Outside Lands: VIP-ing

Outside Lands
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA
August 10, 2013

Outside Lands: VIP-ing

Yes, it is that time of the year where it’s difficult to see a top music act without attending a mega-multi-day music-fest.  The mega-multi-day music-fest was designed for 20 years old with more money and more time and more drugs than they know what to do with.  It’s now become a fact of summertime for most major cities to have some kind of music-fest, normally with a goofed up, alliterative/onomatopoeia-sounding name that locks up talent for months in advance.  These fests pretty much suck all the oxygen out of the music scene for weeks and then blow into town like a hurricane.  Chicago has Lollapalooza, LA has Coachella, New York has The Governor’s Ball, Tennessee has Bonnaroo and San Francisco has Outside Lands.  I last visited the great Outside Lands fest in 2010 but decided to VIP it once again this year.  VIPing is the adult way to see a music fest, kind of like riding Business class, once you go VIP, you don’t go back!  Vanilla smelling RVs for port-a-johns, free massages, special food concessions and separate viewing sections allow you to get much closer to the action without squeezing between some drunken louts from Fresno or squealing sorority girls from LA.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s schedule included many conflicts of acts performing at the same time that I’d like to have seen so this review includes what time, energy and other vagaries allowed me to attend.

Gary Clark Jr.
After a short limo ride from downtown SF, the day started with Gary Clark Jr.  A blues master extraordinaire who’s got some major buzz going right now.  Think Stevie Ray Vaughn.  But young, black and hip.  If you don’t like Gary Clarke, you don’t like the blues and why are you even bothering to live?  Buckets of talent and quite a lot of fun.  A good way to ease into the day but a high standard for later acts to follow.  GC Jr played at Land’s End stage, the Big One that the other three stages could fit inside comfortably.  For a taste of Gary, check out  Ain’t Messing Round.  Even better, go see the real deal when he returns to the Bay Area to play the Fox Theater in Oakland on October 2.  I'll be there.

Mother Hips
It’s amazing that a music fest in San Francisco would not feature more hippie jammy jam-bands.  The graying hippie crowd largely had to make do with Mother Hips.  Thankfully, they were quite rocking, quite jamming, quite fun and hit just the right spot in this old hippie heart.  Mother Hips played the smaller Panhandle stage which was nicely intimate and allowed more breathing room and getting down room.  Mother Hips are a talented ensemble that has been around and back and know how to entertain a crowd.  I should probably mention at this point that the sound quality at all Outside Lands stages was fantastic!  The sounds guys were absolutely top drawer.

The Head and the Heart
On to the folk-rock portion of the show.  It was nice to have a little mellow break late in the afternoon before moving on to the Headliners.  My day was developing its own rhythm that was quite nice.  The Head and the Heart are playing in the same uber-popular territory as many folk acoustic indie bands, a la Mumford and Sons, Lumineers, Blind Pilot etc.  I don’t know how this genre suddenly became popular, it’s a bit of a mystery.  The Head and the Heart played at the Sutro Stage, a slightly larger venue than the Panhandle and were enthusiastically received.  Check out Lost in my Mind.

Last Band.  In the distant fog behind us, I could see the lights of Nine Inch Nails on the Land’s End stage but, in front us, Phoenix played a tight set of enjoyable pop songs.  There is really no better pop band on the market today than Phoenix.  The songs are catchy, hook-laden, intelligent, fun.  And that’s what they did at Outside Lands.  However, sad to admit, the set was a little bland.  I had to keep reminding myself not to be too disappointed because they’re just a pop band after all.  I guess my expectations were too high.  They rearranged some songs but, by the time I left, I felt I could have had the same musical experience by putting on a Phoenix Spotify songlist and turning the volume up high.  Fun but I was expecting more. 

Still, overall, a great day.  Bottom-line: will I return to Outside Lands?  Yes, but only under VIP conditions.

