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Los Lobos at the Marin Fair

Posted by on Jul 8, 2008 One Comment

No other band suffers such a disparity between their widely perceived “one hit” and their actual creative prowess as Los Lobos. It’s still one of the great misconceptions in rock and roll: while Los Lobos’ albums Kiko, Colossal Head and Good Morning Aztlan rank amongst the most invigorating and exciting listening experiences of the last fifteen years, drunk accountants in Cabo Wabo T-shirts at the Marin Fair last night still yelled for “La Bamba.”

“Not yet, man,” countered Cesar Rosas, no doubt resigned to the request by now. “If we play it, you’ll all leave!”

No true Los Lobos fan really gives a damn about hearing “La Bamba”—I’ve seen them twice before, and they didn’t play it, and no one asked for their money back. But a County Fair is a different story altogether, and Los Lobos knows this. So you’ve gotta hope that the old trick worked; namely, saving the payoff until the end, while in the meantime providing a look into one of the great catalogs of American music.

I, for one, am completely enamored of Los Lobos, which puts me in the company of bugeyed ex-Deadheads, aging Latino expatriates from L.A., and Sierra Nevada-swillin’ dudes with hairy shoulders. So be it. I love Los Lobos fans, if only to imagine them crawling into work the next morning, bedraggled in the best possible way, while their coworkers chug lattes and try to out-chipper each other with peppy chitchat.

Indeed, the large tent at the Marin Fair—on an island in the middle of a man-made lake—was packed with people preparing to feel like crap the next day. Dancing, swaying, drinking, singing along, and having the time of their life on the ever-festive last night of the fair. At certain moments, such as the ferocious three-way soloing pinnacle David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Louie Pérez achieved in “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” it felt like the entire tent might explode.

Other highlights included “Short Side of Nothing,” “The Neighborhood,” “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” and “This Time”—the latter of which Hidalgo started, then looked puzzled for a second, and finally asked the crowd, “Hey. . . who knows the first verse?”

If I’m not mistaken, the band played nothing from Colossal Head nor Good Morning Aztlan, but it didn’t matter—they’re so good live, and so dependent on how they play, that it’s somewhat negligible what they play. A few cumbias, a long blues jam, some newer songs, a guest saxophonist, and hey, they still rule.

If there’s any shrug to be had with the set, it’s that it was almost identical to the last time I saw Los Lobos, an entire five years ago. Then as now, covers included Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” as well as a sing-along of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” segueing into the Dead’s “Bertha,” which sent the twirl brigade off and spinning on the fringes of the island.

But it was the final cover of the night that really lit people up: an encore of “La Bamba.” I made my way around the crowd and saw nothing but smiling, laughing, and getting down; and to my surprise, the aforementioned drunk accountant knew every Spanish word of the song. When Los Lobos seized on the chord progression and interpolated the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” the place went nuts. How can you argue?

I got a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, watched the fireworks, rode the Merry-Go-Round, and then walked along the railroad tracks, to the rhythm of the bassline of Colossal Head‘s “Revolution,” stuck in my head, back to my car.

(P.S. Steve Berlin, if you are reading this—I’ve always wanted to ask if you’ve got any idea whether Lee Allen intentionally quoted both “Andalucia” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo” during his saxophone solo for “Roll ‘Em Pete” on the Blasters’ live EP, Over There, or if it was merely a musical accident. I’m totally serious—it’s plagued me for over ten years. Any clue?)

Ian Curtis’ Gravestone Stolen

Posted by on Jul 3, 2008 8 Comments

As reported by BBC News, the gravestone for Joy Division’s Ian Curtis has been stolen this week from its Macclesfield, UK cemetery.

Police and city authorities are “stunned,” “shocked,” and “agog” at the theft, but, like, have they never met any Joy Division fans? Can they really be surprised that the tombstone of a singer with the most death-obsessed fans in the world has been stolen?

More obviously: look at the thing. It’s begging to be stolen. It’s the perfect size to fit in a backpack and it’s held in place by tarmac, for chrissakes. On top of all that, it’s inscribed with the ultimate Joy Division epitaph, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” I mean, geez. Who wouldn’t think about stealing it?

