BottleRock is here. And we can only hope it returns.
Arriving late on Friday, I caught the last half of Andrew Bird’s set. I’ve always thought he would be better in a concert hall than a festival, and I still think that. He was good, but there’s something about the violin and looper pedal that runs counter to the spirit of a big rock show. On the next stage, the Shins, who were rumored to have played a warm-up show the night before at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma to about 15 people, were tight and professional. They’re about as surgically precise as a band can be, sounding just like the record. Almost too perfect, but very good. At the same time, Blues Traveler started tearing into their set. I caught “Run Around” and stayed for a couple songs because, damn, that John Popper can blow! I haven’t heard if he and Charlie Musslewhite, who is also playing the festival, are doing or have done a harmonica duet. I don’t know if the world could handle it.The set up was similar to Outside Lands, but without the one-mile trek between stages. This meant that no matter where you stood, there was music playing. Not that lines were a big problem (the longest I waited for anything was about 10 minutes), but it would suck to know you’re missing the main reason for the $130 ticket because there is not an adequate number of beer stations. The addition of comedy to the festival was tough, making yet another thing to choose from to watch in addition to the great bands. But the comedy headliner each night (last night was Jim Bruer) started at 10:15, just after the last band. Not sure if that meant more or people would stick around because the rock show was over. But there were lines for each of the other comedians throughout the day.
Before the Flaming Lips took the stage (they were the last act of the second stage), it was time to refuel. There was festival food, but this being Napa, there was so much more. Cochon Volant BBQ actually ran out of buns for its pork sandwich, but the line did not diminish upon this announcement. They served instead a plate of just meat and coleslaw, which was incredible. The deep smoke flavor went nicely with a Sierra Nevada fresh-hop Harvest brew, another culinary upgrade from usual festival fare. Tons of restaurants, including Morimoto (of Iron Chef fame), were dishing up fancy foods. And with what seemed like hundreds of wineries on hand with popup tents and tasting lounges, it felt like a good representation of the California culinary scene. Imagine coming from Philadelphia or New Mexico to a festival that not only cares about food but almost worships it like a groupie does a rock band. It made for a good vibe.
Scarfing down my pork and ‘slaw, I got pretty much front-and-center to see the Flaming Lips. I’d seen them at Treasure Island a few years ago as the headlining act, and they raised the bar for me for festival acts. Frontman Wayne Coyne and company did not disappoint. In fact, they raised the bar yet again. Wayne, in a blue polyester suit, stood atop his lumpy, space-age, shiny bubble pulpit with a baby doll in the crook of his arm, cooing an playing with it while the band rocked around him. I’m glad he didn’t do anything crazy like throw it into the audience or rip its arm off or something. It gave that baby a symbolism it would have otherwise not held. The stage faced the setting sun, meaning the band got to watch a beautiful Napa sunset while the crowd didn’t have to squint at sun spots (good planning, BottleRock!). Coyne remarked how beautiful it was, and said how cool it would be if the sun set and then rose again immediately after (this ain’t Alaska, Wayne). He also praised the festival and thanked “whoever got us to play here” because it was a good thing to be a part of. As it got darker, the light show became more pronounced. Lasers, smoke, a truss of lights that moved down from the sky to just above Coyne’s head and shot strobe lights and huge flood lights across the crowd. Being directly in the center, I was blown away. You’ve seen people put hands on their head in that oh-my-god-what-am-I-even-seeing-right-now move of disbelief? That was me several times during this performance. Luckily, there are photos to help explain, because words are hard sometimes. The Flaming Lips received a well-deserved ovation, prompting a real encore (the lights had even come back on already). All this while the headliners, the Black Keys were about half an hour into their set already. People stayed for the Flaming Lips encore, and almost demanded a second encore.The Black Keys were good. Even had a full band for the second half of their set. But if someone could explain why this is the end-all-be-all of bands right now, I’d love to listen. They rock, yeah, I dig that. But Blues Traveler rocks, too, though I suppose they had their time in the sun as well. Leaving the festival was relatively uncomplicated. There were plenty of volunteers directing the masses to the shuttle locations, and five shuttles filled and left at one time, so there wasn’t much of a wait. Upon arriving at the, ahem, parking lot, it was a different story. I hope everyone loaded their car’s location into Google Maps as a “favorite location,” because with no lights whatsoever and no volunteers directing the crowd, finding your car out of 10,000 in five separate lots would be tough. I parked at the back of a lot, and was really hoping I remembered correctly which one because it’s a 15-minute walk back to the dropoff point, and who knows how long from there to the other lots. I was right, and left with little delay.
