Sunday, March 29, 2009

the high lonesome truth

Overheard while getting in line at the Rio Theatre for night two of the Rawlings Machine: "I don't know who the other guy is. His name is Rawlings. I hear he's good." What the what?!

Dave Rawlings Machine, Rio Theatre, 3-25-09Dave Rawlings Machine, Rio Theatre, March 25, 2009: Puhleeze don't act surprised to find this post or force me to reiterate all the goofy measures I've taken to catch David and Gillian. Besides, I'd been to the Rio previously to see Colin Meloy--this is practically my backyard. (It's not my backyard.)

However, it was no lazy day at the beach, and I had to jump through several hoops to make it to Santa Cruz at all. I had given up on the idea of arriving early enough to nab a primo spot, so I wasn't too disheartened to see the lengthy line of fans. Hey, I can't always be in front! And though I was a little disappointed to find that the show would be seated, that wasn't too surprising either. David and Gillian aren't exactly magnets for adoring teenage fans, and as it turned out, not a single hand-crocheted scarf change hands between audience and artist this evening.

I'm not sure what I expected of this gig, but I can tell you what I ultimately got: a musical performance, pure and simple. It wasn't the David and Gillian Variety Hour at Largo, featuring a steady stream of friends, nor was the audience interaction as prominent as the night before in San Francisco. Instead, we listened as David and Gillian did what they do best, with a minimum of distractions.

In the spotlight, Dave and Gillian veritably shone on several tracks, such as their own "Throw Me a Rope," their cover of "Turn Your Radio On," and Gillian's solo banjo number "Fly On." Dave threw himself so completely into "I Hear Them All" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain" that I wondered if he'd find a way out of the solos. I suspect he took a slightly more circuitous route to the Woody Guthrie section of the former, but he eventually hit that mark.

My favorite number of the night remained "Knuckleball Catcher." For one thing, I'm a sucker for music about listening to music (see also: "Sunken Treasure," "The Lonely 1," "Radio King," to name a few), so they have me on that count, but I just love how it takes the populist conceit of folk music to its very contemporary and even empowering conclusion ("a den mother can be a dashboard drummer"). And though my description sucks, the tune itself assuredly does not.

I've come to love that song for another reason: It's funny, and it lets Dave and Gillian be funny, especially in the closing duel of "do do do"s. Certainly, they've let down their hair at Largo, usually with some prodding from Jon Brion, but this may have been the loosest and most charming I've yet seen them at their own show. They took a similar approach with "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," trading escalating falsettos before thrashing out the song's coda. Gillian, especially, warmed up to bantering, joking about the drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, sharing the sights they saw on the way, and making oblique references to Magritte. Maybe it had something to do with being back in her old stomping grounds; maybe it was something in the water. (Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy it.)

For the encore, Mike McKinley joined them again for some serious bluegrass action. The "Hot Corn Cold Corn"/"He Will Set Your Field on Fire" sequence made me (1) realize how much of their influences and repertoire remains unknown to me, and (2) marvel at how they could turn on the twang so heavily and so readily after merely hinting at these abilities during the main set.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the garrulous old Deadhead sitting next to me who delighted in their entire set--not just the Dylan, Dead, and Neil Young covers, but the Cyndi Lauper closer too. Kudos to him for keeping Santa Cruz weird.

p.s. The torrent is up!

See also:
» hear them all
» hotter than a pepper sprout
» wish you were here

Friday, March 27, 2009

hotter than a pepper sprout

Though I've been spending a lot of time at other venues lately, I sincerely love San Francisco's bona fide musical palaces. The reigning champ is the Great American Music Hall, especially when the bookers nab the likes of the Dave Rawlings Machine.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, March 24, 2009: Knowing how much San Francisco adores Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, I lost sleep hesitating a single day to buy tickets to this show. I actually had some weeks to spare, but as expected, the duo sold out the Great American Music Hall and inspired one of the more amusing streams of Craigslist posts of late. On offer were not the usual dubious sums of money or even vague hints of sexual favors, but rather a whole farmer's market: organic sourdough bread, sandwich toppings, and quince cardamom butter. (What, no arugula?)

