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Top Five Jams from 2010

Posted by: on Dec 21, 2010 | Comments (0)

Cali Swag District, “Teach Me How to Dougie

E-40, “Lightweight Jammin’

Alicia Keys, “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)

Trey Songz, “Can’t Be Friends

Rihanna, “What’s My Name?

Live Review and Photos: 2010 Treasure Island Music Festival

Posted by: on Oct 19, 2010 | Comments (1)

I’ve got a theory and the theory is this: No matter how early you try to arrive at the ballpark to catch the shuttle to Treasure Island, you will always get to the festival three seconds after the band you’d sell your left kidney to see takes the stage. Bridge traffic, shuttle lines and unexpected delays crop up every year. That’s a better scenario than missing your favorite band entirely, but it’s nonetheless sweat-inducing—even in the type of bone-chilling weather which this year finally decided, after three Treasure Island Music Festivals benevolently spared the San Francisco cold, to rear its oceanic head.

Yes, it was cold. And yes, two of the must-see acts of 2010, Die Antwoord and Superchunk, played at relatively early time slots, which surely was a strategic move on the festival organizers’ part, I imagine, to beef up the crowd in the early hours. Both acts could have more played a few slots up on the bill, and that’s not accounting for taste—just demand. Likewise, Deadmau5 probably should have headlined Saturday, because a gigantic sea of neon-clad pacifier-wearers with goosebumped bare midriffs bailed for the warmth of the shuttles before LCD Soundsystem.

For having been debunked as the Borat of all viral hip-hop jokes in 2010, Die Antwoord is insistently entertaining. Not too many rappers quote Cypress Hill and Ren & Stimpy in one breath while in the next, freestyling a couple lines about wiping his ass with a shirt someone threw on stage while actually wiping his ass with a shirt someone threw on stage. Juvenilia reigns, with stagediving, mooning the crowd and false appendages. Both Ninja and Yo-Landi really need to eat some food, but the fact that I still have their hooks in my head three days later tells you something about the success of their gimmick.

Nic Offer, singer of !!!, sings with his fly open! I am thrilled to finally see this band after too many missed opportunities. “You know where we played last night?” Offer offers. “Tokyo! That’s right! Friday night Tokyo, Saturday San Francisco. Three hours sleep, baby!” With LCD Soundsystem here too, the spirit of Jerry Fuchs lingers. Thanks for “Heart of Hearts” and “Must Be the Moon,” guys.

During Four Tet’s set, I finally have my brush with fame: The two guys handing out the “Thank You” stickers. Every fourth person I see has one stuck to their clothes, foreheads or breasts. Mid-dancing, they speak to me in body language which asks, “Hey man, do you want a ‘Thank You’ sticker too?” I respond with body language that says, “Yeah, here, lemme peel one off your roll there.” They both wag their fingers as if to say, “No way,” then one of them peels off a sticker and slaps it on my sweatshirt himself. They continue dancing. There is a man in a full-body green suit crowdsurfing. The sun is setting. Four Tet is a little less pastichey and more fluid than when I saw him last, four years ago, after Everything Ecstatic. This is not all that bad.

Somewhere in there between Kruder & Dorfmeister and Deadmau5, the news comes in: The Giants had beaten the Phillies in Game 1 of the NLCS. This fact is incredible to the point that stray fans shout things like “Cody Motherfucking Ross!” and random strangers jump up and high-five. Entire portions of the crowd chant “Let’s Go Giants!” The timing is good. I find a Fountaingrove Round Barn T-shirt on a hipster vintage rack in one of the clothing booths. Back near the port-a-potties I watch a gate-crasher hop the fence and sprint into anonymity. My best friend gets engaged. Okay, okay, that actually happened the night before. But still. Love is in the air.

“Deadmau5 Suck5,” my newly-engaged friend texts, but it’s not true. Deadmau5 is just there, the neo-house flavor of the year with an overboard, impressive light show owing buckets to Daft Punk. This happened two years ago, and it was called Justice. Where is Justice now? Replaced, it seems, by a DJ who hates DJs in a mouse helmet who lifts Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” I’m not on the right drugs, but for 45 minutes, Treasure Island is a solid, teeming, unified mass.

Watching Miike Snow is a nice change of pace from the phenomenon of Deadmau5. They’re shrouded in blue lights and a constant billow of fake fog (when, honestly, real San Francisco Bay fog could very nearly fill the role just fine). They’re from Sweden. This fact is helpful for copy editors when cursing their name, but doesn’t solve the whole puzzle. I suspect Miike Snow likes it that way. “Animal” sounds perfect in the dark.

To answer your question, yes, LCD Soundsystem does open their set with “Dance Yrself Clean”! Along with “Drunk Girls,” “I Can Change,” “You Wanted a Hit” and “Home,” This is Happening is well-represented. “All My Friends” is the hands-down jam. “Yeah.” Admirably, every sound on their recordings is replicated by one live instrument or another, and James Murphy can absolutely sing those falsettos live. Honestly, they could play all night, but when 10:50pm rolls around it’s time to pull the plug. “We don’t make the rules,” explains Murphy. “We’re not the cops.”

Superchunk rules Sunday. I resist the phrase “showin’ ‘em how it’s done,” but in Superchunk’s case it truly applies. No band at the festival is as punchy and energetic, but punchy and energetic are only tips of the equation: Vitally, Superchunk actually plays as if their music is important. Almost every other band playing today glosses over with that same lame rock-guy detachment that ruined the 1970s. In fact, with the rain, everything seems downright gloomy on Sunday after Supserchunk. They have every right to rest on their laurels, but instead they flail, pounce and thrash through such a damn fine set. Starting with “Kicked In”? BOLD. “Water Wings,” “Throwing Things,” “Detroit has a Skyline,” “Hyper Enough,” “Precision Auto,” it’s all in there.

