Sunday, December 29, 2013

winter comes

Happy holidays! I'm attempting to pull off the Festivus miracle of trying to report on several shows I saw over the course of a couple of weeks earlier this month that I couldn't get to due to a combination of travel, work, and family commitments. Let's start with Jeff Tweedy's return to the Fillmore in San Francisco -- wish me luck!

Jeff TweedyJeff Tweedy, the Fillmore, December 11-12, 2013: At the time of these dates, I figured it'd been a while since I've seen Jeff in a "normal" show -- that is, a gig other than a charity, all-request event. As it turned out, I was wrong, but for those keeping track at home, it had been a full seven years since Jeff has played the Fillmore, once his band's home away from home. It's been far too long between appearances for this region's devoted fanbase, but I can't really complain because (1) Jeff's solo tours are hardly common these days, and (2) I'm fortunate to have another outlet for his concerts sans band.

What has remained the same over the interim: The Fillmore is still a great fit for Jeff, as evidenced by the spontaneous singalong that welcomed his first two songs ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "New Madrid") of the engagement. A singalong broke out several more times over the course of the shows, perhaps most memorably in two instances:

• On the first night, Jeff floated a theory that a conspiracy was afoot to boost one song's chances because it received eight times more votes than any other title, and he ordered the 26 guilty parties to sing it aloud, as it was difficult (for him?) to perform. The song in question was "Either Way," and not only did we hit every word and note, a handful of fans even sounded out Nels's guitar solo. If you read this blog regularly, you may know that I love "Either Way," and I frequently lament its lack of representation in the live show. I guess Jeff gave us a hint on why it isn't aired more often, but once again, I hope our vocal display makes him rethink his stance on the tune.

• On the second night, Jeff took notice of a young boy at the front of the stage and sort of gave him the third degree. Ultimately, he got a request out of the kid, "Misunderstood." The twist on this song hit when we got to the "nothing"s, as Jeff opted for understatement instead of the typical catharsis and rage. You could hear every single under-the-breath utterance of the refrain in the room.

A band like Wilco has never had any bona fide hits, as Jeff asserts, but it's pretty easy to come up with a list of fan favorites, and you could probably argue for the ubiquity of certain album tracks. In terms of hearing rare tracks, I have no reason to complain, but the song selection over the two nights even took me by surprise. Technically, I hadn't heard three of the songs in an acoustic setting before: "One True Vine," "Art of Almost," and "God" -- OK, that last one is a bit of a cheat since it's a cover, but it also happens to be a song I love, even with Jeff's amended lyrics ("I don't believe in Garcia ... I just believe in Wilco and me").

In case the idea of messing with John Lennon's lyrics bothers you, perhaps you'll take some solace in Jeff unexpectedly rewriting his own, when he inadvertently added an "s" to a line in "Please Tell My Brothers," sang out "Please tell my fathers," and in the process, turned it into both a gigglefest and an anthem for the new normal. Can it please be the theme song to the inevitable "My Two Dads" reboot?

Music is most of the story at a Jeff Tweedy show, but banter should get a mention too. On the first night, Jeff likened us to a cult and tried to convince us to bring him diamonds and Cheez-Its -- and some people obliged (for the Cheez-Its) on the second night, though Jeff brought his own props as well. Once more on the novelty tip, I'll mention that I heard a new-to-me story, as told by Jeff: the night Chuck Berry visited Mississippi Nights. Apparently, he dressed to the nines and was accompanied by a pair of ladies, but left after Soul Asylum, thus missing Husker Du. This anecdote in turn led to Jeff's musings about his wardrobe choices, angst, and regrets as a teenager -- because it was that kind of a night.

Jeff Tweedy, the Fillmore, December 11-12, 2013

Old friend and colleague Scott McCaughey opened both nights with songs from his illustrious career, including a handful of tracks from the Minus 5/Wilco collaboration. He may have been the instigator behind "God," as well as the other British Invasion track "Oklahoma USA" -- long missing from Jeff's solo shows. I wouldn't give him as much credit for Doug Sahm's "Give Back the Key to My Heart," but it was a fantastic off-PA selection and show closer. On the second night, that honor fell to old favorite "Dreamer in My Dreams," in its rambling, bleak, slapdash, seven-verse glory.

See also:
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» in the beginning, we closed our eyes

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

i wish that i knew what I know now

What convenes in a Chicago-area sunken room space, has 60-ish thumbs, and stuffs its collective face with potluck goodies over the course of 30-odd songs? This moi, whenever our annual show with Jeff Tweedy comes along.

Jeff Tweedy, Casa K&A, October 26, 2013: You read it right -- it took this long for everyone to coordinate their schedules and settle on a date for our show with Jeff Tweedy. On the upside, it gave many of us a chance to see each other again this year (following the Solid Sound shenanigans), indulge in seasonal treats, and find out what real weather feels like. On the downside -- actually, there was no downside except, maybe, that the weekend has to draw to an end at some point. [Cue single tear.]

First, a format change: Once more, we submitted our song choice(s) ahead of time, allowing Jeff to select and perhaps even practice the tunes that would work best for him. However, the final setlist was entirely Jeff's doing, as he mapped out a song order that allowed for his desired pacing, as well as (probably) more efficient tuning and switching between guitars. Overall, the show went more quickly and with less banter than usual. For one thing, we didn't have the guaranteed one-on-one moment with Jeff in which we voiced our suggestion and got in another word or two. And maybe due in part to the surfeit of new faces (which Jeff too noticed), the back-and-forth didn't flow as glibly. But it all worked out in the end.

For the opener, Jeff went with "Someone Else's Song" because -- as he noted -- we seemed to like other people's songs, a comment we've heard before. For what it's worth, the vast majority of songs played at these shows are Jeff's own, even when he isn't putting together the setlist, but we all gotta have a narrative (says the blogger of several years' standing). Right? Also early in the set, "Summer Teeth" helped break the ice, allowing us to collectively harmonize sooner rather than later.

Basement 2013

At the start, we stopped a handful of times to acknowledge who put in which request, but this practice quickly fell by the wayside. As The Valet™ later pointed out, some titles were put forward by more than one person, so it wasn't easy to single out an audience member for certain songs. In any case, the show went on.

This wholly betrays my bias, but I detected a strong streak of my beloved Being There among the selections, and as a group, we appeared to favor older songs. (For the record, my second choice was "Either Way," a relatively new track, as did others -- I hear -- but once again, it didn't make the cut.) Was that preferable to the sad songs we seemed to prefer in a previous gathering -- another Jeff quote? I can't say.

The song selections at Jeff's solo shows can be broken down into three groups: the favorites, which pretty much covers every song in wide release that Jeff's ever recorded; the rarities, which are harder-to-find B-sides, one-off tracks, collaborations, and the like; and the aforementioned covers. In this surrounding, we had barely an expected offering, as even the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot titles ("Radio Cure," "Pot Kettle Black") were deeper album cuts. Though "Radio King" and "Laminated Cat" are semi-staples of Jeff's solo sets, they're aired rarely enough overall to place a smile on your face and goosebumps on your skin when they pop up.

Some of us like to color within the lines, so to speak, and in that category, I'll cite Heidi's choice of "Only the Lord Knows," the other track written by Jeff for Mavis Staples, and my own request for the version of "I Got You" from the "This Is 40" soundtrack, even if Jeff couldn't quite remember how it ended. To be fair, I couldn't either, but I'm not a stickler that way. I realize it's a challenge for a performer, but as audience members, we're just trying to make our ideas count. Alternate theory: We're insufferable that way.

Let's face it, though -- we live for the songs Jeff wouldn't likely tackle on his own. I'm talking about covers, and we got a bumper crop this year. I can't break it down by numbers, but it felt like Jeff attempted more than usual, at time with a little help from the attendees.

Unsurprisingly, we got a nice Neil Young and Big Star bloc toward the end of the set, but a track by Linda Thompson snuck in there too. It's hard to believe it took this long for someone to request Johnny Cash, and I suspect a bunch of us had long wanted to ask for the Faces but were too afraid to say it. Once more, I apologize for subjecting the room to my live karaoke skills, but dammit, I spent too much of my formative years listening to the Ziggy Stardust album to pass up the opportunity to accompany Heidi in shouting out the lyrics to "Suffragette City" while Jeff played along on guitar. By the way, the best lyric from the song is not "wham bam thank you ma'am." Hands down, it's "this mellow-thighed chick just put my spine out of place." Fact!

Over the years, some of my favorite moments at these shows have involved Jeff teaming up with audience members -- that is, our friends -- to make sweet music. This gathering was no different. If I could walk away with only one memory¹ of the night, it would have to be a song on which Jeff didn't sing at all (no offense to the man himself, of course). Rather, Brooke, Jeff W, and Kris (aka the Traveling Dingleburys) commandeered the stage for "Handle With Care," with Jeff on second guitar². I don't think many of us knew what to expect at first, but the singalong kicked as soon as we recognized the tune. Man, that was fun.

