This week’s Bohemian Arts Feature is on Vijay Iyer, the great jazz pianist who’s playing the Healdsburg Jazz Festival on June 10. Iyer and I spoke on the phone for about 45 minutes on a variety of subjects, from the challenges facing jazz as a whole to the phone conversations he used to have with Andrew Hill. Naturally, it couldn’t all fit into a 1,000-wd. piece, which is a shame considering Iyer’s very smart, articulate answers. Here are selections from our interview that didn’t make the print paper.
In the hip-hop version of nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll packages like Art Laboe’s Memories of El Monte or Alan Freed’s American Hot Wax, the 2010 Rock the Bells tour barreled into a packed Shoreline Amphitheatre to revive the golden age of hip-hop with a particular zeroing in on the magical year of 1993. That year, after all, saw releases of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—all iconic albums, and all performed “in their entirety” at Rock the Bells on Sunday.
Notably, though, none of the acts adhered to the “in its entirety” concept. Rakim purportedly performed Paid in Full in its entirety, but excluded three songs from the album and scattered the others, out of order, throughout a greatest-hits set. This set the stage of artists bending toward hits from classic albums rather than staidly presenting them cover-to-cover. While at first this seemed like a bit of false advertising in action, it was eventually evidenced that when deep album cuts were dutifully unearthed—Tribe’s “God Lives Through,” say—energy levels suffered.
At a show like Sunday’s, one had to set aside valid concerns about hip-hop getting older and leaning on its past rather than looking to its future. For all the chatter about the genre being in a slump, there is so much life and vitality to the music presented on Sunday to get hip-hop through the longest dry spell. No one tugged at their goatee or scribbled in their notebook about these concerns. You don’t worry about shit like that when an epic lineup is playing out in front of your eyes.
Rakim opened with “My Melody,” played the part of Eric B. by cutting up lines from “I Know You Got Soul” on the 1200s, got the Bay Area crowd to boo Los Angeles and dedicated songs “to all the mommies out there.” Standing like an impenetrable wall of skill, he moved deliberately around the stage to rearranged Paid in Full cuts alongside later hits “Know the Ledge” and “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Scheduled early in the day at 1pm for too many empty seats, it felt like Rakim got little love for someone generally regarded as the most innovative and influential MC of all time. He didn’t seem fazed. He told security to lay off so the people could cluster near the front of the stage, absolutely killed tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “I Ain’t No Joke,” and at one point planted his Nike shoe on the monitor, licked the back of his thumb and deftly cleaned off a tiny fleck of dirt stuck to otherwise spotless sneakers. Smooth.
“When I get off stage,” he warned of the massive lineup to come, “it’ll get crazy. And then it’ll get crazier.”
“Hip-hop is not that Hollywood bullshit!” yelled Immortal Technique, on the side stage. “Hip-hop is being one with the people!”
He then finished a song with a chant of “Fuck Cops,” and then explained himself. “I know some of you out there don’t agree with that last song. You might be like, ‘My dad is a cop. He works hard and put himself in danger to keep the country safe.’ Well you know what? Fuck your dad! Fuck your family! And fuck cops!”
This didn’t go over well with some. While Immortal Technique talked about his recent trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a dude in the crowd threw a soda bottle at him. It missed, but the audience was all too glad to point the guy out. Immortal Technique’s entourage ran off the stage, into the crowd, and cornered the guy. It looked hectic, but then security intervened and dragged the dude to be thrown out at the gates.
“The crowd will always be filled with one agent provocateur,” quipped Immortal Technique. “You got off soft.” After his set, he stayed at the merch booth for two hours, signing autographs.
Lauryn Hill was 45 minutes late, and by the time she finally came out and finished her extended rock version of “Lost One,” her first song, it was 5:35—the end of her set, according to the schedule. If the stickler Bill Graham had still been in charge at Shoreline, he’d have unapologetically pulled her off stage right then as punishment for tardiness. Rock the Bells allowed her a full set anyway, albeit a shortened one; in the ridiculously long wait before she took the stage, roadies twice came out and crossed songs off all the set lists.
In Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, a black sequined cap and a homeless-chic green trenchcoat covering an early-’90s high-waisted getup, Hill displayed all the same hopeful energy of her show earlier this year at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa by churning her arms wildly and strutting in insanely high four-inch heels. Things looked grim when she left the stage ten minutes in, but returned wearing different shoes. Probably a wise move.
The crowd seemed confused by her new arrangements, and didn’t move much until she got into Fugees tracks like “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La,” which opened the floodgates for mayhem. Hill performed everyone else’s verses, and displayed her recent desire to be taken seriously again after a long rough patch. By the time she ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the sting of her late arrival was nicely salved.
“I can only introduce this next group,” said Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, solemnly, “by saying that this is my favorite group of all time. Rock the Bells, please welcome to the stage… A Tribe Called Quest!” Except Tribe wasn’t ready yet, and when a rushed Ali Shaheed Muhammad emerged from the wings and quickly started the intro to Midnight Marauders on the turntables, he shot Rosenberg an icy stare. Oops.
As mentioned, Tribe actually stuck somewhat to the material from Midnight Marauders, even performing late-in-Side-B cuts like “Lyrics to Go,” which you’ll never hear at a regular Tribe show. The “Midnight Lady” voice popped up from time to time in the set, they did everything on the album except “8 Million Stories,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Keep it Rollin’,” and Q-Tip remarked that Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang came out on the same exact date in 1993.
But the heat came when they brought out Busta Rhymes for “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Award Tour,” which saw Q-Tip running out into the amphitheater and working the fans in a show-stopping, all-star set closer. Tribe, Busta, Jarobi all onstage, simply sliding into place? Um, best part of the festival?
“It’s just like 15 guys all shouting the same thing and shitting on each other’s verses,” remarked a companion before the Wu-Tang Clan came on, and in a way, he was right. Wu-Tang, however, also adhered pretty strictly to the in-its-entirety thing, and it’s pretty thrilling to see all those guys on stage at the same time.
The role of Ol’ Dirty Bastard was filled by Ol’ Dirty’s son, who styled his hair in the same fashion and wore an oversized “R.I.P. ODB” T-shirt. He was clearly the most excited to be on stage, but the Wu held it down, and I tell you, the place was going bazonkers.
“I saw this shit on stage last night,” said MC Supernatural, introducing Snoop Dogg, “and what you’re about to see is epic. It’s like a movie.”
Snoop’s set was the perfect way to end the long day—laid back, entertaining, and for the sonically inclined, perfectly EQed. He had a tricked-out bike and a fire hydrant onstage. He had a picnic table covered in Olde English 40 ozs. He had the entire Dogg Pound (sans Nate Dogg). He had a giant backdrop of the cover to Doggystyle. He had full-budget video interludes to match all the skits on Doggystyle. He had a guy in a gigantic full-body dog suit. He opened with the bathtub skit, had the Lady of Rage deliver “G Funk Intro” and launched majestically into “Gin and Juice,” blunt in hand. It was beautiful.
Snoop also really took time to paint a picture of where he was at when making the record. He explained that “Gs Up, Hoes Down” had to be taken off the record due to sample clearance issues. He told the story of proposing “Ladi Dadi” to Dr. Dre: “When I was working on this album, Doggystyle, I told Dr. Dre I wanted to do something that’d never been done before. I wanted to redo this song I loved when I was a kid. And he said, ‘Okay, but we gonna fuck with it.’”
By the whole crew exiting the stage after every few songs, the set had the feel of a theatrical play, divided into acts and narrated by the Greek chorus of video interludes. And yet it was when Snoop broke the fourth wall that the show carried most of its weight. “Who here really did buy Doggystyle when it came out?” he asked. “Who had it on cassette? Who had it on wax? Who had it on CD? Were CDs even out? I was scared of the CD, man, I had the motherfuckin’ tape. Yeah. East side, G side.”
