The San Francisco Symphony’s opening night performance at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center was beautiful and exciting. Each player in the symphony is fantastic individually, and together under the baton of the rockstar of the classical world, Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra elucidated every ounce emotion in the evening’s music program. Weill Hall, the acoustic gem and main hall of the GMC, plays gorgeously to this. The premier acoustic space seems to widen the ear canal, allowing for more sound to be heard at once than ever thought possible. The pieces on this night showcased this clarity.
Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op.28) begins with a sneaky little theme, proceeding to take the listener through all sorts of jollity but always with the sense of danger right around the corner. After all, a little mischief never hurt anyone, just don’t get caught. The clarinetist in this piece has a challenge, playing extremely high notes, the highest the instrument can make. I ran into a much loved SSU music professor during intermission, and he suggested this piece was specifically chosen for tonight to showcase the acoustics of the hall. I couldn’t agree more. The fast runs in the higher registers translated not into harsh overtones, but velvety notes that were easily followable in the clarity of the space. When the merry prankster does get caught (and executed), the low bass and drum notes were ferocious, vibrating my loose pant legs (or was that just my legs trembling from the tremendous magnitude of unamplified sound?)
The only sound that hasn’t made me gush so far in this hall is the low mid frequency. It can sound a bit muddled, especially with piano. On opening night with superstar Lang Lang at piano, his dexterous Mozart performance was lost a bit in this register, and parts of the SF Symphony performance were not as sonically brilliant in this area during faster sections. It sounds as though this frequency takes longer to develop than others in the hall. But really, this is splitting hairs. It’s not a problem so much as an observation.
Yefim Bronfman’s playing on Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (Emperor) was superb. It was not flashy or self-indulgent but more bold and heroic like the piece itself. Though it did not have the passion one would imagine of Beethoven himself pounding the ivory keys, demanding more from his instrument than ever thought possible, it was not lacking for emotion, either. Whether it was just my ears or the players adjusting to the space, during the first five minutes it felt like the piano was just a hair too soft. But soon after, everything settled in. From then on it was pure ecstasy, like listening to a fabulous recording on the best audio system, but it was real, and it was happening right in front of us. I was reminded of this when, during a quiet moment just before the piano flourish at the end of the final movement, a cell phone, ironically with the “piano” ringtone, went off somewhere in the building. This only made enhanced the experience for me with its reminder that it was taking place in reality.
Also performed this evening was “Pandora,” which the SF Symphony had just performed for the first time the night before. This 20-minute piece for strings written by SF Symphony assistant concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert in 2010 again showcased the heavenly acoustics of the main hall with several solos and double basses playing extended low notes, vibrating the floor in some cases. It is a 21st century work, to be sure, but it is more accessible than some newer pieces. It’s a story piece with a concrete narrative following the Greek myth of Pandora, and can be followed without too much confusion and with beautiful imagery. Volkert was in the audience and came up from his seat to shake hands with MTT after the piece. Both looked quite pleased with the result.
The sad truth of a generation hooked on mp3s is they will rarely experience a full acoustic experience in music. Earbuds are a terrible listening device, reproducing, at best, about two-thirds of the human hearing spectrum. The best mp3 is 25 percent of the data of a full recording compressed into the middle of the frequency spectrum where our ears are tuned to listen more easily. Without getting too technical, let’s just say the sound is flat and lifeless. The main hall at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center is the anti-mp3. It is pure sonic expression, giving music a forum to be heard as it was intended by its creator and perhaps even enhancing it through the warmth of the acoustic environment. Though their home, Davies’ Symphony Hall in San Francisco, is stunning in its own right, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the SF Symphony prefer playing in Weill Hall. This was the first of four SF Symphony performances at the Green Music Center for its 2012-2013 season, and hopefully next season features even more.
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!
Cut Your Hair
Zurich Is Stained
Rattled by the Rush
Date w/ Ikea
Spit on a Stranger
Elevate Me Later
In the Mouth a Desert
Starlings of the Slipstream
1. If Beyoncé were placed inside a time capsule and sent into space, aliens would immediately decide to become friends with Earthlings.
