Have you ever seen Weird Al? No? Well, let me try to explain. He plays for two hours. He plays about 65 songs. He has about 20 costume changes. He assumes two dozen personas, and shows just as many funny fake interview clips between songs. He’s nonstop, and it’s nuts, and his crowd is nuts, and then he plays some songs about Yoda and it’s all over, and like any good fast-paced comedy show, it’s hard to remember what just happened.
Here’s what I can reconstruct.
When I walk in to the show, there’s a guy who’s 6’5″ in sweatpants, a headband and a red “Jews 4 Bacon” T-shirt. This is a good representative example of the typical Weird Al fan who has arrived here tonight to pay their respects to the master. I follow the Jews 4 Bacon guy to my seat, the lights go out, and Weird Al starts a polka medley of the following songs:
You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
Day ‘n’ Nite
Need You Now
I Kissed a Girl
Blame It (on the Alcohol)
Break Your Heart
The medley comes back around to “Poker Face,” the song ends, the lights go out, people go nuts. The lights blink back on just in time to see Weird Al bonk his face on the microphone with a huge “WhhHHHAhaOoompPP!,” and then recovering by shouting “HELLO SANTA ROSA!!”
There’s a joke about a drum solo, and then the video screen shows a interview with Eminem where Eminem keeps saying “You know what I’m sayin’?” and Weird Al keeps losing his patience in increasingly aggravated fashion, and this goes on and on, and the crowd loves it, and then some cheerleaders come out on stage to the opening strains of “Smells Like Nirvana.” I’m impressed that Weird Al plays the whole song on guitar left-handed, but then attention to detail is his specialty—surely he knows that Kurt Cobain played left-handed. He also gargles the guitar solo into the microphone with some mystery liquid and throws the red keg cup and its contents out on the crowd, and they go wild.
“TMZ” is a Taylor Swift parody, “Party in the C.I.A.” is Miley Cyrus, Jesus, what else? It all goes by so fast, and honestly, some of the best songs are his own, like “Skipper Dan,” the sad tale of a failed actor who was once “the next Olivier” but is now working the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, reciting the same crappy schtick about the wiggling hippo ears 34 times a day. (“I research everything that I do as much as I possibly can before I even start writing,” he says in this interview about the song. See, attention to detail!)
Somewhere in there is perhaps the show’s highlight: “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” with Weird Al in a red-and-black leopard print suit hopping off the stage and grinding up on audience members, like, legs up on the seat, while singing lines like “My love for you’s like diarrhea, I just can’t hold it in” and something about chewing on your butt, maybe? It’s insane. He launches into a food medley, with “Whatever You Like” and “Nothin’ on You” and “Eye of the Tiger” and “La Bamba” and “Stand” and I forget what else, and then they all come out dressed like the Doors.
Doing Jim Morrison is hard, but Weird Al nails it, and their bassist is sitting back at the keyboards because the Doors had no bassist (ATTENTION TO DETAIL!) and the song is about Craigslist and the personal ads and annoying complaints people lodge on Craigslist. Weird Al wins a place in the heart of Santa Rosa by addressing a diatribe during the bridge: “An open letter to the snotty barista at Bad Ass Coffee on Mark West Springs Road,” and again, attention to detail, place goes nuts, it’s totally cool and uncool at the same time, which I guess sums up the whole show, actually.
The hits roll out: “Perform This Way,” “eBay,” “Canadian Idiot,” “White and Nerdy,” “Money for Nothing / Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Fat,” with the famous fat costume, and it’s hard to figure out if he’s making the fat people in the audience feel better or worse about themselves, but I’m guessing better, because Weird Al is all about making everyone feel better about themselves no matter how weird or quirky or idiosyncratic or different they may be. Even if they’re 6’5″ and wearing sweatpants and a headband and a shirt that says “Jews 4 Bacon.” Weird Al is there for that man, and that man is not giving up on Weird Al, because like Homer Simpson says: “He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life.”
There’s an encore, with songs about Star Wars, a.k.a. the Spiritual Advisory Board of the disenfranchised. There’s an amazing acapella thing that I can’t begin to describe (thank you YouTube, start at 3:40), and the whole thing comes roaring back in with “Yoda,” and the accordion is king, and people are swaying in their own ridiculous joy, and UHF is a great movie, and Jessica Simpson is dumb, and no one thought about the state of the world for two hours, and Weird Al yells “Thank you Santa Rosa!” and I believe that he actually cares. And that’s what a Weird Al show is like.
Last week, famed bandleader Pete Rugolo died at the age of 95. A brilliant arranger and progressive composer, he brought a decidedly modernist touch to big-band jazz, most famously with his work for Stan Kenton. He worked with Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, June Christy, Harry Belafonte, the Four Freshmen, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine and many, many others.
Interesting to locals: Pete Rugolo grew up in Santa Rosa, graduating from Santa Rosa High School in 1934.
Though he eventually recorded under his own name (and specialized in fun, lively cover art), the album that introduced me to Pete Rugolo is still my favorite: the June Christy album Something Cool, a jazz-vocal landmark. Rugolo had been rearranged, tinkered with and sent back to the rewriting board by his previous employers, but as he recalls in this interview at age 84, “I did the album Something Cool, and everything I wrote, they never changed a note. They just loved all my work.”
It shows. Listen to “Something Cool” below, and pay attention in the bridge, when Christy sings about going to Paris in the fall—Rugolo answers with a jubilant three seconds of music that evokes, well. . . Paris in the fall. It’s a classic Rugolo touch that I’ve always loved, and the rest of the album’s arrangements are equally sophisticated and ahead of their time. Enjoy the song.