Robert Plant: The Gold Standard

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
Greek Theater
Berkeley, CA
June 29, 2013

Robert Plant: The Gold Standard

Photo by Jana L.
Robert Plant is the gold standard by which all other rock and roll cool is measured.  The former front man of megasuperband Led Zeppelin struts and prowls across the stage like a cat ready to pounce.  Even his advancing years have not slowed him down and have not changed the megasupercool of his expressive voice.  He howls, he screams, he croons.  OK, maybe some of the screaming has been reined in.  However, if anything, he seems a better singer now.  Also, he has not let the megasuperlegacy of The Zep weigh him down. He continues to explore whatever music captures his imagination.  Many of the older Zep tunes that he played on Saturday were completely reworked and not immediately recognizable until he began singing, e.g. “You need cooling, baby, I’m not fooling.”  And then the band and fans would proceed to rock out.  This added an air of unpredictability that kept the audience on the edge of their seats waiting for the next song.

Photo by Jana L.
Last night was a beautiful, rare warm evening in Berkeley, a perfect night to be at the Greek Theater and Robert was In the Mood to party.  To be honest, some of the reworkings of the Zep-tunes were reworked better than others and the more faithful renditions were the highlights of the night, including “Going to California,” and “What is and what should never be.”  Though, all of the songs sounded bigger and more open when played live in the warm summer night.  In fact, the only thing missing was the raw energy of Jimmy Page’s guitar.  The prospect of the reunion rumors coming true next year would be Zeppelicious!  Bobby P opened the night with “Babe I’m gonna leave you” and went on to play “Friends,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog.”  He also included almost unrecognizable psychedelic versions of the old blues classic "Spoonful" and the old folk classic, "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down."

Last year, Led Zeppelin was honored at the Kennedy Awards for their 12 years of sheer awesomeness before the tragic death of drummer John Bonham ended the band prematurely.    (Though the tribute is 20 minutes, it is well worth watching for Zep-heads)  While fellow British bands, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, may claim greater popularity, few bands have been as influential as Led Zeppelin.  Led Zep albums, to me, always seemed at least a step or two above those bands in terms of poetic and artistic ambition and accomplishment.  The Beatles and the Stones were mere pop bands while Led Zeppelin was Rock and Roll.  There was always a chaotic edge to their songs that was dangerous and complex and full of sheer awesomeness.  And, last night at the Greek, Robert Plant recaptured much of that excitement and beauty.  Definite contender for show of the year.

BSSB: Love Yo Mama

Banana Slug String Band
Henry Brother’s Vineyard
June 2, 2013
Angwin, CA (near St. Helena, Napa, CA, in case you didn’t know)

BSSB: Love Yo Mama

On Sunday, world-renowned and award-winning and children’s eco band, Banana Slugs String Band, played a benefit for St. Helena Cooperative Nursery School on a mountain top in Napa.  SHCONS is a parent-run, not-for-profit preschool in St. Helena that believes children learn by play.  Plenty of parents in tie-dye telling their kids to share the organic pretzels.  Even though The Wiggles and the Fresh Beat might get all the children's rock press, really the Banana Slugs was the perfect band for the occasion and obliged by playing all their greatest hits including: “I am a Tree” and “Dirt made my lunch.”  OK, technically it was only two members of the Slugs but it was like Mick and Keith, John and Paul or Robert and Jimmy.  You know, the good two.  And even though the rest of the band were taking a breather, the BSSB still included their infamous giant dancing starfish.  Although BS has been around for some time, there’s always a child somewhere learning about the beauty of the natural world and who is ready to dance like an animal or pretend to be a tree or a moose.  The slugs also included a medley of Dancing In the Streets and Will it Go Round in Circles which had just about the entire crowd on their little feet. And the setting for the concert was idyllic: in the middle of a vineyard.  I may not seek out the Slugs on a regular basis but if you want to instill some respect for Mama Nature in your youngin's, not a bad place to start. 

Junip: Swedish Invasion, part 2

Bimbo’s 365 Club
San Francisco, CA
June 1, 2013

Junip: Swedish Invasion, part 2

Junip is a mostly, if not entirely, Swedish outfit that plays melancholy folk/rock/psychedelia.  The sound is fairly unique though the songs tend to blend together and their flat studio efforts don’t quite capture the energy and musicianship of their live performance.  At Bimbo’s on Saturday night, they frequently sounded like an American jam band riding the groove which was all good fun and a bit of a surprise.  The only real problem was the late starting time.  After a couple of blah opening acts that haven’t quite found their voice, and after a long, extra warm day in the Bay Area and a

filling, but tasty, meal at Panta Rei in North Beach, my compatriots and I were not particularly inclined to party late into the evening, even on a Saturday.  So, we left mid-set.  Still, Junip is another Swedish group to watch, if for no other reason, because of bandleader Jose Gonzales’ entrancing songwriting.  (He is also famed for ‘Heartbeats,’ the track to one of the best TV ads featuring SF).  Jose has a rather plaintive delivery that can sound both intimate and like he’s singing from some distance away but is certainly one of a kind.  Hopefully, their next studio effort will better capture the live sound. Also worth noting, the show was my first visit back to Bimbo’s in quite a few years, it is one of the lesser known jewels of SF venues that I’d like to frequent much, much more often.

