My man Jay Howell had to bow out last night, which meant that yours truly played records for four hours straight at Jason Vivona and Brian Henderson’s art show at Daredevils & Queens. I say “played records” instead of “DJed” because unless you’re matching beats and blending mixes, I don’t really consider it DJing. “DJing” also insinuates the presence of dancing, and luckily, that was not on the tab.
The events at which I’ve been behind the decks before—weddings, parties, and once, Rock ‘n Roll Sunday School—have always carried the pressure to supply rhythm of appropriate popularity and/or contagion for body movement by the masses. That’s nice if you’re trying to make more friends but a nightmare for me, and I was glad to evade that pressure by asking Vivona beforehand if I could play Born Against. He’s got a D. Boon tattoo on his hand. He said yes.
Correspondingly, Vivona and Henderson’s art doesn’t exactly cry out Rapture mashups and Lady Gaga. Vivona paints psychedelic characters with ooze for heads and Playmobil toys for penises, usually staring into nothingness with 28 eyeballs. Henderson photographs the undead; his bodies splayed out in abandoned warehouses, contorted, naked and covered in blood. Thus: Flipper, Archeopteryx, City of God, Lightning Bolt, Dewey Redman, Battles and of course, the Minutemen. There’s only one thing I love more than playing records for four hours straight, so thanks, guys, for having me.
I should let you know that on May 23, I’ll be joining my friend Larry Slater for his Jazz Connections radio show on KRCB. We too will play records for four hours straight, except that all of those records will be by Charles Mingus. Since I have more records by Charles Mingus than by any other jazz artist (unless, like me, you count Frank Sinatra as a jazz artist), this is a natural fit; Dr. Slater and I will cue up, play, and discuss the great man’s music, about which there are an infinite number of insights to make. (I’m still working on my volatile axe-throwing accusatorial temper-tantrum Mingus impersonation for a special segment called “What It Was Really Like To Play In Mingus’ Band.”) That’s on KRCB, 90.9 FM, on Saturday, May 23,from 8pm-midnight.
How about Devendra Banhart coming to the Mystic? How about Bassnectar coming to the Hopmonk? How about K’Naan being marketed through MySpace and MTV instead of NPR? Oh, wait. Sorry. The NPR interview’s here.
And so it’s happened. The residents at the Boogie Room, home of some of the most exciting subcultural activity of the past two years in Santa Rosa, have received a 60-day notice to vacate. They’ll pack up and call it a day in mid-April.
Speculation that the property might go on the market had been brimming for a while, and to be fair, most everyone so far seems surprised that the Boogie Room lasted as long as it did. “I’m one of them,” Bryce Dow-Williamson, a heavily-involved volunteer, told me today. “I thought it was gonna be, like, two months.”
“But I’m grateful for what we were able to do,” he added, proposing that perhaps now that the Boogie Room has set the example, “people have seen how it can work. Maybe someone’ll come along and do it right.”
There’s a handful of house concerts left on the calendar, and then the Boogie Room’s two-year run culminates on April 10 in a farewell show with the Crux, Pete Bernhart from the Devil Makes Three and more. It’s also Bryce’s birthday the next day, so a slumber party is rumored, along with a “memorabilia sale.”
I suppose it goes without saying, but Santa Rosa isn’t going to be the same.
The recipe for a fantastic lunchtime concert is pretty basic. When it comes down to it, all you need is a Fender twin reverb, a vintage Gibson, a Gretsch drum kit, a standup bass and some damn fine songs. That’s all James Hunter brought to the Russian River Brewing Company today, and it was enough to bring the house down.
Parked behind the place on Fifth Street was Hunter’s large tour bus, which leads me to believe he’s normally got a pretty impressive stage production, horns and all. Today, however, on the tiny stage in the corner, Hunter pared down to a three-piece and worked overtime on the guitar to fill in the missing sound. It wasn’t what he was used to, but man, it was great.
In blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a denim jacket, Hunter announced songs in his thick British accent and then sang them like Sam Cooke or Otis Redding; just pure, beautiful soul. Near the end, he even unpacked “The Very Thought of You,” and, instructing his band in an aside to take it at “the usual stupid speed,” a ripping three-piece version of “Talkin’ Bout My Love.”
Filling in extra chords and licks on his guitar, Hunter took a crazed, half-picking half-fretboard-tapping solo with his bare palms. He played a little hand-jive, and then, when the tank-topped hippie dude in beads who’d been dancing the whole time was joined by a long-haired female, Hunter clasped his hands together in thankful prayer toward the sky. “Oh!” he cried. “A girl!”
The crowd went nuts at the end, a testament to Hunter’s engaging charisma and talent. He plowed through the shoulder-to-shoulder house to get to the bathroom, and by the time he finally came out everybody was still clapping and screaming. Hunter played the Fillmore last night, and you gotta think he loves doing these little shows—he certainly seemed like he was having a blast. So it was one more song, and one more great noontime concert by the KRSH. Thanks, guys, for brightening everyone’s Wednesday.
Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!
So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.
Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.
The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.
At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.
Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?
I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.
What about regret? Is regret useless?
Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.
What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?
I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.
Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?
No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.
One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.
You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?
Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.
Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.
Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?
I can’t help them.
Well, you could play larger places.
That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.
And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…
Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.
One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.
Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.
You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.
Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.
Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.
Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?
I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.
Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?
No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.
Brooklyn, in particular?
Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.
You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.
I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.
Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?
I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.
What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.
Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?
Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’
Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?
We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.
What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?
That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.
Are you going to record an album?
I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?
I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.
You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?
No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”
You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?
Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.
Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?
Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.
What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?
“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.
More Photos Below.
In 2004, I walked into the Tradewinds in Cotati and felt my jaw immediately hit the floor in amazement over the two guys opening for the Rum Diary. A greasy-haired hippie-looking drummer who played just a little behind the beat and a sharp-throated, fingerpicking singer who blew the harmonica and sang songs about trying to care that the country’s at war in the midst of a ruined liver and other malaise. It felt like this band was created just for me, and after their captivating set, I found out that the band was called Two Gallants. Both Michael Houghton and I cornered the singer near the pool tables and bought everything he had.
I felt a similar sort of excitement tonight when I opened the antique door to Cast Away, a precious yarn shop in Railroad Square, to check in on that same singer, Adam Stephens, and his new solo project. Clusters of people lined the stairway up to the store’s loft, where the outstanding owner Justine usually offers knitting classes but tonight had transformed into a mini-concert space. About 30 or 40 people sat crowded on the floor, quietly passing around libations and listening intently to the music, while below, older customers reclined on couches for the evening’s ‘Knit & Sit’ session, knitting needles and unfinished scarves in hand. Santa Rosa never ceases to amaze me.
Stephens explained that he’d forgotten his harmonica holder, but he had more than enough texture to make up for it; cello, piano, drums and bass filled out his sound while managing to be mostly quieter than anything Two Gallants has ever done. His songs, I noticed, were long, but as Henry Nagle whispered in my ear, they’re paced extremely well, akin to long Springsteen epics. How Stephens manages to come up with so many words to fill his songs is beyond me. I only heard one reference to someone else’s lyrics—a line about sweeping out the ashes—and for the most part, his songs were things to get happily lost in.
Two Gallants is officially “kind of on hiatus,” Stephens told me afterwards, so he’s planning on recording and touring with this new outfit—whatever it may come to be called. “I hate my own name,” he murmured on the sidewalk, “but I also hate coming up with band names. I’ve only named one band in my life, and I was sick of it after a month. So we’ll see.”
I’ve retold this story numerous times to friends and always found it funny. Today, I look at it with deeper meaning. Duke Ellington came to Santa Rosa and no one knew who he was. This, to me, is a sad part of our history, that we denied the most famous composer in a predominantly black art form even the dignity of recognition.
Think about this story, and then think about the exemplary man recognized, elevated and inaugurated as our President this morning.
