Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!
Even before entering the park, the publicity begins: “Hey, are you guys here to see Radiohead?” asks a too-cheerful girl in jeans and suede boots on the dirt path behind Lloyd Lake. “Do you want a free download card? Do you want to be photographed for their fan gallery?”
Then there’s the Crowdfire tent, brought to you by Windows, where festivalgoers are asked to upload their photos from the day to be projected onto digital screens around the festival grounds (“and while you’re at the pavilion,” says the 100-page festival program, to anyone who’s been asleep for the last ten years, “stop by the Windows Experience, to see how Windows brings your digital life together, from your PC to your phone to your living room!”). The whole idea feels overwhelmingly like a ruse for ticket-buyers to also do work and provide free web content, but it’s not nearly as insulting as the tent nearby, called the “Social” tent, “brought to you by Heineken.”
There’s a Visa Signature tent, a Dell Dome, a PG&E booth. Even at 5:30, the lines for the bathrooms are long and the lines for the ID Check are longer. Official-looking people are running all around. Black Mountain plays the Twin Peaks stage while hundreds of people wait in the Will Call lines. In one 30-second span, four golf carts pass by me. It’s not getting off to a very promising start.
Then Manu Chao plays, and I remember why we’re all here: because music is fucking awesome.
I’ve been stoked on Manu Chao since Clandestino, and although I knew he fronted the raucous world-punk band Mano Negra years ago, I’d always figured his performances these days would lean towards the blissful, kicked-back groove of tunes like “Welcome to Tijuana” or “Je Ne T’Aime Plus.” I prep Liz by telling her that his music is the unwatered-down version of all that Putumayo stuff that Starbucks plays.
When the show starts, I realize that I couldn’t be more wrong. Chao hits the stage with a fury, leaping all over the place in an “Africa Unite” T-shirt and throwing his fist in the air in time to the band. Did he hire these guys from the Dropkick Murphys?
It’s easy to see why Chao is a star the world over, and it’s thrilling to see a crowd of Americans, who’ve been jockeying for position for Radiohead, held as a captive audience and won over by his energy. He’s been at it for so many years that his blend of reggae, punk and world music is as natural as breathing, and his disregard for borders (anyone have one of his “No Work Visas” tour shirts from the Greek Theater?) and understandable disgust for George W. Bush make him a right-on dude in my book.
Chao is killing it, pogoing in unison with his band and firing up the crowd, when I hear the noise of something falling on the ground at my feet. I look, and it’s a 22 oz. can of Budweiser. Seconds later, another one comes flying over the fence and lands on the grass. Then four hands clutch the top of the fence, and while it buckles under the weight, the struggling faces of two hopefuls come into view. One guy makes it over by sliding head-first into the grass, and the other guy throws himself over in a sideways roll. By this point, a small group of onlookers has gathered, and they all applaud while the guys grab their cold ones and run off into the crowd.
Damn, I think. Those guys just saved themselves $170—and they got a standing ovation for it.
Lyrics Born has just made an album I don’t like all that much, but that’s fine—he’s a great performer that I’ve seen time and again, and he never disappoints. I was sold on Lyrics Born long ago, in 1999, during a Latyrx show at the Justice League on Divisadero. Lateef and Lyrics Born utterly devastated the room, and it helped that they had a guy from Arizona named Z-Trip as a guest DJ.
Not long afterwards, Quannum Spectrum came out, “I Changed My Mind” was a sleeper hit, and everything changed for Lyrics Born. He’s a soul singer now, albeit in a certain Bay Area fashion that’s inimitably his. And he’s still a great performer.
Backup singer Joyo Velarde worked the stage in a pink-striped jumpsuit and heels, throwing her hands back and forth while Lyrics Born elevated his live band to various climaxes. (Funny thing: last time I saw Joyo Velarde was at Max’s Opera Café on Van Ness, where she was working as a singing waitress.) They played all new stuff, but it was good to check in on the old dog again and see that he’s still teaching new tricks.
What’s there to say about Beck other than he’s fallen off a log into a stinky-ass pile of Scientology-ridden algae?
I guess there’s also this to say: he forces every photographer to sign special waivers allowing his management final say over photos to be used for publication. Actually, we don’t really have any idea what the waiver says. It could be an enlistment form into a deranged science-fiction cult, for all we know. But the upshot of it all is that we bring you this photo, from one of the digital screens, instead of a true-to-life, up-close photo.
Not that anyone can get anywhere near the stage. First of all, the corral between the Polo Fields and Lindley Meadow is jam-packed and moving at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, a guy stands guard over the cluster of people, sitting on top of pallets full of bottled water.
