Smart Bomb goes off in Oakland


By Micah Dubreuil

As a child, you imagine your toys come to life whenever your back is turned. As an adult in the Bay Area, you imagine that every night you choose to stay in, the bars are all packed with experimental underground DJs, food carts, live visual artists and the kind of freaky electronic jazz you would see in a Blade Runner spinoff series. And yet when you do turn around — at either age — your dreams often fall short (if your toys ever did come to life, please let us know).

This is not the case at Smart Bomb, a bi-monthly multimedia showcase at the Legionnaire Saloon in downtown Oakland; the next edition is this Saturday, July 26. Centered on the East Bay beat scene, the night is a multi-layered affair in every sense: local food outside, fringe producers, controllerists, and DJs downstairs, out-of-the-box grooving live acts upstairs. Here you might find a homemade synthesizer or heavily effected saxophone wailing the night away while a painter furiously creates an accompanying visual spectacle. It’s a creative assault on every sensory input, in the best possible way.

Smart Bomb is the brainchild of the band Secret Sidewalk, which is itself a microcosm of the Smart Bomb smorgasbord: a collection of electronic and acoustic musicians arranged around beat music with backgrounds in turntablism, hip hop, DIY synthesis, and jazz.

“We’re a band, yes, but we’re a collective,” says saxophonist Marcus Stephens, of the collaborative artistic community the band has built. Any night might feature a solo performance or duo experimentation as well as the full group’s mainstay set. (This weekend’s event coincides with and celebrates the release of Secret Sidewalk’s new 7” vinyl single “Cholo Curls” on CB Records.) 

In addition to the ever-changing cast of local performers, Smart Bomb regularly features guests from both the local and national scene, including heavy-hitters such as the Broun Felinis, rapper Kool A.D. (from Das Racist), and Dibia$e. “We wanted to invite other performers and artists as well — MCs and a few live bands that are on our same wavelength in terms of progressive music,” says Stephens. At their last event, Phesto Dee — from the seminal Oakland hip-hop groups Heiroglyphics and Souls of Mischief — performed a solo set with Secret Sidewalk as the backing band, an arrangement of MC and experimental beat ensemble that neither had ever explored before. 

Even with the event’s avant-garde leanings, the experience is decidedly unpretentious; Stephens says they reliably get a positive response from a super diverse room full of people. “We always seem to get a warm crowd — a lot of musicians, a lot of artists, a lot of curious mofos who want to see what the buzz is about.” 

SMART BOMB (w/ record release for Secret Sidewalk)

Sat/26, 9pm-2am, $5

Legionnaire Saloon

2722 Telegraph, Oakl.

Carletta Sue Kay on strip clubs, literature, and dumpster-diving after art exhibits


Not long after I sat down with Randy Walker, the male, non-performing ego of one of San Francisco’s most undefinable musical acts, vocal powerhouse Carletta Sue Kay (who performs at The Chapel this Fri/25), we talked a bit about college. Walker asked me the prerequisite questions about the social scene and my major, perking up at the sound of a humanities-centric discipline. I asked if he’d done the whole college thing. Walker chuckled, a glint in his eye, and said he had. “I went to Redlands College but didn’t graduate. Started out in Theater Arts, ended up switching over to English…but what are you really going to do with an English degree?”

As the conversation continued, however, Walker’s dismissal of the formal literary arts became increasingly incongruous with his mastery of language, the modern canon (from David Foster Wallace to Elizabeth McCracken), and allusion in his performances. The singer, whose music is a deft blend of Joplin-esque blues and far more cerebral and melodic existential examination, is anything but simplistic. As Walker’s mind opened up, we twisted and turned through a deliciously intellectual and sordid discourse about strip clubs, eccentric cousins, and the Swiss conceptual artist Thomas Hirschhorn. By the time we left the coffee shop, me with Carletta Sue Kay’s debut album Incongruent in hand, it was clear that Walker and his alter ego were far more complex (and hilarious) than the average wigged, pastichy, four octave-ranged singer-songwriter.

Carletta is a real person, says Walker. So was Walker’s last singing character, a plastic surgery-obsessed Belgian who Walker often presented with a variety of gauze pads and other bandages preferred by convalescents of cosmetic procedures. Both Carletta and the Belgian are Walker’s cousins (his last project was called Mon Cousin Belge). “While I was doing Mon Cousin Belge, I was writing songs at home that I thought needed to be sung by a girl. I thought, ‘I’m going to find some great female singers to record this stuff.’ But then I thought, ‘Hold on…’”

Carletta Sue Kay, Walker’s eccentric, ex-criminal cousin, was an ideal persona that he could put on to present his new works. “Carletta is a very troubled girl. She was involved with a guy and became very obsessed with him. She found out that this guy was sleeping with another girl and constructed a pipe bomb with the intent of killing him in his apartment.” Walker, clearly embracing the macabre underpinnings of the story, smiled and spoke with a bounce in his tone as he recounted her his cousin’s homicidal urges. “Well, they busted her and she went to prison. So the band became Carletta Sue Kay.” The more sorrowful of the band’s songs, which often focus on lost love and sadness, evoke the woeful tale. Now a free woman, the real Carletta has never agreed to see a performance by the band. “She’s completely chill with it. She’s a funny girl.”

The band’s inaugural performance is just as legendary as its naming. Mon Cousin Belge needed an opening act for a headlining gig at Bottom of the Hill, so Walker decided to unveil his new group. He crafted a Grecian arch, covered it in autumn leaves, sprayed it with glitter, and enlisted his friend, artist Greg Gardner, to create a cartoon rendering of his burgeoning alter ego on a piece of fabric curtain that hung down from the arch. “He drew a big fat naked girl. Her nipples were painted with pink glitter. They do the intro music (strum, strum) and I pull the curtain up to reveal myself standing there. The birth of Carletta!”

Throughout his contextualization of Carletta, Walker dropped hilarious one-liners and unexpected anecdotes about culture. I wasn’t surprised to hear The Magnetic Fields’ frontman Stephin Merritt’s name come up a few times, as Carletta Sue Kay has provided back-up vocals for several songs by the group. More surprising, however, was Walker’s invocation of Stephen Sondheim as a primary influence. And when a shirtless, seemingly inebriated man with an unruly mullet danced by in the front window of the café, Walker looked up and, without missing a beat, said, in questionably PC fashion, “It’s a character out of a James Fenimore Cooper book!”

While Walker sprinkled our conversation with bands, authors, and artists, his charisma was not so much in his prolific knowledge of and interaction with the art world, but rather how he used his experiences as a means of telling remarkably funny and compelling stories. In one such story, Walker told of his love for Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress.”

The exhibit, which showed at the CCA Wattis Instiute of Art a few years back, included juxtapositions of camouflage wear in fashion and the military alongside globes with small camo-tinged tumors growing on them. “After the exhibition ended, they were tossing 80 percent of the work into the trash. So we’re like…dumpster dive!” After snatching nine of the globes used in the exhibition, Walker began to sell them off. “It’s ephemeral,” Walker retorted when I suggested that he was dealing in the conceptual art black market.

Walker informs his new songs, which he’s collecting for an upcoming record called Monsters (much of which he will sing on Friday), with a similarly diverse range of artistic interests as his stories. “It’s influenced by Hammer classic horror films — Creature from the Black Lagoon — anywhere from comical to kitschy, but always with a dark theme. But then it’s going to mixed with a lot of genuine sadness.” Stylistically, Carletta Sue Kay continues to move towards more piano-heavy, lyrical wandering in comparison to the high-octane blues of its initial incarnation. Walker is seemingly aiming, both in his tales and his music, for the intersection between poking fun at cultural elements and emotionally engaging with their deeper messages.

How we ended up talking about strip clubs I may never know (and I have a complete recording of the conversation). Seemingly, it branched out of a conversation about Walker’s boyhood home, Fontana, Calif., which he cited for its high methamphetamine rates and large Pentacostal population. Before we knew it, however, we were talking about a wide range of California strip clubs, from the sketchier SoCal ones that he saw as a younger man and more upscale ones like Mitchell Brothers. Walker, who is gay and has been with his partner for more than 20 years, goes with his straight friends seemingly as a means of understanding the culture and to have fun. His stories, however, soon entered surreal realms of aggressive strippers, extreme money-spending binges by his friends, and abstract deconstruction of the vibes inside various clubs.

Whatever the reason for the digression, it perfectly captured Walker’s unabashedly entertaining form of communication — simultaneously intellectual, pulpy, and laugh-out-loud funny. For a man with such powerful personae, Randy Walker is wholly himself. 


With The Dead Ships and Titan Ups

The Chapel

777 Valencia, SF

Why Brian Wilson’s next album will probably be a masterpiece


The name “Beach Boys” can refer to either of two bands.  The first is the happy-go-lucky surf rock band that does songs about cars and California, led by the conservative Mike Love; the second is one of the most audacious and avant-garde bands of the psychedelic era, led by the mad Zen master Brian Wilson. Though most of the music-listening world knows them primarily as the former, the latter has proven far more influential, pushing the Beatles’ creativity to breaking point out of rivalry as well as serving as a major touchstone for the last decade or so of indie rock.

This latter influence, coinciding with Wilson’s 2004 solo revival of his aborted 1967 album Smile, has allowed the psychedelic Beach Boys to enjoy a greater cultural standing among a younger, hipper generation. Wilson’s reunion with Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks on 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun was much-hyped by the music press; their previous collaboration, 1995’s Orange Crate Art, was barely even noticed by critics or audiences. Audiences want another psychedelic masterwork from Brian Wilson. And I would be unsurprised if he made one — in fact, I would be surprised if he didn’t.

There’s no doubt he still has the capacity to make music every bit as beautiful and daring as the pocket symphonies that graced Pet Sounds and Smile. The Wilson-written suite that ends the 2012 Beach Boys album That’s Why God Made The Radio is nearly as good as the one that ended Surf’s Up more than 40 years prior. And the version of “Live Let Live” Wilson recorded for the post-March Of The Penguins cash-in An Arctic Tale contains some of the most gorgeous backing vocals I’ve heard on any song, Wilson-penned or otherwise.

