Monday, December 28, 2015

i'll be a rock 'n' rolling bitch for you

To mark my 11th occasion of seeing Jon Brion's Christmas show at Largo, everything was back to normal. That is, seats were claimed, friends were greeted, baked goods were presented. All was right in the world -- and to all a good night!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 18, 2015: The annual Week Before Xmas in Los Angeles went well, with my third visit to Doug Loves Movies' 12 Guests of Christmas (thanks again to the kindness of strangers with extra tickets). The only slight downside: Since Christmas fell on a Friday, Jon's show was earlier than usual, which meant I couldn't take in the Watkins Family Hour or Largo's usual end-of-year treats. Still, I made it to the two marquee events.

Upon entry, you could see Jon's ultraspare setup: the always present piano, a few chairs, and a couple of microphones. I don't think a guitar showed up until Jon took the stage. But before we got to Jon's entrance, Flanny brought out a surprise guest: one Zach Galifianakis! As I understand it, Zach drops in at Largo from time to time, even now that he's a movie star, but his appearances are rarities and treats when they happen. He tried out a very short set, then made way for the headliner.

For the first several tracks, Jon stuck to the piano for maybe an improvised song, and even "Punch-Drunk Melody" started out with a long, wandering lead-up before it landed on the tune we know and love. "Ruin My Day" was the first straightforward tune of the night before Jon went back to another song I can't ID. However, I can report he threw his full body into it, with his feet keeping the time and responding to the notes.

Thus ended the first piano portion of the evening. Jon's shows have always evolved, even during his time at Fairfax, but in my opinion, his shows at the Coronet have become more populist. I don't mean that in a snobby way, but with a wider swath of fans to please, he sometimes goes for jokier moves. He's always tuned to "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" and "If I Only Had a Brain," but they both became legitimate numbers tonight and garnered giggles and smiles. In the first nod to the season, he then went into a little bit of "Jingle Bell Rock" in a semi-fingerpicking style, before delving into "Nothing Between Us." I often request this oldie from Jon's catalog, so I was glad he got to it himself. Also, that might've been the first time I've heard it on acoustic guitar.

Jon asked for Sebastian Steinberg to join him, but Sebastian took longer than expected to arrive. In the meantime, Jon punched out a very fast version of "I Believe She's Lying." Speaking of, not going to lie -- I think I prefer the acoustic version of the song because it doesn't drag along excessively.

Sebastian's official arrival began with Jon returning to the piano and the Peanuts Christmas theme, with Sebastian leading Jon through chord changes -- imagine that! I can't even guess at their seconds song, and I only list "Caravan" as the third tune because I heard them name it. "Caravan" was actually proceeded by Jon thinking aloud as he worked out the tempo and shifts to get to the performance he wanted. I didn't understand a word of it, but it was interesting to hear, and the final product was rollicking and well-paced. The duo finished up with three of Jon's own titles, including a request from our friend Sarah two seats down for "Here We Go."

The next friend due up was David Garza, who grabbed the guitar. They turned over the reins to him, and give him credit for trying to stick with the holiday theme. He went with "Blue Christmas," kind of honky-tonk style, complete with one of the most remarkable hand-offs I've seen between musicians. At Largo, you see all kinds of artists playing together and sharing the stage, making room for each other's solo turns and encouraging one another to get in a few bars. Sometimes they'll tap each other on the shoulder or nod their head in encouragement. This night, I saw David slowly shift to playing rhythm guitar, then Jon jump into his solo without so much as a glance between the two. I mean, maybe this happens all the time when you've been breathing each other's musical fumes for so long, but it struck me as the concert equivalent of a no-look pass, culminating in an alley-oop.

David next tried that delightful mashup of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Roxanne," but truth be told, he didn't carry it off as well as earlier performers. Give him points for the attempt, though, and for convincing Sara Watkins to join the group.

One Watkins was not enough, so Sean took his bow as well, his own guitar in hand. They hit a Dylan song, which was marked by Jon playing percussion on his Guinness glass, no piano at all, then a request brought up Jon's "Trouble," with Sara on vocals. Though we hardly needed the reminder, Sara's voice is indeed quite lovely and even preferable to Jon's, and her violin was a gorgeous standby for the synths on the official studio version. Great -- now that I'm listening to the original again, I'm painfully reminded of how badly I want a follow-up to Meaningless.

The next request brought "Beast of Burden," which I've heard the Largo crew do before, but it's always a ton of fun as each performer tries to out-camp one another with their best take on Mick Jagger. Jon gave it a shot, but David gave it everything else for maximum effect.

For Sean's tune, they chose a traditional title that's been covered by both Lyle Lovett and the Raconteurs apparently. Of course, I know this only because I Googled the lyrics -- there's no way I would've know that on my own.

Jon asked Sebastian to remain onstage for the last couple of tunes, requests for "Moonage Daydream" and "Since I've Been Loving You." Then it was Jon by himself for a long, languid take on "Moon River" and the encore/closer of "Happy With You."

The party continued in the Little Room, with the David and the Watkinses and special guest Gaby Moreno. Rumor had it Jon might join them, but we didn't stick around long enough to find out. Please feel free to drop me a line if you can add to the report.

See you in 2016.

Zach Galifianakis opener

-- piano
-- Punch-Drunk Melody
-- Ruin My Day
-- ???
-- How Much Is That Doggie in the Window
-- Jingle Bell Rock
-- Nothing Between Us
-- If I Only Had a Brain
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Christmastime Is Here *
-- ??? *
-- Caravan *
-- Strangest Times
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Here We Go
-- Blue Christmas **
-- Rudolph (You Don't Have to Put on Your Red Light) ***
-- From a Buick 6 ****
-- Trouble ****
-- Beast of Burden ****
-- Keep It Clean ****
-- Moonage Daydream *
-- Since I've Been Loving You/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies *
-- Moon River
-- Happy With You

* = with Sebastian Steinberg
** = with Sebastian Steinberg and David Garza
*** = with Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza, and Sara Watkins
**** = with Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza, Sara Watkins, and Sean 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
» strangest times

Friday, December 11, 2015

winter wonderland

Can you believe it's December already? My concert year will end with two beloved perennials. First up: Aimee Mann's Christmas show, featuring Ted Leo, Liz Phair, Jonathan Coulton, and John Roderick at Bimbo's 365 Club.

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 6, 2015Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 6, 2015: This show was going to be a good one long before the date and hour approached because I managed to convince the McCormicks to join me, despite their busy holiday schedules. It doesn't happen enough -- a lament many of us surely share as our priorities shift and the days fill up. Leave it to an awesome show to bring us together.

My records tell me this is the fifth Christmas show I've seen from Aimee Mann and friends. That sounds too low, and I might've missed a date or two during the leaner year(s). Regardless, it's always a highlight on my calendar, and I look forward to seeing what Aimee and company have cobbled together for the audience.

Aimee has created a general template for these shows: Lots of music of course, connected by a goofy storyline, with help from talented friends. The tunes generally stay the same, with an emphasis on Christmas songs, particularly the titles from Aimee's holiday album. "Calling on Mary" might've been the most serious song of the night; otherwise, even the classics felt airy and fun. The surprises come with the guests and the annual narrative -- but more on that later because it was kind of complicated.

I guess I should note that this was the second year Ted Leo has joined the show; it's basically the Both's Christmas special. If you've been to a Both show, you've heard some of it, including Ted's turn on "A Bottle of Buckie." They also reprised that supersad donkey song and another classic track -- but more on that later.

Liz Phair was the first guest of the evening, and she went directly into "Supernova," which she mentioned was kind of about a star (in reference to the one over Bethlehem, I guess). I haven't seen her in concert in ages, and wouldn't you know, she still looks amazing. The surprise for me: I think she's a better singer now. I think most of us will admit it was never her voice that drew us in on the early records, but she sounded pretty good, especially on the Yuletide tracks, which can be a real test on the vocals. Later in the evening, she delivered a holiday version of her "pop" hit "Why Can't I," with the lyrics rewritten to reference shopping, tinsel, and decorations. As I recall, Susanna Hoffs and "Walk Like an Egyptian" filled that role last year.

About a million years ago, I saw Jonathan Coulton accompany John Hodgman on a book tour. Little did I know Jonathan Coulton would carve out a following over the years -- though I had every confidence that John Hodgman would continue to thrive. Rereading the blog entry, I see that I got a good look at the Jonathan Coulton's act even in that small window. He's a fantastic wordsmith with a ton of humor, and my mind immediately went to They Might Be Giants. Honestly, he's not my preference, but his own Christmas song was pretty great, and he took on the very important non-gentile role for "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

John Roderick filled out the trio of guests, and he assumed the coveted role of the Grinch in the annual reading. He took a fair amount of stick from Aimee for not rehearsing before the show and forgetting the cadence of his own song -- not to mention he seemed a little toasty toward the end. Hey, every holiday party has one, right?

