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Sonoma Jazz Festival Announced

Posted by on Mar 1, 2008 3 Comments

The lineup for the Fourth Annual Sonoma Jazz Festival has been announced. Let the bickering begin!

Thursday, May 22: Kool and the Gang
Friday, May 23: Herbie Hancock
Saturday, May 24: Diana Krall
Sunday, May 25: Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo

Yup—as in each of the first three years of the festival, there’s a couple of acts in the Memorial Day Weekend lineup who could hardly be classified as “jazz.” At this point, it’s a local tradition that seems frivolous to argue, but it nonetheless consistently succeeds in getting hardcore jazz fans riled up to the nth degree.

Steve Winwood and Boz Scaggs, both headliners at the 2005 inaugural festival, rose the eyebrows early. Steve Miller and B.B. King stoked the fumes in 2006. Last year may have been the harshest of all: LeAnn Rimes and Michael McDonald.

Maybe that’s why festival directors have changed the name – slightly. Much like the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park became “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” the Sonoma Jazz Festival is officially known as “Sonoma Jazz +.”

As residents of the “Jazz” arena, both Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock are making return appearances at the festival, with the indefatigable Hancock recently handed a what-the-hell Album of the Year Grammy Award for his Starbucks-friendly sort-of-Joni-Mitchell tribute River: The Joni Letters.

Kool and the Gang, Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo are gonna have to be content with the “+” category, although after scoping out the crowd in previous years, I hardly think that the average Sonoma Jazz attendee will mind all that much. As for the expensively-dressed and well-Chardonnayed woman sitting behind us last year who continually talked on her cell phone, well, I doubt she’d even notice.

But I have to personally hand it to the directors of this crazy weekend festival. Whatever your take on their choice of booking, they’re bringing world-class talent to an event with an impeccably well-run yet laid-back atmosphere—I mean jeez, it’s held in a tent on a baseball diamond, fer cryin’ out loud. The mood around the festival is jovial and swank, the shows are often sold out, and everyone generally leaves happy.

Here’s another thing you can’t argue with: to reward local residents, tickets go on sale in the town of Sonoma on Saturday, March 8 at the Sonoma Community Center from 2-6pm. Out-of-towners, positively hungry to boogie down to “Ladies’ Night” and “Celebration,” have to wait until the nationwide release of tickets, two days later, on March 10. Pricing and ticket info for the general public is served up here, but the March 8 pre-sale for locals is a strictly in-the-know kind of thing. Cool deal.

Hooked on Campaign Songs

Posted by on Feb 27, 2008

Vaginals in the Crux Basement

Posted by on Feb 27, 2008 One Comment

I’ve had “For Reverend Green” by Animal Collective stuck in my head all day, and it wasn’t until I got off work and started pedaling towards the Crux House that I figured out why I like that song so much. It’s essentially a bunch of totally strange, disparate sonic elements, but they’ve been identified and recast as new ingredients of a cohesive composition with structure, melody, and form. It combines just the right amount of adventure in creating a familiar end result, which is how all good songs that get stuck in your head should be.

I was still thinking about this when I made my way down to the basement at the Crux House tonight to watch a band from San Diego, whom I knew nothing about, called Vaginals. Three girls, one guy, and in devout subscription to the hipster code, no “the.”

The band started playing, and I was immediately intrigued at how off the wall they were. Weird singing! Discordant guitar solos! Everyone playing unusual instruments in different keys!

But as their set plodded on, the potential faded along with any initial thrill. Vaginals seem to view adventure as both the means and the end, with no solidified result other than ingratiation. The totally strange, disparate sonic elements were all there—lots of cool shit like delayed vocals, thumb piano, modified synthesizer, harmonica, cello, maracas, haphazardly-played drums—but none of them ever came together to resemble what’s commonly referred to as a song.

Okay, okay, there were two things that sounded like songs. One of them started with the line “I’m not waiting around for your review” (which I hope is actually the case, because they’re not likely to appreciate this one very much) and ended with the hopelessly steamrolled-into-the-ground doll reference: “I’m not one of those perfect Barbie girls.” The other one rhymed “Slim” with “Jim” and “Gin” and “Him” over and over again in a screeching fake Southern accent. You get the picture.

