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Johnny Ramone, ‘Commando,’ and the Endurance of Ramonesiness

Johnny Ramone, ‘Commando,’ and the Endurance of Ramonesiness

Posted by: on Jul 5, 2012 | Comments (3)

By Sara Bir

Johnny Ramone’s posthumous autobigraphy Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone fired up the second wind of Ramones fandom I’ve been yearning for. The book came out in April, but in a frugal move that I think Johnny would have approved of, I put a copy on hold at the library and waited it out.

Have you ever loved a band so much that you reached a bodily saturation point, whereupon listening to their songs felt unnecessary? There was so much Ramones flowing through my bloodstream I couldn’t absorb any more. I didn’t put my Ramones albums away, though for quite a few years I seldom played them. But simply thinking of myself as a Ramones fan (albeit one in hibernation) brought me soothing relief during low periods. If nothing else, I believed in all things Ramonesey, something that goes beyond a shelf of records and a gazillion performances and four guys (seven, actually) wearing leather jackets. I knew my auditory need for the Ramones would return someday, along with a renewed sense of pleasure, and it was Johnny’s book that did it.

Johnny is not my favorite Ramone. In a band of guys who are hard to love, Johnny is the hardest to love. He was the every-scowling tyrant, practical to the point of being unfeeling. The man we see in Johnny’s interview segments of End of the Century: Story of the Ramones appears to carry little sentimentality for his Ramones years, nor compassion for the difficulties of his former bandmates. I was anxious to read Commando, for fear it would only reinforce this image.

Live Review: El-P and Killer Mike at the Regency Ballroom

Live Review: El-P and Killer Mike at the Regency Ballroom

Posted by: on Jul 2, 2012 | Comments (2)

“This song is about Ronnie fuckin’ Reagan. I have an extreme detest for Ronald Reagan because I was alive when he was president, and fuck what Fox News says, it wasn’t that great of a time, and he wasn’t that nice of a guy.”

The rant could have come from a D.O.A. or Verbal Abuse show, but nope—it was Killer Mike, who peppered his set in San Francisco Friday night with similar remarks about burning banks to the ground, staying active in the community and fighting the cops. Many know Killer Mike from his Drive-inspired, nine-minute video for “Big Beast,” or for his appearances on Outkast records, but his politics have grabbed the attention of everyone from NPR to Davy D, and they took center stage at the Regency Ballroom.

Live Review: Rossini Stabat Mater

Live Review: Rossini Stabat Mater

Posted by: on Jun 18, 2012 | Comments (0)
Dan Earle directs the SR Symphonic Chorus.

What makes a Stabat Mater so special? Is it the holy text? The seriousness with which composers undertake the task? Whatever it may be, the Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus and Santa Rosa Chamber Orchestra plucked every string in both chambers of the heart this weekend with their rousing performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa.

Rossini’s version of the sacred text, which dates back to the 13th Century as a somber hymn about the Sorrows of Mary, is powerful in a very Rossini way. At first, it might be surprising to know Rossini even composed a Stabat Mater (it was to me, at least). But the Romantic composer known for wild operas like the Barber of Seville and William Tell (think The Lone Ranger theme) was known for memorable melodies and dramatic crescendos stayed true to the feeling of the piece.

Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock

Posted by: on Jun 14, 2012 | Comments (1)

I spent the nineties swimming in a pool of indie rock, dousing myself with all things Matador, Kill Rock Stars and K Records. I still love indie rock, whatever that term even means in the days when new music sprouts from every corner of the internet, most of it independently produced by bedroom musicians, but to me it just means something with the pluck and spirit of music made from the heart. Yo La Tengo has been doing this for over twenty years, since their start in late 80’s Hoboken, New Jersey, as a pet project of married couple Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan. They’ve put out albums continuously since then, which is why I can footnote my life by YLT albums.

Live Review: Cass McCombs at the Great American Music Hall

Posted by: on Jun 1, 2012 | Comments (0)

Photo by Jacques Law

The Lite-Brite style projections on the stage may have held promise of an appearance by the more upbeat Cass McCombs, but when the folk-rock artist took the stage at the Great American Music Hall on May 25, greeting the crowd with a quick, “How ya doin? Ya all right?” (one of the only exchanges with the audience made for the entire night), he launched into a series of semi-morose, jammy songs backed up by his band and an acoustic guitar.

