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 clich├ęs 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.

Minus the Bear: More Cowbell

Minus the Bear
Bimbo's 365 Club
San Francisco, CA
April 29, 2008

I gots to have me more cowbell.

I have found that one of the great paradoxes of music lies in realizing that artistic expression is not dependent on intelligence alone. Creating music is as emotional an experience as it is intellectual. That seems obvious, but I occasionally must remind myself of this - particularly after listening to Dave Matthews and ruing his insipid lyrics or the numbing blandness of Miley Cyrus. Of course, not all expression can be operatic in its depths of pathos and beauty but conversely neither does every Campbell’s soup can or urinal-cake merit display at MOMA. A barbaric yawp is still a yawp, no matter what Walt Whitman thinks, and similarly, a mathematical equation proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, no matter how elegant, is also not art. Still, there are times when a song just gots to have more cowbell!

When watching Minus the Bear at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco, it was hard not to consider the difficulties and quick limitations one reaches when trying to define art. The band has some of the best song and album titles in music today. Some of their titles: Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse, Monkey! Knife! Fight!, We Are Not a Football Team, Thanks for the Killer Game of Cisco Twister, Lemurs Man Lemurs, Michio'a Death Drive, Highly Refined Pirates, This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, Get Me Naked2: Electric Boogaloo. Just reading those titles makes me want to know what this band is about.
The brilliance of Minus the Bear lies in combining their abstract expressionist song titles with seemingly unrelated lyrics that reflect quiet personal observations. Their lyrics are further juxtaposed by the complex multilayered music of Minus the Bear with its unusual time signatures, unexpected chord progressions and free-flowing melodies. Though, at times, the music is overly dependent on guitar-tapping sounds such that the songs tend to blend together. This is a deficit suffered by other progressive rock outfits like Coldplay or outfits from the 1970s that first explored this territory like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis (circa Peter Gabriel) and, in some respects, Pink Floyd. Minus the Bear would do well to follow in the steps of Pink Floyd and incorporate more blues-flavored accents into their sound. Pink Floyd graduated from nearly indiscernible and unlistenable psychedelic landscapes by adding more blues-influenced guitar and piano and created some of the most brilliant artistic expressions in rock music history. For Minus the Bear, a little less scarecrow and a little more lion could make them the most brilliant act on today’s music scene. It is rock and roll after all and should be a punch to the gut as well as the head. More cowbell!

Nevertheless, in a world of countless forgettable prima donnas like Mariah Carey, plain wannabe rockers like Daughtry, and too many nondescript “R&B” artists to name, having my brain stimulated for an evening, rather than dulled by dribble dressed up like music, was more than worth the price of admission. The band has been described as a distant satellite anonymously orbiting around the music world, but recent well-received performances at Coachella and other large festivals may quickly change this. And, when the dust settled and I was driving home, I concluded that this was a tremendous performance by a deeply talented band with unlimited potential for commercial as well as artistic success- a rare combination.

Josh Ritter: Throwback

Josh Ritter

Bimbo’s 365 Club

San Francisco, CA

October 24, 2007

Josh Ritter: Throwback

No, Virgina, Singer-songwriters are not dead, they are quietly strumming their way across the country playing small theaters and clubs; communing with 200 decent white folks at a time; playing to audiences determined to find melody and poetry in their music instead of thumping, sexually explicit propositions (not that there is anything wrong with that) or celebrations of gratuitous violence (might be something wrong with that) telling Garrison Keilor tales of country dance tractor rides and other non-sequiturs of unrequited love.

Josh Ritter is a throwback to a time when singer-songwriters ruled. There have been several revivals of the singer-songerwriter motif since its halcyon days in the 1970s - perhaps gaining the most media attention were the 1990s Lilith Fair celebration of female singer-songwriters, filled with estrogen-fueled outpourings of mediocre confessional sorority love, broken hearts and female empowerment, Indigo Girls-inspired patchouli affairs accompanied by ubiquitous gushing comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.

The recent resurgence of male singer-songwriters, like Ray Lamontagne, Ryan Adams, David Gray and Josh Ritter has not garnered quite the same level of media attention. This may be in no small part due to the continuing hegemony of males in popular music. Serious singer-songwriters, like Josh Ritter, have been playing small theaters and Universities across the country under the radar of popular acclaim. The comparison of these artists to 1970s icons of male singer-songerwriters, like Cat Stevens, James Tayor, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan is all too readily apparent. And there were times last night that Ritter sounded uncannily like both Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. He certainly has already penned some tunes that rival some of the best work of these two musical legends.

