Let us praise versions of “My Funny Valentine” that don’t make us squirm. Let us praise Lifetime Achievement Awards for those who truly deserve it. Let us praise 90-year-old pianists who continue to paint new scenes on the keys.
Let us praise Hank Jones.
Hank Jones opened a two-night stand at Yoshi’s in San Francisco tonight, and during an hour-and-a-half set displayed no loss of conception, creativity, nimbleness or humor even while entering his ninth decade. He defines the phrase “jazz treasure” without any self-importance. He opened his set with “Happy Birthday,” for cryin’ out loud.
I caught the 10 o’clock set, after impulsively driving down from Santa Rosa at the last minute to buy a single ticket. Jones has been on a lot of albums I adore—Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane, Charlie Haden’s Steal Away, Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, Chris Connor’s My Name is Chris—but it’s a piquant little collection of standards by his Great Jazz Trio that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t out of this world, but it is a basic collection of standards played well. Sometimes that is all that’s needed.
Tonight, Jones offered a similar grace and simplicity. Check the setlist:
Lonely Moments – Mary Lou Williams
Quiet Lady – Thad Jones
Bluesette – Toots Thielmans
My Funny Valentine – Richard Rogers
Rhythm-a-Ning – Thelonious Monk
Blue Minor – Sonny Clark
Stella by Starlight – Victor Young
Six and Four – Oliver Nelson
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
Intimidation – Hank Jones
Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk
Each song followed the basic order. Intro, head, verse, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, head, and out. John Clayton clearly relished playing with a different group (he’s Diana Krall’s right-hand man) and came correct with brilliant bass work that at times even had Jones in awe, while drummer Clayton Cameron danced around the drums with brushes that seemed to sing. Jones phrased skilled solos that could only come from a lifetime of playing combined with an impressively present acumen.
But it was Hank Jones’ humor that took the cake. He drew out the ending to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with three false endings, toying with the crowd, but when the next tune ended abruptly and no one clapped, he looked at the audience, curiously, and laughed, “That’s it.” During the verse of “Blue Monk” he threw in an extra discordant harmony to Monk’s already-discordant arrangement and then looked around as if to apprehend the musical trespasser—inside the piano, underneath the keyboard.
The dude is 90 and he’s still having fun. Thanks, Hank, for still being here.
Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!
So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.
Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.
The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.
At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.
Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?
I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.
What about regret? Is regret useless?
Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.
What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?
I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.
Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?
No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.
One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.
You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?
Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.
Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.
Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?
I can’t help them.
Well, you could play larger places.
That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.
And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…
Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.
One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.
Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.
You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.
Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.
Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.
Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?
I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.
Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?
No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.
Brooklyn, in particular?
Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.
You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.
I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.
Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?
I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.
What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.
Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?
Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’
Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?
We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.
What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?
That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.
Are you going to record an album?
I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?
I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.
You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?
No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”
You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?
Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.
Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?
Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.
What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?
“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.
More Photos Below.
In 2004, I walked into the Tradewinds in Cotati and felt my jaw immediately hit the floor in amazement over the two guys opening for the Rum Diary. A greasy-haired hippie-looking drummer who played just a little behind the beat and a sharp-throated, fingerpicking singer who blew the harmonica and sang songs about trying to care that the country’s at war in the midst of a ruined liver and other malaise. It felt like this band was created just for me, and after their captivating set, I found out that the band was called Two Gallants. Both Michael Houghton and I cornered the singer near the pool tables and bought everything he had.
I felt a similar sort of excitement tonight when I opened the antique door to Cast Away, a precious yarn shop in Railroad Square, to check in on that same singer, Adam Stephens, and his new solo project. Clusters of people lined the stairway up to the store’s loft, where the outstanding owner Justine usually offers knitting classes but tonight had transformed into a mini-concert space. About 30 or 40 people sat crowded on the floor, quietly passing around libations and listening intently to the music, while below, older customers reclined on couches for the evening’s ‘Knit & Sit’ session, knitting needles and unfinished scarves in hand. Santa Rosa never ceases to amaze me.
