Monday, December 29, 2014

strangest times

How has it been a year since my last Jon Brion show at Largo at the Coronet? I could point to the shrinking middle class and the nation's growing income disparity, but who wants to hear that? Eh, I'll blame sweet, sweet pennant-winning baseball instead. More important, how has it been 10 years of Jon Brion Christmas shows under my belt? That's all on me, and I'll take it.

Wesley SnipesJon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 19, 2014: Have you ever had one of those days that's a tad off? Dinner at a favorite restaurant didn't quite hit the spot (we are spice wimps), then our Largo seat assignments were not the usual chairs. In fact, I hadn't sat so far back since an especially harried night early in the Coronet's revival. Eventually, we gave up our seats entirely and took the back row, which actually had a couple of advantages: The sound is great, and we saw Wesley Snipes in attendance. Also, I can't fault Largo staff, seeing as I hadn't been around for a full year, and they'd been perfect to an extreme degree during last December's massive undertaking. The only real casualty of the night were my notes, which were nowhere near as extensive as normal due to the lack of light. Sob!

Anyway, back to an earlier point: I suspected the numbers had been creeping up over the years, but couldn't confirm them until I got home. I first hit Jon Brion's Christmas show back in 2005, which means this was my 10th outing to Largo for the occasion. I guess you can say I'm in for the long haul. Not only that, my SoCal holiday plans have expanded over the years, including other shows when I can, as well as a favorite podcast taping. Despite the seating situation, I can wholeheartedly reiterate there is no place I'd rather be ahead of the holidays than Los Angeles.

In a night of surprises, you could add Jon's almost skeletal setup to that list. No wires, no drum kit, no vibes, no organs, no electric -- in their place, a handful of acoustic guitars, a few microphones, and a stool or two. My guess is that he and his techs didn't care to drag in the tangle of equipment, only to break it down a few days before the holidays. As we all know, Jon can make a milk carton sound good, so no worries there.

We'd have to wait a bit for Jon's set, as Tom Papa opened the show, following Flanny's intro. Jon took the stage shortly after.

Fortunately, some details don't change at Largo, as Jon opened with a piano number. I heard hints of "Every Time We Say Goodbye," but my word is worthless in that respect. Maybe you can guess at the jazzy feel, though?

Jon then went through several of his own tracks, starting with "Strangest Times" from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack -- and a fitting theme for our night, if not the whole damn year. On this relative rarity, he went all piano and threw in some vocals for good measure. Remaining on the piano and the soundtrack work, "Strings That Tie to You" came next, then "Happy With You." Jon banged out the long outro on "Happy" on the keys and commented that he needed to relearn it, as he usually played it on bass, which you've probably seen and heard for yourself if you've attended a Jon Brion show in the last 10-odd years.

The guitars beckoned for the ensuing chunk of the gig, starting with "Love of My Life So Far." From our seats, we couldn't see all of Jon's equipment, so imagine our surprise when a fuzzy rhythm track rung out. At first, I thought the sound booth was pumping in the sound, but it slowly became obvious that the addition originated from Jon, as he planted his feet. My guess is that he had some sort of effects setup at his feet, not unlike his usual array, only without all the electric guitars. I'd like to see that again, preferably from a closer vantage point.

Jon opened the door to requests, his first choice one of his own ("Knock Yourself Out"), but the second was a beloved cover, with a requested singalong. "Space Oddity" was as beautiful as ever. I can't tell how much we as an audience contributed, but I think we made our presence known. The consummate collaborator, Jon pitched in with harmonies, and the sound engineers fiddled with delays and treatments to send the song to the stratosphere.

Jon closed out this guitar segment with "Same Thing." You know all the adjustments Jon makes for this song on the piano? He kind of did the same on the guitar, as much as those moves can translate between instruments.

If you know me, you know I keep a few trusty requests in my back pocket, depending on the mood of the show. As it happened, Jon returned to the piano and, on his own volition, went with one of my standbys, "Nothing Between Us" -- like "Same Thing," harkening back to the Grays days. Jon eased in a slightly different bridge and a long instrumental coda.

The next request was another all-time classic, "Jealous Guy." Jon needed a little help on the third verse, and I believe the requester came through. You gotta give it up for a fan who can back up their suggestions with lyrics (which would often disqualify me). We even tried to help out with the whistling bridge, again with varying degrees of success. Jon capped it off with the comment that it was one of the best songs ever. Agreed!

Jon's first guest of the night was David Garza, who'd been absent from Largo for a long time. This blog notes his last appearance as 2008, but don't take my word for it. David and Jon did a song on their own, as Gaby Moreno made her way to the stage, per David's request. Gaby then took the next two songs, her strong voice filling the room. They were both sung in Spanish, but thanks to her stage banter and a little research, I can report the second track was "Peces en el Rio."

Sara Watkins dropped in to help with backing vocals for the latter, then took over for a few titles. The first was "Be My Husband," from the Nina Simone songbook. Sara played her fiddle, of course, but by the end of the song, she had gone a cappella, which is always welcome with her lovely voice.

For her second track, she picked up one of Jon's guitars and attempted "Christmas in Prison," as she had the night before. However, she stumbled on the second or third line. Jon and David both offered improvised alternatives, but finally an audience member prodded her along, aided by his forbidden smartphone. From there, she finished the tune with no extra hints.

Sara volunteered a short preamble for the next song, noting that you were in trouble if your name was Cora or Corey in a folk song. Sure enough, Corey got it all the way to the grave. The treat in this traditional track: Jon playing brushes on the piano.

Jon was now left on his own, and he opted for what sounded like a new original song. The follow-up was a joke in response to his call for requests, when a guy sitting in the last row (in front of us) yelled out a nonsensical imitation of the melee of voices directed at the stage. Also responding to the peanut gallery, Jon finally picked up on his own "Ruin My Day," another request from fans in the last row. Jon closed out the main set back on guitar with "I Believe She's Lying," which featured a beautiful Western-sounding coda.

At the top of the show, Griffee had made no mention of a late set in the Little Room -- kind of a bummer, as Jon has been venturing over again in the last few months (according to my sources). However, Jon finished up the night with an all-Randy Newman encore. Perhaps he caught the final episode of The Colbert Report too? The third song, "Political Science," was sort of a no-brainer, given the truly depressing year. Once more, Jon asked us to sing along, and my well-trained companions did their part (me, not so much).

Finally, Jon tipped his hat to the season, coaxing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" out of the piano. I'm too lazy to go through the old setlists right now, but that may be the only staple of Jon's Christmas shows. (Oops, I take it back -- it isn't.) The song is so lovely in his hands and so welcome, especially in an otherwise irreverent show. I'll take it every December for as long as I can.

Tom Papa opener

-- piano
-- Strangest Times
-- Strings That Tie to You
-- Happy With You
-- Love of My Life So Far
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Space Oddity
-- Same Thing
-- Nothing Between Us
-- Jealous Guy
-- ? *
-- ? **
-- Peces en el Rio ***
-- Be My Husband ****
-- Christmas in Prison ****
-- Darling Corey ****
-- JB song
-- Tom Waits improv nonsense
-- Ruin My Day
-- I Believe She's Lying

-- Sail Away
-- Dayton, Ohio - 1903
-- Political Science
-- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

* = with David Garza
** = with David Garza and Gaby Moreno
*** = with David Garza, Gaby Moreno, and Sara Watkins
**** = with David Garza and Sara Watkins

Ghosts of Christmas past:
» let your heart be light
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» with soul power
» it's the end of the things you know
» you could say one recovers
» a really good time
» the things you do to keep yourself intact
» i've heard a rumor from ground control

Friday, December 26, 2014

blue christmas

Should you have the luxury of planning a getaway before the holidays, may I suggest a few days in Los Angeles? I'm now even more addicted to this tradition and was glad to squeeze into the Watkins Family Hour at Largo at the Coronet during my most recent visit.

The Watkins Family Hour, Largo at the Coronet, December 17, 2014: I'll admit right now that the title of this post comes from one of two songs I (1) recognized or (2) took note of the request. Even then, it's kind of a lie because Christmas was anything but blue in Los Angeles, either meteorologically or metaphorically.

When I'm in L.A., the Watkins Family Hour tends to be the hors d'oeuvre before the main entree -- or in this week, the palate cleanser between courses. But they are no ordinary snack. In many ways, they seem to have taken on the mantle of collaboration at Largo, with a varied and unexpected mix of talented guests and friends every month. I think they've settled into a workable blueprint for their shows, but as my visits to Largo have been limited, you'll have to forgive me if I repeat common knowledge. Also, I didn't take notes, so don't expect exhaustive coverage of every detail.

