(Found today, on a pole downtown.)
When I talked to Reggie Workman on the phone last week, I asked him how it felt to go from playing large theaters in Europe to playing small coffee shops in America. “The music is not embraced enough in this country so that you can have an ideal situation every time you perform,” he said. “We are constantly trying to make our own situation.”
Last night at Flying Goat in Healdsburg, the café tables were cleared out and Workman’s group, Trio 3, made their own situation by setting up in the front corner near where that one guy is always scribbling in his notebook with a mocha. It may have seemed ersatz and thrown-together—until, that is, the group started playing.
I caught the 9pm show and dear reader, it was one of the most satisfying avant-garde jazz performances I’ve ever seen—this coming from a huge fan of the genre. Workman may be the big name, and certainly his bass playing was illustrious. Andrew Cyrille I equally admire, one of the few drummers confident enough to record a solo drum album, and he punched accents in all the unexpectedly right places.
Oliver Lake, though, stole the show. Never deploying too much from his trick bag, Lake was sparing in his use of bitten reeds, growled harmonies, wild scales and percussive short blasts. Instead, he incorporated them into thoughtful, searing solos with all the elements of a Hollywood movie, slowly building the tension while his rhythm section sped up and pushed him further and further. An inspired spoken-word about labels and division called “Separation” fit right in.
And Flying Goat? What a perfect venue—especially for a more avant-garde act that might not fill the Raven. Both shows were sold out, while the sound, with the café’s high ceilings and hardwood floors, was punchy and alive. It made me proud that so many people came out to a 9pm show on a Tuesday night in Healdsburg to honor three legends of a music so often misunderstood. As long as they don’t mind coffee shops, here’s to hopefully having them back in the future.
Little things trickle into my life lately and then so quickly trickle away. Rushing like mad through the brain, cogitated upon, reacted to, processed, and ejected. Could someone please sell me the key to the unused percent of the human brain? I’m willing to pay for storage.
Last night, after a movie at the quaint and wonderful Cameo Cinema in St. Helena, I grabbed an enormous, beautiful leaf off the sidewalk. I put it on the dashboard in the car. For at least the 30-minute drive home, it didn’t slip out of my life.
Today, I offer a Hefty cinch-sack of little things that have trickled in.
1. The Goodman Building in St. Helena, right across from Cameo Cinema. Take a look at it. Isn’t it amazing? I flip out every time I pass by.
2. For that matter, the Empire Columbia Building in Los Angeles is on the favorites list too. I have only seen it in person once on a special pilgrimage at 2am, and never knew that beneath its amazing clock, there sits a pool.
3. My favorite local DJ Max Wordlow has put up a new vinyl mix at Ofad.com. It rebuts the theory—commonly perpetuated by those obsessed with the mainstream—that hip hop is somehow “dead” when in reality you just gotta dig. Let him dig for you.
4. Speaking of Ofad, this article by Eric Simpson about the making of Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art is essential reading for anyone who owns the book or its recently-released expanded edition, which in itself is essential reading. Just, actually, stop what you’re doing. Go here and buy a copy. Your life will be better.
5. The chorus might not deliver venomously, but I can imagine this song becoming fantastic “break-up mixtape” fodder. Why aren’t there more songs about hating bands? Are we all too nice that we can’t call a spade a spade?
6. Here is a 1986 news item from the San Francisco Chronicle about a teenager who crashed his car, was pinned immobile, and was forced to listen to Wham! on his tape deck for six hours. Of course, the reporter didn’t ask the question we’re all wondering: Was it Make it Big or Music From the Edge of Heaven? ‘Cause that makes a big difference.
7. If you’re not going to see the Dirty Projectors at Bimbo’s on Sunday night, why not? Those who didn’t bring a signed form from their parents for the field trip can console themselves with this new song from the upcoming Temecula Sunrise EP (not to be confused with the Can Make You Laugh Sometimes EP, which only exists in my mind).
8. Like many children of the 1980s, I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson. And yes, if asked, I would have gladly taken part in recording this song called “I Want to Dance Like Michael Jackson” for a classroom instructional dance album.
9. WFMU brings us anti-drug celebrity PSAs! The Linda Ronstadt one is great—”Watch out for the things that might wreck you, or your pickup truck”—but my favorite is still Curtis Mayfield, spelling out in a reverb effect exactly why Freddie’s dead.
