When I arrived at Warren Auditorium tonight, there were already more than 20 people standing in the hallway outside the theater, craning their necks to see through the doors. There were additional seats, full of people, placed behind the stage. There were speakers going out into the lobby, where even more people stood.
You shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.
It is unfortunate that one of the greatest listening experiences to be had in Sonoma County all year had to come with a tinge of sadness. Mel Graves, the great bassist and composer, died on Saturday of terminal cancer, just one day before the big farewell concert that he’d organized and looked forward to. The music heard tonight—presented by Mel’s alumni, close friends and colleagues—was so incredible, so blossoming and full of life. It was an utterly fitting tribute for a passionate, funny, smart, brilliant man.
I was lucky to be able to hang out with Mel a couple times in the last year. He was a no-nonsense soul who was at equal ease discussing the difference in the 1964 and 1965 versions of Charles Mingus’ “Meditations” as he was accepting life’s ultimate key change. The last time I stopped by his Petaluma home, his girlfriend Pam was taking care of him with what was obviously a great deal of love. He was surrounded by notes, preparing for this farewell concert, suggested by his friend Jessica Felix and which he himself titled, in pure Mel fashion, “Movin’ On.” He was at peace.
My only wish is that he could have seen the gales of love that were showered on him tonight. Hopefully he felt it.
Among the highlights: Denny Zeitlin, recalling the phone call he received in 1968 from a young Graves who said “I’ve just come out from the Midwest, and I love your stuff on Columbia, and I want to play with you.” (Graves and Zeitlin would go on to play together for 40 years.) Zeitlin sat down, chalked up his hands, and played a commanding, emotionally charged improvisation which led into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before it ended, hanging in air, unresolved.
Mel Martin, recalling the inconvenience of working so often with someone who shared his name. Both Mels eventually discovered that Martin’s Melvyn was spelled with a Y; Graves’ Melvin with an I. “He’d call me up, and say ‘Hey there, Y,’ and I’d say, Hey, I.’ I will miss that.” The band then kicked into “Flamenco Sketches,” and Martin played a razor-sharp cascading solo.
One of Graves’ specific requests for the night’s program was for Zeitlin and guest pianist Art Lande to sit together and play a four-hand piano duet, and he would have been bowled over at the results. Assuming the “missionary position” with crossed arms, the two oscillated from battling each other to cooperating on the keys in what was the night’s most freewheeling and humorous moment.
But most of all, every player on stage seemed to exhibit a certain extra empathy. There was a lot of listening going on between the players, and perhaps this was why they were so wonderful to listen to. During the final number, a solitary chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ beautiful ballad “Goodbye,” each member of the bandstand was united in the cause to properly bid farewell to their friend. The standing ovation from the full theater was overwhelming.
Aw, you shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.
Goldenvoice is a concert promotion company that grew out of the Los Angeles punk rock underground of the 1980s into a huge entity that today essentially dominates the market in the greater Southern California area. They’re now doing shows in San Francisco at the Regency Center Grand Ballroom, and they have brought everything that’s wrong about Los Angeles with them. I nominate that we send them back home. I’m not alone.
The Grand Ballroom (don’t confuse it for the old Avalon Ballroom, which is next door, on Sutter Street) is a beautifully ornate venue with tall ceilings, a wrap-around balcony and elegant chandeliers. One can only imagine how great it’d be in the hands of, say, Another Planet, because it’s clear that Goldenvoice is blowing what could potentially be a great venue.
First off—it’s hard not to be irritated by the very imposing security presence. There’s the usual pat-down, what’s-this-you’ve-got-here at the door, but once inside, it’s all hey-where-are-you-goin’ and being told not to walk or stand in what appears to be wide open, unrestricted spaces. The sense of authoritarian rule isn’t in-your-face, but it’s constant, and it makes for a lousy experience when you feel like you’re constantly being monitored.
Second—I understand that the Grand Ballroom is a difficult room for sound, but it’s not an impossible room for sound. It’s the same dimensions as the Fillmore, which has great sound. The problem is that the sound equipment isn’t permanent; Goldenvoice has to bring in all their speakers, boards, monitors and stacks for each individual show and get everything dialed in each time. It’s an extremely limiting situation, and it leads to the bands sounding utterly horrible.
Third—Goldenvoice takes a 20% cut of bands’ T-shirt sales, and a 5% cut of their CD and LP sales. This is unspeakable. There is no respectable reason for promoters to take a cut of a band’s merchandise. Especially their music. It’s not unusual among the more sleazeball promoters, and it’s the norm for huge concert promoters like Live Nation, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Fourth—tickets for the Grand Ballroom are sold through Ticketmaster, which I think is totally inexcusable considering the far more fan-friendly ticketing options available these days. Ticketmaster is like the Bush presidency—a series of failed policies and “screw you” attitudes—and it needs to die like the embarrassment that it is.
The first time I saw Against Me! at 924 Gilman Street, obviously none of these issues were a problem. That was five years ago, and a lot has changed for Against Me! since then—not the least of which is selling way more records and playing way larger shows, for better and for worse.
The pivotal moment came when I saw them at the Warfield just before New Wave was released, shoved onto an awkward major-label co-billing with Mastodon. They seemed bored, and the new songs were awful. Imagine my surprise when they got more popular than ever, and New Wave, a slickly produced pile of crap, became Spin‘s Album of the Year.
And yet I couldn’t completely abandon Against Me!, as much as I certainly tried.
I still remembered the time they came to Santa Rosa on their first tour and stopped by the Last Record Store. They cruised the aisles, and bought some records, and then one of them asked, “Yeah, um… we’re a band on tour, and we’re playing a show at a place called Jessie Jean’s tonight, but we don’t see any flyers for it at all. Do you think you could maybe tell people to come?”
“Sure, ” I said. “What’s your band’s name?”
“Against Me!,” the guy replied.
I lit up with excitement. “You guys are reinventing Axl Rose!” I said.
“Yeah… how d’you know that?”
“We carry your record over here, look!”
And then one by one, they all filed over to the ‘A’ section, and held up their record, amazed. That’s the Against Me! that I still see in my head: four guys just totally stoked to see their own band in a record store on the other side of the country.
Last night, Against Me! played a fair balance of songs old and new, ensuring that longtime fans still had something to shout about. The older songs got most joyous reactions, naturally—”Cliché Guevara,” “Walking is Still Honest”—but one of the reasons I like seeing Against Me! live is to be reminded of songs like “Borne of the FM Waves of the Heart,” which is a highlight of New Wave.
Sure, new clunkers abounded. Despite its well-intentioned subject matter, “Anna is a Stool Pigeon,” from Tom Gabel’s new solo album, sounded forced and uninspiring, fulfilling the cliché of most solo album material. And I still can’t bring myself to buy New Wave, simply because I’d be picking up the needle and skipping songs so much that it wouldn’t be worth it.
The band’s gigantic banner draped the back wall of the stage, but the hall was half-empty. Though Against Me! is one of the most energetic and cardiovascular bands in the world, lots of people past the first 10 rows just stood there, like they were watching a cooking show or something. It felt a tad like much ado about little, until the encore, “We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules,” which proved yet again that Against Me! knows how to close the hell out of a show.
First people from the crowd began jumping on stage and singing along. Then, ditching his drums to help lead a huge clapping breakdown, Warren ran and stagedove into the crowd—flying through the air right exactly on the downbeat when the band, with a guest drummer who appeared out of nowhere, kicked back in and finished the song. It was fuckin’ nuts, and so totally fun, and the best part is that the overzealous security guards on the other side of the barricade were going crazy. Ha!