Now back to this year's premise: Aimee and Ted addressed the elections their own way, with a yarn about Santa's term limits and the North Pole polls. In the process, Ted revealed his political aspirations and a secret identity. Aimee too dropped her own bombshell about past dalliances, and Jonathan Coulton had the biggest reveal of all, capped off with an Andrew Lloyd Webber number.

To tell you the truth, the premise was a little sweaty, especially compared to years past, but I loved watching the banter between Aimee and Ted. I suspect all the time they spend with comedians and improvisers has paid off. It's not like they were reading from a Teleprompter, but their exchange never sounded anything less than natural and convincingly on cue.

I've probably said this before, but my favorite fruits of the Aimee-Ted musical union is the "Voices Carry" revival. I don't think I can overstate how much I loved this song both then and now, and I knew it was coming as soon as Aimee strapped on the bass -- though I probably could've guessed at it as soon as this tour was announced. However, not content to play it as is, they toyed with it and penned an entirely new premise. Maudie mentioned that Jonathan Coulton may have lent his ear for lyrics to the troupe, and I wouldn't doubt it. But no matter who contributed, the rewrite on "Voices Carry" was inspired and hilarious. If Aimee and Ted ever decide to leave this songwriting thing, I bet they could punch up scripts around Hollywood.

They're the best thing to happen to the holidays since the Rankin-Bass productions, and as with Rankin-Bass, I hope they're back every year. It's a tradition worth celebrating.

See also:
» 2006: it's not going to stop
» 2007: unless you hate baby jesus
» 2008: if there's a star above
» 2014: here comes the jackpot question in advance
» "A woman lives here who is fond of triangles."

Thursday, November 05, 2015

you old so and so

Here we go.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, October 30, 2015: I've said it before, but it bears repeating. If I had all the time and resources in the world, I'd attend every Jon Brion show I could. As this was my birthday weekend, I figured I could squeeze in a trip. And what do you know? Everything worked out: Friends were present, (almost) favorite seats were reserved, and of course, music flowed. I didn't even have to blow out the candles and make a wish.

As I mentioned in my last Jon Brion post, Largo continues to evolve and change, and tonight, the first detail that jumped out at me was the setup. It wasn't the bare-bones arrangement that dominated for at least a year, but the drum kit was still missing. However, a handful of electric guitars occupied a spot, and the Leslie cabinet was ready and miked. The right-hand corner of the stage featured a half-dozen acoustic guitars and an overhead mic. Equipment nerds will have to seek out a better authority than me. I couldn't tell you the exact terminology, except it always reminds me of those old shots of the Beatles at Abbey Road studios.

Abbey Road

Flanny offered a short intro, and Jon followed immediately, decked in a gray suit. Early indicators suggested he was in a good mood, which is always a welcome sight. Though he carried a guitar onstage, he went to the piano first, as is his wont. The finger exercises began, and I thought I heard a touch of Randy Newman in the instrumental work. Perhaps it was there, but in truth, I wouldn't have had a clue what he actually played if not for his ID at the end: "I Must Have That Man," complete with Jon's hearty endorsement.

From one queen to another, Jon next landed on "Lady Stardust," which I knew without any hints. I gotta admit -- because of the sheer volume of amazing tracks on Ziggy Stardust, I didn't pay a ton of attention to this song in the first 20-odd years I owned the record, as much as I loved the album as a whole. But attendance at Largo has highlighted the brilliance of both "Lady Stardust" and "Moonage Daydream" -- as if they need a boost. Listening with a new set of ears, you fully understand why it's a favorite for artists everywhere. It's a classic portrait of the performer's life from its humblest beginnings.

Finally, we got a Jon original with "Here We Go." At one point in my life, I felt compelled to listen to this song several times each day, and my appreciation has not lessened, even if the repeat count has dipped. I've sometimes complained on this blog about Jon's lyrical patterns (aa/bb, ab/ab, and so on), but sometimes it works, and boy howdy, "Here We Go" might be the best example in Jon's catalog. The lyrics are so straightforward, yet so sincere. It probably helps that it's paired with one of the most elegant sound beds Jon has ever written. It's a perfect song, no two ways about it, and it was thoughtful of Jon to play it on his own accord, thus relieving us of the burden of the formal request.

If you've heard this song live, you've undoubtedly perked up at the tickle of piano that kicks off the tune. It beckons and hooks and pulls you in, and on this night, I realized what else it signifies: It's the musical embodiment of the butterflies in your stomach before a big moment, when you don't know whether to throw up and/or jump out of your skin. Here we go, indeed.

In the days since the show, I've been listening to the studio version of the song on a loop again, and I've been surprised to learn those treasured notes are not as prominent in the sanctioned recording. It's all over the live rendition, so if you must hear it, drop me a note, and I may be able to hook you up. *wink*

Update: Oh shit, it's on YouTube!

"Strangest Times" followed in a wordless, jazzy version, and thus ended the first piano segment of the evening. On to the guitars!

Jon picked up an acoustic Epiphone and unfurled a long intro. I wondered if (1) he was getting a feel for the instrument or (2) he was simply working his way into a song. Eventually, "It Looks Like You" poured out, in an intimate-sounding reading and with an extended outro. Granted, it's been a while since I've heard the song performed, but I think it was one of my favorite versions in a long time. Regarding the aforementioned radio mic: It was yet another moment I wish I could take photos at Largo. Jon was perfectly framed, planted firmly in the chair while simultaneously stretching up the microphone for those cooing notes. I hope Lincoln got a shot!

Jon adjusted the light to shine on his notebook for a newish song. Earlier in the evening, Jon had commented on David Bowie's gift for writing midtempo rockers, and this one definitely qualified for the category. I liked it -- the song kicked along at a good pace, and I enjoyed the overall progression of verses. I look forward to repeat airings.

By the way, Jon's first turn on guitar offered a surprising glimpse at the crowd. First of all, sitting nearly front and center was another fan taking notes. Honey, if you're reading this, drop me a line and we can discuss outlining strategies. Would you believe my JB gig journal kinda looks like long division? Also, the note-taker's companion (?) appeared to be asleep during the set. That's cool -- I'm pretty sure some of my friends (who will remain nameless) have done the same.

Onward! A fellow (a new regular, if I'm not mistaken) sitting a couple of seats down from us was clearly prepared for the first call for requests, as he bellowed "I Believe She's Lying" with no hesitation. Jon went for the 12-string, and to be honest, I don't have any other notes on this track. Alas, my favorite Halloween request ("Bela Lugosi's Dead") once again went nowhere, but at least I tried. Also, it turned out this would be Jon's last turn for the night on acoustic guitar.

Instead, he headed back to the piano for "Over Our Heads," delivered without any synths whatsoever -- not typical. However, he soon fired up the electronics, fiddling with a synthesizer and a beat machine, along with the MicroKorg and the Chamberlin. I had to laugh aloud when I finally realized his choice: "People Are People" by Depeche Mode. I especially loved how he worked in Martin Gore's portion (that lighter, ethereal lift if you're unfamiliar with the tune). This is not the first time I've heard Jon do this song, but I'm always amused when he covers titles from my junior high years.

Depeche Mode was only the beginning as Jon launched into one of the stream-of-consciousness medleys he does so well. I caught Beethoven -- but only because the man sitting next to me commented on it. Stephanie said it was "Rite of Spring"? She also said the next tune was something along the lines of "Popcorn," but I'm sure she'll clarify in the comments below. I for sure caught "Funkytown," a longtime favorite at Jon's shows, then he went into a song I don't know, and he wrapped up with "Walking Through Walls," complete with a nice synth complement under the piano and Jon's feet providing the rhythm track. Again, it's been a while since I've heard this, but this sounded fresh again to me and Jon eschewed the sometimes overlong treatment. It too may have been my favorite performance of it in a while.

Jon picked up the black and white Gretsch for his sole electric track of the night. He went heavy and fuzzy for "She's At It Again," one of his original tunes. It's not like I need to be reminded that Jon is fantastic on guitar, but it doesn't hurt to get the memo from time to time. However, the song might've gone a bit too long for my liking, especially when the piano tunes never felt too far extended at any point.

Jon asked for requests again and went with "Short People," albeit asking for our participation. I don't know this song very well, and as we soon discovered, neither did most of the audience. However, from my seat, I could hear one guy with a solid hold on the song, and this being Los Angeles, he had pretty good pipes too. At least the rest of us knew to join in on the refrain.

