Well, color me impressed. Over the course of an immersive, nearly two-hour Smashing Pumpkins show last night at Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater, the ageless Billy Corgan unreeled a nonstop stream of gauze-soaked distortion, a generously crowd-pleasing handful of the band’s hits—and said barely a word at all to the crowd.
To those who caught the band’s residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore last year, pockmarked by long, self-centered rambles from Corgan and obscure, calm material, the Smashing Pumpkins on stage last night might have seemed like an entirely different band, and that’s for the better. Simply put, the Pumpkins kicked ass, and then kept kicking ass, and didn’t cease kicking ass until the final feedback-laden tones of the long set closer “Gossamer” came to an abrupt halt and the strobe lights finally stopped pulsing. Even the band’s new material sounded great last night, which was almost as strange as being at the Phoenix Theater and seeing hardly any teenagers.
The sold-out crowd, nearly all in their 30s, went crazy for hits like “Today,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Cherub Rock” and a solo version of “Disarm” that had hundreds of camera phones hoisted in the audience and Corgan singing karaoke-style to a backing track. Not that Corgan, the only original member of the group, rested on his laurels. Instead, he culled from the classic rock trick bag with a Hendrix-inspired “Star-Spangled Banner,” played by his teeth, and a foray into Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” followed by a long drum solo by new recruit Mike Byrne punctuated with the obligatory crash of a gigantic gong. For “Ava Adore,” he unleashed pure Stratocaster pyrotechnics; during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” he gestured in an actual cage of lighting scaffold and two giant windmills; and throughout the set screeched his trademark growl like a bonafide rock star.
All of this—plus cock-rock openers Big City—showed that Corgan’s intentions have always lied in arena rock and not, as the 1990s painted him, as “alternative.” The Smashing Pumpkins’ best moments seem to happen when Corgan reconciles the two. Last night, the nonstop barrage of lighting and fuzz couldn’t have been described as “accessible,” yet the continuous unease seemed to clear a space for the band to actually enjoy playing radio hits they’ve played thousands of times. After the line “No matter where you are / I can still hear you when you scream,” from the Singles soundtrack single “Drown,” the Phoenix crowd erupted in a scream, and if you were watching close enough, you could see Corgan allow himself a sly smile—still, after all these years.
As Rome Burns
A Song for a Son
Bullet With Butterly Wings
My Love Is Winter
That’s the Way (My Love Is)
Stand Inside Your Love
What we have in the On Land Festival, presented annually by Root Strata, is four days’ worth of darts aimed in whatever direction and occasionally, surprisingly, hitting the bullseye. That the acts generally have “Noise / Drone / Experimental” anointing their begrudgingly active MySpace profiles implies that their aesthetic has no true trajectory, but of course there must be some involved intent. I knew what to broadly expect, and I was not disappointed, aside from having to miss two of the four days and arriving late even so.
Pete Swanson appeared entirely consumed by his music, his eyes and mouth especially. When his white noise began, people walked out. Thing about Pete’s music is that your ears tune out the white noise and these wonderful submerged melodies reveal themselves. I placed my head against the wall and stared into the back of his wooden reel-to-reel. He sang a little. It was intense. Then it was over after, like, 15 minutes. Way to leave people wanting more.
White Rainbow looped some staggering beat that didn’t make sense as he started to build it but cohered over time and you’re like, oh, of course. I knew nothing of him before Friday night and he won me over fully. Certain noises would affect him like a stab in the ribs; he’d double over in pain and return for more. Had people in stitches over his iPad animal noises. Seems like a fun-loving guy. Maybe he can tell me what happened to Watery Graves.
Oneohtrix Point Never delivered solid programming on the same frequency as his latest, Returnal, which I recommend. Hypnosis among the crowd. It was packed in there. Cafe du Nord isn’t comfortable when it’s full, but OPN essentially spread a blanket over everyone and sang some comforting lullabies. Time-space synth noise lullabies, but lullabies nonetheless. During a quiet interlude, someone, no doubt accustomed to jumpy rock bands, yelled, “Do something!” This seemed as pointless as yelling at Aubrey Huff to hit the ball when he’s out playing left field.
Dan Higgs, at Sunday’s show upstairs in the wonderful wooden Swedish American Hall, was good old Daniel (Arcus Incus Ululat) Higgs Interdimensional Song-Seamstress and Corpse-Dancer of the Mystic Crags. He stomped on a box. He played the banjo. He laughed heartily for a very very long time, or what seemed to be a very very long time for laughing in the middle of a song, but the song was also long, and unique, and definitely improvised on the spot.