Made me love ‘em all over again.
I had been wondering how Zach Hill would pull off his solo album, Astrological Straits, in a live setting. With over a dozen guest musicians on his album, would he hire a pick-up band? Would he try to play more than just the drums? Would he call up Les Claypool and ask if he’d mind driving down to Santa Rosa to fill in?
The Casbar is the new joint in town, located inside the Days Inn way down on Santa Rosa Avenue, near Todd Road. It’s a funky location for a funky room—black lights up in each corner, an absinthe green light emitting from the bar, a hazy red near the stage. It’s dark, dank, and seemingly underused, but as Ian told me out in the parking lot— referencing the eternal need for another venue—”Everyone’s gonna pounce on this place.”
After Epiphany Music was shut down in 2007, the former owner, fresh out of jail, somehow convinced the Days Inn to let her put on a show here, calling it the “New Epiphany.” It went rather poorly, and the folks at the Days Inn (they used to run the Los Robles Lodge, putting on the Liquid Lounge nights there and a few in-over-their-heads rap shows at the Fairgrounds) apparently waited a year and a half to try again. I’m glad they did.
The best thing about the Casbar? Those not old enough to drink get a handstamp. Those old enough to drink get a wristband. Everyone wins. Why this hasn’t been done before in Santa Rosa is beyond me, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t become an issue for the litigation-happy City Attorney’s office, because it makes perfect sense.
Hill and I talked a little bit about Cecil Taylor before the show (“he’s a big inspiration”), and it foreboded his set. Setting up two large speakers on either side of his small drum kit, Hill played the entire 33-minute-long piano-driven bonus track from Astrological Straits, “Necromancer.” Marnie Stern’s spoken word bookended the fierce, pounding piano attack by Marco Benevento, and it didn’t sound at all unlike Taylor’s famous 1979 set with Max Roach at Columbia University.
How the hell does Zach Hill play drums so quickly, so fiercely, so insanely?
Here’s the thing. Sure, Hill played the shit out of the drums nonstop for a half hour, never letting up at all, but it wasn’t unnecessarily violent. Every piece of the puzzle made some kind of sense, and every riptide fill had its place. Like a cross between Dave Lombardo and Philly Joe Jones, Hill exhibited stamina and taste, with a sense of actually communicating something in his playing. I was never bored through the entire volcanic set.
Afterwards, there were literal puddles of Hill’s sweat on the floor beneath his kit.
Now in its 26th year, SFJAZZ has been key in bringing both older jazz legends and younger jazz luminaries to San Francisco audiences in a number of venues around the city. The fall season of SFJAZZ lasts over a month, but to highlight the festival’s diversity and taste, I chose to attend three consecutive nights showcasing the breadth of talent available in a short span. Two older stalwarts of the avant-garde, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, and two younger stars of the new breed, Eldar and Sophie Milman.
Oct. 23 – Archie Shepp at Herbst Theatre
On the first night, Archie Shepp gave a rare U.S. concert appearance at the Herbst Theatre. The Herbst Theatre is one of the finest locations utilized by SFJAZZ—it’s just the right size, the sound is good, and the theatre itself beautiful—and it befits legends like Dewey Redman or Andrew Hill, both of whom have played there in recent years. This was, it must be said, a very special treat for Shepp’s Bay Area fans, many of whom have waited years to see him in person, sustaining instead on repeated listenings of landmark albums like Fire Music, Attica Blues, and—appropriately—Live in San Francisco.
Shepp will probably live forever unfairly in the shadow of John Coltrane, who took the young saxophonist under his wing and signed him to Impulse Records. I say unfairly because it’s hard to imagine Coltrane, would he have lived, to be as carefree as Shepp has been after Coltrane’s death. In the years since, Shepp has played R&B, sung standards, and dabbled in funk.
Shepp is now 71, but right from the start of Thursday night’s show, he displayed that he is still in command of his horn. He also showed that after 40 years, he’s still not immune to Coltrane’s shadow; nearly every song had its own Coltrane counterpart.
A quick-paced opener placed Shepp in explorative sheets-of-sound mode, while his band drove a pounding modal form with intensity and skill; it could have easily fit on Meditations. Shepp then sang a relaxed “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which could have found a home on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Other moments throughout the night drew inevitable comparisons to Kulu Sé Mama, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane’s Sound, and Lush Life.
But another essential way that Shepp has carried on Coltrane’s legacy is that his appearances are inseparable from the full emotional palette of the black experience in America. Beauty, fury, jubilation, humor and sorrow all play key roles in Shepp’s music. Shepp explains the unexplainable through his music; the feelings that words cannot contain. To hear him is to know a history of civil struggle and racial injustice.
Not everyone is a fan of this. During “Mama Rose,” which contained an intense poetic recitation about motherhood, love, riots, banana pudding, ex-cannibals, dreams and revolution, including the line “Your vagina split asymmetrically between the east and the west,” a group of people sitting in the balcony leaned in, consulted each other, and bailed.
After “Trippin’,” a 12-bar blues in which Shepp channeled James Brown’s epic wail in singing about canceling his email and cutting off his cell phone, Shepp announced that his contract with SFJAZZ called for an intermission. Any folks who might have left missed the best portion of the evening.
Opening his second set with “Ujamaa,” an incredible composition, Shepp gave his most intense solo of the concert while his first-rate band kept apace. Clutching the microphone and crooning in an Earl Coleman style, Shepp’s “Lush Life” was rendered with a wide-open verse, with Shepp conducting the band into a Latin-rhythm chorus. Billy Strayhorn famously wrote the ode to weariness when he was just 16, but Shepp turned it around and sang it giddily, at 71, as if he was a teenager. Switching to saxophone, he quoted “Well You Needn’t” in a solo that sometimes reached for high notes that didn’t come.
Shepp continued with a song written for his cousin, who was murdered in a street fight when he was 15—a rather happy song, actually—and closed with “Burning Bright,” containing an impeccable solo by the song’s composer, pianist Tom McClung.
The rush of applause was too strong to deny, and Shepp returned to center stage—minus drummer Ronnie Burrage—to play a breathy “In a Sentimental Mood,” the closing track of Live in San Francisco. Serene and delicate, it closed the evening perfectly, with a solo tag of dancing runs.
In the brief moment between the song’s end and the cascade of applause, an audience member yelled out, “You’re beautiful, Archie!” Simple and perfect.
Oct. 24 – Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral
The next night, it was Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral. Consecrated in 1965 by Duke Ellington, the massive church was blessed with jazz from the start, and for 22 of the past 26 years, SFJAZZ has been using it for concerts they call “Sacred Space.” Pharaoh Sanders is among those who’ve performed solo inside the cathedral, using no amplification whatsoever. The effect is stunning.
Taylor was announced to the stage, but for the first few minutes, all that could be heard was his voice over a loudspeaker.
“A S B M. A S B M. In Canal. In Canal You. In Canal You Long.”
It was Cecil Taylor, all right, doing his crazy Cecil Taylor thing and slowly making his way toward the piano.
“A Gene. A Gene Splits Into 28 Paragraphs. One Second Is Equal To 28.10 Electrons Equaling One Volt Is The Electric Motive In Proportion To Rhythm,” he continued, occasionally making long, gurgling sounds like a constipated alien.
When I last saw Cecil Taylor, at an SFJAZZ appearance at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2001, he held a similarly scattered conversation with himself; I thought, at the time, that he might have been studying some new form of chemistry. But no. Apparently he just likes to ramble.
