Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Shows of 2019

Due to overwhelming interest—specifically from my pal Mike in Michigan—I am resurrecting this list of the most memorable concerts I saw all year. Flipping through my phone, I realized that I saw a bunch of great concerts from local bands in Monterey (The Silhouette Era! Shoobies! Lovers and Strangers!) to world touring rock music juggernauts (the one and only Rolling Stones). Also, I saw concerts all over California in 2019 as well as some in New York City and Detroit.
Here’s my nine best for 2019.

Fantastic Negrito at Carmel Valley’s Folktale Winery on April 30th
It was a real treat to see Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito do his surreal take on the blues in such an intimate venue. Songs including “Lost in a Crowd” were rushes of lyrics and emotion. Even his onstage banter was memorable. At one point, he made the observation that Europeans view America in the Trump era like they would a supermodel farting.

The Church at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on May 10
I’ve been a fan of The Church since high school but never got to see them live until this year. Though on their Starfish30th anniversary tour, Sarah and I came late and missed them playing their super hit, “Under the Milky Way.” Thankfully, we did see them do “Reptile” along with some great songs off their other albums. The highlight by a mile was “Tantalized” from 1985’s Heyday that built from a gathering storm of early U2 like ferocious guitar strumming to a powerful liftoff.

The Mekons at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on July 23
A trio of great pals from all over the U.S. converged for this outdoor show under the redwoods at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library, which helped make this concert so special. While The Mekons have a truly sprawling discography, the band’s 19 song set was relatively concise and touched on all their different variations: the gentle pop of “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” the fractured art dub of “How Many Stars,” and several country rock stunners. It all ended with the pure rock and roll rush of “Memphis, Egypt.”

The Rolling Stones at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium on August 18th
It seemed like this one wasn’t going to happen. Mick Jagger unexpectedly underwent heart surgery this year, which postponed this show for months. Then, the night before the show, I found out Ticketmaster had not only sold my extra tickets on their resale site, but ALL of my tickets. What was almost a disaster turned out to be a blessing when Ticketmaster’s replacement tickets put us just 10 rows away from the band’s acoustic stage.
Having never seen the legendary rock act, they exceeded my expectations. Throughout, Keith Richards colored their hits with slashes of guitar, while it seemed like an on-fire Jagger was still celebrating his successful heart surgery. The song selection was stellar as well. Two Exile on Main Street songs—“Tumbling Dice”! “Rocks Off”!—in the first half hour! A moving “Sweet Virginia” played just a matter of feet away from us! A dynamic vocal duel between Jagger and female backing singer Sasha Allen on “Gimme Shelter”! Despite the price of the tickets and all of the work it took to make this one happen, The Rolling Stones more than rewarded us with a stellar stadium show. 

Yo La Tengo, Kevin Morby, Mattson 2, and more at Big Sur’s Fernwood on September 21st
Initially, this multi-day music festival anchored by Yo La Tengo was supposed to feature a performance by David Berman’s Purple Mountains. Having released one of my favorite albums of the year, it was beyond disappointing to learn that Berman committed suicide a few months before this gig. Thankfully, singer/songwriter Kevin Morby did a trio of Berman’s Silver Jews songs as a tribute at this bucolic outdoor mini-festival including “Random Rules.” In addition, his set, which included a couple numbers sung with Waxahatchee’s Alison Crutchfield, closed with a superb “Harlem River” where he unleashed some searing guitar. 
The centerpiece performance of this very fun weekend of camping and music was done by headliners Yo La Tengo. The show began with a few minutes of improvised noodling, which made me wonder if this was going to be some sort of avant garde performance. Instead, it was a master class in slow burn build that culminated in songs including “Double Dare.” 
The two short encore sets included a cover of the Beach Boys’ take on “Sloop John B” and Big Star’s “Take Care.” Then, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan simply stated: “You have a nice place here. Thanks for having us.”

Fontaines D.C. at Los Angeles’ Gold Diggers on September 26th
Like The Rolling Stones show, this performance was a case of great fortune coming out of something that looked like it was going to be a great disappointment. Sarah and I drove down to Los Angeles to see the great new Irish rock act Fontaines D.C. To say that we were bummed when we were greeted with a hand drawn sign cancelling the show outside of the Teragram Ballroom would be an understatement. Anyway, the night went into a different direction when we (Sarah, Ed Mullins, and I) gave up and ended up in Jumbo’s Clown Room where country superstar Sturgill Simpson was celebrating the release of his new album, Sound and Fury.
Anyway, a quick peek on my phone in the bar’s restroom alerted us that Fontaines D.C. were doing a free makeup show at a bar called Gold Diggers, just a mile away. So, instead of seeing the band in a 600-person room we were treated to an intimate performance in a room that could hold 150 people max. 
It ended up being the most explosive show I saw all year. In just an hour, the band played most of their debut album Dogrel. The whole room exploded after they did “Sha Sha Sha” and started slamming, jumping, and yelling along to “Hurricane Laughter.” At one point, the band’s singer made his way into the crowd—I believe it was during “Too Real”—as the band built up to an incredibly driving racket. It was a performance that I’ll never forget. 

