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The Top Albums of the Decade, 2000-2009

Posted by: on Dec 15, 2009 | Comments (6)

While other music writers sharpen their prejudices and draw up hindsight-assisted “Albums that Defined the Decade” features, I think it’d be more honest to revisit my genuine annual top album rankings from all ten years of The Aughts. Yes, these are the actual year-end-best lists that I composed from 2000-2009, recovered with no small amount of tenacity from old hard drives, pieces of paper stuffed in boxes, CD-Rs, the backs of posters, photocopied record store gift guides, and email newsletters.

If anything, these records deserve far more company. (D’Angelo and Lucinda Williams would be obvious places to start.) Lists can often work like shackles, but I see them instead as springboards of discovery. Jeez, I’m still discovering more favorite albums of the 1950s! And if you’re a listener that’s at all passionate, then you probably are as well. This decade might be over, but it’s by no means completely wrapped up. Anyone insinuating otherwise is selling you something.

Anyway, without further ado—here’s what I was loving over the last ten years.

2000

1. Built to Spill – Live (Warner Bros.)
2. Steve Earle – Transcendental Blues (E-Squared / Artemis)
3. Jurassic 5 – Quality Control (Interscope)
4. Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica (Epic)
5. Radiohead – Kid A (Capitol)
6. Kid Koala – Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tune)
7. Jets to Brazil – Four Cornered Night (Jade Tree)
8. James Carter – Chasin’ the Gypsy (Atlantic)
9. Bjork – Selmasongs (One Little Indian)
10. Blackalicious – Nia (Quannum)
11. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man (American)
12. Belle and Sebastian – Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Jeepster)
13. V/A – Xen Cuts: 10 Years of Ninja Tune Records (Ninja Tune)
14. Godspeed You Black Emperor – Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven (Constellation)
15. People Under the Stairs – Question in the Form of an Answer (Om)
16. Deltron – Deltron 3030 (75Ark)
17. The Clash – Live: From Here to Eternity (Epic)
18. V/A – Solesides’ Greatest Bumps (Quannum)
19. Beck – Midnite Vultures (Geffen)
20. V/A – Freight Train Boogie (Jackalope)

2001

1. Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
2. Cursive – Burst and Bloom (Saddle Creek)
3. Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (Columbia)
4. The Velvet Teen – The Great Beast February (Self-Released)
5. Atmosphere – Lucy Ford (Rhymesayers)
6. McCoy Tyner – Plays John Coltrane (Verve)
7. The Now Time Delegation – Watch for Today (In the Red)
8. Radiohead – Amnesiac (Capitol)
9. The Strokes – Is This It (RCA)
10. Aesop Rock – Labor Days (Def Jux)
11. The Jealous Sound – EP (Better Looking)
12. Greg Brown – Over and Under (Trailer Park)
13. Life in Braille – New York City Ending (Underground Sounds of America)
14. David Axelrod – S/T (Mo Wax)
15. DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist – Product Placement (One29)
16. Fred Eaglesmith – Ralph’s Last Show (Signature Sounds)
17. Buddy Guy – Sweet Tea (Silvertone)
18. Poets of Rhythm – Discern / Define (Quannum)
19. Robert Earl Keen – Gravitational Forces (Lost Highway)
20. V/A – Darker Than Blue: Soul From Jamdown (Blood and Fire)

2002

1. The Velvet Teen – Out of the Fierce Parade (Slowdance)
2. Jets to Brazil – Perfecting Loneliness (Jade Tree)
3. Desaparecidos – Read Music, Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek)
4. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)
5. DJ Shadow – The Private Press (MCA)
6. Tom Waits – Alice (Anti-)
7. Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
8. RJD2 – Deadringer (Rhymesayers)
9. Elvis Costello – When I Was Cruel (Island)
10. Jurassic 5 – Strength in Numbers (Interscope)
11. Chuck Prophet – No Other Love (New West)
12. Solomon Burke – Don’t Give Up On Me (Anti-)
13. Bob Dylan – Live 1975: Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia)
14. Los Lobos – Good Morning Aztlán (Mammoth)
15. V/A – La Musica Della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita (Play it Again Sam)
16. Converge – Jane Doe (Equal Vision)
17. Beck – Sea Change (Geffen)
18. D-Styles – Phantazmagorea (Tableturns)
19. Bright Eyes – Lifted (Saddle Creek)
20. V/A – Cuisine Non-Stop (Luaka Bop)

2003

1. Crooked Fingers – Red Devil Dawn (Merge)
2. Mountain Goats – Tallahassee (4AD)
3. Gillian Welch – Soul Journey (Acony)
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (Interscope)
5. Ugly Duckling – Taste the Secret (Emperor Norton)
6. Stark Reality – Now (Stones Throw)
7. Against Me – As the Eternal Cowboy (Fat Wreck)
8. Carla Bozulich – Red Headed Stranger (Dicristina Stair Builders)
9. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts)
10. Detroit Cobras – Life, Love & Leaving (Sympathy)
11. Joe Strummer – Streetcore (Hellcat)
12. The Rapture – Echoes (DFA / Universal)
13. Soul Position – 8 Million Stories (Rhymesayers)
14. The New Trust – We Are Fast Moving Motherfuckers (Slowdance)
15. John Fahey – Red Cross (Revenant)
16. Shesus – Loves You… Loves You Not (Narnack)
17. Lyrics Born – Later That Day (Quannum)
18. D.D. Jackson – Suite for New York (Justin Time)
19. Ashtray – S/T (Self-Released)
20. V/A – Miami Sound (Soul Jazz)