I don’t wanna seem like I’m rooting for the bad guys, but come on.

(I was way more surprised when Mac Dre’s tombstone got nabbed.)

In News

Ticketmaster Finally Starts To Die

Posted by on Jun 25, 2008

It might not make up for the hundreds of dollars grudgingly given them in exorbitant service charges over the years, but it nonetheless brings a huge smile to my face that Ticketmaster has recently been dumped by its parent company, LAC/InterActiveCorp.

Probably the most surprising fact of the split is that Ticketmaster is currently $750 million in debt.

So, just to get this straight: after charging service fees; after charging facility fees and convenience fees; after charging handling fees; after charging delivery fees—and perhaps most insanely of all, after actually charging a fee to print out your own tickets, on your own printer, at your own home—Ticketmaster is still $750 million in the hole?

I don’t normally say things like this, but man, God bless the Internet and its equalized playing field for finally bringing down those fucking bastards.

In News

SFJAZZ Lineup Announced

Posted by on Jun 24, 2008

The lineup for the new season of SFJAZZ was announced this morning, and once again, it showcases the kind of variety and talent that’s made the ongoing festival one of the Bay Area’s jewels.

The upcoming schedule, running Oct. 3-Nov. 9, includes jazz legends like Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet; vocalists Jimmy Scott, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Mavis Staples; new blood like Wayne Horvitz and Ravi Coltrane; world musicians Toumani Diabate and Le Trio Joubran; and, for some reason, Randy Newman.

Cecil Taylor, whom I saw about five years ago at the Palace of Fine Arts, rarely plays solo—and in Grace Cathedral, it should be insane. I saw Jimmy Scott a couple years ago at the Herbst Theatre, and he was excellent; age has only slightly slowed him down. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at Yoshi’s a few years back demonstrated just how relevant his 40-years-and-running project is, and I have personally seen Ravi Coltrane blow Pharaoh Sanders out of the water on stage, which is saying something.

The guy I’m most excited to see? Saxophonist Archie Shepp, who very rarely comes to the Bay Area. A force that shows no signs of diminishing, Shepp has persevered under the radar as a lesser-known avant-garde artist since his “new thing” heyday of the late 1960s, and I’m not sure what kind of group he’ll have, but in the small Herbst Theatre, how can you go wrong?

Tickets go on sale to the public on Sunday, July 13. Complete lineup and information after the jump, or you can cue it up at the festival’s official website. (more…)

George Michael at the HP Pavilion in San Jose

Posted by on Jun 24, 2008 One Comment

Early on in Thursday night’s show in San Jose, George Michael thanked the rapturous crowd for sticking with him for 25 years. “Lord knows it’s not always easy being a George Michael fan,” he admitted, a self-deprecating statement which could be taken a number of ways—as either a reference to repeated tabloid scandals, or to his lingering reputation as a boy-toy manufactured pop star, or to the fact that he hasn’t toured in America since 1991. For me, the only thing hard about being a George Michael fan is the fact that the hands-down greatest singer-songwriter of my youth has made nothing but totally dull music in the last 15 years. Face it—after Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, it was all downhill.

But the stuff from that album and prior—including almost everything that Wham! did—represents, to me, a special pinnacle in pop music. Admittedly, my opinion is largely due to the fact that I was about 10 when Wham! was at their peak. I went to the Faith tour at the Shoreline Amphitheater in 1988, and as I grew up, George Michael was one of the first pop stars that I watched grow up, and get “mature,” and assimilate other sounds and attitudes into their music. Witnessing the ceremonial torching of his pretty-boy image in the video to “Freedom ‘90” coincided perfectly with my discovery of the Dead Kennedys and the idea that the mainstream music industry was actually a completely corrupt system.

But ultimately, George Michael has written more perfectly constructed pop songs and conveyed more complex sorrow and joy than any pop star on the charts since his relative disappearance thereof in the early 1990s. In his day, George Michael’s accomplishments put him in a category all his own; a star with an inimitable voice who brought a great deal of credibility to pop music.

