How thrilled was I for the opportunity to take my young niece to the circus! Yes, the fond memories of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ still linger in my mind as warm assurances of a childhood well spent. Never had I thought, as a lad, that I might one day be on the opposite end of this great tradition: a torch-bearer passing down to a generation anew the excitement of the traveling circus under the big top.
And yet the occasion was dew-dropped with sorrow. The circus has changed quite drastically in such a short span. I hardly recognized it. The brothers Ringling have nothing to fear in the poor competition presented by this newfangled “Britney Spears” circus of today.
We entered the arena in anticipation alongside droves of like-minded circus fans, bought our popped corn and cotton candy, and found our seats in the grandstand. When the curtain was raised, a group of female acrobats in clown makeup called the “Pussycat Dolls” filled the center ring, but they performed no somersaults, no balancing act, nor did they treat the children in attendance to any aerial trickery.
Instead, the acrobats moved their pelvises in ways that made me think they had to go to the bathroom. This hunch was proved correct when each girl ran to a pole and squeezed her legs around it. Why is there no bathroom provided for the performers? Circus budgets are so tight these days.
In my youth, the circus was a nonstop show. But when the poor Pussycat acrobats left the stage, there was nothing. Certainly, thought I, Merle Evans will march in with the opening strains of “Thunder and Blazes,” followed by wagons of lions; or a caravan of unicycles will charge the arena; or, if fate does smile on us, a motorcycle “globe of death” will roll into the ring.
Instead, a large screen showed moving pictures of the circus. Moving pictures! I could not believe the indignity! The surrounding children in our section seemed content to occupy themselves by staring at their telephones and hitting the small devices with their thumbs, but I was incensed. This was not what I had paid $150 for!
After this half-hour mockery, the lights went out and more live circus tricks ensued, erasing the sour feelings. A clan of jugglers flung clubs into the air! A prancing maiden navigated dozens of hula-hoops! Two strongmen hoisted a nimble gymnast into flights of fancy! All those seated in the grandstands were tickled and on their feet in glee.
Unfortunately, the main attraction of this particular circus was the elephant, who I believe was advertised as a “singer.” Upon the elephant’s entrance, the small children cheered wildly. Yet to the more wizened it was very apparent that the elephant, replete with jovial blonde wig, was not singing at all but only moving its mouth in time with the loudspeakers!
From that point forward, the singing-imposter elephant took center ring. Clowns surrounded the elephant and held their bladders while horrendous crashes of noise mixed with the “songs.” Trapeze artists dangled from the ceiling, unmoving, while the elephant ambled slowly to and fro in a cornucopia of silly outfits.
After an hour, an unknown defect created a gigantic electric malfunction in the circus apparatus, causing sparks to fly onto the rings, and the performance was over. What a disappointment!
I do hope the Ringling Bros. circus comes to town soon. I would relish a chance to show my niece the true spirit of the big-top instead of this shoddy knock-off currently being peddled across the country.
Here it is—the lineup for the 2009 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, August 28-30, 2009:
Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Beastie Boys, M.I.A., Mars Volta, Modest Mouse, Ween, Thievery Corporation, Black Eyed Peas, TV on the Radio, Atmosphere,Q-Tip, Bettye LaVette, Raphael Saadiq, the Dodos, Built to Spill, Deerhunter, Mastodon, Calexico, Os Mutantes, Tom Jones, Band of Horses, the National, Akron/Family, the Dead Weather, Silversun Pickups, Robert Randolph, Brett Dennen, Midnite, Jason Mraz, JJ Grey & Mofro, Kinky, Lila Downs, Trombone Shorty, Dengue Fever, Heartless Bastards, the Dirtbombs, Lenka, Incubus, John Vanderslice, Matt & Kim, Portugal, the Man, the Morning Benders, the Duke Spirit, Zee Avi, Blind Pilot, Sambada, Ryan Bingham, West Indian Girl and Extra Golden. Whew!