The Healdsburg Jazz Festival is back. And so is Jessica Felix.
After the outpouring of support for Felix, the current Board of Directors of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has voted unanimously to reinstate Jessica Felix to the Board and to elect her Chairperson. All five members of the current Board are resigning, effective immediately. Felix will book a jazz festival in 2011, and will form a new Board.
This isn’t just great news—it’s incredible news. How rare is it that an entire Board of Directors resigns over public outcry? Over a small little town’s jazz festival?
I called Felix, who’d just returned from signing papers and putting her name back on the bank account. “I’m so glad,” she told me. “I’m just overwhelmed by all the support. It’s been heartwarming to know how much people care.”
As reported earlier, Felix was fired five weeks ago from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which she founded in 1999, and the Festival Board announced a hiatus for the 2011 season. Multiple media outlets covered the actions taken by the Board, including this one, and comments protesting the decision piled up at the festival’s website. The Board bluntly erased them all, apparently oblivious to Google cache; this only prompted more online comments from fans and musicians alike, including George Cables, David Weiss, Charlie Musselwhite, Bennett Friedman, Adam Theis and many more.
Key among the responses were those from Kathy Martin of Santa Rosa Systems, pledging to cancel her annual $25,000 sponsorship, and Babatunde Lea, who vowed without Felix not to participate in the Operation Jazz Band program in area schools, the only activity the Board had planned for 2011.
Felix said she heard the news by email.
“We have a victory—we’ve got a festival back with a tremendous debt,” she laughed. “It was a fight for jazz, and jazz won, and we haven’t won the battle yet, but jazz really won out here.”
Winning the economic battle means erasing the $30,000 debt that the festival faces, and to that end, Felix is planning the 2011 Festival as a benefit. She also says she’ll increase her outreach to area restaurants and wineries. “Now people realize finally that this festival cannot be taken for granted, and that it meant something,” she said. “That’s what shocked me. How much it meant to people.”
I spoke with Ray Manzarek this week about settling into the Napa Valley and playing the Napa River Festival this weekend (he’ll be doing a few Doors songs with the Napa Valley Symphony). He’s always kept his ears out for new bands, and had nothing but praise for Napa’s own Body or Brain, in whose video he’s made a memorable cameo. They filmed it at The Shop in Sonoma, and Manzarek’s really pretty excellent in it:
“I’m just some psychedelic guy from the ’60s.” Ha!
Of course, I also had to ask him if he remembered anything from the legendary night the Doors played the Grace Pavilion at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds in 1968. He couldn’t recall much other than the band played in a boxing ring, apparently left over from the night before. “That was the only time the Doors ever played inside a boxing ring,” he confirmed. “What in the world was it doing there?”
There are some photos from that show here (scroll down), and apparently it was the first show filmed for the Doors documentary Feast of Friends. So . . . some footage must exist somewhere, right?
This week’s Bohemian column is on Grouper, a.k.a. Liz Harris, who plays this weekend’s incredible On Land Festival at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco. Liz and I spent about an hour together in Portland, talking about everything from boyfriends to drug use to old jobs to Kompakt Records to sharing pieces of one’s soul to justifying domesticity to high school to spent relationships, but not all of these things could neatly fit into a 700-word music piece. Besides, I made a conscious effort in some instances to honor some modicum of privacy on her part, since stalkers do exist.
Mainly what I took away from meeting with Harris is that she treats music much like visual art; to be digested slowly, and to not be mass-produced. One of the longer portions of our conversation that didn’t make the cut, though, revolved around the misnomer of “noise” and the fact that a lot of experimental music released on noise labels and embraced by the noise scene isn’t really all that noisy. Case in point: Since I have a one-year-old baby, I find myself listening to more rhythmless music after she goes to bed so she won’t wake up; it’s what most would call “noise” but the funny thing is it’s beautiful nighttime music, and not antagonizing at all. Depending on one’s tolerance for sustained cacophony, some of it is downright easy listening.
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is an excellent introduction to Grouper, it’s true. I find Cover the Windows and the Walls to operate on a similar level of structure, wherein her melodies conjure the shoegazier side of Yo La Tengo as much as the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakme. You could say it caused some excitement on its release. It’s on Root Strata, who along with curating the On Land Fest recently hosted a series of shows inside Grace Cathedral utilizing said architecture’s natural seven-second delay. Root Strata has some stellar releases under its belt—among them Common Eider, King Eider’s Worn and Barn Owl’s The Conjurer—and everything they do is worth checking out. Plus, Bay Area represent, duh.
