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Live Review: Sly and the Family Stone at the Wells Fargo Center

Posted by: on Oct 18, 2008 | Comments (14)

At the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone did not take a bow.

In fact, at the close of Friday night’s show in Santa Rosa, Sly Stone was nowhere to be seen. He had left the stage long ago, during “I Want to Take You Higher”—one of only four songs he actually performed—explaining to the crowd: “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”

But throughout the rest of the 90-minute set, Stone never returned, leaving the Family Stone to awkwardly vamp songs in his absence, just like they had at the beginning of the set, until, well, the hell with it, you know, and they simply gave up and left, too. The house lights came on, and a young man sitting a few seats away from me said it all.

He stood up, angrily threw his arms in the air, and yelled, “What the fuck??!”

Yes, it was disappointing. Extremely disappointing. And by far the hardest part is that for the few songs Stone appeared on—“Sing a Simple Song,” “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Stand!” and “I Want to Take You Higher”—he was an electrifying presence which transformed the show from a schmaltzy Vegas act into a truly special occasion. That is, when Sly Stone—one of the greatest talents in soul music and an undeniable genius—wasn’t referring to Santa Rosa as “Sacramento” or telling the audience, point-blank, to shut up.

Even before the show started at 9:55pm, trouble was in the air. The opening act had played for far too long, and when Sly’s announcer finally came on stage, he felt compelled to convince the crowd of the overshadowing importance of the evening. “I know you’ve waited a long time,” he said. “But this is history! You can tell your grandkids that you waited for Sly and the Family Stone!”

The nine-piece band then took to the stage, without Sly Stone, announcing that their “master” had asked them to “warm up the stage” for a while. Apparently, “warming up” means dicking around for five minutes. They sloppily introduced the band, gave shout-outs to their friends in the crowd and joked painfully amongst themselves. Eventually, they remembered that their job was to entertain paying customers, and tore into “Dance to the Music.” The crowd went nuts.

Then came “Everyday People,” which was noticeably weaker without Sly around, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” which caused people to start shouting. “We want Sly!” they yelled. “Where’s Sly?” The band answered by first playing a quick funk instrumental, and then by futzing around with the monitors and complaining to the soundman.

Then, weirdly, and with no fanfare, Sly Stone appeared—coming down the aisles, walking slowly to the stage and murmuring greetings into his wireless microphone. The band kicked into “Sing a Simple Song,” and Sly opened his mouth to unleash a signature deep, rich voice that hasn’t really changed much in the last 40 years. A thrill ran through the building. The crowd jumped again to their feet and danced like crazy.

Especially moving was Stone’s version of “If You Want Me to Stay,” with its impossibly low notes and an ever-hypnotic chord progression. For as bizarre as Sly Stone is these days, he is completely and authentically in the moment during songs like “If You Want Me to Stay.” He has that kind of unpretentious honesty that draws people to him as an artist. He’s not trying to be anyone he’s not, and this keeps him from being a caricature of himself.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your patience,” said a grateful-seeming Stone. “We’re happy to be here. We’re lucky to be here.”

Then came “Stand!,” which a large portion of the audience responded to by sitting down, and maybe Stone took the hint. Halfway through “I Want to Take You Higher,” he was off to take his piss. And to never come back.

The rest of the set dragged on in the worst possible way—with hopelessly long jams, misplaced caterwauling, obligatory drum solos, and guitars being played with teeth. People who most likely hadn’t heard Stone’s muttered promise to return and thus had figured that the show was basically over flooded out of the theater. Others, holding out hope to hear Stone come back and sing “Everybody is a Star” or “Family Affair,” stayed in their seats while the band flogged every last tiny drop out of mega-extended versions of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” “Thank You (Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin),” and “Somebody’s Watching You.”

The theater was already half-empty by the time the band shed their instruments and exited the stage. Scattered boos underscored the mild applause. A girl was overheard near the back, beside herself with disbelief. “Seriously?!” she exclaimed. “75 bucks to see a cover band!”

It was a rough night all around, highlighted bittersweetly with a brief flash of brilliance. Sly Stone may not retain the ability to perform much longer, whether because of mental and physical deterioration or simply because of an utterly ruined reputation. But even viewing tonight’s show through this cynical lens—that it was, at least, a historic event—it’s incredibly cold comfort in light of the disappointment he left us to remember him by.

