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Chris Isaak Performs at Rodney Strong

Posted by on Jul 3, 2014

He’s got a winning smile and a wicked voice, and this month Chris Isaak shares both with the North Bay. The Stockton-born, Roy Orbison-obsessed songwriter is best known for his definitive song, “Wicked Game,” and for his appearances in cult classic movies. Now, Isaak brings his award-winning croon to the Wine Country, performing at Rodney Strong Vineyards on Sunday, July 13 at 4pm. Tickets are still available, grab them before they go.

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Bottlerock’s Back, Baby

Posted by on Jun 24, 2014

Weezer at Bottlerock 2014. Photo by Katie Stohlmann.

Like the Terminator, Bottlerock proclaimed it would be back. The official announcement today made good on that promise.

The Napa music festival will return in 2015 again as a three-day festival, May 29–31. It will again take place at the Napa Valley Expo, according to an official statement made today by Latitude 38 Entertainment, the festival’s producers. Bands have not yet been announced.

“We’re thrilled to be back at the Napa Valley Expo with the support of our community of music, wine and food lovers for 2015,” says L38 CEO Dave Graham in a press release.

The festival mostly cleared its name this year after a fun-filled first year took a nasty turn after the founders failed to pay nearly $10 million in debts after the five-day event. They sold the brand to the new owners, who hosted the event with just three months of planning and addressed nearly every complaint of the previous festival. Many vendors returned after cajoling by the new owners, and the only major issues seemed to be the exit line on the festival’s second day, owing to about 35,000 fans trying to exit to shuttle buses at the same time.

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Sarah Brightman Cancels Show at Green Music Center

Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 One Comment

One of the most powerful voices on Broadway and beyond, soprano singer Sarah Brightman has unfortunately been forced cancel her August U.S. tour, which included an appearance at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall. From her website:

“I have suffered a hairline fracture to my ankle and have been advised by my doctors to rest it until September by which time it will have fully recovered. I have, regrettably, taken the decision to cancel my forthcoming US dates in August. I truly apologise for any disappointment caused.” -Sarah Brightman

No word on rescheduling yet, as the performer focuses on recovery.

Live Review: Huichica Music Festival (with Photos)

Posted by on Jun 15, 2014

Kelley Stoltz at Huichica 2014

Nestled in the Sonoma Valley’s beautiful Gundlach Bundschu Winery, the 2014 Huichica Music Festival was highlighted by fine wine, warm weather and excellent music. Friday nights kick-off was a nice concert headlined by Vetiver, though Saturday was the real spectacle, with two stages hosting a dozen artists from the Bay Area and beyond. There were young up-and-comers, established favorites and even a few veteran folk artists for good measure. Click to read on and check out the photos below:

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Slow Gherkin Reunites for NYC Show, Announces Phoenix Theater Date

Posted by on Jun 9, 2014 2 Comments

Still wearing that same Oxford T-shirt after all these years!

After 10 years of touring the world, Santa Cruz ska band Slow Gherkin called it quits in 2002. The group was immensely popular in their time, playing to crowds of hundred of hair-dyed, skankin’ skaters and giving high school band kids who played saxophone at Friday night football games something “cool” to aspire to. But since their last gig in 2002, Slow Gherkin has played precisely two shows: one was three years ago in Santa Cruz, and one just last week a the Rock Shop in New York City. And the big news: the band says they will be playing in December at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma.

Slow Gherkin was one of the best ska bands at a time when fellow skankers the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less than Jake, Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish were all over the airwaves, both on radio and television (remember when MTV shows music videos?). They were one of the top acts in the Bay Area, relentlessly touring for six years and gaining a following across the country as well as in Europe throughout the ’90s. “Trapped Like Rats in Myers Flats,” from their second album, Shed Some Skin, is still a singalong hit, as shown by their sold-out New York performance. And to this day, their version of Hava Nagila is one of the best tracks on my “These Songs Will Make Everyone Dance” playlist.

They wrote really good songs, not just fun, dancy teenage punk diddies with poppy, upstrummed guitar. If stripped down to acoustic guitar and voice, they’d be the best song of the night at any cafe’s open mic session. Their lyrics are deep and music moving; songs stands up to any by those who made it really big, and it always felt like it would just take that one catchy lick, that one un-erasable melody to cement Slow Gherkin’s place in music lore.