Advance three-day passes are $200-$226. My friend Kim writes to take issue with this year’s “layaway” ticket pricing option, no doubt geared to help those in the struggling economy:
Look – I get that the tickets are too expensive for some people who would want to go. Giving them an option to spread out the cost over a few months is, on the surface of it, a nice convenience. But charging them an additional $35 for it? Could it possibly cost that much to run the card a few times? I don’t really know how much Visa & Mastercard charge, but it seems unlikely to be that much. If I’m wrong, then all apologies, but if not, then OL is charging poor people more money for the same exact ticket.
If you have to spread the cost of the ticket over a certain amount of time, shouldn’t you just do that on your own and buy it when you have the money? The whole thing seems totally predatory to me.
And get a load of this:
IMPORTANT: If, for any reason, any of your payments are declined, in whole or in part, then all of the following will apply: (i) your order and your tickets will be cancelled (ii) any payment received as of that date will be kept by Outside Lands as partial offset for your default, (iii) you will still owe the balance of the full amount due for each ticket and you authorize Musictoday and Outside Lands to charge your credit card for any balance due, (iv) Musictoday and Outside Lands will be entitled to pursue all of their legal and equitable remedies to recover the full payment from you, and (v) you agree to pay all costs of collection incurred by Musictoday or Outside Lands, including legal fees, that they may incur in collecting the balance of each ticket price. Payment plan tickets are subject to all of the other terms of the ticketing agreement.
Mismanage your account or have unexpected expenses, and not only do you lose your ticket, but you’re still liable for the full price.
I suppose this is a good time to remind people that festivals very rarely sell out, and that one-day tickets will surely be made available at some point, just like last year. If you’re raring to be the first on your block to buy tickets, they go on sale April 15.
A month after the City of Santa Rosa changed the zoning code to make it harder for all-ages venues to open downtown comes the disappointing news that the Orchard Spotlight, a historic church and acoustic performance space, has been forced by the City to cancel all of their upcoming concerts.
The music has been quiet. The attendees have been well-behaved. The neighbors haven’t complained. So what’s the deal?
Last week, the Orchard Spotlight hosted Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, an underground legend who drew a large line on the sidewalk, causing a nosy tipster driving by to notify the city. “It wasn’t like they were even complaining,” says Spotlight co-owner Linda Rose-McRoy, “they just called with an inquiry, saying, ‘We saw this line outside of 515 Orchard. We wondered if that was okay.’ Like, duh!”
Rose-McRoy and co-owner Cheryl Ulrich met soon after with the Community Development department and were informed that entertainment at the Orchard Spotlight violates the area’s residential zoning. “We’ve known for a while that there were going to be some zoning questions here,” says McRoy, mentioning certain loopholes to stay loosely legal—registering on the Internet as a church, for example, and holding “mass” at 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights. “But Cheryl and I are the kind of people who don’t like feeling we have to continually look over our shoulder,” she adds. “But we’re also not giving up.”
What’s exciting is that “not giving up” involves working with the Arts District and the City Council to get a variance in zoning to allow entertainment at the venue. Vicky Kumpfer, coordinator of the Arts District, thinks it’s possible. “This is really an interesting opportunity to try to make this viable, and to work within the law,” says Kumpfer. “Yes, we have these laws, but is there a way that we can make a certain exemption?”
What the issue comes down to, then, is the neighbors, and so far, the Cherry Street neighborhood association has been supportive of the Orchard Spotlight. If that continues to be the case, and if the City is willing to honor their General Plan guideline to “consider the diverse cultural needs and talents of the community,” we may see the Orchard Spotlight rise again. “It’s just gorgeous,” Rose-McRoy says of the space. “It’s so moving, because it was built in redwood, for sound, for the human voice! I love it, it just makes me tingle all over. And so we’re not giving up.”
Did you ever in a million years think you’d have a job making fun of TV?
No. I did not make this plan. It’s very strange, because I was always highly opinionated about pretty much about anything. I was one of those guys who was always like, “Your favorite band sucks!” So I would yell back at the TV all the time. The fact that someone would pay me for it? And that I’m not sitting around in my underwear yelling? Its just a hoot. I never would have thought it.