It’s sad that Zooey Deschanel reminds me of Taylor Swift, but the facts are that like Swift, she’s cute and she doesn’t always sing on key. No one cared when Kurt Cobain didn’t sing on key, but Deschanel is going for an altogether different, which is to say retro, thing. She & Him’s 50s girl-group-by-way-of-Patsy-Cline schtick, female backup singers and all, relies on polish and technique, neither of which Deschanel has in spades. If it weren’t for the indie cred of M. Ward, who once made wonderfully strong, eloquent records before hopping on this confusing side project, I doubt many people would take the band seriously.

Monotonix: Bringing the DIY basement show to music festivals since 2008.

Two temper tantrums into Broken Social Scene’s set, a friend compares Kevin Drew to Axl Rose and chuckles; said friend loves Axl Rose and all his shortcomings. But I can’t digest it, not since seeing Drew and the rest of the band in much better, triumphant, E-Street-Band-like spirits just a year ago. It’s not just the weather, which is gloomy enough. Brendan Canning violently throws his guitar to the ground. Drew makes a pissy comment about how when you play as many shows as he does, you get accustomed to the sound being perfect. Wrapped in leather and shades and heroin-like detachment, he drops his own guitar mid-song to wander around the stage, invading other people’s instruments. They play “Almost Crimes” and “Anthem for a 17-Year-Old Girl” from You Forgot It in People; “7/4” and “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” from S/T; and the rest is from their new record, but they’re not feeling it, and neither is the crowd. Just an off day, I hope. The cold wind and cold vibes take their toll, and we head out.

More photos below – All photos by Elizabeth Seward.

Live Review: Smashing Pumpkins at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by: on Sep 9, 2010 | Comments (1)

Well, color me impressed. Over the course of an immersive, nearly two-hour Smashing Pumpkins show last night at Petaluma’s Phoenix Theater, the ageless Billy Corgan unreeled a nonstop stream of gauze-soaked distortion, a generously crowd-pleasing handful of the band’s hits—and said barely a word at all to the crowd.

To those who caught the band’s residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore last year, pockmarked by long, self-centered rambles from Corgan and obscure, calm material, the Smashing Pumpkins on stage last night might have seemed like an entirely different band, and that’s for the better. Simply put, the Pumpkins kicked ass, and then kept kicking ass, and didn’t cease kicking ass until the final feedback-laden tones of the long set closer “Gossamer” came to an abrupt halt and the strobe lights finally stopped pulsing. Even the band’s new material sounded great last night, which was almost as strange as being at the Phoenix Theater and seeing hardly any teenagers.

The sold-out crowd, nearly all in their 30s, went crazy for hits like “Today,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Cherub Rock” and a solo version of “Disarm” that had hundreds of camera phones hoisted in the audience and Corgan singing karaoke-style to a backing track. Not that Corgan, the only original member of the group, rested on his laurels. Instead, he culled from the classic rock trick bag with a Hendrix-inspired “Star-Spangled Banner,” played by his teeth, and a foray into Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” followed by a long drum solo by new recruit Mike Byrne punctuated with the obligatory crash of a gigantic gong. For “Ava Adore,” he unleashed pure Stratocaster pyrotechnics; during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” he gestured in an actual cage of lighting scaffold and two giant windmills; and throughout the set screeched his trademark growl like a bonafide rock star.

All of this—plus cock-rock openers Big City—showed that Corgan’s intentions have always lied in arena rock and not, as the 1990s painted him, as “alternative.” The Smashing Pumpkins’ best moments seem to happen when Corgan reconciles the two. Last night, the nonstop barrage of lighting and fuzz couldn’t have been described as “accessible,” yet the continuous unease seemed to clear a space for the band to actually enjoy playing radio hits they’ve played thousands of times. After the line “No matter where you are / I can still hear you when you scream,” from the Singles soundtrack single “Drown,” the Phoenix crowd erupted in a scream, and if you were watching close enough, you could see Corgan allow himself a sly smile—still, after all these years.

Set List:

Astral Planes
Ava Adore
Drown
As Rome Burns
A Song for a Son
Today
Eye
Bullet With Butterly Wings
United States
My Love Is Winter
Cherub Rock
That’s the Way (My Love Is)
Stand Inside Your Love
Tarantula
Tonight, Tonight
Disarm
Freak
Gossamer

Summertime Jams

Posted by: on Aug 28, 2010 | Comments (1)

So it turns out the Beach Boys, despite widespread rumor, are not actually suing yeowling bimbo Katy Perry for the line “I really wish you all could be California girls.” What they should sue her for, obviously, as forefathers of the summertime jam, is unleashing such a nauseating hit song on the American public. Have you heard the thing? While the Hollywood blockbuster seems to be getting smarter (Inception, The Kids Are All Right), the “summertime jam” is increasingly becoming the radio equivalent of the old-style Hollywood blockbuster—i.e., full of blatant dippiness and cheap thrills designed to make you feel awesome.

But Perry’s “California Gurls” does not make me feel awesome. What does, especially on the way to the beach or sharing beers in the sunset or at a backyard barbecue, is “Dance Yrself Clean,” from LCD Soundsystem, which bank-shots off every border of “summertime jam” to redefine the term. A rant against friends who suffer from diarrhea of the mouth (“Talking like a jerk / Except you are an actual jerk”), the track explodes three minutes in with thick analog-synth blasts and dirty, dirty hi-hats, owing to Talking Heads and Freddie Mercury while paving nine minutes of the way toward a future disco music.

