The Minks: Ray Davies Never Looked Better

The Minks

Great American Music Hall

San Francisco, CA

December 3, 2008

The Minks: Ray Davies Never Looked Better

The Minks blew the doors off the Great American Music Hall last night. OK, maybe not the doors, they’re pretty good doors. Strong doors, with bouncers. But the windows were definitely rattling. The Minks are rock stars, that’s for sure. At a benefit for music in schools, called Silicon Valley Rocks, the Minks thrilled the geeky Wednesday night crowd. Since all the bands had some connection to Silicon Valley, the audience hipster-geek factor was streaming broadband. I’ve never seen so many iPhones or so many Google employees in one place. The only complaint I have is that with multiple geek bands playing, the cool Minks were limited to about 30 minutes.

While the Minks call themselves an all-girls Kinks cover band, they are more in the category of a tribute band. “Cover" bands play songs by more than one artist, with no original material; while "tribute" acts play only one artist. Many tribute bands foolishly try to emulate the look as well as the sound of their rock heroes, wearing wigs and glasses to look like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones; or in the extreme impersonation world, plastic surgery, to look like Cher or Michael Jackson. Thankfully, the Minks only make a nod to the original look of the Kinks by wearing 1960s mod outfits- which renders them much more pleasing on the eye than the Kinks ever were. The Minks look like they stepped right off the set of the latest Austin Powers flick. I was left wondering why all bands can’t be hot chicks in short skirts and go-go boots.

However, playing only Kinks songs is a somewhat limiting factor for the world-domination aspirations of the Minks or if they really want that cruise ship gig. While Ray Davies was undoubtedly one of rock's great song-writers, the Kinks’ hits were largely minor affairs on Billboard. After "Girl You Really Got Me" (which achieved most of its fame through other artists) and the anthemic "Lola," the Kink's most well known hit is the sing-songy "Come Dancing" which is largely mired in rock history as a nostalgic early video hit for MTV (which demonstrates how far videos have come and how low MTV has sunk). The Minks do perform a stellar version of "She's Got Everything" which I feel is ripe for an update. I see it as a possible hit for Letters to Cleo for a teen romance movie soundtrack like 10 Things I Hate About You or Pretty in Pink.

Being an all-girls Kinks cover (tribute) band is a difficult balance. If you practice too much and sound too professional, you lose the raw do-it-yourself excitement of the original Kinks sound and if you don't practice enough, you risk sounding amateurish. Fortunately, the Minks have struck just the right balance maintaining the raw energy of the Kinks without sounding like professional musicians slumming it. A good bar band should drop a note or two, especially one playing the Kinks. The Minks have it just about right.

Special credit: First two photos by award-winning photographer Joe Santel.

Last photo by Dave Le.

The Black Keys: Kings of the Underground

The Black Keys
October 30, 2008
The Fillmore
San Francisco, CA

Black Keys: Kings of the Underground

First, major props to The Black Keys for charging only $10 a ticket. That’s practically free in today’s rock and roll marketplace. Few bands have the balls, the audacity, the ultra-hipness to do that. In fact, I’ve paid more in service charges and fees to the universally despised Ticket-Bastard, I mean, Ticket-Master (who will be sharing the seventh circle of hell with insurance companies and oil corporations). No, Greed is not Good.

But before I digress too much...back to the band. The Black Keys are the Kings of Underground rock. Unlike the Kings of Leon, they have never compromised the integrity of their sound for popularity and remain dedicated to loud, raunchy, fuzzy blues that would make Jimi Hendrix proud. (Check out my review of the Black Keys Warfield show in April 2008 for an exegesis on their authenticity.) Unfortunately, I do get the very real sense that they are so uncompromising in their vision that this could result in their undoing as the songs tend to blend together. It is difficult to avoid the nagging sense that the band may have reached their zenith with the 2004 album Rubber Factory, which is destined to be a rock classic, and are now starting to retread their hard bluesy grunge into a worn formula.

But a great formula it is. Sometimes it sounds like guitarist Pat Auerbach is channeling Hendrix sans tie-dye mysticism. The amount of sound produced by Auerbach on his guitar is unparalleled. And the manic drum playing of Patrick Carney is reminiscent of pioneer drummers Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience) or Ginger Baker (of Cream). It’s no wonder that they claim so many fans amongst rock luminaries, including Robert Plant as well as members of ZZ Top, Metallica, Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys.

At the Fillmore, the band stuck largely to their biggest hits, like 10 am Automatic, Stack Shot Billy and Girl is on my Mind. It seemed the band, like the audience, took some time to get into gear on a dreary, rainy Thursday night. But by the time they reached their encore, no one had left, and the crowd was louder than ever. Still, for hard rock enthusiasts, the Black Keys can’t be beat.