The last time Josh Ritter performed in San Francisco, he played at the Make-Out Room with a capacity of approximately 75 people. Last night’s sold-out show had approximately 750 people in attendance. This is in no small part due to Ritter’s “Girl In the War.” A song that is a true stroke of genius and has garnered quite a bit of critical claim amongst the antiwar NPR set. “Girl in the War” is an achingly beautiful plea and bitter rejection of the politics of war and destruction and is typical of Ritter’s early melodic ballads that are both personal and political in a truly revelatory way.

At Bimbo’s 365 Club, one of San Francisco’s most attractive venues, Ritter was joined by the ‘Alcatraz Brass Band,’ a small horn section, which brought some life to the setlist that was heavily dependent on his new more upbeat album. Unfortunately, the uptempo songs may have been the first signs of Ritter’s own limitations as songwriter as they did not demonstrate the same level of creativity, both melodically and lyrically, as his ballads. Nevertheless, Ritter deserves recognition and inclusion with the very best songwriters of the post-Dylan generation. He is a talent to watch.

Recommended Songs: Girl in the War, Snow is Gone, Here at the Right Time, Good Man, Hearts Still Beating, Thin Blue Flame.

Garth Brooks: King of Country

Garth Brooks was once the undisputed King of Country Music before his semi-retirement. He broke nearly every record involving country music, albums sales, ticket sales, awards. He has 70 hit singles, though only a few ever reached popular consciousness, most notably, “Friends in Low Places” and “Ain’t Going Down (Until the Sun Comes Up).” He has sold over 125 million albums, won 2 Grammys, 16 American Music Awards, 29 Country Music awards, and is the only artist to have seven albums debut at Number One on the Billboard charts. His concerts all sell out in record time.

So, the real question is why does every article or review of Garth Brooks begin with a recitation of these stunning numbers? Why does every Garth Brooks fan feel the need to justify their love of all things Garth? The cowboy hat, the pudgy Western shirts, the bad lyrical puns in his songs. After all, vanilla is the most popular ice cream for a reason and no one apologizes when buying a vanilla cone. Garth’s stellar career and phenomenal success is belied by his everyday-man persona and everyday-man music. Without his trademark cowboy hat and shirts, he could walk past you on the street and you would never know. There are few superstars of his status that could do this. I think for many of his fans, Garth Brooks is a guilty-pleasure. They know that he embodies nearly every country music stereotype, for better or worse, but he does so with such effortlessness and such lack of guile that his popularity continues to be broad and his connection to his fans is deep and something that most artists can only envy.

Garth Brooks

Staples Center

Los Angeles, CA

January 25, 2008

Guest Contributor: Robert Martins

As a holiday present, I got tickets to take my wife to see Garth Brooks. Garth Brooks is the Brett Favre of the country music scene, every time he steps on stage, he continues to set records. He is also widely admired for his humility and earnestness despite great success. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Garth Brooks is the top-selling solo artist of the 20th century. And like the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre, tickets to see Garth Brooks are very difficult to get.

Garth performs very few live concerts these days, instead devoting himself to his family and young daughters. But when fires hit Southern California in the fall of 2007, he agreed to perform at a one-time fundraiser in Los Angeles due to his long association with firefighters. Tickets went on sale December 1st, and after only 58 minutes, 5 concerts had been sold out. The 5 shows took place over only a two day period because of scheduling conflicts at the Staples center. On Saturday, Brooks was scheduled to perform 3 concerts in one day, another record for the Staples Center. The three concerts were scheduled at four hour intervals and were underwritten by American Express who also donated money to help raise over $10 million dollars.

Brooks was no less than amazing. During the fourth concert, which I attended on Saturday afternoon, he began the concert by playing a string of his hits. After almost two hours, he returned for two encores that included covers of songs by James Taylor and Jim Croce who Brooks said are among his heroes. During the second encore, he said that he just met a Staples Center employee backstage who asked what it was like to go on stage before an audience of over 17,000 people. Garth said his father had told him that if you want to experience something you need to jump in with both feet. At that point he invited Alva, the employee, to come on the stage. Alva, a heavy set Hispanic woman, was visibly shaken but sat on stage while Garth sang one more song. When he was done, he invited Alva back to the middle of the stage and asked everyone in the audience to take a picture of the two of them. He then took off his trademark Black Cowboy Hat and gave it to Alva. As she left the stage, Brooks turned to the audience and said that he would rather be standing on stage without his pants than standing there without his Cowboy Hat! He gave a final wave and left. It’s no wonder his fans are so dedicated. It was a great show.