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Set List:

Dance to the Music
Everyday People
Hot Fun in the Summertime
Instrumental Funk Jam
(Sly Enters)
Sing a Simple Song
If You Want Me to Stay
Stand!
I Want to Take You Higher
(Sly Leaves)
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey
Thank You (Fallettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin)
Somebody’s Watching You

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UPDATE: Read all about the behind-the-scenes tumult and insanity here.

The End of the Summer

Posted by: on Sep 7, 2008 | Comments (2)

It’s the end of the summer
Come to the time when we have to say goodbye

After watching seven different bands at Daredevils & Queens tonight, and after spending three days watching countless bands at the Insect Carnival last weekend, I have to say: summertime’s elusive promise, that delicate combination of freedom and togetherness so impossible to contain, has come and delivered its sweet kiss just in the nick of time. Soon it will be October, and we’ll spend our nights at home, and read Neil Gaiman novels and watch Richard Widmark movies, and talk about them to computer screens. But these last few weekends, at least, have been a last gasp of what living in Santa Rosa is all about.

It’s hard to put into words, these shows at the Insect Carnival and Daredevils & Queens, aside from saying that they’re probably best not put into words. They breathe, but how do you describe a breath? You inhale air, you exhale air. Right? Is it that simple?

The oldest of friends, the newest of strangers, the coldest of beers and the truest of bands. All under a sky just enough unclouded by city lights to allow a few stars to poke through. Shooting stars, even—the kind that you catch in their split-second streak, and when you discover that the person you’re next to saw it too, for a moment you are bonded if not by the music or the laws of attraction than at least by the very fact that you’re both under the same big sky.

The end of the summer means that people play John Prine and Jesus Lizard songs in the middle of a field, next to a mud pit full of naked people. The end of the summer means Jolie Holland ballads and clanging chains and bullhorns and a floor bending under the weight of people jumping up and down in rhythm. The end of the summer means sharing amps and sideways smiles and a hundred hugs. The end of the summer means a downtown alley full of people drinking free beer and fuck it if it’s Coors.

And the end of the summer means that as the wig-wearing auctioneers of Wine Country Weekend raise money by clowning their own dead counterculture of the 1960s, there are walls both concrete and wooded, both inside city limits and out, where a new culture is constantly being reborn. Where fresh blood is funneled into art, and music, and community, and life, and where money does not rule all. I repeat: where money does not rule all.

So thanks to the bands, and the people like Travis and Bryce and Kyle, and the hordes of people in this town who know a good thing when they see it and who seize it while it lasts.

Live Review: MDC at the Boogie Room

Posted by: on Aug 15, 2008 | Comments (1)

First of all, the prize of the night I think goes to the young kid in a wheelchair who, while his friends formed a wall around him to guard him against flailing bodies, tilted his head back and sang along to every line of “Born to Die.”

Never mind that MDC slowed the song down to half-speed, or that they changed the lyrics to “I Remember,” or that they said fuck it to the iconic bass intro to “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” or that they sang entirely different lyrics to “Chock Full of Shit,” or that they kinda mangled “Chicken Squawk” or that in fact they played their first five songs acoustically. MDC were still great, and despite revisiting just about all of side one of their first and best album, 1982’s Millions of Dead Cops, they didn’t have the pathetic reliving-the-past feel like so many other old punk bands still on the touring circuit today.

Personal data: Dave Dictor is almost as old as my dad.

“I spent most of the late ’90s in a methamphetamine haze,” Dictor announced to the crowd, about 4 or 5 songs into the set. “Walking around the streets of San Francisco, wearing this big yellow rubber poncho, pushing a shopping cart. Those were my peeps. But you know, I got into rehab“—spitting out the word like it was an obscenity—”and got myself straightened out.”

How could we have not guessed that Dave Dictor was gay? “America’s So Straight,” “My Family is a Little Weird,” his flamboyant costumes and incessant prancing around on stage in the ’80s? “There’ve been people coming up to me tonight,” he told the crowd, “reminding me about playing the Cotati Cabaret in 1988. And apparently I took all my clothes off, and traded underwear with a girl.” See?

Personal data: One of the first songs I learned on the guitar was the entire flamenco solo intro to “Chock Full of Shit” from Millions of Damn Christians.

Even when MDC ditched their acoustic guitars and started playing loud, it still wasn’t, uh, “loud.” But listen to their records—they’re not loud either. MDC: the sheep in wolf’s clothing. They always were kind of a hippie band. The message of health food and sustainability in the liner notes to the Millions of Dead Children 7″? Ahead of its time.