Kings of Leon: Identity Crisis

Kings of Leon

The Warfield

San Francisco, CA

October 17, 2008

Kings of Leon: Identity Crisis

During their five year history, the Kings of Leon have evolved away from their original rootsy, old-school, garage rock to a highly polished sonic arena rock. There is very little difference now between their sound and many more mainstream popular acts, see e.g. Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party etc., etc. You need only compare the Kings' early songs Red Morning Light or Molly’s Chamber to a new song like Closer from their new album and the difference is easy to hear. While this has disappointed many of their early fans, it has led to much greater popularity. So, what do I know?

This is the second time I have seen Kings of Leon. The first time was January 28, 2005 at Slim’s in San Francisco. Yes, I am one of the early disappointed fans. The Kings played before a couple hundred people at Slim’s who had all heard the early buzz about a rocking outfit from Tennessee. The band was the retro image of the 1970s: long Leif Garret hair, mustaches. They were a throw-back and they rocked. Hard. The sound was Lynyrd Skynyrd meets The Clash. In those days, they were frequently described as a southern-fried Strokes. The band was very popular in Europe and looked destined for big things.

Three years and three CDs later, virtually a different band by the same name is now making it big in the UK and America. Now, clean shaven, with hyper-trendy haircuts; they would otherwise represent my worst nightmare of a ballsy band co-opted by some craven Simon Cowell publicist. They indeed look like the final contestants of an American Idol for rock bands. And their last two albums have certainly sounded that way. The songs are filled with non-sequitur crescendos, divorced from the emotional content of the music or lyrics, like some southern-flavored testosterone version of Celine Dion. They have been meticulously groomed for rock stardom. Of course, I did say that this would otherwise represent my worst nightmare of a band gone wrong if they didn’t look so uncomfortable in this new persona and if the music were worse. Although the new sound is neither what first attracted me to the band nor what I prefer personally, I can’t say that it is necessarily bad- though the new hit single Sex on Fire is admittedly pretty lame. But the band is more popular than ever. They sold out two nights at the Warfield and Sex on Fire is #1 in England. And despite aping U2, like every other band, the songs are not that bad, even if free of any memorable hooks, they are not offensive. And the kids love it.

So, I had my worries going to see the band last night at the Warfield since there was every indication that the band had indeed sold-out. Nevertheless, the Kings played a genuinely great show. The crowd was hugely enthusiastic, the band confident and more professional than ever. Even the new sonic rock sound was much better live than on their new album. In fact, they almost rocked the new songs to the point of being fun, though not as fun as when they played older hits Taper Jean Girl and Molly’s Chamber. Still, it does seem that the band is having an identity crisis, unsure whether they want to be the next Rolling Stones or the next U2. The only remaining question is: will the real Kings of Leon please stand up?

Cake: Proposition H (not Preparation H)

The Independent
San Francisco, CA
October 10, 2008

Cake: Proposition H (not Preparation H)

The evening began at Jimmy’s Victorian mansion across from Alamo Square in Hayes Valley. Unwittingly, I had purchased VIP tickets to the concert which included a catered preshow meet and greet with the band, public officials, and grass roots activists campaigning for Proposition H, a ballot measure that would make San Francisco the first major city in the country to be solely powered by clean, renewable sources of energy. The Victorian gathering was a colorful mix of rock and rollers, groupies, roadies, granola environmental activists, community organizers and for some inexplicable reason, a couple of rowdy Scots, who were visiting the US via New Zealand. This was not Sarah Palin’s America. There were no well-scrubbed college republicans chanting drill baby drill. But in every way that matters, it was a much more honest meeting of free spirits who only want a better country.

Cake may be the biggest little band in the world. They have headlined music festivals and played in large amphitheaters but still have never really entered popular consciousness, at least not in the way that fellow California bands the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Green Day have. This may be in part due to their anti-rock star front-man John McCrea who can be perceived as an arrogant hipster doofus. He talks to the audience almost as if he were a fan of himself while at the same time singing songs that excoriate the shallowness of popular culture. He is at once immersed in the banality of rock stardom while resisting it. Depending upon your perspective, he can appear to be hypocritical or a man of integrity - aware of his own circumstance - and simply condemned to the irony of his own love/hate relationship with all the attention. In his defense, he and the band at least seem determined to walk the walk.

Cake’s next album is going to be recorded in a studio that is powered by 100% solar energy. The band has also taken to giving away a free tree at many of its concerts. Last night, a lemon tree was given to fan who correctly identified it as an Improved Meyer Lemon tree. And the band supports many other environmental causes. However, regardless of your political leanings and opinion of McCrae, Cake puts on a great show.