Basement 2013

We ended with our traditional closer of "Candyfloss," requested by Jeff himself. The newbies -- including the junior members of the Tweedy family -- complied as we urged them to get up and dance along. With the music portion over, photos and socializing followed. Admittedly, we failed to check off a couple of our usual activities this year, but hey, we're only human.

Is nine enough? On the one hand, I would've been happy after the first time, but thanks to the chemical imbalance in my brain, I could do this again and again. As of this writing, the fate of these shows is murky, but whether or not we get an encore, I can easily attest I've treasured each and every one.

--Someone Else's Song
--Sometimes It Happens [Linda Thompson/Brian Patten]
--Summer Teeth
--If That's Alright
--Wait Up
--Childlike and Evergreen
--Pick Up the Change
--Handle With Care [The Traveling Wilburys]
--Say You Miss Me
--Company in My Back
--Radio King
--Radio Cure
--Pot Kettle Black
--Via Chicago
--Laminated Cat
--Listening to the Wind That Blows [Woody Guthrie]
--Should've Been in Love
--Forget the Flowers
--The Late Greats
--Motion Pictures [Neil Young]
--My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) [Neil Young]
--Thirteen [Big Star]
--Blue Moon [Big Star]
--Only the Lord Knows
--Venus Stopped the Train
--Ooh La La [The Faces]
--I Got You (At The End of the Century) ("This Is 40" arrangement)
--Ring of Fire [Johnny Cash]
--Suffragette City [David Bowie] (crowd singalong)
--Dreamer in My Dreams

¹ A close second in terms of memories of the night: The performer exiting with his surprise rider of fried chicken and popcorn.

² Jeff was probably expected to be third guitar in the setup, but as Tamala pointed out, another Jeff forgot to play along when it was his time to sing.

³ I've included the setlist here only because the guy who does this hasn't updated his blog in two years.

The full history
» people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing
» the message
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» that year
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» every day is dreamlike
» it's been a while

Sunday, October 13, 2013

sometimes i dream that i have found a place

Welcome to Rocktober, in which I'll be nominally participating. As usual, I'll kick off with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, now in its 13th edition at Golden Gate Park.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 4 to 6, 2013: Most of my friends -- some of whom live about as close to the park as I do -- don't bother with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass anymore. I get it: The crowds can be stifling, and the lineup may or may not draw you in. And in a day and age where people pay a premium just to be able to use nicer bathrooms at festivals, a free offering may not be as enticing as it sounds. But whether due to my cheapness, the love of live music that still occasionally sparks in me, or my general reluctance to leave the neighborhood, I make my way back year after year.

The aforementioned friends had a good point this year. Due to a combination of glorious weather (a sunny and bright 80 degrees in the Richmond District) and lack of competing activities (no Giants games or, thanks to the GOP shutdown, Fleet Week activities), I knew it was going to be packed in the park. Add to that a huge amount of scheduling conflicts and the number of great acts I had no chance of seeing, and I could almost bring myself to ignore the fest -- almost. As it turned out, the festival drew record crowds, but on the whole, I managed to steer clear of the worst of the traffic jams.

Truth be told, I wasn't extraordinarily moved by this year's lineup, but as always, I can find a handful of acts that are worth checking out. I had to skip Friday again, but on Saturday, the Porch Stage hosted the majority of the musicians I wanted to see.

I started off with Paul Kelly, the veteran Australian singer/songwriter who's often cited by some of my favorite artists. I liked "Before Too Long" all those years ago, but haven't followed his career at all. So thank you, HSBG tastemakers, for bringing him to the festival. I'm not sure what I can add to the adulation and respect he's received over the years except to say it's all true -- his warm vocals, pretty melodies, and songwriting craft are abundantly appealing. He finished his set with an a cappella interpretation of Psalm 23. If he hadn't prefaced the song, this non-Christian likely wouldn't have known where it came from. Honestly, I probably would've thought it was another traditional title in a weekend rife with traditional titles. Little would I have realized how long that tradition dated back!

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

With time to kill between sets, I wandered all the way down to the Star and Towers of Gold stages, just to get an idea of the vibe around the grounds. Over at the Star Stage, I caught the end of what was officially billed as Jon Langford & Skull Orchard Acoustic/Freakons -- in essence, the Mekons plus Freakwater plus a bunch of other musicians I can't name. They closed their set with the oldie "Working in a Coal Mine," which was a ton of fun and enjoyed a clever twist, thanks to Jon Langford's Welsh heritage. I peeked over at Towers of Gold to hear the beginning of Betty LaVette's show, but had to hightail it back to the Porch Stage.

One of the best aspects of the Porch Stage is that it's the most relaxed of all the stages. Honestly, the biggest draws aren't scheduled here, which might be an insult if you're a performer, but it's a boon when you're a fan. I was able to find a decent spot for a set by Mike Scott and Steve Wickham of the Waterboys. I won't attempt to overstate my interest in the Waterboys. In fact, I have a tendency of loving the offshoot bands that come from those seminal groups (World Party, in this case), but given the Waterboys' contributions and lack of touring in the United States, catching their set became a priority.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Again, I won't try to betray much expertise, except to say they didn't do "The Whole of the Moon" -- perhaps they saved it for the paying show -- but overall, it was a great set. For someone like myself who's not enmeshed in the traditions of folk, bluegrass, gospel, and what have you (honestly, after reading interviews with musicians for almost 30 years of my life, I'm not sure I need to read about influences and sources any longer), it was a blast to hear how much of the Waterboys' Celtic roots coincided with U.S. traditional music.

For the last song of their set, Mike Scott offered a short primer on what makes a jig before breaking out into their final selection: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," at a faster clip than I'm used to. He dedicated it to Warren Hellman, and I have a feeling it wasn't the only performance of the song over the span of the weekend.

One more note about Mike Scott: He was easily the most rock 'n' roll performer I saw in the couple of days. His style hasn't changed much since the Waterboys' breakthrough, and with his thin gold scarf and short manner, you could still see the swagger about him. In fact, though he was wearing a blazer in the heat, I'm not sure I saw him sweat at all. Steve Wickham's fiddle, too, added a seriously epic note on several tunes.

Here's one thing about these traditional music festivals: You hear a lot of pretty voices. For example, the in-betweeners at the Porch Stage made for good listening, even if I didn't become an instant fan. Joy Kills Sorrow, taking the slot between the Waterboys and Martha Wainwright, covered a Postal Service song too, for new fans looking to connect to their tunes.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013I debated sticking around for Martha Wainwright's set and ultimately decided to stay -- and I'm glad I did. I haven't caught Martha in concert since the time she opened for Wilco in London, but she was a staple at early Rufus Wainwright shows, of which I was a huge fan. Alas, those gigs predate this blog, so you'll have to take my word for it. I've always loved Martha's voice, however, and I was curious to hear what she'd done over the years.

First of all, I had no idea she was a mom now, complete with exactly one song written about her child. Otherwise, her personality seemed to be intact. For example, she referenced her entire musical family (parents, brother, cousin) all over the place, and her lyrics retained that darker edge she's known for. She didn't grant the request for "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole," but she graced us with a song that was inspired by imagining she and her friends had died in a car trip across Canada in winter.

Regarding her father, she revealed that she hadn't heeded his advice about San Francisco in October; regarding her brother, she told us about the new record he's working on with Mark Ronson and how she hates how good it sounds; and regarding her mother, she closed with a song she wrote shortly before she died. "Proserpina," Martha explained, is about the legend of Persephone, but Martha suspects it's really about the late, great Kate McGarrigle herself. Amen.

For Sunday, I reverted to my usual ways and simply settled down at the Star Stage nice and early. There was no way I was going to miss Justin Townes Earle, a festival staple and a recent favorite for me. But before he took the stage, Dry Branch Fire Squad kicked off the proceedings with the "strictly bluegrass" portion of my weekend. I'd seen them previously at the Warren Hellman tribute, and they remain as charming as ever. This time out, we got a pretty good story about Charlton Heston and his commentary on their "native garb." (I really hope I didn't mess up that phrasing.)

Local band Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers followed, with a horn section and special guest Boz Scaggs on a handful of tracks. They were all major crowd favorites, and the audience was on its feet for much of the set. I think they did at least one Boz Scaggs song, but as I've said many times in this blog, '70s rock is one of my weak spots.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Finally, it was time for Justin Townes Earle! Overall, he looked and sounded good, showing off a lighter, looser mood than I recall from previous shows. He opened with -- and promptly forgot the words to -- "Baby's Got a Bad Idea." His set wasn't nearly long enough for my liking, but he tried out a bunch of new songs that he says he'll start recording soon because they took him so damn long to write. In my recollection, the new songs share a lot of the smoky, moody makeup of the last record, which is great news to me.

In between songs, he joked about his usual demons: drinking and his parents. For example, he shared that he was hung over the first time he played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, when his set was scheduled for 11 am. At another point, he got a laugh when he told us he and a friend had a bet on whether either could write a record without mommy or daddy issues. You'll have to decide for yourself his intentions when he remarked that he messed them up as much as they did to him and how everyone thought cocaine was a vegetable in the '80s. At the Star Stage on this day, it was pretty funny.

