The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announcement came this morning. Nominated but not inducted: Eric B. and Rakim. (Or: War, Rufus, the Spinners.) That’s what you get with a wheezing institution whose CEO thanks their corporate sponsor in the second sentence of the press release. Congratulations, I guess, to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan, Guns ‘n’ Roses, the Beastie Boys, the Small Faces and Laura Nyro.
Near the end of tUnE-YarDs’ set last night at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, Merrill Garbus thanked the nearly sold-out crowd for coming out on the night before Thanksgiving.
“I feel like everyone I bumped into on the street or in the store today, I was like ‘Happy Holidays,’ and they were like ‘Ugh, I’m just trying to get through it,’” she related. “But if you feel that way, just remember to give something to somebody else, and it’ll make you feel really good.”
Indeed, through a lively, adventurous hometown set that closed out her long tour, Garbus gave, and gave, and gave. Reliant on intricate looping—a process Garbus has mastered, and that’s a marvel to watch live—tUnE-YarDs’ layered songs demand vocal gymnastics, polyrhythmic prowess and precise fingerpicking. Yet underpinning all this complexity is a contagious strain of outright jubilance, and her shows are a joyful, holy-rolling cleanse for those bogged down by the lamely accepted idea that “happy music” means Katy Perry and little else.
In other words, although her music is complex, a simple statement like “give something to somebody else and it’ll make you feel really good” could effectively serve as tUnE-YarDs’ operating motto. It certainly did last night.
Heavy on material from this year’s w h o k i l l, the set began with Garbus’ “Do You Wanna Live?!” (a song more commanding of a response than any you’ll hear all year) and ended with a pile of balloons dumped onto the crowd while her three-piece band was joined by openers Pat Jordache in a mass pounding of drums.
The experience gained on this year’s rigorous touring schedule showed its colors in dramatic reworkings of album tracks; “Bizness” enjoyed an extended free-jazz outro, as did “My Country,” and other songs erupted in surprise deviations and arrangements.
A new song the band performed sounded essentially like a B-side to w h o k i l l, and it showed that no matter how creative the performer, there’s only so much one can do with a setup of bass, horns, drums and ukelele. “This is the last show this ukelele will ever play,” Garbus quipped—but she was dissing the instrument’s ability to stay in tune, not announcing a reworked instrumentation for her next album.
But after this tour, who can imagine what’s in store next for tUnE-YarDs? What if Garbus’ next step is looping a Fender Rhodes, a bass clarinet, a Casio and a standup bass, and singing her brilliant songs backwards through a pedal that adds octaves and sound effects of oil rigs and hydraulic pumps? What if she managed to take all that and make it accessible, and catchy, and danceable? If anyone could pull it off, it’d be Garbus.
Have you ever seen Weird Al? No? Well, let me try to explain. He plays for two hours. He plays about 65 songs. He has about 20 costume changes. He assumes two dozen personas, and shows just as many funny fake interview clips between songs. He’s nonstop, and it’s nuts, and his crowd is nuts, and then he plays some songs about Yoda and it’s all over, and like any good fast-paced comedy show, it’s hard to remember what just happened.
Here’s what I can reconstruct.
When I walk in to the show, there’s a guy who’s 6’5″ in sweatpants, a headband and a red “Jews 4 Bacon” T-shirt. This is a good representative example of the typical Weird Al fan who has arrived here tonight to pay their respects to the master. I follow the Jews 4 Bacon guy to my seat, the lights go out, and Weird Al starts a polka medley of the following songs:
You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
Day ‘n’ Nite
Need You Now
I Kissed a Girl
Blame It (on the Alcohol)
Break Your Heart
The medley comes back around to “Poker Face,” the song ends, the lights go out, people go nuts. The lights blink back on just in time to see Weird Al bonk his face on the microphone with a huge “WhhHHHAhaOoompPP!,” and then recovering by shouting “HELLO SANTA ROSA!!”
There’s a joke about a drum solo, and then the video screen shows a interview with Eminem where Eminem keeps saying “You know what I’m sayin’?” and Weird Al keeps losing his patience in increasingly aggravated fashion, and this goes on and on, and the crowd loves it, and then some cheerleaders come out on stage to the opening strains of “Smells Like Nirvana.” I’m impressed that Weird Al plays the whole song on guitar left-handed, but then attention to detail is his specialty—surely he knows that Kurt Cobain played left-handed. He also gargles the guitar solo into the microphone with some mystery liquid and throws the red keg cup and its contents out on the crowd, and they go wild.
