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Street Music, Santa Rosa, and the Renegade Art Revival

Posted by: on May 28, 2009 | Comments (1)

Some of you may already know about Aaron Milligan-Green, the dreadlocked musician who’s been collecting signatures to overturn an outdated and illogical city ordinance regarding street music and who often fills the nighttime quietude with his Jungle Love Orchestra (pictured above). My constituent John Beck has been covering the story on his Press Democrat blog, but since John’s currently honeymooning in Paris, I bring you the latest news.

Here’s Aaron’s announcement sent out today about the Renegade Art Revival, reprinted with permission:

My name’s Aaron MG (a.k.a. The Dreaded Jewbacca) and you might remember me from the Santa Rosa street music petition I’ve put together, the SRJC, or however else we’ve met. Nonetheless, this street music petition I mentioned is part of a campaign to overturn section 17-16.090(A) of the Santa Rosa city noise ordinance, an ordinance which allows the city to fine the people $246 for playing an instrument anywhere at anytime in public. This specific law is only the epitome of a larger issue.

As you’ve probably noticed, the streets of Santa Rosa are dead and have absolutely no character or life of their own, yet Santa Rosa is the largest city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. This lack of vitality is no mere coincidence, for there are a myriad of laws here to control “unsanctioned” free expression and social gatherings. Did you know it’s illegal to play with a ball or a frisbee, or even have your dog in Courthouse Square, the “Heart of Downtown Santa Rosa?” I’ve actually met people who have been given tickets for playing hacky-sack. It’s a community vs. commerce kind of mentality, masked by a facade of what’s primarily commercial art—and I’m sorry, but we have enough Snoopy sculptures already. By overturning section 17-16.090(A) we hope to put a crack in that facade.

But a mere crack will not do. The public learns by example and we want to blow that wall to rubble, so let’s give them a spectacle they won’t forget. We the people need to take to the streets that our tax dollars fund and reclaim them as our own again. THE RENEGADE ART REVIVAL is in full effect on August 8, 2009!! We will take over the downtown of Santa Rosa with street performers and artists of all types in hope of breathing a bit of color back into these beige-aggregate streets. This is all being under-the-radar grassroots organized and it will take every one of us to make it happen. We want at least 500-1,000 or more people out there, performers and supporters alike. And you don’t have to think of yourself as an “artist” or a “performer” per se to come out and participate; one way to take part, for example, is to be active in the costumed bicycle parade. Let’s get 200+ people to come out dressed up in their finest threads and Halloween costumes riding on bikes, while dancers, musicians, painters, jugglers, etc. are posted at every corner, nook, and cranny! Let’s actually use our First Amendment right of free expression and assembly. On August 8th we will meet in Railroad Square at 12 noon and march to Courthouse Square, then from there we will disperse and flood the entire downtown.

So spread the word!! There is a Myspace being used to network this whole escapade here, so check it out, sign on, and send others that direction. Forward this email to anyone who you think would be interested. We need everyone to chip in at least a smidgen or two. So on August 8th come one and all to THE RENEGADE ART REVIVAL!!!

– The Dreaded Jewbacca

New Christian Alternative Station In Town

Posted by: on May 21, 2009 | Comments (3)

We here at City Sound Inertia are pretty firm that people should be allowed to believe whatever kind of crazy bullshit they feel like believing in, so in the name of Jesus Christ, we bring you the news that there’s a new “Christian Alternative Rock” station in town, Broken FM, at 105.7 in Petaluma and 107.9 FM in Santa Rosa.

Guess what? They want money.

Jello Biafra is Not Singing with Dead Kennedys at the Harmony Festival

Posted by: on Apr 25, 2009 | Comments (3)

I heard the rumors. You might have heard them too. So before all the ridiculous hearsay gets out of hand, let me set the record straight: Jello Biafra is not singing with Dead Kennedys at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.