Warren G performed “Regulate” to represent the non-Snoop hits of the era, and the whole Dogg Pound even performed the posse cut “Stranded on Death Row,” from The Chronic. (“We wanted to show the world that we weren’t just gangsta rappers, but that we were MCs.”) And even though he ended with “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock,” the set was a very well-done, heartfelt homage to a groundbreaking, bygone era.
“Doggystyle, man,” Snoop mused, near the end. “This shit is crazy. All my people on stage right here? I’m havin’ a moment right here.”
More Photos Below.
Every time these guys get together on stage the world is blessed. A Tribe Called Quest, unannounced reunion, at the Knitting Factory last night:
I caught “Award Tour” at Outside Lands in SF where the festival crowd was subdued, but this is insane. Phife has heavy medical bills from diabetes, and the show was a benefit for him, but feel the joy in the room and try to deny the gift to the fans.
I love San Francisco. I love Ocean Beach, and I love biking through Golden Gate Park past the eucalyptus and bison, and I love getting closer and closer to tour buses, road barricades and the sound of distant bands warbling in the wind. I love dropping my bike off with the San Francisco Bike Coalition, and I actually kinda love running from stage to stage to see as many bands as I possibly can before riding back to the beach.
It didn’t used to be this way. I hated festivals. Too many bands, not enough time, way too much marketing, and the worst offense of all—no free water. All of these symptoms are present at the Outside Lands festival, and yet what can I say? I love Golden Gate Park, and love is blind.
The Outside Lands festival returned this year to a flurry of neighborhood complaints about noise and fan complaints about lineup, and the first thing we notice is that there’s way fewer fans and way more people shoving handbills in our faces than last year. Other than that, and the near-universally recognized weakness of this year’s headliners, the Outside Lands festival is pretty much the same as last year—with batting cages.
Right before Built to Spill goes on, a girl, about 19, asks me if I’ve ever seen them before. “Yeah, about 12 or 13 times!” I tell her. “I’ve never heard them,” she says, “but my friend told me they’re like Band of Horses. Are they like Band of Horses?”
I admittedly am biased when it comes to Built to Spill, and I feel bad that they’ve been given the unprestigious 2:30pm time slot on a Friday. What’s it like being a hugely influential band, only to have the younger generation care more about your stylistic debtors? The old way of thinking was to raise a bitter ruckus and let as many people as possible know that you haven’t been given your due.
The new way of thinking is that through either Zen or humility, Built to Spill are unfazed at their spot both on the festival schedule and in the tight-jeans handbook. They play “The Plan,” “Else,” “Car,” “You Were Right,” “Big Dipper”—perfect songs that don’t sound old. They play a new song from their upcoming album, with lyrics about Canada and locks on the door, and it sounds just as fresh. Guitarist Jim Roth breaks a string and changes it himself mid-song. Doug Martsch chirps his simple “Thanks.”
Afterwards, a fan is overheard saying, “Dude, Built to Spill and Vicodin… soooo good.”
The Dodos recorded an album recently and said fuck it, let’s just stream it online for everyone to hear. In this day and age, that isn’t shattering news, but in light of Visiter and its huge success, it’s admirably surprising that their record label was cool with essentially giving the anticipated follow-up away for free.
Even more surprising, for me, is that live, the Dodos are imbued with the full-on spirit of thrust. Their records have their mellow moments, but the noise made by just Meric’s acoustic guitar and Logan’s drums on stage is baffling. They have a guy playing vibes. Everyone sings along to “Fools.” Their San Francisco friends are out and about, but no one’s razzing them ‘cause they’re ruling it.
The best thing to do in San Francisco when there’s a lull in the day is to ride down to Amoeba to score some records by Dinah Washington, Jeru the Damaja, Dirty Projectors, Larry Young, Sunn o))). Hit up the liquor store on Stanyan and pound an entire 32 oz. Gatorade on the sidewalk. It’s hot, man. Bad day to wear black jeans.
