As soon as I got to EarleFest, I ran into about five people who were still glossy-eyed over Chuck Prophet. “Wasn’t he great?” they asked me. “I had to work. Just got here,” I replied. “Man, you missed something special,” they said.
Of course, Chuck Prophet is fantastic, and talking with him recently about the record he recorded in Mexico City and its subtle comments on immigration confirmed my fandom. Seeing the Flatlanders, below, is always a treat, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s voice is a salve to be taken at least thrice a year for proper emotional maintenance.
But I was at EarleFest mostly to right two wrongs, namely that 1) I’d never been to EarleFest, and 2) I’d never seen Paul Thorn.
Well, the rumors are true on both points. EarleFest is a tremendously well-run festival in a perfect setting. There’s not a bad seat in the field, and there’s plenty of room to move if you want to dance, move closer to the stage or do cartwheels with 10-year olds. The sound is great, especially for a temporary outdoor system. Food booths are decent—paella, barbeque, fried pickles, beer and wine—and plenty of bathrooms. It’s just that perfect blend of “official” and “casual” that feels right.
How I’ve managed to miss Paul Thorn all these years is beyond me—”he’s so funny,” everyone says. They’re right. I was in stitches while he talked, but it’s hard to convey his humor in writing. Self-deprecating and clever, his between-song banter is that of a guy playing dumb but holding his smarts close to his chest. A sample, somewhat verbatim:
“My first album was all songs I wrote to try and win back a girl who broke up with me because I cheated on her. The story is as simple as that. When the album came out, I thought she would hear the songs and be so overcome that she’d run back to me. But instead of winning her back, they only gave her more power to treat me like dirt. And that’s what she did, for a long time. So here’s a very beautiful song that accomplished nothing.”
Thorn’s voice is rough and blues-inflected, sliding from note to note in a Mississippi drawl, his band is tight as hell and his tunes are great; about four or five of them fall into the “instant classics” category—like “I Don’t Want to Know,” “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line” and “Resurrection Day,” the aforementioned song that accomplished nothing. Anyway, if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to seeing him yet, block out the calendar and plonk down for tickets. He’s good on record, particularly Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, but man, he’s outstanding live. In the middle of his last encore, he hopped off stage, danced with a few pretty girls, high-fived a throng of fans and waltzed back to the merch stand to hang out and chat with people while the sun went down. A nice end to a fantastic EarleFest.
The advent of Spotify and its official link-up with Facebook is, without a doubt, going to change the way a lot of people listen to music. But it hasn’t changed the way millionaires party, as evidenced by Matt Crawford’s visit to a “secret show” last night after the F8 conference in San Francisco—thrown by Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker—featuring Jane’s Addiction, the Killers and Snoop Dogg.
Top-shelf liquor? Check. Two rotisserie hogs? Check. Lobster, crab and sushi? Check.
I would like, just once, to see millionaires throw a party in a warehouse without gussied-up decor and servers roaming with hors d’oeuvre trays. Then again, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg, that’s probably the only way you’re gonna be able to stand in a crowd and watch Snoop Dogg without getting mobbed by Facebook users angry at the new design.
In related last-night secret show news, Green Day played a two-hour set at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland last night, playing mostly new material. Crazy!
For those who’ve bought James Blake’s much-lauded debut album and have remained underwhelmed, my advice is this: see him live. A fundamental quantity of his music’s dynamic range and impact is diminished by the recorded medium—especially if listened on ear buds or a computer’s built-in speakers, but even when played on vinyl through a high-quality system. Perhaps this is intentional. Maybe Blake presciently knew that most people listening to his album would do so alone, and strategically mixed it to be hushed and intimate.
What seems thin and minimalist on his album, though, became ferocious and dense in a live setting when James Blake appeared at the Fillmore. This was no more evident than in “Limit to Your Love,” a small-sounding song on record. But at the Fillmore, the song’s sub-bass registers literally rattled the windows of the venue, and rumbled the insides of the sold-out crowd. The effect was astonishing, and added a completely new dimension to the otherwise plain, pretty song. On record, there’s simply a limit to one’s love; but live, Blake’s performance seems to note that when that limit is reached, things churn and rumble and quake. Heavily.