From Inglewood, Cali Swag District brings us the dance-craze “Teach Me How to Dougie,” a razor-thin hip-hop hit hanging on an infectious, simple beat that first made waves in underground circles late last year. Capitol Records cleaned out the bad words and rereleased it this May; the original‘s better, but it still sounds ultrafresh and continues to inspire uploaded dance videos of four-year-olds dancing the dougie in the driveway. (Although: kinda bummed that L.A. gets attention for “Dougie” while this video from Oakland’s Turf Feinz is evidence that the Bay Area produces California’s most elegant street dancing.)

Dancing finds a lonely space in Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” an instant contagion advisable to avoid if you don’t want it stuck in your head for the next month. Cribbing Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” concept, the song finds Robyn (a former Swedish teen pop star whose new album opens with a song titled “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do”) self-assured on the dance floor even while the object of her affection goes home with someone else. And Lord, the hooks are insane.

Is there any hit more tailor-made for summertime status than “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae? A rebuke to haters through deft dance moves and killer cadences sung in Monae’s Aretha-like voice, the song tacks on two minutes of call-and-response shouts, horn riffs, ukulele breaks and strings well past the usual three-minute mark; it’s also the rare song with a Big Boi verse where the Big Boi verse isn’t the highlight. Listen to it once and be transformed.

Transformation is the game on M.I.A.’s new album, nowhere more so than on “Steppin’ Up,” with its rhythmic cacophony of lug-nut drills; it manages to make the ridiculous phrase “subb-a-sub-a-sub-sub” sound ill. Similarly, sampling Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love Yous” is a terrible idea on paper; Nicki Minaj owns it for “Your Love.” (“Bloody hell,” M.I.A. recently quipped, “Nicki Minaj runs things.”) Minaj has been a prolific filthy-guest-verse rapper in the past, and if the slow burn of “Your Love” earns some overdue recognition, it will have justified its existence.

No summertime jam this year fills the seaside role like “When I’m with You,” by Best Coast, aka Bethany Cosentino. Cosentino loves cats, smokes weed and has a drummer who routinely wears a bunny suit. She’s also written the carefree beach party hit of the year. If the Beach Boys can shake any money out of Katy Perry, they’d be wise to kick a chunk to Best Coast for keeping their California dream alive—the sunsets, the sand, the surf and the salvation of sloppily swapping saliva. Summertime!

Finally, the internet has been dominated in the last week by what everyone’s declaring the Summertime Jam That Never Was. Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” isn’t ever going to enjoy radio play, but that hasn’t kept it out of my head since I heard it, just one time, seven entire days ago. Simply put, the song’s catchy as hell, and now that the nonexistent summertime weather in Santa Rosa has finally turned around and decided to shine, it couldn’t hit at a finer time. Watch it below, and enjoy.

Live Review and Photos: Rock the Bells 2010, Shoreline Amphitheatre

Posted by: on Aug 25, 2010 | Comments (5)

In the hip-hop version of nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll packages like Art Laboe’s Memories of El Monte or Alan Freed’s American Hot Wax, the 2010 Rock the Bells tour barreled into a packed Shoreline Amphitheatre to revive the golden age of hip-hop with a particular zeroing in on the magical year of 1993. That year, after all, saw releases of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—all iconic albums, and all performed “in their entirety” at Rock the Bells on Sunday.

Notably, though, none of the acts adhered to the “in its entirety” concept. Rakim purportedly performed Paid in Full in its entirety, but excluded three songs from the album and scattered the others, out of order, throughout a greatest-hits set. This set the stage of artists bending toward hits from classic albums rather than staidly presenting them cover-to-cover. While at first this seemed like a bit of false advertising in action, it was eventually evidenced that when deep album cuts were dutifully unearthed—Tribe’s “God Lives Through,” say—energy levels suffered.

At a show like Sunday’s, one had to set aside valid concerns about hip-hop getting older and leaning on its past rather than looking to its future. For all the chatter about the genre being in a slump, there is so much life and vitality to the music presented on Sunday to get hip-hop through the longest dry spell. No one tugged at their goatee or scribbled in their notebook about these concerns. You don’t worry about shit like that when an epic lineup is playing out in front of your eyes.

Rakim opened with “My Melody,” played the part of Eric B. by cutting up lines from “I Know You Got Soul” on the 1200s, got the Bay Area crowd to boo Los Angeles and dedicated songs “to all the mommies out there.” Standing like an impenetrable wall of skill, he moved deliberately around the stage to rearranged Paid in Full cuts alongside later hits “Know the Ledge” and “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”

Scheduled early in the day at 1pm for too many empty seats, it felt like Rakim got little love for someone generally regarded as the most innovative and influential MC of all time. He didn’t seem fazed. He told security to lay off so the people could cluster near the front of the stage, absolutely killed tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “I Ain’t No Joke,” and at one point planted his Nike shoe on the monitor, licked the back of his thumb and deftly cleaned off a tiny fleck of dirt stuck to otherwise spotless sneakers. Smooth.

“When I get off stage,” he warned of the massive lineup to come, “it’ll get crazy. And then it’ll get crazier.”

“Hip-hop is not that Hollywood bullshit!” yelled Immortal Technique, on the side stage. “Hip-hop is being one with the people!”

He then finished a song with a chant of “Fuck Cops,” and then explained himself. “I know some of you out there don’t agree with that last song. You might be like, ‘My dad is a cop. He works hard and put himself in danger to keep the country safe.’ Well you know what? Fuck your dad! Fuck your family! And fuck cops!”

This didn’t go over well with some. While Immortal Technique talked about his recent trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a dude in the crowd threw a soda bottle at him. It missed, but the audience was all too glad to point the guy out. Immortal Technique’s entourage ran off the stage, into the crowd, and cornered the guy. It looked hectic, but then security intervened and dragged the dude to be thrown out at the gates.

“The crowd will always be filled with one agent provocateur,” quipped Immortal Technique. “You got off soft.” After his set, he stayed at the merch booth for two hours, signing autographs.