Since the 2004 solo Smile, Brian’s released a Christmas album, two covers albums, and That Lucky Old Sun. The latter is the only true Wilson album among these, and its song-cycle structure and bursts of experimental caprice make it undoubtedly the progeny of Smile. But its flaws are common to many, if not most, latter-day albums by aging rock stars. His vocals haven’t aged well; the production is sterile; he makes a lot of ill-advised tributes to the music and culture of his childhood (sample line: “Every girl’s the next Marilyn/every guy Errol Flynn”). There’s a strong sense he’s pandering to the crowd who grew up on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (or God help us, “Kokomo”), and he tempers his far-out tendencies accordingly. 

But two events have happened since the release that should encourage Wilson to let his creative energy loose.  The first is the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions, a collection of incomplete Smile takes that’s the closest we’ll likely ever get to hearing the finished album. The second is the release of That’s Why God Made The Radio, purportedly the final Beach Boys album and universally acclaimed for the Wilson songs but nothing else. Without the commitment of The Beach Boys, Wilson never needs to write another song about cars and girls again; if he does, it’s up to choice. His fanbase is shifting from older nostalgics to younger music nerds, and it would be advisable for him to target that audience. 

Wilson’s currently working on his first new album since the release of The Smile Sessions. It appears to be a collaborative effort; Lana Del Rey, Kacey Musgraves, Zooey Deschanel, and Frank Ocean are all slated to appear on it. All of these artists but Musgraves are Los Angelenos, and Del Rey and Ocean explicitly tap into L.A. mythology in their music. The melancholy those latter two artists bring to their portrayal of the City of Angels is very much in line with the wistful nostalgia of Wilson’s best recent work. 

They’re also artists more in line with the indie world — the world that eats up Wilson’s poignant Pet Sounds-era work and disavows anything with even the most casual reference to surfing. They’ve more likely signed on to work with the man who made those great Sixties albums. And if they end up having any influence beyond merely contributing vocals, they’ll likely skew the album in that direction. If not, it’s still promising that Wilson would choose to work with these artists in the first place. It would be his first attempt to market himself to a younger audience since he loaded up Love You with synths back in 1977. And so far, he’s looking in the right place.

The current incarnation of the Beach Boys (sans Wilson, Al Jardine, and David Marks) play the Mountain Winery on August 1. Wilson’s new album does not yet have a release date, but much of it is complete according to Rolling Stone.

Jimmy Cliff high-kicks his way through 50 years of music at the Fillmore


Jimmy Cliff is a goddamn maniac. It’s about 45 minutes into his 90-minute set at the Fillmore on Saturday night [July 19], and while the sheer volume of ganja smoke in the packed room is making real movement — beyond the standard shuffle/sidestep, white reggae fan head-bob, and occasional 30-second pogo accompanied by the triumphant fist-in-the-air move — seem an insurmountable challenge for most everyone on the dancefloor, 66-year-old Jimmy Cliff is onstage in matching bright yellow-and-red pants, a robe, and a hat, quite literally running circles around everyone.

He’s high-kicking. He’s goose-stepping. He’s pouring buckets of sweat, but his stage presence is magnetic, his control of the room masterful. He never stops grinning. And, supported by a guitarist, a drummer, a bass player, a saxophone player, two keyboard players, two backup singers, and the Fillmore’s very dialed-in sound system, Jimmy Cliff sounds better than the last dozen 25- to 34-year-old rock stars I’ve heard live. He definitely has more energy.


His voice is strong and somehow heartbreakingly clear, whether on songs from his most recent album, 2012’s Tim Armstrong-produced Rebirth — like “Afghanistan,” an update on the classic “Vietnam,” or the upbeat, surprisingly modern-sounding “One More” — or on theclassics, which are almost too many to list: “The Harder They Come,” of course, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” a chill-inducing “Many Rivers To Cross,” “Sitting In Limbo,” etc., etc., etc. —  Cliff stomped and shouted through the last 50 years, darting back and forth not only throughout, you know, linear time and political movements, but the evolution of reggae and Jamaican music itself, tracing the genre from from ska to rocksteady to dancehall. Forget your knowledge of or even affinity for these genres; the weight of the air feels different in the presence of an artist who’s been through, and influenced, so much of what you take for granted as musical history. And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t just the ganja.


Jimmy Cliff “One More” from dan sampson on Vimeo.

In between songs, he bantered (fan: “We love you Jimmy!” Jimmy: “I love you more!” Another fan two minutes later: “We still love you Jimmy!” Jimmy: “I love you double!”), gave history lessons (focused mostly on artists he claims responsibility for discovering: Sam Cooke, Bob Marley), led an audience-participation section for a new song he’s working on, and pretended the show was over and he wouldn’t be coming back on at least three times. And then he came back, three times. The encore fake-out was such that by the time the band walked off stage for real and the house music came over the speakers, the stoned, smiling masses didn’t believe it, chanting “one more,” for a good 10 minutes, until a stage hand who looked like she hated life at that moment walked on to unplug something; she was greeted with a collective groan.


It should be said here: I do not generally identify as a “reggae fan.” Having grown up in the Bay Area and having gone to Reggae on the River once when I was 10 (long story) and having attended a public California university full of dudes with board shorts and blacklight posters, I do not have fantastic associations with large throngs of mainly white people dancing to reggae music.

And yet: I found it difficult to dislike the bro-y, backward cap-sporting contingent at this show, which is a really weird feeling for me. They all just seemed too damn happy. Whatever Jimmy Cliff’s doing at age 66 to keep on doing what he did on Saturday, it’s keeping him healthy, and joyful, and it’s clearly catching. We should all be so lucky.


Live Shots: OK Go power through technical difficulties at The Independent


Ok Go’s catalog is the sonic equivalent of Fruit Loops. Bright, fun, tasty, and far from satisfying or substantive. They are also one of our generation’s greatest bands. Because what Ok Go lacks in musical imagination and originality, they make up for tenfold with the way they have revolutionized and thoroughly dominated the art of the music video.

Harnessing the power of internet culture and viral videos, Ok Go burst onto the music scene and the blogosphere in 2006 with their now-famous treadmill dance video for “Here it Goes Again.” Now, a century later in internet years, Ok Go continues to churn out pleasant power pop and a steady stream of mind-blowing film pieces (“music videos” almost seems condescending for these painstaking projects—while most bands go on set for six hours to two days, singer Damian Kulash pointed out, Ok Go works on theirs for six weeks to six months).


Somehow, the band has managed to continuously outdo itself with each new video, spending incredible amounts of time and energy on stunningly creative videos featuring stop-motion, Rube Goldberg machines, optical illusions, and the pure power of great choreography.

Perhaps fittingly, playing music seems to be a more of a side effect than a focus of Ok Go’s live show, which more prominently features bright video displays, interactive apps, and truly mind-blowing amounts of confetti (although, unfortunately, no dance routines). And, as with most technology-based things, a certain amount of troubleshooting was required.


However, despite a lot of technical difficulties, stalls, and spotty sound quality at their sold out Wednesday show at The Independent, the audience’s enthusiasm was not dampened in the slightest. A large part of Ok Go’s charm comes from their youthful excitement, curiosity, and energy, all aspects that translate beautifully to a live setting.

During glitches, while guitarist/keyboardist and “genuine, bona-fide nerd” Andy Ross worked on fixing technology failures, frontmen Damian Kulash and Tim Nordwind entertained the audience with Q&A sessions, and even (in what may have been the highlight of the show) a full run-through of Les Miserables’ “Confrontation,” with Kulash as Javert and Nordwind as Jean Valjean.


Ok Go are truly great performers. Their energy is high, their spectacles spectacular, and their banter playful and plentiful. I was taken aback, however, when Kulash casually called San Francisco a city “known for having a lot of faggots.” Even though Kulash is public about his support for gay rights and he followed this statement up with a lame “I say that with love in my heart,” it felt inappropriate and offensive. And all this was even before he called SF “Boston with Disneyland attached.”

But clearly not everyone in the audience took issue with Kulash’s faux pas, and there was an air of excitement and appreciation in the intimate venue from the first song to the last flurries of confetti. When the show had ended, leaving behind deep drifts of the colorful paper, fans didn’t want the fun to end. When I departed, half an hour after the show’s finish, people were still laughing, shrieking, and throwing confetti to the sky.


On your mark, get set: The Music Video Race is off and running — and expanding


Everyone knows that true artists do their best work right before deadline. [Ed note: I may or may not be writing this an hour or so before mine.]

Now in its third year, the Music Video Race is an annual San Francisco tradition that takes this dictum to heart, pairing 16 different musical acts with 16 filmmakers for a challenge that makes that “find a flag in the middle of this big fake nose filled with green goop” thing on Double Dare seem like a cakewalk: Conceive, film, and edit an entire music video in 48 hours.

After accepting applications from both filmmakers and musicians for roughly two months, MVR organizers matched up pairs by random drawing at 7:30pm on Friday, July 11, turning the teams loose around the Bay Area, with a final deadline of 8pm on Sunday, July 13. This year’s bands include SF’s Rin Tin Tiger (which will cap their participation with a headlining spot at the video release party, held at The Independent Sun/20), Oakland’s Bill Baird (fresh from rocking Phono del Sol), Rich Girls, Lemme Adams, and bed. [Another ed note: Yours truly is in the middle of judging said videos, and they’re really freakin’ good.]

“We try to pick a diverse group of bands — we don’t want 20 garage bands or folk acts, etc. There’s so much variety in the Bay, and we really ant to respect that,” says Tim Lillis, an MVR founder, of how they select the participants. “But beyond that, we’re mostly just looking for flexibility, a willingness to roll with the punches, a sense of adventure.”

New this year: We Bay Area-dwellers aren’t so special anymore. The MVR is expanding to Austin and LA, over the weekends of Sept. 5-7 and Nov. 7-9, respectively.

“We’ve had a few really expansive years here, and I think this will help people understand that this isn’t just a San Francisco thing — we’re stoked to help local scenes build themselves,” says Lillis.

Last year’s winning video, from Ash Reiter

The Music Video Race got its start in 2011, when Lillis and a few friends were out having a beer at Lucky 13 before a Mister Heavenly show — featuring Michael Cera on bass. 

“I don’t know if subconsciously the worlds of music and film intertwined because of that, but that’s what happened,” says Lillis, who has a background in video production as well as having played in a few bands in the Bay Area. “I’d done a 48-hour film project before, which is fun, but a lot of times the results of those things are not the best, and I think it usually has to do with audio quality. With music videos, there’s pre-reocrded music, so you’re able to cut the film to the beat; there’s already a rhythm for the editing.”

