A favorite pastime firmly rooted in the modern day has become looking over people’s shoulders at shows while they compose texts-in-progress. At last night’s Mos Def show in San Francisco, dude next to me gets another one of many Facebook updates throughout the night on his iPhone: “So-and-So commented on your status: ‘You’re updating your status more than you’re watching the show.’”
His response, thumbs twitching with Mos Def less than 10 feet away: “I’m pissed and he’s boring.”
Indeed, the crowd last night was subdued to Ritalin-like extremes while Mos Def pulled almost exclusively from his new record, The Ecstatic. And in a way, that album’s version of Hip Hop 2.0 isn’t entirely conducive to losing your shit. Like other off-kilter artists—Georgia Anne Mudrow, Shafiq Husayn, Declaime, Erykah Badu’s recent material—Mos Def is riding a weird phase where driving boom-bap beats have given way to implied rhythm. At one point last night he told people to stop clapping, which says a lot about where he’s at. He also stopped the show early on to ask the sound man for “some of that psychedelic sound” on his red bullet mic. The relatively low volume of the Independent’s sound system magnified it: this was not music for getting down to.
And people weren’t having it. Requests for “Definition,” “Respiration” and “Ms. Fat Booty” were met by Mos Def with a shit-I’ve-heard-this-so-many-time look and a schooling. “Stop doing that. That never works,” he said. “No one ever does the song you yell for. I create the magic of rock. You enjoy it.”
What people got instead was, to my mind, a really good look at an artist who’s trying, despite his fans’ reluctance, to stretch hip-hop into unchartered territory. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just rock. It’s a weird world of Mos Def’s own making, and which even he might not be comfortable in just yet. But he has his enablers, especially in the form of Jay Electronica, who was billed as an opener but essentially co-headlined. Jay’s famous for releasing 15 minute-long songs with no drums whatsoever and bursting lyrical over looped samples from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has no official album out, just internet mixtapes and a huge buzz.
So Jay Electronica came out and killed—lots of a capella, lots of drumless samples—and for a while there Mos Def spent a good deal of time showering praise on Electronica (“You’re a genius, man”) and criticism on a heckler who kept shouting for “Exhibit B.” (“There is no Exhibit B! Exhibit C is Exhibit B! You’re shouting for something that doesn’t exist!..” ad infinitum.) Jay’s highlight was his one-two of “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C,” and when he left the stage I counted four people around me leaving the show.
At the end of the set, Mos Def finally announced “Okay. And now… for the classics.” But the plural was a cruel tease. “Umi Says,” the most Ecstatic-like track off Black on Both Sides, closed the show. There was a lot of head-scratching out on the sidewalk, but I left feeling like at least someone is trying something new. And I say that as a fan who sold back his copy of The Ecstatic after a week.
Also—and I feel bad mentioning this at the end—the night was a benefit for Haiti, and organizers didn’t skimp on the pressing need for help. Pierre Labosierre of the Haiti Action Committee and Walter Riley of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund both spoke very, very eloquently about the history of Haiti and the truth about the situation on the ground. Freestyle whiz Supernatural did his usual amazing act while dropping “Liberation,” “Unity” and “Hope” into his “Three Words” routine. Mos Def talked about how Haiti’s independence represented the first uprising against slavery in history, and “When they’re suffering, it’s not just Haiti that’s suffering. It’s… it’s…”
“Freedom!” someone yelled.
“Right! Freedom. It’s freedom that’s suffering.”
(“Latinos!” yelled the Exhibit B guy. “I’m not sure what that has to do with what we’re talking about,” Mos Def replied dryly, “but right on.”)
So for real, whatever you think about his new album, or the show, or his direction, you’ve got to admit that the Haiti aspect of the night was a success. At $35 a head I’m sure it sent a lot of much-needed help, plus it did what a benefit should do, by both educating and entertaining the people. That is, if you were actually paying attention and not composing useless passive-aggressive tweets about the drunk girl next to you who kept hitting you with her purse.
I said everything I needed to say regarding the experience of seeing Philip Glass play live in this concert review from the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, in 2007. That said, seeing Philip Glass play the piano is not an opportunity to be missed, because his music is more about how one reacts to it than what it sounds like, which is, pointedly: the same as it always does.
Philip Glass had performed his 3 1/2-hour opus Music In Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall a few nights earlier, so playing a solo piano show for 90 minutes in Napa might not have seemed like a big deal to him. It was a huge deal, however, to the full house on Thursday night, who in the wonderfully intimate theater were treated to Mad Rush, Metamorphoses No. 4, 3 and 2, some Etudes for Piano (even Glass humorously forgot which ones), and Closing, from his Columbia album Glassworks. Some people leaned forward, enraptured. Others either sat politely, or swayed back and forth to the repetitive patterns, or fell asleep. I closed my eyes and got lost in it all, thinking about love, family, and the future.