Track to check out: Line of Fire

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones
Oracle Arena
Oakland, CA
May 5, 2013

The two main narratives regarding the Rolling Stones’ 50th Anniversary tour are: 1. Man, those old guys are old and 2. Man, those pricy ticket prices are pricy!  Never let it be said that critics don’t grasp the obvious.  Yes, those guys are old, it’s their 50th anniversary tour.  That’s 50 years, not 50 days.  The Rolling Stones were touring the US before I was born.  Mick Jagger &Co. were a fact of life from when I was learning to crawl.  And, yes, $2000 for VIP tickets is a lot of money.  Good thing it was my birthday and I have a girlfriend who likes to rock!  Actually, we didn’t pay $2000 ($86/song) or $1500 for the tongue pit in front of the stage ($65/song) or even $600 for the floor ($26/song) or even the lowest price $175 tickets since they were all sold out.  Instead, we joined the lottery for $85 tickets ($3/song).   The lottery system could be an entire blog post on its own; suffice to say we didn’t win the lottery and were ensconced rather high up in the arena.  But we could see fine and it was The Stones and it was My Birthday.  So, party on, Garth!

So, yes, the Rolling Stones are old guys.  Older than the US Supreme Court.  Though I don’t know anyone who would pay $2000 to see Antonin Scalia do the rooster.  For old guys, they are more than a little spry.  Mick Jagger has got the moves like Jagger.  He’s got the moooooves like Jagger.  Mick’s dance style with seal claps, and jabby pointing and spinning has always vaguely resembled an old guy trying to get down and now he actually is an old guy getting down.  He scampered back and forth across the stage and around the catwalk nonstop.  It’s no small accomplishment for him to sing at the same time and with the same defiant and teasing voice as when he was 20. I was tired just watching him.  

I also don’t know how Keith Richards is still standing but he is.  At times, he seemed to teeter precariously close to just collapsing on stage.  And his playing certainly isn’t what it once was.  Thankfully Ronnie Wood is back with the gang and can still play a mean guitar.  Of course, KR’s main contribution to The Stones’ history has always been the unforgettable hooks and he can still provide that.

Tom Waits and the Stones
Mick Taylor returns
Also joining The Stones on stage was Tom Waits for Little Red Rooster.  Let me repeat that:  Tom Waits joined RS for Little Red Rooster.  Awesomeness!  Many people can’t handle his very gravelly voice but it was perfect for the tiny scarlet fowl.  And his appearance was probably the highlight of the night when they played a number of less known bluesy tunes.  One more much anticipated guest joining in the fray later in the show was former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor who kind of wandered around the stage a little lost but was enthusiastically greeted by all the band and the audience.  It would have been great to have guests throughout the night.  

There was a monster screen behind the band that was used well: showing videos, live shots and, at one point, a montage of old R&B artists that influenced the Stones during their 50 years.  It’s hard to think of a current band that could do the same.  Will Vampire Weekend or My Morning Jacket be playing shows after 50 years?  I doubt it.  There are plenty of acts past their prime playing Vegas, locked in a time capsule performing parodies of themselves, but The Stones have avoided that trap.  Their longevity is a testament to their once in a generation quality.  There will never be another Rolling Stones.

There isn’t much that can be said about the Stones that hasn’t been said.  Many of their songs have been overplayed by FM radio which is understandable because they are rock and roll canon.   At Sunday’s show, they added new life to one big hit after the next including Gimme Shelter and Brown Sugar and Sympathy for the Devil and You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Tumbling Dice.  The 50th Anniversary tour has all the hallmarks of a farewell tour and the band seemed in some ways to recognize the unlikelihood of another outing when taking their curtain call, savoring the cheers and each other's company.  Having accomplished all they have and survived this long, I can only say, well done, lads.