Sara and Sean opened the show on their own, then brought out the crack staff of backing artists that Largo regulars have come to know and love: Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg, Don Heffington, and Greg Leisz. They kept a low-key presence onstage, but I guarantee that they're all over your record collection, in one combination or another, as you'll discover if you dig into the liner notes.

The first musical guests of the night were Beth Orton and Sam Amidon, along with Ella, a young friend from England (and Beth's helper while Sam was on tour). Confession: I had spied Beth slipping in earlier that evening, so her appearance wasn't a surprise, though it was a delight. Beth is a longtime Largo regular dating back from the Fairfax days, but I'd never seen her in a guest or a headlining capacity over the years -- this correction was long overdue. As for Sam Amidon, I had missed him (with her) at Solid Sound a few years ago, so chalk up another nice bonus for the evening. They attempted an old Christmas song Sam had learned growing up in Vermont; Beth messed up several times amid giggles before they finally pulled it off. The guests also came together for an a cappella title, their voices melding effortlessly.

The next artist to show up was less of a guest and more like family, as the Watkinses pointed out: Fiona Apple. She was both funny and weird (funnier and weirder?) tonight, rolling out an alternative narrative on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and possible reactions to his ostracization, all wrapped up in a blue streak. When "Rudolph" was called out for his potty mouth, Fiona informed us Rudolph had recently turned 37 and developed self-awareness. Anyway, it all led to "Walkin' After Midnight," a Fiona staple.

By this point, John C. Reilly had made a couple of appearances, first at the top of the show and again during Fiona's set to move the conversation along. Apparently, he's become the emcee of these engagements, offering banter to tie the show together. Befitting his role, he combined music and musings into his spotlight segment. At first, he and Tom Brousseau took one track together, armed with acoustic guitars and sweet harmonies. John also did a song on his own, the Elvis track referenced in the title of this post. I deserve a bonk on the head for this no-brainer, but dammit, that man can sing. (Sorry, I never saw "Chicago"!)

John C. Reilly closed out his set with his version of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," rewritten for Los Angeles. He nailed every detail of the city and the season, tying it all together with a neat little bow that harkened back to his opening statement. Dammit, John C. Reilly, why do you have to be so talented?!

Jackson Browne rounded out the guest list -- the legend at last. He performed two songs, one by Warren Zevon, the other from Doc Watson, and he too got the John C. Reilly treatment. They didn't quite click immediately, but they eventually hit common ground, with Jackson complimenting John's poem from earlier in the night. However, the real treat in this segment was a story from Sean involving Thanksgiving leftovers and Jackson's swimming pool. Talk about a surreal image!

The show's main segment finished with a group singalong of a song I didn't recognize, except there was a lot of Bethlehem in the chorus (no, not that one). However, the evening was still in progress.

That comment I made earlier about the Watkins taking on the Largo mantle? Another strong argument for that claim: They continued the show in the Little Room. Sara and Sean kicked off the proceedings again, soon joined by Benmont, who did a handful of songs at his hosts' insistence. A few guests remained from the main set and made their way to the stage, among them John C. Reilly and Tom Brousseau. I loved being reminded of Tom Brousseau's inherently high lonesome voice and was pleased to see their rapport. I hate missing out such chapters in Largo's evolution, but I love catching up on my visits back.

I can report two specific memories from this part of the show: Sara covering "Christmas in Prison," which I knew only because I heard the request ring out from the audience; and a short discussion of John's tie, his own creation that looked somewhere between a bow tie and a jabot.

The Little Room was packed with fans, staffers, and other Largo guests -- an unusual scene, believe it or not. The reason for their anticipation soon became clear as Jackson Browne came to the stage. He's not a stranger at Largo (again, going back to the Fairfax days), but guessing by the banter, this may have been his Little Room debut. If so, I'm glad I was there.

Hats off to the Watkinses for another full-hearted night of entertainment. The best part? The week was only half over.

See also:
» all this time
» any old time
» been hoping that you'd drop in

Friday, December 12, 2014

here comes the jackpot question in advance

With any luck, I'll be able to salvage this year's gig tally with a few late shows. Aimee Mann kicks off the season with her holiday extravaganza.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014 The Return of Aimee Mann's Christmas Show, the Fillmore, December 5, 2014: Has it been that long since Aimee brought her Christmas show back to the Bay Area? I know it's still an annual event in Los Angeles, and it's entirely possible I've slept on local dates. But wow, I've missed this highlight of the holiday season!

In Aimee's defense, the Christmas shows have always been a more ambitious affair than your average rock gig and thus require extensive preparation. On stage alone, you could see Christmas ornaments strewn across the floor, a couple boxes of costumes, and more microphones than usual for her band. Then again, the show was advertised as Aimee Mann and friends, following the precedent set by earlier runs.

The show opened with the intro to an old-school TV show called Murder, She Sang, featuring Aimee and Ted Leo as a pair of detectives chasing down perps and solving crimes. The clip bore all of Scharpling's auteur touches, but I'm too lazy to confirm it; surely another blog has the details. (Note: I was wrong! The video was, in fact, directed by Daniel Ralston.) Shortly thereafter, Aimee, Ted, and the Both personnel took the stage.

I have to admit I didn't take notes because I was so appalled and aghast at the bridge-and-tunnel yuppies planted to the side of me (more on them later), so the finer details will go AWOL, but at least there are plenty of highlights to report. As befits a Christmas show, Aimee, Ted, and the band did several Christmas songs, including an old-fashioned English carol and another in tribute to Ted's father ("Little Donkey"?). They even snuck in a couple of original tunes, from the Both and their respective catalogs. Aimee's track was "Save Me," and she apologized for its nonholiday content, but I disagree vehemently. The title alone screams of the season, from both theological and psychological standpoints.

But the bulk of the show hearkened back to that first clip, and early on, Aimee and Ted set up the night's conflict: Aimee's desire to take a break from murder mysteries and Ted's dedication to solving crimes. (Once more, I've reduced a fantastic comic conceit to flat prose. Good job, good effort!) Tim Heidecker (the first guest) forced this point right out of the gate, as he rushed to the stage to report that Santa Claus had been killed backstage. Aimee and Ted would return to the case many times throughout the night, even as they brought the rock.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014

The aforementioned Tim Heidecker reappeared several times through the show, starting with his own stand-up set. I gotta admit Tim and Eric always went right over my head, but he was fantastic onstage, particularly for shutting up the yuppies for a few minutes. Later, he piped in to remind Aimee and Ted of the police matter awaiting their attention, and he took a couple of musical turns. In one, he starred as the title character in "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and in the other, he represented the Jewish new year alongside Father Time (Aimee) and Baby New Year (Ted) on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

The bona fide musical guest for the night was Susanna Hoffs, formerly of the Bangles and her solo career (and UC Berkeley -- go Bears!). Her first song fit into the holiday theme perfectly: "Hazy Shade of Winter." With help from Aimee and Ted, she also treated us to "Walk Like an Egyptian," but with new lyrics offering a lesson on the Jewish holidays, befitting Susanna's heritage, not unlike Morgan Murphy's Hanukkah rap from a few years ago. I'd recite some lyrics if I could, but all I heard was a throwaway reference to the Maccabees.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014

Rounding out the guest list, Handsome Jack brought up a random audience member for a pretty cool trick. Bless the woman playing the foil; I would've died from embarrassment.

Ultimately, Ted convinced Aimee to put on her detective coat (literally) and solve the crime. Their secret weapon was a song that would squeeze the truth out of anyone, Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Elementary, my dear Watson! The duo got their man, then serenaded us to Vince Guaraldi's classic "Christmas Time Is Here."

I've managed to trample the duo's impeccable timing and effortless banter, which was a huge part of the show. Aimee and Ted have been touring for more than a year now, and their connection shows. In their nonmusical moments, they were like an old vaudeville team or a screwball comedy. I could listen to them chatting to one another all night.

Back to the embarrassing yuppies: They squeezed in minutes before the band took the stage, already a few sheets to the wind -- so be it. Then it all went downhill after the first words I heard from them, referring to Aimee: "I hope she's wearing underwear." They were the definition of amateurs, trying to heckle Tim Heidecker and nearly getting into a fight with another couple who swooped in when one of the bridge-and-tunnelers disappeared to get more drinks. At one point, I thought they were going to whip out the credit cards and see whose credit limit was bigger. We later heard that the head fool actually puked on the floor before the show. It brought me right back to a laughably mortifying Wilco show at the Saratoga Mountain Winery -- coincidentally, one of the Aimee's regular venues in the Bay Area. I haven't even mentioned the guy in the front who got kicked out for videotaping the whole show on his camera or yet another interloping woman who tried to throw a pin to Aimee onstage. (Duh, you send it via the roadie!)