To be honest, the first part of the set made me flashback to one, should-be-lost-to-history summer spent listening to Blues for Allah on the rickety porch of my friend’s compound out in the woods of West County. I spent a large bit of 2011 listening to McCombs’ Humor Risk and Wit’s End, and I never once made the Grateful Dead Blues for Allah connection until seeing the songs performed live. Don’t know if this is McCombs’ normal incarnation, but the sound was definitely there, and vocally he even had a Jerry Garcia thing going on, at times. Roll away the dew, indeed.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the set, when the shaggy-haired singer put down the acoustic guitar in favor of an electric that the energy really picked up, though the extended, repetitive-jam element remained. If anything, McCombs’ Northern California roots definitely showed through in this performance, with a sound that would have fit right into the 70s-era Fillmore.

Important PSA: The Wall Still Stands

Important PSA: The Wall Still Stands

Posted by: on May 12, 2012 | Comments (1)

Roger Waters performs The Wall, by Pink Floyd, at AT&T Park May 11, 2012.

Walking at a hurried pace along Herb Caen Way (I prefer this name over The Embarcadero), it was evident we were walking to a concert. An unusually large cluster of people walked under the Bay Bridge, mixed fashions and eras brought together under a wispy net of marijuana smoke (on the street!). The final clue was a salesman four blocks from the venue with bootleg tour shirts: Roger Waters, The Wall 2012.

In line at the ballpark at 3rd and King Streets last night, one of the first people to approach us was a man in his late 30s asking to buy a cigarette. “You can just have one, man,” said Clint as he reached for a smoke. “We don’t smoke – we quit,” the man replied hastily. He was doing something naughty because this was a party, a Pink Floyd concert. Is ever there were a time to break the rules, it was tonight.

It’s cute when adults in button down shirts and V-neck sweaters break the rules. My cohorts were young enough to make me feel like that adult, so I wisely chose a T-shirt and jeans for the evening.

We were offered pot several times, and it seemed almost like it was legal. The McGyver smokers did everything they could to avoid detection: roll a joint, hollow out a cigarette, refill it and tear off the filter, cigarette-esque smoking devices, edibles. A usual assortment or sneekery seemed unnecessary, but the adults were having fun, and half the fun is trying not to get caught.

The show started late, despite the “8:15 prompt” time on the ticket. It’s tough to start the show when only half the seats are filled, and $9 beers don’t sell themselves. We were seated for about 10 minutes when the lights went dark and a plane literally flew in over the first base side of the park and crashed into the wall on the stage in the outfield. The 5.1 surround sound made this epic, and I can only imagine what the really naughty adults were going through hearing this plane flying around their heads.

The wall on either side of the musicians was a video projection wall, with images and live camera shots of Roger Waters for us in the cheap seats to see. The effects were awesome, as expected. The mood was heavy, with names and pictures of soldiers killed in the current wars were put up on the wall and the big circular screen above the stage.

The sound wasn’t really dialed in until the second half, when the bass was turned up to match the screaming guitar and vocals. That would have been nice to hear before “Another Brick in the Wall,” with Waters slappin’ da bass. The drums sounded amazing the whole time, though it wasn’t Nick Mason playing them. The show really was Roger Waters plays The Wall, with a really good Pink Floyd cover band backing him.

Waters was self-admittedly narcissistic in his performance. At one point, he played along to himself, harmonizing with Roger Waters from 30 years ago superimposed on the screen behind him. He used the word “narcissistic,” and was totally cool with it because, you know what? He’s Roger Fucking Waters. That’s why.

The wall was literally built up, piece by piece, blocking out the band behind it by the end of the first half. After intermission and a 30-minute bathroom line, Comfortably Numb blew me away. The screaming guitar solo from the top of The Wall, with Waters at the bottom harmonizing on vocals and running the length of the stage under the spotlight. This was the apex of the show, a good way to start the second half after, presumably, many fans reloaded their, ahem, psychedelic infusions.

“Dirty Woman” was really, really dirty. Projections of topless women dancing on The Wall were really hot, and that’s a really hot song even without visuals. Luckily there weren’t too many youngsters in the crowd.

The inflatable capitalist pig, which would have been an Occupier’s wet dream to see in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was dragged through the lawn crowd, partially popped by enthusiastic revelers, and “danced” in the air with a wounded leg for the second half of the show.