The sped-up nature of the event isn’t just for fun, Lillis explains. “I’m a pretty firm believer in constraints,” he says. “Even in my work as an illustrator and graphic designer, I know that when you only have so much to work with, you have to just trust your gut and make decisions and go with them. Often your first instinct is valid, and there just isn’t time to waffle on stuff.”

And if he had any doubts about the race being good for the city’s music scene, last year’s event should have sealed the deal: A couple of musicians who met as MVR participants in 2013 — Alex Haager, then of the band Magic Fight, and Sierra Frost, then of Clintongore — fell in love, and are now married, and living in Portland, as co-owners of the Oakland/Portland-based Breakup Records. They’re also in this year’s Music Video Race, competing in their new band Bed

So, you know. Even if you don’t have a musical or filmmaking bone in your body, there just might be something at the finish-line party for ya. As “how we met” stories go, speed-music-video-making sounds way more punk rock than speed-dating. 


July 20, 7pm, $14-$16

The Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

At 50, turning a critical eye on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’


More than any other Beatles album, A Hard Day’s Night — which turns 50 this week — embodies the cliches surrounding the band. The cheesy harmonies, the “whoa”s and “yeah”s, the sappy love songs, the teen-idol cuteness: All are there in abundance. It’s also the most obvious manifestation of the John/Paul dichotomy. Though the idea of John as the bad boy and Paul as the author of silly love songs is largely accepted as a myth by Beatles fans, it’s a lot closer to the truth than folks give it credit for, and on no album is it more clear than A Hard Day’s Night.

Every song on this album is a love song, befitting the Beatles’ stature at the time as teen idols and encouraging the tide of Beatlemania — at that time at its peak. Paul’s are quite silly, but the music is so effective it’s easy to forget the lyrics are a bit ridiculous. “And I Love Her” repeats the word “love” incessantly, but the twinkling background makes it seem transcendent. You’re more likely to come out of it remembering the four-note guitar riff that frames the song anyway.

Better yet is “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song’s chorus looks absurd on paper (“can’t buy me love/everybody tells me so/can’t buy me love/no no no no”) but is so catchy it’s hard not to ignore the lyrics.  It’s also one of the most brutally short Beatles hits. Befitting a song rejecting materialism, there’s no excess or indulgence — just hooks. It goes by before you know what hit you, but it takes on a new life once it’s stuck in your head.

John’s love songs are far more bitter and sarcastic. But it’s important to remember that John Lennon was more than just a media-ready “bad boy.” His reputation as a peacenik and a member of the most (supposedly) infallible paragon of pop music in history has sadly clouded his history of neglect and abuse toward his children and various lovers. Knowing the latter gives an unpleasant context to the Lennon songs on this album.

I find “You Can’t Do That” unlistenable for this reason. The song is told from the perspective of a man whose girlfriend has been talking to another boy and who warns her that if he catches her doing it again, he’ll “let her down” and “leave her flat.” It’s hard not to interpret those as a reference to domestic violence given that Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, was a victim of such abuse. And the theme of the song evokes Lennon’s own worries concerning his second wife, Yoko Ono, whom he often dragged into the studio out of fears she would abscond with another man if left alone.

As grievous is Lennon’s focus on his own pride and the shame of having had his girl cheat on him. This theme surfaces on “You Can’t Do That” (“Everybody’s green cuz I’m the one who won your love/But if they’d seen you talking that way they’d laugh in my face”). It’s as bad on “If I Fell.”  John asks his potential girlfriend if she’d “hurt my pride like her,” then bluntly tells her how much he’d enjoy his old girlfriend’s misery at seeing the two of them together.

It’s less rational to believe that these songs are told from the perspective of an abuser so much as illustrating Lennon’s own viewpoint as a real-life abuser. There’s nothing in these songs to suggest he’s playing a role of any sort. On one song, he does. “I’ll Cry Instead” is one of my favorite songs on the album. No song I’ve heard better captures the irrational thoughts that come with anger and sadness. His girl left him, and he’d like to go out and “break hearts all ’round the world” as revenge, but he can’t, so he’ll cry instead.

The point of “I’ll Cry Instead” isn’t that he’d like to hurt her, but that he’s angry and is thinking illogically as such. The sense is he’ll feel better once he’s had a good cry. Thus, it’s a bit easier to separate this song from its creator. Nonetheless, A Hard Day’s Night is one of those albums — at least for me — where art and artist are too firmly entwined for the album not to suffer.

It would be ridiculous to accuse anyone who enjoys this album of being a misogynist. But I would take issue with anyone who approaches this album with a mindset of denial. If these moral questions inhibit you from enjoying the art, so be it. But to dismiss these issues in order to preserve your prior appreciation of the music would be tantamount to ignoring those issues in the first place, and that would be an injustice.

There are, however, two Lennon songs that truly warm my heart on this album. “When I Get Home” is an ecstatic love song that finds its protagonist rushing home to be with his girl. The voyage home becomes an obstacle course — he’s telling people to “get out of my way” as he dreams of the night they’ll spend together. That he has “a whole lot of things to tell her” suggests he’s actually interested in conversing with the girl, not just having sex (though sex is certainly a part of it). And he’ll love her the next day too, and accordingly make the same voyage. Now that’s love.

Second is the title track — and that unplayable opening chord isn’t even half of it. On no other Beatles song is the interplay between John’s voice and Paul’s more effective. It’s difficult to even notice that the vocalist has shifted until the end of the first chorus. But it’s the gradual build in emotion that makes this song so brilliant. By the time the chorus is about to transition back into the verse, Paul is emoting relentlessly — “feeling you holding me TIIIGHT, TIIIIIGHT YEAH” — and then in comes the verse again, with John’s dry voice snapping satisfyingly into place and contrasting icily with Paul’s catharsis.
“A Hard Day’s Night” is by far the best song on the album, which would suffer without it. The only Beatles albums that have aged worse than A Hard Day’s Night are the psychedelic albums, and even those contain more moments that still confound than this album. Though it contains some truly transcendent songs and remains a milestone in the Beatles’ musical songwriting, A Hard Day’s Night remains the worst of the Beatles’ “great” albums.

Though I generally avoid discussing my own sentimental attachment to albums in reviewing them, I will close this review by saying A Hard Day’s Night is by far the most important album in my life. As the first rock album I ever listened to, it ended my 12-year streak of aversion to rock due to my sensory processing disorder, which made it nearly impossible for me to listen to music until then. But I haven’t gone back to it much — simply because I listened to eight other Beatles albums immediately afterward, and every single one of them puts A Hard Day’s Night to shame.

Video Premiere: Dangermaker’s “The Light”


San Francisco’s Dangermaker is a roughly five-year-old band that has always seemed to deal in the dark arts of the indie world.

Driving hard-rock percussion and moody, anxious guitar hooks (Interpol at their most danceable?) lay a bed for singer Adam Burnett’s plaintive wail, which — while Bowie comparisons are hard to live up to (and he gets them often enough) — has a way of sticking around your eardrums; its sense of being haunted comes across as organic, and original yet familiar, pained but very, very strong.

The end result feels like an adventure dream full of danger you can’t quite put your finger on, something hanging on the precipice of nightmare, but too interesting to make you want to wake up. Hell, even all their band photos seem to have taken place during a sketchy nighttime meeting of some kind. The first single off Dangermaker’s new EP Light the Dark (the band’s second EP this year), out Aug. 28 on Breakup Records , is no exception, playing deftly with contrasts, even as it adds anthemic, shout-along backup vocals to the chorus. The band debuts the single at the Elbo Room this Friday, July 18, alongside a strong local bill of Happy Fangs, Coo Coo Birds, and brand-new Breakup Records signees Major Powers & the Lo-Fi Symphony.

Check our premiere of the video for “The Light” below; and read on for a note from Burnett.

“People often think some of our songs have strong religious connotations in the lyrics, “The Light” included. The initial inspiration actually came out of a much darker song idea, something I demoed up late one night after having come out of a difficult time losing my father,” explained Burnett in an email.

“After bringing it in to the band we made a conscious effort to push it out of that dark place where so much of our music has lived, and let it go where it may, resulting in a new sound for us. In making the video we tried to illustrate just that — that there exists a dark side as well as a bright side in life, and we have no control over it. The only way to make it through is to accept and embrace them both.”


Live Shots: Phono del Sol 2014


So, what did you get up to on Saturday?

From an abundance of flamingo decorations to the sight of skateboarders with a penchant for performing dangerous acrobatics off stage barricades, July 12’s Phono del Sol — the hometown pride-filled music festival thrown with a new level of fervor each year by the Bay Bridged at Potrero del Sol Park — showcased a variety of genres and kept the musical midsummer blues at bay.

Here’s the best of Phono del Sol 2014.


Best dark horse: Yalls
Hands down, sickest set of the day — literally. Berkeley-based musician Dan Casey battled a bout of bronchitis but delivered a powerful performance, taking the microphone as if there were no tomorrow for his bronchial tubes. Admittedly, I was a little wary of his set before it began. I first saw him perform as an opener for chillwave superstars Small Black back in March. Yalls reigns as king in venues such as the Rickshaw Stop, where the smoky stage and club lighting complement his beats well. However, he successfully conquered the unfamiliar territory of a sunny, outdoor stage in the middle of the day. I was impressed (his doctor probably isn’t) — not even his slightly nasally vocals could detract from his songs.

tony molina

Best ’90s throwback: Tony Molina
Tony Molina’s biggest strength can easily backfire on him and become his biggest weakness. Making the perfect mixtape for a friend is tough — even tougher when you had to work with an actual cassette tape without the help of iTunes’ drag-and-drop features. It’s important to include a varied selection of songs that also flow into each other. Local musician Molina only halfheartedly hit the mark on Saturday. While he found the delicate balance between grunge and pop in each song, he seemed like he’d simply forgotten to spice his set up a bit. He’s known for exceedingly short songs (none of the tracks on his latest album exceed two minutes) that all flowed into each other a little too well during his afternoon set. Oftentimes, it was difficult to figure out when a song would end and when a new one would begin, which wasn’t a problem when I listened to his 2013 EP Dissed and Dismissed.


