The rare treat of seeing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last night in their first-ever concert together wasn’t one easily passed up. Not by the sold-out crowd; not by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who ambled in with trademark cowboy hat and cane; and not by—brace yourselves, folks—Cher, who sat in the sixth row.
What in the world was Cher doing at a Merle Haggard / Kris Kristofferson show in Santa Rosa? We may never know. What’s for sure is that she, along with fans that capped the night with an epic five-minute standing ovation, witnessed two bona fide heroes of country music give a performance at turns tender, humorous, poignant, insightful, and above all, intimate.
Let’s just hope Cher wasn’t the woman who yelled out for “Me & Bobby McGee” a few songs after Kristofferson had already played it.
The 1,400-capacity Wells Fargo Center has a historic knack for achieving a living room-like atmosphere for acoustic music. They did it with the Landmine Free World concert in 1999 with Steve Earle, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffith and Bruce Cockburn; they did it with the two Elvis Costello / Steve Nieve concerts they’ve hosted; they did it with the Texas songwriter night in 2005 with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely; and they did it last night by closing the stage curtain and presenting Haggard and Kristofferson front and center.
When Merle Haggard played at the Center last year, electric, he drew a shitkickin’, Copenhagen-dippin’, cheap perfume-wearin’ crowd. This tour was different. Instead of a parking lot scene with greasy dudes in Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts smoking joints, it welcomed wine tour limousines and sixty-somethings gingerly stepping out of Oldsmobiles. The performance itself suited the new audience: pensive, slow, and mortal.
“If there’s a Hall of Fame for heroes in heaven, this man’s definitely on his way,” said Kristofferson, introducing Haggard after opening the show with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.” Added Haggard, fresh from successful lung cancer surgery: “Between the two of us there’s about 150 years of experience here.”
Those expecting a “Storytellers”-type show, with Haggard and Kristofferson sitting down with acoustic guitars and swapping tales about the Army (Kristofferson), prison (Haggard), Louisiana oil rigs (Kristofferson) or stealing Buck Owens’ wife (Haggard) got something far better: a run-down of the two giants’ greatest songs backed by an elegant, semi-acoustic version of Haggard’s band, the Strangers. (Turns out Haggard must have won the battle.) As for storytelling, most of the night’s commentary got squeezed between lines of the songs themselves.
Kristofferson, during “Nobody Wins”: “George Bush and Dick Cheney were singin’ this song in the shower together.”
Haggard, during “Sing Me Back Home”: “This goes out to all the ex-convicts. It’s every convict’s dream to be an ex-convict.”
Kristofferson, during “Best of All Possible Worlds”: “Did you know that here in the USA, the land of the free, we got more people behind bars than any other country on the planet? That’s right, boy. We’re #1.”
Haggard, during “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: “I feel like a stripper without a G-string!”
Yes, the two were very funny together, but also incredibly warm, and wise. It’s not uncommon for former hellraisers entering life’s twilight, particularly in country music, to embrace a life-lesson empathy. When I spoke with Kristofferson last year, he elaborated: “There is a freedom in accepting the fact that there is a difference at this end of the road,” he told me. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends and heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon, I’ve watched ‘em slip and fall. And be gone. And it’s gonna happen to all of us. So I think the acceptance of it gives you a freedom to be less critical of yourself when you make mistakes, and to not be so hard on others.”
Warmth like that was conveyed on stage last night so often, it sometimes outperformed the fantastic songs. Check the set list below—there were nearly 30 of ‘em. The selections played off each other cleverly, as Haggard ran with the torch of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and answered, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Kristofferson pleaded to help him make it through the night; Haggard, up next, just wanted to make it through December.
Yes, it was a considerable union. To see Kristofferson sing backups on Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and a reworked verse in “Okie From Muskogee,” or to have Haggard play his ranchero-style nylon guitar solos on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was truly exciting. By the end, after the two had finished “Why Me Lord,” the standing ovation seemed endless. No one could believe it when five minutes later, the house lights came up.