It all started when I wrote an appreciative post about the Harmony Festival branching out and booking punk rock bands (the Bad Brains, along with three members of Dead Kennedys, minus Biafra). Someone wrote in: “Have you heard? A little birdie told me that Jello is singing with them!”

In the next week, five or six separate people asked me if I’d heard the news that Jello was, in fact, singing with Dead Kennedys. People in bands, employees at music stores and record stores heard the same thing. Jello Biafra was just up here recording a new album at Prairie Sun, after all, and a cryptic notice on Dead Kennedys’ official website further fueled the fire: “Keep an eye out for a rare and special event on June 12, 2009!”

I told everyone that they were totally crazy. After the acrimonious lawsuit a few years ago, there’d be no way Jello would ever sing with Dead Kennedys again. But the buzz persisted.

So I wrote to the Harmony Festival’s publicist to clarify the rumors, and asked who was singing for the band. She wrote back: “We cannot officially confirm or deny the appearance of Jello Biafra at Harmony Festival this year—yet.”

It seemed weird.

So I called up Jello Biafra.

He’d never heard of the Harmony Festival, nor did he have very nice things to say about the other three ex-members of Dead Kennedys (“It’s at least an ugly situation as Brian Wilson versus Mike Love, with a lot of the same horrible behavior,” he told me).

It’ll be in the Bohemian in a couple weeks, but for the time being: Jello Biafra is not singing with Dead Kennedys at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa on June 12, and despite repeated assertions from certain people that he’s been “invited to attend,” the truth is that neither he, nor his label, nor his booking agent have been contacted about it.

(UPDATE: The interview is here.)

Daredevils & Queens Gets the Axe

Posted by: on Apr 22, 2009 | Comments (7)

First the Boogie Room gets evicted. Then the Orchard Spotlight goes dim. And now, Daredevils & Queens gets the axe. What the hell’s going on here?

At around noon yesterday, Travis Kennedy, owner of Daredevils & Queens, was paid a visit by the Santa Rosa Fire Department and given a stern verbal warning to not host any more gatherings there. No written notice was issued, nor any specific citations made pertaining to emergency exits or capacity—just a heads up that one of their marshals had walked by the other night and noticed a group of people inside. Kennedy had hosted a private birthday party for a friend, with about 50 guests, the week before. Any such afterhours assemblies at Daredevils & Queens, Kennedy was firmly instructed, are against city zoning code.

This, of course, is terrible, terrible news. The successful hair salon that’s also hosted numerous art shows, reunion events and musical performances has grown into an increasingly vibrant and important center on Railroad Square’s cultural map. Every single event I’ve attended there has been well-mannered and safely monitored. Especially because the city has placed such an emphasis on supporting the arts, Kennedy is understandably dismayed that he’s in a position to cancel all his upcoming events—including a May 2 show with Polar Bears, Shuteye Unison and Prizehog.

“The more I thought about it,” he told me today, “the more I can’t see how they could shut us down! I wasn’t charging any money, and it was a good thing all around.”

Kennedy has held events very sporadically—once every two months or so—and has never received any complaints from neighbors or police. He’s never taken a percentage of art sales, and in fact he always, always spends his own money to buy merchandise and support the artists and musicians he willfully opens his salon doors to. Is it really such a crime to broaden your place of business to support the local arts and music community?

Kennedy is looking into finding out how he can work with the city and continue to host events at Daredevils & Queens legitimately, but for now, all events are off.

First Fridays On Fourth

Posted by: on Apr 22, 2009 | Comments (0)

Some of you may have heard of First Fridays in Santa Rosa, where the streets are overtaken on the first Friday of each month with local art, theater, and live music. This year, the organizers are looking to ramp up the whole shebang, and they’re presenting a great opportunity for local bands and musicians to play in public – and actually get paid for it.

Attention, everyone! First Fridays is looking for bands!