Best dressed: Blackbird Blackbird
Blackbird Blackbird’s Mikey Maramag has come a long way since he opened for Starfucker in 2013, when I overheard someone in the audience murmur “It’s a wall?” after he asked us to sing along to his song “It’s a War.” Although security cut his set off, Blackbird Blackbird was a notable highlight due to his impeccable sartorial splendor, persistence in trying to connect with the audience, and ethereal vocals. Effortlessly clad in a Hawaiian shirt, he alternated between requesting that “everyone get fucking closer” and enveloping the crowd with dreamy vocals that occasionally battled for dominance over the synth.

das bus
(Das Bus photo by Amy Char)

Best German thing (Das beste deutsche Ding): Das Bus
Two disappointments: the World Cup final took place the day after Phono del Sol and Sportfreunde Stiller’s unofficial World Cup anthem from years past is far too trite to appreciate unironically. Otherwise, the German national football team could’ve claimed this title as well. Das Bus is the Bay Area’s mobile Volkswagen photo booth. In this modern age, we’re both obsessed with photos of ourselves and anything vintage, so Das Bus is simply a rad match made in heaven. A chalkboard outside the van even proclaimed that the experience was pet-friendly, so the family dachshund can jump in with you.


Best audience participation: Nick Waterhouse
Watching this set from a distance while enjoying the food trucks’ offerings, my friend and I marveled at the wall of audience members who swung their bodies along to Nick Waterhouse’s soulful, old-timey tunes. We were impressed by how the number of participants grew steadily throughout the set and the demographics of the dancers. Coachella gets a bad rap these days because some of its most notorious attendees are rich college kids in hipster headdresses. But because Phono del Sol takes place in a small, neighborhood park, it caters more to music aficionados of all ages — ones who don’t pretend to recognize “bands … so obscure that they do not exist” à la Jimmy Kimmel Live. The toddler swaying to Nick Waterhouse’s “This Is a Game” in his mother’s arms and the multitude of well-behaved dogs should remind us that we’re damn lucky to have an annual festival like this just a mere Muni or BART ride away from our neighborhoods. 

Best snippets of stage banter: Bill Baird
As the first act of the day, Bill Baird’s sense of humor was appropriately low key and easy to miss if you trickled into the park late. “We’re Bill Baird,” he announced, in a deadpan voice, before a spiel about the presence of deodorant as one of his stage decorations and how heavily he himself relies on deodorant. (Practical, yes, but I never knew deodorant could be trendy.) Introducing the second lo-fi song, “Your Dark Sunglasses Won’t Make You Lou Reed,” he confessed that the song was originally about talking shit about himself, but the meaning evolved over time; the track now talks shit about one of his bandmates. He may not confess this (if he did, I missed it because I wandered away early to catch the Tiny Telephone tour) but he could very well be talking shit about a pretentious festival-goer…

(Marvin the studio cat photo by Amy Char)

Best hidden gem: Tiny Telephone tour and Marvin the studio cat
Musical magic happens in a small, unassuming corner tucked away behind the park the other 364 days of the year. I couldn’t tell if the Tiny Telephone recording studio tour was poorly advertised or capped at a certain number of people, but it was worth sacrificing the opportunity to see a couple of artists. We explored the studio with owner John Vanderslice, who must be one of the most genuine professionals involved in the music business. His enthusiasm was infectious — he spoke about the difficulties behind monetizing art, the aesthetics of reclaimed wood, and his preference for analog recording (as opposed to something computerized, which is commonplace today).

We even met Marvin the studio cat, who snoozed on top of the console in studio A’s control room. (Adorable, but not affectionate.) I quickly forgot about the studio’s proximity to 280; it felt like I was walking around a cozy cabin in the woods. Still, the studio was weird enough to justify its location in the city — studio B used to be the home of a weed-selling auto shop before it went out of business amidst the rise of dispensaries. 


Best all-around: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
Hometown heroes Thao & the Get Down Stay Down kickstarted their headlining set with Thao Nguyen’s sincere welcome: “Hello, my hometown.” From the 50-minute-long set alone, I could tell that she’s one of the most talented and down-to-earth modern indie musicians, from her expertise on at least three instruments (not including her impromptu takeover of the drums and her beatboxing prowess) to her introduction of John Vanderslice, “a.k.a. the nicest man in indie rock — it’s a fact.” (The band recorded its last album at Tiny Telephone.) Thao’s energy and stage presence was intoxicating; it was evident how much all the band members love what they’re doing when they lost themselves in the music. The set easily transcended genres even within the first two songs of the set, with a folkier emphasis on the violin on “Know Better Learn Faster” and a louder, rock sound on “City.”

phono crowd

Best festival ending: A little boy’s jam session on the drums under Thao’s helpful eye

“There’s a lot to be proud of living in San Francisco and I hope we remember that,” Thao remarked in between songs. As the crowd slowly dispersed after the band’s encore, I ruminated on her words as I watched her lead a little boy from backstage over to the drums, where she grabbed two pairs of drumsticks: one for her and one for him. She taught by example; whenever he successfully imitated whatever she had done, Thao joyfully raised her arms up and cheered. What was left of the audience quickly followed with an enthusiastic round of applause. I overheard someone behind me mention how this must be the most adorable festival ending ever.

Clutching the setlist I requested from Thao as temperatures steadily returned to normal San Francisco averages, her words rang true. All Phono del Sol attendees should be proud that a festival like this, whose inaugural event was free just three years ago, happens right in our very city…not to mention that it’s a steal compared to Outside Lands.

(Set list photo by Amy Char)

phono crowd

Party Radar: Basement Jaxx, Outpost, Clockwork, Bardot A Go Go, more


From the wild, wild, wide world of British clubbing: People are calling the video below “the worst club promo ever,” but I kinda want to go. It’s not often you find so much abandon, bounce, tan spray, and just plain this in nightlife these days:

As astute commenters rightly point out, rave was a working class phenomenon in most of Britain. (Here, too, most of the Midwest rave kids I knew were from working class families.) This is a great reminder of it. And hey, at least they’re not all hooliganisming over football, as the stereotypes would have you believe. Besides, yes, the now-famous gabber-gabber-hey at 1:40 is so much more fun that what I’ve been encountering in American clubs lately, alas.In fact! The only place I can thinki of him popping up is in our own sweet, sweet Cali underground. 

I love him. Buzzfeed points out that his name is Sean, and he’s a 41-year-old carpenter, and he loves to dance. Perhaps you’d like to pull off your best imitation at the parties below (click on the titles for more info):



BARDOT A GO GO— So fun. A pre-Bastille Day bash celebrating the Swinging French Sixties at Rickshaw Stop. Yes there will be ooh la la.

HOT CHIP DJ SET— Those loveable introspective electro nerds take to the turntables at Mezzanine, with Juan Maclean and the Lights Down Low crew

CLOCKWORK — Very, very good ‘n thoughtful London dub-techno duo hits Monarch.

CUBCAKE — Cute, sweet, usually quite packed night for chubby young gays and chasers at Lone Star Saloon.

LAST NITE — The next time someone says, “the ’90s are back!” just roll your eyes and reference this 2000s indie dance party, which has been going strong for many a Strokes singalong moon at MakeOut Room.




BASEMENT JAXX — The irresitibly catchy freaks of funky house hijinks return after a too-long absence. Public Works will be bopping.

SF THUMAKDA — A queer Bollywod dance party. ‘Nuff said.

URULU — Nice and easy tech/deep house (diva samples included) from this budding youngster at Audio, with the Modular crew.

POUND PUPPY — Hot, scruffy guys, often in goofy outfits.

TORMENTA TROPICAL — Tropical gooves and deep fuzzy bass bangers, with special guess DJ Blass from Puerto Rico, at Elbo Room.

DARK ENTRIES 5-YEAR ANNIVERSARY — Probably the coolest label in SF, releasing rare minimal wave, proto-goth classics, and new synth tunes, celebrates five years at record store RS94109 with a slew of dark local luminaries taking over the decks.



SLOW HANDS – The truly talented tech-house Lothario is back, performing at Monarch: Be warned, there will be spandex (???)

 OUTPOST— Awesome-sounding new garage/bass/techno monthly at Underground SF featuring some real cool cats: Vin Sol, Michael Claus, CM-4.

Mac DeMarco underwhelms at Amoeba — until he busts out the covers


Mac DeMarco has one of the most charismatic, clearly defined personas of anyone in indie rock. He chain-smokes, cross-dresses, makes out with interviewers, and — in what might be the key piece of apocryphal Mac mythology — once stuck his thumb up his ass at a gig. But none of the puzzle pieces forming the whole of Mac’s persona really deal with his musicianship. Though the back cover of his recent album Salad Days shows him obscuring his face with a guitar, the image of him actually holding and playing one is unlikely to factor into the average fan’s mental picture of Mac.

As such, actually seeing Mac DeMarco playing music live during his afternoon show at Amoeba Records yesterday [July 9] was somewhat surreal only in how larger-than-life he didn’t seem. At times, it was hard to distinguish him from his bandmates. He wasn’t much taller than any of them, his clothes weren’t much more vivid, and his front-and-center position onstage actually made him more difficult to see — though this isn’t his fault so much as Amoeba’s for tucking their stage into a corner of the establishment.

He also isn’t quite as charismatic a performer as you’d expect from someone so mythologized. His vocals were quiet and understated, and his bassist did most of the yelling. Yet DeMarco didn’t seem uncomfortable or shy at all. It’s just that the music he plays is essentially soft rock, and as such, it doesn’t require any screaming, stage-diving, or anything else likely to coax a crowd into a frenzy.


Thus, he’s not an artist I would have died unhappy without having seen live. His original songs didn’t sound a whole lot different than they do on record, but they were nice to bliss out to. I might have had a better time if I’d seen him in an actual venue or at an outdoor music festival. His music isn’t designed for dancing, moshing, or head-banging but rather for swaying — something difficult in a venue criss-crossed by an immovable grid of shelves.

Perhaps that’s why his set only really started to kick in when he launched into one of the unpredictable cover medleys he frequently performs live. After leading off with a guitar solo that displayed virtuosity beyond what I expected of him, DeMarco took his band into a cover of Bachmann-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care Of Business.” I wasn’t quite sure if this was a display of irony or Canadian pride (DeMarco and BTO both hail from our northern neighbor), but the subsequent inclusion of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Tool’s “Schism” suggested the former.