Stephens explained that he’d forgotten his harmonica holder, but he had more than enough texture to make up for it; cello, piano, drums and bass filled out his sound while managing to be mostly quieter than anything Two Gallants has ever done. His songs, I noticed, were long, but as Henry Nagle whispered in my ear, they’re paced extremely well, akin to long Springsteen epics. How Stephens manages to come up with so many words to fill his songs is beyond me. I only heard one reference to someone else’s lyrics—a line about sweeping out the ashes—and for the most part, his songs were things to get happily lost in.
Two Gallants is officially “kind of on hiatus,” Stephens told me afterwards, so he’s planning on recording and touring with this new outfit—whatever it may come to be called. “I hate my own name,” he murmured on the sidewalk, “but I also hate coming up with band names. I’ve only named one band in my life, and I was sick of it after a month. So we’ll see.”
By the time the doors opened for the Thorns of Life show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco tonight, the line of 300 people had completely wrapped around the venue. Only 110 people made it in—including notable attendees Billie Joe and Fat Mike—and those lucky few who got to see the San Francisco debut of the most highly anticipated band of the new year weren’t disappointed.
In short? Thorns of Life were beautiful and amazing.
I’ve written about Thorns of Life before, albeit on a purely speculative basis. I’d refused to watch the YouTube videos, as untainted by advance coverage as possible so as not to deny myself the enjoyment of in-person discovery. Patience is a virtue. The show was outstanding.
My God, the songs are good. This is the first thing that matters. The songs are good, some of them downright blissful. I take back my speculation about Aaron not being able to play ballads. I also take back my speculation that Blake might be retreating to relive a former self circa 1994. I’ve never been so glad to have been wrong. The songs are good.
Lyrics are a huge part of any Schwarzenbach band, and the ones I could make out ranged from the sentimental (“We tend to fill the void with hope and longing”) to the image-laden (“Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona. What the fuck?”) to the referential (“We listened to the Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin.’ And even though it wasn’t appropriate, it’s such a beautiful song.”) to the political (“Al-Qaeda is in Washington, why aren’t you fighting them?”) (I paraphrase). Blake mentioned at one point that all of his songs were about suicide and unrelenting misery; that he’d now had enough distance from graduate school to look at the subject of suicide objectively, and that he felt a real dialogue needed to occur in society about suicide.
Out of 13 or 14 songs, the band delivered alternating moments of elation, poignancy, humor, dejection, ennui and triumph. One, perhaps called “The First Time,” ranks among Blake’s best songwriting ever, and he closed the set with a solo song that between its lines about postcards and towers even utilized a harmonica and, after some deserved dissing of the capo, a capo.
When it was all over, I felt so completely and gloriously happy that Blake is making music again. There was a long time there where it looked as if he’d played his last show, and as clusters of exhausted people shuffled past me, smiling and reveling, I savored the annihilation of that worry.
I ran into a friend afterwards who muttered that the crowd was irritating and that too much hype had killed any possible positive experience the show could have offered. I disagree. Yes, people shouted Jawbreaker references (“Hey, look, it’s a new band,” Blake warned). Yes, there were superfans showing off their pictures taken with Blake. Yes, it was a miracle if you could get in. Yes, some people got a little too excited and drunk. Yes, Fat Mike hopped on stage afterwards to talk to Blake and Aaron, presumably about recording. Yes, there were tons of cameras out when the band hit the stage. These things happen.
But hype that forms inorganically with no actual basis can be smelled like the shit that it is from a mile away. The atmosphere surrounding Thorns of Life is different in that it’s based on something very real. To wit: A huge subculture of people, all with a longstanding personal connection to the music and writing and art that Blake and Aaron and Daniela have created in their time. I don’t believe for a second that the majority of people at the show were there because it was the “it” thing to do. I believe that most people who were there—people like Kyle, Avi, Brian, April, Tony, Brandt, Chris, Billie Joe, Jerry, Haley, Ivy, Jason, Fat Mike, or Martina—most of these people are fans, just like me, who have followed and loved and been touched by great art, and who are compelled to check in and see what the creators of that art are up to.
As for the couple hundred people who got turned away tonight at the door, rest assured that what Thorns of Life are up to is thrilling and great, and they more than live up to the intense curiosity that so many people understandably share.
UPDATE: Thorns of Life played four days later at Adam’s basement in Santa Rosa; my interview with Blake is here.
