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Live Review: John Hiatt and the Ageless Beauties at the Mystic Theatre

Posted by: on Nov 20, 2008 | Comments (2)

(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome back guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)

With props to Philly’s Billy Paul, John Hiatt and Sonoma County have a thing going on. The Mystic Theatre is a regular stop on Hiatt’s tour schedule and it’s definitely a two way street when it comes to this thing. Sonoma County loves him—his shows always sell out early, whether he’s performing solo or with his endless array of kick-ass bands—and Hiatt always returns the favor tenfold with nothing less than stellar shows taken from some 30 years of some of the best songwriting ever offered.

Touring in support of his latest release, Same Old Man, Hiatt’s performance Thursday night was counter indicative that the title might be autobiographical. After a few listens through his new offering, the album’s writing isn’t nearly as strong as some of his recent work and the vocals at times seem to be even more rough around the edges that fans are used to. But Hiatt was in prime form at the Mystic, his voice as clear and strong as ever while changing tempos, reworking lyrics, extending solos and exercising his endless array of facial gymnastics—definitely not acting like the same old man.

He opened the set to a thunderous ovation with a strong, determined, version of “Perfectly Good Guitar.” From the onset, he seemed to be a man happy in his own skin, extremely comfortable on stage and genuinely appreciative, if not somewhat surprised, at the raucous support of the Mystic audience. At the conclusion of the song, he spread his arms in his first of many acknowledgments of his band, the Ageless Beauties: “It’s great to be back in Petaluma at the Mystic Theatre“, he drawled, “where much mysticality always takes place.”

The band then went into a trifecta of tunes from the new album, “Old Days,” “On With You” and “Love You Again,” creating a feel that was much more fresh and lively than the studio versions.

The intro to “Cry Love” was the beginning of an amazing night of guitar work from guitarist Doug Lancio, providing a soaring, ethereal, heavenly feel that complimented the tunes’ references to “the tears of an angel.” Lancio, who has worked with the likes of Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle and Todd Snider, is the latest guitarist to work with Hiatt, who seems to have a certain magnet that attracts extremely accomplished but sometimes underrated musicians.

Born in Nashville and introduced by Hiatt as one of the original “thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers from Nashville,” Lancio worked through the evening with an array of electric and acoustic guitars, a dobro and a mandolin, effortlessly providing the perfect feel to Hiatt’s tunes.

The band continued nonstop through a number of Hiatt’s classics, “Walk On,” a hard driving “Master of Disaster,” “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and the always hot and greasy “Drive South,” a terrific character study of two young lovers trying to make it work.

One would not expect a songwriter who recently received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting to have the cojones to start a tune with “Well, I’m sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on / Wondering what you are up to,” but there’s probably no more fitting intro possible to “Ethylene,” a rare gem that Hiatt pulled out of his big ol’ box of songs as a gift to the audience. Hiatt expounded on Ethylene herself after the song, letting everybody know they could find her at a diner in east Tennessee, where they have the best bologna and cheese on white bread sandwiches anywhere—because they slice the bologna fresh right in front of you. And with a can of Diet-Rite cola and a bag of peanuts for dessert (dropped into the can, of course), well, there you are. It was a nice peek into the window of Hiatt’s oft-times offbeat songwriting brain.

The Ageless Beauties expertly transformed the classic “Memphis in the Meantime” from a catchy country rock feel to a full-bore rock and roll number. The two other Beauties, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Kenny Blevins, provided a solid rhythm section, albeit at times Blevins’ drums seemed to be a bit loud for some of the softer songs. O’Hearn filled the bottom end working from standup, acoustic and electric bass.

Hiatt rounded out the evening touching all the bases—the crowd pleasing “Tennessee Plates” (introduced as “a song about grand theft auto“), “Paper Thin,” “Slow Turning” (with a modified monologue and homage paid to the younger vote: “It’s their time now”), “Feels Like Rain,” and an extended “Ridin’ With the King,” giving Lancio the front and center one more time.

The band encored with—what else?—“Thing Called Love,” wherein Hiatt again gave Bonnie Raitt her due for both her having made the song as popular as it is and, as a very nice side benefit, having helped to put a couple of his kids through college. A keyboardless “Have a Little Faith in Me” closed the show.

