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Al Green at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by: on May 24, 2008 | Comments (0)

“There’s people wonderin’,” said an unstoppable Al Green on stage in Sonoma last night, “if the Reverend Al’s still got it!”

And then, to answer his own hypothesis, in the high falsetto that’s conceived thousands of babies and still melts ladies’ hearts:

“Yeeeeeeeeaaaahhhhhh, bay-beee!”

With an 11-piece band, a hailstorm of energy and verve and most importantly, a voice that’s still pure quicksilver, Al Green at that point had already proved to the Sonoma crowd that he’s definitely still got it. The exchange existed, rather, as part of an extended love-fest with the audience—showy but unscripted—that started with his passing out roses to the ladies in the front row and continued in rambunctious call-and-response fashion like the Baptist masses that Green conducts most Sundays to the public at his church outside of Memphis.

“I love you,” he said. “I love you. I love you. I love Sonoma.” Then again, singing: “I love Sonoma. I’m gonna make my own song. I looove Sonoommaa. I looove Sonoomm“—the falsetto kicked in—”AAAAAAAAAHHHH!

The feeling, to say the least, was mutual. “Let’s Stay Together” inspired a bumrush to the stage, putting security in a tizzy, and “Here I Am” caused massive spillover outside of the too-small cordoned dance areas down the side of the festival’s gargantuan tent. During “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” Green held the congregation spellbound in a masterful, heart-wrenching torpor; that one song alone boosted last night’s lovemaking in Sonoma County by 20 percent.

During Green’s high-energy, 50-minute set, there were only a few clunky moments. Green barreled through an unnecessary medley of classic soul hits—”I Can’t Help Myself,” “My Girl,” “Bring it on Home to Me,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “The Dock of the Bay,” “Wonderful World”—which would have been much better had he picked one and sang it in its entirety (I nominate “Bring it on Home to Me.”) This led into a lacking “Tired of Being Alone” featuring Green singing pieces of the song but mostly playing with the crowd while his 11-piece band vamped in the background, and after an extended “Love and Happiness” closed the set, Green’s backup singer lamely ran down a Wikipedia entry of his achievements: “Al Green, ladies and gentlemen! Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Member of the Soul Hall of Fame! Member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame!”

In the overall picture, however, these details will have to accept their status as minor gripes, fully overshadowed by Green’s talent, personality, legend, and desire to give all that he is to his audience. “The lady back there that’s the head of this whole thing made me promise to keep my little ‘A’ on the stage,” he said at one point, clearly delighted with himself as he walked like a disobedient child down the front steps to his adoring crowd, “and here I am. . .  on my way down again!” And then the falsetto, again, directly into the eyes of a sea of swooning females.

Yes. Al Green has still got it.

Kool & the Gang at Sonoma Jazz+

Posted by: on May 23, 2008 | Comments (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————

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

Themes at the Petaluma Church

Posted by: on May 20, 2008 | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trace Adkins at Konocti Harbor

Posted by: on May 12, 2008 | Comments (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music stopped. Adkins threw his arms open wide.

“Badonkadonk, motherfucker!”

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

Too Short at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by: on Apr 6, 2008 | Comments (1)

Just six years ago in 2002, a completely mixed crowd at the Phoenix Theater, much older, lost their heads and loudly sang along to every line of “Life is… Too Short.” Last night, in the middle of Too Short’s headlining set, the classic guitar hook came in and… nothing. Kids just stood there.

Everyone knew Too Short would have legs—he’s always had determination beyond his peers—but it’s a miracle how long those legs have reached. While most rappers his age (he’s 41) can’t get beyond their past glories, Too Short holds a rare set of reins on the here and now. The sold-out crowd went wild for new hits like “Blow the Whistle” and verses from his collaborations with Kelis (“Bossy”) and T-Pain (“I’m in Love with a Stripper,” amending his verse with shout-outs to Petaluma) but then stood in dumbfounded silence at Short’s career-making 1987 anthem, “Freaky Tales.”

Appealing to a new generation is one thing, but commanding enough concrete attention to build a Berlin Wall to the past is a hustle of another color.