Jon was committed to the singalong, particularly multipart harmonies, so we next tried the BeeGees' "How Deep Is Your Love." Mere notes into the song, Jon stopped to remark that only women appeared to know the tune, so we switched to what he called a "girl key." In our early days in the United States, my family owned a handful of records, and like all good Americans (and resident aliens) at the time, that included the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and I listened to it all the time. Unfortunately, I don't remember most of the lyrics anymore, but I contributed when I could. It also doesn't hurt to sit next to a degreed musicologist with a lovely voice and piggyback on her sweet tones.

To restore gender equilibrium, Jon led us to "God Only Knows" and we were golden again. I definitely like it best when we all sing together.

Jon took a quick break, then returned for an encore and asked the audience for a classic rock track. Someone in the middle requested the dreaded "Freebird," which Jon could not resist. Without realizing it, I let out an "oh no," and because of my proximity to the stage, Jon immediately responded, "Oh yeah" -- and away we went. Honestly, I don't know the song very well, so it's not quite as loathsome to me, but I hate it as a cliche. However, Jon treated it with all the seriousness he poured into the Billie Holiday opener, as he played with the mellotron and the MicroKorg to build up the track. I hope the requester got his money's worth.

Jon closed with "Knock Yourself Out," as forthright and guileless as can be -- then bade us good night. This evening we saw no guests or pyrotechnics, but in fact, it might've been one of the most charming performances I've seen in a while. Let's do it again in a couple of months.

-- I Must Have That Man
-- Lady Stardust
-- Here We Go
-- Strangest Times
-- It Looks Like You
-- new song
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Over Our Heads
-- People Are People/Beethoven/???/Funkytown/???/Walking Through Walls
-- She's at It Again
-- Short People
-- How Deep Is Your Love
-- God Only Knows

-- Freebird
-- Knock Yourself Out

See also:
» the subject now in question
» i go for it every time
» i'm younger than that now

Sunday, October 25, 2015

pretty please with sugar on top

Two Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings appearances in one month? What am I -- 12 and at my boyfriend's frat party? What is this -- 2008 to 2009, when I hit Largo on a monthly basis? Nope, not even close, but I'll take it for a Dave Rawlings Machine show at the Warfield.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, Oct. 19, 2015: According to my records, I last saw the Dave Rawlings Machine (not to be confused with Gillian Welch) in 2010. I think the band came through San Francisco during the interim, but I must've been out of town, because there's no way in hell I'd miss them otherwise. Oh wait, DRM played Hardly Strictly last year, but I was camped out at a different stage for Mavis Staples. It happens! Moral of the story: It's been way too long.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, 10-19-15

During this interim, the band has transformed. Whereas the first record felt like a charming, casual collection of tunes, the new record sounds more deliberate, more somber, and more complicated, and perhaps it's more of a statement of DRM's evolving musical direction. It's impossible to overlook the Neil Young influence, but better-informed minds can cite better candidates than I can. (Keep in mind that my idea of roots music is the first two Roxy Music albums.) Also, though DRM has always been a collaborative affair, this tour seem to cement the group-oriented feel, with dedicated extra band members Willie Watson, Paul Kowert, and Brittany Haas.

I feel like this record's biggest statement is its growing contrast with the Gillian Welch albums. Yes, they write the songs together and work collaboratively every step of the way, but good luck finding strings or piano on a Gillian record. Early on, when DRM was kind of an occasional treat and side project, their differences were harder to pinpoint, but I can hear it more clearly now (and not only in the voices).

However, the format of their show endures with a sparse setup (now doubled to two tables) and no amps to speak of. Instead, they made do with several microphones, a couple of banjos, a few guitars, a stand-up bass, two fiddles/violins, and probably more harmonicas than we could see.

Dave and Gill often like to facetiously comment on their professionalism, and you'll never mistake their show for a Vegas production -- but that's not why you see Dave and Gill. At times, they have starts and stops and pauses, but overall, it's always a warm, laid-back affair. Dave was clearly the driver, but they shared the spotlight at times. Of course, some dude yelled for "Miss Ohio" early on, but that didn't happen. Instead, Gill's solo song was "Wayside/Back in Time," which is kind of a no-brainer in San Francisco. Also in a nod to San Francisco (probably), they did a Grateful Dead cover of "Candyman," appended to Dylan's "Dear Landlord." Of course, though I can't possibly describe what he does, remember that Dave has a way of working beautiful, unexpected guitar riffs into every song to leave you wondering how he can carry it off.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, 10-19-15

Willie Watson got a couple of numbers, and Paul Kowert stepped out as the bass voice on "Fields of Fire" and "The Weight." I have to admit that Willie is not my cup of tea, though I know he and Old Crow Medicine Show have a strong following. Paul Kowert, however, was great, and I wish we could hear more of him with both DRM and Punch Brothers. Brittany didn't sing, but she took a couple of highlight turns, such as on "Method Acting/Cortez the Killer."

Among the new songs, "Pilgrim" was my favorite, with the long outro and mingled voices, and both "The Trip" and "The Weekend" are worth your patience as the songs unfold. After the show, I couldn't stop thinking about the trio of songs as a chronicle of road life or maybe an existential journey. Short of sitting down with the lyrics in front of me, I have nothing else to add to the thought bubble, but I'd love to hear any comments on the topic.

Obviously, Dave and Gill are not a pop act, and they don't rely on hits ("Miss Ohio" aside) to attract their audience. Nonetheless, we fans come to the show for certain gems -- often the traditional tunes we never would've heard otherwise. Though a little twang goes a long way for my tastes, I love Dave and Gill doing "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire." I chalk it up the sublime combination of voices and impeccable timing, and it puts a huge smile on my face.

Dave and Gill have amassed such a deep catalog that they're bound to miss a song you were dying to hear, but hopefully, they'll include one you haven't heard in a while, if at all. I gotta admit I've been craving a rendition of "Queen Jane Approximately," but alas, not tonight.* Instead, we got "The Weight," followed by "Go to Sleep You Little Baby," both of which make a ton of sense when you have all those singers onstage.

I can name on one hand all the bands/performers I'd drop everything to see. Make no mistake: Dave and Gill are in that group. Whatever name they take, I'll be there for their next date.

* During Robyn Hitchcock's set at this year's Hardly Strictly, it occurred to me that Gillian, Dave, and Robyn all do songs about queens and Elvis. Wouldn't it be great to hear them mashup their tunes? Come on, the world needs "Queen Elvis Approximately" and "Queen Elvis Presley Blues"! I know they can do it -- let's make it happen.

See also:
» this old rain's just about soaked through
» summer noon
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» oh me oh my oh

Monday, October 12, 2015

i'm so grateful

Every October, we in the Bay Area are forced to make hard choices, some of which can tear you apart. I hated deciding between the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the last Giants home games of the year (postseason or no) -- so I split the difference. Fortunately, I was able to get to two days of the festival and catch a bunch of awesome acts.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4, 2015: How relaxed was I to start off the festival? I took the day off from work to enjoy unfettered access to all the music I desired, yet didn't leave my place until 4 pm. Even then, I totally misread the schedule -- I thought the Punch Brothers started at 4:30, but in fact, they were onstage at 4:10. By the time I arrived at the Banjo Stage, they'd probably been playing for a good five minutes or so.

The early impression was not pretty. As I waded through the crowd at Banjo -- which I've told myself over the years I never want to do -- I had to wonder why bother at all. I mean, I've seen the Punch Brothers a bunch of times now, including in very close quarters, and though I like their music, I'm not gaga for them. Nonetheless, I soldiered on and settled in for about 20 minutes of their set, including the perpetually fun "Rye Whiskey," but I had to abandon ship after the Debussy number. Nothing against Debussy, but I realized the Punch Brothers' set doesn't vary enough for me to put up with the masses. However, they are certified crowd pleasers and a natural fit for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

The early exit from the Punch Brothers left me plenty of time to get to the much less congested Arrow Stage for Big Star Third. To my delight, it was low-key and mellow, I found a great spot, and -- most important -- I spotted Frank Riley, the man who's booked probably a million shows you've loved. Weekend complete! Well, not quite, but it was a nice item to check off early in the festivities.

Hardly Strictly 2015

Have I gone on record on this blog claiming album-in-their-entirety shows are passe? I stand by it, but I also reserve the right to make exceptions. I think every music nerd can remember the first time they heard Big Star. I'm pretty sure it happened to me at Largo, but of course Alex Chilton was already a legendary name courtesy of the Replacements. Over the years, I've grown more appreciative of Big Star, and their songs can haunt my brain for days on end.