2. Every outfit Beyoncé wore last night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland showed off her legs.
3. Three cheers to the cameraman for putting a feverishly hugging gay couple on the jumbotron during “If I Was a Boy.”
4. Beyoncé is like every pop superstar before her wrapped up in one but without the narcissism. “Ave Maria” was pure Streisand, leather beefcake dancers pure Madonna, ever-increasingly noticeable doses of Michael throughout.
5. Beyoncé now has the most touching tribute to Michael Jackson yet. End of the show, during “Halo,” a canned but nonetheless incredibly moving speech about how he showed her the way—preceded by a video of her when she was a child, emulating his moves, and concluded with altered lyrics about his lasting influence. It beats any other token tribute I’ve seen.
6. Mid-show: bass solo, behind the head, to “Billie Jean.” Beyoncé’s band is all-female, a fact she has every right to point out three or four times throughout the show.
7. Sorry, took a break there. Did I mention Beyoncé is our Earth’s ambassador to space?
8. The feminism of Beyoncé is what the Spice Girls always promised but never delivered: the “Be sexy, but own it, be in control of yourselves and support each other” feminism. Snippets of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Alanis Morisette’s’ “You Oughta Know” proved she knows her Lilith Fair history, but she makes being a strong woman seem way more exciting than the Lilith Fair ever did. (My heart will actually stop if Beyoncé adds “Double Dare Ya” to her set on this tour.)
9. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism also leaves little room for women who don’t look like Beyoncé, so the point might be moot.
10. People-watching prize: the group of middle-aged women wearing matching custom T-shirts, reading “Fun and 50.”
11. I did not text my special message to the jumbotron before the show, but the girl who told the entire arena she was going to lose her virginity after the show definitely did.
12. There’s a go-to look of wonder that Beyoncé splashes across her face at a moment’s notice, like she’s seeing God or something. Most of the time, I believe her.
13. Okay, okay—walking down the aisle, singing directly to her fans. Oh shit, singing directly to a small child! Holding his hand, looking right into his eyes, singing straight to him—and the kid looks bored, like he’s in math class. 20,000 lbs. of envy in the room.
14. The only thing more exciting than “Crazy in Love” is taking a bathroom break and seeing the Giants’ no-hitter up on the lobby screen. SO CONFLICTED.
15. Scratch everything I’ve just said. The most important thing about Beyoncé is that she resurrects the pop music ideal of mass emotional oneness: everyone feeling like everyone else feels exactly the way they do at that precise moment. This is actually her greatest tribute to Michael Jackson, whether she knows it or not. Evidence during last night’s show included a YouTube collage of “Single Ladies” dances (Hey, we all did that!), footage of the Obamas dancing at the Neighborhood Ball, during “At Last” (Hey, we all watched that!) and allowing the entire crowd to sing “Irreplaceable”’s first verse and chorus (Hey, we’re all doing this, right now, here, together!). Michael had that effect in droves across the world; no one besides Beyoncé has had it to such a degree since.
16. (Side note: “Minute” does not rhyme with “minute.”)
17. Those in the $500 front-row “diva zone” seats were deservedly doted upon, with multiple sweat-towels thrown, hands touched repeatedly, and one guy from Hawaii with a sign that said “It’s My Birthday” who got “Happy Birthday” sung to him. We’d joked about the people who paid $500 for seats, but damn.
18. Second stage, in the middle of the floor, about 25’x25’. Crazy-intimate. Everyone standing on chairs, crowding in tight, taking videophone footage, especially during “Video Phone.” Beyoncé crouching down, talking to fans, reaching out, “seeing God” wonder-face in abundance, genuine gratitude, asking people to say her name. People 100 ft. away in “diva zone” bummed.
19. “She’s sexy, but she’s sexy like a man,” says Liz.
20. End of show, after child-serenading, after Michael tribute, after walking through the crowd flanked by security, after outpouring of love in both directions, the phrase “I Am…” flashes on the screen. “I Am.” Surely, “Sasha Fierce.” No? “I Am…” “YOURS.” “I am yours,” Beyoncé says. “I will give you 100% of everything I have.” Unfuckwithable, because even though in reality Beyoncé’s one of the most private celebrities in the world, she’s just created a sociological time-emotion-music-love vortex in Oakland. How is it possible, night after night? With absolutely pitch-perfect, non-lip-synched singing? Is she even from this planet? Someone please explain.