Idles at San Francisco’s The Fillmore on October 10th
This was a tough ticket to score. Having sold out quickly, I finally found a reasonably priced resale ticket for my pal Geoff and I. It was worth my effort.
The British post punk/punk act Idles puts on a combustible show. With both lead vocalist Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen acting like crazed frontmen, there was a lot of energy and a lot to see. Also, it was revelatory to see how they utilized repurposed rubbish from pop culture’s scrap heap in the show including Bad Finger’s “Without You” and more. 

Mudhoney at Detroit’s El Club on October 15
Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most ferocious performances can be from once popular bands that have continued to toil fruitfully past their time in the spotlight. Mudhoney’s Detroit show proved that though they are decades past their “grunge days” they haven’t lost their biting sarcasm and ability to create pummeling rock. Songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” still deliver blows, but the last four songs of their encore set—all classic punk covers including a standout “The Money Will Roll Right In” by Fang”—produced the knockout punch.

Built to Spill at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on November 21st
After many missed opportunities, I finally saw the great guitar rock band Built to Spill on a 20th anniversary tour celebrating the release of their classic album, Keep It Like a Secret. They didn’t have the legendary three guitar lineup I’d heard they’d had a few years back. Instead, this incarnation of Built to Spill was essentially Doug Martsch with a new band backing. 
The show scrambled the setlist of Keep It Like a Secret and added a few surprises including a glammy cover of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and the inclusion of tracks from other albums (“Strange” from Ancient Melodies of the Future, “When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough” from their 1995 collaborative EP with Caustic Resin.) 
Martsch was in fine form vocally and on guitar throughout. The highlight was an extended jam on “Broken Chairs.”

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best Shows of 2016

This year, I took in a lot of music including shows by a handful of legendary acts including Iggy Pop, The Cure, Black Sabbath, Television, and Booker T. Honorable mentions go to Heron Oblivion playing an opening set at Felton’s Don Quixote’s and Alfonso Ponticelli’s skilled acoustic playing at Chicago’s Green Mill with his terrific band. Here are 12 other shows from 2016 that I’ll remember far into the future.

Imarhan at Henry Miller Library

Ty Segall & The Muggers at San Francisco’s The Fillmore on January 18th

To complement the strange vibe of their Emotional Mugger material, Ty Segall and his new band emerged on The Fillmore stage decked out in giant, creepy baby heads. They were peeled off to reveal a stellar backing band including Kyle Thomas (a.k.a. King Tuff), Mikal Cronin, Emmet Kelly of The Cairo Gang, and Cory Hanson of Wand. Freed from his guitar, Segall proved to be a compelling frontman though his constant spitting and strange fixation on licking his hands got a bit old. The band sounded great though whether playing the twisty new stuff or the glam rock of Manipulator. 

Iggy Pop at San Francisco’s The Masonic on March 31st

It’s difficult to not be overcome with excitement when Iggy Pop comes out onstage dancing maniacally to the opening drumbeat of “Lust For Life.” Backed by a killer band including Josh Homme, the 68 year-old frontman was in fine form from his canyon deep vocals to his constant onstage cheerleading. The set zeroed in on material from three albums: 1977’s The Idiot, 1977’s Lust For Life, and this year’s Post Pop Depression.
Songs from The Idiot were especially affecting including “Funtime,” which found the punk legend stagediving twice, and “Nightclubbing,” where Pop began seated on a stool before getting up to stalk the stage. Unexpected highlights included the unearthed punk gem “Repo Man” and “Baby.”
The main set ended with a stellar version of “The Passenger” and “China Girl,” the latter becoming an extended guitar jam. The night concluded with the tongue-in-cheek “Success” as Pop sang about attaining a car and a Chinese rug. With Pop working the stage like a closing salesman, there’s no other music legend that deserves his hard won fruits of labor than this performer.