Type Records kills it time and again, but the record of theirs I find myself playing with the most frequency is And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees, by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Written to accompany a film, the score hits all the urgent swells and calm passages reminiscent of John Barry’s less popular work; though I’ve no clue what the alleged film is supposed to be about, listening to the record is like being whisked through a storyline. It’s utterly addictive. Honorable mentions for Type also go to Your Eyes the Stars and Your Hands the Sea by Seasons (pre-din), Kappe by Svarte Grenier, In Bocca al Lupo by Xela and the utterly breathtaking Going Places by Yellow Swans, all spending hours upon hours occupying my turntable lately.
I know little about the Miasmah label, other than I want to know more. Everything I’ve heard from them is top-quality, and like many of these labels, they have copious sound clips online. Although the cover art isn’t as striking as Kreng’s L’Autopsie Phenomenale de Dieu or FNS’s S/T LP (both excellent records, really), I’m drawn most to Jacaszek’s Treny record of late. Chamber strings, calm soprano vocals, minor-key meanderings and a workable cohabitation of serenity and dread. Miasmah is set to release the home run of their career with Marcus Fjellstrom’s Schattenspieler, due Sept. 13; some preview tracks for the album reveal the Swedish composer at his finest and most evocative yet.
Iceland’s Bedroom Community label has been on a roll, what with Sam Amidon’s much-acclaimed I See the Sign LP (traditional folk songs, none well-known, delicately arranged; the album also contains one R. Kelly song). Most of the players on that markedly calm record contribute to Ben Frost’s razorish By the Throat, a scenario not unlike, say, Will Oldham suddenly singing over an orchestra of power tools or something. Prominent like Shakespeare on Bedroom Community is Daníel Bjarnason, and his risk-reward masterpiece Processions. It reminds me of a certain defunct experimental ensemble from Santa Rosa called Triste Sin Richard—pulsing, daring, and joyous.
That brings me to Pan Records, who actually do release antagonizing noise, albeit in shockingly elegant fashion. Each of their first nine releases features mysterious black-and-white images printed on inverted cardstock jackets; those are then housed in a thick transparent polymer sleeve silkscreened with busy linear patterns. The effect is porn for graphic design freaks, basically, and being limited to just 330 copies each makes them collector’s gold as well. I can’t possibly pick a favorite release on Pan, although Ilios’ Kenrimono is notable for being entirely sampled from pachinko parlors in Japan, and Evan Parker and John Weise’s C-Section is a total blast. I warn you, though: this label is like Ikea. Once you buy one Pan record, you will want them all.
So it turns out the Beach Boys, despite widespread rumor, are not actually suing yeowling bimbo Katy Perry for the line “I really wish you all could be California girls.” What they should sue her for, obviously, as forefathers of the summertime jam, is unleashing such a nauseating hit song on the American public. Have you heard the thing? While the Hollywood blockbuster seems to be getting smarter (Inception, The Kids Are All Right), the “summertime jam” is increasingly becoming the radio equivalent of the old-style Hollywood blockbuster—i.e., full of blatant dippiness and cheap thrills designed to make you feel awesome.
But Perry’s “California Gurls” does not make me feel awesome. What does, especially on the way to the beach or sharing beers in the sunset or at a backyard barbecue, is “Dance Yrself Clean,” from LCD Soundsystem, which bank-shots off every border of “summertime jam” to redefine the term. A rant against friends who suffer from diarrhea of the mouth (“Talking like a jerk / Except you are an actual jerk”), the track explodes three minutes in with thick analog-synth blasts and dirty, dirty hi-hats, owing to Talking Heads and Freddie Mercury while paving nine minutes of the way toward a future disco music.
From Inglewood, Cali Swag District brings us the dance-craze “Teach Me How to Dougie,” a razor-thin hip-hop hit hanging on an infectious, simple beat that first made waves in underground circles late last year. Capitol Records cleaned out the bad words and rereleased it this May; the original‘s better, but it still sounds ultrafresh and continues to inspire uploaded dance videos of four-year-olds dancing the dougie in the driveway. (Although: kinda bummed that L.A. gets attention for “Dougie” while this video from Oakland’s Turf Feinz is evidence that the Bay Area produces California’s most elegant street dancing.)
Dancing finds a lonely space in Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” an instant contagion advisable to avoid if you don’t want it stuck in your head for the next month. Cribbing Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” concept, the song finds Robyn (a former Swedish teen pop star whose new album opens with a song titled “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do”) self-assured on the dance floor even while the object of her affection goes home with someone else. And Lord, the hooks are insane.
