Sunday, November 30, 2008

tell it to the radio

Oh, how I love modern travel and the opportunity it allows me to catch a Sunday night gig at Largo, wake up at 4 a.m. on Monday morning, hop the first flight to SFO, and make it to my office just in time to struggle to sit upright for the next eight hours. So far, I've exercised this option twice, first for Andrew Bird and now for the rarity of the Ranchero Brothers, a.k.a. Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond.

Frank Rossitano, 30 Rock, CougarsRanchero Brothers, Largo at the Coronet, November 23, 2008: In the "Cougars" episode of 30 Rock, Liz informs Frank that he can't be gay for just one person, "unless you're a lady and you meet Ellen." (Frank: "I got some real thinking to do. It's scary ... but also exciting.")

So here's my question: Can you be alt-country for just one band?

I know the theoretical answer: Quality music shouldn't be judged by labels, and in our post-modern society, genres easily bleed into one another. Besides, that's assuming you accept those arbitrary distinctions in the first place. But as someone who's read far too many music magazines/zines/blogs in my life and aligned herself with British bands far too slavishly, it's sometimes hard to shed old habits. In addition, maybe my tastes are, in fact, circumscribed--I can admit it.

For the last several years, I've listened to more alt-country/Americana than I previously thought possible, but I'm not sure much of it took, at least not to the extent that one band did. However, I'd like to think I've opened my ears to some degree and that a nod to Nashville is no longer the kiss of death. Trust me, my attending this gig would've been unthinkable not that many years ago.

Granted, there are probably better places to test my alt-country mettle than a Rancheros Brothers gig, especially one at Largo; mixing genres is practically a mandate here. Besides, Rhett and Murry's set comprised a lot of Old 97s songs, including many Rhett performed the night before. The standouts, though, were the oddball covers ("Harold's Super Service" by Merle Haggard, for example) and unreleased tracks, such as a recording with Waylon Jennings.

As much as I dig solo singer/songwriters, Murry's backing vocals sounded especially sweet this evening, and by taking the lead, he gave Rhett's strained voice a welcome break. But Murry also delivered in a way I couldn't have guessed: He killed it. From his opening story about finding a stack of over-40 porn magazines as a teenager to detailing his family's record collection to blaming Ken from the Old 97s for certain band decisions, he was a total cut-up. I'd happily pay to see that again.

To top it all off, Jon Brion dropped by for the encore. Their first song was a Beatles cover I had seen Jon do with a whole different crew just a month ago, and the second was the Old 97s "Rollerskate Skinny," which Jon graced with a helluva piano solo. He was ready to leave the stage when Rhett asked him to stay for one more. Talk about a curveball--the final selection was a ridiculously arcane cover called "Jack the Necrophiliac," with all the implications you might imagine. Though Rhett betrayed a hint of shame during the intro to the song, they ultimately embraced the hootenanny, their manic energy suffusing the room and nearly allowing us to forget the regrettable (but catchy) lyrics.

My original question will likely go unanswered for some time, but rest assured, dear readers, that Frank was able to make peace with his situation. Witness his final conclusion: "Look, you dudes are great, a lot of fun to dance with, and you smell awesome. Enjoy your night"--words to live by.

See also:
» damn you for being so easygoing
» it took almost seven hours to sing
» i know it's today

Friday, November 28, 2008

it took almost seven hours to sing

I could easily spend two weekends of any given month settled in at Largo, but alas, rent must be paid, plants must be watered, and so on. It always helps, though, when mob rule (i.e., at least one other person) helps dictate these rock tourism decisions.

Rhett Miller, Largo at the Coronet, November 22, 2008: I have an unofficial roster of people I want to see at Largo, work, time, and finances permitting. Rhett Miller has been on that list for while, and finally, events conspired to bring me to one of his shows in Los Angeles.

Pre-Coronet, Rhett took Largo's move harder than many of the artists associated with the club, so there was some question as to how he'd react to the new space. I'd say the outlook is good, as he reminded us that the same people who made it all possible were still steering the ship. Obviously, I've thrown my faith in with this lot for some time now, but it was nice to get the seal of approval from someone on the other side of the stage. Clearly, we did a banner job rolling out the welcome wagon.