Despite all these shenanigans, Aimee put on arguably her most ambitious Christmas show yet, and the gang lived up to the legend. Someday, when we come to our senses, we may finally realize it ranks up there with other Christmas masterpieces like the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet and the original Star Wars Holiday Special.

See also:
» if there's a star above
» unless you hate baby jesus
» it's not going to stop

Sunday, October 19, 2014

extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil, and MSG

Where does the time go?? For starters, I had to survive both the NLDS and the NLCS, and now that the calm has temporarily descended until the World Series begins, I can turn my attention to loose ends. There's absolutely no reason for me to post this review -- other than for personal record keeping -- especially two weeks after the fact, but I might as well finish up my Hardly Strictly coverage with Cibo Matto at the Chapel.

Cibo Matto, the Chapel, Oct. 4, 2014: Speaking of the NLDS, we tore ourselves away from the game during the 14th inning to make our way across town to this show. On the 22 Fillmore, we got news of Brandon Belt's homer at the top of the 18th, but the walk down Valencia was a showcase of my most schizophrenic urges, as I stuck my head in every doorway with a TV, while at the same time denying I needed to watch the remainder of the game. Fortunately, we arrived at the Chapel during the last at-bat, where the Giants struck out the Nationals and capped a 6-hour-plus contest. The room erupted, and we were still in time to catch the opening band. I wonder if Cibo Matto had any idea how the audience might've welcomed them otherwise ...

Cibo Matto

I was excited for this show, as their set at Hardly Strictly the day before wasn't enough for me. To start, the night was a lot cooler, even in the Mission. The sold out crowd was probably at least as cozy, but based on overheard conversations and random chatter, it seemed a lot of us had NLDS energy to dance off.

As expected, Cibo Matto turned out a longer version of their festival set, bringing back many of the tunes and the banter (Big Sur, nature, water). At one point, Yuka's setup stalled, and Miho went slightly off-script to give her time, but I'm pretty sure the audience welcomed the extra chatter. I loved seeing Yuka and Miho's dance moves close up, and you couldn't help but smile at the sight of the entire band springing up and down in unison (kinda).

Cibo Matto

I have no idea why this surprised me, but judging by the fans directly around me, Cibo Matto has a fair-sized following among gay men. What can I say? It was the '90s, and despite obvious female and gay figureheads among the major recording artists, the indie rock scene was dominated by straight white men. Anyway, I had a blast to be disabused of my notions among this adoring, reverent, and energetic crowd.

No-brainer No. 2: I think this is the first time Nels Cline has officially toured with Cibo Matto, and his influence was all over their sound. Cibo Matto has always been known for its unusual, unpredictable hybrid rhythms, but Nels jolted the pace from time to time with hard notes and sonic slaps across your earholes. This should surprise no one that songs both old and new sounded almost exactly as you'd expect when you cross Cibo Matto and Nels Cline. However, if you're expecting the Nels Cline show, think again -- this was all Cibo Matto, albeit the 2014 incarnation.

On our way out, we ran into a few familiar faces scheduled to appear at the festival the next day. It was lovely to see them, but honestly, we had the equivalent of an 18-inning game awaiting us the next day. Still, "Birthday Cake" might qualify as a walk-off closer, as far as gigs go.

See also:
» summer noon

Monday, October 13, 2014

move a little slower

You know the usual math around here: One show is rarely enough. Even with a free festival in progress and plans for stages and sets, I'll take the opportunity to double up on favorite acts -- such as Justin Townes Earle at the Great American Music Hall.

Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, Oct. 3, 2014: Justin has become a standby at Hardly Strictly, much like his father, and he's made a habit of scheduling extra activities around the city around the festival. By no coincidence, he also had a new record to promote -- thus, this show at the Great American.

Regarding that new record, I haven't actually listened to it. A trip to the record stored turned up the CD, but I wanted vinyl. You can chalk it up to blind faith (which artists earn over time) that I'd hit the gig, but it's a good system for me.

Paul Niehaus remained with Justin on pedal steel and lead guitar, but now Matt Pence and Mark Hedman (from Centro-Matic) joined on drum and bass, respectively, and I don't mind pointing out Matt Pence resembled Christian Bale in The Prestige. They all sounded great together, with an ease and a comfort that might as well have been years in the making.

Not having heard the new album, I couldn't know how much of the sound and treatment were new, but the second track, "Ain't Waitin," said a lot. Justin had smoothed over this classic honky-tonk track to the point where it was almost unrecognizably mellow and breezy. In fact, they maintained this general tone throughout the evening, maintaining an even keel, all the way to the closing cover.

From the back catalog, the band played "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now" and "Harlem River Blues," and I recognized "Worried Bout the Weather" from last year's Hardly Strictly performance. I also remembered "They Killed John Henry," during the solo acoustic part of the evening, which grows sweeter with every listen, especially knowing the inspiration for the tune.

Justin Townes Earle

As usual, Justin was talkative and prickly in parts -- for example, when shutting down the hecklers. One guy in the front requested that lead mic be turned up, but as Justin pointed out, the sound would be better if he stood a little farther back. Believe it or not, the guy took the advice. Another dude requested some incomprehensible song. Justin's comeback: "I remember my first beer too." Of course, we also heard gripes about the state of modern country music.

Justin offered a caveat that his songs were not entirely autobiographical, but he referred to his mother a few times -- not least before the title track "Single Mothers." His comments about "Mama's Eyes" were particularly sweet, and I'm sure you can find her presence on many other songs.

I have to admit: If this is the new, sober, settled Justin, I'll need some time to get used to it, but bless him for staying in the zone. I imagine this will be a work in progress. His voice sounds great as always, and his rougher edges still show in his banter and conversation. I may be alone among my friends for sticking with him, but truth is, I wasn't an old-school fan anyway. I don't mind the less bluesy edge.

In earlier shows, Justin's closer of choice was the Replacements, inspired by his mother's favorite tunes. Justin drew from the same well for the new concluding track, which happens to be near and dear to my heart (though it also makes me nervous to realize I'm almost old enough to be his mother). The song was "Dreams" from Fleetwood Mac, and I've waxed lovingly about the title before. No irony: That's an all-time great album, and I was thrilled to hear Justin make it his own.

See also:
» we both pretend we don't know why
» summer noon

Saturday, October 11, 2014

summer noon

Is this thing on? Eh, what's a little dust between friends? Now, onto the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, circa 2014.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 3 to 5, 2014: Oy vey, three-plus months without a show -- not even a free one! Would you believe I've been going to baseball games? Though raised on football (and futbol, come to think of it) to the point where I checked out books about '70s-era Raiders (Kenny "The Snake" Stabler! Lester Hayes! Biletnikoff!) from my school library in an effort to bond with my father, I've finally fallen in love with the most old-fashioned of old-fashioned games. Granted, attending two World Series parades and working down the street from the ballpark the cutest catcher in the game calls home doesn't hurt. Still, what's not to love about this view?

AT&T Park

Oh, right, Hardly Strictly! The timing of the festival couldn't be better, as the music assuaged all my anxiety over the playoffs and/or gave me a reason to stretch out of the fetal position I've been stuck in since the play-in game. Per usual, I'll proceed in chronological order.

For the first time in a while, I took the Friday off for the festival, with the vague goal of seeing one artist, but little else in way of set plans. Instead, I hopped a friend's blankets and coattails throughout most of the day. First stop: Rooster Stage, which has been an impregnable fortress every time I've casually passed by. Now I know the key is to get there early, if you want to give yourself a fighting chance. Friday at the Rooster Stage has become known as the Conor Oberst show, but I only wanted to see Waxahatchee, beloved by one of my Canadian tipsters. I had no idea what to expect, but they seemed to have great lyrics, and the duo's spare, acoustic performance eased us gently into the long, hot weekend of music.

Next up, over to Star Stage for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, not only a rocking Vietnamese lady, but a local resident to boot. I'd seen her once previously and thought she was great. I haven't been able to get to any of her shows since, but it's cool to see her bloom and join in on one of the city's marquee events. She and the band sounded awesome, and by my count, she played four different instruments through the set.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Our paths led over to the Arrow Stage, which unfortunately was the hottest, sunniest spot in the entire field on this 90-degree day. I hadn't planned to, but I stuck it out for Hooray for the Riff Raff, who were fun, upbeat, and engaging -- not to mention spot-on politically for the crowd. To top it off, there was still room to do-si-do on Friday.

