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Live Review: Beyoncé at the Oracle Arena, Oakland

Posted by: on Jul 11, 2009 | Comments (3)

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.

Interview: Maynard James Keenan from Tool

Posted by: on Feb 18, 2009 | Comments (5)

Are you just as surprised as most people that you turned out to be a winemaker?

It doesn’t surprise me too much, ‘cause anything can happen. I went from being a cross-country runner, to being recruited to West Point, and then all of a sudden being in art school, and all of a sudden being in an international touring rock band, and then a second one, and now a third one. I tend to just kind of latch onto something and go for it.

Tool came along and really revolutionized popular rock music in a lot of ways. In what ways, if any, do you hope to revolutionize winemaking?

Ooh, gee. I don’t know about ‘revolutionizing.’ I think if I can apply what I’ve applied to everything else I’ve dove into, I think it’d be more about being true and honest with my perceptions and what I’m experiencing. Much the same way a good grape-grower or winemaker pays attention to the terroir, rather than trying to make wines that are for mass consumption. Kind of what we did with the music, where we remained true to what was happening in the room when we write. There’s only two things that myself and a musician, and my partners, there’s only two things we really have to do. All we have to do is remain true to what’s happening in that room between the four people. How we record it, what format it comes out on, what we wear, who sells it—that has no bearing as long as we remain true in that room, and focus on what’s happening in that space. And the second thing we have to do is make sure that when we go to present it live, it’s the same thing. I think with winemaking it’s a similar approach. We have to remain true to what’s happening in the vineyard, and what’s happening in the winery once we start to process those grapes. If I can have a hand in helping someone else come along with 20 times the talent that I’ll ever have in winemaking, if something that I did inspired somebody to pay attention, great. I’d love to have a hand in that.

Recording music these days can be very malleable – you have a chance to manipulate the finished product afterwards through digital software. With wine, you get what goes in the bottle, and you can’t tinker with it when it’s done. Do you appreciate that immediate, must-get-it-right-the-first-time process with wine?

Yeah, absolutely. For sure. But I also appreciate the getting it wrong the first, the second and third time. You learn along the way. But I definitely do like that, that you have to get it right.

How’s your learning curve been in Arizona? What’s your major obstacle to vineyards in Arizona?

Cold weather. We’re up in the high desert, so we planted on a lot of developed, agriculturally-zoned areas that we thought would be okay, thinking that we would have more problem with heat than cold. As it turns out, we’re a similar terrain and climate as Paso Robles, but cooler. So we had a lot of winter kills. We pretty much learned the hard way the first few years, not even realizing that we had winter kills the first year. It was like, why aren’t these things budding?

Is there a water usage issue in Arizona?

Absolutely, you have to have land that has prior ditch rights, and grandfathered-in irrigation, or a well that predates any of the salt river project claims, or any of that stuff. It really is a mess, like anywhere else. The good news is that the more the United States develops its understanding of vineyards and winemaking, I think the more they’re going to come around to encouraging people to put in vineyards rather than tract homes.

Tell me a little about Eric Glomski, and the yin he brings to your yang.

He has a memory. I’m pretty bad when it comes to hearing something and having it stay with me—my short term memory’s not so good. He’s that guy who can hear something once and remember it, so he’s able to really build upon his experiences over the years making wine. He’s a great chemist, he understands geography, geology, and his senses are all firing at the same time. His perception of what’s happening in the moment is accurate. And he can remember those exact experiences, or altered experiences over the years. He’s great in that way; he’s definitely a great guide. What I bring to him is that shotgun, bull-in-a-china-shop approach, that he wouldn’t have normally tried. I come up with crazy combinations and silly ideas that actually tend to work, because I don’t know the rules.

What are some of those crazy ideas? Obviously you’re limited by your musical projects, but how involved are you in the actual growing-to-picking-to-fermentation-to-bottling process?