Cake’s music was once classified as alternative. I believe this was largely due to their rejection of the otherwise ubiquitous guitar solo of mainstream pop music along with McCrae’s laconic rhythmic spoken-singing style, which will not make him a contender on American Idol, but fits well with the droll, observational lyrics. However, as rock music has broadened, Cake is no longer an outlier. It’s not particularly radical any longer to rely on well crafted, funky hooks, mixing elements of country, jazz, funk, and rock. Vince DiFiore’s brilliantly subtle touches of trumpet, more than anything else, set Cake apart from the rest of the crowd. I do loves me a good brass section in my rock. All in all, a great show, from a great set of musicians in an intimate environment. What more could you ask for?

Songs to check out for the Cake neophyte: Love You Madly, Short Skirt Long Jacket, Sheep Go to Heaven

Calexico and The Cave Singers: Samurais and Poetry

Calexico and The Cave Singers

The Fillmore

San Francisco, CA

September 29, 2008

Calexico: Southwestern Samurai Songs for Tarantino

If you close your eyes at a Calexico concert, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve wandered into a dilapidated Southwestern saloon in a Quentin Tarantino film featuring Samurai warriors. I am not the first person to notice the connection between the Mariachi-flavored atmospherics of Calexico’s anthemic sound and the heavily stylized Tarantino film noir aesthetics. I think this is more a compliment to Calexico than Tarantino since Tarantino relies so heavily on music to create mood in his films, think of Reservoir Dogs. It also recognizes how visual Calexico’s music is. However, whether you agree with this, one thing is certain; Calexico is far better live than their often tepid recordings.

Calexico is a perfectly named band. Their name tells you exactly what their music sounds like. Though they have frequently been classified as an indie band, their music is a balance of Mexican norteño music and mainstream American popular music and may be closer to the alt-country sounds of Wilco with a Mexican flavor rather than Flogging Molly or Belle and Sebastian or any other band that falls into the catch-all indie category. Calexico is a bit like Chris Isaak combined with the Gypsy Kings, with Mariachi trumpets thrown in and peppered by occasional whooping en español. It is the music you would expect to hear on the US-Mexico border- although curiously without the element of chaos or edginess that you often sense or hear at most international borders and the music that often flows from border towns. Perhaps this lack of an edge is due to the sleepiness of the Mexican siesta culture and the placidity of suburban American life- as well as the hyper-militarized US-Mexico border. Though the music is not edgy, it is big- frequently building to large crescendos of trumpets, accordions, xylophones, drums and guitars. It is exciting and a little dull at the same time. It is safely exciting.

Music like this has a large cross-generational appeal and large cross-cultural appeal. The audience at the Fillmore was populated by Berkeley college students and aged Marin hippies as well as Si Se Puede immigrants in flannel shirts and high-tech Silicon Valley geeks drinking Margaritas and Dos Equis. This is a nice way to end a great California weekend, a show at the legendary Fillmore club by a band of consummate professional musicians, surrounded by a balanced cross-section of San Francisco’s diversity.

Opening for Calexico was The Cave Singers whose songs are on a whole different level.

The Cave Singers: Poetry

This was a relatively quick return to San Francisco for The Cave Singers, see my previous blog about their performance at the Independent in May. Everything I said then was reconfirmed last night. The Cave Singers are poetry.

While their sound is much quieter, with only three band members playing largely acoustic-based instruments, the songs are several steps beyond what passes for popular music.

Near the beginning of their set, singer Pete Quirk, said that they were happy to be in San Francisco, that the band was “feeling good and looking good,” then he clarified he meant “looking good inside which is the most important.” Then the band had the subtle audacity to play “New Monuments,” a song about self-acceptance and trust in difficult times, without introduction:

See the waves have been to the countryside
And to your graves your will is due
And in your mind, sip with turpentine
And in your heart, oh it's like a grave.

You always go, where the weather is
And in the slow, stretch of the sea
And in your mind, you sip with turpentine
And in your brain, I think you're fine.

The Cave Singers are all class and are quietly setting a new standard for other bands to aspire to.

Breakestra: The Most Fun You Can Have


Great American Music Hall

San Francisco, CA

July 26, 2008

Breakestra: The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On

It doesn’t get any funkier than the funkiest funked-up band coming to the funkiest club in San Francisco on a funky Saturday night. There is no one currently funkier than Breakestra- not since the late-great Godfather of Soul (that’s James Brown) and his legendary ensemble, the JBs, kicked up the funk. Breakestra is Old School. Mashed potatoes. Reel to Reel. Laying it down and dancing all over it with platform lesbian-crocs. Afros, gold chains, bellbottoms. This was a super-funktacular show! Breakestra rocks!

The Down Beat

From the drop of the first down-beat, Breakestra never stopped. The band took the stage and boogied continuously for close to an hour before the first break, more of a pause really. Barely enough time to catch your breath. It’s hard not to start bobbing your head, snapping your fingers, shuffling your feet when Breakestra hits the down beat, the winding thumping base line, a splash of Hammond organ and the syncopated guitar riffs.

Breakestra doesn't combine funk to metal, a la Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour or Fishbone; they aren’t funk-inspired, like The Black Eyed Peas or Outkast; they don’t do jazz-funk a la today’s acid-jazz pretenders; nor do they sample funk to spice up some bland, uninspired hip-hop. This is hard-core, underground, down and dirty funk like the glorious days of funk’s climax when a down beat meant something, man. When it was real. When the funk was The Funk and the dream was still alive. It's all about the beat. The music might be old school but this is not your Granddad’s funk. It’s living, breathing, roaring, reckless abandon.

Funk may be a distinctly American musical invention but Breakesta is out to proselytize the good word. They are the musical legatees of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, The Meters, the Mohawks. Weird thing is they’re all white (but one). No matter, they can still get down. The band has had many players come and go but hopefully they have settled on the current line-up which are all stellar at what they do.


And there is no funkier venue than the former bordello that is the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco- next door to the famous Mitchell Brothers Adult Theater. The GAMH is known for its decorative balconies, columns, and frescoes and red walls. All of which added to the celebration of the gritty urban sound that is Breakestra. The perfect meld of venue and artist.

Breakesta is from Los Angeles but haven’t been to the Bay Area for two years and this was their first shot at rocking the GAMH. Hopefully, they’ll be back again real soon for more merciless, floor-stomping, take-no-prisoners good times.

Tunes to Check Out: Take My Time, Family Rap - which can be previewed on the band’s MySpace page at Breakestra's My Space Page.

Or check out Getcho Soul Together on YouTube here.

The Cave Singers

The Independent

San Francisco, CA

May 22, 2008

The Cave Singers: Raw Art

Outsider Art is a term of art that has evolved to describe a kind of folk art created outside the boundaries of the recognized ‘high-art’ establishment- untrained artists following their own muse turning their back on ever shifting trends to form a singular reality for themselves. The term was originally meant to be an English equivalent of the French term Art Brut or "Raw Art." Art Brut enthusiasts believe that this is the most unadulterated and pure form of art since it is a result of the creative impulse in its simplest and most direct form without the artifice of education and the inevitable self-censorship that follows.

In one light, the Cave Singers could be considered Art Brut in their musical expression. The band certainly looked the part at San Francisco’s The Independent with scraggly beards and faded t-shirts, tattered baseball cap or faded fedora, looking like they probably live in the back of a van, down by the river. Certainly the Cave Singers have not strayed far from their origins as part of the DIY punk ethos of Seattle’s post-grunge scene rejecting the triviality of mainstream culture. All of which makes their acoustic-based music even more arresting as the band members shifted from guitar to washboard to harmonica to melodica to drums and tambourine. On one song, singer Pete Quirk beat what might have been a homemade wooden maraca against a small wooden stool. The sparse folk-like compositions of guitarist Derek Fudesco combined with the unique fragile sound of Quirk's nasally voice and his powerful lyrics make the music at times haunting and hypnotic. Their songs can make it seem as if time stood still and that the entire human condition was suddenly rendered in sharp relief.

In Cold Eyes, Quirk sings about the restive spirit of the artist finding redemption after tribulations and heartbreak. "In the cold eyes of criminals, I drank in the wild laughter/ Isn't that my laughter that I'm laughing now? And in the cold eyes a terrible storm reaches with wild thunder/ Isn't that the thunder that I call my home?" While in Seeds of the Night, Quirk sings, “Oh, thinking of heaven, thinking it’s night, maybe next time, next life down the road.” This is music best listened to at 3 am, driving home on an abandoned street after the rain has passed. And though most of the Cave Singers songs are quiet and contemplative, the ecstatic release of the Beats is never far. In the boot-stomping Dancing on Our Graves, Quirk celebrates life by recognizing the release of mortality, singing "Oh my future with these quiet people/ Oh you and me dancing on your grave/ But oh lord, I know what I've done/ And oh lord, I ain't afraid… honey we're bound for the night/ We are bound for the night." The release is like a Dionysian bacchanal, hillbilly style.

The Cave Singers have released only one album, titled Invitation Songs, though at The Independent in San Francisco, they played a couple of new songs that foreshadow a great future for the band. However, with only one album, the performance was very short, just one hour and sadly, there were only around 100 people in attendance for a band that deserves a much larger audience and much greater acclaim.

Van Morrison: Concert Rules

Rule No. 1: Be on Time. Whether you're paying $10 for that kicking local ska band or $200 for Aerosmith at the Hollywood Bowl, if you're not there, the show goes on without you.