Some guy brought a zucchini the size of a bazooka from the gardens and stood in front of the stage, beaming. It wasn’t long before it wound up smashed and battered on the floor under the shoes of the pit. “My mom always told me not to play with food,” quipped Dictor. The pit wasn’t too out of control.

Personal data: One of the first shows I ever went to, at the River Theater in Guerneville, was MDC playing with All, Nuisance, and a very young and very stoned opening band called Green Day. It was September 23, 1989. I was 13.

I wandered outside near the set’s end. MDC has a reputation for playing long-ass sets, and I figured I’d try to stave off potential boredom. Plus there was some crazy acoustic music emanating from the campfire, like there usually is, so I walked over and there it was: a bongo player, a trombone player, a saxophone player, and a beatboxer. A small kitten meowed along. The Boogie Room is amazing. Amazing, I say!

Quotes of the Night:

Young punk girl, with a cigarette, to a mellow-looking guy in blonde dreadlocks: “Hey! Are you the hippie who told me not to smoke?”

40-year-old guy to MDC’s drummer, before the show: “I graduated in ’86, and I listened to you every day! You guys are the best, man!”

Guy to another guy, outside after the show: “Consider that you might not be allowed to come back here, okay?! Do you realize what you’re doing?”

Girl, leaning out of her car: “Hey, do you want to punch me in the face for $8?”

And it’s not a quote, but I’m always heartened—I don’t know why, I’m too young to legitimately care—to see a Jak’s jacket in the throng:

I bought a Millions of Dead Cops cassette for $5 and walked back to my car. Came home and listened to Horace Silver. The next morning, I smelled like shligs and had weeds in my hair. Right on.

Bits ‘n Pieces: Tom Waits, Downtown, Restaurants, Traverso’s, Mel Torme, etc.

Posted by: on Jul 13, 2008 | Comments (9)

Don’t ask me how I know this, but I assure you it’s true: Tom Waits officially recorded his show last week at the Fox Theater in Atlanta for a broadcast on NPR. From all the reviews on Eyeball Kid, it seems like one of the best shows on his entire tour so far. There’s also this great little Excel spreadsheet-type calculation thing of every single song Tom Waits has played on the American leg of his tour over at Eyeball Kid, which is a drool-inducing jealousyfest for fans like me.

 

In a matter of incredibly arcane Tom Waits trivia, we here at City Sound Inertia bow our heads in remembrance of China Light, the dingiest little Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa, on the corner of College and Cleveland Avenues. I used to live around the corner from the place, back when it was painted a ridiculous pink color, and every night at about 10pm they’d close so the whole family could eat around a large round table in the family dining room, off to the side. It was sweet. What does this have to do with Tom Waits, you ask? It’s this room that Tom Waits chose for a photo shoot, posing with a book about human oddities, right after Mule Variations was released.

The best thing about China Light, of course, was the beautiful misspelling on its corner sign: “Lunch Specil.”

I’m not sure that Waits ate there very much; he probably just liked how run-down the place looked. Do you remember when a car crashed through the front of the building, and it took the owners 8 months to patch up the gigantic hole? Seriously, for 8 months there was just a pile of bricks and a sheet of cardboard covering the wall. I checked their health code violations on the Sonoma County Food Inspection website once—they had about 5 or 6 critical violations. Not that it mattered; I loved their soup, although it did go a bit downhill. The last time I ate there was the day that Blowfly played at Michele’s, in Santa Rosa, and all I remember is that the chicken was so gooey and undercooked that I was literally spitting it out onto the ground as I left out the front door.

 

Apparently Tom Waits signed his contract with Epitaph at Rinehart’s Truck Stop in Petaluma; or, to be more precise, the now-defunct Zoya’s Truck Stop Cafe. Now that’s a place I miss. A perfect cheap spot between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, with the most amazing painting of an eagle, on the wall above the booths. Run by Russians; on bad days, it smelled more like borscht than burgers. Story goes that Waits was willing to sign with Epitaph, but insisted on meeting label head Brett Gurewitz there. So Gurewitz drove up from L.A. and met him at the truck stop, contract in hand. (It’s on the same exit where the makeshift memorial for Georgia Lee Moses is, immortalized in Mule Variations‘ “Georgia Lee.”)

Greg at Flavor told me tonight that Waits used to come there every Tuesday for a while. Then he stopped. Aw, hell, I could go on and on about Tom Waits—hey, what about restaurants? Bummed that Cafe Japan, right next to Flavor, closed; they were such nice people, and to my mind the best sushi in town. Here’s to a good run.