With just a three-piece, including a drum set comprised of mostly electronic triggers, Blake and his band conjured wild tension out of thin air, all while Blake’s voice floated angelically above the turmoil. This is a page out of the Radiohead textbook, but Blake’s execution is more emotionally direct, and less cerebral. His slender, foppish build adds to his appeal; songs like “The Wilhelm Scream,” which was breathtaking at the Fillmore, seal it for good. It’s tempting to relate his mainstream appeal in systhesized music to that of Howard Jones’, honestly.
But the new songs Blake played live at the Fillmore—thick, urgent collages of cacophony—brushed aside any flavor-of-the-month thoughts. If he continues pushing the envelope (and the VCA, and the LFO), and if he somehow manages to get the impact of his live show on record, he’ll be leaving the hype in the dust.
Today it was announced that after seven years, the Sonoma Jazz Festival is pulling the plug. As a jazz fan, I have no immediate reaction to the news other than this: good riddance.
I would have had no real problem with the Sonoma Jazz Festival if the organizers had simply dropped the word “jazz” from its name. But they refused to do so. Instead, the Sonoma Jazz Festival siphoned shamelessly from the cultural cachet of the word “jazz,” presented wheezing baby-boomer classic rock acts and swirled it all down with Cabernet and a promise of doing good for the local economy and school music programs.
Yes, they donated money to local schools. But in booking the festival, they rarely honored their own mission statement to “present and preserve jazz.” Their headliners included Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, Crosby Stills & Nash, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gipsy Kings, Chris Isaak, Joe Cocker and Kool & the Gang.
Nobody but an idiot or an asshole would ever call these acts jazz. It’d be like a “Sonoma Hip-Hop Festival” with the Barenaked Ladies, Limp Bizkit and Jack Johnson. Or a “Sonoma Farm-to-Table Festival” with In-n-Out Burger and Taco Bell. A “Sonoma Film Festival” that screened reality TV shows.
By continuing to call their festival a jazz festival, the Colorado-based organizers insulted the art form of jazz and, by association, embarrassed Sonoma County. It only got worse with the piddly concession of adding a “+” to the name. More then a few local jazz musicians I know joked that the festival was “Sonoma Jazz Minus,” except they weren’t really jokes. Jokes are supposed to be funny.
This is not to denigrate the worthy efforts of many locals who worked hard to make the festival what it was, some of whom actively pushed to get the name changed. And I would be remiss not to mention the few jazz and jazz-related acts that played the big tent in the “Field of Dreams”—Herbie Hancock, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and openers like Julian Lage and Hiromi come to mind.
But they all seemed like aberrant curiosities in Sonoma, politely endured instead of appreciated. In 2008, after Herbie Hancock opened his set with the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged wine country dilettantes who’d been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.
My very first experience in the cavernous, 3,000-seat tent also comes to mind—plunking down $110 for seats far away from the stage for Tony Bennett—and how it was marred by a well-heeled woman behind me blathering loudly on her phone, too bored to go through the motions of paying attention to one of America’s greatest song stylists. She eventually stumbled off into the wine lounge and never came back. Looks like the Sonoma Jazz Festival is following suit.
B.B. King and Buddy Guy aren’t just the best headliners the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival (Sept. 24-25) has had in years, they’re also an example of the longtime legends who, lucky for us, return to the North Bay perennially. This fall season boasts everyone from jazz survivor Herbie Hancock (Sept. 18, Wells Fargo Center) to indie-rock progenitors the Pixies (Nov. 20, Uptown Theatre), with a little bit of country survivor Wynonna Judd thrown in for good boot-scootin’ measure (Nov. 8, Lincoln Theatre).
