I love San Francisco. I love Ocean Beach, and I love biking through Golden Gate Park past the eucalyptus and bison, and I love getting closer and closer to tour buses, road barricades and the sound of distant bands warbling in the wind. I love dropping my bike off with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, and I actually kinda love running from stage to stage to see as many bands as I possibly can before riding back to the beach.
It didn’t used to be this way. I hated festivals. Too many bands, not enough time, way too much marketing, and the worst offense of all—no free water. All of these symptoms are present at the Outside Lands festival, and yet what can I say? I love Golden Gate Park, and love is blind.
The Outside Lands festival returned this year to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about noise and fan complaints about lineup, and the first thing we notice is that there’s way fewer fans and way more people shoving handbills in our faces than last year. Other than that, and the near-universally recognized weakness of this year’s headliners, the Outside Lands festival is pretty much the same as last year—with batting cages.
Right before Built to Spill goes on, a girl, about 19, asks me if I’ve ever seen them before. “Yeah, about 12 or 13 times!” I tell her. “I’ve never heard them,” she says, “but my friend told me they’re like Band of Horses. Are they like Band of Horses?”
I admittedly am biased when it comes to Built to Spill, and I feel bad that they’ve been given the unprestigious 2:30pm time slot on a Friday. What’s it like being a hugely influential band, only to have the younger generation care more about your stylistic debtors? The old way of thinking was to raise a bitter ruckus and let as many people as possible know that you haven’t been given your due.
The new way of thinking is that through either Zen or humility, Built to Spill are unfazed at their spot both on the festival schedule and in the tight-jeans handbook. They play “The Plan,” “Else,” “Car,” “You Were Right,” “Big Dipper”—perfect songs that don’t sound old. They play a new song from their upcoming album, with lyrics about Canada and locks on the door, and it sounds just as fresh. Guitarist Jim Roth breaks a string and changes it himself mid-song. Doug Martsch chirps his simple “Thanks.”
Afterwards, a fan is overheard saying, “Dude, Built to Spill and Vicodin… soooo good.”
The Dodos recorded an album recently and said fuck it, let’s just stream it online for everyone to hear. In this day and age, that isn’t shattering news, but in light of Visiter and its huge success, it’s admirably surprising that their record label was cool with essentially giving the anticipated follow-up away for free.
Even more surprising, for me, is that live, the Dodos are imbued with the full-on spirit of thrust. Their records have their mellow moments, but the noise made by just Meric’s acoustic guitar and Logan’s drums on stage is baffling. They have a guy playing vibes. Everyone sings along to “Fools.” Their San Francisco friends are out and about, but no one’s razzing them ‘cause they’re ruling it.
The best thing to do in San Francisco when there’s a lull in the day is to ride down to Amoeba to score some records by Dinah Washington, Jeru the Damaja, Dirty Projectors, Larry Young, Sunn o))). Hit up the liquor store on Stanyan and pound an entire 32 oz. Gatorade on the sidewalk. It’s hot, man. Bad day to wear black jeans.
Q-Tip takes the stage with a full band—guitar, bass, drums, DJ, and a wacky dude with star earrings and dyed red hair who plays Fender Rhodes, saxophone and keytar. I loved Q-Tip’s album from last year, The Renaissance, and he comes out to its lead-off track.
Q-Tip, of course, is commanding the stage; he’s one of the most charismatic hip-hop performers in history. He breathes in rhythm like the Meters, he throws his head back and howls like James Brown, and, in a brief tribute to Michael Jackson, hammers falsetto after falsetto. His band follows his every cue, hitting the floor and cutting the volume at the right times, rising with each scream.
People sometimes ask me who my all-time favorite rapper is. I won’t choose just one, but if all of the hip hop records in the world disappeared tomorrow, I might be placated if the albums made by A Tribe Called Quest were spared. So it’s exciting when Q-Tip hits the first verse of “Oh My God,” and when he flips the beat on “Sucka Nigga,” and when he closes out “Find a Way” with a full-on talk box solo by the wacky keyboard player. When he beatboxes the Brady Bunch theme song into “Bonita Applebum,” the crowd loses their minds.
“Turn off your phones, your iPhones, your Blackberries!” he shouts during an extended jam on “Electric Relaxation.” “We feelin’ the music right here!” The energy level keeps rising and rising. “Check the Rhime” follows, then “Scenario,” and every Tribe Called Quest fan in San Francisco is losing their mind.