 

Probably the strangest dining experience I’ve had lately was eating at Mariscos F. Magiy on Sebastopol Road a couple weeks ago. While I ate my squid quesadilla, I was kept company by a very large and smiling bulldog, panting and drooling next to my table. I love dogs, but some guy (who works there? hangs out there? I dunno) saw me and firmly warned, “Stay there. Don’t move.” Eventually he got the bulldog to go back into the kitchen. “He looks friendly,” he said, “but he’ll turn on you.” Hmm. Incidentally, the quesadilla was delicious.

 

Old Santa Rosa diehards like me are all abuzz over the news that Traverso’s is moving to Fountaingrove; it makes sense for them to be across the street from a lot of old people with money, but I will miss them being downtown in a major way. But now who will spend all day politely dealing with people asking for change for the bus? Mr. “Shut Up Hippie” over at Cafe Martin?

I was talking with Michael Traverso, one of the friendliest check-out clerks in the world, after they sold the building and started looking for a new location. Here’s my favorite thing about the move: Michael says they’re completely planning on taking the store’s hardwood floor with them. “Really? You can do that?” I asked him. “Sure!” he said. “It’s the original floor! We moved it from our old location when we moved here!” You gotta love stuff like that.

Is there a copy editor out there who can solve the mystery of the Traverso’s sign? Right next to the smiling man holding a stretch of salami and the promise of “101 Varieties Cheese,” it proudly boasts their motto: “Traverso’s Got It!” Since the name of the joint is Traverso’s, shouldn’t it read “Traverso’s’s Got It?”

The sandwiches at Pete’s market on 4th and Mendocino are better and cheaper anyway.

 

Long overdue are my dorky kudos to the city of Santa Rosa for making our sidewalks more skateboard-friendly! Just about every raised crack in town, it seems, was shaved flat back in the springtime. The skateboarders of the city thank you. Now if only it was legal to ride on the sidewalks!

 

Parking meters, parking meters: those new pay stations are wack and everyone knows it. I’m guessing they’re here to stay, which is ridiculous since there is a much more convenient way for people to pay for their parking. It also requires no adaptation of the city’s current meters: have you ever noticed the credit card-sized slot in the city’s LCD meters? It’s there to accept parking cards, a program that the City of San Francisco has used to great effect. It’s easy: you buy a parking card from City Hall, it has a certain dollar amount on it, and when you park somewhere, you insert it into the slot while the meter counts up. Reach the desired time, remove the card, and that’s that—no change needed.

I asked a woman at City Hall’s Parking & Transit office the other day if there was any possibility of the city issuing parking cards to use in these ready-and-waiting slots. “Not gonna happen,” she said. “Not in this budget cycle, at least.”

The two most plausible theories about the city’s excitement over the new pay stations that I’ve heard are 1) With the new pay stations, the city can make more money because it’s impossible for drivers to tell if there’s money left on a meter, and 2) Some outside city analyst suggested that removing all the parking meters would make the city look nicer.

 

They’re finally fixing the drinking fountain in Courthouse Square, at least.

License plate of the week, parked at the Odd Fellows Hall in Santa Rosa.

I was sitting on some steps eating a sandwich a couple weeks ago and looked over and saw this collection of heroin needles in the bushes. Corner of Mendocino & Silva, where the cops routinely crack down. Kind of a weird place to shoot heroin, in my opinion.

Isn’t this supposed to be a music blog?

I was defeated in a lyric-remembering showdown recently, when Anna Allensworth knew the correct opening line of “Sunday in New York” and I, in shame, did not. I thought it was “New York on Sunday / Big city havin’ a ball.” Anna was right: “New York on Sunday / Big city takin’ a nap.” Two very different things. Congratulations, Anna!

 

In a related tangent, I have been together with Liz now for almost seven years, and only just tonight, I discovered that she knows all the lyrics to “Singin’ in the Rain.” I thought Gene Kelly was the only one who knew more than the first four lines. Congratulations, Liz!

 

After he played it for me one night and I couldn’t shut up about it for days, Josh Staples gave me a copy of an amazing, amazing album: Modern Windows by Bill Barron. It rides a real fine line between post-bop and avant-garde, and it’s all one long uninterrupted suite separated into different movements, and Barron’s tone on the tenor sax is a menace. I love it. Thanks, Josh!

 

The two crappiest music videos I’ve seen all week: “Puff Puff Give” by Hannah’s Field and “No Tight Clothes” by Thug Slaughter Force. Painful shit, folks. Click at your own risk.