When Herbie Hancock was here last, he regaled the crowd with a song he hadn’t played live in 25 years—”Rockit,” the early-turntablist fusion breakdance anthem. Expect similar crossover from jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour (Sept. 17, Napa Valley Opera House) and, to a lesser degree, recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding (Oct. 2, Uptown Theatre). Spalding, who has successfully crossed over out of the jazz world with the large help of Starbucks, has got a marvelous hairdo to rival that of Diana Ross, who stops in for a diva show to end all diva shows (Sept. 17, Marin Center). And speaking of glamour, there’s two chances to catch quasi-globetrotting ensemble Pink Martini (Nov. 17, Marin Center; Nov. 19; Grace Pavilion), who continue to receive rave reviews even with the temporary hiatus of lead vocalist China Forbes.
Rock legends abound, with the Last Day Saloon hosting recent box-set grantees UFO (Sept. 15) and Mr. Playin’ It Straight himself, Pat Travers (Oct. 8). Lindsey Buckingham, the poor soul who has been stuck with a not-very-funny SNL skit, plays in Napa (Oct. 25, Uptown Theatre) just before guitar wizard Jeff Beck flies through with three shows (Oct 31, Wells Fargo Center; Nov 1-2, Uptown Theatre). And though they may not be in the Cleveland Hall of Fame, they’re our own legends, like it or not: barf-metal act Skitzo celebrates 30 years of regurgitation this year (Oct. 8, Phoenix Theater).
A strong indie-rock double bill of Band of Horses and Brett Netson brings the bearded out of the woodwork (Sept. 9, Uptown Theater), while Dawes and Blitzen Trapper give a virtual encore a month later (Oct. 7, Mystic Theater). Ryan Adams, whose career has been a rollercoaster to say the least, plays a completely sold-out show (Oct. 15, Uptown Theater), while the almighty Pixies hold the record for quickest ticket sales (Nov. 20, Uptown Theatre)—the Napa stop of their Doolittle Tour was sold out in minutes.
While the grizzled country-music patriarch Merle Haggard returns (Sept. 30, Uptown Theatre), many young-uns swim in his wake. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar glides onto the stage with a voice of velvet (Sept. 9, Mystic Theatre), while Dave Alvin continues his quest to make the bandana cool again—if anyone can do it, it’s him (Sept. 15, Mystic Theatre).
Jackson Browne is all over his solo set these days, with stories and spontaneity and rarely any set list (Nov. 9, Marin Center), while master storyteller Tom Russell comes back for a special intimate evening (Oct. 27, Studio E). The nimble and fleet-fingered Bruce Hornsby continues to provide examples of why he’s among the most sought-after in the business (Sept. 14, Uptown Theatre), and at the Napa Valley Opera House, two artists get up close and personal: Rickie Lee Jones (Nov. 3) and Stephen Stills (Nov. 17).
Blues fans looking forward to the great B. B. King–Buddy Guy teamup can also get down and low over at the Mystic Theatre with J. L. Walker (Sept. 15) and Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blowout (Oct. 1). And if that doesn’t work, then the hell with it—just flush all cares down the drain and go enjoy the crazy theatrics of “Weird Al” Yankovic (Nov. 7, Wells Fargo Center).
There’s a chemistry about live music that’s referenced pretty constantly—this thing of the performer feeding off the fans, and the fans feeding off the performer, until some mythic plane is reached where the energy created is greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon has no name, but go to a few shows and you’ll eventually see and feel it in action, particularly with up-and-coming artists suddenly handed a tidal wave of attention. Some up-and-comer, say, like Kreayshawn.
At her show in San Francisco last night, the audience showered as much energy as possible on the 21-year-old Oakland-bred rapper, whose “Gucci Gucci” video is at 13 million views and counting. Yet onstage at Slim’s, Kreayshawn seemed either incapable or uninterested in giving it back, either consciously relying on the mere presence of her instant fame to provide excitement, or nervous about a hometown crowd—or, you know, she could’ve just been kinda stoned.
Granted, this is sure to improve with more experience. The set was trashy, superficial and fun, as expected. And despite Kreayshawn’s detractors who say she can’t rap, she’s a natural on the mic in the true test of a live setting. Either on older mixtape rambles like “Wavey” or new track “Rich Whores,” Kreayshawn stayed on point, holding up under the weight of the bass and not falling back on prerecorded vocals like some of the show’s openers.
