Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!
Sometimes you just gottta believe.
As expected, the Internet was flooded with sleazy offers for tickets to Green Day’s last-minute show at the Fox Theater in Oakland last night, and unless you’d been quick, the situation looked grim. Luckily, between the irritating online postings asking for either $300 or for Asian girls to “send photos,” there came perpetual signs of hope on Craigslist. “Just bought 2 GA tix on Ticketmaster!” read a typical post. “Don’t pay the scalpers! Keep trying!”
Throughout the day, the faithful were rewarded with sporadic releases of tickets to the third of Green Day’s “secret shows”—all of them announced at the last minute, selling out instantly and premiering the band’s new album 21st Century Breakdown in its entirety.
I scored two quick-release tickets at noon yesterday, and drove frantically through rush-hour traffic with my wife to Fremont to pick up my niece. We got to the theater right at 8pm, bought one of seemingly plenty of extra tickets outside on the sidewalk, and voilá—I was suddenly standing with some people who’d flown in from Massachusetts, six rows away from a band I’ve loved since I first saw them opening for Nuisance, All and MDC in 1989 at the River Theater in Guerneville, CA.
Obviously, much has changed in Green Day’s world since 1989. At that first show in Sonoma County, they made jokes about handing out hundreds of joints to the crowd, sold hand-silkscreened tuxedo shirts stolen from their high school marching band for $3, and had just one record—a fantastic Lookout 7” called 1,000 Hours that my friends and I listened to obsessively. (We weren’t alone—just a month later at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa, crowds stormed the stage to sing along haphazardly with “Dry Ice.”)
20 years later, bouncers now keep an eye on pot smoking, T-shirts are now sold for $35, and Green Day, of course, now have plenty more than one record out. But the key magic is still there. As evidenced in their two-hour-plus show last night, Green Day is among a small handful of bands who have navigated the waters of success with a clear head and, in spite of the rigors of fame, have only gotten better over the years.
Case in point: the new album premiered last night.
At the doors of the beautifully restored art-deco Fox Theater, patrons were handed a Playbill-like program detailing the three acts of the new record, complete with author credits and libretto, while a large tragedy/comedy curtain hung over the stage. It’s hard to assess an album on only one listen, but 21st Century Breakdown is, as expected, a sister sequel to American Idiot. It loosely follows a story about being disillusioned with modern life in America, with recurring characters and themes. It’s pensive, it’s angry, and it unabashedly swipes snippets from the great catalog of rock ‘n’ roll and parlays them into anthems for the disenfranchised.
Judging from last night’s impassioned performance, at least four songs are utterly dumbfounding in their greatness (“Before the Lobotomy,” “Last of the American Girls,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” “Last Night on Earth”), and several, like “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl),” toy with completely new styles.
There are echoes of Green Day’s past: “Christian’s Inferno” starts with a rant straight out of the bridge to “Holiday,” “East Jesus Nowhere” cribs the chorus from “Welcome to Paradise,” and at one point Green Day stone-cold lifts the outro to “Brain Stew.” At the same time, the album makes musical and lyrical reference to Van Morrison, Gogol Bordello, the Who, Screeching Weasel, Barry McGuire, Wilco, John Lennon, P.I.L., the Ramones, Frank Sinatra, the Replacements, Tom Petty, Rancid, Otis Redding, the Misfits and Francis Scott Key.
One thing the album is missing, sadly, is a sense of fun. American Idiot was written and recorded quickly when the master tapes for their “real” album were stolen, giving it a spontaneous immediacy. 21st Century Breakdown took five years to make, and it shows. It is labored and serious, full of dramatic pauses and piano segues, and it teeters on the pretentious. I wish it didn’t. During a ’70s soft-rock piano ballad complete with falsetto vocals, an audience member held up a homemade sign reading “Play at 924 Gilman,” and it was painfully obvious how far the band has “grown” since their constant presence at said club. (Billie played there last year with Pinhead Gunpowder; read about it here.)
