I guess the best way to describe Nellie McKay’s show last night is this: in one minute, she pounded the hell out of her keyboard and screamed into the microphone, “Die, motherfucker, die!!” And in the next minute, she picked up a tiny ukelele and sang a beautiful, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop version of the jazz standard, “If I Had You.”
To a half-full house, Nellie McKay thrilled the Mystic Theater with a firestorm show of original songs from all ends of the spectrum, proving herself yet again as one of the craziest and talented songwriters around today. But it was McKay’s selection of cover songs that offset her quirky material in perfect fashion. “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins, was sung in an amazingly authentic old-British-lady voice, along with “I Love to Laugh,” from the same soundtrack.
After her own topical songs about gay marriage, animal rights and feminism, McKay turned to the crowd and announced, “Here’s a song about illegal immigration!”
The song? “Don’t Fence Me In.”
In a similar sly maneuver, McKay performed the old Ella Fitzgerald tune “Vote for Mr. Rhythm,” with the lines: “Vote for Mr. Rhythm / Let freedom ring / Then we’ll all be singing / Of thee I swing.” This led into a mild he’ll-have-to-do endorsement of Obama—which then mutated into a ferociously passionate endorsement of Ralph Nader (??!). McKay even gyrated with mock lust when she described talking to Nader on the phone, and went on and on about how he’s full of great ideas, and sort of, like, failed to mention his overshadowing legacy to this country of viciously crippling the Democratic Party in the most important election ever. “Oh. Hey!” McKay exclaimed, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Does anyone here have chipmunks?”
As those who’ve seen her before can attest, McKay is plainly talented. . . and firmly sardonic about it. At one point, the crowd began hooting at a particularly flashy piano solo. “Oh, I’m just faking it!” McKay protested, and then went into a series of famous piano quotes—“Für Elise,” “Take the A Train”—to demonstrate? To refute? Who can tell?
Dressed in a red tasseled flapper dress and playing a Roland keyboard, McKay also told the crowd a long story—in a zombie voice, no less—about her grandma who used to drive up from the armpit of the Bay Area known as Milpitas after it took that title from Pacifica to come to Petaluma to sell Tupperware to ladies in Petaluma and she’d drive her Ford Galaxie which ran so smooth you could balance a dime on the hood and it was the same car her mom would drive years later when she was on acid and it was a great car but the terrible thing is that when her grandma left the ladies from Petaluma said they’d send her the money for the Tupperware but then they never did.
McKay’s own material, like set opener “Ding Dong” and encore “Clonie,” was brilliant as always. “Mother of Pearl,” with its 5,000 tongues in cheek about feminists not having a sense of humor, brought the house down, and “Work Song” turned into a three-part audience sing-along at the end. Nice also to hear “I Wanna Get Married,” previously discussed as a possible Gertrude Niesen tribute, and probably my favorite Nellie McKay song of all time, “Manhattan Avenue.”
Nellie McKay plays this Saturday at the Outside Lands Fetsival; be sure to haul ass from the Lupe Fiasco stage to catch her set.
First of all, the prize of the night I think goes to the young kid in a wheelchair who, while his friends formed a wall around him to guard him against flailing bodies, tilted his head back and sang along to every line of “Born to Die.”
Never mind that MDC slowed the song down to half-speed, or that they changed the lyrics to “I Remember,” or that they said fuck it to the iconic bass intro to “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” or that they sang entirely different lyrics to “Chock Full of Shit,” or that they kinda mangled “Chicken Squawk” or that in fact they played their first five songs acoustically. MDC were still great, and despite revisiting just about all of side one of their first and best album, 1982’s Millions of Dead Cops, they didn’t have the pathetic reliving-the-past feel like so many other old punk bands still on the touring circuit today.
Personal data: Dave Dictor is almost as old as my dad.
“I spent most of the late ’90s in a methamphetamine haze,” Dictor announced to the crowd, about 4 or 5 songs into the set. “Walking around the streets of San Francisco, wearing this big yellow rubber poncho, pushing a shopping cart. Those were my peeps. But you know, I got into rehab“—spitting out the word like it was an obscenity—”and got myself straightened out.”
How could we have not guessed that Dave Dictor was gay? “America’s So Straight,” “My Family is a Little Weird,” his flamboyant costumes and incessant prancing around on stage in the ’80s? “There’ve been people coming up to me tonight,” he told the crowd, “reminding me about playing the Cotati Cabaret in 1988. And apparently I took all my clothes off, and traded underwear with a girl.” See?