Throughout the night, Hiatt was as appreciative of his audience as they were of him. During his encore, he thanked the audience again for coming, noting that it was especially appreciated “during these hard economic times.” And with the trademark ear-to-ear Hiatt grin, he promised that he’d be doing this as long as he was able—even if, he joked to the crowd, it reached the point where he’d have to arrive onstage on a motorized mobility scooter.

It looks like this “thing” may be going on for a long time.

Robert Meline

There Are Girls Camping Out For The Hanson Show

Posted by: on Nov 12, 2008 | Comments (6)

Mary Wieczorek has been sitting on this bench, outside the Phoenix Theater, since Monday afternoon. Wrapped in a sweatshirt and red coat to keep away the evening chill, she’s first in line to see Hanson, who are playing here Wednesday night. All told, from the time she arrived here yesterday at 2pm, with a sleeping bag, to the time Hanson plays their first note on stage, she will have waited 56 hours in front of the Phoenix Theater.

Sound strange? She’s not alone. There’s people here lined up from Los Angeles, from Gilroy, from the other side of the country, all camping out on the sidewalk for the Hanson show tomorrow night.

Mary is from Vallejo. She doesn’t go to school. Instead, she drives around the country seeing Hanson; this will be her 51st time seeing the band. Explaining why she would wait for so long in front of a venue for a show that is definitely not sold out, she offers two simple words: “Front row.”

Mary first heard Hanson during the “Mmm-bop” era. On August 16, 1998, at 1:54 in the morning, she met Taylor Hanson outside of a hotel in New York City after she and her mom followed the Hanson tour bus for three hours. He was wearing a tight blue shirt, dark blue tight cords, silver boots, and had a red rubber band in his hair. Ten years later, he’s still her favorite Hanson.

Sitting on the same bench, wrapped in a coat, is Mary’s mom. She stirs some takeout soup in a Styrofoam container, keeping warm. “It’s fun,” she says.

How does Mary think this Hanson show in Petaluma is going to be any different than the 50 or so shows she’s already seen? “There’s not a big crowd the night before,” she says, looking down the length of the sidewalk. “And there usually is. So yeah, I’m, like, wondering what’s going on.”

Getting ready to sleep on the next bench down is Nicole, from Philadelphia, who has been following the band for the last two and a half months. By the time Hanson takes the stage in Petaluma, she will have waited 30 hours outside the theater. Nicole, who does not want to give her last name, estimates that she’s seen Hanson 300 times.

300 times.

Explaining what she would be doing back home in Philadelphia were she not following Hanson around on tour, she, too, offers two simple words: “Being sad!”

Like Mary, Nicole has met the band numerous times; they often recognize both girls. She says that she likes all of the band members equally, but that her favorites sometimes change: “It depends on the day,” she says, “and their attitudes.”

Nicole admits that most Hanson shows are the same—“they throw in a curveball every now and then,” she says, “but for the most part, it’s pretty standard.”

So. . . why is she camping out overnight for the show?

“They’re the greatest band ever!” she gushes. “They make me happy.”

The Slackers at the Mystic Theatre

Posted by: on May 13, 2008 | Comments (0)

Vic Ruggiero, what a guy.

“Hey, howya likin’ the movie so far? Ya know those movies, right, where they got the guy who keeps talkin’ about stuff, an’ it goes on an’ on, an’ then you figure out there’s no plot or thread? You ever seen those movies? Like those Woody Allen movies, y’know, ‘So I was waitin’ for the bus. . ‘ An’ he keeps on talkin’ and talkin’ without makin’ no sense. Or like, whaddya call it, the French New Wave? Where there’s just a bunch of stuff an’ we’re supposed t’think it’s art?”

“Is this like that? Is this art, what we’re doin’ up here?”

The Slackers are a great band who know six zillion songs, and therefore, if you go see ‘em, they’ll play 12 songs you don’t know until they finally play one song you love. It’s worth the wait, and Ruggiero’s string of deep-Bronx nonsequitur banter is hilarious.