The music schedule is still wide open at this point, and there’s two time slots in both Courthouse Square and Railroad Square each Friday. That’s four bands each month. This is your chance to bang on a guitar, howl in public—and instead of getting a citation from downtown cops, you’ll get a check from the City of Santa Rosa. How can you lose?

It’s easy to sit back and complain that there are no places to play in Santa Rosa, but it disheartens me when the city actually funds a budget to create opportunities like this and they go unseized. So far, it’s mostly classical and acoustic music, but all types of music are welcome. Let’s fill the schedule up quick with kickass bands and prove that Santa Rosa can support its local scene.

“We are looking for all genres of music,” writes Arts District Coordinator Vicky Kumpfer, and notes a sizable stipend will be paid (it’s not pocket change). Those interested in joining the lineup—and I’d act fast if I were you—should get in touch with her at (707) 543-3732, or email at vkumpfer [at] srcity.org.

Harmony Festival Just Got Five Times Awesomer / Weirder

Posted by: on Apr 17, 2009 | Comments (0)

The inital lineup for this year’s Harmony Festival was announced last month, with all of the Spearheadiness and Matisyahuism and Kimocky vibes you’d expect from the Harmony Festival. But I just checked their site again, and hang on to your beanies…

The Dead Kennedys?! The Bad Brains?!

This is no joke. The re-formed Dead Kennedys (minus Jello Biafra) and fellow punk rock pioneers Bad Brains are playing—on separate days—in the land of Nag Champa and the Goddess Grove at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa this year. I have just spit my herbal green tea all over the keyboard. This is nuts!

In another exciting development, the excellent Somali-born rapper K’naan is appearing at the Harmony Festival both Friday night and Saturday. His new album, Troubadour, is easily one of the year’s best so far. I’ve written about him extensively here, here, and here. His short set at last year’s Outside Lands festival was unbelievably great. My pal John Beck echoes the sentiment: “When will K’naan hit the Bay Area as a headliner?”

This is also a good time to applaud Saturday night’s jazz addition, the Spirit of Miles Davis quintet with Ron Carter, Airto, Mike Clark and Mike Stern. Ron Carter! On the bass! In Santa Rosa! And they’ve thrown Killah Priest in the group, too?! Seriously!

Job well done, Harmony Festival. This is the craziest / best news in a long time. I’d like to think it also represents a shift in consciousness about punk rock; that at its sweaty, aggressive core, it’s basically always been about caring for humanity and trying to make the world a better place.

Orchard Spotlight Goes Dim

Posted by: on Apr 7, 2009 | Comments (5)

A month after the City of Santa Rosa changed the zoning code to make it harder for all-ages venues to open downtown comes the disappointing news that the Orchard Spotlight, a historic church and acoustic performance space, has been forced by the City to cancel all of their upcoming concerts.

The music has been quiet. The attendees have been well-behaved. The neighbors haven’t complained. So what’s the deal?

Last week, the Orchard Spotlight hosted Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, an underground legend who drew a large line on the sidewalk, causing a nosy tipster driving by to notify the city. “It wasn’t like they were even complaining,” says Spotlight co-owner Linda Rose-McRoy, “they just called with an inquiry, saying, ‘We saw this line outside of 515 Orchard. We wondered if that was okay.’ Like, duh!”

Rose-McRoy and co-owner Cheryl Ulrich met soon after with the Community Development department and were informed that entertainment at the Orchard Spotlight violates the area’s residential zoning. “We’ve known for a while that there were going to be some zoning questions here,” says McRoy, mentioning certain loopholes to stay loosely legal—registering on the Internet as a church, for example, and holding “mass” at 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights. “But Cheryl and I are the kind of people who don’t like feeling we have to continually look over our shoulder,” she adds. “But we’re also not giving up.”

What’s exciting is that “not giving up” involves working with the Arts District and the City Council to get a variance in zoning to allow entertainment at the venue. Vicky Kumpfer, coordinator of the Arts District, thinks it’s possible. “This is really an interesting opportunity to try to make this viable, and to work within the law,” says Kumpfer. “Yes, we have these laws, but is there a way that we can make a certain exemption?”