Personal data: One of the first songs I learned on the guitar was the entire flamenco solo intro to “Chock Full of Shit” from Millions of Damn Christians.
Even when MDC ditched their acoustic guitars and started playing loud, it still wasn’t, uh, “loud.” But listen to their records—they’re not loud either. MDC: the sheep in wolf’s clothing. They always were kind of a hippie band. The message of health food and sustainability in the liner notes to the Millions of Dead Children 7″? Ahead of its time.
Some guy brought a zucchini the size of a bazooka from the gardens and stood in front of the stage, beaming. It wasn’t long before it wound up smashed and battered on the floor under the shoes of the pit. “My mom always told me not to play with food,” quipped Dictor. The pit wasn’t too out of control.
Personal data: One of the first shows I ever went to, at the River Theater in Guerneville, was MDC playing with All, Nuisance, and a very young and very stoned opening band called Green Day. It was September 23, 1989. I was 13.
I wandered outside near the set’s end. MDC has a reputation for playing long-ass sets, and I figured I’d try to stave off potential boredom. Plus there was some crazy acoustic music emanating from the campfire, like there usually is, so I walked over and there it was: a bongo player, a trombone player, a saxophone player, and a beatboxer. A small kitten meowed along. The Boogie Room is amazing. Amazing, I say!
Quotes of the Night:
Young punk girl, with a cigarette, to a mellow-looking guy in blonde dreadlocks: “Hey! Are you the hippie who told me not to smoke?”
40-year-old guy to MDC’s drummer, before the show: “I graduated in ’86, and I listened to you every day! You guys are the best, man!”
Guy to another guy, outside after the show: “Consider that you might not be allowed to come back here, okay?! Do you realize what you’re doing?”
Girl, leaning out of her car: “Hey, do you want to punch me in the face for $8?”
And it’s not a quote, but I’m always heartened—I don’t know why, I’m too young to legitimately care—to see a Jak’s jacket in the throng:
I bought a Millions of Dead Cops cassette for $5 and walked back to my car. Came home and listened to Horace Silver. The next morning, I smelled like shligs and had weeds in my hair. Right on.
Greetings from the drizzly grey skies of Dublin, Ireland, where last night I saw the greatest Tom Waits show I’ve ever seen, hands down, holy shit, it was INCREDIBLE.
We actually saw Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen on the street in downtown Dublin yesterday, before the show, coming out of the Georges Arcade. Said hi, kept walking. Running into them on the street isn’t such a rare thing back home in California, but it is a truly surreal thing on the other side of the world.
You want surreal? How about a six-tiered circus tent in the middle of a park? ‘Cause that’s where Waits played last night. Christened “The Ratcellar,” it was every bit the Barnum & Bailey spectacle you’d think: purple and yellow stripes, a grand marqueed entrance, red velvet curtains, raked seating on all sides. Built just for these shows, Waits booked three nights here, under the big top.
Tom Waits must really love Dublin. The strolling around town, the building of a special tent, the three-night stand—and undoubtedly one of the greatest shows he’s ever performed. Two and a half hours, 26 songs—the set list, below, was unbelievable—and most of the time, he made the enormous tent of 3,000 feel like an intimate parlor. He certainly seemed honored, and more than a little grateful, to be in Dublin.
Tickets to the show were 138 Euro—about $215 each (the highest price I’ve ever paid for tickets). There was a lot of grumbling about this in Dublin. After the show last night, I can’t imagine anyone grumbling about it anymore.
Waits came out to thunderous applause, threw himself and his band into “Lucinda,” and we were off and running. “Raindogs” was a good sign right afterwards, and it soon became apparent that the set had changed drastically from the time I saw him last month in Phoenix: “The Other Side of the World,” from the film Night on Earth, with an excellent flamenco-guitar solo by Omar Torrez, and “I’ll Shoot the Moon” from The Black Rider, with a please-call-me-baby long spiel mocking modern telephone communication. “Your phone is also a camera,” Waits quipped, “but my sunglasses are also a tricycle.”
“This is a song about family reunions,” Waits said next. “I hate family reunions. There’s so much family there. All these people I’ve been avoiding all year show up. . . Uncle Bill, I owe him money. Look away. No, wait, he owes me money! Get his ass over here. And of course, the infamous. . .”—and starting “Cemetery Polka”—“Uncle Vernon, Uncle Vernon, independent as a hog on ice. . . “
“Singapore” wrapped up with Waits falling over horizontally and banging like a kid on the highest keys of a toy piano, ending with a gargantuan gong-like thud that rumbled dramatically throughout the tent, which became the perfect venue for a long, spoken-word freeform about the circus. As the band played “Russian Waltz” in the background, Waits spun taut yarns about carnival characters such as Yodeling Elaine, Funeral Wells, Little Tiny, Poodle Murphy and Tripod (“how he got the name Tripod is another story altogether”). Interspersed with a snippet of “Tabletop Joe,” the inspired number ended with Waits shouting, like a howling broken wino, “Leave the bum! Leave the bum! Leave the bum!”
