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Pinhead Gunpowder to play Gilman Friday, Feb. 12

Posted by on Feb 12, 2010 One Comment

Start lining up! As officially announced via Billie Joe earlier tonight, the great Pinhead Gunpowder returns to Gilman tomorrow night to play a benefit for Anandi Wonder, an old friend from Santa Rosa, longtime MRR shitworker and a wonderful person who’s been dealing with medical bills related to breast cancer.

Pinhead Gunpowder, Grass Widow and more play Friday, Feb. 12 at 924 Gilman in Berkeley. Starts at 7:30, $7-$10. All ages. Official confirmation here.

The last time Pinhead Gunpowder played Gilman, the first people got in line at 7:30am, and that was with the show being slightly hush-hush. This time around? There’s probably people camped out on the sidewalk right now.

UPDATE: Gilman is offering a complete free download of the show here.

Review & Photos: Aaron Cometbus' Art Show at 1-2-3-4 Go Records, Oakland

Posted by on Feb 6, 2010

The problem with being a jack of all trades is that no one believes you can really do it all. Just like people grow up to accept weird maxims like “more expensive is better,” so the pervasive line that artists with varied mediums of output are somehow always “spreading themselves too thin.” For some reason, we live in a world that demands the convenience of specialty—excel in your field, it says, and stay there.

Aaron Cometbus is well-known for his writing and his bands, but I’ve always rued the fact that his distinctive Xerox-style artwork hasn’t gotten its deserved due, and long wondered why he’s never had an official art show. Tonight, that oversight was remedied as 1-2-3-4-Go Records in Oakland hosted a long-overdue gallery opening of Aaron’s work.

Why did it take so long? As owner Steve Stevenson put it, “Aaron said that no one’s ever asked him before.”

Whatever the reasons for delayed appreciation—and really, I see no reason why Aaron’s art won’t be in the SFMOMA someday, probably after we’re all dead—the modest little curation of flyers, record art and personal archives on display at 1-2-3-4 Go through the end of February is a must-see, covering some classic icons (an original Crimpshrine flyer with the Cometbus #24 Peggy Lee image) and barely-seen innovations (an incredible flyer for a club’s last show, with photos of and word-bubble quotes from regulars about its importance).

Much of the art is wonderful, of course. But underlying Aaron’s transparency manipulations and intricate patterning is something deeper and more universal. The right of flyering as freedom of speech for the underprivileged is the concern of one beautiful 11×17 diatribe, expertly explaining a dilemma all to familiar to those who’ve hit the town with a bag of flyers and an Arrow T-50 stapler.

“The people with money have allotted the people with no money only certain spaces where they are allowed to be heard,” he writes. “These are called “community” spaces. These spaces total about 30 feet for an entire city’s communal needs. Thirty feet for all the lost dogs, lost wallets, charity raffles, punk shows, political rallies, summer sublets, yard sales, runaway children, art, and ideas. The posters pile up and are torn down, competing for the tiny amount of allotted space. How can you cover up a poster for a cute little lost puppy in order to advertise your cultural event?”

Aaron’s working methods have always been fascinating, and even after being tipped off, 20 years ago, that he used a Kodak IM-40 for halftones and reversals, no one could ever achieve the same effect on the same machine. Many cumulative hours can be spent staring into his layouts, wondering how the hell he got just the right look. Some tricks are hinted at in the show by revealing different stages of work—the various stages of the art that became Pinhead Gunpowder’s Compulsive Disclosure, for example, or the series shown at the top here that resulted in the flyer below—but as he said to me tonight, “It’s like magic. You don’t want to give away too much of the process.”

Unlike a conventional art show, nearly all of the pieces are photocopies and none are for sale. No one explains this better than Aaron, so I’ll just quote an excerpt of his artist statement:

My medium—pen, paint and xerox—was probably my mother’s fault. She was an artist, working in fiber and textiles. I was inspired by her use of shading and ability to define form with just a few lines, but I was also depressed to see her one-of-a-kind pieces go to rich collectors, never to be seen again. If I hadn’t already been drawn to means that were mass-produced, that would have done the trick. Xeroxing or silkscreening became an integral part in my creative process. Without that final step, the work feels incomplete, which is why—with few exceptions—it is copies you see on the walls here rather than the original cut and paste.

And so there you have it. Basic Radio’s “Meat Market” played on the sound system, a coffee pot that Aaron brought in himself sat upon the counter, the place filled up beyond capacity and a lot of overdue praise was lovingly heaped on Aaron Cometbus—artist, writer, musician, and a positive cultural instigator who’s never been content excelling in just one field. Thank goodness.