Pretty involved; I spend most of my time out there. I try to work touring schedules around getting home at the end of August, so I can be there for crush. We have a little bit of downtime when it comes to late December, January, February, everything’s kind of put to bed and we’re starting to prune at that point. So I can sneak off and do musical stuff, or we can do promotions, or I can run around like I’ve been doing with these Whole Foods events. I’m pretty involved. I have a wine under my Caduceus label called Premier Paso, which is predominantly Shiraz, but it has 6 or 7 percent Malvasia in it, somewhat like a Côte-Rôtie. Eric probably wouldn’t have tried that. I was the one going, ‘Hey! I wonder what this would taste like in here!’ He was like, ‘You can’t. . . well, fuck it, let’s try it.’ And it’s great! It’s fantastic! It definitely has that Côte-Rôtie style, but I think it has more floral character on the bouquet, so it draws you in. That wine was my idea to get some of the non-wine drinkers, the more music fans, to get them in the door, because it’s such an enticing smell coming out of the glass. It’s not intimidating, and they can have it with almost anything.

When one thinks of rock ‘n’ roll guys making wine, one thinks more of the baby-boomer generation—guys from the Doobie Brothers or Journey that are starting to make wine. Do you think it’s important for more daring, risk-taking bands to start making wine?

Just in general, I think it’s a shame, our whole marketing concept of a band. There’s this artist that’s expressed themselves in some way, and because it’s so much easier for magazines, and press, and record companies and PR firms, for them to present this artist—this is what his head looks like, this is how he walks, here’s what he wears, and he only sings these songs in this way. It’s undermined the ability to move around. Peter Gabriel and David Bowie have somehow been able to say, ‘Nah, nah, I’m gonna be a painter now. I’m gonna do some acting.’ You would think that as an artist, and as a person who understands how to express, and understands their role in their environment, you’d think people would want to see them express themselves more in those areas. It’s not necessarily that musicians can’t go off into vines, or become painters. I think it’s that they don’t know they’re allowed to.

Do you appreciate the anonymity you have when talking with other winemakers, people from the wine world who may not know who you are?

It’s perfect, it’s great. I’m just some snot-nosed kid, asking questions.

What’s your reaction to wine snobs who may look down on Arizona as an inferior winemaking region?

I mean, that’s a natural reaction. If you don’t understand the area, of course you’re going to say that. The first thing people think of is cactuses and scorpions. So of course they’re going to pooh-pooh it, but they haven’t been presented with the correct information. Can’t really fault ‘em.

Is there an extra challenge with being organic and environmentally-friendly in Arizona?

No, not necessarily. We get to go ahead and break new ground where there hasn’t been stuff, and we get to start from scratch. Our southern Arizona vineyard has been farmed chemically from day one, back in the early ’80s, so it’s going to be a chore for us to slowly wean that off the chemicals and into a more organic approach. But it’s possible. I don’t think there’s anybody looking at it to trip us up on technicalities or anything. We’re doing it the best way we can.

At these Whole Foods appearances you’ve been doing, you must understand that a lot of people are there because of your musical projects. But are Tool fans receptive to wine at these things?

There’s a couple places we’ve gone back to a second time, and it’s actually been pretty encouraging. The first time around, of course, the kid with the star tattoo on his neck is freaking out a little bit, and trying the wine. But then the next time around, people actually have tried it, and they actually have genuine questions about pairings; they’re curious about how long they should lay this one or that one down. So they’ve actually come back, and you can tell when they’re speaking that they have in fact tried the wine, and they have in fact had an experience. So that’s good, We’ve basically just cultivated a whole ‘nother set of wine drinkers. We’re just expanding their perceptions of the world in general.

You’re a big wine collector. Is there a particular bottle that you’re most proud of in your cellar?

I have a 1934 Romaneé-Conti from the Doris Duke collection. That’s the only thing I have that’s of any note, other than I collect all the Grange through the years.

And since you’ve been making wine, has your collecting mentality fallen off at all?

Yeah, actually. I haven’t been first in line going to get some of the first growths pre-ordered. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve been spending so much time making my own wine. It’s put a skip in my step for collecting. It’s so expensive to get this industry off the ground in an uncharted area. You don’t have the barrel shop down the street, or the guy who understands how to fix a German grape press in the area. It really is expensive, and you have to have guys around who know what they’re doing. Everything you do ends up coming n a truck from another state. I kind of stopped collecting, focusing all my energy into making sure the nuts and bolts are in place.