True to tradition, Waits dissected the various laws, both real and imagined, native to Dublin: “A lot has changed since I was here last,” he said. “It’s now illegal to force a monkey to smoke in Dublin, for example. And it’s against the law to get a fish drunk here! I used to come here just for that.”
Pointing out that the beginnings to many of his songs sound the same, Waits plowed into “God’s Away on Business,” one of many newer songs that benefited from fresh arrangements. Being on the road has invigorated Waits’ more recent material; they’re looser, more open. They breathe more. “Metropolitan Glide,” “Hoist That Rag,” “Lie To Me”—I saw these songs last month in Phoenix and they’ve changed, drastically, for the better. “Hoist That Rag,” in particular, was amazing, with beautiful Stravinskyesque piano solos by Dublin’s own Patrick Warren, possessed electric guitar soloing by Torrez, and blistering saxophone work by a rejuvenated Vincent Henry, playing and joking astride Waits’ youngest son Sullivan on second tenor sax.
On the subject of the band, I gotta say, Casey Waits on drums has come through like no one could have ever imagined. Much like Denardo Coleman backing up Ornette, it seemed a novelty at first, back when Casey was 14—but now, Casey’s grown into his own, and he’s perfect for his dad’s behind-the-beat style. Kudos, my friend. And bassist Seth Ford-Young, who came in just a week or so before the tour to replace Larry Taylor, very well may have secured himself a permanent place in the band. He’s excellent.
The band was given a break when Waits sat down at the piano to deliver the highlight of the night. “This was a request. . .” he announced. “. . . my own request.” A beautiful, beautiful “Tom Traubert’s Blues” ensued, to a ridiculously wild standing ovation. It didn’t stop there. “On the Nickel,” an overlooked gem from Heartattack and Vine, came next, and then “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which slaughtered the sentimental hearts of everyone in the crowd. He started “House Where Nobody Lives,” but then ditched it. “That’s a short one,” he said, “sometimes the short ones are the best. Why don’t we do one we can all sing on?” Alas: “Innocent When You Dream.”
“Green Grass” had Waits in a low whisper, while “Lie to Me” brought him strutting around his dusty pedestal. “Dirt in the Ground” was played in a striking new meter, sort of a 6/8 over a 4/4, as Waits loosely whispered the words in a low, ominous tone, and “Make it Rain” became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the tent started pattering away with raindrops from above. Long, drawn-out, and heavenly, the song came to a close with Waits cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting “Make it rain!” back up to the obliging sky. Upon the final chord, a hailstorm of glitter showered down from the top of the tent. “Good night!” said Waits, and as the crowd bumrushed the stage, he made his way across the entire front row, reaching out over the edge and touching hands with the devoted, clearly overwhelmed.
The three-song encore ended with “Time,” and there was no more perfect way to end the night—except, perhaps, wandering out into the raining Dublin night with 3,000 other fans utterly dumbfounded with bliss. It was about a mile-long walk to the nearest pub to meet up with our ride, and we were soaked. It didn’t matter. Last night was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, and worth every step through every rainy night in any blustery city in the world.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Lucinda / Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well
On the Other Side of the World
I’ll Shoot the Moon
Get Behind the Mule
Cold Cold Ground
Circus / Tabletop Joe
God’s Away on Business
Tom Traubert’s Blues
On the Nickel
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minnneapolis
House Where Nobody Lives (false start)
Innocent When You Dream
Lie to Me
Hoist that Rag
Bottom of the World
Way Down in the Hole
Dirt in the Ground
Make it Rain
Jesus Gonna Be Here
It wasn’t the castle. Nor was it the exquisite views, or the wonderful weather, or the feeling of being in a pastoral renaissance drama. It wasn’t even the awe-inspiring performances, though they ran a tight second.
No, what made Joshua Bell’s appearance at Castello di Amarosa tonight so infinitely remarkable is that during the intermission, while still bathed with perspiration from a dominating run-through of Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Joshua Bell hopped off the stage, strolled down the aisle, and hung out.
Classical musicians do not “hang out.” Classical musicians of Bell’s caliber, especially, do not “hang out.” But there he was, doing just that, hanging out—chatting with fans, charming old ladies, signing programs for young violinists, and taking photos with visibly bowled-over members of the audience.
You don’t get this kind of close camaraderie at Avery Fisher Hall or the Kennedy Center. But in the Napa Valley, Bell thinks to himself: What the hell. I’m at a castle, it’s kinda weird, and these people seem cool. I think I’ll stand over near that cast-iron dragon head under the coat of arms unfurled on the wall and, you know, hang out.
Bell’s casual presence didn’t diminish the absolute seriousness and command he demonstrated on stage just moments before, in an utterly stunning display of precision, taste, and verve alongside the excellent pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Jogging onto the stage in an untucked white shirt, magazine-current haircut and winning smile, Bell raised his bow and dove hungrily into Grieg’s sonata. Containing numerous passages which in the hands of others might be choppy or scratchy, the piece proved a demonstrable showcase for Bell’s glassy smoothness. Flawlessly quick changes from low growls to feathery high notes abounded, and Bell’s final note of Grieg’s second movement—reaching as high as the violin can play—had the gossamer quality of untouched water at dawn.
It may be a cliché to imagine an instrument as an outgrowth of the body, but if so, the cliché begins and ends with Bell. His 1713 Stradivarius protruded from beneath his chin as an extra appendage, a thing incomplete when it is not next to him and—in ways—vice-versa; he played it as if brushing back hair, natural and thorough. His connection was just as strong with Thibaudet, who joined Bell in a telepathic understanding of the piece and of each other, handling his end with a marvelous touch at the piano.
Bell has been performing the Grieg sonata for some time now, and it’s high time he recorded it. No doubt the crowd tonight would nominate Thibaudet as his studio mate. At the end, after the intricate plucking and ferocious dance passages of the third movement, the audience was on their feet, bringing the pair back to the stage for three separate sets of bows—all of them more than deserved.
Opening the concert was soprano Lisa Delan, in a light purple dress with thin straps, singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Four Dickinson Songs. A moving and often daring musical adaptation of four Emily Dickinson poems, the work nonetheless received a lukewarm reception, despite Delan’s dramatic interpretive ability. After the intermission, Thibaudet returned to the stage with the Rossetti String Quartet for a perfectly thrilling Piano Quintet in F Minor by Brahms. Like Bell’s performance, it was joined somewhat charmingly by the near-constant sound of birds chirping in the sky above the castle’s great outdoor room.
Festival del Sole co-founder Barrett Wissman was in a cream-colored suit jacket and black slacks, nursing a plastic cup of red wine; his wife, the cellist Nina Kotova, wore a chic black dress, diamond earrings and a gigantic amethyst necklace that attracted comments every ten feet or so. The Castello di Amarosa, too, was done up nicely; even the posts holding up the stage tent were covered in a faux stone to match the castle walls, as film crews from PBS were on hand, recording for a special.
But it was the close atmosphere and the proximity to greatness that defined the evening. In fact, at one point, while poking around upstairs, who should I see through a small stone window but Joshua Bell himself, in the castle’s dressing room, blowdrying his hair. It was a strange and beautiful moment, and one that I was glad I had my camera for.
All in all, it was a truly memorable night. More photos below.
No other band suffers such a disparity between their widely perceived “one hit” and their actual creative prowess as Los Lobos. It’s still one of the great misconceptions in rock and roll: while Los Lobos’ albums Kiko, Colossal Head and Good Morning Aztlan rank amongst the most invigorating and exciting listening experiences of the last fifteen years, drunk accountants in Cabo Wabo T-shirts at the Marin Fair last night still yelled for “La Bamba.”
“Not yet, man,” countered Cesar Rosas, no doubt resigned to the request by now. “If we play it, you’ll all leave!”
No true Los Lobos fan really gives a damn about hearing “La Bamba”—I’ve seen them twice before, and they didn’t play it, and no one asked for their money back. But a County Fair is a different story altogether, and Los Lobos knows this. So you’ve gotta hope that the old trick worked; namely, saving the payoff until the end, while in the meantime providing a look into one of the great catalogs of American music.
I, for one, am completely enamored of Los Lobos, which puts me in the company of bugeyed ex-Deadheads, aging Latino expatriates from L.A., and Sierra Nevada-swillin’ dudes with hairy shoulders. So be it. I love Los Lobos fans, if only to imagine them crawling into work the next morning, bedraggled in the best possible way, while their coworkers chug lattes and try to out-chipper each other with peppy chitchat.
