Quantcast

Merle Haggard at the LBC

Posted by on Apr 2, 2008

Near the beginning of Merle Haggard’s hour-long set tonight, he turned to the crowd and inexplicably asked, “No caffeine?!”

Er. . . Huh?

“No steroids? No crank?!” What was Haggard getting at?

Then the bomb: “Maybe a little herb!”

The aroma at a Merle Haggard show is just like any other country show: a time-honored combination of stale cigars, Copenhagen, cheap perfume and Jack Daniels. But the smell of marijuana guaranteed that we weren’t at no wussy-ass Dierks Bentley concert. From the guys out in the parking lot flaming up the reef, to the random whiffs in the lobby, to Haggard’s new song, “Half of My Garden is for Willie,” weed was the order of the night. And that suits the 70 year-old, white-haired Haggard—who still acts like a goofy little kid with a big heart—very well.

Acting out the song in adolescent, animated gestures, Haggard sang about the “tobacco, mushrooms, and cannabis” in his garden, and how half of it he’d give to Willie Nelson because “a man like that shouldn’t have to grow his own.” It brought the house down.

But by far the set’s highlight was one of the greatest songs ever written: “If I Could Only Fly.” The utmost of tenderness, the prettiest of melodies, the timelessness of the lyrics—everything about the Blaze Foley song cast a hush over the normally boisterous crowd, who shouted requests and rampantly ignored the ‘No Cameras’ signs throughout the bulk of the show. In the song’s quiet smallness, it attracted the most undivided attention of the night.

Hit-song standbys included “Silver Wings,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Guess I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Swinging Doors,” “Big City,” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” and much to the surprise of the crowd, Haggard actually performed “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee,” which in recent years he’s either tried to justify as spoofs or plain disowned outright.

Haggard’s also good for whatever latest ballad Willie Nelson’s written; the last time I saw him, in 2005, he sang “It Always Will Be,” and tonight, it was “Back to Earth.” The Strangers, his 10-piece backing band, played as fantastically as they always have (that drummer’s bones know when the song ends), and Haggard still has a hell of a voice.

Haggard was warm and welcoming to the crowd—much more so than most country stars of his vintage. He started “I Wish Things Were Simple Again” in the wrong key, which distracted him so much that he accidentally sang “My dad was a lady. . .” He stopped the song, everyone laughed, he made a couple jokes about “jambalay, crawfish pie, and be gay-o,” and then got back on track. At other times he joked about pulling up his bra, and said “I might be a transvestite!” He also spent a good deal of time criticizing the city of Redding, where in his words, “talent goes to die.”

Haggard’s playing Redding tomorrow night. Something tells me his talent will survive.

Robyn Hitchcock Is Weirder When He’s Not Talking About It and Boy, Does Peter Buck Ever Hate Being In R.E.M.

Posted by on Mar 30, 2008

It’s sort of counterproductive to watch a documentary about someone whose most attractive trait is mystery, and unless the film has something really, really juicy to offer, it risks revealing the man behind the curtain to be a bumbling hack.

That’s not exactly the case with Robyn Hitchcock in the just-released Sundance Channel DVD Sex, Food, Death. . . and Insects, but it’s close.

There are two perfect albums that Robyn Hitchcock has made: I Often Dream of Trains and Underwater Moonlight, with the Soft Boys. Buy them now. Relish in their evocative strangeness. Wonder boundlessly about the man who made them. And then don’t watch this documentary.

“Princess Robyn,” as he calls himself, spends much of his time on camera offering banal, universal observations about the songwriting process. He tells us that he’s obsessed with death and has a lot of rage inside, which is already evident in his music but severely diminished when it’s coming from the horse’s mouth. Delivering pronouncements about pylon cones and trolley bass, he comes off as trying unnecessarily hard to be weird. I mean, I love the Pink Elephant Car Wash sign in Seattle, but it’s certainly not worth a meandering philosophical analysis.