Is there any hit more tailor-made for summertime status than “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae? A rebuke to haters through deft dance moves and killer cadences sung in Monae’s Aretha-like voice, the song tacks on two minutes of call-and-response shouts, horn riffs, ukulele breaks and strings well past the usual three-minute mark; it’s also the rare song with a Big Boi verse where the Big Boi verse isn’t the highlight. Listen to it once and be transformed.
Transformation is the game on M.I.A.’s new album, nowhere more so than on “Steppin’ Up,” with its rhythmic cacophony of lug-nut drills; it manages to make the ridiculous phrase “subb-a-sub-a-sub-sub” sound ill. Similarly, sampling Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love Yous” is a terrible idea on paper; Nicki Minaj owns it for “Your Love.” (“Bloody hell,” M.I.A. recently quipped, “Nicki Minaj runs things.”) Minaj has been a prolific filthy-guest-verse rapper in the past, and if the slow burn of “Your Love” earns some overdue recognition, it will have justified its existence.
No summertime jam this year fills the seaside role like “When I’m with You,” by Best Coast, aka Bethany Cosentino. Cosentino loves cats, smokes weed and has a drummer who routinely wears a bunny suit. She’s also written the carefree beach party hit of the year. If the Beach Boys can shake any money out of Katy Perry, they’d be wise to kick a chunk to Best Coast for keeping their California dream alive—the sunsets, the sand, the surf and the salvation of sloppily swapping saliva. Summertime!
Finally, the internet has been dominated in the last week by what everyone’s declaring the Summertime Jam That Never Was. Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” isn’t ever going to enjoy radio play, but that hasn’t kept it out of my head since I heard it, just one time, seven entire days ago. Simply put, the song’s catchy as hell, and now that the nonexistent summertime weather in Santa Rosa has finally turned around and decided to shine, it couldn’t hit at a finer time. Watch it below, and enjoy.
In the hip-hop version of nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll packages like Art Laboe’s Memories of El Monte or Alan Freed’s American Hot Wax, the 2010 Rock the Bells tour barreled into a packed Shoreline Amphitheatre to revive the golden age of hip-hop with a particular zeroing in on the magical year of 1993. That year, after all, saw releases of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—all iconic albums, and all performed “in their entirety” at Rock the Bells on Sunday.
Notably, though, none of the acts adhered to the “in its entirety” concept. Rakim purportedly performed Paid in Full in its entirety, but excluded three songs from the album and scattered the others, out of order, throughout a greatest-hits set. This set the stage of artists bending toward hits from classic albums rather than staidly presenting them cover-to-cover. While at first this seemed like a bit of false advertising in action, it was eventually evidenced that when deep album cuts were dutifully unearthed—Tribe’s “God Lives Through,” say—energy levels suffered.
At a show like Sunday’s, one had to set aside valid concerns about hip-hop getting older and leaning on its past rather than looking to its future. For all the chatter about the genre being in a slump, there is so much life and vitality to the music presented on Sunday to get hip-hop through the longest dry spell. No one tugged at their goatee or scribbled in their notebook about these concerns. You don’t worry about shit like that when an epic lineup is playing out in front of your eyes.
Rakim opened with “My Melody,” played the part of Eric B. by cutting up lines from “I Know You Got Soul” on the 1200s, got the Bay Area crowd to boo Los Angeles and dedicated songs “to all the mommies out there.” Standing like an impenetrable wall of skill, he moved deliberately around the stage to rearranged Paid in Full cuts alongside later hits “Know the Ledge” and “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Scheduled early in the day at 1pm for too many empty seats, it felt like Rakim got little love for someone generally regarded as the most innovative and influential MC of all time. He didn’t seem fazed. He told security to lay off so the people could cluster near the front of the stage, absolutely killed tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “I Ain’t No Joke,” and at one point planted his Nike shoe on the monitor, licked the back of his thumb and deftly cleaned off a tiny fleck of dirt stuck to otherwise spotless sneakers. Smooth.
“When I get off stage,” he warned of the massive lineup to come, “it’ll get crazy. And then it’ll get crazier.”
“Hip-hop is not that Hollywood bullshit!” yelled Immortal Technique, on the side stage. “Hip-hop is being one with the people!”
He then finished a song with a chant of “Fuck Cops,” and then explained himself. “I know some of you out there don’t agree with that last song. You might be like, ‘My dad is a cop. He works hard and put himself in danger to keep the country safe.’ Well you know what? Fuck your dad! Fuck your family! And fuck cops!”