Lauryn Hill was 45 minutes late, and by the time she finally came out and finished her extended rock version of “Lost One,” her first song, it was 5:35—the end of her set, according to the schedule. If the stickler Bill Graham had still been in charge at Shoreline, he’d have unapologetically pulled her off stage right then as punishment for tardiness. Rock the Bells allowed her a full set anyway, albeit a shortened one; in the ridiculously long wait before she took the stage, roadies twice came out and crossed songs off all the set lists.

In Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, a black sequined cap and a homeless-chic green trenchcoat covering an early-’90s high-waisted getup, Hill displayed all the same hopeful energy of her show earlier this year at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa by churning her arms wildly and strutting in insanely high four-inch heels. Things looked grim when she left the stage ten minutes in, but returned wearing different shoes. Probably a wise move.

The crowd seemed confused by her new arrangements, and didn’t move much until she got into Fugees tracks like “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La,” which opened the floodgates for mayhem. Hill performed everyone else’s verses, and displayed her recent desire to be taken seriously again after a long rough patch. By the time she ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the sting of her late arrival was nicely salved.

“I can only introduce this next group,” said Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, solemnly, “by saying that this is my favorite group of all time. Rock the Bells, please welcome to the stage… A Tribe Called Quest!” Except Tribe wasn’t ready yet, and when a rushed Ali Shaheed Muhammad emerged from the wings and quickly started the intro to Midnight Marauders on the turntables, he shot Rosenberg an icy stare. Oops.

As mentioned, Tribe actually stuck somewhat to the material from Midnight Marauders, even performing late-in-Side-B cuts like “Lyrics to Go,” which you’ll never hear at a regular Tribe show. The “Midnight Lady” voice popped up from time to time in the set, they did everything on the album except “8 Million Stories,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Keep it Rollin’,” and Q-Tip remarked that Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang came out on the same exact date in 1993.

But the heat came when they brought out Busta Rhymes for “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Award Tour,” which saw Q-Tip running out into the amphitheater and working the fans in a show-stopping, all-star set closer. Tribe, Busta, Jarobi all onstage, simply sliding into place? Um, best part of the festival?

“It’s just like 15 guys all shouting the same thing and shitting on each other’s verses,” remarked a companion before the Wu-Tang Clan came on, and in a way, he was right. Wu-Tang, however, also adhered pretty strictly to the in-its-entirety thing, and it’s pretty thrilling to see all those guys on stage at the same time.

The role of Ol’ Dirty Bastard was filled by Ol’ Dirty’s son, who styled his hair in the same fashion and wore an oversized “R.I.P. ODB” T-shirt. He was clearly the most excited to be on stage, but the Wu held it down, and I tell you, the place was going bazonkers.

“I saw this shit on stage last night,” said MC Supernatural, introducing Snoop Dogg, “and what you’re about to see is epic. It’s like a movie.”

Snoop’s set was the perfect way to end the long day—laid back, entertaining, and for the sonically inclined, perfectly EQed. He had a tricked-out bike and a fire hydrant onstage. He had a picnic table covered in Olde English 40 ozs. He had the entire Dogg Pound (sans Nate Dogg). He had a giant backdrop of the cover to Doggystyle. He had full-budget video interludes to match all the skits on Doggystyle. He had a guy in a gigantic full-body dog suit. He opened with the bathtub skit, had the Lady of Rage deliver “G Funk Intro” and launched majestically into “Gin and Juice,” blunt in hand. It was beautiful.

Snoop also really took time to paint a picture of where he was at when making the record. He explained that “Gs Up, Hoes Down” had to be taken off the record due to sample clearance issues. He told the story of proposing “Ladi Dadi” to Dr. Dre: “When I was working on this album, Doggystyle, I told Dr. Dre I wanted to do something that’d never been done before. I wanted to redo this song I loved when I was a kid. And he said, ‘Okay, but we gonna fuck with it.’”

By the whole crew exiting the stage after every few songs, the set had the feel of a theatrical play, divided into acts and narrated by the Greek chorus of video interludes. And yet it was when Snoop broke the fourth wall that the show carried most of its weight. “Who here really did buy Doggystyle when it came out?” he asked. “Who had it on cassette? Who had it on wax? Who had it on CD? Were CDs even out? I was scared of the CD, man, I had the motherfuckin’ tape. Yeah. East side, G side.”

Warren G performed “Regulate” to represent the non-Snoop hits of the era, and the whole Dogg Pound even performed the posse cut “Stranded on Death Row,” from The Chronic. (“We wanted to show the world that we weren’t just gangsta rappers, but that we were MCs.”) And even though he ended with “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock,” the set was a very well-done, heartfelt homage to a groundbreaking, bygone era.

Doggystyle, man,” Snoop mused, near the end. “This shit is crazy. All my people on stage right here? I’m havin’ a moment right here.”

More Photos Below.

Review and Photos: Outside Lands Festival 2010, Day Two

Posted by: on Aug 17, 2010 | Comments (3)

I’ll get to the bands, but the first thing anyone noticed, surely, is the freak scene outside the gates of Outside Lands. It’s what you’d envision concerts in the park to be like back when concerts in the park were free. In the short walk between parking my bike (thanks, SF Bike Coalition) and the main entry, I was offered $2 beers from a stack of 12-packs piled on a skateboard, $1 pot cookies from a brown grocery bag, yelled at by a woman for no reason who shouted “KEEP LAUGHING! THIS STAND-UP COMEDY ACT AIN’T FREE!,” warned to get out of the way while security caught and escorted out an unsucessful gate-crasher, watched in amazement at a sprinting, successful gate-crasher, and had to tell a guy no, but thanks, I’d rather you not super-soak my arm.