The vibe at the Phoenix was hot and the whole night felt good. All eyes were on this show, and increased security and police couldn’t stop people from having a great time—it’d be like trying to keep a congregation from praying in church.

The Pack, Short’s protégées, commanded the stage with a solid set. Young groups with four distinct personalities always hit, and they’ve got the trick down: there’s the backpack guy in purple and pink; the Usher-type sex symbol in sagging jeans, white tank top and shades; the basic G in a sports cap and T-shirt; and the perpetually smiling laid-back guy in dreads. Now that they’re 18, they’ve graduated from rapping about bikes to rapping about cars. Bets currently being taken on which one has the most successful solo career (a 15-to-2 that they’ll stay together as long as Souls of Mischief).

Whoever does the Pack’s production has hip-hop minimalism mastered: “Vans” was deliciously razor-thin, but some of the newer songs last night used spare, fluttering basslines in a way that hasn’t been touched since Z-Trip & Del’s “Dynasty” 12”.

Erk tha Jerk, who I went out of my way to see, had pretty unique songs but the unforgiving crowd wasn’t feelin’ it at all, yelled “you suck” and threw their water at him. Shame. And J-Stalin was good, with one major problem that he shared with Erk; both of them rapped over their own vocal tracks. Why do fans let performers get away with that?

I will beat this horse to a bloody pulp: rapping over your own vocal tracks is the weakest shit ever. It’s not hard at all to make instrumentals, and it’ll allow the opportunity to showcase your skills instead of being lazy and relying on prerecorded vocals. Anyone with me on this one?

Despite that, everything else about the show was great, and hopefully hip hop will continue to thrive around here. Kudos to the people swimming through dire straits to make it happen: D-Sharpe, DJ Amen, Noizemakers, and, as ever, Tom Gaffey and the Phoenix Theater.

Live Review: Freddie Hubbard at Yoshi’s

Posted by: on Apr 4, 2008 | Comments (8)

Freddie Hubbard, four days shy of his 70th birthday, staggered out onto the Yoshi’s stage last night with a flugelhorn and a menacing scowl. Mean and disorderly, he waved his arms to stop “Now’s The Time,” barking at the band. How dare they?

The guys had been killing time, waiting for Hubbard to show up long after he’d been announced. First couple silent minutes on stage had been rough. What the hell else were they supposed to do? Hubbard—pissed off, cantankerous—counted off a tune, placed his legendary lips into his mouthpiece, and leaned into the microphone for yet another painful struggle to get any kind of sound out of his horn.

A few notes here. A contorted face of disgust. A few notes there. A disappointed survey of his valves. A few notes—no, wait, just a garbled line of noise, actually.

Fuck it.

Hubbard hobbled to the back of the stage, thrusting his hand to no one in particular to start the next solo, and sat down, shooting bitter glances around the depressing scenario.

I was one of the best fucking players, he thought. Look at me now. Can’t even string four notes together. This busted lip, what a goddamned farce. Make Bobby Hutcherson play a ballad—that’ll spare me a few minutes, at least.

“I haven’t done anything in the last five years,” he muttered to the crowd, “except get operations.” Limping around the stage as if to collapse at any second, he accused other members on the bandstand of having more money than him, asking about Hutcherson’s yacht. “I got 300 records,” he boasted. “Buy twenty of ‘em and I’ll stay alive.”

“Hub-tones!” someone yelled. Hubbard’s already-sinister frown turned vicious. “Too fast,” he grumbled.

Leave the trumpet for five years, man, and it leaves you, he thought. All these fucking people, only here to say they saw me before I kick off. They don’t wanna hear me play just like I don’t wanna try anymore. Let’s end this shit. “Red Clay.”

Probably better if they can’t even hear me, he thought. An idea hit.

The bassline kicked in, and Freddie Hubbard, without a doubt one of the greatest and most versatile jazz trumpeters of all time, puckered his withered lips against his horn, hunched over, and angrily mimicked the motions of a trumpet solo the only possible way he could: in absolute silence.

Sonoma Jazz Festival Announced

Posted by: on Mar 1, 2008 | Comments (3)

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.

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

Posted by: on Feb 25, 2008 | Comments (1)

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.



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