Imarhan and The Mattson 2 at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on April 20th

Having a pair of twin brothers from Southern California who play jazz combined with surf rock and a new band of refugees that are part of a movement of African bands revitalizing guitar music proved to be an inspired pairing. The Mattson 2 featuring Jared Mattson on guitar and Jonathan Mattson on drums played an intuitive set of sometimes transcendent, instrumental music with their pal Farmer Dave Scher on keyboards and a giant tube that he blew into at one point. (It was 4/20, but this instrument was not a bong.) One fun aspect of the set was watching the brothers communicate using hand signals, head nods, and an unspoken familial intuition to take the songs in new directions.
Featuring Sadam, the young, stellar touring guitarist of Tinariwen, Imarhan started their set heading down the same hypnotic, dusty trail traveled by the elder, more traditional Tinariwen. But, as the night proceeded, the young band hit the gas and went into funkier directions aided by Imarhan’s two percussionists—one using a unique half egg looking instrument called a tinde—and Sadam’s frequent blasts of wah-wah pedal inflected guitar lines. Both bands were able to take the audience into a rarefied headspace, a destination that only so many groups can reach.
Black Sabbath at Oakland's Oracle Arena

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard at Santa Cruz’s Moe’s Alley on May 24th

This was the wildest show I saw all year. The Australian psych rock band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have been hyped as one of the best live acts around, and this Santa Cruz show did not disappoint. Before King Gizzard hit the stage, The Murlocs, starring the headliner’s Ambrose Kenny-Smith on vocals and harp, played a strong, bluesy garage rock set that culminated with a couple of wild numbers at the end.
The crowd was primed, and when King Gizzard started playing in front of a projected psychedelic light show, crowd surfers spun above the audience like broken tops while the floor became a boiling stew of slam dancers. The band came out of the gates strong with songs like “Gamma Knife” off their latest album Nonagon Infinity, which is being billed as the world’s first infinite album due in part to recurring musical motifs sprinkled throughout the album. Live, the idea of sprinkling instrumental refrains during the set is a stellar idea. The crowd got clued in on the fact that certain repeating passages meant that the music was going to get faster and heavier.
After some rowdy audience members got kicked out, frontman Stu Mackenzie ordered that everyone who was ejected should be let back in. He then noted that if the audience didn’t break glass or hurt each other than “who cares” what else happens. It was probably for the best that the band then went into some jazzy, mellower material for a while after that. The night ended with the band stepping offstage to the crowd chanting “Lizard.” Though the band didn’t return for an encore, everyone in the audience appeared fully satisfied with what had been a wooly rock show.

The Cure at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheater on May 26th

With Robert Smith’s unique voice fully intact and Simon Gallup’s bass lines girding their songs, The Cure sounded remarkably fresh for a band that has been around for 40 (?!) years. Though Shoreline is a big venue, the sound and lights were visceral even from the lawn.
An early highlight was an unexpected mini set of songs from The Head on the Door (“A Night Like This,” “Push,” “In Between Days,” “Kyoto Song,” and a heavily funky “Screw.”) The regular set also included a generous dose of Disintegration songs including a “Pictures of You,” where the crowd held up beaming smartphones.
The three encore sets included favorites like “A Forest,” “The Caterpillar,” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” A surprise came with the underplayed gem “Dressing Up” from The Top. After the show, it would be difficult for anyone to complain they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Get Covered Benefit Concert at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on July 21st

This was the most fulfilling show of the year. I put together this festival with the immense help of the Henry Miller Library and a small army of volunteers. The idea was to have Monterey County’s best musicians perform a short set including a song by an act that passed away in 2016. All attendees who entered the library grounds to see the show had to donate a hat that would cover the local homeless population from skin cancer.
I overbooked the event causing all the acts to have just 20 minutes onstage. It ended up that the solo acts and bands whittled their sets down to just their best material and a cover. Being biased, I found every set wildly enjoyable from El Camino Sutra’s two-guitar attack to Keith Bruecker’s triumphant return to the stage to Jordan Smart’s closing songs including a killer take on Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” More importantly, we raised $1,000 for local non-profit Spero Collaborative and received over 150 hats for Monterey’s homeless. I hope to do this again!

Avi Buffalo and The Isn’ts at Monterey’s Pierce Ranch Vineyards on July 23rd

There was a lot going on during this show. The Get Covered Benefit Concert had just wrapped up, and Big Sur was on fire. About as intimate as a venue can get, Pierce Ranch Vineyards can only accommodate an audience of 30 or so people. Those lucky individuals on this evening were treated to The Isn’ts (a stripped-down El Camino Sutra) performing with great local saxophone player Ben Herod followed by a passionate solo set from Avi Buffalo, an artist on Sub Pop Records.

The Mystery Lights at Santa Cruz’s The Catalyst Atrium on August 1st

This was an emotional high point. I wrote about The Mystery Lights before anyone else back in 2007. Since then, the band’s principal members Mike Brandon and L.A. Solano moved to New York City, got signed by Daptone Records subsidiary Wick Records, and released a damn fine self titled album. I’m pleased to report that almost a decade in The Mystery Lights have lost none of what made me love them in the first place including potent garage rock songs with a punk edge, killer guitar playing, and Brandon’s unbridled exuberance onstage. Brandon hopped around like a Roman candle during this show, pausing to enthusiastically thank friends and family including his grandmother for all of the support over the years. Meanwhile, Solana has gotten to be an even better guitarist. It was a superb homecoming and a real reunion of Monterey County and Santa Cruz County’s rock scenes.