So back to America Michael came roaring, and during a two-hour show, he gave his patient fans what they wanted. After opening appropriately with “Waiting (Reprise),” Michael tagged onto the end of “Fastlove” a brief portent of total and complete disappointment. By interweaving a murky techno version of his Wham! hit, “I’m Your Man,” onto the end of the dance number “Fastlove”—and then ending it after the first verse—it seemed early on that we’d be treated to an all-too-common occurrence in concerts of has-beens who perform shittier versions of their old hits in medley form. It was worrisome.

But only for a second. “Just kidding!” laughed Michael, and with that, the enormous screens exploded with black & white images from old Wham! videos. The 10-piece band and six-member backup choir erupted into the original version of “I’m Your Man,” and the packed arena became a huge party of huge, beautiful, ridiculous joy. I’ve never seen so many hella frumpy-ass Oprah fans losing their minds at once.

“Pretend it’s 1984!” Michael shouted. “Look at the person next to you and imagine them with five times more hair!”

The extended version of “Everything She Wants” continued the arena-wide sing-along, and the back-to-back renditions of “One More Try” and “A Different Corner” were like a wrenching emotional slaughter. After a 20-minute break, “Faith” kicked off the second set, and against all odds, it’s wasn’t actually the most unnecessary song of the night—that dubious honor would go to a cover of the Police’s “Roxanne,” which no one in their right mind ever wants to hear again.

During the second set, Michael turned more towards his post-Listen Without Prejudice dance numbers. “How many people here are from San Francisco?” he asked, relating that the first day he landed in America, he’d turned on the TV and seen same-sex couples getting married. He then announced that “this song is for my partner, Kenny,” and performed “Amazing,” a dippy reminder of how contented happiness and artistic decline can go hand-in-hand.

But the dance numbers ebbed during the perfect encores, which included a stripped-down version of “Praying for Time,” an obligingly true-to-form “Careless Whisper,” and a rousing closer in “Freedom ’90.” Driving home the two hours back to Santa Rosa, it was hard to imagine being any more satisfied. We’ll see if George Michael sticks with his promise to never perform in public again after this tour is over, but if it’s actually the case, then his concert in San Jose was about a fine farewell as anyone of his fans could imagine.

The only way it could have been better?

If Deon Estes were there.

More photos and set list after the jump. (more…)

A Milli A Milli A Milli A Milli A Mill A Mill

Posted by on Jun 22, 2008 2 Comments

Our good friend Bill Ryder predicts that one of these days, all the cool kids are going to be stapling dogshit to their foreheads. This idea resurfaced tonight when we were sitting around talking about Lil’ Wayne, who has to be the most delightfully bewildering rapper to dominate the charts in a very long time, if not ever.

Lord, Could You Please Make My ‘Ass’ Record Number One?

Posted by on Jun 22, 2008

There’s a ten-gallon hatful of absurdly quotable passages in Trace Adkins’ freewheeling autobiography, A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Free-Thinking Roughneck. But I think this one is my favorite:

Even though it might be my most famous song, technically “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” was never a number-one record, and for a pretty good reason. It was number two the same week Carrie Underwood went number one with “Jesus, Take The Wheel.” Right behind me, at number three, was Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Going,” a song about heaven. So there I was, in a sticky position. I couldn’t exactly root against the records ahead of or behind me. I couldn’t pray to the man upstairs, asking, “Lord, could you please make my ‘ass’ record number one instead of the two ‘Jesus’ songs?” It would have been wrong. And that’s probably why it didn’t go number one. I had ass, they had Jesus, and Jesus won, which I guess is the way it ought to be.

Times New Viking at Modified Arts: Phoenix, AZ

Posted by on Jun 21, 2008

After the Tom Waits show, we drove to Modified Arts, a small all-ages club in Phoenix. Times New Viking were playing, who, strangely, I’d read about that morning in Spin at the ultra-modernist Phoenix Library. Even though I’d heard their album on Matador when it came out and not thought much of it, I liked ‘em live. They were insanely loud, very funny, and pretty much outta control. Modified has a no-alcohol policy, but the band blatantly took celebratory glugs from a Makers Mark bottle throughout their set. I think they said things to the crowd between songs, but there was a piercing battalion of feedback emanating at all times, so I have no idea what they were trying to communicate. They were good.