I’m here in Santa Rosa, California, where there’s sort of a friendly debate between Sonoma County and Napa County over who makes better wine. Do you care to weigh in on it?

I honestly couldn’t tell you. I like a lot of stuff coming out of all over California. If you’re looking for a consistency and something that’s the same every time you drink it, there’s a bunch of wineries that do that. I prefer wines that reflect whatever year that was, and that specific region. So in that, I think there’s great wines that come from both of those places. As long as the winemaker and the farmer express that region naturally, then I can’t really separate them.

Okay, a couple non-wine questions. Being a big wine collector, you must understand the mentality of the record collector as well, and all my friends down at the local record store want to know: Will we ever see the day that Ænima is repressed on vinyl?

Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those who-knows stories.

The record company probably owns the rights to it. . .

What record company? It’s the Titanic going down heavy. They pretty much blew it. That’s what I’m trying to do with Puscifer, is trying to figure out what the next step is, where’s the outlet, where’s the audience, where are people looking, and of course just having fun making music without somebody breathing down your neck wondering about the numbers.

Do you ever wish that people didn’t have to pay $250 for your records on eBay?

Well, they don’t really have to pay for them. That’s a shame, but yeah, it’s just a matter of repressing them, I guess, and we haven’t gotten around to it.

One last question, since it’s just days before the inauguration. What are your feelings here on the cusp of Barack Obama being put in the White House?

I think things are a mess. I think that he’s got a lot on his plate, and you can see it in his eyes. He knows that there’s so much to do. I don’t envy his position. He’s definitely got a big problem on his hands, and everyone who would not want him in that office is going to milk every, every, every, every drop of juice out of any shortcomings that he has. And of course, he’s gonna have ‘em, because there’s no way in four years that he can fix this. We just have to set aside whatever we want out of it and hope that somehow he can put out the fires.

Etta James Does Not Rock the House

Posted by: on Feb 8, 2009 | Comments (2)

I was waiting for this. Etta James slams Beyoncé.

It’s not so much that Etta James is jealous of someone else singing her song; she couldn’t be, after the thousands of versions of “At Last” played at weddings every single weekend in America. At some point, you hand your signature song to the public, and are glad for the supporters (and royalties) of the original instead of threatening to whoop their ass. James signed off on Cadillac Records, and knew Beyoncé would be in public, promoting the film with her likeness.

But: “He ain’t my president.” ‘the fuck? If that’s the way she feels, then she never deserved to sing “At Last” for Obama anyway, and she and other cantankerous rock critics can sit in a corner complaining about how Beyoncé needs a ladder to kiss the hem of Etta James’ skirt—with intelligence and hope as collateral damage.

Realistically, Etta James needs some scaffolding to reach Beyoncé’s shoes. She isn’t the vocal powerhouse who recorded Etta James Rocks the House anymore, and frankly, if she’d sung for the Obamas, she only would have embarrassed herself. She’s since offered a halfhearted semi-retraction, but I don’t think anyone feels it. A sad twilight to a great career.

Interview: Blake Schwarzenbach, Thorns of Life

Posted by: on Jan 31, 2009 | Comments (10)

Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!

So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.

Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.

The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.

At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.

 

Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?

I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.

What about regret? Is regret useless?

Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.

What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?

I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.

Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?

No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.

One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?

Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.

You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?

Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.

The clubs.

Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.

Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?

I can’t help them.

Well, you could play larger places.

That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.

And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…

Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.

One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.

Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.

You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.

Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.

Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?

Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.

Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?

I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.

Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?

No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.

Brooklyn, in particular?

Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.

You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.

I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.

Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?

I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.

What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.

Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.

Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?

Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’

Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?

We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.

What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?

That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.

Are you going to record an album?

Yeah.

I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?

I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.

You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?

No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”

You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?

Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.

Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?

Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.

What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?

“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.

More Photos Below.

We Did It.

Posted by: on Nov 5, 2008 | Comments (1)

We went to the polls and filled in the small rectangle with the weird purple pen they gave us. Stared at it for an extra second, and then an extra five seconds, just to let the sight sink in and burn in our memory.

We tried to go to work like it was just another ordinary day. Threw the idea out halfway through. Needed to share in the experience. Stopped by the bike shop, the deli, the record store, the coffee stand, anywhere there were other people to see. The buzz. In the air.