Soberanes Fire Relief Benefit Concert at Monterey’s Golden State Theater on August 12th

This benefit for the Soberanes Fire Relief Fund drew some of Monterey County’s biggest music legends out of the woodwork. After pal and Henry Miller Library ringleader Magnus Toren came out in fire gear to kick off the multi-act show, the audience were treated to rare sets by Johnny Rivers, Al Jardine of The Beach Boys, and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Standouts included Rivers’ “Going Back to Big Sur” and Jardine’s “God Only Knows” aided by Sharon Van Etten and Meg Baird.

Black Sabbath at Oakland's Oracle Arena on September 15th

I was in the Bay Area on the day that Black Sabbath was supposed to play their last ever Bay Area show. It's always worthwhile to see legendary acts before they stop performing, so I bought a ticket hours before the show.
The evening began with footage on a giant screen that looked like a video game. The camera went into a dilapidated house and up to some sort of monster who started breathing fire. Then the first sounds of the band's self-titled single ran out.
They played their biggest hits ("Iron Man," War Pigs") and some deeper cuts ("Fairies Wear Boots," "Snowblind"). Ozzy's vocals sounded good but his constant pleas for the crowd to make some noise felt like they’d be more at home at a hip hop show.
That said, the band sounded great, especially guitarist Tommy Iommi who casually delivered monster riffs and stellar solos. The punky riffs of set closer "Children of the Grave" still sound fresh. If this tour is truly "The End" than Sabbath went out with a bang.

Ween at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on October 15th

Having seen Ween almost 10 times, the quirky band led by Dean and Gene Ween never disappoint live. Even the lesser Ween shows I have seen—mostly when the two frontman seemed to barely acknowledge each other onstage—have had their moments of impressive rocking.
The band broke up in 2012, but 2016 saw the return of the Ween with a number of shows in select cities. I didn’t see their first night in San Francisco, but on their second outing, they opened with a six song acoustic set that began with the gem “Birthday Boy” and ended with “The Mollusk.”
The plugged-in portion of the night kicked off with some of their strongest rock songs (“Transdermal Celebration,” “My Own Bare Hands,” “Buckingham Green”) that helped make the case that Dean Ween is one of the better guitarists working today. Later on, a lectern was set up for Gene Ween to deliver the spoken words of “Israel” and then the classic drive-through goof “Pollo Asado” while smoking cigarettes. The main set ended with a ragged, guitar driven “Tender Situation” that would make Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud.
The three-song encore set that followed ended with Dean Ween adding an amazing six-minute Funkadelic style guitar jam onto the end of the country ballad “Fluffy.” Welcome back guys!

Television at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on October 23rd

Before Television came out onstage, a recording of solo piano played overhead as the room was bathed in blue/green lighting. The great twin guitar band opened with a song that kept the water theme going with “Prove It” and its lyrics about waves. Television then went headlong into “Elevation” with its twisting guitar lines adorning the song like a beautiful vine and then “Venus” with its playfully poetic lyrics.
A few numbers seemed to be jazz inspired and placed the quartet’s impeccable musicianship in upper realms. The set ended with the epic “Marquee Moon,” the best dueling guitar song of all time.
Before their sole encore number, frontman Tom Verlaine remarked that they were going to play a surf song since Santa Cruz is a surf town. It made sense. It also made me think that possibly surf rock instrumentals inspired the guitar interplay on their masterpiece album Marquee Moon?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kem Nunn's Great Surf Novels

My first introduction to the writer Kem Nunn came in Jane’s Addiction’s 1989 video film Soul Kiss. Between segments of the band playing ferociously onstage, the group’s bassist Eric Avery sits on the toilet and gives a brief synopsis of Nunn’s 1984 novel Tapping the Source.
Just a little more than 30 years after being intrigued by that unorthodox book plug, I’ve finally read Tapping the Source. This comes a couple of years after reading his other great surf novel, The Dogs of Winter.
Both novels nail the vibe of California surf culture and also dive deep into the dark underbelly of the Sunshine State. The Dogs of Winter follows an aging surf photographer that secures an assignment to shoot photos of a reclusive surf legend riding waves at a Northern California secret spot called Heart Attacks. But the strength of the book is that a plot twist comes out of nowhere like a giant sneaker wave.
Tapping the Source concerns a desert hick that moves to Huntington Beach to search for his lost sister. While there, he becomes immersed in the city’s surf scene, biker culture, and drug underground.
On the back of Tapping the Source, it notes that this is “the classic novel that inspired the movie Point Break.” The primary similarity between the movie and novel is the relationship between two characters. In the book, it’s Ike Turner and Hound Adams, who definitely inspired Patrick Swayze’s character Bodhi. But unlike the somewhat goofy 1991 film, the novel ends up paddling out into deeper, darker waters.
Fans of California literature will approach these two books the same way a surfer tackles a great wave: savoring every moment while moving down the line.  


