Josh Wilson

You heard it here first


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The first time I noticed that my city of art and innovation was getting short shrift was when The New York Times started going on about "freak folk," Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart and really, you know, getting rhapsodic about these baroquely retro space-folk flavors.

And somehow it never quite came up that these people are San Francisco people, and that their music is San Francisco music. I mean, yes, Banhart has a rep as being a bit of a drifter. Yes, Newsom is really from, you know, Nevada City … and yet, where else could they have first truly taken root, where else could they have first broken through the topsoil, drunk of the dew, and soaked up the dappled sunlight, except in the rich, loamy cultural compost heap that is San Francisco, the Bay Area, and its wooly NorCal surround?

This germination of culture, color, sound, and flavor is, in the most organic sense of it, completely cyclical. Ken Kesey’s garden parties put out roots and rhizomes and threw up spores that took hold almost immediately among music lovers in the region. The result was a distinctly American growth medium for the archetypes of Dionysus, Pan, and Astarte; for the mystic and mythic yearnings of the Victorians; and for the willful, self-starting proto-anarchism of the English Diggers. Cross-pollinate that with the intellectual and aesthetic rebellion of situationism and free jazz, borne in with the gusting, blowsy Beat generation, and you have yourself a rather fecund and folkloric little bramble — one that got even more biodiverse with all the punk rock springing up like weeds in the 1970s.

This polyglot epoch of musical discovery gave us so much. Not just the Dead’s first three records, the Airplane, or even David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic, 1971) — what about Blue Cheer, Moby Grape, Fifty Foot Hose, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Avengers, and the DKs? Rather a multifaceted mix, but relevant, because Bay Area bands like these set the pattern for divergent waves of underground music-making during the next three or four decades.

The last 15 years in particular have seen these retro sounds made new in the Bay Area and then breaking into the critical, and sometimes commercial, mainstream somewhere else. Usually New York is quickest to take all the credit. Like with that whole garage rock revival. Yeah, yeah, the Strokes, blah, blah, the latest in NYC retro-cool. It’s not that we were first, here in SF. It’s just that we’ve been playing that stuff on KUSF-FM for years, and fabulous local bands have been cranking out that sound for years, and suddenly the Big Apple is basking in the hipniz.

Or in the glorification of Williamsburg, which totally followed the Mission District in terms of exuberantly youthful, excruciatingly hip, oft-naïve, and fearlessly spasmodic creative gusto. Dang, before there was a TV on the Radio, Kyp Malone was working at the One World Cafe on McAllister and Baker streets, making music with Rocket Science and the Nigger-Loving Faggots and handing out fresh-pressed records to the community-radio DJ down the street. OK, so that’s not the Mission, but it sort of was a suburb of the Mission.

Or with the whole freak-folk thing. Back in 2004 or thereabouts The New York Times started noticing there were hairy kids playing spacey and folkoric acoustic sounds. They quickly championed the term "freak folk," and in 2006 even ran a big, lushly illustrated, front-page article in the "Sunday Arts & Leisure" section, Will Hermes’ "Summer of Love Redux," that curiously never once mentions San Francisco, despite bolting the whole thesis down with repeated references to Banhart, Newsom, Vetiver, Comets of Fire, the Six Organs of Admittance, and Jolie Holland.

Now we see, from the foggy depths, a new rising of fuzz and hair, the shambling and very organic children of Blue Cheer. Parchman Farm was an early bloomer, as was Comets on Fire, and now the Bay Area is throbbing with shaggy combos exploring the idiom. Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, Sleepy Sun, and so many of those Frisco Freakout acts — how will these vibrations resonate across the nation over the next five years? And will New York City somehow take credit for that, too? I think not. They’re just too damn cool to grow out their bangs past the uncomfortable midlength stage.

Philly, though, which gave us Bardo Pond, Brother JT, Siltbreeze Records — there’s a hairy, done-it-all scene stealer I can live with.