Ah, the things you don’t get from other festivals. Hearing people on the shuttle bus talk about the night before and how much they drank. About the game of Scrabble that lasted until 2:30am and the crackhead sleeping in the hall. About how they’d love to move but their rent is low. “I’ll only move if I can buy a house, or get married,” says a woman pushing 40, “and neither is going to happen very soon.” She’s good looking. More talking. About how nice the shuttles are. “Grizzly Bear’s pretty cool,” says someone, to his girlfriend. “They’re like a mix of… of Yo La Tengo, and the Walkmen, and the Flaming Lips.” Amazing how his frame of reference encompasses today’s lineup.
I have written about the Treasure Island Festival time and time and time and time and time and time again. By now, it is a good friend and a bottle of pills: comforting, scenic and dependable, with enough variety and excitement for me to keep singing its praises. Word has obviously caught on, because this year’s festival, with a somewhat weak lineup, was the best attended yet. Both days were sold out.
Contrary to what you might overhear on the shuttle to the island, Grizzly Bear doesn’t sound anything like Yo La Tengo, the Walkmen or the Flaming Lips. Their new album, Veckatimest—the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe I was enjoying it. (I regularly root for the “rock” contingent of “indie rock,” not the increasingly visible four-part harmony infiltration of indie rock.) There’s a prodding, experimental aspect to their compositions that I can’t let go of. “Two Weeks” may have been the summer hit, but give me long, intricate songs like “Fine for Now,” whose lyrics are a bunch of vague bullshit but whose music is sheer beauty.
They opened with
the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” “Cheerleader,” and played a brief set heavy on Veckatimest material, replicating almost exactly the precise tone and instrumentation of the album. Singer Ed Droste attempted to have some personality between songs, and failed, but their songs gave off a polished classicism that hid their complexity. What the hell were they doing playing so early, at 4pm?
One more reason to like Grizzly Bear: their website—and Droste’s Twitter feed—mentions whenever possible the options for buying tickets to the band’s shows without a shitty service charge. Also, my friend Kerri points out that Veckatimest is an anagram for Meat Vest? Ick! Luckily, their heads didn’t explode in the middle of “Two Weeks.”
I spoke too soon when I said something about Bob Mould lulling nostalgia hounds to sleep. Assuming Mould would play songs from his recent solo albums, I headed to the bathrooms, only to be pulled back by “The Act We Act,” the first song from Sugar’s Copper Blue. In fact, Mould represented Copper Blue hardcore. “A Good Idea,” “Changes,” “Hoover Dam”—was this for real?
It was a genuine stroke of luck. Mould’s regular bassist couldn’t make the show, so at the last minute he called up David Barbe, the bassist for Sugar, and throughout the set many, many nights in 1994 came rushing back to me. Yes! It was nostalgia! But of the entirely unexpected variety. Oh, sure, Husker Du fans got “Makes No Sense at All,” “In a Free World,” “Something I Learned Today”—but who’d’a thunk Mould would rock the Sugar songs so hard? It was like Prince playing a show of all shit from Graffiti Bridge.
I’ve never gotten into their Eastern European brass tip, but Beirut makes me glad for one reason and one reason only—because of their unlikely success, the independent San Francisco distributor Revolver is able to take more chances getting good, otherwise unheard music into stores. The plight of an independent distributor is a lonely one, and Revolver over the years has seen a ton of exclusive deals with labels and artists who decide they can do better with R.E.D. or Caroline and jump ship, leaving their early supporter in the dirt. When I see “Exclusively Distributed by Revolver USA” on the back of a hugely selling album like Gulag Orkestar, I am heartened for the DiCristina Stair Builders.
The Walkmen have the East Coast written all over them; they fuckin’ rule. What was decided at their first band practice? “Look, you guys, we’re gonna get vintage instruments and play them like nobody else played them. You, Hamilton, you gotta good voice, you’re the singer. Okay? But we gotta look tough. Or bored. Somewhere between tough or bored. Then we gonna write the best songs you ever heard.”
Bows and Arrows is a bonafide gem, and at the Outside Lands festival last year, even newer songs like “The New Year” floored me. I hope that they don’t turn into the Guadalcanal Diary of their day, i.e. a band with a fresh semi-retroish take on current trends who fades into Rockin’ Road Trip obscurity. More songs like “Thinking of a Dream I Had” ought to do the trick.
I ran into Hamilton Leithauser afterward; he told me the horn players—who were tight as hell—learned their parts five minutes before going on stage. Funny thing, going on tour and having to hire pickup musicians in each town.