Well-known for celebrating sharp bursts of percussive staccato passages, Taylor sat at the piano and instead drove straight into full-bodied, cascading playing, like he simply had too much music in his head gushing forth all at once. Inside the church, with sculptures of the crucifixion on the walls and a general atmosphere of reverence, the juxtaposition of religious tradition against fevered chaos was weird and funny.
Alas, the performance was stellar. What might have been choppy and percussive in any other venue came further together by Grace Cathedral’s natural seven-second reverb, and Taylor played off this effect, often hammering as many notes as possible into those seven seconds. His usual stabs in the gut became deep punches; his abrasive pelts of hail multiplying upon themselves into thunderstorms. His audible moaning and breathing echoed across the vault.
Taylor stopped playing, and the crowd applauded. A 40-something guy in a Hawaiian shirt sitting in front of us took a shot from his flask, and offered it to his considerably younger girlfriend, wearing a beret. She shook her head. Taylor then began playing again, in what sounded like a continuation of the exact same song.
When Cecil Taylor speaks in a foreign musical language of constant discord, are there ears enough to make out what he’s saying? The show was sold out, but it was unavoidable to contemplate just how many in the crowd viewed Taylor simply as a cultural curiosity. Between each of five pieces, Taylor shuffled and rearranged his sheet music, and it was hard to figure out why he even had it in the first place. He couldn’t possibly have been following it.
All of this sounds like a total dis, but it’s not. I’ve long loved Cecil Taylor—possibly because I can’t put into words exactly why—and even after a spate of souring on him as of late, he won me back into his world on Friday night. His total expressiveness, his thundering command, his emotional presence and his singular, powerful musical vision on display reawakened me to his brilliance. The venue certainly helped.
At the end of the set, Taylor tried to leave the stage but the applause was too strong. He sat down and played again, another short minute-and-a-half chapter in the neverending song, and finally shuffled his hunched, frail body to the back room of the church.
He stayed there for over an hour after the show was over, muttering in one giant monologue to a small group of assembled fans.
Oct. 25 – Eldar and Sophie Milman at Herbst Theatre
Back to the Herbst Theatre on Saturday night, for a decidedly younger lineup: 21-year-old piano prodigy Eldar and 24-year-old chanteuse Sophie Millman.
Eldar is famous for sounding like Art Tatum—rapid-fire runs, mind-boggling changes in key and tempo mid-song, a strong left hand—and his first number, “I Should Care,” demonstrated this in dazzling fashion. Everything that is great about Eldar was encapsulated in this first number; he played it antagonistically but respectfully, tackling the standard to the ground and working it over with hyperactive stride, incessant and precise runs, left-hand jabs and full-fingered clusters.
Though he could never possess Tatum’s swing, Eldar makes up for it in technical command; this is why he’s more Vladimir Horowitz than Oscar Peterson, and indeed, he has a very classical touch on the keys. But his mind is that of the explorer, the improviser who steps through every possibility at an unbelievable pace. Were it not for the opening melody, no one could have recognized “I Should Care” as imagined by Eldar.
This is what’s great about jazz: taking something old and making it new again. Unfortunately, Eldar’s focus shifted into presenting something new and making it sound old: his next song, “Insensitive,” was an original composition marked by unprovoked chord changes, a plodding form and little to no melody. This is how things stayed, as Eldar performed solely original compositions in the same vein for the rest of the set.
The third song, for example, featured nonstop busy drumming, jabbing bass lines, and a chaotic Eldar flying all over the piano. But the overall presentation was that of a garbled, very academic attempt, including the use of a 1970s-sounding synthesizer on top of the piano. If this is the way Eldar’s career is moving—away from dazzling standards and into post-post-fusion gobbledygook—then Sony must be nervous about their young star. Perhaps they’re trying to replace the Bad Plus. Maybe they’re trying to win over Rush fans. Who knows?
Up next was Sophie Milman, who, like Eldar, was born in the former Soviet Union. Moving to Israel at age 7 and then to Canada at age 16, Milman lived an upended youth in areas of global tumult, discovering solace in listening to American jazz records. This is her history, which she tells in magazine articles, on radio shows, and from the stage.
Luckily, she’s not just a good NPR story. She’s also a wonderful singer.
Opening with “It Might as Well be Spring” in a strapless leopard-print dress, red leather heels and gold earrings, Milman immediately hit all the right Anita O’Day-June Christy-Chris Connor notes with enough of her own style to warrant the comparison. Her appealing voice, airy but not overly husky, took on adventurous trills and jumps. She conducted her band, whooped at their solos, snapped her fingers and constantly jittered her arms and tapped her heels.
Milman had just spent a week at the Blue Note in New York with Eldar—they really are a curious co-billing, other than the “young” and “Soviet” angle—and she was glad to finally have some time in San Francisco. “You guys are very, very lucky,” she remarked at one point. “We’re going home to Toronto to blizzards.”
“People Will Say We’re in Love” was delightful, and a subtle vibrato eked into Milman’s voice during “I Concentrate on You.” Then Milman told the story of her life, and how she never fit in with the other kids in Israel who couldn’t understand her obsession with jazz, and dedicated the next number “to all the kids growing up who used to pick on me.” It is a song, she explained, that she sings at every performance.
“Bein’ Green,” as made famous by Kermit the Frog, is not a terrible song. But it is essentially a sad song, and despite Milman’s familiarity with the tune, it showed her emotional limitations. “Bein’ Green” is one of those curiosities that works in the hands of, say, Frank Sinatra when he’s 63—but not so much in the young, peppy hands of Milman.
“Here’s a great Bruce Springsteen song,” Milman then announced, and “I’m on Fire” continued the feeling that Milman might occasionally be in over her head. “I’m on Fire” is a creepy song—the pleading of a tortured stalker to ravage the untouched beauty of a young girl. Completely changed from the original, with minor-key chords, the arrangement brought out that creepiness. But it felt like Milman let the arrangement do all the work—she sang it sultry rather than tormented.
But these were unimportant diversions from what Milman does best. Redemption was found in a soulful, “Maiden Voyage”—esque arrangement of “Love for Sale,” and Milman once again had the crowd in the palm of her hands. After all the sleepy Norah Jones tranquilizing on the “jazz” charts for the last eight years, it’s nice to see an inventive young singer bringing back flair and pizzazz to jazz singing. Here’s hoping more folks discover her talent.
So there you go—three days of the SFJAZZ festival. The complete schedule for SFJAZZ, including teasers for their upcoming Spring season, can be found at their official website.
The insane circumstances surrounding Sly Stone’s bizarre appearance in Santa Rosa last Friday, Oct. 18, were told to me by several people involved with the show. Crazy doesn’t begin to describe it. Here’s how it went down.
The morning of the show, Sly Stone is in Los Angeles. He fires his business manager. Sly tells the promoter that he’s his own boss now, that he’s the one who’s going to get paid at the show, and that he needs $3,000 wired to the bank account of an Iranian BMW saleswoman before he’ll even get on the plane to San Francisco.
And about that plane: it was supposed to arrive from Los Angeles at 11:30am. No Sly. The limo waits at the airport. Sly’s next flight becomes 1:30pm, then 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 5:30pm. No one can get a hold of him at all. The promoter drives to the airport in the slim hope that Sly might walk through one of the gates.
Finally, at 7:30pm, with his young Japanese girlfriend in tow, the 65-year-old Sly shows up at the airport. He’s an hour and a half away from the show—which starts in a half hour—and he demands to go to the hotel. The young girlfriend finally talks him out of it, and he agrees to go to the show, but he’s still talking about getting paid.
He sleeps all the way to Santa Rosa.
