Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.
2nd & D, Santa Rosa:
Joe’s Taco Lounge, Mill Valley.
Trash, Pt. Reyes Station.
K’naan, Harmony Festival.
Techno-Tribal, Grace Pavilion.
Vivona, on his shit.
Killah Priest, an unexpected highlight.
Eddy & Fillmore, San Francisco.
Sun Ra, the Magic City.
V.C. Johnson, no one like him.
Some of you may already know about Aaron Milligan-Green, the dreadlocked musician who’s been collecting signatures to overturn an outdated and illogical city ordinance regarding street music and who often fills the nighttime quietude with his Jungle Love Orchestra (pictured above). My constituent John Beck has been covering the story on his Press Democrat blog, but since John’s currently honeymooning in Paris, I bring you the latest news.
Here’s Aaron’s announcement sent out today about the Renegade Art Revival, reprinted with permission:
My name’s Aaron MG (a.k.a. The Dreaded Jewbacca) and you might remember me from the Santa Rosa street music petition I’ve put together, the SRJC, or however else we’ve met. Nonetheless, this street music petition I mentioned is part of a campaign to overturn section 17-16.090(A) of the Santa Rosa city noise ordinance, an ordinance which allows the city to fine the people $246 for playing an instrument anywhere at anytime in public. This specific law is only the epitome of a larger issue.
As you’ve probably noticed, the streets of Santa Rosa are dead and have absolutely no character or life of their own, yet Santa Rosa is the largest city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. This lack of vitality is no mere coincidence, for there are a myriad of laws here to control “unsanctioned” free expression and social gatherings. Did you know it’s illegal to play with a ball or a frisbee, or even have your dog in Courthouse Square, the “Heart of Downtown Santa Rosa?” I’ve actually met people who have been given tickets for playing hacky-sack. It’s a community vs. commerce kind of mentality, masked by a facade of what’s primarily commercial art—and I’m sorry, but we have enough Snoopy sculptures already. By overturning section 17-16.090(A) we hope to put a crack in that facade.
But a mere crack will not do. The public learns by example and we want to blow that wall to rubble, so let’s give them a spectacle they won’t forget. We the people need to take to the streets that our tax dollars fund and reclaim them as our own again. THE RENEGADE ART REVIVAL is in full effect on August 8, 2009!! We will take over the downtown of Santa Rosa with street performers and artists of all types in hope of breathing a bit of color back into these beige-aggregate streets. This is all being under-the-radar grassroots organized and it will take every one of us to make it happen. We want at least 500-1,000 or more people out there, performers and supporters alike. And you don’t have to think of yourself as an “artist” or a “performer” per se to come out and participate; one way to take part, for example, is to be active in the costumed bicycle parade. Let’s get 200+ people to come out dressed up in their finest threads and Halloween costumes riding on bikes, while dancers, musicians, painters, jugglers, etc. are posted at every corner, nook, and cranny! Let’s actually use our First Amendment right of free expression and assembly. On August 8th we will meet in Railroad Square at 12 noon and march to Courthouse Square, then from there we will disperse and flood the entire downtown.
So spread the word!! There is a Myspace being used to network this whole escapade here, so check it out, sign on, and send others that direction. Forward this email to anyone who you think would be interested. We need everyone to chip in at least a smidgen or two. So on August 8th come one and all to THE RENEGADE ART REVIVAL!!!
– The Dreaded Jewbacca
We here at City Sound Inertia are pretty firm that people should be allowed to believe whatever kind of crazy bullshit they feel like believing in, so in the name of Jesus Christ, we bring you the news that there’s a new “Christian Alternative Rock” station in town, Broken FM, at 105.7 in Petaluma and 107.9 FM in Santa Rosa.
Guess what? They want money.
I heard the rumors. You might have heard them too. So before all the ridiculous hearsay gets out of hand, let me set the record straight: Jello Biafra is not singing with Dead Kennedys at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.
It all started when I wrote an appreciative post about the Harmony Festival branching out and booking punk rock bands (the Bad Brains, along with three members of Dead Kennedys, minus Biafra). Someone wrote in: “Have you heard? A little birdie told me that Jello is singing with them!”
In the next week, five or six separate people asked me if I’d heard the news that Jello was, in fact, singing with Dead Kennedys. People in bands, employees at music stores and record stores heard the same thing. Jello Biafra was just up here recording a new album at Prairie Sun, after all, and a cryptic notice on Dead Kennedys’ official website further fueled the fire: “Keep an eye out for a rare and special event on June 12, 2009!”
I told everyone that they were totally crazy. After the acrimonious lawsuit a few years ago, there’d be no way Jello would ever sing with Dead Kennedys again. But the buzz persisted.
So I wrote to the Harmony Festival’s publicist to clarify the rumors, and asked who was singing for the band. She wrote back: “We cannot officially confirm or deny the appearance of Jello Biafra at Harmony Festival this year—yet.”
It seemed weird.
So I called up Jello Biafra.
He’d never heard of the Harmony Festival, nor did he have very nice things to say about the other three ex-members of Dead Kennedys (“It’s at least an ugly situation as Brian Wilson versus Mike Love, with a lot of the same horrible behavior,” he told me).
It’ll be in the Bohemian in a couple weeks, but for the time being: Jello Biafra is not singing with Dead Kennedys at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa on June 12, and despite repeated assertions from certain people that he’s been “invited to attend,” the truth is that neither he, nor his label, nor his booking agent have been contacted about it.
(UPDATE: The interview is here.)
At around noon yesterday, Travis Kennedy, owner of Daredevils & Queens, was paid a visit by the Santa Rosa Fire Department and given a stern verbal warning to not host any more gatherings there. No written notice was issued, nor any specific citations made pertaining to emergency exits or capacity—just a heads up that one of their marshals had walked by the other night and noticed a group of people inside. Kennedy had hosted a private birthday party for a friend, with about 50 guests, the week before. Any such afterhours assemblies at Daredevils & Queens, Kennedy was firmly instructed, are against city zoning code.
This, of course, is terrible, terrible news. The successful hair salon that’s also hosted numerous art shows, reunion events and musical performances has grown into an increasingly vibrant and important center on Railroad Square’s cultural map. Every single event I’ve attended there has been well-mannered and safely monitored. Especially because the city has placed such an emphasis on supporting the arts, Kennedy is understandably dismayed that he’s in a position to cancel all his upcoming events—including a May 2 show with Polar Bears, Shuteye Unison and Prizehog.
“The more I thought about it,” he told me today, “the more I can’t see how they could shut us down! I wasn’t charging any money, and it was a good thing all around.”
Kennedy has held events very sporadically—once every two months or so—and has never received any complaints from neighbors or police. He’s never taken a percentage of art sales, and in fact he always, always spends his own money to buy merchandise and support the artists and musicians he willfully opens his salon doors to. Is it really such a crime to broaden your place of business to support the local arts and music community?
Kennedy is looking into finding out how he can work with the city and continue to host events at Daredevils & Queens legitimately, but for now, all events are off.
Some of you may have heard of First Fridays in Santa Rosa, where the streets are overtaken on the first Friday of each month with local art, theater, and live music. This year, the organizers are looking to ramp up the whole shebang, and they’re presenting a great opportunity for local bands and musicians to play in public – and actually get paid for it.
Attention, everyone! First Fridays is looking for bands!
The music schedule is still wide open at this point, and there’s two time slots in both Courthouse Square and Railroad Square each Friday. That’s four bands each month. This is your chance to bang on a guitar, howl in public—and instead of getting a citation from downtown cops, you’ll get a check from the City of Santa Rosa. How can you lose?
It’s easy to sit back and complain that there are no places to play in Santa Rosa, but it disheartens me when the city actually funds a budget to create opportunities like this and they go unseized. So far, it’s mostly classical and acoustic music, but all types of music are welcome. Let’s fill the schedule up quick with kickass bands and prove that Santa Rosa can support its local scene.