Lil’ Wayne, the sandpaper-throated New Orleans rapper with the top-selling album of 2008, attracts one hell of a draped-up, chipped-out crowd. Attendees to the sold-out show filed into the Oakland Arena through metal detectors, and you never saw so many plastic baskets filled with expensive watches and rhinestone belt buckles in your life. It was like Oakland’s own regal Prom Dance, with even higher prices: Parking was $25, beers were $12, and hoodies were $60.
Not everyone was dressed to the nines, I soon found out, as one of the first groups of people I ran into inside were a staggering group of drunk blonde girls, one with her silver miniskirt sloppily bunched up entirely around her waist, weaving her hootin’ and hollerin’ way down to their seats to see the Gym Class Heroes. The Gym Class Heroes, I might add, were the worst pile of shit in the land.
Keyshia Cole was completely goddamn dominating, just a nonstop firestorm of talent and amazement. I saw her last year, before she got her teeth fixed, and though I liked the gap in her teeth I’ll accept the dental work as a metaphor for her whole career right now. Her albums have become more commercial since her amazing first record, They Way It Is, but damn if she hasn’t stepped up her live show. Twelve months ago, opening for R. Kelly, she was all energy and empty hyperactivity; last night she retained the energy and tempered it with elegance and grace, like fine cocaine.
Keyshia Cole is from Alameda originally, and the Bay Area love was definitely in the house. If you ever in your life pine for the sound of 20,000 girls screaming their lungs out at the highest available volume, go to a Keyshia Cole show and wait for the opening chords to “Love.” Cole is my Queen of R&B right now, the new Mary J. Blige, and that’s conceding that she didn’t even do “I Should Have Cheated.” Apparently she has a reality show. I’m scared to watch it.
From the onset, T-Pain slouched at the front of his stage bedecked in his trademark top hat, and shoved his hands in his pockets, looking bored with himself.
T-Pain had breakdancing midgets dressed in whiteface and camoflauge. He has three tents, one of them inflated to 20 feet tall, with his name and likeness at the top. He had a woman in daisy dukes and a bikini top walking on stilts. He had a blonde tattooed midget gyrating around the stage in her bra and panties. He had a fire swallower with flaming pastied nipples. He had a calliope, a bazooka, a vaudeville wagon, an elephant stand, and a backup yes-man in Marilyn Manson makeup who lip-synched along to T-Pain’s hits while T-Pain moonwalked, badly, across the stage.
“I got one word for you…” said T-Pain’s DJ, early on in the set: “Bay Area!!!”
Almost every song T-Pain played was a hit, and almost every song T-Pain played was chopped off by the incessant thundercrash from his DJ. He was very comfortable with the fact that the audience knew all his songs, and turned the singing duties over to them much of the time, not even bothering to hold the mic out to the crowd. While they sang his hits, his prerecorded vocals continued to play in the background.
There were significant moments in Lil’ Wayne’s set where there was absolutely no applause after his songs. Just empty silence. There were other moments that elicited frenzied anarchy, as when he took off his shirt. His vocals, already quiet and growly, were drowned out by his rock band, who hung from large cages and who served for the most part to uselessly thicken up his pared-down hip-hop into heavy metal jams.
“Dere’s three important things I gotta say,” announced Lil’ Wayne. “One: I believe in God, do you? An’ two: I ain’t shit wit out you, so make some noise. An’ three: I ain’t shit wit out you!”
T-Pain, riding circles around Lil’ Wayne on a Segway, argued about who had done more guest verses on songs by other artists this year. They decided to perform some of these songs, an experiment which if comprehensive could have gone on for approximately 83 hours, 31 minutes. The DJ played “Swagga Like Us,” but Lil’ Wayne cut it off, saying that he didn’t remember his own verse. This happens when you have 1,000 songs and are blasted on drugs most of the time.
“Y’all got the mixtapes?” Lil’ Wayne shouted, hypothetically, since his mixtapes have replaced albums as the listening format of choice for his fans; he did “I’m Me” and “Prostitute,” during which he sat holding a green electric guitar that he did not play. He then turned the stage over to a string of unknown friends to bore the crowd while he went backstage to get dressed for “Lollipop.”