I’m usually averse to this treatment of “uncool” rock, especially given that “Blackbird”‘s ubiquity as a late-party singalong shouldn’t be cause for it to be lumped in that category or sung in as screechy and mocking a voice as the one DeMarco’s bassist put on. But given that DeMarco probably isn’t going to be sticking his thumb up his ass again anytime soon, it was nice to see him and his band do something in the spirit of a show. Their cover selection seemed less about elevating themselves above their source material as providing a thrill for the audience — who wouldn’t want to see Mac DeMarco cover “Schism?” And given how DeMarco’s music just isn’t that entertaining live — as good as it is — it was the best they could do to leave everyone with a memorable experience.

Gimme 5: Must-see shows this week


Hello friends and festival-goers! Did you just get back from High Sierra? Does your hair still smell of patchouli? Are you sad that you actually have to be in the world this week, possibly at a desk, while wearing all of your clothes? (Sexual harassment suits these days, lemme tell you.) 

Fret not, fair Bay Areans. A solid few days of music, most of it bred right here, awaits you. Read on for our picks.



Get your ALL CAPS game faces on for this buzzy night, which pairs SF’s own Van Pierszalowski and WATERS‘ hook-and-distortion-heavy guitar rock with the melodic, playful electro-pop of singer-songwriter Brodie Jenkins and synth-guitar-wizard-producer Johnny Hwin, aka CATHEDRALS. The latter (one of the Bay Guardian’s bands On the Rise this year) has garnered an impressive amount of attention around the Internets (and at SXSW) without even an EP to their name — this show marks their first public performance in the city. Come prepared to be seduced by Jenkin’s vocals, then do some cathartic headbanging to Pierszalowski’s. WATERS should be in good spirits; they’re heading home from a tour that included two sold-out nights at the Troubadour. [Note: The website says they’re sold out; you should still be able to snag tickets at the door.] (Silvers)

9pm, $12
The Chapel
777 Valencia, SF




The world was not ready for Cynic when they first emerged in the late ’80s. The band’s jazzy prog-metal and anti-macho stage presence (inspired in part by members Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert’s sexuality — Reinert calls their music “some gay, gay metal”) made them equal parts influential and reviled. On their first national tour opening for Cannibal Corpse, the extreme audience hostility they experienced was enough to make them call it quits for 12 years — during which time their reputation and influence grew. Since the crew’s 2006 reunion, they’ve enjoyed success and reverence, releasing two more albums and playing major festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Their upcoming Fillmore gig is a chance to see one of metal’s coolest influences rock a venue as comfortably and thoroughly as they deserve to. (Bromfield)

9pm, $22.50
The Fillmore
1805 Geary, SF


Lia Rose

Formerly of Or, the Whale, San Francisco singer-songwriter Lia Rose has the kind of voice that seems like it could cut steel with its clarity — but instead, she’s going to pick up a guitar and carve you a lovesick, honey-and-whiskey-coated lullaby, with pedal steel or upright bass or banjo or all three helping to lull you under her spell. The timeless quality of her indie-folk pairs well here with opener We Became Owls, an East Bay Americana outfit that’s been gaining devotees like a steam train for the past year, despite not having an album out (this is their record release show). Gritty, Guthrie-esque sing-alongs are a distinct possibility here; maybe do some vocal warm-ups? (Silvers)

9pm, $15
The Chapel
777 Valencia, SF
(415) 551-5157




If you have anything left in you after spending the day and boozing and grooving and (sun-)baking to Wye Oak and Thao et al at Phono del Sol — first of all, we salute you. Second, you could do worse than to head over to Slim’s to see these East Bay mainstays co-headline with Guy Fox. Waterstrider‘s blend of Afro-pop, dance-ready synths, and indie rock is a must for anyone who wishes the latest tUnE-yArDs record were twice as long, or that Little Dragon (whom they’re known to cover) were just a little more, er, Californian. Fox will bring more of a driving, brassy garage-funk spirit to the evening. Another fine pairing indeed. (Silvers)

9pm, $14
333 11th St., SF



Darryl D.M.C. McDaniels

Neck of the Woods becomes a time machine on Sunday as Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C., drops in for a nostalgic journey through the annals of 1980s rap. One third of the explosive rap innovators Run-D.M.C., McDaniels has kept busy since the dissolution of the group more than ten years ago, playing a full festival circuit, doing extensive charity work, and covering Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp” with Talib Kweli, Mix Master Mike, and Ahmet Zappa for a pulsating track on a birthday compilation put out by the Zappa Family Trust. It’s hard to say whether D.M.C. will pull out anything quite as wild during this set, but expect zeitgeist-defining songs like “It’s Tricky” and “Walk This Way,” and hopefully some deeper cuts from the group’s later work (2001’s Crown Royal has some underrated tracks) and D.M.C.’s only solo album, Checks, Thugs, and Rock and Roll. Joining McDaniels on the mic are local groups the Oakland Mind and Jay Stone, each of whom have decidedly D.M.C.-inspired beats and flows and will offer up both politicized and party-themed bangers centered around the Bay. If you’re feeling like “Raising Hell,” then head over. (Kurlander)

9pm, $20
Neck of the Woods
406 Clement, SF
(415) 387-6343

The Best of Burger Boogaloo


This weekend Oakland’s Mosswood Park was transformed into a mini music festival of adorable proportions. After two days of PBR, sunburns, and a heap of eclectic and altogether awesome music, the results are in: Here is the best of Burger Boogaloo 2014. [Check yesterday’s review for a different sort of run-through.]

Best mosh pit: OFF!
Keith Morris’ newest hardcore punk outfit stirred up a lot of energy and even more dust on Saturday. Playing after the relatively tame Milk N’ Cookies, OFF! turned it up to eleven (really, I think my ears are still ringing) for a rager of a set that resulted in some serious headbanging, slam-dancing, and stage diving. Just what the doctor ordered to keep morale high as the sun went down.


Best posse: Shannon and the Clams
Hometown heroes Shannon and the Clams played a killer set on Sunday. While their setlist crushed it, the backup singers brought it, and the tiki-and-vegetable themed balloons thrown into the crowd were a lot of fun, the main attraction was to the right of the stage, parked on top of an amp. The fan who lipsynched and shimmied his way into all of our hearts was later revealed by Shannon herself to be her “creepy little brother,” making his devotion to the Clams even more aww-worthy.


Best battlecry: The Meatbodies
Midway through the day, a port-a-potty crisis became apparent as lines grew longer and tanks grew fuller. Taking the stage at the end of the Meatbodies’ set, a brave Burger employee announced that due to all of the delicious food and drink provided by their sponsors, the toilets were at critical mass and no number 2 deposits would be accepted at that time. From the middle to the end of this moving speech, the Meatbodies’ guitarist began the rousing and inspirational cry of, “Poop yo pants! Poop yo pants!” Words to live by.


Best bouffant: Ronnie Spector
Everywhere you looked at Burger Boogaloo, stunning feats of follicle engineering were peeking out of the crowd. Beehives and bouffants of all sizes and colors came out for the show. I overheard one couple saying they had made a game of tallying beehives and had found 16 midway through Sunday alone. Unfortunately I missed the memo that big and bulbous is the vogue look for garage rock, but Ronnie Spector did not. With the biggest hair and the best attitude of the day, Ronnie stole all our hearts.


Longest distance traveled: Thunderroads
Japan’s Thunderroads were the wildcard of the festival. With all the raw power of every generic rock band to follow in ACDC’s footsteps, Thunderroads won us over not with originality or musicality but with pure earnestness and excitement to be playing for us. The magic of the moment is best captured by the words of Thunderroads’ guitarist: “Thank you America, USA! I can’t English, but I love you!” We love you too. More than you know.


Best Striptease: Nobunny
Nobunny killed it with a high-energy set and truly great punk performance on Saturday (although someone should break it to frontperson Justin Champlin that Thunderroads had the harebrained-rock-star idea to climb the precariously-stacked amps hours before he did). Nobunny came to the stage in his trademarked and road-weary bunny mask and a red onesie, which impressively concealed a leather jacket and a pair of briefs, which yes, did eventually come off to reveal…another pair of briefs. Finally, a striptease for the whole family.


Best ‘90s throwback: The Muffs
How ‘90s are The Muffs? Featured on the Clueless soundtrack ‘90s. 23 years into their existence, the Muffs were the perfect addition to the lineup, falling squarely between the untouchable status of Ronniw Spector and the hyper-contemporary blog buzz around bands like Nobunny and Shannon and the clams. Still rocking a mini-dress, blunt bangs, and one of the best grunge growls in the biz, Kim Shattuck reminded us just how much we owe to and miss our fellow flannel-wearers of yesteryear.


Live Shots: Nick Cave hypnotizes the Warfield two nights in a row


It took Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all of two songs to whip the audience into a mighty frenzy at the Warfield Theater on Monday night [during the first of a pair of sold-out shows at the venue]. Not totally surprising, but all the more impressive when considering that Cave and company pulled it off by playing new material, a pair of tracks from their latest album, Push the Sky Away.

Starting with the uneasy rumble of “We Real Cool,” Cave began the night by plunging right out to the front of the crowd to render the line-up-at-3pm fans in the first row slackjawed and bedazzled with the song’s slow drama, before steadily building “Jubilee Street” to a rowdy climax. It was a moment worthy of the encore, even as they were only ten minutes into a two-hour performance.


It’s hard to imagine many other bands accomplishing this some 30 years into their career with anything other than their greatest hits. But of course, Cave and the Bad Seeds aren’t your average…well…anything, and they showcased their singularity in fantastic form at the Warfield with this first of two sold out shows.

Playing close to 20 songs across a dozen albums, Cave had a lot to offer during Monday night’s performance. There were beautifully quiet moments, such as “Into My Arms” and “God is in the House,” as well as exquisite obscurities (if obscurities even exist with Cave’s fans) like “Sad Waters.” Still better yet was the poignancy and poise of “The Weeping Song,” with Cave calling up opener Mark Lanegan to join on vocals.


Yet for as good as these offerings were, Cave is at his best when he’s at his meanest. Stalking in and out of the shadows on the Warfield stage with the menacing authority of a fire and brimstone preacher, he delivered furious renderings of songs like “Tupelo,” “Red Right Hand,” and “The Mercy Seat.” And while these may be typical tracks for Cave’s setlists, the small room combined with the crowd’s investment seemed to give them added weight, an intimacy and intensity that went well beyond Cave’s showing at the Bill Graham Auditorium earlier last year. This was most notable on “Stagger Lee”, the slowly unfolding massacre off of Murder Ballads, that built with greater and greater malevolence as Cave bullied the song forward, eliciting shrieks and hollers from the audience.