Okay—enough rambling. Time to get back to watching The Big Knife. It’s a great film that was part of the United Artists 90th Anniversary Film Festival at Film Forum in New York, but unfortunately not part of the touring version which hits the Rialto at the end of this month. Video Droid‘s got it. Rent it from them, and no, I still don’t have a Netflix account.

Not To Reason Why at the 600 House; J-Boogie at the Hopmonk

Posted by: on May 9, 2008 | Comments (0)

It was the fucking awesomest one-song set.

It was 11pm. Three bands had already played. I was planning on taking off to Sebastopol, had already said my goodbyes, and was literally halfway out the front door of the 600 House when Not To Reason Why started playing. Awww, shit. After the first couple notes, I was lured, like a magnet, back into the living room. How could I leave? When it comes to Not To Reason Why, you can’t even pretend like there’s an option. Just give in.

The Carlo Rossi was flowing. Fools were juiced. And if you’ve never heard them, Not To Reason Why are on some heavy-ass, pulsing, move-your-body epic-type tip. The song: “Zeitgeist.” The living room heaved, hands shot into the air, and the band played intensely, furiously, like it was the end of the world. Howls of joy. Heads shook in disbelief. Jessie Mae jumped up on top of an amplifier. For six sweet minutes, miracles came true.

Then the cops came.

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People are always talking about how there’s nothing to do around here, but tonight was a pretty good example of why that’s untrue. Here it was, Thursday night of all nights, there’s a killer house party that gets busted by the cops and yet there’s still more to do. Juke Joint with J-Boogie. I headed west.

——————————————————————————–

I pulled up to the Hopmonk Tavern a little before midnight and saw, I kid you not, a guy and a girl, standing and squatting next to each other in the parking lot, both talking to each other and pissing on the asphalt, simultaneously. Love works in incredible ways.

Inside, J-Boogie had just started his set with a megamix of Stevie Wonder songs—it being Stevie’s birthday—and the place was hopping like mad. Bodies on the floor, busting some serious moves. Breakdancers in the corner. Girls dancing on the stage. Again, the magnetic pull erased any choice other than to get down. Even the wallflowers were dancing in their shoes.

Out in the beer garden, I ran into a buddy of mine and asked him how, in his opinion, a small town like Sebastopol was able to so overwhelmingly support a night like Juke Joint. “It’s new,” he said, citing that everything fresh and hip has its initial glory period. Having worked at now-defunct Barcode in Santa Rosa, he could be said to speak from experience. “It’ll die down,” he predicted.

He could be right. But judging from last night’s huge crowd, and judging from the hypnotic spell J-Boogie had over everyone, it was hard to imagine an impending lull on the near horizon.

I’ve dug J-Boogie for almost ten years now, and the bulk of his set—after the Stevie Wonder tracks, and before the Motown / Atlantic megamix at the end—was a slick reminder of why he’s so great. Crazy, rhythmic grooves from all around the world; none of them recognizable, all of them dope. Also, J-Boogie’s one of the few DJs who can drop a long three-minute drum break with intros on the upbeat and full-on long paces of total silence and still keep the crowd not only moving but hollering with excitement. Hell yeah!

More photos after the jump.

Bartók, Brahms, Janácek at the Santa Rosa Symphony

Posted by: on Apr 13, 2008 | Comments (0)

During my interview with Christopher O’Riley about his performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, he warned of the difficulties involved in the concerto’s second movement: “It’s really important to get the mix right with the orchestra, and to have them participatory instead of deferentially,” he said. “It’s a real concerto for piano with orchestra, not piano and orchestra. And so hopefully we’ll get that right.”

O’Riley, who strode to the stage last night in a dramatic, long black button-up coat, handled Bartok’s swiftly shifting themes in the first movement with keen versatility. The second movement, as predicted, tested the delicate balance between O’Riley and the orchestra—truthfully, a strenuous challenge of musical ESP—but the seesaw only faltered a couple times during passages of whimsy, somber tones and mid-century blues lines. And the triumphant finale after the third movement brought the crowd to their feet as O’Riley determinedly yanked conductor Bruno Ferrandis off the podium to clasp hands, orchestra and pianist together sharing in the praise.

One of the nice things that Ferrandis has brought to the Santa Rosa Symphony is variety, and tonight’s set included Janácek’s suspense-ridden From the House of the Dead overture, played beautifully. (Incidentally, I watched Brian De Palma’s Sisters last week, mostly to hear Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the overture reminded me of Herrmann, famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.) Brooding pulses, high-pitched discord and yes—I’m not kidding—clanging steel chains, rattled in time to the music.