Near the end of the set, Lil’ Wayne’s laptop DJ killed ten minutes by cuing up other people’s songs—“Single Ladies,” “Peter Piper”—while Wayne was nowhere to be seen. When he reemerged, he dissolved into a spiritual communion with stained-glass windows on the jumbotrons, spending an entire song on a spinning platform out of view of the audience. He bid farewell, the music ended, and the crowd was expected to applaud. No one did.
He popped back onto the stage to sing “A Milli,” its minimalist brilliance abandoned in favor of a heavy-metal wankfest, and left the Oakland Arena with a James Brown cape act and a run-through of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
And that’s the top-selling artist of the year. I was blown away when I heard “A Milli,” into the mixtapes, kinda underwhelmed by Tha Carter III, and after last night I don’t think Lil’ Wayne has the stamina to live up to his reputation. He’s got flashes of lyrical gold, oozes style and is a born ruler of the game; my guess is he’s toast in 2009. Riding out a tidal wave can be an art in itself, especially when you start counting up the $110 tickets head by head, and you realize that it is generating more motherfucking money than you or I could ever imagine. The tide can only go out from here.
More Photos Below.
1. Pygmy Unit – Signals From Earth (Private, 1974)
An amazing free-jazz recording on par with Sun Ra’s Strange Strings; just totally otherwordly. Features Darrell DeVore. Recorded in San Francisco and self-released.
2. Mary Lou Williams – Zoning (Mary, 1974)
Takes the piano and reimagines it as a power tool. Like nothing else Mary Lou Williams ever recorded. A pure product of the times, and also self-released.
3. Bill Barron – Modern Windows (Savoy, 1962)
Such an original voice on the tenor saxophone; also, Kenny Barron’s brother. I heard this and I was transfixed immediately. Nothing else on Savoy sounds like this.
4. Terumasa Hino – Taro’s Mood (Enja, 1973)
Whether sparse or pummeling, this record is in the moment from beginning to end. The total highlight of a batch of Japanese jazz LPs I came across earlier this year.
5. Leon’s Creation – This is the Beginning (Studio 10, 1970)
San Francisco group that could have given Sly Stone a run for his money. Absolutely kills from beginning to end. Unbelievable grooves. Found in a 25-cent bin!
6. Boogaloo Joe Jones – No Way! (Prestige, 1971)
Funky jazz guitar that never goes out of style. For some reason I never liked Grant Green all that much, but this is incredible. Like a wild pet escaped from its cage.
7. Donna Brooks – I’ll Take Romance (Dawn, 1956)
Basically a totally unknown singer who only made this one album. She captivates me.
8. Peter Brötzmann & Walter Perkins – The Ink is Gone (BRO, 2002)
Horns and drums skipping over the fires of hell. Wild sounds and intrinsic interplay. A more focused continuation of Machine Gun and Nipples.
9. Krczysztof Komeda – Cul-de-Sac (Harkit, 1966)
While digging around for Knife in the Water, I found this. It has its own sound. It grew on me, and it’s completely unique. He died young.
10. Takehiro Honda – Jõdo (Trio, 1970)
Piano player from Japan who weirdly appears nude on the back cover. The title track alone is as suspenseful as a Hitchcock classic.
11. Lucy Ann Polk – With the Dave Pell Octet (Trend, 1954)
My favorite obscure female singer of the last two years. Wore out her LP on Mode, and finally got a copy of this session; it’s breathtaking.
12. Mel Graves – Three Worlds (Arch, 1980)
Two days after he died, I came across this in the dollar bin. Had no idea it existed. Pretty out-there spiritual stuff, with George Marsh and Andy Narell.
13. Bennie Green – Soul Stirrin’ (Blue Note, 1958)
There once was a time when people partied in the studio and called it an album.
14. Don Pullen – Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975)
“Unique” doesn’t begin to describe this solo outing. Sadly overlooked. His playing always takes me on a mental journey.
15. Cecil Taylor – Love For Sale (United Artists, 1959)
Just an lesser-known LP from his late-’50s period that I hadn’t heard of until this year. Half Cole Porter songs; half originals. Straddles reality and non-reality, respectively.