I'll highlight three more songs from his set. On a new track (something about "waiting" or "worried"? definitely had a "w" in it), he claimed he rearranged a verse and a half, not that we'd know it. "Am I That Lonely Tonight" was as hypnotic as you can imagine, particularly in contrast to the minor lapses during the rest of the show. I also finally figured out one of the reasons why that song burrows into my brain every time -- the lines starting with "Sometimes I wish that I could" place me right into Elvis Costello's "Alison," only of course in a totally different tune and treatment.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Finally, Justin and the band closed with "Can't Hardly Wait," as he's known to do. I can't guess at how many people in the audience recognized it, but hey, I can't name the Boz Scaggs hit -- so let's call it even?

I made one final stop before going home, finding a spot at the side of the Rooster Stage for the Kate McGarrigle tribute. The idea of staging this get-together at Hardly Strictly is kind of a no-brainer, considering the overlap between audiences; it certainly helps when Hardly Strictly figurehead Emmylou Harris is part of the festivities. Martha and Sloan Wainwright drove the tribute, in which they were joined by Loudon Wainwright, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and Maria Muldaur. I didn't see all of the individual performances, as I caught only the last 20 minutes or so of the gathering, but at the very end, they came together for "Heart Like a Wheel," written by Anna McGarrigle, who -- as Martha noted -- was such a huge part of Kate's life.

Thus ends another year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. For all my hemming and hawing, you know I'll be back again.

See also:
» we both pretend we don't know why
» my starter won't start
» i wanna reach that glory land

Friday, October 04, 2013

there is light but there's a tunnel to crawl through

This concert report was supposed to have been accompanied by a write-up of Frightened Rabbit's gig in Sacramento. Alas, that didn't work out, and my quest to see this hard-working and well-traveled band in a tertiary market has been foiled again. Lucky for me they're drawn back to San Francisco time and time again, on this occasion landing at the Warfield.

Frightened Rabbit, the Warfield, September 30, 2013: I was a borderline basket case after Frightened Rabbit's last show in town. I didn't want to hear a note from any other band, I was YouTubing their performances like a maniac, and the search for live material took up a significant segment of my day. I may have also attempted (oh god) to mimic their accents when singing certain songs. I was, in essence, my 12-year-old self, if the same technology had been available when I was growing up.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

My ardor cooled slightly in the intervening six months, probably for the better; those levels aren't sustainable. In addition, it was an emotional weekend, with the end of the Giants' baseball season and of Breaking Bad descending on the same day. As a matter of fact, I almost forgot my ticket at home on the morning of the gig, which goes to show you where my mind had wandered. The awesome thing about music, though, is that it takes a mere riff to snap your thoughts back in place, and a few days on from the concert, I've returned to that semi-weepy state at the sweep of "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" or "Swim Until You Can't See Land" -- neither of which were even played at the show.

The band opened with "Holy," as they did back in March, but in the bigger venue, the effect wasn't quite as foreboding, as the smoke and fog dissipated into the high ceilings. One song in, and Scott was already talking to us about his pre-show nap and its accompanying effect, comparing himself to a newborn baby pulled out of the darkness and emerging as the center of attention. Er, look for a track titled "Siesta Rebirth" on the next Frightened Rabbit album?

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

In fact, Scott was in a talkative mood tonight. Also early in the show, he shared a story about some assholes in Calgary who requested "The Twist" all night because the song was playing when they crashed their boat. I'll give you a second to suppress the wave of nausea surely washing over you right now.

Later, he professed his love for Game of Thrones, but anyone who follows Frightened Rabbit's Twitter feed already knows of that obsession. He also promised to play a lot of songs, as this would be their last tour for a little while, which is always bittersweet news when you're smitten with a band. Logically, you know it's good and necessary, especially if you want to hear new music from the group, but selfishly, you want them to play your town, say, once a quarter (trying not to be selfish here).

Overall, the band stuck with the core setlist that's characterized most of the last year of shows, highlighting tracks from Pedestrian Verse but with a number of unexpected additions. One of those surprises came early, as they rolled out "Music Now" from Sing the Greys, though Scott couldn't count himself among the fans of that record. The band did it anyway, a relatively simple and straightforward track compared to the emotional epics they're better known for these days.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

A few songs later, Scott, Grant, and Gordon gathered onstage for a new song, the aforementioned Game of Thrones-inspired track. Scott offered another glimpse into his thought processes as he explained how the machinations depicted on the show could be inspirational, moving you to go for what you want -- minus the violence (and dragons?), of course. I'm not sure how the lovely acoustic "Candlelit" would go over in Westeros, but at the Warfield, it was a haunting showcase of their harmonies and songwriting. (Note: I've never watched Game of Thrones.)

Scott was left on his own for his acoustic segment, this time comprising three whole songs instead of the single track we heard at the Fillmore. Scott asked for requests to kick off, but as expected, the actual song titles were buried in a barrage of voices. A new friend managed to get in "Poke" at exactly the right moment. Scott heard it and jumped in, but there was no way he wasn't going to do that song, for good reason. It's an all-time classic track with great bones: a deceptively simple melody, pinpoint lyrics, and candid delivery. As long as people have their hearts broken, "Poke" will enjoy its spot on playlists the world over. Afterward, Scott remarked it may have been his favorite performance of the song yet. Perhaps he says that in a lot of towns, but as with most of Frightened Rabbit's music, I'm willing to accept the sincerity.

The second song was all Scott, as he chose "Scottish Winds," giving away the band's homesickness. The acoustic set concluded with "Late March, Death March," a much more spontaneous selection and a performance that convinced me to revisit the tune.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

I'm loathe to dictate a band's setlist (a la the assholes in Calgary), but by the same token, I really want to hear certain songs. With Frightened Rabbit, "Fast Blood" is one of them, and I was elated by its return to the setlist, orgasmic entendres and all. In fact, those older songs continue to mesmerize: "The Modern Leper," "My Backwards Walk," "Old Old Fashioned," to name a few. Now I can add "State Hospital" and "Oil Slick" among others to that list. "Oil Slick" in particular has snuck up on me; with its slinky guitar and rising coda, it'd be a huge pop hit in my alternate universe.

The band closed with the trifecta of "The Woodpile," "Keep Yourself Warm," and "The Loneliness and the Scream." With "Keep Yourself Warm," Scott explained how they were trying not to play it for a year, but eventually gave in -- a smart move. It's a favorite for a reason, not least because of the blunt sexual imagery and searing, highly repeatable lines ("You won't find love in a hole" and "It takes more than fucking someone/to keep yourself warm"), and it never fails to inspire a visceral response in the audience. There's an amazing video on YouTube of the crowd doing all the work for Scott in an intimate hometown show; I don't think we get anywhere near the Scottish fans' connection, but every time I've seen the band, we make a decent effort.

I kind of want to go into an extended treatise on the song's shift from a hymn to a highland wail to an anthem to a disco track (a similarly dancey beat takes over in the last third of "The Twist," by the way), only to double back on itself, but I'm not qualified to do so. I also want to remark that the brothers' bond might be one of the reasons the drums and percussion more prominently anchor the band's songs as opposed to other acoustic/songwriter-based setups, but that too is beyond my abilities. However, I will note that tonight in the instrumental apex of the song, Scott quoted from the song itself and not another artist's work, unlike at previous shows.

Speaking of visceral tracks, "The Loneliness and the Scream" was the closer I wanted to hear, mostly for the screaming part. That song is pure release, whether you're tuned into the driving rhythm or the echoing calls. The opening band the Augustines returned to the stage to shout and drum and hug and jump and drink -- all completely valid reactions to this powerhouse.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

Before I finish up, I need to note a few more aspects to this show. The Warfield was perhaps half full for this show; the floor was brimming with fans, but not uncomfortably so, while the balcony was at a fraction of capacity. You can point to several reasons why: This was the band's third visit (by my count) to San Francisco in less than 12 months, there was no real new material to promote, it was a Monday night, and this is a heavy concert season. The turnout didn't seem to faze the band, but it did make me wonder where the new fans will come from next.

For instance, Frightened Rabbit just toured with the National, but I've heard barely a peep about the reaction to the openers. Heck, I'm guilty of the same (I don't really have time to write about the Augustines, except to say that I've never seen anyone so happy to play the Warfield as the lead singer, who grew up in the area), but a part of me was hoping they'd get a little more recognition for all their time on the road. With a solid fan base, a new record, and (one hopes) growing exposure, Frightened Rabbit will surely fill up the Warfield -- or better yet, do two shows at the Fillmore -- eventually, but tonight's gig served as a reminder to keep expectations intact. I've seen enough U.K. bands unable to gain a foothold in the United States that the sight of a underpopulated hall gives me pause.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

Finally, I managed to be one of the 20 fans who ordered tickets fast enough to get into the meet and greet before the show. We ended up watching about 40 minutes of the soundcheck, which was simultaneously cool and banal, as is the case with most soundchecks. The actual meeting and greeting followed, and I can't stress enough how lovely they were to everyone. I realize it's not the most natural environment, but the band was nothing short of humble and gracious. I actually left while most of the fans were still there, and I have no idea how much longer they stayed. My earlier question about where the fans will come from? This wasn't a bad way to sew up the faithful.

To the Scots: Please come back soon, as often as you'd like. For anyone else who might be reading: This is a band to treasure.

Thanks to the contributors at for their work on the setlist for the Warfield show.

See also:
» lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon
» we adopt a brand-new language
» let's get old fashioned
» before i change my mind

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

king of spain

Surely, you've heard and possibly partaken of the phenomenon known as summer music festivals. I've seen a few, but this post is not about a summer festival. Rather, this post is festival adjacent, detailing a one-off gig preceding the massive gathering mere blocks from my home -- namely, the Tallest Man on Earth's appearance at Bimbo's 365 Club ahead of his slot at Outside Lands.

Tallest Man on Earth, 08-08-2013Tallest Man on Earth, Bimbo's 365 Club, August 8, 2013: I don't know when this blog turned into intermittent postings by a 40-something music fan (er, when I turned 40?), but I have to reach into that bottomless bag of old-timer cliches once again to set the scene for this gig. Bear with me -- or skip this altogether. It's your choice, and either way, I'll respect your decision.

Here's a tip to all the young-ish people who might possibly read my blog: Your concert-going habits will change over time. Actually, you may stay the same, and your gig attendance may remain on the same clip. But I can almost guarantee that the group of friends who accompany you won't stay static as people move away, have kids, take jobs, or simply lose interest. Also, tastes shift, and you or your buddies may realize your back is going or your feet just can't take the ache from standing for hours on end through opening acts and the like.

If you're lucky, you get a second (or third or fourth or ... ) wind when a band draws you in, and you'll go to extensive ends to hit their gigs. Alternately, a friend whose taste you trust will suggest a gig that might be up your alley, and you'll go without a ton of forethought but a strong helping of faith -- which is how I found myself at the Tallest Man on Earth gig.

It's no secret I've been out of the loop with music for a few years now. Somewhere in the recent past, all the blogs and the podcasts and the tweets and the hype became dreadfully tiresome, and it's almost an accident that I can be bothered to investigate any sensation at all. I don't mind admitting I've probably missed the boat on a lot of new acts, but you know what? It's not a terrible thing to let a little wind out of the sails at this point. Mind you, music is still my first option when vacation or downtime beckons, but I'd be lying if I claimed it enjoys the same prominence as before.

Tallest Man on Earth, 08-08-2013

I think the Tallest Man on Earth hit these shores around the time my dedication was wavering. I recall the name being bandied about by various friends and on certain forums, but despite my love for dudes with acoustic guitars, he didn't really stand out among the crop of singer/songwriters at the time. Now, having seen his show, I can admit I was terribly wrong in most respects. Color me corrected.

I can't tell you what his songs were about; then again, I stopped listening to lyrics a long time ago. But I can report that he draped his tunes across the structure I love so much: verses, choruses, melodies, bridges, and so on. Maybe you like them too? I even picked up on a handful of refrains without knowing a note of his tunes beforehand. Along the way, he offered a number of charming non-explanatory explanations, including a claim that most of his songs were about birds and one was about falling off a horse, except it wasn't, though it had really happened to him.

For a solitary guy with a single guitar at a time, he definitely made some noise. You could fairly characterize his music as sensitive, but it was anything but shy, as he roared out the lyrics and banged on his instrument. At one point, I wondered if he was using loops because the cumulative effect was so grand, but I ultimately concluded it was all him and his talent.

Tallest Man on Earth, 08-08-2013One of the main reasons to go to a live show is to check out the intangibles a recording could never get across. With the Tallest Man on Earth, this extra oomph came down to a palpable connection between the artist and the crowd. On our side of the stage, this meant plenty of college-age females with hearts popping from their eyes and their breath caught in their throat, but the male admirers were well represented too, including a couple of guys closer to my age who staked out primo spots at the edge of the stage. To be fair, the millennials were right there too, wearing their official Tallest Man on Earth shirts and bearing their newly purchased merchandise.

In return, the artist known as Kristian Mattson responded with tons of unequivocal eye contact, several replies to audience shout-outs, and even one request for a David Bazan song. One of the biggest reactions of the night came when he segued into Paul Simon's "Graceland" (I think -- this was not my part of my '80s), clearly a crowd favorite. In between, he said a lot of nice things about San Francisco, but one of his final gestures of the night offered the best statement of all.

At the end of the main set, as he accepted our applause, he knelt down at the edge of the stage and embraced one of the aforementioned more mature fellows in a huge bear hug. With his real-life small stature, the Tallest Man looked like he was almost in the fetal position as he cuddled with this fan. Then he did the same with someone else on the other side of the stage. "Heartfelt" would be an understatement for the moment.

At my current rate, there's a good chance I won't ever see another Tallest Man on Earth gig unless, say, I drag my Swedish sister-in-law along to bolster her national pride. If that happens, at least I can assure her we'll be in for a fun, engaging show by a magnetic performer, and she won't regret coming along.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

get a load of the lengths i go to

Here's what we encountered on the drive down to Los Angeles for Jon Brion's July Largo date: a roadblock caused by a jack-knifed big rig on Pacheco Pass; a small brushfire off to the side of the I-5 John "Chuck" Erreca rest area; an awkward would-be pickup scene between a sorority girl and a superbuff guy at the Kettleman City In-N-Out Burger, complete with semi-deprecating admission of borderline "Facebook message creeping" (I'll let you guess who did the "creeping"); and a series of gorgeous lightning strikes illuminating the Grapevine passage. Jack Kerouac, I am you!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, July 26, 2013: The stage setup seemed to hit capacity again, as the drum kit rejoined Jon's video screens, amps, maybe three dozen guitars, several microphones (and accompanying stands), and much more. Sadly, the vibes went MIA, but like the Death Star, the big room appeared fully armed and operational once again.

Sporting a healthy beard and a shaggy head of hair, Flanny first said hi to Jon's nephew in attendance, then introduced the performer himself. Jon quickly removed his hat, then sat down at the piano, as is his wont. He worked his way across the keys toward the Mellotron, then to the little Casio keyboard in what my notes say was a grand, elegiac exercise before presenting a song that I'm pretty sure is an original composition, bearing many of Jon's more traditional singer/songwriter trademarks. The chorus revolved around "You get hurt and you learn," and the bridge lifted in one of those charged swells that has a way of moving you to breathe deep of every note without even realizing it.

I make no bones about not recognizing some incredibly famous tunes, especially if they're not from a very specific time frame, but every now and again, I can pick out a song from a few notes. It also helps if I listened to that song on repeat several times a day when I was growing up. Such was the case with the next title, which perked up my ears from the early notes and turned my initial thoughts of, "Why, this sounds like..." to "Well, if it isn't?!" Anyway, it was "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" by the Smiths.

Toward the end, Jon sped it and layered it to the point where it started reminding me of another sparkling Smiths track, the instrumental "Oscillate Wildly." However, I can't say whether this was intentional on Jon's part or the product of my overactive imagination -- the music nerd's equivalent to fan fic. Jon punctuated the tune with a comment about how great they were, and I heartily agree. But because I'm an insufferable music nerd, I'll go on the record as saying how nice'd it be if Jon tried out other songs from their fantastic catalog -- preferably a nice, deep album cut. (See above re: insufferable.)

Regarding the tin ear to famous songs: The next selection opened up with a naggingly familiar melody I couldn't place before Jon segued into his own "Ruin My Day" -- which I know quite well. Fortunately, Jon revisited the intro toward the end and even named it: the Little Rascals theme. (See above re: tin ear.)

Jon moved to the acoustic guitars, picking up what he identified as a French '40s model, and in the midst of tuning, he engaged us in some goofy comments about Mars Attacks, among other topics, and informed us that this public soundcheck was made possible by the United International Cab Company. When he settled in, "Me Myself and I" poured out.

Jon built up the next track, his own "Piece of You." I love this song to begin with, and this rendition was simply awesome, with the guitar illuminating the song's already strong foundation. Tonight's performance of the track actually brought to mind Jon's early session work, especially his talent for complementing and teasing out the main melody. The ditty that immediately sprang to mind was the Wallflowers' "One Headlight." If you haven't listened to it recently, I suggest giving it a spin, if only to remind yourself of the subtle but incredibly effective guitar notes Jon lent to the tune.

The public soundcheck progressed to the electric accoutrements -- namely, an electric guitar and Jon's looping mechanisms. I can't say for sure if this was the first time I'd heard "Strings That Tie to You" on electric guitar, but it's a relative rarity in his shows. Jon replicated the process we've seen on piano, layering each element until it became an ethereal buzz anchored by heavy bass notes. Though I probably say this every time, the guitar treatment highlighted aspects of the song I hadn't noticed before, particularly stray notes or arcs that had previously escaped me.