Still, something was amiss. Even as the sold-out crowd sang along, the unsettlingly thin Kreayshawn paced the stage with an uncertain air, as if she hasn’t decided what kind of star she wants to be just yet; either the kind that strives to connect with fans, or the kind that tries to be so aloof that people are drawn to her more. The result was that the club’s energy wasn’t reflected by Kreayshawn on stage, but instead dissipated into the rafters, its well from below gradually drying out.
The show improved markedly with the arrival of V-Nasty, who seemed genuinely thrilled to have her moment in the limelight, no matter how fleeting or controversial that moment may be. With the three on stage together, an element of the classic boy-band formula came to mind: a group of separate personalities, branded as one. V-Nasty, the stonewashed-jean-wearing white trash foulmouth in love with Waka Flocka; Lil’ Debbie, the awkward, untalented one along for the ride; and Kreayshawn, the skinny, fashion-minded Powerpuff girl of the bunch.
After “Bumpin’ Bumpin’” ran its course, the intro to “Gucci Gucci” dropped. The place went nuts, and though the crowd could have sung the whole song for her, Kreayshawn stayed on the mic for every line. Finally, a sort of pinnacle had been reached, and it was just as well—it was the last song of the set. Afterward, the White Girl Mob danced around to Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love,” a fight between two girls broke out in front of the stage, and Kreayshawn waved and went down the backstage stairs, on her way to host the red carpet at the VMAs this Sunday, talking fashion with the stars. Shit, it could even work out better than rapping. Who knows?
How bad is it being a music fan living in China? So bad, it seems, that the Chinese government has banned 100 songs from being played on the radio—or even featured on websites. The Chinese Ministry of Culture’s list includes female American pop stars Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, along with songs by Owl City, Simple Plan, Take That and the Backstreet Boys.
We’re wondering just how threatening some of these songs could possibly be: “Today Should Be Very Happy,” “Smiley Face,” “Thank you for Your Inspiration.” Really? And boy, watch out for Linzi Xi’s “Intro,” folks. That’s dangerous stuff, right there.
The complete list of songs banned by China’s Ministry of Culture, effective September 15, 2011, is below the jump. English list comes courtesy of Google translate; a duplicate list in Chinese follows.
Things at a Country Music Show: First, there are lines! Long, long lines. A line for the barbeque stand stretched across the field, so I counted it. 145 people, all waiting in line! Then I looked to my left—another barbeque stand, another long line. The line for Coors, conspicuously, not so long. Did everyone sneak in flasks of Jack Daniels? Next there’s the merch stand, with hot pink T-shirts reading “Country Girl… Wanna Shake It?,” which belong to supporting act Luke Bryan. With the No. 1 Country Album this week, Bryan has the crowd in the palm of his hand for his set.
Bryan himself wore skin-tight jeans and a crystal-studded belt, and had enough spunk to fill a tractor tank. Sure, his songs are kinda corny (see: “Rain is a Good Thing”). But one can hand it to Bryan, because he bothers to check out Google Maps before he plays and works local sites into his songs. Case in point is “We Rode in Trucks,” with the amended, Sonoma County-relevant line, “The Russian River washed away that California dirt.” People ate it up! They also got on each others’ shoulders, drank beer, and went “whoo-hoo.”
Near the end of his set, Bryan’s guitarist played the riff to “Hell’s Bells,” which led into his own hit “All My Friends Say,” which then led into a friggin’ verse and chorus of “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica, and then back again into his own song, closing out the show. This would seem to be a trend in new country music—ending the show with a hard-rock song. Miranda Lambert did it last year with “I Love Rock and Roll”; Thompson Square, an opener, also did “I Love Rock and Roll” in medley with “Black Dog”; and Dierks Bentley would end his own set with an all-out punk song, serenading the riders of the mechanical bull.