1. Godwaffle Noise Pancakes closing show at the former ArtSF, Nov. 8

2. William Hooker, Hemlock Tavern, July 24

3. Heavy Metal (1981) and Conan the Barbarian (1982, with James Earl Jones and some other guy) at the Castro Theater’s "Analog Adventures" showcase

4. All Tomorrow’s Parties, Monticello, NY, Sept. 19-21

5. Expo for Independent Arts moves to Dolores Park and triples in size, Sept.


Screaming for vengeance


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It was the unquiet dead, whispering in the dark, who set John Cobbett on his path.

In December 2001, Cobbett — a longtime Mission District rocker and guitar hero with such notably heavy outfits as Slough Feg, Ludicra, and Hammers of Misfortune — was on the East Coast visiting his identical twin brother, Aaron, a photographer living in Brooklyn, just across the East River from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.

"I visited the site. It was at night and freezing cold," Cobbett notes. "I remember the sounds of the cranes and demolition machinery wrenching huge slabs of twisted metal and concrete from the wreckage. All through the night these eerie, mournful sounds reverberated off the surrounding towers. It was an incredibly haunted place."

The wound at that time was still so fresh, you see. But the grief, fear, and uncertainty were being transformed, alchemically, inexorably, into something very different: a television spectacle and a justification for war far removed from the dust, the heat, and the stench of burning corpses that Cobbett says lingered in his brother’s neighborhood for months.

As the tragedy played out — the dead painstakingly named and numbered, the TV newscasters falling easily into the cadence of wartime rhetoric — Cobbett realized he had to respond. But the methods of political rock seemed far too self-righteous, and even patronizing, given the scale of bloodletting and demagoguery.

The way forward was finally revealed one month later, during the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, which included a performance by U2 and a remarkable moment of patriotic kitsch: at the show’s climax, Bono, with the names of the 9/11 victims scrolling overhead on a huge banner, opened his leather jacket to reveal the Stars and Stripes beneath.

The crowd went wild, but for Cobbett it was shameless propaganda. The phrase "trot out the dead" leaped into his head, and music and lyrics quickly followed.

"I got so fucking pissed," Cobbett says. "These victims are rolling over in the superheated rubble below Ground Zero. It was so cheap and so tawdry. I decided, ‘I’m going to take these motherfuckers to task.’ "

Gloriously rocking and extraordinarily angry, "Trot Out the Dead" would become one of several jaw-dropping centerpieces of The Locust Years (Cruz del Sur Music), a record that took five more years and several new band members to complete and may well be one of the most urgent and affecting works of rock ‘n’ roll — not to mention protest music — produced by a band in San Francisco or anywhere else. It is the soundtrack to the George W. Bush years, a musical wail of sorrow and fury all the more overwhelming for its mythic metal lyrics and its seamless blend of prog rock ambition, hard and heavy bombast, and massively killer riffage.

If this sounds over the top, well, it is, a fact to which Cobbett gleefully cops.

"No matter how ridiculous we are, no way can we get more stupid and ridiculous than the real thing," he says. "No matter how grandiose I can get with a metal song, there’s no way I can go to Iraq and start a war. No matter how sanctimonious I get, there’s no way I could match what was coming out of Rumsfeld’s mouth. The shit coming out of those people’s mouths — it was gold."


One of five siblings born to a middle-class Rochester, NY, family ultimately sundered by divorce, the teenage Cobbett wound up in Washington, DC, in the 1980s and quickly fell in with the breakthrough hardcore scene of the era. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and the Obsessed were his bread and butter, but with the emergence of Revolution Summer’s early emo bands in 1986, the music became, in his words, "specious and cloying."

Taking his cue from a friend who said he’d like San Francisco, Cobbett spontaneously packed his gear and hit the road. "Within a week I was living in the Mission District," he says, "and still do."

Before too long he had fallen in with Chewy Marzolo, a drummer with the heavy and hardcore outfit Osgood Slaughter. That carried them both into the 1990s, at which point the musical chairs began in earnest. Cobbett joined the Lord Weird Slough Feg, a band packing equal parts Celtic folk mythos and old-school metal pomp. There he connected with vocalist Mike Scalzi, who would later help define Hammers’ sound with a manly, operatic holler that would do Rob Halford proud.