We glued ourselves to the news, and we waited. The TV, the Internet, the BlackBerry, the iPhone. Each little drop hitting like an IV drip. It had been years. Years. Years. Years. Years. Years.

We made brownies, cake, pizza. Baked pies. And we watched it come: Pennsylvania first. Then, Ohio. Sweet Lord. Yes we can.

We screamed. We threw our arms in the air. We danced in the streets. We kissed complete strangers. We cried on our couches. We howled at the night. We called our loved ones. We shook with excitement. We lit off fireworks.

We did it. We stood up and said no to the criminal abomination of the Bush presidency. To the war that never, ever made sense. To the damnable offense of torture. To the contemptuous campaign of McCain. To the farce of the Palin pick. To the wrongheaded policies. To the outright lies.

We had a long, amazing night. And then we woke up, lagging a little. Did it really happen? Glugged down some coffee, threw on the new People Under the Stairs record. Opened the blinds. Slowly realized it wasn’t a dream. The world is new. Goddamn.

We did it.

Today’s the Day

Posted by: on Nov 4, 2008 | Comments (2)

I woke up early this morning, beating the alarm clock, for a very simple, excited reason.

Today is the day that the United States will elect Barack Obama as its next president.

The sun has just barely come up, but I know this with my entire being. I don’t know this because of the polls, which are surely in his favor. I don’t know this because almost every single pundit in the country is predicting an Obama victory.

I know this because I’ve known it since 2004, when I watched Obama’s indescribably brilliant speech from the Democratic National Convention. Like most people who saw the speech, I was floored. And I knew.

Shortly thereafter, the New Yorker ran a posthumous tribute to Richard Avedon. It consisted of an unfinished portfolio by the photographer called “Democracy,” and one of the portraits was of Barack Obama. I ripped it out of the magazine and put it on the refrigerator.

“Who’s that?” my wife asked.

“That’s Barack Obama,” I said—I pronounced his name “barrack” instead of “bar-rock”—”and he’s staying on our refrigerator until he becomes our president.”

For someone who genuinely loves America, the Bush administration has been utter psychological torture. It’s made me so angry, so constantly, that I moved to that rare and horrible place beyond anger. Cynicism is nothing more than the defense mechanism of the truly beleaguered, and apathy nothing more than its illusionist, forever cloaking the unbridled rage deep down inside.

I knew I wasn’t alone. I also knew that Obama had the same effect on others as he had on me; namely, that after watching his speech, I felt my anger slip away to be replaced with hope. After years of despair, I lifted my tired head and smiled to strangers on the street. I felt connected to my fellow man, and I knew that caring for the well-being of others and the direction of this country was not, as previously demonstrated, a cold, dead artifact of the 20th Century.

It’s been a long election cycle, but one in which my faith has never wavered—even as the Bohemian goes to press this very afternoon with a music column of mine that hinges entirely on an Obama victory. But I know.

And yes, it’ll feel strange when this day is over. When the confetti is swept up, and when the Champagne bottles are recycled, and when the real task of getting America back on track is at hand. For now, though, I’m going to ride my bike down to the polling place to cast my vote, sing a few verses of “The Land of Hope and Dreams,” and go to work.

The rest is history.

Southwest Virginia Speaks Up

Posted by: on Oct 29, 2008 | Comments (0)

Comments received this morning—all from the same IP address, all from Yahoo accounts—on the City Sound Inertia post “Ralph Stanley for Obama”:

 

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wes p | xrayjs2@yahoo.com | IP: 72.236.101.166 | Oct 29, 7:45 AM

I would like to make known my deep disappointment with Mr Stanley reguarding his blind support for Barack Obama. When one looks at Senator Obama’s voting record and his direction for America, it is obvious that he does not have Southwest VA’s best interest in mind. There are a lot of small business owners in VA that are going to be severly affected by Mr Obama’s tax plan. His radical associations (even with known domestic terrorists) and others raise serious questions about his loyalty. I have been a long time fan of Ralph Stanley’s music, however his recent claim that Obama will be good for the people of SW VA, in my opinion shows poor judgement. I think that Mr Stanley’s judgement and reputation will be severly damaged if Obama is elected.

