Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.
It began all the way back in February, right after their West Coast tour and a recording session with J Robbins that apparently didn’t go smoothly. Friends of friends delivered the news that Thorns of Life broke up, and while I knew Aaron was out of the band, I thought Blake might at least find another drummer and keep the name.
Now, the long-running rumors about Thorns of Life breaking up can be made official.
Blake Schwarzenbach writes on his Facebook account: “the name of this band is forgetters. (no “the,” no capital “f.”) we played our first show on August 22nd in Crown Heights. members are: blake (guitar/vocal); caroline (bass/seaweed); kevin (drums).
“Kevin” looks to possibly be Kevin Mahon, the original drummer for Against Me, and “Caroline” fulfills Blake’s standing wish for a female bassist. Here’s hoping that some of the cherished Thorns of Life songs (the Gilman download is here) stay afloat under this new banner, and more importantly, that this band lasts. I’m glad Blake didn’t retreat back into musical hibernation for another six years. For now, though, there’s two burning questions.
1) What’s to become of the master tapes from the Thorns of Life studio recording?
2) Is forgetters a better or worse name than Thorns of Life?
More news as it arrives.
Two weeks ago, I sat at work, writing about Mistah F.A.B.’s terrible new song that blatantly rips off The-Dream’s “I Luv Your Girl.” Then, the phone rang, and my wife, Liz, calmly told me that she needed to go to the hospital. I set the receiver down, and I looked up at my co-workers.
“Well,” I said to them, “I’m having a baby.”
Ten hours or so later, with Liz exceeding all barometers of awesomeness on a medication-free labor, our baby girl, Lena, was born. It was an amazing and very, very happy experience, and when I held her in my arms for the first time, I instinctually began singing to her the first lines that came to mind: “That perfect night, the night we met / There was magic abroad in the air. . .”
And so it began. I am both purposely and inadvertently going to fill Lena’s beautiful little head with more music than it knows what to do with, and I am going to obsess over the impact it’s having or not having on her life. I mean, It’s kind of cool that when she’s grown up, I’ll be able to tell her that “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was the first song she ever heard, but honestly, is there really any lasting import to the songs I sing to my kid?
Plenty of parents think so—just look at horrendous crapola like the Mozart Effect, or, on a slightly less nauseating scale, the sincere awe in parents’ eyes when they discover that their small children like Blondie, or Nirvana, or Radiohead, or, gee, I dunno, whatever those parents happen to be playing around the house all the time. I drives me crazy. They’re kids! Of course they’re gonna like it!
Really, parents’ perception of what music their babies like and don’t like is 60% projection, 35% happenstance and only 5% authentic reaction. If parents play the Beatles, the kid is gonna like the Beatles. I play Lil’ Wayne, and the kid likes Lil’ Wayne. I can’t delude myself that Lena actually appreciates the melodic or lyrical nuance of “Money on My Mind” or “Weezy Baby”—I’ve been singing a lot of old barbershop songs to her, too, songs like “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” “Huggin’ and Chalkin’,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah.” She likes them. I’ve rapped L.L. Cool J verses to her. She likes it. I’ve sang both Peggy Lee and MDC to her, and she likes it.
What can I say? Kids like music and they’re not that discriminating. The best hard evidence of this is that when she’s crying, I can put on John Coltrane’s Ballads and she’ll wash over with bliss, close her sweet little eyes and stay quiet, but I swear to God the same thing happens when I play Coltrane’s late-era, cacophonous Interstellar Space.
But the most exciting thing is playing certain records and knowing they’re hitting fresh ears for the first time. Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. The Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca. Jurassic 5, Quality Control. The Cribs, Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever. Sam Cooke, Night Beat. Morrissey, Vauxhall and I. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory, which is the first record I played when we brought her home. Having a baby around the house is like having a close friend who’s never heard every record you love, and getting to experience the magic of them all over again—for the first time.