So many people watch TV these days—especially with the glut of reality shows—and say, “I know it’s awful, but I’m addicted to it.” Do you understand where they’re coming from?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of Schadenfreude. It’s like, “Look at these freaks.” I see the morbid fascination; it’s the Gladiator aspect of wanting to see people fall apart. The shows are becoming so insane, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in twenty years.
After that girl taking a shit on the stairs on Flavor of Love, where is there really to go?
That was an incredible moment in television. And then her excuse was just tremendous! She’s like, “Well, I had to go, and then I started walking up the stairs, and then that happened.” That doesn’t happen to normal people! Normal people, that does not happen to. Something is wrong with you, ma’am. And what a surprise you got on a reality show with Flavor Flav.
Where do you think television’s gonna be twenty years from now?
I’m gonna say Live Sponsored Executions. It’ll be like Monday Night Football.
Do you think your job on The Soup, then, is important?
Well, it’s definitely important to pay my mortgage, and clothe the children and things like that. I… gosh, I have not really thought about that.
Well, culturally, do you think society needs someone to point out that what they’re addicted to is ridiculous?
I don’t know. Television is out of control, and a morally bankrupt place. To comment on that is good. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s not stupid. There’s a lot of things on TV that suck, and they’re very popular, and kids love ‘em. When we make fun of an MTV show and go, “Hey Mom and Dad, it’s on after school!”—I feel like that’s a good comment. Or like a few weeks ago, VH1 was running promos for Black History Month. They’d run this very beautifully done promo with a lot of still photographs of African-Americans, in America, with beautiful music behind it, saying, “This is Black History Month, send in your photos and you could be a part of this campaign!” We just put Rock of Love and Charm School and Surreal Life—we just put a bunch of footage from that behind that very same music, showing how African-Americans are portrayed on VH1 shows. We felt like that was good. We love calling bullshit on things, but we don’t want it to be heavy-handed, or no one would watch. We still want it to be as funny as possible.
How do you deal with celebrities who get mad at The Soup? Is Tyra Banks still constantly pissed off at you?
We ignore it until they try to sue us, which really hasn’t happened. She’s the only one who’s tried to legally stop us, but almost without exception, there’s been very few really upset with us, from what I can tell. I know that David Hasselhoff is not a big fan, but he shouldn’t have gotten totally wasted and started shoving tacos in his mouth! It’s like, what do you expect us to do? We never go after people because we have a vendetta; we try to let their clips hang themselves. Like, we don’t make much fun of Oprah until she talks about her vajayjay. Because for the most part, Oprah’s show is great, and reasonable, and she’s a reasonable person, and she does good topics. But you know, when you have Tyra saying she’s afraid of dolphins, we’re gonna make fun of it!
Were you surprised when the Karsashians agreed to be on the show the other night?
Kind of! We’ve been relentless against them. I did learn that Bruce Jenner hates me, which. . . I don’t blame him. But you know, when someone comes on the show, I’m kind of like, “Hey, that was really cool.” So we probably won’t go after them the way we do. Of course, Kim has that sex tape, which is crazy, and which we have made relentless fun of. But they were all really cool, and I liked them. Hopefully they’ll come back.
How much of The Soup is written by writers, or written by you beforehand, or written by you on the spot, ad-libbed?
The whole script is written out, by the writers. I used to write way more than I do now—my schedule has become so crazy. But I rewrite the script on Wednesday night for how I want it to sound, and then on the floor I let it go and do a lot of improvising. You can’t just walk out and start riffing, because it’s 22 minutes of television, and it has to be very tight. So if something doesn’t work, or goes on too long, we stop and go back and get a new joke. For the most part, we try to tape it without stopping. The writers are so tremendous that there’s no need to improvise a lot of times. I’m not able to watch the amount of TV I used to watch, either. It used to be awful. I used to watch four to six hours a day and it was just killing me. It became a chore. My wife would be like, “Can’t you go do…” I was like, “I’m literally working! I’m literally working, watching this show, this Extreme Makeover: Home Edition two-hour special. Again. I have to do this, hon. Don’t disturb me!” It was really weird.