However, I had played hooky from work specifically for Cibo Matto, who followed Hooray for the Riff Raff on Arrow. I've had a chance to see the band in its reincarnation a few times now, but the twist on this tour was the addition of Nels Cline. I'll go into the tunes a little more in my write-up of the band's gig at the Chapel, but let me say this about the festival performance: Damn, that was fun! Thirsty, sweaty, hot, and sunburned (to varying degrees), we danced our butts off to Cibo Matto. With the musicians themselves jumping around, not to mention Miho and Yuka breaking out their choreography, how could we stand still? Overall, their set was a condensed version of their solo show, but they closed with perennial favorite "Birthday Cake," moving the woman next to me (a complete stranger) to exclaim, "I love that song!"

Cibo Matto

I don't go to enough festivals to know how the demographics shape up from event to event, but the Cibo Matto crowd warmed my bleeding heart. Clearly, Cibo Matto falls under the "hardly strictly" banner, and all the more power to them for it. Looking around, you could see Japanese visitors, the typical hippie contingent, Nels Cline gear heads, Gen Xers, and today's millennials, all looking for an excuse to dance around and yell out lyrics about BBQ. They were so good, I had no choice but to leave after their set and save what little energy I had left. It was going to be a long weekend! Even better, the Giants took game one of the NLDS around the same time Cibo Matto took the stage.

Saturday also started early and warm, but the wandering was over, as far as I was concerned. Instead, we set up at the Star Stage, and I (for one) stayed there throughout. The day began with Whograss, specially gathered for the festival. A fellow early bird gave me the heads-up on the ensemble: Local notables coming together to cover Who tunes in the bluegrass style. The roll call included Chris von Sneidern, Prairie Prince, and Peter Sear, among others, but my favorite guest was Chuck Prophet, who dropped in for "Pinball Wizard." Truth be told, the bluegrass was less than discernible, but you gotta hand it to them for closing with "My Generation."

Whograss with Chuck Prophet

If you've been to Hardly Strictly, you know the sets at Star and Towers of Gold are staggered, so you can easily listen to the entire roster from one location. We heard Red Baraat, who were probably incredibly entertaining, if not my cuppa. Back at Star, Bad Luck Jonathan -- aka Jon Langford and friends circa 2014 -- rocked out in ridiculous costumes that looked less than comfortable in the heat. The fashion plate among them was introduced as "the pope of Golden Gate Park," whereas Jon and company had to make do with looking like groomsmen at best. At least Sally Timms wore an appropriately summery dress.

I wouldn't have minded catching Deltron's set on Towers of Gold, but the maneuvering and jostling had already begun, so the PA would have to do. I may have been the only person to be surprised by the closer "Clint Eastwood," but I'm glad they got it in.

Justin Townes Earle was the first performer of the day I truly wanted to see. I'll discuss more in my review of his Great American show, but I'll point out one major difference between the two performances. At Hardly Strictly, he poured out his love and appreciation for his wife of one year. She aptly beamed from the backstage. He too performed a shorter version of his full set, but retained several highlights, including a new closing cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." I'm pretty sure I've already professed my love of the song on this blog, so there's one plus for the tune. He also mentioned it reminded him of his mother, as did the Replacements song he sang in earlier shows.

Mavis Staples rounded out Saturday's roster. Alas, no guests dropped in (we hear they were communing with nature up north), but Mavis hardly needed a helping hand. Love poured out to her, and she sent it right back to us. We sang along like fools and did all her bidding, as requested. Like Cibo Matto, Mavis drew a diverse crowd, from Baby Boomers (such as the man behind me who found a sudden store of energy to pop up from the stool he had brought along to stand on his feet, loudly requesting "I'll Take You There" at every opportunity) to college students and everyone in between. Obviously, I've seen Mavis in concert before, but this time, without the younger friends, she may have been even more powerful and moving than I expected. Thus, our Saturday at the park drew to a close -- we had a long Sunday ahead of us.

Seven years ago now, we enjoyed the best spot imaginable at the Banjo Stage, thanks to a friend's diligence and single-mindedness. That didn't happen again, though we managed to drag ourselves to the park early enough to learn exactly when you need to show up to grab the prime real estate. We did fine, staked right behind the disabled section; we figured most of the people in front of us would at least be sitting down. Also, the fog finally returned in the morning, and the temperatures dropped to a reasonable level.

I've stayed away from Banjo for a while now, so I wasn't prepared to be steeped in so much tradition -- but that's all on me, not Banjo. Granted, the day's first notes were traditional enough: Emmylou's sound check, which was a small concert in itself. She sounded lovely, and her guitarist reeled off "Hey Joe" before they left the stage.

Of the six acts scheduled for Banjo, two were less than doctrinaire. The first was Malawi Mouse Boys, who broke out at WOMAD last year and are now touring the globe. They had little relation to the rest of the music we'd hear for the rest of the day, other than perhaps the DIY, down-home roots, but I enjoyed their energy and harmonies first -- er, second thing in the morning.

I don't have a ton to say about Hot Rize, the Earls of Leicester, or Ralph Stanley, though I'm sure you can find words of appreciation elsewhere. They were all a twangy run-up to Tweedy, the highlight of my entire festival.


If you've been following this blog, you know I haven't seen a ton of shows this year, including my favorites -- Tweedy among them. I haven't been able to travel to the shows, but lucky for me, their only West Coast date this year (so far) was scheduled for my backyard.

One thought occurred to me as I watched the genre stalwarts fill up the day: Tweedy would be a marked departure. As far as I could tell, the band didn't even use a banjo! The stage's host remarked as much too, drawing a parallel to the old Ed Sullivan show and how we were in for something different. Well, he certainly knew his audience. Though perhaps not so different from Wilco, Tweedy took a hard left turn from the tradition we'd been hearing all day with "Diamond Light" and "Please Don't Let Me Be So Misunderstood." Alas, the hardcore fest-goers who had Emmylou on their minds didn't look particularly moved until later in the set, when Jeff went solo acoustic and broke out old Wilco and Uncle Tupelo tracks. I didn't realize this was part of the Tweedy show, but I always dig Jeff on his own -- which is how he first came to Hardly Strictly years ago.

If I had my way, the setlist would've included "Acuff Rose," mainly because a festival of this sort probably wouldn't be possible without it, but the two closers were well called: the Doug Sahm cover and the crowd-pleasing "California Stars," which finally got the masses up and dancing, including our distinguished emcee and an equally venerable friend.

On the musical front, I loved seeing the band craft the tunes in front of our eyes. Spencer Tweedy has enjoyed his share of the spotlight for this record -- for good reason. His work on the album belies his 18 years on earth, and his live skills measured up to the already elevated expectations. Jim Elkington and Liam Cunningham were surprises to me -- I had no idea Jim would take so many of the guitar solos, and Liam added lovely touches with his all-around contributions (backing vocals!). I hope they return to the West Coast, but until then, I'm beyond glad they landed at Hardly Strictly for this exclusive date.

Having made it this far, we stuck around for the one and only Emmylou Harris. I don't remember her set being as straightforward; then again, many of the veterans have passed, and several of her usual collaborators had moved on to their next tour dates. Still, count your blessings when Emmylou is the glue that holds your festival together.

See also:
» feels lucky to have you here
» upwards to the vanguards

Monday, June 30, 2014

her heart beats like a breezeblock

The drive home late Monday night required me to carefully navigate the dark curves of Highway 17 when all I really wanted to do was blast "The Loneliness and the Scream" on repeat, stick my head out the window, and yell along to the song, all while driving 100mph. However, safety required only one of those was possible, especially if I wanted to live long enough to catch the final show of the Owl John tour in San Francisco the following night.

Owl John, the Chapel, 06-24-14Owl John, the Chapel, June 24, 2014: I complain a lot about San Francisco's current dot-com boom, but one big difference between this gold rush and its '90s predecessor is the fact that more clubs and venues seem to be opening around town, unlike all the threatened closings of the previous round. You can include the Chapel as one of the new spots, and embarrassingly, I hadn't yet made it out there. I was finally ready to fix the error of my ways with the Owl John show.

The Chapel was probably the biggest club on this tour and I'm guessing the grandest, though it still was small enough to feel warm and exclusive. It might've had the best turnout too -- a huge step up from the Crepe Place and even the tiny Echo. Frightened Rabbit has always enjoyed a solid following in San Francisco, and Owl John continued this tradition.

On this larger stage, Scott returned to the electric guitar, and now as an Owl John veteran, I noticed a few familiar patterns. "Old Old Fashioned" kicked off the proceedings, complete with appreciative whoops when the audience recognized the tune, and "Poke" and "Keep Yourself Warm" dominated the early requests, only to be saved for a later slot.