Near the end, during a Residents cover, just for a quick second, I saw their singer crack a rare smile, and it was then that I realized what had been missing. Where was the fun?! It’s fine to be art-school charlatans who make crappy noise that makes no sense, but damn, at least have some fun while you’re doing it. Realistically, that’s the only way anyone’s gonna take you seriously, unless it’s 1965 and you’re John Tchicai.

The Beach Boys, 1964

Posted by on Feb 25, 2008 6 Comments

The year was 1964, back when Santa Rosa was a completely different town than the city we know it as today. The population: 35,000. Hardly a considerable tour stop for a group with a huge hit on the charts.

The Beach Boys’ All Summer Long had just been released in July, and its big hit, “I Get Around,” was lighting up Top 40 radio. So it was a pretty big deal when KPLS 1150 AM radio announced that the Beach Boys were coming to perform at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Santa Rosa. Tickets, priced at $2.50, went on sale at the station’s office in Coddingtown, and word spread throughout Santa Rosa’s drive-ins and high schools like wildfire.

On the night of the show, the capacity crowd filed into the auditorium and sat politely in rows of folding chairs. The curtain opened, and the Beach Boys, clad in their trademark vertical-striped shirts, launched immediately into their current smash hit: “I Get Around.” The set list included “409,” “Fun Fun Fun,” “Surfer Girl,” “Be True To Your School,” and “Surfin’ Safari,” among others, and the audience stayed in their seats the whole time—a matter of personal dignity that Beatlemania would soon render obsolete.

Of course, there’s no reason why I should know this, except that my dad, who bought tickets numbered #0006 and #0007, remembers it like it was yesterday. After all, at age 12, it was his first concert. I suppose it was a pretty big deal for my grandpa, too, who was cool enough to change out of his mailman uniform after work and go with his kid to the rock ‘ roll show.

Fast-forward to 2008: The Wells Fargo Center Luther Burbank Center has booked the Beach Boys for August 2, and it’s being advertised as the Beach Boys’ “First Time in Santa Rosa.”

It’s a nice thought and all—and tickets, against all sensible odds, appear to be selling well—but I know a few people who grew up around here who’d have a pretty good case with which to argue the claim.

In News

Healdsburg Jazz: Off the F’n Heez for ’08

Posted by on Feb 25, 2008 One Comment

The lineup for the 10th Annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival has just been announced, and it’s totally out of this world. Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, and Joshua Redman together. The Bobby Hutcherson Quartet. Bennie Maupin and James Newton playing Eric Dolphy. The Cedar Walton Trio. Even Don Byron, in some configuration or another, makes an appearance.

It doesn’t stop there: also dropping in this year are Eddie Palmieri and Pete Escovedo, Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, the Julian Lage Trio, the John Heard Trio, a Sunday morning concert of gospel spirituals, the awaited return of Marc Cantor’s killer jazz films, and an All-Star Alumni Band on the festival’s last day.

The looming question: who is the secret “beloved and internationally-acclaimed saxophonist” performing on May 31 whose name, for contractual reasons, cannot be unveiled until April 1?

(Pssst. . . be a flatfoot: Check SFJazz’s lineup and find the guy playing with Jason Moran, Eric Harland and Reuben Rogers, all of whom have been announced in Healdsburg without their headliner.)

So kudos to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and stay tuned to City Sound Inertia for further coverage.

Interview: Greg Saunier of Deerhoof

Posted by on Feb 19, 2008

More than any other band right now, Deerhoof represents the refined embodiment of music’s endless possibilities. They’re playing at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma this Saturday, and I swear you won’t ever see another band like them. At all.

For my Bohemian article, I spoke with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about John Cage, the creative process, Harry Smith, childrens’ music, touring with Radiohead, and shutting down haters. There was no way to fit it all into just 700 words—he’s not one to speak in prefabricated soundbites, that’s for sure. City Sound Inertia to the rescue: read the extended 3,000-word interview here, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Our conversation starts after the jump.