This didn’t go over well with some. While Immortal Technique talked about his recent trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a dude in the crowd threw a soda bottle at him. It missed, but the audience was all too glad to point the guy out. Immortal Technique’s entourage ran off the stage, into the crowd, and cornered the guy. It looked hectic, but then security intervened and dragged the dude to be thrown out at the gates.
“The crowd will always be filled with one agent provocateur,” quipped Immortal Technique. “You got off soft.” After his set, he stayed at the merch booth for two hours, signing autographs.
Lauryn Hill was 45 minutes late, and by the time she finally came out and finished her extended rock version of “Lost One,” her first song, it was 5:35—the end of her set, according to the schedule. If the stickler Bill Graham had still been in charge at Shoreline, he’d have unapologetically pulled her off stage right then as punishment for tardiness. Rock the Bells allowed her a full set anyway, albeit a shortened one; in the ridiculously long wait before she took the stage, roadies twice came out and crossed songs off all the set lists.
In Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, a black sequined cap and a homeless-chic green trenchcoat covering an early-’90s high-waisted getup, Hill displayed all the same hopeful energy of her show earlier this year at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa by churning her arms wildly and strutting in insanely high four-inch heels. Things looked grim when she left the stage ten minutes in, but returned wearing different shoes. Probably a wise move.
The crowd seemed confused by her new arrangements, and didn’t move much until she got into Fugees tracks like “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La,” which opened the floodgates for mayhem. Hill performed everyone else’s verses, and displayed her recent desire to be taken seriously again after a long rough patch. By the time she ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the sting of her late arrival was nicely salved.
“I can only introduce this next group,” said Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, solemnly, “by saying that this is my favorite group of all time. Rock the Bells, please welcome to the stage… A Tribe Called Quest!” Except Tribe wasn’t ready yet, and when a rushed Ali Shaheed Muhammad emerged from the wings and quickly started the intro to Midnight Marauders on the turntables, he shot Rosenberg an icy stare. Oops.
As mentioned, Tribe actually stuck somewhat to the material from Midnight Marauders, even performing late-in-Side-B cuts like “Lyrics to Go,” which you’ll never hear at a regular Tribe show. The “Midnight Lady” voice popped up from time to time in the set, they did everything on the album except “8 Million Stories,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Keep it Rollin’,” and Q-Tip remarked that Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang came out on the same exact date in 1993.
But the heat came when they brought out Busta Rhymes for “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Award Tour,” which saw Q-Tip running out into the amphitheater and working the fans in a show-stopping, all-star set closer. Tribe, Busta, Jarobi all onstage, simply sliding into place? Um, best part of the festival?
“It’s just like 15 guys all shouting the same thing and shitting on each other’s verses,” remarked a companion before the Wu-Tang Clan came on, and in a way, he was right. Wu-Tang, however, also adhered pretty strictly to the in-its-entirety thing, and it’s pretty thrilling to see all those guys on stage at the same time.
The role of Ol’ Dirty Bastard was filled by Ol’ Dirty’s son, who styled his hair in the same fashion and wore an oversized “R.I.P. ODB” T-shirt. He was clearly the most excited to be on stage, but the Wu held it down, and I tell you, the place was going bazonkers.
“I saw this shit on stage last night,” said MC Supernatural, introducing Snoop Dogg, “and what you’re about to see is epic. It’s like a movie.”
Snoop’s set was the perfect way to end the long day—laid back, entertaining, and for the sonically inclined, perfectly EQed. He had a tricked-out bike and a fire hydrant onstage. He had a picnic table covered in Olde English 40 ozs. He had the entire Dogg Pound (sans Nate Dogg). He had a giant backdrop of the cover to Doggystyle. He had full-budget video interludes to match all the skits on Doggystyle. He had a guy in a gigantic full-body dog suit. He opened with the bathtub skit, had the Lady of Rage deliver “G Funk Intro” and launched majestically into “Gin and Juice,” blunt in hand. It was beautiful.
Snoop also really took time to paint a picture of where he was at when making the record. He explained that “Gs Up, Hoes Down” had to be taken off the record due to sample clearance issues. He told the story of proposing “Ladi Dadi” to Dr. Dre: “When I was working on this album, Doggystyle, I told Dr. Dre I wanted to do something that’d never been done before. I wanted to redo this song I loved when I was a kid. And he said, ‘Okay, but we gonna fuck with it.’”
