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Kool & the Gang at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by on May 23, 2008 One Comment

“I think my favorite line in the song is ‘She’s a lady,'” I said. “I mean, ‘she’ wouldn’t be anything but a lady, right?”

“No, because ‘lady’ is used as a term of distinction. Not all females are ladies. Plus, that’s only half the line: it goes, ‘She’s a lady that you really want to know.'”

“Oh, right! ‘Somehow I’ve got to let my feelings show. . .'”

We were strolling towards the tent in Sonoma, talking about “Fresh,” the still-stupendous Kool & the Gang jam which played for one blissful summer on constant repeat in my house growing up. I was 10 when the album Emergency came out, and I spent hours staring into the cover, checking out Kool & the Gang’s ’80s outfits, thinking the same thoughts that any 10-year-old thinks when they stare into an album cover: Those dudes are in a band. That’s so cool.

So I suppose we could have left happy after Kool & the Gang hit the stage in Sonoma with “Fresh.” But the song, complete with synchronized dance movements and choice poses, heralded what I’d figured would be the case with Kool & the Gang: they were out to deliver a totally scripted, well-oiled show of role-playing and crowd pleasing. This can be seen, in a lot of ways, a schlocky Vegas gimmick. But in another light, it’s also a lost art in the history of R&B, where great “show bands” or “stage bands”—even small, regional funk ensembles—used to never hit the stage without a perfectly-rehearsed set of joint-jumpin’ dances, perfectly executed breakdowns, and sewn-up patter.

To a standing-room crowd out on the dance floor, many of them in disco outfits and huge afro wigs, Kool & the Gang put on a dazzling show, not ignoring the early heavy funk that established them in the first place: “Jungle Boogie,” naturally, “Funky Stuff,” of course, and the song that every desperate DJ leans on to get people moving out on the floor—”Hollywood Swinging.”

Lite-rock hits like “Joanna” and “Cherish” mixed with disco hits like “Get Down on It,” which led into the most predictable encore in the universe: “Celebration.”

Dare I say that a little bit of jazz even crept into their show?

During “Funky Stuff,” everyone in the band except the guitarist took extended solos. Later on, saxophonist Dennis Thomas mentioned how they’d all grown up on Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And. . . well, okay, that’s about it. The rest was pure boogie.

The tent was really going nuts dancing and screaming, which Kool & the Gang acknowledged during the calypso-flavored “Island Shake,” bringing select participants from the crowd to strut their stuff on stage. First it was two ladies—you can see the results in the photo above—and then it was two guys, who actually used their time in the spotlight to square dance. I’m not kidding.

“Those guys,” the singer joked, “ain’t never been to the island.”

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P.S. My 10-year-old self can’t let the moment pass: you gotta check out the video for “Misled,” from Emergency, starring Kool & the Gang when they still had JT Taylor singing. Part Thriller, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an amazing (and really, really low-budget) time capsule of MTV during the Reagan era:

Treasure Island Festival Lineup Announced!

Posted by on May 22, 2008 3 Comments

It’s no secret that one of my favorite concert-going experiences is the Treasure Island Music Festival, a two-day soirée with an incredible lineup and a beautifully scenic setting out in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. With the organizers planning the gigantic Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park this year, I expected that a second year out the island might be a sinking prospect. I needn’t have worried. This year’s lineup was announced today:

Saturday, September 20:
JUSTICE | TV ON THE RADIO | GOLDFRAPP | HOT CHIP | CSS | ANTIBALAS | AESOP ROCK | AMON TOBIN | FOALS | MIKE RELM | NORTEC: BOSTICH + FUSSIBLE

Sunday, September 21:
THE RACONTEURS | TEGAN & SARA | VAMPIRE WEEKEND | SPIRITUALIZED | OKKERVIL RIVER | TOKYO POLICE CLUB | THE KILLS | DR. DOG | JOHN VANDERSLICE | THE DODOS | FLEET FOXES

It’s $65 per day, $115 for a two-day pass. Tickets go on sale Friday, May 30, but make sure to visit the festival website for mailing list signups and presale passwords.