Margrit Mondavi, whom the Napa Valley Opera House theater is named for, was sitting way up in the balcony, and afterwards, when Glass came out to the lobby to meet his fans, she presented him with a few bottles of wine. Watching Mondavi, who has done so much in support of the arts, share a warm conversation with Glass, who essentially personifies “the arts,” was pretty intense. Glass then took a good half-hour or so to sign autographs, answer questions, and take photos with his fans. Again, this mightn’t have been a big deal to Glass, but everyone was happily surprised that he’d be so accommodating, and it transformed a great concert into a special night.
Let us praise versions of “My Funny Valentine” that don’t make us squirm. Let us praise Lifetime Achievement Awards for those who truly deserve it. Let us praise 90-year-old pianists who continue to paint new scenes on the keys.
Let us praise Hank Jones.
Hank Jones opened a two-night stand at Yoshi’s in San Francisco tonight, and during an hour-and-a-half set displayed no loss of conception, creativity, nimbleness or humor even while entering his ninth decade. He defines the phrase “jazz treasure” without any self-importance. He opened his set with “Happy Birthday,” for cryin’ out loud.
I caught the 10 o’clock set, after impulsively driving down from Santa Rosa at the last minute to buy a single ticket. Jones has been on a lot of albums I adore—Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane, Charlie Haden’s Steal Away, Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, Chris Connor’s My Name is Chris—but it’s a piquant little collection of standards by his Great Jazz Trio that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t out of this world, but it is a basic collection of standards played well. Sometimes that is all that’s needed.
Tonight, Jones offered a similar grace and simplicity. Check the setlist:
Lonely Moments – Mary Lou Williams
Quiet Lady – Thad Jones
Bluesette – Toots Thielmans
My Funny Valentine – Richard Rogers
Rhythm-a-Ning – Thelonious Monk
Blue Minor – Sonny Clark
Stella by Starlight – Victor Young
Six and Four – Oliver Nelson
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
Intimidation – Hank Jones
Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk
Each song followed the basic order. Intro, head, verse, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, head, and out. John Clayton clearly relished playing with a different group (he’s Diana Krall’s right-hand man) and came correct with brilliant bass work that at times even had Jones in awe, while drummer Clayton Cameron danced around the drums with brushes that seemed to sing. Jones phrased skilled solos that could only come from a lifetime of playing combined with an impressively present acumen.
But it was Hank Jones’ humor that took the cake. He drew out the ending to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with three false endings, toying with the crowd, but when the next tune ended abruptly and no one clapped, he looked at the audience, curiously, and laughed, “That’s it.” During the verse of “Blue Monk” he threw in an extra discordant harmony to Monk’s already-discordant arrangement and then looked around as if to apprehend the musical trespasser—inside the piano, underneath the keyboard.
The dude is 90 and he’s still having fun. Thanks, Hank, for still being here.
“One request: ditch the cell phones and digital cameras. If they weren’t here, fuck ‘em.”
Apparently something happened tonight called the Grammy Awards, a bloated, self-congratulatory clusterfuck which, as a music journalist, I should probably attempt to care about. But even if for some sadomasochistic reason or another I followed the Grammys like a hawk, I’d have to opt instead for witnessing an event infinitely more electrifying and significant: Billie Joe Armstrong’s grand return to the stage at 924 Gilman Street.
Gilman in itself holds a big place in my heart; from 1990-1995 I played there, slept there, volunteered there, and went to more shows there than I can count. And of the 20 or so times I saw Green Day—including the time they fulfilled a request to play my own high school in 1991—none was as special as seeing them at Gilman, because it was and still is the most miraculous and amazing club the world has to offer.
Billie Joe, now a decorated Grammy alumnus himself, suffered the psychological blow of not being able to perform again at Gilman—essentially his home and breeding ground for six formative years—when Green Day signed to Warner Bros. in 1993 (the club explicitly bars major-label bands from its lineups). In a number of songs and interviews, he made the scars public; yet skirting back to the venerable warehouse fifteen years later, his less-mentioned but no-less-brilliant “other band” Pinhead Gunpowder was added onto tonight’s hush-hush Sunday evening show. (Judging from the long line that snaked around the block as the doors opened at 5pm, the news that Billie Joe was playing didn’t exactly escape the wildfire of Message Boards and MySpace postings like the organizers hoped.)
Pinhead Gunpowder does not play a lot of shows. In fact, they’ve only played 17 shows in 17 years. And though the band had just finished up a round of Southern California dates the previous week, tonight’s show carried a particular historical weight.
“We’ve played some shows, like down in San Pedro, the kinds of shows I haven’t played in 15 years,” he explained to me, hanging around the side door before the doors opened. “It’s been fuckin’ great. But this place…”—he paused, stared nervously at the club—“I haven’t played here in a long time.”