2004

1. MF Doom & Madlib – Madvillian (Stones Throw)
2. The Velvet Teen – Elysium (Slowdance)
3. Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me (Sony)
4. Jolie Holland – Escondida (Anti-)
5. The Walkmen – Bows & Arrows (Record Collection)
6. Bjork – Medulla (One Little Indian)
7. Mastodon – Leviathan (Relapse)
8. Arcade Fire – Funeral (Merge)
9. RJD2 – Since We Last Spoke (Rhymesayers)
10. Green Day – American Idiot (Reprise)
11. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on a Hill (Anti-)
12. The Go! Team – Thunder Lightning Strike (Memphis Industries)
13. The Rum Diary – Poisons That Save Lives (Springman)
14. Usher – Confessions (LaFace / Arista)
15. Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Like Bad News (Epic)
16. Haiku D’Etat – Coup de Theatre (Project Blowed)
17. Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)
18. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Abbatoir Blues / Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-)
19. Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2 (Viper)
20. Howard Wiley – TwentyFirstCenturyNegro (Self-Released)

2005

1. M.I.A. – Arular (XL)
2. Edan – Beauty and the Beat (Lewis)
3. Black Mountain – Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar)
4. Common – Be (G.O.O.D. / Geffen)
5. Robert Earl Keen – What I Really Mean (Koch)
6. Sharon Jones – Naturally (Daptone)
7. Sonny Rollins – Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone)
8. The Boredoms – Seadrum / House of Sun (Vice)
9. Four Tet – Everything Ecstatic (Domino)
10. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Self-Released)

2006

1. Camille – Le Fil (Virgin)
2. My Morning Jacket – Okonokos (ATO)
3. Gotan Project – Lunatico (XL)
4. Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
5. Tom Waits – Orphans (Anti-)
6. People Under The Stairs – Stepfather (PUTS)
7. Kris Kristofferson – This Old Road (New West)
8. The Slackers – Peculiar (Hellcat)
9. Mastodon – Blood Mountain (Reprise)
10. CSS – Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop)

2007

1. The Cribs – Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever (Warner Bros.)
2. M. Ward – Post-War (Merge)
3. !!! – Myth Takes (Warp)
4. M.I.A. – Kala (XL)
5. The New Trust – Dark Is The Path Which Lies Before Us (Slowdance)
6. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
7. Jesu – Lifeline (Hydra Head)
8. David Murray – Sacred Ground (Justin Time)
9. Bassnectar – Underground Communication (Om)
10. Menomena – Friend and Foe (Barsuk)

2008

1. Q-Tip – The Renaissance (Universal Motown)
2. Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl)
3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL)
4. Grip Grand – Brokelore (Look)
5. K’naan – The Dusty Foot Philosopher (Interdependent)
6. Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping (Polyvinyl)
7. The Roots – Rising Down (Def Jam)
8. Jackson Conti – Sujinho (Mochilla)
9. Peter Brotzmann & Han Bennink – In Amherst (BRO)
10. Cassandra Wilson – Loverly (Blue Note)
11. Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit – Are the Very Best (Ghettopop)
12. The New Trust – Get Vulnerable (TNT)
13. People Under The Stairs – Fun DMC (Gold Dust)
14. Portishead – Third (Island)
15. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
16. Titus Andronicus – The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited)
17. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal Motown)
18. Loma Prieta – Last City (Discos Huelgas)
19. Zomo – Best Of (Self-Released)
20. Jolie Holland – The Living and the Dead (Anti-)

2009

1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)
2. The-Dream – Love vs. Money (Def Jam)
3. K’naan – Troubadour (A&M / Octone)
4. Nellie McKay – Normal as Blueberry Pie (Verve)
5. Thorns of Life – Live at 924 Gilman (Torrent)
6. Sunn o))) – Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord)
7. Tyondai Braxton – Central Market (Warp)
8. Nomo – Invisible Cities (Ubiquity)
9. P.O.S. – Never Better (Rhymesayers)
10. Litany for the Whale – Dolores (Molsook / PMM)
11. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)
12. Superchunk – Crossed Wires (Merge)
13. Not to Reason Why – Would You Hug Fire? (Pandacide / 1912)
14. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT)
15. Passion Pit – Manners (Frenchkiss / Columbia)
16. Adam Theis & the Jazz Mafia – Brass, Bows & Beats (Jazz Mafia)
17. Souls of Mischief – Montezuma’s Revenge (Heiro)
18. The Full Blast – Black Hole (Atavistic)
19. Finale – T.I.M.E. (River City)
20. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)

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(See more year-end lists from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Live Review: Hank Jones at Yoshi’s

Posted by: on Feb 4, 2009 | Comments (0)

Let us praise versions of “My Funny Valentine” that don’t make us squirm. Let us praise Lifetime Achievement Awards for those who truly deserve it. Let us praise 90-year-old pianists who continue to paint new scenes on the keys.

Let us praise Hank Jones.

Hank Jones opened a two-night stand at Yoshi’s in San Francisco tonight, and during an hour-and-a-half set displayed no loss of conception, creativity, nimbleness or humor even while entering his ninth decade. He defines the phrase “jazz treasure” without any self-importance. He opened his set with “Happy Birthday,” for cryin’ out loud.

I caught the 10 o’clock set, after impulsively driving down from Santa Rosa at the last minute to buy a single ticket. Jones has been on a lot of albums I adore—Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane, Charlie Haden’s Steal Away, Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, Chris Connor’s My Name is Chris—but it’s a piquant little collection of standards by his Great Jazz Trio that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t out of this world, but it is a basic collection of standards played well. Sometimes that is all that’s needed.

