John Legend is a hard working performer. His two-hour concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa last night showed off not only his work ethic, but showcased his velvety voice and storytelling prowess in an intimate setting that was designed to feel like his living room. The only difference being, as the exquisitely dressed singer said during the show, “I don’t normally wear a suit in my living room.”
He really hammed it up at times for the crowd, who ate up his every word—except the gaff toward the end, when he said, “I mean, this is the Napa Valley, right?” This led to applause, briefly (because he was so charming, everything he said resulted in applause), but soon turned to boos. That’s right, Sonomans are so passionate about terrior they booed John Legend for making a minor geographical error. When he corrected his error with an embarrassed smile, “Oh, Sonoma Valley, right?” the applause resumed.
He mostly sat at the Yamaha grand piano, tickling the ivories with a young string quartet on the right of the stage and a guitarist to the left. When he brought the mic downstage and perched on a stool to serenade the crowd, women—and men—started squirming in their seats. Every John Legend song is a recipe for “making little tax breaks,” as he says, and though he doesn’t guarantee anything at the end of the night, “ya know…” he trails off before a knowing shrug, “you know.”
The intimate evening was staged with five loveseats occupied by couples who won tickets through radio promotions, with huge Hollywood movie lights towering above, lighting Legend from the back. Lighting against the back wall changed colors, and was especially useful during “Green Light,” one of his best songs of the night. The sound in the newly renovated space was crisp and loud. It felt like a larger space, but we were so close we could see the lack of sweat on Legend’s face. (Prince also lacks sweat glands, maybe they went to the same voodoo doctor for their musical talent.)
Women did a lot of the hooting and hollering through the night, but the fellas were cheering especially boisterously after a powerful solo piano cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” He told a aw-shucks story about performing it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at the behest of that show’s musical director, the drummer ?uestlove, but never hearing if the Boss liked it or not. Months later, he says, he received a hand-signed letter asking him to play it at an awards gala. “I guess he liked it,” Legend said with a smile.
He paced the show perfectly, with some segments featuring three or four songs back to back, and some getting breaks between while he told stories. My favorite was when he met President Obama last year. After getting married to supermodel Christine Teigen earlier in the year, he asked Obama for marriage advice. Michelle chimed in, “How long had you been together before you got married?” He said about five years. “What took you so long?” the President asked, which earned Legend a glare from his new wife. Legend turned to the chuckling crowd, deadpan, and said, “Thanks, President Obama.”
The cyclical nature of revolution songs is undeniable. Take a song from 100 years ago and it will be, at least in part, relevant today. Take, for example, the songs of Irish revolutionary James Connolly.
Mat Callahan, who fronted the San Francisco political punk/worldbeat band the Looters in the 80s, has compiled a book of Connolly’s music from original publications long thought lost to history. The book is put together well, with just enough history to give a sense of Connolly’s importance but relying mostly on the man’s own words from his music, all of which was written over 100 years ago. Connolly, a leading Marxist theorist in his day and was executed by the British in 1916.
Callahan and his wife Yvonne Moore, who now call Switzerland home, performed about a dozen songs on acoustic guitar and vocals at the Arlene Francis Center Friday night. The performance was the most punk rock thing I’ve seen all year, and will hold that title for at least a while. The duo sent a frozen shiver down my spine with lines like, “The people’s flag is deepest red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead; and ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.”
Santa Rosan Robert Ethington opened the show with original songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by his wife Amy on vocals. They played a handful of powerful songs, suggesting they’d be a treat to see as a headlining act.
The album, “Songs of Freedom,” includes fully orchestrated versions of the songs Callahan and Moore played Friday night. It’s got Callahan’s worldbeat sensibility and arrangement, with guitar, bass, drums, Irish whistles, pipes, vocal harmony, fiddle, accordion and harp. The production is excellent, and the arrangements are updated to modern sensibility without losing their original feeling. Some tunes to Connolly’s songs were lost, so Callahan wrote original music to his lyrics. It serves to note that Connolly’s main purpose of putting these revolutionary words to music was for people to sing them and remember them, so many of the tunes are actually traditional country songs or somewhat hokey, simple melodies. They sound best when sung with 100 of your closest, most fed-up-with-the-system friends.
Get the book and CD here. It’s perfect for fans of history, revolution and Mat Callahan, each of which is equally important.
Thanks a lot, Beyoncé. Your secret album, released Friday, Dec. 13 at midnight only on iTunes, has royally fucked up everyone’s “best albums of 2013” lists.
Your album of 14 fantastic songs and 17 stunning and super sexy videos has thrown a wrench into the giant cogs of the music industry. You’re like the new Charlie Chaplin in our “Modern Times” (Bey, I’m really happy for you, and Im’a let you finish, but Charlie Chaplin had one of the greatest movies of all time. Of all time!). This complete surprise to everyone, including music industry insiders, had no promotion, zero buzz, nary a tweet before its release, and it sold 80,000 copies in its first three hours—midnight to 3am EST. It sold over 617,000 copies in the United States and over 828,000 worldwide in its first three days, purely in digital format. Only the whole album was available, no singles, and it cost $16. That means over $13 million was spent in three days for something that doesn’t exist in the physical world (that comes this Friday). You probably pocketed more than $6 million in three days. You win the music business, now onto the actual music.
Let’s take a look at just a few songs, here. Taking a cue from your videos, Beyoncé, we will tease the shit out of our audience to the point where further action is required, like in “Partition,” when you dance in a bejeweled string bikini with another woman in a jail cell with fuzzy rubber bars under sexy leopard print lights while your husband, Jay Z, watches, smoking a cigar in a movie theater seat.
“Blow,” which has been confirmed as one of the first two singles on the album, is a poppy disco number, taking the “Get Lucky” baton from Daft Punk and turning it into an even more sexual object than it already was. You stroll in to a roller disco in denim bikini bottoms, then cut away to a dance number under blacklight with dancers in half of a neon ‘80s workout outfit. I’m so confused when the those bubblegum-pop sound effects happen behind naughty lyrics that the FCC can’t do a damn thing about. “You can eat my Skittles, it’s the sweetest in the middle,” you proclaim. “Pink is the flavor: solve the riddle,” you suggest with a wink, leaving millions of parents struggling to come up with a suitable answer when their children ask what that answer might be.
Perhaps that was your goal. You’re a woman who is more than comfortable with her sexuality, a feminist that likes to show off her body. Perhaps it was your intention to start that conversation early in young girls’ lives, give them a role model and a reason to be comfortable with their own bodies. Or maybe you just wanted to shoot some really hot videos with your husband on the beach, as is the case in “Drunk in Love,” the second single off the album. In a black and white beach scene at night, you’re acting a little buzzed, stumbling around in a bikini with a huge trophy. You sing with that power growl in your voice before getting soft and tender, just like I do when I’m drunk. Your husband comes into the scene and raps about domestic violence champions Mike Tyson and Ike Turner before redeeming himself with the line, “Your breastseses are my breakfastses.” And even that complete, ahem, buzzkill, doesn’t diminish the sexiness of this video one bit.
Superpower, your duet with Frank Ocean, just had to happen. You saw someone with a voice almost as good as yours, and took it from him like Ursula the Sea Witch (and now a “Little Mermaid” reference? Yes. Deal with it). What did you promise him in return? He already has legs—wait, was that it? Did you give him legs? Anyway, the video takes place in a post-revolution world where everyone is dressed really well, lighting fires in cars, spray painting escalators in abandoned shopping malls, waving flags of no particular affiliation. You gave your fellow Destiny’s Child stars top billing here, perhaps it’s a nod to your subversive move in releasing this album your way and not getting fucked over by the music industry. You’re taking charge and bringing your like-minded fashionistas with you. The fact that your crew stops just short of clashing with riot police in the end of the video shows that you’re willing to let the other side change with you rather than suffer the bloody violence of an all-out war. Because blood isn’t as sexy as black mascara.
When it was time to get vulnerable, which is one of the greatest things about this album, by the way, you chose Drake to make that happen. “Mine” starts with a confession and a question, “I haven’t felt like myself since the baby. Are we even gonna make it?” Wow, that’s powerful stuff, even if you weren’t half of a music biz supercouple. The contemporary dance number is interrupted by Drake, who sounds like he’s singing a Drake song into a telephone, before jumping back to your point of view. I like that you put the man’s perspective in there, too. I like more that you even made sure to keep the emotional and fragile song as sexy as possible. It really ties the whole album together.
You say this whole thing was an attempt to show your vision with nobody standing in your way. You cited Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as an influence and example of what you were going for. It’s one thing to cite the best pop song (and music video) ever made as your guide, but it’s another to do it 17 times and release it all at once. Your dedication, hard work and confidence smacks me in the face when I imagine how much effort it is for me sometimes to get off the couch and make dinner instead of calling for a pizza. You released the album while on tour supporting your previous album. That takes balls. You’ve got balls, Beyoncé. You’ve solidified your place not just among great pop stars, but great artists. Here’s hoping this is the shakeup the music industry needed to stop recycling the same boring ideas and pump some fresh life into the bigwigs at the top.
