Charles Bradley has had a hell of a life, and the Menahan Street Band has had a hell of a ride. The 63-year old singer recently woke up at his mother’s house to find that his brother had been shot and killed by his nephew; meanwhile, the Menahan Street Band was busy being sampled by Jay-Z for “Roc Boyz.” The two came together, and the fit is smooth, even if the songs are not. I mean that in a good way: Bradley is a beast, a James Brown-inspired performer belting and crying the pain through his pores—falling to his knees, flailing the mic stand around. Never mind that he’s wearing a half-unbuttoned dirty work jumpsuit and gyrating his hips; he’s great, and the noontime crowd loves it.
The set of the weekend goes to tUnE-yArDs, and I could be biased: when her album came out I was so happily dumbfounded that I couldn’t even review it properly. But like anything fragmented and unusual, it coalesced with repeated listens, and started to make sense as a collection of straight-up palatable hits. Live, Merrill Garbus and her band tear the whole record apart again by looping each individual drum and vocal sample, layering it with bass and horns and throwing the whole crazy mess out into the air. Garbus seems happy to be home in the Bay Area, crediting the audience with “general vibe and awesomeness” when clearly, it’s she who delivers both. The high falsetto at the end of “Powa” is the frosting, but the whole set is unbelievable. We chat a little bit afterwards; she tells me “Santa Rosa isn’t piddly.” So there. It’s official.
Latyrx is playing today accompanied by the Jazz Mafia, led by Adam Theis. Though most hip-hop / jazz treatments fall flat, this one totally works. None of the songs get reworked as, like, big-band swing or anything—it’s still hip-hop, with the DJ and drummer holding it down. All the classics are here: “Say That,” “Latyrx,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” “Rankin #1,” and the song that works best with the band, especially the string section: “Storm Warning,” which is just incredible. They round it out with a little bit of “8-Point Agenda,” and they even shout out Forestville. Two thumbs way up.
There’s just buckets and buckets of sex in the air for Major Lazer. Everyone around me is dry humping. They have a hype man and an Undulating Girl™. The girl does the splits, wraps her legs behind her neck and generally increases the sex quotient. People continue dry humping. Diplo and Switch are nonstop at the decks, serving up a constant onslaught. Near the end, their hype man tells everyone to take off their shirts, which means everyone starts dry humping topless. I swear, the Bay Area teenage pregnancy rate is going to skyrocket nine months from now.
You are singing some songs to me.
I love me some hopeless trainwreck action as much as the next guy, so I wind up in the Gallagher tent. I really think Gallagher could make a Neil Hamburger-esque comeback if he plays his cards right. He’s old, he’s bitter, he’s not funny, he half-heartedly goes through the motions of his old jokes and he basically sucks. Psychologically, this could totally work in his favor—I mean, that’s why I’m interested in seeing him, after all.
Gallagher is running late, but it’s almost as much fun waiting for Gallagher as it is seeing him. Most of the people are already dressed in plastic trash bags. They chant “Gall-a-gher! / Gall-a-gher!,” then “Let’s go Giants!,” and then they all start doing the wave. Finally Gallagher, who is wearing a T-shirt of himself, staggers out clutching a Heineken and sucking on a cigarette. “I had a heartattack two months ago,” he tells the crowd. It’s going good so far.
But Gallagher quickly descends into simply being annoying. He singles out a girl in the crowd, picks up a tennis racket and some Wiffle balls, and says, “Let’s smash these plastic balls and hit this chick in the face and get her crying!” (Later, he adds, “I don’t care about pissing off the girls. I’m 65, I can’t fuck anything.”) It reminds me that reading funny things about lousy washups isn’t the same as having to suffer through same lousy washup. He makes some more jokes, but they aren’t funny. Worse, he’s taking himself seriously.
The funniest part of Gallagher’s set is that because he chose to go on late, half the audience gets up and walks out on him after 15 minutes—both Arcade Fire and Deadmau5 are playing at 8:00. Maybe a few people stuck it out to get splattered with watermelon?
It’s easy to forget just how electrifying Arcade Fire is live—and sure, the enthusiasm is undoubtedly forced on some nights. No one can mouth the words to every song for years and still be authentically as pumped as Regine appears to be. But what is popular music but a grand illusion? Arcade Fire = Succumb to the Uplift.