Annissa Cauble | cauble.annissa@yahoo.com | IP: 72.236.101.166 | Oct 29, 8:00 AM

I cannot believe as a good southern boy you would be in support on Barack Obama!!!!! John Mccain has served his country in all capacities and has weathered many storms.. Shame on YOU!!!!I will never listen to your music AGAIN!!! Barack Obama’s tax plan will not benefit VA and he does not have anyone’s best interest in mind except his own and the wealthy! I think you have “LOST YOUR MARBLES” not to mention your judgement is impaired.

Kim Duckworth | klduck3@yahoo.com | IP: 72.236.101.166 | Oct 29, 8:07 AM

I have to say I was disapointed when I heard RS was a supporter of Obama. You should know better. What are you thinking, this could hurt your repatation. I am a firm beleiver in the good ol boy system. OBAMA – BADIN YOU BETTER BE CAREFUL!!!!!
OSAMA – BINLADIN

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This is what it’s come to for these morons—creating multiple Yahoo addresses in order to leave comments on some tiny, inconsequential music blog in California. The factual, logical and grammatical failures on display here only highlight the obvious fact that those trying to fight Obama with racism are entirely at the end of their rope. A desperate act for a truly desperate campaign.

Feel free to add your comment here.

Ralph Stanley for Obama

Posted by: on Oct 10, 2008 | Comments (9)

There’s a million musicians out there lending their support for Obama, but for some reason, this radio ad recorded by Ralph Stanley touches me the most. The ad is currently playing in Stanley’s home state of Virginia, where McCain and Obama are in a dead heat.

Most folks know Ralph Stanley from his haunting solo “O Death,” featured prominently on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.

Take the time to listen to an 81-year-old legend endorse our future president:

Live Review: Outside Lands Festival – Day Two

Posted by: on Aug 27, 2008 | Comments (4)

I run into a friend of mine who is working, in some capacity or another, at the Crowdfire tent. Most of the photos I see on the screens around the park seem taken by the official Crowdfire photographers and not, as the concept goes, by fans who feel like wasting their time in front of a computer screen by uploading photos inside a big tent. I ask him what the Crowdfire tent is all about.

“It’s really hot in there,” he says simply, “and it smells like weed.”

 

Boots Riley, from the Coup, doesn’t seem to have any more of a handle on the Crowdfire idea either.

“I guess there’s this thing where you film a song on your. . . your phone, or something?” he says to the crowd. “And then you go and. . . upload it in that tent?” The genius of it is that he’s not phrasing his sentences in question form because he’s unclear on how the process works. It’s because he’s clearly asking why anyone would want to do such a stupid thing in the first place.

I interviewed Boots Riley in 2006, shortly after the Coup’s tour bus crashed one week into a nationwide tour. While the bus was sideways on the side of the freeway, everyone scrambled out just in time to watch the bus—and everything on it—become engulfed in flames. Riley was still audibly shaken by the experience, but his personal resolve was strong as ever.

“Different members of the band are like, ‘Well, you know, we survived for a reason.’ This and that. But I have always felt a reason for my life,” he told me, determinedly, “and I’ve searched to make a reason for my life when I didn’t know what it was.”

That’s exactly how Riley is on stage. He’s here for a reason, and he knows it, and he’s not about to let the audience forget that. Moving around the stage using every part of his body but his feet, in a green military shirt with “Revolution Rock” on the back, he even needs to ask for a longer mic cord at one point.

Riley and Silk-E command the live band through a solid set of mostly new songs. “Ride the Fence” goes into a barreling breakdown, and “The Shipment” has the musicians in full-on Band of Gypsys mode. “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” makes for a nice breather, and Silk-E delivers a solo song, “Do You Give Her What I Got,” showcasing her Aretha-like vocals.

It around this point that I notice that the foam covering on the speaker, two feet in front of my face, is flapping off of the cabinet with each heavy bass note. My ears are already shot from years of this, but a rare burst of responsibility sets in. Might be a good idea to move.

 

The last time I saw the Liars was at the Greek Theater in 2006. It was horrible. Just horrible. One of the most grating things I’ve ever sat through.