At the end, The Wall was toppled, bricks of the projection screen falling forward onto the stage amid screams and chants of “Tear Down The Wall!” Waters and the band returned for a curtain call and well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd at AT&T Park.

The show was as relevant as ever, I can only imagine what it would have been like to see it 30 years ago. It’s good to know a younger generation still feels the same fire and skepticism Pink Floyd was warning us about from across the pond when my parents were my age. Hopefully the message will live on even beyond the band.


Sorry about the poor audio.

Trebuchet: Your New Favorite Band

Trebuchet: Your New Favorite Band

Posted by: on May 11, 2012 | Comments (0)

Trebuchet plays album release show at the Bottom of the Hill

From the first inhale of Trebuchet’s self-titled debut record, I’m hooked. The ukulele like lapping waves of a tropical shore; the surf lead guitar the birds lazily riding the swells. A breath—giving pause, the moment that will make or break the entire album. Sweet voices coalesce in harmonic bliss, one as strong as the next, none overshadowing another. The wave does not crash, it pushes onto the shore, allowing warm salt water to kiss my toes and leave me wanting more.

The six-song, vinyl-only release (it’s also available digitally) was christened with a show at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill last night, with friends and family accompanying on stage and in the audience. Whether by blood or by feeling, all four bands playing on the evening’s bill were related, and the feeling in the audience was that of an unexpected family reunion.

Survival Guide opened the show, who I unfortunately arrived too late to see. You Are Plural introduced a new twist to the duo of Wurlitzer and cello: drums. The percussion filled in some spaces, but since most songs were written without drums, it felt forced at times. But the harmonies and interesting time signatures kept the set flowing and piqued interest throughout the set. The New Trust brought a powerful rock sound to the stage next, Josh Staples’ thundering bass lines commanding attention from even the smoking crowd in the atrium.

I was lucky to see Trebuchet’s first-ever performance, at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa, last year. The band impressed the hell out of everyone that night, in part because three of the four members are known for intense, instrumental post rock in the band Not To Reason Why. This was as far from the expected as possible while still loosely relatable to the same genre.

Last night, Trebuchet sounded polished, like a beautiful piece of obsidian after hundreds of years in a river bed. That igneous black rock born of violent eruptions from the Earth’s core, sharpened and used as arrowheads and spear tips, left alone under running water matures into a polished, beautiful stone. I walk toward the sea, wading in up to my hips. The warmth and gentle swaying covers the impending danger of being too far from shore, too far from home. This is the best kind of escape.

Band: Trebuchet

Album: Trebuchet

Style: Relaxed, Americana instrumentation, four-part vocal harmonies, extremely musical songs, listenable without being boring, beautiful, interesting without being obscure

Comparisons: Sufjan Stevens, Decemberists, what other Portland bands wish they could sound like

Rating: 4.5/5 (Just because the record is only six songs!)

Trebuchet’s debut record is available at www.trebuchetmusic.com.

Live Review: The Weeknd at the Fillmore, San Francisco

Live Review: The Weeknd at the Fillmore, San Francisco

Posted by: on May 9, 2012 | Comments (1)

Question: What’s the stupidest thing the Weeknd said at the Fillmore last night?

Answer: “C’mon, sing my fuckin’ song!”

It was in the middle of “Crew Love,” the Drake collaboration that had the entire place going apeshit. Everyone—from the front to the back, the people who scored tickets before the show sold out in two minutes, the people who dropped $200 on Craigslist, the bartenders, the security—everyone in the Fillmore already had their hands up, screaming along to every line, a unison chorus one thousand strong. Telling the crowd last night to sing along was like asking Kobe Bryant to maybe make some baskets already.

I know, I know, it’s just a hype line, everyone uses it. But every song had the same effect of unanimous singing, word-for-word, from a crowd utterly crazed on House of Balloons, myself included. The celebration was a short one—the show lasted just over an hour—but cutting things short actually felt right, somehow, and I didn’t leave disappointed.

The Weeknd opened with “High For This,” numerous joints lit up, and holy shit, the beat drop on the “open your hand” line, right? He did a bit of “Dirty Diana,” morphed it into “The Birds,” and completed the frontloading of hits as he fired into “Crew Love.” “The Knowing,” utterly sublime, stopped time itself. Girls climbed on boyfriends’ shoulders for “The Morning.” Near the hour mark, “Glass Table Girls” finished the main set, and the one-song encore was “Wicked Games,” which the Weeknd sung alone with only an acoustic guitar backing. (Or, if you counted the entire Fillmore singing along, a backup choir of 1,000.)