One more point is the sound. It was excellent, but could have been a little louder on the main stage, especially for the Black Keys. Maybe this was a city ordinance thing, but it’s a rock show. Give it some gas!
EUROPA HOTEL, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
MARCH 16, 2013
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Europa Hotel. Tonight, this is the best place in the world to be.”
Truer words were never spoken. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I discovered Van Morrison would be playing a) during my trip to Ireland, b) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, c) in his hometown of Belfast, d) in a tiny 250-seat venue and e) that I was able to get a ticket. Granted, it was £140, but seriously, was there ever a question?
It was an eclectic crowd, pretty much the norm for a Van show. Some were dressed to the nines to honor the occasion, some looked to have paid nine dollars for their duds. My hopes, though, were that they were all actual fans who would appreciate the event properly, not just there to be part of something. I guessed that I might be the only single at my table, but my seatmate was Alan, who had flown over from Denmark for his first Van concert, a definite fan. I thought perhaps I’d traveled the furthest, from Northern California, but apparently there was someone there from Australia. More fans, a good sign.
Shana Morrison was there to help out pop and she “opened” the show with an abridged version of the band, doing three quick numbers, including “And It Stoned Me” and a kickass “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” With barely a break, the rest of the band was onstage and broke into the intro for “Only A Dream.” With a simple “Van Morrison” from one of the band, the man appeared—and magic happened.
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.
Seemingly correlated, it twists the mind around trying to decipher the meaning. On the surface, it seems to work. The sound of it is somewhat familiar, yet unusual enough at the same time to remember distinctly. Listen enough and it will create a wonder aural illusion, like a Magic Eye stereogram for the ears. “Oh, it’s a sailboat!” This successfully describes both the term Heatwarmer and the sound of the Seattle-based jazz fusion band.
Led by vocalist and electric bass player Luke Bergman, the group also features a drummer, guitarist and not one, but two synthesizeristas, one who also plays the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) and one who can flip his hair and make it look perfect. Every. Single. Time. The songs are eclectic but very listenable, like a blend of Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder. Well, not exactly, but sorta. Ya know?
No, you can’t know unless you listen to them. I’ll save the clever adjectives and music critic comparisons for something describable. For now, just enjoy:
Their new album is reportedly finished, awaiting the “final touches” as Bergman put it. They played only one song off their first album last night, “Weird Shower.” You know when a band plays there new stuff, and nobody is really into it because they just want to hear the songs they know and love already, even if the new stuff is even better? This did not happen to Heatwarmer. Jaws dropped, cheers were hollered and people danced. “What am I even seeing right now!?” was uttered more than once.
A review of a 2009 performance by Heatwarmer concluded with Gabe Meline waiting for the initial weirdness to settle down to determine if this was “good” or “bad,” and he rightfully concludes that if there’s even a moment of confusion to determine something that simple then it’s automatically in the “good” category.
For a few seconds after Jeff Mangum walked out of the wings at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Monday night, there was only one prevailing collective thought. “Holy shit, he’s real,” said almost everybody to themselves. For a certain fraction of the sold-out crowd, that moment could have begun and ended the show. We were, after all, paying to see the most mythical figure in music since, I don’t know—Syd Barrett?
Mangum’s story is so compelling, and his In the Aeroplane Over the Sea filled with such brilliance, that when he disappeared it truly felt like a betrayal. How could he give the world this work of beauty and then retreat? What if he never wrote another song again, ever? Just where is he, anyway?
So in the short time it took Mangum to walk to his chair at the center of the stage, pick up a guitar and start strumming “Two Headed Boy, Pt. II,” the theater was already fully satisfied: There he is, hallelujah. Naturally, it just got better from there. No longtime Neutral Milk Hotel fan could have possibly left the Fox Theater disappointed. Mangum’s voice, penetrating as ever, filled the large theater like xenon, and I was relieved to find that it hasn’t changed one iota in the last 13 years. Still a reedy, forceful instrument unto itself, and still capable of hitting high notes, like the climaxes on “Oh Comely.”
