Tag Archives: Live

Live: Graham Nash in Portland

If I am being honest, I am just as guilty as anyone—maybe more so. I see “legacy” acts touring and think, “Why bother? They can’t be as good as in their prime.” Sometimes I’ve been proven right when a band that hasn’t spoken in 20 years gets together for a tour only to realize they stopped speaking for a reason and should leave us all out if it. But sometimes I am proven wrong; gloriously wrong.

Graham Nash has always been the secret ingredient. His harmonies are unmatched, and that’s evident in the work he’s done from The Hollies, to CSN(Y), and anything else he’s lent that magical voice to. It’s a high harmony, which is a big responsibility to hold in a singing group because those are the notes everyone really hears. Guys like David Crosby and Chris Hillman have a special gift for the harder to find middle parts, but they can also hide a little easier. With Nash, it’s right out there hovering over the entire song. That means his voice needs to be in top form, lest we all walk away just a little disappointed.

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Prince Dead at 57

This video has long been my go-to mood enhancer. Of the many, many amazing performances Prince has recorded over the years, this is the one I go back to again and again. There are so many reason why, but a few that come to mind are:

    • If I could play guitar like anyone it would be Jay Bennett, George Harrison or Prince. This hits two of the three
    • Prince’s inclusion elevates the performance from a tribute from pals (famous and talented ones, at that) to a celebration of a song and its writer who inspired and affected so many people
    • Prince absolutely mops the floor with his solo
    • His guitar disappears at the end. Seriously, where did it go?
    • The look on Dhani Harrison’s face throughout Prince’s solo is pure gold

Prince’s Guitar Solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Hall of Fame Inductions

There are few celebrity deaths that would affect me personally—unlike that of a family member or friend, I might miss their artistry, but not their person. Prince’s death has affected me though. I am genuinely sad to hear of his passing. I think it’s because his public persona, the character he’s created and refined throughout his years as a public figure, is exactly what we want musicians to be. Yes, he was successful financially. More importantly, he was unique but cognizant and respectful of what had come before him. He confounded us with genre mash-ups and confusing name changes. He was the guy who wrote “Darling Nikki” and then extolled the virtues of being a Jahovah’s Witness. He was…interesting. Endlessly interesting.

He really seemed to exist on a higher plane.

If anyone felt music, it was Prince. You can see it in his face and his body. He created the wavelengths and then let himself be taken by them. He had that golden combination of science and soul. I don’t think Prince ever once in his life simply ran scales.

So yes, I am sad today and will genuinely miss Prince’s existence in the world. And I’ll lean heavily on my go-to mood enhancer to get through it.

Godspeed to his Purple Badness.

Live: Tav Falco at the Tip Top Deluxe

What year was it? Must’ve been 93, right? My senior year of college, because Amy and Sarah were already living down there. I still can’t believe we found them. It was Mardi Gras and me and my ridiculous friends drove from Kalamazoo to New Orleans with one phone number and no real plan. Nobody answered the first several times we called and we were all shitfaced on Bourbon Street when we decided we’d try one more payphone before crashing in the car. Thankfully, Sarah answered and gave us their address so we could sleep on the floor. The next morning the girls introduced us to their pals from the Royal Pendletons and we all went to the Zulu Parade together. Later (much later) we ended up in Uptown at a funky little club called Muddy Waters. The headliner was Tav Falco and his glorious Panther Burns. The last thing I remember was “It’s Only Make Believe.” There are photos of me passed out in the back seat of the Pendletons’ Ford Fairlane.

That was a long time ago. But that trip changed my life. I’ve learned a lot more about the history of rock and roll since I was a dopey college kid, and now I appreciate how lucky we were to get to experience that. So when I found out that Tav Falco would be playing a show in my hometown I knew I had to go. And to make it even more irresistible, Mike fucking Watt is now a touring member of the Panther Burns! Watt is a hero. For his ethics and his spiel as well as his mighty musicianship. And last night at the Tip Top Deluxe I got to stand six feet away from him as he worked his bass. And man oh man, what a sight that is!

It might seem like a weird fit, Watt playing in a rockabilly band, but neither Watt nor Falco should be pigeonholed so simply. They’re both far more complex than that. And yet it was pretty crazy to see Watt in a suit playing a violin bass when the band came on to “Green Onions.” But he was awesome.

