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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.

Vaginals in the Crux Basement

Posted by: on Feb 27, 2008 | Comments (1)

I’ve had “For Reverend Green” by Animal Collective stuck in my head all day, and it wasn’t until I got off work and started pedaling towards the Crux House that I figured out why I like that song so much. It’s essentially a bunch of totally strange, disparate sonic elements, but they’ve been identified and recast as new ingredients of a cohesive composition with structure, melody, and form. It combines just the right amount of adventure in creating a familiar end result, which is how all good songs that get stuck in your head should be.

I was still thinking about this when I made my way down to the basement at the Crux House tonight to watch a band from San Diego, whom I knew nothing about, called Vaginals. Three girls, one guy, and in devout subscription to the hipster code, no “the.”

The band started playing, and I was immediately intrigued at how off the wall they were. Weird singing! Discordant guitar solos! Everyone playing unusual instruments in different keys!

But as their set plodded on, the potential faded along with any initial thrill. Vaginals seem to view adventure as both the means and the end, with no solidified result other than ingratiation. The totally strange, disparate sonic elements were all there—lots of cool shit like delayed vocals, thumb piano, modified synthesizer, harmonica, cello, maracas, haphazardly-played drums—but none of them ever came together to resemble what’s commonly referred to as a song.

Okay, okay, there were two things that sounded like songs. One of them started with the line “I’m not waiting around for your review” (which I hope is actually the case, because they’re not likely to appreciate this one very much) and ended with the hopelessly steamrolled-into-the-ground doll reference: “I’m not one of those perfect Barbie girls.” The other one rhymed “Slim” with “Jim” and “Gin” and “Him” over and over again in a screeching fake Southern accent. You get the picture.

Near the end, during a Residents cover, just for a quick second, I saw their singer crack a rare smile, and it was then that I realized what had been missing. Where was the fun?! It’s fine to be art-school charlatans who make crappy noise that makes no sense, but damn, at least have some fun while you’re doing it. Realistically, that’s the only way anyone’s gonna take you seriously, unless it’s 1965 and you’re John Tchicai.

The Beach Boys, 1964

Posted by: on Feb 25, 2008 | Comments (6)

The year was 1964, back when Santa Rosa was a completely different town than the city we know it as today. The population: 35,000. Hardly a considerable tour stop for a group with a huge hit on the charts.

The Beach Boys’ All Summer Long had just been released in July, and its big hit, “I Get Around,” was lighting up Top 40 radio. So it was a pretty big deal when KPLS 1150 AM radio announced that the Beach Boys were coming to perform at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Santa Rosa. Tickets, priced at $2.50, went on sale at the station’s office in Coddingtown, and word spread throughout Santa Rosa’s drive-ins and high schools like wildfire.

On the night of the show, the capacity crowd filed into the auditorium and sat politely in rows of folding chairs. The curtain opened, and the Beach Boys, clad in their trademark vertical-striped shirts, launched immediately into their current smash hit: “I Get Around.” The set list included “409,” “Fun Fun Fun,” “Surfer Girl,” “Be True To Your School,” and “Surfin’ Safari,” among others, and the audience stayed in their seats the whole time—a matter of personal dignity that Beatlemania would soon render obsolete.

Of course, there’s no reason why I should know this, except that my dad, who bought tickets numbered #0006 and #0007, remembers it like it was yesterday. After all, at age 12, it was his first concert. I suppose it was a pretty big deal for my grandpa, too, who was cool enough to change out of his mailman uniform after work and go with his kid to the rock ‘ roll show.

Fast-forward to 2008: The Wells Fargo Center Luther Burbank Center has booked the Beach Boys for August 2, and it’s being advertised as the Beach Boys’ “First Time in Santa Rosa.”

It’s a nice thought and all—and tickets, against all sensible odds, appear to be selling well—but I know a few people who grew up around here who’d have a pretty good case with which to argue the claim.

Xbxrx at the Boogie Room

Posted by: on Feb 17, 2008 | Comments (1)

I intentionally parked about a half-mile away from the Boogie Room last night so I could walk the long narrow road in rural Santa Rosa under the moonlight, surrounded by farmland, alone. It’s something I used to do plenty often, before I had a driver’s license—and before most of Santa Rosa’s empty fields were turned into tract homes. It was serene, and I think, since the Boogie Room is located pretty much in the blissful middle of nowhere, that I’ll make a tradition of it.