With three shows in my pocket, I'd had a better chance to listen to the new songs, particularly "Los Angeles, Be Kind" and "A Good Reason to Grow Old." Your guess is as good as mine as to how they'll sound with full studio resources behind them, but from what I could tell, the frank, aching lyrics are intact. At least on the latter track, they're openly romantic ... for the first time ever? I'll be listening when the record drops.

In terms of the set, "State Hospital" made the cut again, and it sounded a lot better on electric than acoustic guitar (sorry, Crepe Place). A new friend and I tried to do the backing vocals for "The Wrestle," which caught Scott's attention enough that he encouraged everyone who knew the backing vocals to join in. Unfortunately, the only audible reaction seemed to come from a group of ladies who screamed in the chorus. I'm pretty sure other people were singing in their corners, but the combination of the room, the electric guitar, and our proximity may have drowned out their contributions.

The special track of the night was "Behave," dedicated to a friend who believed in the band long before anyone else picked up on them. Take note, anyone who wants to hear a song from the first record.

Owl John, the Chapel, 06-24-14

Another observation: I don't think Scott likes to do "Fast Blood," though it comes up as a request all the time. Granted, I'm judging from a small sample size, but I've seen this at Frightened Rabbit gigs too. I'd love to hear it, but I won't assume it's a staple at every show.

Scott was again highly talkative, even before a lady in the audience informed him his fly was down, a full six songs into the set. Standing front and center, we had noticed it too, but how do you bring up the topic? I'll file that away for the next encounter. At first, he was embarrassed, claiming he had nightmares about such a scenario. Then he turned defiant and leaned into it, but ultimately, opted for decorum (fly up).

This being San Francisco, he also fielded a declaration of lust from a male audience member who yelled -- I quote -- "I want you inside me." Scott obliged to a certain extent, offering earhole access and no looking, as well as keys to his hotel room.

As expected, the news that he now lived in Los Angeles didn't go well in San Francisco, but as he explained, he moved there because he fell in love ... with Miley Cyrus, whom he tweets every day, but she doesn't reply. It was actually a very sweet moment. He also later admitted that everyone knew San Francisco was the cooler city, which seemed to excuse his actions for the time being.

Owl John, the Chapel, 06-24-14

I noted 21 songs at this show as well, but the sheer volume of chatter pushed this gig toward and maybe even over the two-hour mark. I stayed for every second of it, down to the now familiar closing trio of "The Loneliness and the Scream," "Poke," and "Keep Yourself Warm." The crowd picked up on the clapping for "Loneliness," though Scott warned us not to go too fast, and we filled in where we could on the last two tracks. We did respectably well, though we still trailed Los Angeles in that regard by a ways.

Dan Wilson from Withered Hand opened all the shows, and it was easy to see the affinity between Withered Hand and Frightened Rabbit. They both favored sharp, self-deprecating lyrics with a contemporary outlook, and Dan even name-checked the Silver Jews. Dan's performances had also grown stronger over the course of the tour, and by San Francisco, he simply sounded great. He reminded me a lot of Badly Drawn Boy, which is a high compliment in my book.

In Santa Cruz, Scott pointed out that he'll be back when the album comes out, and in each city, he casually mentioned that he could do shows easily, now that he lived just down the road. "Easy" is probably an exaggeration, but Scott has proven his mettle as a road warrior. I look forward to seeing him in yet another remote location. I hear Pioneertown and Big Sur are awesome!

Owl John in California
» Los Angeles: four worn-out limbs and not one love song
» Santa Cruz: give me soft, soft static

See also:
» let's get old fashioned
» all possibilities

Sunday, June 29, 2014

give me soft, soft static

With a human voice underneath.

Owl John, the Crepe Place, June 23, 2014: My old rock tourism reflexes began twitching as soon as the Owl John tour dates were first announced, but following the Echo gig, I had to make it happen. Early on, Visalia was particularly intriguing, as I'd seen British Sea Power there a few years ago, but other obligations foiled those plans. That left Santa Cruz, which was entirely doable, even after a day at work and a significant drive out of town. Best of all, it was a bona fide tertiary market.

I'd driven past the Crepe Place before, but had yet to venture in. It's right across the street from the fabulous Rio Theatre -- and what's not to love about a concert venue that puts food first? But even knowing Santa Cruz's laid-back reputation and the possibilities of seeing a gig at a creperie, I had thoroughly overestimated the room's capacity and formality. The doorman told me the stage was to the right of the entrance, but he neglected to mention the mic stood planted directly on the bar floor, 10 feet from that initial ingress.

In fact, the Crepe Place was divided into two spaces. In the back, diners sat down in the nicely sized restaurant. In the bar, not even 100 people convened to watch the musical act. Funny enough, in terms of setup, the Crepe Place brought to mind the Cellar Door in Visalia and probably a bunch of other venues I've frequented in the past.

Taking the stage, Scott immediately reported that a lady in the audience had asked him not to do "old shit," then let us know she'd be disappointed, as that was his main plan. The rest of the crowd was glad to hear it.

Owl John, 06-23-14, the Crepe Place

For this smaller room, Scott went with the acoustic treatment, borrowing a guitar from Withered Hand, the opener. Once again, he began with "Old Old Fashioned," more recognizable this time in acoustic form. When he called for requests, the small audience turned out to be enthusiastic and fairly knowledgeable. In a repeat of probably every solo gig Scott ever does, "Poke" and "Keep Yourself Warm" jumped out right away, and Scott had to remind the room that he had to save the hits, for fear of everyone leaving prematurely. Here's a hint, based on my attendance of a grand total of three shows: "Poke" and "Keep Yourself Warm" are almost guaranteed to come up, likely near the end of the gig. It pays to be patient.

With an entire Owl John gig already under my belt, I quickly realized that Scott was sticking to the same general song list, with a surprise or two thrown in every night, which I believe is the same model Frightened Rabbit uses. The rarity tonight might've been "Foot Shooter," which was great to hear. I managed to get in a request for "State Hospital," so thanks to Scott for obliging.

Two differences stood out to me about this show. First, Scott seemed even more talkative than usual, and it's not like he'd been taciturn and shy in Los Angeles. For example, he explained that "Scottish Winds" was a song about where he came from, but after a beat clarified it was not about his mother's womb. In fact, he said, he hadn't written a song about his mother's womb ... yet. He also disowned "Snake," from Frightened Rabbit's first record. And in an aside about "Heads Roll Off," he brought up a guy who had been singing a little too well at one of his earlier shows (probably Los Angeles), adding trills and embellishments Scott couldn't do himself. Scott would refer to him as "Beyonce," probably in the best sense possible. Finally, Scott also told us about the time he lost his voice and saw the accompanying medical photos, in which his throat looked a lot like a vagina. Hey-oh!

Scott also briefly brought up seeing Radiohead's Kid A tour and about the metal tuning (drop C) he uses on "Swim Until You Can't See Land." Somehow this led to a riff on Suck Satan's Cock, the band.

The second -- and related -- difference: The show was notably longer than Thursday night's gig. I counted 21 songs at this date, compared to 19 for Los Angeles, but Scott himself noted it was his longest show yet on the tour. There's probably no single reason for this variation. I suspect Scott grew more comfortable over the course of the intervening gigs and simply wanted to play more tunes. Or maybe Santa Cruz was suitably intimate and low key for him to keep going. No one was complaining.

Scott closed the show with "Keep Yourself Warm," the sorrowful Highland howl nearly an instrument on its own. The crowd helped out, and though Los Angeles had us beat in musicality, the audience did well for the numbers. In fact, the handful of enthusiastic, dedicated fans was evident from the beginning and showed Scott he was as welcome in this town as in any metropolis.

Owl John in California
» Los Angeles: four worn-out limbs and not one love song
» San Francisco: her heart beats like a breezeblock

See also
» fans of alcohol
» the high lonesome truth

Saturday, June 28, 2014

overtook me by surprise

This gig was kind of the bonus of the weekend, but it turned out to be a bonus-plus. Not only would I get to see Robyn Hitchcock at the fabled McCabe's Guitar Shop (all the way on the west side!), but the second set would be all covers. Funny thing is I didn't even know the shows had an agenda -- I was happy enough seeing a Robyn one-off.

Robyn Hitchcock, McCabe's Guitar Shop, June 20, 2014Robyn Hitchcock, McCabe's Guitar Shop, June 20, 2014: Here's a fun exercise: Try to picture everyone at a Robyn Hitchcock gig as their younger New Wave selves. Some will be easier than others -- either due to their bone structure, their genetic disposition, or the fact they haven't changed their hairstyle or their fashion philosophy in decades. To be fair, I'll play too. Imagine an exceedingly nerdy, bookish, and math-oriented girl with plain hair and not good eyebrows, but with the suburban girl designer-label wardrobe, and you got me all figured out.