(Afterward, Cher was quickly escorted behind velvet ropes into a tinted-window SUV. Kristofferson obliged a waiting crowd of about 50 with autographs and gracious conversation, and Haggard stayed put on his bus until it rumbled, slowly lurched forward through the parking lot, and breezed into Highway 101 for the next town.)
Photos by Elizabeth Seward.
Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
He’s a Pilgrim
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord
In 1992, when I moved out of my parents’ house to a small apartment on Slater Street, I felt old. Not grown-up old, mind you, but world-weary old. You know the deal. I had a penchant for drinking Cisco mixed with Hawaiian Punch, listening to syrupy, sentimental Reprise-era Frank Sinatra albums like Cycles, and basking in the unique bitterness and nostalgia that only the hardened, grizzled age of 16 brings.
Living in the same town long enough produces some extraordinary occurrences. Tonight, during a spellbinding show at the Orchard Spotlight, Will Oldham provided one in the form of “Cycles,” the Frank Sinatra song that I used to replay over and over just a few blocks away.
“So I’m down, and so I’m out, but so are many others…”
Oldham and his band completely claimed the song as their own, while I, amazed that he’d chosen such an unusual song to cover, thought about age. Do we ever really feel as old as we do when we’re 16? We hit our 30s and all of that hard-earned “wisdom” and half-fledged nostalgia fades away, and we grow ever open to new experiences even as the opportunities for new experiences occur less and less.
What’s happening? Why do we lose our toeholds of self-assurance as we get older? Why do people’s feathers get so ruffled over age? Why is it easier to make young people feel old than it is to make old people feel young? Why don’t young people realize they have the rest of the blobby, unsure, aging world in their hands?
Why does Will Oldham sometimes stand on one leg like a stork?
“I’ve been told, and I believe, that life is meant for livin’…”
Tonight, Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, age 38, played the world-weary music he’s played since he too was a teenager, and showcased perfectly why his live shows are at least twice as good as his albums, if not more. His outstanding band broadcast a new cosmic American music inside the Orchard Spotlight, with crests and turns and tangents and silent forks upon which to dwell on life’s mysteries. His songs ballooned both inward, outward and lateral, and sounded like Oldham’s music has always sounded—wiser than its age.
The sheer fact that Oldham even played the Orchard Spotlight on this trip is impressive enough. This is Oldham’s “real” tour, where instead of playing the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes, like he did in 2004, or Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio, like he did in 2002, he’s playing the Fillmore; there’s commercials on television for his new album, Beware, and almost all his shows are in large theaters. Last year, however, local soundman Ross Harris walked up to him in San Francisco and asked if he’d like to play a beautiful old church in downtown Santa Rosa. Sure, Oldham replied.
Tickets, limited to 130, sold out in about a day, and diehards, begging for extras on Craigslist, flocked from miles around. I met a guy at the show who’d driven all the way from Tahoe. “I saw him once in the middle of a forest outside of Athens, where I used to live,” he told me, more than happy to make the trek to pick up a last-minute ticket at the Last Record Store. “He’s worth a four-hour drive.”
The show began in grand fashion: Oldham, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt, white cap, polyester slacks and no shoes or socks, hit the stage with the squat giddiness of a teenager and launched his band into the Carter Family standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ on Earth,” with each member of his band and the opening band taking verses in a steam-train hootenanny usually reserved for ending instead of opening a set.
“We’re back in the country, building the confusion hill brick by brick,” Oldham announced, referencing the Humboldt County roadside attraction they’d passed earlier in the day. He then asked, to no one in particular, “What was your favorite song growing up?”
“Shout at the Devil!” someone said. “No, no,” Oldham said, “growing up!” “Growin’ Up!” some clever person said. “I Want a New Drug!” said another. “Yellow Submarine,” said yet another. Oldham launched into “Beware Your Only Friend,” the first song from Beware, and midway through began singing, “In the town / Where I was born / Lived a man who sailed the sea…”
When Oldham gets excited, he manifests it in strange ways. He shoves his hands all the way down into his pockets and pulls his pants up to his chest. He yanks his cap off and holds it high with an animated face. He ravels his arms in pretzel-like patterns, and splays them out into the air like a drag queen, and rolls one pant leg up, and throws his head down and sticks his gut out and falls to his knees.