Second of all, the stage sinks down into the landscape, meaning that if you’re not in the front 15 rows or so, you’re stuck behind the sound booth tent with no visibility. The sound itself isn’t much to write home about either, and Beck is playing drab new songs. I recall reading an interview with him, post-Odelay, where he articulately explained how he was compelled to write happy, uplifting music because he’d had such a brutal home life as a child. It made a big impression on me then, as did his music. When I saw him on the Sea Change tour in 2001, I was struck at how he flipped the equation; he was completely at home with depressing songs like “Paper Tiger,” and awkwardly going through the motions for “Where It’s At.”
But now, it seems the knee-jerk is working in a diagonal direction—the question isn’t ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ anymore. It’s as if he’s reacting to his charmed life in the spotlight by imposing bland music on his fans. We trek back through the narrow corral, moving at about ten feet per minute while others break through the fence and trample the foliage, cringing at each new song Beck starts. Oh well. Hope he snaps out of it someday.
Before Radiohead plays, the jumbotron comes alive with a shot of a girl straddling someone’s shoulders in the crowd. As soon as she realizes she’s onscreen for all to see, she immediately throws up the devil horns with both hands and sticks her tongue way out, down to her chin, in the universal sign of “I am a brain-dead idiot with no creative thought in my head whatsoever.”
I like Radiohead and all, but I’m confounded at the suggestion that they’re the world’s most popular band. It simply can’t be true. Their music is way too weird for the average person, like the devil-horn girl, to honestly enjoy. The crowd estimate tonight is 60,000, and of that, I’d wager to say that 20,000 truly love Radiohead. The rest are here because they feel, for some reason, like they should be. Maybe they’re afraid to be apathetic about Radiohead lest they appear unintelligent, or unsupportive of “art.”
I’m also aghast at the comparison that Radiohead is the next U2. My friend Kim puts it best: “They managed to get really big by not doing anything except for playing bigger places.” Which means: No giant lemons. No vacuous dance-club albums. No pompous charading. Just sticking to the guns, making the music that seemed most interesting at the time, and against all odds watching the world go crazy falling all over itself for it.
Before Radiohead comes on, I overhear two guys talking. One of them says to his friend, “I like Beck, but live, he’s not that good. But this, this is going to be great. It’s like my highlight of the year. And I love the weed smell. San Francisco’s so cool.”
During the first couple songs, a very drunk guy topples over the front barricade and into the photo pit. He’s out cold, just completely unconscious, crumpled on the ground. A public-relations girl working the festival runs over and motions security to join her, and they build a wall around the poor guy, making sure that no photographers can snap a photo of him.
There are glistening moments in Radiohead’s set where, for a brief passage or chorus, they still seem like that scrappy little band who sat down and made an mind-shattering album called OK Computer. The sense of discovery is still there; the feeling of urgency hasn’t been lost. It’s like watching David Murray, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or Rakim.
Then, I look out across the field and wonder what in the hell is happening, and just how on Earth so many people can possibly be passionate about what is obviously a very weird orchestration of sound. I suppose this is a familiar sensation for people who’ve listened to Radiohead in their bedrooms alone for years and then go to see them for the first time, but outdoors in Golden Gate Park, it’s especially bizarre.
In fact, the defining moment of the band’s set is when I come out of an air-conditioned bathroom trailer, walk down the steps, and look up at the back of the concrete Polo Fields bleachers. There’s a beautiful old architectural arc pattern, reminiscent of a church cloister hallway, and Thom Yorke is wailing out the final stanzas of “Karma Police”—“For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself. . .” Horse stables are to the left, and a big blue glow fills the sky to the right. It’s surreal, and I can’t explain why. But it fits in nicely with the fact that the last Polo game actually played on the Polo Fields here wasn’t by actual Polo players on horseback, but by a bunch of guys on Segways.
During “Airbag,” the sound goes out. It’s back on after 40 seconds or so, and it’s not really that much of a big deal, even though it’s all anyone is going to be talking about the next day. It goes out again a few songs later. I like it. It lends an air of unpredictability to the experience. Plus it forces Thom Yorke, looking like a decomposed rubber walrus, to actually address the crowd. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he says. A wasted guy next to me screams, “Me too! Me and Thom Yorke have so much in common!”
We walk around after a while, noticing the hordes of people who’ve scaled the Port-a-Potties to get a better view. For my money, Radiohead’s best album is The Bends, and luckily, they play two songs from it. During “Fake Plastic Trees,” I’m sitting, staring at the trees surrounding the Polo Fields. They’re lit up by huge, colored lights, and they look synthetic. It’s beautiful.
All I Need
Talk Show Host
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Exit Music (For a Film)
You And Whose Army
Fake Plastic Trees
Everything In Its Right Place
Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.