Sly doesn’t hit the stage at the Wells Fargo Center until 10:30pm, during the fifth song of the set. He walks off the stage 25 minutes later, in the middle of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” telling the crowd, “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”
But Sly never comes back. The band continues on without him, killing time for 30 minutes. During the last song, a man appears on the stage, whispering into band members’ ears.
Meanwhile, backstage, Sly is demanding to be paid. The show is still going on, and the promoters are telling his handlers to get him back out to perform more. But his handlers know the drill. It’s been this way for years. What can they do?
Before the show is over, Sly is out in the parking lot, still in his white suit, trying to get into the promoter’s car. All the doors are plainly locked, but he keeps trying. Finally, a woman drives by, picks him and his Japanese girlfriend up, and they whiz away. Word of his departure gets inside.
It’s not too hard to figure out what the man on the stage was whispering to the band. How about: Sly’s making a getaway? How about: Sly’s driving off right now? How about: You’d better chase after him if you want to get paid?
And after quickly finishing the song and exiting the stage, that’s exactly what they do.
The band members pile in their cars and find Sly precisely where they thought he’d be—at the Fountaingrove Hilton. Except he’s not in his room. All the rooms are reserved under the business manager’s name, who Sly fired that morning. So Sly’s there, fuming about not being able to get into his room, when the rest of his band suddenly pulls up.
“Get me out of here,” he’s heard telling his driver, and they peel out.
It is not an uncommon sight to see cars racing down Mendocino Avenue on a Friday night. But it’s a different story altogether when the lead car giving chase contains an absolute funk music legend, pursued by five more cars driven by band members, some of whom have played with him for 40 years and are actual, literal family members. Six cars race down the street, weaving in and out of lanes.
Finally, past midnight, Sly’s car is cornered at a gas station. A long stand-off ensues between him and the band while the young Japanese girl cries hysterically in the car. A gas station on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. That’s where it all falls apart.
At press time, no one can get a hold of Sly Stone—not his management, not his band mates, not his family. The last anyone sees of him, he’s headed south on Highway 101. Everyone’s got a pretty good idea how he’s spending the money, but no one knows where he is.
And no one ever wants to play with him again.
To read a review of the Sly Stone show, click here.
At the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone did not take a bow.
In fact, at the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone was nowhere to be seen. He had left the stage long ago, during “I Want to Take You Higher”—one of only four songs he actually performed—explaining to the crowd: “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”
But throughout the rest of the 90-minute set, Stone never returned, leaving the Family Stone to awkwardly vamp songs in his absence, just like they had at the beginning of the set, until, well, the hell with it, you know, and they simply gave up and left, too. The house lights came on, and a young man sitting a few seats away from me said it all.
He stood up, angrily threw his arms in the air, and yelled, “What the fuck??!”
Yes, it was disappointing. Extremely disappointing. And by far the hardest part is that for the few songs Stone appeared on—“Sing a Simple Song,” “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Stand!” and “I Want to Take You Higher”—he was an electrifying presence which transformed the show from a schmaltzy Vegas act into a truly special occasion. That is, when Sly Stone—one of the greatest talents in soul music and an undeniable genius—wasn’t referring to Santa Rosa as “Sacramento” or telling the audience, point-blank, to shut up.
Even before the show started at 9:55pm, trouble was in the air. The opening act had played for far too long, and when Sly’s announcer finally came on stage, he felt compelled to convince the crowd of the overshadowing importance of the evening. “I know you’ve waited a long time,” he said. “But this is history! You can tell your grandkids that you waited for Sly and the Family Stone!”
The nine-piece band then took to the stage, without Sly Stone, announcing that their “master” had asked them to “warm up the stage” for a while. Apparently, “warming up” means dicking around for five minutes. They sloppily introduced the band, gave shout-outs to their friends in the crowd and joked painfully amongst themselves. Eventually, they remembered that their job was to entertain paying customers, and tore into “Dance to the Music.” The crowd went nuts.
Then came “Everyday People,” which was noticeably weaker without Sly around, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” which caused people to start shouting. “We want Sly!” they yelled. “Where’s Sly?” The band answered by first playing a quick funk instrumental, and then by futzing around with the monitors and complaining to the soundman.
Then, weirdly, and with no fanfare, Sly Stone appeared—coming down the aisles, walking slowly to the stage and murmuring greetings into his wireless microphone. The band kicked into “Sing a Simple Song,” and Sly opened his mouth to unleash a signature deep, rich voice that hasn’t really changed much in the last 40 years. A thrill ran through the building. The crowd jumped again to their feet and danced like crazy.
Especially moving was Stone’s version of “If You Want Me to Stay,” with its impossibly low notes and an ever-hypnotic chord progression. For as bizarre as Sly Stone is these days, he is completely and authentically in the moment during songs like “If You Want Me to Stay.” He has that kind of unpretentious honesty that draws people to him as an artist. He’s not trying to be anyone he’s not, and this keeps him from being a caricature of himself.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience,” said a grateful-seeming Stone. “We’re happy to be here. We’re lucky to be here.”
Then came “Stand!,” which a large portion of the audience responded to by sitting down, and maybe Stone took the hint. Halfway through “I Want to Take You Higher,” he was off to take his piss. And to never come back.
The rest of the set dragged on in the worst possible way—with hopelessly long jams, misplaced caterwauling, obligatory drum solos, and guitars being played with teeth. People who most likely hadn’t heard Stone’s muttered promise to return and thus had figured that the show was basically over flooded out of the theater. Others, holding out hope to hear Stone come back and sing “Everybody is a Star” or “Family Affair,” stayed in their seats while the band flogged every last tiny drop out of mega-extended versions of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” “Thank You (Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”
The theater was already half-empty by the time the band shed their instruments and exited the stage. Scattered boos underscored the mild applause. A girl was overheard near the back, beside herself with disbelief. “Seriously?!” she exclaimed. “75 bucks to see a cover band!”
It was a rough night all around, highlighted bittersweetly with a brief flash of brilliance. Sly Stone may not retain the ability to perform much longer, whether because of mental and physical deterioration or simply because of an utterly ruined reputation. But even viewing tonight’s show through this cynical lens—that it was, at least, a historic event—it’s incredibly cold comfort in light of the disappointment he left us to remember him by.
Dance to the Music
Hot Fun in the Summertime
Instrumental Funk Jam
Sing a Simple Song
If You Want Me to Stay
I Want to Take You Higher
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey
Thank You (Fallettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin)
Somebody’s Watching You
UPDATE: Read all about the behind-the-scenes tumult and insanity here.
I’d fully planned to write about the New Trust Record Release show last week, where instead of playing their own material, the New Trust wrangled a handful of local bands to cover their songs. It was a bold idea which turned out to be one of the most unique and interesting record release shows seen around here in a long time. No surprise, really, since the New Trust is known for bold and unique measures—like, oh, say, stealing their best friend’s bass guitar and then writing a song to apologize about it. No shit.
But one thing led to another. Suffice it to say, everyone I saw was not only fantastic; the whole evening made me realize for the trillionth time how music binds people of seemingly disparate groups together—even a local band like the New Trust, who has obviously had an impact on more than just their own friends. Take, for example, the opening performers, James Ryall and Robert McLean, who everybody was talking about at the end of the night.
With just two songs, “This Invitation Has Meant the World to Me” and “The Body and the Brain,” these unknown dudes showed up in suits and ties and killed it. Throwing out the usual approach, they boiled down the former song to a landscape of sparse guitar riffs, making Robert McLean a shoo-in for second guitarist should the New Trust ever need one again; the latter’s sailing celestial vocals solidified the suspicion that if Josh Staples is ever done off by hit men, James Ryall could easily fill his shoes in the absurdly upper-register requirements for the job of New Trust singer.