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Son Volt’s Trace and Existentialism

I’ve always been interested in the philosophical theory of existentialism though I can say that I have never felt like I’ve fully grasped it. Recently I purchased the reissue of Son Volt’s 1995 landmark album Trace, a stellar mix of dusty, road weary ballads and vigorous blasts of guitar rock topped with Jay Farrar’s lyrics that read like CliffsNotes into the worldview of an existentialist.
Existentialism’s core is that an individual creates his or her own existence through personal decisions. One of the philosophy’s major proponents Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase “existence precedes essence” or essentially the meaning of being human is revealed through living. Another aspect of existentialism seems to be that both society and religion are arbitrary forces in an individual’s life.
The realization that there might not be anything more than this life seems to cause two reactions. One is an existential crisis where one becomes despondent because there is no satisfying explanation about the world. Another reaction is a sense of freedom that life is entirely what one makes of it and therefore it’s best to pursue your dreams.
Trace hits on many aspects of this philosophy even on the relatively upbeat opener “Windfall,” where Farrar sings: “Hold on to what you can/ Waiting for the end not knowing when.” The next song “Live Free” is basically a guitar fueled screed against determinism, the opposing theory to existentialism that believes human actions are created from external pressures.
The existential belief that just existing is more important than societal pressures and religion is expressed in “Out of the Picture” and “Tear Stained Eye.” The latter addresses that there’s nothing larger than living with the lyrics: “Can you deny, there’s nothing greater/ Nothing more than the traveling hands of time.” The former rails against societal constraints with a bit about there being “too many rules to the game.”
My favorite song on Trace is the plaintive, stately “Ten Second News,” where Dave Boquist’s lap steel passes lazily through the track like a pickup truck puttering through a one-stoplight town. It begins with the line “when you find what matters is what you feel,” which might just be existentialism boiled down into one perfect phrase. 
Here's a great version of the song played live back in 1995:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Best Shows of 2015

Ex Hex
Best Shows of 2015
An unexpected situation caused me to miss a handful of shows including Chicago's Riot Fest, where I had hoped to see sets by Iggy Pop, Motorhead, and Ice Cube among others. That said, I still saw a bunch of great performances, mostly in California. Here's a handful that stuck out.

Tweedy at Santa Cruz's Cocoanut Grove on March 19th
This night was hard to beat. There was amazing songs, humorous stage banter, and real tension when Jeff Tweedy stopped the show to kick out a guy who kept taking photos of the band after a few warnings. The night started promisingly enough with an opening set by The Minus 5 featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on guitar. The next portion of the evening featured songs of Sukierae performed by Tweedy and his son Spencer and their band. The band took songs including "High as Hello" to unexpected heights. Then the group departed leaving just Jeff Tweedy onstage to do solo versions of Wilco, Golden Smog, and Uncle Tupelo songs. A real surprise came when he pulled off a hair-raising take of "Remember the Mountain Bed" from Wilco's collaboration with Billy Bragg on 2000's Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. Amazing. His fast strumming version  of Uncle Tupelo's "Gun" was stellar also. The encore set with the full band was spiked with superb covers including John Lennon's "God," Neil Young's "The Losing End," and Doug Sahm's "Give Back the Key to My Heart," which Uncle Tupelo covered on their last album Anodyne. The night wrapped up with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey crowding the stage for a closing "California Stars." It is difficult to get any better than this.

The Replacements at San Francisco's The Masonic on April 13th
The Replacements have all those qualities I love in a band. How the hell was I just a casual listener until about five years ago? While this year's reunion tour included just Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, the band delivered big at this show with sloppy exuberance, a few sublime songs, and some seriously off-kilter moments. The show began with rowdy oldies including "Takin' a Ride" and "Treatment Bound." At one point, Westerberg decamped to the interior of a tent set up onstage and delivered some freestyle vocals over the band's jazzy noodlings. The first encore found Westerberg alone with an acoustic guitar doing "Skyway." Then the band came out to join him for "Left of the Dial" and "Alex Chilton" to end the night. To hear those three songs in a row live is incomparable.