So thanks to everyone who sent in their good wishes, and thanks to the readers for being patient while I was gone. Thanks also to the dozens of friends who’ve brought us food, helped with building the baby’s room, come over and done the dishes and generally looked out for us. You know who you are; I owe you all chilaquiles.
That said, some things have happened in the last two weeks which bear mention:
1. Rashied Ali, who comprises one-half of the aforementioned Interstellar Space, died in Manhattan at age 74. See a wonderful interview with him here.
2. Les Paul, too. The first Terry Gross interview I ever heard was with Les Paul, and I remember being completely touched by his generosity of spirit. When Gross asked him if it was discouraging, with arthritis, having to adapt to fretting his guitar with only two fingers, he replied with, “What do I do? I just figured out, that if I could do whatever I did then, I just figured out how to do that with two fingers.” (The interview’s here.) For years, he played every week in New York City, and the New Yorker calendar listing always gave him his propers and identified him as “national treasure Les Paul.” Some years ago, the New Yorker calendar editor demoted him to “electric-guitar innovator Les Paul,” which was a tiny little thing that made me sad.
3. This guy, who apparently loves Miles Davis and Nintendo in equal doses, has paid glorious tribute to Kind of Blue by rendering the complete album in 8-bit.
5. I have stopped being irritated that these lists exist, but if you’re looking to get riled up about what other people think, be their guest.
I’ve been working a nonstop string of 12-hour days doing construction on my house lately—building a bedroom for my first baby-to-be—and while nailing, sanding, wiring, sheetrocking, and plumbing, I’ve had lots of music-listening time. Construction work is traditionally affiliated with heavy doses of AC/DC, but because I would rather be placed in a vat full of rancid hamburger juice than listen to AC/DC for any extended period of time past, say, two and a half minutes, I’ve had to make do with less-macho tunes.
Okay, okay, I did listen to Thin Lizzy, but hey, it was their first album, which is meandering, sort of psychedelic, and totally cool. No one would mistake it for AC/DC. Its first song is “The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle,” for cryin’ out loud, which is an anagram for “Defer Thinly a Fragrance Transect Toll.” Bon Scott would never come up with something like that.
Jack DeJohnette, who is the most bendable drummer I have ever seen, released a record earlier this year with Danilo Perez and John Pattitucci, both currently with Wayne Shorter’s group. It’s called Music We Are, and if you would like to hear jazz musicians who predate the Bad Plus by many years sound like the Bad Plus, it is the recording for you. Heavy left-hand pumping on the upbeat, drumming that sounds like egg beaters. Pattitucci, as always, is the Entwistle of jazz—anchored and regal.
It Still Moves is the album that sold me on My Morning Jacket, but Okonokos drained my proverbial bank account—I listened to the entire double live album every day for a complete month, if I recall. It’s always weird going back to the studio recording when you’re accustomed to the live versions, and part of me had been thinking about getting rid of all the My Morning Jacket albums besides Okonokos. Yesterday, while screwing drywall, I realized that would be a foolish maneuver.
Smokey Robinson plays a rather expensive concert this weekend at Robert Mondavi Winery, but I want you to consider how your life would be changed if Smokey Robinson had never been born. Think: No Motown as you know it. No “Ooo Baby Baby” or “Who’s Loving You,” or “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” or “I Second That Emotion,” or . . . ah, I could go on and on. And speaking of live versions that rival studio recordings, check out this footage of “Tracks of My Tears,” proving Smokey Robinson is still in top form. Wait for the bridge, and man, brother, that’s from 2008! Now dry your eyes, and let’s move on.
It is the fate of even the greatest DJ mix CDs to be listened to for a week, absorbed, loved, and discarded. For some reason, I’ve kept Andy Smith’s The Document around for years now, probably because of the presence of both Peggy Lee and the Jeru the Damaja on one mix. Paul Nice’s Soul on the Grill has stayed with me for years, too. Others, like Cut Chemist & DJ Shadow’s Brainfreeze or Z-Trip and Radar’s Future Primitive Soundsession, belong in a mixtape hall of fame of sorts; admired from behind glass, remembered for their achievements, and rarely listened to ever again.