Tonight, Jones offered a similar grace and simplicity. Check the setlist:

Lonely Moments – Mary Lou Williams
Quiet Lady – Thad Jones
Bluesette – Toots Thielmans
My Funny Valentine – Richard Rogers
Rhythm-a-Ning – Thelonious Monk
Blue Minor – Sonny Clark
Stella by Starlight – Victor Young
Six and Four – Oliver Nelson
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
Intimidation – Hank Jones
Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk

Each song followed the basic order. Intro, head, verse, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, head, and out. John Clayton clearly relished playing with a different group (he’s Diana Krall’s right-hand man) and came correct with brilliant bass work that at times even had Jones in awe, while drummer Clayton Cameron danced around the drums with brushes that seemed to sing. Jones phrased skilled solos that could only come from a lifetime of playing combined with an impressively present acumen.

But it was Hank Jones’ humor that took the cake. He drew out the ending to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with three false endings, toying with the crowd, but when the next tune ended abruptly and no one clapped, he looked at the audience, curiously, and laughed, “That’s it.” During the verse of “Blue Monk” he threw in an extra discordant harmony to Monk’s already-discordant arrangement and then looked around as if to apprehend the musical trespasser—inside the piano, underneath the keyboard.

The dude is 90 and he’s still having fun. Thanks, Hank, for still being here.

It’s All The Same Song

Posted by: on Jan 6, 2009 | Comments (0)

A successful, but far less funny, version of what they tried to pull off live at the Grammy Awards in 2006 arrives in the form of a software-enabled mashup of the Top 25 Billboard hits of 2008:

In related news, Pitchfork reverses their past worship and calls for an end to the mashup craze. Too little too late, I say.

Live Review: Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain and Keyshia Cole at the Oakland Arena

Posted by: on Dec 24, 2008 | Comments (2)

Lil’ Wayne, the sandpaper-throated New Orleans rapper with the top-selling album of 2008, attracts one hell of a draped-up, chipped-out crowd. Attendees to the sold-out show filed into the Oakland Arena through metal detectors, and you never saw so many plastic baskets filled with expensive watches and rhinestone belt buckles in your life. It was like Oakland’s own regal Prom Dance, with even higher prices: Parking was $25, beers were $12, and hoodies were $60.

Not everyone was dressed to the nines, I soon found out, as one of the first groups of people I ran into inside were a staggering group of drunk blonde girls, one with her silver miniskirt sloppily bunched up entirely around her waist, weaving her hootin’ and hollerin’ way down to their seats to see the Gym Class Heroes. The Gym Class Heroes, I might add, were the worst pile of shit in the land.

 

Keyshia Cole was completely goddamn dominating, just a nonstop firestorm of talent and amazement. I saw her last year, before she got her teeth fixed, and though I liked the gap in her teeth I’ll accept the dental work as a metaphor for her whole career right now. Her albums have become more commercial since her amazing first record, They Way It Is, but damn if she hasn’t stepped up her live show. Twelve months ago, opening for R. Kelly, she was all energy and empty hyperactivity; last night she retained the energy and tempered it with elegance and grace, like fine cocaine.

Keyshia Cole is from Alameda originally, and the Bay Area love was definitely in the house. If you ever in your life pine for the sound of 20,000 girls screaming their lungs out at the highest available volume, go to a Keyshia Cole show and wait for the opening chords to “Love.” Cole is my Queen of R&B right now, the new Mary J. Blige, and that’s conceding that she didn’t even do “I Should Have Cheated.” Apparently she has a reality show. I’m scared to watch it.

 

From the onset, T-Pain slouched at the front of his stage bedecked in his trademark top hat, and shoved his hands in his pockets, looking bored with himself.

T-Pain had breakdancing midgets dressed in whiteface and camoflauge. He has three tents, one of them inflated to 20 feet tall, with his name and likeness at the top. He had a woman in daisy dukes and a bikini top walking on stilts. He had a blonde tattooed midget gyrating around the stage in her bra and panties. He had a fire swallower with flaming pastied nipples. He had a calliope, a bazooka, a vaudeville wagon, an elephant stand, and a backup yes-man in Marilyn Manson makeup who lip-synched along to T-Pain’s hits while T-Pain moonwalked, badly, across the stage.

“I got one word for you…” said T-Pain’s DJ, early on in the set: “Bay Area!!!”

Almost every song T-Pain played was a hit, and almost every song T-Pain played was chopped off by the incessant thundercrash from his DJ. He was very comfortable with the fact that the audience knew all his songs, and turned the singing duties over to them much of the time, not even bothering to hold the mic out to the crowd. While they sang his hits, his prerecorded vocals continued to play in the background.

 

There were significant moments in Lil’ Wayne’s set where there was absolutely no applause after his songs. Just empty silence. There were other moments that elicited frenzied anarchy, as when he took off his shirt. His vocals, already quiet and growly, were drowned out by his rock band, who hung from large cages and who served for the most part to uselessly thicken up his pared-down hip-hop into heavy metal jams.

“Dere’s three important things I gotta say,” announced Lil’ Wayne. “One: I believe in God, do you? An’ two: I ain’t shit wit out you, so make some noise. An’ three: I ain’t shit wit out you!”

T-Pain, riding circles around Lil’ Wayne on a Segway, argued about who had done more guest verses on songs by other artists this year. They decided to perform some of these songs, an experiment which if comprehensive could have gone on for approximately 83 hours, 31 minutes. The DJ played “Swagga Like Us,” but Lil’ Wayne cut it off, saying that he didn’t remember his own verse. This happens when you have 1,000 songs and are blasted on drugs most of the time.