Drive-By Truckers at Monterey's Golden State Theatre on April 24th
The Drive-By Truckers stop in Monterey was on their "The Dirt Underneath Tour," which is essentially a mostly acoustic showcase of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's songwriting skills. The two delivered the songs and the stories behind the songs. One true standout was "Road Cases" and their explanation for the song. Hood described a Georgia band called Atlanta Rhythm Section that once was huge but then started hawking their equipment to local pawn shops to pay for their drug and sex habits. The song was inspired by Hood seeing road cases (or the gear that protects guitars and other instruments) in those stores stenciled with "ARS" and imagining one day when his band's gear is up for sale due to his own band's drug and alcohol problems. Quite an interesting backstory. The night ended with a terrific cover of the Faces' "Ooh La La."

Tinariwen at Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa Jazz Center on August 17th

Looking wildly exotic in their flowing robes and desert head scarves, Tinariwen transcend any cultural borders with a hypnotic blues rock sound that resonates with any real fans of guitar-based music. While I had seen them last year at an even better show in Big Sur, the group of Saharan Desert refugees impressed once again in this very intimate venue. The band members don't speak much English, but had a recurring bit where one of the guitarists would ask "is it OK?" after each stellar song. It was more than OK.

Ride at Santa Cruz's The Catalyst on November 14th

Reunited British band Ride played The Catalyst just one night after terrorist attacks roiled Paris including one on a Paris music venue where Eagles of Death Metal were performing. In response, the quartet walked onstage in Santa Cruz with the colors of the French flag projected on a screen behind them. Singer/guitarist Mark Gardener then looked back at the flag and announced that "we'll do it harder in response to that shit." They delivered fully with a set that featured impressive solos from guitarist Andy Bell, boundless energy from Gardener, and superb singing by the frontmen that allowed the vocals to float above the band's supremely loud two guitar attack. Many reunited groups tend to phone in performances, but Ride, and Gardener, in particular, were truly fired up for the show, remarking about the greatness of the crowd, the venue, and the band's year in general. The set was split mostly between songs from 1990's Nowhere and 1992's Going Blank Again. It ended with a stellar sounding take of early single "Chelsea Girl" that was quickly paced and spiked with sections of Sonic Youth style noise sludge.

Ex Hex and Mac McCaughan & The Non Believers at Richmond's Strange Matter on December 9th
You know that it is going to be a good night of music when the opening act could be a headliner. Mac McCaughan (of indie legends Superchunk and founder of Merge Records) delivered a thrilling set of guitar-based indie rock with his backing band The Non Believers that included terrific songs like "Box Battery" and a superb cover of under-appreciated Richmond indie band Honor Role's "Southern Girls." (I am gonna have to find a record by them some day.) Ex Hex followed it up with a raucous and rocking set featuring many moments of instrumental interplay between vocalist/guitarist Mary Timony and bassist Betsy Wright. Maybe I am biased because this show was in my hometown, but it felt special.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Singular Experience at Big Sur’s New Camaldoli Hermitage

Most people drive through Big Sur’s stunning South Coast with no knowledge that a group of Roman Catholic monks reside in a unique community two miles above Highway 1. Even less folks know that members of the general public can stay at the New Camaldoli Hermitage and experience what the monks refer to as “the precious gift of time for a contemplative life.”
While researching the Moon Monterey & Carmel Guidebook, I had the distinct pleasure of spending an evening at the hermitage and experiencing a place that is a world apart from contemporary culture. There, your tethers to technology are abruptly cut. Wi-Fi signals are devoured by the Easter egg blue sky, and the most transfixing screen around is the giant Pacific hanging down from the horizon.
I stayed in a private hermitage, which was essentially a trailer with a view that a Silicon Valley type would sell a start-up to own. It had basic amenities including a bed, a restroom, a desk, a fridge, and a stovetop. This being a retreat run by devout Roman Catholics, the trailer was “decorated” with a crucifix over the bed, rosary beads, and other religious items that may make some uneasy.
More relateable for a guest who hadn’t been to a church service in over a decade was a framed quotation on one wall that basically summed up why 17 men were living up here in solitude. It was a framed copy of St. Romuald’s Rule that said in part: “Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fishermen watching for fish.”
With the absence of cell phone signals and laptop update chimes, thoughts emerged from the silence like sleek, meaty creatures from the deep. Sitting at a strategically placed bench with a sweeping South Coast view, I looked up and saw a sky freckled with stars. In the distance, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse waved a wand of light over the land and sea that washed away the stars for a few seconds.
There, humanity and civilization seemed truly dwarfed by nature. The few lights strung haphazardly along the Big Sur Coast were pale reflections of the pinpoint power of the stars above. The highway below was a faint band on the mountains that seemed as transitory as a high tide line or a ring of detritus in a drained bathtub.
I had been describing Big Sur with words for almost two decades, and I had begun to repeat myself like an old blues musician. Suddenly, I was flush with fresh imagery and ideas. Old thoughts and attitudes were thrown out like dirty bathwater.
To use modern jargon, the New Camaldoli Hermitage is a great place to reboot.
New Camaldoli Hermitage is located at 62475 CA-1, a half mile south of Lucia in Big Sur. 831/667-2456, www.contemplation, Overnight stays $105-250