A drastic explosion in the excitement level came after the short intermission, when Green Day played older songs for another hour, and I got blissfully lost in the sweaty fray of people. “American Idiot” turned the stoic crowd into a swarming tornado; “Jesus of Suburbia” was dedicated “to everyone down at Gilman Street,” and “Going to Pasalacqua,” “She,” “Longview” and “Welcome to Paradise” thrilled longtime fans. The band was obviously making the set list up on the spot—during “Minority,” Billie asked, “I don’t know, should this be the last song?”
It wasn’t, of course. The show’s final song, the epic “Homecoming,” came with a warm explanation from Billie about the East Bay. Clearly, the band was happy to play for a hometown crowd (including Jello Biafra!), and at the end, he stood at the front of the stage, repeatedly opened his arms to the audience, and mouthed the words “I love you, I love you, I fucking love you!” over and over.
The feeling was mutual.
More Photos Below.
How thrilled was I for the opportunity to take my young niece to the circus! Yes, the fond memories of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ still linger in my mind as warm assurances of a childhood well spent. Never had I thought, as a lad, that I might one day be on the opposite end of this great tradition: a torch-bearer passing down to a generation anew the excitement of the traveling circus under the big top.
And yet the occasion was dew-dropped with sorrow. The circus has changed quite drastically in such a short span. I hardly recognized it. The brothers Ringling have nothing to fear in the poor competition presented by this newfangled “Britney Spears” circus of today.
We entered the arena in anticipation alongside droves of like-minded circus fans, bought our popped corn and cotton candy, and found our seats in the grandstand. When the curtain was raised, a group of female acrobats in clown makeup called the “Pussycat Dolls” filled the center ring, but they performed no somersaults, no balancing act, nor did they treat the children in attendance to any aerial trickery.
Instead, the acrobats moved their pelvises in ways that made me think they had to go to the bathroom. This hunch was proved correct when each girl ran to a pole and squeezed her legs around it. Why is there no bathroom provided for the performers? Circus budgets are so tight these days.
In my youth, the circus was a nonstop show. But when the poor Pussycat acrobats left the stage, there was nothing. Certainly, thought I, Merle Evans will march in with the opening strains of “Thunder and Blazes,” followed by wagons of lions; or a caravan of unicycles will charge the arena; or, if fate does smile on us, a motorcycle “globe of death” will roll into the ring.
Instead, a large screen showed moving pictures of the circus. Moving pictures! I could not believe the indignity! The surrounding children in our section seemed content to occupy themselves by staring at their telephones and hitting the small devices with their thumbs, but I was incensed. This was not what I had paid $150 for!
After this half-hour mockery, the lights went out and more live circus tricks ensued, erasing the sour feelings. A clan of jugglers flung clubs into the air! A prancing maiden navigated dozens of hula-hoops! Two strongmen hoisted a nimble gymnast into flights of fancy! All those seated in the grandstands were tickled and on their feet in glee.
Unfortunately, the main attraction of this particular circus was the elephant, who I believe was advertised as a “singer.” Upon the elephant’s entrance, the small children cheered wildly. Yet to the more wizened it was very apparent that the elephant, replete with jovial blonde wig, was not singing at all but only moving its mouth in time with the loudspeakers!
From that point forward, the singing-imposter elephant took center ring. Clowns surrounded the elephant and held their bladders while horrendous crashes of noise mixed with the “songs.” Trapeze artists dangled from the ceiling, unmoving, while the elephant ambled slowly to and fro in a cornucopia of silly outfits.
After an hour, an unknown defect created a gigantic electric malfunction in the circus apparatus, causing sparks to fly onto the rings, and the performance was over. What a disappointment!
I do hope the Ringling Bros. circus comes to town soon. I would relish a chance to show my niece the true spirit of the big-top instead of this shoddy knock-off currently being peddled across the country.
“It’s nice to see so many health food stores in Santa Rosa,” announced Jesse Michaels partway through the set by his band, Classics of Love. “Santa Rosa used to be known for something else.”