From Duke Ellington’s 1973 autobiography, Music is My Mistress:
Half the time on our trips Harry Carney and I arrive at the city or town where we are going to play that night thinking the other knows the place where the gig is, or has an itinerary in his pocket. Every now and then it appears that neither of us knows nor has an itinerary with him. “No sweat, baby!” I say, and we drive into a gas station, where Harry says, “Fill it up.” After I’ve stretched my limbs, I ask the attendant, “Do you know where Duke Ellington is playing tonight?” Usually the man answers, “Oh, over at the auditorium, three blocks down this way to the red light, turn left, then first right, and straight ahead—you can’t miss it.” So we just go and follow the directions, and we’re cool, but feeling it was a good thing we picked that gas station for information. We had been doing this sort of thing with good results down though the years until one night, a couple of years ago, we arrived in, I think it was, Santa Rosa, California. We pulled into the gas station with the same routine up to, “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” The cat with the gas hose turned and said “Who? Who’s he?” When we explained, he said, “I don’t know anything about a dance or a concert here tonight.” And there we were, standing there, feathers peeling off one at a time.
“Oh, no,” Harry said, “you don’t suppose we goofed on the name of the town?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I said. “Call Ruth or Cress Courtney.” So I went to the telephone to call my sister in New York.
All this time, cars were coming and going, and as they stopped for gas we’d ask them the same question: “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” Most of their responses were something like, “Duke Ellington? I didn’t know he was playing here tonight.” Then Ruth answered the telephone and we got the directions. So I turned to the cat at the gas station and said, “We’re playing at the Fairgrounds.” “Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Right catty-corner across the street.” What a relief!
But the Fairgrounds were very dark—no lights in sight. After finally finding an entrance gate, we drove in, and around, and around, and around. Nobody, but nothing, until eventually we were about to pass another car going in the opposite direction. Both cars honked their horns, stopped, let their windows down.
“Do you know where. . . ?” Harry began.
“That’s what we want to know, Harry,” the other driver interrupted. It was Ralph Gleason, of the San Francisco Chronicle at that time. We laughed, turned around, and both cars continued their search until suddenly—there it was!
Duke Ellington? Who’s he? Duke who?
There was a fascinating 10-page New Yorker profile on Will Oldham in last week’s issue, spotlighting in particular his penchant for playing small, weird, semi-secret out-of-the-way shows.
In related news, if I were you, I’d subscribe to Will Oldham’s mailing list. Like, right now. There’s a noticeable gap in his upcoming tour itinerary, and though I’m sworn to secrecy about the details at the moment, I can tell you that when tickets go on sale for his show in Santa Rosa, they won’t be available through normal sources, and they certainly won’t last long. The mailing list is your best bet.
Woke up yesterday and groaned at Pitchfork’s top albums, unsurprising since they lost all credibility with The Knife in 2006. Read about the recording industry’s strange new stance on downloading, which is to rely on Internet providers to do their dirty work for them. Was amused at the Phoenix Theater announcing the banning of hyphy shows, which is a brilliant maneuver, on par with announcing the banning of raves.
Flipped on the radio for Face the Music with Scott Mitchell and Frank Hayhurst, on KRSH. Laughed at the end of the show, when Frank presented Scott with a golden kazoo, since, alas, Scott is headed over to BOB-FM and will soon be replaced by Brian Griffith as the morning guy on the KRSH. Brian’ll be good and Scott’s been good, but man. I still miss Doug Smith.
Went to the downtown Post Office, where the holiday season has brought radio privileges for the counter staff. Was glad that instead of “Wonderful Christmastime” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the clerks were stamping packages to “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Bob Dylan. Dodged a car driving by playing the Youngbloodz-Procol Harum portion of Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals.
Got to work and read this wonderful piece of writing, regarding Leon Russell, by my friend John Beck. Felt the best kind of jealousy—I suspect that John is much more bound to editorial direction than myself, occasionally forced to write about music that he can’t personally get that excited about, and I love examining how he navigates total cowshit and turns it time and again into flowers. He’s good at it.
