Friday, December 12, 2014
The Return of Aimee Mann's Christmas Show, December 5, 2014: Has it been that long since Aimee brought her Christmas show back to the Bay Area? I know it's still an annual event in Los Angeles, and it's entirely possible I've slept on local dates. But wow, I've missed this highlight of the holiday season!
In Aimee's defense, the Christmas shows have always been a more ambitious affair than your average rock gig and thus require extensive preparation. On stage alone, you could see Christmas ornaments strewn across the floor, a couple of boxes of costumes, and more microphones than usual for her band. Then again, the show was advertised as Aimee Mann and friends, following the precedent set by earlier runs.
The show opened with the intro to an old-school TV show called Murder, She Sang, featuring Aimee and Ted Leo as a pair of detectives chasing down perps and solving crimes. The clip bore all of Scharpling's auteur touches, but I'm too lazy to confirm it; surely another blog has the details. Shortly thereafter, Aimee, Ted, and the Both personnel took the stage.
I have to admit I didn't take notes because I was so appalled and aghast at the bridge-and-tunnel yuppies planted to the side of me (more on them later), so the finer details will go AWOL, but at least there are plenty of highlights to report. As befits a Christmas show, Aimee, Ted, and the band did plenty of Christmas songs, including an old-fashioned English carol and another in tribute to Ted's father ("Little Donkey"?). They even snuck in a couple of original tunes, from the Both and their respective catalogs. Aimee's track was "Save Me," and she apologized for its nonholiday content, but I disagree vehemently. The title alone screams of the season, from both theological and psychological standpoints.
But the bulk of the show hearkened back to that first clip, and early on, Aimee and Ted set up the night's conflict: Aimee's desire to take a break from murder mysteries and Ted's dedication to solving crimes. (And once more, I've reduced a fantastic comic conceit to flat prose. Good job, good effort!) Tim Heidecker (the first guest) forced this point right out of the gate, as he rushed to the stage to report that Santa Claus had been killed backstage. Aimee and Ted would return to the case many times throughout the night, even as they brought the rock.
The aforementioned Tim Heidecker reappeared several times through the show, starting with his own stand-up set. I gotta admit Tim and Eric always went right over my head, but he was fantastic onstage, particularly for shutting up the yuppies for a few minutes. Later, he piped in to remind Aimee and Ted of the police matter awaiting their attention, and he took a couple of musical turns. In one, he starred as the title character in "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and in the other, he represented the Jewish new year alongside Father Time (Aimee) and Baby New Year (Ted) on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."
The bona fide musical guest for the night was Susanna Hoffs, formerly of the Bangles and her solo career (and UC Berkeley -- go Bears!). Her first song fit into the holiday theme perfectly: "Hazy Shade of Winter." With help from Aimee and Ted, she also treated us to "Walk Like an Egyptian," but with new lyrics offering a lesson on the Jewish holidays, befitting Susanna's heritage, not unlike Morgan Murphy's Hanukkah rap from a few years ago. I'd recite some lyrics if I could, but all I heard was a throwaway reference to the Maccabees.
Rounding out the guest list, Handsome Jack brought up a random audience member for a pretty cool trick. Bless the woman playing the foil; I would've died from embarrassment.
Ultimately, Ted convinced Aimee to put on her detective coat (literally) and solve the crime. Their secret weapon was a song that would squeeze the truth out of anyone, Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Elementary, my dear Watson! The duo got their man, then serenaded us to Vince Guaraldi's classic "Christmas Time Is Here."
I've managed to trample the duo's impeccable timing and effortless banter, which was a huge part of the show. Aimee and Ted have been touring for more than a year now, and their connection shows. In their nonmusical moments, they were like an old vaudeville team or a screwball comedy. I could listen to them chatting to one another all night.
Back to the embarrassing yuppies: They squeezed in minutes before the band took the stage, already a few sheets to the wind -- so be it. Then it all went downhill after the first words I heard from them, referring to Aimee: "I hope she's wearing underwear." They were the definition of amateurs, trying to heckle Tim Heidecker and nearly getting into a fight with another couple who swooped in when one of the bridge-and-tunnelers disappeared to get more drinks. At one point, I thought they were going to whip out the credit cards and see whose credit limit was bigger. We later heard that the head fool actually puked on the floor before the show. It brought me right back to a laughably mortifying Wilco show at the Saratoga Mountain Winery -- coincidentally, one of the Aimee's regular venues in the Bay Area. I haven't even mentioned the guy in the front who got kicked out for videotaping the whole show on his camera or yet another interloping woman who tried to throw a pin to Aimee onstage. (Duh, you send it via the roadie!)
Despite all these shenanigans, Aimee put on arguably her most ambitious Christmas show yet, and the gang lived up to the legend. Someday, when we come to our senses, we may finally realize it ranks up there with other Christmas masterpieces like the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet and the original Star Wars Holiday Special.
» if there's a star above
» unless you hate baby jesus
» it's not going to stop
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Where does the time go?? For starters, I had to survive both the NLDS and the NLCS, and now that the calm has temporarily descended until the World Series begins, I can turn my attention to loose ends. There's absolutely no reason for me to post this review -- other than for personal record keeping -- especially two weeks after the fact, but I might as well finish up my Hardly Strictly coverage with Cibo Matto at the Chapel.
Cibo Matto, the Chapel, Oct. 4, 2014: Speaking of the NLDS, we tore ourselves away from the game during the 14th inning to make our way across town to this show. On the 22 Fillmore, we got news of Brandon Belt's homer at the top of the 18th, but the walk down Valencia was a showcase of my most schizophrenic urges, as I stuck my head in every doorway with a TV, while at the same time denying I needed to watch the remainder of the game. Fortunately, we arrived at the Chapel during the last at-bat, where the Giants struck out the Nationals and capped a 6-hour-plus contest. The room erupted, and we were still in time to catch the opening band. I wonder if Cibo Matto had any idea how the audience might've welcomed them otherwise ...
I was excited for this show, as their set at Hardly Strictly the day before wasn't enough for me. To start, the night was a lot cooler, even in the Mission. The sold out crowd was probably at least as cozy, but based on overheard conversations and random chatter, it seemed a lot of us had NLDS energy to dance off.
As expected, Cibo Matto turned out a longer version of their festival set, bringing back many of the tunes and the banter (Big Sur, nature, water). At one point, Yuka's setup stalled, and Miho went slightly off-script to give her time, but I'm pretty sure the audience welcomed the extra chatter. I loved seeing Yuka and Miho's dance moves close up, and you couldn't help but smile at the sight of the entire band springing up and down in unison (kinda).
I have no idea why this surprised me, but judging by the fans directly around me, Cibo Matto has a fair-sized following among gay men. What can I say? It was the '90s, and despite obvious female and gay figureheads among the major recording artists, the indie rock scene was dominated by straight white men. Anyway, I had a blast to be disabused of my notions among this adoring, reverent, and energetic crowd.
No-brainer No. 2: I think this is the first time Nels Cline has officially toured with Cibo Matto, and his influence was all over their sound. Cibo Matto has always been known for its unusual, unpredictable hybrid rhythms, but Nels jolted the pace from time to time with hard notes and sonic slaps across your earholes. This should surprise no one that songs both old and new sounded almost exactly as you'd expect when you cross Cibo Matto and Nels Cline. However, if you're expecting the Nels Cline show, think again -- this was all Cibo Matto, albeit the 2014 incarnation.
On our way out, we ran into a few familiar faces scheduled to appear at the festival the next day. It was lovely to see them, but honestly, we had the equivalent of an 18-inning game awaiting us the next day. Still, "Birthday Cake" might qualify as a walk-off closer, as far as gigs go.
» summer noon
Monday, October 13, 2014
You know the usual math around here: One show is rarely enough. Even with a free festival in progress and plans for stages and sets, I'll take the opportunity to double up on favorite acts -- such as Justin Townes Earle at the Great American Music Hall.
Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, Oct. 3, 2014: Justin has become a standby at Hardly Strictly, much like his father, and he's made a habit of scheduling extra activities around the city around the festival. By no coincidence, he also had a new record to promote -- thus, this show at the Great American.
Regarding that new record, I haven't actually listened to it. A trip to the record stored turned up the CD, but I wanted vinyl. You can chalk it up to blind faith (which artists earn over time) that I'd hit the gig, but it's a good system for me.
Paul Niehaus remained with Justin on pedal steel and lead guitar, but now Matt Pence and Mark Hedman (from Centro-Matic) joined on drum and bass, respectively, and I don't mind pointing out Matt Pence resembled Christian Bale in The Prestige. They all sounded great together, with an ease and a comfort that might as well have been years in the making.
Not having heard the new album, I couldn't know how much of the sound and treatment were new, but the second track, "Ain't Waitin," said a lot. Justin had smoothed over this classic honky-tonk track to the point where it was almost unrecognizably mellow and breezy. In fact, they maintained this general tone throughout the evening, maintaining an even keel, all the way to the closing cover.
From the back catalog, the band played "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now" and "Harlem River Blues," and I recognized "Worried Bout the Weather" from last year's Hardly Strictly performance. I also remembered "They Killed John Henry," during the solo acoustic part of the evening, which grows sweeter with every listen, especially knowing the inspiration for the tune.
As usual, Justin was talkative and prickly in parts -- for example, when shutting down the hecklers. One guy in the front requested that lead mic be turned up, but as Justin pointed out, the sound would be better if he stood a little farther back. Believe it or not, the guy took the advice. Another dude requested some incomprehensible song. Justin's comeback: "I remember my first beer too." Of course, we also heard gripes about the state of modern country music.
Justin offered a caveat that his songs were not entirely autobiographical, but he referred to his mother a few times -- not least before the title track "Single Mothers." His comments about "Mama's Eyes" were particularly sweet, and I'm sure you can find her presence on many other songs.
I have to admit: If this is the new, sober, settled Justin, I'll need some time to get used to it, but bless him for staying in the zone. I imagine this will be a work in progress. His voice sounds great as always, and his rougher edges still show in his banter and conversation. I may be alone among my friends for sticking with him, but truth is, I wasn't an old-school fan anyway. I don't mind the less bluesy edge.
In earlier shows, Justin's closer of choice was the Replacements, inspired by his mother's favorite tunes. Justin drew from the same well for the new concluding track, which happens to be near and dear to my heart (though it also makes me nervous to realize I'm almost old enough to be his mother). The song was "Dreams" from Fleetwood Mac, and I've waxed lovingly about the title before. No irony: That's an all-time great album, and I was thrilled to hear Justin make it his own.