The last time I ever saw Filth, right before Shit Split came out in 1991, less than thirty people bothered to show up. Nearly two decades later, for the first of four much-heralded reunion shows, you’d think there was a gigantic magnet at 8th and Gilman in Berkeley. At 6:30pm, there were 300 people in front of me in line; when doors opened, the line stretched around the block.
The rumor about tonight’s show was that Blatz was supposed to play too, which on sheer holy-fuck levels would have probably caused a Guatemalan sinkhole. As it stood, Filth sold the place out and just about threatened to tear it down. In a word, MAYHEM. It’s 2:14am, I just got home, drenched in sweat, smelling horrendously, delirious from being crushed by bodies, eardrums essentially kaput, and full of love.
You can go anywhere in the Bay Area and find your run-of-the mill, dull show. Not the case with Filth. Wheelchairs in the pit. People making out in the front row. Dozens of people on stage. Horrible sound. Entire crowd screaming “The List.” Swarming crowds falling at a 45-degree angle. Being held up by willpower and adrenaline. Boys wearing nothing but nuthuggers. Setlists stolen. Songs falling apart. Everything falling apart. Glory, glory, glory, glory.
Hanging over Filth like an albatross in their heyday was this really ragged notion that they began as a joke, exaggerating punk’s nihilism to ridiculous extremes, and that over time the joke morphed serious as their fanbase expanded. I’ve heard this rumor used against Filth, e.g. “Walk through the filth / You will find me there / Needle hanging from my vein” isn’t a reflection of Jake Sayles’ reality, but a hollow posturing to initially mock punk and eventually—when no one got the joke—to capitalize on it.
But can you name one band, or at least one great band, that doesn’t posture even just a little bit? The portrayal of what music listeners want as reality is often just as important as that reality. Maybe more so, actually—if Jake had needles hanging from his arm all the time, Filth probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to record the most scathing, incredible crustpunk anthems to ever come from the East Bay.
I never gave a shit if Filth truly lived the chaos or not. What mattered was how their songs affected me, which is to say: strongly. Not only did they lend empathetic understanding to self-destructive impulses, they crafted said self-destruction as a powerful, torrential force. “You Are Shit” is still the most empowering song about the ineffectual nature of humankind ever written; if one realizes that we are all truly shit, and we accept that lowly role, then we receive liberation from the expectations of the world. It also totally fucking kicks ass.
Tonight, Jake ominously paced the stage like a bald eagle, virtually unchanged in the last 20 years. That same icy gaze and cold detachment. While songs occasionally sputtered—Lenny, Jim, Mike and original drummer Dave E.C. were really struggling amongst the waves of fans on stage repeatedly beaten back by security—the sheer fray of energy superceded technical “quality.” When Sayles reached the apex of the set, hundreds of suffering souls screamed along with the lines that defined the night: “You are within me / WE ARE ONE.”
It can’t go without notice that tonight was the 20th Anniversary of The List, amazingly compiled and distributed for two decades by Steve Koepke. Congratulations, Steve! And the Gr’ups, presumably filling in for Blatz, tore through a rambunctious set that had Jesse Luscious and Anna Joy swapping trademark sarcastic barbs between urgent versions of ageless anthems “On the Way to Frisco” and “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”
I drove home in a daze. I really, really need a shower.
[UPDATE: Gilman has posted the full audio from the show here.]
Morrissey – Revelation: A pretty well-done bootleg floating around of B-sides from the Viva Hate / Kill Uncle / Your Arsenal sessions, i.e. the wizardry era of Moz. “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” is pure Morrissey. Bonus points for nailing the classic artwork style. I haven’t been feeling his last few albums.
Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill: Liz Harris and I spent a couple summers together in the same circle of friends, usually involving swimming. Either at houses in the McDonald neighborhood or Doran Beach after lots of PBR. It took me a while to pick up her latest album. It’s gorgeous.
Byard Lancaster – Sounds of Liberation: Philadelphia avant jazz from 1972. The basslines really make it. Nothing comes out of Philadelphia without a solid bass line, even after Sun Ra moved there in 1970 and distorted the groove. The first 100 copies of this LP are handmade by Byard himself, now sold out. Regular versions here.
Terry Allen – Lubbock (On Everything): The renegade Texas stoner-country movement of the 1970s should have a modern equal, but it doesn’t. Allen here is incredible, singing about art, bennies, the FFA, jukeboxes, lost dreams and cocaine. Lloyd Maines all over that sucker. I’d love to see him at Studio E.
Alicia Keys – The Element of Freedom: The long, minute-and-a-half drum/piano outro to “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” is such an exquisite moment and yet every radio station fades it. The whole record crept up on me after nearly barfing at the quasi-empowering intro. “I’m Ready” makes me walk sideways.
Boredoms – Rebore Vol. 3: Japanese noise rock gods remixed by DJ Krush with inconsistent results. Krush is the master at setting and then adhering to a mood, but there’s so many tributaries to Boredoms’ music that he gets distracted and skittish. That said, seeing this band live is a religious experience.
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor: “This is a song about the Louisiana Purchase,” he said, opening for No Age two years ago. I was overwhelmed with nine minutes of uncut ache and fury. Is that song on any album? I asked the singer. No, it’s a new one. Two years later, finally, “Four Score and Seven” sees the light of day.
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique: So, I guess this was in that Dear You / Pinkerton category of ‘slept on’ albums, or something? According to someone who wasn’t me or anyone I knew in 1989? Cause we played it to death. Those 33 1/3 books are hit and miss, but Dan Leroy did an outstanding job with this one.
Ron Carter – Uptown Conversation: The best moments in music are transcendental. I cannot explain how engrossing this record is to me. “Doom,” which closes the album, grabs you like a mugger in an alley and doesn’t let go for six minutes; it’s “Peace Piece” meets “Myself When I Am Real” with Carter sliding through oil.
This Heat – Live: It’s disappointing to draw a parallel to Throbbing Gristle only to later see Wikipedia beating you to the punch. Nevertheless. You still can’t dance to Throbbing Gristle. Dying to find this band’s studio albums; looking for recommendations between their debut and Deceit. Jockeying for latter.
Paten Locke – Super Ramen Rocketship: If, let’s say, you’re a new dad, who hasn’t quite yet found the right hip-hop song that expresses your feelings for your daughter. If, let’s say, you also favor triple-threat MCs/Producers/DJs who put those feelings in rhyme. If, let’s say, you discover “After You.” Then all is well.
John Lewis – The John Lewis Piano: The whole MJQ clan acquired this derisive “classically trained” tag that was hard to live down. That’s what happens when you release Blues on Bach. But you know what? Some guy beating the shit out of a piano still sounds like some guy beating the shit out of a piano.
RKL – It’s a Beautiful Feeling: Sir, are you by chance looking for a 7″ you had long ago? Have you been scouring the Earth for this hardcore gem, featuring a rapid-fire condemnation of meth addiction that you put on every mixtape you made in junior high? Sir, that record is two blocks away from your house, at a garage sale.
“This part almost sounds like the Cure.” “I love watching drummers.” “My friend flew here from Minnnesota to come to this show. It’s his 40th Birthday.” “The last time I came here, it was to see the MC5.”
These are things that may sound commonplace, except that they were spoken into my ear last night by Sari Bacilla. I know her name has been Sari Flowers for years now, but I can’t help it. Among the most unchanged people I know, she is still, to me, the girl from Sebastopol who works at the downtown gas station—even though she’s a mom from San Leandro who’s married and has a 14-year-old daughter.
I was unaware Sari loved the Wedding Present. She says she discovered Seamonsters first, then backpedaled to Bizarro, which the Wedding was Presenting in its entirety. She says Bizarro is the record that inspired her to buy a drum set and try to learn. She didn’t learn, or at least very well. Drums are hard.
Bizarro is the record my friend Dan and I would listen to late at night, drinking Robotussin. One night, when the excitement of “Brassneck” wore off, I traded it to Matt Carrillo for a beer and forgot about it. Until finding it on cassette a few years ago. Twenty years later. With a whole new meaning and sense.
Bizarro is a record about betrayal, about kiss-offs, about demanding to know what went wrong, and every third song or so ends with a long, extended three-chord guitar vamp. Sometimes I hear these vamps as illustrating the repetitive motion and slow passage of time in the aftermath of a breakup. Moreso lately, though, I hear them as a triumph of the narrator, the incessant music of a cathartic joyride out on the town while looking for new opportunities.
No vamp is as long or as joyful as the end of “Take Me,” and I defend its core of contentment by the next, and last, song on Bizarro: “Be Honest,” a short afterthought that isn’t burdened by complications. “If we’re really, really going to be honest,” sings Gedge, “we might as well be brief.” After the ten-minute opus prior, “Be Honest” is a succinct two minutes that smoothly ends the album.
Here’s the best part. Last night, during all these songs about betrayal and disloyalty, Sari kept leaning over and saying things in my ear. Things that sounded exactly like the old Sari, or rather the Sari she’s always been, which is the great and wonderful Sari. David Gedge stood on stage, pleading to know how people could change. I considered myself lucky to know a few who haven’t.
It was an elusive dream for most when the Krush announced a special John Hiatt show at the Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma—with only twenty-five golden tickets to be distributed scarcely and randomly among the two hundred or so people who posted their favorite John Hiatt lyric on the station’s Facebook wall.
That dream became a reality this afternoon in an amazingly intimate afternoon of riding with the king. For a half hour, John Hiatt owned the place, teasing a Monday crowd with a few old favorites, some new stuff from The Open Road and a number of personal stories and quips. To those who made it in, it was a Monday afternoon to remember. (To those who didn’t, the Krush is rebroadcasting the whole thing on Thursday Night Live this Thursday, April 8, at 8pm.)
“I entered three times, and I think since I posted lyrics to the penis song, I got disqualified,” said Kari Rasmason, sitting front and center this afternoon, wearing a vintage 1990 John Hiatt T-shirt. Luckily her friend Stephen Lucitt from Loomis posted lyrics from “The Most Unoriginal Sin,” won, and asked her along as his plus-one.
In the “back,” which is to say only 10 feet away from the stage, sat Michael Jernigan from Windsor. Jernigan’s father passed away just six months ago, and choosing which line to post was an easy choice: ‘Just like my dad did.’ “I hated the reality of that song,” he explained—that all boys grow up to be like their old man—“but I’ve come to accept it.”
Hiatt took the tiny little stage in the corner to a huge cheer, and the first chords sounded the title track of his new record, “The Open Road,” yet another addition to his deep catalog of songs about cars, dogs, women and getting older. “So what are we drinkin’ this afternoon?” he cordially asked the crowd. “I’ve got a Shirley Temple myself here. I was quite the beer drinker back in the day, but they just couldn’t make enough for me.”
(This wasn’t the first time today that Hiatt referenced his younger, wilder days. Staring at the Salvador Dali-esque melting clock on the wall, he quipped: “I’m thinking of all the acid I did in ’67-’68. I might have overdone it a bit. I just want to confirm this… That is, in fact, a dripping clock, right?”)
Clad in a light blazer, grey jeans and a plaid shirt with a tie, Hiatt debuted more new songs (“My Baby,” “Haulin’,” a spine-tingling “Fireball Roberts”) before accepting requests. “Drive South” came first, then Hiatt himself seemed truly surprised to hear someone call out “Ethelyne,” a song from 1995’s Walk On that he rarely plays live. Of course, he obliged, complete with a snub to Sarah Palin near the end! Check it out:
A short Q&A session followed, with Hiatt chatting about how he hasn’t taken a year off from the road in 25 years, and how simple acts like “just seeing flowers on the side of the road, and the cycle of things” informed the tone of this latest album. We learned the first single he ever bought was Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Pt. 1 and 2,” his first album was “an Odetta record, I think,” and his first concert was the Kingsmen, watching outside the club from the boardwalk at Indiana Beach.
“What do you believe to be true,” a woman shouted from the back, “even though you can’t prove it?”
Ooh. He smiled. This one had Hiatt stumped. But only for a second. “An old guy told me this years ago,” he said. “‘Yes, there is a God. No, it isn’t you.’ I believe that’s true. Even though I can’t prove it.”
After a roaring finale of “Riding With the King,” Hiatt amiably cruised out to the patio and hung out with fans for another half hour, mingling, joking, and graciously accepting platitudes from total strangers about how much he and his songs have meant to them. He’s clearly well-loved, for good reason, and the feeling is mutual. “What’s not to love about Sonoma County?” he remarked earlier, during the show. “You have the best weather, the best food, and you’re not too snobbish about it.”
Well, hell, if Hiatt ever wants to move out here and be unsnobbish with us, something tells me there’ll always be a place at the table.
The Krush and Lagunitas are already planning a similar private-show Facebook contest for the Barenaked Ladies at Lagunitas on May 25. (Here’s their page.) And be sure to tune in this Thursday to hear the whole Hiatt show rebroadcast at 95.9-FM.
It had to happen. Not five seconds after a smiling, lanky Gil Scott-Heron ambled onto the stage at Yoshi’s last night, someone shouted for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Scott-Heron, rail-thin and in a too-big jacket and flat cap, ignored the request. But he also completely ignored his acclaimed comeback album, I’m New Here—indeed, he played nothing from it. Instead, the singer, poet and musician delivered a joyous set of classic older material, providing a treat for longtime fans and a nearly two-hour introduction for newcomers who just heard about him last month on NPR.
“This has been a very eventful week,” Scott-Heron said, opening the show. “We been reading stuff about us we never knew. You get to have another life when you’re an artist like me—the one you live and the one they write about. I read, for example, that I had disappeared. I thought about adding that to my live act. You come to see me, and poof! I’m gone.”
To understate, Scott-Heron possesses a gift of gab. After 15 minutes of patter about dwarfs, encyclopedias, Winston Churchill, Black History Month, the radio, the news and his home state of Tennessee—all of which might seem self-obliging if not for his sharp, acerbic wit—Scott-Heron finally sat down at his Fender Rhodes and nestled his well-worn throat into “Blue Collar,” as autobiographical a song as any for the legend who’s recently spent time in prison for cocaine charges:
I been down in New York City, that ain’t no place to be down
I been been lookin’ at the faces of children, you see we’re lookin’ for higher ground
You can’t name where I ain’t been down
‘Cause there ain’t no place I ain’t been down
There is gravity in Scott-Heron’s voice—the kind of voice they don’t make anymore. It’s in shockingly fine form, a low bass, rich and full of purpose, flowering at the end of lines into breathy vowels. Take “Pieces of a Man,” for example: a song Scott-Heron’s sung countless times, and still a searing pain overtook it last night, as if he were experiencing the subject for the first time.
This is the most valuable aspect of Scott-Heron’s newfound rebirth. Unlike others who’ve fallen from grace and bestow the world with rote, financially-rewarding tours, Scott-Heron is a true original who appears incapable of going through the motions. Seated at his keyboard, head thrown back to the ceiling, he spent the set running through a catalog full of emotional intensity to a sold-out crowd.
Yes, it would have been better with a fuller band. And yes, some long vamps went on past their bedtime. But an energized Scott-Heron also fought the house lights and came back for an encore while even more patrons waited, lined up out the doors for the late show, clutching LP copies of Midnight Band. Waiting to be close to a legend. Wondering how the show would be. Wondering if Scott-Heron truly had come back.
The answer is yes. May his reemergence last.
No matter what anyone cares to say about hyphy and what it meant for Bay Area rap and why it died and who’s to blame, pretty much everyone can agree that the man who brought it to the rest of the country, E-40, is larger than trends. Larger than media blitzes. Larger physically not only because he actually once owned a Fattburger in Pleasant Hill but larger metaphorically, from years of experience and stylistic prowess. When hyphy died, no one, not for a second, ever thought E-40 would die with it.
We rolled up to the show and there were a swarm of bodies corralled tightly behind barricades out front. No ins and outs and hence this, the smoking area, with players packed like sardines. Some loonbag decided to take advantage of the captive audience and proselytize on the sidewalk all night long holding a sign about Jesus. It didn’t look comfortable.
Yet there’s a good reason why over 600 people will throw down $30 on a Sunday night and brave cramped quarters and Christian zealots, I thought to myself; it has something to do with a Bay legend. We walked through the heated crowd, circumventing various forms of mating ritual, and plonked in front of the speakers while the D.B.s and Mugzi, 40′s muscular brother, warmed up the stage. (The Click featured 40, his brother, his sister and his cousin. Along with Mugzi, another brother, he’s raised and promoted Droop-E, his son. Could be the first living legend with a grandson on the mic someday. But I digress.)
With landmark electricity, the Vallejo native hit the already crowded stage and proceeded to populate it further, bringing a sizable crew and pulling girls up from the front row. Hits “Yay Area” and “White Gurl” came early on in the set. “How many old school E-40 fans we got in the house?” he hollered. Roars erupted from the crowd. A slew of classics followed: “Sprinkle Me,” “Sideways,” “Captain Save a Ho.” A few new ones from his upcoming album(s) came next, while someone looking a lot like his manager counted out bundles of cash in front of the DJ riser, back to the crowd.
Basically, 40 came with style, poise and attention to detail, pushed his spectacles back down when they mistakenly rose into proper position and paced the stage rim like a tiger; left, right, back, forth. He admonished the assembled, “Don’be square like a boxa Apple Jacks, make wit’da hurryupness and pick up my new albums.” (Two on the same date, March 30: Revenue Retrievin’ (Day Shift), and Revenue Retrievin’ (Night Shift).) He had supreme mic control, flawless from the years. There were people getting booted off the stage. People getting bootied on the floor. People who were two years old when The Federal came out.
“Tell Me When 2 Go,” and then poof. It was over in about 45 minutes. E-40 hustled out the side door onto Keller Street, into his awaiting SUV, and off into the night.
There are reasons we like finding new places to play in Sonoma County. The jolt of the unchartered, the claim of presence, the raising of the flag. I relish the potential for disaster as much as I hope for the best—either way, it’s exciting. Los Caballos is a Latin dance nightclub in the old Shakey’s Pizza building on Cleveland that usually hosts tejano and salsa bands and, in at least one case, Latin Hyper, a fresh reggaeton band from Santa Rosa. This video is my favorite example of a normal night at Los Caballos, starring Los Vaquetones del Hyphy, a band in matching blazers, potleaf shirts and gasmasks who toss out free T-Shirts and Tecate before busting into their set. (“These dudes are clowns,” translates the comment.)
The turnout tonight at Los Caballos for StarSkate’s CD/cassette release show was encouragingly good. Hopefully the owners are down to have more indie shows, scratching their heads though they may be at the style of music foreign to their stage. Especially thrilling is that, like the North Bay Film and Art Collective, they’ve worked out an all-ages situation where those over 21 can still drink. It’s what I saw once at the Green Room in Tempe, Ariz.; a barricade running down the middle of the room, which isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds.
Before StarSkate played, A Pack of Wolves turned in a great set on the nice, short triangular stage, flanked by a ‘Viva Mexico’ drum kit and pictures of Che Guevara on the wall. Is it just me or have A Pack of Wolves gotten extremely good in the last year or two? When they first started playing shows, I couldn’t shake a feeling that they were trying a little too hard to glom onto the dance-punk trend of the day, but seriously, they’ve really grown into their own. Cesco ended the set by announcing, “Thank you for watching us suck!” and then, off-mic, “That was our worst fucking show.” The tantrum was unwarranted; they played in this zone of professionalism made awesome by good new songs.
I last saw StarSkate at a house party on New Year’s Eve so crammed that their shadows on the ceiling were more visible than the band itself. To see them beneath nightclub cage lighting makes a big difference. They ruled. Similar to the compact sets pioneered by Universal Order of Armageddon, they play one uninterrupted 15- or 20-minute song, even when they need to change bass cables. There’s an unpredictability in StarSkate’s music, residing somewhere between planned and improvised, lit by a torch being passed from jazz to hardcore and back again. Their own description reads like the liner notes to a Strata-East album: “The band is currently studying the sacred science of sypathetic vibration theory,” it reads, “and experimenting with bending universal wave patterns to determine the qualitative form of mind and matter.” The Los Caballos crowd—including a couple old hippies, one burly bro with his thumb bandaged up, and some amused-looking staffers—were into it.
Also, here’s to the continued lifeboat for cassette tapes! I was at a Gilman show in January and I swear, four of the five bands that played were selling tapes. A friend of mine recently called it “the hipster calling card,” and yeah, it’s a trend. It’s one I can fully back. I’ve chronicled my love for tapes here and written about the thrust to make tapes in the 21st Century here, and I still get stoked when I can buy a new cassette. Five bucks for the StarSkate/BvP split, quick and easy, and how ’bout that artwork?
Los Caballos isn’t the only unusual place StarSkate is playing. Next weekend, they play this all-day thing with a zillion bands—another DJ N Front of a Coffee Shop JamSessions show—inside the Hall of Flowers at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds! No joke. If there was, oh, any information about it at all online, I’d link to it, but
as it is you’ll just have to somehow osmose the details from the universe, man. (Update: here’s a flyer, with no date. It’s Saturday, March 6th.)
When I was younger and prone to making grandiose claims based on whim and late-night conversation, I theorized, as teenagers do, that all love between two people must eventually run out of perpetual motion and die. The only problem, I thought, was that one person always notices it before the other.
Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me is a long, tedious breakup album disguised as an “epic” breakup album, and for a lot of reasons, mostly musical, I can’t like it so far. (Context: I think Milk-Eyed Mender is total genius.) I listened to all two hours of this new record, in its plodding, turgid, formless non-glory, twice in a row. Then I opened the lyric booklet and listened again.
“On a Good Day” is such a wonderful piece of poetry that I have to quote it in full:
Hey hey hey, the end is near!
On a good day,
you can see the end from here.
But I won’t turn back, now,
though the way is clear;
I will stay for the remainder.
I saw a life, and I called it mine.
I saw it, drawn so sweet and fine,
and I had begun to fill in all the lines,
right down to what we’d name her.
Our nature does not change by will.
In the winter, ’round the ruined mill,
the creek is lying, flat and still;
it is water,
though it’s frozen.
So, ‘cross the years,
and miles, and through,
on a good day,
you can feel my love for you.
Will you leave me be,
so that we can stay true
to the path that you have chosen?
(The only problem, I thought, was that one person always notices it before the other.)
“On a Good Day” is one example of why people are saying that this is a more “accessible” record than Newsom’s first two, and I get what they mean, i.e. everyone can relate to heartbreak lyrics. But heartbreak lyrics are everywhere. I assert that a huge contingent of her fans loved Milk-Eyed Mender precisely because they couldn’t relate to the lyrics. Milk-Eyed Mender was such a left-field Oxford-English-Dictionary masterpiece, begging to be analyzed and untangled—and deciphering that puzzle brought a lot of people together (“Sadie is a dog?!”).
For most of Have One On Me, the songs feel unnecessary, their only purpose to fill space, like bad food. I appreciate the way it was recorded—uncompressed, and very “live” sounding—but very little of it compositionally jumps out as vital. Is that the point? “I am so deflated by love’s death that I can only wheeze?” If so, indulgence (!) and the Joni Mitchell comparisons can stick. Tiny little blues inflections creeping in to her phrasing, too, another sign of caution, though owed more to we’ll-have-a-time Hank Williams.
There’s just no valid reason for Have One on Me to be as long as it is, and if making a tape for the car, I’d whittle it down to…
Good Intentions Paving Company
On a Good Day
Soft as Chalk
Does Not Suffice (In California, Refrain)
…mostly for thematic reasons. For the last song on the entire set, the magnificent “Does Not Suffice,” a gigantic death-ending closes the album after the warmest Newsom gets to a fuck-you stanza; it’s refreshing because she plays the innocent what-went-wrong I’m-so-confused role the rest of the time (the female role, tiredly, that fits most listener’s narratives of a breakup album by a woman). Finally, she fights back and walks out amongst predatory noise. Bonus track would be “’81,” because of its melody. Other than that, what went wrong? I’m so confused.
A favorite pastime firmly rooted in the modern day has become looking over people’s shoulders at shows while they compose texts-in-progress. At last night’s Mos Def show in San Francisco, dude next to me gets another one of many Facebook updates throughout the night on his iPhone: “So-and-So commented on your status: ‘You’re updating your status more than you’re watching the show.’”
His response, thumbs twitching with Mos Def less than 10 feet away: “I’m pissed and he’s boring.”
Indeed, the crowd last night was subdued to Ritalin-like extremes while Mos Def pulled almost exclusively from his new record, The Ecstatic. And in a way, that album’s version of Hip Hop 2.0 isn’t entirely conducive to losing your shit. Like other off-kilter artists—Georgia Anne Mudrow, Shafiq Husayn, Declaime, Erykah Badu’s recent material—Mos Def is riding a weird phase where driving boom-bap beats have given way to implied rhythm. At one point last night he told people to stop clapping, which says a lot about where he’s at. He also stopped the show early on to ask the sound man for “some of that psychedelic sound” on his red bullet mic. The relatively low volume of the Independent’s sound system magnified it: this was not music for getting down to.
And people weren’t having it. Requests for “Definition,” “Respiration” and “Ms. Fat Booty” were met by Mos Def with a shit-I’ve-heard-this-so-many-time look and a schooling. “Stop doing that. That never works,” he said. “No one ever does the song you yell for. I create the magic of rock. You enjoy it.”
What people got instead was, to my mind, a really good look at an artist who’s trying, despite his fans’ reluctance, to stretch hip-hop into unchartered territory. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just rock. It’s a weird world of Mos Def’s own making, and which even he might not be comfortable in just yet. But he has his enablers, especially in the form of Jay Electronica, who was billed as an opener but essentially co-headlined. Jay’s famous for releasing 15 minute-long songs with no drums whatsoever and bursting lyrical over looped samples from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has no official album out, just internet mixtapes and a huge buzz.
So Jay Electronica came out and killed—lots of a capella, lots of drumless samples—and for a while there Mos Def spent a good deal of time showering praise on Electronica (“You’re a genius, man”) and criticism on a heckler who kept shouting for “Exhibit B.” (“There is no Exhibit B! Exhibit C is Exhibit B! You’re shouting for something that doesn’t exist!..” ad infinitum.) Jay’s highlight was his one-two of “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C,” and when he left the stage I counted four people around me leaving the show.
At the end of the set, Mos Def finally announced “Okay. And now… for the classics.” But the plural was a cruel tease. “Umi Says,” the most Ecstatic-like track off Black on Both Sides, closed the show. There was a lot of head-scratching out on the sidewalk, but I left feeling like at least someone is trying something new. And I say that as a fan who sold back his copy of The Ecstatic after a week.
Also—and I feel bad mentioning this at the end—the night was a benefit for Haiti, and organizers didn’t skimp on the pressing need for help. Pierre Labosierre of the Haiti Action Committee and Walter Riley of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund both spoke very, very eloquently about the history of Haiti and the truth about the situation on the ground. Freestyle whiz Supernatural did his usual amazing act while dropping “Liberation,” “Unity” and “Hope” into his “Three Words” routine. Mos Def talked about how Haiti’s independence represented the first uprising against slavery in history, and “When they’re suffering, it’s not just Haiti that’s suffering. It’s… it’s…”
“Freedom!” someone yelled.
“Right! Freedom. It’s freedom that’s suffering.”
(“Latinos!” yelled the Exhibit B guy. “I’m not sure what that has to do with what we’re talking about,” Mos Def replied dryly, “but right on.”)
So for real, whatever you think about his new album, or the show, or his direction, you’ve got to admit that the Haiti aspect of the night was a success. At $35 a head I’m sure it sent a lot of much-needed help, plus it did what a benefit should do, by both educating and entertaining the people. That is, if you were actually paying attention and not composing useless passive-aggressive tweets about the drunk girl next to you who kept hitting you with her purse.
Even though it was over 25 years ago, Kenny Garrett will forever be associated with Miles Davis, in whose band he spent several years in the 1980s. Perhaps to spite the collective public mind beneath Miles’ shadow, Garrett has since made a career out of versatility. His latest studio album, the incredible Beyond the Wall, was an Eastern-tinged outing of dense, rich composition; Garrett dedicated it to McCoy Tyner. Last year, the celebrated alto saxophonist released Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium, a scorching concert set with guest Pharaoh Sanders.
Tonight at Yoshi’s, Garrett, now 49, displayed that trademark versatility with his quartet, playing short melodic duets alongside long, rhythmic barn-burners in a powerhouse set that had the audience on their feet and begging for more even after the house lights came up.
The set began by the thump of the bass drum and a full sixteen bars of funk-break drumming, and it would be easy to say that this set the tone for the night. Yet each player injected a stylistic flourish into the steady gait. Garrett, for example, began by adhering to the bluesy growl that is the trademark of one-chord funk jazz, only to slowly stretch to an aggressive dance around the perimeter of the music, splaying a feisty thread around his band’s patterns like a spider on methamphetamine.
Bassist Kona Khasu plucked out chromatic chord ascensions, warbling slides on the neck and pizzicato grace notes well above the twelfth fret. Johnny Mercier lathered organ and phase-shifted synthesizer together in a wall of texture. Throughout the set, usually climaxing a long, eventual crescendo, all these elements fell into place. Each time it happened, Garrett rocked back and forth playing alternately to the floor and ceiling in a physical manifestation of his personal nirvana, and the effect transcended any dismissive categorization as “funk jazz.”
When Garrett finds available real estate in a song, he drops everything and fills it. Tonight, he halted the proceedings in order to meditate on a feeling several times. The first excursion lasted roughly ten minutes with billowing, sad, evocative saxophone lines unraveling over Mercier’s sci-fi synthesizer oscillations.
The second came at the end of a piano/soprano sax duet—a light, major-key melody reminiscent of an AM soft-rock hit—when Garrett fell away and experimented with acoustics by bleating quick, sharp Eastern-tinged lines which resonated inside the grand piano and echoed in the back of the club. The William Tell Overture was quoted, some prominent overtones overtook the dominant tones and Garrett drained out his horn, like a bike tire deflating.
The night ended with a full-on funk scorcher, complete with teaser endings and solicitations from Garrett himself for more noise from the crowd. Not that solicitations were needed—the crowd was on their feet and cheering for more even after the band had blown their final note, fist-bumped each other and left the stage. Cheering for more, in fact, even after the house lights came up.
Chances are that when Kenny Garrett comes back next year, he’ll be on some different tip entirely, with different sidemen. This band, transcending prescribed pockets, is worth catching while it lasts.