Everyone was agog, and rightly so. Who the hell were these guys?
I went to the Phoenix Theater last night to find out. There’s not much that’s more refreshing to me than going to the Phoenix on a night when there’s six new bands playing. Most of my friends are jaded about this stuff, but man, I love it. Brand-new effects pedals just out of their boxes, moms in the crowd filming, awkward announcements about the exact URLs of MySpace pages. New spirit. New sounds. New blood to fuel our future heart.
Horizons headlined this lineup, and even though there were only about 50 or so people still around at 11:30pm, the band repeatedly expressed genuine surprise at the size of the crowd. As such, they played their guts out, even though James’ vocal chords were allegedly shot; he sucked on a plastic-bear bottle of honey between every song to salve his throat, prompting one audience member to quip that he’s “going to be shitting bees tomorrow.”
But his singing was great, and the band occupied this weird area between the Mars Volta and Muse. Parts of songs would flow together for no reasonable purpose, but then by the end, the arrangement would somehow make sense. All three members moved and swayed along to prerecorded electronic beats, or sang off-mic in a tagged-on coda, all the while playing music that could be easily suspected, it must be said, to have been made under the hazy influence of the reef.
The Bunker played in the lobby beforehand, who apparently are good friends with Horizons but have a way different style. Incredibly tight, pensive pop songs played amongst Christmas lights, a dance-club light ball and a fog machine. The singer Spike has that deceptively plain kind of voice reminiscent of John Darnielle, and the drummer Sam—it was his second show—could easily get a side job playing in a jazz combo.
But it was the Bunker’s songs that were the highlight; just really well-written jams from a talented mind. (Sample lyric: “It’s a quick draw, where I drew too fast and far too soon / I’m going crazy, but don’t mind me, ‘cause tonight it’s a full moon.”) Good shit; let’s hope there’s more where they came from.
Coming Full Circle: a quick jaunt over to the Bunker’s site reveals a cover song: “Holy Wars,” by—you guessed it—the New Trust.
Details: Robert McLean isn’t in Horizons; he actually played in the band In Diana Jones, who broke up. You can download both the In Diana Jones EP and the Horizons EP for free by visiting this site: This Is Our EP.
Backstage on Sunday, in the late afternoon, Jack White shows up and waltzes through the cluster of bands, fans, and hangers-on. It feels a little bit like the royal family making a grand entrance, and for all the “it” bands chilling back here—Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River—White goes straight to Jason Pierce, from Spiritualized. They spend a good 10 minutes or so together, and everyone watching is wondering what in the world they’re talking about before White disappears with the rest of his band mates to the backstage tent.
Okkervil River saunters out with confidence and poise, and then immediately realizes that they’re not in tune. Whoops. A few seconds go by, the bass player lifts a total Merle Haggard & the Strangers intro, and with “Singer Songwriter,” we’re off and running. You heard that song, man? I tell you, it’s the most scathing thing since “Idiot Wind.”
The Stage Names—not into it at first. Four listens went by. Then it grew on me. I read the lyrics, and it grew on me even more. After seeing them live, I’m a dyed in the wool fan. Singer Will Sheff is a natural with the crowd, mentioning after a break on “Pop Lie” to change his guitar strap: “A lot of the sets here at this festival are very professional. We hope you appreciate the difference.”
“Lost Coastlines” is the big hit from Okkervil River’s new record The Stand Ins, and when bassist Patrick Pestorius comes in with his baritone lines, there’s an audible “Whoo!” from the crowd. Sheff ambles over and tickles Pestorius’ beard while he’s singing, then pulls the microphone from its stand and serenades the crowd up close.
“Our Life is not a Movie or Maybe” gives way to “Unless it’s Kicks”—just like on the album, bro!—and shit gets heavy. Sheff is really working the crowd: “It’s a beautiful day, we’re on an island, there’s water on all sides, there’s birds flying through the trees, and I want you to put your hands together! All the way back to the Ferris Wheel!” He ends the set by knocking the mic stand into the photo pit and leading the band in a pummeling outro. I’d say they left their mark.
There used to be this band called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Then there was this other band called My Morning Jacket. Now there is a band called Fleet Foxes.
Warming up with Dylan’s “Sara,” Robin Pecknold jokingly chides mother nature for its interference. “I’m hearing a low rumble,” he says. “Is that the wind? Can you turn the wind down?”
“Sun Giant” starts the set, a long acapella about living life in the summer and spring and the sun and the seeds and the clouds. The four-part harmonies are perfect, just absolutely dead-on. “White Winter Hymnal” conjures snow, strawberries, the summertime. The wind keeps blowing from the bay and rumbling into the microphones. It can’t be turned down.
“The Dodos are playing today!” says Pecknold, enthusiastically. “I think they’re… uh, I could really blackmail them. But I won’t.”
Okonokos is the third greatest live album ever recorded.
The last time I saw Spiritualized, in 1997, right after Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space came out, the band was buried in fog and lights. I didn’t understand the concept of noise as bliss, nor did I see any reason to intentionally obscure what would otherwise be a great song in mountains of effects, layers of wrong notes and a shit-ton of feedback. I distinctly remember thinking that they weren’t very good.
I usually vehemently argue that musical impressions are a matter of opinion, and I always give other people a lot of leeway for personal taste. But I think in this case, it comes down to actual facts. In 1997, I was dead wrong.
There haven’t been too many chances to see Spiritualized since, and after Jason Pierce’s near-death experience from bilateral pneumonia three years ago, I’m surprised that I get to see them at all. But lo, here they are, on stage and starting their set with “Amazing Grace,” which evolves, naturally, into a shower of feedback and noise.
You know how sometimes songs can give you a brief endorphin rush of absolute happiness? There’s moments in certain songs—bridges of Operation Ivy songs, choruses of People Under The Stairs songs, solos from Charles Mingus songs—that I can always count on to do that to me for a few seconds. But when Spiritualized plays “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space,” that feeling lasts constantly, throughout the entire song, for a whole four minutes.
Afterwards, backstage, I actually run into Pierce. There’s a million things I’d love to ask him, but I keep it short. “It’s a nice little festival here,” he tells me. “I could watch San Francisco across the water from the stage. I only wish we could have played longer.” I second that emotion, but while it lasted, it was heaven. Here’s the set list:
You Lie You Cheat
Shine a Light
Soul on Fire
Walking With Jesus
Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
Death Take Your Fiddle
Lay Back in the Sun
The Dodos are great and I missed them. Luckily, for your viewing pleasure, Liz didn’t. Here’s what they look like. Go, Dodos!
Sarah Palin, compulsive liar, on ABC with Charlie Gibson: “Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.”
Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: “Why would you lie about how much coal you have / Why would you lie about something dumb like that?”
The last time I saw Vampire Weekend—the very same week their record came out, to overwhelming praise—they were utterly fantastic. They were also sort of timid, and bewildered at the sudden attention thrust in their direction, and yet it didn’t seem at all like more attention would be a problem for them. I knew even then that I was watching a great young band on the cusp of stardom.
More attention arrived. And arrived. And arrived. Hype usually puts me off, but in the case of Vampire Weekend it’s well-deserved. Their album is going down in history as one of the best debuts ever, and though I don’t listen to it three times a day like I did in that first week, it keeps delivering with each intermittent listen.