“Y’all got the mixtapes?” Lil’ Wayne shouted, hypothetically, since his mixtapes have replaced albums as the listening format of choice for his fans; he did “I’m Me” and “Prostitute,” during which he sat holding a green electric guitar that he did not play. He then turned the stage over to a string of unknown friends to bore the crowd while he went backstage to get dressed for “Lollipop.”

Near the end of the set, Lil’ Wayne’s laptop DJ killed ten minutes by cuing up other people’s songs—“Single Ladies,” “Peter Piper”—while Wayne was nowhere to be seen. When he reemerged, he dissolved into a spiritual communion with stained-glass windows on the jumbotrons, spending an entire song on a spinning platform out of view of the audience. He bid farewell, the music ended, and the crowd was expected to applaud. No one did.

He popped back onto the stage to sing “A Milli,” its minimalist brilliance abandoned in favor of a heavy-metal wankfest, and left the Oakland Arena with a James Brown cape act and a run-through of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

And that’s the top-selling artist of the year. I was blown away when I heard “A Milli,” into the mixtapes, kinda underwhelmed by Tha Carter III, and after last night I don’t think Lil’ Wayne has the stamina to live up to his reputation. He’s got flashes of lyrical gold, oozes style and is a born ruler of the game; my guess is he’s toast in 2009. Riding out a tidal wave can be an art in itself, especially when you start counting up the $110 tickets head by head, and you realize that it is generating more motherfucking money than you or I could ever imagine. The tide can only go out from here.

 

More Photos Below.

Top 20 Jazz Discoveries of 2008

Posted by: on Dec 21, 2008 | Comments (4)


1. Pygmy Unit – Signals From Earth (Private, 1974)
An amazing free-jazz recording on par with Sun Ra’s Strange Strings; just totally otherwordly. Features Darrell DeVore. Recorded in San Francisco and self-released.


2. Mary Lou Williams – Zoning (Mary, 1974)
Takes the piano and reimagines it as a power tool. Like nothing else Mary Lou Williams ever recorded. A pure product of the times, and also self-released.


3. Bill Barron – Modern Windows (Savoy, 1962)
Such an original voice on the tenor saxophone; also, Kenny Barron’s brother. I heard this and I was transfixed immediately. Nothing else on Savoy sounds like this.


4. Terumasa Hino – Taro’s Mood (Enja, 1973)
Whether sparse or pummeling, this record is in the moment from beginning to end. The total highlight of a batch of Japanese jazz LPs I came across earlier this year.


5. Leon’s Creation – This is the Beginning (Studio 10, 1970)
San Francisco group that could have given Sly Stone a run for his money. Absolutely kills from beginning to end. Unbelievable grooves. Found in a 25-cent bin!


6. Boogaloo Joe Jones – No Way! (Prestige, 1971)
Funky jazz guitar that never goes out of style. For some reason I never liked Grant Green all that much, but this is incredible. Like a wild pet escaped from its cage.


7. Donna Brooks – I’ll Take Romance (Dawn, 1956)
Basically a totally unknown singer who only made this one album. She captivates me.


8. Peter Brötzmann & Walter Perkins – The Ink is Gone (BRO, 2002)
Horns and drums skipping over the fires of hell. Wild sounds and intrinsic interplay. A more focused continuation of Machine Gun and Nipples.


9. Krczysztof Komeda – Cul-de-Sac (Harkit, 1966)
While digging around for Knife in the Water, I found this. It has its own sound. It grew on me, and it’s completely unique. He died young.


10. Takehiro Honda – Jõdo (Trio, 1970)
Piano player from Japan who weirdly appears nude on the back cover. The title track alone is as suspenseful as a Hitchcock classic.


11. Lucy Ann Polk – With the Dave Pell Octet (Trend, 1954)
My favorite obscure female singer of the last two years. Wore out her LP on Mode, and finally got a copy of this session; it’s breathtaking.


12. Mel Graves – Three Worlds (Arch, 1980)
Two days after he died, I came across this in the dollar bin. Had no idea it existed. Pretty out-there spiritual stuff, with George Marsh and Andy Narell.


13. Bennie Green – Soul Stirrin’ (Blue Note, 1958)
There once was a time when people partied in the studio and called it an album.


14. Don Pullen – Solo Piano Album (Sackville, 1975)
“Unique” doesn’t begin to describe this solo outing. Sadly overlooked. His playing always takes me on a mental journey.


15. Cecil Taylor – Love For Sale (United Artists, 1959)
Just an lesser-known LP from his late-’50s period that I hadn’t heard of until this year. Half Cole Porter songs; half originals. Straddles reality and non-reality, respectively.


16. Jaki Byard – There’ll Be Some Changes Made (Muse, 1972)
When I die I want Jaki Byard to come back to life and play at my funeral.


17. June Christy – The Cool School (Capitol, 1960)
I avoided this for years, thinking it was a soulless children’s record. Instead, it swings like nothing else and fast became one of my favorites. The kids are alright.


18. Billy Butler – Guitar Soul! (Prestige, 1969)
More guitar jazz that actually creeps under the skin. “Blow for the Crossing” is a backbeat nightmare that belongs on every mixtape.


19. Paul Bley – Ballads (ECM, 1967)
I have a Paul Bley record on ESP which is blessed by heaven. Most everything else is okay, but I found this last week and it’s in the clouds. Piano brilliance.


20. Melvin Jackson – Funky Skull (Limelight, 1969)
Standup bass, run through a fuzz box. Eddie Harris’ right-hand man. A fun one.

Live Review: Against Me! at the Grand Ballroom

Posted by: on Oct 28, 2008 | Comments (2)

Goldenvoice is a concert promotion company that grew out of the Los Angeles punk rock underground of the 1980s into a huge entity that today essentially dominates the market in the greater Southern California area. They’re now doing shows in San Francisco at the Regency Center Grand Ballroom, and they have brought everything that’s wrong about Los Angeles with them. I nominate that we send them back home. I’m not alone.