EMA is Erika M. Anderson, a singer originally from South Dakota who’s made a fantastic record this year, Past Life Martyred Saints; who serves as a hypotenuse in an imaginary triangle involving Patti Smith and PJ Harvey; and whose presence on stage calls to mind punk shows at Cafe This in 1994, or the X-Ray Cafe in 1995, or Kommotion in 1996.
This is entirely welcome, and not solely from a nostalgic DIY standpoint. In a no-longer-truly-indie landscape rife with processed performers who sign on with someone else’s pre-approved idea of what’s “in,” something as honest and from-the-gut as EMA is refreshing as fuck.
Maybe the ennui is true, to an extent. I miss awkward, unrefined bands with too much to say, and tend to prefer them to slick, stylized bands with nothing to say. Or, as Anderson herself said once of Past Life Martyred Saints, “With this record, the thing that felt controversial was injecting emotion into ideas, not the other way around.” In other words: everyone knows a brain that tries to rule the human heart is foolish, yet it’s accepted as smart. And why?
EMA took the stage with “Marked,” with gyrating hips and hair in her eyes. Amidst tumbling through a Violent Femmes cover (“Add it Up”; kudos to Leif Shackelford for tackling Brian Richie’s tumbling bass lines on a violin) and “Cherylee,” a moving solo number from her former band Gowns, she played just about every song from her new record, including the great “California.” Some of them extended into loose noise jams, some were plain and taut, but all were full of the honest, raw spirit of the heart.
When singing, Anderson is led by some other force—last night, she kicked, jumped, fell onto her back, tucked the mic in her pants, let the audience play her guitar, wrapped a cord around her neck—but between songs, she’s down to earth, which is to say unpredictable, which is to say human. She could motion gratefully to the crowd, and say “Thanks for bringing back the joy in me,” or she could lead an impromptu sing-along of the Femmes’ “American Music,” or she could curse her guitar, spitting out, “Stupid guitar. Stupid instrument. Stupid rock.” You just never know.
Afterward, the band hopped off the stage and sold their own shirts at the merch stand, and though the place had only been little more than half full, the show was unforgettable. Here’s to more like her.
Behold, the new venue in Sonoma County: the LaguMini Amphitheaterette. Have you heard about it?
It’s like a little mini-Shoreline amphitheater smack dab right there at Lagunitas Brewing Co. on North McDowell in Petaluma, but with better beer, fairer ticketing options and no lingering specter of Bill Graham whatsoever. It’s outdoors, cozy (fits about 420 people), has a lawn and so far seems to attract decent acts: the grand opening of the LaguMini Amphitheaterette featured James McMurtry playing solo and Lagunitas founder Tony Magee doing same. (Everyone seems to agree that Magee played for a bit longer than is customary, but c’mon, he built the thing. He’s entitled to it.)
Last week, Gomez stopped in for a good hour-long set. The general-admission open floor in front of the stage filled with dancing, high-fives and downed beers. The sound is good, the stage is small; it’s everything a fan could want. What’s not to love?
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve heard on multiple occasions, both directly and indirectly, that there are some area nightclub owners who are none too thrilled about the new venue. (I won’t say their names, but look for the ones who recently pulled Lagunitas from their tap.)
I’m not an area nightclub owner, but if I was, I might make note of some important things. Lagunitas has done only two shows; both of them have been free. Their third, with Mickey Hart on Oct. 24, is a benefit on a Monday night. Moreover, because the amphitheater is outdoors, the Lagunitas guys can’t do shows in the wintertime, and they don’t appear to even have any official booking agent yet.
Does this really sound like cutthroat competition? And even if it was, is live music not a free market?
Anyway, Gomez was a treat; even encoring with “Soul Kitchen.” It reminded me of the morning I heard Doug Smith on KRSH, raving about seeing them the night before, and only getting a few hours of sleep, and having to wake up and do the morning show but dammit, it was worth it because they were just that good. It’s great how music creates lasting memories like that; here’s to the Amphitheaterette creating plenty of new ones to come.
Ever since Daft Punk’s giant pyramid, electronic acts have recognized the need for a sensory stage show—Justice and their wall of Marshall amps; Deadmau5 and his Rubik’s cube. These novelties have made live electronic music more visually interesting, and have helped sell more tickets, but they’ve so far been just that—novelties, meant to give the audience something to look at while somebody stands at a laptop computer.
Amon Tobin’s current tour Isam, on the other hand, is a true work of art.
Isam is Amon Tobin’s Metropolis, his Koyaanisqatsi. In a series of wordless images, the set that Tobin is bringing around to select cities makes a bold statement on technology and its omnipresence in our modern universe—terrifying one minute, beautiful the next. Like all great art, the production is thought-provoking, challenging and stunning. Submitting to it is pure glee.
So it’s like this: on the stage is a massive, unmoving sculpture of stacked white cubes. A projector fires laser images onto this sculpture, and there may some LEDs involved as well. The combined effect is a 3D experience where the cubes move even though they’re not moving; where the sculpture floats through space even though it is immobile; where a parallel universe exists with shape-shifting factories, angry jet engines and mechanized factory clangs competing with brilliant, serene patterns and transformative optical illusions.
In the center of all this, in a cube larger than the others, is Tobin, occasionally lit from within. These reveals—that there is, in fact, a human involved—pull the curtain back on a spectacle that’s seemingly created solely from silicon, and enshrine the production as a triumph not only of technological engineering but of cranial ingenuity.
And, lest this be taken for an exercise in intellectualism, there’s confetti, too.
There are several dates left of Tobin’s tour, and those who have a chance to see it should seize the opportunity. After the tour is over, the question arises: what will become of the 24-foot structure? The projected images, the gut-rumbling bass tones, the immersive presentation? Lost forever?
Without a doubt, Isam belongs in a museum.
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).