Friday, December 25, 2009

it's the end of the things you know

There were, in fact, vague plans to see some shows and, when those dates fell through, post some fill-in blogs in the past month, but pesky real-life details, especially those unique to this time of the year, got in the way: annoying holiday parties, peripatetic cash flow, grinchiness. As much as I would've loved to catch a couple more Largo gigs this month, I set my sights on Jon Brion's last concert of the year, which has become a tradition I just can't pass up.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 18, 2009: I'd been looking forward to this gig for about a year, as it marked--deep breath--the 10th anniversary of my first Jon Brion show, give or take a day. Oh to be 19 again! (Editor: Uh, more like 19 plus 9.)

But that self-declared milestone took a backseat to another announcement: This gig would mark the last night of Jon's weekly residency. Instead, we should expect to see him on a monthly schedule for the foreseeable future. You'll have to excuse me if I forgo the rending of hair and beating of breast. By my calculations, this is the third era to come to an end, at least in the time I've been patronizing the club. Of course, there was the reports of tendinitis three-plus years back, followed by the news of Largo's last days on Fairfax. Compared to those alarming events, the promise of future shows by Jon, albeit on a lighter rotation, is no reason to panic. And on an entirely selfish note, it suits my arrangements perfectly.

Though I don't think these changes were explicitly confirmed at the show, I couldn't help but interpret certain events as a subtle acknowledgement of the changes afoot. On a hopeful note, Flanny's hilarious story about an ex-Beatles' visit to the old club helped disperse whatever dark cloud might've hung over the proceedings, and in his opening remarks, Jon indicated a long-awaited follow-up to Meaningless could finally get his attention. Of more immediate concern, Jon's choice of mostly original songs felt like an oblique affirmation of the coming shift--if any message at all was intended. I'm purely speculating at this point.

Want more speculation? Try the opening number, a jazzy piano instrumental that once again confounded me. I want to suggest it ran along the lines of "My Funny Valentine," but short of Harmonix introducing Duke Ellington Swing Band, I'm the last person you should ask about standards from the American songbook.

"Same Thing" brought us back to more familiar territory, beginning with that rhythmic foundation, to which Jon added vocals in a lower range. Tonight's twist, though, was an '80s-era feel--and if you've read this blog before, you know how much I love my '80s.

The first hint of the Reagan administration arrived via a tiny beat that recalled all those Fairlight-enhanced tunes of the decade--in other words, every song recorded between 1980 and, oh, 1988. Think of Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)," Scritti Politti's "Perfect Way," or anything by Thomas Dolby, among others. Can you hear that precise, mechanical cleaving sound? I know it well, and I swear it rang out again tonight. Though the essence of "Same Thing" remained intact, Jon revisited the decade in the outro, playing it out with a grand, synth-laden coda.

Jon completed his lap around the stage with a turn on electric guitar for a new song, as well as a build of "Get Over Yourself." Though a mainstay of Jon's set, "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" sounded different, with way more tremolo than usual and richer, twangier tone than the typically spare setup--a lovely touch.

The video mixers swung into action soon thereafter, as Jon cued up footage of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and Chad Smith and jammed along with the duo. They ran through at least a couple of covers before Jon brought Sonny Rollins and Michael Tilson Thomas--the latter leading an orchestral rendition of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--into the fold.

There was much mixing and matching of Sonny's sax with the symphony's brass section, but my spazz-out moment, as Heidi can attest, occurred when I realized Jon was working up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps." In retrospect, I realize that Jon has performed this song often, but thanks to playing the shit out of it in Rock Band, I know it well these days--and now Overdrive will never be the same. Jon wrapped up the extravaganza with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but frankly, my memories had already been made.

Jon wandered over to the vibes for his next selection, a take on "Happy with You" that eschewed the usual pyrotechnics--apart from a delightful vibes solo--for equal parts whimsy and soulfulness. Partway through the song, Sebastian Steinberg joined in to anchor the bottom end for this and the following tune "Please Stay Away from Me."

Jon stepped away from the spotlight as Sara and Sean Watkins rounded out the quartet. The siblings spearheaded a handful of covers, including a folksy version of Jon's "Trouble" featuring a round of dueling acoustic guitars between Jon and Sean. They left Jon on his own for the final song, which I want to call "Pieces of You" based on the chorus. I haven't indicated as much in my earlier posts, but you'll know it by its vast sweep and reverberating guitar. It's a keeper.

Before we could traipse over to the Little Room, Jon returned for "Here We Go." I've claimed ad nauseum that this exquisite waltz is Jon's most accomplished song. Concise, self-contained, and so darned pretty, it's the amuse-bouche, if you will, among Jon's works. Tonight, though, he broke out the brunoise, initiated the immersion circulator, then sent out the resulting sous-vide supper: a bursting ballotine, a velvety veloute, an enchanting escabeche (see below), a piquant pistou...

Escabeche of Halibut with Bouillabaisse Consomme, Parsley Coulis, and Garlic Chips

...or, rather, Jon drew from the full suite of instruments onstage to transform this peerless piece into something more dramatic and even a little harrowing. Along the way, he brought in Nels Cline and Eric Clapton via video, but it ultimately came down to Jon's singular vision. I don't think I've ever heard "Here We Go" with electric guitar, but I'd welcome the opportunity to listen again.

In the Little Room, Jon did something I've seen often in my last few visits: He turned over the proceedings entirely. Tonight, Sara and Sean Watkins dictated the events, then recruited Sebastian Steinberg a few songs in. In fact, the bassist sang one song, "She Still Thinks I Care," at his colleagues' urging.

As for Sara and Sean, they generally favored covers, but they threw in their own works, including some brand-new, yet-to-be-recorded titles. Sara's husband dropped in for a duet, and even Jon stepped up near the end. Would I have liked to hear more from Jon in this second set? Of course I would, but his warm harmonies on the Morrissey cover (requested by myself and, unbeknownst to me, a guy in the back) helped cap the night, the year, and the decade.

Set 1
--Same Thing
--new song?
--Get Over Yourself
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Entrance of the Gladiators/Rhapsody in Blue/Maps/Within You, Without You/Kashmir

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Happy with You
--Please Stay Away from Me

with Sebastian Steinberg, as well as Sara and Sean Watkins
--The Late John Garfield Blues
--Any Old Time

--Pieces of You
--Here We Go

Set 2
Sara and Sean Watkins
--Polly Put the Kettle On
--Hold What You Got
--new song [Sara]
--new song [Sean]

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Buckley's Blues
--Reality Calls
--Never Call
--Early in the Morning
--She Still Thinks I Care
--Christmas song?

with Todd Cooper and Jon Brion
--Tomorrow Is Forever

with Jon Brion
--Feeling Good Again
--Last Word in Lonesome Is Me
--Steal Your Heart Away
--The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get

See also:
» public service announcement
» all is full of love

Sunday, November 29, 2009

don't get around much anymore

I'm back in the gig game, however briefly, after a visit to--surprise, surprise--Largo at the Coronet for a Jon Brion show. As the year wanes, I'll post less often, but the well won't dry up completely. However, the names will look awfully familiar--I mean, moreso than usual--in the weeks to come. Caveat lector!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, November 21, 2009: In case you've been wondering, I have, in fact, been living under a rock for the last month. To be more specific, I've been settling into the new apartment, loading up on freelance work, watching a lot of TV, and living within my means (for a change)--in short, being boring. It kills me that I haven't wanted to see any bands coming through the Bay Area in the past few weeks, but alas, my gig requirements aren't what they used to be. Fortunately, salvation lies, in weekly allotments, to the south.

We got a sneak preview of the guests scheduled to drop in tonight, both via the Largo email list and with our very own eyes, but that's never been the point (for me, anyway) of seeing a Jon Brion show. However, it sort of explained Jon's emphasis on his own compositions in the first part of the set. As is his wont, he opened the show with a range of styles, from the airy "Over Our Heads" to the soulful "Someone Else's Problem Now" to the spare "It Looks Like You" to kind of a '90s-era college rock version of "Same Mistakes," all discord and fuzz.