I was also worried that the crowd would be so overcome they’d sing along to every word, and even though it happened, it wasn’t irritating. Mangum himself encouraged it, especially on the iconic “King of Carrot Flowers” and encore “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He spoke little between songs, and what he said was muttered and hard to hear. It was really, really fantastic to hear Mangum introduce “True Love Will Find You In the End,” by Daniel Johnston, and I heard that the next night, during Tuesday’s show, he dedicated a song to the Thinkin’ Fellers Union Local 282, which, wow.
People hung on his every word, of course, and being revered has its privileges. When, at the start of the set, Mangum asked someone to stop filming, they instantly complied. In fact, in my section of the theater, it seemed like everyone got the memo. Barely anyone had their phones up in the air. And other than singing along, no one made a sound while Mangum unfurled brilliant song after brilliant song: “Holland, 1945,” “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy,” which ended right on the beat with a familiar drum-and-tambourine cadence emanating from backstage, and guest horn players Scott Spillane, Laura Carter and Andrew Reiger waltzed out to a perfect reprise arrangement of “The Fool.” The place went nuts.
At the end of the night, when Mangum walked off the stage after his encores, after the house lights came up and music started playing over the P.A., I saw something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in all the shows I’ve seen. The wildly cheering audience would simply not give up. They kept clapping. They kept screaming. It got louder, and louder. This went on for a long time. Come back, Jeff Mangum, come back, the roar said. Don’t go away again. Come back, come back. Louder, and louder, and louder.
And then the lights went back down.
Mangum came out one last time, and played “Engine,” a b-side. A thrilling end to a special evening.
1. Somewhere I still have emails between Mac and Laura and myself about publishing for “Two-Headed Boy.” (It was 2003, and we wanted to release a cover of it.) And in one email Laura says “Is this something we should get in touch with Jeff about?” and I was like NO WAY HE EXISTS.
2. No new original songs were played. Mangum’s been honest about his chances of writing a new record: “Sometimes I kind of doubt it,” he’s said. Without new material, it’s questionable how long he can stay satisfied playing the same old songs, and based on his demeanor I get the impression these shows he’s playing might be rare.
3. We were talking on the way back to the car about Aeroplane and its place. “It’s like the Blonde on Blonde of our day or something,” I theorized, but Hoyt one-upped me: “No, no. Forever Changes. It has horns.”
4. The show helped heal over a decade of regret: I actually had the chance to buy tickets to see Neutral Milk Hotel at the Bottom of the Hill in 1998. I hated the Jesus Christ line. So I didn’t.
5. Here’s the setlist:
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
True Love Will Find You in the End
Song Against Sex
Ferris Wheel on Fire
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
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.
“Howdy,” said Gillian Welch, on stage at the Warfield.
It was after the first song of the set, “Scarlet Town,” which is also the first song on Welch’s new album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Welch and her partner David Rawlings were already tuning. Welch was making small talk; “Howdy” is just the normal, traditional thing for a girl who plays in a dress and cowboy boots to say.
But Welch kept talking. “Someone gave me shit the other day for saying ‘Howdy,’” she added. “What the fuck?!”
She plastered on her best glazed-over Michele Bachmann look and waved an exaggerated, role-playing wave.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” she intoned, and kept up the sarcasm: “That’s more colorful.”
It was a moment that underlined Welch’s individuality perfectly. You’d never hear Alison Krauss start her show with the same banter, just like you’d never come across anyone else capable of crafting songs like “Time (The Revelator),” “I Dream a Highway” or “Everything is Free.”
Yes, all of those songs are from the same album, which was released ten years ago: Time (The Revelator), a completely flawless record that, even had it not been released in the great O Brother bluegrass frenzy of 2001, would still be widely recognized as a masterwork. Much of the album’s strength lies in its variety. It contains the Roy Orbison-like compactness of “Dear Someone”; the Steve Miller quote in “My First Lover”; the dueling death ballads “April the 14th, Part I” and “Ruiniation Day, Part II”; and “Elvis Presley Blues,” which is not a blues song.