The Warfield retained a dense capacity even as the show reached the two-hour mark and the band moved through a stellar encore that included “Deanna” and “Jack the Ripper,” before concluding with the “The Lyre of Orpheus.” As the house lights came up the speakers let loose a Tom Waits track amid the din of the departing crowd. It was a good  (and perhaps, the only) comparison to be made. Cave, like Waits, is so unique in his artistry that it not only defies every well-tread aspect of the known music universe, but seems to only be getting better with age. And, as Cave’s fans would have attested walking out of the Warfield, that all makes perfect sense.


Live Shots: Burger Boogaloo 2014, Take #1


About 30 minutes into this year’s Burger Boogaloo, I noticed a guy walking around in a Tool shirt. Ten minutes later, I saw another dude walking around in a Meshuggah shirt. This wouldn’t be so remarkable at most concerts, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this was ostensibly an indie rock concert. Most fans of progressive metal wouldn’t dare enter that often rigid and snobbish universe, just as most indie fans would consider those heavy-but-impeccably-produced bands well outside the accepted parameters of “cool.”

But Burger Babes, Burger Boppers, Burger Bitches, Burger Boys, and Burger Heads are not most indie fans. This is a community that has room for 5-year-olds and 70-year-olds, for classic-rock bar bands and summery beach-pop groups, for queer-as-fuck punk rockers and dudes with handlebar mustaches and chain-link guitar straps. In the often overly cool-conscious world of indie rock, it was not only refreshing but relieving to see a community this accepting. Messrs.Tool and Meshuggah might have been wearing those shirts ironically, but at an event like Burger Boogaloo, it would have been less cool to do so than to wear them with pride and earnesty.


Burger seemed to be willing to throw anything at the audience. And at a single-stage festival with ample seating and few extraneous distractions (a “music & arts festival” this was not), there wasn’t much reason to ignore any of the bands. Given how few of these artists were recognized names outside of very underground regional circles, it seemed like the primary purpose of such a diverse lineup was to introduce the audience to as much new music as possible.

The most striking thing about the Burger Boogaloo lineup was how much older the artists were than at most indie showcases. Of the four headliners, none had a frontperson under 30.  Shannon Shaw of Shannon & The Clams is 31; Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is 39; OFF!’s Keith Morris is 58; Ronnie Spector is 70. Milk ‘n’ Cookies have been around since 1973, The Gizmos since 1976, Phantom Surfers since 1988, the Muffs since 1991, and Bananas since 1993. Danny James’ Pear and Reigning Sound both seemed like middle-aged ensembles stuck in the rock era, and they could have as easily opened for Santana as Thee Oh Sees — yet this was not to their detriment, as they were all incredible musicians.

But with the exception of Spector (and Morris to some extent — more on this later), these artists weren’t cross-generational juggernauts or revered influences but rather veteran bands who had honed their craft in obscurity for years.  Though the audience could roughly be split into hip kids and older music-scene stalwarts, it was interesting to see both sides of the audience devour such unhip music with equal relish.  This indicated to me that Burger fans aren’t looking for the coolest, most cutting-edge music.  They’re just looking for a solid supply of rock ‘n’ roll to dance and party to, and Burger Boogaloo provided that and more.

* * *

The first day opened with White Fang, who were either the best or the worst festival opener I’ve ever seen. Frontman Erik Gage walked out in an American flag T-shirt, kissing his guns like the most cartoonish male lover imaginable, before tearing into a short set of songs chiefly about partying and marijuana.  Though they were sloppy and lacked any semblance of self-seriousness, they all but blew the two bands that followed offstage. Though Terry Malts and the Trashies were both competent bands with fine instrumentalists, their singers lacked any of White Fang’s charisma.

Wand upped the energy substantially; though they were a good band, I could not get past their uncanny sonic resemblance to Ty Segall, particularly his Fuzz project. But it was Thunderroads that pumped the energy back into the festival. Hailing from Japan, the trio rolled through a set of unhinged, ’50s-style rockabilly songs sung through thick accents that rendered most words incomprehensible except for rock’s great buzzwords — “rock ‘n’ roll,” “tonight,” “everybody.” Needless to say, they didn’t need much more to get their point across.


Next came the aforementioned bar band Reigning Sound, the extremely good surf band Phantom Surfers, and Sacramento punk band Bananas, whose caterwauling vocalist culled the crowd enough to secure me a prime audience position for Nobunny. Though his spirits were significantly lowered by the audience’s refusal to catch him were he to jump from the amplifier stack, the man in the bunny mask still put on one of the best shows of the night. He more than made up for his admittedly lacking vocal skills through a menacingly cartoonish stage presence, ample crotch-bulge display, and above all else, a set of great rock songs.


Next came Milk ‘n’ Cookies, a ’70s power-pop band who could not distinguish themselves from the festival’s more pedestrian pop acts despite their clout. Finally, the big two headliners: OFF! and Thee Oh Sees.

OFF!, the current project of Circle Jerks frontman and founding Black Flag member Keith Morris, was by far the most interesting act at the festival. Morris has long given up adhering (or pretending to adhere) to punk’s staunch anti-commercial aesthetic, evident in his recent promotions with major brands like AOL and Vans (and Burger — OFF! isn’t actually on the label).  But he plays punk because it’s the music he loves — and he performs it with as much fury as in any of his previous projects.

And what fury. Despite his short stature, Morris seemed to tower over the sea of moshing kids at which he directed his harangues. It was an invigorating performance in part because of how tight the band was and in part because of how in love with the music Morris seemed — as pissed-off as his songs were, he looked genuinely happy to be up there.


Even better were Thee Oh Sees, whose recent departure for L.A. sent waves of dismay through the Bay Area music community but who are showing no signs of abandoning their hometown fans. Bar none, Thee Oh Sees were the best live band I’ve seen all year. Despite being a relatively new incarnation of the band (singer/lead guitarist John Dwyer being the only constant), they rocked as hard as ever, with Dwyer’s almost Hendrix-like guitarwork carrying the bulk of the sound this time around. But the true star of the show was Dwyer’s voice, a tiny coo that can nonetheless hold an entire crowd captive. He can scream as well as anyone, but why would he need to when he can do so much with so little?


Thee Oh Sees’ music seemed to transcend genre. It was hard to say exactly where the roots of such music lay — there were elements of punk, metal, garage rock, and grunge, but none seemed like an apt signifier. Rather, the hallmarks of each genre combined into a monolithic slab of rock ‘n’ roll that encouraged the audience to move and engage with it rather than analyze it. This focus on rock as a form of music rather than an aesthetic or a concept unified all the bands of the day. At Burger Boogaloo, it didn’t matter how old or how uncool a band was — at the end of the day, it was all about getting down. And isn’t that what a rock show is supposed to be about?
After the head rush of Day One, it was hard not to be a bit disappointed with Day Two. The lineup pulled a lot of the same tricks to diminished effect. A lot of the bands seemed to be the equivalents of bands from the first day. Pookie & The Poodlez played White Fang’s role as the silly, punky opening act; Meatbodies played Wand’s role as the heavy, grooving jam band; The Gizmos filled Milk ‘n’ Cookies’ role as obscure power-pop legends unearthed from the annals of history. But the day also brought with it some pleasant surprises — not least of which was Ronnie Spector, whose dynamite set ran completely contrary to my expectations.

Pookie, a member of Nobunny, showed up onstage still brushing his teeth. (Apparently he’d overslept but luckily lived a few blocks away–though this is a fun story, the aesthetic appeal of a cute, skinny man walking out onstage with a toothbrush in his mouth to open a festival is just a little bit too good.)  His set was brief but fun, though the similarities to White Fang’s set were a bit obvious — especially after he introduced one of the songs as being about “Slurpees and kissing and marijuana cigarettes.”

The next run of bands was thoroughly disappointing. Summer Twins were, if possible, even more generic than their name suggests. Though my friend theorized they would sound like “Best Coast but less mainstream,” they sounded more like a Best Coast ripoff hastily assembled for a commercial by someone whose grasp on indie aesthetics was limited to 500 Days Of Summer. I was surprised a label like Burger (or any label) would sign such a band. The beach-rock fad has been over for over three years, and it’s easy to tell when a band is still clinging to it — usually they have words like “Summer” or “Twins” in their name.

Dirty Ghosts were interesting only because they were difficult to pin down in a genre — their music wasn’t quite funk, rock, punk, or psychedelia, but it was largely forgettable and didn’t benefit from its implacability. Danny James was similar to the previous day’s Reigning Sound but a lot tighter. La Sera was essentially a better version of Summer Twins. Meatbodies sounded like a less heavy Wand, while the Gizmos played with little effort or enthusiasm and could only have been there because of their clout as an obscure but veteran protopunk band.

Of the mid-day acts, folk singer Juan Wauters was the most enjoyable, but it was hard to tell if it was because of the quality of his music or because he was by far the most unique attraction of the day — he initially performed as a solo artist before being augmented by a bassist, a guitarist, and a percussionist. San Francisco band Personal & the Pizzas were likewise entertaining, but their schtick–pop songs about pizza and brass knuckles played by three tough-looking dudes–got old very quickly.
The Muffs ramped up the energy substantially. Fronted by Kim Shattuck (best-known these days for her brief stint in the Pixies), the group started out playing tough yet grooving pop songs driven by Shattuck’s ferocious voice. (She screamed an average of about 10 times per song.)  Yet their set never recovered from an ill-advised mid-performance slow song, which disrupted what could have evolved into full-on moshing but never progressed beyond a lot of enthusiastic bouncing and head-nodding.


Shannon & The Clams were a fine act, but they were disappointingly low-energy for their late placement in the lineup.  Their show was better because the crowd, desperate to mosh, took it upon themselves to have a good time. The result was a bizarre sort of mix of moshing and slow-dancing that mainly entailed a bunch of people shoving into each other at very deliberate speeds.  Being in the mosh enhanced the performance substantially; the Clams’ girl-group balladry was best suited for slow dancing, and brushing up against a bunch of random strangers with romantic music in the air is pretty much the second-best thing to that. Nonetheless, the fast-paced “The Cult Song” was the undoubted highlight.

I was expecting Ronnie Spector‘s set to be mostly just a glorified celebrity appearance from the woman whose run of Sixties records with the Ronettes inspired a substantial chunk of the festival’s acts.  Instead, I was surprised to be treated to the night’s most electrifying performance.  Over a top-caliber band of stern, professional-looking musicians, Spector let loose with her vocals in a way she was never able to do as part of the homogeneous Wall of Sound her ex-husband/producer Phil Spector pioneered.  Some of her vocal turns were absolutely haunting.  Though she may not sound like the twenty-year-old starlet she once was, she sounds now like what she is–an incredibly gifted vocalist with a natural presence as an entertainer and a long and tumultuous life behind her.


But the true star of Spector’s set wasn’t her or her beehive hairdo but the songs, and one song in particular.  The words “Be My Baby” had been placed over the stage in gold balloons hours before, and the inevitability that she would perform it created a natural climax to the festival.  Either directly or indirectly, that song had inspired nearly every act there.  Its maelstrom production practically launched psychedelic rock, while its unmistakable drum opening has become an obvious way for backwards-looking pop acts from The Jesus And Mary Chain to Girls to pay tribute to their influences.

True, that drum opening was the most scream-inducing moment of the entire festival.  But I felt she played it too soon.  Her set was much shorter than it should have been, and deploying the ultimate weapon after only five songs ruined a bit of the song’s climactic nature.  Furthermore, her shout of “my favorite part!” over the reprise of the drum opening defused its impact. But I forgive her — I don’t know if she realizes how revered that song is in the indie community. 


Furthermore, treating that song like a sacred artifact would be incongruous with what made Spector’s set so effective — that she wasn’t treated like a sacred artifact. As massive as her influence pop music is, I believe she was there because of her skills as a performer, not for the baggage her name carries. It would be contradictory to Burger’s ethos to bring such a revered artist on if she wasn’t a great performer. Burger Boogaloo isn’t about the mythology of old-school rock ‘n’ roll, but about the sound — and just how great it is to hear that sound live.


Push the Feeling party organizers launch Push the Feeling, the record label


If you’ve ever walked out of a dance party wishing you could take the party home with you, Push The Feeling has a solution to your problem. For the last two years, Kevin Meenan and Drew Marcogliese have hosted dance parties at the Lower Haight’s Underground SF nightclub under that name; they’ve hosted all manner of DJs, from local heroes like Giraffage to blogosphere faves like YACHT and Les Sins (aka Toro Y Moi).

But recently, they’ve expanded their endeavors into the field of recorded sound, launched a label under the Push the Feeling name. This week they released a 12-inch containing “Skulls,” a song by Marcogliese’s band Silver Hands, plus four remixes. Of course, the parties will go on: Most immediately, they’re hosting a release party for the 12-inch on Saturday, July 5 at Underground, featuring performances by Silver Hands, Marcogliese (as YR SKULL), and Meenan (as Epicsauce).

Of the remixers, three (Chautauqua, Woolfy, and YR SKULL) have performed at Push The Feeling. The fourth remix comes from Mike Simonetti, boss of the influential Italians Do It Better label; he hasn’t played yet, but according to Meenan, he’s “on our wishlist.”

Yet Push the Feeling doesn’t plan to release only party regulars. The two are fans of just about anything on the electronic spectrum, and as long as it has an electronic element, they’re game.

Meenan and Marcogliese said they had talked about starting a label for a long time, even before the parties. But the demands of the parties made it difficult to get the project off the ground.

“Every month, it was like ‘Okay, we’re done with this party, let’s focus on the label stuff,’ and then next thing we know we’re booking the next party,” said Meenan.  “Realistically, we’re about six months behind where we wanted to be about a year ago.”

But with the label off the ground, and the duo has no intention of slowing down. (The parties will continue at the same rate and will, the organizers promise, be just as wild as ever. If anything, the launch of the label is just another chance to party.)

Hosting a label carries a certain prestige, and it’s already brought them blogosphere recognition. The 12-inch has been featured on prominent blogs such as XLR8R, Lagasta, and Gorilla vs. Bear. But the parties will be just as cheap and accessible as ever: Admission to Push the Feeling event is rarely more than $6, and the duo plans to keep it that way.

“We go to clubs, but the reality is we’re more neighborhood bar-type guys,” Marcogliese said of the cheap, fun, accessible dance music scene he and Meenan have curated.  “We wanted to make it very laid-back, not like an in-your-face club with expensive drinks and cover. We focus on keeping it cheap, keeping it casual — keeping it a night we would both want to go to.”

PUSH THE FEELING: Silver Hands 12″ Release Party

With YR SKULL and Epicsauce DJs

Sat/5, 9pm, $6

Underground SF

424 Haight, SF

Future, the Auto-Tune rapper du jour, had a very lazy night at the Regency


Future, America’s Auto-Tune rapper du jour, is in a cushy position. His recent album Honest is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed rap albums so far, and it’s moved enough units to establish him as a major presence on 2014’s hip-hop scene. Hip-hop fans know who he is, as do a lot of indie kids who’ve stumbled across fawning reviews of his work online. But he’s not yet a star.

As such, he doesn’t get a lot of high-profile hate. His most notable detractor is his direct stylistic predecessor, T-Pain, who’s expressed resentment towards the acclaim Future’s garnered through his use of the same software T-Pain was so often mocked for during his own career heyday. Auto-Tune was — and still is — viewed by musical conservatives as a crutch, a fancy tool for artists who couldn’t sing and were thus “talentless.” Along with laptop DJing and lip-synching, it is one of the most likely factors anyone will cite in arguing music has gotten worse.

All three of these factors were part of Future’s Regency Ballroom set on June 30. And as highly as I hold my own musical non-conservatism as a value, I must admit I have a much better conception of why the rockists, live-music defenders, and Tupac worshippers of the T-Pain era were so incensed. I still believe laptops, lip-synching, and Auto-Tune are not mutually exclusive to a great performance. But I also see how people can use them to cut corners.

Future didn’t even try to put on a show. He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was rapping over a pre-recorded vocal track, frequently staring off into space and taking brief but obvious pauses to catch his breath. His stage banter was incomprehensible. He moved around a lot, but not with any particular charisma — his stiff, awkward bounces made him look like a figurine being held by the head and “walked” by an invisible child. His job was not to perform or to rap — his job was to be Future, to stand there and be important while the DJ absent-mindedly cued up his own songs.

The most glaring aspect of his performance was the lack of his trademark vocal processing. Without it, the weakness of his flow and rhymes stuck out like a sore thumb — especially given how good he sounded on the pre-recorded track, all effects intact. At the risk of sounding like one of the rockists who unfairly accused T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West of using Auto-Tune as a crutch, I am prepared to lobby the same accusation at Future. He simply doesn’t seem able to do anything well without it.

The opening acts easily showed him up. The show kicked off with mini-sets by members of Future’s Freebandz crew, at least two of whom were both better performers and rappers than Future but who engaged in some heinous misogyny and uncomfortable crowd interactions (hearing a rapper spend 12 acapella bars describing an audience member’s vagina isn’t really fun for anyone except the rapper). Rico Love’s set was worth watching if only because his trio of DJs made their own beats live; Love himself was buffoonish, one of those alpha-male lovermen who seem more obnoxious and dated as each of their peers falls from grace (Chris Brown, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake).

This might sound like a nightmare to sit through. For the uninitiated, perhaps. But the artists increased in popularity as they decreased in showmanship, meaning that a Future fan could be thrilled by the openers, even more thrilled when Future drops one of his trademark tracks, and come out of the show having had a great time. Future’s set was essentially a bunch of Future recordings being played over a massive sound system, with the man himself MCing. If you’ve heard and come to love “Move That Dope” and “Turn On The Lights,” hearing them on such a scale must be a treat.

And for the audience, that seemed to be the case. The entire floor shook during “Move That Dope,” with all the diverse audience demographics — hip-hop fans, bros, middle-aged staff, the occasional Hitler Youth hairdo who could only have been there because of Honest‘s 8.1 on Pitchfork — jumping up and down in a massive communal wave. Blunts were lit every six feet, couples did the grind, hands were thrown in the air. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Which brings me back to my criticism of Future’s set, and my own insecurities over my willingness to play along with the natural and unstoppable (d)evolution of live music. How can I criticize Future for not putting any effort into his show when nobody really seemed to care? Is it fair to judge his set as an outsider, when those who know all the Honest songs by heart can revel in singing along to them? If people are willing to shell out 30 bucks to watch their favorite artist not give a shit, so be it.  As for me, I’ll be at home, illegally downloading his albums.

Robyn + Röyskopp + Pride = lots and lots of glitter


By Tiffany Rapp

When two major figures in the Scandinavian electronic music scene collaborate for a mini-album and tour, it’s bound to feel like something special. But when a Röyskopp and Robyn tour comes to San Francisco and it’s Pride weekend — when there’s always a little magic (and quite literally glitter) in the air, anyway — it almost seems like strobe-lit, sparkly fate.

At the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Saturday night, a good portion of the crowd was already decked out from the day’s festivities, sporting neon pink wigs, rainbow leis, gold short shorts, and more articles of clothing that can light up than you maybe thought was possible.


Röyskopp was the first headliner to take the stage, remixing some of their most popular songs — “Happy Up Here”, “Remind Me”, and the peppy “Eple.” The number of glowsticks in the very packed house made it feel like a less drug-fueled (maybe?) rave. The group bobbing illuminated gummy bears up and down didn’t hurt, either.

Next up was Robyn, donning bright yellow Muay Thai boxing shorts and a mullet for the ages. The crowd began to shift from swaying to booty-shaking when she belted “Indestructible” from 2010‘s Body Talk. Everyone upstairs was on their feet with “Call Your Girlfriend,” which still makes you smile four years later, despite the not-so-happy sentiment of the song. Then, with an almost acoustic performance of the single “Dancing on my Own,” Robyn allowed us all to do what we really wanted to in that moment — reach out to hold your friend’s hand and sing along at the top of your lungs.


Though by this point of the night certain people might have desperately needed a bathroom and/or water break, fog machines and flashing lights cued that the main event was about to start. With a quick change of costume, including disco ball-like masks for Röyskopp and everyone on stage except for our puffy-coated Robyn, the set began with the bass-heavy “SayIt.”

The performance of candidate for Song of the Summer “Do It Again” ended with confetti shooting fiercely into the air and the crowd jumping for joy. The trio still had room for one more, doing an encore of Robyn’s “None of Dem” to cap off the show, before sending the satisfied crowd out gleefully into Saturday night — and onto the rest of a very glittery weekend.