Van Morrison

The Grand

San Francisco,CA

December 29, 2006

Rule No. 2: Attend the Concert with Companions who are Fans.
Don't drag your girlfriend to hear Nickleback if she has the good taste not to like emo. You'll both be better off. You'll enjoy the show more and she will keep her sanity and ears intact.

I can't hold my compatriots responsible for our 'late' arrival at the Van Morrison show in San Francisco - even though we stopped for a last minute Mexican fiesta at a dank taqueria on Polk St. before the show.We arrived at The Grand at exactly 6:45, apparently the new midnight hour for Van, and he was already in the middle of "Back on Top." It seems practically incomprehensible to start a show at such an odd hour, on a Friday, but to start early is even more baffling and frustrating for concert-goers who love the rush of excitement when the lights first dim.

Fortunately for me, Rule No. 2 was still in play and having already quaffed a Pilsner or two and stolen a bite of a chicken quesadilla, my companions and I were ready to roll and Van was in fine form. VanMorrison is notoriously fickle in his live performances. Sometimes he dances an Irish jig and growls and scats on stage, just having a grand time while other times he phones it in on a mobile with a bad connection. At The Grand on Friday, Van was in full-attendance. His voice was expressive and strong and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He also has the very good sense to surround himself with consummate musicians and the sound was first class. The way a band should sound. Loud, but not overbearing, a great mix with every musician clearly audible, and lots of bouncy, funky organ solos. Fine backing singers, nice horn work, everyone working together. Not a blemish or weakness to be found.

Rule No. 3 Location, Location, Location. An inspiring venue only adds to a great show.

Of course, a great venue doesn't make a concert great and a crappy venue doesn't make a concert bad. But a great venue can make a great concert into a brilliant concert. The Grand is the old Avalon Ballroom, scene of many historic shows, where the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Doors performed back when rock and roll was still rebellious and revolutionary. Van Morrison has also played here before. And it is a much underused venue that has all the grace and charm of an old ballroom with a large open space, plenty of room for getting down and groovy. A fine space that makes you happy just to be there, a good start for any concert.

Rule No. 4. Avoid Artists that thrive in the Studio. They will invariably suck live.

Of course, the converse of this rule is certainly not true. But when Van is in fine form as he was at The Grand, he smokes his often tepid and flat studio recordings. His music comes to life on stage, more so than many artists. On Friday, Van largely avoided his classics and relied heavily on his new CD, Pay the Devil, and its country-flavored tracks. Van doing country sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not Dixie Chicks pabulum- Van does country with a little soul. Speaking of soul, one highlight of the night was Van's tribute to the late, great Godfather of Soul, James Brown (which also netted me $100). But the price of admission was found in a tremendous version of "St. James Infirmary Blues," a classic American folksong. Also, a lovely "I Can't Stop Loving You" was heartfelt and blissful. Of course, Van closed with a rousing "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Gloria" – two of the most overplayed songs in rock history but Van gave them new life and they were great fun.

When a concert starts before 7 pm, unless the concert is by Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead, you can anticipate an early night and Van was off the stage before 9 pm which left me wanting much more with the night still so young. This was almost an acceptable hazard for attending a performance of an aging cultural icon.

Trey Anastasio: Doodling

Trey Anastasio

The Warfield,

San Francisco, CA

December 7, 2006

Trey Anastasio is like a child at a carnival, too small to ride any of the roller coasters. Or a man washed up on the shores of a tropical island. Or perhaps - a well-drawn doodle. Yes, a well-drawn doodle. It is all great but still doesn't quite leave you fulfilled in the end.

Trey is perhaps one of the most talented guitarists of our time but a mediocre, at best, song-writer. Listening to Trey play is both exhilarating and boring at the same time. It can be a stunning dichotomy. His constantly inventive guitar playing can be complex and compelling but is surrounded by pedestrian, predictable song arrangements and accompanied by both banal and often insipid lyrics (although not nearly as bad as Dave Matthews, the King of Insipid Lyrics).

For the uninitiated, Trey Anastasio was the former lead guitarist and singer of Phish, an iconic American jam band whose following was second only to the Grateful Dead in terms of their devotion to the band and their fondness for tie-dye, patchouli and psychedelic drugs. The parallels don't stop there. Phish in many ways was the Grateful Dead 2.0 and often included Dead staples in their setlists. Trey continues this association by playing frequently with some of the surviving members of the Dead.

However, the Grateful Dead was at least wise enough to outsource most songwriting duties to Robert Hunter and John Barlowe who penned some classic American songs, telling stories of down-beaten characters and their struggles for redemption- directly descending from the traditions of John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac- becoming chroniclers of the American experience.