On stage, Vampire Weekend are naturals, veritable veterans. The songs aren’t as stiff as they were back in January, and amazingly the band doesn’t seem bored of playing them. Poor guys have been on tour so constantly that they only play one new song, but it’s a good new song, at least.
How crazy are people about Vampire Weekend? This crazy. Crazy enough, too, to shout the loudest and most high-pitched screams at them of the whole weekend. Ezra Koenig thanks the crowd profusely, and mentions that the festival has “a very 1963 Dharma Bums kind of feel.” Boy, I hope their next album is good.
The former bass player for Tegan and Sara tells me that while he was in the band, he was instructed by their manager to play the exact same simple bass lines from the album every night. “We don’t want the girls to get confused,” he was told. “Also, don’t move around on stage. At all. Stay in one place. You can’t upstage Tegan or Sara.”
So he soldiered on for a while, staying in exactly the same place, playing the exact same precise simple boring bass lines until one day he realized, holy hell, what in the world am I doing with my life?
He quit a few months into a two-year tour. They dropped him off on the freeway. In solidarity, I want to hate Tegan and Sara, but their first few songs on Sunday night actually sound pretty great.
It doesn’t last. They start talking about The Lost Boys, and how I’ve probably never seen it, and about premature ejaculation, and The Lost Boys, and that part at the carnival with the saxophone player, and about playing in San Diego, and The Lost Boys, and how I probably don’t know what they’re talking about, and oh sweet Christ it just goes on and on. Blah, blah, blah.
Coincidentally, the songs go downhill. They play “Walking With a Ghost,” but Jack White doesn’t come out and sing like everyone hopes he will. They end their set with their current, uh, “hit,” “Back in Your Head.”
At one point, I notice the replacement bass player break the rules by sneaking a few steps forward during a song, then taking a few steps back. Busted!
I met Alison and Jamie in 2001, when they were first playing together, in a small flat in Brixton. We hung out every night downstairs with Sean and Ben, probably the funniest two guys in all of London. One day Alison and I spent hours together around London, going to museums, dinner and a movie. She was rad, but after staying in London for a week, I still didn’t know anything about the music she and Jamie were working on. Nobody did.
Seven years and three albums later, The Kills are a household name in England and a force to be reckoned with live. They take the festival hostage to a thundering, thick-as-hell version of “U.R.A Fever,” and damn, it’s like a guitar-driven cobra slithering through the tall grass of your mind, of your legs, of your guts. I can’t explain what they’re like on stage. Explosive? Unpredictable? Maybe they don’t even give a shit? Maybe who cares?
I’d heard the Kills records, but records don’t do the Kills justice at all. Go see them live. If possible, go see them after a few too many drinks. Hey Jamie, you get your passport back you lost the night before?
Until Robert Plant relents and Led Zeppelin finally embarks on a full-fledged reunion tour, The Raconteurs are the closest anyone’s going to come to seeing dirty, gnarly, lemon-down-your-leg rock ‘n roll in the world today.
In 2005, I covered a White Stripes show, stating that Jack White needed to find a band. “He’s an enigmatic character, a possessed performer and a great songwriter with an emotive voice, but even he himself has admitted that the White Stripes could run out of steam someday,” I said. “That day may be soon.”
I’ve always thought that the White Stripes peddled too much in the hipster ideal of potential greatness. By limiting himself to playing only with a drummer, and one of below-average ability, Jack White constantly held himself hostage to possibility and possibility alone. And yes, there’s a beauty in what could’ve been, but there’s a greater triumph in what actually is.
In the Raconteurs’ set on Sunday night, during “Blue Veins,” that triumph arrives. White hovers over the organ delivering a tortured, wailing plea, and the band is right on. It’s a haunting, captivating, and truly special moment, and instead of being White Strip-ily quaint, it’s almost scary in its depth.
We take the shuttle back to the city. It’s been a good weekend.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward)
Note to all other festival promoters: please find your festival manual. Turn to the page that says “Treasure Island Music Festival.” Rip the page out. Study it. Apply.
In the past, I have been a harsh critic of the untamed proliferation of music festivals. There are now more festivals than ever across the country, and in my opinion, the fans generally lose while the bands and promoters win. Maybe festivals are fun if you don’t care about music, but for the most part, the more of a fan you are, the more being at a festival seems like work.
The Treasure Island Music Festival is different. It’s in a picturesque location, and it’s small enough to be manageable. You don’t need to worry about claustrophobia, or running from stage to stage to catch your favorite bands, or trying to find parking.
Another refreshing feature, which cannot be overstated in this world of SafeCo Field and Petco Park and Brought To You By Miller Genuine Draft: No corporate sponsorship. There’s a couple Heineken signs at the beer stand—that’s the only kind of beer they sell—but that’s it. It’s a subtle touch that makes a huge difference.
My friend Hoyt really, really wants me to point out that the shuttles to and from Treasure Island are the nicest shuttles that he’s ever seen. (Since Hoyt has ridden his bike to work for the last 25 years, I can’t front him for being impressed.) What’s amazing also is that they run efficiently—between this year and last, I’ve never waited longer than 10 minutes in the shuttle line—and even better is that parking at the ballpark is free. The promoters could have raked in a bundle charging $5 per car, but they consciously chose not to, and that deserves kudos.
Yeah, the bathrooms are poorly placed, and yeah, my main gripe is that there’s no free water, but otherwise: hooray for the Treasure Island Festival.
We get there on Saturday just as Aesop Rock is going on; he’s introduced by the British-accented announcer as “Aesop Rocks.” Aesop Rock moved to San Francisco a few years ago but he’s still wearing a Yankees cap. He’s with Rob Sonic, who is one large dude.
I saw Aesop Rock in 2001 at the Justice League on Divisadero, right after Labor Days came out, and he was totally baked. Disoriented and disheveled, he struggled to stay on point and to keep the sold-out crowd’s attention. Technically, he wasn’t bad, but having been a huge fan of Float and Labor Days, it was uncomfortable to watch; I subsequently put Aesop Rock in the “troubled genius” file.
That was seven years ago. These days, as made apparent during his set, Aesop Rock has traded some of his lyrical esoteria for servicable stage presence; he cooperates with the idea that he’s on stage to perform for people, and that’s good. Throwing a few bones to longtime fans, he rips through the rapid-fire “Big Bang” and drops a remix of “Daylight.” A decent rapper by the unfortunate name of Yak Ballz shows up and joins in on “Getaway Car,” from Aesop Rock’s not-bad recent album None Shall Pass.
“Y’all into turntablism out here in the west?” asks Aesop Rock, which, like, uh… didn’t we kind of help invent it? As it’s defined now, at least?
So DJ Big Wiz starts cutting it up on the 1200s, even though I haven’t yet seem him flip a record in the entire set. Yep, folks, it’s Serato Scratch Live—the vinyl emulator program that makes it possible to cut and scratch mp3s through a laptop using the turntable as an interface. For reasons too complicated and probably stupidly purist to get into here, I’m against it, even though it’s endorsed by lots DJs that I love—Mix Master Mike, J-Rocc, Jazzy Jeff, Rob Swift, Peanut Butter Wolf, ?uestlove, 45 King, Afrika Bambaataa, Numark, Ollie Teeba, DJ Spinna, Z-Trip.
DJ Big Wiz does his thing, making a beat with software and loop effects, and I think nostalgically to last year’s Treasure Island Festival when DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist did the same thing. Except with original 45s and no tricks. For an hour and a half.
“How much time we got?” asks Aesop Rock. “I keep lookin’ at my watch like I’m waitin’ for my girl’s pregnancy test.” Then he busts into “No Regrets,” a brilliant ode to living the artistic life without compromising personal integrity, and at the end, struts off the stage aping Chuck Berry’s famous leg-kick air-guitar maneuver.