By the whole crew exiting the stage after every few songs, the set had the feel of a theatrical play, divided into acts and narrated by the Greek chorus of video interludes. And yet it was when Snoop broke the fourth wall that the show carried most of its weight. “Who here really did buy Doggystyle when it came out?” he asked. “Who had it on cassette? Who had it on wax? Who had it on CD? Were CDs even out? I was scared of the CD, man, I had the motherfuckin’ tape. Yeah. East side, G side.”
Warren G performed “Regulate” to represent the non-Snoop hits of the era, and the whole Dogg Pound even performed the posse cut “Stranded on Death Row,” from The Chronic. (“We wanted to show the world that we weren’t just gangsta rappers, but that we were MCs.”) And even though he ended with “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock,” the set was a very well-done, heartfelt homage to a groundbreaking, bygone era.
“Doggystyle, man,” Snoop mused, near the end. “This shit is crazy. All my people on stage right here? I’m havin’ a moment right here.”
More Photos Below. (more…)
After a Bohemian article in March of this year, quite a few readers found resonance in the outsider music of Jack Attack, a.k.a. Jack Springs, a high-functioning mentally retarded heavy metal fan who works rounding up shopping carts at G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa. The story of his trials growing up and finding catharsis in music was incredible to me, and his music, posted previously here, even more so.
So it makes me happy to share more of Jack’s music today. I’ve gotten his most recent recording, and along with themes about his soul no longer being destroyable, his rights being violated and his position as a singing God, he includes a timeless warning to the arachnid species.
Dear readers, here’s Jack Attack’s newest hit, “I Hate Spiders”:
I’ll get to the bands, but the first thing anyone noticed, surely, is the freak scene outside the gates of Outside Lands. It’s what you’d envision concerts in the park to be like back when concerts in the park were free. In the short walk between parking my bike (thanks, SF Bike Coalition) and the main entry, I was offered $2 beers from a stack of 12-packs piled on a skateboard, $1 pot cookies from a brown grocery bag, yelled at by a woman for no reason who shouted “KEEP LAUGHING! THIS STAND-UP COMEDY ACT AIN’T FREE!,” warned to get out of the way while security caught and escorted out an unsucessful gate-crasher, watched in amazement at a sprinting, successful gate-crasher, and had to tell a guy no, but thanks, I’d rather you not super-soak my arm.
Then it’s over the hill and into the festival, with corporate booths (“Free Rolling Stone T-Shirts!”; no takers), even more corporate tents (the “Chase Freedom Lounge,” yeah right, like anyone thinks a credit card gives you freedom) and no free water except from the lovely people staffing the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic’s Rock Med table. I’ll say it until the day I die: All festivals should have a free drinking fountain. At least a garden hose, man.
The night before, I’d DJed this really ridiculously epic wedding reception at the Union Hotel in Occidental, and the exact feeling that festivals aim to provide—Everyone United Through Music!™—was undeniable in a tiny little redwood-lined ballroom. It was fun, but honestly, I don’t know that Everyone United Through Music!™ is such a desirable goal, because the more people united in their excitement over a band, the greater the chances of that band being pretty lame and middle-of-the-road. On a semi-related note, there’s no way around the fact that this year’s Outside Lands lineup is the weakest yet.
Mayer Hawthorne killed it. I’ve got a weariness of the oversaturated retro-soul train perennially chugging out of the same station for the last ten years, but there’s no denying Hawthorne’s enthusiasm. The crowd was in the palm of his hands—he stopped, held up one finger, they cheered; he shook the hell out of his tambourine, they cheered; he got everyone to imitate rain with their fingers, they cheered. Impeccably dressed in a custom suit, Hawthorne had a great band with vintage analog gear, synchronized backup dancers and three-part backing harmonies.
“I love records, I’m a vinyl junkie,” Hawthorne said at one point. “Y’all got one of the best record stores in the universe here—Amoeba.” He’s right! He then related a funny story about being mistaken by an autograph seeker, in the aisles at Amoeba, for Michael Bublé. Who knows if the story was really true, but you can kind of see the resemblance.
The Devil Makes Three are great, and always have been great, and it’s nice to see them finally selling out shows and getting props. Theirs is an instructional story for bands on taking the very slow, hardworking path, which is also a story about taking the very broke, no-money-havin’ path. I’d heard from a friend who saw their packed show at the Independent a couple nights before that they’d gotten “loose” and “noodley,” which actually sounded cool, but at Outside Lands no loose noodles answered the roll-call.