Is it intentional, or improvised? The question could also be asked of his band—his band!—who could thunder down the line like a Southern Pacific for one song (“I Don’t Belong to Anyone”), wander in a semi-Haggard haze for another (“Love Comes to Me”) and then fall apart in beautiful, formless atmosphere for the next (“There Is Something I Have To Say”). Drummer Jim White, often looking like an angry Ron Jeremy, was a particular standout; he’d explore the drum kit like free-jazz pioneer Sunny Murray, nail down hi-hats like Booker T. & the MG’s Al Jackson, Jr., and lay back behind the beat like Tonight’s the Night’s Ralph Molina. Oldham’s band on this tour is exceptional—all of them, truly, were excellently in tune with each other and engaging to watch—but White’s the reason it feels the way it does.
Sometime soon after the semi-gospel coda of “I am Goodbye” and the brilliant reclamation of “Cycles,” Oldham brought out Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, an old tourmate and studio partner who I can only assume lives in Sonoma County now (she played at Aubergine a couple weeks ago, and won a yodeling contest at the Mystic Theater last month). Oldham introduced his band to her, but not to the audience, and had a conversation about her new baby, which slept in the room behind the stage. McCarthy took center stage for most of the rest of the set. They sang the duet “Lay and Love,” and Oldham was happy—he grabbed his big toe and pulled his foot as far behind his back as it could go.
Maybe Oldham stays young by playing old music. Maybe when he sings, during “I Called You Back,” that “the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible,” he’s offering a warning rather than a truth. Sure, we’re getting older. It happens. Let’s bask in it, like we did when we were 16. On nights like this one, this one special night in Santa Rosa, we can spill out of a fantastic show and walk home through the deserted streets, and it’ll feel like everything else for us is possible.
Spring is anon, meaning festival announcements and venue bookings are being shot down the pipe faster than the flowers can bloom. In a quick overview, there’s Classics of Love (with Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels) at the Last Record Store (Mar. 28); bass-heavy knob twiddlers Crystal Method at the Phoenix Theater (Apr. 15); walking freak-folk embodiment Devendra Banhart at the Mystic Theatre (Apr. 17); fado sensation Mariza at the Napa Valley Opera House (Apr. 30); electronic visionary Bassnectar at the Hopmonk Tavern (May 4); soprano legend Kathleen Battle at the Marin Center (May 9); and Lucinda’s right-hand man Gurf Morlix at Studio E (May 16).
What’s that, you say? You like to watch TV more than you like to listen to music? Fear not! The Wells Fargo Center has the interminably funny Joel McHale, he of dryly absurd wisecracking on The Soup (Apr. 11); and hang on to your thong straps—the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma has glam-metal washup-turned-reality show “star” Bret Michaels (June 27) to attract a slutsational crowd good for copious dead-drunk bikini-clad hoochie watching beneath the ferris wheel. Look what the cat dragged in, indeed!
Sounding a different note entirely, Napa’s beautiful Festival del Sole steps forward this year with young violin sensation Sarah Chang (Jul. 18-19) and the return booking of Renée Fleming (pictured above, Jul. 23), who in the festival’s first year was forced to cancel her performance of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs due to illness. Iran’s most famous composer, Anoushirvan Rohani, will appear for a dinner and concert (Jul. 20), and the dashing Robert Redford—be still our throbbing hearts!—benefits his Sundance Preserve by narrating a piece to be announced (Carnival of the Animals? Peter and the Wolf? An interpretive tone poem of The Horse Whisperer?) at Castello di Amarosa (Jul. 21). Full lineup here.
In economic-crisis news, the Russian River Jazz Festival and the Russian River Blues Festival this year will be combined into one solitary September weekend as the Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival preserves a 30+ year tradition of great music on Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville. “This allows us to keep the Russian River festival tradition alive,” says Omega Events president Rich Sherman, “while enabling music fans to still enjoy their love of jazz and blues outdoors in this picturesque setting.” Saturday’s jazz lineup and Sunday’s blues lineup (Sept. 12-13) will be announced in April. Check here for updates.