Indeed, the large tent at the Marin Fair—on an island in the middle of a man-made lake—was packed with people preparing to feel like crap the next day. Dancing, swaying, drinking, singing along, and having the time of their life on the ever-festive last night of the fair. At certain moments, such as the ferocious three-way soloing pinnacle David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Louie Pérez achieved in “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” it felt like the entire tent might explode.
Other highlights included “Short Side of Nothing,” “The Neighborhood,” “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” and “This Time”—the latter of which Hidalgo started, then looked puzzled for a second, and finally asked the crowd, “Hey. . . who knows the first verse?”
If I’m not mistaken, the band played nothing from Colossal Head nor Good Morning Aztlan, but it didn’t matter—they’re so good live, and so dependent on how they play, that it’s somewhat negligible what they play. A few cumbias, a long blues jam, some newer songs, a guest saxophonist, and hey, they still rule.
If there’s any shrug to be had with the set, it’s that it was almost identical to the last time I saw Los Lobos, an entire five years ago. Then as now, covers included Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” as well as a sing-along of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” segueing into the Dead’s “Bertha,” which sent the twirl brigade off and spinning on the fringes of the island.
But it was the final cover of the night that really lit people up: an encore of “La Bamba.” I made my way around the crowd and saw nothing but smiling, laughing, and getting down; and to my surprise, the aforementioned drunk accountant knew every Spanish word of the song. When Los Lobos seized on the chord progression and interpolated the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” the place went nuts. How can you argue?
I got a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, watched the fireworks, rode the Merry-Go-Round, and then walked along the railroad tracks, to the rhythm of the bassline of Colossal Head‘s “Revolution,” stuck in my head, back to my car.
(P.S. Steve Berlin, if you are reading this—I’ve always wanted to ask if you’ve got any idea whether Lee Allen intentionally quoted both “Andalucia” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo” during his saxophone solo for “Roll ‘Em Pete” on the Blasters’ live EP, Over There, or if it was merely a musical accident. I’m totally serious—it’s plagued me for over ten years. Any clue?)
Early on in Thursday night’s show in San Jose, George Michael thanked the rapturous crowd for sticking with him for 25 years. “Lord knows it’s not always easy being a George Michael fan,” he admitted, a self-deprecating statement which could be taken a number of ways—as either a reference to repeated tabloid scandals, or to his lingering reputation as a boy-toy manufactured pop star, or to the fact that he hasn’t toured in America since 1991. For me, the only thing hard about being a George Michael fan is the fact that the hands-down greatest singer-songwriter of my youth has made nothing but totally dull music in the last 15 years. Face it—after Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, it was all downhill.
But the stuff from that album and prior—including almost everything that Wham! did—represents, to me, a special pinnacle in pop music. Admittedly, my opinion is largely due to the fact that I was about 10 when Wham! was at their peak. I went to the Faith tour at the Shoreline Amphitheater in 1988, and as I grew up, George Michael was one of the first pop stars that I watched grow up, and get “mature,” and assimilate other sounds and attitudes into their music. Witnessing the ceremonial torching of his pretty-boy image in the video to “Freedom ‘90” coincided perfectly with my discovery of the Dead Kennedys and the idea that the mainstream music industry was actually a completely corrupt system.
But ultimately, George Michael has written more perfectly constructed pop songs and conveyed more complex sorrow and joy than any pop star on the charts since his relative disappearance thereof in the early 1990s. In his day, George Michael’s accomplishments put him in a category all his own; a star with an inimitable voice who brought a great deal of credibility to pop music.
So back to America Michael came roaring, and during a two-hour show, he gave his patient fans what they wanted. After opening appropriately with “Waiting (Reprise),” Michael tagged onto the end of “Fastlove” a brief portent of total and complete disappointment. By interweaving a murky techno version of his Wham! hit, “I’m Your Man,” onto the end of the dance number “Fastlove”—and then ending it after the first verse—it seemed early on that we’d be treated to an all-too-common occurrence in concerts of has-beens who perform shittier versions of their old hits in medley form. It was worrisome.
But only for a second. “Just kidding!” laughed Michael, and with that, the enormous screens exploded with black & white images from old Wham! videos. The 10-piece band and six-member backup choir erupted into the original version of “I’m Your Man,” and the packed arena became a huge party of huge, beautiful, ridiculous joy. I’ve never seen so many hella frumpy-ass Oprah fans losing their minds at once.
“Pretend it’s 1984!” Michael shouted. “Look at the person next to you and imagine them with five times more hair!”