There’s a scene where Hitchcock premieres new material at a house party with his band (basically R.E.M., plus John Paul Jones and minus Michael Stipe & Mike Mills) and he hoodwinks a visibly tired Nick Lowe into singing backups. Lowe shuffles over to the microphone, Robyn compares him to Paul McCartney, but when the music starts it’s quickly apparent that Lowe does not know the song very well at all. It’s off-putting. Elsewhere in the film, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings explain how they were hoodwinked into making an entire album with Hitchcock (Spooked), and we start to wonder if we aren’t getting hoodwinked as well.

The main reason to watch this documentary, friends, is that Peter Buck takes every possible opportunity to demonize his experience in R.E.M. Try as he may, he can scarcely conceal his disgust with the band: “I just have to deal with such crap!” he complains. “I don’t want to spend four hours a day shaking the hands of people I don’t know!”

This year, Peter Buck goes on a nationwide tour with Modest Mouse and The National, traveling, as the members of R.E.M. do, in his own personal bus. When he moans about the ratio of “music to bullshit,” is it okay to not feel all that sorry for the guy?

R.E.M.’s new album, Accelerate, comes out this week.

In News

Outside Lands Festival – Full Lineup Announced

Posted by on Mar 25, 2008 2 Comments

Just got back from the Warriors game. Seven separate heart attacks. Baron matching Kobe point-for-point. Behind-the-back, over-the-shoulder layups and insane hail marys. Last few minutes, the lead dribbles back and forth. Bell: tied. Overtime. Place is in a frenzy. Came down to four seconds left. Monta gets a whistle and it’s bullshit. Kobe sinks two from the line and it’s over. Lakers 123, Warriors 119.

After pounding for three hours, my heart wasn’t even strong enough to break.

You see a game like that, you think you’ve seen it all. But no. I got home and caught the just-announced full lineup for the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park on August 22, 23, and 24. Have you taken a look at everyone that’s playing this thing?!

I’ve got my own draft picks for the festival: Broken Social Scene, M. Ward, Manu Chao, Radiohead, Sharon Jones, Black Mountain, The Cool Kids, Lyrics Born, Tom Petty, Two Gallants, Nellie McKay, Primus, Steve Winwood, Beck, Little Brother, The Coup, Drive-by Truckers, Cafe Tacuba, and K’naan is where you’ll find me.

Also on board for the weekend: Wilco, Ben Harper, Widespread Panic, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Regina Spektor, Jack Johnson, Devendra Banhart, Cold War Kids, Andrew Bird, Steel Pulse, ALO, Matt Nathanson, Dredg, Grace Potter, Donovan Frankenreiter, Mother Hips, Sidestepper, Goapele, Bon Iver, Ivan Neville, Sean Hayes, Felice Brothers, Rupa & the April Fishes, and Back Door Slam.

Here’s the turnaround: 3-day general admission tickets are $225.50 – before service charges. I’ve got a feeling that single-day tickets will be available before too long.

Check the full details online here. Tickets go on sale this Sunday, March 30.

Chalk up another slam dunk for the folks at Another Planet, who in addition to booking the Independent and the Greek Theater are also forging ahead with the return of their excellent Treasure Island Festival in September.

Music fans: stoked. Warriors fans: hosed.

The Velvet Teen at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by on Mar 21, 2008

Partway through the Velvet Teen’s set last night at the Phoenix, Judah Nagler started noodling on the keyboard, playing snippets of music from game shows and Nintendo games. The crowd, of course, loved it, just as everyone at the Phoenix, whether they knew it or not, loved what it represented: that the Velvet Teen is loosening up. Weathering a difficult third album, a major lineup change, and a sporadic schedule, the band’s finally got their shit dialed back in, and last night’s show was the best Velvet Teen show I’ve seen in two years.

The set started with one of a few new songs—a good sign—but it wasn’t too long before they dipped into an oft-neglected back catalog, namely a brilliantly reworked “Red Like Roses” from Out Of The Fierce Parade. The opening keyboard chords, instantly recognizable, gave way to atmospheric guitar sounds from Matthew Izen that washed through the song like windblown silk. “Penecillin” sounded amazing, marking the welcome return of preset laptop tracks, and “Forlorn,” having found its home at the piano again, resonated across the crowd.