I've seen Rhett on his own a handful of times before, but I was curious what would differentiate his show at the Coronet from the gigs I've seen in San Francisco. To my surprise, this show didn't feel radically different from the last one I attended at the Swedish American Hall three whole years ago. In both alcohol-free clubs, the audience maintained respectful hush, though voices piped in hoots and requests now and again. To tell you the truth, I preferred this super-relaxed air to the giddy, amorous anticipation that often marks his concerts (pot, meet kettle?). This, combined with the Coronet's stately frame, somehow made Rhett's teen idol moves more palatable as well.

This debatable detail aside, Rhett apparently took the setting into consideration too, as he made an effort to include at least one song that he doesn't regularly air, and tonight that distinction went to "Holy Cross." I'm not familiar enough with Rhett's or the Old 97s' catalog to have known that myself, so I was glad he alerted us to its significance. Another point lost to my cluelessness is the new material he's written for his next solo album, which he's set to start recording in the new year. If it helps any, he may have suggested that we picture ourselves around a campfire for one of them. Filling out the bulk of the set were familiar favorites such as "Doreen" and "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)."

I love seeing frontmen (and women) away from their bread-and-butter bands to find out where the songs come from and how they develop. With Rhett's solo material, it was easy to hear the tunes' simpler roots compared to the busier final products, but my ignorance rears its head once again, as I admit that the differences were less discernible to me on the Old 97s' material. However, even I realize the band typically contributes harmonies and lead guitar. I missed both elements tonight, but at least I had a Rancheros Brothers gig still to come.

Greg Proops opened up the show with a short set, and of course, the election provided plenty of opportunity for commentary. In his snarky and studied monologue, he revealed that he was a Hillary supporter; in retrospect, that shouldn't have been a surprise, but it does explain some of his more barbed observations.

See also:
» this is what i do

Thursday, November 27, 2008

the stars look very different today

Largo recently announced Jon Brion's single-set winter schedule, the latest in a series of change-ups the club and the performer has unveiled in the last couple of years. Some people may see this as another roadblock to hitting Jon's shows, but after all the tumult of late, I'm just happy to know he continues to play.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, November 21, 2008: I think Flanny referenced the c-word in his intro, but in the best way possible--at least, we were all giggling by the time Jon took the stage. From there, Jon set off on an instrumental jag, followed by his original songs. "Trouble," always one of my favorites, stood out in this opening wave. Jon guided the song through a range of cadences and treatments, from a pounding, driving lead to a delicate bridge and finishing in a languid, drawn-out coda, while at the same time draping it with entreating vocals.

The short Gershwin block was accompanied by an envious mini-rant before the requests rolled in. The Smiths, reflected through the prism of "For No One," kicked off the proceedings, and I think a guy a few seats down from me got his wish for "Ruin My Day." Jon didn't hesitate to take on the suggestion for a sing-along "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," confident that our collective knowledge of the song would peter out sooner rather than later. Was he ever right, as our strong start fizzled out in the opening notes of the second verse. Jon marveled at the meltdown, calling the unidentifiable sonic haze we produced one of the greatest sounds he's ever heard. You're welcome, sir.

A stretch of silliness took over, interrupted by a couple of sincere numbers, such as Jon's own "So I Fell in Love with You," complete with a scorching solo. The Foreigner double-header anchored this segment, with Wagner the seeming inspiration for "I Want to Know What Love Is," whereas the cock rock of "Hot Blooded" gave way to a spacey, gossamer-like treatment. Jon gilded this one-two punch with more '70s sex music, then made up for it with a '70s "palate cleanser," a gorgeous moody piano piece.

"Same Thing" set us back on the right track, as Jon opted for a more minimal interpretation of what's often a prime candidate for rococo treatment. Sure, the steady syncopation remained intact, but Jon maintained a level tone for piano and vocals throughout. By the song's conclusion, Jon had pared down the instrumentation to simple piano and a spare beat.

A request for "the good part of 'Layla'" left us with the outro (familiar ground at Largo) before the collective once again came together, but to much better effect. Inspired by the planetarium projection on the back of the stage, I had asked for "Space Oddity" earlier in the evening (so I'm literal—sue me), but it wasn't until someone else called for "Space Odyssey" that Jon responded. He left the vocals to us and provided a couple of subtle hints when our voices wavered, but overall, we more than compensated for the disastrous Beatles sing-along, if I do say so myself. A guy in the row behind me totally deserves a shout-out; he sounded great. I can't say the same for myself, but that's never stopped me from warbling along.

Jon left on that triumphant note, but was quickly summoned back for an encore. He chose a request for "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," and after a verse or two, Benmont Tench tip-toed out to join him (thus making good on the "and friends" billing). Can a song express both joy and gravitas at the same time? In their able hands, it certainly can--and did.

--Punch Drunk Theme
--Over Our Heads
--Further On
--She's Funny That Way
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
--Ruin My Day
--Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
--Candy Girl
--So I Fell in Love with You
--I Want to Know What Love Is
--Hot Blooded
--Hot Legs
--Same Thing
--Space Oddity

--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue [with Benmont Tench]

See also:
» the way it went, the way it's gone

Monday, November 24, 2008

still carries a torch

Back on the horse--several concerts are on the schedule for next week, so expect more reports (as soon as I can write them, anyway). First up, the Nels Cline Singers return to San Francisco!

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 11-19-08Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, November 19, 2008: I frequently mix up my Nels Cline shows, especially when some of the touring lineups comprise the Singers in all but name. Then again, this confusion wouldn't be possible without the embarrassment of opportunities I get to see these musicians--so no complaints here.

I gotta admit, though, that despite the Singers' frequent appearances, I still feel like a complete fraud when I talk about their gigs. But I'll try to offer the 30,000-foot view of the show and what details I can recall after a weekend filled with other people's tunes.

After seeing so many permutations of the group, I had almost forgotten what the three Singers--Nels, Scott Amendola, and Devin Hoff--were capable of on their own. Well, almost--Greg and Satomi from Deerhoof joined them on the first couple of tracks, though their contributions were on the conservative side, encompassing a dusting of percussion and a whisper of vocals. Nels explained that with the first selection, "Boogie Woogie Waltz," he simply wanted to bring together Deerhoof and '70s jazz fusion, but the second track, "Suspended Head" was a more studied choice, as he had dedicated it to the very band on the Instrumentals CD.

Deerhoof with the Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 11-19-08

I have a majorly cred-destroying (work with me, people) story about the first time I saw Deerhoof play at All Tomorrow's Parties on the UCLA campus, but I'm not going to share it now. Let's just say that despite my early impressions of the band, even I knew it was pretty unusual for both them and Nels to be in town on the same night, so I was glad to see them come together in this tiny club.

Perhaps my favorite song of the night came during the first set: "Thurston County," from Nels's upcoming solo record, out in February 2009. As Nels explained it, it was the name of a real place, and listening to the more laid-back passages in the tune brought to mind the exhilaration of a crisp, clear drive up the Northern California coast. That track's a winner.

The Singers' second set kicked off with a hubbub that Nels admitted wasn't exactly what they had planned. If memory serves me correctly, he may have cited Godzilla as a factor in the number's lurching coda. In fact, Nels displayed a goofy energy all night, even through the more volatile numbers the trio is capable of carrying off. So though we would hear a stately Andrew Hill selection, as well as Nels's somber "Stela for Jefferson," I can't say the show's tone dipped at all, even as the music took us to the extremes of artistic expression.

See also:
» shady
» ascension

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obscurity Knocks: Marion, "The Program"

If you're reading this, it probably means I haven't gone to a gig in more than two weeks. Here, then, is the third in the Obscurity Knocks series, featuring my favorite neglected albums.

Marion, The Program
Marion, The ProgramAhh, the '90s--it may have started with shoegaze, but any Anglophile can tell you that it was louche, loutish Britpop that gave the world notice. (Those same Anglophiles are also likely to inform you that Britpop was only a brief movement in British music and not, in fact, the blanket term that pervades in the United States.) Granted, by the late '90s, it was clear that the Brits had drank too much of their own Kool-Aid or, um, other stuff, but for a sizable block of time, I wanted whatever they were having, though preferably blended and with a cherry--and while you're at it, could you stick an umbrella in there too?

Marion was not at the forefront of Britpop. They didn't date models--or, rather, models didn't date them. They didn't instigate and milk public feuds with other bands. They weren't regulars at the Groucho Club. They didn't save Glastonbury. In short, they were more indicative of the typical band vying for media attention, rather than the handful of tabloid regulars dominating the charts. I remember seeing the odd write-up on the band, but they mostly escaped my notice until Sharon turned me on to them. By then, it was 1999, a full year after The Program was released in the United Kingdom (though it never found an American label), and Marion's best days were behind them--not that we knew it at the time.

The Program would be their second and last album, and for this effort, they could lay claim to a noteworthy hook: fellow Mancunian--and need I mention legendary Smiths guitarist?--Johnny Marr as producer. I suspect his influence tempered the band's more jagged edges, but I'd like to think Marion's natural evolution and developing sophistication as musicians played a part too.

Whatever the case, the histrionics of their earlier releases are mostly absent on this record. Whereas every song on This World and Body, their debut record, started off in a jolt of guitar, the songs on The Program showed greater musical variety and maturity, incorporating layers of acoustic guitar, synthesizers, and harmonies.

Singer Jaime Harding's vocal style was always closer to the arch, patently British readings of Suede's Brett Anderson or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie than Oasis's populist pub rockers, for example, but on this album, he reins it in to the point that he's veritably cooing on "The Powder Room Plan" and the title track. Never fear, however; this isn't a Pat Boone record, and on songs such as "Miyako Hideaway," he shows off a newfound naturalism in his singing, while "All of These Days" retains the band's post-punk energy.

But when you have Johnny Marr at the helm, you know there's going to be some bad-ass guitar on the album. That's apparent from the lead-off track, "The Smile," which creeps in on a cloud of radio static, only to be cleaved apart by a snaking, confident burst of guitar, backed by a slow portent of a rhythm--something wicked this way comes. Guitarists Phil Cunningham and Tony Grantham do themselves proud on this album, supplying simultaneously forceful and melodic riffs, perhaps most effectively in "Miyako Hideaway" and "The Powder Room Plan." Elsewhere on the record, they craft the lovely "Sparkle" and the taut, moody "The Program" around the acoustic guitar--simply gorgeous.

To those who read the inaugural installation of Obscurity Knocks: I wasn't kidding about the Chameleons being one of my greatest musical touchstones. I admit I may hear the Chameleons where others don't, but I can't help it--it's part of my musical DNA at this point.

Anyway, the Marion/Chameleons crossover moment comes about two-thirds of way through the dreamy "What Are You Waiting For?" The instruments drift to the background, and the keyboards sound out the transition. It doesn't even last 10 seconds, but it instantly transports me to the introduction to "In Answer" from the Chameleons' Strange Times. I'm pretty sure that's when I fell in love with The Program. (I was so smitten, in fact, that I pushed it on two other close friends, both of whom embraced it as well.)

I never saw Marion live, but a couple of years following my introduction to the band, Sharon gave me a bootleg of their show at the Troubador in Los Angeles, circa 1998. Watching the video, it's impossible to overlook how exceedingly pale and painfully thin Jaime appeared, even for a British rock star. By the time I saw this tape, the band had already dissolved, and Jaime's drug use was a simple matter of fact, but the show confirmed some of the worst suspicions. To this day, I can't listen to the lyrics of "The Program" ("Ever get the feeling you're losing control?") without wondering about its autobiographical implications.

Apparently, the band has reformed, and they're writing new songs and playing gigs in England, though they've once again faced more obstacles (Jaime had open heart surgery?!). I'm not holding my breath, but I would love to see them for myself one of these days. In the meantime, I'll go back to enjoying all my favorite tracks from The Program.

Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Marion: "The Program"
» Marion: "The Smile"
» Marion: "What Are We Waiting For?"

See also:
» Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"
» Marion on MySpace