I assume the show now has people whose job it is to watch TV.
Yeah, we have twelve staff members and a few interns that are watching TV all the time. And we have to cover the things like Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, all those things. You know, the Rock of Loves and the Charm Schools are really easy lay-ups to make fun of. But it’s the shows like Dutch Oven, and I Love Toy Trains, and Korean Drama—literally called Korean Drama—it’s those shows that I really love covering, because they’re so off the regular map. I love it. Like, I Love Toy Trains is a show! I love that!
Part of your charm on The Soup is that fantastic, Conan O’Brien-ish self-deprecation.
Well, he’s a genius.
Does that style—“What am I doing here? Why am I on this show?”—does that come naturally for you? Or in real life are you actually a total egomaniac?
I was raised Catholic, so I grew up with all that guilt. That helped. I think anybody raised Catholic is self-deprecating to a point, where you think basically, if all’s going well, at some point the wheels are going to fall off and everything will be a disaster. And anything you get on top of that is a bonus, so you’re like, hey, this is working out great! But I think you can’t be a jerk, or people will not tune in to watch. I’m not putting on an air, but you just have to approach the show with a light heart, and not take it too seriously.
And not be afraid to dress up like Rainbow Brite.
Right! Anything for comedy!
My gay friends are all in love with you. As a married man, how do you react to that kind of adulation?
I love lesbians! Oh, wait, you’re talking about gay men! Well, I love gay men. Just pull that right out, pull that soundbite out. Having a gay following is great, because they seem to have all the money, they’re definitely the best dressed, and the most in shape. So that makes me very happy. And what’s great is that they’re very loyal fans. Lately we’ve been having Matt the intern come out, and he is always covered in oil, it seems now. He’s been doing interviews with a couple of gay websites, and he was addressed as a “greasy treat.” Which, I think, is really funny. But no one ever talks about my enormous straight following! Or, my enormous hermaphrodite following. That’s so sad.
You grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. How did you weather the grunge storm?
“Weather the grunge storm?!” I think grunge is the greatest music of all time!
Yeah! I really disliked big hair metal, I just never got into it. I spent most of my time listening to the Beatles, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M.—a lot of alternative stuff. I just could not stand all those big hair bands. Then grunge came in when I was in college, and it was the greatest four years in Seattle. Nirvana is, I think, one of the best all-time bands ever. I actually saw their last show in Seattle, and it was tremendous, it was for the In Utero tour. I’ve seen Pearl Jam almost every time they come through here, and Soundgarden. Mother Love Bone, way back when. I loved that time, and I knew no different growing up in Seattle. Bands were just playing everywhere all the time, because Seattle was not a stop for any of the big acts; they would go up to Vancouver because it was a bigger and, at that time, more metropolitan city. Seattle had to make their own music. I mean, to think that a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt became popular is nutty. It’s ridiculous! But it did what it did—it shut down the entire hair-band industry, and Sebastian Bach was left without a job for a while. And now he’s on a reality show.
Did you ever hop in your car and drive down Broadway on Capitol Hill listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?
“My Posse’s on Broadway!” I have done it! I did it in high school, I admit it! That was the great thing—obviously Sir Mix-a-Lot’s music wasn’t grunge, but it was so Seattle. He made all these local references, so you kinda felt like, this guy! He’s ours! The same thing with Sleater-Kinney, which is an actual place outside of Seattle. “Baby Got Back” is still one of the biggest hits of all time. And going to Dick’s Drive-In on Broadway is still the best burger in the world.
So, your standup show in Santa Rosa coming up. Is it like The Soup at all?
It is. I don’t bring a monitor out and make fun of things, but I talk a lot about pop culture, I talk a lot about behind the scenes at E!, and I can go into a little more depth than I do in The Soup. That’s half the show, and the other half I’m talking about my life, and my family, which is a nutty, nutty place. So it’s half-and-half, there’s something for everyone. And then I take my pants off.
