Split Pea

Posted by on Dec 11, 2010

Kim Hill is not a household name, and she likes it that way. But for five years, Hill sang with the Black Eyed Peas before quitting over pressures to go more mainstream; they then found the treachery that is Fergie, who would eventually propel them to become the shittiest group in the universe.

Hill moved back to South Central a while ago and keeps a blog about her neighborhood. I appreciate her insights and thoughts on race, poverty and feminism, but I must admit they’re made stronger knowing where she’s been. It’s a reminder of where the Black Eyed Peas came from, and the type of hopeful thinking they so cynically abandoned. Read it here.

Interview: Warren Hellman

Posted by on Dec 9, 2010

Even if the Wronglers were the worst band in the universe, I’d still want to go to their show this weekend, worm my way up front and give a standing ovation to every song simply because of the group’s frontman, Warren Hellman. Hellman, as many may know, is the lovable billionaire who’s made the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a reality in San Francisco for over a decade, at no charge whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the world-famous event every year.

Luckily, the Wronglers aren’t just decent, they’re downright good. But don’t try to tell that to Hellman.

How did you learn the banjo?

Well, first, don’t assume that I’ve learned it! I’ve always loved banjo music, probably for the worst reasons. I’ve loved listening to Earl Scruggs and those guys, but even worse, I’ve always loved listening to the Kingston Trio. Everybody tells me that I shouldn’t admit that, but I like their music, I like their banjo playing. I’ve always liked this kind of music, and I tried to play it for three or four years. I didn’t play it for about 30 years, and now I play as much as I humanly can for the last 10 years.

I heard a rumor you tried to get Pete Seeger to give you lessons at one point.

What happened was pretty straightforward. I was 28 years old, I thought I was an important investment banker, and it took me a long time to realize that “important investment banker” is an oxymoron. So like most people learning to play this type of banjo—that is, old-time double-thumbing—I thought, “Why don’t I take lessons from Pete Seeger?” I’d bought his book, and what I’d learned so far I’d got from his book. So I started trying to call Pete Seeger, and of course he never returned my call. Finally this guy called me and said, “Mr. Hellman, I am Mr. Seeger’s manager. What do you want?” I said, “I’m Warren Hellman, I’m at Lehman Brothers, and I’d really like to take lessons from Pete Seeger.” And he said, “Well, I’d like to hang up.”

Why did you wait so long to debut your banjo playing at the festival?

First I wanted to have some idea that I could play again. It was three or four years after I started taking lessons again. And we’d formed the band. It just seemed to make sense. By the way, you understand that this is the original pay-to-play. I’m putting on the whole goddamn festival so my band can play for 30 minutes on opening day!

How often do you guys get together to rehearse?

Hourly. Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad said, “You guys rehearse more than any band I’ve ever seen or heard anywhere.” I said, “Yeah, but look at how far we have to go!” We rehearse twice a week, sometimes for four or five hours. All the rest of the musicians have gotten really good. All but one. Which is why I don’t even introduce myself when we’re playing.

How does it feel being asked to play shows apart from the festival now?

I keep saying that the best moment of my life was when we played in South by Southwest last year, and the day after we played, I was sitting listening to Buddy Miller when a guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey, aren’t you with the Wronglers?” I said, “Shit, man, for 40 years I was an investment banker, and not one person ever recognized me anyplace.” The guy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. What’s your name?” I said, “Man, you’ve just made my life!”

You’re such a hero to all the performers at the festival. Are they still heroes to you?

One of my partners was on a television show a couple weeks ago, where it was him and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Somebody said, “Does that make you jealous?” I said, “No, but if he was on a show with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, that’d really piss me off.” I know this sounds too gushy or too starry-eyed, but I think the nicest collection of people I’ve met in my life are all these performers. I don’t know. Maybe because it’s such a tough way to make a living or something. I was in the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine for a lot of years, where not only did most people dislike their competitors, they even disliked the people they worked with!