And then, oh shit, it happens.
Phife and Q-Tip on the same stage performing “Award Tour” at Outside Lands may just be the highlight of the entire festival, for me and a handful of others. My only question: Why in the world didn’t Q-Tip bring him out on Tribe songs sooner, especially for the back-and-forth of “Check the Rhime”? Phife’s voice may not be in the best form, but any rapper who evidently carries a microphone around in his pocket is obviously ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Q-Tip acknowledges the history of the moment, says, “I don’t know when you’re ever gonna see that again,” and lets the crowd trickle away to “Life is Better.”
To answer your question, no, nobody threw panties at Tom Jones—at least not for the first few songs. I’m stumped. I remember hearing about Tom Jones issuing a statement about ten years ago asking people to stop throwing panties at him, but no one took it seriously. What’s the deal?
Jones sings “I’m Alive,” “Give a Little Love,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” During the fourth song, “If I Only Knew,” a lone red pair of panties flies through the air and alights near Jones’ feet. He ignores it. 40 seconds later, another pair of panties arcs toward the stage. Then another, and another, and another. By the end of the song, it’s just a crazy hailstorm of panties falling on Tom Jones, and I sort of feel sorry for him but I gotta admit, it’s also funny as hell.
He does “Hard to Handle,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Delilah,” and saves “It’s Not Unusual” for the end, when most of the curious and ironic onlookers have bailed to catch a painfully boring band called Pearl Jam.
I hope that eventually, someone will chronicle a history of the walk-on music that bands use to take the stage. Fans of Morrissey seem especially devoted to this, as are fans of Depeche Mode, who even released their pre-concert mix on a CD for their fans. Tom Waits played old blues 78s through tinny cone speakers on his last tour; Springsteen plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when he’s at a baseball stadium; classical recordings of great bombast are popular. Like so many other ephemeral pieces of the concert experience, walk-on music is something that’s forgotten halfway through the first song—and yet for a brief minute, after the lights go dim, it unites the entire crowd in an innervating herald.
Pearl Jam’s walk-on music is “Metamorphosis 2,” by Philip Glass. There’s some other songs that happen between that and our walking back to our bikes, and Eddie Vedder seems like a nice guy and all, telling the crowd to “keep track of each other and make sure that no one goes down,” but you know. It’s Pearl Jam: The Sound of the ’90s. They are completely and hopelessly dated. Sorry, grunge fans.
More photos after the jump.
Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.
I’ve been working a nonstop string of 12-hour days doing construction on my house lately—building a bedroom for my first baby-to-be—and while nailing, sanding, wiring, sheetrocking, and plumbing, I’ve had lots of music-listening time. Construction work is traditionally affiliated with heavy doses of AC/DC, but because I would rather be placed in a vat full of rancid hamburger juice than listen to AC/DC for any extended period of time past, say, two and a half minutes, I’ve had to make do with less-macho tunes.
Okay, okay, I did listen to Thin Lizzy, but hey, it was their first album, which is meandering, sort of psychedelic, and totally cool. No one would mistake it for AC/DC. Its first song is “The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle,” for cryin’ out loud, which is an anagram for “Defer Thinly a Fragrance Transect Toll.” Bon Scott would never come up with something like that.
Jack DeJohnette, who is the most bendable drummer I have ever seen, released a record earlier this year with Danilo Perez and John Pattitucci, both currently with Wayne Shorter’s group. It’s called Music We Are, and if you would like to hear jazz musicians who predate the Bad Plus by many years sound like the Bad Plus, it is the recording for you. Heavy left-hand pumping on the upbeat, drumming that sounds like egg beaters. Pattitucci, as always, is the Entwistle of jazz—anchored and regal.
It Still Moves is the album that sold me on My Morning Jacket, but Okonokos drained my proverbial bank account—I listened to the entire double live album every day for a complete month, if I recall. It’s always weird going back to the studio recording when you’re accustomed to the live versions, and part of me had been thinking about getting rid of all the My Morning Jacket albums besides Okonokos. Yesterday, while screwing drywall, I realized that would be a foolish maneuver.