That thing, of course, was meth, which propelled an entire generation of thrash bands to play as fast as humanly possible while growling unintelligible, moronic lyrics. Jesse, of course, was affected by the drug in other ways; by writing some of the greatest lyrics of all time with Operation Ivy, and singing them in such a controlled, rapid-fire way that evoked chemical desperation as much as unbridled joy. Who knew Jesse equated Santa Rosa with meth? I mean, except for Capitalist Casualties?
“Let’s dedicate this next one to Victims Family, what the hell,” he continued, launching into “Time Flies,” just one of many actual great songs. Folks can disagree for hours about Big Rig and Common Rider, but let the bickering end—Classics of Love is easily Jesse’s best post-OpIvy band. The singing is in tune, his guitar playing’s right on, and his backing band is great. I’d heard stories about his faltering solo shows, but after their maiden voyage tour coming up, I’d wager to say that Classics of Love will be a well-oiled force to be reckoned with.
Jesse shouted out the Cotati Cabaret, hoping that people might remember. Some did.
The rare treat of seeing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last night in their first-ever concert together wasn’t one easily passed up. Not by the sold-out crowd; not by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who ambled in with trademark cowboy hat and cane; and not by—brace yourselves, folks—Cher, who sat in the sixth row.
What in the world was Cher doing at a Merle Haggard / Kris Kristofferson show in Santa Rosa? We may never know. What’s for sure is that she, along with fans that capped the night with an epic five-minute standing ovation, witnessed two bona fide heroes of country music give a performance at turns tender, humorous, poignant, insightful, and above all, intimate.
Let’s just hope Cher wasn’t the woman who yelled out for “Me & Bobby McGee” a few songs after Kristofferson had already played it.
The 1,400-capacity Wells Fargo Center has a historic knack for achieving a living room-like atmosphere for acoustic music. They did it with the Landmine Free World concert in 1999 with Steve Earle, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffith and Bruce Cockburn; they did it with the two Elvis Costello / Steve Nieve concerts they’ve hosted; they did it with the Texas songwriter night in 2005 with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely; and they did it last night by closing the stage curtain and presenting Haggard and Kristofferson front and center.
When Merle Haggard played at the Center last year, electric, he drew a shitkickin’, Copenhagen-dippin’, cheap perfume-wearin’ crowd. This tour was different. Instead of a parking lot scene with greasy dudes in Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts smoking joints, it welcomed wine tour limousines and sixty-somethings gingerly stepping out of Oldsmobiles. The performance itself suited the new audience: pensive, slow, and mortal.
“If there’s a Hall of Fame for heroes in heaven, this man’s definitely on his way,” said Kristofferson, introducing Haggard after opening the show with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.” Added Haggard, fresh from successful lung cancer surgery: “Between the two of us there’s about 150 years of experience here.”
Those expecting a “Storytellers”-type show, with Haggard and Kristofferson sitting down with acoustic guitars and swapping tales about the Army (Kristofferson), prison (Haggard), Louisiana oil rigs (Kristofferson) or stealing Buck Owens’ wife (Haggard) got something far better: a run-down of the two giants’ greatest songs backed by an elegant, semi-acoustic version of Haggard’s band, the Strangers. (Turns out Haggard must have won the battle.) As for storytelling, most of the night’s commentary got squeezed between lines of the songs themselves.
Kristofferson, during “Nobody Wins”: “George Bush and Dick Cheney were singin’ this song in the shower together.”
Haggard, during “Sing Me Back Home”: “This goes out to all the ex-convicts. It’s every convict’s dream to be an ex-convict.”
Kristofferson, during “Best of All Possible Worlds”: “Did you know that here in the USA, the land of the free, we got more people behind bars than any other country on the planet? That’s right, boy. We’re #1.”
Haggard, during “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: “I feel like a stripper without a G-string!”