The greatest psychedelic guitar work recorded in 1997 (not related to Jason Pierce) belongs to Yo La Tengo and the outro to the song “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. I have listened to this particular guitar solo more times than I care to remember, and I still haven’t fully figured it out—meaning that I haven’t tried to PLAY the thing, merely to comprehend it. Is there a ghost of an angry debutante inside the guitar? Did they bring an octopus in the studio to flail upon the strings? Can you keep feedback alive on an iron lung?
During Yo La Tengo’s second song, Ira Kaplan re-creates that same mayhem five feet from my face and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I do know that what he did to his guitar didn’t constitute the accepted definition of “playing.” He sometimes put his fingers on the strings, just like he sometimes let it swing away from his body entirely to let the angry debutante do her thing. Maximized control in chaos environments. Rhythm section calm and holding. Snapped back together like elastic. Amazing.
The Flaming Lips have put out a new album, Embryonic, that reminds me of the Nobel Peace Prize—it’s getting a lot of acclaim simply for not being At War With the Mystics. If it could be chopped down to an EP, it would be perfect, but better yet is that it has shaken up the band’s live show, which though visually incredible has stayed pretty routine for about five years. I’ve seen them three times, and I swore that if Wayne Coyne smashed blood on his head and made a puppet nun sing “Happy Birthday” into a fisheye-lens camera yet again, I would scream.
As soon as the Decemberists finished, Coyne spent a good deal of time onstage helping his roadies set up their ever-more elaborate set. Then the music began. After walking atop the crowd in a plastic space bubble, shooting confetti from blaster guns, blowing fog around the stage, flinging ribbons to and fro and leading his band in “Race for the Prize,” Coyne settled into a friendly rapport with the San Francisco crowd, talking about the band’s first show at the I-Beam and how San Francisco had always felt like a second home. “Thank you for being the home of the freaks,” he said.
The band played a standard mix of “hits,” with new tracks like “Convinced of the Hex” sounding the most invigorated, but it was an obscure song called “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear” that reminded me most of the Flaming Lips’ magic. Musically settled squarely between soothing and weird, the song’s title alone could serve as the band’s mission statement, and it carried us across the Bay Bridge and back into the real world.
Every year, SFJAZZ puts on so many shows, all around the city, and it can be kind of daunting for a casual jazz fan to decide which ones to attend—especially those living in Santa Rosa, where attendance means am hour’s drive plus gas and bridge toll. The new season starts this week, and everyone’s got different tastes, but here’s my whittled-down list of the best five SFJAZZ shows this fall.
Nov. 8: Ornette Coleman at the Masonic Auditorium
Beg, borrow or binge—whatever you do, see Ornette Coleman. His history doesn’t need to be recounted here; what you need to know is that he still sounds as creative and vital as he did fifty years ago. Seriously, you will not believe that he’s 79 years old. He plays with two basses—one bowed, one plucked—and his son, Denardo, on drums, with whom he’s been playing since Denardo was 12. Expect to be left speechless.
Oct. 31: Marco Benevento at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
I first heard Benevento playing wildly on a 35-minute song by Zach Hill, the drummer for Hella; he, along with Ethan Iverson, represents a trend of assimilating indie rock into jazz. Live, Benevento manhandles a group of pedals and effects with his trio, which keeps one foot in the “jam” world. Bonus: the ticket price is on the low side and the venue is nice and small.
Nov. 4: Trio 3 at Swedish American Music Hall
I make no reservations about recommending these three and their intuitive magic created together. Reggie Workman’s resume with John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter speaks for itself; Oliver Lake is a mammoth tenor player and Andrew Cyrille spent 11 years backing Cecil Taylor. If you can’t make it to their show in Healdsburg, do yourself a favor and head to the wooden-interior Swedish American Music Hall.
Oct. 23: Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet at the Herbst Theatre
I’ve had a cassette of Rubalcaba’s Discovery: Live at Montreux in my car for a month now, and have not tired of it in the slightest. This show is with a quintet—the same guys on his last album, Avatar—and he fuses Cuban music and jazz in a decidedly artistic, and not commercial, fashion. Always worth seeing.
Oct. 30: Nicholas Payton & Don Byron at Grace Cathedral
Part of SFJAZZ’s “Sacred Space” series, where artists perform solo in Grace Cathedral and utilize the incredible seven-second echo attainable from the towering ceilings. Payton is most likely to work the room with sharp trumpet punches and high wails in the New Orleans tradition, while Byron specializes in Eastern scales on the lower-register clarinet.