The CIA: In Fact and Fiction

As Monty Python might say "And now for something completely different…" Or perhaps "And now for a little blow-back."

The CIA: In Fact and Fiction
Reva and David Logan Lecture Symposium
UC Berkeley School of Journalism
May 5, 2007 (Cinco de Mayo)

"Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who." Monty Python

On a day meant for Corona and Lime on a beach with mariachi music in the air, your intrepid concert-goer found himself holed up in a darkened, stuffy lecture hall at the University of California- Berkeley listening to the official historian of the CIA drone on about government history. Worse yet, bureaucratic agency history- which DCI beget which DCI in some carnivalesque parody of Genesis. And the Lord said, "Let there be spies! And there were spies and it was good." Of course, there were film clips from the "Good Shepherd" and commentary from Eric Roth, the screenwriter, but tragically no popcorn.

While you might consider this to be a puzzling way to spend a beautiful Saturday in San Francisco, I did this intentionally. And there were a few nuggets of information, all declassified for your enjoyment. What is a spy gathering without a little braggadocio? Apparently, the CIA invented Blackberry technology 20 years ago. Makes you wonder what toys they are currently hiding in their basement at Langley. There was also the dubious claim that the CIA has forsworn any assassination attempts since 1963. Of course, this could be true, when you can outsource torture, you can outsource assassinations. That way everyone's happy. Plausible deniability and all that. Clean linens, cool toys. Don't fuss.

"Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony." Monty Python

As journalist Tim Weiner noted, it is difficult to discuss the CIA without the conversation devolving into a foreign policy debate. Nevertheless, that foreign policy debate was curiously absent from the Berkeley symposium. You could expect nothing less from a historical symposium largely populated by former officers of the CIA discussing a film about the formation of the CIA in 1947. There were categorical denials, "We don't do torture." Although this statement came with a curious caveat that this was, at least, true until the current Administration. And there was the catch-all defense laid out at the beginning, "The CIA is carrying out the President's foreign policy. The CIA does not devise their own foreign policy." This was the ultimate escape clause for almost any dubious action and further limited any moral or ethical objections to CIA activity- even though this defense was rejected at Nuremburg. Nevertheless, it is still a part of the US government lexicon. Of course, there is no need for farcical aquatic ceremonies or CIA-engineered coups when the army drops bunker-busters on the front-door. Not much mystery or romance there. All at the President's order.

"It's not a question of where he grips it! It's a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut." Monty Python

This brings us to the current CIA figure du jour and media whipping boy George Tenet. And leads one to ask the question, what would have happened at Nuremburg if the only evidence allowed was provided by Albert Speer? I suspect Ohio would have re-elected Hitler. Even the career CIA officers could only muster half-hearted statements of support and one nearly explicit charge of incompetence. Which leads me to my only real complaint about an otherwise stellar and thought-provoking Symposium: with the focus on history and the CIA portrayal in film, there was very little discussion about the most salacious controversies swirling about the CIA today- torture, extraordinary rendition, and no discussion at all about 9/11 and WMD, perhaps the greatest intelligence failures in a generation. Those will have to be for another symposium and another day.

Black Keys: Almost the Real Deal

Black Keys

Warfield Theater

San Francisco, CA

April 2, 2008

Black Keys: Almost the Real Deal

If I can plagiarize and horribly bastardize Thomas Franks’ thesis in the Conquest of Cool: the corporate culture of cooptation will subsume any revolutionary quality of the cool, of the new and the different as a means to sell, sell, sell! Consider Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. Think different and go buy the same Mac. Saturn’s a different kind of car that everyone should own. In the world of rock and roll, baby boomers often point to Woodstock as the moment when the corporate world realized the vast reserves of gold in them there rock and roll hills. Money for nothing, Chicks for free. In reality, the cooptation of youth culture and youth music had been going on for much longer. Baby boomers just think that the first time they had an experience; it is the first in the history of humanity.