Sometimes I think the Velvet Teen should just re-record Cum Laude. “333” and “Building a Whale” have evolved into the violent Casey Deitz-driven juggernauts they were always meant to be, and the delicate mannerisms in the band’s expansive, slower version of “Noi Boi” bring out the song’s inner beauty. All told, it’s like they’ve settled in, kicked off their shoes, watched some Jeopardy! and played some Super Mario Bros., and learned how to breathe as a band again.

The topper on the band’s excellent set was the surprise encore—”Chimera Obscurant,” all 13 crashing, crazy minutes of it. For, like, the first time in forever. It’s a favorite of mine for reasons too long to get into here, and the Velvet Teen drove it straight through the heart of a raptured crowd, ditching the “free speech shouldn’t cost” stop and letting it just roll on and on and on and on and on and on and on. Pure bliss.

Opening bands: I missed Goodriddler, which sucks because Nick’s amazing, and I watched all of Aloha and remained underwhelmed. They’re like the band that has a lot of great things going for them—distorted vibes, interesting guitar phrases, an incredible drummer—but somehow they just don’t add up. My friend Josh is all over ‘em (“Sugar is sweet!” he remarked of the band’s 2002 full-length, completely unaware of what he’d just said), which is a sign that in five years, I’ll come around and slap myself on the head.

At the end of the night, people were still talking about Body or Brain, who played the lobby. Best new band right now, no contest. Upbeat, hyperjangly infectious pop, led by Jakie Lieber, a madman. Jakie plays unbelievable riffs on the electric guitar with his bare hands, no pick, and he simultaneously moves around like a clock spring that’s frantically uncoiling. I hunched down near the floor and watched as he jumped, kicked, slung the guitar around his back, tap-danced, did the fucking splits, and moonwalked, all while playing the guitar and not missing a note. I met him a few weekends ago while writing an article about his hardcore band, the Grand Color Crayon, and he’s also got solo recordings that sound like Doug Martsch’s acoustic stuff. Is there anything the kid can’t do? I mean, besides finally move out of Napa someday?

(Jakie jumps around way too fast to be photographed, and this is the best I could do. —–>)

Boredoms at the Fillmore

Posted by on Mar 20, 2008

Unless you own a ticket stub from seeing God, I can guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like the Boredoms.

As for me, I’d witnessed neither deity when I bought my tickets to Tuesday’s show at the Fillmore, but after what can only be described as one of the most inspiring and incredible performances ever given, I feel like I got a 2-for-1 deal.

First off, the band set up in the middle of the floor of the Fillmore, with towers of speakers placed in each corner of the room. Three drum sets bordered the stage, all facing each other, alongside a gigantic tower of electric guitars, sawed flat at the ends and bracketed together with their necks sticking out on either side. Racks of electronics, percussion, keyboards, and amplifiers lined the circular setup, and the Fillmore’s lights landed squarely in the center of it all like a boxing ring. In other words: holy shit.

The Boredoms, one by one, entered through the crowd and climbed on stage, and all the lights went out—even the Fillmore’s purple chandeliers. Boredoms ringleader Yamatsuka Eye appeared with illuminated globes on his hands, and an unholy static ravaged the speakers, like an extraterrestrial message that flitted in and out of recognizance as Eye thrashed his arms around and around. His head tilted back towards the ceiling, and he repeatedly shouted something resembling “hello,” as if trying to contact life on other planes in the swarm of strange theremin-like hand noise.

Suddenly, three drummers simultaneously pounded a propulsive, hectic beat, and Eye worked an electronics board, adding more and more layers to the already thick sound. A slowly building crescendo built dramatically over the next six minutes, until Eye grabbed a five-foot staff and, with a sweeping, athletic motion, slammed it against the tower of electric guitars, striking all seven necks at once with a powerful, thundering curdle of distortion that shook the entire audience like the walls of Jericho. The drums raced on, and Eye flipped his dreadlocks around to shout more things to the sky, slamming himself upon the tower of guitars, and I’ll be damned if somewhere in the middle of it all I didn’t see the ceiling open up and the divine light of salvation fill the room.

This was no regular noise jam: throughout the set, a tight compositional structure was clear, despite the grand illusion of improvisational mania. Themes emerged, then disappeared, then re-emerged 20 minutes later. Yoshimi turned away from her drums and played keyboards, then sang, then turned back to her drums to participate in triple call-and-response drum fills while singing. Eye adjusted the capos placed on the guitars to create different notes, beating their strings individually in repeating patterns and hammering away at them collectively during climaxes with cymbals and vocals.

