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