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?
Tom Waits is releasing a live album, Glitter and Doom Live, on November 24, just in time for the Christmas season. It includes 17 songs from various shows on his tour last year. I saw two shows from the tour; one at the beginning when the players were still finding their footing and one at the end, which was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. The live album features a bonus disc in the CD version called “Tom Tales,” with 40 minutes of Waits’ trademark ruminations on “romantic spiders and injured vultures” (the bonus disc comes as a free mp3 download with the LP version). Here’s the track list:
Lucinda / Ain’t Goin Down (Birmingham – 07/03/08)
Singapore (Edinburgh – 07/28/08)
Get Behind The Mule (Tulsa – 06/25/08)
Fannin Street (Knoxville – 06/29/08)
Dirt In The Ground (Milan – 07/19/08)
Such A Scream (Milan – 07/18/08)
Live Circus (Jacksonville – 07/01/08)
Goin’ Out West (Tulsa – 06/25/08)
Falling Down (Paris – 07/25/08)
The Part You Throw Away (Edinburgh – 07/28/08)
Trampled Rose (Dublin – 08/01/08)
Metropolitan Glide (Knoxville – 6/29/08)
I’ll Shoot The Moon (Paris – 07/24/08)
Green Grass (Edinburgh – 07/27/08)
Make It Rain (Atlanta – 07/05/08)
Story (Columbus – 06/28/08)
Lucky Day (Atlanta – 07/05/08)
Steve Martin, comedian and banjoist extraordinaire, has been booked at the Napa Valley Opera House to play on Thursday, November 5. If you were stuck behind a tree or thousands of other people when he played in Golden Gate Park, there’s still a handful of seats left for the Napa Valley Opera House, which is comparatively the size of a shoebox. Click here for tickets, which run $110-$125 per person and are going very fast. Might I tangentially also recommend Martin’s very wry and funny memoir, Born Standing Up, if only for his fantastic story about running into Diane Arbus at Disneyland, or the passage on briefly dating Linda Ronstadt.
Healdsburg’s jazz scene was set to lose a fantastic outlet when the Palette Art Café was sold, but thankfully, the new owners of the just-opened Affronti have carried on the tradition of showcasing excellent small combos in their intimate environs every Thursday night from 7-10pm. Reports on the food are positive as well, and dinner reservations are the best way to get a good seat. Upcoming acts include Cat Austin (Oct. 15), Ken Cook and the Gravity Trio with Scott Peterson (Oct. 22) and the Adam Theis Mega-Quartet (Oct. 29). The location once played host to jazz bassist Henry Franklin, and might I tangentially recommend Henry Franklin’s The Skipper, a very good record that I wish I had discovered prior to his performance there this summer with Azar Lawrence and not, sadly, afterward.
Souls of Mischief, far from being past their ’93 prime, have a new album, Montezuma’s Revenge, out in early December. They are still one of the best live hip-hop groups in the Bay Area. Every time I see them open a show, I feel bad for the headliner, who bumbles through a set doomed to inadequacy. Next week at Slim’s, they hold to the fire the feet of Ghostface Killah, a great rapper currently on “miss” in his hit-and-miss catalog of albums. Parlay the temptation into instead seeing Rakim, a great rapper who hasn’t made an album period for a while but who never disappoints, at Slim’s on Oct. 25. Might I tangentially recommend Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader, an album packed with just as much genius as Paid In Full but not, you know, overplayed.
Here’s my favorite story of the week: Earlier this year, Scott Brown made a pilgrimage to the final resting place, in Queens, of stride master and jazz piano pioneer James P. Johnson—only to find an unmarked scattering of weeds. Shocked at the lack of respect for one of jazz piano’s inarguable giants, he called on some of New York’s stride aficionados, including Dick Hyman and the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson, in order to raise money for a proper tombstone. You can read about the marathon nine-hour cutting session here, and rest assured that James P. Johnson will have his life and legacy properly marked.
Dickie Peterson, the bassist and singer of Blue Cheer who spent a lifetime oversaturating amplifiers in underrated glory, has died at age 61. There is no way to go back in time and listen to Blue Cheer devoid of their subsequent context—Black Sabbath, prominently; Sleep, the Melvins and Sunn 0))), less prominently—but it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that Peterson and his trio were on some heavy shit way before the world was on some heavy shit.