Marzolo, meanwhile, was busily following what he calls a "one-band-to-the-next continuum" all the way to Cobbett’s first incarnation of Hammers of Misfortune in 1998. Along the way he founded Poverty Records, a vital imprint that documented the Mission’s explosion of grimy and creatively unfettered rock ‘n’ punk with a slew of 7-inch records and CDs from such essential bands as Fuckface, Lost Goat, Towel, and Hickey.

After an initial outing as Unholy Cadaver — a devil-voiced combo that congealed around San Francisco’s cultish homegrown black metal scene, along with such peers as Weakling and Ludicra — Hammers’ lineup was refined and completed with the addition of vocalist-bassist Janis Tanaka, late of L7 and Stone Fox. Black metal became not an end in itself but a subordinate element in a larger musical palette that came together on Hammers’ full-throttle debut, The Bastard (tUMULt, 2001). Despite its acoustic flourishes, spooky harmonies, medievalist illustrations, and Joseph Campbell–inspired lyrics, it ain’t no teenage Dungeons and Dragons fantasy adventure rewarding its heroes with heaps of treasure and experience points. The Bastard turns out to be an ecological revenge fantasy, in which the "trolls of wood and stone" storm the village to "slay the ones who chop and cut / Slay them in the their wooden huts." It’s a wicked metaphor for the fate awaiting those mortals who dare abuse the blessings of nature.

Despite the record’s subcultural acclaim from magazines such as Terrorizer and Lamentations of the Flame Princess — and the admiration heaped on its follow-up, The August Engine (Cruz del Sur Music, 2003), a hard rock parable of cliquish music-scene self-destruction — Hammers of Misfortune had chosen a road that was neither wide nor easy. What kind of metal was this anyway? True? Black? Epic? These fine points of genre fidelity may seem irrelevant to a die-hard music fan, but for labels the difference is a record they can sell or not. "I loved Hammers the first time I heard them, and it never occurred to me to question or examine their sound, which was this gloriously confusional, amazing, and intricate chunk of mind-blowing music, metal or otherwise," says Andee Connors, who put out The Bastard on his tUMULt imprint. "It might be confusing for folks who are very strict with their genre divisions."

There is only so much small labels can do, however, and Tanaka’s departure to play with pop vocalist Pink was another monkey wrench. The addition of Jamie Myers on bass and vocals carried Hammers through The Locust Years‘ recording sessions until she too took a bow, moving to Texas to raise her first child. Scalzi, disinclined to divide his time between two bands, also departed, to focus his attention entirely on Slough Feg.


Today Hammers are touring with a refreshed and potent lineup, teaming Marzolo and Cobbett with bassist Ron Nichols; vocalist and second guitarist Patrick Goodwin of retro muscle rockers Dirty Power; and the musically omnivorous vocalist Jessie Quattro, who was raised on Doc Watson and the hymns and "occasional barking" of Pentecostal Christianity. Sigrid Sheie, a classically trained pianist, has been a constant on the last two records, bringing musical formality and some of the most boss Hammond B-3 and Leslie keyboards heard in rock since the ’70s heyday of Deep Purple — particularly notable on "Election Day," the penultimate track on The Locust Years. The tune is a whirlwind instrumental workout that recalls such classics as Focus’s "Hocus Pocus" and Edgar Winter’s "Frankenstein."

The song is a joy to hear simply as rock ‘n’ roll and exemplifies the real musical exuberance Hammers bring to what is otherwise grim and woeful fare. The whole record leavens its bleak social commentary with what Cobbett describes as "little-kid enthusiasm" for rocking out in high style. The lyrics, while not necessarily dactylic hexameter, are still richly allusive as metalhead poetry, inviting listeners to suspend their disbelief, find their own meaning, and let the emotional sweep of the music fill in the blanks. Anything unstated by, for example, "Chastity Rides," a harmonically gorgeous paean to the Platonic ideal of politically conservative virtue, is made ever so explicit by the snarling, minor-key instrumental bridge. The same technique is also applied to great effect in "War Anthem," a stirring call to arms that blatantly steals its sentimental grandeur from "The Star-Spangled Banner" then yanks the veil aside to reveal the bald-faced rapacity of the masters of the war on terror — be they Islamofascists, Christian supremacists, or military-industrial profiteers.

