No one who lives locally and goes to hip hop shows—that is to say, thousands of people in Sonoma County—could have escaped the shocking headline in last week’s local newspaper. “Phoenix Theater Bans Rap Concerts,” it declared, in a mystifying statement that was as bold as it was hard to believe.
That’s because it wasn’t true. The Phoenix Theater has not banned rap concerts.
Here’s what happened: in a letter sent out early last week, the Phoenix Board addressed the lingering issue of a 17 year-old from Concord who was found during a police dispatch after a Super Hyphy show starring Keak da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B.; while the kid was being tackled by police across the street, he allegedly tossed a loaded 9mm pistol through the doors of Pazzo, a nearby nightclub. In the letter, the Phoenix stressed that it would continue to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its patrons, and noted that it had postponed three upcoming hip hop shows while its security measures were reviewed.
Nowhere in the letter did the word “ban” appear. If anything, the Phoenix’s dedication to future safety and promise of heightened security pointed directly to a continuation of, and a commitment to, presenting live hip hop.
When I first saw the headline I was mortified. Then, as I read the article, I realized that the people at the Phoenix probably just felt like they needed to address the complicated workload of the Petaluma Police Department, the concerns of parents, and the irate comments posted online by blatant racists. So they said they’d lay low for a while, reassess a few things, and wait until the whole thing cooled off.
I talked with a member of the Phoenix board that night, and a letter to the editor showed up two days later from the Board president clarifying things; it turned out that my hunch was more or less right, and the Phoenix already has some hip hop shows booked again. But why, then, the completely incorrect headline?
As a writer, I should understand how media works. I don’t, exactly, but I do know of the propensity for criticizing what you don’t understand and wanting it to go away. Wanting so much for it to go away, in fact, that you might tell everyone that it actually had gone away in the hopes that it will follow suit and leave you alone.
Naturally, accusations of racism have been raised about the general attitude towards hip hop in Sonoma County, and while there’s no doubt that that’s an active element, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate per se, or, at least, that simple. What I think is at the core of racism, however, is the same thing that’s at the core of most denunciation of hip hop: making an uninformed choice to hate something based purely on surface elements.
You can say, and you’d be right, that a lot of balled-out, gun-toting, hoe-slapping rap stars bring condemnation upon themselves (you could also make a case for the obviously over-the-top, unserious extravagance of such poses, but that’s a different story). But to be honest, I believe that most hostility towards hip hop comes from recoiling in disgust at the actual sound of the music itself. 30 years after its inception, an opinion still prevails among older people—and especially the large population of older, rich, white people in Sonoma County—that hip hop isn’t “real music.” It instantly annoys.
If they did give rap music a try, they might discover some that they actually liked. Like evaluating a bottle of wine, subtle nuances either make or break a rap song, and finding the good artists only means ascertaining these idiosyncrasies. To your grandma, say, Talib Kweli sounds just like 50 Cent, but if she actually trained her palate and listened—listened!—she might say, “know what, mu’fucka, this Kweli cat is on some other shit!” (Or, you know, the grandmotherly equivalent thereof.) But is she ever going to do that? Hell no, because people get old and closed-minded and see numbskulls like Kanye West blathering away on television and make up their minds that rap music is a scourge on humanity and that’s that.
Growing up in the 1980s, listening to rap music for me was revelatory. Albums like Raising Hell, Paid in Full and Paul’s Boutique made me feel, at 12 years old, like everything in the world was within my grasp. I assume that kids these days feel the same way too.
In fact, I know for a fact that they feel the same way. I’ve gone to lots of hip hop shows at the Phoenix. And I haven’t seen as much empowerment, positivity and unity in one room in the last five years as I have at some of those Super Hyphy shows, crazy to say. Whatever your take on the style performed, there’s no denying that those shows provide a face-to-face opportunity for teenagers to relate to each other in a positive way with music that is distinctly theirs. If you strip kids of that opportunity, you’re not only erasing from their lives some of the most important memories they’ll have of coming of age, but also saying that you don’t trust them to feel like individuals or to form their own opinions. What kinda shit is that?
Ultimately, anyone trying to ban or acquiescing to media pressure to ban hip hop—clubs that change their DJs, radio stations that change their format—they’re all just gonna look like total fools in the end. Hip hop is the most alive and popular form of music in the world. It has been for years and years. You could say, harking back to the same damn thing that happened 50 years ago, that it’s here to stay.