Somewhere in all this, it hit me full-force. Here’s a guy selling out shows faster than you can say “Cali is the mission,” but who has three free albums that weren’t released commercially, who has only played 12 shows on U.S. soil and whose entire career move has been preceded by “http://.” If you were there inside the “legendary-ass” Fillmore last night (his words), you felt the tectonic shift, like here’s this impassioned fan base losing their shit over a phenomenon that would have been impossible five years ago. I even counted three guys who came to the show dressed like the Weeknd, wearing denim jackets cut off into vests.

As I’ve noted before, House of Balloons is worthy of the hype. That said, the Weeknd isn’t much of a performer yet. He can sing well, and he can re-create his songs capably, and he had last night’s crowd in the palm of his hand because his songs are so damn good. But in the times when he wasn’t singing, he wasn’t making much of a connection with the audience. He fell back on stock banter (“I love you, San Francisco!”) instead of giving his all. Combined with the too-short set time, it felt like watching a demo instead of the real thing.

But then again, isn’t that what the Weeknd’s whole tip is? The free mixtape instead of the official release? The handwritten diary instead of the published memoir? The late-night phone call instead of the press conference?

Live Review: Yo La Tengo at the Last Record Store and Mystic Theatre

Live Review: Yo La Tengo at the Last Record Store and Mystic Theatre

Posted by: on May 3, 2012 | Comments (1)

Up to now, Yo La Tengo has never played in Sonoma County, which is only surprising when you realize the band was formed all the way back in 1986. Surely, you think, the enduring indie-before-there-was-“indie” band might have played some regular local stop on the college-rock circuit over the years: the Studio KAFE, the River Theater, or Cafe This. But no.

So it was a pretty special thing that Yo La Tengo played not one but two shows today—one at the Last Record Store and one at the Mystic Theatre. The Last Record Store show was such a rarity, in fact, that I talked to an eighth grader whose parents had written a note to the school saying he had a dentist’s appointment so he could get out of class and come see Yo La Tengo.

There’s a famous Onion headline, “37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster,” and not until you see the band at a record store do you realize the truth inherent in that joke. Before playing, band members flipped through the dollar bins idly, debated among themselves about the packaging on a Bad Brains CD and made jokes about Johnny Winter. They were made for record stores, and vice-versa; the Last Record Store had a fantastic painted window display for the show, and one amazing fan, Steve Ciaffa, donated to the band copies of Yo La Tengo albums he’d personally recorded and manufactured for them… on 8-Track.

The setup for this tour is semi-acoustic, with only a couple drums and minimally electrified guitars. Opening with “Tom Courtenay,” played with delicate dynamics, the band meandered into “Periodically Double or Triple,” which was interrupted by a spontaneous PSA from Ira on wearing a bike helmets. The band meandered through a pretty version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” laughed about Jimmy Buffett, made a baby cry by stepping on the distortion pedal, played “Speeding Motorcycle,” beat back repeated requests for “Gates of Steel,” and ultimately ended with “Gates of Steel” anyway—hilariously, after the incessant requester had left!

The sold-out show at the Mystic Theatre later followed the promised “freewheeling” format, with questions taken from the audience. Did you know that Yo La Tengo, for all their sort of lo-fi intellectualism, are a total bunch of funny-ass people? I had no idea. (First Q: “Biggie or Tupac?” A: “Biggie. Sorry—east coast. I’m from Brooklyn, motherfucker!”)

Questions ranged from esoteric technical stuff—the drum sound on their song “Saturday”—to vague inquiries about what they were “into” when they started the band. (“Weed, ceramics, and chips.”) Everyone in the band howled at a question related to Petaluma’s status as the home of competitive arm wrestling, and they even acted out an arm-wrestling contest for their encore. For a complete play-by-play, Andy over at Advantage Sound has the full report on the set, which included their semi-hit “Sugarcube” along with covers of the Monkees, the Beatles, the Gun Club, the Flamin’ Groovies, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and more.