Treasure Island Music Festival is more than just music, it’s an experience. The festival is so well produced that it wouldn’t be difficult to have a good time having never heard of any of the bands playing. The seventh incarnation of the two-day festival wrapped up yesterday, and it was another beaming success. In addition to music, there is a shopping area, arts and crafts tent, zine and comic library, silent disco (live DJ spinning for wireless headphone-wearing listeners), food trucks, a Ferris wheel, bubbles and the best people watching money can buy. Wow, that last part sounded creepy, but you get the idea.
But there’s also music—lots of it. Each stage is timed down to the minute, so there is never a dull moment. There’s also never a moment to let the ears relax, and the only booth with earplugs was selling them for a buck a pair. Note for next year, guys: GIVE AWAY FREE EARPLUGS.
I’ve listed some favorites and least favorites, not based on the quality of their set (I’m sure there are fans of the bands who might think it was the band’s best performance ever), but on entertainment quality from an outside perspective. I must stress that even what I found to be the most banal of musical performances still turned out to be quite entertaining.
Little Dragon: 3.5/5 Good stage presence and real instruments made this a highlight on a day of laptop-driven DJ tunes and pumping bass. Singer Yukimi Nagano flows musically and visually as the leader of this electronic music group. They split the difference with a live drummer playing an electronic drum kit.Danny Brown: 3.5/5 Once the sound engineer figured out how to properly mix rap vocals (it took a couple songs), Danny Brown’s nasally, violent delivery emerged and piqued the ears of festivalgoers that might not have come specifically to see the last-minute replacement for Tricky. The early performance was a good boost of live human energy to contrast the repetitive bass and synthesizer drum sounds the rest of the day had in store.
Saturday’s Least Favorites
Disclosure: 2/5 In haiku: such low energy / could not keep my eyes open / what was that you said?
STRFKR: 4.5/5 Not surprised that this electro-indie group was top notch, but surprised at how well their albums translated to live performance. They know their music is, at times, slow to develop. But they spruce up the show with visuals, like two dudes in padded sumo suits going at it for a couple tunes. They even played along with the bits, and it didn’t sacrifice the quality of the music.
James Blake: 4/5 Great soundtrack for the day shifting gears into cold night. Focused songs had energy in their own way, giving a nice break from nonstop dancing. Blake is an excellent performer whose passion is evident when he plays. His songs feature piano and good songwriting, a timeless, classic combination.Haim: 4/5 Wow. These girls rocked harder than anyone at the festival. The three sisters and their male drummer had a sound reminiscent of Prince, during his more rocking moments, and even captured some funk to go with it. Their “girl power” shtick was a little heavy at times, like when they spoke at length how they now know what Beyonce feels like when the wind blows hair into their mouths, and when they squealed with delight when handed candy from the crowd. But I’m not a young girl, so maybe it was indeed the perfect concert set for their target audience. Either way, it was impressive.
Sunday’s least favorites:
Animal Collective: 1.5/5 Sometimes art is so conceptual that it goes over my head. I was hoping this was the case with Animal Collective, and at one point I actually asked a friend if they knew what the point was supposed to be. Nobody knew. I’m not sure Animal Collective knew. A very cool stage set (inflatable teeth with individual projections made the stage look like a gigantic open mouth) and light show helped slightly, but the music was so repetitive and the melodies so simply and leading nowhere that I left to watch football about two-thirds of the way through. I still heard the music (it was impossible not to from anywhere on the island, really), and still was not impressed.
Here was the moment at the Courtney Love show last night, and it was brief: right after “Violet,” there’s the usual applause and all, but then it comes back, and surges into a roar, like the crowd all agrees to just cheer the shit out of Courtney Love for, I don’t know, being through hell, most of it self-inflicted, and being murdered by the media, and having her daughter taken away once or twice, and the Kurt thing, but living through it against the odds, and now, playing a sparsely-populated show in some fuckin’ chicken town, and showing up in a silver cutaway jumpsuit and bare feet and way-fake boobs and ratty blonde hair, and actually smiling while singing lines like “I always wanted to die”—and then, during this spontaneous burst of love from the crowd, Courtney Love, 49 years old, looks out into the Phoenix Theater, coyly grins, then visibly swells with gratitude, cocks her head and blows a kiss, serious as a heart attack.