“TMZ” is a Taylor Swift parody, “Party in the C.I.A.” is Miley Cyrus, Jesus, what else? It all goes by so fast, and honestly, some of the best songs are his own, like “Skipper Dan,” the sad tale of a failed actor who was once “the next Olivier” but is now working the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, reciting the same crappy schtick about the wiggling hippo ears 34 times a day. (“I research everything that I do as much as I possibly can before I even start writing,” he says in this interview about the song. See, attention to detail!)
Somewhere in there is perhaps the show’s highlight: “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” with Weird Al in a red-and-black leopard print suit hopping off the stage and grinding up on audience members, like, legs up on the seat, while singing lines like “My love for you’s like diarrhea, I just can’t hold it in” and something about chewing on your butt, maybe? It’s insane. He launches into a food medley, with “Whatever You Like” and “Nothin’ on You” and “Eye of the Tiger” and “La Bamba” and “Stand” and I forget what else, and then they all come out dressed like the Doors.
Doing Jim Morrison is hard, but Weird Al nails it, and their bassist is sitting back at the keyboards because the Doors had no bassist (ATTENTION TO DETAIL!) and the song is about Craigslist and the personal ads and annoying complaints people lodge on Craigslist. Weird Al wins a place in the heart of Santa Rosa by addressing a diatribe during the bridge: “An open letter to the snotty barista at Bad Ass Coffee on Mark West Springs Road,” and again, attention to detail, place goes nuts, it’s totally cool and uncool at the same time, which I guess sums up the whole show, actually.
The hits roll out: “Perform This Way,” “eBay,” “Canadian Idiot,” “White and Nerdy,” “Money for Nothing / Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Fat,” with the famous fat costume, and it’s hard to figure out if he’s making the fat people in the audience feel better or worse about themselves, but I’m guessing better, because Weird Al is all about making everyone feel better about themselves no matter how weird or quirky or idiosyncratic or different they may be. Even if they’re 6’5″ and wearing sweatpants and a headband and a shirt that says “Jews 4 Bacon.” Weird Al is there for that man, and that man is not giving up on Weird Al, because like Homer Simpson says: “He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life.”
There’s an encore, with songs about Star Wars, a.k.a. the Spiritual Advisory Board of the disenfranchised. There’s an amazing acapella thing that I can’t begin to describe (thank you YouTube, start at 3:40), and the whole thing comes roaring back in with “Yoda,” and the accordion is king, and people are swaying in their own ridiculous joy, and UHF is a great movie, and Jessica Simpson is dumb, and no one thought about the state of the world for two hours, and Weird Al yells “Thank you Santa Rosa!” and I believe that he actually cares. And that’s what a Weird Al show is like.
EMA is Erika M. Anderson, a singer originally from South Dakota who’s made a fantastic record this year, Past Life Martyred Saints; who serves as a hypotenuse in an imaginary triangle involving Patti Smith and PJ Harvey; and whose presence on stage calls to mind punk shows at Cafe This in 1994, or the X-Ray Cafe in 1995, or Kommotion in 1996.
This is entirely welcome, and not solely from a nostalgic DIY standpoint. In a no-longer-truly-indie landscape rife with processed performers who sign on with someone else’s pre-approved idea of what’s “in,” something as honest and from-the-gut as EMA is refreshing as fuck.
Maybe the ennui is true, to an extent. I miss awkward, unrefined bands with too much to say, and tend to prefer them to slick, stylized bands with nothing to say. Or, as Anderson herself said once of Past Life Martyred Saints, “With this record, the thing that felt controversial was injecting emotion into ideas, not the other way around.” In other words: everyone knows a brain that tries to rule the human heart is foolish, yet it’s accepted as smart. And why?
EMA took the stage with “Marked,” with gyrating hips and hair in her eyes. Amidst tumbling through a Violent Femmes cover (“Add it Up”; kudos to Leif Shackelford for tackling Brian Richie’s tumbling bass lines on a violin) and “Cherylee,” a moving solo number from her former band Gowns, she played just about every song from her new record, including the great “California.” Some of them extended into loose noise jams, some were plain and taut, but all were full of the honest, raw spirit of the heart.
When singing, Anderson is led by some other force—last night, she kicked, jumped, fell onto her back, tucked the mic in her pants, let the audience play her guitar, wrapped a cord around her neck—but between songs, she’s down to earth, which is to say unpredictable, which is to say human. She could motion gratefully to the crowd, and say “Thanks for bringing back the joy in me,” or she could lead an impromptu sing-along of the Femmes’ “American Music,” or she could curse her guitar, spitting out, “Stupid guitar. Stupid instrument. Stupid rock.” You just never know.