“We are looking for all genres of music,” writes Arts District Coordinator Vicky Kumpfer, and notes a sizable stipend will be paid (it’s not pocket change). Those interested in joining the lineup—and I’d act fast if I were you—should get in touch with her at (707) 543-3732, or email at vkumpfer [at] srcity.org.
The inital lineup for this year’s Harmony Festival was announced last month, with all of the Spearheadiness and Matisyahuism and Kimocky vibes you’d expect from the Harmony Festival. But I just checked their site again, and hang on to your beanies…
The Dead Kennedys?! The Bad Brains?!
This is no joke. The re-formed Dead Kennedys (minus Jello Biafra) and fellow punk rock pioneers Bad Brains are playing—on separate days—in the land of Nag Champa and the Goddess Grove at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa this year. I have just spit my herbal green tea all over the keyboard. This is nuts!
In another exciting development, the excellent Somali-born rapper K’naan is appearing at the Harmony Festival both Friday night and Saturday. His new album, Troubadour, is easily one of the year’s best so far. I’ve written about him extensively here, here, and here. His short set at last year’s Outside Lands festival was unbelievably great. My pal John Beck echoes the sentiment: “When will K’naan hit the Bay Area as a headliner?”
This is also a good time to applaud Saturday night’s jazz addition, the Spirit of Miles Davis quintet with Ron Carter, Airto, Mike Clark and Mike Stern. Ron Carter! On the bass! In Santa Rosa! And they’ve thrown Killah Priest in the group, too?! Seriously!
Job well done, Harmony Festival. This is the craziest / best news in a long time. I’d like to think it also represents a shift in consciousness about punk rock; that at its sweaty, aggressive core, it’s basically always been about caring for humanity and trying to make the world a better place.
A month after the City of Santa Rosa changed the zoning code to make it harder for all-ages venues to open downtown comes the disappointing news that the Orchard Spotlight, a historic church and acoustic performance space, has been forced by the City to cancel all of their upcoming concerts.
The music has been quiet. The attendees have been well-behaved. The neighbors haven’t complained. So what’s the deal?
Last week, the Orchard Spotlight hosted Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, an underground legend who drew a large line on the sidewalk, causing a nosy tipster driving by to notify the city. “It wasn’t like they were even complaining,” says Spotlight co-owner Linda Rose-McRoy, “they just called with an inquiry, saying, ‘We saw this line outside of 515 Orchard. We wondered if that was okay.’ Like, duh!”
Rose-McRoy and co-owner Cheryl Ulrich met soon after with the Community Development department and were informed that entertainment at the Orchard Spotlight violates the area’s residential zoning. “We’ve known for a while that there were going to be some zoning questions here,” says McRoy, mentioning certain loopholes to stay loosely legal—registering on the Internet as a church, for example, and holding “mass” at 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights. “But Cheryl and I are the kind of people who don’t like feeling we have to continually look over our shoulder,” she adds. “But we’re also not giving up.”
What’s exciting is that “not giving up” involves working with the Arts District and the City Council to get a variance in zoning to allow entertainment at the venue. Vicky Kumpfer, coordinator of the Arts District, thinks it’s possible. “This is really an interesting opportunity to try to make this viable, and to work within the law,” says Kumpfer. “Yes, we have these laws, but is there a way that we can make a certain exemption?”
What the issue comes down to, then, is the neighbors, and so far, the Cherry Street neighborhood association has been supportive of the Orchard Spotlight. If that continues to be the case, and if the City is willing to honor their General Plan guideline to “consider the diverse cultural needs and talents of the community,” we may see the Orchard Spotlight rise again. “It’s just gorgeous,” Rose-McRoy says of the space. “It’s so moving, because it was built in redwood, for sound, for the human voice! I love it, it just makes me tingle all over. And so we’re not giving up.”