I have friends who swear by them, though, and I’m willing to give them another shot. They’re on the Panhandle Stage—the smallest stage at Outside Lands—and they’ve got a huge crowd. They seem less on heroin than they did two years ago, which is good.

The most unlikely trend in indie rock: the Second Drummer Playing Not Exactly In Rhythm.

“That song was called Alcatraz and There’s No Place Like Home!” says a smiling Angus Andrew. I’m not sure if it’s a continuation of the song title, but he also says something about it being a beautiful night, which, at three in the afternoon, is sort of strange.

I think about a Gang Gang Dance album that I used to have, and make my way to the Lupe Fiasco stage, which has already amassed a huge throng.

 

By rights, no one in a goddamned Dodgers cap should be allowed to stand in front of a San Francisco crowd and succeed in getting them hyped. But Lupe Fiasco’s guitarist does just that. Over and over. For ten minutes or so.

You know it’s a hip-hop show when nothing is happening on stage for way too long, there’s some guy telling you to make some noise even though you just did a few minutes ago, and the star doesn’t come out to the stage even remotely on time. Of all the hip-hop acts at Outside Lands, Lupe Fiasco is the only one who does this. I stand there, staring into space, wondering why I still put up with this kind of stuff.

I didn’t really understand the fascination with Lupe Fiasco when he put out Food & Liquor. Maybe it’s because back here in the Bay Area, we already had the Pack, who are of a much more sensible age group to be wearing neon and rapping about skateboards. The production is alright and all, and “Kick Push” is great, but really—“hip hop’s whiz kid”?

It was earlier this year when I was interviewing DJ Ignite for an article on Santa Rosa’s Latino hip hop scene that I changed my tune on Lupe Fiasco. “That song, ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life,’ that’s my favorite song right now,” he told me. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I sought it out and lo and behold, he’s right. It’s a great song.

Lupe Fiasco comes out late but makes quick amends by playing “Kick Push” and “Hip Hop Saved My Life” right off the bat. Dude is smooth as butter. Opening tours for Kanye West will do that to you, I guess. The crowd is in the palm of his hand, and I haven’t seen so many arms windshield-wipering in unison since the 1900s.

When he finishes his set, the P.A. speakers go back to playing the Grateful Dead.

 

“With all of the money and influence in Washington,” muses Nellie McKay on the Panhandle stage, “it’s a miracle we even have a pseudo-democracy left.”

Last night, we’d gotten the text message from Barack Obama announcing that Joe Biden would be his running mate. And this morning, we’d watched the speech in Springfield, cringing at each blunder by both Obama and Biden. Obama called Biden “the next President. . . the next Vice President of the United States of America!” while Biden kept blowing it, calling Obama “Barack America” and using the word “literally” way too many times.

I’ve been pretty headstrong during this election season. I don’t care how close the media wants to paint this election. There is no way that McCain can possibly win. Even disregarding his asinine policies, he’s still a wooden, blobby multimillionaire who abandoned his wife after she got in a car accident to have an affair and marry a pill-popping, thieving beer heiress. Fuck that guy. He’s a loser.

But watching the speech in Springfield, my faith started to lapse. Especially when I noticed the campaign sign: “Obama Biden.” From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t look good if your brain factors in an “S,” an “N,” and an “La.” When Biden called this campaign “literally incredible,” I fell apart inside.

The Democratic Party’s biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is its own self-doubt. For some reason, Democrats can’t just come right out and declare themselves the inevitable winners, even though according to all logic, the results of the November election are a totally foregone conclusion. Instead, they have to look at polls and wring their hands and worry about what Hilary supporters are thinking and what black America is thinking and what people in church are thinking.

For all of his blunders, Biden seems to have that extra needed boost of confidence. He also seems like he might make a bad cop to Obama’s good cop when it comes to attacking McCain, which is such a sensible and easy thing to do. In fact, if we care at all about the future of the world, we should all be attacking McCain as often and as gleefully as we can.

I already reviewed Nellie McKay’s show in Petaluma just five days earlier, and you can read it here. But standing in the crowd, watching people fall in love with McKay for the first time, is like seeing it through their eyes. All the zingers that never fail bring a new set of smiles to my face, and her cover of “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” leads into the brightest spot of political hope of the day.