So what makes the festival so great? I’ll tell you. (more…)

Scarlett Johansson Takes Our Advice

Posted by on May 21, 2008 2 Comments

I know we all weighed in on the mostly forgettable Scarlett Johansson album in last week’s Bohemian, but I never expected she’d read the reviews, consider our rapier criticism, and tighten up her act. But lo, here it is, Johansson performing “live” (yeah right) and though it’s still kinda like, whatever, it’s way better and more passionate than the cruddy record. Gone are the excessive vocal effects and the washed-out production, and she seems like she actually cares about the song. Why didn’t she just do this in the first place?

Healdsburg Jazz Festival Picks

Posted by on May 20, 2008

I’ve had quite a few people ask me for recommendations on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and what I’ve found is that most people in the world are interested in jazz but simply uninformed. There’s no better place to brush up on your jazz than this year’s festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a grand slam as far as festival booking goes. Every show’s a winner, but here’s a quick run-down of the shows that I personally am planning on attending; keep in mind that everyone has their own idea of what’s cool and what blows.

First of all, any newcomer to jazz is virtually required to see Mark Cantor’s Jazz Night at the Movies (June 1 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater). The impact of Cantor’s amazing collection of 16mm jazz reels (he’s got over 5,000 at this point) is incredible, providing a cinematic history of live jazz from almost every era. Cantor’s personal introductions provide connect-the-dots context, and every single clip is moving in its own way; either hilarious, like Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang trading call-and-response eights, or downright poignant, like Billie Holiday singing “My Man” from a 1950s television special. Plus it’s only $10!

I’m stoked on finally seeing Charles Lloyd (May 31 at 7:30pm, Jackson Theater), who’s been making interesting records on ECM lately with a great group. He’s got this really great pianist, Jason Moran, and an excellent, rock-solid drummer in the form of Eric Harland. He’s getting older, but he’s an innovator from within, and those people never run out of ideas, regardless of age. Charles Lloyd was lucky enough to be booked onto Fillmore shows in the late ’60s by Bill Graham, and his searing solos fit in nicely with the psychedelic scene in San Francisco; if you’re looking for envelope-pushing jazz, check this one out.

The show I can fully recommend to everyone—and especially those with kids—is the suave-lookin’ guy pictured above, clarinetist Don Byron (June 2 at 1pm and 7pm, Raven Theater), whose Ivey Divey was my #1 jazz album of 2004. Combining klezmer, jazz, and classical styles, in a word, Byron’s music is fun. The show he’ll be presenting is great: old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons get projected on the Raven Theater’s screen while his group plays music from his 1996 album, Bug Music. Both Raymond Scott—whose music will be represented in great supply—and Byron have that element of surprise that kids love, but he’s innovative enough (and has a great band, with Billy Hart on drums) to appeal to anyone. It’s $25, but bring a kid and it’s only $15 for the both of you!

One of my all-time favorite jazz musicians is Eric Dolphy, who played the saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute like no one else who walked the planet. He died in 1964, but his music was so great that it takes two people to resurrect it properly: saxophonist and clarinetist Bennie Maupin and flutist James Newton (June 6 at 8pm, Raven Theater). Maupin played on Miles DavisBitches Brew, and most people only know Newton from his highly publicized Supreme Court case with the Beastie Boys over sampling rights (“Pass the Mic”—the Beasties won). Newton is a hell of a flute player, on par with Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he and Maupin have unearthed some sheet music that Dolphy left behind. It’ll be out there, but in the best sense—Dolphy never wanked for wanking’s sake—making this the show I’m probably most excited about.