Joel McHale comes to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday, April 11 for two shows, at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets, $39.50 each, can be bought here.
Where do you go as an artist when you
don’t have anything fresh to say never had anything fresh to say in the first place? Awkwardly combine Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” with Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” and catapult yourself into loserdom where you always belonged?
Behold, Eminem’s comeback, littered with tired-ass pop culture references and a grating fake-Middle-Eastern-by-way-of-fake-British accent. It’ll totally bum you out, whether you’re a longtime fan or even if, like some of us, you always hated his overrated guts.
“It’s nice to see so many health food stores in Santa Rosa,” announced Jesse Michaels partway through the set by his band, Classics of Love. “Santa Rosa used to be known for something else.”
That thing, of course, was meth, which propelled an entire generation of thrash bands to play as fast as humanly possible while growling unintelligible, moronic lyrics. Jesse, of course, was affected by the drug in other ways; by writing some of the greatest lyrics of all time with Operation Ivy, and singing them in such a controlled, rapid-fire way that evoked chemical desperation as much as unbridled joy. Who knew Jesse equated Santa Rosa with meth? I mean, except for Capitalist Casualties?
“Let’s dedicate this next one to Victims Family, what the hell,” he continued, launching into “Time Flies,” just one of many actual great songs. Folks can disagree for hours about Big Rig and Common Rider, but let the bickering end—Classics of Love is easily Jesse’s best post-OpIvy band. The singing is in tune, his guitar playing’s right on, and his backing band is great. I’d heard stories about his faltering solo shows, but after their maiden voyage tour coming up, I’d wager to say that Classics of Love will be a well-oiled force to be reckoned with.
Jesse shouted out the Cotati Cabaret, hoping that people might remember. Some did.
The rare treat of seeing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last night in their first-ever concert together wasn’t one easily passed up. Not by the sold-out crowd; not by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who ambled in with trademark cowboy hat and cane; and not by—brace yourselves, folks—Cher, who sat in the sixth row.
What in the world was Cher doing at a Merle Haggard / Kris Kristofferson show in Santa Rosa? We may never know. What’s for sure is that she, along with fans that capped the night with an epic five-minute standing ovation, witnessed two bona fide heroes of country music give a performance at turns tender, humorous, poignant, insightful, and above all, intimate.
Let’s just hope Cher wasn’t the woman who yelled out for “Me & Bobby McGee” a few songs after Kristofferson had already played it.
The 1,400-capacity Wells Fargo Center has a historic knack for achieving a living room-like atmosphere for acoustic music. They did it with the Landmine Free World concert in 1999 with Steve Earle, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffith and Bruce Cockburn; they did it with the two Elvis Costello / Steve Nieve concerts they’ve hosted; they did it with the Texas songwriter night in 2005 with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely; and they did it last night by closing the stage curtain and presenting Haggard and Kristofferson front and center.
When Merle Haggard played at the Center last year, electric, he drew a shitkickin’, Copenhagen-dippin’, cheap perfume-wearin’ crowd. This tour was different. Instead of a parking lot scene with greasy dudes in Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts smoking joints, it welcomed wine tour limousines and sixty-somethings gingerly stepping out of Oldsmobiles. The performance itself suited the new audience: pensive, slow, and mortal.
“If there’s a Hall of Fame for heroes in heaven, this man’s definitely on his way,” said Kristofferson, introducing Haggard after opening the show with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.” Added Haggard, fresh from successful lung cancer surgery: “Between the two of us there’s about 150 years of experience here.”
Those expecting a “Storytellers”-type show, with Haggard and Kristofferson sitting down with acoustic guitars and swapping tales about the Army (Kristofferson), prison (Haggard), Louisiana oil rigs (Kristofferson) or stealing Buck Owens’ wife (Haggard) got something far better: a run-down of the two giants’ greatest songs backed by an elegant, semi-acoustic version of Haggard’s band, the Strangers. (Turns out Haggard must have won the battle.) As for storytelling, most of the night’s commentary got squeezed between lines of the songs themselves.