“Nice t’ be playin’ some of those tough-guy songs, y’know. For a long time everyone was out to kick our ass for bein’ the best band in New York. We were always playin’ Nightingale’s. ‘Member that place? Held about 25 people. It bred only the best! Blues Traveler. Spin Doctors. Tha’s why people were wantin’ to kick our ass, t’make sure of no more Blues Traveler!”

The show was fantastic. Everyone in the place was dancing. Only half-full, though, which is really too bad—I can think of two dozen people off the top of my head who would have loved it. Don’t miss ‘em next time they come around.

Cursive at the Phoenix Theater

Posted by: on Mar 2, 2008 | Comments (0)

<– These little scraps of paper were found scattered backstage while Cursive played last night, ascertained as the proposed end of a set list that had apparently been scrapped. “Hey,” a friend of mine said, “can you believe they wouldn’t play these songs?!” I checked it out, saw some damn great songs consigned to the the backstage cutting floor, and I agreed that no, I could not believe it.

Cursive showcased a lot of new material last night, and even apologized for it (the band’s recording soon and they’re “road-testing” new material), although a number of vintage crowd-pleasers made their way into the set: “Sierra,” “Art is Hard,” and the never-fail one-two punch of “The Casualty” and “The Martyr” from what’s still their greatest album, Domestica. Thusly teased, the crowd heavily laid on the applause at the end.

Backstage, someone in the band must have found one of the scraps of paper with the jettisoned songs, because for their encore, not only did they play them—hell yeah—but for “Big Bang” Tim Kasher brought the microphone out into the middle of the Phoenix Theater’s floor and sang amongst a circular flock of hyped-up fans. It ruled. The song rules. I felt the magnetic pull and joined in.

And then, good god, Kasher started playing the unimposing guitar intro to “Sink to the Beat”—tossing out a “We miss you, Clint” to the ex-drummer who practically defined the song—and plowed into the jam of all jams: “I’d like to make this perfectly clear…” It was mayhem out on the floor: a sweet unification of a great song, a cluster of strangers all singing the great song, and directly in the eye of the storm, weathering the busy tides of excited bodies on all sides, the guy who wrote it.

Kasher grabbed the mic stand, hopped back up on stage, finished the song, and called it a night. Crazy to think that what was originally ripped from the bottom of the set list turned into the awesomest part of the show.

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Lookin’ Good: How ’bout those new curtains at the Phoenix on the stage and side walls? And the fresh paint job on the ceiling and balcony? As someone remarked last night, “It looks like a real theater again.” I mentioned it to Tom Gaffey and he was pretty stoked about it too, pointing out that more interior painting is on the way but no, they’re not going to do away with the graffiti murals.

Also: Tim Kasher seemed pretty happy after the show, hanging out and chatting about Omaha, the on-stage patter mastery of Neva Dinova, and how triumphant it felt to perform “Big Bang” in Colorado Springs, a bastion of Christian fundamentalism. Somehow the conversation turned to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, and Tim recalled being a student in Lawrence, Kansas and reading about the funerals that Phelps and his lower-than-shit organization picket. “And I distinctly remember fantasizing,” he said, “in my more-angsty youth, about being the one, you know, that bought the gun…” Right on, brother.

Hip Hop… an’ Ya Don’t Stop

Posted by: on Feb 16, 2008 | Comments (3)

No one who lives locally and goes to hip hop shows—that is to say, thousands of people in Sonoma County—could have escaped the shocking headline in last week’s local newspaper. “Phoenix Theater Bans Rap Concerts,” it declared, in a mystifying statement that was as bold as it was hard to believe.

That’s because it wasn’t true. The Phoenix Theater has not banned rap concerts.

Here’s what happened: in a letter sent out early last week, the Phoenix Board addressed the lingering issue of a 17 year-old from Concord who was found during a police dispatch after a Super Hyphy show starring Keak da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B.; while the kid was being tackled by police across the street, he allegedly tossed a loaded 9mm pistol through the doors of Pazzo, a nearby nightclub. In the letter, the Phoenix stressed that it would continue to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its patrons, and noted that it had postponed three upcoming hip hop shows while its security measures were reviewed.