Smokey Robinson plays a rather expensive concert this weekend at Robert Mondavi Winery, but I want you to consider how your life would be changed if Smokey Robinson had never been born. Think: No Motown as you know it. No “Ooo Baby Baby” or “Who’s Loving You,” or “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” or “I Second That Emotion,” or . . . ah, I could go on and on. And speaking of live versions that rival studio recordings, check out this footage of “Tracks of My Tears,” proving Smokey Robinson is still in top form. Wait for the bridge, and man, brother, that’s from 2008! Now dry your eyes, and let’s move on.
It is the fate of even the greatest DJ mix CDs to be listened to for a week, absorbed, loved, and discarded. For some reason, I’ve kept Andy Smith’s The Document around for years now, probably because of the presence of both Peggy Lee and the Jeru the Damaja on one mix. Paul Nice’s Soul on the Grill has stayed with me for years, too. Others, like Cut Chemist & DJ Shadow’s Brainfreeze or Z-Trip and Radar’s Future Primitive Soundsession, belong in a mixtape hall of fame of sorts; admired from behind glass, remembered for their achievements, and rarely listened to ever again.
Litany for the Whale has put out Dolores, an album I cannot help but compare to Converge’s Jane Doe. It begins with a couple terrifying minutes of noise courtesy of the Velvet Teen’s Judah Nagler—I think of it as a more ferocious, cracked-out stepsister of “Sartre Ringo,” from Elysium, and makes stronger the case for noise as composition. The rest of the album is like morphine for people raised on hardcore, which is not to say it’s wimpy. Just soothing.
Some nights are Lennon Sisters nights. Others, the Boswell Sisters. Lately I’ve been resting my bones to the McGuire Sisters and their collection Just For Old Times’ Sake. I can do without the honkey education of “The Birth of the Blues,” but give me signature songs by Jimmy Durante, Johnny Mathis, the Platters, April Stevens and Duke Ellington sung by some effervescent gals on a diet of Jesus and yellow corn, and I’m there.
I know nothing about Woods, except that they are unfortunately from Brooklyn. Making the discovery that a good band is from Brooklyn is a lot like discovering a good baseball player is on steroids. Therefore, I wish Woods were from Lexington, especially since they sound far more Kentuckian than Park Slopian. They also bear the distinction of being the first band in some months whose record I bought after hearing them on the radio. It’s messy, untied, and perpetual.
Speaking of the radio, 95.9 KRSH has been getting lots of construction airplay on the job site. I am always thrilled when the KRSH plays things like Spoon or M. Ward, which happens every so often, but even more glad when hear “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” as sung by Hayes Carll. Something about “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” always seemed corny to me, especially when the Ramones covered it. Hayes Carll turns the same words and chords into a completely believable treatise on eternal adolescence. It’s like the song was written just for him. Bill Bowker yesterday also dropped the needle on Jeff Buckley’s version of “I Know It’s Over,” which reminds me of two things: 1) Jeff Buckley is one of the fortunate few who could actually present a necessary Smiths cover, and 2) Bill Bowker has now been on the radio for 40 years. Way to go, Bill!
Also on the ghetto blaster, competing with the nailgun: the Majesticons’ Beauty Party, the Blasters’ Hard Time, The Queen is in the Closet, Los Lobos’ Good Morning Aztlan, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and quite a few spins of Drum Dance to the Motherland by the Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble.
I’m gonna be a dad here in the next few days, and then I’ll see you again soon.
1. If Beyoncé were placed inside a time capsule and sent into space, aliens would immediately decide to become friends with Earthlings.
2. Every outfit Beyoncé wore last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland showed off her legs.
3. Three cheers to the cameraman for putting a feverishly hugging gay couple on the jumbotron during “If I Was a Boy.”
4. Beyoncé is like every pop superstar before her wrapped up in one but without the narcissism. “Ave Maria” was pure Streisand, leather beefcake dancers pure Madonna, ever-increasingly noticeable doses of Michael throughout.
5. Beyoncé now has the most touching tribute to Michael Jackson yet. End of the show, during “Halo,” a canned but nonetheless incredibly moving speech about how he showed her the way—preceded by a video of her when she was a child, emulating his moves, and concluded with altered lyrics about his lasting influence. It beats any other token tribute I’ve seen.
6. Mid-show: bass solo, behind the head, to “Billie Jean.” Beyoncé’s band is all-female, a fact she has every right to point out three or four times throughout the show.