How does one react to this music? Many stared, agape and dumbfounded. Some threw their arms up and pumped their fists. Still others tried various forms of interpretive swirly-dancing, appropriately coinciding with the sounds swirling around all four corners of the room. I didn’t know how to react; I was mesmerized. When it ended, over an hour later, the crowd clapped and clapped and clapped and probably didn’t even want an encore—we all just needed to.

But the most amazing thing, I think, is that after a full set of Olympic gymnastics, after jumping and heaving and dancing, and after a beautiful encore that eventually came and closed the night out with appropriate serenity, Eye climbed off the stage and onto a pair of crutches, hobbling backstage. Can Eye really not walk, and could all of that energy and physical exertion really have come from a disabled man? Unbelievable.

The Last Record Store

Posted by on Mar 19, 2008

There are certain things we say in life that we never thought we’d ever, ever say. Things like, “Let’s go out to sushi,” or “I’ve been kinda into reggae lately.” And today, I find myself saying one of those unthinkable things. After 14 years, I have worked my final day at the Last Record Store.

Maybe “worked” isn’t the right word, since my last day at the store on Monday was full of telephone calls and people stopping in, wishing me well, shaking my hand, reminding me of the first record they bought off me, telling me how much I’d helped them out in different ways—basically flashing 14 years of my life before my eyes. It was an overwhelming display of what I’d meant to the store, which is something I’d never really thought about, because the store always meant so much more to me.

I started coming to the Last Record Store in 1988, when I was 12 years old and used to ride my skateboard all over downtown Santa Rosa. My mom would give me $5 for food, but of course I starved myself and bought hardcore records instead. In fact, I still have the first record I ever bought there—a 7″ compilation called ‘We’ve Got Your Shorts.’

As time went on, I guess I grew to be a familiar face around the store. I was hooked on records, buying everything from DRI to Sinatra, and bridging the styles by recording ‘Punk Piano’—punk rock songs played easy-listening style—to sell in the local demo tapes section. The store also stocked my zine, Positively Fourth Street, and sold records by my band, Ground Round. I still distinctly remember asking a fairly bewildered Scott if it was okay to put up a flyer bearing the phrase “In the Name of God, Fuck You.” Then, in 1993, a miracle happened: I got asked to work there.

I didn’t know, at the time, that everyone in the world wanted to work at the Last Record Store, but at 18, I definitely knew that it was the place for me. I loved the atmosphere, the freedom to be myself, and the fact that Hoyt and Doug really ran the place in their own anti-corporate and unconventional way. I began a crash course in every single section, starting with a heavy jazz infatuation, going through a deep country phase, diving headlong into hip-hop, eating up everything and finding myself surprised at every turn.

Oh, I learned a lot about life, too. Things like how to treat people properly, and how not to be a snob, and how actions and achievements mean more than opinions and ideals. But I dug learning about music most of all; my co-workers, naturally, being founts of information, along with most of the customers. Eventually I was put in charge of the vinyl annex, which opened up whole new possibilities for listening, be it crazy international music, old blues records, new electronica stuff, the standard classical repertoire, any classic rock I might have missed. There was always one threshold, however, that I refused to cross: I never, ever listened to reggae.

It’d be impossible, and would definitely get some people in trouble, to list all of the amazing things that happened at the store while I worked there. Nevertheless, interesting stuff seemed to happen every day, like the time that Doug rigged a huge PA speaker up on the roof and blared Mule Variations at midnight, all over downtown Santa Rosa. The day that Seth walked in and plopped an owl on the counter, very beautiful and very dead. The crazy half-naked stripper who invited me to dinner, or the many other solicitations one gets when they work at a record store, none of which need to be retold here.

The strangers who met in the aisles and would later start coming in together. The beautiful girl who I met in the aisles, fell in love with, and married. The bands that made flyers out of vacuum cleaners and folding chairs, the folks who dropped off their insane flyers and zines and mix CDs, and the people who brought us free things like cake and chocolate and beer and movies and tickets to shows and chicken casserole. Why? Just because.