16. Jaki Byard – There’ll Be Some Changes Made (Muse, 1972)
When I die I want Jaki Byard to come back to life and play at my funeral.
17. June Christy – The Cool School (Capitol, 1960)
I avoided this for years, thinking it was a soulless children’s record. Instead, it swings like nothing else and fast became one of my favorites. The kids are alright.
18. Billy Butler – Guitar Soul! (Prestige, 1969)
More guitar jazz that actually creeps under the skin. “Blow for the Crossing” is a backbeat nightmare that belongs on every mixtape.
19. Paul Bley – Ballads (ECM, 1967)
I have a Paul Bley record on ESP which is blessed by heaven. Most everything else is okay, but I found this last week and it’s in the clouds. Piano brilliance.
20. Melvin Jackson – Funky Skull (Limelight, 1969)
Standup bass, run through a fuzz box. Eddie Harris’ right-hand man. A fun one.
As many of my friends can attest, I am not a “make plans” person. I call people at the last minute and see if they want to leave for the city in a half hour. I stop by people’s houses unannounced, usually at dinnertime. I tend to brush off suggestions until I flip a coin to decide what I am going to do on the occasion that I have free time.
I’ll admit, this makes it annoying, sometimes, to be my friend. But when I’m cruising it alone—on nights like last night, when I left the house on foot not knowing where to go but just needing to walk around—the sensation of not having any plan or destination is a dream. Especially walking through downtown Santa Rosa at night in December; I should by rights be dulled to the feeling by now, but the lights through the mist and the buildings look lovelier to me every time.
I was hungry as hell and didn’t know where to eat when I passed Super Buffet, across from the Press Democrat building on Mendocino Avenue. Perfect. I soon found myself in an even more peaceful state: at a bustling restaurant, alone, gazing into my plate of microwave pizza and sweet & sour chicken and decompressing. I don’t meditate, but eating at a cheap place alone has been my mind-clearer for years now.
I remembered that Joni Davis’ thing was going on at the Orchard Spotlight, so after some more fried rice and Jello, I strolled over to the familiar house at 515 Orchard—obviously once an old church, with its vestibule and stained-glass windows—and walked in just as Deborah Frank was finishing her set, beating on a hand drum and leading the room in a call-and-response. The room was full of good people. There was a table full of cookies. I knew that my last-minute decision was a good one.
These three gals from Berkeley called Loretta Lynch played some good tunes—“Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby,” an original called “Drinkin’ for Two” written while pregnant. A poet recited some pretty great poetry, and “pretty great poetry” is not a phrase I use very often. Joni played songs from time to time, and Chris projected videos of elves drinking beer while Lila sang a “Twelve Days of Christmas” full of suicide bombers, unemployment, a failing global economy and six more weeks before Bush leaves office, which got a huge cheer each time it came around.
Josh from the Crux, above, reminded me why I like “Tears of Rage” so much, and Doug Jayne and Ron Stinnett reminded me about the great Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which complimented perfectly the mood of the night (and the cause, benefiting the Redwood Empire Food Bank during the cold winter months). “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,” the song begins, going on to sympathize with the frail forms and drooping maidens who faint and sigh all the day with worn hearts and poor troubles. Right on, Stephen Foster—and here I’d thought it was all about “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races”!
At the end of the show, Joni Davis sang an acapella hymn from the 14th Century, and then thanked the overflow room profusely for helping a worthy cause and creating community. Afterwards, all along my warm-hearted walk home in the cold air through beautiful downtown Santa Rosa, I dwelled on her closing words: “Just remember,” she said, “while people are shooting each other at Toys ‘R Us and trampling each other at Wal-Mart… this is Christmas.”
“After you’ve had a few hit records,” explained Johnny Mathis at the Wells Fargo Center last night, “you can just about do anything you want. And I wanted to record some of my mother’s favorite songs.”
His mother’s favorite songs, it turns out, were Christmas songs, and the rest is history—Johnny Mathis has put out nine Christmas albums since. Though for a concert billed as “A Johnny Mathis Christmas,” the set was actually a welcome 50/50 blend of seasonal classics and standards, touching on Mathis’ biggest hits and even snaking down very interesting territory—an electric-guitar version of the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” for example, or a raucous street-party “Brazil,” favela whistles and all.