No such wisdom has been found by Trey. While emphasizing the power of music to be uplifting (not particularly insightful), Trey consistently relies on rock and roll clichés and empty ambiguities: "Night speaks to a Woman" "Wherever you Find It" "Alive Again" "Shine." Although his songs are a smorgasboard of different genres, blues, funk, rock, folk, most of his songs rely on predictable melodies with predictable breaks and predictable crescendos.

Nevertheless, Trey was accompanied by a deeply talented band, including an energetic horn section which added much needed color. When Trey just let the band run free and when he let loose some bouncy, curling or bluesy guitar licks, the ride was great fun- even if didn't mean anything. Like a well-drawn doodle.

Van Morrison: A return to Professionalism 2007

Van Morrison

Masonic Auditorium

San Francisco, CA

December 28, 2007

Closing out the anemic 2007 concert series in fine form is the same artist that closed out the 2006 concert series in equally fine fashion. Cheers for Van Morrison’s fondness for San Francisco! On the other hand, jeers for Van Morrison’s nepotism. Oh, and BTW, also Big Jeers for inflated ticket prices. Can there be any other excuse besides greed for a $200 price tag? I can only lament the exclusion of large numbers of fans due to economic disparity. Perhaps artists are trying to compensate for lost royalties due to Internet downloading but I hate sitting in an audience and thinking we’re there only because we possess expendable resources. Are the best concerts going to be limited to only the wealthy? The only market in more disarray than the recording industry is the health care industry. Creative problem-solving is long, long overdue.

With out doubt, the best of Van Morrison’s albums is the double CD, “A Night in San Francisco” which was partly recorded at the Masonic in December 1993. Now, fourteen years later, Van Morrison returns to the scene of the crime and very nearly duplicates that stunning triumph by going back to the basics: great song-writing and great musicians means a great show. Despite evidence of a cold, Van Morrison’s voice sounded strong and he was in very good spirits even dropping his hyper-serious Artist Persona to smile twice. Even his Irish scatting and improvisation was minimal and right on target. I’d also like to know when did Van Morrison become such a tremendous saxophonist? He was quite able to hold his own amongst a stellar group of true professionals.

Adhering to the Concert Rules set forth for last year’s show, Van once again picked a great venue. The Masonic Auditorium’s horseshoe seating layout allows almost everyone to feel like they have front-row seats. And like last year, Van continues to surround himself with a stellar gaggle of musicians. And I do mean a gaggle; there were 11 people on stage, 12 when Van’s daughter, Shauna Morrison, joined the Old Man on stage for a splendid “Beautiful Vision” (and Shauna is a Beautiful Vision – quite the eye candy).

However, while we’re speaking of Shauna Morrison who also opened the show: she seems to be laboring under the delusion that she is Etta James when she is more like Jewel. Imagine Britney Spears trying to sing old-time Gospel. While she is not a bad singer, her voice can be unnecessarily nasally and is better suited for country or pop not the jazz and blues-flavored arrangements that her father favors. At least, she has the good sense to follow her father’s lead by populating her band with accomplished musicians. Nevertheless, it does seem apparent that Van is all too willing to allow his fame and success to be used for her benefit. After having just tolerated seven years of Bush Junior and the prospect of Hillary trading on Bill’s success to prime her own political fortunes, this was a disappointment. There’s a reason it’s called nepotism.

As for Van Morrison’s performance, I cannot offer a single complaint. His singing was direct with purpose, the band was superb, passing solos from one player to the next at Van’s direction and the sound mix was perfect, except for the last 30 seconds of the concert when the volume was raised to the point of distortion for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, and despite my earlier complaints, if I were going to pay $200 for a show, this would be it. Not only is he a cultural icon, he has been performing for 40 years. Van Morrison is an old pro and knows what he is doing.

Yo La Tengo: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Yo La Tengo

The Fillmore

San Francisco, CA

October 20, 2006

The Yo Report

What is the tipping point? When does a show reach critical mass so that
you walk out. If you like only 40% of the songs? 30%? 20%? What if
you like the studio efforts but the live efforts are but a hollow
resemblance of what you hear at home? Do you stick it out? What if
your ears hurt?

These questions floated in and out of my head Friday night with only
brief interludes of genuine enjoyment at the Yo La Tengo show. I have a
dozen mp3s of which I regard highly enough so that when I read a
critical review saying Tengo was the real deal, I was interested enough
to purchase tickets and venture into the great unknown. But this turned out to be only further proof that music critics have no idea what they are talking about.

The End of History
This may all sound a little harsh since there were times when I thought
the band was in new territory, that was also melodic and enjoyable to
listen to. But that was inevitably followed by 10 minutes of
screeching, pointless psychedelic guitar hammering, with Tengo's
guitarist nearly doubled over, his back to the crowd, jumping up and
down. Which left me wondering if this is, like Fukiyama's The End of
History, The End Of Music. Frankly, I couldn't wait to get home to
listen to Mozart's piano sonatas- just to remind myself that there is
still beauty and hope in the world and that anger, despair, anarchy, and
nihilism are passing adolescent expressions of angst.