After the intermission, the orchestra was completely in its element for Brahms’ Symphony no. 1, full of sweeping passages, nice solos (particularly the flute) and a crescendo-busting, whiz-bang ending. Just when the night couldn’t have ended any better, it was announced that this very month marks the 80th anniversary of the Santa Rosa Symphony (which presented its first performance in April of 1928) and to mark the occasion there was free cake and champagne for everyone afterwards in the lobby. Right on!

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P.S. Christopher O’Riley, well-known as an interpreter of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith, felt pretty weird about being billed as a “hipster” pianist. But I can understand why. After all, how many classical soloists know how to play Guided by Voices’ “Surgical Focus”? And how many classical soloists have this as their ringback music?:

Merle Haggard at the LBC

Posted by: on Apr 2, 2008 | Comments (0)

Near the beginning of Merle Haggard’s hour-long set tonight, he turned to the crowd and inexplicably asked, “No caffeine?!”

Er. . . Huh?

“No steroids? No crank?!” What was Haggard getting at?

Then the bomb: “Maybe a little herb!”

The aroma at a Merle Haggard show is just like any other country show: a time-honored combination of stale cigars, Copenhagen, cheap perfume and Jack Daniels. But the smell of marijuana guaranteed that we weren’t at no wussy-ass Dierks Bentley concert. From the guys out in the parking lot flaming up the reef, to the random whiffs in the lobby, to Haggard’s new song, “Half of My Garden is for Willie,” weed was the order of the night. And that suits the 70 year-old, white-haired Haggard—who still acts like a goofy little kid with a big heart—very well.

Acting out the song in adolescent, animated gestures, Haggard sang about the “tobacco, mushrooms, and cannabis” in his garden, and how half of it he’d give to Willie Nelson because “a man like that shouldn’t have to grow his own.” It brought the house down.

But by far the set’s highlight was one of the greatest songs ever written: “If I Could Only Fly.” The utmost of tenderness, the prettiest of melodies, the timelessness of the lyrics—everything about the Blaze Foley song cast a hush over the normally boisterous crowd, who shouted requests and rampantly ignored the ‘No Cameras’ signs throughout the bulk of the show. In the song’s quiet smallness, it attracted the most undivided attention of the night.

Hit-song standbys included “Silver Wings,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Guess I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Swinging Doors,” “Big City,” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” and much to the surprise of the crowd, Haggard actually performed “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee,” which in recent years he’s either tried to justify as spoofs or plain disowned outright.

Haggard’s also good for whatever latest ballad Willie Nelson’s written; the last time I saw him, in 2005, he sang “It Always Will Be,” and tonight, it was “Back to Earth.” The Strangers, his 10-piece backing band, played as fantastically as they always have (that drummer’s bones know when the song ends), and Haggard still has a hell of a voice.

Haggard was warm and welcoming to the crowd—much more so than most country stars of his vintage. He started “I Wish Things Were Simple Again” in the wrong key, which distracted him so much that he accidentally sang “My dad was a lady. . .” He stopped the song, everyone laughed, he made a couple jokes about “jambalay, crawfish pie, and be gay-o,” and then got back on track. At other times he joked about pulling up his bra, and said “I might be a transvestite!” He also spent a good deal of time criticizing the city of Redding, where in his words, “talent goes to die.”

Haggard’s playing Redding tomorrow night. Something tells me his talent will survive.

The Last Record Store

Posted by: on Mar 19, 2008 | Comments (0)

There are certain things we say in life that we never thought we’d ever, ever say. Things like, “Let’s go out to sushi,” or “I’ve been kinda into reggae lately.” And today, I find myself saying one of those unthinkable things. After 14 years, I have worked my final day at the Last Record Store.

Maybe “worked” isn’t the right word, since my last day at the store on Monday was full of telephone calls and people stopping in, wishing me well, shaking my hand, reminding me of the first record they bought off me, telling me how much I’d helped them out in different ways—basically flashing 14 years of my life before my eyes. It was an overwhelming display of what I’d meant to the store, which is something I’d never really thought about, because the store always meant so much more to me.

I started coming to the Last Record Store in 1988, when I was 12 years old and used to ride my skateboard all over downtown Santa Rosa. My mom would give me $5 for food, but of course I starved myself and bought hardcore records instead. In fact, I still have the first record I ever bought there—a 7″ compilation called ‘We’ve Got Your Shorts.’