You’ve been an investment banker, an athlete—both are pretty demanding. Is playing bluegrass just as intense and challenging?

Oh, yeah. I’m 76. At 86 I might be mediocre. But the deeper answer to that is that I really believe that you should have something you do in your life where you’re capable of improvement. I’m never going to run as fast as I did, I’m never going to ski powder the way I did. Everything else, as you get older, you try to preserve what you did, and you can’t. So having really started playing banjo ten years ago, there are signs—not very many—but there are signs that I can improve. Have I bored you to tears?

No! I look forward to seeing you in Petaluma—anything special worked up?

They said to us, “This is a Christmas show, you oughta do a Christmas song.” Of course what they’re expecting, I suppose, is “Silent Night.” But we’ve written our own song. The opening line is “Sweet baby Jesus, if only you knew / Just what your birth would lead us all to.” Do you think we’ll be in trouble in Petaluma with that?

Warren Hellman and the Wronglers with Arann Harris and the Farm Band play ‘The Big Give Back’ on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 6:30pm. $10 with two cans of food; $15 otherwise. 707.762.3565.

The Nicki Minaj Record Is Not Terrible

Posted by on Dec 7, 2010

This is only news to me because I had cynically decided Nicki Minaj’s record would be terrible about eight months ago. I knew the formula, or so I thought: artist puts out a few mixtapes, gets a couple high-profile verses, scores big with critics for something that sets them apart and then goes to record a proper album that crassly exploits those distinguishing features or somehow manages to make them sound completely unoriginal. At least that’s how I thought it might play out.

The first time I heard Nicki Minaj, I was fairly blown away. Then I looked her up and found this. The title of every song she’d guested on thus far sounded like a headline from Penthouse Forum. This brings up age-old issues about feminism in rap and the need to use sex as a foot in the door to get the real issues across; most realize swiftly that sex can be used instead of it using you, especially in the pursuit of sales and page views. When “Bed Rock” hit, I knew that Minaj had just built a career on the line “I think it’s time I put this pussy on your sideburns” in the same way that Ke$ha got famous by waking up and feeling like P. Diddy.

I also decided that her record would be terrible, because there would be too much money thrown at it, and that usually ruins everything. And though Pink Friday sounds plentifully funded, it doesn’t strip Minaj of her basic character—or, I should say, her multiple characters. She still ends lines by spewing like a barking dog (a la guess who’s playin’ Freddy), she still inhabits a persona for two seconds before abandoning it (British aristocrat, southern belle), but the varied production of the songs means that she doesn’t have to overcompensate with a scattered delivery.

Yeah, the thing’s fuckin’ filthy. It’s also hella clever and fun. Without Googling, I hear samples from “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Don’t You Forget About Me” and “Scenario.” Eminem is an idiot on “Roman’s Revenge”—really, “no homo” in the year 2010?—Rihanna’s uber-inspirational on “Fly” and the production on “Did it on ‘em” lurks addictively. Not to mention that “I’m the Best” is an outstanding way to start an album: verse one humble (“I made a couple mistakes”), verse two trailblazing (“I’m fighting for the girls that never thought that they could win”) and wrapped up with a choice lift from Beyoncé (“all my bad bitches, I can see your halo”).

Oh, shit, and people in Japan don’t speak Thai. But that’s okay, and old Barbie World news anyway. The record’s still good.

Liz Harris, ‘Divide’

Posted by on Dec 1, 2010

I heard from quite a few people about a short piece I wrote on Grouper a few months ago, and though I’ve expounded on her music plenty, I’ve always been equally enamored with her artwork. ‘Divide’ is a book of Liz’s drawings that just came out via Root Strata, and it’s a fantastic collection of everything I love about Liz’s art: fine lines and finer ideas.