Yes, the two were very funny together, but also incredibly warm, and wise. It’s not uncommon for former hellraisers entering life’s twilight, particularly in country music, to embrace a life-lesson empathy. When I spoke with Kristofferson last year, he elaborated: “There is a freedom in accepting the fact that there is a difference at this end of the road,” he told me. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends and heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon, I’ve watched ‘em slip and fall. And be gone. And it’s gonna happen to all of us. So I think the acceptance of it gives you a freedom to be less critical of yourself when you make mistakes, and to not be so hard on others.”
Warmth like that was conveyed on stage last night so often, it sometimes outperformed the fantastic songs. Check the set list below—there were nearly 30 of ‘em. The selections played off each other cleverly, as Haggard ran with the torch of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and answered, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Kristofferson pleaded to help him make it through the night; Haggard, up next, just wanted to make it through December.
Yes, it was a considerable union. To see Kristofferson sing backups on Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and a reworked verse in “Okie From Muskogee,” or to have Haggard play his ranchero-style nylon guitar solos on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was truly exciting. By the end, after the two had finished “Why Me Lord,” the standing ovation seemed endless. No one could believe it when five minutes later, the house lights came up.
(Afterward, Cher was quickly escorted behind velvet ropes into a tinted-window SUV. Kristofferson obliged a waiting crowd of about 50 with autographs and gracious conversation, and Haggard stayed put on his bus until it rumbled, slowly lurched forward through the parking lot, and breezed into Highway 101 for the next town.)
Photos by Elizabeth Seward.
Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
He’s a Pilgrim
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord
In 1992, when I moved out of my parents’ house to a small apartment on Slater Street, I felt old. Not grown-up old, mind you, but world-weary old. You know the deal. I had a penchant for drinking Cisco mixed with Hawaiian Punch, listening to syrupy, sentimental Reprise-era Frank Sinatra albums like Cycles, and basking in the unique bitterness and nostalgia that only the hardened, grizzled age of 16 brings.
Living in the same town long enough produces some extraordinary occurrences. Tonight, during a spellbinding show at the Orchard Spotlight, Will Oldham provided one in the form of “Cycles,” the Frank Sinatra song that I used to replay over and over just a few blocks away.
“So I’m down, and so I’m out, but so are many others…”
Oldham and his band completely claimed the song as their own, while I, amazed that he’d chosen such an unusual song to cover, thought about age. Do we ever really feel as old as we do when we’re 16? We hit our 30s and all of that hard-earned “wisdom” and half-fledged nostalgia fades away, and we grow ever open to new experiences even as the opportunities for new experiences occur less and less.
What’s happening? Why do we lose our toeholds of self-assurance as we get older? Why do people’s feathers get so ruffled over age? Why is it easier to make young people feel old than it is to make old people feel young? Why don’t young people realize they have the rest of the blobby, unsure, aging world in their hands?
Why does Will Oldham sometimes stand on one leg like a stork?
“I’ve been told, and I believe, that life is meant for livin’…”
Tonight, Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, age 38, played the world-weary music he’s played since he too was a teenager, and showcased perfectly why his live shows are at least twice as good as his albums, if not more. His outstanding band broadcast a new cosmic American music inside the Orchard Spotlight, with crests and turns and tangents and silent forks upon which to dwell on life’s mysteries. His songs ballooned both inward, outward and lateral, and sounded like Oldham’s music has always sounded—wiser than its age.
The sheer fact that Oldham even played the Orchard Spotlight on this trip is impressive enough. This is Oldham’s “real” tour, where instead of playing the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes, like he did in 2004, or Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio, like he did in 2002, he’s playing the Fillmore; there’s commercials on television for his new album, Beware, and almost all his shows are in large theaters. Last year, however, local soundman Ross Harris walked up to him in San Francisco and asked if he’d like to play a beautiful old church in downtown Santa Rosa. Sure, Oldham replied.
Tickets, limited to 130, sold out in about a day, and diehards, begging for extras on Craigslist, flocked from miles around. I met a guy at the show who’d driven all the way from Tahoe. “I saw him once in the middle of a forest outside of Athens, where I used to live,” he told me, more than happy to make the trek to pick up a last-minute ticket at the Last Record Store. “He’s worth a four-hour drive.”