“A lot of people say McCain is too old,” she reports to the crowd. “But it’s not that McCain is too old. It’s that his policies are FUCKED UP.”

 

Next up is the Walkmen, who I’ve never seen before but who I’ve loved since their impeccable 2004 album, Bows + Arrows. This week, they’re at the top of the Pitchfork ‘Best New Music’ list, for what that’s worth—after all, every single record store has a used, discarded copy of Pitchfork’s #1 album of 2006, The Knife’s Silent Shout, which is a totally faceless pile of boredom that almost single-handedly destroyed Pitchfork’s reputation overnight.

The Walkmen’s new album is called You & Me, and after listening to it a few times, I’m not that into it. It’s wimpy, and too ruminative, and not in the good way that “No Christmas While I’m Talking” is ruminative. I made a tape of it for the car, and skipping over a few songs to conserve space on the 45-minute cassette wasn’t exactly a nail-biting decision to make.

But the Walkmen take the stage and right off the bat, the wimpiness works on me. I’m transfixed. They open with a slow song, just guitar and singing, and it’s an irresistible invitation into their world. When the next song comes in and the band fills out the sound, it’s like heaven. They’re the very definition of a unique aesthetic, playing the same vintage instruments as the Monkees—Vox bass, Gretsch drums—but sounding unlike any other band on Earth.

They play almost all songs from You & Me, and those same songs I’d previously dismissed are immeasurably better live. Hamilton Leithauser plays the perfect frontman, high-rise jeans and all, clutching a beer and crowing at the skies while each song gets stretched and bullied along. Also, in an amazing triumph of stage direction, each member of the band appears to be thinking about algebra, or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, or the Spanish Civil War instead of about the fact that they’re playing music. Really—check the additional photos below.

At the end of the set, I’m thoroughly indulged. A screaming version of Bows + Arrows’ “Thinking of a Dream I Had” has me soaring on cloud nine, and I chalk it up as the top experience of the day.

 

Strolling along Speedway Meadow, I see a fistfight break out right next to me. Seriously, dudes are wailing on each other, trying to punch each others’ lights out. I’ve got this impulse, left over from high school, to break up fights, and it isn’t until I’ve helped push the one guy away from the other that I notice a Four Square court on the ground. They were fighting over a Four Square game. For reals.

When we walk across to Lindley Meadow, we notice that the organizers have thoughtfully widened the corral that was unmanageably bottlenecked the day before. It’s so uncrowded, in fact, that a trio of frat guys marches drunkenly down the path, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing “I Will Survive.” It must be weird to be known for a deadpan cover of a disco song.

Cake is playing, but they’re on the Sutro stage—a.k.a. The Inaccessible Stage—and we can’t see them at all behind the sound tent. They play “Frank Sinatra” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.” John McCrea’s monotone voice, which is so charming on record, is downright condescending in a live context and I can’t explain why.

“We’re Cake and we’re here to serve you!” he says. “This next song is from our very first album, which we’re re-releasing. We got it out of the steely claws of the record company and it’s ours again. Are claws steely? Some of them, I guess.”

They play “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle,” we get hungry, and the 100-page Outside Lands Festival booklet lets us know that they’re going “above and beyond the standard festival food.” This has resulted in food booths selling weird items like Three-Cheese and Figgy Jam sandwiches, but we see a hamburger stand and jump on it.

 

Tom Petty closes out the night. I like Tom Petty a lot, so this is a great thing, tainted only by the long and not very interesting story of our running around backstage trying to figure out why Tom Petty’s management will happily grant a photo pass to some no-name event website but not to an actual weekly newspaper with a large circulation throughout three counties in the Bay Area. Because of this, Tom Petty, you are represented in this review by this totally shitty photo. Hope you’re happy.

The show starts and it’s a steady steam train of Greatest Hits, which is just fine by me. “We got a lot of songs we’re gonna cram in before the curfew tonight!” Petty says. “We’ll play as many as we can!” And sure enough, they keep coming, one hit after another: “Listen to Her Heart,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Even the Losers,” “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”

People are flaming up joints. People are singing “Oh my, my, Oh hell yes.” People are twirling and dancing and doing what people do at Tom Petty concerts, and then people are hearing Tom Petty tell them that they have to take a five-minute break so the sound guys can replace a generator or something.