I’ve also seen the Last Record Store skillfully adapt to a lot of changes over the years. Getting a cash register, for one. Closing the vinyl annex. Moving to Mendocino Avenue. Getting a computer and an email list. Weathering the mp3 storm. Weathering the economy and the changing face of the music industry. Watching Musicland, the Wherehouse, and Tower Records all go under. And yet, through it all, standing strong, because in mine and many other people’s opinions, it’s still the best and most amazing record store in the world.

For the last four years, I wrote the Last Record Store Newsletter every week, which, if you’re interested, can be perused here. But I’ve also for the last four years been writing more and more for the Bohemian, which is where I’m going to be full-time from now on. For those lovable ones among you who are going to miss my dependable presence behind the counter—my misguided recommendations, my unintelligible blathering, and my failed jokes—well, hopefully it’ll translate in print. Between you and me, I’ve actually been kinda into reggae lately. Just a little.

So thanks to Doug and Hoyt for giving me a job and treating me like a son for fourteen years. Thanks to all my awesome co-workers for the camaraderie. Thanks especially to all the wonderful regular customers who I’ve met over the years—you, more than anyone, and more than you know, made it worthwhile. I’m gonna miss the shit, for sure, but another door has opened, and it’s time to move on.

In News

Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz Coming To Sebastopol!

Posted by on Mar 19, 2008

People at Gogol Bordello’s typically frenetic and crazy show at the Warfield Theater last week might have been too caught up in the mayhem to notice, but amidst the gypsy-punk rollicking and flailing bodies, singer Eugene Hutz announced to the crowd that he was going to be part of some sort of Gypsy festival in Sebastopol. With his Eastern European background, surely, he must have meant Sevastopol, the Ukranian city on the Crimea peninsula. Right?

Sonoma County, get out your herring and borscht: confirmed by Voice of Roma—the group who puts on the yearly festival—Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello will appear as a guest DJ at this year’s 12th Annual Herdejezi Festival at the Sebastopol Veterans Building on Friday, May 2nd. Also on the bill for the rest of the weekend’s festivities are Yuri Yunakov, Vadim Kopalkov, Petra Safarova, Reyhan Tuzsuz, and Brass Menazeri. Crowd-surfing on top of a marching bass drum is optional.

For those who don’t know, Gogol Bordello is one of the most mind-blowing live bands in the world right now, recalling the raucousness of the Pogues, the passion of the Clash, and the endurance of a young Bruce Springsteen. Hutz, the band’s enigmatic frontman, also has a show-stealing role in the wonderfully off-kilter film Everything is Illuminated.

Thanks to Caitlin for the heads up.

First Novels at the Toad in the Hole

Posted by on Mar 19, 2008

The Toad in the Hole has an official fire capacity of, like, 48, and I usually feel really bad for Eddie, their doorman. Part of his job is to be the messenger of bad news and to turn paying customers away when the place is hopping—which was definitely the case last Saturday night. Chalk it up to First Novels, with the match-made-in-heaven pairing of Andy Asp and Brian Fitzpatrick, to pack the tiny Toad in the Hole and to leave latecomers stranded on the sidewalk outside.

Andy and Brian, who for years played together in Cropduster and seem essentially like soulmates at this point, are a thrill to watch together—sometimes you think Brian’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Andy, sometimes you think Andy’s the luckiest guy in the world to play with Brian. Their songs, influenced by tunesmiths like John Prine, Tim Hardin and Neil Young, are microcosms of wonder, and between Andy’s voice and Brian’s guitar work, they’re played with a hypnotic, untainted delicacy. Note to people who try to talk to me when Andy and Brian are playing: dude, be quiet.

Special mention must be made of Muir Houghton, upright bassist extraordinaire, who picks up songs on the spot and plays them like he’s played them forever. I’ve seen him a few times now, and whether bowing or plucking, whether playing with John Courage or Amber Lee or First Novels, he’s always on top of his game.

The Spindles played last, and incidentally, I don’t think they’ve ever been better, benefiting greatly from the addition of new drummer Jonathan Hughes, who plays with a really thoughtful and compatible sense of taste. Sweet-lookin’ drum kit, too.