7. Sorry, took a break there. Did I mention Beyoncé is our Earth’s ambassador to space?
8. The feminism of Beyoncé is what the Spice Girls always promised but never delivered: the “Be sexy, but own it, be in control of yourselves and support each other” feminism. Snippets of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Alanis Morisette’s’ “You Oughta Know” proved she knows her Lilith Fair history, but she makes being a strong woman seem way more exciting than the Lilith Fair ever did. (My heart will actually stop if Beyoncé adds “Double Dare Ya” to her set on this tour.)
9. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism also leaves little room for women who don’t look like Beyoncé, so the point might be moot.
10. People-watching prize: the group of middle-aged women wearing matching custom T-shirts, reading “Fun and 50.”
11. I did not text my special message to the jumbotron before the show, but the girl who told the entire arena she was going to lose her virginity after the show definitely did.
12. There’s a go-to look of wonder that Beyoncé splashes across her face at a moment’s notice, like she’s seeing God or something. Most of the time, I believe her.
13. Okay, okay—walking down the aisle, singing directly to her fans. Oh shit, singing directly to a small child! Holding his hand, looking right into his eyes, singing straight to him—and the kid looks bored, like he’s in math class. 20,000 lbs. of envy in the room.
14. The only thing more exciting than “Crazy in Love” is taking a bathroom break and seeing the Giants’ no-hitter up on the lobby screen. SO CONFLICTED.
15. Scratch everything I’ve just said. The most important thing about Beyoncé is that she resurrects the pop music ideal of mass emotional oneness: everyone feeling like everyone else feels exactly the way they do at that precise moment. This is actually her greatest tribute to Michael Jackson, whether she knows it or not. Evidence during last night’s show included a YouTube collage of “Single Ladies” dances (Hey, we all did that!), footage of the Obamas dancing at the Neighborhood Ball, during “At Last” (Hey, we all watched that!) and allowing the entire crowd to sing “Irreplaceable”’s first verse and chorus (Hey, we’re all doing this, right now, here, together!). Michael had that effect in droves across the world; no one besides Beyoncé has had it to such a degree since.
16. (Side note: “Minute” does not rhyme with “minute.”)
17. Those in the $500 front-row “diva zone” seats were deservedly doted upon, with multiple sweat-towels thrown, hands touched repeatedly, and one guy from Hawaii with a sign that said “It’s My Birthday” who got “Happy Birthday” sung to him. We’d joked about the people who paid $500 for seats, but damn.
18. Second stage, in the middle of the floor, about 25’x25’. Crazy-intimate. Everyone standing on chairs, crowding in tight, taking videophone footage, especially during “Video Phone.” Beyoncé crouching down, talking to fans, reaching out, “seeing God” wonder-face in abundance, genuine gratitude, asking people to say her name. People 100 ft. away in “diva zone” bummed.
19. “She’s sexy, but she’s sexy like a man,” says Liz.
20. End of show, after child-serenading, after Michael tribute, after walking through the crowd flanked by security, after outpouring of love in both directions, the phrase “I Am…” flashes on the screen. “I Am.” Surely, “Sasha Fierce.” No? “I Am…” “YOURS.” “I am yours,” Beyoncé says. “I will give you 100% of everything I have.” Unfuckwithable, because even though in reality Beyoncé’s one of the most private celebrities in the world, she’s just created a sociological time-emotion-music-love vortex in Oakland. How is it possible, night after night? With absolutely pitch-perfect, non-lip-synched singing? Is she even from this planet? Someone please explain.
Dirty Projectors are a band from Brooklyn who’ve just released Bitte Orca, a highly rewarding and stylized piece of music that’s one of my favorite records right now, and unlike anything else I’ve heard—with the exception of other records by Dirty Projectors.
Rise Above, the band’s previous release, came promoted with a high-concept backstory, a fact I only lately discovered but to which I pay little heed. I became enamored with it not for any ostentatious artistic process (apparently, re-creating Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory) but for the highly unusual end result. After all, until that point, I had never heard a man desperately yowling about being beaten by police officers over Ali Farka Toure riffs while a chorus of girls sang timidly in the background.