How can you go wrong with the lineup for ‘A Night in the Country‘ (June 7 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater)? Charlie Haden is one of jazz’s most intuitive bassists, having helmed the Ornette Coleman quartet, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Quartet West (he’s also a great interview). Kenny Barron is the one pianist that no one I know hates, and saxophone superstar Joshua Redman is going to thrive in this setting. Also on the bill is Julian Lage, who I cannot say enough good things about (and that’s not just because I sold him his copy of Everybody Digs Bill Evans when he was 12). Simply put, Lage is a miracle, a supremely talented guitar player with gallons of taste. He’ll be playing with monster bassist Ray Drummond to boot!

Jazz has always been nighttime music to me, but if you can hang with the sunny outdoors at a winery, then by all means, go see Bobby Hutcherson (June 8 at 3pm, Rodney Strong Vineyards). Always terrific, Hutcherson is also a complete crowd-pleaser, hovering over his vibes and making wild body movements as he plays. He’s played on some seminal albums, including Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, and he was the saving grace of Freddie Hubbard’s disastrous performance last month at Yoshi’s. Also on the bill is Cedar Walton, who played on the John Coltrane album Giant Steps, and Craig Handy, an outstanding tenor player from Berkeley who always blows me away.

The complete Healdsburg Jazz Festival lineup is here. Say whassup if you see me around.

Themes at the Petaluma Church

Posted by on May 20, 2008

Lemme just say first off that when I brought Themes‘ new 7″ home on Sunday afternoon, I listened to it three times in a row, over and over. It’s that good. Full of optimistic hooks, unifying harmonies, and hopeful lyrics, it’s nothing short of inspiring. It’s the Obama of 7″s.

In classic 7″ fashion, the songs are both slightly out of style for the band but wholly complimentary to each other. They’re almost the same song, actually; even the titles form a cohesive sentence: “I Can’t Make You Believe / It’s Not Hopeless to Survive.” The repeated line in the latter is “You’re not the only one who hates this country,” and even though on the whole I actually love this country, it’s lately given me many reasons to be so angry I can’t even sleep and just want to throw myself out into the street. Which, actually, is a line from the song on the other side.

The Petaluma Church is a fantastic place for house shows, situated as it is near virtually no other residences; I’ve been there a few times and it’s awesome (in fact, I interviewed the Grand Color Crayon there for an article in the Bohemian). It’s usually packed, naturally, and the sound is good, the cheap beer is flowin’, and Sunday night, especially, the vibe was that of overwhelming freedom clustering on a communal precipice. You know what I mean? Like summertime is just around the corner and there’s a million great bands in this town and we’re gonna run it as hard as we can while it lasts because it’s beautiful to be alive.

I chatted with Jacy from Themes for a long time before they played, and he, too, was adamant about actively pursuing a life of living free in a country currently defined by restriction. After spending his youth confined to a Native American reservation outside of Minneapolis, he’s traveled around the country virtually nonstop playing music. “It’s folklore, what we do,” he said. “It’s all we’ve got left, all we’ve got that’s ours. We’re gonna be on tour forever.”

Then Themes played in the living room, and wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t play either song from the 7″ that I had so fiercely become smitten with. However, I wish more than anything that I had a recording of the second and third songs they played—both of them stark, dismal minor-chord epics with accordion and tambourine, back-to-back ruminations on darkness and hell. In hindsight, even though it came from the opposite end of the spectrum, this only made the 7″ songs all the more powerful—as if acknowledging evil makes a thrust towards good more legitimate.

No one who has half a brain in their heads can deny that for eight years we’ve been in some very evil and dark ages, but the era of having no choice but to dwell upon our administration’s failures is soon going to be over. We’ve got a pretty thrilling future ahead, full of national and personal challenges, and fuck it, I don’t want to wait until November. I’m starting to celebrate now. This is the summer when everything starts to shift, when there’s no reason to feel confined anymore. And above all, as the song so awesomely says—this is the summer when it’s not hopeless to survive.

The Wrong Kind of Music

Posted by on May 15, 2008

Last night, 11:00 pm. It’s still 80 degrees, and I’m still sweating from my Montecito Heights bike ride. We’ve got all the windows open and a fan going.

