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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

Live Review: Charlie Hunter & Scott Amendola Duo at Sweetwater

Posted by on May 23, 2014

Charlie Hunter, man of 1,000 faces

Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola Duo have released vinyl records, a series of cover tunes on CD, and even their own lip balm. Maybe their next release should be a coffee table book—you know, one of those oversized ones with really nice photography—of the faces they make while playing live.

Watching the two is only half the fun, though, of their live show. The music is always going to be different from the recordings, and they’ll throw in jams, unexpected cover tunes, and jaw dropping solos, to boot. Watching the pair together at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall on Wednesday was like seeing a finely polished, but largely improvised, comedy duo. After performing together for over 20 years, they know each other pretty well. They’re both so talented, that they’ll make little musical jokes inside solo sections, just to make each other laugh. And the crowd laughed along with them, because the jokes translate to non-musicians, too.

Plenty of covers dotted the evening, and each was in their own style. The thing about cover bands is that it is tempting to just be a karaoke cover band—that is, playing the song exactly as it was recorded, with maybe a couple twists for live performance. But these guys take them apart and leave only the melody, the memorable hook and some chords underneath, and make the tunes completely their own. When the crowd realized the refrain they were playing during “Walk On By” was the hook from “California Love” by 2Pac Shakur, some giggles broke out from the back of the intimate room. The mashup was so well put together that it took about six turns through to realize they were two very different songs.

Although they play instrumental music, there was a bit of singing. Before the Cars’ classic, “Let the Good Times Roll,” Hunter urged the crowd to sing along, especially during the chorus. They did so, with rising enthusiasm, and when the duo was ready to wrap up the song, Hunter proclaimed to the crowd, “Ladies and gentleman, let’s tag that shit!” Not one to disappoint, the crowd continued its sing-along three more times, holding the last note while Hunter and Amendola played out the ending. Hunter was quite pleased.

They played two sets, allowing the crowd to buy records, order fancy drinks from the bar or dinner from the cafe (I suggest the pork posole and fried calamari). Just before the break, they played a blazing bop tune, with Amendola leading on the hi-hats, grabbing them with his left hand to open and close. His fills in the two-minute jam were even faster—faster than I could even think.

It is often said that musicians speak in a different language than “regular” people. Hunter spoke to the crowd without a mic (in English), and since Sweetwater is so small it was perfectly audible. But these two musicians have refined that to their own musical language, and other musicians may be able to discern what they’re saying but cannot speak it back to them. That’s fine, because I wouldn’t be able to top the poetry of their language, anyway.

Meet Kurt Stenzel, Soundtrack Composer to ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

Posted by on May 14, 2014 2 Comments

Unless it’s a rockumentary like Sound City or 20 Feet From Stardom, the soundtrack to a documentary usually isn’t much more than an afterthought. But for Jodorowsky’s Dune, the new documentary about one of the greatest films never made, the music is an essential part in bringing to life a film that doesn’t exist. San Francisco composer Kurt Stenzel has done exactly that with his synth-laden, spooktacular mood setting composition for the film.

The performance artist/musician had never been asked to make a soundtrack before, but his work in the electro-art group Spacekraft caught the attention of the filmmakers. His synthesizer list is extensive, ranging from Radioshack toys to Moog to custom Dave Smith creations. The result is pulsing, warped and sometimes eerie sounds that create a sense of uncertainty. It would have had a big impact on Jodorowsky’s film vision for the epic science fiction novel, had it ever been made.

Stenzel’s ambient music is non-offensive and, like abstract art, can be interpreted in many ways—unlike his former project, the New York punk band Six and Violence. The self-taught musician admits he doesn’t have “chops” in the traditional sense, meaning he won’t bust out with a Chopin etude on request. But he does know his way around a synthesizer, and his music these days is about texture and timbre more than virtuosity.

Stenzel’s texture on Jodorowsky’s Dune is reminiscent of Isao Tomita, the pioneering Japanese musician who rose to popularity with his futuristic synthesizer renditions of Holst’s Planets suite and pieces of the Star Wars soundtrack in the 1970s. Stenzel grew up in a “classical music household,” and is familiar with Tomita’s work. He’s also a big fan of the Krautrock genre, especially Rodelius and his group, Cluster. When Dune director Frank Pavich was looking for a “Tangerine Dream type soundtrack,” Stenzel was the obvious choice.

Spacekraft’s music is also represented in the film. About nine minutes of the group’s music was left in the film after Stenzel sent over some music “as a placeholder” to Pavich, while he worked on more original music. “Some things just kind of stuck,” says Stenzel. The group is largely performance art these days, with a whole crew of “flight attendants” and more accompanying the experience of a Spacekraft show, which can be seen usually at art galleries and grand openings. Listeners can sit in airline chairs and control the music with their own iPhones, or take personality tests during the performance. “The whole thing is designed to take you somewhere else,” says Stenzel. “We’re kind of weird and make some drug references here and there,” he cautions. Sometimes, the public doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. “People ask if we’re a software company, or Scientologists, or whatever.” For the record, they’re neither.

“We’re somewhere between the pretentious art world and the happy-go-lucky-Bay-Area-friendly-lets-just-do-this-for-fun kind of thing,” says Stenzel.

The soundtrack will be released soon in full analog glory on a double-LP. Stenzel says he’s now interested in writing more music for film. “I like to be challenged,” he says. “This one, I was already doing this type of music… I would love to do a drama or something different.”