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Best Shows of 2014

I saw dozens of concerts all over California and beyond this year from burly metal bands in a Las Vegas dive bar to a surf jazz duo in an old Venice Beach speakeasy. Of course, most of the shows I caught were in my local area, which is the greater Monterey Bay region. Here are the dozen standout shows from 2014 that continue to reverberate in my mind. They are listed in chronological order. Below this list are snippets from the shows and links to a few, fuller concert write-ups that I did this year for Relix Magazine.

Pixies at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on April 15th

My younger self would have been blown away to learn that decades after almost wearing out a cassette of the Pixie’s timeless 1988 debut Surfer Rosa I would see them perform to just a few hundred people under the redwoods on the California Coast. With Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, The Entrance Band) filling in as touring bassist for the recently departed Kim Deal, the still ferocious quartet began the evening with “Bone Machine” before ripping into classic tracks including “Gouge Away.”
The star of the show was perennially underrated guitarist Joey Santiago who manhandled his instrument and its electrified amplifier cord on a wild and wooly “Vamos.”Black Francis had played the library a couple of times as a solo artist, but the frontman didn’t acknowledge those performances or address the crowd in any way except for uttering “one more” before ending the evening with a suitably noisy “Planet of Sound.”

DIIV at Santa Cruz’s Catalyst Atrium on April 30th

DIIV’s Santa Cruz performance was a total revelation. Led by diminutive frontman Zachary Cole Smith, who appeared to be dressed in a graduation gown or tunic, the Brooklyn four-piece bettered the songs off their superb 2012 debut Oshin. Though the songs on Oshin have a shoegaze sound, Smith and fellow guitarist Andrew Bailey played the songs with a contagious enthusiasm that caused them to move all over the stage on highlights like “Doused.”
Their set also included a handful of surprises including a few unreleased new songs that sounded as great as anything off Oshin and a hypnotic cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The biggest surprise came during the encore when pop starlet (and Smith’s girlfriend) Sky Ferreira joined the band onstage to sing Cat Power’s “Nude as the News.”

The Cure at Napa’s BottleRock Napa Festival on May 30th

The Cure doesn’t make it over to this country often, so when they hit these shores, it’s worth it to hit the road to see them. Performing in the Friday headlining slot at the BottleRock Napa Festival, Robert Smith and company treated the crowd to a generous 33 and a half song set. (More on that half song later.) The show balanced the band’s pop hits (“The Caterpillar,” “Friday I’m in Love”) with darker material (“One Hundred Years,” “Give Me It”). Impressively, Smith himself pulled out several stellar guitar solos throughout the evening.
After the first encore of “A Forest,” the band launched into a parade of hits including “The Lovecats,” “Hot Hot Hot!,” “Freakshow,” “Close to Me,” and “Why Can’t I Be You” before the plug was pulled on the latter song due to the festival’s strict curfew. With so many timeless tracks performed over the two and a half hour set, the band’s performance easily warranted the several hour-long drive to the festival.

Guided By Voices at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on June 10th

Known as low-fi indie rock pioneers, Guided By Voice played like a full-fledged, arena rock band at this Santa Cruz show even though they didn’t have an ocean of fans. Frontman Robert Pollard swung his mic around like a ninja between swigs of Miller Lite, while guitarist Mitch Mitchell did guitar windmills as a cigarette dangled from his mouth during their rocking set.
The band was in Santa Cruz to support three albums: 2014’s Motivational Jumpsuit, 2014’s Cool Planet, and the 20th anniversary of their classic 1994 release Bee Thousand. The crowd ate up favorites from the latter including “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Echos Myron,” and “Ester’s Day.” Just three months later, the band announced that they had broken up for good, meaning that this stellar group will never have a chance to play to a stadium of fans.

Paul McCartney at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 14th

Who was going to join one of the last living Beatles at his special show to shut down the San Francisco sports stadium Candlestick Park? Neil Young? Carlos Santana? Once, McCartney took the stage and began playing “Eight Days a Week” with his great backing band the questions of possible guest stars vanished. A living Beatle was onstage, and there was pretty much no one on earth who would be able to steal the show.
The nearly three hour, 40 song set was essentially a victory lap through one of rock’s best catalogues. It included “Blackbird,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Yesterday” along with entertaining stories about Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, and John Lennon. The evening ended with a run through a section of Abbey Road’s second side suite including “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.