A friend of mine recently remarked that Bitte Orca is “everything I wanted all the other Dirty Projectors’ stuff to sound like in my head,” and I know what he means. Sharper songwriting and structure are only two of the reasons I replayed Bitte Orca three times in a row when I first got it; it also has a needed variety, with backup singers Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian taking lead vocals on a handful of tracks with a gut-hitting sonic depth. (Suddenly, for example, you can hear the bass guitar.)
Recalling Talking Heads’ meteoric public impact, opinions on Dirty Projectors are extreme and disparate. So it’s no wonder that David Byrne is a fan, even appearing with the band at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, or that Bjork, who joined them at Housing Works Bookstore Café in downtown Manhattan the same week, shares the fascination. Even the freeway gods have gotten involved—last month, the band’s tour van flipped over on the freeway outside Detroit—and a long line of people down Divisadero outside the Independent in San Francisco tonight hoping for last-minute tickets represented locally the worldwide craze for the Weird Little Band From Brooklyn That Could. I truly had no idea what to expect live. Are the girls on the record cover even in the band?
Longstreth and Deradoorian took the stage opening the show with “Two Doves,” a lovely ballad, before the full band came out for Orca opener “Cannibal Resource.” Yes, the girls on the record cover are in the band, and a third helped out with harmonies like pitter-pat hailstorms (“Remade Horizon“) or R&B jams (“Stillness is the Move“). Tight and polished from constant touring, the band was locked in and fluid. Liveliness is an asset; Longstreth, who plays his guitar backwards, left-handed and with no pick, doppelganged a hulking presence around the stage on the balls of his feet, and basically said nothing to the crowd other then a rote “Hey, how ya doin’? Awesome.”
The crowd stayed silent, adding to the weirdness, but probably they were just asking themselves: Is “Stillness is the Move” the motherfucking jam of the summer? Why do guitar players need to play with huge amps when tiny Fender practice amps get the job done? Do drummers ever worry about “the Battles effect” when they place their crash cymbals up high? Is the Salt Lake City look the new thing? What’s with people who buy New Age CDs when they could simply listen to “Rise Above” over and over for enlightenment? Remember that one girl? The one who always tucked her shirt in the back of her high-rise jeans but not the front? Whatever happened to her?
Here’s what happened to me: I played Bitte Orca so many times in the last couple weeks that the songs began to sound normal; I’d anticipate all the quirks and idiosyncracies of the songs, like a roller coaster I’d been on twenty times. But seeing the songs played live made them wonderfully mysterious and bizarre all over again—mystery that you can dance to, I might add. So bring on the fans. Here’s to Dirty Projectors’ flight out of their artistic nest and into the real world; especially since their world still contains Gary Moore and the Andrews Sisters.
Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.
“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”
With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”
Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.
At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”
“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”
Then he walked off the stage.
Everything was rolling along nice and fine during Keyshia Cole’s show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland Sunday night when halfway though the set, to join Cole on “Let it Go,” who should grab a mic and emerge from the wings but… Lil’ Kim!
If the City of Oakland ever needs a fairly dependable—and loud—way to reenact the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it should just let Lil’ Kim walk out onto the stage. The 3,000-seat theater went absolutely apeshit. Walls rattled. Fans rushed the aisles. For sixty seconds, it was uncontrolled mayhem, as if an violent act of nature was running its course. Then, with the song over, with a quick hug to Cole and a wave to the crowd, she was gone. Shit calmed down again.
Cole never quite had the crowd in her hands the way Lil’ Kim did, although not for lack of trying. Her nonstop choreography, her three wardrobe changes, her elaborate sets and gymnastic vocals all added up to an impressive display of hard work. But hard work alone is just that, and the sweat and energy Cole expels doesn’t cover up the fact that she’s touring on her weakest album yet. If Cole can get back to having classic material like “Love” and “I Should Have Cheated,” and if she can make performing those songs seem natural and effortless, she’ll be able to achieve her stated dream of headlining arenas instead of opening them—as she did the first two times I saw her, on tours with both R. Kelly and Lil’ Wayne. She’s got more talent than almost any other singer in R&B right now. She should have material to match.