But, alas, they remain mostly a local memory for Bay Area music lovers who grew up in the Clinton era. Do these two shows in one year—double what they’ve played in the 13 years leading up to this point—signal a full-fledged reunion? One can only hope. But one thing’s sure: if you plan to attend their December show at the Phoenix Theater, it might be good to start polishing those Doc Martins now—they’re probably pretty dusty.

Live Review: Dar Williams at City Winery Napa

Posted by on Jun 6, 2014

Singer and songwriter Dar Williams began her career in music just over 2o years ago, crafting a debut album in 1993 that belied the then-24-year-old alternative folk artists years. The Honesty Room is a record that displayed deep emotional maturity and it introduced the world to Williams unique perspective. This year, the artist is touring in honor of that first album, performing The Honesty Room in its entirety live.

Last night, Williams performed at City Winery Napa with opener Lucy Wainwright Roche in a night of sublime songwriting played with intimate tenderness and passion. Roche began the night by walking up and diving right into her simple, finger-picked acoustic melodies under a soaring, searing voice. Roche played tunes off her latest record, There’s a Last Time for Everything, including a devastating cover of Swedish pop-star Robyn’s hit “Call Your Girlfriend.” In between songs, Roche engaged the crowd in light banter and impromptu Q&A sessions. She shared an especially bizarre tale of playing in Lithuania a few months ago. The crowd there silently ignored her completely, the only reactions coming after someone yelled out, “you should sing about basketball!” The crowd at City Winery was much more receptive, and joined Roche in a sing-along version of her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”

This was my first time inside the newly recreated City Winery Napa, located in the historic Napa Valley Opera House. It’s a beautiful space, with tables and chairs throughout the floor level for a dinner and concert experience, and some of the original Opera House seats up in the balcony (where I sat) that are ideal if you’re just coming to the show.

It was also a first for Dar Williams,making her City Winery debut last night. Joined occasionally on piano by Bryn Roberts, Williams opened her set with a spirited rendition of her popular tune, “The Mercy of the Fallen,” and then jumped right into performing her debut album. Songs like “When I Was a Boy” and “The Babysitter’s Here” sounded as fresh and relevant today as they did 20 years ago, testifying to the songwriters universal and timeless appeal. Williams was at times somber and serene, and also at times equally bouncy and fun; as her early work alternated from wistful and melancholy to hopeful and empowered. Throughout the set, Williams also reminisced about the events surrounding these songs, sharing the inspirations that were mined from her lifetime of meaningful relationships and traveling.

The singer did seem to be fighting a bit of a cough in between songs, with a cup of tea and a glass of water at the ready. Towards the end of her set, Williams admitted to waking up that morning with no voice, but thankfully, she was well enough to perform, and battled through with aplomb. Her effervescent vocals were especially airy, though to no ill effect. After playing through the album, Williams capped the show off with two more well known hits, and again the small crowd helped in singing along during “As Cool As I Am” and “Iowa (Traveling III).”

City Winery’s line up keeps getting more and more interesting with every new announcement. I’m looking forward to seeing another show there soon. As for Williams, she is a performer who’s not to be missed, and any time she comes around it’s cause for celebration. I can’t wait to catch her playing again.

Live Review: Bottlerock Day 1, 2, (3)

Posted by on Jun 2, 2014

Robert Smith of the Cure: Aqua Net's crowning achievement

Friday, May 30: Day One
The weather was the first surprise of the weekend. Friday offered a cool, even breezy afternoon at the Napa Valley Expo that turned to a chilly evening. Five stages, including one for VIP ticket holders only, played to 24 bands throughout the day. It was a relatively calm affair that would see less attendees than following day, but for the most part, the logistical aspects of food and drink lines and bathroom cleanliness was kept in good order. Some festivalgoers themselves, even, helped throw away garbage and just be generally decent—maybe Headliners like the Cure and Sublime with Rome (the guy, not the city) simply brought out equal parts of older and more sedated fans who were content to throw down blankets and relax.

