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.
“This part almost sounds like the Cure.” “I love watching drummers.” “My friend flew here from Minnnesota to come to this show. It’s his 40th Birthday.” “The last time I came here, it was to see the MC5.”
These are things that may sound commonplace, except that they were spoken into my ear last night by Sari Bacilla. I know her name has been Sari Flowers for years now, but I can’t help it. Among the most unchanged people I know, she is still, to me, the girl from Sebastopol who works at the downtown gas station—even though she’s a mom from San Leandro who’s married and has a 14-year-old daughter.
I was unaware Sari loved the Wedding Present. She says she discovered Seamonsters first, then backpedaled to Bizarro, which the Wedding was Presenting in its entirety. She says Bizarro is the record that inspired her to buy a drum set and try to learn. She didn’t learn, or at least very well. Drums are hard.
Bizarro is the record my friend Dan and I would listen to late at night, drinking Robotussin. One night, when the excitement of “Brassneck” wore off, I traded it to Matt Carrillo for a beer and forgot about it. Until finding it on cassette a few years ago. Twenty years later. With a whole new meaning and sense.
Bizarro is a record about betrayal, about kiss-offs, about demanding to know what went wrong, and every third song or so ends with a long, extended three-chord guitar vamp. Sometimes I hear these vamps as illustrating the repetitive motion and slow passage of time in the aftermath of a breakup. Moreso lately, though, I hear them as a triumph of the narrator, the incessant music of a cathartic joyride out on the town while looking for new opportunities.
No vamp is as long or as joyful as the end of “Take Me,” and I defend its core of contentment by the next, and last, song on Bizarro: “Be Honest,” a short afterthought that isn’t burdened by complications. “If we’re really, really going to be honest,” sings Gedge, “we might as well be brief.” After the ten-minute opus prior, “Be Honest” is a succinct two minutes that smoothly ends the album.
Here’s the best part. Last night, during all these songs about betrayal and disloyalty, Sari kept leaning over and saying things in my ear. Things that sounded exactly like the old Sari, or rather the Sari she’s always been, which is the great and wonderful Sari. David Gedge stood on stage, pleading to know how people could change. I considered myself lucky to know a few who haven’t.
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.
Dirty Projectors are a band from Brooklyn who’ve just released Bitte Orca, a highly rewarding and stylized piece of music that’s one of my favorite records right now, and unlike anything else I’ve heard—with the exception of other records by Dirty Projectors.
Rise Above, the band’s previous release, came promoted with a high-concept backstory, a fact I only lately discovered but to which I pay little heed. I became enamored with it not for any ostentatious artistic process (apparently, re-creating Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory) but for the highly unusual end result. After all, until that point, I had never heard a man desperately yowling about being beaten by police officers over Ali Farka Toure riffs while a chorus of girls sang timidly in the background.
A friend of mine recently remarked that Bitte Orca is “everything I wanted all the other Dirty Projectors’ stuff to sound like in my head,” and I know what he means. Sharper songwriting and structure are only two of the reasons I replayed Bitte Orca three times in a row when I first got it; it also has a needed variety, with backup singers Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian taking lead vocals on a handful of tracks with a gut-hitting sonic depth. (Suddenly, for example, you can hear the bass guitar.)
Recalling Talking Heads’ meteoric public impact, opinions on Dirty Projectors are extreme and disparate. So it’s no wonder that David Byrne is a fan, even appearing with the band at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, or that Bjork, who joined them at Housing Works Bookstore Café in downtown Manhattan the same week, shares the fascination. Even the freeway gods have gotten involved—last month, the band’s tour van flipped over on the freeway outside Detroit—and a long line of people down Divisadero outside the Independent in San Francisco tonight hoping for last-minute tickets represented locally the worldwide craze for the Weird Little Band From Brooklyn That Could. I truly had no idea what to expect live. Are the girls on the record cover even in the band?
Longstreth and Deradoorian took the stage opening the show with “Two Doves,” a lovely ballad, before the full band came out for Orca opener “Cannibal Resource.” Yes, the girls on the record cover are in the band, and a third helped out with harmonies like pitter-pat hailstorms (“Remade Horizon“) or R&B jams (“Stillness is the Move“). Tight and polished from constant touring, the band was locked in and fluid. Liveliness is an asset; Longstreth, who plays his guitar backwards, left-handed and with no pick, doppelganged a hulking presence around the stage on the balls of his feet, and basically said nothing to the crowd other then a rote “Hey, how ya doin’? Awesome.”
The crowd stayed silent, adding to the weirdness, but probably they were just asking themselves: Is “Stillness is the Move” the motherfucking jam of the summer? Why do guitar players need to play with huge amps when tiny Fender practice amps get the job done? Do drummers ever worry about “the Battles effect” when they place their crash cymbals up high? Is the Salt Lake City look the new thing? What’s with people who buy New Age CDs when they could simply listen to “Rise Above” over and over for enlightenment? Remember that one girl? The one who always tucked her shirt in the back of her high-rise jeans but not the front? Whatever happened to her?
Here’s what happened to me: I played Bitte Orca so many times in the last couple weeks that the songs began to sound normal; I’d anticipate all the quirks and idiosyncracies of the songs, like a roller coaster I’d been on twenty times. But seeing the songs played live made them wonderfully mysterious and bizarre all over again—mystery that you can dance to, I might add. So bring on the fans. Here’s to Dirty Projectors’ flight out of their artistic nest and into the real world; especially since their world still contains Gary Moore and the Andrews Sisters.
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