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