Some art I enjoy because it seems effortless, but more often, I love swimming through the process. Following Liz’s meticulous detail is like poring through ancient government documents: There’s a lot of hard fact there, but it requires lateral sight to place in understandable context.

‘Divide’ comes with a DVD, which I’ll watch after the book sinks in. In other words, 2023. You can order a copy here.

All Day Suckers

Posted by on Nov 17, 2010

If you’d have asked me two days ago, I would say that I can think of no possible way to ruin “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District, an essentially perfect song.

Girl Talk has a broader thought process than I, apparently.

Here you’ll find a track-by-track breakdown of all the samples that serve to render hip-hop songs palatable to those who remain enamored with the diminishing effects of the mashup craze birthed by real vinyl DJs and co-opted by the laptop brigade—including “Jane Says.” Sigh.

Don’t Buy ‘Sgt. Peppers’ for the Twelfth Time

Posted by on Nov 15, 2010

Here’s the thing about the Beatles and iTunes deal expected to be announced tomorrow. Much is being made about old copyright issues surrounding the “Apple” name, and how how it’s a big kiss-and-make-up story.

But what it comes down to is this: The Beatles catalog on CD for years was one of the most criminally un-remastered catalogs in all of music. When you bought ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ in 2008, its sonic quality was based on rudimentary standards in CD mastering from 1986.

When the Rolling Stones’ remasters came out in 2002, it set a precedent for the Beatles—not just aurally, but financially. The Stones remasters sold like crazy, and the Beatles took notice.

In September 2009, to great jubilation, the Beatles finally remastered their back catalog. The remasters were only available on CD, not iTunes, and as expected, they broke sales records for CD reissues. In 2009, the Beatles sold over 3 million CDs. For a time, the money rolled right in.

Now, over a year later, sales of those remastered CDs have fallen back to normal weekly figures. How else to jolt sales again? Move to the next medium. Of course—iTunes.

There’s no kiss-and-make-up story. It’s just the Beatles strategically timing the release of their music on newer platforms for maximum profit. Sorry to be cynical, but that’s really the beginning and the the end of it.

Our Time Is Now

Posted by on Nov 1, 2010

Krukow: “And that’s a wrap. Stick around for the postgame show. Our next broadcast is WE DON’T CARE. The first pitch is at WE DON’T CARE. The Giants are the World Series champions.”

In News

Cat Stevens vs. Ozzy Osbourne

Posted by on Oct 31, 2010

“Someone pull the emergency brake on that rainbow moonbeam choo-choo!”

No matter how you slice it, this unexpected bit of brilliant planning by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert was a highlight of yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity—or, as Obama called it, the “Rally Called Something Like Americans in Favor of a Return to Sanity or Something Like That.”

“Peace Train” vs. “Crazy Train,” with special guests at the end. So good.

The Fever

Posted by on Oct 30, 2010 One Comment

The Giants are up two games in the 2010 World Series and oh my God I can’t even believe I am typing those words.

I don’t have a felt cap covered in Croix de Candlestick pins, and I barely remember hearing Hank Greenwald on the radio before he retired, but I am a lifetime fan and something I can proudly say is that every time the Giants have been in the World Series in my lifetime, I have been at the stadium. In 1989, we had tickets, and watched at Candlestick Park in Game 4 as the A’s finished off a sweep. (I forgave them.) In 2002, we didn’t have tickets but went anyway, just to be a part of the scene outside the stadium; it was one of the better games of that ill-fated series which I can hardly bring myself to think about. This time around, no tickets either, but Tony and I parked at Tommy’s Joynt, rode bikes via Van Ness, Market and Fourth to the ballpark, turned on our Walkmans to KNBR and, without spending one dime on tickets, WATCHED THE GAME THROUGH THE RIGHT-FIELD FENCE. I love San Francisco.