Welcome to the Bay Area, Aesop Rock. We love you. But lose the Yankees cap. Deep down, you know they suck.
The Nortec Collective plays next, the first in a line of groups that probably belongs on NPR instead of a festival populated mostly by young hipsters. Recurring throughout the day, this realization hits me: that the hundreds of 19-year-olds in neon glasses, tight jeans, turquoise t-shirts and white vans aren’t having it.
In front of an empty drum set upstaged by laptops, the members of Nortec Collective play guitar, accordion, and trumpet. The two main guys also hold up these things that kind of look like Speak ‘n Spells, and which seem to make the same blippy noises. They’re the Mexican equivalent of the Gotan Project—infusing electronica with traditional music from their home country’s culture—and it is a sad representation for Mexico that they do not present their country’s beautiful music nearly as sonically rich nor as emotionally deep.
Antibalas continues the strange NPR-ing element of the festival. They’re totally danceable, but no one is dancing. At all.
Attention, Justice fans! There was this guy named Fela Kuti, who was, like, the James Brown of Africa, and he had a zillion wives, and he fought the corrupt Nigerian government with a miraculously headstrong dedication, and he put out a bunch of amazing albums, and he influenced the entire world before he eventually died of AIDS.
Antibalas makes no reference to Fela Kuti, even though they’re hella copping Fela’s pioneering sound from the ’70s and ’80s. An 11-piece band with a heavy horn section, they play songs that sound like Fela Kuti with horn arrangements that sound like Fela Kuti and they go on for a long time like Fela Kuti and they’re politically charged like Fela Kuti. Such is the spiral of influence.
Antibalas’ latest album, Security, is fanastic; it’s produced by John McEntire from Tortoise, and it doesn’t adhere lock, stock and barrel to the Fela Kuti sound. But the best song of their set comes from their previous record, Who is this America?, which vocalist Amayo—clad in a crazy pink bellbottom getup—dedicates to John McCain and Sarah Palin. It’s called “Indictment.”
Dick Cheney – Indictment!
George W. Bush – Indictment!
Bill O’Reilly – Indictment!
Sean Hannity – Indictment!
Who are Foals?
Foals are foals.
Foals are Foals!
Say it. Foals. Fun to say. Foals, Foals, Foals.
There are girls in the front row who are crying at the sight of Foals. There is a member of Foals who is holding the hand of a girl and leading her to the backstage while the wind from the bay blows her dress up above her waistline. The people gathered to see Foals are laughing at this. Foals!
Foals begins. Foals are modern! Foals go nn-tsst-nn-tsst-nn-tsst on the drums like the bands with the haircuts also do since 2003. Foals are from England, which explains the crying girls. There are always girls in America who will cry when they see a band of young boys from England like Foals.
The bassist of Foals should be the singer. The real singer of Foals looks bored. The drummer of Foals looks like a girl I know. During the second song of Foals, the power goes out. Foals are resourceful, and make a drum circle around the drums. They do not go nn-tsst-nn-tsst-nn-tsst. Foals go bang bang bang around the drums.
“This is the solar-powered stage,” says Foals. “That’s what happens.”
I absolutely adore Amon Tobin’s music and have been in love with his records for years. But watching him at an outside festival is dull; he stands at a laptop with turntables, and the more I pay attention to what little he’s doing on stage, the less I enjoy the brilliant sounds coming from the speakers.
I close my eyes.
With my eyes shut, I turn my head towards the sun, above the San Francisco Bay. A bright, bloody red fills my view. It becomes brighter the longer I keep my head directed in the sky. Then I turn my head to the ground, and a slow fade to black ensues. Back up to the sun, swiftly, and a flash of white occurs. What happened to the red?
I open my eyes and pick up a remnant of grass from the ground. I stare at it. Isn’t it amazing how some grass grows, and then stops to shoot a new tangent from its former self, and the “skin” of the former grass dies, yet still supports the ongoing process of growth?
Amon Tobin’s music is the best shit I’ve heard all day. How do people dance to Amon Tobin? I decide to walk around and find out.
1. A gentleman in a Richard Nixon mask does the running man.
2. Two guys laugh and dance like Cossacks, arms folded flat and kicking each other’s feet.
3. A guy in a track suit with a polka-dot hood shadowboxes, does handstands, performs push-ups, and kicks the air.
4. Two people on ecstacy—a guy with a perma-smile, a girl with purple hair—hug.
5. Some people put their hands in the air during particularly thick segments of sound.
6. A boy makes out with a girl in a purple velvet top and striped knee-highs.
7. A girl in a violet tutu over bellbottoms with rainbow shoelaces and a butterfly T-shirt stands there and stares directly at the ground, unmoving.
Goldfrapp is like the Cocteau Twins, but if the Cocteau Twins were only one girl and did cocaine. I like it. Alison Goldfrapp is bathed in ribbon, and I can’t tell if it’s homage or coincidence, but two teenage girls also covered in ribbon dance by the side of the stage to their set. Alison Goldfrapp’s band is dressed entirely in white, and I can’t tell if it’s homage or coincidence, but a skeezy-looking thirtysomething dude in an all-white jumpsuit approaches the ribbon girls and starts gyrating near them. The ribbon girls hang with it for a while, but when the skeezy white suit dude starts making humpy thrusts at them with a gross smile, they get the fuck outta there.
There’s only a few bands that play this festival who are better on record than they are live—Aesop Rock, Amon Tobin—but for the most part, I’m finding that almost everyone is way better live than they are on record.
Case in point: TV on the Radio.
I never, never understood what was so great about TV on the Radio until seeing them live. They play like the world’s about to end. Fire. Grace. Tumult.
We discuss exactly how one could broadcast a TV on the radio, live, with minimal interference, and after pondering modern uses of iPods and Internet streaming, I think we settle on running a cable to a VCR with RCA audio jacks from the VCR running into a ham radio or a small radio transmitter. Voila.
It’s time to head to the bathrooms which all have very long lines. A security guard standing watch does not do anything as people walk behind the port-a-potties to unzip their pants in a small clearing. While Liz waits in line, I start counting. 10 minutes later, 76 guys and 14 girls have all walked behind the port-a-potties and pissed on the ground.
CSS takes the stage playing “Jager Yoga,” the first song off their most recent album—which almost always works on me. It helps that singer Lovefoxxx makes her entrance by releasing a huge cluster of helium balloons and wearing a coat made of… oversized confetti? Crumpled aluminum foil? Shredded federal documents?
“Meeting Paris Hilton” comes next. Everyone’s heard the story by now of CSS playing the song at Coachella last year while Paris Hilton was actually there (sample YouTube comment: “hahaha! A Paris Hilton é a personificação de ‘Bitch’… Fico imaginando se o pessoal do CSS imaginava que um dia ia ficar assim, cantando pra musa inspiradora da música, hahahah!’) and maybe the joke is a little bit old by now, but you know what? I don’t care.
CSS have made a slick-sounding album, Donkey, that they’re taking some heat for. The songs aren’t as raw or impulsive and the overall sound is a little more commercial. But, you know, big whoop. I used to be on the anti-overproduction train, but then I realized that records sounding good is not necessarily a bad thing. At the heart of things, Vacation was just as good an album as Beauty and the Beat. Well, almost.
“Where my bitches at?!” Lovefoxxx yelled. “Where my gays at? That’s all we need. Bitches and gays!”