The show began in grand fashion: Oldham, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt, white cap, polyester slacks and no shoes or socks, hit the stage with the squat giddiness of a teenager and launched his band into the Carter Family standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ on Earth,” with each member of his band and the opening band taking verses in a steam-train hootenanny usually reserved for ending instead of opening a set.
“We’re back in the country, building the confusion hill brick by brick,” Oldham announced, referencing the Humboldt County roadside attraction they’d passed earlier in the day. He then asked, to no one in particular, “What was your favorite song growing up?”
“Shout at the Devil!” someone said. “No, no,” Oldham said, “growing up!” “Growin’ Up!” some clever person said. “I Want a New Drug!” said another. “Yellow Submarine,” said yet another. Oldham launched into “Beware Your Only Friend,” the first song from Beware, and midway through began singing, “In the town / Where I was born / Lived a man who sailed the sea…”
When Oldham gets excited, he manifests it in strange ways. He shoves his hands all the way down into his pockets and pulls his pants up to his chest. He yanks his cap off and holds it high with an animated face. He ravels his arms in pretzel-like patterns, and splays them out into the air like a drag queen, and rolls one pant leg up, and throws his head down and sticks his gut out and falls to his knees.
Is it intentional, or improvised? The question could also be asked of his band—his band!—who could thunder down the line like a Southern Pacific for one song (“I Don’t Belong to Anyone”), wander in a semi-Haggard haze for another (“Love Comes to Me”) and then fall apart in beautiful, formless atmosphere for the next (“There Is Something I Have To Say”). Drummer Jim White, often looking like an angry Ron Jeremy, was a particular standout; he’d explore the drum kit like free-jazz pioneer Sunny Murray, nail down hi-hats like Booker T. & the MG’s Al Jackson, Jr., and lay back behind the beat like Tonight’s the Night’s Ralph Molina. Oldham’s band on this tour is exceptional—all of them, truly, were excellently in tune with each other and engaging to watch—but White’s the reason it feels the way it does.
Sometime soon after the semi-gospel coda of “I am Goodbye” and the brilliant reclamation of “Cycles,” Oldham brought out Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, an old tourmate and studio partner who I can only assume lives in Sonoma County now (she played at Aubergine a couple weeks ago, and won a yodeling contest at the Mystic Theater last month). Oldham introduced his band to her, but not to the audience, and had a conversation about her new baby, which slept in the room behind the stage. McCarthy took center stage for most of the rest of the set. They sang the duet “Lay and Love,” and Oldham was happy—he grabbed his big toe and pulled his foot as far behind his back as it could go.
Maybe Oldham stays young by playing old music. Maybe when he sings, during “I Called You Back,” that “the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible,” he’s offering a warning rather than a truth. Sure, we’re getting older. It happens. Let’s bask in it, like we did when we were 16. On nights like this one, this one special night in Santa Rosa, we can spill out of a fantastic show and walk home through the deserted streets, and it’ll feel like everything else for us is possible.
Last December, in an article rounding up last year’s pop-music’s trend towards minimalist production, I mentioned that Terius Nash, a.k.a. The Dream, a producer behind many of last year’s hits, was releasing an album that could not help but make more of a splash than his overlooked debut. I bought the album a couple days ago, and I’m not alone—Love vs. Money debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B / Hip Hop charts and No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 151,000 copies in the first week. That’s not just a splash, it’s a cannonball.
Nash is the songwriter and producer with a hand in Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”—all huge hits that used razor-thin, super-sparse production to great effect. Though few guessed his album would be such a huge commercial hit, everyone agreed it could serve as a harbinger of pop-music production to come. Instead, it disappointingly looks backward and bigger instead of forward and flimsier, and it’s irrevocably marred by an overabundance of Atlanta party-style “Aaaayyy!” and “Oooohhh!” exhortations; it would be forgivable if this was a record made by a producer in 2006. As such, it is 2009, and “Aaaayyy!”s are dated as shit.