Win Butler seems like he’s trying to connect with San Francisco, mentioning the time they played the Great American Music Hall, how he walked around and checked out the food booths earlier, how he loves the weather and would move there if it wasn’t so expensive. (Some cried “fauxhemian” for someone as presumably well-off as Win Butler to quibble about the rent being too damn high, but I side with him. I have a full-time job and still sometimes eat out of the trash.) I suppose connecting with a crowd of one bazillion via casual between-anthem patter must be a daunting task.
There’s not much in the surprise dept.—the set is predictable, but exceedingly well-played. But as we’re walking away, before the last song, Butler sings those two key lines from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”:
You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
It makes sense. Their encore is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” one of the better songs from The Suburbs. A nice send-off.
More Photos Below.
Anyone who watched the Grammys on Sunday night has probably been thinking about fame all week: both the instant fame of people like Justin Beiber, and the slow rise to fame of bands like Arcade Fire. And between the chatter about Mumford & Sons; and “The Song Otherwise Known as ‘Forget You’”; and that idiotic egg and even more idiotic song of Lady Gaga’s, there were two glimmers of what cynical viewers referred to repeatedly around the water cooler the next day as “hope.” Namely, the Grammys awarded to Esperanza Spalding, for Best New Artist, and Arcade Fire, for Album of the Year.
Whether or not Esperanza Spalding’s win over Beiber will signal a true shift away from pop stardom and toward artistry is dubious. But the funny thing about it is what’s usually pretty funny about the Best New Artist category: Esperanza Spalding is nothing new. Nor is she unknown, much as the legions of betrayed Beiber fans want to believe. Spalding’s 2008 album was distributed through Starbucks, and as such was sold, promoted and piped into every outlet of the most ubiquitous worldwide chain since McDonald’s. Locals know her from playing sold-out shows at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival for the last two years, but she’s also been a huge-selling jazz artist worldwide. Lately, she’s sometimes made statements implying a predilection towards playing commercial pop, and chances are this Grammy win will render her next album very, very palatable. But the bottom line: Best New Artist. Spalding fits the description. Beiber? Not a chance.
The Arcade Fire win is a different matter. Within hours of their win, a Tumblr called “Who Is Arcade Fire” popped up, which offers really hilarious catharsis for those who have loved the band since 2004 and who have hated the Grammys for longer. The indignation on display, the utter frustration, the permeating theme that “Nobody Has Ever Heard Of Them“: it’s good for a laugh. The truth, of course, is that Arcade Fire has been destined for worldwide recognition since Pitchfork’s 9.7 review of Funeral in 2004. At that point, Pitchfork had already replaced Rolling Stone or Spin or any other outlet as the go-to for prescient reviews and relevant music news, so the writing was on the wall. Record stores were sold out of the album for three weeks straight.
(For the true nerd, there’s a great little bit by Christgau here about that historic Pitchfork review of Funeral, and the writer who penned it, David Moore. Moore is now into teen bubblegum pop and loves Ashlee Simpson.)
It’s too bad that The Suburbs is the band’s worst album, but that’s how these awards things work. What it means is a whole new generation of music-loving kids are going to be feeling really, really confused, and possibly feel like Arcade Fire are no longer “their” band. I’ve seen Arcade Fire twice since 2005, and one of my favorite things to read in the aftermath this week has been Carles’ take on it at Hipster Runoff, which is trying to be funny but evinces constant traces of real emotional uprising over their new mainstream status. This band meant something to me, he says, dammit, and now this. What now?
All diehard music fans have this moment. Mine came when Green Day signed. I learned swiftly that you can’t own a band—that, in fact, it’s best if the band belongs to the world, messy and superficial and under corporate domination though the world may be. Even though Green Day was no longer on an independent label like Arcade Fire (and yes, their Grammy win is as big a deal for independent labels as everyone is making it out to be), the underground scene that nurtured Green Day still felt a huge sense of ownership in the band. That was a wrong move, or at least a losing one.