But then he sprung a new song on the audience, a piece I first heard in August, according to my not especially trusty notes. But even without my reference material, I probably would've reached the same conclusion based on the irresistible jangly guitar riff alone.

Jon finished this first figurative lap around the Largo stage with a visit to the video mixers, summoning footage of Andrés Segovia, then joining it up to a clip of a string band playing alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jon spliced, diced, and looped the sounds, culminating in "That's Just What You Are," then added more effects, including what I want to call the "Little Mermaid" detail--you know, where it sounds like everything's under water. Next up was Maria Callas; I heard her voice as something akin to a guitar solo, punctuating the song with an undeniable emotionality, before Mr. Segovia's measured fingerpicking wrapped up the tune.

"Please Stay Away from Me" nearly marked the last of Jon's originals before we plunged into audience requests. The Summer of Love went ragtime for the Jefferson Airplane suggestion (I swear I heard a hint of "Big Spender" in there too), though cowbell fans might've been disappointed by the piano-and-vocoder "Don't Fear the Reaper." Jon cut through the rest of the requests with a guitar medley that strung together the Rolling Stones, the Turtles, Nirvana, and Village People, among others. Actually, one more cover awaited: a Les Paul-style "You Really Got Me," which took a while to come together, but his perseverance won out--big time.

Jon used to end his sets with those Les Paul tributes, but a whole new phase beckoned, kicked off with another new song that recalled the White Album in its pacing and a sweet, yet weary tone reminiscent of George Harrison's best works. With that, he set the stage for his guests.

First up was Fiona Apple, performing some of the standards she's known for. She sounded rawer than I've heard before on "River Stay Away from My Door," though overall, she looked a lot more relaxed than usual onstage. She and Jon were soon joined by the guest we saw crossing the courtyard earlier that evening: John Paul Jones, visiting on a night off from touring with Them Crooked Vultures.

The trio convened for two songs, including a gorgeous tune popularized by Hank Snow, before Fiona left the stage to Jon and John. Jon runs through "My Baby Left Me" pretty often at his shows, so it'd be hard to call it a novelty, but you had to appreciate where this song led. I'm pretty sure it started with two solos each by Jon and John, and the next thing you know, we listened to a funky wordless jam between the two of them, invoking James Brown here, conjuring Curtis Mayfield there.

When big-name artists stop by Largo, they seem to revel in the opportunity to bypass their hits and play songs you wouldn't expect to hear from them--good luck getting in a Tom Petty request when Benmont Tench is around, for example. Color me surprised then when Jon stepped up to the mic during this extended exchange and started singing "Good Times Bad Times." Picture it yourself: Jon Brion on vocals, John Paul Jones on bass, and a Led Zeppelin song between them. To shake us out of shock, they tried it one more time, the second go-round taking the form of a slow jam and Jon kicking in bursts of Robert Plant-style vocals here and there.

Jon closed out the first set with a video mix of the old-time Latin band he frequently calls up for such purposes, a classical music conductor that I should probably know but can't name (Googling "conductor shock of white hair" didn't help in the least), and Jacques Brel, all in the service of "More Than This." Of the three, Jacques' contributions were less discernible, but I especially enjoyed the orchestra's synth-like accents.

During the main show, the artists had fielded several inquiries into the whereabouts of the Punch Brothers, and each time, they were told that the band was on the way. I think we had their tardiness to thank for the lengthy early set, and as it turned out, they were ready to make up for lost time in the Little Room. Jon appeared briefly to introduce the group, then retreated to the back, content to throw out requests and other bits of guidance. In the process, he offered us a glimpse of the role he fills as a producer--entirely fitting, as the Punch Brothers are currently filling up his dance card, according to reports.

All together, they tried out a few of their older songs, a number of as yet unreleased tracks, and many covers, including Radiohead, Gillian Welch, the Cardigans, the Strokes, D'Angelo, and even an old banjo tune called "Sled Ridin'." Unfortunately, they couldn't tackle the Of Montreal request we fielded, though many of us had seen Chris Thile and Jon carry it off when the Coronet opened; Chris claimed that the rest of the band didn't know it, despite his best efforts to teach them.

Instead, they brought back Fiona for one of her songs and a cover, followed by Benmont's aiding and abetting on another tune. Finally, Jon took his place with them for "Tonight You Belong to Me," though the Punch Brothers claimed no knowledge of the song. Jon and Fiona assumed the bulk of the responsibilities, while the others tried to fill in where they could. I have to commend the Punch Brothers for not only playing along but taking us nearly to the 2 am mark, but for those few minutes, Jon and Fiona needed no accompaniment.

Set 1
--Over Our Heads
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--It Looks Like You
--Same Mistakes
--new song?
--That's Just What You Are
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Somebody to Love
--Don't Fear the Reaper
--Paint It Black/Happy Together/Smells Like Teen Spirit/YMCA/other stuff
--You Really Got Me
--new song?
--You Belong to Me *
--River Stay Away from My Door *
--Don't Get Around Much Anymore **
--Lovesick Blues **
--My Baby Left Me ***
--Good Times Bad Times ***

--More Than This

Set 2
Punch Brothers
--Don't Need No
--Ninety-Nine Years and One Dark Day
--Rye Whiskey
--How to Grow One from the Ground
--One Mo'gin
--Wayside/Back in Time
--On the Bound *
--Walking After Midnight *
--Sled Ridin'
--Ophelia [with Benmont Tench]
--Tonight You Belong to Me [with Jon Brion, Fiona, and Benmont]

* = with Fiona Apple
** = with Fiona Apple and John Paul Jones
*** = with John Paul Jones

See also:
» i've got it bad
» bring it on home
» no one will be a stranger

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obscurity Knocks: Six by Seven, "The Things We Make"

Welcome back to Obscurity Knocks, an intermittent series of posts highlighting my favorite unheralded albums. Coincidentally, these posts could also be titled British Bands I've Never Seen Live but Really Wish I Had. For this installation, we'll check in on the band Six by Seven, who qualify under both of the above guidelines.

Six by Seven, The Things We Make
Picture this: The curtains open on a group of chorus line of dreamers in 1970s leotards. It's 1996, and I, like so many other directionless liberal arts majors in the Bay Area, became a dot-commer, the effects of which continue to dominate my life. But among the run-of-the-mill rat race-type concerns, I enjoyed one surprising benefit: My Anglophilia rocketed off the charts. Thanks to the then-revolutionary technology known as streaming, the difference in time zones, and the fact that I was stuck at the computer for eight-plus hours each day, I had the perfect opportunity to tune into Steve Lamacq and the Evening Session on BBC Radio 1 every weekday. Not just any radio show, the Evening Session boasted access to exclusive tracks from and interviews with all the big names in British music, as well as a dedication to highlighting tons of up-and-coming bands.

Keep in mind that this was before the days of Napster, MySpace, BitTorrent, and the iPod, when only the chosen few were privy to leaked albums and you had to be an uber-geek to lay claim to a home broadband connection. (Note to self: You are old!) For me, at least, it was an invaluable advantage to be able to listen to music before paying exorbitant prices for the import single. And not just any old music, either--it was stuff I never heard and would likely never air on U.S. radio.

Granted, a lot of it was not very good; my CD collection is littered with discs that are not only unlistenable but unsellable. And the Evening Session wasn't immune to the bursting Britpop bubble; toward the late '90s, they spun horrible nu-metal bands--the very groups I wanted to escape. But for a few years, it was the radio show of my dreams.

I'm pretty sure I first heard Six by Seven on the Evening Session, very likely via "Candlelight." I remember thinking how much they sounded like the Charlatans (UK, I guess) on the single, which is kinda amusing, considering I'm not a Charlatans fan. There must've been something there, though, because I kept listening.

Somewhere along the way, I probably heard the singles "European Me" and "88-92-96," revealing roots more akin to the droney, shoegazer-based variety I love so much. Throw in a Flaming Lips (post-Zaireeka, but pre-The Soft Bulletin, thank you very much) remix of "Candlelight" and you get a pretty promising mix of influences and peers.