Of all the ways to shoot down a heckler, Bettye Lavette has the most effective method by far.
During Lavette’s heart-stopping, unfathomably brilliant performance Friday night at the Independent in San Francisco, after the same fan had three times been denied the same request for the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” she strutted right up to the gentleman, demanded “What did I tell you?!,” and planted a big kiss right on his lips.
The guy didn’t shout anything for the rest of the set—or, if he did, he was drowned out by the chorus of cheers that followed every song, every story, every single outpouring of emotion uprising from every cell and molecule in the depths of Lavette’s body and up to her throat and out of her mouth.
Lavette’s story by now is one all to familiar, even if her music is not: supremely talented singer eludes solid footing at record labels and languishes in obscurity until rediscovered decades later and, at least in Lavette’s case, sings Sam Cooke songs for Barack Obama. During a medley of early hits on Friday, Lavette ran down a quick biography by year: “By 1963 I thought I had grown,” she said, introducing “You’ll Never Change.” “I thought I was a star. I made this record, an’ boyfriend”—putting her hand on the shoulders of a man in the front row and staring him straight in the eyes—“it did not sell one copy. But I made it, I liked it, and I’m gonna sing it for you.”
Or, leading into her career-defining hit “Let Me Down Easy”: “This is the single recording that has literally kept me alive. When there was still black radio, this was number one in San Francisco,” she said to the blue-eyed crowd, “and I’d like to introduce it to the rest of you.”
And yet a good story alone does not a stellar performance guarantee. What sealed the night as Lavette’s—and not Booker T.’s, the headliner—was the constant intensity of her presence. During the third number, a beautiful, achingly pleading version of Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up My Pieces,” the sold-out club was pure silence, save for the whirring of the drummer’s electric fan. During “Souvenirs,” the John Prine song that she credited Village Music’s John Goddard for introducing to her, she sat on the floor of the stage, sometimes singing off-mic and holding the audience rapt.
And yet Lavette wasn’t all poignancy and heartache. In high-heel stilettos, she stomped, kicked, danced and jumped across the stage, delivering hip bumps on the beat and grinding away with guitar solos. By the end of the set, after leaving the stage, the applause was so strong that the soundman turned down the house music, Lavette came back out on stage, and she stood there awestruck, genuinely grateful for the turn in her career and the chance to sing again for a receptive audience.
And then, Bettye Lavette clutched the microphone and alone, sang an unaccompanied acapella of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” She dominated the song, set the microphone down, waved, and left the place in disbelief.
Booker T. didn’t have a chance.
Take Me Like I Am
Pick Up My Pieces
It Ain’t Easy
How Am I Different
I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now
You Don’t Know Me At All
Right In The Middle
Before the Money Came
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Lil’ Wayne, the sandpaper-throated New Orleans rapper with the top-selling album of 2008, attracts one hell of a draped-up, chipped-out crowd. Attendees to the sold-out show filed into the Oakland Arena through metal detectors, and you never saw so many plastic baskets filled with expensive watches and rhinestone belt buckles in your life. It was like Oakland’s own regal Prom Dance, with even higher prices: Parking was $25, beers were $12, and hoodies were $60.
Not everyone was dressed to the nines, I soon found out, as one of the first groups of people I ran into inside were a staggering group of drunk blonde girls, one with her silver miniskirt sloppily bunched up entirely around her waist, weaving her hootin’ and hollerin’ way down to their seats to see the Gym Class Heroes. The Gym Class Heroes, I might add, were the worst pile of shit in the land.
Keyshia Cole was completely goddamn dominating, just a nonstop firestorm of talent and amazement. I saw her last year, before she got her teeth fixed, and though I liked the gap in her teeth I’ll accept the dental work as a metaphor for her whole career right now. Her albums have become more commercial since her amazing first record, They Way It Is, but damn if she hasn’t stepped up her live show. Twelve months ago, opening for R. Kelly, she was all energy and empty hyperactivity; last night she retained the energy and tempered it with elegance and grace, like fine cocaine.