Sadly, we arrived just in time to miss the set by the opening band, Psychedelic Horseshit.

Tom Waits at the Orpheum Theatre: Phoenix, AZ

Posted by on Jun 21, 2008 2 Comments

This is an obsessed-fan review, here, folks. When Tom Waits tours, there are no press passes. You wanna review the show, you’ve gotta buy your own tickets like the rest of ‘em. And that’s fine by me.

When Tom Waits tours, he doesn’t play in the Bay Area. You wanna see Tom Waits, you’ve gotta buy airplane tickets and fly somewhere else. And that, too, is fine by me.

So my friend Gerry and I flew 800 miles in 115-degree heat to see Tom Waits in Phoenix, AZ—his closest show—and we slept on the floor of the airport afterwards to catch a flight back home the next morning at 6am. Tickets: $100 each; airfare: $200 each; food and miscellaneous expenses: about $200.

Was it worth it? Completely.

Walking into the beautiful Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday night, we were met with marching drums, gongs, organs, and a ringside fight bell littering the stage. Hanging from the ceiling above were two huge, heavy sculptures of rusty bullhorns quietly emitting the sound of old 78s. And from the first to the last note, Waits commanded the room like a giant, slamming his feet on a dust-covered pedestal; punctuating each songscape with his stickman ballet; tumbling to the ground like an elastic wooden doll. His band was incredible—a six-ring ensemble who hauntingly conjured atmospheres more than they performed songs. I was literally on the edge of my seat, with my eyes wide open, through the entire show.

It’s gonna get interesting as the tour continues. According to people working on the inside, Waits and his band spent rehearsals at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley running through over 65 songs in preparation for this tour.

But on Wednesday night, during a two-hour set, Waits offered a lopsided view of his majestic career. He played nothing at all from his Asylum years. Instead, he concentrated on material from Real Gone, his latest and most underwhelming album. When I came home from Phoenix and looked up the set list for the previous night, I wished I’d gone to that show instead. (But sweet Christ, at least I didn’t go to El Paso.)

The set list of an artist with zillions of songs is always a hard thing to accept. Shouldn’t we, as an audience, be happy with whatever the artist we avowedly love wants to play? I’ve seen plenty of prolific artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Rollins, Guided by Voices, Frank Sinatra, A Tribe Called Quest—and because of their extensive recorded output, I’ve inevitably spent some time during the show wishing they were playing some other, and usually older, song. It might not be fair, but as a fan, I can’t help it.

Also, Tom Waits basically plays blues songs now. One-chord, stomping blues songs that just sort of chug along and don’t really go anywhere. Lots of white guys in their fifties immerse themselves in the “authenticity” of blues music, never to resurface—but if there’s anyone who can push past it, it’s Waits, and I hope that he does.

All of this I’d expected. So the show’s many highlights were a welcome surprise. “Cemetery Waltz” was unbelievable, as was a lower-register version of “Dirt in the Ground.” “November” came as a delightful rarity from The Black Rider, probably Waits’ most underrated album, and “Lost in the Harbour,” a poignant song from Alice, written around the same time, was beautifully performed on a reed organ.

Two songs gave me actual chills: “The Day After Tomorrow,” which I last saw performed (and cut short!) on The Daily Show (“my moment of zen”). Also, “A Little Rain,” which despite Waits’ new bassist Seth Ford-Young being slightly sharp throughout the entire song was still mesmerizing. Three cheers, too, for “All the World is Green” and “Hoist that Rag,” during which guitarist Omar Torrez thrilled with a dead-ringer Marc Ribot impersonation.

In other band news: Waits might be able to replace Ribot, but he sure can’t replace Ralph Carney. Saxophonist Vincent Henry proved an able accompanist, but man, his solos sounded like something from the Saturday Night Live band; just completely out of place. Casey Waits on drums was probably the biggest surprise—supremely tasteful and stylistically adaptable—and although Larry Taylor’s been Waits’ right hand man for decades on bass, Ford-Young’s tone and style is actually better suited to his material.