You know how you see a band that’s famous for being sloppy, or mad at each other, or too drunk, but then there’s the one night they’re super tight, or just happy, or sober, and it’s like “THIS is what this band always could be but now finally, gloriously is“? That was Courtney Love last night at the Phoenix, accepting three bouquets of roses when she hit the stage, opening the set with “Plump,” screaming the lines “IT MAKES ME SICK” like the screech of a malfunctioning tractor and, at the end of the song, looking down at the monitor and telling the soundman: “I just blew a speaker.”
She started as a wave, rolling in from far out in the ocean. She built up steam and, halfway through the show, her jokes began to land with explosions of laughter. Anjelah Johnson is more than a one-joke pony–this California comedian’s built to last.
Slipping seamlessly between “normal” and her lovable ghetto gurrrl voiced-characters, Johnson was a quick study for the audience at Napa’s Uptown Theater last night. Some hilarious jokes were performed so quick and nonchalantly that the audience, largely unfamiliar with much of the culture she was referencing, probably would have laughed even harder had they grown up in a more diverse area. Her opening joke nailed this sentiment. “I’ve never been to Napa before,” says the Mexican comedian who grew up in San Jose before moving to Los Angeles. “I thought it would be more…” and she made a snooty duck face. You know, the ones on every teenager’s Facebook page, but influenced by a glass of wine and a sense of entitlement. Before anyone starts up the hate train, I stress that she said it wasn’t like that. Unbundle your undies, already.
I’m going to sandwich a bit about Kabir Singh’s set in the middle because I don’t want anyone to miss it. This Indian comedian opened the night with hillarious riffs on Indian culture, among other topics. He’s very loud and energetic and it’s tough not to like him. Besides that, his jokes are great. One of my favorites was Indians bargaining: “Even an Indian getting mugged would bargain. ‘I’m gonna shoot you!’ ‘Ok, buddy, how about you just stab me and we call it a day, huh?’”
Johnson recently married a Christian rapper, who was on hand to pose for pictures with everyone leaving the theater. If you search Instagram, just type “Anjelah Johnson’s hudband”–this will yield more results than his name, surely, which I still don’t know. Even though she once had a whole joke about the oxymoronic music genre that is Christian rap, Johnson (and her huge, sparkly diamond ring) seems quite happy with the turn of events. Her jokes about moving in and starting a life together were not as brutal as they could have been. Maybe her biggest peeve was her husband’s use, once, of her toothbrush. “I never even thought of that as an option,” she says.
Johnson mostly went with new material, but a few Raiderettes in the crowd, waving pom poms after the best jokes, caught her attention. She busted out some moves (she was a Raiders cheerleader in 2003 when the team went to the Super Bowl), and even made a Raiders joke (the punchline was, essentially, the Raiders). The Raiders fan in the front row could not argue, and even took off his hat in a moment of shame.
She saved her “hits” for the end, busting out the characters of Bon Qui Qui and the Nail Salon Lady while showing T-Shirts and even a 3-song rap CD featuring the characters. She rapped along with some of it over the sound system and said the idea was picked up by Atlantic Records and to expect a full-length effort soon. With all her skills (she’s a talented dancer, singer and rapper in addition to being ridiculously funny), it’s a wonder she hasn’t landed more movie roles or her own TV show (though she does a significant amount of voice acting). If this album news is true, it could be the crossover hit that cements her career. Hey, good music is good, and good music that’s funny is often even more entertaining.
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“You know how many hits I got? We could be here all night.”
Ears ringing. Laying on the couch. Can’t sleep.
“Sign ‘o’ the Times” riff stuck in head on endless repeat.
Still thinking about the silhouette of his hair against the blue lights.
THWACK! at the screen door. What the…?
Oh, right. It’s the next day’s newspaper.
A steamrolled body, an obliterated brain, both riding out an adrenaline buzz: this is how I finally went to bed last night after Prince’s final show of a two-night, four-show stand at the small, 800-capacity DNA Lounge in San Francisco.
Was it worth it, you ask? Tickets were $275, the wait in line was two hours, about 50 line-jumpers cut in front of us drinking and smoking weed, and as a half-naked guy rollerskated up and down Harrison St., the doors finally opened. Inside, there was a strict no-photo policy during the show, and it was impossible to move—people packed in shoulder-to-shoulder—while idling out another hour-long wait.
Prince finally took the stage at 11:40pm. . . . and Lord, it was fucking incredible.
How I’ve gone this long without seeing Nick Cave live is beyond me, especially since I’ve always… well, “always been a fan” wouldn’t be accurate. (I own three of his albums.) More truthful would be to say that Nick Cave’s music has never, ever irritated me. Considering Cave’s extensive output, that’s saying something. Combine it with the full-blown “holy shit” moments his songs have given to me—like hearing “Nobody’s Baby Now” while nursing a $1 PBR at EJ’s in Portland, in 1997—well, Nick Cave finally demanded to be seen live.