Q-Tip takes the stage with a full band—guitar, bass, drums, DJ, and a wacky dude with star earrings and dyed red hair who plays Fender Rhodes, saxophone and keytar. I loved Q-Tip’s album from last year, The Renaissance, and he comes out to its lead-off track.
Q-Tip, of course, is commanding the stage; he’s one of the most charismatic hip-hop performers in history. He breathes in rhythm like the Meters, he throws his head back and howls like James Brown, and, in a brief tribute to Michael Jackson, hammers falsetto after falsetto. His band follows his every cue, hitting the floor and cutting the volume at the right times, rising with each scream.
People sometimes ask me who my all-time favorite rapper is. I won’t choose just one, but if all of the hip hop records in the world disappeared tomorrow, I might be placated if the albums made by A Tribe Called Quest were spared. So it’s exciting when Q-Tip hits the first verse of “Oh My God,” and when he flips the beat on “Sucka Nigga,” and when he closes out “Find a Way” with a full-on talk box solo by the wacky keyboard player. When he beatboxes the Brady Bunch theme song into “Bonita Applebum,” the crowd loses their minds.
“Turn off your phones, your iPhones, your Blackberries!” he shouts during an extended jam on “Electric Relaxation.” “We feelin’ the music right here!” The energy level keeps rising and rising. “Check the Rhime” follows, then “Scenario,” and every Tribe Called Quest fan in San Francisco is losing their mind.
And then, oh shit, it happens.
Phife and Q-Tip on the same stage performing “Award Tour” at Outside Lands may just be the highlight of the entire festival, for me and a handful of others. My only question: Why in the world didn’t Q-Tip bring him out on Tribe songs sooner, especially for the back-and-forth of “Check the Rhime”? Phife’s voice may not be in the best form, but any rapper who evidently carries a microphone around in his pocket is obviously ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Q-Tip acknowledges the history of the moment, says, “I don’t know when you’re ever gonna see that again,” and lets the crowd trickle away to “Life is Better.”
To answer your question, no, nobody threw panties at Tom Jones—at least not for the first few songs. I’m stumped. I remember hearing about Tom Jones issuing a statement about ten years ago asking people to stop throwing panties at him, but no one took it seriously. What’s the deal?
Jones sings “I’m Alive,” “Give a Little Love,” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” During the fourth song, “If I Only Knew,” a lone red pair of panties flies through the air and alights near Jones’ feet. He ignores it. 40 seconds later, another pair of panties arcs toward the stage. Then another, and another, and another. By the end of the song, it’s just a crazy hailstorm of panties falling on Tom Jones, and I sort of feel sorry for him but I gotta admit, it’s also funny as hell.
He does “Hard to Handle,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Delilah,” and saves “It’s Not Unusual” for the end, when most of the curious and ironic onlookers have bailed to catch a painfully boring band called Pearl Jam.
I hope that eventually, someone will chronicle a history of the walk-on music that bands use to take the stage. Fans of Morrissey seem especially devoted to this, as are fans of Depeche Mode, who even released their pre-concert mix on a CD for their fans. Tom Waits played old blues 78s through tinny cone speakers on his last tour; Springsteen plays “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when he’s at a baseball stadium; classical recordings of great bombast are popular. Like so many other ephemeral pieces of the concert experience, walk-on music is something that’s forgotten halfway through the first song—and yet for a brief minute, after the lights go dim, it unites the entire crowd in an innervating herald.
Pearl Jam’s walk-on music is “Metamorphosis 2,” by Philip Glass. There’s some other songs that happen between that and our walking back to our bikes, and Eddie Vedder seems like a nice guy and all, telling the crowd to “keep track of each other and make sure that no one goes down,” but you know. It’s Pearl Jam: The Sound of the ’90s. They are completely and hopelessly dated. Sorry, grunge fans.
More photos after the jump.