Kristofferson, during “Nobody Wins”: “George Bush and Dick Cheney were singin’ this song in the shower together.”
Haggard, during “Sing Me Back Home”: “This goes out to all the ex-convicts. It’s every convict’s dream to be an ex-convict.”
Kristofferson, during “Best of All Possible Worlds”: “Did you know that here in the USA, the land of the free, we got more people behind bars than any other country on the planet? That’s right, boy. We’re #1.”
Haggard, during “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: “I feel like a stripper without a G-string!”
Yes, the two were very funny together, but also incredibly warm, and wise. It’s not uncommon for former hellraisers entering life’s twilight, particularly in country music, to embrace a life-lesson empathy. When I spoke with Kristofferson last year, he elaborated: “There is a freedom in accepting the fact that there is a difference at this end of the road,” he told me. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends and heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon, I’ve watched ‘em slip and fall. And be gone. And it’s gonna happen to all of us. So I think the acceptance of it gives you a freedom to be less critical of yourself when you make mistakes, and to not be so hard on others.”
Warmth like that was conveyed on stage last night so often, it sometimes outperformed the fantastic songs. Check the set list below—there were nearly 30 of ‘em. The selections played off each other cleverly, as Haggard ran with the torch of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and answered, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Kristofferson pleaded to help him make it through the night; Haggard, up next, just wanted to make it through December.
Yes, it was a considerable union. To see Kristofferson sing backups on Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and a reworked verse in “Okie From Muskogee,” or to have Haggard play his ranchero-style nylon guitar solos on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was truly exciting. By the end, after the two had finished “Why Me Lord,” the standing ovation seemed endless. No one could believe it when five minutes later, the house lights came up.
(Afterward, Cher was quickly escorted behind velvet ropes into a tinted-window SUV. Kristofferson obliged a waiting crowd of about 50 with autographs and gracious conversation, and Haggard stayed put on his bus until it rumbled, slowly lurched forward through the parking lot, and breezed into Highway 101 for the next town.)
Photos by Elizabeth Seward.
Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
He’s a Pilgrim
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord
A couple days ago I asked if there was anyone besides Biz Markie who felt that hip-hop and golf go together. I got my answer: T-Pain. According to reports, T-Pain busted out four teeth in a golf cart accident over the weekend, forcing the rappa-ternt-robot-sanga to cancel his appearance with Lil’ Wayne in San Jose.
“There’s a lot of talk that I flipped over in a golf cart,” T-Pain told the crowd in Universal City, returning to the stage on Sunday night, “That’s fuckin’ true. It did happen, like three days ago. My ass is on fire right now. My side hurt, my mouth hurt… I’d show you the marks, but I don’t wanna pull my pants down right now.”
T-Pain confirmed that he got four teeth fixed in an emergency dental procedure, and that his golf cart actually flipped over. This surprises me, since when I saw him last year with Lil’ Wayne, he navigated a Segway around the stage with great accuracy. Maybe just golf-path rage? Don’t let those double bogeys get you down, T-Pain!
In related news, Andre 3000, who very much needs to finish his long-delayed new album instead of working on his fashion line, was clocked driving 109 mph in his Porsche. This makes me love him even more, for some reason. And Stephen Jackson, who provides some of the most entertaining interviews on TV, throws himself a birthday party at Mezzanine in SF this Friday before having toe surgery next week, effectively knocking him out of the rest of the Warriors season. The headliner, coming correct for Crazytalk Jackson, is none other than Snoop Dogg.
I watched Mannequin last night. I cannot think about Mannequin without thinking of Ween, who are not a hip-hop group but embody a lot of the same flamboyance and theatricality, and thinking of their song “Freedom ’76.” All of the non sequiturs make sense now. Mannequin was filmed in—and Boyz II Men are from—Philadelphia, PA. Actually, I found out last night that Ween must have been high (no surprise) when they wrote “Freedom ’76″: Mannequin was filmed at Wanamaker’s, not Woolworth’s. (Bonus Baby-Boomer Alienation Quote: I still think Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which plays over the closing credits, is better than anything else Grace Slick ever recorded.)