At times, Waits was his own best backing musician. During “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six,” he crashed his foot down in time onto a pedal, clanging the ringside boxing bell in time to the choruses. But between songs, his unfortunate accompaniment was the many rude and unintelligible shouts from the crowd. (Do hipster wannabes in vests and bowler hats annoy you? Do people shouting inane things like “You go, Tom!” in between songs annoy you? Be forewarned.)

All in all, it was a truly magical night, and one that ended too soon. It’s easy to relate facts and to dissect set lists, but it’s impossible to capture the presence that is Tom Waits on stage. Before the show, I’d started to wonder if I was crazy for flying all the way to Phoenix just to see him—especially when I’m seeing him again in Dublin next month. But afterwards, underneath the Phoenix sky and filled with a dizzying love, I was ecstatic that I made the trek, and felt like one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to witness the show.

“In Its Entirety”: Built to Spill and Liz Phair

Posted by on Jun 16, 2008 2 Comments

The news hit like a one-two kiss of sloppy, wonderful indie-rock love: both Built to Spill and Liz Phair have announced that they’ll perform their great masterpieces—Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville—in a series of shows around the country this year.

I’ve fielded countless questions about if I’m going to these shows, because of a truly million-to-one coincidence: I myself have actually performed both of these albums.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a million-to-one shot, but it’s pretty uncanny: in 2001 as part of a duo, and then again in 2006 with my band, Santiago, I learned and performed Perfect From Now On in its entirety. Earlier this year with my friends Dean and Steve, I learned and performed Exile In Guyville. And now, as if to answer our weird but urgent prayers, both albums are getting the ‘In Its Entirety’ treatment by the OGs.

I’m not claiming any kind of cosmic credit for altering the creative waves of the universe. Lets face it, Sonoma County’s not that big. But I will gladly use the news as a reason to talk about what it was like to learn two of the best records of the 1990s.

As anyone familiar with Perfect From Now On and Exile In Guyville can imagine, they were incredibly daunting projects to take on, especially since I had to not only figure out some truly otherworldly guitar parts but also remember hundreds of lyrics. Yet each album compelled me. They’re both crammed with mystery. I felt like if I could wrestle with them in the most direct way possible—figuring out how to play them, and then playing them in public—I could unlock some of that mystery.

When I first heard Perfect From Now On I hated it. All the songs were long and slow and repetitive, and it didn’t grab me at all. Then Built to Spill put out Keep It Like A Secret, which I instantly loved. “Finally,” I said, “I understand what all my friends have been crazy about!” So I went back and listened to Perfect From Now On. I still thought it was a boring formless piece of shit.

It was, however, a boring formless piece of shit that I kept coming back to, and I can’t explain how it happened, except that one night I was sitting alone in my apartment half-drunk, pitifully alone and staring at the carpet, and “Velvet Waltz” came on, and Doug Martsch sang those lines:

And you’d better not be angry
And you’d better not be sad
You’d better just enjoy the luxury of sympathy
If that’s a luxury you have

Suddenly, Perfect From Now On was the most incredible revelation in my entire life, bursting from its ruminations on the meaning of eternity to its sharp, final accusation: what are you gonna do? As a salve for one of my darkest hours, I listened to it every day and every night for a week, over and over. It was an enormous ocean, and I swam through it like a lost soul from a shipwreck, looking for an island.

I’d heard about a guy named Nick Jackson who played guitar and who knew how to play some Built to Spill songs, so I called him completely out of the blue. “Hi, Nick? Hey, my name’s Gabe. Rob gave me your number, and he says you know some Built to Spill songs on the guitar. I’ve got a totally ridiculous idea for you, and feel free to say no, but do you want to learn Perfect From Now On with me and play it at a show?”

His classic response: “Uh, sure. What’s Perfect From Now On?”

He went out and bought it and quickly and amazingly learned every single note, and we started practicing two weeks later. Just us and our guitars, with me singing. The show, at the Old Vic, went well, and afterwards I felt like I’d not only conquered the record in a way, but also made personal amends for talking so much shit about it all those years.