The Grand Ballroom (don’t confuse it for the old Avalon Ballroom, which is next door, on Sutter Street) is a beautifully ornate venue with tall ceilings, a wrap-around balcony and elegant chandeliers. One can only imagine how great it’d be in the hands of, say, Another Planet, because it’s clear that Goldenvoice is blowing what could potentially be a great venue.

First off—it’s hard not to be irritated by the very imposing security presence. There’s the usual pat-down, what’s-this-you’ve-got-here at the door, but once inside, it’s all hey-where-are-you-goin’ and being told not to walk or stand in what appears to be wide open, unrestricted spaces. The sense of authoritarian rule isn’t in-your-face, but it’s constant, and it makes for a lousy experience when you feel like you’re constantly being monitored.

Second—I understand that the Grand Ballroom is a difficult room for sound, but it’s not an impossible room for sound. It’s the same dimensions as the Fillmore, which has great sound. The problem is that the sound equipment isn’t permanent; Goldenvoice has to bring in all their speakers, boards, monitors and stacks for each individual show and get everything dialed in each time. It’s an extremely limiting situation, and it leads to the bands sounding utterly horrible.

Third—Goldenvoice takes a 20% cut of bands’ T-shirt sales, and a 5% cut of their CD and LP sales. This is unspeakable. There is no respectable reason for promoters to take a cut of a band’s merchandise. Especially their music. It’s not unusual among the more sleazeball promoters, and it’s the norm for huge concert promoters like Live Nation, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Fourth—tickets for the Grand Ballroom are sold through Ticketmaster, which I think is totally inexcusable considering the far more fan-friendly ticketing options available these days. Ticketmaster is like the Bush presidency—a series of failed policies and “screw you” attitudes—and it needs to die like the embarrassment that it is.

The first time I saw Against Me! at 924 Gilman Street, obviously none of these issues were a problem. That was five years ago, and a lot has changed for Against Me! since then—not the least of which is selling way more records and playing way larger shows, for better and for worse.

The pivotal moment came when I saw them at the Warfield just before New Wave was released, shoved onto an awkward major-label co-billing with Mastodon. They seemed bored, and the new songs were awful. Imagine my surprise when they got more popular than ever, and New Wave, a slickly produced pile of crap, became Spin‘s Album of the Year.

And yet I couldn’t completely abandon Against Me!, as much as I certainly tried.

I still remembered the time they came to Santa Rosa on their first tour and stopped by the Last Record Store. They cruised the aisles, and bought some records, and then one of them asked, “Yeah, um… we’re a band on tour, and we’re playing a show at a place called Jessie Jean’s tonight, but we don’t see any flyers for it at all. Do you think you could maybe tell people to come?”

“Sure, ” I said. “What’s your band’s name?”

“Against Me!,” the guy replied.

I lit up with excitement. “You guys are reinventing Axl Rose!” I said.

“Yeah… how d’you know that?”

“We carry your record over here, look!”

And then one by one, they all filed over to the ‘A’ section, and held up their record, amazed. That’s the Against Me! that I still see in my head: four guys just totally stoked to see their own band in a record store on the other side of the country.

Last night, Against Me! played a fair balance of songs old and new, ensuring that longtime fans still had something to shout about. The older songs got most joyous reactions, naturally—”Cliché Guevara,” “Walking is Still Honest”—but one of the reasons I like seeing Against Me! live is to be reminded of songs like “Borne of the FM Waves of the Heart,” which is a highlight of New Wave.

Sure, new clunkers abounded. Despite its well-intentioned subject matter, “Anna is a Stool Pigeon,” from Tom Gabel’s new solo album, sounded forced and uninspiring, fulfilling the cliché of most solo album material. And I still can’t bring myself to buy New Wave, simply because I’d be picking up the needle and skipping songs so much that it wouldn’t be worth it.

The band’s gigantic banner draped the back wall of the stage, but the hall was half-empty. Though Against Me! is one of the most energetic and cardiovascular bands in the world, lots of people past the first 10 rows just stood there, like they were watching a cooking show or something. It felt a tad like much ado about little, until the encore, “We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules,” which proved yet again that Against Me! knows how to close the hell out of a show.

First people from the crowd began jumping on stage and singing along. Then, ditching his drums to help lead a huge clapping breakdown, Warren ran and stagedove into the crowd—flying through the air right exactly on the downbeat when the band, with a guest drummer who appeared out of nowhere, kicked back in and finished the song. It was fuckin’ nuts, and so totally fun, and the best part is that the overzealous security guards on the other side of the barricade were going crazy. Ha!

Made me love ‘em all over again.

Live Review: Zach Hill at the Casbar

Posted by: on Oct 27, 2008 | Comments (1)

I had been wondering how Zach Hill would pull off his solo album, Astrological Straits, in a live setting. With over a dozen guest musicians on his album, would he hire a pick-up band? Would he try to play more than just the drums? Would he call up Les Claypool and ask if he’d mind driving down to Santa Rosa to fill in?

The Casbar is the new joint in town, located inside the Days Inn way down on Santa Rosa Avenue, near Todd Road. It’s a funky location for a funky room—black lights up in each corner, an absinthe green light emitting from the bar, a hazy red near the stage. It’s dark, dank, and seemingly underused, but as Ian told me out in the parking lot— referencing the eternal need for another venue—”Everyone’s gonna pounce on this place.”