You might be asking yourself what does all this have to do with the Black Keys, aren’t they the antithesis of the domineering American Idol music-machine? Well, the Black Keys’ tunes have now shown up in adverts for Victoria’s Secret and American Express- which is both a travesty and makes me want to break out my AmEx for some hot lingerie! However, it is a testament to the sheer, unadulterated, underground coolness of the Black Keys that these transgressions against authenticity do not dampen their street cred in the slightest. In fact, it seems today’s youth accept, as part of the bargain, what might have once been deplored as an unpardonable musical sin. If you want free illegal downloads, then your favorite song is going to be the soundtrack peddling Chrysler’s Town and Country minivan.

The Black Keys’ stripped down, bare-essentials, hard-knuckled, flannel-wearing British blues is not going to appeal to everyone- though it might sell underwear. The band consists of Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney on drums. Despite this minimalist approach, the band’s sound is Big. It is impossible to listen to this band (if you can call a two-person outfit a band) and not hear a direct connection to Led Zeppelin and their legion of imitators (Black Sabbath, early Rush, even Nirvana – to whom the Black Keys owe much). I would call their music heavy-metal, but is very far removed from the 1980’s spandex of Southern California hair-bands and much closer to the Seattle grunge scene that followed, both in sound and penchant for plaid shirts and ripped jeans. It is also difficult not to compare the Black Keys high-energy music and performances to AC/DC (Bon Scott era) or even Van Halen (David Lee Roth era) or possibly Aerosmith (before they became a parody of themselves). Like these legendary outfits, the Black Keys’ first few albums already contain more than a dozen songs with unforgettable hooks and enough power chords to satisfy the teenager in all of us.

Of course, the Black Keys have only been around for about five years but they certainly seem to have the potential to reach such lofty heights, even after such a short history. But not just yet. The band needs a bit more aging and needs to prove their longevity.

Last night at the Warfield, the band was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, despite it being a Wednesday. They had a giant inflatable tire behind them on the stage – in order to emphasize their working class credentials, just in case you didn’t get it. The one lull in the night’s performance was when Patrick Carney’s uncle came on the stage and played a flute and then a four-foot sax on successive songs. While it is great to see the band trying to expand their musical oeuvre, the flute and their signature hard-rock blues really did not mix well. Still, a brilliant performance by a band destined for greatness and a tough concert to top for the best of 08.

Songs to check out and the best from last night: Stack Shot Billy, Girl Is On My Mind, 10 am Automatic.

Beth Orton: Speakeasy Poet

Beth Orton

Cowell Theater, Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA

March 24, 2008

Beth Orton: Speakeasy Poet

In 1984, I saw Rickie Lee Jones perform at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was still in her wandering poet troubadour phase and the audience was populated with young hipsters- beards and ponytails, Annie Hall wannabees with scarves and berets. It was a demographic that I didn’t know existed in the Midwest in the 1980’s - at a time when MTV’s New Wave, the English Beat, ABC, Spandau Ballet, et al, were dominating the musical scene and everyone wore pastels and leg warmers. Lord, it was a difficult decade to live through. However, seeing Rickie Lee Jones, I felt that I had accidentally wandered into a gathering of the musical cognoscenti. There was meaningful music still being created that was not dependent on clever (or not so clever) videos. Seeing Beth Orton perform at the Cowell Theater at FortMason in San Francisco was a trip back in time. Both because she, like Rickie Lee Jones in the 80s, seems to be an artist out of step with the current music promotion noise machine, and because she draws the same audience of hep-cats in-the-know that makes you feel like you are in on the secret, in possession of a closely-guarded password to a Speakeasy performance.

This may sound somewhat redundant since the concert was in San Francisco. A city that is not only the very embodiment of the hipster ethos but is also the progenitor of the whole Beat movement that generated the very term. Nevertheless, I felt like I was in a hip bubble within a hip bubble at the Cowell Theater. And I had plenty of time for reminiscing since Beth started over half an hour late. Eventually, though, she did take the stage.

While Beth Orton may have evolved into a fairly straightforward folk singer, she began her career in electronica-flavored music and has been described as writing and performing "folktronica" music by some critics- which is all to say that she has her own unique voice and sound despite playing acoustic based, midtempo songs that characterize the new folk music scene. Nevertheless, her acoustic versions of the songs she played in San Francisco owed as much to Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell as to any contemporary artist. Her latest albums have been largely confessional songs of longing and devotion with the additional flavor of British, self-effacing insecurity. And her performance insecurities were also quite evident at the Cowell Theater where she restarted three or four songs after having moments of panic-induced memory lapses for which she apologized profusely.