At the Warfield, Welch played four songs from Time (The Revelator), but mostly the set culled from her newest record. Unfortunately, The Harrow and the Harvest falls back on recycling folk idioms rather than creating new forms, as Welch has proved herself more than capable of doing. Only briefly is it touched with the same presence from her two previous records—on the second and third songs, “Dark Turn of Mind” and “The Way it Will Be.” The rest sounds like Welch had writer’s block for eight years and got tired of everyone asking her where her new album was and decided, the hell with it, I’ll just let those ten years of playing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival work their influence and bang out some traditional songs that sound like everyone else, using my expansive knowledge of Southern lyrical themes to twist slightly, ’cause that’s what folk music has always done anyway, right? I’ll even throw in a hambone for Doc Watson’s sake.
This sounds harsh, and maybe it is. Except it’s also exactly what Welch herself is admitting to people in interviews. She’s just not being critical of herself for it, and why should she? That’s not her job, and taken out of context from the rest of her work, The Harrow and the Harvest is a perfectly respectable record. Gillian’s singing has always been amazing with Rawlings’, and Rawlings’ guitar playing is the stuff Sunday worship is made of. But the record is missing that songwriting je ne sais quoi, where the Gods hand down a song and say, “It’s yours now,” and it’s like the song wasn’t written with effort so much as delivered with the artist as a conduit for something greater.
Luckily, on stage, even if they were forced to play the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, Welch and Rawlings possess a cosmic togetherness. So it was easy to forget the debt owed to early Appalachian folk songs, even as Welch sang about hard times and drinking whiskey when she’s dry and standing in the backdoor crying and being down along the Dixie line. Of all the descriptors of their stage presence, “alchemy” is the most fitting. You could throw in “ESP,” “galaxian-like prowess” and “unfuckwithable” if you wanted, too.
For some of the songs being played live for the first time ever—the Warfield show kicked off her tour—they already sounded completely polished. Welch played two songs from Soul Journey, “Look at Miss Ohio” and “No One Knows My Name,” and her cover choice reflected a traditional bent, too: “I’ll Fly Away,” popularized from the O Brother soundtrack. (This is probably her best cover ever.) She joked that she’d been to the Warfield a bunch but had never been on stage, and when an audience member asked who she saw, she listed off Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia’s acoustic shows, and the Pixies.
And even though almost none of those influences played out on stage, a Gillian Welch show is always a special thing. When the two-hour night closed after two encores with “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends”—the last song, too, from The Harrow and the Harvest—it was pretty evident that no one in the theater wanted the show to stop.
She’s the voice of a thousand dentist’s offices, the definition of “adult contemporary” and possibly the furthest thing from jazz that’s ever headlined the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival.
Nevertheless, Sheryl Crow, toting a new soul-tinged album, 100 Miles From Memphis, could easily have been poised last night to win over a new crowd. She hired the tremendous guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for her touring band. In interviews, she spoke of influences like Curtis Mayfield, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Her show was even sponsored not by the local adult contemporary station 100.1-FM KZST, who have played Crow’s innocuous hit songs every day for ten years, but by the Americana station 95.9-FM KRSH.
But Sheryl Crow is no Aretha. In a set frontloaded with material from 100 Miles From Memphis, Crow demonstrated last night that no matter what accoutrements an ungifted artist dons, the essence remains flat. She struggled to imbue her vocals with soul and wavered on poorly executed harmonies, even on standbys like “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” She played a variety of instruments, from a vintage Wurlitzer organ to an accordion to guitar, but her watered-down material dictated that her immensely talented band play at one-tenth of their ability.
It was enough to suggest to even the open-minded that the singer, who gave away free Tom’s toothpaste samples at the festival gate and hawked her cookbook at the merch stand, isn’t so much an artist as a brand; a lifestyle choice of the culturally trepidatious; a meeting area where nothing happens. “Sweet Rosalyn,” a song Crow said was inspired by a strip club in New Orleans, was free of sweat, gyration or danger. A political song, “Redemption Day”—introduced with some combination of the words “Bosnia,” “Rwanda” and “Hilary Clinton”—came off as obligatory at best.
Crow’s banter was playful (“Thank God the world didn’t end today,” Crow said, acknowledging the supposed May 21 Rapture, “I’m so happy, I had a few things planned”) and her fanbase stayed seated and largely calm until the block of hits at the end. That’s when drunken air-guitaring and booty-shaking ensued in a celebration of Bermuda shirts, cosmetic surgery and arrhythmic dancing to guaranteed pleasers “Steve McQueen,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” “Soak Up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do.”