If you’ve seen him, you know. If you haven’t, imagine a rail-thin circus ringmaster whipping a band of lions not out of but into aggressiveness. A flamboyant offspring of Valentino and Satan, Cave channels 55 years of romantic bandwidth into sharp, stinging things called “songs,” which are more like forays across continents than things you might sing in the shower. These forays are not for the faint of heart, or, evidently, for the young: tonight, he had a children’s choir backing him up, and when they exited the stage, they covered their ears and looked terrified.
EUROPA HOTEL, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
MARCH 16, 2013
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Europa Hotel. Tonight, this is the best place in the world to be.”
Truer words were never spoken. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I discovered Van Morrison would be playing a) during my trip to Ireland, b) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, c) in his hometown of Belfast, d) in a tiny 250-seat venue and e) that I was able to get a ticket. Granted, it was £140, but seriously, was there ever a question?
It was an eclectic crowd, pretty much the norm for a Van show. Some were dressed to the nines to honor the occasion, some looked to have paid nine dollars for their duds. My hopes, though, were that they were all actual fans who would appreciate the event properly, not just there to be part of something. I guessed that I might be the only single at my table, but my seatmate was Alan, who had flown over from Denmark for his first Van concert, a definite fan. I thought perhaps I’d traveled the furthest, from Northern California, but apparently there was someone there from Australia. More fans, a good sign.
Shana Morrison was there to help out pop and she “opened” the show with an abridged version of the band, doing three quick numbers, including “And It Stoned Me” and a kickass “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” With barely a break, the rest of the band was onstage and broke into the intro for “Only A Dream.” With a simple “Van Morrison” from one of the band, the man appeared—and magic happened.
“Wow, this sounds a lot like Black Sabbath” was the first thought that popped into my head last night at the Fuzz show in San Francisco. “These long haired dudes kinda look like Black Sabbath, too,” I thought. “But that drummer isn’t hiding behind two bass drums and only has two cymbals. And there’s no singer. This is really, really great! I never liked Ozzy’s voice, and these guys sound like a way bigger band than just a three-piece.” But all these great conversation starters were wasted on my own mind, however, because Ty Segall’s latest musical venture was so damn loud nobody in the Knockout would have heard a stampede of elephants running down Mission Street.
Despite what it sounded like, there was only one guitarist, Charles Moothart. Segall is really the one known for cranking out the rockingest rock with his incredible his guitar tones, but here he’s on drums. More on that later. Moothart’s appropriately fuzzy guitar was fat, so fat, in fact, that it shook my ribcage. Maybe it was a warning, like by body was saying, This Is Almost Too Much Rock, Be Careful. His solos were tasty, like hot jam dripping off a shortbread biscuit tasty. And then there was the hair–so much hair, it was everywhere.
Now Segall, who is a guitarist in something like three other bands, might be on the hook for battery if those drums decide to press charges. He beat them like they owed him money, like they insulted his mother, like they keyed his 1967 Mustang. His ferocity did not dimish the speed of the band’s last song, which kept a blistering pace for four times longer than most punk songs. Not only this, but he sang for some of the songs, most of which were new and will probably have lyrics soon.
The crowd at this Noisepop show may have been a little too hip for its own good. The feeling on the tiny dance floor was that familiar precipice of moshing, where either age, vanity or self consciousness kept people from truly smashing into each other like idiots. Instead, a couple of buzzed dudes in gingham shirts sort of pushed each other around a little, eliciting nervous smiles from the wary crowd around them. In a different setting, this would be the ultimate circle pit band.
Co-headling was OGB III, who took the stage after Fuzz. This band was delicious, filled with ooey-gooey cheese and mushy, fatty pork. Slathered in curtido and spicy salsa, they were too hot at first, but soon went down smooth with a cold Mexican beer. No, wait, that was the pupusas at Los Panchos. No offense to OGB III, but nothing was going to top what we had just seen and heard, and we wanted to leave on the highest note possible.
On a side note, local group Blasted Canyons opened, and were pissed off the whole time about, among other things, their monitor mix. Their playing reflected this attitude it in a bad way. But on the plus side, they did have an Oberheim synthesizer, which is high on the list of things that make really cool sounds. The Knockout is a great bar, with plenty of character and a decent dance floor and stage. It’s too loud and really small, which usually makes every show better. This night was no exception.