The Cometbus Art Show runs through the end of February at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, 423 40th St., Oakland. Open everyday from noon to 7pm, with an excellent selection of punk and indie vinyl. 510.985.0325.

More Photos Below. (more…)

In News

Sonoma County Blues Festival Looking for Another Home

Posted by on Feb 4, 2010 4 Comments

(Update: It’s saved! Scroll down for info…)
(Update again: It’s back at the fair. Scroll down…)

I just got off the phone with Bill Bowker, who’s been informed that the long-running Sonoma County Blues Festival will no longer be a part of the Sonoma County Fair’s entertainment schedule. Fair Events Coordinator Jane Engdahl cited current economic conditions and the Board’s decision to virtually eliminate all major shows in the Redwood Theater as the reason.

“It’s just another slice of left-of-mainstream music taken away in this area,” Bowker said. “I’m not alone—San Francisco lost their San Francisco Blues Festival too. It’s the usual plight of people trying to get into roots music.”

Bowker mentioned that there’s usually a spike in Fair attendance on the day of the Blues Festival, but this year, the Fair is looking to focus its energies on booking large acts in the Chris Beck Arena. That leaves a thirty-year tradition out in the cold.

The Sonoma County Blues Festival became a part of the Sonoma County Fair schedule in the late ’80s with blues musician Mark Naftalin producing the event.  Smith and Bowker Productions took over the production of the festival in 1991, and had since brought everyone from Junior Kimbrough to Magic Slim to Santa Rosa.

Want some more names from over the years? How about Shuggie Otis, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, Sonny Rhodes, Doyle Bramhall, Tracy Nelson, John Lee Hooker Jr., David Jacobs-Strain, Honeyboy Edwards… the list goes on and on. Not to mention all the local acts like Volker Strifler, Ron Thompson, Lydia Pense and Mark Hummel who were repeatedly given a stage with the larger names.

Bowker is looking into options for keeping the festival going. Those interested in offering a new location can call him at 707.588.0707.

UPDATE: The Festival has been moved to the Earle Baum Center on Occidental Road, a great open-field venue, on July 31. The KRSH itself has stepped in as producer. Hooray to both! Artists to be announced soon.

Bowker writes:

Along with being able to present a full on array of shapes and hues of the Blues throughout the years, I have also found the satisfaction of seeing what the Blues brings as far as the community is concerned.  The Blues is about struggle, despair, pain, but also about hope, respect and about whom we are.  It leaves it mark on all of us.  The Blues is the truth.”

Glad to see another struggle overcome, Bill, and another bit of hope dawning.

UPDATE AGAIN: The Sonoma County Fair realized their mistake, and “aggressively pursued” the KRSH to move the Blues Festival and its many supporters back to the fair. So for “practical purposes,” it’s back at the Redwood Theater on July 31 after all, now with a separate admission charge. (It sounds like the KRSH is still putting up the money for the Blues Festival’s artists—the fair’s budget having already been committed to paying cover bands like Wonderbread 5, Super Diamond, the Cheeseballs, AC/DShe, Double Funk Crunch and Bud E. Luv.) Some info. on fair entertainment here, and a note from Bill Bowker here.

Live Review: Mos Def's Haiti Benefit at the Independent, San Francisco

Posted by on Feb 4, 2010 One Comment

A favorite pastime firmly rooted in the modern day has become looking over people’s shoulders at shows while they compose texts-in-progress. At last night’s Mos Def show in San Francisco, dude next to me gets another one of many Facebook updates throughout the night on his iPhone: “So-and-So commented on your status: ‘You’re updating your status more than you’re watching the show.’”

His response, thumbs twitching with Mos Def less than 10 feet away: “I’m pissed and he’s boring.”

Indeed, the crowd last night was subdued to Ritalin-like extremes while Mos Def pulled almost exclusively from his new record, The Ecstatic. And in a way, that album’s version of Hip Hop 2.0 isn’t entirely conducive to losing your shit. Like other off-kilter artists—Georgia Anne Mudrow, Shafiq Husayn, Declaime, Erykah Badu’s recent material—Mos Def is riding a weird phase where driving boom-bap beats have given way to implied rhythm. At one point last night he told people to stop clapping, which says a lot about where he’s at. He also stopped the show early on to ask the sound man for “some of that psychedelic sound” on his red bullet mic. The relatively low volume of the Independent’s sound system magnified it: this was not music for getting down to.