Los Amigos Invisibles: Fun, Fun, Fun

Los Amigos Invisibles
The Fillmore
San Francisco, CA
April 24, 2013

There aren’t many bands more fun to see live than Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles.  Los Amigos play Gozadera music which translates as Merrymaking or Good Times music which is definitely true. They put a lot of effort into their shows which are one long party.  There is a lot of energy between the audience and the band.  No one stands still at a Los Amigos show.  There are no ballads, no breaks.  There is barely a pause from one rocking, funking, discoing, latin rhythm dance song to the next.  They come on stage, hit the groove and the party starts.  Any band that has been around for 20 years is going to know how to play and that is definitely true of Los Amigos.   For a taste, check out: MentirasDiablo.

Simon: Piano Recital

Simon Trpceski
Hertz Hall, UC-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA
April 14, 2013

On a brilliant sunny Sunday afternoon, it is not easy to lure people into a quiet UC-Berkeley hall to listen to a solo performance by a classical pianist- even if he is one of the burgeoning talents of his generation.  Simon Trpceski has played with the finest symphonies in the world and been honored everywhere he goes.  In his homeland of Macedonia, they even had to virtually create an award for him, “National Artist of the Republic of Macedonia.”  On April 14, he performed Schubert’s German Dances and Fantasy in C major.  Both pieces were filled with lots of arpeggios- which are probably fun to play and show off his impeccable technique.  But when he reached the adagio of the second piece he demonstrated both his mastery and the sublime beauty of Schubert’s composition.  Simon is well known for his very expressive style of playing and could be mesmerizing just to watch .  Of course, most of the audience was waiting for the well-known Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt that ended the program.  Simon also played three generous encores which were well-received.  In fact, the only flaw in the whole program was the inexplicable inconsiderateness of one audience member that drank water from a plastic bottle and loudly unzipped her purse which earned her a scowl from Simon.  Still a magnificent performance from a serious talent.  Check out Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.  

Alt-J: Indie Ambition

The Fillmore
San Francisco, CA
April 10, 2013

Alt-J only has one album in the books but is already scheduling tours at some of the biggest theaters in the country.  They are a much heralded and impressive British band in the mold of granddaddy indie band Radiohead.  There isn’t much else to compare them with- except maybe all the other bands that are trying to copy Radiohead.  I was impressed with their musicianship and ambition but I also thought that the band tended towards over-elaboration and cleverness for the sake of being clever.  It is nice to hear a band taking chances and the crowd clearly appreciated their musical skill but, at the end of the night, I left feeling excited and dissatisfied at the same time.  Their performance reminded me a bit of Minusthe Bear, all brain  
and no heart.  Still, they do know how to play even if their eccentric sound might not have mass appeal.  The performance was understandably short with only one album which I think is always a bit of a rip.  If you don’t have your own songs, you should throw in some others that you enjoy.  In the 1960s, when rock and roll was learning to walk, bands would play 20-30 minutes but those days are over.  It also doesn’t cost $5 to see a band anymore.   Bottom line: Alt-J is another new band to watch, it will just be a matter of time to see if they can live up to the hype and the acclaim.  

Afropop Party: Oliver and Fatoumata

Oliver Mtukudzi
Fatoumata Diawara
Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, CA
March 30, 2013

As has been proven by previous postings, the Cal Performance series rarely fails to deliver and it rarely fails to rain when I go to one of their excellent shows.  And the evening of Afropop did not disappoint on either account.  The evening of all things African began with Malian Foutmata Diawara.  Her recorded music is kind of an African folk music with Afrocubist beats which is really a joy to listen to.  It makes me feel like I’m in Africa just by listening to it.  However, her live performance was much more energetic.  She spun and danced around the stage like a whirling dervish demonstrating the national dance style of different African countries, much to the delight of the Africans in the audience.  If there is any complaint about Fatoumata, it’s that she was too energetic and got the crowd too riled up before the more mellow stylings of Oliver Mtukudzi. Check out:  “Bissa” for an example of her amazing voice.  Go to 9:00 of the next link to see Fatoumata compare African dancing styles 
Oliver Mtukudzi is a national hero in Zimbabwe.  He plays a wonderful acoustic-based music that is hypnotic.  He really lets the groove flow during his music in a quiet but powerful way.  While Oliver’s music is very uplifting and just plain happy, it is not the same foot-thumping dance music of Fatoumata. The audience was up and ready to dance when Oliver got on stage but his music seemed too mellow for an audience ready to partay.  However, both Oliver and Fatoumata are class acts and if you’re interested in hearing what today’s African music is about, they are a good place to start.  Check out: Ndagarwa Nkaha  