What the issue comes down to, then, is the neighbors, and so far, the Cherry Street neighborhood association has been supportive of the Orchard Spotlight. If that continues to be the case, and if the City is willing to honor their General Plan guideline to “consider the diverse cultural needs and talents of the community,” we may see the Orchard Spotlight rise again. “It’s just gorgeous,” Rose-McRoy says of the space. “It’s so moving, because it was built in redwood, for sound, for the human voice! I love it, it just makes me tingle all over. And so we’re not giving up.”

Interview: Joel McHale from 'The Soup'

Posted by: on Apr 7, 2009 | Comments (2)

Did you ever in a million years think you’d have a job making fun of TV?

No. I did not make this plan. It’s very strange, because I was always highly opinionated about pretty much about anything. I was one of those guys who was always like, “Your favorite band sucks!” So I would yell back at the TV all the time. The fact that someone would pay me for it? And that I’m not sitting around in my underwear yelling? Its just a hoot. I never would have thought it.

So many people watch TV these days—especially with the glut of reality shows—and say, “I know it’s awful, but I’m addicted to it.” Do you understand where they’re coming from?

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of Schadenfreude. It’s like, “Look at these freaks.” I see the morbid fascination; it’s the Gladiator aspect of wanting to see people fall apart. The shows are becoming so insane, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in twenty years.

After that girl taking a shit on the stairs on Flavor of Love, where is there really to go?

That was an incredible moment in television. And then her excuse was just tremendous! She’s like, “Well, I had to go, and then I started walking up the stairs, and then that happened.” That doesn’t happen to normal people! Normal people, that does not happen to. Something is wrong with you, ma’am. And what a surprise you got on a reality show with Flavor Flav.

Where do you think television’s gonna be twenty years from now?

I’m gonna say Live Sponsored Executions. It’ll be like Monday Night Football.

Do you think your job on The Soup, then, is important?

Well, it’s definitely important to pay my mortgage, and clothe the children and things like that. I… gosh, I have not really thought about that.

Well, culturally, do you think society needs someone to point out that what they’re addicted to is ridiculous?

I don’t know. Television is out of control, and a morally bankrupt place. To comment on that is good. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s not stupid. There’s a lot of things on TV that suck, and they’re very popular, and kids love ‘em. When we make fun of an MTV show and go, “Hey Mom and Dad, it’s on after school!”—I feel like that’s a good comment. Or like a few weeks ago, VH1 was running promos for Black History Month. They’d run this very beautifully done promo with a lot of still photographs of African-Americans, in America, with beautiful music behind it, saying, “This is Black History Month, send in your photos and you could be a part of this campaign!” We just put Rock of Love and Charm School and Surreal Life—we just put a bunch of footage from that behind that very same music, showing how African-Americans are portrayed on VH1 shows. We felt like that was good. We love calling bullshit on things, but we don’t want it to be heavy-handed, or no one would watch. We still want it to be as funny as possible.

How do you deal with celebrities who get mad at The Soup? Is Tyra Banks still constantly pissed off at you?

We ignore it until they try to sue us, which really hasn’t happened. She’s the only one who’s tried to legally stop us, but almost without exception, there’s been very few really upset with us, from what I can tell. I know that David Hasselhoff is not a big fan, but he shouldn’t have gotten totally wasted and started shoving tacos in his mouth! It’s like, what do you expect us to do? We never go after people because we have a vendetta; we try to let their clips hang themselves. Like, we don’t make much fun of Oprah until she talks about her vajayjay. Because for the most part, Oprah’s show is great, and reasonable, and she’s a reasonable person, and she does good topics. But you know, when you have Tyra saying she’s afraid of dolphins, we’re gonna make fun of it!

Were you surprised when the Karsashians agreed to be on the show the other night?