The rest of the set included “Alala,” “Left Behind,” Off the Hook,” “Alcohol,” “Let’s Reggae All Night,” and lots more. A hella fun band, CSS.
Justice is a big deal and I have no idea why (for enlightenment, we turn to Pitchfork, which describes Justice as “the rat-a-tat rhythms of electro scraping like Freddie Krueger’s fingertips along the slimy walls of some basement dungeon”). I never got Daft Punk either. So kill me.
It’s made weirder that their stage setup consists of empty Marshall amplifiers and a huge illuminated cross. We squint our eyes, but we can’t see any actual human beings on stage. Boy, are people going crazy for it.
We get in line for the Ferris Wheel and run into the members of CSS—they’re very nice—and hop on the ride to take a cold, windy cruise over the Bay, gazing at San Francisco’s skyline at night and the thousands of people down below, grooving out to Justice. A nice way to end the day.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward; Goldfrapp and Justice by Gabe)
Right from the start, I suppose I should admit, I hated Section M magazine. I didn’t want anything to do with it, I didn’t think it was helping the music scene, I wrote irritated letters to the editor, and I talked shit about it as much as I could.
Mainly, though, I was jealous, both of the writers—because I wasn’t writing about music at the time—and of the bands covered, because I wasn’t playing music at the time either. When Section M hit the stands in 1998, I was coming off a four-year spree of constant touring, and I was in a weird space. I was fueled by Tanqueray, mid-20s cynicism, and avant-garde jazz. I talked a lot, but I wasn’t doing much of anything, really.
Also, at the time I was convinced, and not entirely erroneously so, that there were no good bands in Sonoma County whatsoever. Section M came along and seemed convinced otherwise. It proclaimed: Bands are great! We like all these bands! Bands, bands, bands!
Now, looking back with more clarity, I have a lot of respect for what the many volunteers at Section M pulled off. I marvel at how Section M ever could have been produced in the first place, let alone lasted as long as it did—from 1998 to 2003.
After all, this was the magazine that would hire basically anybody. When you’ve got an open-door policy, you open yourself up to flakes, crazies, egomaniacs, and just plain unqualified hopefuls. Put all those people in an room together, and they’ll either start screaming obscenities at each other or having sex in the bathroom—both of which happened, in fact, at Section M’s offices.
The inside workings of Section M often found their way into the pages, and staffers hooking up together wasn’t rare. What was rare was them staying together. After torrential, reckless flings came to a crashing halt, work at the magazine could be painfully uncomfortable until one or the other quit. (To add to the tension, hookers prowled outside the office at all hours of the night.)
Phone calls to the magazine were either weird or very weird, culminating in the members of Derge leaving repeated, insane messages on the machine revealing their obsession with gay sex and racial epithets. On a similarly bizarre note, the band Bungworm once sent Section M a bag full of actual shit, which totally confused everyone at the magazine until an astute reader wrote in to point out that they’d been running an ad for months which read “Send Us Your Band’s Shit.”
Accompanied by this rare gift was a letter that demanded the magazine never write about the band ever again; in what amounts to the best example of Section M’s attitude that I can conjure, the next issue was filled with as many references to Bungworm as possible. Yes, for all of its faults, this was Section M’s greatness: it blatantly did not give a fuck about bands that took themselves too seriously, and instead devoted lots of column space to absolutely unserious bands like the H.B.’s or Rhino Rape.
Section M petered away in 2003 without fanfare—no official final issue, no grand goodbye. One could argue that it didn’t really go away, living instead in the human form of Michael Houghton, the magazine’s founder, who continued in social situations to casually remind people years afterwards of the many thousands of dollars of credit card debt he was still saddled with from running the magazine. It was hard to tell if these repeated references to the magazine’s legacy of debt were subtle pleas for financial help, or if they pointed to something deeper—indicators, perhaps, of how hard it is to say goodbye to something that never got the chance to truly die.
Last weekend, Michael got that chance, as did about 400 other people who crammed through the doors of Daredevils & Queens for a night that was a reunion, a nostalgia fest and a damn good time rolled up into one. Over a dozen bands from the late 1990s got back together to perform. Michael, ever the dapper stylist, even got gussied up for the occasion—in a pair of jeans with a hole in the crotch, and a “F*ck Section M” T-shirt.
I showed up a little bit late, but immediately the “reunion” aspect was made clear. I ran into people, now married and pregnant, who I once stayed up drinking gallons of gin with until 3am. I ran into people who asked, “So, how’s it going?” who didn’t bother to explain if they were asking how it’s been going for the last 10 years or the last 10 minutes. And I ran into people who referenced incredibly esoteric jokes I’d made back in 1999 with pinpoint precision—and this was all before I could make it out back to watch some bands.
Thus, the night was a blur, but in the best possible way. I played bass with the Blockheads, who hadn’t played in a decade and whose bassist Mark Aver has since moved to the East Coast. It was the most satisfying 35 minutes of fun I’ve had in a while. To Dave Fichera, Paul Fichera, and Steve Choi, the Blockheads, the only local band I truly loved besides Cropduster in the late 1990s—thanks, bros.
I caught 20 Minute Loop, Cropduster, Brian Moss, and the Paranoids, but I think the greatest slice of reunion nostalgia for the night was the Reliables, who were all, like, 13 years old when they formed and maybe 17 when they broke up. It was just like an old Reliables show—equipment failures, not knowing how to use a tuner, confusion over which song was being played, the microphone stand falling over—except that instead of standing around dumbfounded, as most people did in 2001, the large crowd showered them with love.
The Reliables’ set list canvassed the trajectory of adolescence, from early songs about suburban angst like “Sad Man” (“My mom just won’t let me be / I know that I’m kind of a loser / Masturbation is only for Godzilla”) to the totally awesome and bittersweet “Another Shitty Day” to the very last song the band ever wrote, “Houses Without Windows,” a depressing, existential rumination on life at midnight as seen from an airplane window which asks the question: “Don’t you wish sometimes you’re dead?”
Not many people cared about the Reliables when they were around, but at the Section M reunion, bolstered by guest drummer Caitlin Love, they were basically superstars. “I think this is the most people we’ve ever played to,” noted Jeremy, and he was right.
Piles upon piles of old Section M magazines were being given away at the front door (Worst cover ever? Issue #10: Halou, Cohesion, Kabala, and Skitzo) and I even saw a very dazed but very validated Michael Houghton for a second. “Can you believe this?” he asked, motioning to the incredibly packed Daredevils & Queens. “Look at all these people!” It’s true. It was pretty amazing.
One final note: in honor of the 10-Year Anniversary of the magazine, Michael has allowed me to finally spill the beans about the “Scene & Heard” column in Section M, the gossipy, newsy column written by the elusive “Jane Sez.” No one ever knew who Jane Sez was, and since “Scene & Heard” was easily the most popular column in every issue, there were many, many guesses over the years.
Now it can be told: Jane Sez was Michael Houghton. Well, for some issues, at least. The first few were written by Christine Alexander from Little Tin Frog, after which it turned over to Michael and then became a communal effort by Michael and the rest of the upper staff of the magazine, including Sara Bir. Keeping the Jane Sez identity a secret was almost as fun as writing the column itself, Michael says. “The best part about it is that so many dudes came up to me at shows, when I was doing most of the ‘Scene and Heard’ writing,” he recalled the other night, “and they’d say to me, ‘I’m so in love with Jane Sez. I totally wanna fuck her.’”
There’s an excellent photoset from the night, taken by Caitlin Childs, over here.
A few members of the staff from the magazine share their thoughts and opinions here.
Section M’s official website, still up and running, is here.