Love vs. Money has its moments, though, and they’re amazing. “Kelly’s 12 Play” tips the hat to an obvious influence, while “Sweat it Out” has the man ruminating on his girl’s appearance, advising her to book an appointment with her beautician in order to fix what’s about to get fucked up between the sheets. “Take U Home 2 My Mama” is a proper segue (all the songs overlap and blend hooks) into the album’s finest moment, “Love vs. Money,” layered with thick intermittent bursts of orchestration which sound like spools of magnetic tape pulled through Ampex heads at varying speeds. The sonic texture is as deep as his agony; it’s the antithesis of the razor-pop thinness that The Dream is known for, and it’s undeniable even if you don’t care about the ex-wife, Nivea, and the multi-millionaire rapper, Lil’ Wayne, who inspired it.
“When they first started playing, I couldn’t tell if it was the wackest shit ever or the most punk rock thing I’d ever seen.”
I gotta ride with my friend Josh on this one, who did eventually determine the latter. From Seattle, Heatwarmer set up in the cavernous room of Matrix in Petaluma and, before they’d played a note of their “songs,” noodled for 10 minutes or so in the most fantastically addictive way. “I hope this is their set,” I told Shane, hopelessly. “It sounds like the Wired Guitar God Parodies,” he replied, acutely.
Though the noodling was not their set, it was close. Galaxie 500 meets Mr. Bungle meets Raymond Scott meets Phish meets Quasi meets a slowly accumulating cadre of won-over appreciation on the faces of everyone at Matrix. At one point I zoned out on the keyboard player, who wore some kind of medallion around his neck, pondering how he’d memorized all the augmented chords and dexterous runs, when I realized that the electric clarinetist was unreeling the same in unison.
Grappling with an initial sense of confusion, springboarding either into “good” or “bad,” makes the final result that much more concrete. It’s why I don’t recreationally listen to much pop radio, and why Heatwarmer was, in a mentally interactive way, so positively and weirdly thrilling. Check them out here.
Behold the great and glorious wonder of music and its neverending mindbend. Behold works of greatness trailblazing and incomprehensible. Behold Electric Masada last night at Yoshi’s.
Last night, Zorn ended his five-day residency at Yoshi’s with an explosive band that made everyone in the San Francisco audience feel giddy and made his famous hardcore-jazz albums Naked City and Torture Garden seem like mere novelties in comparison. Electric Masada, an 8-piece grouping of John Zorn, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollensen, Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori and Marc Ribot is not something that can be easily described in words.
Here’s some: Celestial roadkill. Controlled chaos. Blatant intensity. Eruptive slaughter. Unbridled jubilation.
The hyper-prolific Zorn, aged 55 with no trace of mellowing out, spent the evening with his back to the crowd, “playing” the seven other musicians like instruments with a series of complex hand signals. He’d point to Saft to play a solo, then wiggle his outstretched fingers to Baron, who’d rattle on the cymbals; he’d pull his hands apart and chop the air, whereupon the band would fall on a series of whole notes; he’d shake his finger up and down for Ribot to trill two notes, swing his arms up to increase Wollensen’s volume or point rapidly to individual members in succession to create a stereo ping-pong effect before pointing at his head to take everyone back to the top.
It was an full-body galvanizing experience, somewhere between Alan Silva’s Seasons, Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality and Andy Statman’s Jewish Klezmer Music. On Thursday, while watching the Masada Quartet, the crowd was enveloped inside Zorn’s music, trying to place its brain inside of his and meditating on how it might be mentally constructed. Last night there was no choice but to sit in the chair and let the waves of sound rush by.
Electric Masada is the great and ferocious culmination of jazz’s goal toward spontaneous composition in action. During the third song, Ribot took a solo, in fits and starts. After nothing really gelled he gazed up at Zorn with a look that said, “Well, I’m done.” Zorn ignored him, and kept working the rest of the band, pulling his hand at Ribot for him to keep going.