As this was my first trip to McCabe's, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard all the stories about the size of the room and its day-to-day function as a working guitar shop, and in those respects, McCabe's didn't disappoint. As a non-musician, I can't guess at the value or desirability of the instruments hanging on the walls, but there sure were a lot of them, in pristine condition. I also liked what surely must've been a well-trodden line warning us in case of emergency, please wait until the staff removes the guitars first. You know they weren't lying.

Robyn wore a polka dot shirt and sunglasses (and pants and shoes) when he first arrived onstage, and the sunglasses stayed on for several songs, accompanied by an explanation no one knew whether to take seriously. As previously stated, the set was devoted to covers, and only now looking at a blog post on another site do I see that he has a collection of covers coming out this fall, but none of the songs on the record surfaced at this show.

Still, it was probably no surprise that the opener was Bob Dylan's "I'm Not There." He then proceeded through a bunch of names you'd probably expect: Ray Davies, the Doors (since we were in Los Angeles), Arthur Lee, and David Bowie, off the top of my head. Robyn's Ray Davies recollection had to do with the sorry state of Ray's shoes. Regarding Bowie, Robyn's run-up to the song involved a discussion of the sax solo, and he cited "Soul Love" as the best use of it before performing the tune itself, including humming the sax portion. I think a Syd Barrett song might've been the second track, but Robyn didn't bother to make a formal introduction -- perhaps it was already obvious to everyone else in the room.

As has been made evidently clear in this blog, I'm well acquainted with certain musical eras, not so much with others, and Robyn hit two songs residing squarely in my wheelhouse. The first was Roxy Music's "Oh Yeah," and what do you know? I actually heard him do this song a few years ago. Though I never made the connection before, it now seems inarguable that Roxy Music must've been a staple for Robyn in his formative years. The song was a surprise and a joy, and I sang along to every word. Sigh.

Another tune might as well have been served up on a silver platter, and Robyn of course had a story for it too, dating back to its origins as a B-side that apparently was quite popular in Maryland. Also, Robyn had received an email from the songwriter the week before, and they remain good friends. The song was "Ghost in You," which was part of my teenage canon, and I may have applauded too enthusiastically in response. This track is, in fact, on the forthcoming record, so we'll all be able to hear it at our convenience soon.

Robyn returned to Dylan for the main set closer, with one of his trademark covers, "Visions of Johanna." I still have no idea how he remembers all the words to that song. I mean, how many verses are in there? Though I'm not much of a Dylan person, I would easily put Robyn's version as one of my favorite Dylan covers in circulation.

If I had one tiny note about Robyn's song selection, I would've liked to hear him cover a song written by a woman, especially since I know he can do it. But for his final song, he went with his own track written for Emmylou Harris, and I believe it will be on the next record.

Coming into the show, I thought maybe we'd get a special guest -- maybe not that special guest, but perhaps the other one? Or any of a dozen others? Almost immediately, it became clear that this was a pipe dream, but Robyn didn't need any of them. He did quite beautifully by himself, accompanied by his inspirations through the years.

See also:
» there's a band playing on the radio
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» simple twist of fate
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon
» i was a new york doll

Thursday, June 26, 2014

four worn-out limbs and not one love song

Let me say at the outset that this is the reason I (1) go to shows and (2) blog about them. The Owl John concert at the Echo not only reminded me of how great live music can be, but also nourished me in the way only an amazing gig can achieve. Also, I'm fully feeling the Frightened Rabbit heart sickness again. Watch out, world!

Owl John, the Echo, June 19, 2014: Last time I was at the Echo, it was known as the Echo Lounge and it was a little less polished than it stood today. The previous gig was great, and this one lived up to those standards too, though in a different way.

Owl John, 06-19-14, the Echo

For those of you who follow Frightened Rabbit and/or Owl John on Twitter and/or Instagram, you may have noticed photos of recording sessions in Laurel Canyon popping up in the past few months. Perhaps you, like me, wondered what music was being recorded. After all, Frightened Rabbit had finished their tour not long ago and it seemed premature to expect new material from them so quickly. It took a while for word to leak of the Owl John record. But even with that tidbit, it was hard to know what to expect. I think we had one track to go on -- but honestly, I didn't need that track to check out this tour.

Scott must've read our minds because he answered that very question almost at the outset. He explained that the Owl John album was supposed to be finished by then, but it didn't quite come together -- so we could expect to hear a bunch of old Frightened Rabbit songs. Oh, the hardship!

Owl John, 06-19-14, the EchoPlaying solo electric guitar, Scott transformed Frightened Rabbit favorites in ways I didn't expect. He opened with "Old Old Fashioned," slow and stretched out, minus the square-dance stomp we know so well. Lately, I've been thinking I'd love to put it on a mix tape next to anything from Wilco's Being There, but this version was a treat too. Then again, you'd have to work pretty hard to screw it up.

Scott asked for requests, but he admitted he was just waiting for a song he was going to play anyway. Of course, a ton of old, obscure tracks were called out, but Scott admitted that the first album was only OK. Also, he couldn't remember a lot of them anyway. Still, we got some great B-sides, including "Fuck This Place" and "Scottish Winds."

I'm not sure Frightened Rabbit has any hits in the United States, so we American fans might be well-suited to hear whatever Scott wanted to play, but certain tracks will always percolate to the top. You're almost guaranteed to hear "My Backwards Walk" and "The Twist," but I wouldn't say the others were entirely expected -- which is not to say they weren't welcome. For example, "Oil Slick" surfaced, and as I've stated before, it's emerged as a favorite from Pedestrian Verse, but I'm a sucker for songs that use music as an analogy (see: many, many Wilco song). The dark-horse track might've been "Floating in the Forth," which was pretty and lovely.

Along the way, Scott also indulged in raconteur mode. For example, he revealed that "The Wrestle" was not, in fact, about fighting a shark. Rather, the topic was fucking (his word) -- which should come as no surprise to anyone who's listened to the lyrics on Midnight Organ Fight. He also revealed that one song was sort of stolen from an Eagle Eye Cherry track and he kind of channeled a character from Family Guy for another song. Due to my lack of knowledge on either topic, I can't confirm these claims.

I love L.A. shows, and I think the city gets a bad rep for obnoxious crowds. I suppose if you go to trendy gigs, you'll run into your share of scenesters and industry folks. Overall, that hasn't been my experience, and I suspect a lot of the people who buy the tickets are regular folks driving in from the deep suburbs to see their favorite musicians. Beyond that, L.A. gigs have a lot more going for them. For one thing, there are so many to choose from! But one unique element came up at this show.

Sure, you've heard the stories about people moving to Los Angeles for their acting, writing, dancing, music, what have you career. Make of that what you will, but there's an unexpected benefit to their presence. Sometimes, they contribute to a show, and they sound great.

At this Owl John gig, we first heard it on the fifth track, "Holy," when the crowd started clapping spontaneously to the beat of the song. We (ha!) sounded so good that Scott stopped to compliment us and get a dig in at his brother at the same time. This continued for other songs, reaching a peak with "The Loneliness and the Scream," which was just about as good as the full-band version.

Let me clarify: Nothing will beat the full-band version as a sensory tsunami, but with only Scott's guitar to accompany us, our clapping and yelling enjoyed the spotlight -- and we delivered.

Do you have a favorite song with a particular riff that fills you with anticipation and makes you want to scream as you wait for it to hit? Maybe a riff inspires a Pavlovian response in you, moving you to jump around, bellow from your innermost core, punch the person next to you? Off the top of my head, "Laminated Cat" by Loose Fur does that for me, as does any Jon Brion performance of "Heroes" -- and the same goes for "The Loneliness and the Scream." Those four little notes get me every time, and that song is guaranteed to plant itself into my brain for at least a week after any live performance. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep that night and woke up the next morning still humming the melody and tapping my foot to the rhythm. I love almost every song Scott and/or Frightened Rabbit plays, but I need "The Loneliness and the Scream." Otherwise, it isn't a gig to me. Fortunately, both Scott and the band have obliged every time.

Owl John, 06-19-14, the Echo

As an audience, our other achievement might've involved the final song, "Keep Yourself Warm," where we sang almost as beautifully as that hometown crowd I've already referenced in a previous blog post. I hope it felt good for Scott because I'm pretty sure it felt great for us.

I should mention Scott played two new songs off the forthcoming record, and the industry aspect reared its head when an audience member requested an unreleased tune. I can't describe the songs, except to say I look forward to their official drop date.