Sharon Van Etten banters happily through the sad songs at The Independent


Sharon Van Etten had yet to play a note before someone in the crowd shouted forth a marriage proposal toward the stage. The term “adoring fans” might sound generic, but it’s apt in describing the audience at Van Etten’s first of a pair of sold-out shows at The Independent last night [Sun/29 — the second is tonight].  For just short of two hours they sang along and showered the 33-year old singer with love at every chance they got.

“You guys seem really…happy,” Van Etten said, aware of the mismatch, “because my songs can be really dark.”

That certainly may be true, but Van Etten wasn’t fooling anybody: She was easily the happiest person in the room all night. Upbeat, droll, and genuinely down-to-earth, Van Etten threaded her fantastic 14-song set with banter and sass throughout the evening, inciting her fans to ever more gleeful misbehavior.


Leaning heavily on songs from her recently released new album – Are We There – Van Etten showcased the new work in front of a deft four-piece band that provided lush and layered compositions on tracks like “Taking Chances” and “Break Me.” This new material carried the show forward with little lull, embraced by the fans with as much enthusiasm as the older songs (“Serpents” or “Don’t Do It”), possibly because Van Etten herself appears equally enamored singing them. Even still, her performance of “All I Can” (from her 2012 album Tramp) may have been the evening’s surefire highlight, carving Van Etten’s niche somewhere in the orbit of Suzanne Vega and Leslie Feist.


But still, that juxtaposition is there. How do those “really dark” songs render such a jovial atmosphere? After all, Van Etten’s bio infers that her music was generated as a means to cope through some tough times. And if so, her presence and performance on Sunday night would give the impression that she has emerged successfully…with a small catalogue of wonderful songs under her belt, no less.

And that is where it gets really interesting. Before the last song of the night – “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” – Van Etten encouraged the crowd to sing along, because, as she put it, “This is the one fun song on the album.” And it really is, as cheeky as it is soulful (“We broke your glasses/but covered our asses”). As the last song on the album, it leaves you the impression that Van Etten’s next move might be her most interesting one yet. Maybe dark…but playfully dark. Less Joshua Tree and more Achtung Baby.


As the last song of the show, it punctuated the evening with the feeling that Van Etten is on the ascent, destined to play rooms much larger the next time she comes to town. And maybe that is the answer to why she seems so happy.

Heavy metal time machine: “Dio: Live in London, Hammersmith Apollo 1993”


December 12, 1993: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston were owning the American airwaves, but over in London’s Hammersmith Apollo, a different soaring voice — one that veered more toward doom than bubblegum — was showing how it’s really done. Dio: Live in London Hammersmith Apollo 1993 (Eagle Rock Entertainment) captures Ronnie James Dio (with band: drummer Vinny Appice, bassist Jeff Pilson, guitarist Tracy G, and keyboard player Scott Warren … yep, instrumental solos abound) at his peak-wizard powers. 

The setlist is, naturally, packed with jams that were new at the time (the tour was in support of the band’s Strange Highways album), as well as plenty of songs spanning Dio’s career as solo artist and frontman of various bands: “Holy Diver,” “Stand Up and Shout,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” “Man on the Silver Mountain,” “We Rock” and “The Mob Rules” (“of course, that one from the Sabs,” he points out).

The set is stripped-down — aside from the amps (SO MANY AMPS … eight Marshall stacks), it’s just dudes in black wielding instruments (and flowing hair), and youuuuu know who holding it down center-stage, wearing a subdued cross necklace but occasionally flashing the devil-horns hand gesture he’s credited with inventing, or at least introducing into heavy-metal culture. 

The DVD insert contains a short essay sharing band members’ memories of Dio, who died in 2010 (Warren recalls they had the same favorite meal: curry), and of the 1993 gig (moments before they took the stage, Warren says, “You could hear a pin drop, except for Ronnie’s occasional gentle throat clear, and the clicking of his cough drop”).

DVD extras include the 20-minute featurette “Hangin’ With the Band,” a backstage glimpse at Dio (yes! chomping a cough drop!) and company as they load in from a tour bus parked on the rainy London street outside the venue, go through sound check, prep backstage, unwind post-concert, etc. It’s a pretty PG-rated affair — no debauchery (just beer and Gatorade), no Spinal Tap-style revelations, and certainly no Satanic rituals (though a hair dryer does get sacrificed, in honor of the tour ending). It’s just a bunch of self-described “mellow” guys who are super-stoked to be playing music together.

“I look forward to playing with this band every night,” Dio enthuses as he’s getting stage make-up applied (foundation, mascara, and just a swipe of eyeliner). “After doing it for 3,000 years, as I have, it’s kind of special to be able to still enjoy it as much. More, really.”

‘Purple Rain’ at 30


Just over a year ago, Adam Tod Brown wrote a great article for Cracked called “4 Classic Albums That Get More Praise Than They Deserve.” Though it contained as much Yoko Ono-bashing as you’d expect from a website as frequently fratty as Cracked, it made a great argument for Ringo’s self-titled as the best solo ’70s Beatles album and contributed substantially to the recent critical revival of Neil Young’s On The Beach. The thing that interested me most, however, was Brown’s citation of Prince’s Purple Rain as a “flawless album” that gets as much press as it deserves, “no matter how many other great Prince albums there are.”

I instantly disagreed with the implication that his 1984 soundtrack to the film of the same name was Prince’s greatest album, but his article didn’t elicit a cynical “nahh” from me as much as a bolt of surprise. Sure, Purple Rain is the Prince album random people on the street will be most likely to name. But I’d been raised alongside 1999 and Sign O’ The Times as well — albums that both get well-deserved five-star ratings  but still don’t place quite as highly on critical lists as Purple Rain. I always presumed these albums were just as famous, and I wasn’t sure why this meek 9-track album was getting all the praise.

I still agree it’s not Prince’s best. But it’s his most solid — meaning the fewest indulgences, the highest masterpiece-to-crap ratio, the most content per its running time. Dirty Mind is two-thirds as long and lacks a single bad song, but its structure is a bit uneven; in my opinion, this adds to its carefree appeal, but it’s still an imperfection. Meanwhile, 1999 contains some of the most ambitious and daring pop music made during the 1980s, but a lot of its songs are about twice as long as they need to be — though not necessarily as they should be.

Purple Rain takes everything Prince does best and puts it together into a cohesive whole that’s easy to listen to front to back. All of the contradictions in Prince’s personality show up here side by side.  We see the conflicted Christian Prince (“Let’s Go Crazy”) alongside the hypersexual Prince (“Darling Nikki”), then the pop-visionary Prince (“When Doves Cry”) alongside the pop-conservative Prince (“Take Me With U”). There’s Prince the introverted studio whiz (“I Would Die 4 U,” “Computer Blue”) and Prince as the all-devouring, mic stand-humping frontman (“Baby I’m A Star”).


And then there’s “The Beautiful Ones,” the ultimate workout for what might be the best vocal sound in all of music — Prince’s scream, a throat-shredding release of ecstasy that its owner wields with the same control of any of the many instruments he’s mastered. It’s as simultaneously sexy and disturbing as…well, Prince’s whole persona. It’s the thing that cemented my obsession with Prince, and only on Purple Rain does it have its own song.

Elsewhere on the album we see Prince fleshing out some of his later obsessions. “I Would Die 4 U” and “Purple Rain” both find Prince using his trademark Linn LM-1 drum machine to create that very ’80s sense of retro-futuristic isolation exemplified by Blade Runner; Sign O’ The Times would expand on this mood for the duration of a 78-minute opus. Because of how much of Prince’s personality we get on this album, it’s tempting to single Purple Rain out as the best introduction to Prince.

But it’s also the one least likely to blow a newcomer’s mind. As bold and stylistically diverse an album as it is, it’s one of the least interesting of Prince’s major albums, and the least representative of his aesthetic. It’s his least eccentric major album, its most meticulously produced, and the most in line with the “rock” ideal — perhaps a reason why the guitar-obsessed Rolling Stone staffers praised it and continue to praise it so much more highly than anything else in the man’s oeuvre.

If you took out the vocals and the awesomely detuned synth, there wouldn’t be much in “Let’s Go Crazy” to signify it as a Prince song. The production is too meticulous, too arena-rock to really be representative of the eccentricity that makes Prince so endlessly fascinating. “Purple Rain” suffers from the opposite problem. There are a million slow-burning ballads like it, and that plaintive Linn drum is the only thing really tying it to his aesthetic.

This is Prince working in a pop setting. It is worth remembering Purple Rain is first and foremost the soundtrack to a film, and much like the Beatles’ film albums, it’s an artist being as creative as possible within the medium of a stocking-stuffer item designed chiefly to promote another work of art and make some extra cash from it. Prince is one of those artists who usually scores hits on his own terms, who makes no compromises but just happens to make audacious music that people really like. Here, it’s the other way around — the desire to make something people will like is the box in which Prince’s creativity freely bounces around.

It is perhaps for this reason that “Take Me With U” is the most effective song here. Prince’s co-star Apollonia guests on this song; her vocals fit so well into the song that her presence merges with that of Prince until it’s unclear whose song it really is. Prince takes into account all the hallmarks of a great lovebird duet — playfulness, chemistry, and above all else, romance. This song isn’t explicitly sexual, but it’s incredibly sensual. Both vocal performances are bursting with excitement beneath the functional cool required of pop vocals, and by the time they reach the ecstatic bridge (“I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion”), they’re barely able to control themselves.  It’s brilliant.

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain, and in mentioning this, most news outlets have inevitably mentioned the massive amount of praise this album has received. As such, people who have not previously heard Prince will be drawn to that album. But as undeniably fantastic as it is, I’d maintain that Purple Rain is not the album most likely to convince a newcomer of Prince’s genius — Sign O’ The Times is more eclectic, 1999 more diverse, Dirty Mind more did-he-just-say-that sexual, The Black Album more bizarre. If you know Prince first and foremost as that skinny pop star with the high voice and need convincing of his genius, any of those albums would work better.

Which is not to say you should overlook Purple Rain by any means. Though I would argue it’s not his most essential work, it’s the album that does the best job of proving he’s capable of just about anything.

[Ed. note: Prince makes it notoriously difficult to find his music online, so here’s a recent interview instead. But really, if you don’t own a Prince album by now, there are worse things you could spend money on.]