Pwrfl Power at the Boogie Room

Posted by on Mar 16, 2008 2 Comments

There were some baby goats in one of the barns at the Boogie Room last night that were born just three days ago, cuddled up together in a pile of hay. It was amazing. I don’t get to see that sort of thing very often, and especially not at a show, where sweetness and innocence aren’t exactly in fashion these days.

Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like there’s a lot of bands lately who hold purity in low regard. Following secret motives and adhering to a growing nouveau underground which dictates a bitterly knotted anti-aesthetic, the only use they’d have for baby goats would be to ironically put them on their CD-R cover with, like, some rainbows and duct tape and bloodstains.

You know the kind. They all play a chaotic amalgam of fast, schizophrenic drum beats, noodling, atonal hardcore riffs, sparse, unnecessary non-vocals, and quirky or nonexistent tempos. They usually have a surefire gimmick, like dressing up in toilet paper or manhandling some artifact of malfunctioning vintage electronic equipment. Invariably, they have unconventional instrumentation, causing fans to say things like “it’s just a guitarist and a drummer!”—as if that’s, like, a totally original thing because that’s not how Nickelback or Sugar Ray or any other dumb band in their secret pile of CDs now collecting dust on their bedroom shelf does things. And they rarely, if ever, talk to the crowd.

Nickelback and Sugar Ray suck hard, don’t get me wrong. But what’s lame about this current voguish, anarchistic approach is that is it defined not by what it creates but by what it blatantly disregards. Right now, there’s way too many bands that tear down conventional form, melody, structure and rhythm, yet add nothing in its place—other than technical wankery and a juvenile nose-thumbing to what they perceive as the musical establishment. They’re like the sect of iconoclasts who have decided that interpersonal love is too mainstream and who avow to combat the fascist regime of loving one another by going out and displaying their autonomy by masturbating in public.

If this is the revolution, then sorry, man, but I’m bored with it before it even begins. How did Sara put it the other week? “If I leave a show, and my ears are ringing,” she proposed, “I want to at least have heard some songs.”

At the Boogie Room the other night was a fresh sign of hope. Pwrfl Power—the stage name of solo Japanese-American artist Kazutaka Nomura—not only played actual songs (and good songs, too), but he engaged the crowd with stories, jokes, observations, and genuine purity. “How are you?” he asked the crowd, and after we all muttered “good,” he smiled, adding to the exchange a trademark tangent.

“When I said that right there, ‘how are you,’” he said, “I was thinking of the book that I learned English, and it had an example of a conversation between, like, Tom and Kathryn. Some generic names like that. And the conversation was: ‘How are you?’ ‘I am good.’ ‘Is this a chair?’ ‘No, it is a table.’” He laughed. “What kind of stupid person is that?”

But whether he knows it or not, Nomura’s songs carry the same simplicity as those rudimentary textbook conversations. They’re basic statements that mean so much more exactly because they’re presented in such simple terms. “It’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be yourself,” he sings, “Because you’re you.”

Underneath innocent pronouncements about dogs, tomatoes, bananas—that sort of thing—lies a complex philosophical strain. Is it okay to fake some tears when you break up with a girl? Can one contribute to society without having a job? Is there a heaven where all the dead birds, dead cats, and dead drummers go?

Nomura plays the guitar with an advanced fingerpicking style, sometimes peeling into a dazzling interlude that sounds like Joe Pass at high speed (see “Coffee Girl Song”). With this sort of jazzy accompaniment and a restrained singing style, his set at the Boogie Room was like an ungrizzled form of beat poetry, and the mostly sitting-down crowd listened in rapt attention. Once again, like the first time I went to the Boogie Room, it reminded me of Studio E in Sebastopol.

I’d be super-curious to find out if Nomura, like other Japanese performers, plays up his language barrier while onstage to win over American audiences. I’d also probably be pretty jealous if I were on tour with him, watching him steal the hearts of the crowd every night with his painfully twee songs about chopsticks. But from an audience point of view, and especially in the context of the heinously garbled bullshit that passes for music in the underground these days, Pwrfl Power sure is a breath of fresh air.