Kind of! We’ve been relentless against them. I did learn that Bruce Jenner hates me, which. . . I don’t blame him. But you know, when someone comes on the show, I’m kind of like, “Hey, that was really cool.” So we probably won’t go after them the way we do. Of course, Kim has that sex tape, which is crazy, and which we have made relentless fun of. But they were all really cool, and I liked them. Hopefully they’ll come back.

How much of The Soup is written by writers, or written by you beforehand, or written by you on the spot, ad-libbed?

The whole script is written out, by the writers. I used to write way more than I do now—my schedule has become so crazy. But I rewrite the script on Wednesday night for how I want it to sound, and then on the floor I let it go and do a lot of improvising. You can’t just walk out and start riffing, because it’s 22 minutes of television, and it has to be very tight. So if something doesn’t work, or goes on too long, we stop and go back and get a new joke. For the most part, we try to tape it without stopping. The writers are so tremendous that there’s no need to improvise a lot of times. I’m not able to watch the amount of TV I used to watch, either. It used to be awful. I used to watch four to six hours a day and it was just killing me. It became a chore. My wife would be like, “Can’t you go do…” I was like, “I’m literally working! I’m literally working, watching this show, this Extreme Makeover: Home Edition two-hour special. Again. I have to do this, hon. Don’t disturb me!” It was really weird.

I assume the show now has people whose job it is to watch TV.

Yeah, we have twelve staff members and a few interns that are watching TV all the time. And we have to cover the things like Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, all those things. You know, the Rock of Loves and the Charm Schools are really easy lay-ups to make fun of. But it’s the shows like Dutch Oven, and I Love Toy Trains, and Korean Drama—literally called Korean Drama—it’s those shows that I really love covering, because they’re so off the regular map. I love it. Like, I Love Toy Trains is a show! I love that!

Part of your charm on The Soup is that fantastic, Conan O’Brien-ish self-deprecation.

Well, he’s a genius.

Does that style—“What am I doing here? Why am I on this show?”—does that come naturally for you? Or in real life are you actually a total egomaniac?

I was raised Catholic, so I grew up with all that guilt. That helped. I think anybody raised Catholic is self-deprecating to a point, where you think basically, if all’s going well, at some point the wheels are going to fall off and everything will be a disaster. And anything you get on top of that is a bonus, so you’re like, hey, this is working out great! But I think you can’t be a jerk, or people will not tune in to watch. I’m not putting on an air, but you just have to approach the show with a light heart, and not take it too seriously.

And not be afraid to dress up like Rainbow Brite.

Right! Anything for comedy!

My gay friends are all in love with you. As a married man, how do you react to that kind of adulation?

I love lesbians! Oh, wait, you’re talking about gay men! Well, I love gay men. Just pull that right out, pull that soundbite out. Having a gay following is great, because they seem to have all the money, they’re definitely the best dressed, and the most in shape. So that makes me very happy. And what’s great is that they’re very loyal fans. Lately we’ve been having Matt the intern come out, and he is always covered in oil, it seems now. He’s been doing interviews with a couple of gay websites, and he was addressed as a “greasy treat.” Which, I think, is really funny. But no one ever talks about my enormous straight following! Or, my enormous hermaphrodite following. That’s so sad.

You grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. How did you weather the grunge storm?

“Weather the grunge storm?!” I think grunge is the greatest music of all time!

Seriously?

Yeah! I really disliked big hair metal, I just never got into it. I spent most of my time listening to the Beatles, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M.—a lot of alternative stuff. I just could not stand all those big hair bands. Then grunge came in when I was in college, and it was the greatest four years in Seattle. Nirvana is, I think, one of the best all-time bands ever. I actually saw their last show in Seattle, and it was tremendous, it was for the In Utero tour. I’ve seen Pearl Jam almost every time they come through here, and Soundgarden. Mother Love Bone, way back when. I loved that time, and I knew no different growing up in Seattle. Bands were just playing everywhere all the time, because Seattle was not a stop for any of the big acts; they would go up to Vancouver because it was a bigger and, at that time, more metropolitan city. Seattle had to make their own music. I mean, to think that a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt became popular is nutty. It’s ridiculous! But it did what it did—it shut down the entire hair-band industry, and Sebastian Bach was left without a job for a while. And now he’s on a reality show.