And people weren’t having it. Requests for “Definition,” “Respiration” and “Ms. Fat Booty” were met by Mos Def with a shit-I’ve-heard-this-so-many-time look and a schooling. “Stop doing that. That never works,” he said. “No one ever does the song you yell for. I create the magic of rock. You enjoy it.”

What people got instead was, to my mind, a really good look at an artist who’s trying, despite his fans’ reluctance, to stretch hip-hop into unchartered territory. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just rock. It’s a weird world of Mos Def’s own making, and which even he might not be comfortable in just yet. But he has his enablers, especially in the form of Jay Electronica, who was billed as an opener but essentially co-headlined. Jay’s famous for releasing 15 minute-long songs with no drums whatsoever and bursting lyrical over looped samples from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has no official album out, just internet mixtapes and a huge buzz.

So Jay Electronica came out and killed—lots of a capella, lots of drumless samples—and for a while there Mos Def spent a good deal of time showering praise on Electronica (“You’re a genius, man”) and criticism on a heckler who kept shouting for “Exhibit B.” (“There is no Exhibit B! Exhibit C is Exhibit B! You’re shouting for something that doesn’t exist!..” ad infinitum.) Jay’s highlight was his one-two of “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C,” and when he left the stage I counted four people around me leaving the show.

At the end of the set, Mos Def finally announced “Okay. And now… for the classics.” But the plural  was a cruel tease. “Umi Says,” the most Ecstatic-like track off Black on Both Sides, closed the show. There was a lot of head-scratching out on the sidewalk, but I left feeling like at least someone is trying something new. And I say that as a fan who sold back his copy of The Ecstatic after a week.

Also—and I feel bad mentioning this at the end—the night was a benefit for Haiti, and organizers didn’t skimp on the pressing need for help. Pierre Labosierre of the Haiti Action Committee and Walter Riley of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund both spoke very, very eloquently about the history of Haiti and the truth about the situation on the ground. Freestyle whiz Supernatural did his usual amazing act while dropping “Liberation,” “Unity” and “Hope” into his “Three Words” routine. Mos Def talked about how Haiti’s independence represented the first uprising against slavery in history, and “When they’re suffering, it’s not just Haiti that’s suffering. It’s… it’s…”

“Freedom!” someone yelled.

“Right! Freedom. It’s freedom that’s suffering.”

(“Latinos!” yelled the Exhibit B guy. “I’m not sure what that has to do with what we’re talking about,” Mos Def replied dryly, “but right on.”)

So for real, whatever you think about his new album, or the show, or his direction, you’ve got to admit that the Haiti aspect of the night was a success. At $35 a head I’m sure it sent a lot of much-needed help, plus it did what a benefit should do, by both educating and entertaining the people. That is, if you were actually paying attention and not composing useless passive-aggressive tweets about the drunk girl next to you who kept hitting you with her purse.

Why Does Taylor Swift Win Awards?

Posted by on Feb 1, 2010 5 Comments

Dad: “Maybe when you have time you can explain to me why Taylor Swift wins Grammy Awards.”

Me: “Yes, I can do that. As long as you explain to me why she still makes that patently fake ‘surprised’ look every time she wins, after a solid year of winning every award in sight.”

The short version is that the Grammys are run by horny old white men. Mostly.

The longer version involves some dissection of her appeal, which starts with the basics (pretty) and trickles down to the more esoteric (girl actually writes her own songs). No viewer alien to the nominees context last night would have heard Taylor’s flat singing and predicted her to win over Lady Gaga, who stole the show, but I’ll bet there’s a substantial handful of Grammy voters who know she writes her own tunes.

It’s a big deal in country music, writing your own songs. Country music is the last popular music in America that relies heavily on a concentrated Brill-Building-style stable of songwriters, which is why much of it is predictable and sounds like “hit” material. (I sometimes wish rappers used songwriters, just as an experiment. I also wish rappers did covers of other rapper’s songs. Will explore this sometime in the future.) So for Taylor Swift to come out and write her own songs rocks that tradition and brings it back to a purer, more authentic Nashville that the average Grammy voter wishes once existed.

“Authenticity” is big up on Taylor Swift’s requirements—check the reaction again: the blank stare, the open mouth, the cupping palm—and she makes sure that all the hella fake-ass things about her don’t overshadow it. Plus, universal appeal, duh. Her songs are the kinds of songs that old people wish their kids would write, and that kinds of songs that make young people think, I could have written that. They are not shitty songs, keep in mind.

Does that explain it?