Rufus Wainwright at the Napa Valley Opera House

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008 One Comment

You’d think, with a healthy affinity for Broadway and a probably unhealthy affinity for pop vocalists from the ’50s and ’60s, that I’d be all over the Rufus Wainwright thing. One problem: I’ve heard his records, and they’re too syrupy and overdramatic, bogged down by pretense and orchestration. When he toured last year for Release the Stars with a large ensemble and wore, like, five different poofy outfits onstage, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much.

But today, friends, I stand before you a changed man. Wainwright played a solo show at the Napa Valley Opera House last night, spotlighting his songs in a stripped-down format, and it was absolutely incredible. I can’t say that I’d follow him around on tour, or hold up star-shaped signs, or jump up applauding after every song like some of the more fervent dyed-in-the-wool fans in the crowd did last night, but if there’s a regular old kind of casual fan club, then sign me up, brother.

The fact that Wainwright was playing such a small venue made the evening feel like a special event indeed. Apparently in the know about his obsessive fans, Napa Valley Opera House Artistic Director Evy Warshawski introduced Wainwright as “you-know-who,” and was forced to deny requests from the audience demanding to know which hotel he was staying at afterwards. Quite a build-up.

Getting off to a shaky start, Wainwright came out, sat at the piano and banged away on the piano for “Grey Gardens,” an otherwise nice song affected by an awkward attack and bad dynamics. Something must have been going on with the monitors, because for the first three songs, it felt like he was overcompensating for imaginary sounds in his head. Eventually, either Wainwright or the soundman figured things out, and throughout the hour and fifteen-minute set, his accompaniment only got better, and was especially sensitive on numbers like “Zebulon” and “Going to a Town.”

Wainwright’s still not the most suitable guitarist—abrasive strumming and fret buzz got in the way—but his piano playing became beautiful and exhilarating, especially during the hands-down best song of the night, “Nobody’s Off the Hook.” Contained in reverence from start to finish, with a pensive instrumental passage, a heartbreaking final verse and an upper-register quote of “Over the Rainbow,” it elicited a communal awed silence before bringing the house down.

From the small stage, Wainwright took advantage of the intimate Napa Valley Opera House, talking with the crowd like old friends. “This is such a cute little Opera House!” he exclaimed midway through the show. “I’m imagining a cute little production of Aida. . . with baby elephants playing big elephants. . . little midget singers. . .” The crowd couldn’t stop laughing, and Wainwright, trying to bring the mood back down for the sad lament “I’m Not Ready to Love,” begged, “Get sad!” When that only dragged out the laughter, he got mock-desperate: “Oh, this is a nightmare!”

“Matinee Idol” sparked an ongoing discussion with the audience about River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Jon Voight and Cary Elwes, and during “California,” Wainwright changed the lyrics, pointedly singing that “life is the longest death in SOUTHERN California.” When the crowd hooted, he cattily admitted to the pander, saying, “I said ‘Northern’ down there!”

“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “April Fools” were woven nicely into medleys, and though Wainwright didn’t do any Judy Garland songs (like the night before in Monterrey when the crowd sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) he convinced the crowd nonetheless to tackle the vocally gymnastic bridge to “Sansoucci,” his ode to the German palace which he hilariously referred to as “the Madonna Inn of Germany.” He also got off a side-splitting line about meeting up again with an old high school crush, a story which isn’t worth repeating here, unfortunately, because it would lack the necessary wit and zest-laden delivery of coming from Wainwright himself.

Wainwright’s songs are so good, his melodies so well-crafted, his sense of bombast so refined, and yet throughout the set all of these attributes sometimes took a backseat to his personality. Before the elegant final encore of “Dinner at Eight,” for example, Wainwright thanked opener Spencer Day for flying in at the last minute to help offset the Daylight Savings Time change. “And,” he quipped, “for providing me with an extra hour to look at myself back there.”

Some performers are performers and some performers are superstars. Wainwright isn’t a superstar, not yet, at least, but at least he’s adhering to the first rule of art, that of striking a pose. Wainwright’s chosen pose—a tortured diva who could crumble at any moment—would easily be an excruciating cliche, except that it’s backed up by such a richness of talent, and eventually, it will see itself fulfilled by said talent. So preen away, Rufus, and look at yourself for another hour. History will catch up.