After Lil’ Kim shook things up, a surprise guest visit by Too Short on “Didn’t I Tell You” was a welcome aftershock , and at the end of the set Cole took a few minutes to stop the music and thank her friends, family and fans in her old hometown for their support. She shouted out neighborhoods: “We got Murder Dubs in the house? You know I’m from Oakland when I say somethin’ like that.” It was a genuine moment, made more so at the end of a razzmatazz-filled spectacle. Then some dude took the mic and got the address of the afterparty wrong.
The-Dream is one of the greatest songwriters of the new century, and I’ve written about him a few times now. His records are brilliant in the way that early Prince records are brilliant (one of these days he will have his Purple Rain), and The-Dream’s hits for other people—“Single Ladies,” “Umbrella,” “Touch My Body”—need no introduction. But could he pull it off live, I wondered? Such is the post-ProTools landscape. I didn’t even know if the guy could sing on key.
Color me faithless. The-Dream was incredible live. Yes, he sang on key. More than that, he was simply electrifying to watch. He, too, talked openly to the crowd. Introducing “Falsetto,” a song about the noises one makes in bed, he instructed fans that “if y’all are sitting down for this song, then you’re getting’ old and you don’t know how to fuck.”
The night before the show, I drew up a set of dream Dream songs. My friend balked at “Purple Kisses,” and I felt redeemed that it was played. “Love vs. Money” also matched my expectations by being accompanied by guns fired in time to the intro’s gunshot sounds—a trick I’ve always wanted other bands to do—but died on the vine in the second verse after backup dancers interpreted a clock ticking down. Also: the first verse and the first verse only of “Sweat it Out,” rendered acapella.
The-Dream knows his hits. He interpolated both Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” at the end of “Nikki” and the Force M.D.s “Tender Love” at the end of “My Love.” He took his hat and glasses off and looked more like a completely different person than any other singer I know who takes their hat and glasses off. He swore often when talking about record executives choosing the wrong singles and his enthusiasm for the crowd’s support. His last song was “I Luv Your Girl,” and bearing witness to a theater of thousands of people singing its key line louder than any other line of the night was nothing short of incredible.
More Photos Below.
Despite that fact that most of Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance last night was a 50-minute, uninterrupted medley of themes largely in the same key and slow tempo, admiration was the prevailing response over boredom. To the uninitiated, the incessant piece seemed like the piano equivalent of stumbling into Guitar Center and hearing the omnipresent Dude Who Plays Unending Blues Riffs; Ibrahim would play a melody for a minute or two, change gears, play a different one in the same key for four minutes, change gears again and so on. Sound dull? To Ibrahim’s many fans who filled Yoshi’s in San Francisco, it was a celebration of a rich life and an underdog career.
Born in South Africa, Ibrahim’s music is inextricably linked with the political struggles of his homeland (Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg” was the first music Nelson Mandela heard in decades). He grew up amidst upheaval, was discovered by Duke Ellington, moved to Europe and lived in exile until returning to his home country after the fall of Apartheid. His latest album, Senzo, is a solo recording almost identical to last night’s concert: a pensive outing and essentially a 1,224-bar blues with so many chord changes that each resolution to the root seemed like a triumph.
Ibrahim said no words to the crowd, only bowing with palms together before sitting down and showing that he has aged in the best possible way. His playing could never go completely New Age or into the realm of post-Bill Evans fluidity. Ocassional four-fingered, octaved arpeggios recalled Jaki Byard, and at times his use of discord rivaled Paul Bley’s Closer. Snippets of “Memories of You” or “Round Midnight” crept into his playing, but for the most part it was all Ibrahim: a man no longer nimble, full-bodied or particularly fast at the keys, but a man playing as breathing proof that emotion and experience trumps technique.
The Malcolm X Jazz and Arts Festival is a sprawling celebration of the life and teachings of Malcolm X, spread out over a large field and four tennis courts at San Antonio Park in an area of East Oakland known more for the nightly news than for daytime festivals. Sunday’s celebration marked the ninth year of honoring Malcolm X’s life and message, and the positive vibe throughout the park was one of community empowerment and self-esteem. The lineup, too, was outstanding, with two of the finest living tenor players in the world today, David Murray and Howard Wiley.
Around the perimeter, numerous booths and soapbox stages broadcast the message of self-determination. A banner with a cleverly modified BART ticket paid respects to Oscar Grant. The food court adjoined a popular hip-hop stage with mostly younger dancers, bands and MCs. A skateboarding and graffiti court was filled with murals, some painted on cardboard, some painted on car hoods. A large memorial for Richard Masato Aoki stood between the park stages, where festival co-founder Marcel Diallo’s collective group Black New World alternated on the flatbed truck stage with headlining acts.