It is like my never-ending hope that one day the political process may
produce a just and compassionate society. Waiting patiently for
MidTerms, a bit like Waiting for Guffman. Perhaps foolish pipe dreams
and you may say, J-Man, you're the consummate cynic, you know there is no
Guffman- but at the root of every cynic is the kernel of hope that the
world may right itself in the future- hopefully while I am still alive
to see it. And with Yo La Tengo, there remains some hope that they will
right themselves and realize that noise, no matter how satisfying to the
teenager in all of us, is not music.

Robert Randolph: Party On

Robert Randolph and the Family Band

The Warfield

San Francisco, CA

March 9, 2007

Recall Concert-going Rule No. 4 (see Van Morrison: Concert Rules) Avoid Artists that thrive in the Studio. They will invariably suck live.

Of course, I don't know of any jam band that thrives in the studio. The jam band scene has always been about live performance. That's what jam bands do. It's tough to jam in a studio. I also don't know of any jam band that likes that label – probably because they don't like the automatic association with the Grateful Dead and their spaced-out granola and tie-dye loving disciples or the plethora of half-assed derivative bands.

Now comes Robert Randolph and his slide-guitar. Robert Randolph is the current darling of the jam band scene. He has graduated from performing at the Elbo Room in the Mission, to the Fillmore and now the Warfield. His growing popularity has resulted from his monster live performances that overflow with energy and the buzz left behind as he skips town. Although he is squarely within the jam-band scene, Robert Randolph rocks! Imagine Stevie Wonder playing Led Zeppelin. Last night, he included Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile and a smoking cover of the Doobie Brothers' Jesus is Just All Right.

When Robert is playing, the party is on. Oh, it's on! And it's all party, all the time. No timeout for some schmultzy ballad to show his sensitive/deep/existential pondering nature. No Even In the Quietest Moments moment. It's a party. Of course, Robert is not without his gimmicks, like inviting an amateur guitarist on stage to strum a few chords with the band, a hit-or-miss proposition, or inviting the women on stage to groove during Shake Your Hips. Of course, who can object to dozens of women shaking their hips on stage? Adds to the party and Robert is all about the F-U-N. And considering the massive corporate cooptation of rock and its limited ability to be agents of revolution and enlightenment any longer, what else is left?

The highlight last night was a wicked version of Michael Jackson's You Wanna Be Startin' Something. Robert was joined on-stage by mandolin-virtuoso David Grisham, long-time folk-music partner of Jerry Garcia. (Again, the ubiquitous Grateful Dead connection). You know it is March Madness when David Grisham is playing a Michael Jackson tune with Robert Randolph at the Warfield and it totally rocks!

There were some sound problems early on, vocals getting washed out in the mix, and, at times, overpowering bass. The band also seemed to struggle through a couple of numbers before hitting their stride. Robert's 2005 Fillmore performance was better, but he has definitely set the bar high for any other performances in the MV&R 2007 series.

REM: The English Muffin

REM and Modest Mouse
The Greek Theater
Berkeley. CA
May 31, 2008

REM: The English Muffin

What could be better than an outdoor music festival in the summer? How about one when it’s actually warm? Outdoor concerts are awesome, they’re the bomb, the English muffin, the man in the moon, the way the world should be. But, in the San Francisco area, including last night at the Greek, outdoor concerts are often less like lazy, warm summer evenings under the stars than they are exercises in survival training- couples wrapped in blankets, jumping up and down as much to keep warm as to pogo dance to Driver No. 8. Even REM singer Michael Stipe wore a knit cap for much of the show despite being in the spotlight, in the corner, losing his religion.

It’s hard not to consider REM without it being all about Stipe. His personality on stage and in the music is predominant. Personally, I’ve always had ambivalent feelings regarding REM and Stipe. On Saturday night, they spent most of the first half of the concert reminding me what I don’t like about them, the clumsy plodding lyrics and noisescape that can obliterate well-crafted melody; and spent the second half of the concert reminding me what I do like about them, Stipe’s mumbling singing and the unique jangly guitar sound that virtually created college radio in the 80s, which in time begat “alternative music” which begat “indie music” which begat Modest Mouse (see below). Guitarist Peter Buck has created a signature sound and I really appreciate the song structure that largely eschews the obligatory and undemocratic guitar solo but this also results in his fading into the background when he should be in the foreground. When his guitar was at the center, as in many of REM’s more popular songs,the band

shines- even when they skip “Shiny Happy People,” “It’s the End of the World,” “Radio Free Europe,” South Central Rain,” "Everybody Hurts" etc.