Tav Falco was not happy with the sound system at the Tip Top. Poor Cliff (or was it Clyde?) the soundman got an earful from the stage. There was horrible feedback and apparently never enough vocals in the monitors. Despite that, Falco was never less than a captivating performer. He is a Southern gentleman and an elegant dancer. He is a survivor of the fucked up 70s Memphis art/music scene that included Alex Chilton, William Eggleston, Jim Dickinson, et al. In fact, the original Panther Burns were a collaboration with Chilton.

The set was mostly pulled from the new album, Command Performance. Lots of great songs, including one that featured a psychedelic Mike Watt bass solo. I was a little disappointed not to hear my faves like “Girl After Girl” and of course “It’s Only Make Believe” but when a guy’s been making music since 1979 you can’t expect to hear everything.

Grand Rapids is a funny little city and the Tip Top is a funny little bar. It’s in the middle of a rundown residential area on the city’s west side, and it feels like you’re hanging out in somebody’s rec room. The stage is a six-inch riser in the corner of the room with barely enough square footage to contain Falco, Watt, drummer Toby Dammit, guitarist Mario Monterosso, and keyboard player Francesco D’Agnolo. I saw Wayne Hancock here a few years ago. Still it felt like a coup for this venue to be able to book a Panther Burns show, and when they first announced this tour back in August, Grand Rapids was the only stop above the Mason-Dixon line. (They ultimately added Detroit and Chicago dates.)

After the set, I was sure to thank Falco for coming to Grand Rapids and he sold me his new CD for $20. Seems like a lot but he signed it for me. I always feel a little awkward approaching musicians after a show. The band had stepped off the little stage and scattered into seats at tables around the club. I know that some touring folks don’t like shaking hands for fear of catching cold on the road, so I asked Mike Watt if I could have a handshake or a hug. He immediately shook my hand and I leaned in to thank him for playing a great set, but as I did he stood up to give me a hug and I accidentally knocked his glasses right off his face! I felt terrible but he was nice about it.

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Wildwood MusicFest 2015 – The Best Fest in the West

I’m going to tell you something most Oregonians don’t want you to know for fear that it will remove the final barrier that keeps even more people from moving out here: It doesn’t rain out here nearly as much as you probably think it does. In fact, the summers can sometimes be long, dry affairs that leave you praying for rain come September. The temperature will inch up to the triple-digits some days and the western sun feels more intense, but that may be my imagination.

It was over a three-day stretch like this that my family and I again made our way to the West Valley to the small town of Willamina, Oregon. We were in the middle of a welcomed break from a stifling summer when the weather report showed a slight return to the upper 90s. You guessed it: during the three days that covered the Wildwood MusicFest.

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Live: Future Islands in Portland

I finally saw Future Islands last night and am now ready to say I am absolutely a fan of this band. I’m kinda ambivalent about the music—I like electro-pop and disco beats as much as the next guy, but it’s not blowing my mind or anything. What is blowing my mind is the effect this band has on people and it’s about goddamned time someone dropped the pretense and just let their freak flags fly.

The Crystal Ballroom was decked out in some kind of weird prom-like theme in support of local radio station KNRK’s annual December to Remember concerts series. There were thirteen shows in this year’s roster with the likes of The War on Drugs, KONGOS, Cage the Elephant, TV on the Radio and Alt-J being among the Indie heavies. Despite an astonishing year of hype and national TV appearances, Future Islands only scored an opening slot. Spoon topped the bill, but our man Samuel T. Herring was the must-see.

He did all of his moves, and did them with gusto. There were bizarre snake dances and gorilla chest thumps and even the bent-knee Mashed Potato and it was beautiful in its awkwardness. And that’s what makes this band special, because not three feet away from me were three dudes one would not mistake as hipsters or scene makers just JAMMING with our man Samuel. They had their own awkward hand-claps and slight hip twists and would occasionally look around the room to make sure it was cool. And you know what? It was cool. Portland is not known for it’s grooviness but to see most of the room stumbling happily through the night in a blissed out psudo-prom…well, it was heart warming.

Samuel T. Herring is not a good dancer. He’s terrible. He’s the Elaine Benes of front men, but he owns his goofiness. He moves where the music takes him and it’s usually to some pretty freaky places. As long he stays true to himself and never, ever edit his moves, I will follow him there.

My Annual Reminder: The Hold Steady in Grand Rapids

Let this be my annual reminder: I need to get out to more shows. It’s easy to forget what a transformative experience a tight band in a small club can create. Craig Finn knows this. He exudes pure joy on stage. The crowd internalizes this joy and amplifies it back to the stage, generating a loop of enthusiasm that increases exponentially until we all explode in a blast of fist pumps and cheers and raised tallboys of PBR.

The Hold Steady is America’s greatest rock and roll band right now.

At least they were last night at the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids. The venue has a capacity of 420 and even though the show wasn’t sold out it seemed pretty full. This was at least my fourth time seeing this band but the previous times had all been at big outdoor fests (Lolla 2006, 2007, and one or more Pitchfork). But these guys need to be seen in a bar.

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Steely Dan Alive In Detroit

Steely Dan 2013 merch
Fox Theater, July 27, 2013

“Hey Nineteen
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember
The Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old”—Becker & Fagan, “Hey Nineteen,” Gaucho.

I suspect this may be the last time that I see Steely Dan in concert.  And the reason is simple: They are growing old.  And when you grow old—Fagan is 65 and Becker 63—things don’t work quite as well as they did as when you were young.

Fagan’s voice isn’t as strong as it once was.  Becker availed himself of a chair on stage not long into the performance.  Fagan’s voice actually got better, by and large, as the evening went on.  And Becker got up off his seat sooner, rather than later.

Those guys have been performing those songs for a long time.  And while practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it does make better, which compensates for the loss in performance capabilities.  More or less.

Mind you, it isn’t that this may be the last time because they are growing old and I somehow think that I’m not and consequently I don’t want to see gray-haired or hair-challenged,  increasingly thick musicians.  After all, I enter into that category, as well.

But I just wonder whether those two are going to continue against nature and continue to undertake the unnatural touring life for much longer.

And I must admit that were it not for an absolutely astonishing back-up band, who did much of the heavy lifting (especially Jim Beard on keyboards and Jon Herrington on guitars), it would have been a less-than-stellar evening’s performance at Ticketmaster prices.

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This is something that truly puzzles me.  Why do we go see bands like Steely Dan?

The last time they put out an album was 10 years ago.  Everything Must Go.

The band has been putting out records since 1972.  In 1980, Gaucho was released.  Then, there was pretty much a Steely Dan hiatus until 2000, with Two Against Nature.  There were solo efforts and the Alive in America recording (1995), but 1980 was something of an end point, it seems, as regards Steely Dan.

There was nothing older than selections from Gaucho played at the concert.  There were all manner of the tried-and-true from the other discs.  “Show Biz Kids.”  “Deacon Blues.” “Peg.”  “Reelin’ in the Years.”  Etc.

So there we were, listening to 30-year-old musical selections, music that we’d all heard, literally hundreds of times.

Somehow this seems a little odd.

There were but minor variations from the way we were used to hearing the music.  Which means that it was little different than what those of us who were at the Fox two years earlier had heard.

If someone said, “So, are you going to see an oldies’ show?” we’d be miffed.

But isn’t that what it was?

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While the name of the band is, of course, Steely Dan, it could just as well have been Fagan & Becker.  After all, those two are the only points of commonality throughout the band’s career.

It reminds me, in a couple of ways, of Hall & Oates.

In the cases of both sets, they are more successful musically together than they are apart.  Sure, there are some good things on Nightfly as there are on Sacred Songs.  But still, together is better.

And when John Oates steps up to the mic for a lead vocal, a bit of cringe sets in.

A bigger cringe sets in when Walter Becker goes to the mic.

He sang “Monkey in Your Soul” from Pretzel Logic.  And something happened that I have never experienced at a concert.  Never.

When he was done, there was no rousing round of applause.  There was little applause at all.  It wasn’t because it was horrible.  It was just as if people weren’t really sure if they were done, if the song was over.

It must have been offsetting to Becker.  Had I been under similar circumstances, I would have probably wandered off the stage not to return.

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Two quotes from Fagan.

“We’re in Detroit, so we’re going to play the blues.”  And they launched into “Black Friday.” Presumably, this has something to do with the bankruptcy:  “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor.”

“Thank you.  We really appreciate it. . .we’re getting old.”  He was thanking the crowd for their strong ovation before kicking into “Kid Charlemagne”: “Could you live forever/
Could you see the day /Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away.”

Yes, I could.

Fiona Apple vs. Rodney King

In a speech similar in tone to her widely-mocked 1997 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance, Fiona Apple told her Grand Rapids audience that she’s been really upset about Rodney King since he died and that she’s been carrying a picture of him. “We really let that guy down.” The speech culminated with Apple declaring July 9 to be “Rodney King Hero Day.” Then she played “Paper Bag.”

Discussing the show with my wife on the ride home, we came to the conclusion that just like 15 years ago, while the delivery of her message was inarticulate, rambly, and painfully awkward, the content her message was right on. She was 100% correct when at age 19 she pointed out that the glossy celebrity world of MTV was bullshit. It was bullshit then and it still is. And last night, she eventually got around to the point of her story: When Rodney King sincerely asked everybody if we can all get along, people just made a joke out of it.

Think about that. In 1992, a guy who never asked to be put in the public spotlight is mocked mercilessly for asking rioters to “stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids.” Five years later, a 19 year old singer stumbles through an attempt to subvert the whole “awards show” rigamarole by telling kids not to model themselves after what celebrities think is cool but to “go with yourself.” And she gets mocked mercilessly for that.

What kind of shit is that?

Yes, she stammers a little and mixes up a couple words and quotes Maya Angelou, but the content of what she was saying was so fucking accurate that the entire world seemed to willfully misunderstand her. If half of the people who had heard that speech had taken her message to heart, the audience for future awards shows would’ve shriveled up. That world is bullshit. Who even tries to deny that anymore?

And again, last night the message of her rant about Rodney King was nearly obfuscated by her inarticulate manner of presenting it. For a person who writes such compelling lyrics, Fiona Apple is apparently pretty terrible at coming up with words off the cuff. Maybe that’s why it takes her seven years between albums!

Learning that she’s a great big stoner has actually made me feel better about her awkward public persona. She’s not stupid or crazy; she’s just super high. Which makes it funny instead of embarrassing. (We’re laughing with you, not at you.) It probably also explains her yoga/frog inspired dance moves.

And anyway, who cares how somebody talks (or dances) when they have a singing voice like that? Getting to see and hear her perform at the beautiful Meijer Gardens was an especially rare treat. And while the sunshine bothered her sensitive eyes (“I’m not really that angry — I’m just squinting.”), it made for a gorgeous setting for her haunting, otherworldly music.

I Don’t Wanna Worry About Dying

If Greg asks, the show was terrible. Flat, uninspired and certainly not life affirming.

Not in the slightest.

Greg’s my friend who bought the tickets. Just before Japandroids start tuning up, he gets an SOS text from his wife to come home and help with their very newborn son.

Selfless Greg hops in a cab and does his dad duty. (awww, right?)

So let’s please pretend this brilliant Vancouver punk duo didn’t slay the sold-out crowd at Lincoln Hall — at least half of whom are 30-something rocker dads themselves.

The appeal for aging punks is clear. Like no other band, Brian King and David Prowse of Japandroids are aware time is running out. They famously were calling it quits before 2009’s Post-Nothing broke through with the P-Fork crowd. Their label literally had to call them out of retirement to tour.

As a retired rock critic myself, maybe this hit me extra hard, but it’s a second chance the boys don’t seem to expect to last and they throw everything they have into the set.

They open with fuzzy Springsteen ramp-up of “The Boys Are Leaving Town.” Guitarist/singer Brian trembles joyfully on his stick-skinny legs like a mad skeleton. Drummer David dials in his fury, cracking a stick right away.

From there we dive into the new stuff. The songs on Celebration Rock, their just released album, crackle like summer fireworks: brief and radiant. Everyone all knows the shout-along choruses of “Fire’s Highways” and “The House that Heaven Built.”

Japandroids bring the rock to Lincoln Hall

A mosh pit opens. No really. A big friendly one, well padded with the beer guts of balding guys in thick glasses. It’s a beautiful, silly response that indie acts never inspire anymore.

Maybe we get into it because the Japandroids play facing each other, David’s kit turned sideways on the stage. It’s quirk that sums up what’s to love about this wild, sloppy band. A real human connection trumps everything. They play for their own bliss, not lasting glory. It’s infectious.

They charge through all of Celebration: The fist-pumping abandon of “Adrenaline Nightshift” and the moody build of “Continuous Thunder.”  So what if old favorites “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Wet Hair” hit slightly harder. These guys are at their peak.

They aren’t the Black Keys, still digging up the blues to make hits. They aren’t No Age, carving out damaged art noise to make something new. They aren’t the sexy slumming of the Kills or Death From Above 1979. They’re charming Canadian dorks, apologizing for playing so hard Brian constantly has to retune his battle-scarred guitar.

Promising they don’t do encores, they close with their reckless, pounding cover of Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy.” The place erupts because everybody is acutely aware this is it.

The Heat have already won. Brian’s old fucked Fender is falling apart. Somewhere mighty Greg is cruising around Evanston with his wife and baby sleeping in the backseat.

Staring down the barrel

“It’s this or fucking nothing,” Brian says. If you hold back because the end is nigh, it only goes faster.

There are no encores.

* All photos by Andrew Sommerfeld

Costello: On with the Show

Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Caesar’s Windsor, April 21, 2012

In 1986—I think, as that was a long time ago, after all—the year that Elvis Costello and the Attractions put out Blood and Chocolate, they went out on tour in support of the record.  I saw them at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

Costello took on the guise of Napoleon Dynamite—his character, which (obviously) preceded that of the film of that name—during the show.  He allowed audience participation.  There was a large roulette-style wheel set up with names of songs on it.  Spin the wheel and get your tune performed.

And now Elvis Costello and the Imposters are out on tour in support of The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!

I have seen Costello play umpteen times.  I know that as a GloNo participant I should have that number down cold.  But it is a number sufficiently high that I had written here back in 2005 that I’d seen a show done so well that I probably wouldn’t see him again.

Guess what?  Saturday night was better by a big factor.

Napoleon Dynamite made a return appearance.

There was the spinning wheel.  There was audience participation.

There was a go-go dancer who is drop-dead gorgeous.  I’d never seen a go-go dancer live before.  She was so incredible, I don’t need to see another one again.  Not that I’d mind.  But “Dixie De La Fontaine” moved so exceedingly well, that it would be hard to imagine her being bested.

There was a hostess, “Katarina Valentina Valentine,” who brought participants to the stage.

There was a set, including a black-and-white rabbit-ear-equipped TV showing static.  (Costello claimed it was tuned to Fox News.)

Yes, there was the band up there, as well—Nieve, Thomas, Faragher—and they did a spectacular job, as this was a spectacle (no, not referencing Costello’s chat show of that name).

The crowd at the venue in the Caesar’s Windsor Casino was appreciative and engaged, yet polite and reserved: They watched the show, as a show it was.

It occurs to me that when we talk about “going to see a band play” we often say, “I’m going to a concert.”  But for the most part, that’s really not right.  Isn’t a “concert” more along the lines of what a symphony plays?  Then there is “I’m going to see a performance of __________________.”  For example, when Steely Dan was out on tour and played a complete version of a given album, that was a “performance.”

And in the case of what Costello did, it was a “show,” and he gets the whole vaudevillian aspect of what that means, all the way to talking patter when doing setups between the bits.

The music.  Here I go back to This Year’s Model and Trust and Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock and. . . .

Costello has a fulsome catalog.  A rich variety of music.  But in this case, it was a show of the rock and roll done slow (e.g., “Allison”) and fast (“Radio, Radio”) and all tempos in between.  It was the stuff of then.  And for many of us, then was better than now.

But it didn’t seem like a revival tour, a retro act.  It seemed very much of the moment.  It seemed like this year’s model.

But it wasn’t.

But it was damn good.

And I sure as hell hope that in 2019 I don’t write “this could be the last time.”