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