You already know how the game went, and you can probably imagine the scene out on the promenade during the bottom of the 8th when the Giants scored 7 runs on two outs. I just kept splaying my arms up against the fence in religious fervor and hooting at the top of my lungs. After the final out, MAYHEM. Everyone was hugging and high-fiving total strangers; I even high-fived a cop. The Texas players’ buses were parked on Third near the bridge, and the lights were on inside the buses so you could see the players pointing, laughing and taking pictures of fans crowded around the Juan Marichal statue, chanting loudly that Texas sucks.

What you can’t imagine is the bike ride back to Tommy’s, which took us past the MOMA and Union Square. The entire city was going nuts. Cars were parked diagonally with all the doors open, music playing, people dancing in the streets, everyone going wild. People inside their SUVs high-fived us as we rode in the bike lane. People hailing taxis high-fived us while talking on their phones. People from the skinniest alleys to the highest hotel windows leaned out into the street to shout their joy. How can you take that away from people? I say more fair-weather fans, please, if it means more happiness to go around.

I remain amused at my many friends who couldn’t care less about baseball, like Jared Powell at Black Saints Tattoo, who recently offered 20 percent off for customers if they’d only just shut the fuck up about baseball for the duration of their tattoo. And I remain inspired by my friends who are into it, including Ethan Jayne, who is the whole reason I started writing this post in the first place. Formerly of Santa Rosa and since wooed to PDX and the Portland Mercury, Ethan nicely and neatly covers every thought I myself coincidentally had about music and its place in Thursday night’s game over at End Hits with style and humor. Check it out, and cross your fingers for the rest of this series because God knows it hasn’t always been easy being a Giants fan, no matter how long you’ve rocked the orange and black.

And Then There’s Marion Brown

Posted by on Oct 26, 2010

After yesterday’s post on Solomon Burke, Eyedea and Ari Up, Chris points out what I should have remembered: Don’t forget that Marion Brown also died recently.

Not that I can say anything that his music didn’t already say on its own. I can, as these things go, remember when I first discovered him via his eponymous ESP album. Crossroads Records on Hawthorne, in Portland, Ore. The cover was black-and-white, no title. I was just getting back into jazz. It didn’t really stick out from most other ESP stuff I was finding at the time.

But Brown’s name popped up time and again. Most notably, on Coltrane’s beast Ascension and Archie Shepp’s Fire Music, two hallmarks of the avant-garde. You could take the boy out of Georgia, but you can’t take Georgia out of the boy, and his series of records inspired by his home state find his vision coming complete: Afternoon of a Georgia Faun is an actual avant-garde outing on the now-pulseless ECM, and Geechee Recollections on Impulse is gracefully biting.

The only other thing to say is that yes, I found out about his death from Superchunk’s Twitter feed. I still think it’s fantastic that the archetypal indie-rock band would record a track called “Song for Marion Brown,” because I am into people listening to all kinds of music no matter what style they happen to excel at playing. And anyway, the lines are blurring more and more each day. Robert Plant’s most recent album contains two songs by Low. Mavis Staples recorded her latest album in Wilco’s recording studio with Jeff Tweedy. And Big L, from once-budding hyphy group the Pack, is putting out experimental spoken-word records on the same label as the Sun City Girls and Yellow Swans. Genres don’t exist anymore.

Somehow this all ties into me buying tickets for and then deciding not to go see Best Coast tonight. I’ve blown hot on Crazy for You and been entertained by its hooks, but ultimately, I feel perplexed that the world’s so-called discerning music listeners are elevating something so stringently unoriginal. If I were a female songwriter, I would be especially frustrated, because Bethany Cosentino has now proven that lifting the Shirelles’ schtick, rhyming the same words over and over, sticking to the same themes of longing and loneliness and adding in a few references to cats and weed are all it takes to achieve stardom, apparently. I love me a good jingle, and Crazy for You is shameless fun, but if I’m going to get really hyped on something it better be more variegated. In that dept., Marion Brown: 1. Best Coast: 0.

Finally, Warpaint’s new album The Fool was released today. Listen to it here.