Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings absolutely lit up the stage at the second-ever Sonoma Mountain Village concert on Thursday night. The concert series marked the end of a brief 2014 season, which also brought in the rock band Goo Goo Dolls in July. According to Petaluma’s Second Octave Talent agency, which books the bands for SOMO, some 1,100 people were in attendance and next year promises to bring 10 more outstanding festival-like shows to fill the 3,000-person venue.
Guatemalan singer, and 2014 Latin Grammy award winner, Gaby Moreno opened the evening with a blues-infused Southern folk set that showcased the powerfully sultry, and sweetly gruff, voice that has made her the darling of Latin American folk rock. Dressed in a Western dress and tiny heels, she rocked a vintage-style Gretsch guitar as if she were a country star on a Nashville stage. But tacking down Moreno’s style is like trying to stop a butterfly to ask about her favorite flower. To my ears, her sound falls somewhere in between the finger-picking melodies of Norah Jones and the whimsy of Patsy Cline, with the vocal dynamism of Etta James and a touch of Lilly Allen’s flare. Yet the songs she sings in Spanish are perfectly Latin; a bit of bossa nova, traces of Mexican banda, the alternative pop that defined many Latin females in the late 1990’s.
Under Thursday’s setting sun, Moreno varied her set flawlessly. Tempos and moods switched between smoky jazz ballads like Blues del Mar, off her latest release “Postales” (2012, Metamorfosis), and groovy blues/rock tracks like “Greenhorned Man”, from her first album “Still the Unknown” (2008, indie release). It was a marvelous opening performance that surely garnered hundreds of new North American fans.
Between acts, the promoters gave ample time to get up and stretch, refill wine and beer glasses, and chat with neighbors sitting close enough to practically share blankets. A few vendor’s booths were set up to attract wanders, as well as a semi-stocked bar for general admission ticket holders. Food offerings were cafeteria-style, catered by the Sally Tomatoes restaurant inside. The interior venue is well-known in local comedy circles as being the go-to spot for great up-and-coming acts. While the wine was good and the service was friendly, the food got less than stellar reviews. VIP ticket holders on the other hand, were treated to a fully-stocked bar and outdoor seating area complete with tables and heating lamps. While the GA grassy area offers excellent views of the stage, it could be worthwhile to purchase VIP just so you don’t have to drag in chairs and blankets. The space is intimate, with two-story buildings bordering the lawn area, and giant redwood trees framing the stage. Yet, the adjacency adds to a close-nit community vibe. And once Sharon Jones got on stage, there wasn’t a warm body to be found in a sea of abandoned lawn chairs.
The Dap Kings band formed in the early aughts under the digs of Brooklyn’s Daptone Records. Their premise was to revive the tradition of analog recording and pressing vinyl records, while bringing back the funk/soul sounds of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Sharon Jones, who grew up singing gospel in her native Augusta, Georgia, was working a day job at Rikers Island prison when label owners discovered her singing backup vocals for various bands around New York City. Soon the Dap Kings became her backing band and she went on to record five studio albums with them. With incredibly successful performances at festivals across the country, a new album to be released, and European tours in place, Jones’ career was on the rise.
But in the spring of 2013, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and spent the summer undergoing chemotherapy. The treatments would sideline her from nearly all musical activity and essentially threaten her life. New Year’s Eve 2014 was her last chemo treatment and she’s been cancer free ever since. On the SOMO stage last night, she belted out the tune “Get Up And Get Out” off her 2013 release Give The People What They Want (Daptone), exclaiming to the crowd “I told my cancer to get up and get out! And I told my cancer, if you ain’t gonna get out, I am gonna shout you out!” Needless to say, Sharon Jones is way beyond having cancer and it is obvious her immense energy and sheer passion for life are what got her through it all.
The performance opened with an instrumental introduction from the Dap Kings eight-member, tailored-suit-clad band before Jones’ fabulous backup singers came on to sing three groove-inciting numbers. When Sharon Jones finally came on stage, the audience exploded in applause. She opened with the super up-beat “Stranger To My Happiness,” then brought up 10 ladies from the crowd to dance on stage for “Keep On Looking,” which must have made those girls entire summer. Of all the shows I’ve seen this year, I have not experienced a performer so in love with her audience, so passionate about making every fan feel special. Jones’ went on to sing a slow, sexy rendition of “Long Time,” an afro-beat inspired “How Do You Let A Good Man Down,” and the dark, jazzy soul tune “I Learned The Hard Way.”
The second half of Jones’ set included some beautiful harmonies on “There Was A Time,” a wild impersonation of Tina Turner for “Making Up And Breaking Up,” and a 10 minute showcase of 1960’s dancehall moves like the boogaloo, the pony, and the swim—the crowd thought that was a riot and all kinds of people over 60 where swinging their arms and winding their hips without a care in the world.
Sharon Jones only did one song for her encore: a brilliant take on the original Woody Guthrie ballad, “This Land Is Your Land.” It was the defining moment of the show, a stellar interpretation of an American classic. Jones ignites the spirit of American music’s golden age—the decades that challenged the cultural status quo, brought music to the heart of the civil rights movement, and blended the colors of society in a tangled-up mishmash of incredible musicianship, neighborly conviviality, and the love for an American art form. If anyone is going to remind us that American music is steeped in a rich, passionate history, it is going to be Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings.
Me and my friends completely lost our minds when we first heard Sharon Jones’ version of the Woody Guthrie anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” somewhere around 2004. It showed up as the B-side on a 45 called “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?” and it turned the hokey campfire sing-a-long into a minor-key floorbuster funk track. Suddenly, the song that we’d stopped paying attention to was resuscitated, the lyrics imbued with a new meaning, the power of the message restored. We all bought copies.
Even stronger was the forthright message from the band about the record, which was released specifically for the 2004 election:
We believe that our country has been hijacked by oil moguls, war profiteers, overfed corporations, and other assorted amoral billionaires. We refuse to believe the stories that they feed us through corporate owned and run media sources in their efforts to keep us in a state of fear and hate. We will resist the endemic apathy that allows them to use our hard earned tax dollars to fun illegal wars with dubious intent while here at home our education system is going bankrupt and our healthcare and social services are virtually nonexistent. We oppose the recruitment of our brothers and sisters from the poorest neighborhoods in the country to fight a badly planned and managed war that will only benefit the extremely wealthy. Though we are proud to be citizens of this country, we consider ourselves first and foremost to be citizens of the world. We believe that this land is our land, and that this land is your land.
-Sharon Jones, the Dap-Kings, and the entire Daptone Family
Damn. Short, quick and to the point. And just like that paragraph extrapolated a deeper meaning out of the overplayed song, so the arrangement considered the more sinister side of this land and those who run it.
The Daptone beatheads must have been bugging out over “This Land Is Your Land,” too, because the track later showed up on Jones’ flawless second album Naturally (do yourself a favor and buy it now, for real). In 2005, after Bush was re-elected, the song might have lost a little of its original purpose, but none of its spark.
Today I went to the movies and watched Up In The Air—a great film—and was elated to hear the familiar horn intro of “This Land Is Your Land” right at the start of the movie. Jason Reitman has done a wonderful thing with Sharon Jones’ recording, using it to highlight aerial shots from around the county of crop circles, city skylines, rivers and a cloverleaf ribbon of highway just as Jones sings the words “ribbon of highway.” Wonderful opening credits that brought all the song’s power rushing back.
Up In The Air is about a lot of things, but its central plot revolves around unemployment—basically, the fallout from eight years of our country getting really, really off track. Sharon Jones’ “This Land Is Your Land” is just one of many extremely well-placed bricks in a film of perfect structure that says a lot about how we live now, in the aftermath. (It also features Cut Chemist and Young M.C. in a thoroughly enjoyable cameo. And, you know, Clooney.) I’ll be rooting for it on the red carpet, and congratulations to Sharon Jones for the opening credits of the year.
Here we go: Day Three. If I can survive three-week camping trips, I can survive a three-day festival. I’m getting a little tired, and today is going to be full of the most frenzied running around of all three days, but it’s also going to be the most interesting. It’s full of lesser-knowns that for the most part I’ve never seen before, although obviously, I’d much prefer to see them in a dark club instead of a dry field.
This is the day that the festival conception of ‘showcase’ rather than ‘show’ is at its most maddening. I see a lot of bands I want to see, but I have to race my ass off to do so.
First up is the Mighty Underdogs, the latest Quannum supergroup with Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef from Latyrx. When the Latyrx album came out around the same time as the Black Star album, I remember participating in long discussions with friends about who was the greater MC of each collaboration. Mos Def or Talib Kweli? Lyrics Born or Lateef?
At the time, I voted vehemently for Kweli and Lateef. I liked their lyrics, but I’d be kidding if I didn’t say I also adored their sense of urgency—both rapped as if something really bad was going to happen, and soon, if we all didn’t do something quick. It was the late 1990s.
Lateef has kept his attraction basically intact after all these years. He’s still got that same urgent demeanor, if not more so. He’s purely at home on stage, to the extent that seeing him walk down the street would be unsettling, almost worrisome, and you’d want to prop a monitor on the sidewalk and hand him a mic just to put him in his natural element. His finest hour, still, is Latyrx, although his overlooked album Ambush isn’t much to shake a stick at, either. I’m always rooting for the guy.
Gift of Gab made the defining Quannum album, Nia, and for that alone he will always deserve respect—the lyrics, the conception, the fantasy, the arrangements are all pure brilliance on that record. Live, he’s often inclined to rev his vocal chords and scream his way to crescendo, a characteristic tendency which gets tiresome after the second or third go-round. These two things generally balance out to a level medium.
We catch the Mighty Underdogs’ last couple songs as they’re finishing their set, but from what I can gather, it’s basically a semi-interesting reworking of Blackalicious, for whom Lateef was a touring member for years. They’re still doing the “speak to me” thing (stale), and the songs are good enough to check out when the album drops but not enough to totally hop on the Miyata and jam down to the store to buy the day it comes out.
These one-time idols, how I wish they’d bounce back and hit the world with bullets again.
On our way over to the Lands End stage, we pass a girl in a bikini and shades, holding a homemade sign: “Got Fungi?”
On my left arm, if you look closely enough, you will be able to make out a scar, created by a relentless safety pin, spelling out the words “Pressure Drop.” This is etched into my arm for a very simple reason. To wit: I was obsessed with that song when I was 18. When you’re obsessed with a song at the age of 18, it’s only natural to pick up something sharp and carve the song into your arm for posterity.
It’s also natural, at the age of 18, to think that “Pressure Drop” is a song by the Clash.
I’ve heard numerous reports of Toots and the Maytals being a phenomenal live act, with Toots Hibbert in particular as an effortlessly gymnastic frontman. That’s heartening, considering how old Toots must be these days. All that matters to me is hearing “Pressure Drop.”
Toots hits the stage, jumps right in to the opening lines of “Pressure Drop,” and everything is great. The crowd goes nuts. Then, in a re-creation of Lupe Fiasco’s one-two the day before, he sets it up for his next biggest hit: “Reggay Got Soul.”
He’s not moving around with any kind of nimble abandon, but he’s happy and healthy-looking, and I’m glad that the guy who inspired me to drive a sharp object into my skin all those years ago in tribute is still doing okay. I’m doing okay, too, old friend.
K’naan is a Somalian-born poet and rapper who fled the “lake of blood” district of Mogadishu during the Somalian Civil War. He’s also delivered the most gripping hip-hop album this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, an autobiographical document of growing up in a warzone and clinging to Nas and Rakim CDs for escape. The record is hip-hop’s Graceland: djembe drums, group chants and slit gongs provide the addictively unique texture, while the beat to Dusty Foot‘s opening track, “Wash it Down,” is comprised entirely of feet stomping and sloshing through water. With the metaphor as water for life, the track concludes with the clever poke: “People need water like Kanye need Jesus.”
I’ve had The Dusty Foot Philosopher on a cassette, with Grip Grand’s Brokelore on Side B, in the car for the last three months. Grip Grand deserves an entirely separate review on how just completely fucking brilliant his album is; in short, Brokelore makes me feel totally fantastic and full of joy every single time I listen to it, which so far has been about 15 or 20 times and counting.
K’naan’s album is no less brilliant, but in a different fashion. I’m not always in the mood to listen to it, but when I am, it’s the greatest album in the world. You don’t know about weird looks from strangers until you’ve walked down the street singing about being stabbed by Satan on the day that you were born. Addictive.
Moreover, K’naan’s approach to songs is intensely poetic, a gripping sequence of metaphor and connectivity that enhances instead of diminishes the reality of his subject matter. With his vivid descriptions of life in Somalia; of being shot at by police; of seeing military tanks drive down the beach; of clinging to hope against all odds, he’s able to find the most effective, if not always the most direct, way of explaining his life thus far.
K’naan comes out on stage with a smile and a double thumbs-up for the dedicated fans who’ve staked out their front row positions, and goes into “Hoobaale,” a soft, undulating chant about waiting for disaster before implementing change. Next is an extended spoken-word poem, seemingly improvised, about coming to America from a tormented country and finding the famed open arms of lady liberty just as crippled. It’s the sort of powerful thing that dissipates into thin air as soon as it’s over, and I wish that I could have written it all down before it left.
“In the Beginning”—if you’re only gonna download one K’naan song, this is it—is amazing, inciting the crowd to put up their fists on the extended bridge and chant along. A newer song, about getting older and feeling stronger, comes next, with the audience providing the chorus. Then K’naan apologizes for his set needing to be cut so short, performs “Soobax,” and that’s it. Five songs.
Except that’s not it. There’s no hope of an encore, but there’s a buzz in the air that people can’t simply walk away from. A gathering of about 20 or 30 people cluster to the side of the stage, and after five minutes or so, K’naan comes out and personally talks to every one of them. Still flabbergasted by his performance, I have no choice but to pull out my notebook and ask for his autograph.
He writes two words. “Justice. K’naan.”
Last year, Justin Vernon went into a shed in rural Wisconsin, cleared his head, chopped some wood and recorded nine quiet songs under the name Bon Iver that have since turned just about every indie critic into a drooling, superlative-oozing pile of gush.
I still don’t get it.
Sharon Jones—who could have ever predicted that she would be playing a huge stage in front of thousands of people? I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I’ve still got some of her early 45s on Daptone. Dap-Dippin’ was an alright album, but it was 2005’s Naturally that really did the trick for me. Whereas Dap-Dippin’ is a lot of James Brown-inspired textbook funk, the songwriting on Naturally takes it over the top into greatness. For a time, it seemed as if the pinnacle of the underground funk revival, which started with Brainfreeze, had finally been achieved. Then Amy Winehouse came along, heisted Jones’ backup band, called her album Back to Black, for cryin’ out loud, and ran away with the prize.
While Winehouse rots in the tabloids and the UK tries to cough up more blue-eyed soul sensations while their iron is hot, Jones has been getting more attention, and that’s a great thing. While I think the songs on her latest album 100 Days, 100 Nights fall short of Naturally’s instant magnetism, it’s still an important example that newer is not always better, and that fancier recording technology doesn’t always mean a better-sounding record. Plus, Jones can sing the hell out of any song in the world.
The Dap-Kings come out and run through a couple instrumental numbers, including “Tighten Up.” Everyone’s waiting for Jones to hit the stage, and when she does it’s like an earthquake. She shimmies, struts, glides and hollers her way through “How Do I Let a Good Man Down.” She complains about her legs being shorter than Tina Turner’s. She calls out to people in the crowd like they’re all distant cousins. It’s amazing.
Jones then finds someone in the wings who says his name is Tuesday and starts schooling him in the art of getting down. Singing directly to him, she places his hands on her hips, gyrating in rhythm and instructing him to do the same. It’s fantastic theatre, and the band keeps a steady beat throughout it all.
The Cool Kids are a full-on guilty pleasure minus the guilt, a complete throwback to the earliest hip-hop records that I was into when I was twelve years old. I wrote about them back in January, when all they had were two great songs on their MySpace page, likening them to hip-hop’s midlife-crisis Porsche and predicting that they’d burn hot for a short while before fading away.
Time will tell what the future holds for the Cool Kids, but it’s not like they’re concerned about it at all. Fun is the name of their game, and they take turns making fun of each other, or themselves, by saying things like “My beatboxin’ ain’t very good, I gotta be honest.” But their beatboxing is good, and they’re on top of their shit, and they rule the Panhandle Stage.
The two songs I catch are “88” and “Black Mags.” They sound as great as they did eight months ago—better, in fact. I rescind my prognosis about their short shelf life, and hope that their one foot in the past will equal a brighter future for hip-hop in general.
Broken Social Scene, right from the get-go, is totally likable and awesome. There’s nine people on stage and I have no idea which is which until some guy in wrinkled clothes and a trilby hat starts talking about how San Francisco is his favorite city in California. Must be Kevin Drew, I think to myself, who is the sort of ersatz leader of this huge collective.
I haven’t seen Broken Social Scene before, but I love, love, love their records. I can’t remember the first song they play, because the second one, “KC Accidental,” renders all of my memory obliterated, and I scream “fuck yes” and close my eyes and I feel like I’m diving down into a sea of bliss. There’s so much activity on stage, and I try to drink it all in while I can.
“7/4 (Shorelines)” brings out Amy Millan from Stars on guest vocals. Emily Haines plays guitar on a lot of songs, and sings much better than Millan. There’s a guy who looks like Bigfoot, dressed all in white, on bass, and a guy who looks like Paul Bunyan on guitar. “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” and a couple of new solo songs are all good. But it’s Kevin Drew, treating the enormous crowd like a regular old group of friends, who steals the show.
“Remember to vote!” he tells the crowd at one point. “Vote for Canada! Vote for every country!”
Near the end of the set, it almost seems like Drew is joking when he makes a special announcement. “Hey, Spiral Stairs is here, everybody! Spiral Stairs!” he says, but sure enough, Spiral Stairs from Pavement walks on stage and straps on a black guitar. I’m hoping for “Lover’s Spit”—longshot, I know—but even when the drumsticks click off the tempo, I realize what’s happening: the first song from Broken Social Scene, “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day).” It’s a bonkers title, but man if it isn’t a goddamn great song.
So we get the gigantic, epic send-off for the band, and during the breakdown, Drew slips into full-on Springsteen mode. “For all the hurt in your life; for all the hurt you’ve caused in others’ lives; for all the love you feel and for all the love others feel for you. . . scream so your whole entire city can hear you, San Francisco!”
Wilco, who Kevin Drew refers to as “the greatest band in America,” comes on next. I’ve seen Wilco four times, and each time I’ve liked them less. Jeff Tweedy has seemed grouchier as time has gone on, which I could probably deal with if their new musical approach wasn’t so hackneyed.
The last time at the Fillmore, I figured it out. Whereas on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band combined beauty and chaos fluidly and simultaneously, their newer material sequesters the two into awkwardly arranged factions. They’ll get a not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song going for a while, and then they’ll let Nels Cline freak out in the middle, and then they go back to the not-very-good breezy sunshiny pop song.
Needless to say, I’m one of many who believe that Being There is their best record.
But Jeff Tweedy actually seems like he’s in good spirits, jogging around the stage a little bit during “Hummingbird” and joking with Nels Cline about how his maroon pants are held up by a safety pin. When someone yells “I love you!” he responds with the deadpan zinger, “We love you too, random guy in a massive crowd of people!”
“I am Trying to Break Your Heart” benefits from drastic new textures, and I take a walk through the crowd during “Jesus, Etc.”—just about everyone sings along to themselves, quietly. “California Stars,” unfortunately, comes a little too early before the nighttime, but lots of people look up at the California sky nonetheless.
Wilco once meant a lot to me, and I have to admit to feeling terrible about our falling out in recent years. I’m glad that they’re good tonight. It’s been a memorable weekend, and making amends with an old confidante is a nice way to wrap things up.
Photos by Gabe Meline – Lots More Photos After the Jump.