Friday, April 13, 2018

may you find out who you are

Those of us who see shows in San Francisco often get to witness a milestone on a regular basis: a band's first Fillmore headlining slot. It happened again, as Kevin Morby and band took the stage. They lived up to the billing and the occasion.

Kevin Morby, the Fillmore, April 5, 2018

I don't write about opening bands much anymore, partly because I'm lazy and partly because they haven't been inspiring to me. But one of the better openers I've seen in a while is Kevin Morby, first at Wilco's five-night Fillmore stand, then at Solid Sound. He was definitely the best of the rotating list of opening bands we saw that week, and even then, a friend from Los Angeles with a singer/songwriter husband said he was getting a ton of buzz in SoCal. But Solid Sound, er, solidified his standing. In short, he and his band sounded fantastic, and I knew I had to check them out when they came back around. Alas, I missed that opportunity, as his show at the Great American Music Hall sold out before I could get a ticket. Thankfully, you can often count on repeat visits to San Francisco.

Kevin MorbyLast time they came to the Fillmore, Kevin and gang squeezed in to the relatively small patch of stage available to them between Wilco's instruments, monitors, pedals, cables, and whatnot. Now they spread out across as much of the stage as they wanted, which is always a sight to behold. I don't actually remember how many people were in the band on that visit, but Kevin introduced one member (a man on violin) as new -- so that's one upgrade. Another upgrade: Kevin's fantastic custom suit. I seriously can't get enough of it.

I'm going to come clean: I don't know much of Kevin's work before the current album, though I've listened enough to recognize his song on the Volvo commercial. But combine that with the handful of live shows I've heard via podcast, I knew I had to go the show.

As you might expect, Kevin favored songs from the new record, and if you allow me to indulge for a moment in playing Spot the Influences, I'd like to mention that "Crybaby" reminds me so much of the Pixies, especially when guitarist Meg Duffy's vocals come in. I mean that in the best way! Honestly, all the songs off City Music were awesome, and we danced all over the place to them.

Regarding the aforementioned Volvo ad, it features the song "Harlem River," and of course he did it, though the crowd didn't treat it as anything special or unusual. But it got me to thinking again about what constitutes pop music and indie music. In my world, tracks such as "City Music" and "Crybaby" would be huge hits, and maybe headlining a show at the Fillmore is a pretty good mark of success. As a fan, I can't complain about getting to see the band at this point in their development, and truth be told, I don't enjoy bigger venues. Still, a part of me wants more people to know how great they are. Sigh -- it's the eternal struggle.

Though I wasn't familiar with Kevin's back catalog, I had no problem getting into the older songs he played. The two that stood out most to me were "Parade" and "Beautiful Strangers" (the latter performed as a solo acoustic track at the end of the main set). Both have a generally hopeful air and lush, developing storylines that you don't really want to end. The audience even joined in with impromptu clapping on "Beautiful Strangers" to support Kevin. (My immediate thought: Jeff Tweedy would tell them to stop.) I was smitten.

Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee joined the band for a couple of songs at the end of the main set. The first was "Downtown's Lights," and together, the two added extra twang to the track, sounding not unlike a modern version of Johnny Cash and June Carter. The other tune was a cover of Jason Molina's "The Dark Don't Hide It," which I understand they've been performing regularly and have released as a single for charity.

Kevin Morby

During the show, Kevin mentioned their earlier opening slots at the Fillmore, first with Real Estate and more recently with Wilco. Those of us who were there let him know when he asked if anyone had gone to the shows. Then he added that the Fillmore gig was the most tickets they've sold to a show in North America. It comes as no surprise to me that Kevin could be bigger in Europe than in the United States, as evidenced by the fellows next to me who reported that they had first seen him in Paris (France, not Texas). Though the venue wasn't completely sold out, the crowd was enthusiastic and just shy of a crush. It was the best of all worlds, and more important, we let the band understand exactly how much we loved having them in town. We even got a hallowed custom Fillmore poster at the end of the night.

Meg Duffy and her two-person band Hand Habits opened, and she was just as good on her own as she is with Kevin's group. Her guitar skills color the songs so vividly, and in some cases, she takes them past the "folk" label that many people seem to want to lazily apply to Kevin. She closed her set with "The Only Living Boy in New York." To sum up: It was a perfect night, and I can't wait to do it again.