Rawlings Machine tix on Craigslist

I'm not one to condemn gluttony, however. I know full well that I've seen the Rawlings Machine more often than most humans could possibly need, yet I step up to it again and again. And most times, it takes a lot more effort and machinations than catching the 38 Geary.

But convenience wasn't the only thing this gig had going for it. For instance, three very understanding newbies put up with my pleas and joined me (thank you, ladies!). And of course, there was the glorious Great American itself.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, 3-24-09

It's fair to ask a serial concertgoer what a performer/artist/band could possibly bring to each venue or town that compels us to return to these relatively static shows. I'm not sure my arguments for the subtleties we eat up--the dynamic arrangements, the hypnotic harmonies, the megawatt grins--could ever convince someone else to take the plunge. Instead, I'd turn that question around; I reckon it's more enlightening to consider what each locale brings to the musicians.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, 3-24-09In San Francisco, this meant a downright doting crowd in an informal, intimate setting, all adding up to a lively show on both sides of the stage. By the third song, "I Hear Them All," the entire room joined David and Gillian in belting out the Woody Guthrie portion. Gillian duly complimented us on our abilities (the audience's tepid jokes, however, went unremarked); she'd hear more from us before the end of the night.

I've seen the Rawlings Machine so many times in the last few months that I've probably caught most of their standard repertoire: the originals, the collaborations, and the covers they favor. Still, I heard a couple of new-to-me songs, one sung by David and one Gillian solo turn on banjo. They might be originals or traditional tracks; with these two, it's always hard to tell.

But beyond the setlist, there were plenty more treats to go around. Without Morgan Nagler, they handled "Sweet Tooth" as a duo, and Gillian added some of the sassy inflections that I had always credited to the Whispertown 2000 singer. Elsewhere, David stumbled on the lyrics of a song or two, but in this open, unpretentious setting, it was more charming than distracting.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, 3-24-09I'll say this about the Great American as opposed to Largo: Proximity counts. More specifically, I've always dug their version of "Queen Jane Approximately," but when you're standing a few feet from Dave Rawlings and watching him move his fingers faster and more nimbly across the guitar strings than you knew was possible (an unfortunate thought that crossed my mind: Man, he'd be great at Rock Band), you finally get it: Oh my god, they've transformed the original's meandering ebb and flow into a focused, full-blown tsunami. Now that's a cover.

Largo, however, had primed me for the "Method Acting"/"Cortez the Killer" segue, which nearly made me jump out of my chair earlier this month. Readiness does not, however, detract from delight; I remained the beaming, anticipating idiot in the front row.

They filled out their encores with additional beloved covers, but since I don't write these things down, I can't tell you exactly what they played. I know "White Rabbit" made it in there, with appropriate reverb and a huge helping hand from the audience, and I think Neil Young's "Tired Eyes" slipped in as well.

For the second/final encore, they brought out Mike McKinley from Harmony Grits on mandolin for three songs. Again, I can't recall all the titles, and I'm pretty sure I can't even name one of them--an old-timey number featuring David on banjo dueling with Mike for speed-picking honors--but there was no mistaking the closer: "Jackson," which almost made me fall out of my seat in February. (I never claimed to be graceful.)

Dave Rawlings Machine, Great American Music Hall, 3-24-09

A deliberate start, with Dave and Gillian facing each other, syncing up the rhythm on their respective guitars, gave way to a burst of music as soon as they started singing, and we were right there with them. The whole room was jumping, including the performers themselves, as we sang, danced, and whooped it up. It remains, of course, Johnny and June's song, but you can't deny that David and Gillian's version holds its own as well.

See also:
» cortez, cortez
» oh me oh my oh

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

spider wisdom

Drizzly skies and Monday doldrums almost kept me at home, but I had to make up for the bout of early-onset senility that caused me to totally blank out on a gig last week. Also, it's always a pleasure to catch Nels Cline in yet another musical lineup--this time, the jazz ensemble known as The Good Life.

Nels Cline, Cafe du Nord, March 16, 2009The Good Life Featuring Trevor Dunn, Ben Goldberg, Nels Cline, John Dietrich, and Scott Amendola (playing the music of Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, and more), Cafe du Nord, March 16, 2009: Deep breath--that's a mouthful. It was also a mindful, at least for this pop-raised girl.

Even if I knew anything about Ornette Coleman, whose compositions the players returned to several times, I'm not sure how much of his work I'd recognize in the band's versions. Maybe some of his numbers are meant to build to a crescendo that called to mind Sonic Youth, then eventually trail off in a stop-start amalgam. In that case, the artists were a lot more faithful to the originals than I expected. Mixing it up, they also performed Nels's own "Spider Wisdom," cacophonous and sprawling.

One of the reasons I see Nels in all these formations is because there's something new to take in every time--and I'm not talking about guitarist John Dietrich's resemblance to actor Topher Grace. The last two appearances I've seen were with the Nels Cline Singers, both at Cafe du Nord and Largo, but this was something else altogether.

Nels Cline, Cafe du Nord, March 16, 2009

With the exception of Scott Amendola, I don't think I've seen him play with any of the other people onstage, nor was there a clear director. Ben Goldberg, on clarinet, provided the titles and the introductions between songs, and you could argue that he and Nels traded leadership duties. At the same time, Scott proved the anchor, sitting center stage, providing hints and ideas, and urging his bandmates to play shorter and longer accents as befit the song.

Add it all up, and you get The Good Life.

See also:
» still carries a torch
» blues, too

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

wish you were here

After Thursday's amazing marathon gig and a half, you might wonder how one might top such an experience. Well, you get as much or as little sleep as you can, punch the clock, then return to Largo for the Friday night delight known as Jon Brion and friends.

Friday night on La CienegaJon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, March 6, 2009: After Flanny's opening words, Jon stepped onstage in a rather formal outfit: a black velvet jacket, black tuxedo pants, a white shirt, and a black bowtie. No need to adjust your set, however--the look was less Leonard Bernstein and a little closer to your favorite maitre d'. And as it turned out, the tie was a clip-on anyway. Hey, at least he changed his outfit from the night before.

The short version of this concert report: Jon (and friends) did a lot of covers I can't name. Sorry, I'm useless with those jazz standards, though I'm pretty sure Jon started with a piano improv, followed by what sounded like a Billie Holiday tune. Or maybe Duke Ellington. Or Billie Holiday singing Duke Ellington.

A string of Jon's originals followed. "Croatia" offered a nod to Dick Dale, "Same Mistakes" glided out on a hint of harpsichord, and "Meaningless" rose from a wave of Chamberlin, then closed on the celeste.

The first request of the night went to a short Todd Rundgren number, which in turn inspired Jon to trot out one of his most succinct compositions. We returned to the originals track for a while longer, first with "Love of My Life So Far" on 12-string; Jon started out fast, led it through a lovely bridge, then dialed it back for a slow, deliberate ending and a triumphant flourish. "Girl I Knew" featured a slick guitar solo and quotes from Cheap Trick and the White Stripes, I believe. The self-penned streak continued with the addition of Sebastian Steinberg on "Please Stay Away from Me."

Sebastian alluded to Thursday's festivities, admitting that some of the artists had even later nights than the audience. But Sebastian more than held up his end, eliciting some sweet words from Jon himself. They polished off "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," highlighted by Jon's celeste solo.

Jon picked up an acoustic guitar and joined Sebastian around the omnidirectional mic for an instrumental that may or may not have been a jazzy version of "I'm in the Mood for Love"--or something else. Sean Watkins shored up their ranks for another wordless tune; my guess is "Ain't Misbehavin'" (or not).

Fortunately, they finally hit on some titles I know, such as Jon's "Trouble," a song that Sean has often covered with Nickel Creek and for the Watkins Family Hour. Jon's tone was wistful, the piano veritably surged, and Sean contributed harmonies as well as some charming guitar details.

Déjà vu: Jon asked Gillian Welch to step up, and after conferring on their song selection, she urged David Rawlings to hop on. This is no slight on Gillian or David, but of all the people onstage, they most prominently bore the signs of a late night. Gillian wore eyeglasses, a hat, and no makeup; David simply looked like he had just rolled out of bed. And to tell you the truth, their sound tonight was less than polished too--no detriment at Largo.

Gillian had initially offered to sing a song she had never done before or one that she had; Jon left the decision to her, and I'm guessing we got the former. As far as I know, I haven't seen "Pale Blue Eyes" on any of her setlists, especially not one with Dave volunteering to man the vibes. Though they're clearly not his instrument of choice, Dave carried it off well, underscoring the song's otherworldly feel. Add Jon and Dave's backing vocals, and you kinda had a slice of heaven.

They shuffled the lineup so that Gillian could take the drums (so as not to waste her "drumming skirt") and David could grab a guitar. Neil Young provided the springboard for the first couple of songs, then they huddled for some ideas.

I'm nothing if not a deliberate requester. Oh sure, I throw out the long-shot suggestions every now and then, usually with no success, but a lot of times, I think about the songs I know they can do but haven't aired for a while. Tonight, I got the chance to call out a title I hadn't heard them tackle since that amazing night three years ago: "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." After confirming that Benmont wasn't around, they ripped into the duet. High five!

On the heels of the Tom Petty number, they jammed their way to an unlikely follow-up: "The Sounds of Silence." Judging by the wide-eyed look of recognition on Gillian's face, it was as much a surprise to them as it was to us. Though Jon nominally assumed the lead, Dave swung between Jon and Gillian, and it was very much a collaborative effort, with all three singing and filling in the lyrics when the others forgot. Maybe it was the song, or maybe it was the delivery, but it felt bracingly intimate, even in the big room.

The guests vacated the stage (momentarily) for Jon's finale. He asked for requests, but waited out most of them. Finally, he went with a James Bond medley, comprising the themes for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Live and Let Die, according to my notes.

For the encore, Jon asked for more requests, despite the dubious success of the last open call. As it happpened, we were trumped by one of the guests. From what I could tell, Jon reacted to a shout-out from Dave Rawlings and proceeded to build the song. He asked for the longest delay possible from the soundbooth; set the foundation of drums, synthesizers, and guitar; and turned on the planetarium projection, all in the run-up to Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." A verse or two in, Gillian Welch snuck onstage to help with the vocals, and behind her, Sebastian and Dave eased in on bass and drums, respectively.

The musical chairs continued. Dave ditched the drums for guitar and vocals, as all three of them came together for the song's signature scream before Gillian returned to the drums. Jon, meanwhile, could be seen kneeling at one of the mics, as he fed the lyrics to Dave and Gillian. The epic drifted to another Pink Floyd title, with Dave and Jon sharing vocals on "Wish You Were Here." My thoughts exactly.

--It Looks Like You
--Same Mistakes
--Remember Me
--Stop the World
--Love of My Life So Far
--Girl I Knew

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Don't Get Around Much Anymore

with Sebastian Steinberg and Sean Watkins

with David Rawlings, Sebastian Steinberg, Sean Watkins, and Gillian Welch
--Pale Blue Eyes [vocals = Gillian]
--Don't Let It Bring You Down [vocals = David]
--Ohio [vocals = David]

with David Rawlings, Sebastian Steinberg, and Gillian Welch
--Stop Draggin My Heart Around [vocals = Gillian and David]
--The Sound of Silence [vocals = Gillian, David, and Jon]

--James Bond medley

--Comfortably Numb/Wish You Were Here [vocals = Gillian, David, and Jon]

See also:
» cortez, cortez
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg

Monday, March 09, 2009

cortez, cortez

I admit I went a little overboard with the Largo excursions in December and January--the center could not hold. Reality returned (somewhat) in February, and I'll likely have to stick to these self-imposed limits for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, what I lose in quantity, I gain in quality, thanks to the continuing string of Rawlings Machine shows.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Largo at the Coronet, March 5, 2009: My manias are not a mystery--those tag clouds on the right of the page have me pegged. But in case you haven't noticed, it's happening again: Intrigue is turning into infatuation. I'm talking, of course, about the Rawlings Machine. They sure make it easy to decide which weekends I should fly down (and double my disgruntlement when I can't be there).

Despite their mild protests about the lack of preparation and problems with pacing, Dave and Gillian took to the stage with an evident ease and an uptick in confidence compared to their early shows at Largo. They fell short of a swagger, and I doubt that Dave and Gillian will ever be able to take their act to Vegas--or Branson, Missouri, for that matter--but actually, that's not a bad thing.

They handled the first five songs of the show by themselves. I took it as a good sign the look of surprise that flitted across Gillian's face on their second track; she later explained that she didn't expect it so early in the set, and it confirms for me that they haven't fallen into rote recitation.

To these ears, the highlight of this section was "Knuckleball Catcher." Though I've heard this song at each of their performances, there was something about the fierce arrangement and their peerless harmonizing that leapt out at me this time. The sly rhymes of that last verse ("some hard liquor can make a guitar picker out of you"), especially, has been on my brain for days; nor does it hurt that the intro reminds me a little of their version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

From there, the guest appearances commenced. The first musician plucked from the sidelines--not quite literally, though Dave did march over to the curtains, still bearing his guitar, and pointed at the performer in question--was a true legend: John Paul Jones. I've seen him only once before, but you could hazard a guess that his ties to Largo have further deepened in the last year. Not only has he produced Sara Watkins' solo album, he's previously played with Gillian and Dave as well. This familiarity showed; looking pretty relaxed himself, John Paul Jones contributed mandolin and harmonies to "I Hear Them All," to David and Gillian's delight, and stuck around for more.

I didn't take notes this time, so the details start to blur, but I recall that Sara and Sean Watkins, as well as Sebastian Steinberg and Benmont Tench, piled in for a number of songs, mostly traditional numbers that Gillian later explained qualified as the dance music of its day. And though they had their own gig scheduled for the Little Room that night, Sara and Sean seemed reluctant to leave. In fact, we spied the duo watching from the shadows later in the set, though their own show should've been under way by then.

It's obvious to me that Largo has opened up Dave and Gillian as performers, but the duo has, in turn, opened up Largo to a new set of artists--especially on the younger, hipper end of the spectrum. Tonight, that meant we saw "Z" Berg from the Like, Morgan Nagler with her signature tune, and--drum roll, please--Jenny Lewis, returning for another short spin. This time, she sang "Silver Lining" from the last Rilo Kiley album, but from our seats, we could see that she stuck around for the rest of the set, dancing and just plain enjoying the festivities.

Following Jenny's turn, my wish came true about halfway through "Ruby," when Jon Brion sauntered over and fell right in to the swing of things. Dave and Gillian have been dropping in on Jon's set for a good few months now, so I was happy to see him return the favor on the big stage.

Dave and Gillian remained, by default, the leaders, but only nominally, urging Benmont, Jon, and John Paul Jones to work their magic as well. They peaked with a phenomenal segue from Bright Eyes to "Cortez the Killer"; it hits me between the eyes every time.

Even "White Rabbit" couldn't top that; I blame the lack of reverb, despite Gillian and Dave's request for more. Still, I loved watching Benmont and Jon add their low-tech effects to the tune (Benmont, plucking at the piano strings; Jon going for a doppler-type effect with the guitar and mic). And the fact that Gillian forgot some of the lyrics was more charming than distracting as well. Closing out the set, Gillian ran to fetch a lyric sheet before they brought out Z Berg again for an a cappella selection, gathered around the omnidirectional mic.

But the night wasn't over! Gillian herself had announced from the stage their plans to infiltrate Sean and Sara's show in the Little Room. We took her up on that hot tip--and were treated to another hour-plus of music with most of the same personnel from the big room, minus the East Siders.

Sara somewhat apologized for the disorganized air; she explained that they were so used to rehearsing with each other that they didn't really know how to switch gears in front of people. I hope she realizes that's exactly what we love about these gigs; it's the closest we get to being flies on the wall, taking in our favorite artists.

I barely know what they played, partly because I didn't take any notes and partly because their traditional selections frequently escape me. However, I caught Sara and Sean's more contemporary covers ("No Surprises," "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get," "Pink Triangle"), as well as Benmont's comedy screeches on "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," and even I recognized Dylan's "Forever Young."

I feel like the boy who cried wolf; after naming "Cortez the Killer" and "Knuckleball Catcher" as two high points of the evening, I'm going to cite one more event. Toward the end of the show, the musicians decided to treat us (and, most likely, themselves) with "the greatest song ever," only no one knew the crucial "recitation." However, someone's iPhone was co-opted (amid several jokes about Flanny busting them for it), and Sean Watkins set about tracking down this mysterious track. Modern technology, being what it is, was less than cooperative at first, so to help pass the time, Dave and Gillian performed a little do-si-do on the tiny stage, already packed with five other people. Finally, Sean wrangled the lines and offered himself as the human teleprompter for Joe Tex's "Hold What You Got," featuring a couple of hearty soliloquys by David and Gillian. Extra points also go to David for his thespian flair.

See also:
» you got a lotta nerve
» hear them all

Monday, March 02, 2009

the force of their non-sequiturs

Not that long ago, it wasn't unusual for my annual concert calendar to lay dormant until February or even March, depending on when Noise Pop rolled out the red carpet. I've obviously strayed from that laissez-faire model, but I'm still a little chagrined that the A.C. Newman gig marks not only the first show I've seen in San Francisco this year, but the only Noise Pop live musical performance I'd catch at all.

A.C. Newman, the Independent, February 28, 2009: Noise Pop has been particularly cruel this year. The first pass at the roster yielded two glaring scheduling conflicts, among several other timing troubles: Stephen Malkmus and the Broken West on the same night--both eventually supplanted by a screening of the new Wilco movie, which included scenes from the shows I saw at Tipitina's last year--as well as a tough call between Bob Mould and A.C. Newman. I blame NAFTA.

A.C. Newman, the Independent, Feb. 28, 2009I couldn't tell you how a musician decides what songs to record with the band, for the splinter project, or as a solo performer, but sometimes, you can see the connections. Carl's debut five years ago wasn't far removed from the New Pornographers' material at the time: simultaneously breezy, poppy, and caustic, that last point further punctuated by Carl's gripes during the solo tour about Matador's publicity department. In other words, it was great.

In those intervening years, the New Pornographers have enjoyed a nice ascent, and you could argue that their music has shed some--though not all--of that earlier frivolity. Carl's second solo album seems to have undergone a similar transformation, and onstage, he took fewer potshots as well. More worryingly, the effortless wordiness of the New Pornographers' works tripped me up a few times on this album, and trust me, I want to sing along.

Otherwise, I don't consider maturity a liability, and Carl still knows how to write songs that make you wonder if Lesley Gore or Ronnie Spector are available to book some studio time with him. What those voices could do with those high notes...

Carl and his band delivered a well-balanced set mixing songs from both solo albums but (no surprise) not a single New Pornographers track. I'm predisposed to loving the power-pop tunes, as well as anything with harmonies, so of course the likes of "The Heartbreak Rides" and "All of My Days and All of My Days Off" got my attention. He pretty much hit everything I wanted to hear off "The Slow Wonder" as well, closing out the set with "On the Table" and "The Town Halo."

A.C. Newman, the Independent, Feb. 28, 2009

I have no idea how egalitarian the New Pornographers are as a band, but onstage at least, they revel in the give and take between certain personnel. Carl's crew tonight, though hardly mute, seemed more like supporting players--fair enough. Still, they managed to help their bandmate as he willingly fell off the wagon at the stroke of midnight, and they joined Carl for the final bow of the evening.

Dent May, the Independent, Feb. 28, 2009

Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele opened the show, and one word stuck in my head for the entire performance: precious--and that shouldn't be a shock. He and his band were incredibly likable, and I had no idea uke-led tunes could sway and rock to the extent they pulled off. The cover of Prince's "When U Were Mine" didn't hurt either (and I remember all the words).

See also:
» use it tonight