Last week I hung out with Mike Dirnt on Steve Jaxon’s show on KSRO. He was up in Santa Rosa do to some interviews for his “other” band, the Frustrators, who play the Phoenix tomorrow. As pointed out in my music column in this week’s Bohemian, the last time Dirnt played the Phoenix with Green Day, right after signing to Warner Bros., there was a group of protesters out front calling themselves the “punk police.”
I wasn’t one of them. Instead, I was hanging around behind the theater with Billie Joe, playing one of Green Day’s new songs I’d taped from the Gilman soundboard back to him on a borrowed guitar. Except I’d written new lyrics for the entire song: “I’m not bein’ punk / I’m just sellin’ out,” I sang to him, to the tune of “Burnout.” He winced. And laughed, sorta, when I finished the song. I was only trying to exaggerate and thus mock the ire of the “punk police”—and later that night, while playing “Burnout” at the Phoenix, he got to the chorus and sang the same lines, about not bein’ punk and just sellin’ out. I knew he still had a sense of humor.
But just like Carles with the Arcade Fire, just like teenagers before him with Death Cab For Cutie, just like a million teenagers and their beloved bands that get huge, one can’t help but get emotional. Aaron Cometbus has produced by far one of the best pieces of rock writing ever with his latest issue of Cometbus, which is a journal of his adventures while touring China with Green Day last year. But moreso, it’s a trip through the complicated feelings one endures while watching something once pure and special and intimate sell thousands of $30 T-shirts in one night to even more thousands of kids in Singapore. There’s laughter, tears, kisses, and an overall sense of reunion—not just between people, but between long-conflicted emotions brought on by the ascension to fame.
As for me, the funny thing is that after letting Green Day go and accepting that they belong to the big wide world all those years ago, hanging out with Mike last week was a reminder that they hadn’t let me go. Mike instantly remembered playing a show I booked for them at Piner High School, and driving around Santa Rosa with me in their van after playing another ridiculous lunchtime show I’d booked at Santa Rosa High School, and the old bands I’d played in, and just about every show they played up here in Santa Rosa. It’s doubtful he remembers much from his third-to-last show on their latest tour of Japan, but there’s something about the early days—of a band, of a relationship, of life itself—that sticks with each and every one of us. I was surprised at first he remembered those times so well, but then again I wasn’t surprised at all: I remember the first few shows I played like they were yesterday.
It might just all come down to the old adage that when you’re least looking for something, it falls in your lap. Esperanza Spalding, Arcade Fire and Green Day weren’t ever looking primarily to be famous, but they were great, and it happened. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s obsessed with fame on every level, and might be destined to see her influence on other artists (Minaj, Cee-Lo, etc.) outlive her own artistic relevance. I mean come on. That horrible song? That useless tangent on the organ? “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen”?! Really?
Who will be the next U2? Spike and I discussed it the other day, and even three years ago, the Arcade Fire were the only serious contender; Mirroir Noir cements it. They have uplift, they have bombast, and now they have the requisite artistic film-document thing. I did not come right out and say that they were the next U2 in this Neon Bible review, but read between the lines.
Wasn’t Neon Bible, like, so 2007? To be reminded of it now by this DVD is to force a reassessment. I was interested in its haunting quality. In hindsight, I don’t understand what the album’s uncertainty was all about. Wasn’t uncertainty, like, so 2002?
Love how her feet manage themselves when she plays the pipe organ. Think that the band is giving Bjork a run for her money in the “everything is music” department. Magazine ripping is percussion, and it is done together! Everything is done together! We dance in the studio! We dance backstage! Two people beating on a cymbal is better than one!
No song is completed all the way through. People walk across parking lots. People swim in the 1920s. The illusion of falling. Hypnosis. When your eyes are half-closed, distant lights become circles. People call in and hypothesize about the meaning of “neon Bible.” On and on. What it means is religion is chintzy. No uncertainly required.
Dear Arcade Fire: The longtime host of The Price Is Right is Bob Barker.
“Power Out” and “Rebellion (Lies)” happen at the end, reminding you that Funeral was way better. My favorite Neon Bible moment was one that didn’t happen on the album, nor did it happen in this DVD. It happened when Bruce Springsteen gave his approval by covering “Keep the Car Running” at a show in Ottawa, and when a fan in the crowd was completely overcome with joy, surprise, happiness, confusion, elation and disbelief all at once.