I don’t want to say too much about the Boogie Room, because in the guerilla tradition of the last couple years, it’s an under-the-radar venue and probably prefers to stay that way. Think of it as a Studio E for the younger set; a homey place to see friends, play fetch with the house dog, sit by the campfire, and watch terrific bands in a cozy barn in the middle of a field. House concerts, as it were, with an edge.

I was given a tour of the sprawling grounds by Bryce, who’s something of a navigator for this amazing, multi-tiered ship. He enthusiastically showed me around the large greenhouse and huge garden; the collection of barns full of old cars and owls; and the many, many improvements that he and other residents have made since they moved in about a year ago. Sliding open the door to one leaning barn, he blankly explained that it was where the previous tenant, who had been running a chop-shop for stolen cars and a methamphetamine lab, had hung himself.

In the music room, the junkyard classicism of the Highlands—a cellist, a violinist, a possessed guitarist and two drummers—was filling the place up. After a truncated set by Battlehooch, who manhandled a Theremin, a Sony Watchman and multiple vocal effects before submitting to technical difficulties, it was time for the Iditarod, who were as epic and majestic as their name implies. Medieval synthesizer solos, heralding trumpets, three-part-harmony battle cries, absolutely strange guitar playing and hyperactive drum beats. Shit, as they say, was goin’ off.

I’d never seen Xbxrx before, but I could tell that the guys standing by the side of the stage had to be the band members. They looked bored and annoyed, like they couldn’t wait to play and get the whole thing over with, and sure enough, as soon as the Iditarod were finished, it took exactly 40 seconds for them to start hurriedly setting up their equipment on the stage. So I wasn’t expecting much; after all, they’ve been a band for ten years, they’ve toured with Sonic Youth and Deerhoof, their last few shows were in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam—why would they possibly care about Santa Rosa?

But a total transformation occurred when they plugged in and started playing; it was like they’d become lightning rods for all the Earth’s energy for miles around. They leapt, flailed, ran, fell down, writhed, spun, and shook wildly. . . and that’s just in the first two minutes. I’ve seen a lot of goddamn hardcore mayhem, but this was up there. Way up there.

In matching baby-blue outfits, the guys in Xbxrx didn’t perform so much as they blurred their way around the entire barn, as far as their guitar cables would allow, unpredictably crashing around while playing blast after blast of insane noise. They climbed the walls, they banged their heads on the ground, they shoved their bodies behind the couch and they did haphazard flips into the crowd. Antagonizing, sure, but even though I stood just a couple feet from the guitarist’s amplifier and mic stand the whole time, I amazingly never once got hit.

At the end of the set, one of the guitarists crawled underneath the stage with his guitar and just laid there in a fetal position. He didn’t move. It made sense, in a way. So I left before Batman vs. Predator with my ears ringing, and walked the half-mile back to my car in the quiet foggy midnight air.

Whither Thou City Sound Inertia?

Posted by: on Jan 24, 2008 | Comments (7)

Why is this blog called City Sound Inertia?

I’m destined to be asked this question sooner or later, so I may as well answer it in my first-ever blog posting.

In 2003, I put together a compilation CD of local Santa Rosa bands who, due to a variety of reasons (lack of press coverage, the nonexistence of MySpace), no one had heard outside of occasional house parties and dingy fly-by-night clubs. I wanted to remedy that. So I collected together 11 songs that I felt were best representative of Santa Rosa’s local music scene at the time, put them on a CD, and sold it for $2.99.

Lots of people, including those at the Bohemian (funny how life works out), took note; but unfortunately, more than a few people, while I was getting songs together, told me something along the lines of “that’s so great, man, ’cause this town sucks for music!”

It hurt. Those of you who know me also know that I’m awfully defensive about Santa Rosa, and by putting together the compilation I wanted to outline precisely that this town does not suck for music; in fact, there’s fantastic music in this town around every corner. It’s hard to get people to take notice of it, true, and being in a band can be a very uphill and very expensive battle, but year in and year out, good music seems to constantly prevail.

With that in mind, I gave the CD a title: City Sound Inertia.

Half the bands on the CD have broken up by now, but the compilation’s liner notes conveying my optimism still hold true. I wrote them quickly but passionately, and in essence, they apply to the future of this blog as well. Read on: