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.

Relix Pixies in Big Sur Article:

Relix Guided By Voices in Santa Cruz Article:

Relix Monterey Jazz Festival Article:

Relix First City Festival Article:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hiss Golden Messenger at The Crepe Place

Weeks ago, I saw that Hiss Golden Messenger was scheduled to perform on November 10th at the small Santa Cruz venue, The Crepe Place. It seemed like it could be an ideal winter show: a spare acoustic performance by frontman M.C. Taylor whose songs have questioning lyrics that are ideal for this season when thoughts turn inward.
What I and the dozen others experienced at Hiss Golden Messenger’s performance was something far different but equally suited to the season: a bunch of crockpot country funk songs seasoned by a full band including the stellar Scott Hirsch on bass and a ripping Phil Cook on guitar and organ. The set was surprisingly hearty and sustaining like a good stew or chili.
At times, the band had shades of J.J. Cale’s sly guitar grooves. Near the end of their set, the group did a version of Waylon Jenning’s superb country classic “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” in their unique style. The show ended with the band getting in the crowd and playing their song “Drum” with Taylor instigating the crowd to sing the lines: “Take the good news/ And spirit it away.” It was a truly powerful and communal experience.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Behind the Scenes of Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast

In many ways, a guidebook is as important for what it leaves out as what it includes. There were a few places I went while doing research on Moon Coastal California and Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast where I thought, “I travel here so you don’t have to.” Of course, these disappointments, near misses or just plain unworthy places are not included in the books. There are so many worthwhile attractions, restaurants, parks, recreation activities, bars and more in the regions covered in these books that there is no reason to lead a reader to a place that is not up to par.
One example of a spot that did not make the cut for inclusion in Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast is a place of lodging in an agricultural town outside of Ventura. There are a few worthwhile sights in this area to warrant coverage of the region in the guidebook, but I would never recommend one establishment that I spent one painfully fearful evening in.
There was a major sign that the motel, which had a couple of almost glowing reviews on the Internet, would not be book worthy as I walked towards an ambitious tower-like building where the lobby was located. The sign was actually a sign: a banner haphazardly hung up on the building that announced rooms were available at nightly, weekly, and monthly rates.
When I walked into the motel’s shabby lobby, there was also something else that made me skeptical of the handful of positive Internet reviews of this motel that I had found: every corner of the room had a security camera perched in it like a quiet, malevolent spider. It was a crowded holiday weekend with all of the other area establishments booked up, so I checked in with the night desk lady anyway even though she was busy attacking some leftovers with a fork.
Up the stairs and down a hallway lined with a shabby, faded rug I went to the doorway of my room. The door was a slab of crappy wood that was strangely too small for the doorway it was in. Even worse, I noticed that the wooden door had been chipped away near the doorknob by someone I’m guessing had been trying to break into the room.
Luckily, my key worked, and the door swung open to reveal a room that looked like it would have been considered run-down a couple of decades ago. The furniture was rickety and appeared to have been purchased at an old elementary school’s garage sale. I knew that it would be unwise to see what was under the bed or under any of the furniture so I sat on the edge of the bed and turned on a device that a millennial would never be able to identify as a television.
When hunger struck, I turned off the giant, thick screen TV and walked out in the hallway. I moved towards the staircase and passed by two young men in sleeveless white T-shirts. Every part of their exposed bodies—including their necks—were covered in sinister tattoos of snakes and daggers.
After passing them, I turned to look back at them to see if they were really as stereotypically evil looking as I thought they appeared at first glance. Surprising to me, they had stopped walking too and were looking towards me while whispering.
I continued on but was shaken. Thankfully, the Mexican restaurant next door to the motel was quite good and a couple of Coronas soothed my nerves.
By the time I got back to my room, I was eager to get the evening over with so I could move on to better accommodations the next day. I turned on the ancient TV and lay down on the bed with all my clothes on.
I turned off the lamp on the battered nightstand and looked over towards the door. Since the door was smaller than the doorway, the light from the hallway came into the room from all sides. But as I looked at the doorway something caused me to suck in my breath and hold it. The bottom of the doorway darkened due to the presence of an individual standing right outside of my room in the hallway.
Eventually, I started to breathe, but the light under the doorway was still blacked out by someone who was standing ominously just feet and a crappy piece of wood door away from me. After what felt like the length of a thriller film, the shadow in the doorway finally left. Maybe it was just someone standing and texting right in front of my door? Or maybe it was one of those sinister tattooed guys standing there preparing to chisel away at my battered door so that he could get in my room and rob a stupid out-of-towner?
I thought about my options. I was in the middle of nowhere, and every other lodging option in the area was booked for the holiday weekend. My fear subsided, and I realized I was wiped out from traveling.
I got up from bed and opened the single pane sliding glass window of my room. I looked down 10 feet and realized I could survive a jump from this height if necessary. I left the window open.
Then I sat on the edge of my bed and looked toward the doorway. I stared for a half hour, and another shadow didn’t appear.
Still, I dragged all of the battered furniture in my room including the TV stand in front of the too-small door as a precaution. If someone broke through the flimsy door, they would stumble over the hill of furniture, waking me up before they could reach me and stab me with a knife. By then, I reckoned, I would have jumped out the open window and run to my nearby car.
I didn’t sleep well, but I slept and checked out early the next morning. I didn’t get stabbed that night, but you will still be unable to find any mention of this establishment in Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Behind the Scenes of Moon Coastal California