Sitting at the kitchen table, doing a puzzle together, occasionally swearing about the sticky, tongue-out, no-let-up heat wave. First of the year.

“Hey, can we listen to this record I got today?”

“Sure.”

So I throw it on. Nutty jazz music for a few minutes. Then moody synthesizers for, like, ten minutes. The: silencio. I think the record’s over, but every once in a while I’ll hear a pop from the vinyl. Then come the surges: terrifying, weird crashes of discord and clamor, stabbing through the speakers every 45 seconds or so.

It’s still hot as hell.

“This music is scaring me.”

And she’s right. It’s scaring me, too. I usually pride myself on choosing the right kind of music for the occasion, but man, when it’s a sweltering hot night, it’s really hard to chill out to David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive soundtrack.

The Slackers at the Mystic Theatre

Posted by on May 13, 2008

Vic Ruggiero, what a guy.

“Hey, howya likin’ the movie so far? Ya know those movies, right, where they got the guy who keeps talkin’ about stuff, an’ it goes on an’ on, an’ then you figure out there’s no plot or thread? You ever seen those movies? Like those Woody Allen movies, y’know, ‘So I was waitin’ for the bus. . ‘ An’ he keeps on talkin’ and talkin’ without makin’ no sense. Or like, whaddya call it, the French New Wave? Where there’s just a bunch of stuff an’ we’re supposed t’think it’s art?”

“Is this like that? Is this art, what we’re doin’ up here?”

The Slackers are a great band who know six zillion songs, and therefore, if you go see ‘em, they’ll play 12 songs you don’t know until they finally play one song you love. It’s worth the wait, and Ruggiero’s string of deep-Bronx nonsequitur banter is hilarious.

“Nice t’ be playin’ some of those tough-guy songs, y’know. For a long time everyone was out to kick our ass for bein’ the best band in New York. We were always playin’ Nightingale’s. ‘Member that place? Held about 25 people. It bred only the best! Blues Traveler. Spin Doctors. Tha’s why people were wantin’ to kick our ass, t’make sure of no more Blues Traveler!”

The show was fantastic. Everyone in the place was dancing. Only half-full, though, which is really too bad—I can think of two dozen people off the top of my head who would have loved it. Don’t miss ‘em next time they come around.

Trace Adkins at Konocti Harbor

Posted by on May 12, 2008 One Comment

As I walked from the parking lot up to the entrance of the amphitheater last Friday night, I overheard two employees—a shuttle driver and a kid directing traffic—chatting about the evening’s crowd. “It’s gonna get worse when people start drinkin’,” one said. “Yeah,” the guy replied, “there’s a whole lotta stupid goin’ on.”

I was, for the first time in my life, at Konocti Harbor, a place that’s been the punchline to many jokes about toothless women and shirtless men made by us big city Santa Rosa types. But I can now say with authority that these jokes are mostly unfounded; after a long, winding drive, I found out that Konocti Harbor wasn’t at all the chintzy Las Vegas atmosphere I’d always assumed it to be but a serene hamlet of beauty and fresh air. In fact, strolling past the trees, tennis courts and rustic cottages with a quaint view of Clear Lake, it recalled more the summer resort from Dirty Dancing, and thus every girl in high-rise jeans made me think of Jennifer Grey. There were a lot of ‘em, too—this was, after all, a country show.

I’ve been listening to a lot of country radio lately. Most of it’s terrible, but alongside all the bullshit like Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley, there’s this guy from Louisiana, Trace Adkins, that I’m a huge fan of. Those who know me might find this incredibly out of character—believe me, I was pretty surprised to find it out myself—but after immersing myself thoroughly in the subject, I can say that Trace Adkins has one of the most penetrating and compelling voices in country music today.

During his hour and a half-long set at Konocti, Adkins played hit after hit, demonstrating the versatility of style in his output. The lightshow-laden opener “I Got My Game On” kicked things off promising that “it’s gonna be a hell of a ride,” and from the tender moments of “I Came Here To Live” and “Every Light in the House” to the good ol’ boys romp of “Rough and Ready” and “Ladies Love Country Boys,” Adkins was clearly having a great time. “We’ll try to do some songs that we know pretty good,” he joked to the crowd early on, “so they won’t suck too bad.”