Afterward, the band hopped off the stage and sold their own shirts at the merch stand, and though the place had only been little more than half full, the show was unforgettable. Here’s to more like her.
Ever since Daft Punk’s giant pyramid, electronic acts have recognized the need for a sensory stage show—Justice and their wall of Marshall amps; Deadmau5 and his Rubik’s cube. These novelties have made live electronic music more visually interesting, and have helped sell more tickets, but they’ve so far been just that—novelties, meant to give the audience something to look at while somebody stands at a laptop computer.
Amon Tobin’s current tour Isam, on the other hand, is a true work of art.
Isam is Amon Tobin’s Metropolis, his Koyaanisqatsi. In a series of wordless images, the set that Tobin is bringing around to select cities makes a bold statement on technology and its omnipresence in our modern universe—terrifying one minute, beautiful the next. Like all great art, the production is thought-provoking, challenging and stunning. Submitting to it is pure glee.
So it’s like this: on the stage is a massive, unmoving sculpture of stacked white cubes. A projector fires laser images onto this sculpture, and there may some LEDs involved as well. The combined effect is a 3D experience where the cubes move even though they’re not moving; where the sculpture floats through space even though it is immobile; where a parallel universe exists with shape-shifting factories, angry jet engines and mechanized factory clangs competing with brilliant, serene patterns and transformative optical illusions.
In the center of all this, in a cube larger than the others, is Tobin, occasionally lit from within. These reveals—that there is, in fact, a human involved—pull the curtain back on a spectacle that’s seemingly created solely from silicon, and enshrine the production as a triumph not only of technological engineering but of cranial ingenuity.
And, lest this be taken for an exercise in intellectualism, there’s confetti, too.
There are several dates left of Tobin’s tour, and those who have a chance to see it should seize the opportunity. After the tour is over, the question arises: what will become of the 24-foot structure? The projected images, the gut-rumbling bass tones, the immersive presentation? Lost forever?
Without a doubt, Isam belongs in a museum.
As soon as I got to EarleFest, I ran into about five people who were still glossy-eyed over Chuck Prophet. “Wasn’t he great?” they asked me. “I had to work. Just got here,” I replied. “Man, you missed something special,” they said.
Of course, Chuck Prophet is fantastic, and talking with him recently about the record he recorded in Mexico City and its subtle comments on immigration confirmed my fandom. Seeing the Flatlanders, below, is always a treat, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s voice is a salve to be taken at least thrice a year for proper emotional maintenance.
But I was at EarleFest mostly to right two wrongs, namely that 1) I’d never been to EarleFest, and 2) I’d never seen Paul Thorn.
Well, the rumors are true on both points. EarleFest is a tremendously well-run festival in a perfect setting. There’s not a bad seat in the field, and there’s plenty of room to move if you want to dance, move closer to the stage or do cartwheels with 10-year olds. The sound is great, especially for a temporary outdoor system. Food booths are decent—paella, barbeque, fried pickles, beer and wine—and plenty of bathrooms. It’s just that perfect blend of “official” and “casual” that feels right.
How I’ve managed to miss Paul Thorn all these years is beyond me—”he’s so funny,” everyone says. They’re right. I was in stitches while he talked, but it’s hard to convey his humor in writing. Self-deprecating and clever, his between-song banter is that of a guy playing dumb but holding his smarts close to his chest. A sample, somewhat verbatim:
“My first album was all songs I wrote to try and win back a girl who broke up with me because I cheated on her. The story is as simple as that. When the album came out, I thought she would hear the songs and be so overcome that she’d run back to me. But instead of winning her back, they only gave her more power to treat me like dirt. And that’s what she did, for a long time. So here’s a very beautiful song that accomplished nothing.”
Thorn’s voice is rough and blues-inflected, sliding from note to note in a Mississippi drawl, his band is tight as hell and his tunes are great; about four or five of them fall into the “instant classics” category—like “I Don’t Want to Know,” “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line” and “Resurrection Day,” the aforementioned song that accomplished nothing. Anyway, if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to seeing him yet, block out the calendar and plonk down for tickets. He’s good on record, particularly Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, but man, he’s outstanding live. In the middle of his last encore, he hopped off stage, danced with a few pretty girls, high-fived a throng of fans and waltzed back to the merch stand to hang out and chat with people while the sun went down. A nice end to a fantastic EarleFest.