But it isn’t all for naught: “While we were back there, ” Petty says upon returning, “we ran into one of our favorite musicians in the world. Steve Winwood! So we asked him to come help us out on a couple songs. ”

So Steve straps on a guitar and sings “Can’t Find My Way Home” with the Heartbreakers, and then really tears the nonexistent roof off with “Gimme Some Lovin’.” It’s a song I’ve heard a million times, but I think, today, that I have heard the best version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever performed—Tom Petty and the band know that song like the backs of their Rickenbackers, and Winwood is on fire all the more because of it.

But when “Saving Grace” goes on and on into a long jam, I feel like maybe Petty was just kidding around by saying they’d try to cram as many songs as they could into their set. “Refugee” lasts forever, with the predictable last-song-before-the-encore guitar jam in full effect.

At this point, after a very long day, all I really want to hear is “Here Comes My Girl.” Instead, to my great shock, Tom Petty plays “Gloria.” As in, the song that every bar band in the world plays on any given night in any given city in the world. I’ve heard of Petty playing some great covers—Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” comes to mind—but “Gloria”?!

We bail. Tom Petty is still okay in my book. I’m glad I saw him. Ending the set with “American Girl” is probably the best thing he could have done, and we sing along as we wind our way back out onto 19th Avenue.

 

Photos by Elizabeth Seward – Lots More Photos After the Jump.

Themes at the Petaluma Church

Posted by: on May 20, 2008 | Comments (0)

Lemme just say first off that when I brought Themes‘ new 7″ home on Sunday afternoon, I listened to it three times in a row, over and over. It’s that good. Full of optimistic hooks, unifying harmonies, and hopeful lyrics, it’s nothing short of inspiring. It’s the Obama of 7″s.

In classic 7″ fashion, the songs are both slightly out of style for the band but wholly complimentary to each other. They’re almost the same song, actually; even the titles form a cohesive sentence: “I Can’t Make You Believe / It’s Not Hopeless to Survive.” The repeated line in the latter is “You’re not the only one who hates this country,” and even though on the whole I actually love this country, it’s lately given me many reasons to be so angry I can’t even sleep and just want to throw myself out into the street. Which, actually, is a line from the song on the other side.

The Petaluma Church is a fantastic place for house shows, situated as it is near virtually no other residences; I’ve been there a few times and it’s awesome (in fact, I interviewed the Grand Color Crayon there for an article in the Bohemian). It’s usually packed, naturally, and the sound is good, the cheap beer is flowin’, and Sunday night, especially, the vibe was that of overwhelming freedom clustering on a communal precipice. You know what I mean? Like summertime is just around the corner and there’s a million great bands in this town and we’re gonna run it as hard as we can while it lasts because it’s beautiful to be alive.

I chatted with Jacy from Themes for a long time before they played, and he, too, was adamant about actively pursuing a life of living free in a country currently defined by restriction. After spending his youth confined to a Native American reservation outside of Minneapolis, he’s traveled around the country virtually nonstop playing music. “It’s folklore, what we do,” he said. “It’s all we’ve got left, all we’ve got that’s ours. We’re gonna be on tour forever.”

Then Themes played in the living room, and wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t play either song from the 7″ that I had so fiercely become smitten with. However, I wish more than anything that I had a recording of the second and third songs they played—both of them stark, dismal minor-chord epics with accordion and tambourine, back-to-back ruminations on darkness and hell. In hindsight, even though it came from the opposite end of the spectrum, this only made the 7″ songs all the more powerful—as if acknowledging evil makes a thrust towards good more legitimate.

No one who has half a brain in their heads can deny that for eight years we’ve been in some very evil and dark ages, but the era of having no choice but to dwell upon our administration’s failures is soon going to be over. We’ve got a pretty thrilling future ahead, full of national and personal challenges, and fuck it, I don’t want to wait until November. I’m starting to celebrate now. This is the summer when everything starts to shift, when there’s no reason to feel confined anymore. And above all, as the song so awesomely says—this is the summer when it’s not hopeless to survive.