Nowhere in the letter did the word “ban” appear. If anything, the Phoenix’s dedication to future safety and promise of heightened security pointed directly to a continuation of, and a commitment to, presenting live hip hop.

When I first saw the headline I was mortified. Then, as I read the article, I realized that the people at the Phoenix probably just felt like they needed to address the complicated workload of the Petaluma Police Department, the concerns of parents, and the irate comments posted online by blatant racists. So they said they’d lay low for a while, reassess a few things, and wait until the whole thing cooled off.

I talked with a member of the Phoenix board that night, and a letter to the editor showed up two days later from the Board president clarifying things; it turned out that my hunch was more or less right, and the Phoenix already has some hip hop shows booked again. But why, then, the completely incorrect headline?

As a writer, I should understand how media works. I don’t, exactly, but I do know of the propensity for criticizing what you don’t understand and wanting it to go away. Wanting so much for it to go away, in fact, that you might tell everyone that it actually had gone away in the hopes that it will follow suit and leave you alone.

Naturally, accusations of racism have been raised about the general attitude towards hip hop in Sonoma County, and while there’s no doubt that that’s an active element, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate per se, or, at least, that simple. What I think is at the core of racism, however, is the same thing that’s at the core of most denunciation of hip hop: making an uninformed choice to hate something based purely on surface elements.

You can say, and you’d be right, that a lot of balled-out, gun-toting, hoe-slapping rap stars bring condemnation upon themselves (you could also make a case for the obviously over-the-top, unserious extravagance of such poses, but that’s a different story). But to be honest, I believe that most hostility towards hip hop comes from recoiling in disgust at the actual sound of the music itself. 30 years after its inception, an opinion still prevails among older people—and especially the large population of older, rich, white people in Sonoma County—that hip hop isn’t “real music.” It instantly annoys.

And what’s so funny to me about the Rap Is Crap brigade is the same thing that’s so funny about the Kill Your Television crew—e.g., they never actually listen to the stuff.

If they did give rap music a try, they might discover some that they actually liked. Like evaluating a bottle of wine, subtle nuances either make or break a rap song, and finding the good artists only means ascertaining these idiosyncrasies. To your grandma, say, Talib Kweli sounds just like 50 Cent, but if she actually trained her palate and listened—listened!—she might say, “know what, mu’fucka, this Kweli cat is on some other shit!” (Or, you know, the grandmotherly equivalent thereof.) But is she ever going to do that? Hell no, because people get old and closed-minded and see numbskulls like Kanye West blathering away on television and make up their minds that rap music is a scourge on humanity and that’s that.

Growing up in the 1980s, listening to rap music for me was revelatory. Albums like Raising Hell, Paid in Full and Paul’s Boutique made me feel, at 12 years old, like everything in the world was within my grasp. I assume that kids these days feel the same way too.

In fact, I know for a fact that they feel the same way. I’ve gone to lots of hip hop shows at the Phoenix. And I haven’t seen as much empowerment, positivity and unity in one room in the last five years as I have at some of those Super Hyphy shows, crazy to say. Whatever your take on the style performed, there’s no denying that those shows provide a face-to-face opportunity for teenagers to relate to each other in a positive way with music that is distinctly theirs. If you strip kids of that opportunity, you’re not only erasing from their lives some of the most important memories they’ll have of coming of age, but also saying that you don’t trust them to feel like individuals or to form their own opinions. What kinda shit is that?

Ultimately, anyone trying to ban or acquiescing to media pressure to ban hip hop—clubs that change their DJs, radio stations that change their format—they’re all just gonna look like total fools in the end. Hip hop is the most alive and popular form of music in the world. It has been for years and years. You could say, harking back to the same damn thing that happened 50 years ago, that it’s here to stay.

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A few final things: I actually feel for the writer of the newspaper article; not a lot of people are aware that staff writers don’t come up with the headlines for their own articles. Blame the editor. And also, the first show that the Phoenix postponed was an Andre Nickatina appearance scheduled for the incredibly inconvenient hour of 3:00 in the afternoon, put on by Nickatina himself, which for some stupid reason cost an astronomical $35. No big loss.



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