For those who’ve bought James Blake’s much-lauded debut album and have remained underwhelmed, my advice is this: see him live. A fundamental quantity of his music’s dynamic range and impact is diminished by the recorded medium—especially if listened on ear buds or a computer’s built-in speakers, but even when played on vinyl through a high-quality system. Perhaps this is intentional. Maybe Blake presciently knew that most people listening to his album would do so alone, and strategically mixed it to be hushed and intimate.
What seems thin and minimalist on his album, though, became ferocious and dense in a live setting when James Blake appeared at the Fillmore. This was no more evident than in “Limit to Your Love,” a small-sounding song on record. But at the Fillmore, the song’s sub-bass registers literally rattled the windows of the venue, and rumbled the insides of the sold-out crowd. The effect was astonishing, and added a completely new dimension to the otherwise plain, pretty song. On record, there’s simply a limit to one’s love; but live, Blake’s performance seems to note that when that limit is reached, things churn and rumble and quake. Heavily.
With just a three-piece, including a drum set comprised of mostly electronic triggers, Blake and his band conjured wild tension out of thin air, all while Blake’s voice floated angelically above the turmoil. This is a page out of the Radiohead textbook, but Blake’s execution is more emotionally direct, and less cerebral. His slender, foppish build adds to his appeal; songs like “The Wilhelm Scream,” which was breathtaking at the Fillmore, seal it for good. It’s tempting to relate his mainstream appeal in systhesized music to that of Howard Jones’, honestly.
But the new songs Blake played live at the Fillmore—thick, urgent collages of cacophony—brushed aside any flavor-of-the-month thoughts. If he continues pushing the envelope (and the VCA, and the LFO), and if he somehow manages to get the impact of his live show on record, he’ll be leaving the hype in the dust.
There’s a chemistry about live music that’s referenced pretty constantly—this thing of the performer feeding off the fans, and the fans feeding off the performer, until some mythic plane is reached where the energy created is greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon has no name, but go to a few shows and you’ll eventually see and feel it in action, particularly with up-and-coming artists suddenly handed a tidal wave of attention. Some up-and-comer, say, like Kreayshawn.
At her show in San Francisco last night, the audience showered as much energy as possible on the 21-year-old Oakland-bred rapper, whose “Gucci Gucci” video is at 13 million views and counting. Yet onstage at Slim’s, Kreayshawn seemed either incapable or uninterested in giving it back, either consciously relying on the mere presence of her instant fame to provide excitement, or nervous about a hometown crowd—or, you know, she could’ve just been kinda stoned.
Granted, this is sure to improve with more experience. The set was trashy, superficial and fun, as expected. And despite Kreayshawn’s detractors who say she can’t rap, she’s a natural on the mic in the true test of a live setting. Either on older mixtape rambles like “Wavey” or new track “Rich Whores,” Kreayshawn stayed on point, holding up under the weight of the bass and not falling back on prerecorded vocals like some of the show’s openers.
Still, something was amiss. Even as the sold-out crowd sang along, the unsettlingly thin Kreayshawn paced the stage with an uncertain air, as if she hasn’t decided what kind of star she wants to be just yet; either the kind that strives to connect with fans, or the kind that tries to be so aloof that people are drawn to her more. The result was that the club’s energy wasn’t reflected by Kreayshawn on stage, but instead dissipated into the rafters, its well from below gradually drying out.
The show improved markedly with the arrival of V-Nasty, who seemed genuinely thrilled to have her moment in the limelight, no matter how fleeting or controversial that moment may be. With the three on stage together, an element of the classic boy-band formula came to mind: a group of separate personalities, branded as one. V-Nasty, the stonewashed-jean-wearing white trash foulmouth in love with Waka Flocka; Lil’ Debbie, the awkward, untalented one along for the ride; and Kreayshawn, the skinny, fashion-minded Powerpuff girl of the bunch.
After “Bumpin’ Bumpin’” ran its course, the intro to “Gucci Gucci” dropped. The place went nuts, and though the crowd could have sung the whole song for her, Kreayshawn stayed on the mic for every line. Finally, a sort of pinnacle had been reached, and it was just as well—it was the last song of the set. Afterward, the White Girl Mob danced around to Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love,” a fight between two girls broke out in front of the stage, and Kreayshawn waved and went down the backstage stairs, on her way to host the red carpet at the VMAs this Sunday, talking fashion with the stars. Shit, it could even work out better than rapping. Who knows?
Things at a Country Music Show: First, there are lines! Long, long lines. A line for the barbeque stand stretched across the field, so I counted it. 145 people, all waiting in line! Then I looked to my left—another barbeque stand, another long line. The line for Coors, conspicuously, not so long. Did everyone sneak in flasks of Jack Daniels? Next there’s the merch stand, with hot pink T-shirts reading “Country Girl… Wanna Shake It?,” which belong to supporting act Luke Bryan. With the No. 1 Country Album this week, Bryan has the crowd in the palm of his hand for his set.
Bryan himself wore skin-tight jeans and a crystal-studded belt, and had enough spunk to fill a tractor tank. Sure, his songs are kinda corny (see: “Rain is a Good Thing”). But one can hand it to Bryan, because he bothers to check out Google Maps before he plays and works local sites into his songs. Case in point is “We Rode in Trucks,” with the amended, Sonoma County-relevant line, “The Russian River washed away that California dirt.” People ate it up! They also got on each others’ shoulders, drank beer, and went “whoo-hoo.”
Near the end of his set, Bryan’s guitarist played the riff to “Hell’s Bells,” which led into his own hit “All My Friends Say,” which then led into a friggin’ verse and chorus of “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica, and then back again into his own song, closing out the show. This would seem to be a trend in new country music—ending the show with a hard-rock song. Miranda Lambert did it last year with “I Love Rock and Roll”; Thompson Square, an opener, also did “I Love Rock and Roll” in medley with “Black Dog”; and Dierks Bentley would end his own set with an all-out punk song, serenading the riders of the mechanical bull.
How ’bout that Dierks! “I wish you guys could see what we see up here,” he told the crowd. “There’s so many California country girls tonight!” Many of whom, of course, sang along to “Free and Easy” and “Trying to Stop You Leaving,” two back-to-back hits early in the set. Dierks also ran circles around the stage, told stories about drinking in a local brewpub and took photos with fans. All in all, a well-played set, and those who missed it might have still heard it, because upon returning home, Facebook was logjammed with people complaining about hearing the music as far away as the SRJC and the Flamingo Hotel. Dierks for all, it seems.
Cut Chemist’s show at the Mezzanine was billed as ‘Tunnel Vision,’ and it may as well have had an accompanying Playbill, handed out at the door. The show—indeed, the whole night—was like hip-hop theater, with scripted scenarios and stage blocking, culminating in the Los Angeles DJ’s uncharacteristically thick, dense set.
As one of the last of the dedicated vinyl DJs, Cut Chemist brought sharp skill to his own Act II called The Sound of the Police. A vinyl-only set of African breaks played on one turntable and with loops controlled by various footswitches, it was the technical highlight of the night. Elsewhere, on his laptop-assisted setup, he cut up “Bunky’s Pick,” “A Day at the Races,” and Tune-Yards’ “Gangsta”—fluidly blending each into breaks both new and old—and hosted Edan, Paten Locke and Mr. Lif on “The Storm.”
Cut Chemist is in a tough position these days. Most of the tricks he’s honed over the years as one of the world’s greatest and most innovative DJs can now be easily faked; he has no Jurassic 5-type group to provide constant work; turntablism as we once knew it is a niche instead of a phenomenon, etc. So when he had to point out to the crowd that his Sound of the Police segment was especially hard, or stopped the set to chastise the Mezzanine about the monitors, or seemed perturbed that the crowd didn’t stir for a J5 break. . . well, it’s forgivable. “You’re the best crowd on the tour so far,” he said to a half-full house at the end, at 1:45am. “You beat the fuck out of L.A. . . and that hurts.”
Edan’s set was nonstop entertainment, and not just because he wore a wig over his already-large hair. He delivered tracks from Beauty and the Beat, like “Colors,” completely on his own, holding a mic in one hand and juggling the beat with the other. He unreeled a lightning-fast acapella with Paten Locke. He had Locke flip through each and every record mentioned in “Rock and Roll” to the crowd while rapping. He cut up “Femme Fatale” with Run-DMC. Hell, he played kazoo and guitar. Echo Party was fun and all, but here’s hoping he puts out a proper follow-up to Beauty and the Beat.
Mr. Lif stretched out a segment about getting a corporate job, being paid $6.50/hr., smoking five blunts and killing his boss. It wasn’t nearly as stupid as it may sound, because Mr. Lif defines “on point”—he’s deliberate, precise and enunciates with a dedication matching his suit and hat. His long acapella about McDonald’s committing genocide on the nation killed, and he paid tribute to Tribe, Gangstarr and GZA. A consummate performer, Mr. Lif, and a perfect MC to kick off a night of hip-hop theater.