After Epiphany Music was shut down in 2007, the former owner, fresh out of jail, somehow convinced the Days Inn to let her put on a show here, calling it the “New Epiphany.” It went rather poorly, and the folks at the Days Inn (they used to run the Los Robles Lodge, putting on the Liquid Lounge nights there and a few in-over-their-heads rap shows at the Fairgrounds) apparently waited a year and a half to try again. I’m glad they did.

The best thing about the Casbar? Those not old enough to drink get a handstamp. Those old enough to drink get a wristband. Everyone wins. Why this hasn’t been done before in Santa Rosa is beyond me, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t become an issue for the litigation-happy City Attorney’s office, because it makes perfect sense.

Hill and I talked a little bit about Cecil Taylor before the show (“he’s a big inspiration”), and it foreboded his set. Setting up two large speakers on either side of his small drum kit, Hill played the entire 33-minute-long piano-driven bonus track from Astrological Straits, “Necromancer.” Marnie Stern’s spoken word bookended the fierce, pounding piano attack by Marco Benevento, and it didn’t sound at all unlike Taylor’s famous 1979 set with Max Roach at Columbia University.

How the hell does Zach Hill play drums so quickly, so fiercely, so insanely?

Here’s the thing. Sure, Hill played the shit out of the drums nonstop for a half hour, never letting up at all, but it wasn’t unnecessarily violent. Every piece of the puzzle made some kind of sense, and every riptide fill had its place. Like a cross between Dave Lombardo and Philly Joe Jones, Hill exhibited stamina and taste, with a sense of actually communicating something in his playing. I was never bored through the entire volcanic set.

Afterwards, there were literal puddles of Hill’s sweat on the floor beneath his kit.

Live Review: Three Nights of SFJAZZ with Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Eldar and Sophie Milman

Posted by: on Oct 26, 2008 | Comments (1)

Now in its 26th year, SFJAZZ has been key in bringing both older jazz legends and younger jazz luminaries to San Francisco audiences in a number of venues around the city. The fall season of SFJAZZ lasts over a month, but to highlight the festival’s diversity and taste, I chose to attend three consecutive nights showcasing the breadth of talent available in a short span. Two older stalwarts of the avant-garde, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, and two younger stars of the new breed, Eldar and Sophie Milman.

Oct. 23 – Archie Shepp at Herbst Theatre

On the first night, Archie Shepp gave a rare U.S. concert appearance at the Herbst Theatre. The Herbst Theatre is one of the finest locations utilized by SFJAZZ—it’s just the right size, the sound is good, and the theatre itself beautiful—and it befits legends like Dewey Redman or Andrew Hill, both of whom have played there in recent years. This was, it must be said, a very special treat for Shepp’s Bay Area fans, many of whom have waited years to see him in person, sustaining instead on repeated listenings of landmark albums like Fire Music, Attica Blues, and—appropriately—Live in San Francisco.

Shepp will probably live forever unfairly in the shadow of John Coltrane, who took the young saxophonist under his wing and signed him to Impulse Records. I say unfairly because it’s hard to imagine Coltrane, would he have lived, to be as carefree as Shepp has been after Coltrane’s death. In the years since, Shepp has played R&B, sung standards, and dabbled in funk.

Shepp is now 71, but right from the start of Thursday night’s show, he displayed that he is still in command of his horn. He also showed that after 40 years, he’s still not immune to Coltrane’s shadow; nearly every song had its own Coltrane counterpart.

A quick-paced opener placed Shepp in explorative sheets-of-sound mode, while his band drove a pounding modal form with intensity and skill; it could have easily fit on Meditations. Shepp then sang a relaxed “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which could have found a home on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Other moments throughout the night drew inevitable comparisons to Kulu Sé Mama, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane’s Sound, and Lush Life.

But another essential way that Shepp has carried on Coltrane’s legacy is that his appearances are inseparable from the full emotional palette of the black experience in America. Beauty, fury, jubilation, humor and sorrow all play key roles in Shepp’s music. Shepp explains the unexplainable through his music; the feelings that words cannot contain. To hear him is to know a history of civil struggle and racial injustice.

Not everyone is a fan of this. During “Mama Rose,” which contained an intense poetic recitation about motherhood, love, riots, banana pudding, ex-cannibals, dreams and revolution, including the line “Your vagina split asymmetrically between the east and the west,” a group of people sitting in the balcony leaned in, consulted each other, and bailed.

After “Trippin’,” a 12-bar blues in which Shepp channeled James Brown’s epic wail in singing about canceling his email and cutting off his cell phone, Shepp announced that his contract with SFJAZZ called for an intermission. Any folks who might have left missed the best portion of the evening.

Opening his second set with “Ujamaa,” an incredible composition, Shepp gave his most intense solo of the concert while his first-rate band kept apace. Clutching the microphone and crooning in an Earl Coleman style, Shepp’s “Lush Life” was rendered with a wide-open verse, with Shepp conducting the band into a Latin-rhythm chorus. Billy Strayhorn famously wrote the ode to weariness when he was just 16, but Shepp turned it around and sang it giddily, at 71, as if he was a teenager. Switching to saxophone, he quoted “Well You Needn’t” in a solo that sometimes reached for high notes that didn’t come.

Shepp continued with a song written for his cousin, who was murdered in a street fight when he was 15—a rather happy song, actually—and closed with “Burning Bright,” containing an impeccable solo by the song’s composer, pianist Tom McClung.

The rush of applause was too strong to deny, and Shepp returned to center stage—minus drummer Ronnie Burrage—to play a breathy “In a Sentimental Mood,” the closing track of Live in San Francisco. Serene and delicate, it closed the evening perfectly, with a solo tag of dancing runs.

In the brief moment between the song’s end and the cascade of applause, an audience member yelled out, “You’re beautiful, Archie!” Simple and perfect.

 

Oct. 24 – Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral

The next night, it was Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral. Consecrated in 1965 by Duke Ellington, the massive church was blessed with jazz from the start, and for 22 of the past 26 years, SFJAZZ has been using it for concerts they call “Sacred Space.” Pharaoh Sanders is among those who’ve performed solo inside the cathedral, using no amplification whatsoever. The effect is stunning.

Taylor was announced to the stage, but for the first few minutes, all that could be heard was his voice over a loudspeaker.

“A.”

“A S.”

“A S B M. A S B M. In Canal. In Canal You. In Canal You Long.”

It was Cecil Taylor, all right, doing his crazy Cecil Taylor thing and slowly making his way toward the piano.

“A Gene. A Gene Splits Into 28 Paragraphs. One Second Is Equal To 28.10 Electrons Equaling One Volt Is The Electric Motive In Proportion To Rhythm,” he continued, occasionally making long, gurgling sounds like a constipated alien.

When I last saw Cecil Taylor, at an SFJAZZ appearance at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2001, he held a similarly scattered conversation with himself; I thought, at the time, that he might have been studying some new form of chemistry. But no. Apparently he just likes to ramble.

Well-known for celebrating sharp bursts of percussive staccato passages, Taylor sat at the piano and instead drove straight into full-bodied, cascading playing, like he simply had too much music in his head gushing forth all at once. Inside the church, with sculptures of the crucifixion on the walls and a general atmosphere of reverence, the juxtaposition of religious tradition against fevered chaos was weird and funny.

Alas, the performance was stellar. What might have been choppy and percussive in any other venue came further together by Grace Cathedral’s natural seven-second reverb, and Taylor played off this effect, often hammering as many notes as possible into those seven seconds. His usual stabs in the gut became deep punches; his abrasive pelts of hail multiplying upon themselves into thunderstorms. His audible moaning and breathing echoed across the vault.

Taylor stopped playing, and the crowd applauded. A 40-something guy in a Hawaiian shirt sitting in front of us took a shot from his flask, and offered it to his considerably younger girlfriend, wearing a beret. She shook her head. Taylor then began playing again, in what sounded like a continuation of the exact same song.

When Cecil Taylor speaks in a foreign musical language of constant discord, are there ears enough to make out what he’s saying? The show was sold out, but it was unavoidable to contemplate just how many in the crowd viewed Taylor simply as a cultural curiosity. Between each of five pieces, Taylor shuffled and rearranged his sheet music, and it was hard to figure out why he even had it in the first place. He couldn’t possibly have been following it.

All of this sounds like a total dis, but it’s not. I’ve long loved Cecil Taylor—possibly because I can’t put into words exactly why—and even after a spate of souring on him as of late, he won me back into his world on Friday night. His total expressiveness, his thundering command, his emotional presence and his singular, powerful musical vision on display reawakened me to his brilliance. The venue certainly helped.

At the end of the set, Taylor tried to leave the stage but the applause was too strong. He sat down and played again, another short minute-and-a-half chapter in the neverending song, and finally shuffled his hunched, frail body to the back room of the church.

He stayed there for over an hour after the show was over, muttering in one giant monologue to a small group of assembled fans.

 

Oct. 25 – Eldar and Sophie Milman at Herbst Theatre

Back to the Herbst Theatre on Saturday night, for a decidedly younger lineup: 21-year-old piano prodigy Eldar and 24-year-old chanteuse Sophie Millman.

Eldar is famous for sounding like Art Tatum—rapid-fire runs, mind-boggling changes in key and tempo mid-song, a strong left hand—and his first number, “I Should Care,” demonstrated this in dazzling fashion. Everything that is great about Eldar was encapsulated in this first number; he played it antagonistically but respectfully, tackling the standard to the ground and working it over with hyperactive stride, incessant and precise runs, left-hand jabs and full-fingered clusters.

Though he could never possess Tatum’s swing, Eldar makes up for it in technical command; this is why he’s more Vladimir Horowitz than Oscar Peterson, and indeed, he has a very classical touch on the keys. But his mind is that of the explorer, the improviser who steps through every possibility at an unbelievable pace. Were it not for the opening melody, no one could have recognized “I Should Care” as imagined by Eldar.

This is what’s great about jazz: taking something old and making it new again. Unfortunately, Eldar’s focus shifted into presenting something new and making it sound old: his next song, “Insensitive,” was an original composition marked by unprovoked chord changes, a plodding form and little to no melody. This is how things stayed, as Eldar performed solely original compositions in the same vein for the rest of the set.

The third song, for example, featured nonstop busy drumming, jabbing bass lines, and a chaotic Eldar flying all over the piano. But the overall presentation was that of a garbled, very academic attempt, including the use of a 1970s-sounding synthesizer on top of the piano. If this is the way Eldar’s career is moving—away from dazzling standards and into post-post-fusion gobbledygook—then Sony must be nervous about their young star. Perhaps they’re trying to replace the Bad Plus. Maybe they’re trying to win over Rush fans. Who knows?

Up next was Sophie Milman, who, like Eldar, was born in the former Soviet Union. Moving to Israel at age 7 and then to Canada at age 16, Milman lived an upended youth in areas of global tumult, discovering solace in listening to American jazz records. This is her history, which she tells in magazine articles, on radio shows, and from the stage.

Luckily, she’s not just a good NPR story. She’s also a wonderful singer.