Did you ever hop in your car and drive down Broadway on Capitol Hill listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?

My Posse’s on Broadway!” I have done it! I did it in high school, I admit it! That was the great thing—obviously Sir Mix-a-Lot’s music wasn’t grunge, but it was so Seattle. He made all these local references, so you kinda felt like, this guy! He’s ours! The same thing with Sleater-Kinney, which is an actual place outside of Seattle. “Baby Got Back” is still one of the biggest hits of all time. And going to Dick’s Drive-In on Broadway is still the best burger in the world.

So, your standup show in Santa Rosa coming up. Is it like The Soup at all?

It is. I don’t bring a monitor out and make fun of things, but I talk a lot about pop culture, I talk a lot about behind the scenes at E!, and I can go into a little more depth than I do in The Soup. That’s half the show, and the other half I’m talking about my life, and my family, which is a nutty, nutty place. So it’s half-and-half, there’s something for everyone. And then I take my pants off.

Joel McHale comes to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday, April 11 for two shows, at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets, $39.50 each, can be bought here.

Live Review: Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the Wells Fargo Center

Posted by: on Apr 2, 2009 | Comments (1)

The rare treat of seeing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last night in their first-ever concert together wasn’t one easily passed up. Not by the sold-out crowd; not by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who ambled in with trademark cowboy hat and cane; and not by—brace yourselves, folks—Cher, who sat in the sixth row.

What in the world was Cher doing at a Merle Haggard / Kris Kristofferson show in Santa Rosa? We may never know. What’s for sure is that she, along with fans that capped the night with an epic five-minute standing ovation, witnessed two bona fide heroes of country music give a performance at turns tender, humorous, poignant, insightful, and above all, intimate.

Let’s just hope Cher wasn’t the woman who yelled out for “Me & Bobby McGee” a few songs after Kristofferson had already played it.

The 1,400-capacity Wells Fargo Center has a historic knack for achieving a living room-like atmosphere for acoustic music. They did it with the Landmine Free World concert in 1999 with Steve Earle, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffith and Bruce Cockburn; they did it with the two Elvis Costello / Steve Nieve concerts they’ve hosted; they did it with the Texas songwriter night in 2005 with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely; and they did it last night by closing the stage curtain and presenting Haggard and Kristofferson front and center.

When Merle Haggard played at the Center last year, electric, he drew a shitkickin’, Copenhagen-dippin’, cheap perfume-wearin’ crowd. This tour was different. Instead of a parking lot scene with greasy dudes in Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts smoking joints, it welcomed wine tour limousines and sixty-somethings gingerly stepping out of Oldsmobiles. The performance itself suited the new audience: pensive, slow, and mortal.

“If there’s a Hall of Fame for heroes in heaven, this man’s definitely on his way,” said Kristofferson, introducing Haggard after opening the show with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.” Added Haggard, fresh from successful lung cancer surgery: “Between the two of us there’s about 150 years of experience here.”

Those expecting a “Storytellers”-type show, with Haggard and Kristofferson sitting down with acoustic guitars and swapping tales about the Army (Kristofferson), prison (Haggard), Louisiana oil rigs (Kristofferson) or stealing Buck Owens’ wife (Haggard) got something far better: a run-down of the two giants’ greatest songs backed by an elegant, semi-acoustic version of Haggard’s band, the Strangers. (Turns out Haggard must have won the battle.) As for storytelling, most of the night’s commentary got squeezed between lines of the songs themselves.

Kristofferson, during “Nobody Wins”: “George Bush and Dick Cheney were singin’ this song in the shower together.”