A few final things: I actually feel for the writer of the newspaper article; not a lot of people are aware that staff writers don’t come up with the headlines for their own articles. Blame the editor. And also, the first show that the Phoenix postponed was an Andre Nickatina appearance scheduled for the incredibly inconvenient hour of 3:00 in the afternoon, put on by Nickatina himself, which for some stupid reason cost an astronomical $35. No big loss.
“One request: ditch the cell phones and digital cameras. If they weren’t here, fuck ‘em.”
Apparently something happened tonight called the Grammy Awards, a bloated, self-congratulatory clusterfuck which, as a music journalist, I should probably attempt to care about. But even if for some sadomasochistic reason or another I followed the Grammys like a hawk, I’d have to opt instead for witnessing an event infinitely more electrifying and significant: Billie Joe Armstrong’s grand return to the stage at 924 Gilman Street.
Gilman in itself holds a big place in my heart; from 1990-1995 I played there, slept there, volunteered there, and went to more shows there than I can count. And of the 20 or so times I saw Green Day—including the time they fulfilled a request to play my own high school in 1991—none was as special as seeing them at Gilman, because it was and still is the most miraculous and amazing club the world has to offer.
Billie Joe, now a decorated Grammy alumnus himself, suffered the psychological blow of not being able to perform again at Gilman—essentially his home and breeding ground for six formative years—when Green Day signed to Warner Bros. in 1993 (the club explicitly bars major-label bands from its lineups). In a number of songs and interviews, he made the scars public; yet skirting back to the venerable warehouse fifteen years later, his less-mentioned but no-less-brilliant “other band” Pinhead Gunpowder was added onto tonight’s hush-hush Sunday evening show. (Judging from the long line that snaked around the block as the doors opened at 5pm, the news that Billie Joe was playing didn’t exactly escape the wildfire of Message Boards and MySpace postings like the organizers hoped.)
Pinhead Gunpowder does not play a lot of shows. In fact, they’ve only played 17 shows in 17 years. And though the band had just finished up a round of Southern California dates the previous week, tonight’s show carried a particular historical weight.
“We’ve played some shows, like down in San Pedro, the kinds of shows I haven’t played in 15 years,” he explained to me, hanging around the side door before the doors opened. “It’s been fuckin’ great. But this place…”—he paused, stared nervously at the club—“I haven’t played here in a long time.”
Playing Gilman again for Billie Joe is probably a lot like getting dumped by an amazing girlfriend, only to have her call up years later out of the blue for a roll in the hay; strange, kind of awesome, and more than slightly nerve-racking. Nearby, some people arrived with video equipment; “What are they filming for?” asked Billie Joe, no doubt concerned that his private communion with Gilman could be turned into a documentary critique.
But if the love showered on him tonight was any barometer, then Billie Joe needn’t have worried. Two girls at the front of the line, who’d arrived at 7:30am, came around the corner and approached him; some gushing-adolescent conversation and a couple of hugs later, the girls ran back to the line shaking, shuddering, and coming precariously close to throwing up in excitement.
And onstage, after setting up his own equipment and adjusting his own mic stand, Billie Joe had the world in his hands, from the opening chords of “Find My Place” to luminous chestnuts like “MPLS Song” and “Losers of the Year.” Not a drop of animosity remained from 1993. Bodies crushed, heaved, and lurched as one in the wonderfully chaotic fray of the crowd, where I and hundreds of others tried to stay on two feet. Gilman staffers on either side of the stage, most of them in grade school when Green Day were banned from Gilman, all sang along.
“Welcome home!” someone yelled.
“Welcome home!” replied Billie Joe, in a sort of gleeful amazement at the phrase, and then began singing, “Welllll-come hoooo-me, wellll-come hoooo-me!”
Obviously enjoying the shit outta the occasion, Billie jumped around like a madman, quoted John Denver and Don McLean lyrics, and slashed away at his black Gretsch guitar. Through “Reach for the Bottle,” “Before the Accident,” and, in a dedication to Pinhead Gunpowder’s old guitarist Mike Kirsch, “Future Daydream,” he couldn’t have appeared more inspired on Gilman’s well-worn stage. Being tangled in the sea of people up front, I swayed and sweat and gasped for air along with every goddamn beautiful moment of it all.