Fast-forward to 2006, and Santiago’s just finished recording Rosenberg’s After Dark, a sprawling concept album all about Santa Rosa. We needed to clean out our systems, so we started fucking around with There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. But it didn’t seem right, and we kept coming back to the songs from Perfect From Now On. It sure sounded a lot better with a full band. I called up Nick Jackson, who was down to fill in again on guitar, and we planned the ultimate joke: for our record release show, we’d play someone else’s record.

It was such an excellent idea. Then my world fell apart. In the middle of rehearsing, my mom died in a terrible car accident. Suddenly Perfect From Now On took on an entirely new emotion for me, and all of its intertwining mystery came rushing back. There was a lot of pain and confusion and heartache going on, and just as the album had earlier given me a salve for my solitude, it sprang up again and offered me a cathartic way to say goodbye.

The show we played was a blur. I remember only one thing vividly about it: singing those lines from “Velvet Waltz”—the ones about about anger, sorrow, and the luxury of sympathy. Someone recorded the show, and when I hear myself singing those lines today, I realize that I’m not one step closer to understanding Perfect From Now On. It’s still a vast ocean, and for as long as I spent swimming around in it, I never found the island. I like it that way.

Exile In Guyville is another story altogether.

I have an ex-girlfriend who listened to Exile in Guyville all the time when we were together. I’d heard about the album when a friend of mine saw Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone, and at first I thought it was basically a wimpy soft-rock record with some token sex references thrown in for attention’s sake. I couldn’t understand why my girlfriend loved it so much, but how can you argue with a girlfriend who loves songs about sex? So I put up with it. She played it over and over.

Eventually, in a haze of prescription Vicodin and Seagram’s gin and English ovals, Exile In Guyville sunk in. I realized that there’s a lot of songs on the record (like “Explain it to Me”) that drone in a really cool way and some (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) that are just plain surreal, lyrically. Those are the ones that I really fell in love with. The eerie ones. My girlfriend kept on playing the ones about blowjobs, though. Years later, as our relationship soured, she kept turning to the blowjob songs for support, and I decided that I couldn’t understand her anymore at all if she still, after all those years, found more solace in “Fuck and Run” than in “Shatter.” So fuck her and fuck Liz Phair and fuck that record, I thought.

Songs don’t disappear. I eventually bought Exile in Guyville again, cuing up my favorite songs first, of course, and then listening to the whole thing. A healthy dose of distance from the mitigating circumstances of its arrival into my life helped me appreciate it all over again. And again, I picked up the phone and called some people and somehow talked them into learning it and playing it in public.

This idea actually had its genesis in 1995, when I distinctly remember walking around a small town in Indiana, waiting for a flat tire to get fixed, singing “Fuck and Run” in my best Johnny Cash impersonation with Alyssa. How crazy would it be, I asked, to take on the ultimate indie-rock feminist statement and perform it from a male point of view?

13 years later, I had even more of a reason to learn and perform Exile in Guyville. Liz Phair had started completely embarrassing herself with teen-girl-whore pop bullshit, and I needed to remind myself and others that she was once great. Also, there was a serious element of reclamation involved; a personal creed, I suppose, that I could love a record on my own terms, and that it didn’t belong to any one person, or to one ex-girlfriend, or to one gender, or to one line of thinking. Plus, a couple years after being stranded in Indiana together, Alyssa had died of a heroin overdose, and I always remembered that she thought it was a cool idea.

We learned the thing in about 4 or 5 practices, cramped into my small office room, and it was an amazing musical experience. Lots of unnerving surprises. I played piano on “Canary.” The show went incredibly well—even the songs about blowjobs—and I think, somehow, we achieved our goals. If nothing else, it was intensely satisfying.

My favorite Exile in Guyville song is still “Shatter.”

So anyway, the long and short of all this is that no, I don’t think I’m going to see Built to Spill perform Perfect From Now On in its entirety, nor do I fathom I’ll go see Liz Phair perform Exile in Guyville in its entirety. The purpose of going those kinds of shows is to commune, in the most direct way, with an album that you love, and I feel like I’ve already done that in the best way possible. Actually, I feel like I’ve inhabited those albums—and to paraphrase the song, I’m not sure I want to go back to the old house.



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