Mariza: Reviving Fado

SF Jazz Center, Miner Auditorium
San Francisco
March 15, 2013

Senior Correspondent: Jana L.

Mariza has swept the world with her revival of fado, the Portuguese blues style of music, with a voice as impressive as the range of an opera singer.  Mariza blends the traditional fado with African and samba rhythms inspired from her travels to the former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde.

Mariza's astonishing voice travels right to the core of my soul. Her art expresses longing with such passion and playfulness that it is impossible to turn away from her music.  I can imagine tourists walking by a tavern on the narrow streets of Mariza's home quarters of Mouraria in Lisbon, Portugal hearing her voice and wanting to linger in a mesmerized state.  Many of her fans probably recall the first time they heard Mariza sing. I remember exactly when it happened to me.  My brother played her music while we were closing down my parents’ home.  And I needed to know immediately who was singing.

Mariza treated San Francisco to sold out performances four nights in a row last week at the Miner Auditorium, the new SF Jazz Center.  She appeared through dark purple lighting and entered the stage at first with a slow sway, standing exceptionally tall in a long sparkling gown, then just looking out at us all with amazement.  It was as if she had met us before and wanted to reconnect. It seemed that this was not just another tour stop for her.  She said how much she loves San Francisco as it reminds her of home, the bay, the hills. Her graceful beauty did not strike until the Portuguese guitar started playing and she began to shape the poetry of fado with her stunning voice and lively expressions from her hands and face. 
She is able to strike a romantic and tender chord with such caring focus that it evokes emotions filled with both despair and relief.  I was moved to tears by her performance. Even though, I don’t understand Portuguese, it is possible to find solace in the longing lyrics. How does her heart hold that much passion in performance after performance?  In between the songs she was teasing and joking with her band members and the audience and told stories of her new marriage and motherhood.  Her own life appeared more joyful than the sorrow of the fado she sang.  She also said that she wanted to sing fado before she could read and fully understand it. Her father drew cartoons of the poetic fado songs to help her sing at only five years old. 

Her talented band consisted only of: 12-string Portuguese guitar player, classical guitar, bass guitar and a percussionist yet were able to create a multicolorful world in the music.  Their generous encores continued into the late night.  She is simply remarkable, the most popular modern fado singer in the world!  She gave us all a fantastic evening and for a little while took me away to Lisbon.

Songs to check out:  Primavera (which she called her favorite of song of the late Amalia Rodrigues, Queen of Fado and one of Mariza's idols), Beijo de Saudade ("Kiss of Longing," a song recorded with Tito Paris of Cabo Verde which she performed without him), Barco Negro.

ABBA the Concert: Meta-ABBA

ABBA the Concert
Regency Ballroom
San Francisco, CA
March 10, 2013

ABBA the Concert: Meta-ABBA

It’s a dilemma.  When reviewing a tribute act, do you review the source material or the tribute?  How can I review ABBA the Concert without discussing the relative merits (or lack thereof) of ABBA?  Certainly, both ABBA and A-the-C were in turn cheesy, catchy, fun, compelling, touching, ridiculous, sublime, trite, earnest.  It’s amazing that a band, that has been essentially defunct for over 30 years, can inspire enough devotion for several hundred people to show up to see essentially an historical re-enactment.  However, ABBA’s songs are so well-crafted and catchy, I could see ABBA the Concert continuing to be performed for new generations to come.  Of course, most of the members of ABBA the C were, at best, in diapers at the time of ABBA’s heyday- with the exception of the bass player who had actually been a member of ABBA and, though often in the background, was very clearly a high caliber player.  Still the remaining members of A-the-C were not slouches.  They are definite fans and their re-creation was certainly enthusiastic.