Then it’s over the hill and into the festival, with corporate booths (“Free Rolling Stone T-Shirts!”; no takers), even more corporate tents (the “Chase Freedom Lounge,” yeah right, like anyone thinks a credit card gives you freedom) and no free water except from the lovely people staffing the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic’s Rock Med table. I’ll say it until the day I die: All festivals should have a free drinking fountain. At least a garden hose, man.

The night before, I’d DJed this really ridiculously epic wedding reception at the Union Hotel in Occidental, and the exact feeling that festivals aim to provide—Everyone United Through Music!™—was undeniable in a tiny little redwood-lined ballroom. It was fun, but honestly, I don’t know that Everyone United Through Music!™ is such a desirable goal, because the more people united in their excitement over a band, the greater the chances of that band being pretty lame and middle-of-the-road. On a semi-related note, there’s no way around the fact that this year’s Outside Lands lineup is the weakest yet.

Mayer Hawthorne killed it. I’ve got a weariness of the oversaturated retro-soul train perennially chugging out of the same station for the last ten years, but there’s no denying Hawthorne’s enthusiasm. The crowd was in the palm of his hands—he stopped, held up one finger, they cheered; he shook the hell out of his tambourine, they cheered; he got everyone to imitate rain with their fingers, they cheered. Impeccably dressed in a custom suit, Hawthorne had a great band with vintage analog gear, synchronized backup dancers and three-part backing harmonies.

“I love records, I’m a vinyl junkie,” Hawthorne said at one point. “Y’all got one of the best record stores in the universe here—Amoeba.” He’s right! He then related a funny story about being mistaken by an autograph seeker, in the aisles at Amoeba, for Michael Bublé. Who knows if the story was really true, but you can kind of see the resemblance.

The Devil Makes Three are great, and always have been great, and it’s nice to see them finally selling out shows and getting props. Theirs is an instructional story for bands on taking the very slow, hardworking path, which is also a story about taking the very broke, no-money-havin’ path. I’d heard from a friend who saw their packed show at the Independent a couple nights before that they’d gotten “loose” and “noodley,” which actually sounded cool, but at Outside Lands no loose noodles answered the roll-call.

They opened with “For Good Again,” a sardonic story about communal living and starting a band, and there are some lines in that song which define the Devil Makes Three for me: “Everybody who’s anybody, in my opinion,” sings Pete Bernhard, “at one time lived in somebody’s hallway.” Lines like that are comfort food for punkhouse graduates, and even though I technically never lived in a hallway, I thought about my days living in the laundry room, or the attic, or the garage, or the closet, or the unfinished frame house, and felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Pete.

Then I saw a man with his shirt wide open. He had two bellybuttons. No kidding.

So like I said, there’s a lot of corporate tents at Outside Lands. In these tents, there’s DJs, or free wi-fi, or short performances in intimate settings by bands who are playing the larger stages. The only thing is that to get into these tents, you have to own a certain kind of credit card, or “like” a stupid brand on Facebook, or sign up for spam email, or utter a cringe-worthy phrase like “Let’s go to ‘Inspire’ by Heineken.” (Also, what the hell were those plastic stove knob things that Chase was handing out? Does anyone know? For real. I saw them all over the ground 20 feet after the dude was handing them out. No one knew what they were. Total sense this made = 0.)

That said, KUSF is a kickass radio station. Their Outside Lands tent was open to everyone, free of irritating marketing, and when I walked by the Budos Band was rocking a tiny stage. The bassist played his bass in this ridiculous upside-down fashion, and the bari sax player looked possessed at times. A little bit Mulatu, a little bit Fela, all Daptone, really tight grooves, and a nice surprise on the way to Janelle Monáe. It was great!

(Note to KUSF: I just wanna say that by NOT making me sign up for anything to chill in your tent, you have earned my loyalty and respect. See how it works in the 21st Century? There’s no jobs out there because no companies are making any money, so companies pump up their marketing team until everyone’s so nauseatingly sick from the onslaught of marketing that only a complete lack of marketing achieves the desired result of the public subconscious reacting positively to your brand, but I digress. The Budos Band is cool as shit and KUSF is wonderful.)

Janelle Monáe wins the showmanship prize of the year based on her Outside Lands set alone, and to think she does it night after night after night is unreal. Even her soundman was rocking out—like, hard—and he’s someone who watches this happen every night, over and over. Janelle Monáe! Whose brain works as fast as hers? Whose body works fast enough to receive lightning-fast impulses from said brain? Who can sing, rap dance in just one show? (Kangol, Mr. Sophisticata, but I digress yet again.)

Monáe was fifteen minutes late due to a late flight, a fact that no one’s going to remember because her set ruled. She took to the stage in a black hooded cape, sang the hell out of her songs, danced up a tornado and laid forth a watertight case for stardom. When “Tightrope” first hit, I couldn’t shake Monáe’s very formal, clean presentation. There was something eerily obedient in her manner, as if her talent had been refined and polished beyond normal human behavior. But contrary to the unwritten code of alleged musical “purity,” talent doesn’t have to sloppy to be authentic, and trained singers can also be great singers. Seeing Monáe live reinforces these concepts.

I had been staring at the stage, covered in instrument cables, wondering if Monáe might accidentally step on one and slip while dancing. Alas, she’s got this problem solved by putting a special dance riser in front of the drums, which also meant that people way in the back could see Monáe’s dizzying footwork. She turned in a memorable set, to say the least, including Chaplin’s “Smile,” probably the greatest song about depression ever written. When she ended with “Tightrope,” I walked around the crowd and came upon a dude who was doing backflips and smoking a joint at the same time. Amazing.

Al Green was on his game.

I last saw Al Green in Sonoma, turning in a smooth, by-the-numbers show for middle-aged wine drinkers. It was great, but man, it was so refreshing to see the guy in front of thousands of kids in tight jeans and neon Ray-Bans. Especially when there’s a lot of retro-soul acts here today—Janelle Monáe, Mayer Hawthorne, the Budos Band—it’s nice to have Al Green arrive to show them how it’s done.