As time went on, I guess I grew to be a familiar face around the store. I was hooked on records, buying everything from DRI to Sinatra, and bridging the styles by recording ‘Punk Piano’—punk rock songs played easy-listening style—to sell in the local demo tapes section. The store also stocked my zine, Positively Fourth Street, and sold records by my band, Ground Round. I still distinctly remember asking a fairly bewildered Scott if it was okay to put up a flyer bearing the phrase “In the Name of God, Fuck You.” Then, in 1993, a miracle happened: I got asked to work there.

I didn’t know, at the time, that everyone in the world wanted to work at the Last Record Store, but at 18, I definitely knew that it was the place for me. I loved the atmosphere, the freedom to be myself, and the fact that Hoyt and Doug really ran the place in their own anti-corporate and unconventional way. I began a crash course in every single section, starting with a heavy jazz infatuation, going through a deep country phase, diving headlong into hip-hop, eating up everything and finding myself surprised at every turn.

Oh, I learned a lot about life, too. Things like how to treat people properly, and how not to be a snob, and how actions and achievements mean more than opinions and ideals. But I dug learning about music most of all; my co-workers, naturally, being founts of information, along with most of the customers. Eventually I was put in charge of the vinyl annex, which opened up whole new possibilities for listening, be it crazy international music, old blues records, new electronica stuff, the standard classical repertoire, any classic rock I might have missed. There was always one threshold, however, that I refused to cross: I never, ever listened to reggae.

It’d be impossible, and would definitely get some people in trouble, to list all of the amazing things that happened at the store while I worked there. Nevertheless, interesting stuff seemed to happen every day, like the time that Doug rigged a huge PA speaker up on the roof and blared Mule Variations at midnight, all over downtown Santa Rosa. The day that Seth walked in and plopped an owl on the counter, very beautiful and very dead. The crazy half-naked stripper who invited me to dinner, or the many other solicitations one gets when they work at a record store, none of which need to be retold here.

The strangers who met in the aisles and would later start coming in together. The beautiful girl who I met in the aisles, fell in love with, and married. The bands that made flyers out of vacuum cleaners and folding chairs, the folks who dropped off their insane flyers and zines and mix CDs, and the people who brought us free things like cake and chocolate and beer and movies and tickets to shows and chicken casserole. Why? Just because.

I’ve also seen the Last Record Store skillfully adapt to a lot of changes over the years. Getting a cash register, for one. Closing the vinyl annex. Moving to Mendocino Avenue. Getting a computer and an email list. Weathering the mp3 storm. Weathering the economy and the changing face of the music industry. Watching Musicland, the Wherehouse, and Tower Records all go under. And yet, through it all, standing strong, because in mine and many other people’s opinions, it’s still the best and most amazing record store in the world.

For the last four years, I wrote the Last Record Store Newsletter every week, which, if you’re interested, can be perused here. But I’ve also for the last four years been writing more and more for the Bohemian, which is where I’m going to be full-time from now on. For those lovable ones among you who are going to miss my dependable presence behind the counter—my misguided recommendations, my unintelligible blathering, and my failed jokes—well, hopefully it’ll translate in print. Between you and me, I’ve actually been kinda into reggae lately. Just a little.

So thanks to Doug and Hoyt for giving me a job and treating me like a son for fourteen years. Thanks to all my awesome co-workers for the camaraderie. Thanks especially to all the wonderful regular customers who I’ve met over the years—you, more than anyone, and more than you know, made it worthwhile. I’m gonna miss the shit, for sure, but another door has opened, and it’s time to move on.

First Novels at the Toad in the Hole

Posted by: on Mar 19, 2008 | Comments (0)

The Toad in the Hole has an official fire capacity of, like, 48, and I usually feel really bad for Eddie, their doorman. Part of his job is to be the messenger of bad news and to turn paying customers away when the place is hopping—which was definitely the case last Saturday night. Chalk it up to First Novels, with the match-made-in-heaven pairing of Andy Asp and Brian Fitzpatrick, to pack the tiny Toad in the Hole and to leave latecomers stranded on the sidewalk outside.

Andy and Brian, who for years played together in Cropduster and seem essentially like soulmates at this point, are a thrill to watch together—sometimes you think Brian’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Andy, sometimes you think Andy’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Brian. Their songs, influenced by tunesmiths like John Prine, Tim Hardin and Neil Young, are microcosms of wonder, and between Andy’s voice and Brian’s guitar work, they’re played with a hypnotic, untainted delicacy. Note to people who try to talk to me when Andy and Brian are playing: dude, be quiet.