Of course, Blue Cheer played extensively in the Bay Area, including the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds in the 1960s right after Vincebus Eruptum came out, but had even more recent ties to this area. I met Peterson a few years ago when he was living in West Sonoma County, of all places, and playing the occasional blues show at the Forestville Club. He looked exactly like an unsung pioneer of heavy metal, with long hair, a denim jacket and imposing heft. I guess he didn’t stay here long—he died this morning in Germany, presumably of cancer. May he be remembered.
There are many transgressions I will abide at live hip-hop shows. I accept that I will be yelled at for not making enough noise. I know that I will be schooled on some arcane lyric I am supposed to repeat. I can hang with crowd-rocking clichés like left side vs. right side, I’m cool with rappers getting too excited and gruffly shouting their lyrics, and most of all, I have started to swallow my indignation at Serato.
But let’s say you’re People Under the Stairs. You’ve made seven full-lengths. You’ve got fresh beats for days. You’re one of the best throwback hip-hop acts in the country. The last thing you need to do is come out on stage and, before performing any song, try to get the crowd hyped by talking about your new sponsorship from Vans:
“This is a world premiere! Check out dubbayu dubbayu dubbayu dot VANS dot com, forward-slash, remix”—blah blah blah—”an’ if you win, Vans is gonna hook you up! Now San Francisco, are you with that?!!”
I was embarrassed for the Bay when the crowd actually cheered. No wonder the Dodgers are in the playoffs and the Giants are toast. L.A. plays us like a violin. Seriously—we’re such dumbshits that we cheer for a promotional Vans remix contest website URL?
My friend Matt quickly recalled Soul Strut hosting a PUTS remix contest, a couple years back. The prizes included having the winning remix pressed on vinyl, free records for the runner-up, and, for third place, a $10 Wendy’s Gift Card they probably found laying around (“for baked potato or baconator, yo choice”). That same idea co-opted by Vans, who make perfectly fine shoes but have an insidious penchant for swooping in and plastering their name on quality youth culture, is not a reason to throw your hands in the air.
So the starting line was set about 20 yards back, with a lot of catch-up to do. This ordinarily shouldn’t be hard to do for Double K and Thes One, given the enormous back catalog of PUTS jams. Obvious classics like “Hang Loose,” “San Francisco Nights,” “Tuxedo Rap,” “Up Your Spine” and “Acid Raindrops” were all played, but I dunno, something was off. A faded Thes One—one of my favorite producers, who dominates both The Price is Right and Will.i.am—kept messing around with the mic’s reverb by huffing his way through too many acapellas (“Time to Rock Our Shit” faded out, but never faded back in) and the lack of tight pacing showed.
People Under the Stairs play party jams and people love party jams, so there were no complaints from the dozens of girls pulled up on stage for “Hang Loose” (see Fig. 1A, above). Nonetheless, we walked back to the car in a weird daze—”It’s like their crowd changed from beatdiggers to douchebags,” we overheard someone say—and hoped it was just an off night. Carried Away, their new record that comes out next week, is as great as ever. How could it be bad, right? So anyway. Here’s to future days.
If you’re rooting out a jazz musician’s complete discography, Wikipedia is not the place to look. Thousands of contributors are willing to supply page content for, say, Roman Polanski (whose Wiki page is currently locked, natch) but that number dribbles down to almost zero for confirmed jazz heavyweights. How many albums has Sonny Rollins played on as a sideman? Nine, according to his Wikipedia page.
I listened to Reggie Workman last night twice and didn’t even realize it: Once, on the brilliant Takehiro Honda outing Jodo, a Japanese release, and again on the equally brilliant Booker Ervin album The Trance. If I’d have stayed up for another hour, I’m sure I’d have pulled another record from the shelf, randomly, that happened to feature Reggie Workman. How many albums has Reggie Workman played on as a sideman? Eleven, according to his Wikipedia page. (Here’s a work-in-progress discography that lists over 140.)
Trio 3, Workman’s impeccable group with Andrew Cyrille and Oliver Lake, is coming to Healdsburg for two tiny, intimate shows at Flying Goat Coffee on November 3 at 7pm and 9pm. When I profiled Healdsburg Jazz Festival founder and director Jessica Felix in 2008, she mentioned Trio 3 in passing among her favorite groups—and an example of the risk one might take with more obscure, avant-garde booking amongst wine-country tastes.
I applaud the risk, and can guarantee that the opportunity to see these three titans of jazz (collectively, they’ve played with John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Cecil Taylor, the World Saxophone Quartet, Wayne Shorter, Peter Brotzmann and many, many others Wikipedia does not list) will be $25 well-spent. Add the close ambiance of Flying Goat, and the choice is a no-brainer. While they last, get tickets here.