From the record’s opening moments, with Cobbett’s guitar wailing like a thousand 9/11 banshees, to the dreadful prophecy of "Famine’s Lamp" — certainly one of the great rock ‘n’ roll dirges — clear through to the gleaming, high-tech, satellite-guided apocalypse of the album-closing "Widow’s Wall," The Locust Years appeals to me as a ferocious summation of all the shameless hypocrisy, betrayal, and avarice of the last six years. It is tremendously cathartic but not necessarily hopeful. The album’s title — borrowed from Winston Churchill, who coined the phrase in reference to the declines and compromises of the 1930s and their resolution in the gas chambers and killing fields of World War II — is an embittered indictment of the flag-waving, churchgoing citizen-consumer. Good Germans all, dutifully following their leader as the abyss yawns ever wider.


No one in the band has any delusions that their underground heavy metal record is going to change the world — and not one of them seems willing to suck up to a music industry that would only turn it into focus-group approved, prechewed rage against the generic machine. Hammers is truly a Mission District group, deeply rooted in a seething community of fiercely — even dysfunctionally — independent musicians, labels, and fans with roots dating back at least 20 years.

But Hammers of Misfortune are also a band with a mission and a message — and a whole of good rockin’ to come. Sheie modestly hopes for at least a European tour and enough earnings to not have to worry about covering practice-space fees — then confesses she thinks the record deserves a Grammy. Quattro is in a similar mood, daydreaming of playing to an arena of "30,000 screaming fans." I hope it all comes true in spades.

As for Cobbett, he’s been touring with Ludicra and, fresh from exhibiting Hammers at South by Southwest, has a new concept album germinating in his mind. Something to do with a perfect storm known as Hurricane Katrina and the drowned city of New Orleans. Another victim of the locust years, to be immortalized in song.

