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.”
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.
Nestled in the Sonoma Valley’s beautiful Gundlach Bundschu Winery, the 2014 Huichica Music Festival was highlighted by fine wine, warm weather and excellent music. Friday nights kick-off was a nice concert headlined by Vetiver, though Saturday was the real spectacle, with two stages hosting a dozen artists from the Bay Area and beyond. There were young up-and-comers, established favorites and even a few veteran folk artists for good measure. Click to read on and check out the photos below:
Singer and songwriter Dar Williams began her career in music just over 2o years ago, crafting a debut album in 1993 that belied the then-24-year-old alternative folk artists years. The Honesty Room is a record that displayed deep emotional maturity and it introduced the world to Williams unique perspective. This year, the artist is touring in honor of that first album, performing The Honesty Room in its entirety live.
Last night, Williams performed at City Winery Napa with opener Lucy Wainwright Roche in a night of sublime songwriting played with intimate tenderness and passion. Roche began the night by walking up and diving right into her simple, finger-picked acoustic melodies under a soaring, searing voice. Roche played tunes off her latest record, There’s a Last Time for Everything, including a devastating cover of Swedish pop-star Robyn’s hit “Call Your Girlfriend.” In between songs, Roche engaged the crowd in light banter and impromptu Q&A sessions. She shared an especially bizarre tale of playing in Lithuania a few months ago. The crowd there silently ignored her completely, the only reactions coming after someone yelled out, “you should sing about basketball!” The crowd at City Winery was much more receptive, and joined Roche in a sing-along version of her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”
This was my first time inside the newly recreated City Winery Napa, located in the historic Napa Valley Opera House. It’s a beautiful space, with tables and chairs throughout the floor level for a dinner and concert experience, and some of the original Opera House seats up in the balcony (where I sat) that are ideal if you’re just coming to the show.
It was also a first for Dar Williams,making her City Winery debut last night. Joined occasionally on piano by Bryn Roberts, Williams opened her set with a spirited rendition of her popular tune, “The Mercy of the Fallen,” and then jumped right into performing her debut album. Songs like “When I Was a Boy” and “The Babysitter’s Here” sounded as fresh and relevant today as they did 20 years ago, testifying to the songwriters universal and timeless appeal. Williams was at times somber and serene, and also at times equally bouncy and fun; as her early work alternated from wistful and melancholy to hopeful and empowered. Throughout the set, Williams also reminisced about the events surrounding these songs, sharing the inspirations that were mined from her lifetime of meaningful relationships and traveling.
The singer did seem to be fighting a bit of a cough in between songs, with a cup of tea and a glass of water at the ready. Towards the end of her set, Williams admitted to waking up that morning with no voice, but thankfully, she was well enough to perform, and battled through with aplomb. Her effervescent vocals were especially airy, though to no ill effect. After playing through the album, Williams capped the show off with two more well known hits, and again the small crowd helped in singing along during “As Cool As I Am” and “Iowa (Traveling III).”
City Winery’s line up keeps getting more and more interesting with every new announcement. I’m looking forward to seeing another show there soon. As for Williams, she is a performer who’s not to be missed, and any time she comes around it’s cause for celebration. I can’t wait to catch her playing again.
Friday, May 30: Day One
The weather was the first surprise of the weekend. Friday offered a cool, even breezy afternoon at the Napa Valley Expo that turned to a chilly evening. Five stages, including one for VIP ticket holders only, played to 24 bands throughout the day. It was a relatively calm affair that would see less attendees than following day, but for the most part, the logistical aspects of food and drink lines and bathroom cleanliness was kept in good order. Some festivalgoers themselves, even, helped throw away garbage and just be generally decent—maybe Headliners like the Cure and Sublime with Rome (the guy, not the city) simply brought out equal parts of older and more sedated fans who were content to throw down blankets and relax.
Jewish reggae-rapper Matisyahu delivered an effortless and nicely rocking set of smooth jams and authentic beats, many from his upcoming album, “Akeda,” released this week. TV on the Radio wowed me with a continuously intensifying set of eclectic indie rock and soulful electro pop. Gin Blossoms brought the “county fairgrounds” vibe to, well, the county fairgrounds. Overall, crowds seemed to care about the fact that ‘90s radio rock leftovers filled out the lineup. They sang along with “Follow You Down,” and clapped, mostly in time, with the band through their back catalogue of, ahem, lesser-known hits.
The Cure really was the gem of this show. They are one of my longtime favorites, yet I’ve only been able to see them live twice before, and it’s been 7 or 8 years since the last time. They were amazing. No way around it. They sounded perfect, and their set list was a mash of surprises and staples from 30 plus years of new wave, postpunk, emo-goth melodic pop angst. Robert Smith’s hair was a glorious tangled web of Aqua Net, and Napa winds and Simon Gallup’s tight denim and slicked back hair still make him look like he stepped out of a 1982 Clash video.
The Cure opened with “Shake Dog Shake,” a surprise choice off their 1985 album, The Top. They played for two-and-a-half hours with hits old and new, making me realize how much I do, in fact, like their more recent material—pitch-perfect pops songs and raw, soaring rock riffs alike. It was only when the festival had to cut the power at 10pm (the price one pays for hosting an outdoor fest in a Napa neighborhood) that the Cure finally left the stage, and only after the crowd of about 10,000 helped Smith finish singing the band’s encore of “Why Can’t I Be You?”