Read about the heavy metal singer who stabbed her guitarist for messing up a solo. Downloaded DJ Malarkey’s new Holiday mix to listen to while scouring club listings for New Years’ Eve information. Came across this lovely Christmas video of a drunk family partying their asses off around the tree, circa 1962, set to June Christy’s “The Merriest”:
(If you’re looking for a fantastic jazzy album of non-religious Christmas originals, call your local record store and pick up June Christy’s This Time of Year, just reissued a couple years ago.)
Had lunch at Hang Ah Dim Sum with the Love Level crew. Thought about Chinese opera and talked about Darker than Blue: Soul From Jamdown. Was reminded, by Mark and Gary, about KOME-FM and their street-sign stickers. Chatted about Backdoor Records. Thought about the late KPLS-FM and their even later cowboy-hat VW Bug.
Came back to work and gawked at the amazing Kate Wolf Festival 2009 lineup, with Emmylou Harris, Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Patty Griffin, Mavis Staples, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Wrote a little bit about Adam Theis and his upcoming SFJAZZ show, whose excellent Spring season was also announced this week: McCoy Tyner, Allen Toussaint, Bill Frisell, Kenny Barron, James Carter, Tinariwen, Roy Hargrove, Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau, Mariza, Kenny Burrell, Michael Feinstein and Branford Marsalis, among others.
Went to dinner at Fitch Mountain Eddie’s with my dad, where Richelle Hart and John Youngblood performed songs like “Summertime” and “Women Be Wise.” Talked a lot of shit about Ticketmaster, only to have the guy at the next table introduce himself as a guy who works for Ticketmaster. Wished him luck with that whole massive-debt-and-getting-dumped-by-Live-Nation thing.
Then: headed to the Raven Theater for the Bobs, who were as entertaining and awe-inspiring as they were when I last saw them at the Raven Theater in 1989. Was billed as the “Sleigh Bobs Ring” holiday show, containing plenty of Christmas numbers—”Christmas in L.A.,” “Christmas in Jail,” and an insane new song sung from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, “What Is This Thing Inside Me?”
Old chestnuts were dusted off, like “My, I’m Large” and “Boy Around the Corner,” and all the new ones like “Get Your Monkey off My Dog,” “Title of the Song,” “Imaginary Tuba” sounded great. Closed with “Christmastime is Here,” which I’m glad is becoming a holiday classic. Haven’t paid much attention to the Bobs in the last 20 years, but I was simultaneously buckled over with laugher, googly-eyed with amazement, and heartened that they still hang out in the lobby afterwards, chatting with all their weird fans. Thanks for keeping it up, guys.
Came home and listened to Booker Ervin, Madlib, No Age and Lucy Ann Polk. (Not Van Morrison, like grouchy Joel Selvin.) Wondered if real life was more important than music, or if the two are actually the same thing. Opted for the latter. Did the dishes and hummed Frank Sinatra. Went to bed.
As many of my friends can attest, I am not a “make plans” person. I call people at the last minute and see if they want to leave for the city in a half hour. I stop by people’s houses unannounced, usually at dinnertime. I tend to brush off suggestions until I flip a coin to decide what I am going to do on the occasion that I have free time.
I’ll admit, this makes it annoying, sometimes, to be my friend. But when I’m cruising it alone—on nights like last night, when I left the house on foot not knowing where to go but just needing to walk around—the sensation of not having any plan or destination is a dream. Especially walking through downtown Santa Rosa at night in December; I should by rights be dulled to the feeling by now, but the lights through the mist and the buildings look lovelier to me every time.
I was hungry as hell and didn’t know where to eat when I passed Super Buffet, across from the Press Democrat building on Mendocino Avenue. Perfect. I soon found myself in an even more peaceful state: at a bustling restaurant, alone, gazing into my plate of microwave pizza and sweet & sour chicken and decompressing. I don’t meditate, but eating at a cheap place alone has been my mind-clearer for years now.