Most noticeably, Johnny Mathis is a living miracle of preservation. At 73, he looks and sounds almost exactly like he did fifty years ago, with the same high-toned boyish singing and a surprisingly fit face and figure. He’s also not just going through the motions. That he’s still willing to take chances and go out of his comfort zone is one of the reasons he’s persevered as one of the last in a literally dying breed. (Oh, 960 KABL, how missed you are.)
Mathis opened with “Winter Wonderland,” the lead-off tune from his first and most famous Christmas album, and then went pretty quickly into “It’s Not For Me To Say,” sparking one of many sighs of recognition. The audience thrilled at the immediately recognizable piano intro to “Chances Are,” and during “Misty,” when he nailed the final octave-high falsetto in the third verse, you could hear an entire theater of 1,400 audibly gasp.
Sure, they laughed at “Gina,” but for the most part, Mathis—in a blue sweater and pants and white sneakers—held everyone rapt in his role as interpreter. “Stranger in Paradise,” “Secret Love” and “A Felicidade” are all songs associated with other singers, but Mathis did them right, just as he delivered a touching “Christmastime is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas after giving an introductory nod to Charles Schulz.
Yes, he did “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Silver Bells,” and a bunch of other Christmas songs. He also did “The Twelfth of Never” with a solo guitar backing, and “99 Miles From L.A.,” and somewhere near the end of it all—after an intermission during which a know-your-audience comedian came out and told Viagra jokes—Mathis sang eight bars completely acapella, a 73-year-old man alone and unaccompanied in the spotlight, just totally ruling it. Miracles never cease.
Yesterday, Los Angeles’ favorite DIY vegan noise punk duo No Age was nominated for a Grammy Award. If that sounds like the most insane thing in the world to you, that’s because it is—No Age is the most anti-Grammy Award band on the whole damn long list of nominations, and yet there they are, next to Metallica and Coldplay and the Jonas Brothers and every other major player in the whole stinking industry.
The guys in No Age can look at the non-musical nod as a badge of honor; a sort of affirmation that their actual music will probably never get recognized by the asinine nomination process of the Grammy Awards. You know the only Grammy Thelonious Monk ever won in his lifetime, for 1968’s Underground? It was for the same category that No Age is nominated in: Best Recording Package. Not for his music.
Last night at the Rickshaw Stop, No Age didn’t mention the Grammy Nomination from the stage. And for a band now officially noted worldwide for wrapping their music in a pretty package, well, they didn’t do that either. Instead they played a rambunctious 17-song set for a mostly staid crowd that for the first half of the show just stood there, barely moving. “Come on!” yelled drummer Dean Spunt, frustrated at the stone-faced wall of people. “You guys gotta work in the mornin’ or somethin’?! Loosen up! I said loosen up!”
The crowd eventually did loosen up, with multiple stagedives, bodies falling on the stage, and general dancing abandon. But by then it was too late to ignore what’s become No Age’s big problem: They’ve gotten too much mainstream attention for a band that belongs in basements instead of clubs. There are 100 other bands in the country like No Age, and getting plucked out of the pool and thrust into the limelight doesn’t seem to suit them, any more than being nominated for a Grammy Award does, or playing for a room of people with their arms folded, all thinking okay, guys, show me what you got.
Mitigating circumstances, too, made it an uphill battle. The night was a showcase for an upstart online music site owned by Hot Topic, and the band was introduced by a guy who dropped the phrases “business partnership” and “dot-com” way more than anyone at a show should have to bear. But No Age ultimately prevailed, passing their guitar to be mangled by the hands of the crowd, passing themselves to be levitated by the arms of the crowd, and re-creating a reasonable facsimile of the abandon found at basements, all-ages volunteer clubs and house parties for their trademark closer, “Everybody’s Down.” I’m down with that.
I’m equally down with Titus Andronicus, actually, who opened the show and won me over with their weary, Westerberg-like eight-minute anthem that they dedicated to the Louisiana Purchase. And incidentally, how can Nouns get nominated for Best Packaging—and the unbelievable, amazing designs by Southern Lord get overlooked? Just sayin’.