I can get behind Taylor Swift and all—there’s far worse role models for teenage girls to have, and far lousier pop music—but my vision is always stained by the Young Girls in Nashville Who Write Their Own Songs War of 2006. Pretty much it was Taylor Swift vs. Miranda Lambert, and Taylor won because she’s skinnier and younger and skinnier and blonder and skinnier and writes pop-country songs instead of country-country songs. (“Famous in a Small Town.” Watch that shit!) With silver medal in tow, Miranda Lambert has laid low, opening for Kenny Chesney and recording John Prine and friggin’ Fred Eaglesmith songs. (“Time to Get a Gun.” Watch that shit!) Still regret missing her headline the small indoor theater at Konocti.

There's Disco Records in Dem Dar Hills

Posted by on Feb 1, 2010 One Comment

You’ll notice Top 5 Movies & Music in Guerneville for their large “Adult DVDs $5.00″ banner outside, but do take note of their smaller sign also announcing used cassettes, CDs and LPs.

Stopped by there on the way back from an interview (Dear Interview Gods, can we schedule for the oceanside full-time from now on?) and flipped, flipped, flipped my way through piles of LPs. Heavy on weird disco 12″s and private-press Christian records. I know, I know. You’re laughing now, but I’m serious as a newscaster in Haiti when I say that’s what the cratediggers are after these days.

Cratediggers—that subspecies of record collector, the producer usually out for DJ breaks—have a knack for presaging trends in music. Naturally, their current fancies are what starts showing up at the clubs. What shows up at clubs makes its way into the mainstream fairly fluidly. Three years ago the cratediggers honed in on obscure, early 1970s Manhattan disco—hello, Lady Gaga.

The Christian thing is harder to understand unless you know the collector’s mind, which says, “I will reappropriate this historically cast-aside sect of garbage art into something dope by immersion, education, curation and enthusiasm.” In other words, creating a fetish out of crapola.

But back on topic: If you’re in Guerneville and itching to puzzle over unusual and cheaply priced disco LPs—I took a $2 chance on a record by Voyage, and found this gem—Top 5 is your place. I guess some people call it “Tops” because the sign is hand-painted and the 5 looks like an “S.” Ah, lovable Guerneville.

In News

Early Kate Wolf Festival 2010 Lineup Announced

Posted by on Jan 26, 2010

Those who make the annual drive up to Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville for the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival won’t be disappointed by the early acts confirmed for this year’s fest. Scheduled to appear so far are the Neville Brothers, Ani Di Franco, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Greg Brown, the Waifs, the David Grisman, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, Baka Beyond, Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart, John McCutcheon, Po’ Girl, Poor Man’s Whiskey, and “more to name in the near future,” writes Cloud Moss, the event’s longtime coordinator.

Update: Carrie Rodriguez, Charlie Musselwhite, Hot Buttered Rum, John McCutcheon, Rosalie Sorrels and Blame Sally added! But, the Neville Brothers canceled. Little Feat have taken their place!

Presale tickets are on sale now; the official festival website is here.

In News

John Prine to play the Wells Fargo Center on April 11

Posted by on Jan 25, 2010

John Prine, the lovable songwriter who deserves every laurel thrown at his feet, is coming back to Santa Rosa to play the Wells Fargo Center on April 11, 2010.

Presale tickets are available now by clicking here, although take note of the strange rules if you pursue this option: “Seats will be assigned at random on the day of the show, and the location of your seats will not be known until tickets are picked up at will call.”

For those who want the peace of mind of knowing where they’re sitting, tickets to the general public go on sale this Friday, Jan. 29, at noon.

The last time John Prine played in Santa Rosa, it was September 8, 2001. The twin towers still stood, as did the feeling of optimism and confidence in the economy. The venue was still called the Luther Burbank Center. We had the luxury of being able to laugh at his songs then; something tells me those same songs might cause a tinge of sadness now. He played for over two hours that night, just song after brilliant song, ending with an encore of “Paradise” joined onstage by Todd Snider. “Lake Marie” brought the house down, and he made beautiful chestnuts like “Souvenirs,” “Sam Stone” and “You Got Gold” sound shiny and new after all these years. I talked to him afterwards; he was all rosy cheeks, in a great mood, and told me the crowd was as great and responsive as any he’d played for. It was a hell of a show.

If you’ve never seen John Prine, you’re missing out on a genuine national treasure. The standing-room deal is $19.50, with tickets going up to $39.50 and $49.50 for seats. It’ll sell out easily. For more info., call 707.546.3600 or visit the Wells Fargo Center site.