Jewish reggae-rapper Matisyahu delivered an effortless and nicely rocking set of smooth jams and authentic beats, many from his upcoming album, “Akeda,” released this week. TV on the Radio wowed me with a continuously intensifying set of eclectic indie rock and soulful electro pop. Gin Blossoms brought the “county fairgrounds” vibe to, well, the county fairgrounds. Overall, crowds seemed to care about the fact that ‘90s radio rock leftovers filled out the lineup. They sang along with “Follow You Down,” and clapped, mostly in time, with the band through their back catalogue of, ahem, lesser-known hits.

The Cure really was the gem of this show. They are one of my longtime favorites, yet I’ve only been able to see them live twice before, and it’s been 7 or 8 years since the last time. They were amazing. No way around it. They sounded perfect, and their set list was a mash of surprises and staples from 30 plus years of new wave, postpunk, emo-goth melodic pop angst. Robert Smith’s hair was a glorious tangled web of Aqua Net, and Napa winds and Simon Gallup’s tight denim and slicked back hair still make him look like he stepped out of a 1982 Clash video.

The Cure opened with “Shake Dog Shake,” a surprise choice off their 1985 album, The Top. They played for two-and-a-half hours with hits old and new, making me realize how much I do, in fact, like their more recent material—pitch-perfect pops songs and raw, soaring rock riffs alike. It was only when the festival had to cut the power at 10pm (the price one pays for hosting an outdoor fest in a Napa neighborhood) that the Cure finally left the stage, and only after the crowd of about 10,000 helped Smith finish singing the band’s encore of “Why Can’t I Be You?”

Saturday, May 31: Day Two
Smash Mouth rocked the house like I could never have expected. I was having fun, dammit—at a Smash Mouth show! And lead singer Steve Harwell was cursing Third Eye Blind—who was playing at the same time on the main stage—in a fit of ‘90s Civil War. It felt too weird, and I had to get out of there. But I could barely move, suddenly finding myself in the middle of a horde of festival goers packing tighter and tighter with every song. And then it hit me: there are far more people here today than yesterday.

Estimates on Saturday were that 30,00 people came out to the Napa Expo, about 10,000 more than the most optimistic estimates of the previous day. That wasn’t the only difference, though—the whole vibe of Saturday different. This was a younger crowd—beefier, more seasoned for alcohol. Beer and wines lines were a dozen deep by 2pm, twice that by 4pm. Food trucks felt the pinch as wait times for orders hit a half hour. Bathrooms got gritty. The whole thing got gritty. Suddenly, people were competing for space, competing for views. There was a tension in the air.

The day started out well enough; Petaluma band Trebuchet played a fun set of indie folk rock with great harmonies and a cute little ukulele. Brooklyn indie duo Matt & Kim were the highlight of the early afternoon, running out to meet the crowd from the main stage and practically beaming throughout their energetic and hip set of synth rock. Drummer Kim Schifino’s smile infected the whole crowd; I’ve rarely witnessed a duo with the ability to get a party going more effectively than these two. Los Angeles noise punks No Age blew out some eardrums, but sounded awesome on the smaller stage, right before Smash Mouth started taking jabs and downing drinks that weren’t just Coca-Cola.

After that, the mood seemed to change. Couples were bickering more around me; people were stumbling—either from not eating right or not hydrating enough in the sun after drinking heavy craft beers and Napa wine. I started to watch my step, if you know what I mean.

But, I’ve totally buried the lead here. The recently reunited hip-hop dream team of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, aka Outkast, was introduced to the crowd in a giant cube, like Magneto at the end of that first X-Men movie. Soon enough, they escaped their confines to perform a blistering, dizzying and all-out electrifying set of hits. Happily, the masses that bottlenecked the fields unified under the banner of songs like “Hey Ya!” and “B.O.B.” The duo has been headlining many festivals lately, including Coachella, and the general consensus is that they were the big “get” of Bottlerock (they choose the Napa festival over the larger Outside Lands festival in San Francisco).

The other big evening draw was classic rock sister act Heart. Anne and Nancy Wilson proved that they’ve still got it. They sounded amazing and looked spectacular—it was a rock and roll show every step of the way. Like the Cure, they were cut off at 10pm, and Outkast has just wrapped minutes prior on the main stage. That’s when 30,000 sweaty, tired, dirty, possibly drunk festival goers converged into mass chaos.