Of course, most people are aware that ABBA is one of Sweden's most proud exports and going to ABBA the C with your Swedish girlfriend is a unique experience.  Not many know that Waterloo was originally performed in Swedish nor can sing along with gusto nor do many know that Dancing Queen was first performed for the royal couple in Sweden.  If you think that ABBA was popular world-wide that is a drop in the ocean compared to the Swedish hysteria for ABBA in the 1970s where every little girl fancied themselves an Anni-Frid or Agnetha.  Appropriately enough, ABBA the C is also fronted by four Swedes.  However, if you think the audience at ABBA the C was just Swedes and their reluctant boyfriends or gay men, not quite.  ABBA may have been from Sweden but they have long been claimed by the rest of the world as their own and the audience was very diverse.  

ABBA the Concert broke no new ground but that was entirely the point.  From the outfits to the songs to the wigs, this was strictly a nostalgic show.  But ABBA the Concert definitely showed great respect for the source material and performed fairly faithful renditions of most of the biggest hits.  They performed particularly energetic versions of Mama Mia, Take a Chance On Me, and Does Your Mother Know?  There were plenty of opportunities for sing-alongs and the crowd was quite excited to participate in this celebration of ABBAtasticness.

The original ABBA
ABBA songs can sound dated at times but listening to them live brought them to life so that they almost sounded current.  One thing that struck me was how many of their songs have sad lyrics which belies the stereotype of the band’s upbeat, light-hearted melodies.  Songs like Name of the Game, Fernando, and Chiquitita are all filled with poignant longing and uncertainty in relationships.  These songs were mostly featured early in the first set.  The second set resembled the light-hearted rom/com musical hit Mama Mia much more.  Then, Sunday’s show became a party, maybe in part due to it being the final night of the tour, the band seemed determined to just have fun.  And of course, that’s what you want when going to an ABBA tribute.  Nothing deep or meaningful just a good time, and that’s what the concert was.

Side Note:  On the way home, JL and I checked out the new art installation- the Bay Bridge Lights and (no pun intended), it is spectacular.  I'm envious of people with a Bay Bridge view.  If you haven't already, go see the light!

Alabama Shakes: Riding the Wave

Alabama Shakes
Michael Kiwanuka
Fox Theater
Oakland, CA
March 5, 2013

Alabama Shakes: Riding the Wave

Sometimes you are sitting there minding your own business, doing your thing when a big wave comes along picks you up and drags you out to sea whether you are ready or not.  This was my impression after seeing Alabama Shakes at the Fox Theater last night.  AS is a talented group with a charismatic singer who does a fairly good Janis Joplin impression.  However, I got the sense that they are not yet ready for the very large amount of acclaim that has already come their way after just one album.  They are still finding their feet and yet the wave has already pulled them into the ocean.  Now, they just need to learn to surf with several thousand people looking on each night at sold-out shows across the country.

AS at times sounds like Janis Joplin singing Marvin Gaye songs and at other times like Janis Joplin singing Bonnie Raitt or just like Janis Joplin.  They are clearly fans of JJ (though no one can really match the once in a generation talent of JJ).  Still, the band has a very fun Americana-roots sound that is reminiscent of many old school soul and R&B luminaries.  It’s not difficult to understand where the enthusiasm for the band comes from.  They sound fresh and familiar at the same time.  They also have some really good musical chops.  The songs are well-crafted and place singer Brittany Howard’s unique voice at the center of the music- which has resulted in many awards, three Grammy nominations, and slots at the largest music festivals including Bonnaroo, Isle of Wight, Outside Lands etc.  It is no exaggeration to say that they have been on top of a large wave that grew very quickly.
Their performance last night at the Fox seemed oddly perfunctory as if they have been on the road for a bit too long and need a break.  Still, it was quite a bit better than their studio recordings- which always gives me hope for a new band.  I felt that I was hearing a lot of unrealized potential.  Brittany does need to work on her stage delivery to better connect with her adoring fans.  She has a big and warm voice but seemed almost nervous on stage.  And though the band can jam, they largely stuck to the studio score rather too closely.  Nevertheless, the show was quite a lot of fun and I will be happy to watch the band grow and will be looking for new albums in the future.  But, as the clichĂ© goes, only time will tell whether AS rises above the early adulation and rides the wave or whether they will get sucked under.