After the Masada show at Yoshi’s, I overheard a guy talking to bassist extraordinaire Greg Cohen, who along with accompanying Ornette Coleman as of late was part of the great New York band on Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years and Swordfishtrombones. “Hey, guess who I played with the other week?” the guy asked. “Waits. Went up to his place and rehearsed.”
“Oh?” asked Cohen. “New material?”
It seems so. In addition to finally releasing Orphans on vinyl soon, Tom Waits’ publicist confirms that he is writing, rehearsing, mangling, fixing and re-mangling new material for an album to be released in the sometime-maybe-this-year-who-knows future. Recording is anticipated sometime this summer. Waits, of course, was last seen snapping photos of the brimming crowd that gathered en masse at his daughter Kellesimone’s art show in Santa Rosa.
Despite a mission statement promising to “present and preserve jazz,” it’s probably time to just roll over and accept that the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival’s gonna book whoever they’re gonna book. We could say, you know, Lyle Lovett has some sax players in his band. Joe Cocker, you know, he might play some solos. And hey, they added that tiny little “+” to their name to represent past headliners like Steve Winwood, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt and Kool & the Gang. Who are we to be snobs?
But look, since no other media outlet in the area seems brave enough to protect this American art form—and since local jazz programmers don’t want to be quoted saying “You mean that bullshit thing they call a jazz festival?” (actual quote)—it’s up to us. There are plainly no jazz artists headlining Sonoma Jazz+ 2009 this year. Around here, we’d even be cool if, like, Rick Braun was playing. But Chris Isaak?
Sonoma Jazz+ does many great things, not the least of which is providing support to music programs in area schools. They also have a second stage, and ‘Wine and Song in the Plaza’ with small combos. But in light of the PR assertion that they’ve already booked any jazz headliner who could fill a 3,800-seat tent, our suggestion is to honor jazz and please just call the festival what it actually is: the Sonoma Music and Wine Festival. Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, Ziggy Marley, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Shelby Lynne and Keb’ Mo’ come to Sonoma May 21-24. Tickets are on sale here.
Simultaneous with the creative definitions emanating from Sonoma is the encouraging news from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival announcing its initial lineup, and it looks great. John Handy, Randy Weston, Airto Moreira, Esperanza Spaulding, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Denny Zeitlin and Julian Lage head up a list-in-progress of bona fide jazz headliners appearing May 29-June 7 this year. For updates, check here.
Hey man, the Harmony Festival is full of good vibes this year! Michael Franti, India Arie, Matisyahu, Cake, Steve Kimock, ALO, Balkan Beat Box, and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars head up the festival June 12-14 at the Fairgrounds. Barring any John Mclaughlin-esque guitar freakouts by Kimock, the weekend should be bereft of maniacal discord. Be harmonious.
The Santa Rosa Symphony announced its rough sketch for the 2009-2010 season today, including a finale performance by Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins! Also on the slate: returning conductor emeritus Jeffrey Kahane playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (the one from Shine), performances of Beethoven’s 4th, 5th and 9th symphonies, Mozart’s Requiem, a program celebrating Chopin’s 200th birthday, the Red Violin concerto, and more. I always love the symphony’s Magnum Opus commissions, and Bahzad Ranjbaran’s new work will receive its world premiere next season as well.
On a semi-related note, I listened to Elliott Carter last night—an LP I found years ago, bought for the cover art and loved for the music. It’s his Sonata for Cello and Piano, and I still love it. Unbelievable that he’s 100 years old and still completely lucid about his work. I love the excerpt from this interview, which succinctly captures not only his sense of humor but the reason why I give such a damn about music:
Q: Could you imagine a day when people, concertgoers, would hear your music and walk out humming your music?
A: Well… it’d be hard on their throats!
Q: What would you want the listener to walk away with after hearing your music?
A: Happiness. And pleasure. One of the fundamental things always that music should do is not only give pleasure, but widen one’s horizons, and give new kinds of fantasies, and new kinds of pleasure, and new kinds of surprises, and new kinds of connections between things.
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.