“Anybody come here by cable car?”
Jarvis Cocker had only been in San Francisco for a few hours Tuesday when the longest legs in rock raced his upper half to City Lights bookstore. Later, on stage at the Warfield, he read an excerpt from his purchase—a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translations of the French surrealist poet Jacques Prévert—and quoted playwright Thornton Wilder and author Isak Dinesen.
“Do you want to see a dolphin?”
Prevért? Wilder? Dinesen? Needless to say, Cocker is not your average rock star. But he’s no bookish dweeb, either—the Ferlinghetti recitation served as lead-in to “This is Hardcore,” the most dramatic song about sex ever recorded. A bra was flung on stage; he picked it up and buried his nose in it. He gyrated, jumped, lay prone, thrusted and grinded his way through an exhilarating two-hour set, and nobody in the Warfield left last night without wanting to go to bed with him.
“Well, the afternoon is really the best time to have sex. Why is that?”
Everything about Pulp’s show at the Warfield amazed and delighted. Aside from a handful of recent reunion dates, Pulp has not played together for almost a decade, but you wouldn’t have known it from their set on Tuesday. They were supremely tight, the set list was outstanding, the sound was superb, the crowd was energetic, the lights were dazzling, and Jarvis Cocker, good God, was at his most Jarvis Cockerish.
“Just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it.”
It’s been said before, but Jarvis Cocker is truly the consummate frontman. The art of talking to the crowd, I realized last night, is a lost art. For all the listless rambling heard in the 1990s, well, I miss the attempt. Cocker attempts, and nails, and even his listlessness tends to quickly draw up a list and get on a point to connect with the crowd. He’s been introducing these songs for years. He still finds new routes to their titles.
“It’s difficult to introduce this next song, because then you’ll know what it is.”
Of course, it was “Common People,” and of course, it was incredible, and of course, of course, of course… there are so many “of courses” associated with “Common People” and yet it sailed across the Warfield like some majestic liberating angel of light unifying everyone there against everyone else and for however many minutes it coursed through a collective vein and wrapped us all up with empathy and a red bow and a beer bottle.
“If I give you this beer, will you share it?”
And still I’ve never loved “Common People” as much as last night. “Disco 2000,” “Babies” and set opener “Do You Remember the First Time?” were also grand singalongs. But the beastly favorite of mine is “This is Hardcore,” delivered with all the hot drip and luscious terror of the record. Cocker scaled the speaker tower, dangled his microphone from strategic places and collapsed in a pile across the stage monitors.
“How fortunate that this arrived here at this particular moment.”
Looking back, it’s unbelievable that only one bra was thrown on stage, but Cocker took it to launch into “Underwear,” an overt song worthy of San Francisco, which Cocker clearly was grateful for. Introducing “Mis-Shapes,” he related how touring bands love coming to San Francisco because “it seems a bit messed up, and there are strange people all around. Just like us.” He also reminded the crowd that the last time Pulp played in town was at Bimbo’s, in 1996. Jarvis Cocker, awesomely, reads his own fan site..
“I was in Las Vegas last night. That’s a fucked up place.”
The site, PulpWiki (“it knows more about my life than I do”) told Cocker that the band’s first album It was released 29 years ago to the day. So the show ended with Pulp playing “My Lighthouse,” the very first song from their very first album. No sweeter arc could have been circled to end the show, which, judging from the sweat and exhilaration on the sidewalk in front of the Warfield afterward, is going to go down as legendary. As for my standing-in-front-of-the-speaker self… well, I’m going to be answering the phone with my left ear all week.
Do You Remember the First Time?
O.U. (Gone, Gone)
Sorted for E’s & Wizz
Like a Friend
This Is Hardcore
Ever since Daft Punk’s giant pyramid, electronic acts have recognized the need for a sensory stage show—Justice and their wall of Marshall amps; Deadmau5 and his Rubik’s cube. These novelties have made live electronic music more visually interesting, and have helped sell more tickets, but they’ve so far been just that—novelties, meant to give the audience something to look at while somebody stands at a laptop computer.
Amon Tobin’s current tour Isam, on the other hand, is a true work of art.
Isam is Amon Tobin’s Metropolis, his Koyaanisqatsi. In a series of wordless images, the set that Tobin is bringing around to select cities makes a bold statement on technology and its omnipresence in our modern universe—terrifying one minute, beautiful the next. Like all great art, the production is thought-provoking, challenging and stunning. Submitting to it is pure glee.
So it’s like this: on the stage is a massive, unmoving sculpture of stacked white cubes. A projector fires laser images onto this sculpture, and there may some LEDs involved as well. The combined effect is a 3D experience where the cubes move even though they’re not moving; where the sculpture floats through space even though it is immobile; where a parallel universe exists with shape-shifting factories, angry jet engines and mechanized factory clangs competing with brilliant, serene patterns and transformative optical illusions.