While researching and writing Moon Coastal California, I explored all 900 miles of the California coast from San Diego to Crescent City. A lot happened during those months on the road that informed the write-ups within the book. The book covers such a large area that memorable experiences have sometimes been distilled into just a sentence or two. For instance, the book's entry on The Lost Coast's Usal Beach (pages 301 and 302) is just two paragraphs long, but a lot happened during that evening when my friend Shane and I visited there.
Reached via a mountainous dirt road, Usal Beach is located in the Lost Coast's Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. The remote expanse of dark sand was everything a Northern California beach should be. Looking back towards land, the bluffs rose like giant sleeping animals, and the massive trees bristled above them. Pelicans dropped into the ocean like large stones. 
Inland from the beach, there are 35 primitive campsites. Shane and I chose one and set up our tents for the evening. After listening to a superb North Coast pirate radio station by our campfire, we called it a night and went to sleep in our respective tents.

Fzzzow. Fzzzooooow. Ffffzzooooooowwwww. I woke up to the the sound of gunshots near our campsite. Outside the full moon seemed to shine down on my tent like a spotlight.

What time is it, I thought reaching for my cell phone.

“3:03 A.M.,” it glared at me ominously.

In the distance, I could hear Shane snoring in his tent. Then ffffzzzzzzoooooooowwww. I grew up around hunting and guns, but this shot sounded cold, metallic, evil. It also sounded like the shooter was coming closer. I sat up in my tent, and I felt as alone as I’d ever felt in my life.

Fffffffffzzzzzzooooooowwwww. Shane suddenly stopped snoring. “Did you hear that,” I whispered to him. Even if I’d drunk a whole pot of coffee, I wouldn’t feel this awake.

“Yeah, I heard that,” he said. “It’s not good.”

We both lay still in our tents. I began thinking about why someone would be firing a gun this late. It could be drunken rednecks, but there was no drunken shouts or laughing. No loud country music or Skynyrd blaring. Maybe the shooter was trying to scare off a bear or an elk?  But only a shot or two would probably be needed to do that.

Ffffzzzoooooowww. Another shot. I started thinking of survival. In the tent, I felt as helpless as a fish caught in a net. Someone could just walk up and blast the tent with bullets and that would be it. I thought of getting into my car, but then I realized a shooter would look there after the finding the tent empty.

My mind was telling me I should drag my sleeping bag into the woods.  I could sleep there without being as paranoid. If we were hearing the sounds of a madman, he’d check the tent and cars first.

“Want to meet outside,” Shane called out.

“Yes,” I said softly.

I scrambled outside my tent and soon Shane and I were standing out in the moonlight. Though we were in the open, it felt good to have someone around.

“What if it is someone walking around popping campers,” Shane said echoing what I was thinking.

I shivered uncontrollably. It was not because of the cold outside.

“I did bring this for bears,” Shane said and slid the handle of a pistol out of the pocked of his hooded sweatshirt. It was somewhat reassuring but it didn’t vanquish all of my fear.

We got into his car. Shane sat in the driver’s seat with his hand fingering the butt of the gun like it was a lucky coin. I sat in the passenger seat and tried to look outside the rapidly fogging windows.

Around 50 feet away in the woods, a light appeared. Ffffzzzoooooowww. The light was gone right as the shot rang out. It was like it had been blasted out of existence. Farther away, a car alarm went off.

“We need to get out of here,” he said.

The task of packing up and driving out seemed pretty daunting. We were still not sure what was happening out there. Maybe the lateness of the night had simply caused our minds to wander to their darkest corners.

If there was a shooter, we’d definitely be vulnerable by packing up. Also, instead of fleeing from whoever it was, there was a possibility that we would drive right up to the individual on accident. Also the thought of driving the twisty mountain road back to the highway was very daunting in the dark.

“We are not going to be able to sleep here,” Shane reasoned. “It will be torture if we don’t get out of here.”

He was right. Even if our darkest thoughts were incorrect, a night in this isolated campground sounded like an awful prospect at this point.

A few seconds later, we were cramming our half taken down tents into our respective cars. I slid the cooler into the back of my vehicle, and Shane tossed our sleeping bags into his backseat.  I looked one last time at the glowing embers of the campfire, which looked like a giant highlighter had left its fluorescent mark on the land.

Shane drove out first, and I followed. We passed a lone, still raging campfire with a small tower of flame. In the trees beside the fire, a dark figure looked up at our late night procession. Both Shane and I quickly hit the gas to get out of the area as soon as possible.

Exiting the campground, our cars spiraled up and out of the beach area to the ridge above. It reminded me of the time I went skydiving, and the plane corkscrewed into the sky to get up high as fast as possible for the jump.

I sipped from a cold cup of coffee that was still in my car from the day before. I cranked up a mix CD so that I’d have some company. The taillights of Shane’s car were as reassuring as my childhood nightlight.

My mind wandered on the drive. What was going on in the campground below us? A shoot-out between rival pot farmers? A domestic disturbance turned ugly? Luckily, my body kept driving, and my car seemed to magically follow Shane’s taillights like a bullet whizzing toward the red light created by a rifle’s laser scope.

As I reached the bottom of the mountain and turned onto the paved road below, Usal Beach felt like a half remembered nightmare. Later, while fact checking my entry about Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, a state park ranger told me that locals would often camp out and spend their evenings there blasting their guns into the night sky. That information informed the last sentence of my Usal Beach write-up in Moon Coastal California.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Hello there, Welcome to my blog! I should have created one of these things a while ago to write about what I love including traveling, music, the outdoors, water recreation, and more. First, here’s a little about me. I grew up in the fine state of Virginia surrounded by history, rivers, and friendly folks. After securing a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Mary Washington, I spent years exploring the Western U.S. before moving to the wild Big Sur coast of California. During my time in the Golden State, I have worked at the Big Sur Ranger Station and been a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly. I have also contributed article to National Geographic Education, Via Magazine, Relix Magazine, East Bay Express, and more. My current passion is authoring guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides. The past few years, I have traveled all over California to discover the best attractions, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, hiking trails, and more for Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast, Moon Spotlight Cambria and San Simeon, and Moon California Road Trip. On this blog, I will be writing about my projects, travel experiences, life experiences, the latest in arts and entertainment along with anything else that pops into my head! Be sure to visit my website for more information about my books, articles, and events.