Adkins has a natural ability to be both serious and stupid, oftentimes in the same sentence. For example, the “American Man” tour, which hits casinos, state fairs and football fields, is named after a song that Adkins told the crowd was inspired by his dad: “He’s basically at the top of my hero list,” he said, speaking from the heart. “Real hard-noser, though. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Your old man reminds me of John Wayne.’ I said, ‘Hell, my old man makes John Wayne look gay.’”

When Adkins finds a song in the direct middle of these two extremes—the pensiveness of “You’re Gonna Miss This” and the crass yahooism in “Chrome,” say—he’s at his best. “I Wanna Feel Something,” one man’s plea to experience emotion in a numbing modern world, was one of the set’s highlights on Friday night. Occupying similar emotional ground was “Arlington,” which Adkins went out of his way to introduce with “nothing but the utmost of respect and honor.”

In the country world, “Arlington” sparked controversy when it was released as a single, probably because it doesn’t conform to the simpleminded let’s-fuckin’-kick-their-asses narrative of all the remedial Toby Keith fans in the world. Instead, it explores the complex point of view of a dead soldier sent back home from war who finds at least a small, final solace in being buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington Cemetery. The verses, in particular, represent some of Adkins’ richest singing, and at the end of the song, Adkins was visibly choked up.

“I gotta be honest with you, it’s hard to keep my mind on things, singing that song,” he said afterwards, explaining that his manager’s son was over in Afghanistan; two days ago, there’d been an attack which had killed at least two soldiers, and they still hadn’t heard from him. “We’re goin’ over there in September, though,” Adkins announced. “Funny thing is, we go over there to make them feel good, and you know what? They make us feel good! Now, I don’t give a damn if you support the war or not, but we gotta support the boys in the fields!”

(Of course, the crowd went crazy at this, but for as hot as Adkins is on soldiers’ issues, not all of his fans seem to share his concern. During the show, two women—a mother and a daughter trashily dressed in matching tube tops and pumps—walked next to me and stood directly in front of an aisle full of WWII veterans, blocking their view and blatantly ignoring their repeated requests to move. I went up and pointed out that their tickets were for a different section, and that they were upsetting a row full of old people, but they absolutely did not care at all; it was only when security came along that they haughtily strutted back to their seats. So much for war heroes, I guess.)

“Hot Mama” marked an end to the “wholesome part of the concert,” and Adkins talked a little bit about the song’s steamy video (“it was the first time since I got a record deal,” he said, “that my mamma was very disappointed in me”) and then went into a weird thing about the Bible and Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. This all came back around to his big closer, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which prompted everyone in the crowd, who had been standing the whole time, to completely get on down. I decided to walk around and watch all of Lake County’s finest—including, yes, a girl missing some teeth and an overweight guy wearing no shirt—shake their back-country asses to the most totally stupid and completely enjoyable country hit of the last few years.

The band vamped the song at the end, with Adkins finally delivering his send-off line.

“Lemme tell you,” he said, while the band played, “I didn’t get in this business for the fame, or the money—I got in this business for one reason and one reason only. . .”

The music stopped. Adkins threw his arms open wide.

“Badonkadonk, motherfucker!”

Like the man said: a whole lotta stupid goin’ on. But when no one’s takin’ it too seriously, and when an amphitheater full of people on the lake are having a hell of a good time, it’s hard to do anything but laugh your ass off and join in.

Not To Reason Why at the 600 House; J-Boogie at the Hopmonk

Posted by on May 9, 2008

It was the fucking awesomest one-song set.

It was 11pm. Three bands had already played. I was planning on taking off to Sebastopol, had already said my goodbyes, and was literally halfway out the front door of the 600 House when Not To Reason Why started playing. Awww, shit. After the first couple notes, I was lured, like a magnet, back into the living room. How could I leave? When it comes to Not To Reason Why, you can’t even pretend like there’s an option. Just give in.

