traditionalist dubplate selectors, dismantled by a new generation of unoriginal club DJs. Rodigan’s reactions to this crude regurgitation of artist’s samples shows just how detrimental predictability is to the creative balance of the genre.
While speaking to the press at this year’s Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, Rodigan was candid about the current landscape of today’s selector sound.