Haggard, during “Sing Me Back Home”: “This goes out to all the ex-convicts. It’s every convict’s dream to be an ex-convict.”

Kristofferson, during “Best of All Possible Worlds”: “Did you know that here in the USA, the land of the free, we got more people behind bars than any other country on the planet? That’s right, boy. We’re #1.”

Haggard, during “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: “I feel like a stripper without a G-string!”

Yes, the two were very funny together, but also incredibly warm, and wise. It’s not uncommon for former hellraisers entering life’s twilight, particularly in country music, to embrace a life-lesson empathy. When I spoke with Kristofferson last year, he elaborated: “There is a freedom in accepting the fact that there is a difference at this end of the road,” he told me. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends and heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon, I’ve watched ‘em slip and fall. And be gone. And it’s gonna happen to all of us. So I think the acceptance of it gives you a freedom to be less critical of yourself when you make mistakes, and to not be so hard on others.”

Warmth like that was conveyed on stage last night so often, it sometimes outperformed the fantastic songs. Check the set list below—there were nearly 30 of ‘em. The selections played off each other cleverly, as Haggard ran with the torch of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and answered, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Kristofferson pleaded to help him make it through the night; Haggard, up next, just wanted to make it through December.

Yes, it was a considerable union. To see Kristofferson sing backups on Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and a reworked verse in “Okie From Muskogee,” or to have Haggard play his ranchero-style nylon guitar solos on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was truly exciting. By the end, after the two had finished “Why Me Lord,” the standing ovation seemed endless. No one could believe it when five minutes later, the house lights came up.

(Afterward, Cher was quickly escorted behind velvet ropes into a tinted-window SUV. Kristofferson obliged a waiting crowd of about 50 with autographs and gracious conversation, and Haggard stayed put on his bus until it rumbled, slowly lurched forward through the parking lot, and breezed into Highway 101 for the next town.)

Photos by Elizabeth Seward.

Set List:
Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Big City
Silver Wings
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Mama Tried
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Rainbow Stew
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Nobody Wins
T.B. Blues
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
He’s a Pilgrim
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord

Live Review: Will Oldham at the Orchard Spotlight

Posted by: on Mar 30, 2009 | Comments (5)

In 1992, when I moved out of my parents’ house to a small apartment on Slater Street, I felt old. Not grown-up old, mind you, but world-weary old. You know the deal. I had a penchant for drinking Cisco mixed with Hawaiian Punch, listening to syrupy, sentimental Reprise-era Frank Sinatra albums like Cycles, and basking in the unique bitterness and nostalgia that only the hardened, grizzled age of 16 brings.

Living in the same town long enough produces some extraordinary occurrences. Tonight, during a spellbinding show at the Orchard Spotlight, Will Oldham provided one in the form of “Cycles,” the Frank Sinatra song that I used to replay over and over just a few blocks away.

“So I’m down, and so I’m out, but so are many others…”

Oldham and his band completely claimed the song as their own, while I, amazed that he’d chosen such an unusual song to cover, thought about age. Do we ever really feel as old as we do when we’re 16? We hit our 30s and all of that hard-earned “wisdom” and half-fledged nostalgia fades away, and we grow ever open to new experiences even as the opportunities for new experiences occur less and less.

What’s happening? Why do we lose our toeholds of self-assurance as we get older? Why do people’s feathers get so ruffled over age? Why is it easier to make young people feel old than it is to make old people feel young? Why don’t young people realize they have the rest of the blobby, unsure, aging world in their hands?

Why does Will Oldham sometimes stand on one leg like a stork?

“I’ve been told, and I believe, that life is meant for livin’…”

Tonight, Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, age 38, played the world-weary music he’s played since he too was a teenager, and showcased perfectly why his live shows are at least twice as good as his albums, if not more. His outstanding band broadcast a new cosmic American music inside the Orchard Spotlight, with crests and turns and tangents and silent forks upon which to dwell on life’s mysteries. His songs ballooned both inward, outward and lateral, and sounded like Oldham’s music has always sounded—wiser than its age.