In the center of all this, in a cube larger than the others, is Tobin, occasionally lit from within. These reveals—that there is, in fact, a human involved—pull the curtain back on a spectacle that’s seemingly created solely from silicon, and enshrine the production as a triumph not only of technological engineering but of cranial ingenuity.
And, lest this be taken for an exercise in intellectualism, there’s confetti, too.
There are several dates left of Tobin’s tour, and those who have a chance to see it should seize the opportunity. After the tour is over, the question arises: what will become of the 24-foot structure? The projected images, the gut-rumbling bass tones, the immersive presentation? Lost forever?
Without a doubt, Isam belongs in a museum.
“Howdy,” said Gillian Welch, on stage at the Warfield.
It was after the first song of the set, “Scarlet Town,” which is also the first song on Welch’s new album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Welch and her partner David Rawlings were already tuning. Welch was making small talk; “Howdy” is just the normal, traditional thing for a girl who plays in a dress and cowboy boots to say.
But Welch kept talking. “Someone gave me shit the other day for saying ‘Howdy,’” she added. “What the fuck?!”
She plastered on her best glazed-over Michele Bachmann look and waved an exaggerated, role-playing wave.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” she intoned, and kept up the sarcasm: “That’s more colorful.”
It was a moment that underlined Welch’s individuality perfectly. You’d never hear Alison Krauss start her show with the same banter, just like you’d never come across anyone else capable of crafting songs like “Time (The Revelator),” “I Dream a Highway” or “Everything is Free.”
Yes, all of those songs are from the same album, which was released ten years ago: Time (The Revelator), a completely flawless record that, even had it not been released in the great O Brother bluegrass frenzy of 2001, would still be widely recognized as a masterwork. Much of the album’s strength lies in its variety. It contains the Roy Orbison-like compactness of “Dear Someone”; the Steve Miller quote in “My First Lover”; the dueling death ballads “April the 14th, Part I” and “Ruiniation Day, Part II”; and “Elvis Presley Blues,” which is not a blues song.
At the Warfield, Welch played four songs from Time (The Revelator), but mostly the set culled from her newest record. Unfortunately, The Harrow and the Harvest falls back on recycling folk idioms rather than creating new forms, as Welch has proved herself more than capable of doing. Only briefly is it touched with the same presence from her two previous records—on the second and third songs, “Dark Turn of Mind” and “The Way it Will Be.” The rest sounds like Welch had writer’s block for eight years and got tired of everyone asking her where her new album was and decided, the hell with it, I’ll just let those ten years of playing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival work their influence and bang out some traditional songs that sound like everyone else, using my expansive knowledge of Southern lyrical themes to twist slightly, ’cause that’s what folk music has always done anyway, right? I’ll even throw in a hambone for Doc Watson’s sake.
This sounds harsh, and maybe it is. Except it’s also exactly what Welch herself is admitting to people in interviews. She’s just not being critical of herself for it, and why should she? That’s not her job, and taken out of context from the rest of her work, The Harrow and the Harvest is a perfectly respectable record. Gillian’s singing has always been amazing with Rawlings’, and Rawlings’ guitar playing is the stuff Sunday worship is made of. But the record is missing that songwriting je ne sais quoi, where the Gods hand down a song and say, “It’s yours now,” and it’s like the song wasn’t written with effort so much as delivered with the artist as a conduit for something greater.
Luckily, on stage, even if they were forced to play the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, Welch and Rawlings possess a cosmic togetherness. So it was easy to forget the debt owed to early Appalachian folk songs, even as Welch sang about hard times and drinking whiskey when she’s dry and standing in the backdoor crying and being down along the Dixie line. Of all the descriptors of their stage presence, “alchemy” is the most fitting. You could throw in “ESP,” “galaxian-like prowess” and “unfuckwithable” if you wanted, too.
For some of the songs being played live for the first time ever—the Warfield show kicked off her tour—they already sounded completely polished. Welch played two songs from Soul Journey, “Look at Miss Ohio” and “No One Knows My Name,” and her cover choice reflected a traditional bent, too: “I’ll Fly Away,” popularized from the O Brother soundtrack. (This is probably her best cover ever.) She joked that she’d been to the Warfield a bunch but had never been on stage, and when an audience member asked who she saw, she listed off Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia’s acoustic shows, and the Pixies.
And even though almost none of those influences played out on stage, a Gillian Welch show is always a special thing. When the two-hour night closed after two encores with “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends”—the last song, too, from The Harrow and the Harvest—it was pretty evident that no one in the theater wanted the show to stop.