In a routine that’s familiar by now, he took the stage, throwing out dozens of roses and repeatedly saying “I love you.” It may be routine, but when Green does it, it doesn’t feel like schtick. He implored the crowd to sing along. He shouted out California. He wished for stairs leading down into the crowd and made fun of the “paparazzi” in the photo pit. He genuinely wanted to make a connection with people. I’d say he succeeded.

There are things you forgive Al Green. Taking a swig of Gatorade partway through the second verse of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of them. (The chorus, which everyone knows by heart and sings loudly, would be a much more appropriate spot to take a break.) Performing snippets of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Bring It on Home to Me” and “My Girl” instead of his own songs is another. Why? Because his history, which is weighty in itself, is matched by his current-day pipes and patter. Wailing gospel high notes, hip-bumping to the downbeat, blowing kisses to the ladies—just owning it.

Afterwards, from the direction of Speedway Meadow, we saw a swarm of bodies who for some reason chose to watch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes instead of Al Green, and I usually don’t pity people for following their internal compass, but man.

Garage a Trois. Last song. “1969” by the Stooges. The vibraphone player, Mike Dillon, reached over for a mic and bumped some percussion, which toppled to the floor. A sound guy approached, like he was going to reprimand the guy. Dillon saw him coming and executed a flying, head-first leap over the vibes, crashing to the ground and knocking over more stuff. He got up and dry-humped Skerik, the saxophone player. Then he kicked Skerik in the head. Noticing the mic had come unplugged, he threw it up in the air and into the crowd. It was nuts.

When the song was over, the soundmen looked relieved.

Once upon a time there was a band called Chromeo. The best moment of Chromeo’s set came when a ton of people outside the festival banded together on JFK drive and crashed through the fence. A cheer emitted from the crowd when dozens of people made it in without paying. (Watch the video here.) If you lived through the 1980s you’ve heard Chromeo before. The end.

Painfully apparent when Phoenix kicked off with “Lizstomania” was that Thomas Mars was singing along to a doubled backing track. Ouch! Except everyone was going so nuts they probably didn’t notice. The coolly detached Mars hopped into the crowd, whipping people into even further of a frenzy. I wonder what the poll results would be if each fan at the gates was asked if Phoenix should be headlining instead of Kings of Leon.

Nas: Yankees hat. Damian Marley: Dreads down to the floor. Hype man: Waving a Lion of Judah flag. Backing band: Solid. Backup singer: Wearing a Bob Marley T-Shirt. Work it, baby!

Damian Marley shouted something about legal marijuana, and the field went nuts. I missed it, but according to the East Bay Express, Nas at one point called Africa a “country.”

“I’m lookin’ out in this crowd,” declared Mike Ness, in that oh-so-Mike-Ness way (see: Live at the Roxy), “and I’m seein’ some scary lookin’ criminals… If any of you out there are considering a life of crime, I seriously discourage it!” Sure thing, Mike.

Zen moments come at unexpected times. Social Distortion playing “Ring of Fire” was one of them. Why did it move me? What about it was special that wasn’t, the dozens of other times I’ve heard it? I can’t say. Especially when Mike Ness gave it this strange introduction about Johnny Cash: “This was written by one of my heroes! He’s not a hero because he had great hair or wore all black, but because there was a time in this country where people thought good white music could exist without black music! I tell ya, without this guy we’d all be sittin’ on the front porch blowing into a jug tryin’ to make a tune!”

I’d never seen Social Distortion. When I was 13 and didn’t know anything about music I’d go to the Wherehouse in the mall and look at the cassette tapes, selecting my purchase based entirely on the names of the bands. This is how I wound up with Killer Klowns From Outer Space by the Dickies, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death by the Dead Kennedys, and Prison Bound by Social Distortion. I thought Social Distortion was a raw name, and was kind of bummed when I got home to find it was basically country music instead of thrash.

Kings of Leon were up next, but so was RVIVR across town at Thee Parkside. I guarantee you that a thousand birds could shit on RVIVR’s heads and they’d keep playing. You can’t say the same for Kings of Leon, so I hopped on my bike and rode back to my car at Ocean Beach. I love this part of Golden Gate Park. It’s downhill all the way, past the buffalo and the casting pools and the archery field, and out on the Great Highway the sun and the fog and the water made a beautiful canvas behind that huge wooden windmill.

More Photos Below.

John Zorn Returns to Yoshi's in August

Posted by: on Jul 20, 2010 | Comments (1)

As prolific as alto saxophonist / composer / all-around madman John Zorn is in the studio—he’s played on over 400 recordings—he really doesn’t play live on the West Coast that much. In 1999, his Masada Quartet played Yoshi’s in Oakland, and it was another ten long years before he returned for a week-long residency last year in San Francisco. Like Ron Burgundy might say, it was kind of a big deal. The first show I saw was unbelievable; the second one was like something from outer space. He returns next month to Yoshi’s for another run, and like last year, it’s a different band for each show. Unlike last year, tickets are not $50 but a little cheaper at $25-$35, owing to Zorn’s use this time of West Coast musicians instead of flying all his NYC bros to California with him.

Here’s the dates and the individual lineups:

Thursday, Aug. 26
8pm: Terry Riley and John Zorn duo
10pm: Fred Frith, Mike Patton, John Zorn trio

Friday, Aug. 27
8pm: John Zorn’s ‘Alhambra Love Songs’ with Rob Burger, Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen
10pm: Aleph Trio with John Zorn, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollesen and films by Wallace Berman

Saturday, Aug. 28
8pm: John Zorn with the Rova Sax Quartet
10pm: John Zorn’s Cobra

I can’t stress how much you should try to see at least one of these shows—especially Saturday’s Cobra performance, which features 15 guys including Mike Patton, Fred Frith, Trey Spruance, Trevor Dunn and lots more, all conducted by the esoteric hand gestures of Zorn at the podium. It’s truly a sight to behold. All show info. and ticket sales over at Yoshi’s site.