How ’bout that Dierks! “I wish you guys could see what we see up here,” he told the crowd. “There’s so many California country girls tonight!” Many of whom, of course, sang along to “Free and Easy” and “Trying to Stop You Leaving,” two back-to-back hits early in the set. Dierks also ran circles around the stage, told stories about drinking in a local brewpub and took photos with fans. All in all, a well-played set, and those who missed it might have still heard it, because upon returning home, Facebook was logjammed with people complaining about hearing the music as far away as the SRJC and the Flamingo Hotel. Dierks for all, it seems.
Cut Chemist’s show at the Mezzanine was billed as ‘Tunnel Vision,’ and it may as well have had an accompanying Playbill, handed out at the door. The show—indeed, the whole night—was like hip-hop theater, with scripted scenarios and stage blocking, culminating in the Los Angeles DJ’s uncharacteristically thick, dense set.
As one of the last of the dedicated vinyl DJs, Cut Chemist brought sharp skill to his own Act II called The Sound of the Police. A vinyl-only set of African breaks played on one turntable and with loops controlled by various footswitches, it was the technical highlight of the night. Elsewhere, on his laptop-assisted setup, he cut up “Bunky’s Pick,” “A Day at the Races,” and Tune-Yards’ “Gangsta”—fluidly blending each into breaks both new and old—and hosted Edan, Paten Locke and Mr. Lif on “The Storm.”
Cut Chemist is in a tough position these days. Most of the tricks he’s honed over the years as one of the world’s greatest and most innovative DJs can now be easily faked; he has no Jurassic 5-type group to provide constant work; turntablism as we once knew it is a niche instead of a phenomenon, etc. So when he had to point out to the crowd that his Sound of the Police segment was especially hard, or stopped the set to chastise the Mezzanine about the monitors, or seemed perturbed that the crowd didn’t stir for a J5 break. . . well, it’s forgivable. “You’re the best crowd on the tour so far,” he said to a half-full house at the end, at 1:45am. “You beat the fuck out of L.A. . . and that hurts.”
Edan’s set was nonstop entertainment, and not just because he wore a wig over his already-large hair. He delivered tracks from Beauty and the Beat, like “Colors,” completely on his own, holding a mic in one hand and juggling the beat with the other. He unreeled a lightning-fast acapella with Paten Locke. He had Locke flip through each and every record mentioned in “Rock and Roll” to the crowd while rapping. He cut up “Femme Fatale” with Run-DMC. Hell, he played kazoo and guitar. Echo Party was fun and all, but here’s hoping he puts out a proper follow-up to Beauty and the Beat.
Mr. Lif stretched out a segment about getting a corporate job, being paid $6.50/hr., smoking five blunts and killing his boss. It wasn’t nearly as stupid as it may sound, because Mr. Lif defines “on point”—he’s deliberate, precise and enunciates with a dedication matching his suit and hat. His long acapella about McDonald’s committing genocide on the nation killed, and he paid tribute to Tribe, Gangstarr and GZA. A consummate performer, Mr. Lif, and a perfect MC to kick off a night of hip-hop theater.
Charles Bradley has had a hell of a life, and the Menahan Street Band has had a hell of a ride. The 63-year old singer recently woke up at his mother’s house to find that his brother had been shot and killed by his nephew; meanwhile, the Menahan Street Band was busy being sampled by Jay-Z for “Roc Boyz.” The two came together, and the fit is smooth, even if the songs are not. I mean that in a good way: Bradley is a beast, a James Brown-inspired performer belting and crying the pain through his pores—falling to his knees, flailing the mic stand around. Never mind that he’s wearing a half-unbuttoned dirty work jumpsuit and gyrating his hips; he’s great, and the noontime crowd loves it.