After “Mahogany,” the lights came up, the side door opened, and Billie Joe Armstrong ambled out onto Eighth Street. I caught up with him, steam emanating from his drenched body, in the same spot where beforehand he’d expressed uncertainty.
“That,” he told me, “was great.”
P.S. Pinhead Gunpowder brought out a lot of faces I haven’t seen in a while. Jesse Luscious, Robert Eggplant, Paul Curran and Patrick Hynes: nice seeing you all. You too, Aaron. And massive kudos to the opening band, Zomo, who were almost as great as the headliner.
I walked into Amoeba a full hour before Vampire Weekend’s scheduled set on Friday night, only to see the first two aisles in front of the stage already filled with diehards waiting for their chance to watch, up close and personal, one of the suavest new bands of 2008.
The indie rock cognoscenti have been burbling about Vampire Weekend for months now, with descriptors like “Ivy-League Death Pop Woven With African Filament”—I mean, how can you resist?—and yet for Friday night’s hugely high-school-aged audience (ponytails, braces, and zits in abundance), it was all about the here and now. The band’s debut album, Vampire Weekend, just released, the 18+ show the night before at Popscene an unattainable dream, and twittering throng waiting anxiously between Amoeba’s Gospel and Rockabilly sections.
The rest of the store filled fast, with unknowing customers humorously caught off-guard by the commotion, and then, the big moment: in casual Harvard fashion, the band ambled out onto the stage and started their set with the first song from their album, a catchy two-minute blast called “Mansard Roof,” nailing all the high vocals, syncopated rhythms, and jaunty melodies.
After the second song, “Campus,” singer / guitarist Ezra Koenig acknowledged San Francisco—“It’s one of our very favorite cities, and we don’t just say that everywhere,” he commented, adding wryly, “Sometimes it’s very obvious that it’s not our favorite city.”
Vampire Weekend’s songs are what people call deceptively simple—both “Mansard Roof” and “Campus,” for example, rely on just a basic major scale for a riff—but the band kneads enough bizarre influences into the dough that listening to them is like deciphering a Rosetta Stone of music, from Sting to Sister Carol to Schubert to a healthy dose of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Live, the band rocks harder sans the string quartet on record, and, dispensing with collegiate reticence, Koenig passionately emphasized lines like “do you want to fuck?” from the South African-flavored “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” In the aisles, the kids ate it up.
After “I Stand Corrected,” “A-Punk,” and “Oxford Comma,” it was all over, truncating their already-short album (it’s a refreshing 34 minutes long) into just a six-song set. For a tiny short while, the innocence of pop music and the excitement of a great new band with oodles of potential lay bare in front of a crowd of fervent admirers, and on a cold, drizzling night in San Francisco, well, it’s hard to ask for more.
Best Lyrics: Magnetic Fields – Distortion
The album title, Distortion, refers to the Psychocandy-esque fuzz that permeates every song on this album—making it sound drearier and more hungover than anything you’d expect from Magnetic Fields. But holy bejeezus, the lyrics are a goddamn hoot. Some reviews of the album have actually complained about the lyrics in particular, citing Stephen Merritt’s ongoing “downtrodden, sad-sack schtick,” causing me to wonder if Noel Coward could very well be out of work if he was born in the 21st Century. Making mirth out of the morose is a tight market these days, apparently.
From “The Nun’s Litany”:
I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer
I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell
From “Too Drunk To Dream”:
Sober, life is a prison
Shitfaced, it is a blessing
Sober, nobody wants you
Shitfaced, they’re all undressing
No one should listen to any Magnetic Fields album before they listen to 69 Love Songs, but for the already initiated, the sharply pained ribaldry of Distortion’s lyrics will remind you of at least one of a hundred reasons why you fell in love with the band in the first place. They’re playing two nights at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on Feb. 28-29, and man, is it ever sold out.
Best Sonic Quality: Black Mountain – In The Future
I saw Black Mountain late last December and it was undoubtedly one of the year’s highlights. I drove down to the show in San Francisco on a complete whim and had no idea what to expect, brandishing only an ardent fascination with their self-titled debut, released three years ago.