I remembered that Joni Davis’ thing was going on at the Orchard Spotlight, so after some more fried rice and Jello, I strolled over to the familiar house at 515 Orchard—obviously once an old church, with its vestibule and stained-glass windows—and walked in just as Deborah Frank was finishing her set, beating on a hand drum and leading the room in a call-and-response. The room was full of good people. There was a table full of cookies. I knew that my last-minute decision was a good one.
These three gals from Berkeley called Loretta Lynch played some good tunes—“Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby,” an original called “Drinkin’ for Two” written while pregnant. A poet recited some pretty great poetry, and “pretty great poetry” is not a phrase I use very often. Joni played songs from time to time, and Chris projected videos of elves drinking beer while Lila sang a “Twelve Days of Christmas” full of suicide bombers, unemployment, a failing global economy and six more weeks before Bush leaves office, which got a huge cheer each time it came around.
Josh from the Crux, above, reminded me why I like “Tears of Rage” so much, and Doug Jayne and Ron Stinnett reminded me about the great Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which complimented perfectly the mood of the night (and the cause, benefiting the Redwood Empire Food Bank during the cold winter months). “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,” the song begins, going on to sympathize with the frail forms and drooping maidens who faint and sigh all the day with worn hearts and poor troubles. Right on, Stephen Foster—and here I’d thought it was all about “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races”!
At the end of the show, Joni Davis sang an acapella hymn from the 14th Century, and then thanked the overflow room profusely for helping a worthy cause and creating community. Afterwards, all along my warm-hearted walk home in the cold air through beautiful downtown Santa Rosa, I dwelled on her closing words: “Just remember,” she said, “while people are shooting each other at Toys ‘R Us and trampling each other at Wal-Mart… this is Christmas.”
“After you’ve had a few hit records,” explained Johnny Mathis at the Wells Fargo Center last night, “you can just about do anything you want. And I wanted to record some of my mother’s favorite songs.”
His mother’s favorite songs, it turns out, were Christmas songs, and the rest is history—Johnny Mathis has put out nine Christmas albums since. Though for a concert billed as “A Johnny Mathis Christmas,” the set was actually a welcome 50/50 blend of seasonal classics and standards, touching on Mathis’ biggest hits and even snaking down very interesting territory—an electric-guitar version of the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” for example, or a raucous street-party “Brazil,” favela whistles and all.
Most noticeably, Johnny Mathis is a living miracle of preservation. At 73, he looks and sounds almost exactly like he did fifty years ago, with the same high-toned boyish singing and a surprisingly fit face and figure. He’s also not just going through the motions. That he’s still willing to take chances and go out of his comfort zone is one of the reasons he’s persevered as one of the last in a literally dying breed. (Oh, 960 KABL, how missed you are.)
Mathis opened with “Winter Wonderland,” the lead-off tune from his first and most famous Christmas album, and then went pretty quickly into “It’s Not For Me To Say,” sparking one of many sighs of recognition. The audience thrilled at the immediately recognizable piano intro to “Chances Are,” and during “Misty,” when he nailed the final octave-high falsetto in the third verse, you could hear an entire theater of 1,400 audibly gasp.
Sure, they laughed at “Gina,” but for the most part, Mathis—in a blue sweater and pants and white sneakers—held everyone rapt in his role as interpreter. “Stranger in Paradise,” “Secret Love” and “A Felicidade” are all songs associated with other singers, but Mathis did them right, just as he delivered a touching “Christmastime is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas after giving an introductory nod to Charles Schulz.
Yes, he did “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Silver Bells,” and a bunch of other Christmas songs. He also did “The Twelfth of Never” with a solo guitar backing, and “99 Miles From L.A.,” and somewhere near the end of it all—after an intermission during which a know-your-audience comedian came out and told Viagra jokes—Mathis sang eight bars completely acapella, a 73-year-old man alone and unaccompanied in the spotlight, just totally ruling it. Miracles never cease.