Playing Gilman again for Billie Joe is probably a lot like getting dumped by an amazing girlfriend, only to have her call up years later out of the blue for a roll in the hay; strange, kind of awesome, and more than slightly nerve-racking. Nearby, some people arrived with video equipment; “What are they filming for?” asked Billie Joe, no doubt concerned that his private communion with Gilman could be turned into a documentary critique.
But if the love showered on him tonight was any barometer, then Billie Joe needn’t have worried. Two girls at the front of the line, who’d arrived at 7:30am, came around the corner and approached him; some gushing-adolescent conversation and a couple of hugs later, the girls ran back to the line shaking, shuddering, and coming precariously close to throwing up in excitement.
And onstage, after setting up his own equipment and adjusting his own mic stand, Billie Joe had the world in his hands, from the opening chords of “Find My Place” to luminous chestnuts like “MPLS Song” and “Losers of the Year.” Not a drop of animosity remained from 1993. Bodies crushed, heaved, and lurched as one in the wonderfully chaotic fray of the crowd, where I and hundreds of others tried to stay on two feet. Gilman staffers on either side of the stage, most of them in grade school when Green Day were banned from Gilman, all sang along.
“Welcome home!” someone yelled.
“Welcome home!” replied Billie Joe, in a sort of gleeful amazement at the phrase, and then began singing, “Welllll-come hoooo-me, wellll-come hoooo-me!”
Obviously enjoying the shit outta the occasion, Billie jumped around like a madman, quoted John Denver and Don McLean lyrics, and slashed away at his black Gretsch guitar. Through “Reach for the Bottle,” “Before the Accident,” and, in a dedication to Pinhead Gunpowder’s old guitarist Mike Kirsch, “Future Daydream,” he couldn’t have appeared more inspired on Gilman’s well-worn stage. Being tangled in the sea of people up front, I swayed and sweat and gasped for air along with every goddamn beautiful moment of it all.
After “Mahogany,” the lights came up, the side door opened, and Billie Joe Armstrong ambled out onto Eighth Street. I caught up with him, steam emanating from his drenched body, in the same spot where beforehand he’d expressed uncertainty.
“That,” he told me, “was great.”
P.S. Pinhead Gunpowder brought out a lot of faces I haven’t seen in a while. Jesse Luscious, Robert Eggplant, Paul Curran and Patrick Hynes: nice seeing you all. You too, Aaron. And massive kudos to the opening band, Zomo, who were almost as great as the headliner.
I walked into Amoeba a full hour before Vampire Weekend’s scheduled set on Friday night, only to see the first two aisles in front of the stage already filled with diehards waiting for their chance to watch, up close and personal, one of the suavest new bands of 2008.
The indie rock cognoscenti have been burbling about Vampire Weekend for months now, with descriptors like “Ivy-League Death Pop Woven With African Filament”—I mean, how can you resist?—and yet for Friday night’s hugely high-school-aged audience (ponytails, braces, and zits in abundance), it was all about the here and now. The band’s debut album, Vampire Weekend, just released, the 18+ show the night before at Popscene an unattainable dream, and twittering throng waiting anxiously between Amoeba’s Gospel and Rockabilly sections.
The rest of the store filled fast, with unknowing customers humorously caught off-guard by the commotion, and then, the big moment: in casual Harvard fashion, the band ambled out onto the stage and started their set with the first song from their album, a catchy two-minute blast called “Mansard Roof,” nailing all the high vocals, syncopated rhythms, and jaunty melodies.
After the second song, “Campus,” singer / guitarist Ezra Koenig acknowledged San Francisco—“It’s one of our very favorite cities, and we don’t just say that everywhere,” he commented, adding wryly, “Sometimes it’s very obvious that it’s not our favorite city.”
Vampire Weekend’s songs are what people call deceptively simple—both “Mansard Roof” and “Campus,” for example, rely on just a basic major scale for a riff—but the band kneads enough bizarre influences into the dough that listening to them is like deciphering a Rosetta Stone of music, from Sting to Sister Carol to Schubert to a healthy dose of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Live, the band rocks harder sans the string quartet on record, and, dispensing with collegiate reticence, Koenig passionately emphasized lines like “do you want to fuck?” from the South African-flavored “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” In the aisles, the kids ate it up.
After “I Stand Corrected,” “A-Punk,” and “Oxford Comma,” it was all over, truncating their already-short album (it’s a refreshing 34 minutes long) into just a six-song set. For a tiny short while, the innocence of pop music and the excitement of a great new band with oodles of potential lay bare in front of a crowd of fervent admirers, and on a cold, drizzling night in San Francisco, well, it’s hard to ask for more.