The extended version of “Everything She Wants” continued the arena-wide sing-along, and the back-to-back renditions of “One More Try” and “A Different Corner” were like a wrenching emotional slaughter. After a 20-minute break, “Faith” kicked off the second set, and against all odds, it’s wasn’t actually the most unnecessary song of the night—that dubious honor would go to a cover of the Police’s “Roxanne,” which no one in their right mind ever wants to hear again.
During the second set, Michael turned more towards his post-Listen Without Prejudice dance numbers. “How many people here are from San Francisco?” he asked, relating that the first day he landed in America, he’d turned on the TV and seen same-sex couples getting married. He then announced that “this song is for my partner, Kenny,” and performed “Amazing,” a dippy reminder of how contented happiness and artistic decline can go hand-in-hand.
But the dance numbers ebbed during the perfect encores, which included a stripped-down version of “Praying for Time,” an obligingly true-to-form “Careless Whisper,” and a rousing closer in “Freedom ’90.” Driving home the two hours back to Santa Rosa, it was hard to imagine being any more satisfied. We’ll see if George Michael sticks with his promise to never perform in public again after this tour is over, but if it’s actually the case, then his concert in San Jose was about a fine farewell as anyone of his fans could imagine.
The only way it could have been better?
If Deon Estes were there.
More photos and set list after the jump.
After the Tom Waits show, we drove to Modified Arts, a small all-ages club in Phoenix. Times New Viking were playing, who, strangely, I’d read about that morning in Spin at the ultra-modernist Phoenix Library. Even though I’d heard their album on Matador when it came out and not thought much of it, I liked ‘em live. They were insanely loud, very funny, and pretty much outta control. Modified has a no-alcohol policy, but the band blatantly took celebratory glugs from a Makers Mark bottle throughout their set. I think they said things to the crowd between songs, but there was a piercing battalion of feedback emanating at all times, so I have no idea what they were trying to communicate. They were good.
Sadly, we arrived just in time to miss the set by the opening band, Psychedelic Horseshit.
This is an obsessed-fan review, here, folks. When Tom Waits tours, there are no press passes. You wanna review the show, you’ve gotta buy your own tickets like the rest of ‘em. And that’s fine by me.
When Tom Waits tours, he doesn’t play in the Bay Area. You wanna see Tom Waits, you’ve gotta buy airplane tickets and fly somewhere else. And that, too, is fine by me.
So my friend Gerry and I flew 800 miles in 115-degree heat to see Tom Waits in Phoenix, AZ—his closest show—and we slept on the floor of the airport afterwards to catch a flight back home the next morning at 6am. Tickets: $100 each; airfare: $200 each; food and miscellaneous expenses: about $200.
Was it worth it? Completely.
Walking into the beautiful Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday night, we were met with marching drums, gongs, organs, and a ringside fight bell littering the stage. Hanging from the ceiling above were two huge, heavy sculptures of rusty bullhorns quietly emitting the sound of old 78s. And from the first to the last note, Waits commanded the room like a giant, slamming his feet on a dust-covered pedestal; punctuating each songscape with his stickman ballet; tumbling to the ground like an elastic wooden doll. His band was incredible—a six-ring ensemble who hauntingly conjured atmospheres more than they performed songs. I was literally on the edge of my seat, with my eyes wide open, through the entire show.
It’s gonna get interesting as the tour continues. According to people working on the inside, Waits and his band spent rehearsals at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley running through over 65 songs in preparation for this tour.
But on Wednesday night, during a two-hour set, Waits offered a lopsided view of his majestic career. He played nothing at all from his Asylum years. Instead, he concentrated on material from Real Gone, his latest and most underwhelming album. When I came home from Phoenix and looked up the set list for the previous night, I wished I’d gone to that show instead. (But sweet Christ, at least I didn’t go to El Paso.)
The set list of an artist with zillions of songs is always a hard thing to accept. Shouldn’t we, as an audience, be happy with whatever the artist we avowedly love wants to play? I’ve seen plenty of prolific artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Rollins, Guided by Voices, Frank Sinatra, A Tribe Called Quest—and because of their extensive recorded output, I’ve inevitably spent some time during the show wishing they were playing some other, and usually older, song. It might not be fair, but as a fan, I can’t help it.
Also, Tom Waits basically plays blues songs now. One-chord, stomping blues songs that just sort of chug along and don’t really go anywhere. Lots of white guys in their fifties immerse themselves in the “authenticity” of blues music, never to resurface—but if there’s anyone who can push past it, it’s Waits, and I hope that he does.
All of this I’d expected. So the show’s many highlights were a welcome surprise. “Cemetery Waltz” was unbelievable, as was a lower-register version of “Dirt in the Ground.” “November” came as a delightful rarity from The Black Rider, probably Waits’ most underrated album, and “Lost in the Harbour,” a poignant song from Alice, written around the same time, was beautifully performed on a reed organ.
Two songs gave me actual chills: “The Day After Tomorrow,” which I last saw performed (and cut short!) on The Daily Show (“my moment of zen”). Also, “A Little Rain,” which despite Waits’ new bassist Seth Ford-Young being slightly sharp throughout the entire song was still mesmerizing. Three cheers, too, for “All the World is Green” and “Hoist that Rag,” during which guitarist Omar Torrez thrilled with a dead-ringer Marc Ribot impersonation.
In other band news: Waits might be able to replace Ribot, but he sure can’t replace Ralph Carney. Saxophonist Vincent Henry proved an able accompanist, but man, his solos sounded like something from the Saturday Night Live band; just completely out of place. Casey Waits on drums was probably the biggest surprise—supremely tasteful and stylistically adaptable—and although Larry Taylor’s been Waits’ right hand man for decades on bass, Ford-Young’s tone and style is actually better suited to his material.
At times, Waits was his own best backing musician. During “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six,” he crashed his foot down in time onto a pedal, clanging the ringside boxing bell in time to the choruses. But between songs, his unfortunate accompaniment was the many rude and unintelligible shouts from the crowd. (Do hipster wannabes in vests and bowler hats annoy you? Do people shouting inane things like “You go, Tom!” in between songs annoy you? Be forewarned.)
All in all, it was a truly magical night, and one that ended too soon. It’s easy to relate facts and to dissect set lists, but it’s impossible to capture the presence that is Tom Waits on stage. Before the show, I’d started to wonder if I was crazy for flying all the way to Phoenix just to see him—especially when I’m seeing him again in Dublin next month. But afterwards, underneath the Phoenix sky and filled with a dizzying love, I was ecstatic that I made the trek, and felt like one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to witness the show.
“It must be Healdsburg,” explained a tranquil Kenny Barron to the crowd. “It makes you so relaxed.”
Billed as “A Night in the Country,” last night’s flagship concert for the Healdsburg Jazz Festival could have easily been called “A Night in Wine Country,” with all of that term’s implied reassurance of the sweet life. In a decidedly mellow program of mostly standards and ballads, some of jazz’s finest players serenaded a well-dressed and middle-aged crowd at the Raven Theater with solos smooth and subtle as a vintage chardonnay and arrangements as quiet and nonintrusive as the engine of a Lexus.
It was the damnedest thing: Joshua Redman, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, and Billy Hart are all intensely creative players whom in the past I’ve seen deliver searing performances. Yet each member of the quartet last night appeared weirdly subdued, as if they either made a collective pact beforehand or were otherwise instructed to keep the show within the lines of accessibility for an unadventurous Healdsburg crowd. This is neither a compliment, nor is it particularly a complaint—although when one hears “Body and Soul” twice in one night, it’s hard not to feel one’s taste is underestimated.
So ballads it was, and if you’re gonna have ballads on order, Joshua Redman is the man to call. Redman’s velvety tone, with its Hawkins/Webster-lite hue, toyed with but never revealed the edges of the tenor sax last night; it was instantly apparent why he’s a star. Coupled with his melodic conception, Redman was perfect for songs like “What’ll I Do,” during which his captivating, lyrical solo—filled with sleek arpeggios and unfathomable bends—was the entire evening’s highlight. And that’s no small feat, since his lengthy intro to “My Old Flame” just minutes before, played alone in the center of the stage to awed silence, ran a close second; it was as if a loving monologue of anxiety and sorrow had been pulled out of thin air.
These heights, however, would have had a much stronger impact in a less plodding context. Paced incrementally, the set opened with Barron playing a stride-tinged solo version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and one by one, each player joined in after every couple song—but since Hart on drums came last, most of the set was without a prevalent pulse. The theater was hot. My mind wandered. The band kept playing slow, meandering tunes.
It wasn’t until the very end that things reached full swing, with an appropriate choice: an uptempo rendering of “Strike Up The Band,” with Hart rattling out some attention-grabbing drum roll-offs and prodding his cohorts to finally let loose. Everyone on the stand suddenly came to life, playing the way I was used to them playing, and after a program drenched in molasses, it felt like a majestic coming up for fresh air.
A standing ovation arrived from the sold-out crowd, but the encore, syrupy enough, was an easy-breezy-beautiful rendition of “Body and Soul.” Our tickets were $50 each, and you’d think we’d want to get all of our money’s worth, but it was just too straining. We exchanged glances and bailed.
The jazz story of the year isn’t the discovery of some tapes by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s not some long-lost recordings of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall. No, the jazz story of the year—and I’m serving this up to you on a platter, Downbeat—is James Newton’s recent acquisition of unheard-of handwritten sheet music by Eric Dolphy, and his incredible, incredible group with Bennie Maupin that debuted tonight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
There are certain works of art which we assume are too unique to ever be re-created. A stage play of Nights of Cabiria, say, or maybe a life-size sculpture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa—no one would attempt these things, because the originals are so distinctly their own. Eric Dolphy’s music is in this same echelon. By honing through incessant practice his immediately identifiable tone and stylistic approach, Dolphy ensured that when he died at age 36, no one would dare follow in his wake. People talk about jazz players having their own style. Eric Dolphy had his own language.
The flutist James Newton came into possession of Dolphy’s handwritten manuscripts through his teacher Hale Smith, a close friend of Dolphy’s with whom the great saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist deposited his trove of original sheet music days before he left for Europe with Charles Mingus in 1964, never to return. Now in fading health, Smith recently phoned Newton to entrust him with the collection. His instructions to Newton were simple: “You gotta take care of this.”
Tonight at the Raven Theater, James Newton and his quintet faced a huge challenge: how to present this music as Dolphy might have played it, when Dolphy himself would have presented it differently each time? Rising to the challenge of immersing themselves in another language, Newton’s group didn’t just re-create the music of Eric Dolphy. In twists and turns, they brought to life the fiery spirit, the adventurousness, the emotional resonance and the boundless optimism so prevalent in Dolphy’s muse, and they did so with both skillful prescience and loving warmth. One could close their eyes and easily imagine that Dolphy himself was in the house.
The concert opened with an Eric Dolphy composition, unrecorded and unheard in public before tonight, titled “Boycott.” In a low moan on his bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin introduced a slow solo figure. Soon, he conversed in tight harmony with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. Drummer Billy Hart crawled around the notes in a noteless manifestation of Dolphy’s eeriness, and Maupin, at the end of his solo, began beating out quiet rhythms by attacking the keys on his instrument. With otherworldly overtones and harmonic growls, Newton burst into the song on flute, the instrumental equivalent of a human cry, and eventually brought everyone back around to the slow, haunting theme.
If the afterlife exists, then Dolphy was watching over this premiere, caressing his beard and smiling widely.
The quintet played largely from Dolphy’s seminal Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, with each and every player perfectly filling their predecessor’s shoes. Hart absolutely nailed Tony Williams’ free horse-clop rhythms of the album’s title track, and the “new” head to “Straight Up and Down,” with the famous theme expanded and chopped, was an inspired addition to Dolphy’s exciting voicing for two instruments. During “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” Newton bent a note on his flute to the heavens while vibist Jay Hoggard ended a sensitive solo with a serendipitous cymbal crash from Hart. Magic was in the air.
The apex of the evening, however, was Out to Lunch‘s “Gazzelloni” (which, Newton told me afterwards, incredibly exists arranged for strings in the piles of Dolphy’s sheet music). Fully inhabiting the music, Hoggard gave a purely lyrical and possessed solo on the vibes, full of unstoppable ideas. Not to be outdone, Maupin followed with a ferocious unleashing of long, circular lines and inspired conception on soprano sax. The applause at the end was impulsive, grateful, and long.
After Maupin’s original composition “Equal Justice” on the piano and the blues “245” from Outward Bound, the group left the stage and the house lights came up. Lights be damned, the audience’s applause refused to die, and the quintet came out for one final number: “The Madrig Speaks, the Panther Walks,” appropriately chosen from Last Date, and appropriately earning a standing ovation.
The importance of this group’s project cannot be underestimated—in the lobby afterwards, people were overheard asking to touch Dolphy’s original charts—and their authority in Dolphy’s realm will soon be known to the world through an album on ECM, with Herbie Hancock signed on as a participant. Newton says there’s “a whole lotta stuff” in the collection of Dolphy’s sheet music he has yet to adapt, and tonight’s concert was just the first of many thrilling performances to come.
Sound the clarion call. The Scripture According to Dolphy awaits. “This is the first time we’ve played anywhere in the Universe,” said Newton, “and we thank you.”