Perhaps a little history lesson is needed for those not steeped in the arcana of '90s-era British music. Though the band formed in 1991, Six by Seven didn't release their first single, "European Me," until 1997, followed by a couple more singles and a full-length album--the very subject of this post--in 1998. I don't particularly enjoy framing any artist in the context of another artist, but I'll say this about this record: It would've sounded conspicuously out of place in the Britpop landscape. In the wake, however, of 1997's landmark releases by Radiohead, the Verve, and Spiritualized, The Things We Make presents a logical progression.

Comparisons are cheap, and I admit they're a little tenuous in this case, so I'll try not to linger on the argument too much. What Six by Seven shares with Radiohead is a sonic boldness and a seeming dedication to art rock, and like the Verve, their music is imbued with palpable emotions. Of the aforementioned groups, Spiritualized may be their closest compatriot, albeit with fewer blatant drug references (on Six by Seven's part, that is). It's not hard to pick out the epic buzz and multilayered guitars, but I'll give the edge to Six by Seven in terms of passion.

I can't speak to the band's lyrics, and frankly, I can't recall many of them right now; if you're a word freak, this might be a pass. I also suspect listeners either love or hate singer Chris Ollney's voice, but it works for me, from the roar of "Something Wild" to the crooning "Oh! Dear" to the effects-drenched "European Me" and "88-92-96." As far as I'm concerned, it's really about the whole bundle--the voice, the guitars, the production, the pacing--and the mood that this album invokes. In a nutshell, it's a great package of pop and psychedelia.

Legend has it that "European Me" was heralded by the NME as "one of the greatest debut singles of all time" upon its release. Never mind that the NME makes that claim, on average, every other minute--the song is a great distillation of Six by Seven's trademark sound. The creeping tease, the deliberate pace, the intermittent squiggles of guitar, the seven-minute expanse--it sure sets the scene.

But for a pop girl like myself, "For You" may be my favorite track. There's no doubt that Six by Seven can carry off fractured, agonized dirges, but their power pop shines through on this tune, the closest to a hop, skip, and a jump that you'll find on the album. If I had my way, "For You" would play in the background of every sports highlight reel ever aired.

Rounding out the three faces of Six by Seven (for a total of 126?) is "Oh! Dear," a good, old-fashioned power ballad, or at least the late-'90s U.K. indie band version of one. If angst and abstraction dominate this album, "Oh! Dear" is the antidote, with the most straightforward lyrics of any song on this record. Don't worry, though; the fuzz pedal is still in effect, as is the single, elementary drum beat that characterizes many of the other songs on the record. Also, it clocks in at over seven minutes--but what's your hurry anyway?

I kept up with Six by Seven for a few more releases into the early 2000s, and for a time, my Two and Half Days in Love with You shirt never failed to spark conversation. As I recall, they didn't let up on the distortion on those follow-up recordings, but other impressions escape me. However, blame my attention span, not the band. As far as I'm concerned, they secured a permanent spot on my playlist with "The Things We Make."

Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Six by Seven: "European Me"
» Six by Seven: "For You"
» Six by Seven: "Oh! Dear"

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

Sunday, November 01, 2009

between two worlds

I dream of this kind of concert bill: one that brings together artists who've never before been mentioned in the same breath--say, Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard--and that won't likely be duplicated any time soon. Novelty factor aside, there's another advantage to seeing a major musician's side projects: It'll up your insufferable superfan cred in no time flat. Take it from me!

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, October 24, 2009: Aside from some prominent exceptions, I try to go to shows with a blank slate, shut off from whatever gossip, PR spin, or blogger chatter might be circulating. But even by those standards, I approached this gig with nary an agenda. I hadn't heard a note of Jay and Ben's collaboration, I had no idea of what format the show would take, I couldn't guess as to whether they'd do any of their own material, and I hadn't a clue whether they'd be joined by supporting players.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09Truth be told, it wasn't so difficult to maintain radio silence, considering I'm hardly a devoted Son Volt or Death Cab for Cutie fan. Don't get me wrong--I like both of them fine, and I've seen Jay and Ben (separately) in concert before, in sort of one-off appearances. However, I'm much more familiar with the people they've worked with and played beside, rather than with their main gigs. Furthermore, I've never read Jack Kerouac (admits the English major).

I don't recommend that everyone adopt this willful ignorance, but believe it or not, it keeps me sane. Besides, most of those questions were answered soon enough. Joining Jay and Ben were Mark Spencer on pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards; Jon Wurster on drums; and Nick Harmer on bass. Though I didn't keep track of vocal turns, Jay and Ben seemed about even in their share of mic time, and each took to the piano once or twice. As it turned out, they did stick to the Jack Kerouac-inspired material, so the kids in line hoping for Death Cab or Postal Service songs were out of luck. Full disclosure: My half-joking wish for "Tear-Stained Eye" didn't pan out either.

Preferences aside, there was some question in my mind about which group of fans would be more likely to stage an uprising and demand their money back before the end of the night: Son Volt followers, so often set in their musical ways, or the Death Cab for Cutie tribe, especially those who caught on after the group went mainstream. Of course, fans of splinter groups are always self-selecting; almost by definition, your interest exceeds that of the average listener. Still, my guess is it was more of a stretch for Death Cab fans, particularly with the twangier tunes. To their credit, the pitchforks and torches were kept in check, no matter who was singing.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09I extend my kudos to Ben Gibbard as well. This marks the second time I've watched Ben apart from his primary band, and he's won me over on both occasions. Back in October 2007, I got to see him in a rare, unadorned light, but at Bimbo's, he took the opposite tack with a rootsier, more rocking sound. Clearly, Ben is willing to step outside of his comfort zone, to impressive effect.

Ben and Jay showed nothing but respect and consideration for each other, but if I had to choose, I'd say Jay emerged as the leader of the group. For example, Jay split the lead guitar duties with Mark Spencer, and more prominently, the rest of the band ceded the stage to Jay and Mark for two songs. In terms of the music, the project aligns more closely with the sound that Jay's known for than what we'd previously heard from Ben.

Ultimately, Jay's voice sounded amazing (as usual), his gratifyingly world-weary tone complementing the subject matter--especially those images of empty spaces and indifferent towns--beautifully. Moreover, Jay looked like he was having fun, peeking out of his notoriously closed shell more than you might expect. There was, for example, the matter of his capo flying off the guitar after the band's first song and incidentally landing directly in front of us. He accepted its return with a wide grin, an expression he wore for much of the night.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09

Jay revealed they'd been a group for all of a week, and he had plenty of kind words for San Francisco in general. I have only one other show to compare it to, so I'll leave it to longtime Jay watchers to confirm or deny whether this is typical behavior on his part. But it sure makes me want to hit Son Volt's show at the Fillmore in December.

As of this writing, the tour is done, and it's anyone's guess as to whether Jay and Ben will reconvene for more shows. Thus, you can disregard this small aside to a night of overall cool tunes, but I'll lodge the observation anyway: For all their cooperation and deference to one another, I didn't get the feeling that Jay and Ben were a band, as opposed to a couple of guys who happened to work together. It's a minor issue, and I'd love to stand corrected, but that was the view from stage right.

John Roderick of the Long Winters opened the show. I'd seen his band once before, many moons ago; if I'm not mistaken, they played with the Decemberists at the Great American Music Hall. I'm happy to report that his goofy energy remained intact, as evidenced by the pitcher of hot water he brought onstage. It was soon enriched with a shot of Theraflu provided by an audience member whom I like to think was a well-stocked fan and not merely a plant. Regardless, his work here was done, and the medication allowed John to try out a bunch of songs, including a tune about not moving to Portland.

See also:
» i see my light come shining
» we can be us
» worn-out wood and familiar songs

Thursday, October 29, 2009

a little energy spent

Among the more egregious oversights of my concert schedule of the last few years is the dearth of Liam Finn shows. Despite his exhaustive touring runs, I've seen him only in supporting roles at Largo--one of which took place several years ago--and I had to miss his recent series of shows with Wilco. Man, I dropped the ball on this one, but at least I won't have to concoct another excuse, now that I've caught Liam and EJ's return to San Francisco, this time with a headlining show at the Independent.

Liam Finn and Eliza Jane Barnes, the Independent, October 23, 2009: Fun fact--the last time I saw Liam Finn in concert, it turned out to be the same night that the New Yorker was doing a story on Largo. Feel free to compare the writer's account of the night with mine!

Liam Finn and Eliza Jane Barnes, the Independent, 10-23-09Though I can't say I've taken in an entire Liam Finn performance before, Liam's wry, spontaneous disposition shined through in the segments I've seen, and I was happy to discover that he hasn't ditched either quality, as evidenced by this gig. Liam and E.J. welcomed the audience as if we were old friends, which felt appropriate, considering they've been through several times now. I believe they even toasted us at least once (maybe more), and at one point, they asked us to allow them an experiment, the details of which I can't recall, except that it involved the kick drum. I believe it also led Liam to comment that he wished he had a clitoris for such an occasion.

As I recall, they opened with a couple of tunes from their new LP and mixed in more of the newer songs, while of course dipping into I'll Be Lightning. Though I've enjoyed plenty of skillful looping in my concertgoing life, I'm still blown away when I realize that I can hear gorgeous layers of guitar when the artist in question is firmly situated behind, say, the drums.

Simply, it's just fun to watch Liam maneuver through his setup. Add in E.J.'s lovely voice, her percussive contributions, and her puckish encouragement, and it's easy to feel that you're among insanely talented friends, as opposed to a formal show.

Liam Finn and Eliza Jane Barnes, the Independent, 10-23-09

The thing about seeing Liam Finn in concert--not just for me, but I'm guessing for multitudes of others--is that he's not just another young rocker. When I watch him, I can't help but think of him as the evolution of at least a couple of threads from my listening history.

Though I know it's not a new phenomenon--children of famous musicians embarking on the same career as their parents--it's new to me. Oh sure, the younger Dylans, Lennons, and, er, Wilson Phillips have piped up, but their sires were not my generational touchstones. The same cannot be said for Liam Finn, as Neil Finn is one of my longtime favorites.

I can remember attending Crowded House in concert in the early '90s and seeing Liam and his brother Elroy trailing their parents. More recently--or maybe not so recently, come to think of it--I watched Liam open for Neil at the old Largo. Even then, Liam exhibited a poise and confidence that belied his age. As I recall, Liam gently took the piss out of his dad for a moment, mockingly strumming through "Four Seasons in One Day."

Speaking of Largo, that's the other influence to jump out at me. Multiple instruments, expert looping, head-first experimentation--kinda sounds like someone I see in concert a lot, doesn't it? That, I'm sure, is no coincidence either.

But in both cases, Liam doesn't merely ape his forebears. On the one hand, I was shocked to see how many mannerisms that Liam shares with Neil, and you can argue that Liam inherited some of his family's abilities--maybe those warm, sweet voices, for example. And while Liam's songs reveal a strong strain of classical songwriting (especially in the arrangements and melodies), he also flaunts a wilder, messier side that makes perfect sense for someone his age. In many ways, Liam represents the next step for so much of the music I love, and their last song, a cover of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," beautifully exemplified the ease with which they span the eras. The future, I hazard, is in good hands.

Liam Finn and Eliza Jane Barnes, the Independent, 10-23-09

Jason Lytle, formerly of the band Grandaddy, opened the show with some trepidation and a mention that he's usually at home on his couch around this time every week. He eventually warmed to the crowd, while still referring to that killer couch throughout his set. For many reasons, I saw Grandaddy (the band, not my kin) a lot while they were in circulation, at venues ranging from Bottom of the Hill to their opening slot for Coldplay at the Warfield, a gig featuring a cameo by an alarmingly bedraggled Elliott Smith.

An abundance of trucker caps, beards, and camouflage, worn by both the band and the audience, dominate my memories of those shows, but one element that was sorely lacking was any iota of personality. The same, however, can't be said for Jason Lytle's show tonight. His high, reedy voice remains, as does the acoustic/digital mix that may sound familiar to Grandaddy fans, but between the songs, he actually engaged with the audience. He expressed his appreciation of Liam Finn and alluded to his California roots. He also threw in a Beach Boys cover to sweeten the pot.

See also:
» use your mentality
» above you and beyond me too

Friday, October 23, 2009

leaving england

It's not the same as an early show, but the timing worked out perfectly for this triple bill with Brakes (or, I suppose, Brakesbrakesbrakes) sandwiched right in the middle. Call it a surgical strike--after the all-day undertaking known as the Treasure Island Music Festival, it was a relief to wander into the Rickshaw Stop five minutes before the music started and depart even more quickly as soon as the set concluded.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, the Rickshaw Stop, October 21, 2009: I work on the assumption that all music is ephemeral--not just the tunes themselves, but the bands, the lineups, and, generally, your tastes and preferences. Get it while it's hot.

Brakes, Rickshaw Stop, 10-21-09But as anyone who reads this blog knows, I can be a loyal listener, and once a band or an artist gets under my skin, I want to support them for as long as I can. It doesn't hurt when the performers in question continue to kick around the club circuit, even flying in from overseas and traipsing all the way to the western edge of this country to do so. Chalk one up for Brakes on each of the aforementioned counts.

Brakes has taken me by surprise at nearly every turn--from their very existence to the fact that I love their first two albums so much, and now with their third album. Who knew it would be such a charming and varied sampler? I'm all for young bands airing their piss and angst on those early records, but I'll take melodies, verses, bridges, and--dare I say it--maturity nearly any day, and that's exactly what Brakes have delivered on this release. Certainly, we've heard hints of it before, even going back to the first album, but the leap they've made with Touchdown is a pleasure to behold.

As veritable veterans these days, Brakes aren't lacking in material to fill out their live show, and their set at the Rickshaw Stop drew fairly from each record. I detected a slight emphasis on songs from the first album. Was it just me or did they take their time to work their way to songs from the new record? Then again, I wasn't keeping count; it's likely I'm just more familiar with the first two albums, having spent so much time listening to them, that those tunes stick with me more than the new stuff. And like I'm going to forget any performance of "Jackson" (even if their friend didn't quite deliver on his promise to sing or dance for us)?!

Brakes, Rickshaw Stop, 10-21-09

I've complained that the band hasn't quite figured out how to balance their song selection to reflect their range of sounds. I think they've remedied that situation, and it was great to hear those immediate jabs of music alongside the prettier, lilting titles. They remain a band I like better on record than live, but the fuller sound of Touchdown translated quite well to the environs of the Rickshaw Stop. Among the newer songs, "Don't Take Me to Space (Man)" swept through on a refreshing breeze that characterizes much of the record, while "Leaving England" carried some poignancy when Eamon informed us it was based on a true story.

Those of you who've seen Brakes in concert before may be heartened to know that other elements have remained the same. They made use of their last moments of stage time with not one but two--two!--takes of "Comma Comma Full Stop." The paean de punctuation forever endears them in this copy editor's heart, but apparently, I wasn't alone in feeling its pull. The song was so explosive that guitarist Thomas White had to descend from the stage and plant himself on the club floor, as if to ground himself from the tune's full force. Prepare for blastoff.

Brakes, Rickshaw Stop, 10-21-09

See also:
» top 5 albums of 2006
» heard about your band

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

upwards to the vanguards

Despite recent appearances to the contrary, I am not and will never be a festival person, but occasionally, I can be convinced to agonize over scheduling conflicts and painstakingly map out itineraries between multiple stages. The Treasure Island Music Festival, now in its third outing, brought the promise of the Flaming Lips, the Decemberists, Bob Mould, and Spiral Stairs. In the end, I would catch only half of these marquee names, but on all other counts, Treasure Island can easily take its place among the better festivals I've attended.

Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09The Flaming Lips, the Decemberists, et al, Treasure Island Music Festival, October 18, 2009: My club-bred bunker mentality and "it's not a gig unless you see the whites of their eyes" philosophy of concertgoing sit at odds with learned festival M.O. So many bands, so many booths, that awesome-looking Ferris Wheel--too bad all I really want to do is secure a spot, make sure none of the thousands of potential interlopers get in the way, and pretend that if I squint and ignore all the distractions, it's just like being at Cafe du Nord or the Great American Music Hall!

Thus, I had to sacrifice a couple of highly anticipated sets at the Tunnel Stage when I found a decent post at the rail for the Bridge Stage. As promised by the festival organizers, I could hear parts of Spiral Stairs and Bob Mould's sets--including, respectively, "Whalebones" and "A Good Idea"--from the other stage, but it wasn't the same as being there. Then again, I had made my festival bed. Bob Mould's set marked the last of the double dipping. From that point on, the crowds and overall hubbub were simply too loud to allow for anything but vaguely thumping bass notes to carry over.

My encampment at the Bridge Stage brought both highlights and, er, non-highlights, but I'm not one to dwell on the latter. Early in the afternoon, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down kicked out the jams. I'm gonna play the race card and say it's awesome to see a Vietnamese chick rocking out onstage, but I also happen to like her music. Thus, score on both counts. Represent!

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09

It was several hours later that one of the festival's major attractions (as far as I'm concerned) assembled. It was the Decemberists, in Hazards of Love mode, indicated by the surfeit of drums onstage. Time constraints forced them to present an abridged version of the opus, but the band hit all the highlights, including the thrilling multiple-drum rumble of "The Rake's Song."

The Decemberists, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09

The Decemberists' set differed from their show in May in other aspects too. For one thing, a gorgeous animated film played in the background. On another level, I detected an increased confidence with their roles in the Hazards of Love epic. And in case I wasn't convinced before, this show confirmed it: Shara Worden is indispensable to the album's performance. Not only did she pull you right into the saga, her lusty, snarling vocals lent the Decemberists an edge that can be overlooked in their music.

The Decemberists, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09

Alas, they didn't have time to trot out tracks from any other albums or the covers that have been delighting other audiences across the country, nor could they indulge in the banter that characterizes their shows, but the undiluted Hazards of Love attack remains a formidable feat. I applaud them for sticking to their musical guns.

You don't need a calculator to figure out that I spent several hours standing in a cold, windy field to glimpse upon the Flaming Lips, but I can assure you that every second melted away as soon as the opening notes of "Race for the Prize" rang out. In fact, you can say we got a performance-plus, as the band and crew's setup routine attracted plenty of eyeballs and elicited enviable cheers even before they played a single note.

The Flaming Lips, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09A fair share of these hoots and hollers arose at the mere sight of the eternally debonair Wayne Coyne, as he ambled about and inspected the setup. I'm going to say it: Women should not deliver the mail. Hello, Silver-Gray Fox. To paraphrase another Wayne (Campbell, to be exact): In French, he would be called "le renard" and he would be hunted with only his cunning to protect him. Swoon.

As I was saying: Their efforts added up to an all-orange set, including a large jungle-gym-like structure framing a video screen. Elsewhere, every amp, mic stand, crew uniform, and even the gong looked like it could've come straight out of a Home Depot employee handbook.

You'd think that this forthright display would diffuse the collective energy, but quite the opposite. When "Race for the Prize" started up the set and the confetti rained down and the balloons were released, the crowd moved in unison, jumping, shouting, and singing--myself included.

As festival favorites, the Flaming Lips are true road warriors, but that big-umbrella approach has kept me from seeing them over the years (the aforementioned festival phobia). Even when I saw them at the Reading Festival 10 years ago, they played one of the smaller tents and urged the crowd to help in drowning out the sounds of some major band--maybe Metallica?--coming from the big stage. Before Treasure Island, the largest venue I'd ever seen them play was at the Warfield, and the last time I caught them in concert was three years ago at Bimbo's 365 Club--a ridiculously intimate performance, especially compared to the vast crowds they entertain these days. I loved the show at Bimbo's, but I suspect they may have held back part of their usual sensory blitz in that smaller space.

The Flaming Lips, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09

There were no such doubts tonight, from the band members' entrance through a door in the video screen to the halfway pornographic introductory movie to Wayne's hamster ball, all of which were new spectacles to me. Dancers flanked either side of the stage, and much later in the show, rubber monsters joined them. In between, we saw streamer guns and confetti cannons. When it comes to the Flaming Lips, too much is never enough, and I refuse to play the cynic. The visceral delight they inspire is too rare and too gratifying. They're a national treasure.

Complementing the more sideshow-worthy aspects of their gig was a good helping of new (to me) arrangements and even an obscure older track ("Enthusiasm for Life"). Amid the crescendos and surges that mark many of the band's songs, Steve Drozd worked up several sparer arrangements, paring some songs ("Fight Test") down to just Wayne and himself or, in the case of "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," an enthusiastic crowd sing-along.

The Flaming Lips, Treasure Island Music Festival, 10-18-09

Rounding out the show was one more element: the human factor. In spite of the festival setting, we saw some truly heartfelt moments. Much of this originated with the ever charming Wayne, and he had many kind words for San Francisco, one of the first cities the band played in their long history. I'm sure his mention of the I-Beam was lost on the young listeners, but some of us appreciated the history lesson. Wayne also pointed out a woman watching from the pit; she turned out to be Roberta Peterson, the rep who signed the band to Warner Bros. The rest is history.

A young woman standing next to me had created a pink robot head, and deep into the set (not to mention after dozens of ear-shattering screams on her part), Mr. Coyne finally took notice. She probably would've died a happy girl at that point, but it wasn't over yet; her friend happened to execute a perfect throw, landing the box nearly at Wayne's feet. Soon thereafter, the robot head touched Wayne's head, and I think the young lady died all over again. We were rooting for her all along.

See also:
» that's how I came your humble narrator
» in fact, you're fanatical

Monday, October 12, 2009

not like all the other boys

After the hullabaloo of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the cloistered, controlled Swedish American Hall couldn't have been more welcoming. Leading the services, Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop of Travis brought to mind the band's own words of wisdom from many years ago: back to that good feeling.

An Evening with Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop from Travis, Swedish American Hall, October 8, 2009: If there's one discernible thread running through my musical preferences, I think it would go back to an interest in singer/songwriters and, arguably, folk(ish) music, even before I knew what they were. In that regard, my longtime fondness for Travis fits right in.

Travis, Swedish American Hall, 10-08-09

I know that not everyone will agree with me on the above point, and I understand that one installment of Storytellers does not a troubadour make. Heck, I don't really adhere to my own rules, and I suspect many of the artists whose records comprise my music collection would flinch at such a label. I certainly wouldn't have guessed that Travis would fill this niche all those years ago when I picked up Good Feeling (in 1997, to be exact).

But in this setting, Fran and Andy--working with a skeleton crew and a minimal amount of gear--were the very picture of wandering balladeers, albeit for the electronic age. Fran, ever garrulous, discoursed freely and widely through the promised chronological examination of the band's output, and Andy chipped in some punchlines and his essential guitar notes. In addition, Fran's slide show (oddly, however, they didn't play "Slide Show") included some hilarious images--even if they were doctored for our enjoyment--as well as more heartfelt pictures, such as one of his son. And though Fran apologized over and over for playing so long, no objections arose from the crowd.

Travis, Swedish American Hall, 10-08-09Once upon a time, I read every Travis interview I could get a hold of and repurposed them for public display. Thus, I probably know more than I need to about the band, but even for this former nutcase, Fran revealed some surprising and specific details, down to where some songs were written (Millport, Isle of Cumbrae, brace yourself), when they came about, and the very events that set them off.

For example, I had no idea that "As You Are" was written long before it showed up on The Man Who. Considering it remains one of my favorite of the band's songs, maybe that folk angle would've played out earlier had it been included on their debut. Also, Fran introduced a new wrinkle into the provenance of "Writing to Reach You." Joining the ranks of the better-known nods to Noel Gallagher and Franz Kafka were the musical stylings of American indie rockers the Connells. Who will he cite next? The Loud Family?

For those keeping score at home, the commercial breakthrough The Man Who garnered the lion's share of Fran and Andy's attention and efforts; they even played the album's hidden track "Flashing Blue Light." Every other album merited a couple of tracks each, except for the often forgotten 12 Memories, which got only one airing, with "Love Will Come Through."

Travis, Swedish American Hall, 10-08-09What I appreciated most was Fran's take on the nitty-gritty of writing music: finding inspiration, working through the throwaway ideas, and dealing with deadlines. Not that it was all muso talk--alcohol factored into several tales, as did Fran's repeated citation of Dougie as the coolest member of the band. And I'll never be able to hear the band's "Sing" the same way ever again.

When Travis played San Francisco twice in 2007, I was as perplexed--and delighted--as anyone. This date took me by surprise as well, but Fran and Andy admitted their ulterior motive: Their goal was to write a song for every show--and thus, the band's next album--while on the road. (They also explained why the other two members of the band were not with them. Dougie was being a new dad, and Neil was racing cars.) At the end of the gig, they tried out that new tune, a song called "Holiday"--an original, not a Madonna cover. Fran warned us it could be shit, but it was quite lovely.

Capping off an amiable and engaging gig, Fran and Andy worked up one final hook: They invited everyone who wanted an autograph or a photo or just a word with them to stay. They didn't even leave the stage--they simply met with the line of attending fans. I believe they took more than an hour to greet the masses, and I can guarantee you that every single one of them left with a smile. Also, I suspect with their generous gesture, Fran and Andy solidified the kind of loyalty that's supposedly so difficult to find among contemporary music fans. Come back any time, guys.

See also:
» what's a wonderwall anyway
» give in, into that good feeling

Thursday, October 08, 2009


The prospect of attending a huge, free musical festival featuring some of my favorite artists and several more appealing performers mere blocks from my apartment is both exhilarating and maddening. Even as my eyes grew wide at the sight of all those great names populating the bill, I knew that the explosion in talent would correspond to an uptick in audience. The question, then, becomes whether it's all worth the bother; for now at least, the answer is yes.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 3-4, 2009
For my first couple of stints at the festival, I went with a plan, and it served me well, though I have a friend's fearless move to thank for my best positioning ever at the Banjo Stage. I'm never getting that close for the closing festivities ever again! With that concession fully banked, I flew under the radar last year, slipping in and out of the festival and catching the handful of acts that mattered to me. I had intended to do the same this year, but my twitchy nature won out, forcing a compromise. In a nutshell, Saturday, we wandered. Sunday, we camped.

Initially, I thought maybe the early acts of the day would be my favorites by default, just because the crowds had not yet convened. We wandered to the Star Stage in time to catch Jon Langford, Sally Timms, and the Sadies, filling in for Roger Knox, whose entry visa was denied, on Saturday, but Okkervil River delivered the true debut. Okkervil River largely reprised the set they played when opening for Wilco back in June, and much as they did then, they won over a good chunk of the audience with their impassioned, lively display. From the middle of the field, it was great to see the hands in the air and to hear Will Sheff work it the crowd as hard as he did earlier this summer.

In a similar vein, Elvis Perkins in Dearland threw the doors wide open on Sunday morning with a fun, brisk set. I've missed Elvis (who bore a striking resemblance to Abbey Road-era George Harrison) and crew more often than I've seen them, and that includes their last appearance in San Francisco. The mix-up isn't really worth explaining, except to say it ranks high among my ditz moments.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-04-09

The band has written and recorded its fair share of moody, introspective numbers, but they opted for a mostly upbeat set for the festival, with their drummer strapping on the bass drum and moving to the front of the stage for several titles. For me, the highlight of their revue was a three-song stint featuring tunes from their forthcoming EP, out October 20.

The first selection was a spiritual called "Weeping Mary," but it was the transition to the second--whose title wasn't offered--that caught me by surprise. It was a full-on Eddie Cochran-style rave-up, and they followed up with a bluesy, soulful piece. That's going to be a great EP, I hazard. They closed with "Doomsday," thus killing my hope of hearing "Ash Wednesday," but their choice was definitely more appropriate for the hour and the setting. Note to self: Don't miss them again.

Aimee Mann, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-04-09I've navigated some extreme measures to see my favorite performers, whether at a club, a festival, or elsewhere; by that barometer, I didn't do anything out of character to see my headliners at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. In fact, you could say I dialed it back, for a change. But after Saturday's middling effort, I figured I'd need to invest a little more energy if I wanted to catch either Neko Case or Aimee Mann the way I wanted to see them. Long story short: Everything worked out.

As much as I appreciate the festival's expansion into different genres, I still wonder how certain groups will go over with the masses, and prior to Aimee's set, I was apprehensive over the outcome. Aimee is nowhere close to bluegrass in any regard, and though she's hit the festival circuit more in the last few years, I can't wrap my head around the idea of her playing to anything other than mannered, courteous indoor audiences--even though I've seen Aimee take on similar circumstances before.

I repeat: Everything worked out (despite the woman behind me who asked me to sit down because I wasn't in the standing section--of a field?! for a free show!?). A doting group gathered at the front of the stage for Aimee's set, and as always, the songs from Magnolia drew the biggest response. Aimee even got to throw out the fun fact of her losing an Oscar to Phil Collins' "monkey love song." In the witty repartee department, she also shared that her forehead felt like a big solar panel as they played directly into the the sun.

My guess is that much of the audience hadn't seen Aimee before, but zealots regulars saw a couple of fun changes. I'm not sure if I've heard "Nightmare Girl" before, but I know that was a rare outing. Also, Aimee and her band revealed new talents when they each took up woodwinds for the beginning of "This Is How It Goes." The only oddity may have been the hoarding of Smilers tracks ("Freeway" and "31 Today") until the very end, but overall, the audience took in a good overview of Aimee's catalog of songs.

Aimee Mann, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-04-09

I had no doubt that Neko Case, however, would have any problems with the crowd. For starters, she was hardly a stranger, having played a supporting role at the festival a couple of years ago. And though Neko's sound is less definable these days, it's closer to the festival's namesake genre than most of the acts I saw on Sunday.

Neko Case, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-04-09Neko's band, including Jon Rauhouse, remained intact, and Kelly Hogan stood by her side. (Also of note: The musicians gathered on the side of the stage to watch them, including Billy Bragg, Will Sheff, and Scott McCaughey.) Neko and Kelly, as always, are so entertaining that I find it hard to believe anyone can resist their charms. The women repeatedly lauded the organizers for allowing dogs into the festival, and other topics of conversation included Neko's ill-fitting jeans and her self-proclaimed lack of an ass. Neko's pipes were as staggering as ever, but at other moments, she chose to speak in--for lack of a better word--a high-pitched squawk. I hesitate to guess at what inspired that tone, but believe it or not, I'd heard a lot of weirder things at the festival.

Neko and company bounded all over her catalog, from the country-ish early works to the rich, ornate style she prefers these days. In between, she and Kelly offered generous shout-outs to the Sadies and worked up two of the song they'd co-written. In a strange twist, Marianne Faithfull had sang "Hold On Hold On" at the stage immediately to the back of the setup just prior to Neko's set, but that didn't stop Neko from running with it herself. They closed with a cover of the Shangri-Las' "The Train from Kansas City," such a perfect selection that you wonder how we'd never heard it before.

Those are the sets I feel most comfortable blogging, but I caught or attempted to catch several more artists over the course of the weekend, with varying degrees of success, comfort, and interest--not to mention the acts I didn't bother approaching, for whatever reason (the crowds, the cold, the lack of willpower). However, I managed to squeeze in among the throngs to watch most of Gillian Welch's set at the overattended squall known as the Banjo Stage.

The conditions would probably qualify as hellish were it not for Gillian and David, but they rewarded the hordes with guest appearances by Emmylou Harris and Old Crow Medicine Show. Emmylou and "Go to Sleep Little Baby" were not a surprise, but I gasped when all the above parties assembled for "The Weight." I'm not going to hear anything approaching those harmonies for a long time to come.

News reports peg attendance at this year's festival at 750,000--almost the population of San Francisco itself--and I think I smooshed into every single one of them at one point or another during the weekend. Threatening equal parts intrigue and insanity, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass tempts me as few other festivals do. I'll have to wait and see what 2010 brings, but I'll keep October open.

See also:
» now I try to be amused
» feels lucky to have you here
» play one more for my radio sweetheart
» searching for light in the darkness of insanity

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

time's a revelator

Some people say that you don't find music--that music finds you when you're ready for it. I typically don't agree with this opinion, but I'm not immune to it. Witness: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. No early adopter, I missed a good 10 years of their collaboration, but these days, I can't get enough of them, which is why I grabbed a ticket to their Fillmore gig, two days ahead of their appearance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, October 1, 2009: Prior to this gig, several caveats ricocheted around my brain: This isn't Largo. Gillian and David don't officially have a new release to promote. A "normal" Gillian Welch show may not bear any resemblance to the performances I've seen since last fall.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, 10-01-09

As it turned out, my brain needed to shut the fuck up. Not only did Gillian and David deliver all the highlights I've come to anticipate, but they did it with a bushel of cheer and a spark I hadn't entirely expected. It was, in short, wonderful to behold and to be a part of. And most important, it disabused me of all those lingering preconceptions I had about the duo, despite ample evidence of their playfulness and congeniality.

In fact, it may be a good thing that I've become familiar with their show almost solely through Largo; I suspect it's established the pattern Gillian and David follow these days, whether or not Benmont Tench is present, as he was for this gig. Benmont's expert hand came through beautifully on "It's Too Easy," which kept me guessing as to how he and David would bring the song from its arching bridge back to its foundation. Conversely, "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" showed off Ben's gentler touch.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, 10-01-09

Overall, the show resembled July's Largo gig, minus most of the musical buddies, as they launched with "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and hit many of the same songs. Gillian, of course, took the majority of vocal duties, though David stepped up with "Sweet Tooth" from the forthcoming Rawlings Machine debut. Dave jokingly and modestly played off the plug provided by Gillian, but I'll venture that shopping lists were updated with the newsflash.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, 10-01-09Two factors differentiated this show from the other gigs I've seen by them and at the Fillmore. One was the sparseness of the stage. As Gillian pointed out, she and David used no monitors (though Benmont did); they listened to the same mix as us. It's a rare sight at the Fillmore, and it brought to mind one of my favorite passages from their profile in the New Yorker: "Welch and Rawlings's music is deceptively complex, despite its simple components: two voices, two guitars, and four hands."

The second element, if I do say so myself, was the audience. From the get go, this crowd was itching to join in, even more so than at the Rawlings Machine gig from this spring. We sang to almost everything we could almost as soon as we could. More amazing, I swear that a guy not far behind me added perfect harmonies! I can't claim those dulcet tones, but I piped up anyway. For all the intimacy and the exceptions that Largo inspires, being a part of, say, "Red Clay Halo" with 1,000+ other fans brings out an aspect to the song and the show that's hard to replicate.

The audience cheered Gillian and David through two encores that included such fine selections as "Long Black Veil" (my first time hearing their version) and "Jackson." The final push, however, came from David, who urged "one more" to the assembled musicians, now joined by Mike McKinley on mandolin, even as they were moving to set down their instruments. They wrapped up with "I'll Fly Away," and though they didn't ask for our help, we proffered it in abundance.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, 10-01-09

As the year starts to wind down, no one is more surprised than me that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whether under her or his moniker, will comprise a big chunk of my concert calendar for 2009--yet it's still not enough. As long as they keep coming back, in either San Francisco or Los Angeles, so will I.

See also:
» i've been traveling near and far
» hotter than a pepper sprout
» please take my advice
» bring it on home

Monday, September 21, 2009

before i change my mind

Blame all those years of listening to critical punching bags for developing my tin ear to music reviews. Fortunately, I have friends who don't rest on their musical laurels, who recognize the haphazard potpourri that comprises my musical tastes, and whose opinions I respect. Thanks to everyone who's urged Frightened Rabbit on me over the last year. Your patience and your prescience have won out.

Frightened Rabbit, the Independent, September 18, 2009: We music nerds sometimes like to say that the best tunes reveal themselves on their own schedule, and titles that take weeks, months, or however long to take hold can offer the biggest reward. I can think of numerous examples of this credo, but on the other hand, there's something to be said for the immediate hook and instant appeal. Count Frightened Rabbit among the latter.

Frightened Rabbit, the Independent, Sept. 18, 2009

I don't know why some bands click, but I know when it does. Not a minute into Frightened Rabbit's show, I was hooked. The pealing guitar, the galloping rhythm, and the hints of melody, all before the vocals arrived, reeled me in, but you also sensed that these disparate elements were deployed in the service of something greater--and that you'd be a fool to miss it.

Simply, Frightened Rabbit rocked it, supplementing that initial blast of amazement with powerful aftershocks. Though the band's passion planted you in the moment, I couldn't help pondering what else would be possible for the group. The music could--and will, I'm sure--easily fill spaces much larger than the Independent. And if tonight's audience was any indication, the band can look forward to even more support and goodwill from their fans, perhaps through singing along, clapping in time, or shouting out names of Scottish football clubs, as was the case tonight.

Here's an advantage to attending a show as an impartial observer (or as impartial as you can be when you've paid for a ticket): It's not just your personal infatuation talking when you sense a band's sway over an audience. From the get go, the fans were in lock step with the band. Though they couldn't exactly help themselves during some of the quiet parts--such as the first song of the encore, lead singer Scott Hutchinson's solo acoustic take on "Poke," sans amplification (I love that shit)--their eagerness was neither obnoxious nor desperate. Rather, it felt like the natural expression of their desire to join in, no matter how off-key their contribution.

This ardor was put to better use on the final song, "Keep Yourself Warm," when the lyrics echoed through the club, aided and abetted by the crowd's roaring accompaniment. It's the kind of loyalty you rarely see for such a young band, and it's not hard to predict great things for them.

Twilight Sad, the Independent, Sept. 18, 2009Filling out the bill with Frightened Rabbit were two other Scottish bands, Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks. In addition to their provenance, they shared some surface similarities, but they were far from cookie-cutter clones. True, all three upheld the fine Scottish tradition of falling far short of fashionable--in the best way possible--but whereas Twilight Sad orbited the moodier, more impressionistic end of the spectrum, We Were Promised Jetpacks wore their earnestness even more blatantly than Frightened Rabbit.

Is it too much to ask? Can't I be guaranteed a new band to fall in love with every 12 to 18 months and to be reminded that not all fledgling groups have to be so predictably derivative? For now, yes, and Frightened Rabbit is keeping that hope alive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

bring it on home

I didn't expect to be back at Largo and a Jon Brion show so soon, but somehow, it always works out. I'll skip the usual rigmarole of concocting an excuse and simply proceed to the report.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 4, 2009: Most visitors may not know this about Los Angeles, but this city of transplants is a veritable ghost town for the holidays. There's no better time to visit than Christmas, and traffic never materialized this Labor Day weekend. Granted, that may have been partly due to the Station Fire raging a valley away, but in true Hollywood fashion, we were shielded from the reality.

Largo managed to buck this trend, and to our surprise at least, the big room filled up nicely by the time the show was about to begin. After commending us for sticking around, Jon sat down at the piano for an instrumental opening that I--for once--recognized: Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye," I believe, proving that the Red Hot + Blue compilation ranks among my better music purchases.

Turning his attention to a couple of originals, Jon lingered over a particularly Eno-esque intro to "Over Our Heads," but "Further Along" turned out to be more a battle of wills between Jon and his guitar. Rest assured, Jon prevailed.

The last time I saw Jon's show, it was the day after Les Paul's death, and we speculated if and/or how he'd honor the memory (with full knowledge that he usually does so by not attempting the dearly departed's music so soon after the loss). The tribute didn't transpire that night, except for some old TV footage playing on the flat-screen in the Little Room.

I guess the moratorium had lifted because Jon combined two separate audience requests, first for the Les Paul treatment, then for Harry Nilsson. "Alone Again Naturally" required more tinkering than usual, but by the time Jon hit his stride, it sounded magnificent, with a bridge that can only be described as delightful and oodles of fine fingerpicking--if only all posthumous salutes were so joyful and dignified.

The video mix kicked off with an elderly guitar player I can't name, and after isolating and looping a certain measure, Jon matched it to some footage of Toscanini (maybe) for an almost pastoral affect. It took me a while, but after Jon added a MicroKorg-derived beat, I finally figured out the song: "That's Just What You Are" with a chamber-pop twist.

From here, Jon asked for requests in earnest, and a small chorus of voices prevailed with a suggestion for "Little Person." Though he seemed less than certain of its key, I was thrilled to finally hear this tune--the highlight of a movie I desperately wanted to like--for myself.

Maybe it was the long weekend, or maybe it was the fires, but the audience requests seemed more ludicrous than usual. Then again, maybe it's always like that, except that Jon actually humored them tonight, though not without an inscrutable silence. I'm pretty sure I've heard Jon do "Electric Avenue" before, at least in part, but this may have been the first time I've seen it in toto, built from the floor up. In case you're wondering what it actually sounded like, imagine Eddie Grant taking a detour through Paisley Park. (No, seriously.)

I'm pretty sure the next selection came from an audience request, moving Jon back to the video mixers. His first clip was of recent vintage: an MTV show with Alexa Chung and Adrian Grenier on drums. Matched up with an orchestra and an opera singer, they comprised a grand backing band for the Kinks song we ultimately heard. I've comment before that sometimes it's hard to pick out the discrete elements of Jon's multimedia mashups, but as with the evening's previous video foray, the collaborators' roles were clear and distinct.

Early in the show, we spied a spectator in the wings and waited for the announcement from the stage. But apparently, the visitor's presence was completely lost on Jon until Bret informed him at nearly the end of the set. So while Jon urged us to shout out more requests, he ducked away, welcomed his friend, then finally brought her forward: Gillian Welch, last seen at Largo in July.

Jon and Gillian tried to include us in their decision-making process, but the crowd consensus on "Safety Dance" (not me) probably spiked that idea. Instead, they went with what Gill knew how to sing, and both songs turned out to be fine selections. Gill even got in some time on the drum kit for "You Can't Always Get What You Want." This preference carried over into the encore, so with Gill once more holding up the bottom end and Jon asking for Sun-style slapback, they looked to Sam Cooke, and I thought of at least one person in Los Angeles who really should've been there.

Over in the Little Room, Jon called us lucky bastards and ceded the stage to Benmont Tench and Gillian Welch. From our front-row perch, it hit me almost immediately: There's no reason for these world-class musicians, whose audiences regularly number in the thousands, to play for the two dozen people who stuck around tonight. Yet they do, and as trite as this may sound, it seems they're motivated by nothing other than their love of music.

In the main room, Gill and Jon had established that their brains were "mush," so it fell to Benmont to play the crucial role of arbiter. He provided the request for "Wabash Cannonball," which established a mini trend of train songs for the night. Benmont would also assume lead vocals on "How Deep Is the Ocean" when Jon commanded him to "take one."

Jon's presence was something of a question mark until, two songs in, Gillian called him back to the stage. He dutifully obliged, but also managed to steer clear of the mic, content to sit on the floor for much of the show, mostly supporting the others on guitar, backing vocals, and er, Guinness. He was helped in part by David Rawlings's eventual arrival, guitar and guitar case in hand.

Though there was much give and take between the musicians, David ostensibly took the lead, singing a handful of songs himself and sharing the duties with Gillian on the others. Actually, my notes show that Gill did most of the singing, but they came together at the mic often--just the way we like it. My favorite moment might've been "Elvis Presley Blues," which David started, but Gillian closed the deal in one of those effortless handoffs that characterize their partnership. Along the way, Jon had been moved to leap to his feet in solidarity with David, and Benmont gave us a gorgeous glissade on "Wildwood Flower."

After the show concluded but before we left the premises, we caught a peek at one more spectacle: Gillian, David, and Jon singing in a cappella harmony just outside the Little Room, carrying off what we think was one of the titles they passed over just minutes before. I don't kid myself that I've seen everything possible at Largo (or that such a compendium exists), but it sure was a pleasure to check that item off the list that I didn't even know I was keeping.

Set 1
--Everytime We Say Goodbye
--Over Our Heads
--Further Along
--I Really Don't Want to Know
--Alone Again Naturally
--That's Just What You Are
--Little Person
--Electric Avenue
--This Is Where I Belong
--Same Mistakes
--Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain *
--You Can't Always Get What You Want *

--Bring It on Home to Me *

Set 2
--Make Me a Pallet **
--Wabash Cannonball **
--Love in Vain **
--How Deep Is the Ocean **
--Copper Kettle ***
--Mountain Dew ***
--Window Up Above ***
--Elvis Presley Blues ***
--Wildwood Flower ***
--It's Too Easy ***

* = with Gillian Welch
** = with Gillian Welch and Benmont Tench
*** = with Gillian Welch, Benmont Tench, and David Rawlings

See also:
» i've got it bad
» i've been traveling near and far

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


As much as I mythologize that city to the south, there's no place like home. I'm duly reminded of this fact by concerts such as this: the Nels Cline Singers recording a live album over two nights at Cafe du Nord.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009: I've seen plenty of shows that have been filmed for TV, video, or movie purposes, but to the best of my recollection, I haven't attended the taping of a live album--at least none with real release plans. It was just a matter of time before my concert plans and an artist's recording plans intersected. The fact that the Nels Cline Singers would furnish this opportunity was a welcome coincidence.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009

My knowledge of live albums is mostly limited to--honestly, Duran Duran's Arena, but I have a passing familiarity with the Budokan, Royal Albert Hall, and prison recordings (among others) of note. One of the questions for me was how the abundantly improvisational Singers would present themselves on, in essence, a set document.

For one, they stuck to a similar--though not identical--setlist over both nights. They bashed through a number of originals, some unreleased, some reaching far back into their catalog, and others of more recent vintage. One of the new songs was provisionally and aptly titled "Build." They referred to another as "Thurstonius," subject to change before it reached its final form. The nod to its potential namesake was clear, but its rhythm and melody reminded me of a different Wilco/Sonic Youth project--specifically, Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat." Speaking of Sonic Youth, the Singers opened the two-night stand with their cover of "Mildred Pierce," killing time while the crew worked out technical issues.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009

But back to the earlier question about the experimentation of the Singers vs. the formalities of a live album: There was no reason to worry. The trio at no point held back, whether on the tentatively titled "Metalgasm" (or "Gee, I'm White," according to Nels), the psychedelic middle ramble of "Blues Too" on the second night, or either performance of "Fly Fly." It wasn't all discord and din, however; in between, they tempered their push with more hushed works from Carla Bley and Andrew Hill.

Then again, it wasn't all business as usual. For starters, there was the tireless presence of producer Ron Saint Germain, who dropped in frequently to adjust microphones or let the band know when each round of technical difficulties subsided. Those electronic bugaboos interrupted both nights' proceedings, though to a much lesser extent on the second go-round. However, they also brought out Nels's inner Goulet, to borrow his phrasing, as he made ample use of the microphone to chat, vamp, and generally await Ron's thumbs-up.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, Sept. 2-3, 2009Striking a more joyful note (no pun intended) were Greg, Satomi, and John (who I didn't recognize at an earlier show with Nels) from Deerhoof, who dropped in on the second night--Bay Bridge closure, be damned!--to reprise their performance from last November, first on a Weather Report song, then on the Singers' own "Suspended Head." For the former, they raided Scott Amendola's extensive percussion kit; on the latter, Nels called Greg back to the stage to take the mic.

One more aspect worth mentioning, for both its unexpectedness and because I'm not sure how much of it will make it to the released recording, is Nels's loquaciousness. Even he admitted he had never spoken so much at a show. I can't begin to list all the topics that he covered with mic in hand, but I wholly believe Scott Amendola's comment that now we knew what it felt like to be on tour with Nels.

Ava Mendoza opened both shows, and she impressed the room with her lyrical guitar playing, bringing to mind the likes of Django Reinhardt and M. Ward. She was far from the typical girl with an acoustic guitar, which is not a bad thing at all.

See also:
» spider wisdom
» still carries a torch