Listen to Stenzel’s work in this trailer for the film:

Live Review: Good Friday Stabat Mater at St. Vincent’s Church

Posted by on Apr 18, 2014

The rear windows at St. Vincent's Church in Petaluma were designed by Tiffany.

Sitting, eyes closed, in St. Vincent’s church in Petaluma, the usual first world annoyances do not penetrate my skin, neither physically nor mentally. The uncomfortable wooden pew, the cell phone ring—they hold no power now, not while countertenor Chris Fritzche and soprano Carol Menke sing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Marilyn Thompson transcribing the full score, on sight, to church organ.

Giovanni Pergolesi composed his Stabat Mater in 1736, just a couple weeks before his death. The piece shares life timing with Mozart’s Reqiuem—his was composed on his deathbed, supposedly finished by another’s hand. Both are each composer’s most moving efforts. The pieces even share similar setting—the death and rebirth of Jesus—but Pergolesi’s is about half as long as Mozart’s, but still packs the same emotional wallop.

The music descended from the rear balcony as Good Friday churchgoers filed in the the noon mass. We saw no musicians but heard ethereal voices telling the story of a mother’s pain of watching her son die at the hands of another, holding him in her arms after his final breath had been taken. The English translation of the Latin text was read from the pulpit between movements, but otherwise not a word was spoken.

Religious or not, it was a very moving afternoon.

The 45-minute piece is divided into twelve movements. It’s quite varied, but the somber duets are the most transcendent moments, especially with the low bass of St. Vincent’s organ resonating the ribs while the notes resonate the heart. Gosh, that a cheesy take on such a magnificent piece, but sacred music is meant to be evocative.

Mozart’s Reqiuem is one of the most celebrated pieces of music ever composed. The D minor Mass is the most moving piece of religious music in the Western world, but it has a predecessor that moves me even more: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Fritzche and a few other very talented singers in the North Bay perform this piece semi-regularly, and any chance to see it should not be passed up. It is traditionally performed with a small Baroque orchestra, but the arrangement is inconsequential to the music. It’s one of those pieces that’s just plain beautiful.

Wish I Was At Coachella!

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014

Did your 2014 Coachella Wristband Ticket Box with stop-action video and radio frequency IDs get lost in the mail? Yea, so did mine.

But don’t trip on being broke and stuck at home. The first ever Wish I Was At Coachella party is happening tonight at Christy’s in downtown Santa Rosa, where homegrown boys DJs Sykwidit and E20 are going to spin everything under the hot desert sun, from Outkast and Skrillex to Chvrches and Little Dragon. Come get your dance on and don’t be like these guys. The North Bay’s baddest party DJs are gonna rock all the real bands you are gonna miss because you couldn’t decide what to wear.

Christy’s On The Square, 96 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa (707) 528-8565, free before 10:30pm.

Live Review: John Legend at the Wells Fargo Center

Posted by on Apr 2, 2014

John Legend is a hard working performer. His two-hour concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa last night showed off not only his work ethic, but showcased his velvety voice and storytelling prowess in an intimate setting that was designed to feel like his living room. The only difference being, as the exquisitely dressed singer said during the show, “I don’t normally wear a suit in my living room.”

He really hammed it up at times for the crowd, who ate up his every word—except the gaff toward the end, when he said, “I mean, this is the Napa Valley, right?” This led to applause, briefly (because he was so charming, everything he said resulted in applause), but soon turned to boos. That’s right, Sonomans are so passionate about terrior they booed John Legend for making a minor geographical error. When he corrected his error with an embarrassed smile, “Oh, Sonoma Valley, right?” the applause resumed.

He mostly sat at the Yamaha grand piano, tickling the ivories with a young string quartet on the right of the stage and a guitarist to the left. When he brought the mic downstage and perched on a stool to serenade the crowd, women—and men—started squirming in their seats. Every John Legend song is a recipe for “making little tax breaks,” as he says, and though he doesn’t guarantee anything at the end of the night, “ya know…” he trails off before a knowing shrug, “you know.”

The intimate evening was staged with five loveseats occupied by couples who won tickets through radio promotions, with huge Hollywood movie lights towering above, lighting Legend from the back. Lighting against the back wall changed colors, and was especially useful during “Green Light,” one of his best songs of the night. The sound in the newly renovated space was crisp and loud. It felt like a larger space, but we were so close we could see the lack of sweat on Legend’s face. (Prince also lacks sweat glands, maybe they went to the same voodoo doctor for their musical talent.)

Women did a lot of the hooting and hollering through the night, but the fellas were cheering especially boisterously after a powerful solo piano cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” He told a aw-shucks story about performing it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at the behest of that show’s musical director, the drummer ?uestlove, but never hearing if the Boss liked it or not. Months later, he says, he received a hand-signed letter asking him to play it at an awards gala. “I guess he liked it,” Legend said with a smile.

He paced the show perfectly, with some segments featuring three or four songs back to back, and some getting breaks between while he told stories. My favorite was when he met President Obama last year. After getting married to supermodel Christine Teigen earlier in the year, he asked Obama for marriage advice. Michelle chimed in, “How long had you been together before you got married?” He said about five years. “What took you so long?” the President asked, which earned Legend a glare from his new wife. Legend turned to the chuckling crowd, deadpan, and said, “Thanks, President Obama.”