They opened with “For Good Again,” a sardonic story about communal living and starting a band, and there are some lines in that song which define the Devil Makes Three for me: “Everybody who’s anybody, in my opinion,” sings Pete Bernhard, “at one time lived in somebody’s hallway.” Lines like that are comfort food for punkhouse graduates, and even though I technically never lived in a hallway, I thought about my days living in the laundry room, or the attic, or the garage, or the closet, or the unfinished frame house, and felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Pete.
Then I saw a man with his shirt wide open. He had two bellybuttons. No kidding.
So like I said, there’s a lot of corporate tents at Outside Lands. In these tents, there’s DJs, or free wi-fi, or short performances in intimate settings by bands who are playing the larger stages. The only thing is that to get into these tents, you have to own a certain kind of credit card, or “like” a stupid brand on Facebook, or sign up for spam email, or utter a cringe-worthy phrase like “Let’s go to ‘Inspire’ by Heineken.” (Also, what the hell were those plastic stove knob things that Chase was handing out? Does anyone know? For real. I saw them all over the ground 20 feet after the dude was handing them out. No one knew what they were. Total sense this made = 0.)
That said, KUSF is a kickass radio station. Their Outside Lands tent was open to everyone, free of irritating marketing, and when I walked by the Budos Band was rocking a tiny stage. The bassist played his bass in this ridiculous upside-down fashion, and the bari sax player looked possessed at times. A little bit Mulatu, a little bit Fela, all Daptone, really tight grooves, and a nice surprise on the way to Janelle Monáe. It was great!
(Note to KUSF: I just wanna say that by NOT making me sign up for anything to chill in your tent, you have earned my loyalty and respect. See how it works in the 21st Century? There’s no jobs out there because no companies are making any money, so companies pump up their marketing team until everyone’s so nauseatingly sick from the onslaught of marketing that only a complete lack of marketing achieves the desired result of the public subconscious reacting positively to your brand, but I digress. The Budos Band is cool as shit and KUSF is wonderful.)
Janelle Monáe wins the showmanship prize of the year based on her Outside Lands set alone, and to think she does it night after night after night is unreal. Even her soundman was rocking out—like, hard—and he’s someone who watches this happen every night, over and over. Janelle Monáe! Whose brain works as fast as hers? Whose body works fast enough to receive lightning-fast impulses from said brain? Who can sing, rap dance in just one show? (Kangol, Mr. Sophisticata, but I digress yet again.)
Monáe was fifteen minutes late due to a late flight, a fact that no one’s going to remember because her set ruled. She took to the stage in a black hooded cape, sang the hell out of her songs, danced up a tornado and laid forth a watertight case for stardom. When “Tightrope” first hit, I couldn’t shake Monáe’s very formal, clean presentation. There was something eerily obedient in her manner, as if her talent had been refined and polished beyond normal human behavior. But contrary to the unwritten code of alleged musical “purity,” talent doesn’t have to sloppy to be authentic, and trained singers can also be great singers. Seeing Monáe live reinforces these concepts.
I had been staring at the stage, covered in instrument cables, wondering if Monáe might accidentally step on one and slip while dancing. Alas, she’s got this problem solved by putting a special dance riser in front of the drums, which also meant that people way in the back could see Monáe’s dizzying footwork. She turned in a memorable set, to say the least, including Chaplin’s “Smile,” probably the greatest song about depression ever written. When she ended with “Tightrope,” I walked around the crowd and came upon a dude who was doing backflips and smoking a joint at the same time. Amazing.
Al Green was on his game.
I last saw Al Green in Sonoma, turning in a smooth, by-the-numbers show for middle-aged wine drinkers. It was great, but man, it was so refreshing to see the guy in front of thousands of kids in tight jeans and neon Ray-Bans. Especially when there’s a lot of retro-soul acts here today—Janelle Monáe, Mayer Hawthorne, the Budos Band—it’s nice to have Al Green arrive to show them how it’s done.
In a routine that’s familiar by now, he took the stage, throwing out dozens of roses and repeatedly saying “I love you.” It may be routine, but when Green does it, it doesn’t feel like schtick. He implored the crowd to sing along. He shouted out California. He wished for stairs leading down into the crowd and made fun of the “paparazzi” in the photo pit. He genuinely wanted to make a connection with people. I’d say he succeeded.
There are things you forgive Al Green. Taking a swig of Gatorade partway through the second verse of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of them. (The chorus, which everyone knows by heart and sings loudly, would be a much more appropriate spot to take a break.) Performing snippets of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Bring It on Home to Me” and “My Girl” instead of his own songs is another. Why? Because his history, which is weighty in itself, is matched by his current-day pipes and patter. Wailing gospel high notes, hip-bumping to the downbeat, blowing kisses to the ladies—just owning it.