The sheer fact that Oldham even played the Orchard Spotlight on this trip is impressive enough. This is Oldham’s “real” tour, where instead of playing the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes, like he did in 2004, or Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio, like he did in 2002, he’s playing the Fillmore; there’s commercials on television for his new album, Beware, and almost all his shows are in large theaters. Last year, however, local soundman Ross Harris walked up to him in San Francisco and asked if he’d like to play a beautiful old church in downtown Santa Rosa. Sure, Oldham replied.

Tickets, limited to 130, sold out in about a day, and diehards, begging for extras on Craigslist, flocked from miles around. I met a guy at the show who’d driven all the way from Tahoe. “I saw him once in the middle of a forest outside of Athens, where I used to live,” he told me, more than happy to make the trek to pick up a last-minute ticket at the Last Record Store. “He’s worth a four-hour drive.”

The show began in grand fashion: Oldham, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt, white cap, polyester slacks and no shoes or socks, hit the stage with the squat giddiness of a teenager and launched his band into the Carter Family standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ on Earth,” with each member of his band and the opening band taking verses in a steam-train hootenanny usually reserved for ending instead of opening a set.

“We’re back in the country, building the confusion hill brick by brick,” Oldham announced, referencing the Humboldt County roadside attraction they’d passed earlier in the day. He then asked, to no one in particular, “What was your favorite song growing up?”

“Shout at the Devil!” someone said. “No, no,” Oldham said, “growing up!” “Growin’ Up!” some clever person said. “I Want a New Drug!” said another. “Yellow Submarine,” said yet another. Oldham launched into “Beware Your Only Friend,” the first song from Beware, and midway through began singing, “In the town / Where I was born / Lived a man who sailed the sea…”

When Oldham gets excited, he manifests it in strange ways. He shoves his hands all the way down into his pockets and pulls his pants up to his chest. He yanks his cap off and holds it high with an animated face. He ravels his arms in pretzel-like patterns, and splays them out into the air like a drag queen, and rolls one pant leg up, and throws his head down and sticks his gut out and falls to his knees.

Is it intentional, or improvised? The question could also be asked of his band—his band!—who could thunder down the line like a Southern Pacific for one song (“I Don’t Belong to Anyone”), wander in a semi-Haggard haze for another (“Love Comes to Me”) and then fall apart in beautiful, formless atmosphere for the next (“There Is Something I Have To Say”). Drummer Jim White, often looking like an angry Ron Jeremy, was a particular standout; he’d explore the drum kit like free-jazz pioneer Sunny Murray, nail down hi-hats like Booker T. & the MG’s Al Jackson, Jr., and lay back behind the beat like Tonight’s the Night’s Ralph Molina. Oldham’s band on this tour is exceptional—all of them, truly, were excellently in tune with each other and engaging to watch—but White’s the reason it feels the way it does.

Sometime soon after the semi-gospel coda of “I am Goodbye” and the brilliant reclamation of “Cycles,” Oldham brought out Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, an old tourmate and studio partner who I can only assume lives in Sonoma County now (she played at Aubergine a couple weeks ago, and won a yodeling contest at the Mystic Theater last month). Oldham introduced his band to her, but not to the audience, and had a conversation about her new baby, which slept in the room behind the stage. McCarthy took center stage for most of the rest of the set. They sang the duet “Lay and Love,” and Oldham was happy—he grabbed his big toe and pulled his foot as far behind his back as it could go.

Maybe Oldham stays young by playing old music. Maybe when he sings, during “I Called You Back,” that “the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible,” he’s offering a warning rather than a truth. Sure, we’re getting older. It happens. Let’s bask in it, like we did when we were 16. On nights like this one, this one special night in Santa Rosa, we can spill out of a fantastic show and walk home through the deserted streets, and it’ll feel like everything else for us is possible.