The fun part, for me, was watching the band suss out thinly veiled song requests. Someone asked “What happens when Night Falls on Hoboken?” and was instantly shot down. Unfortunately, I was dying to hear “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and in a valiant attempt to sort of slyly guide the band to that title, I raised my hand and asked what was probably the dumbest question of the night: “Is it ethical to force a newborn baby to listen to Grand Funk Railroad?”

But Yo La Tengo is way too good at this game. They knew what was up immediately. “We’ll get to that song,” Ira said, consolingly. “It involves a lot of tuning and everything, but we’ll get to it.”

Sure enough, the main set ended with “We’re an American Band” (note: not the actual Grand Funk Railroad song), giving Ira an opportunity to reprise one of the greatest on-record guitar freakouts of all time: halfway through the song, he punched the foot pedal, leaned back to his small amp and turned up the knobs, and let loose on four minutes of loud, distorted, mangled bliss.

Yo La Tengo’s so natural at this “freewheeling” thing that after this tour I can’t imagine them going back to playing “regular” shows. Next year, if someone asks them a question mid-set, what are they gonna do—say “shut up”? They’re clearly having a lot of fun with this setup, and it’s a hell of a hoot for the audience too.

Live Review: Fruit Bats at Gundlach Bundschu Winery

Live Review: Fruit Bats at Gundlach Bundschu Winery

Posted by: on May 2, 2012 | Comments (0)

By Jacquelynne Ocaña

Fruit Bats founder and lead singer Eric Johnson landed his current lineup of ultra-talented musicians at Gundlach Bundschu Winery last Saturday night in Sonoma. Thirteen years after the band formed, Johnson is the only original member, and easily packed a century-old converted barn on their last stop of a short North West tour.

The Fruit Bats’ genre is more modern folk-rock than country, and their style is everything indie rock. Fans include plenty of thick-framed glasses and keys jangling on cut-off skinny jeans. But Saturday’s crowd was also full of area natives who clearly attend lots of winery concerts, decked out in hand-made wine bottle satchels, lounging on the rock wall overlooking Sonoma Valley.

Event impresario Jeff Bundschu, a sixth-generation winemaker and former Syllable Chase guitarist, curated the show as a sort of pre-party leading up to the winery’s Huichica Festival in early June. Apparently tickets for the two-day indie rock event have gone up a bit, and according to co-producer and long-time friend Johnson, this is mostly due to the prominence of this year’s Huichica lineup, which includes leading Sub Pop recording artists Beachwood Sparks and Paper Cuts along with Poor Moon and Andy Cabic from San Francisco’s Vetiver.

After singer-songwriter Garrett Pierce opened the show with his blend of lyrical folk rock and soft melodies, Seattle’s Gold Leaves followed with an unexpectedly remarkable set. Lead singer Grant Olsen, also known for being one half of Arthur & Yu, sets a dynamic tone with his deep ephemeral vocals drifting into gentle reverb. In concert, the band is more 1960’s jam-rock than the wistful expanse of their new album, The Ornament, but the high-energy solos kept the audience, already splendidly saturated in Gewürztraminer and Pinot, from nodding off to their sultry vibe.

Fruit Bats lead singer Eric Johnson is currently being backed by a menagerie of hired multi-instrumentalists. His demeanor as an accomplished bandleader keeps the mood of his shows animated and completely engaged with the audience. “I think we’ve kind of endeared ourselves to Sonoma. We do well in big cities, but we wouldn’t be able to pack a small market place, and this is the only small town we can come to and get some love. We sort of get treated like a local band,” said Johnson, after the show. “My wife is from Sebastopol, so I sort of weirdly have some in-law roots here – I kinda married into West County. I want to do a Sonoma County residency just because I dig it so much.”

Audiences got amped on the familiarity of “When You Love Somebody,” but the best live song was probably “The Ruminant Band,” where live, the extent of the band’s talent really shows. Everyone, except the drummer, switches instruments, while Johnson, normally on guitar, dances around the stage on tambourine. Their 12-song set was wholeheartedly received – the genuine love for this band is so tangible the barn walls were vibrating with the uninterrupted stomping of feet.

On the experience of playing in a giant barn: “It’s fuckin’ awesome because usually we only play the outdoor stage here; we played the last two Huichicas. It’s such a phenomenal place,” says current Fruit Bats bassist and former Shins member Ron Lewis. “The barn is kind of what the Pendarvis Farm festival wants to do in Oregon. It’s the vibe they are going for, but this far exceeds that.”