With all this activity, it pays to get there early. We arrived at San Antonio Park with a good four hours left of the day’s festivities, but would find we’d already missed David Murray and Howard Wiley. Murray I’ve seen before in New York, but Wiley lives up to his sly surname; I interviewed the brawny tenor player five years ago, but I’m 0-for-3 on seeing him live.
Little did we know what was in store—a welcome surprise in the form of Abraham Burton.
Burton introduced himself to the mid-afternoon scene with a subtle and wordless introduction that exploded into fire and grace with his trio. Playing both intensely and thoughtfully, his explorations cast an upper-register Coltrane-like quality with an even more abstract edge—imagine if Coltrane had recorded for ESP-Disk. After soundchecking with the instantly recognizable first four notes of A Love Supreme, he dropped both “Naima” and another Coltrane original into the set, segueing through “A Night in Tunisia” and a handful of others.
Burton, who’s recorded with a veritable who’s-who of talented underdogs including Louis Hayes, Horace Tapscott and the fantastic Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, said few words to the crowd—verbally, that is. His playing nonetheless spoke volumes on its own and his trio, with childhood blood brother Nasheet Waits on drums, washed over the congregation on the lawn. The backdrop of an empty lot, an abandoned church and the distant ocean slowly turned pasty and bright as the sun hung low. Laying in the grass, eyes closed, you’d swear you were at Newport in 1965.
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Of all the ways to shoot down a heckler, Bettye Lavette has the most effective method by far.
During Lavette’s heart-stopping, unfathomably brilliant performance Friday night at the Independent in San Francisco, after the same fan had three times been denied the same request for the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” she strutted right up to the gentleman, demanded “What did I tell you?!,” and planted a big kiss right on his lips.
The guy didn’t shout anything for the rest of the set—or, if he did, he was drowned out by the chorus of cheers that followed every song, every story, every single outpouring of emotion uprising from every cell and molecule in the depths of Lavette’s body and up to her throat and out of her mouth.
Lavette’s story by now is one all to familiar, even if her music is not: supremely talented singer eludes solid footing at record labels and languishes in obscurity until rediscovered decades later and, at least in Lavette’s case, sings Sam Cooke songs for Barack Obama. During a medley of early hits on Friday, Lavette ran down a quick biography by year: “By 1963 I thought I had grown,” she said, introducing “You’ll Never Change.” “I thought I was a star. I made this record, an’ boyfriend”—putting her hand on the shoulders of a man in the front row and staring him straight in the eyes—“it did not sell one copy. But I made it, I liked it, and I’m gonna sing it for you.”
Or, leading into her career-defining hit “Let Me Down Easy”: “This is the single recording that has literally kept me alive. When there was still black radio, this was number one in San Francisco,” she said to the blue-eyed crowd, “and I’d like to introduce it to the rest of you.”
And yet a good story alone does not a stellar performance guarantee. What sealed the night as Lavette’s—and not Booker T.’s, the headliner—was the constant intensity of her presence. During the third number, a beautiful, achingly pleading version of Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up My Pieces,” the sold-out club was pure silence, save for the whirring of the drummer’s electric fan. During “Souvenirs,” the John Prine song that she credited Village Music’s John Goddard for introducing to her, she sat on the floor of the stage, sometimes singing off-mic and holding the audience rapt.
And yet Lavette wasn’t all poignancy and heartache. In high-heel stilettos, she stomped, kicked, danced and jumped across the stage, delivering hip bumps on the beat and grinding away with guitar solos. By the end of the set, after leaving the stage, the applause was so strong that the soundman turned down the house music, Lavette came back out on stage, and she stood there awestruck, genuinely grateful for the turn in her career and the chance to sing again for a receptive audience.
And then, Bettye Lavette clutched the microphone and alone, sang an unaccompanied acapella of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” She dominated the song, set the microphone down, waved, and left the place in disbelief.
Booker T. didn’t have a chance.
Take Me Like I Am
Pick Up My Pieces
It Ain’t Easy
How Am I Different
I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now
You Don’t Know Me At All
Right In The Middle
Before the Money Came
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got