The gods of metal are angry and sharpening their swords. *


With Genghis Tron and Kylesa

Sun/25, 9 p.m., $10, all ages

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


A sound proposition


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There are huge, expensive, city-sponsored monuments to the arts lined up on Van Ness Avenue, opposite City Hall, and I’ve seen some of the best music in the world performed there.
The formidable San Francisco Symphony took a run at Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Davies Symphony Hall years back — a feat not dissimilar to juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle along a plank over a pit of alligators — and pulled it off with both precision and gusto. And more recently, the San Francisco Opera made me, a lifelong doubter of wobbly-voiced wailing, an instant convert. The occasion was a spectacular staging of Billy Budd, Herman Melville’s great tragedy of miscarried justice as hauntingly rendered by Benjamin Britten.
The opera and the symphony — though deriving much of their revenue from foundations, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales — also enjoy considerable subsidization from government. According to the SF Symphony’s IRS Form 990, it received almost $800,000 in government grants in 2005 alone.
These subsidies are good, but there needs to be a lot more of them — and they need to serve all citizens of San Francisco much more effectively. It could not be said, for example, that a typical Friday night at the SF Opera is either affordable or appealing to a significant portion of the city’s residents.
And it’s certainly not true that there isn’t enough music and art in San Francisco for all its citizens. This place is bursting at the seams with creativity. You could put on a live performance by a local band or DJ crew in Justin Herman Plaza each week for a solid year and not run out of talent.
In fact, that’s not a bad idea! Why not, as a matter of city policy, support the staging of one free, live, outdoor musical performance per week year-round? We can keep it cheap. Once you bring things inside, it gets a bit expensive, stops being DIY, and starts meaning forms, insurance, and union-scale wages — all substantial barriers to entry for your local experimental jazz combo. The space would, in fact, have to be donated — not impossible, but not always likely.
So outdoors it is. Rain or shine. Bring your own PA. Do your own flyering. According to Sandy Lee of the Parks and Recreation Department, the nonprofit rate for using any outdoor musical facility is $500 for as many as 1,000 people. If you want to do one show weekly for a year, that’s $26,000 total. I’ll wager that San Francisco’s major arts funders could easily cover that annual fee through a matching grant program paid directly to Rec and Parks.
That’s a bump on a log in the world of arts funding, and such an arrangement isn’t unprecedented. San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund picks up the user fee for the Golden Gate Park Band, which has a regular Sunday gig April through October in the unremodeled band shell in the newly remodeled Music Concourse.
So we’re certain just about everyone will agree that more free live music outdoors would also be pretty much awesome. Now we get to program 52 weeks of free live music in San Francisco. Booking, or perhaps curating is a better term, would be done democratically, ethically, and, of course, pro bono by volunteers called up from the performance and presentation community. Local venue and club bookers, noncommercial and — ulp! — pirate radio DJs, festival programmers, musicologists, and the like. Remember, we have 52 weeks to fill, so there’s room for everyone.
At this point it’s clear that there would be hang-ups to unhang. There would be the danger of favoritism and payola in the booking — underpaid musicians and bookers are often hungry and desperate. There would definitely be aesthetic disagreements. Where, for example, will the punk and metal bands play? The thumping DJ crews? Lee noted that the department is “very sensitive” to NIMBYs opposed to amplified music.
Nevertheless, she said, the city is full of outdoor venues for amplified music, all available for the $500 nonprofit use fee. These include McLaren Park, the Civic Center, Mission Dolores Park, Union Square, Justin Herman Plaza, the Marina Green, and Washington Square. In Golden Gate Park the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has sprawled magnificently across the Speedway, Marx, and Lindley meadows; both Reggae and Opera in the Park regularly occupy Sharon Meadow; and the band shell, a.k.a. Spreckel’s Temple of Music, is also back in action after being closed for three years during the de Young reconstruction.
“The band shell is open to any group that wants to perform there,” Lee said, and that’s a great place to start.
Get city backing for a pilot program and set up a spring-to-fall season similar to that of the Golden Gate Park Band, whose musicians are volunteers. Shoot for radical diversity in the booking to get a true cross section of the city’s ethnic, cultural, contemporary, and historic musical palette. Schedule performances opportunistically: during lunch hours downtown, at 2 p.m. on a sunny Saturday in the park. Stage local music showcases on weekends or holidays for full afternoons of free music. Pick the lively bands for fog season so folks have a reason to jump around. Switch venues each week to keep the NIMBYs off balance. And remember that commercial radio stations would have to pay the commercial user fee of $5,000 if they want to get in on the game. This will keep things focused on the grassroots.
We must create an expectation for this kind of low-cost local arts subsidy. It’s true that music and culture thrive like weeds in the cracked cement of oppression. But keep in mind that $26,000 for a year of venue-user fees for local music is 3.25 percent of the symphony’s government subsidy. The city can take an unprecedented step in support of genuinely accessible, relevant arts programming. At a time of gutted arts funding around California and the nation, San Francisco could set an example for pragmatic, affordable, nonelitist, human-scale public arts for the entire community.
The only thing stopping us is cultural elitism, NIMBYs, and acres of bureaucracy. Piece o’ cake! SFBG
•Project Soundwave’s experimental, participatory music showcase
•Godwaffle Noise Pancakes at ArtSF and beyond
•Resipiscent Records release party, Hotel Utah, Oct. 20
•Sumatran Folk Cinema and Ghosts of Isan, presented by Sublime Frequencies at Artists’ Television Access, July 14
•William Parker Quartet, Yoshi’s, May 24. Jazz wants to be free!
•Experimental music showcases staged weekly at 21Grand
•Deerhoof! Castro Theatre, April 27
•Gong Family Unconvention, the Melkweg, Amsterdam, Nov. 3–<\d>5, featuring Steve Hillage playing his first rock guitar solo since 1979, Acid Mothers Temple with the Ruins guesting on drum ’n’ bass, and local guitar superstar Josh Pollock invoking the spirit of Sonny Sharrock with Daevid Allen’s University of Errors (a truly explosive combo including ex-local DJ Michael Clare)
•Hawkwind, the same weekend as the Gong Uncon, in nearby Haarlem, full on with alien dancers, lasers in the stage fog, and Dave Brock announcing the encore: “If fuckin’ Lemmy kin play ‘Silver Machine,’ we kin fuckin’ play ‘Motörhead’!”
•Noncorporate radio in San Francisco: KUSF, KPOO, Western Addition Radio, Pirate Cat