Live Review: Pavement with Gary Young at the Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA

Posted by: on Jun 26, 2010 | Comments (6)

Even though he didn’t play until the very end of the set at the Greek Theatre last night, Pavement’s notorious ex-drummer Gary Young made his surprise presence known early. Wandering around the wings in a gray-haired ponytail, cutoffs, mismatched socks, a soccer jersey and a red-and-blue women’s blouse, Young at one point lumbered up to frontman Stephen Malkmus, in the middle of the stage, and handed him a giant bottle of Scope mouthwash.

Malkmus scrambled for an explanation. “Uh…” he said, “…this is our product placement?”

The entire show was ridiculously perfect, probably the best Pavement has ever played in the Bay Area. Famously spotty as a live band in their day, on this reunion tour Pavement has honed their trademark of playing on the edge of falling apart. Better yet, the set list comprised greatest hits—“Stereo,” “Shady Lane,” opener “Cut Your Hair”—alongside lesser-knowns like “We Dance,” “Date w/Ikea” and a downright spine-tingling “Stop Breathin’.”

As for Malkmus himself, the rakish surrealist was sight to behold, owning his past by playing his guitars in the weirdest diagonal ways and nailing the spirit of songs that the not-quite-sold-out crowd sung along to, loudly: “Range Life,” “Gold Soundz,” “The Hexx.”

But then came Gary Young’s turn on the drumset, which as anyone could guess changed everything completely.

Trigger Cut” was the first to endure Young’s sporadic drumming. Then “Box Elder.” Young, who had only been announced for the previous night’s show in Stockton but decided to show up tonight as well, plays the drums, uh, “uniquely.” There’s videos. It’s kind of like if Gary Busey drank a bottle of NyQuil and was handed drumsticks.

For “Linden” and “Summer Babe,” Young threw his whole being into every cymbal crash and off-time drum fill. “Two States” nearly fell apart. Young even introduced “a new one they won’t let me play,” and started—for a few seconds, at least—the drumbeat to his solo anthem “Plantman.”

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Malkmus.

As strange as the last five songs were, to anyone who knows the Gary Young legend it was a beautiful triumph for a guy who probably won’t ever get the chance again to play in front of thousands of people—some even leading a chant of “Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!”

The set ended with “Here,” Young smashing out bizarre fills in the otherwise calm chorus and covering his face with both hands while still keeping a kind-of beat. Spiral Stairs jumped into the drum set, Malkmus ironically played the melody of “Those Were The Days” on his guitar and the show was over.

Except it wasn’t. Check the video below; after hopping off the stage into the photo pit, Young walks into the crowd and mingles with fans while trying to find his way to the exit. At one point, he asks a fan, “D’you think that I drum better than the other guy?”—and wonders out loud why the rest of the band doesn’t want to stay at his house.

Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!

Setlist:

Cut Your Hair
Frontwards
Gold Soundz
Stereo
Zurich Is Stained
Rattled by the Rush
Unfair
Silence Kit
Kennel District
Grounded
Range Life
Shady Lane
Date w/ Ikea
Spit on a Stranger
The Hexx
We Dance
Elevate Me Later
In the Mouth a Desert
Starlings of the Slipstream
Stop Breathin’
Trigger Cut
Box Elder

Linden
Two States
Summer Babe
Here

Live Review and Photos: Lauryn Hill at the Harmony Festival, Santa Rosa, CA

Posted by: on Jun 14, 2010 | Comments (8)

The long-hoped-for resurrection of Lauryn Hill, a dream seeming to slip further away with each year and each incoherent concert, took a giant step closer to fulfillment tonight at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.

We may never know what exactly has plagued Hill these last eight years, forcing her to shirk the limelight, cancel tours and sabotage her reputation, just as we may never know how she became capable of triumphantly returning to the stage in 2010. One thing is evident: in Santa Rosa, of all places, the 35-year-old singer finally showed she craves dearly to be taken seriously again. Reinvigorated with enthusiasm, she inhabited the music, conducted the band, belted improvised shout-outs and thanked the crowd—all in the first song. “I love you,” she exclaimed to a field of fans. “It’s so good to see you.”

If it weren’t for the harlequin outfit, bulky hoop earrings and heavy metal guitar solos, it was almost like seeing the Lauryn Hill of old.

Outwardly struggling with fame, Hill has long evinced a complete dread of pleasing the public (see: Unplugged 2.0), but in a 75-minute set of Fugees classics and Miseducation tracks in Santa Rosa, she refreshingly aimed to do just that. From breakneck set opener “Lost Ones” to the slam-dunk closer “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill showed a genuine desire to again fulfill her talent.

It started rough. Scheduled to go on at 6pm, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as she requires to be billed, came onstage only after her DJ bored the crowd with a half hour of clunky, unblended snippets from the likes of “Purple Haze,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Pass the Dutchie” and “Bam Bam.” The presence of two large teleprompters at the foot of the stage, for lyrics, added to the slowly mounting despair. By 6:29, when instructed to make noise for the umpteenth time, the teeming crowd could only wonder if Hill would arrive at all.

But grandly arrive she did, in an ’80s multicolored full-body jumpsuit that was only moderately silly in light of the get-ups donned by the average Harmony Festival attendee. “Lost Ones” set things straight in a ten-minute version that twisted through five different arrangements, and Hill’s recently-faded voice showed rejuvenated form with “When It Hurts So Bad.” By the beautiful “Turn Your Your Lights Down Low,” the crowd was in the palm of Hill’s hands, and comeback was in the air.