The set of the weekend goes to tUnE-yArDs, and I could be biased: when her album came out I was so happily dumbfounded that I couldn’t even review it properly. But like anything fragmented and unusual, it coalesced with repeated listens, and started to make sense as a collection of straight-up palatable hits. Live, Merrill Garbus and her band tear the whole record apart again by looping each individual drum and vocal sample, layering it with bass and horns and throwing the whole crazy mess out into the air. Garbus seems happy to be home in the Bay Area, crediting the audience with “general vibe and awesomeness” when clearly, it’s she who delivers both. The high falsetto at the end of “Powa” is the frosting, but the whole set is unbelievable. We chat a little bit afterwards; she tells me “Santa Rosa isn’t piddly.” So there. It’s official.
Latyrx is playing today accompanied by the Jazz Mafia, led by Adam Theis. Though most hip-hop / jazz treatments fall flat, this one totally works. None of the songs get reworked as, like, big-band swing or anything—it’s still hip-hop, with the DJ and drummer holding it down. All the classics are here: “Say That,” “Latyrx,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” “Rankin #1,” and the song that works best with the band, especially the string section: “Storm Warning,” which is just incredible. They round it out with a little bit of “8-Point Agenda,” and they even shout out Forestville. Two thumbs way up.
There’s just buckets and buckets of sex in the air for Major Lazer. Everyone around me is dry humping. They have a hype man and an Undulating Girl™. The girl does the splits, wraps her legs behind her neck and generally increases the sex quotient. People continue dry humping. Diplo and Switch are nonstop at the decks, serving up a constant onslaught. Near the end, their hype man tells everyone to take off their shirts, which means everyone starts dry humping topless. I swear, the Bay Area teenage pregnancy rate is going to skyrocket nine months from now.
You are singing some songs to me.
I love me some hopeless trainwreck action as much as the next guy, so I wind up in the Gallagher tent. I really think Gallagher could make a Neil Hamburger-esque comeback if he plays his cards right. He’s old, he’s bitter, he’s not funny, he half-heartedly goes through the motions of his old jokes and he basically sucks. Psychologically, this could totally work in his favor—I mean, that’s why I’m interested in seeing him, after all.
Gallagher is running late, but it’s almost as much fun waiting for Gallagher as it is seeing him. Most of the people are already dressed in plastic trash bags. They chant “Gall-a-gher! / Gall-a-gher!,” then “Let’s go Giants!,” and then they all start doing the wave. Finally Gallagher, who is wearing a T-shirt of himself, staggers out clutching a Heineken and sucking on a cigarette. “I had a heartattack two months ago,” he tells the crowd. It’s going good so far.
But Gallagher quickly descends into simply being annoying. He singles out a girl in the crowd, picks up a tennis racket and some Wiffle balls, and says, “Let’s smash these plastic balls and hit this chick in the face and get her crying!” (Later, he adds, “I don’t care about pissing off the girls. I’m 65, I can’t fuck anything.”) It reminds me that reading funny things about lousy washups isn’t the same as having to suffer through same lousy washup. He makes some more jokes, but they aren’t funny. Worse, he’s taking himself seriously.
The funniest part of Gallagher’s set is that because he chose to go on late, half the audience gets up and walks out on him after 15 minutes—both Arcade Fire and Deadmau5 are playing at 8:00. Maybe a few people stuck it out to get splattered with watermelon?
It’s easy to forget just how electrifying Arcade Fire is live—and sure, the enthusiasm is undoubtedly forced on some nights. No one can mouth the words to every song for years and still be authentically as pumped as Regine appears to be. But what is popular music but a grand illusion? Arcade Fire = Succumb to the Uplift.
Win Butler seems like he’s trying to connect with San Francisco, mentioning the time they played the Great American Music Hall, how he walked around and checked out the food booths earlier, how he loves the weather and would move there if it wasn’t so expensive. (Some cried “fauxhemian” for someone as presumably well-off as Win Butler to quibble about the rent being too damn high, but I side with him. I have a full-time job and still sometimes eat out of the trash.) I suppose connecting with a crowd of one bazillion via casual between-anthem patter must be a daunting task.
There’s not much in the surprise dept.—the set is predictable, but exceedingly well-played. But as we’re walking away, before the last song, Butler sings those two key lines from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”:
You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
It makes sense. Their encore is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” one of the better songs from The Suburbs. A nice send-off.
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