Stipe may have lost his religion but he, most certainly has not lost his ego- though I have to give him props for wearing a suit and tie. Without doubt, he was the best dressed person at the Greek Theater. Nothing says serious rock and roll artist like a suit and tie. I did appreciate his remark about being able to breathe freely in Berkeley, being the most liberal city in the US, even more so than the meat-packing district of NYC (which is less like a city and more like, oh, I don't know, a meat-packing district) He did receive a hearty cheer when he announced his vote for Obama. But, when he responded to the crowd yelling ‘I love you’ by saying, “Yes, I love you too, that’s why we’re here tonight. That’s how this works,” I had to roll my eyes. I suppose it’s hard to be in front of adoring crowds for more than 20 years without internalizing and believing the pabulum, but he would do better to, at least, hide it.

Of course, large outdoor concerts are often as much about the celebration of being with friends as it is about the music. Half the fun is sitting on the lawn, watching the crowd wander in different directions, learning about your friend’s new job, forgetting about your cares for a moment. The music flits in and out as the wind blows. More often than not, your favorite song starts while you are standing in line for a couple of beers or standing in line to return the beers at the port-o-john. But it doesn’t matter. And despite my hesitations about REM and their performance, it didn’t matter, because it was great just to be out on a cold Berkeley night with a group of friends.

Highlights: Fall on Me, Orange Crush, Life and How to Live it, Losing My Religion, Man on the Moon.

Modest Mouse: The Next Generation

When it comes to music, I think every generation pities the next. They will never have it as good as we had it. Our one-hit wonder was so much more endearing than yours. The thing is, each new generation has their own music and has the music of the older generation. They have more music! They have the Doors, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, U2, Green Day and Gnarls Barkley. And now with mash-ups, you can get them all in one song. Bonus!

That said, there has been a generational shift in music in the past few years- which has been aided and abetted by technology and the internet’s revolutionary effect on music distribution. Artists can create and distribute music to millions of fans without stepping foot in a recording studio or having a contract. This has further encouraged a fractioning of the music scene. There are more bands with smaller dedicated fan bases playing music that is not well-suited for massive stadium shows- having been created in quieter, more intimate settings and distributed by word of mouth and Napster instead of on the radio to thousands at a time. I think Modest Mouse is one of these bands that would perform better in a smaller theater. At a large outdoor venue, like the Greek Theater, their sharp angular sounds sounded unnecessarily aggressive (fn Dana) and their open malleable songs that rely on elbow-room got washed out in the open space. Of course, it didn’t help that they largely avoided their most popular songs.

Much better received was the next-next generation, the first band of the night, The National. They have been accumulating much critical praise and performed a nice set of flowing, pensive songs that showed promise.

Ray LaMontagne: Painful Revelations

Ray LaMontagne

Paramount Theater

Oakland, CA

November 13, 2006

Painful Revelations

I am reluctant to refer to Ray Lamontagne's concert as beautiful agony, due to the sexual connotations. However, it is almost unavoidable as it is the most apt description. It was certainly agonizing for both the audience and Ray, but it was also certainly beautiful. And the term is certainly apt in other ways as there was a certain voyeuristic quality in watching the painfully shy Ray struggle mightily to summon his musical muses, almost as if he was releasing all his inner demons in performing his songs.

It was also one of the most interesting concerts that I have been to since Ray's struggles were clearly not only limited to his own performance anxieties but were also further burdened by

tremendous technical difficulties. (Ray, you are awesome, but you may have the worst tech in the business running your soundboard.) Ray spent inordinate time between songs tuning his guitar and had to repeatedly apologize to the audience. At one point, he threatened to fire his guitar man. In addition, the volume of his sideman's slide guitar popped in and out in a very distracting manner and the reverb almost swallowed the music completely during several upbeat numbers. The sound was balanced correctly for only about half the concert.

Then there was Ray. During long pauses between songs, he fumbled with his guitar, he mumbled nearly incoherent responses to the crowd's whooping song requests. He seemed to have to sturdy himself, staring ahead, looking for courage, before each song and often combed down his hair nervously with his fingers. He was excruciatingly uncomfortable on stage and was, consequently, almost mesmerizing- had not the sound difficulties not been so distracting.

Nevertheless, despite all these limitations, it was still possible to hear Ray's abundant talents. Ray may have one of the most expressive voices in music and is perhaps one of the finest songwriters around. His songs are drenched with longing- for love, for acceptance, for redemption. For anyone who has felt out of place or unable to control or understand their emotions, Ray has a song that captures that feeling perfectly. In many ways, Ray's songs are all about the beautiful agony that is the life of a sensitive artist, which is a life he clearly knows well. In a world of musical artists more concerned with branding and copyrights, encountering a real artist trying to express their interaction with the world and their struggle to understand it is compelling even if the sound mix kept him from breaking free.