The Carlo Rossi was flowing. Fools were juiced. And if you’ve never heard them, Not To Reason Why are on some heavy-ass, pulsing, move-your-body epic-type tip. The song: “Zeitgeist.” The living room heaved, hands shot into the air, and the band played intensely, furiously, like it was the end of the world. Howls of joy. Heads shook in disbelief. Jessie Mae jumped up on top of an amplifier. For six sweet minutes, miracles came true.

Then the cops came.

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People are always talking about how there’s nothing to do around here, but tonight was a pretty good example of why that’s untrue. Here it was, Thursday night of all nights, there’s a killer house party that gets busted by the cops and yet there’s still more to do. Juke Joint with J-Boogie. I headed west.

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I pulled up to the Hopmonk Tavern a little before midnight and saw, I kid you not, a guy and a girl, standing and squatting next to each other in the parking lot, both talking to each other and pissing on the asphalt, simultaneously. Love works in incredible ways.

Inside, J-Boogie had just started his set with a megamix of Stevie Wonder songs—it being Stevie’s birthday—and the place was hopping like mad. Bodies on the floor, busting some serious moves. Breakdancers in the corner. Girls dancing on the stage. Again, the magnetic pull erased any choice other than to get down. Even the wallflowers were dancing in their shoes.

Out in the beer garden, I ran into a buddy of mine and asked him how, in his opinion, a small town like Sebastopol was able to so overwhelmingly support a night like Juke Joint. “It’s new,” he said, citing that everything fresh and hip has its initial glory period. Having worked at now-defunct Barcode in Santa Rosa, he could be said to speak from experience. “It’ll die down,” he predicted.

He could be right. But judging from last night’s huge crowd, and judging from the hypnotic spell J-Boogie had over everyone, it was hard to imagine an impending lull on the near horizon.

I’ve dug J-Boogie for almost ten years now, and the bulk of his set—after the Stevie Wonder tracks, and before the Motown / Atlantic megamix at the end—was a slick reminder of why he’s so great. Crazy, rhythmic grooves from all around the world; none of them recognizable, all of them dope. Also, J-Boogie’s one of the few DJs who can drop a long three-minute drum break with intros on the upbeat and full-on long paces of total silence and still keep the crowd not only moving but hollering with excitement. Hell yeah!

More photos after the jump.

(more…)

What the Hell’s Wrong with Neil Young?

Posted by on May 7, 2008 One Comment

For what has literally been decades of anticipation, Neil Young fans have been waiting for the ultimate Neil Young box set. Years have rolled by. All of his comrades and co-workers released box sets. Even Buffalo Springfield released a box set. Nothing from Neil.

This week, Neil Young announced that he’s finally satiating the thirst for his massive treasure trove of old recordings by releasing a huge 10-disc set this fall—hell yes, finally!

Here’s what sucks: the Neil Young Archive, as it’s called, is only coming out on Blu-ray.

Do you own a Blu-ray player? Yeah, me neither. They’re $400.

The set, announced as the first of five volumes, will contain 128 tracks, 500 photos, letters, old papers, and additional material designed to be viewed on the screen while listening to the music. In his press conference, Young encouraged his mostly middle-aged fans to buy a Sony Playstation 3 in order to be able to “experience” the box set. “We want people to spend the same hours on it like a video game,” he said.

You know what? Neil Young has been beating this misguided audiophile horse for far too long. He’s latched onto DVD audio like it was the second coming of Christ and saturated the market with awkwardly-shaped and utterly confusing versions of his albums—many of which get returned by customers who can’t listen to them, and which go back to collect dust on warehouse shelves or clog up landfills. His belligerence with the technology is a waste, and the world is not going to get in step with him on the idea. It’s expensive, it’s ego-driven, it’s elitist, and I think it’s pretty much the last straw.