Monday, October 18, 2010

if these things make your day

Although Rocktober is in full swing around these parts, my blog will not reflect the grand span of events and opportunities available to the gig-going public. In fact, it won't represent a narrow view either, but certain shows can't be missed, and Teenage Fanclub at the Great American Music Hall is non-negotiable.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, October 12, 2010: Say what you will about social networking, but I've greatly enjoyed tracking Teenage Fanclub's recent tour across the United States via my friends' status updates, mobile uploads, and reports. It also whetted my appetite for the band's eventual appearance on the western shores of this great country, even if the show was moved from the Fillmore to the Great American Music Hall.

It was the right decision. The Fillmore is certainly a milestone for any touring band, but it's simply too big for a band like Teenage Fanclub. Besides, the Great American is by far the best venue in San Francisco, and it was a perfect fit for the group--and it made for the best show on the tour, according to the drummer.

I hold a soft, squishy spot in my heart for Teenage Fanclub for many reasons, one of which can be pinned to pure coincidence: Teenage Fanclub first showed up on the U.S. scene around the time I started college. In terms of demographics, we were perfect for each other, but over the years, many more happy accidents came up. For example, they had a habit of signing with my favorite record labels, including Matador, Creation, and many years on, Merge. Add in the fact that Man-Made was recorded in a studio where at least a few other beloved albums were birthed--and let's not forget the boost they gave to a little alt-country outfit out of Belleville, Missouri, in the early days. These guys are rock royalty, as far as I'm concerned.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01

However, these credentials take a backseat to the glorious music the band has made over the years. If jangly guitars, honeyed harmonies, and airy choruses are your thing, there are no finer practitioners in the land. (Also, we should talk.) Bandwagonesque may be the favorite among the diehards, but Grand Prix will always be my pet (sounds). Just listen to the six opening tracks--aka the most perfect starting lineup I can think of. There was even a time when I bought every orphaned copy of Grand Prix that showed up in the CD racks, just so I could pass them on to friends and acquaintances.

I also remember buying Songs from Northern Britain when it was released, but it took several years for the songs to fully grow on me. Nowadays, I easily count "Ain't That Enough," "Mount Everest," and "Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From" among my most beloved tracks among the Fannies' entire discography.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01

With that much history to contend with, the band may never be able to cobble together any single-night setlist that covers everything the audience wants to hear, and this being a Teenage Fanclub crowd, all sorts of obscure requests filled the air. (Do you really think they're ever going to do "Radio" or anything from Thirteen?!)

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01However, the band seems to know its strengths and requirements, so we got a good sampling of their history, with a slight emphasis where you'd expect. As might be anticipated of a promotional tour, they hit up the new album Shadows for several songs, each of which Norman prefaced, in case we hadn't gotten around to listening to it. Man-Made got one slot with "It's All in My Mind," then it was time for all those songs that have long worked their way into our consciousness.

I bounded like Tigger when I recognized the opening notes of "Sparky's Dream," and the whole front of the room showed its love for classic tracks, such as the first-set closer "The Concept." The band reserved the big three ("Everything Flows," "Star Sign," and "What You Do to Me") until the very end, but such setlist shenanigans were hardly necessary. For those who've waited the five years since their last visit, every song is a smash, and we'll stick around to hear every last note.

See also:
» we get older every year

Friday, October 15, 2010

way more real than real

Despite appearances on this blog, I haven't lost my enthusiasm for live music, but other priorities come up, and I'm making peace with the idea of not seeing every band that comes through town -- or, more pointedly, necessitates a trip outside of city limits (sigh, but more on that later). In fact, I probably would've skipped Aimee Mann's three-night stand at Yoshi's entirely if it weren't for a friend's visit, so I'm glad for the intervening influence.

Aimee Mann, Yoshi's, October 8, 2010: Those of you on Facebook may have been tagged in the relatively recent meme in which you list your 15 favorite albums in 15 minutes. I did my part, but I still feel pangs of regret over names I missed. High among them: Aimee Mann (and, well, women in general). If I had five more slots, Bachelor No. 2 would be right there!

Despite my brain fart, Aimee easily ranks as one of my favorite songwriters, and her live show has come a long way from her self-proclaimed nervousness of earlier outings. In the right place and with the right players, she really hits her groove. This gig came through on both points. For one, Aimee was joined by Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards, rounding out the "acoustic Moog trio" she debuted around the time of Smilers. Secondly, the venue suited them beautifully--a proper, intimate room with seated arrangements, fine acoustics, and a loving crowd, not unlike that old place on Fairfax Avenue and, at the least, a far cry from the Arrow Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Setting the scene, a guy in the audience even yelled out, "I live for you!" shortly after Aimee took the stage. Rather than being creeped out, Aimee embraced it. To the fan's credit, who could blame him? Aimee looked fantastic in an ensemble topped by what appeared to be a blazer from Rico's husky boys collection. ("Is that what 'ragazzi robusti' means?")

The heart of this show appeared to be the new material Aimee is writing for a musical based on The Forgotten Arm, her concept album from a few years ago. Among the new titles were a duet with Paul Bryan and another tune she called the most depressing song she's ever written--which is saying a lot, considering her back catalog. If the lyrics are anything to go by, the title of that tearjerker may be something along the not at all forboding lines of "It's Easy to Die."

Another twist on the typical Aimee Mann show was her additional instrumentation--namely, her work on the high hat, operated by foot. With Paul mostly on bass and Jamie on piano and keyboards, Aimee supplemented her contributions on guitar with a touch of percussion. It was a nice embellishment, and it helped replicate the rich sound that's a hallmark of her albums.

In addition to tracks from The Forgotten Arm, Aimee focused on material from the Magnolia soundtrack and Lost in Space. Oddly, nothing from the earliest albums surfaced, which is always a bit of a downer to me, though I loved what I heard too.

If I had to name my favorite Aimee show, it'd be a toss-up between the two gigs I saw at the old Largo: the first one for revealing another side of her live personality, the second for the outright humor. At both shows, the song that became "Medicine Wheel" jumped out at me. At its debut, Aimee mentioned it was an attempt to write a song like Fiona Apple's, but tonight, she talked a little more about its origins as a poem by her sister that she set to music. And just as with that first performance, she started it on piano, but was soon joined by Jamie, who provided the more expansive and mellifluous notes.

In between songs, Aimee talked a lot. Much of the material centered on explaining the new musical, but she got in other fun asides, including a diss on the poetry appearing in The New Yorker and laments about the state of her hair. It's safe to say that Aimee has and continues to evolve as a live performer, one whom I'll enjoy watching for years to come.

See also:
» i'm the stuff of happy endings
» amateur
» today's the day

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

watch the waves and move the fader

Last week, I managed to hurt myself in a manner that would probably be hilarious if (1) it were caught on video and (2) it happened to someone else. This ridiculous injury, along with my bruised ego, almost kept me away from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year, but the combination of good prescription anti-inflammatories and the muted music heard through my window convinced me I should at least hoof it down the street. I'm glad I did--so thanks Warren Hellman, the Hardly Strictly crew, and Big Pharma for making it all possible!

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 1-3, 2010: There's no question that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an awesome festival on many levels, from the caliber of talent to the pure volume of acts to, well, its proximity to my apartment. And need I repeat that it's all free?

But I gotta say that it also puts the "fuck" in "clusterfuck." After you've worked your way to a reasonable spot that's merely partly obscured by the tall dude in a hat a few paces ahead, only to have the thousandth person cut in front of you, shoehorning themselves into a space you'd previously thought was uninhabitable for all but underage Chinese gymnasts, it's easy to forget the generous spirit and intent that brought us all together.

Or so I thought on Saturday, but by Sunday night, I had changed my tune completely. It helped that the park felt less crowded this year, no doubt a result of the numerous activities crowding the social calendar around the Bay Area this weekend, including the celebratory Giants games on the other side of town and the separate Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire shows in Oakland and Berkeley, respectively. Long story short: I appreciated the breathing room, and I think it made a difference in the overall experience.

This year, I wasn't committed to seeing any particular performer, and I had no desire to augur in, but anyone who knows me should be aware that I can't leave the house without at least a loose plan for the day. In a way, it was the best of both worlds: a leisurely morning, a casual stroll, and music at the end of the journey.

On Saturday, it started with Fountains of Wayne at the Towers of Gold stage, the farthest and sanest outpost of the festival, where it was easy enough to get down to the front about 15 minutes before the band started. I'm pretty sure it was the first time I've seen Fountains of Wayne, unless I've forgotten some radio-sponsored festival appearance back in the '90s (a distinct possibility). The fanboys situated front and center were clearly pleased with the song selection, but even a blank slate like myself could appreciate their way with power chords and a chorus. I don't think they did the big hit "Stacy's Mom," but I can verify that "Radiation Vibe" made it into the set, which was the song I had hoped to hear.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

The festival organizers did a great job of staggering the sets on the Towers of Gold and Star stages this year, so you could stroll to the other side and watch the next band, or you could stay in your place and listen to the performance over the PA. On Saturday, I elected to flex the legs and check out the Star Stage for Conor Oberst's performance, but truthfully, I needn't have bothered. I barely saw the stage from my vantage, and I'm not much of a Conor fan anyway. For a handful of songs, Conor was joined by a couple of guests: Jason Boesel, best known as the drummer from Rilo Kiley (though I've seen him drop in at Largo on at least one occasion), and the Felice Brothers, who chipped in with gorgeous harmonies and rich accordion accompaniment.

I probably could've stayed in the western quadrant for Richard Thompson's set, but I opted to catch Gillian Welch and David Rawlings instead. I had few illusions about positioning--there was no way I'd get anywhere close to the Banjo Stage, so I found a spot on the hill. The view was fine, but the the overall impression was less satisfactory.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

The argument for being an early freak is that the area closer to the stage is typically devoid of idle chatter and random distractions. Of course, you can't really compare a club gig to a free festival attended by 600,000 people, but it was my misfortune to be surrounded by the chattering class, some of whom claimed to be fans. In all likelihood, they were, but under such conditions, it's not always easy to focus on a performance from half a football field away.

Add to that Gillian and Dave's song selection, which opened with "Long Black Veil," inspired by the cold mist blowing across the park as they took the stage, and mostly stayed at that tempo throughout their set. This is hardly unusual for a Gillian Welch show, but again, it was hard to compete with the random blather and the shenanigans out in the nosebleeds.

The final demerit might've been the technical problems that popped up during the set. Gillian referred to troubles with her guitar, and Dave ran to the side of the stage several times to talk to the sound masters. I sensed the mix dipping and climbing the entire time they were onstage--it probably wasn't ideal for them either.

And finally, I have to share a quote from a woman standing not five feet away from me because I love documenting other people's cluelessness when it comes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: "I've been wanting to see her for a long time. But I don't know who that is playing next to her." Sigh. To be fair, a couple of guys in front of me were talking shop about Dave's guitar, but I'm pretty sure they represent the minority opinion.

That's not to say it was all dirges and dread; "Look at Miss Ohio" elicited what sounded like a huge, loving sigh across the field, and Gillian rolled out a long, affectionate intro for Dave, citing his talents as a painter, a poet, and a fisherman, among other traits, before he took his turn on the mic with "Hear Them All." Dave Grisman and Conor Oberst guested on a few tunes, and for all the music I heard over the weekend, I still can't get "Revelator" out of my brain--that's powerful stuff.

I was torn in two directions by Sunday's schedule, but simple logistics killed any notion of attempting to hit the Rooster Stage, so it was back to Towers of Gold/Star for a fantastic sequence of artists. My festival day opened with Randy Newman, one of the names that jumped out at me when I first saw this year's lineup; it seemed that other people shared my anticipation, judging by our respectful silence while he played his tunes, aside from a couple of songs where we contributed harmonies as Randy requested.

Like many great singer/songwriters, he's mostly known to me through other people's covers, but I recognized several titles, including "Marie" and "Sail Away." He didn't neglect the hits "Short People" and "I Love LA" either, but the most enjoyable portion of his show was probably the banter. In addition to sharing the inspiration for some songs, including one in which he sent up his own dinosaur status, he reeled off a curmudgeonly and score-centric retelling of the Toy Story series that I'll probably never hear anywhere else. (Also: It was hilarious.)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

I stayed put while Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes played on the other side of the field, but the sound came through loud and clear over the speakers. Elvis has become a staple of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass after his buoyant festival debut a few years back, and he continues to mix it up at each appearance. He juggled new tracks, old favorites ("Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes"), perennial classics ("Brilliant Mistake"), rarer cuts ("New Amsterdam" mashed up with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), and unexpected covers (the Stones' "Happy") in a folksier vein, complete with mandolin and dobro, instead of the all-out electric barrage from his rock shows. He sounded fantastic, and considering it was pretty much equivalent to my viewing of Conor Oberst the day before, I know I made the right decision.

Patti Smith was next on the bill back at Towers of Gold. I have no problem admitting I've always admired her more for what she symbolizes than for her music. She too is another artist whose work I mostly know through covers, but she up-ended every single expectation I had. In a word, she was empowering--a description I almost never use for any musical artist. Maybe it's the third-wave feminism talking, but I've never looked at my favorite female musicians as exceptions to any rule. They've earned their respect not because of their gender; it's always come down to talent.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

But watching Patti Smith, I finally understood everything she's achieved and the trails she's blazed for so many artists, male and female. She opened big with "Dancing Barefoot," and around me, I saw grown women weeping and shaking--and I wasn't far behind! Her set was about as varied as you could expect for someone who's known for not just her music but her poetry and her contributions to the American art scene for the last 30-odd years. In the course of her performance, she referenced William Blake, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jim Carroll; assailed the former U.S. presidential administration; read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi; and urged us to live our lives to the fullest extent possible. Along the way, she worked in her most famous tracks, such as "Because the Night" and "Gloria," as well as another Stones cover in the form of "Play with Fire."

Most striking, she managed to do it all while looking simultaneously happy, fierce, biting, welcoming, and iconic. Heck, she waved joyously at every side of the open stage before stepping up to the mic, and we waved back without hesitation. If she had any issues balancing her personae or her muses, she showed no sign of it. She appeared completely at ease in her own skin, and she seemed determined to share that spirit with us.

It goes without saying that she and her band sounded fantastic too. Led by Lenny Kaye, the musicians anchored Patti's words with the force they deserved. I had expected to admire and appreciate Patti; I had no idea she'd move me to such an extent.

But wait, there's more! Although I held little hope of getting to the Rooster Stage, it was on my way out of the park and back home, so I stopped by to see if I could catch a glimpse of the closer in that quarter, the miraculous Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. My suspicions were correct--it would've been a death wish to try to cantilever yourself into the field proper.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2010

However, there was an alternative, if you didn't mind the threat of poison oak inflaming your ankles or ants crawling over your body. In this case, I didn't, so I took my place with the scores of like-minded attendees who blanketed the woods right outside of the official festival grounds. No, I'm not talking about those lovely venues carved out of the fields and hillsides, such as the Pines Theater or the Greek Theatres in Berkeley or Los Angeles--this was the wilds of Golden Gate Park, conveniently separated from the designated festival limits by a flimsy fence.

Even better, the natural 20-degree grade provided one of the best views I enjoyed all weekend, and the crowds were much more manageable. The only downside was the sound, which hadn't been mixed with us hill people in mind, but that's a small price to pay. As for Sharon, she was out of this world, and dancing was rampant across the forest.

I don't think it's too early to say it: See you next year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!

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
» amateur

Friday, October 01, 2010

simple twist of fate

I've clocked exactly one gig in September, and for various reasons, this may be the trend for a while--but all in due time. Until that ugly day arrives, however, you're allowed to take a wild guess at the show that forced me out of the cave. And if you figured anyone other than Jon Brion at Largo, you've clearly been reading the wrong blog.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 24, 2010: I have to tell you the truth--if my gig-going life truly comes down to seeing, say, only two artists and skipping everyone else, I wouldn't mind too much. You could, in fact, argue it's already reached that point, but if it truly comes to pass--well, at least it'll help clear out your RSS feeds.

Though he didn't have the excuse of jet lag this time, Jon appeared onstage in an unusually casual outfit for the second month in a row. To start off, he gave his fingers a nice workout on the piano with a tune I should probably know. It sounded a bit like Duke Ellington, but I'm pathetically ignorant of the era and the genre. If you have a better hunch, send them my way.

Jon leafed through his own catalog for the next several songs. "Same Mistakes" traded the studio version's simplicity for a rich piano bridge; the reverb rung out on "She's At It Again"; "Piece of You" downright rocked as always; and "Trial and Error" returned to the lineup for the first time in a long time.

Roxy Music, More Than ThisThe first cover of the night was Jon's pick, as he lined up footage of the old-time Latino band we haven't seen for a while and matched it up to Leopold Stokowski. The result: "More Than This." This song was on heavy rotation on my cassette/record/CD player long before I heard Jon's version, but it's taken on another life with his interpretation. How did I ever miss its easy beat? How did he dig his way under all those layers of synthesizers and production? And why is that other cover version I sometimes hear over department store PAs so lame in comparison?

Jon revisited his oeuvre for a couple more songs. He delivered "Love of My Life So Far" on acoustic guitar in a more emphatic form than typical, downplaying its overtly comical tones. "Croatia," on the other hand, seemed to revel in its swampiness and weirdness, leaning in the direction of Tom Waits instead of my usual reference, Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac.

"Croatia," as I've stated before, is my go-to request whenever it feels like the show is taking a turn for the morose, maudlin, or murky, but I had no such outlet as Jon pulled off the double header of "Round Midnight" and "Please Stay Away From Me." As it turned out, I didn't have to wait long to lodge a request.

It's probably safe to say that you can count on a significant percentage of newbies at any Jon Brion show these days, so you get a bit more exposition at certain points of the performance. For example, Jon often prefaces the Les Paul portion of the show with a few words of explanation, partly to educate the audience and partly to pay proper tribute to the "looping elders," as he noted.

AdventurelandThe advantage to being an old-timer in these instances is that you often pick up on the signs a little earlier than the freshmen and, thus, can get your request in before everyone else. Also, I had a very specific tune in mind, thanks to a couple of viewings of the movie Adventureland the week before. My suggestion was "Satellite of Love." Jon took a little while to build up the song. At first, it leaned heavily in the Western direction, but the parts slowly came together and, in the process, gave us a glimpse into how music happens at all. I'm biased, but I loved it, and I'm glad we got to hear Lou Reed through another prism.

I believe another request led to "Strawberry Fields Forever" on vibes. I'm not sure who asked for it, but I heard the people behind me veritably squeal at the performance.

Roxy Music, Take a Chance on MeFor the encore, Jon brought out Robyn Hitchcock, who had played the very same stage, though in a different capacity, just the night before. Robyn and Jon tuned and futzed, and Robyn asked if they were allowed to tell us what they had in mind, but they didn't actually share their intentions. Instead, they launched--after the tuning and the futzing, of course--into Robyn's selection, which practically made me fall out of my chair. I assume Robyn was inspired by "More Than This" because he kicked off with "The Main Thing" from the same Roxy Music album, though he also threw "Are You Experienced" in the mix--because he can.

For the closer, Jon was on his own with "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," stretched out to 30 minutes or so. Along the way, he called up Andres Segovia, a full orchestra, a young Eric Clapton, and a guitar teacher from an instructional DVD, but make no mistake--Jon drove this half-hour effort, launching another shot of guitar into it at several points when the coda otherwise loomed.

With the song properly dispatched, we moved the party to the Little Room. It's always hard to predict how much of the crowd will carry over from the main performance, and tonight, the Little Room was perhaps only half full.

Jon and Robyn showed up first in different outfits, and Robyn even flaunted his earlier costume just so that we could revel in its full Technicolor glory, I suppose. At this point, I should reiterate Robyn's crucial role in my early shows at Largo. I think it was my third or fourth visit to Largo, but it was probably the first time I fully understood the club's appeal and potential. Because I'm a total nerd, I not only documented my recollections of the evening, I was able to locate the account many years after the fact. Check it out for yourself: Take Me Home, Country Pigeon.

Tonight's second set started up in no less auspicious a manner when Robyn promised/threatened to carry out the rest of Avalon. Robyn got two more numbers in, while Jon accompanied him exquisitely on piano, but the medley came to a halt when Jon requested one of Robyn's own songs. He claimed to give us a new one; I have no reason to disbelieve him, but I don't know enough of Robyn's vast catalog to verify or shoot down that remark. During this original track, Jon took on the role of percussionist, using his feet, hands, and parts of his body to supply the beat. If it brings to mind Bobby McFerrin, you're on the right track.

Sebastian Steinberg, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins rolled up onstage at Jon's urging, and we even saw a couple of those real-time introductions, as is often the case at Largo. With this assemblage, Roxy Music gave way to another concentration: Bob Dylan. In round-robin style, each pulled out their favorite Dylan tune, including a couple of audience requests.

Several of the titles brought out surprising touches from the musicians. For example, "She Belongs to Me" featured acoustic slide guitar from Jon, and it inspired a couple of patterns that we'd see again during the course of these performances. One was Robyn's charming habit of singing off-mic, and the other was the spontaneous addition of background harmonies from whoever wasn't on lead. Despite Robyn's words of caution about the song's beat, they knocked "Subterranean Homesick Blues" out of the park, and I jumped again to hear Robyn's lackadaisical take on "Simple Twist of Fate," a song that's become a staple in sets by that other singer/songwriter who crowds these blog entries.

I have no problem admitting I'm not a Dylan fan, and I know his music mostly through other people's interpretations. But watching this group in action, it became evident to me that Dylan is the lingua franca of Largo. Heck, I say this as a Beatles fan, and lord knows, I've seen some Beatles-centric shows over the years. But I don't think I've seen any gathering of musicians in the Little Room perform a single artist's songs with such relish before. This laid to rest any questions I may have had over the room's true patron saint, and it definitely made for another memorable night in the Little Room.

Set 1
--Same Mistakes
--She's At It Again
--Piece of You
--Trial and Error
--More Than This
--Love of My Life So Far
--Round Midnight
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Satellite of Love
--Strawberry Fields

--The Main Thing/Are You Experienced [with Robyn Hitchcock]
--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes

Set 2
with Robyn Hitchock
--Take a Chance with Me
--To Turn You On

with Robyn Hitchock, Sebastian Steinberg, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
--She Belongs to Me
--Subterranean Homesick Blues
--I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
--If You Gotta Go, Go Now
--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
--Simple Twist of Fate
--Positively Third Street
--Farewell Angelina
--My Back Pages
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright

See also:
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» don't give yourself away
» i remember finding out about you