In case you aren't familiar, Big Star Third is a roving assemblage of musicians playing Sisters Lovers, appropriately enough Big Star's third record. I'm too lazy to look up the core members, but it appears Chris Stamey and Jody Stephens are at the center of the group, and the day's gathering included such illustrious names as Mike Mills, Ken Stringfellow, and Pat Sansone, along with local favorites Chuck Prophet and Kelley Stoltz, not to mention Van Dyke Parks leading the Kronos Quartet and other guests whose names escape me.

As usual, I didn't take notes, so I can't tell you who sang what, but I can report they all sounded great. Seriously -- those were divine voices onstage, in a festival full of divine voices. I loved seeing the local faces, which provoked one man near me to inquire about Kelley Stoltz. Another concertgoer helpfully informed him of Kelley's awesome work over the years. Here's hoping the first fellow acted on the knowledge.

Jody Stephens' turns at the mic were especially charming, as he shared his gratitude and his memories with the crowd. As a fan, you had to love seeing a little bit of the original voices in the room. The extra touches -- the aforementioned Van Dyke Parks and Kronos Quartet, as well as a range of horns -- were wonderful too and hardly the grand treatment you'd expect at a free so-called bluegrass festival. But that's another reason to love Hardly Strictly.

I can't lie -- the "hits" were my favorites, and it was even great to hear a version of "Holocaust" that came in at less than 30 minutes. Here's a tip: Don't turn down the chance to hear "Femme Fatale," "September Gurls," or "Thank You Friends" performed by a dozen-odd top-shelf musicians.

Hardly Strictly 2015Saturday was a little more purposeful, but hardly harried, as the first act I wanted to see happened to be on the smallest, most mellow stage. You'd be hard-pressed to label Nels Cline and Julian Lage as bluegrass in any way -- and that's fine! They still commanded a good audience over at the cozy, laidback Porch Stage. I can't begin to describe their music, except that they touch on a wide range of styles. While much of their set consisted of complex but effortless interplay, what I loved best were the moments where one would simply let the other go and intently observe, no strings touched. It's a beautiful example of trust and admiration.

From there, with a lot of help, we got to a great spot for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- which never happens for me. I was ready to be annoyed by my spot somewhere in the middle of the massive field, but Sandy came through with the connection and the moxie to get us to a prime location.

Have I talked enough about how much I love Gill and Dave? Can I make it any clearer? It's been too long since I've seen them, and even a few notes into their set, I was in heaven again. I think they did one new song, but they can sing the phone book in harmony, and I'd listen. They appeared to add another new cover to their repertoire: a version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" they worked up for their recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. The highlight for me remained "I'll Fly Away," which moved tons of people to get up from their lawn chairs and sing along. The singalongs get me every time.

Hardly Strictly 2015

From there, I vaguely tried to check out Paul Weller, but I couldn't be bothered past a song and decided to head over to the Robyn Hitchcock set at the Bandwagon Stage -- a new, tiny stage fashioned out of an Airstream-like trailer. As you can imagine, it was a very informal, casual set. Emma Swift joined him for a few songs, and they even soundchecked Roxy Music's "Oh Yeah," though alas, it didn't make the final set. (Sigh.) The best part of Robyn's set was his running claim that every song was set in 1970s San Francisco, even as he admitted it was really about his relationship with his mother. Look, there's no way to capture the aura of a Robyn Hitchcock gig or monologue, which is why you have to see him with our own eyes. Do yourself the favor!

Hardly Strictly 2015

And thus ended my Hardly Strictly adventure for the year. Fortunately, Rocktober is still in effect, so a couple more reports will filter in over the weeks. Once again, all the appreciation in the world goes to the late Warren Hellman and family. I'm continually amazed we get to partake of this treat year after year.

See also:
» tripping the dark fantastic
» don't get around much anymore
» i've heard a rumor from ground control
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» overtook me by surprise

Monday, August 17, 2015

everyone wastes my time

Could I have skipped Outside Lands after Wilco's show at the Independent? Sure -- but I'd feel like an idiot for missing the band when they play five blocks from my apartment. Honestly, I couldn't not go and be happy with my decision.

Outside Lands, Golden Gate Park, Aug. 7, 2015: I've been to Outside Lands exactly twice, both times for the exact same reason. Yup, Wilco was back, which meant so was I. However, I didn't realize until this weekend that we went to the first Outside Lands in 2008. My, how things have changed -- the festival is a real destination now, even if it's also fallen into the cookie-cutter summer festival mode. But certainly its size and stature have grown, now encompassing a comedy bill and extra stages (like I ever check out other stages at festivals).

Also, back in 2008, Wilco was the headliner on the smaller stage, which was a godsend for me. Now, they were on the massive stage on the Polo Fields, and Mumford and Sons topped the bill. The silver lining: Wilco was playing on Friday, before the crowds grew too suffocating, and with First Aid Kit and St. Vincent, they formed a fantastic three-band run. In fact, despite the usual shenanigans, we never felt crushed, and we were more amused by the fans' insistence on sitting between acts, rather than pushing closer to the front. I probably wouldn't love this festival, but I'd damn well like it.

The Family Crest started the day, and it didn't take a genius to trace their influences. In fact, independent of each other, three of us cited Arcade Fire, minus the Caribbean tones. To their credit, they had all the earnestness and enthusiasm of a high school drama class, which was very cute. As locals, they were also welcomed warmly.

Eurythmics, TouchLake Street Drive followed, and I think I've seen them exactly once on the Colbert Report. We noted that their four band members looked like they were drawn from three different bands, though that's not a terrible thing. I can't say they did much for me, despite an Annie Lennox cover and a brief foray into Van Halen, though the former brought out a hilarious comment from a child next to us who had never heard of the legendary songstress. Get her a copy of Touch stat!

First Aid Kit was the first band of the day I actually wanted to see. As I may have noted a million times, my concert going has dropped off precipitously, and I don't see as many bands as I used to. It's more a commentary on my habits than on the quality of music these days. Anyway, I would've loved to have seen First Aid Kit at a smaller venue, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

No reason to fear -- First Aid Kit have become festival veterans, and their sunny, sweet sound was a lovely complement to the bright, beautiful day. They threw in a cover of "War Pigs" for a touch of testosterone, and the sisters played up the theatrics, with extra stomps and flourishes.

First Aid Kit, Outside Lands, 08-07-15Call me basic, but their big hit was the one that grabbed me. Something about "Emmylou" turned on the waterworks, and I couldn't stop crying during the song (fortunately, it was the closing number). As far as I can recall, this has happened to me exactly twice: When Jon Brion played "More Than This" at the Hideout and when Frightened Rabbit quoted Wilco during "Keep Yourself Warm." You can probably see why I'd get emotional over those moments, but with First Aid Kit, it came out of the blue. Chalk it up to a beautiful tune, a timeless sentiment, and the power of sibling harmonies. I still get choked up when the song flits through my head.

St. Vincent was up next, and talk about contrast -- her artsy take was a huge departure from First Aid Kit and Wilco (next on the bill). I recall seeing her once before, opening for Steve Malkmus and the Jicks, but as it turned out, I saw part of her set at Cafe du Nord a while ago too (according to my archives). I have no recollection of the second date, but even as an opener, she made a huge impression. It was only a matter of time before she'd break through.

You might not even recognize the current incarnation of St. Vincent compared to that early show with Malkmus. Her talent was always evident, but her innovation is now on full display. I honestly can't say anything about the staging or the choreography or even the wardrobe, but she still sounded great, and I couldn't stop thinking about how much she reminded me of Prince. Both are undeniably gifted, and they enjoy playing with personae and identity.

St. Vincent, Outside Lands, 08-07-15I'm kind of burying the lede. We had been planted front and center since the gates opened, which is simply our MO. The big payoff came at the beginning of St. Vincent's set, when she descended the stairs set up specifically for her show, climbed on the barrier directly in front of us, and rocked out. At one point, she grabbed a fan's phone and took a selfie with it. The crowd surged, the photographers went nuts, and she thrilled. That is how you do a festival show!

Frankly, I was a little concerned about the reception for Wilco at Outside Lands. On the one hand, they're huge in the Bay Area, and obviously not everyone could get into the Independent show. However, the other bands on the bill skewed young, and St. Vincent is kind of the opposite of the dreaded dad-rock label so often pasted on to Wilco.

Stationed at the front, I can't say for sure how Wilco went over. We had a cozy contingent around us, but at certain points, I think the woman to my left (who'd been trying to squeeze me out for several acts) simply set her head down on the railing, not even looking up. On the other other hand, her daughter seemed reasonably invested in the show. Let's call it a draw?