Everyone was trying to form one line to get to the shuttles that would take them the three miles to their cars at Napa Pipe. There was no supervision for this. I got the bright idea to leave an hour early, and it still took 45 minutes to go from festival gate to car door. I heard reports of people waiting three hours, and fights breaking out over line cutting.

Sunday, June 1: Day Three
Eric Church, Barenaked Ladies, Spin Doctors: meh. Nothing on this day really caught my attention other than, maybe, Thee Oh Sees or Deerhunter. It would have been awesome to see LL Cool J, if for no other reason than to say I did it, but after two long days of escalating madness it was best I stayed out of Wonderland on Sunday. I must say, though, the festival was much more fun than I had anticipated. Would I try it again next year? Maybe, we’ll have to see the lineup—if the Crash Test Dummies are going to be there, I’ll buy a ticket right now.
—Charlie Swanson

Live Review: Bottlerock Day 2 with Outkast, Weezer & Smash Mouth

Posted by on Jun 1, 2014

Outkast at BottleRock Festival. Photo by Matt Crawford.

It’s 2am and this is what I’m feeling after getting home from Bottlerock’s biggest and best day: tired, deaf, a little hungry, tired, thirsty as hell, musically fulfilled, nostalgic, sore, tired, and, most of all, happy. (more…)

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Local Bands Play Big Part of Bottlerock Lineup

Posted by on May 30, 2014

The three-day extravaganza known as Bottlerock began today in Napa, the city known more for restaurants and winetasting than music. To wit, the festival, now in its second year and under new ownership, has focused more on music this year—in addition to bringing internationally famous acts like the Cure and Outkast to Napa, there will also be over two dozen local bands playing at the festival, meaning that over one-third of the bands playing will be from the Bay Area.

This isn’t a new idea—local acts were featured at last year’s festival—but there are more of them this year, and it’s more than just an afterthought. Latitude 38, the company behind this year’s Bottlerock festival, says including local bands was the plan from the start.

“A lot of people didn’t know there were a lot of bands in Napa,” says Latitude 38 CEO Dave Graham. He says they’ve made a new tradition of kicking off the festival with a local band on the main stage. This year, it’s the Napa–based group Grass Child.

On Saturday, the first band to strum a chord, pluck a note, or bang a drum will be local favorites Trebuchet, the indie-folk quartet known for its original songs with glorious harmonies and wide-ranging instrumentation. They’ll be playing on the City Winery Lounge stage at Noon, greeting attendees just inside the main entrance with their explosive tunes and catchy melodies.

The opening slot at a festival is a blessing and a curse. “We don’t have any headliners to contend with,” says Eliott Whitehurst, the band’s mandolinist, guitarist and lyricist. “But at the same time, it’ll be a challenge because we’ve never been in that situation where it’s like, ‘Oh, look there’s all these people,’ and they continue to walk by.”

Whitehurst, who lives in Napa, says he is excited for this year’s festival—not in the least because he’ll be playing in it, but also because the concerns of last year are being mitigated. “Last year, we actually got out of town,” he says. “People in Napa were of one of two minds: either this is going to be awesome… or oh my god, we do not have the infrastructure to handle what is going to be thrown at this city.” With a festival expecting 30,000 people per day for an entire weekend, in a city of 78,340, that’s to be expected. Though he’s sure there will still be challenges, Whitehurst says, “I’m not as afraid of it this year as I was last year.”

Local acts playing in the festival come from as far away as San Francisco, and Whitehurst says about 150 bands sent entries to Thea Whitsil, who also organizes the annual Napa Porchfest, to fill 32 spots. Instead of having an “in” or being owed a favor, as is the case when so many bands are booked for a festival like this, Trebuchet and the other local acts were picked on merit. “That’s why we’re so stoked on it,” says Whitehurst, who knows the industry well, coming from a musical family.

The group made a one-shot montage video as an homage to the big names at Bottlerock, rearranging pieces of about a dozen songs into their own style. It was a hit—garnering over 1,200 Youtube views in just over two weeks. “It didn’t take us too long,” says Whitehurst. “We practiced for a day and maybe did 10 shots of us doing it live.” The festival is filled with nostalgia for those who grew up with the soundtrack of the ‘90s. Whitehurst is no exception. “I can’t deny how fun it will be,” he says. Outkast and Weezer will be great, and, because they’re a sure-fire way to heat things up, he’s also stoked to see Blues Traveler.