The set closed with a barn-burning “I Shall Believe,” which allowed the band to finally unlock its potential, but it didn’t cleanse the off taste of the night. It’s one thing to book a non-jazz artist at a jazz festival, but it’s another thing to book an affront to the creative process. “We had a great day here. We want to move here,” Crow said at one point, unconvincingly. “We want to only play jazz festivals from now on.”
If that were truly the case—if she really wanted to immerse herself in jazz—then Sheryl Crow would have a mountain of research and miles of catching up to do. Instead, she’s touring this summer with Kid Rock. Enough said.
“When we first heard we were gonna play Yoshi’s,” said Chuck D last night, after “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” opened the set, “we knew it was a historic jazz club. We said, ‘We know we can’t rage against the machine in that motherfucker.’ What do I do, wear my Sam Cooke suit? Do some Sonny Rollins shit?”
It must be a common question for the many who’ve played Yoshi’s since it began regularly hosting hip-hop shows a couple years ago, from names like the Pharcyde and Foreign Legion to Mos Def and De La Soul: how to adapt? Or is it even required, since Yoshi’s seems to be adapting to hip-hop? It only makes sense for the Bay Area’s most famous jazz club to embrace the next great American artform, and the venue works well for it. Yes, the sound system was designed for Steinways and not Serato (Bass: How low can you go? Not very low), but the small stage, standing room and temporary bars on either side of the crowd fit the scene perfectly.
To a totally sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Public Enemy played a 90-minute set of every hit one could want to hear. “911 Is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “Burn Hollywood Burn”—and yes, most of the songs were over 20 years old. Age coupled with the red-velvet environs gave the night a nostalgic vibe, and on top of two decades already taking the incendiary edge off these songs, they were mitigated further by a general onstage playfulness.
The set featured Kool & the Gang and White Stripes riffs; an ongoing game of “toss the mic”; a James Brownian rule that anyone who messes up has to do 10 pushups; an “invisible studio fader” routine and of course, the ongoing antics of Flavor Flav. “I wanna thank y’all for makin’ Flavor Flav the number-one reality TV star of the decade!” he shouted at one point, during a long monologue about his “second job” on a television show (involving girls defecating on the floor, among other things). And yet it wouldn’t be Public Enemy without him—Chuck D even gave a little “every family has one” defense of Flav, if anyone doubted their closeness.
As for the music? The night was billed as Public Enemy “with a live band,” but as Chuck D pointed out, they’ve been playing with a live band since 1999, inspired by a tour of Japan with the Roots. Chuck D has said in interviews that he wasn’t ever really into jazz, that it was more his dad’s thing, but there was plenty of flash to go around last night. New bassist Davy D at one point let Flav take over for “Welcome to the Terrordome” while the guitarist played solos behind his back; Flav even hopped on the drum set at the end.
And though Chuck D didn’t break out any freestyles (“I’m the least talented member of the group,” he quipped), his between-song improv touched on the importance of the Bay Area, referencing Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Etta James and Johnny Otis right on up to Too Short, DJ Q-Bert and JT the Bigga Figga. “Bay Area independent hip-hop always did the thing,” Chuck D said in homage, “and they just never got support of local radio.”
It’s knowledge like that which separates Public Enemy from the rest. By the end of the set, Chuck D was wearing a “Justice for Oscar Grant” shirt and Flavor Flav was railing against racism and separatism. In the shadow of a chilling live version of “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” and the shooting there last week, it was clear that the progress Public Enemy fought for twenty years ago is still elusive. While everyone in the place threw hopeful peace signs in the air, set closer “Fight the Power” felt more like a party than a war, but there’s still a lot of bite in Public Enemy. Relevant bite, at that. Even in a jazz club. Thank goodness.
EXTRA POINTS: I dunno if it was P.E.’s doing or what, but playing the great Funky Riddims compilation Bay Area Funk before the show was a nice touch. (“Foxy Girls in Oakland.” Listen to it!)
CELEBRITY SIGHTING: Those eyes didn’t deceive you—Aesop Rock was in the crowd.
Photos by Liz Seward.