However, when the songs took over, they seemed inspired. The melodies are light and playful and memorable and her lyrics are thoughtful and poetic. In many ways, the melodies seem as if they were always meant to be and Beth is simply their conduit to existence. Her lyrics also display a level of thoughtful eloquence that seemed to escape Beth when apologizing for her memory lapses. Her between-song banter largely consisted of stuttered pleas for forgiveness punctuated by ‘bullocks’ and ‘bloody hells’ after forgetting a lyric or chord and then blaming the whole mess on her recent motherhood and resulting absence from live performances. This was charming, appealing to an audience of anglophiles, but persisted a bit too long.

Despite all this and the incredibly short duration of the show, just over one hour, it was a very pleasant evening with a gifted songwriter who doesn’t get near the attention or praise that she deserves.

Songs to check out: Someone’s Daughter, Conceived, Heartland Truckstop, Central Reservation.

Willie Nelson: An American Original

Willie Nelson

The Fillmore

San Francisco, CA

April 16, 2007

Willie Nelson: An American Original

What can be said about Willie Nelson that hasn’t already been said? While he is a true cultural icon, he is also a true survivor. He turns 74 years old in a couple weeks but still sells out 5 nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco and still puts on an awesome show. Willie has come to symbolize an earnest freedom that once characterized what was most alluring about America. Big skies, vast open plains, the never-ending highway that led to infinite promise and possibility. Oh, yeah, and old-fashioned, good-time, incorrigible rebellion. Willie celebrates rebellion as long as it is in pursuit of a good time. He may regret it the next day, but he will embrace it tonight. And he certainly embraced a good time Monday night at the Fillmore, refusing to leave the stage even after announcing that this was the last song, well, OK, one more. Well, one more.

Willie doesn’t play by the rules. And what’s not to love about that? Getting high on the roof of the White House with the Secret Service, not paying taxes to the Man, married four times, getting cited last year for marijuana possession (at 73 years old). He writes and performs music, has written books, acted in movies. He’s performed with almost every major music star of the past 50 years that you can name. He’s lived a Big Life. And what’s most wonderful about Willie Nelson is that he has done it all while still maintaining a generous, mellow, humble persona. As a result, he engenders great genuine affection from his fans who are deeply devoted.

Willie doesn’t play by the rules in his music either. There is nothing hip about country music. The time signature is always the same, there is little variance in key, the subject matter is all the same. But if there is a hip country music performer, it is Willie Nelson. While he has perfected his own unrelenting rough-edged, honky-tonk signature sound that sometimes can overshadow well-crafted songs, it is very unique and very American. The music sounds jagged and unfinished at times and in the center is Willie’s voice. His voice is warm and nostalgic, world-weary but still sympathetic and full of life. Although he played just under 2 hours, he still covered all his greatest hits and many covers as well. See, selected list below.

There is also a wistful nostalgia about many of Willie Nelson’s songs. Many are about beaten-down characters who can’t help themselves despite the fact that they know better. Jack Kerouac wrote “Beat doesn't mean tired, or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like Saint Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart.” If there is a country artist that could be described as Beat, it would be Willie Nelson. His last album is called Last of the Breed, another apt description of an irreplaceable American artist.

A Few Songs from Monday Night: Whiskey River, Crazy, Me and Bobby McGee, Pancho and Lefty, Blue Skies, I’ll Fly Away, I Saw the Light, Good Hearted Woman, Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Always on My Mind, City of New Orleans, On The Road Again, If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time, so many more.


This is a journal of musical adventures in San Francisco, California. A random collection of the fits and sparks of an addle-minded music fan and his questionable opinions of the best and worst of live performances around the San Francisco Bay Area and wherever else his demented muse leads.

This journal is colored by the eternal struggle against Weltschmerz, where physical reality fails to satisfy the demands of the mind and soul. Live performances of music can be religious experiences of oneness and transcendence. The very best performance can allow glimpses of nirvana facilitated by a communal gathering of the like-minded and a celebration of the philosophical paradox of wave particles floating in air. Raising the lowly, empowering the powerless, moving beyond Subject and Object, Mind and Body. The magic of melody and poetry overcoming the limits of language and narrative and reality finally satisfying the mind and soul. And one tired dude trying to capture the Zeitgeist for a fleeting moment: Welcome to Musical Views and Reviews.