There’s a certain frustrated freedom that comes with doing something you’ve indicated that you don’t want to do, and it was with such freedom that Ribot’s solo immediately transformed from a standard-issue blues-rock housing to the totally unique Marc Ribot that Zorn well knows looms right under the surface.
Suddenly wailing, Ribot held it down while Zorn motioned around the room for certain sections to fall apart, to go half-time, to stop entirely for a few seconds. Each twist brought out even more invention and snake-like tenacity in Ribot, and soon he didn’t want to stop. Zorn bit his reed, leaned into the mic and growled his approval.
Baptista swung a plastic tube over his head. Zorn and Mori traded high-pitched saxophone and laptop tweets. Wollensen and Baron thundered in and out of time on two drum kits. Saft and Dunn held down what shards of groove were left on a vintage keyboard and bass. And then, Zorn banging his hand against Ribot’s shoulder, he swirled his palm around and brought the whole thing to a forceful, sudden, distorted end.
No one in the standing ovation that followed is likely to ever forget it.
How in the hell to describe the show I saw last night?
I could start by explaining that John Zorn plays “radical Jewish culture” jazz, though no socio-psychological theory applies. Not, at least, on the surface. What John Zorn has done with his Masada quartet is to essentially cohere the souls of four musicians and thrust them up as one giant, overwhelming force.
Intellectualizing it is about as useless as humping a flagpole.
John Zorn is not a very imposing man, nor a particularly recognizable one. A friend at Amoeba tells the story of his being denied a sale for not having ID to go along with his credit card (another employee recognized him, and intervened). He arrived on stage last night in camouflage pants, a red T-shirt, a black sweatshirt and tassels. He barely spoke to the crowd, other than to introduce the band, and to field a shouted “Thank you!” by shouting back “No, thank you! The worst part is, we’re not getting paid to do this. We’re getting paid to travel.”
Indeed, the $50 ticket price went largely toward the cost of flying 21 different musicians and instruments from the East Coast who are taking part in Zorn’s historic five-day residency here at Yoshi’s. Every night features a different band, with a different concept and approach. $50 might seem steep to some, unless one considers the rarity of his Bay Area performances. (Masada last played in Oakland ten years ago.) Here’s my advice. Beg, borrow or steal. Raise the $50. Go see John Zorn at Yoshi’s.
Yes, it sounds like a spiel from one of Zorn’s many diehard followers, who are glossy-eyed in their reverence for the man to the point of extreme narrow-mindedness. We’ve all known people who preach the gospel of Zorn, listen only to Zorn, and eschew other musics as lacking sufficient Zorniness. Do you want to join Heaven’s Gate, they ask? Zorn, Zorn, Zorn, they chant.
But the truth is that to see Masada last night was to be baptized in the blood. The opening: a slow, simple melody. A little flourish here and there, basic all around. It grew, slowly. The control and restraint, the fluid incremental rise into exhortation, the climbing atop of each other until the song’s peak with everything before it laid visible and small. Gliding, and out, and holy shit.
The songs, fine and modal as they are, didn’t matter; it’s what this band did with them. We caught the 10pm set, which featured compositions from Book II of the Masada songbook—songs that the group is not nearly as familiar with as Book I. Rather than an obstacle, this was a blessing of innocence and discovery.
Joey Baron smiles widely while playing incredibly, and his solos were among the most lyrical drum solos ever. Greg Cohen’s interplay with Baron couldn’t have been more prescient, as he’d anticipate where Baron’s playing stopped to slide into his own incisive solos. Dave Douglas and Zorn were just as in step with each other, listening for the slightest fluctuation to capitalize upon in each other’s eruptive bursts, with Douglas at times running around the stage.
And Zorn. Does he have an endless reservoir of tone? Does he carry the history of every saxophone player before him and take that history to new places of imagination? Does he play with his mouthpiece upside down? He bogglingly unleashed his circular breathing, rabidly dancing lines and his trademark growl throughout the hour-and-a-half with just a tiny sampling from his hundreds of compositions. Is he a genius, or merely possessed?
On the way out, we bought tickets for Sunday. Euphoria carried me home.