See also:
» always hated normal american kids
» so flattered by fate

Saturday, April 07, 2018

push your old numbers

I'm a creature of rules, but if you happen to be a lifelong friend visiting me from afar, I'm more than willing to bend a few of them to spend time with you. Thus, it was off to enjoy a night in the Mission District, complete with burritos and '90s indie rock heroes Kristin Hersh and Grant-Lee Phillips, in the company of my old pal Jacki.

Kristin Hersh and Grant-Lee Phillips, the Chapel, March 29, 2018

About Jacki -- we saw a lot of music together back when she lived in the Bay Area, and in fact, she was my Grant Lee Buffalo buddy for a long time, seeing their shows all over the Bay Area. I'm not sure even she understands the magnitude of the concert we saw at Slim's in 1994. It kicked my ass and opened my eyes to the power of modern American indie music. If it weren't for that gig, I'm not sure I would've found my way to Wilco, and though I think I would've discovered Largo at some point, I doubt I'd have staked my claim when I did.

Fast-forward a jillion years, and she happened to schedule a visit when Kristin Hersh and Grant-Lee Phillips were in town. Of course that meant I had to break my not at all hard rule about seeing musicians from way back in my younger days. Bonus: My friend Jenn -- whom I had met in line while waiting to buy Jeff Tweedy tickets at the Fillmore, then ran into again months later at BOTH, where we were chatting for a good 20 or 30 minutes before we realized we had already met -- was there too!

If you read this blog regularly, you know I don't do a ton of research into gigs anymore. I buy the tickets, show up, and let the music work its magic. Based on the billing, I assumed this was a co-headlining tour, but didn't give much thought to how Kristin and Grant would share the stage. As it happened, we arrived mere minutes before Grant started his set, which was obviously good for us.

I've lost track of how many times I've seen Grant over the years, but it's been a while. To be frank, Largo grew and his audience did not. In addition, I heard that he's since moved out of the state, so he's less likely to drop in and hang out as he did back in the day.

What hasn't changed is his gorgeous, clear voice and the buoyant harmonies he favors. It was easy to get right back into his songs and his familiar banter. Unsurprisingly, he referenced the current political atmosphere and the songs he wrote in reaction to the 2016 election. His commentary wasn't heavy-handed, but even if it were, I wouldn't have minded. It's impossible to avoid, and I don't think you can underplay the disaster of this administration anyway. He also revisited the work of his old band with the magnificent "Mighty Joe Moon" and "Honey Don't Think," both of which remain transcendent.

Kristin Hersh was, in fact, the headliner and enjoyed a longer set than Grant. I have to admit I didn't listen to Throwing Muses during those years, despite their prestigious slot on the 4AD roster and the fact that Mori -- my dear friend and the biggest Anglophile I know -- actually liked them, American provenance and all. I don't have an explanation why, but hey, you can't listen to everything all the time. Now, of course, it's easier to see how she matched up against the songwriters of that time, and it's no mystery how she's stuck around all these years. Simply put, she has a distinct, original worldview and the craft to match it.

The ethereal Kristin Hersh at the Chapel, March 29, 2018

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In their current incarnations, it can be hard to believe that Kristin and Grant arose from the same era and the same genre. Kristin addressed it herself in her opening remarks, where she contrasted Grant's happy, catchy songs with her heavier tracks. But listen in, and you'll hear an authentic record of modern life in their lyrics. And we're lucky to get to hear them over the years.

Seeing Kristin onstage, it hit me that she could be Gillian Welch's northern, hardscrabble cousin -- if you don't mind my mythologizing (and overlook the fact that Gillian grew up in Los Angeles with show-biz adoptive parents). I try not to fall into lazy generalizations, but again, give them a listen to their stories of lives lived away from the usual paths. You might hear it too.

Anyway, Kristin belied her sometimes unsettling songs with funny stories, including an interview she had done earlier that week with someone who she thought had clearly based their questions on her Wikipedia entry. She also shared a memory of driving away from her home in anger and encountering a man who was steering a snow tractor in circles. She concluded that he had probably done the same as her but had grabbed the other set of keys. And for those of us who like the hits, she did the peerless "Your Ghost."

Grant and Kristin concluded the show with a duet on one of her songs whose title escaped me, as well as some stories about their shared acquaintance. Their mutual friend John Doe came up in conversation, along with a mention of the days when VH1 actually showed their music videos. It's hard to believe these days, but it was all true for one glorious era.

See also:
» Take Me Home Country Pigeon
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» the shining hour

Saturday, March 10, 2018

all around me a voice was sounding

Hey, look -- my first concert of 2018! Thanks to Dave Rawlings and company for the invite.

Dave Rawlings, the Fillmore, March 1, 2018

I'm officially at the point where I've seen Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch so much that I can no longer recall who headlined at the latest show I attended. Of course, this comes with a couple of caveats: (1) That may be my middle-age senility setting in, and (2) A surfeit of Gill and Dave is a nice problem to have.

The latest Dave Rawlings record got me thinking about how much this band, outfit, arrangement, what have you has evolved over the years. After listening to so many spare, stripped Gillian Welch albums, as well as Dave's naturalistic works, you can hear the more modern production on Poor David's Almanack. "Cumberland Gap," in particular, jumps out at me -- the keyboard, especially. Dave and Gill trading verses sent my mind to Fleetwood Mac, though friends cited "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

This, in turn, led me to reflect on the growth of Dave Rawlings as a frontman. I imagine Dave played plenty of gigs around Nashville when he and Gill were starting out, but I don't think he truly embarked on his own until the last decade or so. I'll brag about this to my dying day, but I was extremely fortunate to have caught Dave and Gill so often when they played Largo regularly at both the old and new locations. Many of those gigs were under Dave's name, so I've been able to witness his act develop and his catalog grow.

Those Largo shows were special, but their visit to the Great American Music Hall on what was probably the first true tour under Dave's name also stands out. We were giddy that night, as San Francisco poured out its long-established love for Gillian Welch onto David. I can still feel the joy streaming from both the performers and the audience.

Obviously, there have been many shows between then and now, but as they took the stage this night, they seemed like a true band for the first time in my memory. The setup is still pretty sparse, with no drum kit or even amps, but heck, Gillian and violinist Brittany Haas wore dresses in matching fabric!

They opened with a rollicking "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" from Bob Dylan, and as you can imagine, the crowd ate it up. In my opinion, the first half of the show was oddly paced, partly because they don't exactly excel in onstage banter and partly due to song selection. They went with mostly tracks from the new record, but threw in Gill's "Wayside/Back in Time" for the local angle.

They took their usual intermission, and the pace seemed to pick up during the second half, though to their credit, I haven't shared much of their funnier moments. For example, Gill revealed to us that she had slashed her finger just before the show and was relying on glue to keep the bleeding at bay. Also, both Willie Watson and Gill worked a small set of bongo drums for separate songs, and Willie did a few tunes too.

"Miss Ohio" got its obligatory turn during the second set, but believe it or not, it wasn't the highlight. Instead, it was a song from Old Crow Medicine Show ("Hear Them All") married to the Woody Guthrie classic "This Land Is Your Land," and let me tell you -- it feels like we need that song more than ever these days. No one had to say anything else; our voices singing together did all the talking. Another fun moment from the second set: the aforementioned Brittany Haas trading in her violin for a guitar (on a song whose name I can't remember). Guess what? She was really good. Also, Dave at one point played electric guitar, which never happens at Gill's shows.

But they truly saved the best for last, as they tore through an encore sequence that included a Radiohead cover ("Black Star"), another Dylan cover ("Queen Jane Approximately"), and a Bright Eyes/Neil Young medley ("Method Acting"/"Cortez the Killer"). The last two songs were especially punishing, and for the umpteenth time, I marveled at how they wrench so much tension from that Dylan track. For the third and final encore, they went into a five-person version of "Go to Sleep You Little Baby" (a first for me), and we thought it was over -- but no! They brought back "Jack of Hearts" to bring it full circle.

Dave looked exhausted as they truly bade us good night, for good reason. I hope our cheers and applause let him know that we appreciated every ounce of sweat he poured out onstage.

And finally, one more memory of the night I'd like to share. See you again soon!

See also:
» i remember standing by the wall
» that's all they really want
» hotter than a pepper sprout