For more lineup information and tickets, see SFJAZZ.
After several days of re-thinking the Victims Family show in Petaluma on Sunday night, the thing that sticks out the most is their songs’ unremitting sense of right and wrong. “Times Beach,” “As It Were,” “Insidious”—they all have a direct moral center, which is something that you don’t find in Animal Collective songs. Commenting on society is no longer hip, I’m afraid.
“Punk funk” is no longer what it once was either, which means that when I talk about Victims Family I tend to downplay my enthusiasm in the interest of context, much in the same way I do for golf. No friends my age really like golf. I suppose it’s not that weird; golf isn’t the most, uh, “progressive” sport. Reputation for elitism, wastes a lot of water, lots of old white men. That perception has forced me to talk about golf dismissively, like, “Oh, well, I wouldn’t expect you to care, but I saw Tiger Woods tee off at point blank range and, um, it was pretty cool, I guess.”
Victims Family is the same way. “Oh, they’re this metal-funk jazz thing, kinda punk rock with slapping bass, you probably wouldn’t like them,” I sometimes tell people, when really, I oughtta be saying: THEY ARE THE GREATEST BAND SANTA ROSA HAS EVER KNOWN. A completely elated crowd of over 400 people who packed the Phoenix to see one of their rare shows—the last one was five years ago, in 2004—would agree. Even after just a few practices, they were mind-bogglingly tight as ever, and if you’ve ever tried to play a Victims Family song, you know that playing it correctly, let alone tightly, is a harrowing challenge.
The set skewed old, with “Zoo,” “August 6th” and “Product” from Headache Remedy, “Insidious” from The Germ, and all the rest from Voltage & Violets, Things I Hate to Admit and White Bread Blues (remastered and reissued very soon on Santa Rosa’s own Saint Rose Records). Basically, the show was a veritable onslaught of the band’s best shit, and a patent reminder that here’s a local band that put out seven full-length albums, toured the world, and is now something that barely anyone under 30 in town knows about? That’s a wrong that needs to be made right.
Rollin’: Minor Threat’s Jeff Nelson has just sold a test pressing of his old band’s record Out of Step for $5,899.99. This will no doubt give the other members of Minor Threat ideas; check eBay soon to see Brian Baker’s auction of the coveted Junkyard test pressing.
Lyin’: I was among many who were taken in by Roxanne Shanté’s story of earning a Ph.D. due to a stipulation in her contract stating Warner Bros. would fund her education for life. It was soon exposed as a falsehood, and Shanté has finally apologized but not really.
Cavortin’: I can’t help but sense a conspiracy when one week, I get a press release about Los Lobos being invited to the White House and the next week, I get one announcing the band’s upcoming album, a collection of Disney songs. THE MAN IS WINNING.
Wishin’: Summit Global, who bought the license to the Polaroid name, has announced they’re going to make Polaroid cameras once again. Why? Because these lovable heroes saved the original film plant from total extinction. Amazing!
Cryin’: Chris Connor died last week at age 81. Her phrasing was like running through fields of flowers with no particular destination because a destination means the end and new love is forever. I could write about her forever and probably will. In the meantime, this is required listening.
Missin’: Andy Kerr has not played in Nomeansno for 18 years and they’ve never been the same without him. I would have paid $500 to see he and Connor sing duets. As it stands, he lives in Holland now and sings songs like this.
I don’t have too much to add to this piece by Jody Rosen, for Slate, about NPR’s taste in black music, but I recommend reading it. Rosen looks at their very white “Best Music of 2009 (So Far)” list and advances a theory that NPR’s producers look for four basic factors in deciding to spotlight a black musician—they’ve gotta be either Dead, Old, Retro or Foreign. He calls it the “DORF Matrix.”
Cute, yes, and true. NPR’s best-of list, voted by listeners, includes only two black artists out of 30 on the “best albums” list (Mos Def and, uh, Danger Mouse) and none at all on the “best songs” list. NPR isn’t the only media outlet to shaft current hip-hop and R&B for crusty soul revivalists with a by-the-books story of redemption, and though every media outlet is entitled to their own opinion, and death, age, history and foreign countries all make good, easy-lazy stories, it would seem that NPR should have an interest in battling their own caricature. Right?