Scott also told us he was now a resident of Los Angeles and, encouraged by the response at the Echo, hoped to do a lot more of these solo gigs in the near future. I, for one, welcome him to the best coast. There's a lot to like here.

Owl John in California
» Santa Cruz: give me soft, soft static
» San Francisco: her heart beats like a breezeblock

See also
» lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon
» there is light but there's a tunnel to crawl through

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the nucleus burning inside of the cell

Hey look! Multiple gigs in a month -- with more to follow. Ah, it's nice to be back, especially to see Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, aka the Both (now officially named), in their return to San Francisco, this time at the Great American Music Hall.

The Both, Great American Music Hall, 06-12-14The Both, Great American Music Hall, June 12, 2014: Last year, when the Both tested the waters together at Bottom of the Hill, they seemed serious in their intent, though many questions lingered -- specifically, when their record would come out and how many songs would be on it. The process took longer than expected, but they made good and even took the show on the road for the rest of the United States (and overseas?) to witness.

A year on, their show has changed in only the fine details, but certainly not in the spirit or the execution. For one thing, they have a drummer now, though I didn't catch his name. Also, they have the aforementioned album to play and not a mishmash of their solo compositions and collaborative tracks (not that there's anything wrong with that). Among the band tracks, "You Can't Help Me Now" grabbed me most firmly, perhaps because it bore all the trademark signs of classic Aimee tracks. On the other hand, I never would've pegged "Hummingbird" as an Aimee song -- maybe due to its unlikely inspiration, Ted's love of Tolkien. In any case, they managed to forgo the Led Zeppelin treatment and turn it into a pretty, pastoral song you'd never otherwise relate to Middle Earth.

The Both, Great American Music Hall, 06-12-14If you missed them the first time around, you needn't worry too much, as they revived some of their greatest hits, including the Pussy Rules first imparted at Bottom of the Hill. Honestly, this story needs to be heard and may be reason enough for anyone to see a Both show. We got a slight twist at the Great American: Either someone in the audience had heard the story before or she was the author of said rules. Whatever the explanation, she was clearly dying to get in on the action and interjected a slight spoiler at the start of the yarn. This threw Aimee and Ted for a bit, but they resumed raconteur duties shortly thereafter. We also got a story about playing at a political event, where Hillary Clinton reportedly swayed to "Save Me" and Jeb Bush probably felt pressured to compliment their performance.

Overall, their banter and interaction have strengthened, which is saying a lot, considering how relaxed they look last year. Ted told a story about taking a spiritual retreat in Napa, complete with a naked dip at the local hot springs, and though she wasn't there to witness it, Aimee took it upon herself to fill us in on one of the guests, "Mr. Knee Bush" (use your imagination). Aimee also said she'd never do that unless she was in an old-timey bathing suit. On the same anatomical note, they opened the show with Aimee griping about a certain brand of toilet paper's current TV campaign featuring cartoon bears. Ted took the honor of repeating the unfortunate slogan ("enjoy the go") since Aimee couldn't bring herself to say the words.

I'm happy to report one portion of the show that hasn't changed is the inclusion of "Voices Carry." Though Aimee continues to qualify it as a song she wrote a long time ago and they only perform it because she likes to hear him take the falsetto, Ted is just as steadfast in his view of it as a "stone-cold classic." I'm with him on that count.

Nick and Evan from Islands opened the show. Because I'm old, I couldn't pick out Islands from a police lineup if I tried. Also, how many "islands" bands are in operation these days? We probably weren't the most enthusiastic audience, apart from the two younger ladies near me, but I guess we showed slightly more life than the show-goers from the night before. (C'mon, it was Napa on a Wednesday night.) The set was about half covers (I think), but the stand-out track was an original, "Shotgun Vision." Even in the acoustic arrangement, you could hear its power and energy.

The Both, Great American Music Hall, 06-12-14

See also:
» hush hush keep it down now

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

give us G&T and sympathy

Hey, I'm back from vacation, which means I'm done saving for vacation, and I'm free to spend money on concert tickets again. How was the holiday? (Thanks for asking!) It was great, and my legs are so tan now (quite a feat in the land of fog). But I have to be honest: I was ready to come home and wear clean clothes. The prospect of catching Elbow at the Fox Theater didn't hurt either.

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14Elbow, Fox Theater, May 27, 2014: I've said it before: I don't know how people hear music anymore. Personally, I cling to an old-fashioned mix of friends' recommendations (kind of), industry buzz (to a certain extent), and KEXP podcasts (weekly), but it's an imperfect system. At the Elbow concert, I asked around because so many people in proximity were newbies -- though not to other concerts I've attended. One woman cited Peter Gabriel's patronage, which isn't a surprise, given the sound of the first album. Her son also mentioned the use of Elbow's music in a couple of video games.

I bring this up because this was easily the biggest paying audience I'd yet seen Elbow play to in the United States (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass doesn't count), and frankly, the venue was a tad too large for them. They probably should've played the Warfield, but the Fox kept it cozy by closing off the upper section of seats (a move the Warfield might want to borrow, judging by the Frightened Rabbit show last fall, to name one recent gig).

Elbow rose to the occasion, regardless of raw numbers. The normally five-piece band added a couple of ladies on strings, to fully augment their grand, sweeping sound. But of course, the attention remained on the core players, particularly Guy Garvey. He wasted no time on welcoming us personally and paying respect to the Fox. Is it crowd work? Maybe, but it was an unabashed success.

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14

I don't get to the Fox a whole lot, so I don't know where the bar is set for a theater-size show, but Elbow's production was impressive and probably borrowed elements from its stadium presentation abroad. In addition to the extra musicians, they poured on a light show and pretty stage adornments, including the album cover blown up as the backdrop and a single mirrorball hanging from the rafters for -- what else? -- "Mirrorball."

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14Looking at the setlist, the band played a relatively short set, at least compared to some of the bands I favor, especially one with so many records in its catalog: 15 songs in all. On the other hand, their tunes are dense, complex affairs, and the 15 songs probably packed the power of at least 20 from any other group. At some point in a band's career, they are no longer able to perform every song that the fans may want to hear and must cherry-pick among their titles. I understand this, but I'm a tiny bit miffed we got only one song from the first record ("Scattered Black and Whites") and didn't hear perhaps my favorite Elbow song of all, "Station Approach." Waaaaah!

But among the songs played, you couldn't say they were anything less than balls-out performances. Every song felt like an experience, helped both by the musical onslaught of seven musicians playing together and by Guy's encouragement to sing along, wave our arms, and clap to the beat. In anyone else's hands, this might've been manipulation. At an Elbow show, it instead feels like the most natural action you can take.

What Elbow's audience may have lacked in sheer numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm and ardor. As a fool who has to stand in the front at every show, I don't have the best sense of the crowd reaction. Usually, the people around me eat it up, but the rest of the crowd might be sitting on their hands, for all I know. Quite simply, this was not possible at the Elbow show, at least not with Guy pointing at people in the crowd and urging the balcony to get up out of their seats. By your command, Mr. Garvey, including the guy who accidentally knocked me in the back of the head while caught up in the full throes of emotion. (He earnestly apologized.)

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14

I can't highlight only one song from the show, so I'll mention several. From the new album, The "Fly Boy Blue/Lunette" mashup is fantastic to hear, particularly how the two halves align. "The Birds" is always a jawdropper, from its hypnotic intro to its cathartic build to the soaring refrain. If you're going to bang your head at an Elbow show, this is the song for you! "Grounds for Divorce" also delivers a visceral thrill, with a snarling tone that might even come close to the topic under discussion. As a total pushover, though, I'll cite the the encore of "Lippy Kids" and "One Day Like This" as the best closing combination you could hope for.

I probably fixate on Guy way too much at Elbow shows, but he lives up to his role as frontman. An informal poll of friends after the gig reached the same conclusion. Guy is truly magnetic, but lest you think it's an ego show, I'd like to mention each band member gets a share of the spotlight. In fact, Guy practically opened the show with a multiple-choice question addressing the Band-Aid on Pete Turner's head. I think the general consensus said Pete had saved a grandma and her kitties from a burning building, but I suspect the Queens of the Stone Age may have been involved in the mishap.

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14

Watching Guy, I was reminded of a quote I read a million years ago in an interview with -- don't laugh -- Simon LeBon. As I recall, he asserted there are very few true lyricists; most musicians get away with a good line or lines, but a fully detailed train of thought is a rarity. I'm going to slot Guy Garvey into this rare category of lyricist. Listen to "Lippy Kids," and revel in the mix of observation and identification with the young charges -- then try to tell me you haven't been there at some point in your life.