Special mention must be made of Muir Houghton, upright bassist extraordinaire, who picks up songs on the spot and plays them like he’s played them forever. I’ve seen him a few times now, and whether bowing or plucking, whether playing with John Courage or Amber Lee or First Novels, he’s always on top of his game.

The Spindles played last, and incidentally, I don’t think they’ve ever been better, benefiting greatly from the addition of new drummer Jonathan Hughes, who plays with a really thoughtful and compatible sense of taste. Sweet-lookin’ drum kit, too.

Pwrfl Power at the Boogie Room

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2008 | Comments (2)

There were some baby goats in one of the barns at the Boogie Room last night that were born just three days ago, cuddled up together in a pile of hay. It was amazing. I don’t get to see that sort of thing very often, and especially not at a show, where sweetness and innocence aren’t exactly in fashion these days.

Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like there’s a lot of bands lately who hold purity in low regard. Following secret motives and adhering to a growing nouveau underground which dictates a bitterly knotted anti-aesthetic, the only use they’d have for baby goats would be to ironically put them on their CD-R cover with, like, some rainbows and duct tape and bloodstains.

You know the kind. They all play a chaotic amalgam of fast, schizophrenic drum beats, noodling, atonal hardcore riffs, sparse, unnecessary non-vocals, and quirky or nonexistent tempos. They usually have a surefire gimmick, like dressing up in toilet paper or manhandling some artifact of malfunctioning vintage electronic equipment. Invariably, they have unconventional instrumentation, causing fans to say things like “it’s just a guitarist and a drummer!”—as if that’s, like, a totally original thing because that’s not how Nickelback or Sugar Ray or any other dumb band in their secret pile of CDs now collecting dust on their bedroom shelf does things. And they rarely, if ever, talk to the crowd.

Nickelback and Sugar Ray suck hard, don’t get me wrong. But what’s lame about this current voguish, anarchistic approach is that is it defined not by what it creates but by what it blatantly disregards. Right now, there’s way too many bands that tear down conventional form, melody, structure and rhythm, yet add nothing in its place—other than technical wankery and a juvenile nose-thumbing to what they perceive as the musical establishment. They’re like the sect of iconoclasts who have decided that interpersonal love is too mainstream and who avow to combat the fascist regime of loving one another by going out and displaying their autonomy by masturbating in public.

If this is the revolution, then sorry, man, but I’m bored with it before it even begins. How did Sara put it the other week? “If I leave a show, and my ears are ringing,” she proposed, “I want to at least have heard some songs.”

At the Boogie Room the other night was a fresh sign of hope. Pwrfl Power—the stage name of solo Japanese-American artist Kazutaka Nomura—not only played actual songs (and good songs, too), but he engaged the crowd with stories, jokes, observations, and genuine purity. “How are you?” he asked the crowd, and after we all muttered “good,” he smiled, adding to the exchange a trademark tangent.

“When I said that right there, ‘how are you,’” he said, “I was thinking of the book that I learned English, and it had an example of a conversation between, like, Tom and Kathryn. Some generic names like that. And the conversation was: ‘How are you?’ ‘I am good.’ ‘Is this a chair?’ ‘No, it is a table.’” He laughed. “What kind of stupid person is that?”

But whether he knows it or not, Nomura’s songs carry the same simplicity as those rudimentary textbook conversations. They’re basic statements that mean so much more exactly because they’re presented in such simple terms. “It’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be yourself,” he sings, “Because you’re you.”

Underneath innocent pronouncements about dogs, tomatoes, bananas—that sort of thing—lies a complex philosophical strain. Is it okay to fake some tears when you break up with a girl? Can one contribute to society without having a job? Is there a heaven where all the dead birds, dead cats, and dead drummers go?

Nomura plays the guitar with an advanced fingerpicking style, sometimes peeling into a dazzling interlude that sounds like Joe Pass at high speed (see “Coffee Girl Song”). With this sort of jazzy accompaniment and a restrained singing style, his set at the Boogie Room was like an ungrizzled form of beat poetry, and the mostly sitting-down crowd listened in rapt attention. Once again, like the first time I went to the Boogie Room, it reminded me of Studio E in Sebastopol.

I’d be super-curious to find out if Nomura, like other Japanese performers, plays up his language barrier while onstage to win over American audiences. I’d also probably be pretty jealous if I were on tour with him, watching him steal the hearts of the crowd every night with his painfully twee songs about chopsticks. But from an audience point of view, and especially in the context of the heinously garbled bullshit that passes for music in the underground these days, Pwrfl Power sure is a breath of fresh air.