The lights went down. The guitar amplifier billowed smoke. The drums illumined with each bass kick. The voices of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean cavorted together, intertwined, above a thundering morass. I was stupefied.
In The Future doesn’t quite capture all of Black Mountain’s hazy bombast, and its songs aren’t as classic as those on the band’s first record, but it’s a mind-transporting headphone album nonetheless that just sounds great. They’re playing at the Independent in San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 4.
Strange New Band: MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
They’re too hippie-sounding for the fixed gear crowd but they’re, like, too concerned with their own image for the stoner crowd. I still can’t figure out if I like ‘em or not. Their video, though, is an absolute work of art. So, yeah: strange new band.
Between possibly getting engaged, starring in movies that aren’t as good as Ghost World, getting hot and steamy with Justin Timberlake, and acting as a modern-day Betty Grable visiting the troops in Kuwait, it’d seem that Scarlett Johansson’s dance card is totally full.
But in news that pretty much has the entire world’s panties in a bunch, Johansson’s been busy putting the finishing touches on a solo album. No big deal, you say? Then smoke on your pipe and put this in: it’s a solo album of ALL TOM WAITS SONGS.
To the casual observer, this in itself is pretty nuts. But to longtime Tom Waits fans, it’s even more insane, like Jesus coming back and ordaining Waits as the official MC for the resurrection. To further spark those indie-nerd juices, Johansson hit the Louisiana studio with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner on guitar and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek on production.
The track listing’s not been made available yet, but speculating about the hundreds of song choices available is half the fun (“Pasties and a G-String”? “Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis”? “Better Off Without A Wife”?).
Mark your calendars: the album, called Anywhere I Lay My Head, is due out on May 20 via Atco Records.
Prevailing trends in World Music compilations are funny things. After Paul Simon’s Graceland, the record market was flooded with South African compilations; after Buena Vista Social Club came the glut of Cuban compilations; and between U2, Enya, Riverdance, Loreena McKennitt, Sinead O’Connor and Titanic, the ‘90s had a good ten-year run of hot-selling, yawn-inducing Irish compilations.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of the latest compilation trend, but lately people can’t seem to get enough of psychedelic music from around the world.
Whether it’s imported from West Africa (Luaka Bop’s excellent Love’s A Real Thing), Ethiopia (the crazy vibraphone sounds of Mulatu on Ethiopiques Vol. 4) or Brazil (Love, Peace and Poetry: Brazilian Psychedelic Music), world psychedelic music is super-duper hot right now. So hot, I hate to say, that lame-ass collections have started popping up under the false banner of “psychedelia,” corruptly hornswaggling us poor music hounds into chasing the diluted coattails of a trend that, barring any basement discoveries of Os Mutantes or Alla Pugachova outtakes anytime soon, appears to have run its ethno-trippy course.
Case in point: The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru, which is a very fine collection of dance bands from ’68-’78. The music, played largely by working people from poor backgrounds, is tropical and percussive, sometimes utilizing surf-style electric guitars, farfisa organs and moog synthesizers. The culmination of sounds evokes hot, dry days, dirt roads, lush foliage, and butterfly collars, and though rudimentary, it embodies the flavor of its era.
It’s pretty groovy. But is it psychedelic? Not in the slightest.
Just as film sequels are prime fodder for disappointment, music trends can industrially produce truckloads of hoppin’-on-the-bandwagon mediocrity. The difference is that it’s harder to trace the lineage of music trends, which don’t share franchise names as much as movies do. If they did, it’d be easier to sniff out the perpetrators—like if the Dave Clark Five were called “The Beatles Part II.”
But when a certain catch phrase does catch on and starts making the cash registers ring (a mixed blessing for world “psychedelic” music), you can bet your Salvadorean hookah that copycat products will line up and run the whole damn thing into the ground.
I’ll never forget the time I bought Oliver Nelson’s More Blues and the Abstract Truth, excited as all hell ‘cause I’d just discovered his flawless The Blues and the Abstract Truth album. Realistically, More Blues was a decent enough jazz album, but man, he shoulda just called it something different. Similar disappointments have plagued otherwise fine compilations like Night Train To Nashville Vol. 2, Bay Area Funk Vol. 2 or California Soul Vol. 2, all of them overflowing with weak sauce in inevitable comparison to each series’ kickass first volumes (get them now, if you know what’s good for you).