Litany for the Whale has put out Dolores, an album I cannot help but compare to Converge’s Jane Doe. It begins with a couple terrifying minutes of noise courtesy of the Velvet Teen’s Judah Nagler—I think of it as a more ferocious, cracked-out stepsister of “Sartre Ringo,” from Elysium, and makes stronger the case for noise as composition. The rest of the album is like morphine for people raised on hardcore, which is not to say it’s wimpy. Just soothing.
Some nights are Lennon Sisters nights. Others, the Boswell Sisters. Lately I’ve been resting my bones to the McGuire Sisters and their collection Just For Old Times’ Sake. I can do without the honkey education of “The Birth of the Blues,” but give me signature songs by Jimmy Durante, Johnny Mathis, the Platters, April Stevens and Duke Ellington sung by some effervescent gals on a diet of Jesus and yellow corn, and I’m there.
I know nothing about Woods, except that they are unfortunately from Brooklyn. Making the discovery that a good band is from Brooklyn is a lot like discovering a good baseball player is on steroids. Therefore, I wish Woods were from Lexington, especially since they sound far more Kentuckian than Park Slopian. They also bear the distinction of being the first band in some months whose record I bought after hearing them on the radio. It’s messy, untied, and perpetual.
Speaking of the radio, 95.9 KRSH has been getting lots of construction airplay on the job site. I am always thrilled when the KRSH plays things like Spoon or M. Ward, which happens every so often, but even more glad when hear “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” as sung by Hayes Carll. Something about “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” always seemed corny to me, especially when the Ramones covered it. Hayes Carll turns the same words and chords into a completely believable treatise on eternal adolescence. It’s like the song was written just for him. Bill Bowker yesterday also dropped the needle on Jeff Buckley’s version of “I Know It’s Over,” which reminds me of two things: 1) Jeff Buckley is one of the fortunate few who could actually present a necessary Smiths cover, and 2) Bill Bowker has now been on the radio for 40 years. Way to go, Bill!
Also on the ghetto blaster, competing with the nailgun: the Majesticons’ Beauty Party, the Blasters’ Hard Time, The Queen is in the Closet, Los Lobos’ Good Morning Aztlan, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and quite a few spins of Drum Dance to the Motherland by the Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble.
I’m gonna be a dad here in the next few days, and then I’ll see you again soon.
1. If Beyoncé were placed inside a time capsule and sent into space, aliens would immediately decide to become friends with Earthlings.
2. Every outfit Beyoncé wore last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland showed off her legs.
3. Three cheers to the cameraman for putting a feverishly hugging gay couple on the jumbotron during “If I Was a Boy.”
4. Beyoncé is like every pop superstar before her wrapped up in one but without the narcissism. “Ave Maria” was pure Streisand, leather beefcake dancers pure Madonna, ever-increasingly noticeable doses of Michael throughout.
5. Beyoncé now has the most touching tribute to Michael Jackson yet. End of the show, during “Halo,” a canned but nonetheless incredibly moving speech about how he showed her the way—preceded by a video of her when she was a child, emulating his moves, and concluded with altered lyrics about his lasting influence. It beats any other token tribute I’ve seen.
6. Mid-show: bass solo, behind the head, to “Billie Jean.” Beyoncé’s band is all-female, a fact she has every right to point out three or four times throughout the show.
7. Sorry, took a break there. Did I mention Beyoncé is our Earth’s ambassador to space?
8. The feminism of Beyoncé is what the Spice Girls always promised but never delivered: the “Be sexy, but own it, be in control of yourselves and support each other” feminism. Snippets of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Alanis Morisette’s’ “You Oughta Know” proved she knows her Lilith Fair history, but she makes being a strong woman seem way more exciting than the Lilith Fair ever did. (My heart will actually stop if Beyoncé adds “Double Dare Ya” to her set on this tour.)
9. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism also leaves little room for women who don’t look like Beyoncé, so the point might be moot.
10. People-watching prize: the group of middle-aged women wearing matching custom T-shirts, reading “Fun and 50.”
11. I did not text my special message to the jumbotron before the show, but the girl who told the entire arena she was going to lose her virginity after the show definitely did.
12. There’s a go-to look of wonder that Beyoncé splashes across her face at a moment’s notice, like she’s seeing God or something. Most of the time, I believe her.
13. Okay, okay—walking down the aisle, singing directly to her fans. Oh shit, singing directly to a small child! Holding his hand, looking right into his eyes, singing straight to him—and the kid looks bored, like he’s in math class. 20,000 lbs. of envy in the room.
14. The only thing more exciting than “Crazy in Love” is taking a bathroom break and seeing the Giants’ no-hitter up on the lobby screen. SO CONFLICTED.
15. Scratch everything I’ve just said. The most important thing about Beyoncé is that she resurrects the pop music ideal of mass emotional oneness: everyone feeling like everyone else feels exactly the way they do at that precise moment. This is actually her greatest tribute to Michael Jackson, whether she knows it or not. Evidence during last night’s show included a YouTube collage of “Single Ladies” dances (Hey, we all did that!), footage of the Obamas dancing at the Neighborhood Ball, during “At Last” (Hey, we all watched that!) and allowing the entire crowd to sing “Irreplaceable”’s first verse and chorus (Hey, we’re all doing this, right now, here, together!). Michael had that effect in droves across the world; no one besides Beyoncé has had it to such a degree since.
16. (Side note: “Minute” does not rhyme with “minute.”)
17. Those in the $500 front-row “diva zone” seats were deservedly doted upon, with multiple sweat-towels thrown, hands touched repeatedly, and one guy from Hawaii with a sign that said “It’s My Birthday” who got “Happy Birthday” sung to him. We’d joked about the people who paid $500 for seats, but damn.
18. Second stage, in the middle of the floor, about 25’x25’. Crazy-intimate. Everyone standing on chairs, crowding in tight, taking videophone footage, especially during “Video Phone.” Beyoncé crouching down, talking to fans, reaching out, “seeing God” wonder-face in abundance, genuine gratitude, asking people to say her name. People 100 ft. away in “diva zone” bummed.
19. “She’s sexy, but she’s sexy like a man,” says Liz.
20. End of show, after child-serenading, after Michael tribute, after walking through the crowd flanked by security, after outpouring of love in both directions, the phrase “I Am…” flashes on the screen. “I Am.” Surely, “Sasha Fierce.” No? “I Am…” “YOURS.” “I am yours,” Beyoncé says. “I will give you 100% of everything I have.” Unfuckwithable, because even though in reality Beyoncé’s one of the most private celebrities in the world, she’s just created a sociological time-emotion-music-love vortex in Oakland. How is it possible, night after night? With absolutely pitch-perfect, non-lip-synched singing? Is she even from this planet? Someone please explain.
Just when I was thinking that over-the-top adventure metal had exhausted the last falsetto yowls from its already-limited substance–think Sonata Arctica, 3 Inches of Blood, Dragonforce—comes the Metal Shakespeare Co., a self-described “bardcore” band who turn to the ultimate source: William Shakespeare. Taking Hamlet’s famous speech from Act II, Scene I, and putting it to shredding hammer-on solos and pounding drums? Instant crush on all these dudes.
The video is below; look for the amazing hobby-horse. And don’t miss ‘em when they play at Gilman St. on July 25.
Easily the best thing on the internet today is Beck’s conversation with Tom Waits in a new series on his website he’s calling “irrelevant topics.” It’s not exactly an interview; the two talk loosely but engagingly about homemade submarines, the longevity of songs, the lost works of van Gogh and Euripides, the strength found in poor amplification and of course, Los Angeles, where they both grew up.