“We gonna do some old stuff,” Hill proclaimed, “but, but, but, but… there is a ‘but’… we gonna do some old stuff kinda new. Is that okay with you?” A medley of Fugees tracks followed, with Hill even taking over some Wyclef and Pras verses and singing OG sample material (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). And despite a generation’s collective memorization of the album versions, reworked songs with reggae and hard rock elements electrified Hill, who nailed every segue and spat out lightning-fast lines quicker than the crowd could sing along.

There were, sadly, two immediate drawbacks. One, Hill clearly has no concept at all of how live sound operates. Both between and in the middle of songs, she constantly complained about the stage and house mix, chiding the soundman to keep turning up every instrument and microphone according to her fleeting whims. The result was a washed-out din.

The other problem was that Hill is perhaps now too eager for public approval. From the ultra-fast tempos which, even with the teleprompters, she at times struggled to keep up with; to the claustrophobic arrangements for two guitars, two basses, two keyboards and three backup singers; to the “whooooo!”s and the “yeeaahhh!”s and the hasty leg-kicking, the concert had the effervescent taint of a Vegas show.

Realizing that Hill is simply giving people what they want—in preparation for her Rock the Bells dates, no doubt—is a blessing and a curse. She admirably tried for a time to break from fame’s mold, but it only resulted in bad music and psychological deterioration. With this greatest-hits set out on the road, her old fans are certainly satisfied, but what about staying true to one’s muse?

The question was forgotten each time Hill eagerly jumped into each song. “Pop this one, c’mon, let’s go!” she told her band, and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” set an entire field of festival goers aflame. “Thank you so much,” she said, as a sea of arms applauded wildly. “Thank you for your patience with us. Good to see you. Hope to see you soon.”

Lauryn Hill hasn’t made fans’ patience an easy task these last eight years, but let’s hope we see her in this kind of form again soon. Her emancipation might still not fit some people’s equation—I’ve already heard from people who were disappointed with the show—but the trainwreck curse is over and the resurrection is afoot. Now the fine-tuning begins.

Set List:

Lost Ones
When It Hurts So Bad
Ex-Factor
Turn Your Lights Down Low
How Many Mics / I Can’t Stand Losing You
I Only Have Eyes For You / Zealots
Fu-gee-la
Ready or Not
Zimbabwe
Doo Wop (That Thing)

More Photos Below.

Live Review: Filth Reunion at Gilman

Posted by: on Jun 5, 2010 | Comments (12)

The last time I ever saw Filth, right before Shit Split came out in 1991, less than thirty people bothered to show up. Nearly two decades later, for the first of four much-heralded reunion shows, you’d think there was a gigantic magnet at 8th and Gilman in Berkeley. At 6:30pm, there were 300 people in front of me in line; when doors opened, the line stretched around the block.

The rumor about tonight’s show was that Blatz was supposed to play too, which on sheer holy-fuck levels would have probably caused a Guatemalan sinkhole. As it stood, Filth sold the place out and just about threatened to tear it down. In a word, MAYHEM. It’s 2:14am, I just got home, drenched in sweat, smelling horrendously, delirious from being crushed by bodies, eardrums essentially kaput, and full of love.

You can go anywhere in the Bay Area and find your run-of-the mill, dull show. Not the case with Filth. Wheelchairs in the pit. People making out in the front row. Dozens of people on stage. Horrible sound. Entire crowd screaming “The List.” Swarming crowds falling at a 45-degree angle. Being held up by willpower and adrenaline. Boys wearing nothing but nuthuggers. Setlists stolen. Songs falling apart. Everything falling apart. Glory, glory, glory, glory.

Hanging over Filth like an albatross in their heyday was this really ragged notion that they began as a joke, exaggerating punk’s nihilism to ridiculous extremes, and that over time the joke morphed serious as their fanbase expanded. I’ve heard this rumor used against Filth, e.g. “Walk through the filth / You will find me there / Needle hanging from my vein” isn’t a reflection of Jake Sayles’ reality, but a hollow posturing to initially mock punk and eventually—when no one got the joke—to capitalize on it.

But can you name one band, or at least one great band, that doesn’t posture even just a little bit? The portrayal of what music listeners want as reality is often just as important as that reality. Maybe more so, actually—if Jake had needles hanging from his arm all the time, Filth probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to record the most scathing, incredible crustpunk anthems to ever come from the East Bay.

I never gave a shit if Filth truly lived the chaos or not. What mattered was how their songs affected me, which is to say: strongly. Not only did they lend empathetic understanding to self-destructive impulses, they crafted said self-destruction as a powerful, torrential force. “You Are Shit” is still the most empowering song about the ineffectual nature of humankind ever written; if one realizes that we are all truly shit, and we accept that lowly role, then we receive liberation from the expectations of the world. It also totally fucking kicks ass.

Tonight, Jake ominously paced the stage like a bald eagle, virtually unchanged in the last 20 years. That same icy gaze and cold detachment. While songs occasionally sputtered—Lenny, Jim, Mike and original drummer Dave E.C. were really struggling amongst the waves of fans on stage repeatedly beaten back by security—the sheer fray of energy superceded technical “quality.” When Sayles reached the apex of the set, hundreds of suffering souls screamed along with the lines that defined the night: “You are within me / WE ARE ONE.”

It can’t go without notice that tonight was the 20th Anniversary of The List, amazingly compiled and distributed for two decades by Steve Koepke. Congratulations, Steve! And the Gr’ups, presumably filling in for Blatz, tore through a rambunctious set that had Jesse Luscious and Anna Joy swapping trademark sarcastic barbs between urgent versions of ageless anthems “On the Way to Frisco” and “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”

I drove home in a daze. I really, really need a shower.

[UPDATE: Gilman has posted the full audio from the show here.]