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Xbxrx at the Boogie Room

Posted by on Feb 17, 2008 One Comment

I intentionally parked about a half-mile away from the Boogie Room last night so I could walk the long narrow road in rural Santa Rosa under the moonlight, surrounded by farmland, alone. It’s something I used to do plenty often, before I had a driver’s license—and before most of Santa Rosa’s empty fields were turned into tract homes. It was serene, and I think, since the Boogie Room is located pretty much in the blissful middle of nowhere, that I’ll make a tradition of it.

I don’t want to say too much about the Boogie Room, because in the guerilla tradition of the last couple years, it’s an under-the-radar venue and probably prefers to stay that way. Think of it as a Studio E for the younger set; a homey place to see friends, play fetch with the house dog, sit by the campfire, and watch terrific bands in a cozy barn in the middle of a field. House concerts, as it were, with an edge.

I was given a tour of the sprawling grounds by Bryce, who’s something of a navigator for this amazing, multi-tiered ship. He enthusiastically showed me around the large greenhouse and huge garden; the collection of barns full of old cars and owls; and the many, many improvements that he and other residents have made since they moved in about a year ago. Sliding open the door to one leaning barn, he blankly explained that it was where the previous tenant, who had been running a chop-shop for stolen cars and a methamphetamine lab, had hung himself.

In the music room, the junkyard classicism of the Highlands—a cellist, a violinist, a possessed guitarist and two drummers—was filling the place up. After a truncated set by Battlehooch, who manhandled a Theremin, a Sony Watchman and multiple vocal effects before submitting to technical difficulties, it was time for the Iditarod, who were as epic and majestic as their name implies. Medieval synthesizer solos, heralding trumpets, three-part-harmony battle cries, absolutely strange guitar playing and hyperactive drum beats. Shit, as they say, was goin’ off.

I’d never seen Xbxrx before, but I could tell that the guys standing by the side of the stage had to be the band members. They looked bored and annoyed, like they couldn’t wait to play and get the whole thing over with, and sure enough, as soon as the Iditarod were finished, it took exactly 40 seconds for them to start hurriedly setting up their equipment on the stage. So I wasn’t expecting much; after all, they’ve been a band for ten years, they’ve toured with Sonic Youth and Deerhoof, their last few shows were in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam—why would they possibly care about Santa Rosa?

But a total transformation occurred when they plugged in and started playing; it was like they’d become lightning rods for all the Earth’s energy for miles around. They leapt, flailed, ran, fell down, writhed, spun, and shook wildly. . . and that’s just in the first two minutes. I’ve seen a lot of goddamn hardcore mayhem, but this was up there. Way up there.

In matching baby-blue outfits, the guys in Xbxrx didn’t perform so much as they blurred their way around the entire barn, as far as their guitar cables would allow, unpredictably crashing around while playing blast after blast of insane noise. They climbed the walls, they banged their heads on the ground, they shoved their bodies behind the couch and they did haphazard flips into the crowd. Antagonizing, sure, but even though I stood just a couple feet from the guitarist’s amplifier and mic stand the whole time, I amazingly never once got hit.

At the end of the set, one of the guitarists crawled underneath the stage with his guitar and just laid there in a fetal position. He didn’t move. It made sense, in a way. So I left before Batman vs. Predator with my ears ringing, and walked the half-mile back to my car in the quiet foggy midnight air.

Hip Hop… an’ Ya Don’t Stop

Posted by on Feb 16, 2008 3 Comments

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.

And what’s so funny to me about the Rap Is Crap brigade is the same thing that’s so funny about the Kill Your Television crew—e.g., they never actually listen to the stuff.

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.

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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.

Pinhead Gunpowder at Gilman Street

Posted by on Feb 11, 2008 18 Comments


“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.”

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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.

Vampire Weekend Live at Amoeba

Posted by on Feb 4, 2008 One Comment

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.