Keyshia Cole is from Alameda originally, and the Bay Area love was definitely in the house. If you ever in your life pine for the sound of 20,000 girls screaming their lungs out at the highest available volume, go to a Keyshia Cole show and wait for the opening chords to “Love.” Cole is my Queen of R&B right now, the new Mary J. Blige, and that’s conceding that she didn’t even do “I Should Have Cheated.” Apparently she has a reality show. I’m scared to watch it.
From the onset, T-Pain slouched at the front of his stage bedecked in his trademark top hat, and shoved his hands in his pockets, looking bored with himself.
T-Pain had breakdancing midgets dressed in whiteface and camoflauge. He has three tents, one of them inflated to 20 feet tall, with his name and likeness at the top. He had a woman in daisy dukes and a bikini top walking on stilts. He had a blonde tattooed midget gyrating around the stage in her bra and panties. He had a fire swallower with flaming pastied nipples. He had a calliope, a bazooka, a vaudeville wagon, an elephant stand, and a backup yes-man in Marilyn Manson makeup who lip-synched along to T-Pain’s hits while T-Pain moonwalked, badly, across the stage.
“I got one word for you…” said T-Pain’s DJ, early on in the set: “Bay Area!!!”
Almost every song T-Pain played was a hit, and almost every song T-Pain played was chopped off by the incessant thundercrash from his DJ. He was very comfortable with the fact that the audience knew all his songs, and turned the singing duties over to them much of the time, not even bothering to hold the mic out to the crowd. While they sang his hits, his prerecorded vocals continued to play in the background.
There were significant moments in Lil’ Wayne’s set where there was absolutely no applause after his songs. Just empty silence. There were other moments that elicited frenzied anarchy, as when he took off his shirt. His vocals, already quiet and growly, were drowned out by his rock band, who hung from large cages and who served for the most part to uselessly thicken up his pared-down hip-hop into heavy metal jams.
“Dere’s three important things I gotta say,” announced Lil’ Wayne. “One: I believe in God, do you? An’ two: I ain’t shit wit out you, so make some noise. An’ three: I ain’t shit wit out you!”
T-Pain, riding circles around Lil’ Wayne on a Segway, argued about who had done more guest verses on songs by other artists this year. They decided to perform some of these songs, an experiment which if comprehensive could have gone on for approximately 83 hours, 31 minutes. The DJ played “Swagga Like Us,” but Lil’ Wayne cut it off, saying that he didn’t remember his own verse. This happens when you have 1,000 songs and are blasted on drugs most of the time.
“Y’all got the mixtapes?” Lil’ Wayne shouted, hypothetically, since his mixtapes have replaced albums as the listening format of choice for his fans; he did “I’m Me” and “Prostitute,” during which he sat holding a green electric guitar that he did not play. He then turned the stage over to a string of unknown friends to bore the crowd while he went backstage to get dressed for “Lollipop.”
Near the end of the set, Lil’ Wayne’s laptop DJ killed ten minutes by cuing up other people’s songs—“Single Ladies,” “Peter Piper”—while Wayne was nowhere to be seen. When he reemerged, he dissolved into a spiritual communion with stained-glass windows on the jumbotrons, spending an entire song on a spinning platform out of view of the audience. He bid farewell, the music ended, and the crowd was expected to applaud. No one did.
He popped back onto the stage to sing “A Milli,” its minimalist brilliance abandoned in favor of a heavy-metal wankfest, and left the Oakland Arena with a James Brown cape act and a run-through of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
And that’s the top-selling artist of the year. I was blown away when I heard “A Milli,” into the mixtapes, kinda underwhelmed by Tha Carter III, and after last night I don’t think Lil’ Wayne has the stamina to live up to his reputation. He’s got flashes of lyrical gold, oozes style and is a born ruler of the game; my guess is he’s toast in 2009. Riding out a tidal wave can be an art in itself, especially when you start counting up the $110 tickets head by head, and you realize that it is generating more motherfucking money than you or I could ever imagine. The tide can only go out from here.