Other than Solid Sound, fesival sets tend to be underwhelming, especially if you're a die-hard fan. We had to wonder how they'd fit in Star Wars, plus catalog selections into the abbreviated festival window. The answer: They hit the "hits," threw in a couple of surprises, and ended on a song that was both a staple of the set but an unconventional closer. In the words of Colonel Landa from Inglourious Basterds: That's a bingo!

Yay to "You Satellite" returning to the set! And I already want to hear "Cold Slope"/"King of You" all the time. Also, kudos to everyone for making "Magnetized" work in a massive field.

Wilco, Outside Lands, 08-07-15

As for the rest of the set, of course you expect "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Via Chicago," "Heavy Metal Drummer," and "I'm the Man Who Loves You," but the other half of the non-Star Wars set played more to the old fans than the festival novices. I mean, "Handshake Drugs" is a pop song that everyone should hear, but it also kinda wanders and unwinds. "Art of Almost," as its name promises, is an art piece, while "Box Full of Letters" may be older than many of the youngsters in attendance. I'd even say the crowd didn't fully awaken until "Via Chicago," specifically the part where Jeff and John serenely sing over chaotic breakdown. That drew a notable roar from the audience.

Wilco, Outside Lands, 08-07-15Toward the end of the set, the clock suggested the band would squeeze in "California Stars," perfect for the local audience and for festivals in general -- and maybe they'd bring in First Aid Kit? Nope, they went for "Impossible Germany," which is not exactly a shocker, as it's timeless and transcendent. However, it would mean that they'd go over their time -- but that wasn't our problem. One of the most memorable performances I've seen of the song came at the earlier Outside Lands, where Nels looked possessed through his solo and, more unexpectedly, took to the mic at the end of the song to dedicate it to John Cipollina. It wasn't quite that level, but the band took its time and didn't seem at all bothered by the prospect of making room for Mumford. As a longtime Wilco fan, I can say they managed to flip the script, and I was glad everyone got to hear Star Wars all wired up. Of course, the highlight of Outside Lands weekend had already happened the day before.

By the way, we got the hell out before Mumford came on and invoked the photographer rule for D'Angelo and the Vanguard: three songs and we left. D'Angelo and crew sounded great, but our legs, appetites, and attention spans demanded a break. Should the opportunity arise, I'd love to see them at another time.

I should probably report on celebrity sightings. I first spied members of Mumford and Sons -- accompanied I think by the blonde chick from Glee -- during First Aid Kit's set, and I believe Jeff Tweedy lingered in the back for their tunes. Everyone showed up for St. Vincent, including Nels Cline and Johanna from First Aid Kit. Wilco brought out Marcus Mumford and Annie Clark, but more important, Frank Riley held court! Granted, we also saw him at the Independent, but in short: Weekend. Made. And embarrassment be damned, I saw the Twilight werewolf kid walk past us in the photo pit toward the end of Wilco's set. (I refuse to Google his name.) Sadly, no sightings of Steve Wozniak on his Segway this time.

See also:
» i'd be lying if i said it wasn't easy
» rosin smells and turpentine smells
» like a dream in the night
» we adopt a brand-new language
» done well is so much fucking better
» as fickle as a paper doll
» the whole love

Saturday, August 15, 2015

i'd be lying if i said it wasn't easy

Wilco's gigs at the Greek Theatre and Outside Lands were announced first, then this gem sprang up -- the date we were really waiting for. Wilco was set to play the Independent, a venue they could easily fill several times over. As fans, we couldn't ask for anything more.

Notorious Wilco BrothersWilco, the Independent, Aug. 6, 2015: In my mind, I was sure that the Independent had to be bigger than the Great American Music Hall, which the band last played in 2003 (before I started this blog). At the time, the demand far exceeded the supply, and I only made it in thanks to the kindness of someone who read my posts on Via Chicago. (Note: At the time, I sent out bootlegs to nearly anyone who asked.) Flash-forward 12 years, and Wilco's popularity has skyrocketed, but as it turns out, the Independent is smaller than the Great American, according to Web sources. Yet somehow we had no problems getting tickets, and I even told my cousin to put back the tickets in her shopping basket. In fact, we had a couple of extras and found a couple of enthusiastic and welcome takers -- win/win/win all around!

But before I get to the concert report, bear with me as we review the history of the Independent. This black box on Divisadero has gone through many incarnations, including the legendary Kennel Club and, later, the Justice League. I honestly can't remember if I ever went to the Kennel Club, though I suspect I didn't. It's worth Googling the Kennel Club's history, if you're curious. However, I spent a lot of time at the Justice League, then known for dance acts. I have vivid memories of an especially sweaty, exhausting, and exhilarating Fatboy Slim gig, but drum and bass as well as a trip hop were big draws back then too.

That's my way of saying Wilco's date at the Independent was a treat in more ways than one, not only because of its size but also its provenance. Of course, I didn't catch the band on their Incredible Shrinking Tour of Chicago, and Lincoln Hall probably gives the Independent a run for its money, but I can speak of only what I know. Hey, if the band ever wants to do Bimbo's, Bottom of the Hill, and the Chapel to check off every amazing venue in San Francisco, they're welcome to it, and I will do my best to be there.

Notorious Wilco Brothers

Honestly, there's only one thing to say about seeing Wilco at the Independent for an all-acoustic show: It was amazing. This was not a setup you see every day, either in terms of the room or the arrangement. As a fan, it's everything you hope for, even if you've already been in extremely small rooms with the lead singer.

Coming off Solid Sound, I had seen the all-acoustic treatment recently, but that was on a vastly larger stage. Solid Sound was wonderful to hear, but something changes when you're planted at the front of a tiny stage in a small room. In fact, though Wilco went with a fraction of their usual haul of equipment, they still barely managed to fit the stage, to give you an idea of how the scale of the room.

Of course, one big change has taken place since Solid Sound: Star Wars, the new album. There was some question of whether the band would stick to its plan to play the record in this setting. It took a couple of songs before they answered the question (including a nod to the Byrds and the Notorious Wilco Brothers billing), but "More ..." dropped us right into the new release.

Notorious Wilco Brothers

In all, they did almost the entirety of Star Wars, with a couple of exceptions: the opening track, which I guess they have yet to attempt live, and "You Satellite" -- which happens to be one of my favorites. Overall, they did surprisingly well translating the production-heavy tracks to acoustic treatments, though I suppose you should never be surprised that any song from Jeff Tweedy could be pared down to an unplugged treatment. "Taste the Ceiling" is the obvious choice for an acoustic gem, and the harmonies especially stood out. "Cold Slope"/"King of You" is indelible enough that my brain could supply the riffs, even if the band didn't. I can safely say I prefer the electric versions, even if the alternatives are still pretty cool.

"Magnetized" provided perhaps my favorite moment of the night. At the outset, Jeff warned us this would take a little bit of work, but good fans that we are, we quieted down and let them build the song to its majestic climax. I believe this is also the song where we saw yet another intriguing percussive element from Glenn. For the minimal beat that opens the track, Glenn tapped on the drum edge with -- his wedding ring? Some other implement? Anyway, we hadn't seen it before, and it was a subtle touch that probably could only be seen and heard in a room like the Independent. I'm so glad they were able to make it happen in front of us.

Notorious Wilco BrothersThe rest of the set was long and wide ranging, drawing on plenty of eras from the band discography. As befits a seemingly die-hard audience -- or at least the fans with the fleetest fingers, speediest connections, and deep-ish pockets -- the band took in B-sides, hits, crowd favorites, and obscure cuts. You knew this audience would get "New Madrid" -- complete with novel and unexpected slide guitar riffs from Nels -- but I love that the band is regularly doing songs off the underrated Whole Love. Alas, they didn't do my acoustic favorite/no-brainer "I Got You" (This Is 40 version), but they kind of made up for it with "Bull Black Nova," which is always a surprise. Also, the roars of approval for "It's Just That Simple" were thrilling to hear.

Jeff wasn't particularly talkative this evening, but he wrung out comedic moments from his few words, including a Trump reference. Also, early on, a guy in the audience requested "Theologians," which Jeff quickly shot down -- only to have the song show up on the setlist later in the evening. He also claimed to not realize another Star Wars movie was coming out, partly in response to the young men near the front wearing Darth Vader masks and Stormtrooper hats. He also made a comment about intellectual property -- so don't sue, Disney!

For us locals, the encore was especially satisfying. I mean, anytime the band does "Misunderstood" in San Francisco (or Berkeley or San Jose), I'll assume they're talking about my neighborhood, no matter what the actual Zip code, and I like to pretend "California Stars" is a small tribute to their massive fan base in the Golden State. But throw in the exultant "We've Been Had" and the doleful "True Love Will Find You in the End," and you hit a huge span of human emotion and experience. And isn't that why we listen to music in the first place?

Notorious Wilco Brothers

Sometimes I write a blog post and I pat myself on the back for capturing the memories -- but not today. If anything, I'm underselling the night. This evening was a perfect mix of music, friends, and atmosphere that rarely comes along, but strangely enough, it usually has something to do with Wilco and/or Jeff Tweedy. Funny how that works out!

Vetiver again opened the show, though in only a two-person setup. Their performance went over much better this time, probably due to the size of the room and the attentive audience. And as a San Franciscan, I can finally say I've actually seen this local band.

See also:
» the gray fountain spray of the great milky way
» everyone wastes my time
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» the whole love

Sunday, August 09, 2015

the gray fountain spray of the great milky way

After two years of not seeing Wilco, I made up for lost time as the band's 20th-anniversary tour finally came to the West Coast. First stop for me: the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

Wilco, Greek Theatre, Aug. 5, 2015: Los Angeles > Berkeley -- at least in terms of Greek theaters. I love my Cal roots, but LA's Greek Theatre is preferable in almost every way for music fans. I think it's smaller, the pit is ridiculously intimate, and the stage isn't 100 feet high, though the procurement of tickets can be a challenge. Also, it doesn't hurt that it's right in a friend's neighborhood, and we've made amazing memories there. If Wilco is playing at the Greek Theatre in LA, you know where to find me.

Wilco, Greek Theatre, 08-05-15

We took a slightly different tack from earlier visits: We hit the park at a mostly sane time, surrendering front and center spots to -- among others -- young men wearing Stormtrooper hats and waving tinsel and American flags. To their credit, they got a short shout-out from Jeff. Otherwise, apart from a dedication to Susan on the eve of their 20th wedding anniversary, Jeff indulged in little banter with the audience. Still, we found our spots just fine -- chalk it up to experience and the knowledge of lackadaisical LA audiences. Even better, the scorching skies had given way to cooler breezes. Early signs were all good.

After Solid Sound, I might not have needed to see this show. Who am I kidding? It's never a matter of "need" -- but at least I had an excuse to show up. On top of the 20th-anniversary angle, the band was now promoting Star Wars, the new record.

I admit I liked about half of the record on the first listen, but after a week-plus of intensive listening before the California swing, I can say it's closer to 75 percent now. I'm not sure I can fully get into a couple of songs, but the days are still young. Also, how cool is it that they released the record for free, no strings attached, and pulled a Beyonce in terms of an instant, secret drop? Remember when Radiohead's pay-what-you-want release was revolutionary?

Wilco, Greek Theatre, 08-05-15

I'm old and crotchety, so I have a long list of pet peeves. Among them is the album-in-its-entirety/anniversary performance ploy. But of course, this is not an anniversary (of a record), and Wilco's plan to play a brand-new album in order is the exact opposite of the nostalgia angle. There's nowhere to hide for either the band or the audience.

For me, the album's closing sequence is everything. The "Cold Slope"/"King of You" handoff is sublime, and "Magnetized" is one of the growers. Why hadn't I heard the Beatles thing in "Magnetized" before Daniel (who assuredly isn't reading this) pointed it out? Maybe because I was so taken by the '70-style dirty guitar tracks?

In the live setting, "Cold Slope"/"King of You" starts out unassumingly but eventually works up to a delicious clang of guitar and bass, allowing a pause only long enough to make you realize how badly you want more. I predict I'll want to listen to that sequence for a long time, though knowing Wilco, they'll find a way to mix it up with other tracks from the discography.

Can a band with no actual radio hits go into hits mode? Not exactly, but Wilco has clear audience favorites, which comprised much of the rest of the set. I don't know if a show with the alternate version of "Kamera," or the rambling "Art of Almost" can be considered everyday playlists, but in Wilco world, where we typically listen to albums and not isolated tracks, they can be more routine than you'd expect. Then again, I'm not sure that any Wilco track comes as a surprise these days if you follow the gig reports, now that they've thrown the song list wide open.

Wilco, Greek Theatre, 08-05-15If you didn't make the anniversary shows or the recent Solid Sound (which probably applies to most West Coast fans), the hootenanny/acoustic portion of the gig was probably the biggest treat, even if the segment might've been abbreviated for the curfew. Overall, I loved the mix of songs. I like to think that "Misunderstood" went to our friend in Los Feliz, both "It's Just That Simple" and "We've Been Had" took a ton of people by surprise, and you kinda have to do "California Stars" when you're playing underneath -- and in front of -- California stars.

Speaking of California stars, we once again spotted Jon Hamm in the audience, but now that I was finally not paralyzed and starstruck, the opportunity to accost him slipped away. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before I can repeat all my favorite 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt lines back at him!

The Greek Theatre has set a high bar for Wilco shows, especially with nods to family and loved ones. In comparison, this one was solid, though perhaps not as indelible as earlier appearances. Still, I'll come back here any time Wilco wants to set a date, Dr. Drew Baird/Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne lines at the ready.

Vetiver opened the show and were almost lost in the LA ennui -- but hey, the same happened to the Roots. I was rooting for them, but even with the full band, their sound couldn't fill the space. It probably didn't help that they saved the rockers until the end, but let's be clear that the empty seats couldn't be easy to play to.

See also:
» penny rich & dollar dumb
» a gift given accidentally
» the whole love

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

the whole love

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the 50 states, the U.S. Women's National Team beat China in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and Wilco played its first ever all-acoustic set at the fourth staging of the Solid Sound Festival. What a weekend it was!

Solid Sound Festival, June 26-28, 2015: Every other year: It's official now. Honestly, I'm glad for the schedule, and I'm sure the good people of North Adams don't mind not dealing with us on an annual basis. And it gives me something to look forward to when my local franchise doesn't win the World Series (though the NBA Finals were awfully fun this year). Anyway, you know the drill -- all the Wilco-related projects will come at the end.

Solid Sound 2015

For our gang, Solid Sound always starts on Thursday, not only with arrival and settling in, but a warm, welcoming dinner and a leisurely walkabout on the museum grounds before the crowds appear -- and the stages are set. The proceedings appeared slightly further behind schedule this time, but hey, Friday is kind of a soft launch anyway.

Solid Sound 2015As such, Friday started with a jaunt around the museum, revisiting older installations and checking out newer exhibits. Not gonna lie -- we made a beeline for the Wilco stage setup, and it was fun to see the equipment up close, beating the view of even the most intimate shows. However, we could've used more consistency with the security detail. Early on, we were shooed off the rug, but later in the weekend, we saw various people donning instruments and even sitting on the drum kit. Hey, kudos to those who got through!

Also deserving of praise was Glenn Kotche's subtle bathroom installation. I didn't notice the chimes and gongs on first viewing, but they were impossible to miss once you knew where to look. You gotta love any project that lets you get your hands on the work, though germaphobes might feel differently. Conversely, a wag of the finger to the Wilco timeline project, which didn't open until Saturday. Why the lag?

Speaking of second takes, Francesco Clemente's paintings managed to raise eyebrows among our group, and it took a repeat trip to the loft to settle the debate. I can't even guess as to how we missed it the first time.

Mikael Jorgenson provided our first dose of music for the day with his solo set. Club B-10 indeed felt like a club, with a strict one-in-one-out policy when we arrived. After a short wait, we made our way in; it turned out the room was very small and simply couldn't accommodate a lot of people. Once inside, we watched as Mike spun a soundtrack to accompany a video playing in the foreground (a train journey during our segment), but alas, we didn't stay long, as the room was too hot and stuffy for our liking.

Back on the main stage, Real Estate opened the proceedings on Joe's Field, but IMHO, they weren't a great fit for the large expanse. Despite their lovely guitars, the songs tended to run into each other, and my mind wandered for much of their set. However, their all-instrumental after-hours show in the courtyard against the video display was fantastic. Funny what a change in venue, hour, and context can do for the music! If I weren't so tired, I could've stayed a lot longer.

Saturday is always the big day at the festival, and it required actual choices this year. After sprinting across the field to set down the hallowed tarp, many of us dispersed to our preferred acts. A few of us headed over to the comedy stage at the Hunter Center to take in Superego, which was high on my list of must-sees. Alas, it was the only comedy I caught for the day, but I got my HR Giger-Werner Herzog-Ayn Rand trifecta, so no complaints at all.