Opening with “It Might as Well be Spring” in a strapless leopard-print dress, red leather heels and gold earrings, Milman immediately hit all the right Anita O’Day-June Christy-Chris Connor notes with enough of her own style to warrant the comparison. Her appealing voice, airy but not overly husky, took on adventurous trills and jumps. She conducted her band, whooped at their solos, snapped her fingers and constantly jittered her arms and tapped her heels.

Milman had just spent a week at the Blue Note in New York with Eldar—they really are a curious co-billing, other than the “young” and “Soviet” angle—and she was glad to finally have some time in San Francisco. “You guys are very, very lucky,” she remarked at one point. “We’re going home to Toronto to blizzards.”

“People Will Say We’re in Love” was delightful, and a subtle vibrato eked into Milman’s voice during “I Concentrate on You.” Then Milman told the story of her life, and how she never fit in with the other kids in Israel who couldn’t understand her obsession with jazz, and dedicated the next number “to all the kids growing up who used to pick on me.” It is a song, she explained, that she sings at every performance.

“Bein’ Green,” as made famous by Kermit the Frog, is not a terrible song. But it is essentially a sad song, and despite Milman’s familiarity with the tune, it showed her emotional limitations. “Bein’ Green” is one of those curiosities that works in the hands of, say, Frank Sinatra when he’s 63—but not so much in the young, peppy hands of Milman.

“Here’s a great Bruce Springsteen song,” Milman then announced, and “I’m on Fire” continued the feeling that Milman might occasionally be in over her head. “I’m on Fire” is a creepy song—the pleading of a tortured stalker to ravage the untouched beauty of a young girl. Completely changed from the original, with minor-key chords, the arrangement brought out that creepiness. But it felt like Milman let the arrangement do all the work—she sang it sultry rather than tormented.

But these were unimportant diversions from what Milman does best. Redemption was found in a soulful, “Maiden Voyage”—esque arrangement of “Love for Sale,” and Milman once again had the crowd in the palm of her hands. After all the sleepy Norah Jones tranquilizing on the “jazz” charts for the last eight years, it’s nice to see an inventive young singer bringing back flair and pizzazz to jazz singing. Here’s hoping more folks discover her talent.

 

So there you go—three days of the SFJAZZ festival. The complete schedule for SFJAZZ, including teasers for their upcoming Spring season, can be found at their official website.

The Sly Stone Show: Behind the Scenes

Posted by: on Oct 23, 2008 | Comments (15)

The insane circumstances surrounding Sly Stone’s bizarre appearance in Santa Rosa last Friday, Oct. 18, were told to me by several people involved with the show. Crazy doesn’t begin to describe it. Here’s how it went down.

The morning of the show, Sly Stone is in Los Angeles. He fires his business manager. Sly tells the promoter that he’s his own boss now, that he’s the one who’s going to get paid at the show, and that he needs $3,000 wired to the bank account of an Iranian BMW saleswoman before he’ll even get on the plane to San Francisco.

And about that plane: it was supposed to arrive from Los Angeles at 11:30am. No Sly. The limo waits at the airport. Sly’s next flight becomes 1:30pm, then 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 5:30pm. No one can get a hold of him at all. The promoter drives to the airport in the slim hope that Sly might walk through one of the gates.

Finally, at 7:30pm, with his young Japanese girlfriend in tow, the 65-year-old Sly shows up at the airport. He’s an hour and a half away from the show—which starts in a half hour—and he demands to go to the hotel. The young girlfriend finally talks him out of it, and he agrees to go to the show, but he’s still talking about getting paid.

He sleeps all the way to Santa Rosa.

Sly doesn’t hit the stage at the Wells Fargo Center until 10:30pm, during the fifth song of the set. He walks off the stage 25 minutes later, in the middle of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” telling the crowd, “I gotta go take a piss. I’ll be right back.”

But Sly never comes back. The band continues on without him, killing time for 30 minutes. During the last song, a man appears on the stage, whispering into band members’ ears.

Meanwhile, backstage, Sly is demanding to be paid. The show is still going on, and the promoters are telling his handlers to get him back out to perform more. But his handlers know the drill. It’s been this way for years. What can they do?

Before the show is over, Sly is out in the parking lot, still in his white suit, trying to get into the promoter’s car. All the doors are plainly locked, but he keeps trying. Finally, a woman drives by, picks him and his Japanese girlfriend up, and they whiz away. Word of his departure gets inside.

It’s not too hard to figure out what the man on the stage was whispering to the band. How about: Sly’s making a getaway? How about: Sly’s driving off right now? How about: You’d better chase after him if you want to get paid?

And after quickly finishing the song and exiting the stage, that’s exactly what they do.

The band members pile in their cars and find Sly precisely where they thought he’d be—at the Fountaingrove Hilton. Except he’s not in his room. All the rooms are reserved under the business manager’s name, who Sly fired that morning. So Sly’s there, fuming about not being able to get into his room, when the rest of his band suddenly pulls up.

“Get me out of here,” he’s heard telling his driver, and they peel out.

It is not an uncommon sight to see cars racing down Mendocino Avenue on a Friday night. But it’s a different story altogether when the lead car giving chase contains an absolute funk music legend, pursued by five more cars driven by band members, some of whom have played with him for 40 years and are actual, literal family members. Six cars race down the street, weaving in and out of lanes.

Finally, past midnight, Sly’s car is cornered at a gas station. A long stand-off ensues between him and the band while the young Japanese girl cries hysterically in the car. A gas station on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. That’s where it all falls apart.

At press time, no one can get a hold of Sly Stone—not his management, not his band mates, not his family. The last anyone sees of him, he’s headed south on Highway 101. Everyone’s got a pretty good idea how he’s spending the money, but no one knows where he is.

And no one ever wants to play with him again.

——

To read a review of the Sly Stone show, click here.