Beck at Monterey’s First City Festival on August 23rd

The last time I saw Beck he underwhelmed with a set at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival. With a back injury healed and a stellar comeback album, Morning Phase, Beck was a different beast when he performed the First City Festival’s Friday headlining set. It all began with a high energy “Devil’s Haircut” and took a breather in the middle with mellower material including a bold “Wave” done with footage from space playing in the background.
An unexpected highlight was a trio of tracks from 1999’s Midnite Vultures: “Get Real Paid,” “Sexx Laws,” and “Debra.” The celebratory show ended with an extended jam on “Where It’s At” that made detours into a few cover songs including the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” Welcome back Beck.

Monterey Jazz Festival at Monterey’s Monterey County Fairgrounds on September 19th-21st

Every year, the Monterey Jazz Festival is filled with revelatory performances, and this year was no different. Friday night’s highlight was the Robert Glasper Experiment’s set that launched off into space when saxophone player Casey Benjamin started doing otherworldly vocoder-assisted vocals. Throughout it all, drummer Mark Colenburg did some mind-bending work.
Saturday afternoon stretched the boundaries of jazz with sets by Booker T and Gary Clark Jr. It was a real treat to see Booker T lay down the ridiculously funky “Green Onions” on organ and also strap on a guitar for a cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Though Clark is touted as the next Hendrix, he didn’t touch his “Third Stone From the Sun”/If You Love Me Like You Say” mash-up. The set was more scattershot than his October 2013 performance at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, but his gutsy guitar flight on “When My Train Pulls In” was one of the best songs I saw played live all year long. Saturday ended with a barrage of hip hop from The Roots that rankled a few jazz purists. It included a medley that dipped into Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which was a daring maneuver at this long running and prestigious festival.

Thurston Moore Band and Sebadoh at Santa Cruz’s Catalyst Atrium on October 9th

A tour featuring two of my favorite acts: the underrated indie rock act Sebadoh and Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth? There was no way I was going to miss this one. Sebadoh’s set was a blast of nostalgia and noise with the trio generously dipping into many of its gems from 1994’s Bakesale. Songwriters Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein switched back and forth between guitar and bass on songs that ranged from heartfelt to barrages of knotty indie rock.
As for the headliner, the new quartet led by Thurston Moore did the near impossible feat of playing most of their new album The Best Day to a mesmerized and engaged crowd who had never heard it before. (It would be released two weeks after the show.) Part of the new band's power came from the interplay between Moore and his new guitarist James Sedwards. While Moore contributed punky riffs and slabs of noise, Sedwards would add a killer straight ahead guitar solo to standout songs in the set including single "The Best Day." On other songs, the impressive improvisational nature of the band shined strong like when the seven minute long instrumental "Grace Lake" was stretched and twisted into an unexpected 20-minute epic. This amazing night of music showcased indie rock at its finest.

Tinariwen at Big Sur’s Loma Vista Gardens on October 30th

This band of rebel musicians from Mali played music that was somehow both familiar and wholly exotic at their intimate, outdoor show in Big Sur. The familiar element was the group’s hypnotic guitar grooves that recalled the rough around the edges primal blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. These killer grooves were topped frequently with chants in the North Africans’ native language. The crowd in Big Sur couldn’t understand the lyrics but the band’s powerful music elicited excitement and created a real connection between the group and its audience.

Hiss Golden Messenger at Santa Cruz’s The Crepe Place on November 10th

After seeing a superb show by Hiss Golden Messenger at Big Sur’s Fernwood way back in 2007, I have always kept an eye on this superb band led by Californian turned North Carolinian M.C. Taylor. Returning to the West Coast for a fall tour, Hiss Golden Messenger’s show at the intimate Crepe Place made many compelling cases for me to keep following this band far in the future.
Led by Taylor with valuable assists from bassist Scott Hirsch and guitarist/organist Phil Cook, the group brought songs from their newest album Lateness of Dancers to life with a serious groove. Surprisingly, they didn’t play the upbeat “Saturday’s Song,” but Hiss Golden Messenger did find time to do their own take on Waylon Jennings’ classic “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.” The show ended with Taylor doing a stunning version of Lateness of Dancers standout “Drum” while in the crowd.

Angel Olsen at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on December 1st

Dressed in a glittery orange dress, singer/guitarist/songwriter Angel Olsen and her band had a large San Francisco crowd enthralled as they performed a set that included dips into country, folk, and indie rock. Her band was great especially the guitarist, but the most arresting section of the show occurred when Olsen performed without her backing band. The highlight was a goose bump inducing “White Fire” where Olsen’s voice and guitar kept the giant crowd captivated and dead quiet.
Though a situation kept me from seeing all of opener Kevin Morby’s set, some of the songs I heard evoked both Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. I’ll be sure to further investigate music by this former Woods bassist.

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