From there, I made my way to Bill Frisell and Sam Amidon in Courtyard C. I've wanted to see Sam Amidon for a while now, particularly since his appearance at the Watkins Family Hour last December, but their collaboration was surprising, to say the least. I guess I was expecting a more accessible set, but they were in their own world. At one point, Sam squawked like a bird of prey over the accompaniment of his violin and Bill's guitar. Still, their set was beautiful and haunting, and it didn't hurt that they closed with the Kinks "Tired of Waiting," albeit slowed and stripped down enough that it wasn't immediately recognizable. I'd be lying if I said I fully understood their set, but I appreciated the collaboration.

Back at Joe's Field, the acts had each been moved up an hour, due to reports of the coming storm. However, the order remained the same, so Richard Thompson took his slot to open the day. I first saw Richard Thompson about 20 years ago, opening for Crowded House, but I really have no memory of that performance, and I'm entirely the wrong person to talk to regarding his legacy, influence, and discography. My one takeaway from this gig: He's a tough, old rocker. Unlike, say, Real Estate, this three-man setup (occasionally joined by members of Tweedy) held our attention with a driving, immediate performance, and I imagine a sizable contingent of the audience were more than pleased to catch him and NRBQ, all on the same day. (Believe it or not, I'm a little too young and a little too female to qualify.)

Solid Sound 2015

In an abrupt change of pace, Mac DeMarco followed Richard Thompson. I didn't know a ton about Mac and his band before the gig, except that they were young, catchy, and prone to crowd surfing, but like many other attendees, I loved their set. Maybe in another album or two, they'll learn how to write a bridge, but the tunes were instantly enjoyable, and the band antics were mostly harmless. They lit up a gray Saturday and offered a silly, shambling, and altogether delightful appetizer for Wilco's show. Due to the rain, we couldn't stick around for Cibo Matto's set with Harmonium Mountain later in the night -- in fact, missing Cibo Matto was one of my main regrets from the weekend, but thus is the way of festivals.

Solid Sound 2015Sunday is the relatively calm day, and Joe's Field was fairly empty in the opening hours, as the early birds flocked to the Wilco signing session (not to mention the fans who had to get back to their normal lives and couldn't linger for a third day). A few of us went to the Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler session, though I didn't make it to the fan collaboration section. But in the segment I saw, Glenn's trademark playfulness and experimentation shone through, as he mixed everyday incidental sounds with his own cadences and innovations. It's a privilege to hear the world through his ears for a few minutes at a time.

The final trip to Joe's Field started with the Felice Brothers, who are regulars at Hardly Strictly, so I kinda feel like I've seen them a million times before. Up close, they reminded me a little of the Pogues and once again kept our toes tapping ahead of Tweedy. The gathered Felice Brothers fans seemed pleased by their set. Who am I to argue?

But what about Wilco, you ask? I'm getting there! The fest was broken up into three distinct headliner sets: Wilco acoustic on Friday, Wilco traditional on Saturday, and Tweedy and friends on Sunday. I hardly sweated the details; three nights of Wilco and/or Tweedy was all I needed to hear.

Get this: The blog tells me I haven't seen Wilco since Solid Sound in 2013, as if I weren't pumped enough over the occasion of the band's first ever all-acoustic show. It's kind of hard to believe so much time has passed on both counts -- not only since my last Wilco show, but that it took them so long to go the all-unplugged route. I know my reason; what's the band's excuse?

Anyway, Wilco has long opened up its setlist, so if you've seen the band enough or at least follow concert reports, rarities may not be rarities these days. I can only report on what jumped out at me, and right up there is "Bull Black Nova." As it turns out, I've heard it solo acoustic before, but it was still a huge treat to get the rest of the band on this killer track.

I suppose it's never surprising that any Jeff Tweedy-penned can be stripped to its acoustic roots, but certain songs are less expected than others. Take "Hoodoo Voodoo," which has become an all-out jamboree, but the band honored it nonetheless without sacrificing all the players' contributions.

At this point in my fandom, I live for old favorites, and the bluegrass version of "I Got You" is the fastest way to perk up my years. Add in the Sesame Street version of "Outta Mind" and the Daniel Johnston cover "True Love Will Find You in the End," and I'll leave an exceedingly happy camper.

Saturday was perhaps the most straightforward set, as the band delivered its usual electric output. The rain remained a light drizzle for most of the show, and only a few songs had to be sacrificed from the encore. The X factor for me could be summed up in three songs: "Secret of the Sea," which I hadn't heard in a long time; "Let's Not Get Carried Away," which may be too good to ever see an official release; and "Panthers" for sheer obscurity. Make that four -- "Either Way" popped up, and though it's not exactly an obscure tune, at least they finally played it at a show I attended. How do you like them deep cuts? By the way, the downpour delivered later in the night, but by then, we were full of pizza and other carbs.

Solid Sound 2015

Tweedy capped off the festival on Sunday with their typical set I've finally been able to see a number of times now. Their show didn't lose much on the larger stage, and the already stand-out tracks ("Diamond Light," "Love Like a Wire") shone even brighter. Then again, I first saw them at Hardly Strictly, so I shouldn't be surprised they could play to the bleachers.

Halfway through the proceedings, Jeff broke off into his solo acoustic segment, and the celebration really began. One by one, various friends and guests made their way to the stage for specially selected songs. The highlights are too numerous to name, but I'll cite a few anyway. I gotta start with "Into the Groove," which is a seminal track from my youth. I joked that Cibo Matto should plug in their groovy electronics for "Spiders," but they hit upon a much better choice on their own, even if Jeff pretended to have never heard of Madonna (even as he proceeded to John Prine with the Felice Brothers).

So many songs from this segment were simply beautiful, including "Harvest Moon" with Luluc; "Chinese Apple" with Glenn Kotche and Ryley Walker; and "Be Not So Fearful" with Wilco's own John and Pat. But if you're going to finish out a three-day festival, you gotta go with the singalongs. The one-two punch of "Give Back the Key to My Heart" and "California Stars" is hard to beat in this regard, with their numerous opportunities for solos, vamping, and all-out harmonies among a couple dozen(ish) musicians, not to mention the help of several thousand fans.

Solid Sound 2015

This weekend will be remembered for larger events, but I can't think of any place I'd rather be to celebrate history being made. See you in 2017!

See also:
» Solid Sound 2013: the boys are back in town
» Solid Sound 2011: you can tell that i'm not lying
» Solid Sound 2010: trees held us in on all four sides

Monday, June 08, 2015

the subject now in question

How long has it been since I've been a regular at Jon Brion's show? Long enough that the young man sitting next to me asked me to stop clicking my retractable pen while I was taking notes because it was too loud. Bwahahahaha! Oh honey -- I was doing this back when you were dancing to your babysitter's Blink 182 CDs. I hope I didn't ruin his show (probably his third, tops). Anyway, this weekend offered me the chance at a double dip (Hello Kitty!) and of course filled out the schedule with a visit to Largo.

Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 29, 2015: I do not suffer from FOMO. Instead, I may labor under FOGO (fear of going out -- tip of the hat to Susan for the phrase), but dammit if the recent promises of Jon Brion with a band didn't pique my interest. Alas, I couldn't make my way to those shows, and only a month later, Jon was back to his spartan setup. Other than a small rack of electric guitars (that went unused) on one side, every instrument was acoustic and unplugged, and the drum set was absent altogether. If a band were scheduled to assemble, they probably wouldn't be loud. (In fact, early on, we were promised guests, but we'll get there in time.)

As for the man himself, Jon emerged looking somewhat professorial in glasses and with notable cheer in his voice. He also carried a small folder with loose-leaf pages and informed us that he had new songs, though he didn't yet know the order of the verses. To start off, however, he went on an instrumental tear covering several songs. As I've said repeatedly, I'm not great at picking out older songs when no words are sung, so take my guesses with a grain of salt. That said, I think I heard Vince Guaraldi and Cole Porter ("Everytime We Say Goodbye"), though the latter might've been Chet Baker -- or Elvis Costello ("Almost Blue")? I want to say Randy Newman ("Dayton, Ohio - 1903") made it in too. However, I can report an I Heart Huckabees tune capped off the movement.

From there, Jon stayed on piano but turned to the lyric sheets for the first new song, which even on my first listen struck me as a Jon Brion classic in the making. We're talking four or five verses, with a couple of bridges and a nice clip to the tune. The phrase "my love" came up repeatedly -- which probably doesn't sound revolutionary, but it totally fit in the context of the tune. I would love to hear it again, no doubt in some form I couldn't predict.

Another new song followed, and at first, the pace reminded me a little of "Knock Yourself Out." The lyrics, however, were nothing to write home about it. Let's say this song holds promise but could use more attention.