Live Review: Kenny Garrett at Yoshi's

Posted by on Jan 25, 2010

Even though it was over 25 years ago, Kenny Garrett will forever be associated with Miles Davis, in whose band he spent several years in the 1980s. Perhaps to spite the collective public mind beneath Miles’ shadow, Garrett has since made a career out of versatility. His latest studio album, the incredible Beyond the Wall, was an Eastern-tinged outing of dense, rich composition; Garrett dedicated it to McCoy Tyner. Last year, the celebrated alto saxophonist released Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium, a scorching concert set with guest Pharaoh Sanders.

Tonight at Yoshi’s, Garrett, now 49, displayed that trademark versatility with his quartet, playing short melodic duets alongside long, rhythmic barn-burners in a powerhouse set that had the audience on their feet and begging for more even after the house lights came up.

The set began by the thump of the bass drum and a full sixteen bars of funk-break drumming, and it would be easy to say that this set the tone for the night. Yet each player injected a stylistic flourish into the steady gait. Garrett, for example, began by adhering to the bluesy growl that is the trademark of one-chord funk jazz, only to slowly stretch to an aggressive dance around the perimeter of the music, splaying a feisty thread around his band’s patterns like a spider on methamphetamine.

Bassist Kona Khasu plucked out chromatic chord ascensions, warbling slides on the neck and pizzicato grace notes well above the twelfth fret. Johnny Mercier lathered organ and phase-shifted synthesizer together in a wall of texture. Throughout the set, usually climaxing a long, eventual crescendo, all these elements fell into place. Each time it happened, Garrett rocked back and forth playing alternately to the floor and ceiling in a physical manifestation of his personal nirvana, and the effect transcended any dismissive categorization as “funk jazz.”

When Garrett finds available real estate in a song, he drops everything and fills it. Tonight, he halted the proceedings in order to meditate on a feeling several times. The first excursion lasted roughly ten minutes with billowing, sad, evocative saxophone lines unraveling over Mercier’s sci-fi synthesizer oscillations.

The second came at the end of a piano/soprano sax duet—a light, major-key melody reminiscent of an AM soft-rock hit—when Garrett fell away and experimented with acoustics by bleating quick, sharp Eastern-tinged lines which resonated inside the grand piano and echoed in the back of the club. The William Tell Overture was quoted, some prominent overtones overtook the dominant tones and Garrett drained out his horn, like a bike tire deflating.

The night ended with a full-on funk scorcher, complete with teaser endings and solicitations from Garrett himself for more noise from the crowd. Not that solicitations were needed—the crowd was on their feet and cheering for more even after the band had blown their final note, fist-bumped each other and left the stage. Cheering for more, in fact, even after the house lights came up.

Chances are that when Kenny Garrett comes back next year, he’ll be on some different tip entirely, with different sidemen. This band, transcending prescribed pockets, is worth catching while it lasts.

The Radiohead Haiti Auction is a Vision of a Hellish Future

Posted by on Jan 22, 2010 3 Comments

Most people will view this Ticketmaster auction for tickets to Radiohead’s just-announced Haiti Benefit in Los Angeles this Sunday at the Henry Fonda Theater as a unique, outside-the-model way to raise money for earthquake victims.

Look at it again. Look at it. You are looking at the future of ticketing: a straight-up auction model.

It’s especially terrifying because it makes perfect sense. Instead of short-changing their profits with fixed prices and watching tickets to sold-out shows sell for four or five times face value on the scalper’s auction market, Ticketmaster has actually developed a platform to sell tickets to the highest bidder while stunting the middlemen down the line.

This might be no big obstacle if you want to go see some low-level act like, I dunno, Matisyahu. But what if you’re a 12-year-old girl from a low-income family and you’re dying to see Beyoncé?

Already, we’ve seen VIP tickets and “Fan Experience” tickets for more in-demand arena shows sold by Ticketmaster for inflated prices. During Beyoncé’s last tour, for example, front-row tickets sold at face value for $500—roughly what could be expected from the second-hand market. (Meeting Beyoncé in person, after the show, cost $1,000.) Those hoping to luck out with an affordable ticket for a good seat still had hope.

I hope I’m wrong, but staring at this auction page feels like looking into a crystal ball of plutocracy for the future of ticket sales.

I know Radiohead is doing a charitable thing with this ticket auction, and I know that people are going to be talking about the “Radiohead model” with this ticket sale. But unlike their pay-what-you-will approach to albums, which humbled the recording industry into submission, this pay-what-you-will approach to tickets is a valuable springboard for the ticket industry, and it’s only going to put a lot more power and money into their greedy, uncaring hands.