Opening for A-Shakes was Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul singer, who was limited to an acoustic set which made him sound more of a folk artist than a soul artist.  Kiwanuka is another major rising star with plenty of acclaim having won the BBC Sound of 2012 award and having been nominated for the Mercury Prize.  His acoustic set was a bit washed out by a crowd that was far more interested in waiting for AS than enjoying MK’s offerings.  But he is definitely an artist to keep an eye on, like AS, he is going places fast and I hope that he gets there.

Alabama Shakes highlights: Always AlrightYou Ain't Alone, Hang Loose
Michaeul Kiwanuka songs to check out: Tell Me a Tale, Home Again

Kelly McFarling: Worth Checking Out

Kelly McFarling
Subterranean Arthouse
Berkelely, CA
March 16, 2012

First, let me state that there is nothing subterranean about the Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley, CA.  It is more of a fairly small sized art gallery with mismatched chairs and a sink in the back to make yourself some tea.  I was rather expecting a dimly-lit basement bar with unfinished walls and a low ceiling, PBR on tap and an audience of anachronistic beatniks snapping their fingers, rather than applauding, the polite folk music stylings of Kelly McFarling.

KM made a previous appearance on MV&R when she did a very nice (indeed) cover of Joni Mitchell’s Little Green at Uncovered: Joni Mitchell’s Blue.  Many were taken with her Zoe Deschanel voice and banjo accompaniment.  Her banjo playing is not a-mighty-fine-picking a la old-timey, foot-stomping bluegrass but, rather, is used more like a strumming folk guitar or rolling chord plucking a la Shawn Colvin, Joni Mitchell etc.  But she is a mighty fine singer which made the short performance at the Arthouse very enjoyable despite the violated expectations.  Her songs are well-crafted and thoughtful and she is a performer with real potential although the performance sounded more complete when she was accompanied by a full band rather than on her own.  Still, if you like the folkie singer-songwriter thing, Kelly is worth checking out.

Local Natives: Exceeding Expectations

Local Natives
The Fox
Berkeley, CA
January 30, 2013

Local Natives: Exceeding Expectations

Heading to the Fox Theater to hear Local Natives, my attitude was lacking.  Another night, another indie band.  I should have had far more enthusiasm, particularly considering that the last two shows I attended (at the Freight & Salvage, see below) were both winners.  And when you’re on a streak, you have to respect the streak.  But I was lukewarm about the proceedings.  Even the excellent company and good grub at Rudy’s Can’t Fail CafĂ© wasn’t enough for me to achieve normal preshow levels of excitement.  In retrospect, I think it may have been my low expectations that allowed me to better appreciate Local Native’s limited offerings - because the offerings were limited, but I still enjoyed the show.

Local Natives has been around now for about 5 years. Their first album, ‘Gorilla Manor,’ was released in 2009 and garnered a fair amount of attention and spawned several minor hits: ‘Sun Hands’ and ‘Who Knows, Who Cares’ being the biggest and best.  The complexity and confidence of the musicianship in these songs belied their youth and inexperience and kick-started an expectations game.  There was a consensus that the band was destined for even brighter times.  Their sophomore album, ‘Hummingbird,’ was released the day before the show and is a surprisingly mature effort that avoids much of the sophomore jinx where bands try to over-elaborate and end up with bombastic noise that they think is art.  LN’s sound is often compared to Fleet Foxes, because of the over-indulgence in three-part harmonies, and Talking Heads, because of the complex structure of songs that is nevertheless accessible. 

Their performance at the Fox was also a fairly mature and accomplished effort.  For a young band, this is impressive.  Yet, my own impression is that the band may have reached their limits.  I just don’t see them drawing any bigger crowds then they did last night.  But there are plenty of bands that make a career out of playing midsize theaters.  One negative: the show was short, just over an hour.  But the band genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves.  The bottom line: exceeding expectations, even if they’re low, still makes for a fun night.