The next song was not new, but it was a relatively rarity. I'm pretty sure it was "Row" from Eternal Sunshine, only with lyrics and extra poignancy. Jon ended this piano-based segment with "Happy With You," complete with all the spontaneous bits Jon is known for.

The acoustic guitar then came out, along with a call for requests. "Meaningless" landed first, followed by "Citgo Sign," a request from the patron sitting front and center, who I assumed has taken over the role of #1 fan. Jon said it might be the first time he's played it at the Coronet, which probably checks out. Jon capped off this segment with "I Believe She's Lying," and I should mention all of them got the extended treatment. For "I Believe She's Lying," Jon even changed up the vocals here and there.

Jon returned to the piano and his "hymnal" for the next song. If you read this blog enough, you know I don't love everything Jon has ever done, and this falls squarely into that pile. The lyrics were heavy-handed, and the melody itself didn't stand out. Unlike previous clunkers, this didn't morph into a 10-plus minute dirge (whew). OK, enough said!

At this point, Sebastian Steinberg came out, with his stand-up bass and an impressive beard. I likened him to Zeus, albeit with his long ponytail intact. Jon opened up the floor to requests, and after some back and forth, the Buzzcocks finally landed in a jazzy two-man piano-and-bass take. As if I needed a reminder of Jon's encyclopedic knowledge of music, but it's always nice to hear confirmation.

For the next request, Jon married a style of music with a song, which is how we got "Space Oddity" a la stride piano. Did you watch the last season of Mad Men? I've had at least one screaming moment during each episode, when an unexpected twist plays out. One of the moments -- MINOR SPOILER ALERT -- had to do with "Space Oddity." I will never not love this song in any form, and this one was a delight. Jon himself wore a big smile on his face for much of the tune, and Sebastian's slap bass added unexpected notes. Of course, it morphed into another style all together, but I'm not the person who could characterize it for you.

"Over the Rainbow," a request personally solicited by Jon from the person sitting in what was once my seat (AA24, in case you're wondering), was soon granted, and it was slow, pretty, and spare. Sebastian came close to a bass solo around the bridge -- so it was deliciously ironic when he declared he hated the song at its conclusion. For the record, Jon stated he did not.

Jon next picked up the acoustic guitar for an instrumental track, the kind that tend to stump me. In my notes, I have "I'm in the Mood for Love," but I could be way off, which is typical for standards. During the course of this song, Sebastian's face was like that of a silent movie actor, nodding and shaking along. By the end, both Jon and Sebastian were actively hamming it up for one another.

The requests continued, and Radiohead made it to the forefront. Jon returned to the piano, but hardly went traditional. The notes sounded like they were coming from a harpsichord or a toy piano, but eventually came back around to the "real" sound. This was a ton of fun, as well.

Jon followed up "Trouble," featuring a jazzy bridge, then a request for a song he gleefully reported he didn't like: "Rocky Raccoon." Susan next to me thought she heard Vince Guaraldi here. All I know is that it took a detour through, like, the Preservation Jazz Hall (note: I know nothing about the Preservation Jazz Hall), and it was decidedly loose, though not in a White Album sort of way. Make of that what you will!

Jon inquired into Sean Watkins' presence, and after a brief dash to the stage, he joined them for a couple of tracks: "I Go to Pieces" and "Tribulations," the latter a terrifying (in Sean's words) gospel song he recently learned. Brownie points go to Sean for the Back to the Future reference when he explained what it was like to try to teach a song to the bona fide geniuses beside him.

Jon Brion playing stand-up bass at Largo at the CoronetSebastian stepped up for his vocal contribution, George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care." This song may be one of the highlights of the evening, as we watched Jon and Sebastian switch instruments. I don't think I've ever seen Jon play stand-up bass! What a sight!

Jon returned to the piano and took over for the next song. I don't know if it was a request or his own selection, but he rolled out the always welcome "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Jon went with a pretty classic power pop take on this song, which is fairly different from the slower version Nick Lowe plays these days. Trust me, there were no complaints.

Sean exited the stage, and we were left once again with Jon and Sebastian, this time for Jon's own "Please Stay Away From Me." This has become a semi-staple of Jon's set, and I hear hints of this and that with every listening, but for some reason, the Randy Newman-esque tone hit me between the eyes this time (perhaps because the earlier brick of a tune was probably trying too hard to take the same approach).

With that, Jon and Sebastian's show came to an end, but a couple dozen of us headed to the Little Room for extra songs from Sean. I didn't take notes here, but I can report he did my request for "Moonshiner," though only after he realized I wasn't asking for moonshine. I've heard him do this before, as Sean himself acknowledged, but I know it's far from a regular on the setlist. Nonetheless, he gamely attempted it, with a little help from Jackson (I think), undoubtedly Googling lyrics in the back.

I likely won't get back to Largo for a Jon Brion show until the fall, but I'm already looking forward to the next go-around.

-- piano (like, five songs)
-- new song #1
-- new song #2
-- Row
-- Happy With You
-- Meaningless
-- Citgo Sign
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- new song #3

with Sebastian Steinberg
-- Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't)
-- Space Oddity
-- Over the Rainbow
-- I'm in the Mood for Love
-- Creep
-- Trouble
-- Rocky Raccoon

with Sebastian Steinberg & Sean Watkins
-- I Go to Pieces
-- Tribulations
-- Peace, Love, and Understanding

with Sebastian Steinberg
-- Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» strangest times
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg

Sunday, April 12, 2015

tripping the dark fantastic

I've caught myself saying this a lot lately: I don't need to see that band again. It's not as if I don't like the band, but when your concert attendance starts hitting the double digits, especially in the bigger venues, my interest drops off a cliff (with very few exceptions). But when a friend is in town and wants to hit the Fillmore, why the hell not? Thus, hello Punch Brothers!

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, April 4, 2015: A pleasant surprise awaited me when I bought tix from the Fillmore box office for the show: download codes for each concert-goer. I figured the Punch Brothers were offering, at best, a three-song sampler, but I was dead wrong. The download covered the entire new album, The Phosphorescent Blues. As I've said a million times, I nearly always favor live music over studio recordings, and the download fit perfectly into my plans. I realize not all bands have the luxury of giving away their music, but I have so much respect for the Punch Brothers for reaching out to the fans who come out to see them on the road.

Perhaps the Punch Brothers can pull off these acts because they know they'll be rewarded by passionate audiences at every stop, if San Francisco is anything to go by. Granted, they were booked for two nights at the Fillmore, which is already a good sign. But you still have to pack the bodies in and fire them up -- check and check on both counts in San Francisco, as the fans responded with cheers, singalongs, and declarations of love.

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, 04-04-15

By no means am I particularly knowledgeable about the Punch Brothers, but I've enjoyed the privilege of seeing them or at least Chris Thile fairly often at Largo. I also don't mind admitting their more not-bluegrass touches hooked me, though I can't imagine how you couldn't love their banjo solos.

If you've listened to the new record, you know it starts off on a decidedly poppier, more accessible tone, but if you stick around, you'll hear the usual mandolin and harmonies kick in later. That wasn't the only change: The live setup now included a set of drums, and at one point, Chris brought a bouzouki. Never fear -- still no electric guitar in sight. As it turned out, Gabe Wicher took the drums for a handful of songs while simultaneously playing fiddle, but his percussion duties were mostly limited to kick drum.

I have no idea what longtime fans may think of this development, but it all sounded great to me. Of course, the Punch Brothers touched on their roots -- say, with the Jimmie Rodgers cover "Brakeman's Blues." At other times, I kept thinking they should've written for the Taylor Swift of, like, two albums ago. But mostly, I marveled that they could turn one of the most old-fashioned of American musical forms into prog rock -- it's no small feat to mount a mountain of suspense out of such timeless instruments.

The topper to the show might've been the a cappella turn at "The Auld Triangle," from tons of sources, but in this context, perhaps most famously from Inside Llewyn Davis. (I really only know it from listening to Jeff Tweedy covers, don't yell at me for not citing Dylan or any of the Irish troubadours who originated it.) The six of them gathered around the appropriately old-fashioned microphone and delivered perfect harmonies to complement the eternal track; we in the audience helped in the chorus as well. As a fairly impartial by-stander, I loved it, and I wish every concert could have such a moment.

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, 04-04-15

Gabriel Kahane opened the show, and I'd seen him a few years before playing with Chris Thile at Largo. The audience was incredibly respectful to him and let him sing -- and he deserved to be heard! He even made me curious about some of the Los Angeles landmarks that inspired him, so that could be a mission on my next visit down south.

See also:
» broadminded
» let's not fool ourselves
» one day like this a year