And in a final touch of the inevitable, Green Day’s Grammy-winning punk rockera American Idiot is officially being turned into a musical, to be premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater in September. Every song from American Idiot will factor into the story somehow, and though Green Day is heavily involved in the production, they won’t be on stage. Instead, a cast of 19 will sing the story, with a hired backup band. Weird, huh?
In 1992, when I moved out of my parents’ house to a small apartment on Slater Street, I felt old. Not grown-up old, mind you, but world-weary old. You know the deal. I had a penchant for drinking Cisco mixed with Hawaiian Punch, listening to syrupy, sentimental Reprise-era Frank Sinatra albums like Cycles, and basking in the unique bitterness and nostalgia that only the hardened, grizzled age of 16 brings.
Living in the same town long enough produces some extraordinary occurrences. Tonight, during a spellbinding show at the Orchard Spotlight, Will Oldham provided one in the form of “Cycles,” the Frank Sinatra song that I used to replay over and over just a few blocks away.
“So I’m down, and so I’m out, but so are many others…”
Oldham and his band completely claimed the song as their own, while I, amazed that he’d chosen such an unusual song to cover, thought about age. Do we ever really feel as old as we do when we’re 16? We hit our 30s and all of that hard-earned “wisdom” and half-fledged nostalgia fades away, and we grow ever open to new experiences even as the opportunities for new experiences occur less and less.
What’s happening? Why do we lose our toeholds of self-assurance as we get older? Why do people’s feathers get so ruffled over age? Why is it easier to make young people feel old than it is to make old people feel young? Why don’t young people realize they have the rest of the blobby, unsure, aging world in their hands?
Why does Will Oldham sometimes stand on one leg like a stork?
“I’ve been told, and I believe, that life is meant for livin’…”
Tonight, Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, age 38, played the world-weary music he’s played since he too was a teenager, and showcased perfectly why his live shows are at least twice as good as his albums, if not more. His outstanding band broadcast a new cosmic American music inside the Orchard Spotlight, with crests and turns and tangents and silent forks upon which to dwell on life’s mysteries. His songs ballooned both inward, outward and lateral, and sounded like Oldham’s music has always sounded—wiser than its age.
The sheer fact that Oldham even played the Orchard Spotlight on this trip is impressive enough. This is Oldham’s “real” tour, where instead of playing the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes, like he did in 2004, or Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio, like he did in 2002, he’s playing the Fillmore; there’s commercials on television for his new album, Beware, and almost all his shows are in large theaters. Last year, however, local soundman Ross Harris walked up to him in San Francisco and asked if he’d like to play a beautiful old church in downtown Santa Rosa. Sure, Oldham replied.
Tickets, limited to 130, sold out in about a day, and diehards, begging for extras on Craigslist, flocked from miles around. I met a guy at the show who’d driven all the way from Tahoe. “I saw him once in the middle of a forest outside of Athens, where I used to live,” he told me, more than happy to make the trek to pick up a last-minute ticket at the Last Record Store. “He’s worth a four-hour drive.”
The show began in grand fashion: Oldham, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt, white cap, polyester slacks and no shoes or socks, hit the stage with the squat giddiness of a teenager and launched his band into the Carter Family standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ on Earth,” with each member of his band and the opening band taking verses in a steam-train hootenanny usually reserved for ending instead of opening a set.
“We’re back in the country, building the confusion hill brick by brick,” Oldham announced, referencing the Humboldt County roadside attraction they’d passed earlier in the day. He then asked, to no one in particular, “What was your favorite song growing up?”