Songs to check out: Sun Hands, Who Knows

David Grisman Sextet: Top Drawer

David Grisman Sextet
Freight & Salvage
Berkeley, CA
January 27, 2013

David Grisman Sextet: Top Drawer

Last weekend, the Freight & Salavage in Berkeley hosted a weekend tribute to famed jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, including concerts, workshops, panel discussions and an open house for all things string jazz.  The weekend extravaganza ended on Sunday with a performance by the David Grisman sextet, which was appropriate enough since DG had actually performed on many occasions with Stephane Grappelli and even recorded an album with the legendary violinist.  Of course, DGrisman has achieved virtual living-legend status himself.  He is the Yo Yo Ma of the mandolin.  His name is virtually synonymous with the instrument.  And for good reason.  You will simply not be able to find a better, more accomplished mandolinist.

Django Reinhardt is oft times cited by jazz aficionados as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.  He is certainly one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the last generation.  Together with Stephane, he virtually invented acoustic string jazz.  Their style of music is sometimes called ‘hot jazz’ though it at times gives a mis-impression of being rather laidback or languid.  I love it for all the space in the music.  It certainly evocative and reminds me of Parisian cafe life.  It is definitely not a wall of sound like so much pop and rock music.  Django’s style of jazz guitar briefly bubbled into popular consciousness after Sean Penn played a Django-obsessed character in the movie “Sweet and Low Down.”

On Sunday, the David Grisman sextet played a generous set of some of Django and Stephane’s most well known tunes.  For being 68 years old, David Grisman has a lot of energy.  He is also a very generous musician frequently allowing the other members of his sextet to shine.  One annoying thing about listening to a jazz performances today is the incessant insistence of the audience to applaud after every solo which I’m sure the musicians appreciate but also interrupts the song and means that I'm applauding six or seven times for each song.  This is a ridiculous tradition that should die off but probably won't.  Nevertheless, as the night went on, the set got better and better.  It started as a top-drawer performance and, by the end of the night, I was hoping to find a live recording.  That’s a good concert.

Check out the original: Django and Stephane playing here and here.  

Blue: One Song At A Time

Undercover: Joni Mitchell’s Blue
Freight & Salvage
Berkeley, CA
January 21, 2013

Blue: One Song At A Time

Undercover presents a classic album one song at a time, each song performed by a different artist.  It is like 10 one-song concerts in one evening.  Initially, I feared that ping-ponging between different musical styles would lead to a disjointed evening with uncomfortably long breaks as each performer set up.  Last night’s presentation of Joni Mitchell’s Blue included versions of her songs by an Indian singer, an electronic looper, Brazilian tropicalia band, jazz artists and more.   Despite this disparate group, each performance stood on its own and, united by Joni Mitchell’s poetry and lyricism, made for a wonderful evening of inspiring and engaging music- even if each performance was a bit of a band teaser leaving you wanting more.

Blue helped to establish Joni Mitchell as one of the most preeminent and influential singer-songwriters of the 1970s.  Despite her warbling soprano, I think it was always the honest poetry of her lyrics that drew in listeners.  And Blue is no exception.  The songs are filled with poignant longing and beautiful descriptions of Joni’s emotional entanglements, from All I Want to The Last Time I Saw Richard.  Her paean to California perfectly captures the laid back beauty of California and concludes with her painfully bare question, “Will you accept me as I am?”  The album also contains River which is perhaps one of her most popular songs and has been rerecorded by many artists and featured in many movies and TV shows.

The night of Joni opened with KillBossa doing an excellent Brazilian Tropicalia version of All I Want.   This was followed by two of the evening’s highlights.  A stunning version of My Old Man by Bharathi, an Indian singer with an outrageous voice, and Daniel, a jazz bassist, whose spare accompaniment was perfect.  And then Kelly McFarling played Little Green in an Americana Folk style.  Her voice is reminiscent of Zoe Deschanel and was certainly unexpected.  I also loved her use of the banjo as an accompaniment.   The Beth Custer Ensemble played a jazzy version of Carey and Kitka, a caped women’s choir, performed Blue a cappella.

In between the songs, a rather ineffective juggling team performed pranks and were rather annoying.

The second set began with Amy X Neuberg performing an engrossing looped version of California.  The tempo picked up with a couple of funky, jazzy versions of This Flight Tonight and A Case of You sandwiched around a old-timey River.  The show ended with a lovely version of The Last Time I Saw Richard by Katy Stephan and Classical Revolution.

Listening to accomplished musicians reimagine an classic album of touching poetry was inspirational.  A great night.  I will definitely look for more Undercover performances in the future.  

Click here to listen to a sampler.