Bottlerock Preview: Camper Van Beethoven

Posted by on May 28, 2014


Could there be a better act to play the uniquely Northern California festival BottleRock than Santa Cruz’s own Camper Van Beethoven, with their conjoined twin band Cracker in tow?
After all, Camper is the group that on their 2013 album La Costa Perdida delivered “Northern California Girls,” perhaps the ultimate NorCal anthem—meaning an anthem that’s way too laid back to actually be an anthem.
“Right, it takes seven minutes to get where it’s going,” admits David Lowery, the frontman for both Camper and Cracker. “The drums come in a little bit like three times before they finally kick in about three-and-a-half minutes into the song.”
Lowery had already written his share of great California songs for both Camper and Cracker over the years—most recently, “Where Have Those Days Gone”—in which he mistakes Good Times’ astrologer Rob Brezsny for Thomas Pynchon in a bar in Mendocino County—but also “Big Dipper,” “Miss Santa Cruz County,” “Come On Darkness” and more.
But with his latest cycle, he’s outdone himself. While La Costa Perdida was a NorCal-influenced album, the songs on Camper’s latest, El Camino Real (which comes out June 3), are all set in, or otherwise related to, SoCal.
“We wrote these songs at the same time, then thematically we broke off most of the Northern California ones for the last album, and then kind of took these songs that were Southern California, and built another album around them, by adding another five songs or something like that,” says Lowery. “There’s kind of this opus going now, this theme going. There’s also a Cracker album, which comes out next year. It’s a double disc—one is Berkeley, one is Bakersfield. One is the punk side of the band, one is the country side.”
So, basically, four albums worth of California songs. And it all started because of…Joan Didion?
“I think it started with me and Victor [Krummenacher] and Jonathan [Segel] reading a bunch of Joan Didion,” confirms Lowery. He can’t remember which collection of essays specifically sparked it, but it would almost have to be the first section of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, in which Didion rips to shreds the “golden dream” of the Inland Empire—where Lowery, his Camper bandmates Krummenacher and Segel, and Cracker co-founder Johnny Hickman all grew up.
“Those essays really captured the feel of it. It’s not really that flattering about the area, but that’s sort of what people from the Inland Empire are proud of,” says Lowery. “There was actually some sort of referendum on a theme for the Inland Empire, like ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ or how California is the Golden State. And we all wrote in: ‘We will kick your ass.’”
The most noticeable difference between the two Camper albums is the overall feel—La Costa Perdida is more easygoing and gentle, while El Camino Real is darker and more intense, with a deep streak of paranoia that runs through songs like “The Ultimate Solution,” “It Was Like That When We Got Here” and “I Live In L.A.” Clearly, Lowery has very different views on the two halves of the state.
“Yeah, but I like ’em both,” says Lowey.
At the BottleRock festival in Napa May 30-June 1, Lowery’s bands will join an eclectic mix of five dozen other acts across four stages, including the Cure, OutKast, Weezer, LL Cool J, Robert Earl Keen, TV on the Radio and Smash Mouth. Some of those musicians have been around longer than Camper, while others benefited from the college-radio-to-gold-records trail that CVB and Cracker blazed in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s very likely, however, that Camper is the only band on the schedule that has been reunited longer than they were originally together. After recording their first album in Santa Cruz in 1985, the band imploded on a European tour in 1990. But after reforming in the early 2000s, they’ve been back together now for over a decade. Part of the reason, Lowery says, is that they all agreed to do the band on a more part-time basis, or at least do fewer tours, which puts less pressure on them as a group. But maybe it’s even simpler than that.
“Jonathan says it’s just because we’re not in our twenties,” says Lowery. “And it’s kind of true.”
Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker play BottleRock Napa, which runs May 30-June 1 at the Napa Calley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa. Tickets are $149 for single-day passes, $279 for a three-day pass, at bottlerocknapavalley.com. 877-435-9849.
—Steve Palopoli