Saturday, May 31: Day Two
Smash Mouth rocked the house like I could never have expected. I was having fun, dammit—at a Smash Mouth show! And lead singer Steve Harwell was cursing Third Eye Blind—who was playing at the same time on the main stage—in a fit of ‘90s Civil War. It felt too weird, and I had to get out of there. But I could barely move, suddenly finding myself in the middle of a horde of festival goers packing tighter and tighter with every song. And then it hit me: there are far more people here today than yesterday.
Estimates on Saturday were that 30,00 people came out to the Napa Expo, about 10,000 more than the most optimistic estimates of the previous day. That wasn’t the only difference, though—the whole vibe of Saturday different. This was a younger crowd—beefier, more seasoned for alcohol. Beer and wines lines were a dozen deep by 2pm, twice that by 4pm. Food trucks felt the pinch as wait times for orders hit a half hour. Bathrooms got gritty. The whole thing got gritty. Suddenly, people were competing for space, competing for views. There was a tension in the air.
The day started out well enough; Petaluma band Trebuchet played a fun set of indie folk rock with great harmonies and a cute little ukulele. Brooklyn indie duo Matt & Kim were the highlight of the early afternoon, running out to meet the crowd from the main stage and practically beaming throughout their energetic and hip set of synth rock. Drummer Kim Schifino’s smile infected the whole crowd; I’ve rarely witnessed a duo with the ability to get a party going more effectively than these two. Los Angeles noise punks No Age blew out some eardrums, but sounded awesome on the smaller stage, right before Smash Mouth started taking jabs and downing drinks that weren’t just Coca-Cola.
After that, the mood seemed to change. Couples were bickering more around me; people were stumbling—either from not eating right or not hydrating enough in the sun after drinking heavy craft beers and Napa wine. I started to watch my step, if you know what I mean.
But, I’ve totally buried the lead here. The recently reunited hip-hop dream team of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, aka Outkast, was introduced to the crowd in a giant cube, like Magneto at the end of that first X-Men movie. Soon enough, they escaped their confines to perform a blistering, dizzying and all-out electrifying set of hits. Happily, the masses that bottlenecked the fields unified under the banner of songs like “Hey Ya!” and “B.O.B.” The duo has been headlining many festivals lately, including Coachella, and the general consensus is that they were the big “get” of Bottlerock (they choose the Napa festival over the larger Outside Lands festival in San Francisco).
The other big evening draw was classic rock sister act Heart. Anne and Nancy Wilson proved that they’ve still got it. They sounded amazing and looked spectacular—it was a rock and roll show every step of the way. Like the Cure, they were cut off at 10pm, and Outkast has just wrapped minutes prior on the main stage. That’s when 30,000 sweaty, tired, dirty, possibly drunk festival goers converged into mass chaos.
Everyone was trying to form one line to get to the shuttles that would take them the three miles to their cars at Napa Pipe. There was no supervision for this. I got the bright idea to leave an hour early, and it still took 45 minutes to go from festival gate to car door. I heard reports of people waiting three hours, and fights breaking out over line cutting.
Sunday, June 1: Day Three
Eric Church, Barenaked Ladies, Spin Doctors: meh. Nothing on this day really caught my attention other than, maybe, Thee Oh Sees or Deerhunter. It would have been awesome to see LL Cool J, if for no other reason than to say I did it, but after two long days of escalating madness it was best I stayed out of Wonderland on Sunday. I must say, though, the festival was much more fun than I had anticipated. Would I try it again next year? Maybe, we’ll have to see the lineup—if the Crash Test Dummies are going to be there, I’ll buy a ticket right now.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The cyclical nature of revolution songs is undeniable. Take a song from 100 years ago and it will be, at least in part, relevant today. Take, for example, the songs of Irish revolutionary James Connolly.
Mat Callahan, who fronted the San Francisco political punk/worldbeat band the Looters in the 80s, has compiled a book of Connolly’s music from original publications long thought lost to history. The book is put together well, with just enough history to give a sense of Connolly’s importance but relying mostly on the man’s own words from his music, all of which was written over 100 years ago. Connolly, a leading Marxist theorist in his day and was executed by the British in 1916.
Callahan and his wife Yvonne Moore, who now call Switzerland home, performed about a dozen songs on acoustic guitar and vocals at the Arlene Francis Center Friday night. The performance was the most punk rock thing I’ve seen all year, and will hold that title for at least a while. The duo sent a frozen shiver down my spine with lines like, “The people’s flag is deepest red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead; and ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.”
Santa Rosan Robert Ethington opened the show with original songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by his wife Amy on vocals. They played a handful of powerful songs, suggesting they’d be a treat to see as a headlining act.
The album, “Songs of Freedom,” includes fully orchestrated versions of the songs Callahan and Moore played Friday night. It’s got Callahan’s worldbeat sensibility and arrangement, with guitar, bass, drums, Irish whistles, pipes, vocal harmony, fiddle, accordion and harp. The production is excellent, and the arrangements are updated to modern sensibility without losing their original feeling. Some tunes to Connolly’s songs were lost, so Callahan wrote original music to his lyrics. It serves to note that Connolly’s main purpose of putting these revolutionary words to music was for people to sing them and remember them, so many of the tunes are actually traditional country songs or somewhat hokey, simple melodies. They sound best when sung with 100 of your closest, most fed-up-with-the-system friends.
Get the book and CD here. It’s perfect for fans of history, revolution and Mat Callahan, each of which is equally important.