“Shout at the Devil!” someone said. “No, no,” Oldham said, “growing up!” “Growin’ Up!” some clever person said. “I Want a New Drug!” said another. “Yellow Submarine,” said yet another. Oldham launched into “Beware Your Only Friend,” the first song from Beware, and midway through began singing, “In the town / Where I was born / Lived a man who sailed the sea…”
When Oldham gets excited, he manifests it in strange ways. He shoves his hands all the way down into his pockets and pulls his pants up to his chest. He yanks his cap off and holds it high with an animated face. He ravels his arms in pretzel-like patterns, and splays them out into the air like a drag queen, and rolls one pant leg up, and throws his head down and sticks his gut out and falls to his knees.
Is it intentional, or improvised? The question could also be asked of his band—his band!—who could thunder down the line like a Southern Pacific for one song (“I Don’t Belong to Anyone”), wander in a semi-Haggard haze for another (“Love Comes to Me”) and then fall apart in beautiful, formless atmosphere for the next (“There Is Something I Have To Say”). Drummer Jim White, often looking like an angry Ron Jeremy, was a particular standout; he’d explore the drum kit like free-jazz pioneer Sunny Murray, nail down hi-hats like Booker T. & the MG’s Al Jackson, Jr., and lay back behind the beat like Tonight’s the Night’s Ralph Molina. Oldham’s band on this tour is exceptional—all of them, truly, were excellently in tune with each other and engaging to watch—but White’s the reason it feels the way it does.
Sometime soon after the semi-gospel coda of “I am Goodbye” and the brilliant reclamation of “Cycles,” Oldham brought out Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, an old tourmate and studio partner who I can only assume lives in Sonoma County now (she played at Aubergine a couple weeks ago, and won a yodeling contest at the Mystic Theater last month). Oldham introduced his band to her, but not to the audience, and had a conversation about her new baby, which slept in the room behind the stage. McCarthy took center stage for most of the rest of the set. They sang the duet “Lay and Love,” and Oldham was happy—he grabbed his big toe and pulled his foot as far behind his back as it could go.
Maybe Oldham stays young by playing old music. Maybe when he sings, during “I Called You Back,” that “the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible,” he’s offering a warning rather than a truth. Sure, we’re getting older. It happens. Let’s bask in it, like we did when we were 16. On nights like this one, this one special night in Santa Rosa, we can spill out of a fantastic show and walk home through the deserted streets, and it’ll feel like everything else for us is possible.
Last December, in an article rounding up last year’s pop-music’s trend towards minimalist production, I mentioned that Terius Nash, a.k.a. The Dream, a producer behind many of last year’s hits, was releasing an album that could not help but make more of a splash than his overlooked debut. I bought the album a couple days ago, and I’m not alone—Love vs. Money debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B / Hip Hop charts and No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 151,000 copies in the first week. That’s not just a splash, it’s a cannonball.
Nash is the songwriter and producer with a hand in Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”—all huge hits that used razor-thin, super-sparse production to great effect. Though few guessed his album would be such a huge commercial hit, everyone agreed it could serve as a harbinger of pop-music production to come. Instead, it disappointingly looks backward and bigger instead of forward and flimsier, and it’s irrevocably marred by an overabundance of Atlanta party-style “Aaaayyy!” and “Oooohhh!” exhortations; it would be forgivable if this was a record made by a producer in 2006. As such, it is 2009, and “Aaaayyy!”s are dated as shit.
Love vs. Money has its moments, though, and they’re amazing. “Kelly’s 12 Play” tips the hat to an obvious influence, while “Sweat it Out” has the man ruminating on his girl’s appearance, advising her to book an appointment with her beautician in order to fix what’s about to get fucked up between the sheets. “Take U Home 2 My Mama” is a proper segue (all the songs overlap and blend hooks) into the album’s finest moment, “Love vs. Money,” layered with thick intermittent bursts of orchestration which sound like spools of magnetic tape pulled through Ampex heads at varying speeds. The sonic texture is as deep as his agony; it’s the antithesis of the razor-pop thinness that The Dream is known for, and it’s undeniable even if you don’t care about the ex-wife, Nivea, and the multi-millionaire rapper, Lil’ Wayne, who inspired it.