I won’t even start in on the obvious losers like Metallica’s Reload and Run DMC’s Back From Hell, or b-side cash-ins like Sufjan Stevens’ The Avalanche or Ghostface Killah’s More Fish. We’d all just get depressed. On the bright side, a small handful of sequels are warranted— Julie London’s Julie Is Her Name Vol. II isn’t that bad, come to think of it. But, you know. That was 50 years ago.
It was a hella enjoyable night last week at Kate & Coalmine’s Roll Call, thanks largely in part to the very funny and ultimately surreal set played by Lila Cugini (seen here getting clubbed by, uh… a sadomasochistic police officer?).
The Roll Call, a recurring feature on Wednesday nights at the Toad in the Hole Pub in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, operates like a well-organized (and, thanks to the beers on tap, well-oiled) open mic. Performers are booked in advance, but the carefree, anything-goes attitude is the same. Basically, you never know what you’re gonna get; a time-honored concept which can be excruciating when it fails but awesomely surprising when it succeeds.
It worked for Lila, who happened to be celebrating her birthday last Wednesday and had plenty of well-wishers in tow. Lila opened her set by showing off and reading from her latest present, just given to her by a friend outside on the sidewalk: an autographed script of the pilot episode from M*A*S*H.
Then, kicking things off with a tongue-in-cheek ditty called “I Want An Ugly Man,” Lila told a story about copying and pasting the song’s lyrics onto a personal ad on Craigslist, just as an experiment. “And here’s the really terrible thing about dating in Sonoma County,” she related: two hours later, she opened an inbox full of responses from 19 homely, disfigured, fat slobs, all professing their undying, requited love.
Lila plays simple chords and sings simple melodies, and even when she forgets her own lyrics, she’s got a charming, hey-I-could-do-that-too thing going on. Her voice reminds me of a younger Lucinda Williams circa Happy Woman Blues, and her songs—“My Lovin’ Days Are Over,” “She Wants Him Back”—reveal a similar plaintive heartbreak.
But it was the set’s closer that brought the house down.
Last time I saw Lila, oh, about five years ago, she dedicated a cover song—Green Day’s “She”—to her son, Adler. On Wednesday, her cover song of choice had changed considerably: R. Kelly’s “Real Talk.” Totally goddamned hilarious. You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve seen a birthday girl with a voice full of heartbreak, strumming slow chords on an acoustic guitar, singing lines like “I been with you five years and you listenin’ to your motherfuckin’ girlfriends / I don’t know why you fuck with them ol’ jealous, no-man-havin’-ass hoes anyway.”
(P.S.: Throughout the set, North Country bike enthusiast and all-around man-about-town Chris Wells projected weird-ass videos on a screen, and just when the night couldn’t get any stranger, he quickly followed “Real Talk” with a candid clip of Lila, Kate and Dani (all of whom were at the Toad, none of whom knew they had been filmed) sitting around a campfire at a dustbowl hoedown party, singing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” at the top of their lungs. Awesome.)
Why is this blog called City Sound Inertia?
I’m destined to be asked this question sooner or later, so I may as well answer it in my first-ever blog posting.
In 2003, I put together a compilation CD of local Santa Rosa bands who, due to a variety of reasons (lack of press coverage, the nonexistence of MySpace), no one had heard outside of occasional house parties and dingy fly-by-night clubs. I wanted to remedy that. So I collected together 11 songs that I felt were best representative of Santa Rosa’s local music scene at the time, put them on a CD, and sold it for $2.99.
Lots of people, including those at the Bohemian (funny how life works out), took note; but unfortunately, more than a few people, while I was getting songs together, told me something along the lines of “that’s so great, man, ’cause this town sucks for music!”
It hurt. Those of you who know me also know that I’m awfully defensive about Santa Rosa, and by putting together the compilation I wanted to outline precisely that this town does not suck for music; in fact, there’s fantastic music in this town around every corner. It’s hard to get people to take notice of it, true, and being in a band can be a very uphill and very expensive battle, but year in and year out, good music seems to constantly prevail.
With that in mind, I gave the CD a title: City Sound Inertia.
Half the bands on the CD have broken up by now, but the compilation’s liner notes conveying my optimism still hold true. I wrote them quickly but passionately, and in essence, they apply to the future of this blog as well. Read on: