Ed Crawford couldn’t sing the high notes anymore. Mike Watt and George Hurley occasionally got off-time from each other. And you know what? It didn’t matter! fIREHOSE were great! They haven’t played live together for 18 years! You expect them to be as tight as they were in 1991?
Anyway, it’s all about the setlist, see below. The band has a new “anthology” to hawk that only covers the Columbia albums, but they pulled generously from the SST albums. (Ed sang “What Gets Heard.”) Lotsa tall old hairy guys in the crowd. Lotsa cheers when Watt sang. Slim’s is unbearable when it’s sold out. For real.
There’s a chemistry about live music that’s referenced pretty constantly—this thing of the performer feeding off the fans, and the fans feeding off the performer, until some mythic plane is reached where the energy created is greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon has no name, but go to a few shows and you’ll eventually see and feel it in action, particularly with up-and-coming artists suddenly handed a tidal wave of attention. Some up-and-comer, say, like Kreayshawn.
At her show in San Francisco last night, the audience showered as much energy as possible on the 21-year-old Oakland-bred rapper, whose “Gucci Gucci” video is at 13 million views and counting. Yet onstage at Slim’s, Kreayshawn seemed either incapable or uninterested in giving it back, either consciously relying on the mere presence of her instant fame to provide excitement, or nervous about a hometown crowd—or, you know, she could’ve just been kinda stoned.
Granted, this is sure to improve with more experience. The set was trashy, superficial and fun, as expected. And despite Kreayshawn’s detractors who say she can’t rap, she’s a natural on the mic in the true test of a live setting. Either on older mixtape rambles like “Wavey” or new track “Rich Whores,” Kreayshawn stayed on point, holding up under the weight of the bass and not falling back on prerecorded vocals like some of the show’s openers.
Still, something was amiss. Even as the sold-out crowd sang along, the unsettlingly thin Kreayshawn paced the stage with an uncertain air, as if she hasn’t decided what kind of star she wants to be just yet; either the kind that strives to connect with fans, or the kind that tries to be so aloof that people are drawn to her more. The result was that the club’s energy wasn’t reflected by Kreayshawn on stage, but instead dissipated into the rafters, its well from below gradually drying out.
The show improved markedly with the arrival of V-Nasty, who seemed genuinely thrilled to have her moment in the limelight, no matter how fleeting or controversial that moment may be. With the three on stage together, an element of the classic boy-band formula came to mind: a group of separate personalities, branded as one. V-Nasty, the stonewashed-jean-wearing white trash foulmouth in love with Waka Flocka; Lil’ Debbie, the awkward, untalented one along for the ride; and Kreayshawn, the skinny, fashion-minded Powerpuff girl of the bunch.
After “Bumpin’ Bumpin’” ran its course, the intro to “Gucci Gucci” dropped. The place went nuts, and though the crowd could have sung the whole song for her, Kreayshawn stayed on the mic for every line. Finally, a sort of pinnacle had been reached, and it was just as well—it was the last song of the set. Afterward, the White Girl Mob danced around to Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love,” a fight between two girls broke out in front of the stage, and Kreayshawn waved and went down the backstage stairs, on her way to host the red carpet at the VMAs this Sunday, talking fashion with the stars. Shit, it could even work out better than rapping. Who knows?
There are many transgressions I will abide at live hip-hop shows. I accept that I will be yelled at for not making enough noise. I know that I will be schooled on some arcane lyric I am supposed to repeat. I can hang with crowd-rocking clichés like left side vs. right side, I’m cool with rappers getting too excited and gruffly shouting their lyrics, and most of all, I have started to swallow my indignation at Serato.
But let’s say you’re People Under the Stairs. You’ve made seven full-lengths. You’ve got fresh beats for days. You’re one of the best throwback hip-hop acts in the country. The last thing you need to do is come out on stage and, before performing any song, try to get the crowd hyped by talking about your new sponsorship from Vans:
“This is a world premiere! Check out dubbayu dubbayu dubbayu dot VANS dot com, forward-slash, remix”—blah blah blah—”an’ if you win, Vans is gonna hook you up! Now San Francisco, are you with that?!!”
I was embarrassed for the Bay when the crowd actually cheered. No wonder the Dodgers are in the playoffs and the Giants are toast. L.A. plays us like a violin. Seriously—we’re such dumbshits that we cheer for a promotional Vans remix contest website URL?
My friend Matt quickly recalled Soul Strut hosting a PUTS remix contest, a couple years back. The prizes included having the winning remix pressed on vinyl, free records for the runner-up, and, for third place, a $10 Wendy’s Gift Card they probably found laying around (“for baked potato or baconator, yo choice”). That same idea co-opted by Vans, who make perfectly fine shoes but have an insidious penchant for swooping in and plastering their name on quality youth culture, is not a reason to throw your hands in the air.
So the starting line was set about 20 yards back, with a lot of catch-up to do. This ordinarily shouldn’t be hard to do for Double K and Thes One, given the enormous back catalog of PUTS jams. Obvious classics like “Hang Loose,” “San Francisco Nights,” “Tuxedo Rap,” “Up Your Spine” and “Acid Raindrops” were all played, but I dunno, something was off. A faded Thes One—one of my favorite producers, who dominates both The Price is Right and Will.i.am—kept messing around with the mic’s reverb by huffing his way through too many acapellas (“Time to Rock Our Shit” faded out, but never faded back in) and the lack of tight pacing showed.
People Under the Stairs play party jams and people love party jams, so there were no complaints from the dozens of girls pulled up on stage for “Hang Loose” (see Fig. 1A, above). Nonetheless, we walked back to the car in a weird daze—”It’s like their crowd changed from beatdiggers to douchebags,” we overheard someone say—and hoped it was just an off night. Carried Away, their new record that comes out next week, is as great as ever. How could it be bad, right? So anyway. Here’s to future days.
Two years ago, when Santiago decided to learn and perform Built to Spill’s album Perfect From Now On in its entirety, I would have never guessed that Built to Spill themselves would one day book a series of shows doing the same exact song-for-song tribute to their own masterpiece.
I also would have never guessed that through a series of events both deliberate and unpredictably farcical, Doug Martsch would ever hear a live audience recording of the show where we played Perfect From Now On; or that, years later, when Built to Spill took the album back on the road, that he’d track us down and personally invite us to the show.
It was one of those heart-stopping answering machine messages: “Look, Doug wants to put you and your band on the guest list for the show next week, so gimme a call back.”
I was agog. I called back, and sure enough, Doug Martsch had heard the Santiago recording of Perfect From Now On. And he wanted to meet us.
“I can’t believe you did it,” Doug told us backstage, smiling. “It even took us a long time to re-learn some of those songs.”
We said to him, fumbling over our words, I’m sure, how much we loved the album, and how grateful we were to him for making it, and what a satisfying project it was to learn it in its entirety. Nick explained that it took the better part of a month, “locked in my bedroom,” to figure out the insanely complex guitar parts, which perked Doug’s interest. “Did you learn any new formations?” he asked, unaware of how accurate his suggestion was.
The phenomenon we often encountered, I explained, was that we’d listen to the songs and imagine, in our heads, how they’d be played. But then, when we actually picked up our guitars, we realized that our fingers had to be arranged in completely different patterns in order to play the parts correctly. “So it was an amazing and indirect learning process,” I said.
“If you’ve got time,” Doug offered, “if there’s some parts you couldn’t figure out, I could get my guitar and show you some stuff.”
Jesus Christ, we all thought. Is this for real? But by that point, after hanging out for a while, it was time for the show to start. The band walked by, up the stairs and to the stage, and Doug thanked us again before strolling behind to perform one of the greatest albums ever made.
As I’ve said before, the greatest asset Perfect From Now On so brilliantly brandishes is a complete sense of mystery. Learning it didn’t change that, and seeing Built to Spill play it in its entirety didn’t change it either. Even onstage, the album still emits, from just about every song, the themes that everyone ponders when they first spend a long night gazing up at the stars and talking to a good friend about life:
The universe is infinite. You are small, and your life is relatively insignificant. It’s wrong to go through life acting otherwise. Imagination is useful. The world is noisy. Sympathy is a luxury. Beauty is random acts coming together. Other people can be cruel simply by thinking the thoughts that they think. No one knows for sure what happens when we die. When you feel the darkness shining through, what are you gonna do?
I dare any major label A&R rep to scout out an album like Perfect From Now On today. I further dare them to release it. Think about it: this was Built to Spill’s major label debut, those three feeble words which give the record company carte blanche to respond with those five familiar words—”we don’t hear a hit.” Did someone at Warner Brothers in 1997 actually see the artistic value of Perfect From Now On?
The show was magical, hitting a stride with “Stop the Show,” completely coming unhinged with “Velvet Waltz,” and slicing through the previous 45 minutes with “Untrustable / Pt. 2.” Cellist John McMahon, who played on the original album, added immensely to the sound; as did Brett Netson, who’s rightfully been cited as Built to Spill’s secret weapon. Songs became elastic, speeding up and slowing down with even more freedom than on the record, and the band’s legendarily long jams were kept short but no less sprawling. There was a lot of open-mouthed gaping in the crowd.
They played three more songs: “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Car,” and “Stab,” and then the lights came up. We drove back to Santa Rosa in awe, and I stayed up until 4am thinking about the unbelievable circle of events that life sometimes throws us.
One thing especially sticks out from the night. I had tried not to be too interrogative with Doug Martsch backstage at the show, but I couldn’t help but ask him a burning question. Did learning Perfect From Now On again, I suggested, bring up any old emotions for him?
“No,” he said, calmly. “I don’t really look at music that way. I just play it.”