Afterwards, from the direction of Speedway Meadow, we saw a swarm of bodies who for some reason chose to watch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes instead of Al Green, and I usually don’t pity people for following their internal compass, but man.
Garage a Trois. Last song. “1969” by the Stooges. The vibraphone player, Mike Dillon, reached over for a mic and bumped some percussion, which toppled to the floor. A sound guy approached, like he was going to reprimand the guy. Dillon saw him coming and executed a flying, head-first leap over the vibes, crashing to the ground and knocking over more stuff. He got up and dry-humped Skerik, the saxophone player. Then he kicked Skerik in the head. Noticing the mic had come unplugged, he threw it up in the air and into the crowd. It was nuts.
When the song was over, the soundmen looked relieved.
Once upon a time there was a band called Chromeo. The best moment of Chromeo’s set came when a ton of people outside the festival banded together on JFK drive and crashed through the fence. A cheer emitted from the crowd when dozens of people made it in without paying. (Watch the video here.) If you lived through the 1980s you’ve heard Chromeo before. The end.
Painfully apparent when Phoenix kicked off with “Lizstomania” was that Thomas Mars was singing along to a doubled backing track. Ouch! Except everyone was going so nuts they probably didn’t notice. The coolly detached Mars hopped into the crowd, whipping people into even further of a frenzy. I wonder what the poll results would be if each fan at the gates was asked if Phoenix should be headlining instead of Kings of Leon.
Nas: Yankees hat. Damian Marley: Dreads down to the floor. Hype man: Waving a Lion of Judah flag. Backing band: Solid. Backup singer: Wearing a Bob Marley T-Shirt. Work it, baby!
Damian Marley shouted something about legal marijuana, and the field went nuts. I missed it, but according to the East Bay Express, Nas at one point called Africa a “country.”
“I’m lookin’ out in this crowd,” declared Mike Ness, in that oh-so-Mike-Ness way (see: Live at the Roxy), “and I’m seein’ some scary lookin’ criminals… If any of you out there are considering a life of crime, I seriously discourage it!” Sure thing, Mike.
Zen moments come at unexpected times. Social Distortion playing “Ring of Fire” was one of them. Why did it move me? What about it was special that wasn’t, the dozens of other times I’ve heard it? I can’t say. Especially when Mike Ness gave it this strange introduction about Johnny Cash: “This was written by one of my heroes! He’s not a hero because he had great hair or wore all black, but because there was a time in this country where people thought good white music could exist without black music! I tell ya, without this guy we’d all be sittin’ on the front porch blowing into a jug tryin’ to make a tune!”
I’d never seen Social Distortion. When I was 13 and didn’t know anything about music I’d go to the Wherehouse in the mall and look at the cassette tapes, selecting my purchase based entirely on the names of the bands. This is how I wound up with Killer Klowns From Outer Space by the Dickies, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death by the Dead Kennedys, and Prison Bound by Social Distortion. I thought Social Distortion was a raw name, and was kind of bummed when I got home to find it was basically country music instead of thrash.
Kings of Leon were up next, but so was RVIVR across town at Thee Parkside. I guarantee you that a thousand birds could shit on RVIVR’s heads and they’d keep playing. You can’t say the same for Kings of Leon, so I hopped on my bike and rode back to my car at Ocean Beach. I love this part of Golden Gate Park. It’s downhill all the way, past the buffalo and the casting pools and the archery field, and out on the Great Highway the sun and the fog and the water made a beautiful canvas behind that huge wooden windmill.
More Photos Below. (more…)
As reported earlier, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s Board of Directors last month fired festival founder and artistic director Jessica Felix. And guess what? People were mad! Musicians who played the festival vowed to return only if Felix was back on as artistic director, sponsors who contributed $25,000 per year pledged to cease their financial support in Felix’s absence, and fans lamented the very plain and obvious fact that firing Felix is tantamount to ripping out the heart of the festival.
All this happened in the comments section of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s website. It was a lively forum of voices—mostly smart, some funny, all of them upset—but apparently, it was too much for the Board of Directors to handle. All the comments were removed from the site yesterday. Says the home page: “For further comments, please email us at [email protected]”
I’ve made my opinions on the matter of Felix’s firing pretty clear so far, but this latest action of erasing people’s public comments is completely atrocious. So with the aid of Google cache, here’s the collected 46 comments that were taken down from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s site. Click through below to read them all, and feel free to continue to comment below.
[UPDATE: It worked! Felix is back and so is the festival. Read here.]