I don't assume we'll get to see Elbow in a mere two years from now, but should they return, I can easily imagine whole roomfuls of fans clamoring to hear from them, no matter where they play.

Elbow, Fox Theatre, 05-27-14

John Grant opened the show, and even with his stripped-down arrangements, he was a good match for the band. He too delivered raw, emotional songs about loves lost and unmet expectations, though with a more sardonic view. "Sigourney Weaver" and "GMF" went over quite well, but his fans in the audience welcomed every song with hoots and cries.

See also:
» one day like this a year
» throw those curtains wide

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

what's the temperature, darling?

As with the Neil Finn show last week, a ticket to see Rosanne Cash happened to flow my way. Thanks to Denise for extending the invitation to check out this gig, my first at San Francisco's sparkling new jazz center.

Rosanne Cash, SFJazz Center, April 10, 2014: If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self -- honestly, I probably wouldn't do it. We all need to make our own, dumb decisions. Besides, I'm not sure I'd listen to a middle-aged lady prattle on about NPR and so-called Americana and the '80s (and '90s!) coming back in style. You're not the boss of me!

But the truth is times (kind of) change and tastes (sometimes) shift, and I don't respond to the same sounds I used to. In fact, I've come around on some artists. I freely admit that the Cash and Carter family prestige held little appeal to me growing up, but I appreciate them now, and I see the long shadow they've cast on my favorite current artists. Of course, the music is top-notch too, as even a dummy like me has come to realize.

As widely reported, Rosanne Cash and her band performed the new album The River & the Thread in sequence, took a break, then returned for selections from the rest of her discography. Sprinkled between the songs, she told stories about her family, her upbringing, and her milieu, all of which inspired the tunes on the new record.

I imagine the banter won't change much over the course of the tour, but the stories are finely wrought and well told, and I can't help touching on some of my favorites anecdotes, starting with the spark for "Etta's Tune": the daily morning exchange between her father's bass player and his wife of 65 years before he passed away. Rosanne proudly pointed out she and her husband have written the only song mentioning both Memphis and Barcelona -- a feat not even Bob Dylan can claim. And I loved that she readily admitted to turning to the Internet when she needed to confirm some details for a song about Mobile, Alabama -- a city she had never visited. Talented singer/songwriters -- they're just like us!

Except that they aren't -- for example, when your ex-husband and fellow singer/songwriter writes the lyrics to accompany a melody written by your current husband/band leader for a song that happens to be about your Civil War-era ancestors. Just another day in the neighborhood, right? Have I mentioned she and her band sounded great too?

The second half of the show drew from several points in Rosanne's career, but as an NPR listener, I mostly recall tracks from The List, her acclaimed record from a few years back. The Hank Snow tune was a highlight, and drawing on her storyteller roots, Rosanne told a fantastic story about the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bill Clinton, and to tie it together, a performance of "Ode to Billie Joe."

As a music fan, I tend to shy away from adult shows in adult venues (music-wise, that is), but they can be done right, as demonstrated by Rosanne Cash and the SFJazz Center.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

why are your shoulders like that of a tired old woman

This blog has been quiet lately for many reasons, but mostly because I'm trying to save money for a major vacation next month. But a friend of a friend of a friend came through with an extra ticket for this sold-out gig, and I peeled off a few dollars to catch the stellar double bill of Neil Finn and Midlake.

Neil Finn/Midlake, Palace of Fine Arts, April 1, 2014: My concert decisions are determined by a tricky algorithm of price, venue, and the ultimate X factor: my levels of mania for the artist in question. On two counts, the Neil Finn/Midlake gig was a bust, but oh, how that last element nagged at me. Neil, as this blog will bear out, is a longtime favorite, and Midlake made one of my most beloved albums of the last 10 years. Before an extra ticket popped up, I was ready to brush off this gig, perhaps in tears.

Luckily, I saved the salt for another day, with an unexpected bonus. The seat turned out to be fantastic: 3rd row center, with a great view of Midlake (more on that later). I have a habit of being lulled to sleep at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is amazingly womblike in its embrace, but I'm starting to suspect it helps to be in a good spot. Honestly, I don't see it happening again anytime soon.

Probably the first thing I noticed about the show was Neil's backing band: six members in all, not including himself. Building on Pajama Club, Sharon Finn took the bass and more than held her own. Neil and Sharon were joined by four other musicians, most of whom looked impossibly young and maybe reminded some of us a little too acutely of how long we've been listening to this man.

Full disclosure: I don't own the new Neil Finn record yet, but as Neil mentioned early on, he now had to the freedom to play songs from his entire discography (or "inventory," as one on-air radio personality said to him earlier that week) -- and he did, though the new songs took up a good chunk of the set. There's no way for me to describe the new songs in a short, sweet sentence, but as you can imagine, they're catchy and effortless, and you can hear the Antipodean rhythms that Neil sometimes explores. I'd forgotten that Dave Fridmann produced the album, and that somewhat psychedelic influence showed as well -- and may have influenced the swirly stage backdrop.

Among the new songs, one tune name-dropped "Game of Thrones" and may have also simply thanked us for coming out tonight. "Dizzy Heights" -- aka the "single" -- was another perfect pop package that deserves to be heard, if it weren't for the travesty that passes for commercial radio programming in the States.

Let's face it, though: When you've recorded nearly 30 years of music, we want to hear the classics, and Neil delivered. He went as far back as "One Step Ahead" and "I Got You" -- as I mentioned to friends, both of which are almost old enough to be Neil's guitarist's parents. I loved hearing "Distant Sun" and "Only Talking Sense," although the former doesn't seem complete without Jon Brion's guitar these days. Neil did nicely on the piano for "Message to My Girl" and "Don't Dream It's Over," and I believe the latter featured lovely backing vocals from Lisa and Jesse. For our part, we tried, but I don't think we did a very good job with "Fall at Your Feet." On that count, I will blame the room. More helpful, the audience pitched in when Neil couldn't remember the second verse of "Try Whistling This," which was a late decision anyway.

Neil being Neil, he let the chit chat flow, commenting on last fall's America's Cup race (clearly, it was a big deal to the Kiwis), engaging with the Mojo photographer snapping away, and bringing in his father, who was Skyping in to the show. As it was still his birthday (92 years old!) in the States, we got to sing to him too, and Neil dedicated "Wherever You Are" to him.

If the show were merely Neil and I had missed it, I probably would've been OK, but it was the announcement of Midlake as the opener that killed me. I don't know why I like Midlake so much compared to, say, Fleet Foxes and the current crop of Beardy Harmonizers™, but hey, the ears want what the ears want.

I've gushed about Midlake in previous posts, and though I wasn't in love with the last record, I've really wanted to check out the latest album (which is great) in performance. Unfortunately, the band has mostly opened for artists I don't care for, and I was out of town when they played their one headlining gig. Their three-year layoff and band drama didn't help either.

About the band drama: Certainly the former lead singer was a huge presence and force in the band, but they've regrouped well, with the second (?) in command stepping up. Singer/guitarist Eric Pulido's presence on vocals and guitar has sure come in handy, to the point you almost don't notice the shift.

Generally, an opening slot wouldn't satisfy, but this wasn't your ordinary warm-up. For one, Neil Finn was the follow-up, and second, we saw Midlake's rare three-person acoustic arrangement -- two treats in all. Talk about win-win!

The room was maybe 25 percent full for Midlake, and even among those gathered, the band's recognition was low. Fortunately, they turned it into an inside joke, repeating their marketing spiel after every song and charming the newbies -- or at least the ones willing to give them a try. Honestly, Midlake is major Mojo/Word/Q fodder and deserves a listen.

The set felt short, even by my greedy standards, perhaps five or six songs in all. They opened with "Young Bride" and came back to "Head Home" later in the set. In between, they did "Antiphon," and at least two more from the new record -- maybe "It's Going Down" and another? Finally, they closed with "I Shall Be Released." I expected "Young Bride," which still bewitches me on a regular basis, but "Head Home" was a surprise. Alas, no "Roscoe," though I think that pops up from time to time at other shows.

Their voices sounded great in the hushed, respectful hall, especially on the new songs built around these specific harmonies. Since I haven't seen their latest electric incarnation, I can't compare this performance to the full-band treatment, except to say I'm even more raring to watch them play again.

Thank you, Neil Finn, for never disappointing and, this time, for bringing along a stellar opening act. Midlake, please come back and play your own gig. New fans might even show up next time.

See also:
» i can teach you, but i have to charge
» you can tell that i'm not lying
» wherever there is comfort, there is pain
» too consumed with this world