Jon then asked for requests and picked "Tea for Two" as the first wish granted. I probably need to admit I didn't know this until he sang the words, but in a familiar pattern, the second tune was a gimme: his own "Her Ghost." The subtle variations in this performance included Jon's feet tapping out the rhythm, a pounding bridge, and big, dramatic vocals.

For his next act, Jon launched into one of those instant medleys he does so well. Most of the songs in this batch amounted to snippets, but not so the last title. During "Her Ghost," something in Jon's treatment brought to mind Burt Bacharach -- I mean, more than usual. I guess I wasn't alone because another woman made the request, and Jon obliged with a fairly faithful version of "This Guy's in Love With You," an old favorite around Largo.

The video screens churned into action, as Jon brought up footage of Sonny Rollins, Leopold Stokowski, and Maria Callas. Of the three, Leo enjoyed the most airtime, as Jon found a symphonic sequence to back "Pale Blue Eyes," performed on piano. Maria Callas too lent a tone that worked with the title. Sonny Rollins came in later, and I have to be honest -- I can't say what it did for the song, but his bursts of sax formed the coda for this tune.

For the next round of requests, Jon screened two clips: one of an orchestra performing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and another of a Cajun fiddler. Then he quoted a couplet from the fiddler (something about "hard head/got into trouble") to precede "Trouble," by one J. Brion. This version was heavier and slower, and the orchestra became an eerie echo of the song's main tune. I jotted down something about Kate Bush -- the resemblance was probably at least 80 percent in my head, but maybe that'll get you in the ballpark of Jon's performance.

Jon briefly moved over to the drum set to lay down a beat, then returned to the piano for a short clip of "Purple Rain." I'll always want to hear that song, but in truth, Jon didn't linger long before setting his attentions on the real composition: "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," effortlessly (so it seemed) matched to the orchestra and enlivened in bursts by the fiddle.

Jon soon worked into the mix a video of Eric Clapton, and it didn't take long to tease out a specific melodic line. The suggestion of a tune tickled my brain long before Jon formalized it, but it was almost inevitable that he'd land on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" -- which is exactly what happened. However, Jon shook up this natural progression by splicing and dicing the Clapton video until it became the backdrop for "Strange Fruit."

Nearing the close of the set, Jon asked specifically for a request for Danny (or was it Flanny?), who must've called for "Gotta Start Somewhere," the opening track from Jon's single album, if you don't include his soundtracks. I need to detour for a second and mention this is the single track from Meaningless I'd never heard live; in fact, I asked Jon about it when the old Largo closed, and he replied he done it once during his Spaceland residency circa 2002. (Detour to the detour: 2002?! WHAT THE WHAT?)

The thing is I love this song. Granted, I can say that for every track on the record, but it's not only one of my favorite openers, it's power pop at its finest, with great lyrics, fantastic pacing, delightful instrumentation, and much more. I even love the overdrumming (a la Blondie's "Dreaming"). There's a reason I chose it to kick off Book of Brion 2.

So Danny or Flanny or whoever claimed to be you, a world of gratitude goes out to you for finally bringing this song to my ears. Jon did it up spare and lo-fi on solo electric guitar -- more J. Mascis than Alex Chilton (to oversimplify), even approaching Calexico in parts. I loved hearing this, but as an aspirational music fan, I hope it won't be the last time Jon plays it live. And maybe he'll give it to the loop and/or band treatment next time? In the meantime, I've already listened to it about 45 times a day since the show.

For the penultimate song of the set, Jon jumped into "Knock Yourself Out," an especially vocal request from an audience member. He closed the segment with another request, this time for "Hungry Like the Wolf," but as he pointed out, he had to do it his way -- which meant a la Les Paul. I've referenced my Duranie past several times in this blog, so I won't belabor the point again, except to say it was a hoot to hear Jon hit all the hallmarks of a song that dominated my formative years. Each layered loop added to the delight, as I recognized keyboard chords here, vocal notes there, that part in the video where Simon and the model/actress maul each other. If Jon ever decides he needs vocals on the tune, I can probably feed him most of the lines. ;)

The encore was more subtle, as Jon closed out with "The Way It Went," followed by an Irving Berlin tune by way of Fats Waller. Sorry I can't tell you which song, but it's right there at the top: I'm simply hopeless with some titles.

--new song
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--Little Rascals theme/Ruin My Day/Little Rascals theme
--Me Myself and I
--Piece of You
--Strings That Tie to You
--Tea for Two
--Her Ghost
--Putting on the Ritz/Rhapsody in Blue/Magic Carpet Ride/Three Times a Lady/This Guy's in Love With You
--Pale Blue Eyes
--Purple Rain/Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Strange Fruit
--Gotta Start Somewhere
--Knock Yourself Out
--Hungry Like the Wolf

--The Way It Went
--Irving Berlin a la Fats Waller

See also:
» it's been said many times, many ways
» all is full of love
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» Star Hits: A close reading

Monday, July 01, 2013

the boys are back in town

Airlines! Am I right, people? That may have been my main thought upon arriving home from the 2013 edition of Solid Sound, almost two full days after originally scheduled, and of course the reality of going back to work set in, but a quick flick through various photos and Facebook messages reminded me of the weekend's brilliance. In my usual fashion, I'll recap non-Wilco events first, then wrap up with the band's portion of the fest. Skim and/or savor as you see fit.

Solid Sound Festival, June 21-23, 2013: Depending on your point of view, festivals are either about opportunity or compromise. As an avowed non-fest person, I'll take the latter tack. Odds are you can't see all the acts, and because of my obsessive priorities, I'm more than willing to sacrifice a performer here or there if it means the overall goal (that is, primo placement at the front of the stage) can be secured. Friday's limited schedule of activities meant we didn't have to make many choices, but unfortunately, I had to skip White Denim. No big loss, as I'd already seen them open several shows for Wilco back in early 2012.

Solid Sound 2013

Over in Joe's Field, the Relatives warmed up the crowd for the headliners, imploring us to to drop it low, then all the way to the ground. I did the best I could, but it's not so easy in a full field. Also, my knees began to hurt, but they were a ton of fun and an awesome inauguration.

On Saturday, the decisions weren't so straightforward, but I committed to the Comedy Cabaret. I had caught segments of the comedy performances at past festivals, but this time, I (along with Brianne and Evonne) firmly planted myself at the Hunter Center, lining up before doors opened and settling into pretty good seats. I'm an unabashed John Hodgman fan, and I hope we'll continue to see him at Solid Sound for, well, ever.

Solid Sound 2013

The first voice we heard in the Hunter Center actually belonged to Reggie Watts, as he introduced something called the John and Jen Show (or thereabouts), followed by the onstage appearance of the aforementioned John and Jen (Kirkman). Jen looked fairly LA in her black top, superskinny jeans, and wedge heels, whereas John bore a striking resemblance to the Unabomber, for reasons he never revealed to us (though he shared him with the crowd at the second show). They worked up the kind of banter typical of a morning TV talk show before easing into what sounded like a more earnest (and hilarious) exchange, touching on childhood bullying, fears, and other eccentricities, none of which I'll try to recap here.

In the midst of their conversation, Jen brought up the concept of an "indigo child," and they attempted to track down a definition of the term via crowdsourcing -- that is, by asking the audience. This went around the room for a while before a guy stepped up with an air of authority. Jen and John brought him up to discuss the topic, and in the midst of their talk, the audience member revealed, apropos of nothing, (1) he was an atheist, and (2) he didn't like kids, though his child was now 7 years old. Eventually, someone offered John an iPhone displaying the Wikipedia definition of the term. I do no justice to the exchange with my flat description, but the awkwardness of their banter suited the comedians' style beautifully.

John somewhat stuck to this model for each of the comedians, first teaming up for easy conversation, then ceding the stage to them for their routine. With Al Madrigal, John heaped a load of appreciation on the veteran comic for teaching him the ways of the road. Unfortunately, I can't really remember what John and Reggie talked about, though I enjoyed John's confusion over how to describe what Reggie does.

Solid Sound 2013

I'm a big podcast listener, and the comedians show up on my playlist all the time, but I haven't checked out their sets for myself. If John Hodgman was indeed in charge, he chose well (unsurprisingly). Jen was a little neurotic, but I loved her energy and her catwalk skills. Al Madigral was a true pro, and even with the constant profane asides to the 11-year-old in attendance, you could see how he's perfected the art of storytelling over the years. Reggie was, well, Reggie, with the songs and improv about large-scale installations, driving while high in Montana, elk burgers, and bringing your olds to a comedy show, among other topics.

As for the music, I totally confess to missing the boat on just about every act scheduled for the day, including pop-up performances. Therefore, no Dream Syndicate reunion, no Beth Orton cameo with Sam Amidon, no Foxygen meltdown, and no consummate excellence from Yo La Tengo or Low. It's my own damn fault, but at least I made it back to Joe's Field in time for Neko Case. Her backing band included familiar faces, such as Kelly Hogan and Jon Rauhouse, but Eric Bachmann from Crooked Fingers was a new addition on guitar and keyboards. Also in attendance: Her dog Liza!

I fell in love with Neko's music around the time of Blacklisted, which remains my favorite of her records, but her sound has changed a lot since then. She remains hard to pigeonhole; with her voice, you'll always want to place her among the great, classic singers, but her song structures and subject matter are anything but customary. Her records are slow burners for me these days, but I always want to listen.

Neko and her band tried out at least a couple of new songs, but don't ask me to describe them, though I think Kelly Hogan played a little contraption with a player-piano-like roll stuck inside. Additionally, they managed to squeeze in a bunch of old favorites, including, er, "Favorite," as well as "This Tornado Loves You," "Hold On, Hold On," and a song from The Hunger Games (what?). Overall, I noticed Neko's a more proficient guitar player than before, and of course, that voice is a treasure. For their final song, they went with the Shangri-Las' "Train from Kansas City," a lovely -- ahem -- vehicle for the lady singers. Too bad the the actual train passing right next to Joe's Field maybe 20 minutes before couldn't have been better coordinated with Neko's schedule.

Which leave us with with headliners: Wilco. You may have heard of them? This already lengthy account is about to go on for a bit longer, so settle in.

Solid Sound 2013

From the outset, Friday was touted as the all-request show, and our suggestions were encouraged. I guess all Wilco shows ostensibly take requests via the website, but I honestly don't know where people got the idea it would be anything other than a covers set. If you went to the website to place a vote, you saw open text fields that allowed you to type in your own ideas, unlike the drop-down menu for every other show. Then again, as the person who put together the Wilco/Tweedy covers compilation (Someone Else's Songs, if that rings a bell) a while ago, I'd hardly object to a whole set devoted to off-catalog tunes. Only a few songs into the show itself did it hit me that we might be in for more Wilco songs than I expected.

As it happened, my original instincts -- and the overall simpler explanation -- prevailed. The band opened with the deliciously appropriate "The Boys Are Back in Town," and the audience's backing vocals fell right in line (when we weren't busy cheering like fools).

The second song struck me like Cupid's arrow: "Cut Your Hair," by Pavement. You could've knocked over Judy and me with a feather right then, and I probably lost the majority of my voice on this song, thanks to shouting out the lyrics ("Korea! Korea!") and my overall appreciation. I remember casually asking Jeff for a Pavement song at one of our early basement shows, but he couldn't quite deliver. Still, my life had been incomplete without hearing Wilco do Pavement. Thank you, genius requester, whoever you are.

I could've gone home a happy girl at this point, but so many more delights awaited on the setlist. Jeff wryly thanked the person who requested "New Madrid," which turned out to be the only Wilco-related song this evening. A handful of other songs from the set have shown up at Wilco or solo Tweedy shows over the years ("In the Street," "Simple Twist of Fate," "Ripple," "James Alley Blues," "Don't Fear the Reaper," "Thank You Friends," "The Weight"), but they're still relatively rare on the band's setlist. I'm a huge fan of "James Alley Blues" and "Thank You Friends," and I always welcome their airing, and Jeff suggested we make a tradition of "The Weight" at Solid Sound. I doubt anyone would object to that motion.

Some tunes emerged completely out of the blue ("Dead Flowers," "Waterloo Sunset," "Waterloo," "Who Loves the Sun," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Psychotic Reaction," "Marquee Moon," "Cinnamon Girl," "Surrender") and may have been the biggest gob-smackers. I fully support the band's decision to do "And Your Bird Can Sing" twice, even if the high notes sapped even more of my voice, and I probably don't need to rhapsodize about "Waterloo Sunset" more than I already have. Also, perhaps those two songs in particular will bring Wilco (Jeff) a little closer to making my Largo dreams come true. Don't worry, I'm not holding my breath for it. [Update: I can finally breathe!]

Just about every song was a highlight for me, but "Marquee Moon" hit me between the eyes, not least because I've been requesting it -- to no avail -- for years at Largo. Let's cut to the chase: Nels was transcendent on the track, and the band didn't back off from the song's sprawling glory. I'm not afraid to admit I didn't recognize "Dead Flowers," so by the same token, I hope "Marquee Moon" cast some light on, say, Television's influence on "Impossible Germany."

Solid Sound 2013Finally, the Friday set had a lovely bonus of special guests. John Hodgman served as emcee, and it quickly became apparent that he and the band were in on a joke. In one of his early misdirections, he said something about "the band," which we mistook to mean The Band. I guess he took the cue from there because he later tempted us with "the human league ... of musicians" and "Shonen Knife ... would love this song." John did get in a request of his own for "Kingpin," in case you were wondering what lurks in the mind of the Daily Show's evil genius. My takeaway: He's a Being There guy! Score!

Yo La Tengo dropped in for "Tom Courtenay," which meant the setlist included two songs namechecking Julie Christie -- has that been done before?? Lucius played Agnetha and Frida on "Waterloo," but the biggest get had to be "Color Me Impressed," which brought out TOMMY FUCKING STINSON. The Replacements nerds among our gang loved it, and I don't blame them. We were all caught up in the thrill, especially watching Tommy tell Jeff "fuck you," while sidling up to Nels for ax man action. (Don't worry, Tommy and Jeff had huge smiles and hugs for each other by the end of the song.) For those keeping score at home, the expense and hassle of traveling to Solid Sound had been paid about a thousand times over at this point.

Solid Sound 2013

I haven't even covered my absolute favorite part of the show! I had a small mental list of covers that would instantly render me comatose if the band chose to do them, but I had submitted my own idea when the Wilcoworld email went out. At the time, I wanted to listen to only song, to the point where I sought out the hour-long remixes on YouTube to serenade me through the workday. You guessed it -- I (and millions of others) was hooked on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," the best summer hit I've heard in years. I voted my conscience and, once we arrived in North Adams, reported that request to anyone who'd listen (whether or not they asked).

Cut to the Stump the Band portion of Friday night, minus the first two requesters. The third time was the charm, as the *cough* middle-aged, WFMU-shirt-wearing music nerd (aka Not Tom Scharpling) asked the band to play the very same song I had hoped for. Get this -- the band knew it!

Who can blame them? The tune has real musical chops, including Nile Rodgers' sublime presence on bass. I think Glenn might've started off the song before the others eased in. Jeff isn't exactly Pharrell, but we chipped in with the singalong as soon as we got our whoops and hollers out of our system. Perhaps best of all, Mike got his vocoder moment. To no one's surprise, it has emerged as the major talking point of the whole festival. I doff my hat to the WFMU dude for sharing my excellent taste on at least one song and two bands.

Solid Sound 2013

Saturday's set was closer to what we expect from Wilco, but even there, they pulled out some surprises, including the high-energy opener of "I Got You," "Dawned on Me," and "Box Full of Letters." Paul sometimes talks about the band's pacing, and I noticed it here, especially around the lurching middle segment. But I liked the mix of songs, as well as the sheer number of tracks. Julian Lage did beautifully on "Forget the Flowers" and "California Stars," and for the latter, the band was also joined by Lucius and Georgia from Yo La Tengo. It's always good news when the audience sings along, and I can report they chimed in on "You Are My Face" and "Summerteeth," among others. At this point, I consider only a handful of songs to be true Wilco live rarities, but the band actually hit one of them in the encore: "Just a Kid," albeit without the Blisters.

Sunday turned out to be a lazy day that also happened to be hot and humid. Between air conditioning breaks, we saw the Radiolab/On Fillmore performance, which was a lot of fun, though I still feel for the actor surely melting away in the Shrewdinger outfit. Out on Joe's Field, we briefly listened in on Os Mutantes and hung out for Martin Medeski & Wood long enough to catch Nels and Jeff's guest spots. It was the kind of leisurely repast we needed after our epic Saturday.

Solid Sound 2013Over the course of the three-odd days, we also enjoyed the exhibits on display at Mass MOCA, including Xu Bing's Phoenix, the 1-minute movie film festival, and an exhibit on fan art whose title escapes me. Among the Wilco-derived installations, the Loft brought us up close with artifacts we've seen from afar, and a week away from the festivities, I'm able to laugh at the guys who gamely attempted to mete out some semblance of melody from Glenn Kotche's Earth Drums.

I'm skimming over huge swaths of memories from the festival, but I'd kick myself if I didn't mention one more aspect: the amazing camaraderie of old and new friends. I've run out of ways to describe the connection and bonhomie we all generate, except to know that I miss them as soon as the party ends, and I can't wait to see them again.

See also:
» Solid Sound 2011: you can tell that i'm not lying
» Solid Sound 2010: trees held us in on all four sides
» i am in paradise
» my mother's sister's husband's brother

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

it takes one to know one

How often do you get to say you saw a bona fide genius at work? Don't take my word for it -- the MacArthur Foundation said so. That's hardly the reason I picked up tickets for the Chris Thile/Michael Daves show at the Great American Music Hall, but it was a nice point on an evening I was unlikely to see again.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Great American Music Hall, May 9, 2013: I may have said this before, but this will likely be the least informative blog post/gig review you'll ever read -- right up there with my jazz notes. Quite simply, I know little about roots music, and I'm not about to dig into heavy research on its long, storied history. For much of my life, I lumped it in haphazardly with country music -- which to my mainstream ears, meant the big Nashville hits. I'm glad to have been proven wrong, but I'll leave the substantive writing to the experts. However, I'll report as best I can about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration and their first appearance together on the West Coast.

I went into this show as a casual fan -- albeit one who gets there early for a good spot at the front of the venue. But ask me about the discography and I got nothing. Well, I clicked around on YouTube when the date was first announced and was captivated by the duo's rendition of "Ookpik Waltz." That was enough for me.

My first impression: This may have been the barest stage I've ever seen, adorned with an one guitar and one guitar stand. There was also a single old-fashioned studio-style microphone. I've seen a similar setup at Largo (of course), but the formal name of the mic escapes me, though I'm sure I've heard it before. Please feel free to inform me if you know.

Chris, of course, took up his trademark mandolin, while Michael handled acoustic guitar. On the whole, they shared vocals equally, though I wasn't tallying verses sung. I've heard Chris sing many times before, which may be why I wasn't particularly mindful of his lyrical contributions. I paid more attention to Michael's segments, perhaps because of the novelty. Their voices worked together very well, but Michael had more of the old-fashioned, high lonesome twang. He struck me as more of the traditionalist backbone of the duo, but again, I barely have a leg to stand on in this genre.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13

Honestly, they were collaborators engaged in a give and take on every song. Clearly, they had impressive chops and knew how to usher along the proceedings with a vintage variety-show-style patter, but the music lived and breathed in their performance.

If you've seen Chris before, whether with the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, or solo, you know the frenzy he can whip up with the mandolin; he didn't slow down for this show. Michael met him along the way, and amid these traditional tunes, they reserved a segment for by-the-seat-of-your-pants improvisations. They even messed up once or twice! In fact, their body language revealed their deep engagement and investment in the performance, as they leaned heavily into their instruments, leaped off the ground from time to time, and even tried to get the audience to join in with a little tiptoe move.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13

Based on context clues, they hit most of the songs of their record. I say that because I don't own the record, but cross-referencing the album listing on Amazon and my memory of the intros, I can almost guarantee they hit the likes of "Cry, Cry Darling," "My Little Girl in Tennessee," and the aforementioned "Ookpik Waltz."

Perhaps more interesting, they reserved two segments of the show for requests from the audience. As soon as they opened up the floor to suggestions, a hail of voices hit them, and I'm still not sure how they picked out certain songs. Alas, this is where the lack of Alan Lomax in my life fails me because I didn't recognize a single tune they settled on. As I recall, they went with something called "Gold Rush," in honor of San Francisco. In the second half of the show, the final tally of titles ("Cherokee"? "Rawhide"?) struck me as more suited for a John Wayne film festival, but the warm welcome indicated they were highly anticipated tracks.

Chris and Michael returned for two encores, and I can't tell you the final song because I don't know it, but I figured out the penultimate track. As it happens, it's on the record too: "It Takes One to Know One." This became a big sing-along and could've been the perfect ending to the show. But I'm glad they stuck around for a little bit longer.

I apologize for the least substantive report you're likely to read about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration. If you take nothing else away from this write-up, know this: For fans of bluegrass, traditional music, or either of the artists, you won't come away disappointed. This isn't your parents' bluegrass, but it could be if they're so inclined.

See also:
» let's not fool ourselves
» don't get around much anymore
» there's so much here to see
» broadminded

Sunday, May 12, 2013

i was a new york doll

Boy, I've been seeing a lot of veterans lately, haven't I? But maybe I'm a veteran at this point too. If celebrating the occasion of Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday at the Fillmore puts me in the oldster category, so be it. I wasn't about to miss this show for anything.

Viva Hitchcock! A 60th Birthday Celebration for Robyn Hitchcock, the Fillmore, May 2, 2013: I confess my expectations of special guests and one-off events at concerts have grown unreasonably. I kind of want them to happen all the time, in no small part due to decade-plus of star-studded (?) spectacles in Southern California. I try to tamp down the anticipation, but it helps when all the cards on the table and the guest list is known, long before the show is scheduled. At that point, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy, as a cavalcade of guests feted Robyn Hitchcock, on the occasion of his 60th birthday (albeit six months on).

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthdayBefore a single musician played a note, Daniel Handler set the stage with an intro for the show. As it happened, he wouldn't be the only writer we'd see tonight; Neil Gaiman briefly joined him at the mic to introduce Amanda Palmer's portion of the show. Also, I could swear I saw Michael Chabon up in guest box, but then again, there were a lot of bespectacled, bookish-looking, middle-aged men all over the premises, so I could be wrong.

But back to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket -- I believe he was the one who noted that most of the artists we'd see tonight were from the Pacific Northwest. By no coincidence, Colin Meloy was the main mover behind the scenes, so of course there'd be a regional bias. Lucky for us, that part of the world is pretty good for, well, almost everything these days. I'm just thankful they decided to do it at the Fillmore instead of another part of the world. Then again, why would you want to do this anywhere else, given the choice?

Among the first musicians to plug in were John Moen (Decemberists), Dave Depper, Andy Cabic (Vetiver) -- and Peter Buck (er, REM, though I think Daniel Handler reminded us that he's currently unemployed). As you might guess, Peter Buck got a lot of attention, but his contributions and presence were fairly subtle, if you can call gorgeous, rippling chords from those big, beautiful Gibsons and Rickenbackers "subtle." Overall, he stayed in the background, even as the crowd cheered on his every appearance.

Peter, Dave, and John would act as the house band for much of the night, backing each new ensemble for their portion of the show and their selections from Robyn's catalog -- in most cases, going into deep album cuts. Sean Nelson (ex-Harvey Danger) had joined this first assemblage, but he returned with his wife for the second segment of his show. Sean got in one of the better lines of the night, as he called out our likely common affliction: Anglophilia. Nailed it!

Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats was the first musician of the evening that I count among my favorites, and it was probably my familiarity with his music that it hit me: These artists were really personalizing Robyn's tunes.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

This also brings up a confession: I'm not particularly up on Robyn's songs, despite having seen him in concert at least a couple of dozen times by now and even being a cognizant music fan when he hit the scene. Back then, his tunes weren't particularly pop-friendly to my teenage ears. I'm gonna say it -- he was probably a little too weird and not as photogenic as I preferred. Also, as I later discovered, he had that whole Dylan thing going on, which I still haven't really warmed to, truth be told. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen Robyn as a strictly solo act; more often than not, I've caught him as part of a Largo conclave, where it seems like everything but an artist's original tracks are on the menu.

Over to Eric: He covered "Trams of Old London," which I actually recognized! But just as identifiable was the jangly, acoustic spin he put on the tune. His typically rich vocals didn't hurt either. It's worth repeating: He has one of my favorite voices among musicians today. In Eric's hands, the songs sounded like Fruit Bats tunes.

The Young Fresh Fellows were on next, turning the volume all the way up to 11 and kicking up the tempo. You have to wonder if it's ever smart to name your act "Young," because these guys were not. Then again, what 20-something thinks they'll ever get old? Or that their band will persist long enough for the name to matter. And that aforementioned point about the Fruit Bats putting their stamp on Robyn's titles? It went double for the Young Fresh Fellows.

I'm a little more familiar with Rhett Miller's association with Robyn Hitchcock, so it came as little surprise that he'd share his fandom so giddily or that he'd go with "Cynthia Mask," which the Old 97s recorded a while back. But who knew he'd get "Balloon Man," perhaps Robyn's only certified U.S. (alternative?) radio hit? And yup, you guessed it -- Rhett put a little bit of Texas in the quintessentially British works.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

This was the point when Neil Gaiman joined the performers, though he didn't say a word as Daniel Handler directed our attention to one of the upstairs boxes. A barbershop quintet, known as the Hitchcockblockers, had assembled for an a cappella rendition of "Uncorrected Personality Traits."

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

One of the Hitchcockblockers, Amanda Palmer, came downstairs for the next segment, accompanied by the birthday boy himself. In fact, this was the first time we'd seen him all night, but thankfully, it wouldn't be the last. I'm not entirely up on the Amanda Palmer saga, but I guess her fellow musicians haven't shut her out. Free speech? Solidarity? Your guess is as good as mine (that is: not good at all).

The instigator Colin Meloy came up next, after an awesome intro by Daniel Handler that I wish I could repeat verbatim because it was so good. All I can recall is that he mentioned Irish folk songs and Civil War reenactments. Like the rest of the crew, Colin took his allotted portion of three songs -- but dammit, if the titles alone couldn't have been ripped out of a Decemberists setlist. Colin sounded like Colin, but he may have shared the most direct connection to Robyn, with their taste in subject matter, wordplay, and folksiness. In case you had been wondering why Colin of all people had assembled this show, he put those question to rest with his performance.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

I've skimmed over Daniel Handler's input because it's impossible to repeat his words without mangling them in my own illiteracy. But he created another highlight when he donned an accordion and sang "Gene Hackman" for us. Do I agree with the song's sentiment? No, but I highly approve of Mr. Lemony Snicket putting a sorrowful, Old World slant on it.

Finally, it was time for Robyn himself, partly solo, partly with the Venus 3, and partly in a mob, but first he shared the stage with Sean Nelson for a couple of tunes, including the always charming "I Feel Beautiful," even if I missed you-know-who's marxophone solo. According to Robyn, the Venus 3 was more like the Venus 4.5, but he may have been the only one counting. I'm way into this phase of Robyn's career and was happy to hear the tunes from the last couple of records. They brought back Colin for "Madonna of the Wasps," though he looked a little unsure of his role. I, for one, was happy to see him there.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

The encore turned out to be a big party, as everyone returned for an a cappella "Furry Green Atom Bowl" and the musician's urging us to join in with handclaps. Many of the musicians themselves were working from lyrics sheets; I guess you can't really rehearse that kind of thing. The penultimate song, "Listen to the Higsons," moved Peter Buck and Colin Meloy to the drum sets, which is the kind of musical chairs I love.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

The audience coaxed Robyn out for a final song, but it only worked once. Though we were still buzzing for more from the all-stars, Daniel Handler capped the evening as he began, with the final send-off. We managed to squeeze in one final round of "Happy Birthday" for the man himself. It was the least we could do.


See also:
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» she couldn't dance but she wanted to
» my starter won't start
» it took almost seven hours to sing
» i've written pages upon pages
» time is round and space is curved

Saturday, May 04, 2013

precious places, precious things

Apparently it was Secret Show Weekend in Los Angeles, with intimate gigs by Depeche Mode and the Rolling Stones taking place around town. As for me, it's never a secret where to find me in Los Angeles on the last Friday of the month. It must be time for Jon Brion at Largo at the Coronet, even if my usual seat has moved over a smidge.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, April 26, 2013: The most recent Largo makeover was immediately apparent at first glance. In contrast to last year's minimal setup, Jon and crew had brought back much of his equipment, albeit in a slightly different configuration. The video screens were back, as were their miles and miles of cables. In fact, he was almost entirely plugged again, with the return of the mellotron, electric guitars, and the vibes. The one missing element: a drum kit.

Jon entered stage right in a corduroy jacket perhaps more suited for a fox hunt than your typical concert, but then again, this is never a typical concert. He opened with a fairly straightforward piano exercise -- kind of like a fancy version of scales? We were squarely in soundtrack territory, which made sense that we soon landed in "Punch-Drunk Melody."

The harmonica joined the mix for "Someone Else's Problem Now," then we went back into film score land with the addition of celeste and Mellotron. I thought I heard hints of "Round Midnight" and/or "You Don't Know What Love Is," but neither lingered. Instead, I kind of felt like we should've been watching a chase sequence. When we emerged from this rabbit hole, he landed on an uptempo "Knock Yourself Out."

For the first time in more than a year, I got to hear Jon on electric guitar again, this time for "Why Do You Do This to Yourself." My notes say it had a pretty bridge and sounded more dramatic than usual, especially the echo effects. Perhaps it has to do with the return to the electric form? Or maybe different pedals are in play. Regardless, it felt like a grander performance for this typically bare-bones tune.

A Byrdsian tuning break morphed into kind of a grungy, heavy bass, which turned out to be appropriate because Jon went with his early-'90s composition "Same Thing." I've heard this song a million times and look forward to hearing it a million more, especially when Jon casually graces it with guitar licks that could fuel other musicians' entire careers.

Back to the piano he, er, went for "The Way It Went," then the AV club convened. Jon cued up a clip of a blues guitarist in a segment labeled "Ex. 18." After a few runs through the video, Jon exercised his backward looping to isolate and distort the segment he wanted -- no more than a few notes in all.

He did the same with the next video performer: Nina Simone, singing "Brown Baby." With her footage, he looped and reversed and slowed down and isolated. Jon added some Mellotron too. I have to admit, at this point, I wasn't sure how'd they all fit together, but I was confident it'd be worth the wait.

The answer emerged a little while later: "You Don't Know What Love Is," with chords from the video guitarist punctuating certain passages, while Nina's voice became a texture and a wall of sound. My notes say the blues meets Eno, but I wouldn't put it past Eno to have mined that field long ago, before it even occurred to us mere mortals.

Jon grabbed an acoustic guitar for the next portion of the show, first for "Meaningless," followed by "It Looks Like You." Paul noticed a "Pink Moon"-like intro; personally, I've never picked it out before, but that could be due to my surface familiarity with Nick Drake. Alternately, it could be Jon exercising his digits before settling into the song.

Per Jon's bidding, the requests commenced, and he answered with a comically exaggerated intro to "Ruin My Day" in response to a fan's comically exaggerated call. An inquiry for Spike Jones's greatest hits extended this silly, bubbly mood, and it lingered for quite a while. We got "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" on vibes (capping a couple of unexpected Smiths-heavy days for Paul and a Smiths-heavy month for me), "Incense and Peppermint" on piano, a pointedly specific direction for "This Will Be Our Year," and "Cat Scratch Fever" -- the last one perhaps in response to Jon's joke about gun control.

Percy GraingerGravitas returned with Randy Newman's "Sail Away" -- maybe the first time I've heard Jon perform it, though hardly the first time it's been requested. The serenity lingered with Jon's own "Stop the World," featuring the video contributions of Percy Grainger -- who could've been the progeny of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, what with his red hair and his soundalike last name. As with the earlier clips of Nina Simone and the unnamed blues guitarist, Jon plucked what he needed from Grainger's piano skills, then molded it to his requirements. Jon then added a bass underpinning that warmed up and practically knitted a warm angora blanket from the tune.

Jon welcomed Blake Mills to the stage, and they took their places at what was to me a new add-on to the stage. Just to the right of the trusty old piano, Jon's crew had set up a boom mic and an everyday leather chair. If you've ever seen pictures of the Beatles recording at Abbey Road, you'll know what I mean. As an audience member seated directly in front of them, I can tell you it was a thrillingly intimate look. You could almost imagine you were right there in Ocean Way or Capitol or what have you with them.

Abbey Road

They pulled up another chair for Blake, the two men chose their guitars, and they went into a song by George Jones, in recognition of his passing that morning. I should note here that this goes against Jon's former practice of urging us to listen to the original recordings instead of listening to him and friends attempt inferior version of the classics -- but hey, he has the right to change his mind. And that's how we got "Things Have Gone to Pieces."

Jon and Blake played guitar roulette a bit before their next song. When Blake decided to switch out of the 12-string, Jon took it up instead. But partway through Jon's next track, "No Excuse to Cry," Blake slipped away again to grab a battered old metal resonator (says Paul). It turned out to be a great match, especially with his handy-dandy slide. The coda invoked Buddy Holly and mariachi bands to my ears, and much like its sister song "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," this tune felt grander and lusher than usual. Then again, it had double the guitars, and in this case, more proved to be better.

I believe the next song was Blake's own, apparently newly written. He even brought his own guitar and guitar chord! Blake gave Jon minimal direction and played a riff; to no one's surprise, Jon picked it up immediately. They were both off to the races on this bluesy, high-spirited tune.

My notes on their next selection, Jon's original "She's At It Again," don't say much, probably because I was too busy taking in what must've been a 20-minute (at minimum) stretch. With Blake's participation, the song quickly went in a heavy, Zeppelin-esque direction, but they pounded their way through Tattoo You-era Stones, White Stripes, Hendrix, and Sonic Youth -- and those are just the ones I can vaguely identify. (Reminder: I know nothing about Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix, or Sonic Youth.) Let me put it this way: If you love guitar, this was the version of the tune you want to track down.

Jon returned for an encore and alighted on "Please Stay Away From Me" in the style of "Strawberry Fields" because of the presence of the Mellotron. And for good measure, he threw in a direct quote from the song too.

Per usual, Jon finished the show with heartfelt thanks to us for coming out to the show and being so nice. His words have never struck me as anything less than sincere, but on this loose, unpretentious night, the rawness and appreciation came through.

--Punch-Drunk Melody
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Knock Yourself Out
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Same Thing
--The Way It Went
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--It Looks Like You
--Ruin My Day
--Spike Jones' greatest hits
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--Incense and Peppermint
--This Will Be Our Year
--Cat Scratch Fever
--Sail Away
--Stop the World

with Blake Mills
--Things Have Gone to Pieces
--No Excuse to Cry
--Blake's song
--She's At It Again

--Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» september gurls
» the things you do to keep yourself intact