Not every town gets their song. Actually, Sinatra tried to do a song about Los Angeles. It was really lame. Really lame. It embarrassed the shit out of me.
For all the love Quincy Jones has been getting in the last week, it’s nice to hear someone point out a complete turkey that he produced: “L.A. Is My Lady.” I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and L.A. Is My Lady is absolute dreck.
Part Two is coming next week, but for the time being, Part One is essential reading and can be found here.
Dirty Projectors are a band from Brooklyn who’ve just released Bitte Orca, a highly rewarding and stylized piece of music that’s one of my favorite records right now, and unlike anything else I’ve heard—with the exception of other records by Dirty Projectors.
Rise Above, the band’s previous release, came promoted with a high-concept backstory, a fact I only lately discovered but to which I pay little heed. I became enamored with it not for any ostentatious artistic process (apparently, re-creating Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory) but for the highly unusual end result. After all, until that point, I had never heard a man desperately yowling about being beaten by police officers over Ali Farka Toure riffs while a chorus of girls sang timidly in the background.
A friend of mine recently remarked that Bitte Orca is “everything I wanted all the other Dirty Projectors’ stuff to sound like in my head,” and I know what he means. Sharper songwriting and structure are only two of the reasons I replayed Bitte Orca three times in a row when I first got it; it also has a needed variety, with backup singers Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian taking lead vocals on a handful of tracks with a gut-hitting sonic depth. (Suddenly, for example, you can hear the bass guitar.)
Recalling Talking Heads’ meteoric public impact, opinions on Dirty Projectors are extreme and disparate. So it’s no wonder that David Byrne is a fan, even appearing with the band at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, or that Bjork, who joined them at Housing Works Bookstore Café in downtown Manhattan the same week, shares the fascination. Even the freeway gods have gotten involved—last month, the band’s tour van flipped over on the freeway outside Detroit—and a long line of people down Divisadero outside the Independent in San Francisco tonight hoping for last-minute tickets represented locally the worldwide craze for the Weird Little Band From Brooklyn That Could. I truly had no idea what to expect live. Are the girls on the record cover even in the band?
Longstreth and Deradoorian took the stage opening the show with “Two Doves,” a lovely ballad, before the full band came out for Orca opener “Cannibal Resource.” Yes, the girls on the record cover are in the band, and a third helped out with harmonies like pitter-pat hailstorms (“Remade Horizon“) or R&B jams (“Stillness is the Move“). Tight and polished from constant touring, the band was locked in and fluid. Liveliness is an asset; Longstreth, who plays his guitar backwards, left-handed and with no pick, doppelganged a hulking presence around the stage on the balls of his feet, and basically said nothing to the crowd other then a rote “Hey, how ya doin’? Awesome.”
The crowd stayed silent, adding to the weirdness, but probably they were just asking themselves: Is “Stillness is the Move” the motherfucking jam of the summer? Why do guitar players need to play with huge amps when tiny Fender practice amps get the job done? Do drummers ever worry about “the Battles effect” when they place their crash cymbals up high? Is the Salt Lake City look the new thing? What’s with people who buy New Age CDs when they could simply listen to “Rise Above” over and over for enlightenment? Remember that one girl? The one who always tucked her shirt in the back of her high-rise jeans but not the front? Whatever happened to her?
Here’s what happened to me: I played Bitte Orca so many times in the last couple weeks that the songs began to sound normal; I’d anticipate all the quirks and idiosyncracies of the songs, like a roller coaster I’d been on twenty times. But seeing the songs played live made them wonderfully mysterious and bizarre all over again—mystery that you can dance to, I might add. So bring on the fans. Here’s to Dirty Projectors’ flight out of their artistic nest and into the real world; especially since their world still contains Gary Moore and the Andrews Sisters.
Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.
“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”
With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”
Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.
At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”
“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”
Then he walked off the stage.
2nd & D, Santa Rosa: