Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Jesse Malin Comes Home: Velvet Elk Records First Anniversary Holiday Party

Early this morning, as the first annual Velvet Elk Records Holiday Show was winding down, headliner Jesse Malin recontextualized remarks he made earlier in the show (and on many other occasions, in song and elsewhere) and dedicated a rare cover to two people who died suddenly very recently. One of them was Nick Alexander, his former merchandise manager who was killed at Le Bataclan in Paris during an Islamic terrorist attack in November while he was working at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. The other was Lemmy Kilmister, the legend from Hawkwind and Motorhead (and a close friend of several friends of mine) who died on Monday, four days after his seventieth birthday and two days after he was diagnosed with cancer. Jesse fondly remembered his friend and employee. He told the packed Bowery Ballroom not to mourn Lemmy’s death but to celebrate his relatively long life (especially considering his life’s style and pace). He commented that they heard the news about Lemmy after finishing rehearsal Monday night, implying the performance of the next song might be less than stellar. It wasn’t. Harry, Jesse’s assistant, placed lyric sheets onstage, and Jesse, multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz, bass guitarist Catherine Popper, and drummer Randy Schrager launched the perfect tribute to both men: Motorhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew”.

     It has been quite a year for Jesse and company. In addition to releasing two albums and experiencing much else (some of which is summarized above), Jesse and his collaborator Don DiLego launched a new record label. In 2015. (Jesse humorously considered it “the worst decision” they could make.) Both of Jesse’s 2015 albums were released on it. Although they both own (or at least manage) The Bowery Electric nearby and traditionally perform a holiday show there, they decided to hold a first annual holiday show for Velvet Elk Records at the larger Bowery Ballroom nearby (formerly a shoe store, according to lifelong New Yorker Jesse). Jesse headlined; Hollis Brown, Don, and Hidden Cities opened.

     Jesse’s set was similar to the one he played in Philadelphia on December 17, but it was longer, better, and had many more special guests, including members of Hollis Brown. Although he didn’t play on the aforementioned cover, an extra keyboard player not present in Philadelphia, Everett Forman (if I heard Jesse correctly), played during most of Jesse’s set to resonant effect. Also, Jesse’s usual loquacity returned at home. (“A former manager told me not to talk so much.”) Although New York was at least as loud and often as raucous, the slower songs were a little more subtle, and the horns and Derek’s vocals were much more audible and felt. (Don’s extemporaneous set was significantly different from his opening set in Philadelphia and included Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.) I have written about and praised Jesse and his music at length, and I don’t have much to add anymore. His themes of “P.M.A.” (positive mental attitude) and reveling in the joy of being alive were never more acute and emphasized than they were last night and this morning. He has peeled the “P.M.A.” tape off of his black Les Paul, but his attitude has never been more positive. Highlights last night included Ryan Adams, the producer of “The Fine Art of Self Destruction” (Jesse’s first solo album), joining the band with his black Fender Mustang or Jaguar on four songs from the album. The magnificent and exuberant “Oh Sheena”, one of the best songs on the two new albums, was not played in Philadelphia. And the self-described “Mr. Rogers of emocore” entered the audience and exhorted its members to sit down during the reflective “Bar Life” (also not played in Philadelphia), turning the Bowery Ballroom into a kind of secular church. Jesse has frequently commented that he is not religious and that the live music venue is his church. He said it again last night during “Bar Life”. While I would never put words in his mouth, my notes include his remark, “People go to war over this shit.” He was talking about religion. I think he was commenting about his reluctance to embrace religion. His art and his secular sermon early this morning indicate that he understands religion’s destructiveness as well as what is good about it that must be salvaged and secularized.
      
     If you enjoy or tolerate rock music, do yourself a favor and give Jesse Malin a listen.

Jesse Malin
First Annual Velvet Records Holiday Show
The Bowery Ballroom
New York
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Support: Hollis Brown, Don DiLego, Hidden Cities

Set:
She’s So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
Addicted
The Year That I Was Born
Fall From Grace [? unidentified cover--title from stage setlist]
Mona Lisa 
San Francisco
The Fine Art of Self Destruction [with Ryan Adams]
Downliner [with Ryan Adams]
High Lonesome [with Ryan Adams]
Wendy [with Ryan Adams]
Turn Up the Mains
Outsiders
Whitestone City Limits
She Don’t Love Me Now
Here’s the Situation
Bar Life
Death Star
All the Way from Moscow

encore:
Brooklyn
Oh Sheena
Frankie* 
Society Sally [with Don DiLego]
Winter [with a member of the Counting Crows]
(We Are) The Road Crew
You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray [with Don DiLego]


*The setlist says “Frankie”; I think it’s D Generation’s “Frankie” (and I think D Generation’s Richard Bacchus joined for that one). It might have been a cover of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”.
The disco ball hovers over the disco stomp of "Boots of Immigration".

The neck of Jesse's guitar obscures the visage of Ryan Adams.


Jesse amongst the audience for a solemn discussion during "Bar Life".

"Brooklyn" in Manhattan

"(We Are) The Road Crew"


Don DiLego covers "State Trooper".

Friday, December 18, 2015

Jesse Malin "Turns Up the Mains" in Philadelphia

UPDATE, 12/21/15: Johnny Brenda's is, in fact, featured fairly prominently in Creed, the new film featuring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa.


It was loud and raucous.

     That is the most succinct way to describe Jesse Malin's set at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia last night. Jesse and company were splendid (as usual) but some of the nuances of the slower songs were lost (the only serious criticism, if indeed that's what it is, of the festivities).

     And festivities they were. When he introduced "Turn Up the Mains", perhaps the loudest and most raucous song from either of his two 2015 albums, Jesse noted that the song and song title was about celebrating life and being alive (I hope my memory is accurate and I'm not paraphrasing too much). The chanteur of P.M.A.--positive mental attitude, as he calls it--delivered it again.

     Perhaps the artist knew what he was doing being loud and raucous in Fishtown, the "working class" Philadelphia neighborhood of Rocky Balboa. Perhaps it was a flaw in the sound design. Either way, it wasn't such a flaw at all because the show's dynamics fit the rough-and-tumble neighborhood well. Johnny Brenda's Tavern and its neighborhood look like a scene from Rocky or Rocky Balboa. The small, high stage is on the second floor, and a balcony serves as a third floor. It's an intimate venue and a perfect one for an extended evening of art and entertainment from Jesse Malin and friends.

     Don DiLego, a songwriting and production collaborator of Jesse's, opened the show with a thirty-one minute set that was much more relaxing, even after he brought his band on after the first song. His music is new to me and has a folkish feel to it; a pedal steel backing brought effective texture and lightness. The rest of his band was filled out with keys, a weather-beaten Fender bass, and a four-piece DW kit. Jesse's trumpet player Indofunk Satish made an appearance during Don's set, reinforcing the connection and communion between the two artists. Don noted that one of his musicians was furious because he had a ticket to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he can still see that. (Naturally, "Death Star", which Don co-wrote, was included in Jesse's set.) This was a much more intimate and irreplaceable experience, and it won't be repeated. Don told the audience that his next disc will be released in the spring, and several of its songs were being debuted. He told me after his set that all but two of the songs in his set were from the forthcoming disc; he also told me a bit about working with Jesse. What I heard last night inspired me to purchase his new album when he releases it (I bought one of his older discs). One of the old tunes used the A-Bminor-D chord progression of "Never Say Die", the most optimistic Black Sabbath song, effectively amidst an evening of Jeffersonian forlorn optimism (see my review of Jesse's albums linked above). Fittingly, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence about two miles away.

     The Black Sabbath relevance continued with Dead Heavens, the second opening act, who are sort of a hybrid of Pink Floyd and the aforementioned bone crushers from Birmingham. Their set sounded like a series of Almost Famous outtakes, which means they're better than most of their peers these days. I had never heard of them, but they're apparently attracting a following. Their forty-two minute set included their most recognized song, "Adderall Highway", and songs called "Basic Cable" and "Hyacinth".

     Then the master took the stage at 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time for ninety-nine minutes of high volume. He opened with this year's "She's So Dangerous", which sounds like a quiet song on disc. Nothing was quiet last night. I sympathize with those who didn't wear ear plugs and wonder how their day is going. By song two, 2015's frenetic stomp "Boots of Immigration", the theme of the night was more than established. Jesse was backed by multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz (as usual), bass guitarist Catherine Popper, drummer Randy Schrager, and, intermittently, saxophonist Danny Ray and trumpetist Indofunk Satish. All of them were integral performers on his latest, Outsiders, and Derek and Catherine co-wrote some of its songs. Unfortunately, it was often hard to hear the horns on account of the guitar volume (I couldn't really hear Danny at The Viper Room last August either, but the slower songs were more effectively mellow and felt that night). The explosive band played eleven songs from the two new albums, several old ones, and a seasonal Rolling Stones cover to compliment the Rolling Stones-inspired "Turn Up the Mains". Jesse entered the audience once or twice (as he often does). He didn't talk as much as usual, but he did include one of his humorous "bits", mocking his father's criticisms of some of his more outlandish, spirited, manic, and youthful stage movements ("Jesse, you're in your forties!"). There was no encore, and an impertinent woman took Jesse's Sharpie-penned handwritten setlist that was right in front of me before the lights came up. Fortunately, a stage hand gave me a pen-scrawled setlist from Randy's drums (as usual, Jesse didn't follow it to the letter).

     After the show, I thanked Jesse for his continued art and artistry and requested "In the Summer", my favorite song from Outsiders, for the forthcoming December 29 Bowery Ballroom hometown gig. He said it was a possibility, but he implied they hadn't rehearsed it yet on account of the season. I did ask him about the "Cassavetes bar" reference in the song, and I was pleased to hear that his favorite Cassavetes films overlap mine. His merchandise manager informed me that the vinyl edition of Outsiders has a unique bonus track.

     Overall, it was a rewarding night of music, community, and camaraderie in the Stallone bar. I expect December 29 to be even better.

     Rock music may or may not have been a mistake, and some of the louder and more frenzied moments and forsaken nuances of last night's set were difficult for me to overlook. But rock unquestionably has its empowering moments, art, and artistry, and Jesse Malin, turning up the mains with his P.M.A., is a master of all of the above. Surely the Endarkenment needs such enlightenment.


Jesse Malin
Johnny Brenda's
Philadelphia
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Support: Dead Heavens, Don DiLego

Set:
She's So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
Addicted
Mona Lisa
High Lonesome
Death Star
She Don't Love Me Now
Outsiders
Whitestone City Limits
Turn Up the Mains
All the Way from Moscow
The Fine Art of Self-Destruction
Almost Grown
Wendy
Here's the Situation
Society Sally
You Know It's Dark When Atheists Start to Pray
Brooklyn
Winter



Indofunk Satish brought out his trumpet during Don DiLego's opening set (apparently to Don's surprise).

Jesse Malin and Catherine Popper

Derek Cruz soloing

The horns

I listed "The Fine Art of Self-Destruction" (not planned and not listed above) as "26" in my notes. It had something to do with Jesse's spoken introduction to the song, but I can't recall the details now.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Two 2015 Jesse Malin Albums

Is it 1975 or 2015?
Jesse Malin released two artistic, uncompromising studio albums of new (previously unreleased) songs this year—on analog and digital media. Perhaps it is the best of both worlds.

As what is left of the music industry continues to revert to the worst of both worlds (the singles-without-the-B-sides, small venues, small labels, and local circuits of the 1950s with the aesthetics and auto tune of the dark century), a few artists defy the times and deliver the best of both.

Jesse Malin is not well known, but he is cherished by those who are fortunate to know of him. His winsome, sensitive voice sings thoughtful songs in an era of brash, snarky insensitivity and thoughtlessness. Part punk (he founded the punkish hard rock band D Generation, memorably characterized by Robert Christgau as “the part of Aerosmith that loved the New York Dolls”) and part ministerial, he is a multifaceted phenomenon—like many successes, a hybrid (but a paradox, not a contradiction).

He found time to release two studio albums this year: New York Before the War and Outsiders (both on Velvet Elk Records and One Little Indian). Like the Seventies dyads Led Zeppelin & Led Zeppelin II and Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ & The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Destroyer & Rock and Roll Over (all label- and year-mates), Malin’s 2015 releases are very much sister records, related but distinct. And “popular” music fans who recognize that art is a human need and that art in “popular” music continues to ebb should find tremendous value in both of them.

Both albums include road-tested material and incorporate all of Malin’s styles to an extent even as the forty-seven-year-old continues to tone down the punk rock. New York Before the War (released March 31 on CD and April 28 on vinyl) was his first release in five years (he toured extensively in the interim) and, like its sister record, was mostly co-written and co-produced with longtime cohorts and multi-instrumentalists Derek Cruz and Don DiLego. The title itself, just like a stellar Jesse Malin song, repines for that other century while acknowledging that it is gone forever. It starts and ends with contemplative, quiescent bookends: “Dreamers” (alternately titled “The Dreamers”) and “Bar Life”. The latter may have been inspired by Robin Williams’ suicide: It includes the line “they say the best comedians often battle with depression” and Malin dedicated it to Williams at The Viper Room in West Hollywood on August 14, 2014, three days after the actor/comedian’s death. (Several songs from the forthcoming album were performed that night—see the handwritten setlist below—but, with one exception, I am not aware of any of this disc’s songs existing before that night.) Along the way to “Bar Life”, New York Before the War turns up the volume with “Turn Up the Mains” (also performed at the Viper Room), a Seventies Rolling Stones homage with honking saxophone and four-on-the-floor drums. Every track is a highlight in its own way. Particularly notable tracks include the instantly infectious “Oh Sheena”, the pulsing “Freeway” (which has the rhythm of Interstate 5 at a good and swift hour), the resigned “She Don’t Love Me Now” (also performed at the Viper Room), and the slow but happy “I Would Do It For You” (the mellower flip side to “Oh Sheena”). But the entire album should be absorbed as an integrated whole. (“Freeway is the one song that I can confirm long predates this year; I saw Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social perform a song by that name, likely the same one, at The Bowery Electric in New York, which Malin co-owns, on December 22, 2011.)

Outsiders, released October 9 on CD and November 20 on vinyl, should also be experienced as an integrated whole, like a Seventies album. Outsiders is more concise but is otherwise similar to its immediate predecessor.  It likely has two of the oldest songs on either album (I saw Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social perform “San Francisco” at The Slidebar in Fullerton, CA on August 5, 2011 and the raucous “Here’s the Situation” not long after that) but the disc’s highlights are apparently new. “Edward Hopper (Somewhere in the Night)” is a sparse but representative work of art, “like an Edward Hopper painting” (to quote from the lyrics) and a tribute to a fellow New Yorker. It is appropriate that Malin would select Hopper as a subject as the artist eschewed modernism and pretension much like Malin’s “indie” music avoids the avant garde exemplified by fellow New Yorkers Suicide, whose “Frankie Teardrop” is ironically name checked in “Edward Hopper”. “In the Summer”, perhaps the best song on either album, is to celluloid what “Edward Hopper” is to canvas, evoking “the Cassavetes bar” and the sweltering Manhattan August much like U2’s “New York”. The Clash’s “Stay Free” shows up in a bare-bones slow piano arrangement, emphasizing the lyrics in an age-appropriate rendition. “In the Summer” (at least the second Malin track to reference the cinema of John Cassavetes) was co-written with D Generation and St. Marks Social guitarist Todd Youth (best known for his work with Danzig and Glen Campbell). Unfortunately, he did not play on the track, but someone (likely Cruz) adequately fills his performing shoes with emotive lead guitar climaxing in a descending, sustained bent note of subtle sorrow that sounds like the most harrowing end of a track since The Beach Boys’ “In the Back of My Mind”. The album ends with the Malin/Cruz composition and production “You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray”, a gentle, jaunty romp and ironically sanguine tune that seems to exhort the listener to revel in being alive even as darkness encroaches.

Discerning, art-savvy “pop” consumers can’t go wrong with either or both of these companion pieces, and this one looks forward to seeing most (or all) of these songs performed live by Malin and company at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on December 17 and The Bowery Ballroom on December 29. DiLego will perform opening sets at both shows as well as at a gig at Cafe Nine in New Haven, CT on December 18.




New York Before the War
[Track listing, including side designations, from CD back cover—credits from booklet.]
Side A
The Dreamers [listed as “Dreamers” in the booklet]
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Addicted 
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Turn Up the Mains
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Oh Sheena
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

She’s So Dangerous 
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Don DiLego

The Year That I Was Born
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego


Side B
Boots of Immigration
Jesse Malin/Holly Ramos/Derek Cruz
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Freeway
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Bent Up
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

She Don’t Love Me Now
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Death Star
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

I Would Do It For You
Jesse Malin
Produced by Don DiLego

Bar Life
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Don DiLego




Outsiders
Outsiders
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

San Francisco
Jesse Malin
Produced by Don DiLego

Here’s the Situation
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Society Sally
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Edward Hopper (Somewhere in the Night)
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Whitestone City Limits
Jesse Malin/Catherine Popper
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Stay Free
Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
Produced by Jesse Malin

The Hustlers
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

All Bets Are Off
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

In the Summer
Jesse Malin/Todd Youth/Johnny Martin
Produced by Jesse Malin, Derek Cruz, and Diane Gentile

You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz

Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz


Correction (10:05 PM PST): Malin co-owns (and performed at) The Bowery Electric in 2011; he will perform at The Bowery Ballroom on December 29.




One of Malin's handwritten setlists from The Viper Room on August 14, 2014 (I saw another one that didn't exactly match this one). As many as ten songs from this year's albums were performed. The Clash's "Stay Free" was skipped during the show, but it appears on Outsiders.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Frank Zappa's "Roxy: The Movie": A Remarkable Audio-Visual Document of a "Magical Time"

Jeff Stein, longtime friend of Frank Zappa & family and co-producer of the new concert film Roxy: The Movie, referred to the era when the film was lensed and recorded as a "magical time". "This was a time in which everyone played instruments and not turntables."
     For that and other reasons, some of the Marshall McLuhan, Children's Television Workshop, and eMpTyV Networks generation may find Roxy: The Movie and Zappa's music in general to be boring or unwatchable. Those who are not as culturally and aesthetically deprived would find tremendous value in them.
     The film, scheduled for DVD and Blu-Ray release on October 30, is a superlative achievement of post-production after a less-than-superlative production. Three or four concerts were filmed (on 16mm film) and recorded (on sixteen tracks) at The Roxy in West Hollywood in December 1973. (Exactly when the shows took place, and what was recorded, is unclear. The film's credits indicate the film was shot December 8-10, 1973. The filmmakers assert that four concerts plus a soundcheck or two on separate days were filmed. A comprehensive Frank Zappa Gig List on the Internet presents equivocal, uncertain information. It is possible more than one show was played on some of the dates and/or that one of the filmed concerts was not used. Problems with the source material delayed release for several decades.)
     Last night, the American Cinematheque hosted an event at the historic Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Zappa's widow Gail (co-producer of the film) died last week. However, son Ahmet (who also co-produced the film), Jeff Stein, editor-coproducer John Albanian, Zappa "Vaultmeister" Joe Travers, Alex Winter (an actor/director who is making a documentary about Zappa), and musicians Ralph Humphrey and Bruce Fowler (both of whom appear prominently in the movie) participated in a panel discussion after the screening of the ninety-five minute film.
     Some of the following may include "spoilers" for those who plan to see the film and want to be surprised at its content.
     Some of the content is familiar in audio form. Zappa released the double album and fan favorite Roxy & Elsewhere (DiscReet) in 1974. As the title suggests, it contains live performances recorded at the Roxy (in December 1973) and elsewhere. Many of the recordings from the Roxy were extensively edited and overdubbed during post-production. This film obviously contains moments audible on the album--but they are in their raw, unedited and untouched state here. Seeing the film footage accompanying the familiar audio recordings is quite a vivid, borderline magical experience for fans of the album. Seeing the footage projected on the Egyptian's gargantuan screen with a nearly-full audience of a Zappa fans applauding is as close as one could get to being present during the historic performances.
     In December 1973, the Mothers including drummer Humphrey, drummer Chester Thompson, auxiliary percussionist Ruth Underwood, trombonist Fowler, bass guitarist Tom Fowler (Bruce's brother), keyboardist/vocalist George Duke, and saxophonist/vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock. Many fans consider this to be one of Zappa's finest ensembles (which is saying something. To see them playing and improvising together on the Roxy's cramped stage, with a shiny curtain backdrop (it looks almost like gold lamé), is a revelation, even on film. Even disinterested spectators could not fail to notice and appreciate the immaculately rehearsed, intricate, disciplined, virtuosic nature of a Frank Zappa concert. It is a standard of discipline and professionalism that has mostly disappeared from the culture. The 16mm footage is not particularly detailed or high resolution, and the cinematography is borderline amateurish at times. It is a more-than-adequate, fascinating, and priceless document nonetheless (and a near-miracle that it exists in this form, as the filmmakers discussed after the screening).
     Some of the audio highlights:
     ---The opening moments of Roxy & Elsewhere (Zappa's amusing spoken introduction to "Penguin In Bondage") are seen and heard in the film. [It is possible--even likely--that the performance(s) in the film do not entirely match those on the album, as many pieces in the film contain elements of more than one performance.] Those familiar with the album will notice just how much the tune was edited and overdubbed during postproduction.
     ---"Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" are strikingly different from the album versions. "Echidna's Arf" does not segue out of "Village of the Sun" (missing from the film) but starts as a standalone. The "watch Ruth" section (which differed during every performance) is different.
     ---"Cheepnis", referred to at one point as "A Little More Cheepnis Please", is preceded by a performance of part of the song with drums and percussion only. (Humphrey has no recollection of them performing the song this way, which means it may have been a one-off performance.) It is instantly recognizable to those familiar with the paean to low-grade horror and science fiction B-movies. Subsequently, a lengthier iteration of Zappa's spoken introduction from the album is seen and heard.
     ---Significant portions of the album's long closing tune, "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)", and its audience participation elements, are seen and heard in the film.
     ---Several tunes absent from the album, old and then-new, are in the film. "Cosmik Debris" and "Inca Roads" were works in progress at the time and differ considerably from their soon-to-be-released, familiar versions. (The latter is fortunately missing the odd "guacamole queen" lyrics.) Humphrey and Fowler think that the version of "Inca Roads" in the film was the "second" version (they called it the "cocktail version").
     Some of the video highlights:
     ---It is instructive to note which drum parts were played by Humphrey and which were played by Thompson (who is now best known as a touring drummer for Genesis and Phil Collins).
     ---Underwood has a significant amount of drums behind her, despite her reputation as being primarily a vibes/xylophone player. At times, she is, in effect, a third drummer.
     ---During "Dog Meat" (an amalgam of "Dog Breath" and "Uncle Meat"), Zappa plays Underwood's drums for a significant amount of time.
     ---At times, it appears that Humphrey reaches over to Underwood's instruments from his drum throne and plays some of them. He steps up from the throne and joins Underwood behind her setup during one tune.
     ---Zappa's facial expression during the spoken interlude in "Cheepnis" (also familiar from the album) is essential.
     ---Zappa's use of his wah-wah pedal was often subtle. Thanks to the visuals, it is always obvious when he used it.
     ---The close-ups of Zappa's sneakers are notable if trivial. During the discussion period, Travers related that they were painted by Carl Franzoni (who known from the liner notes to Freak Out!, the Mothers of Invention's 1966 Verve debut).
     ---The odd, communal, unmistakably Zappa event that is "Be-Bop Tango" is a visual testament to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. It isn't fully comprehensible (or close to enjoyable) until seen and arguably should have been left off the album.
     I heard the following tunes in the film (in this order): "Cosmik Debris", "Penguin in Bondange", "Dog Meat", an audience participation interlude, "Inca Roads", "Echidna's Arf (Of You)", "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?", "Cheepnis" (percussion only), "Cheepnis", "I'm the Slime", "Big Swifty", and "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)". I think I saw "Dupree's Paradise" listed in the credits (somewhere around "Dog Meat"), but I didn't notice it in the film. The trailer includes part of "Dickie's Such an Asshole", which is not in the film. [An encore performance of the song from one of these shows was released on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore: Vol. 3 (Rykodisc) in 1989.]
     After the screening, the assembled panel discussed the film and the tribulations involved with getting it into released form. Due to a failure of the Roxy's intercom system that occurred right before the first show that was not noticed until after the film was processed, the visuals and audio were out of sync. It was not possible to fix this digital technology advanced (long after Zappa's 1993 death). Co-producer Stein and editor/co-producer Albarian discussed the limitations of the source material and the challenges syncing all of it up. At some point within the last twenty years, the 16mm footage was transferred to HDCam. (Zappa had produced and mixed all of the audio recordings much earlier, anticipating an eventual release.) For some of the audio, only one camera feed was available. Often, it was a closeup on Zappa's face while another musician (e.g., Bruce Fowler) was soloing. For other segments, no cameras were rolling. Stein remarked, "It really was a miracle that it came together, but we do have a happy ending. We love happy endings." He also related how many tunes contain parts of multiple performances. "There's a lot of cheating going on." He added that the intricate nature of the music made it exceptionally challenger to "cheat". (I would have preferred unedited performances without cutting in the middle of a song, but Zappa himself frequently cut mid-song during his own live recordings. So it is, at the very least, consistent, and perhaps necessary given the limitations of the source material. Zappa and the Mothers wore the same clothes during all performances to facilitate an integrated, smooth viewing experience.) Humphrey was emphatic that the effect is that of the illusion of a complete, unedited, single concert: "It looks like it was a complete concert. No edits." It's hard to argue with him.
     Winter and Travers answered some questions about the contents of the Zappa vaults and some of the material left out of the film. (Winter,  who is making a documentary about Zappa, is best known for playing Bill S. Preston in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Travers is a drummer who previously played with Dweezil Zappa's ongoing Zappa Plays Zappa project.) He opined that this footage was "the Muhammad Ali of the vaults" ("the greatest"). "Village of the Sun" was left off because all of the available footage and performances were lackluster. He added that the album version is heavily overdubbed: "for a good reason". He did concede that there's a possibility the original live version will be released at some point. When a member of the audience asked about the possibility of one complete, unedited Roxy concert (or all of them) being released on CD, both Zappa and Travers concurred that it was a possibility. This is encouraging (and could finally solve the mystery of exactly how many shows were played at the Roxy in December 1973). Zappa (who was in utero in December 1973) reminisced about his parents (he was remarkably composed and dignified for someone who experienced such a monumental loss last week). One of his anecdotes (which occurred long before he was born) related that Zappa gave Jimi Hendrix his first wah-wah pedal. He thanked everyone for being present and noted the support the family had been receiving. (His sister Diva was apparently in the audience.) Humphrey and Fowler reminisced about playing and rehearsing with Zappa. One highlight: When asked who decided which drummer would play which parts, he answered that Zappa made about half of the decisions and Thompson and himself made the rest. Fowler talked about his film scoring work and shared that he borrowed aspects of Zappa's unique conducting style when he leads ensembles during film score recording sessions.
     The filmmakers noted that the moment when the cover photograph of Roxy & Elsewhere was taken can be seen in Roxy: The Movie. This is just one reason that the DVD/Blu Ray purchase is essential for anyone who treasures Roxy & Elsewhere (warts and all). And the vivid, fly-on-the-wall footage (warts and all) is essential for anyone who treasures Frank Zappa and all he represents.






Left to right: Alex Winter, Ahmet Zappa, Jeff Stein, John Albarian, Joe Travers, Ralph Humprhey, and Bruce Fowler. Fowler's T-shirt is printed with the legend, "Stop Plate Tectonics".


Monday, October 12, 2015

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes's "Soultime!": Soul for the Twenty-first Century

Soul giants Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have released their first album into the teeth of the digital revolution, and it is worth acquiring even in those convenient but compromised formats.

Soultime! (Leroy Records) is a colorful, organ- and horn-inflected homage to an incomparably better era of  popular music, but it is unmistakably contemporary in its own way. It was produced (and mostly written) by longtime Jukes organist/vocalist Jeff Kazee and (Southside) John(ny) Lyon. There can be a fine line between homage and imitation, and the disc skillfully avoids the latter and its easy traps. (Even if it were mimetic, it would be welcome in a culture of simplistic electronic stolidity and synthetic confection.) Consistent with the theme of this weblog, it is apparently not available the old-fashioned way. Amazon will manufacture a CD-R for you on demand (akin to the DVDs of the Warner Archive Collection) if you cannot abide its (or iTunes’s) MP3 format. iTunes is recommended, despite its digital rights management, since it includes a fairly comprehensive “digital booklet” with liner notes, lyrics, (some) credits, and photos. According to reports on the southsidejohnny.com message board, it is not even available yet at the band’s sensational live shows. Most sacrilegiously of all, there is no vinyl release.

Soultime! is a complicated album, lyrically and, to an extent, musically. Its emotional and thematic lines are not entirely straight. However, to the extent it has a consistent mood, it is one of qualified joy—surely welcome in these desperate days. As Leo Sacks quotes Uncle South in Sacks’s liner notes, “Soul Deep!”, “‘I was pushing my car around Stop & Shop [a supermarket chain in the northeastern United States], minding my business, when I got to the liquors and wines,’ Johnny relates. ‘Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” started playing and I noticed how people were reacting to the music, bopping their heads. I thought, “It’s time to make people feel good again.”’”

By far the most successful exemplar of Southside’s goals in that regard is the fourth track, “Looking for a Good Time”, an immediately ingratiating, passionate burst of sonic joie de vivre that could make a dead wallflower dance. It is the best track, and it’s probably the greatest achievement from these veterans in quite some time.

Other highlights include opener “Spinning” and its effective, descending instrumental bridge; “All I Can Do”, with an opening fanfare reminiscent of a Bill Conti score and Kazee’s smooth, sui generis, complexly emotive co-lead vocals complimenting South’s gruffer, tougher voice; “Don’t Waste My Time”, in which Southside plays one of his skillful harmonica solos (so skillful it sounds almost like there is a wah wah effect); the angular “Klank”, the very first Asbury Jukes instrumental after forty years as a recording entity; and the pride of “I’m Not That Lonely”. These songs are the core of the album, and they evoke a sense of grandeur, pride, and a well-earned but tempered satisfaction and celebration of life despite all of its slings and arrows. The words are direct and accessible in a way that is not trite. The frequent metaphors, which could falter in less effective and experienced hands, are actually effective (viz., the intriguing, debatable title “The Heart Always Knows”). There is even a clever extended lyric referencing The New York Post and its infamous “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” headline in “Walking on a Thin Line”.

The album is not without its flaws and inconsistencies. A flat affect of a song alternately titled “Ain’t None of My Bizness” (in the “digital booklet”) and “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” (on the iTunes screen) is as much a conventional, militant toleration of human inconsistency and avoidable, correctable weakness as it is an acknowledgment that an individual’s private life is generally no one else’s concern. Both its musical doldrums and its lyrical indifference contradict the forthright passion and implacable stance of the other songs, with narrators that do not abide the human weaknesses that intrude and impede their well-being. The album’s closer, “Reality”, is another downer of a song that is as much an acceptance of unconditional resignation to defeat as a grounded awareness and acknowledgment of what can’t be changed. [For a much more effective crystallization of the latter theme, cf. their “Light Don’t Shine” from 1978’s Hearts of Stone (Epic), a song for the Endarkenment if ever there was one.] There are better ways to acknowledge life’s complications and avoid the impression of unqualified, mindless “happiness” and fairytale clichés (“Light Don’t Shine” is certainly one of them). However, this is a minor objection.

Over fifteen years ago, founding Asbury Juke Little Steven (who wrote “Light Don’t Shine”) told Metal Rules magazine that he no longer listens to much contemporary music. He mostly listens to the soul that would later be cited as an inspiration for Soultime!—but not for reasons of nostalgia. He emphasized that, unlike most new music, it was more relevant to his life in the present than most new music. I think he would agree with me that the delightful new disc from his former cohorts is an exception. Jeff Kazee and John Lyon had some growing pains over the years as they assumed the responsibility of primary writers and producers for the Asbury Jukes, a responsibility previously held by Little Steven and others. They’ve admirably rose to the challenge, assisted by a solid band that can adapt to the discipline of the studio or the improvisational freedom of an Asbury Jukes live show with remarkable ease.

Five years after the disappointing Pills and Ammo, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have delivered. As the cracks of Western culture continue to widen and its tenuous base continues to teeter in ways that are more than evident in its ongoing musical disintegration, it’s arrival is more than welcome. In a culture obsessed with death (in call kinds of ways, subtle and otherwise), it's a lifeline. As Southside told Sacks, "My job is to provide pleasure and enjoyment. And if that's my purpose in life--to facilitate life--that's all right with me."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

California Nights: Best Coast Come Home

There is nothing quite like a hometown, tour-ending show. And there is nothing quite like Best Coast.

In the studio, they are essentially Bethany Cosentino (who does all of the songwriting) and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno. However, Bruno can hardly play guitar, bass, and drums simultaneously onstage, so they tour with an augmented lineup—sort of like the Genesis of their own one-band genre.

Like many successes, that genre is a synthesis: of surf music, girl groups, the American Graffiti soundtrack (not limited to its surf music and girl groups), and whatever is salvageable from post-Eighties “alternative” music.

The touring lineup pulled into The Wiltern in Los Angeles last night to end their latest tour, one in support of their new album California Nights (Harvest). The now-seatless Wiltern was overflowing with a literally standing-room-only crowd. The crowd’s enthusiasm was obviously reciprocal and ensured the tour closer was almost everything a hometown tour closer should be. The multi-generational audience was indicative of the band’s influences and quality.

Cosentino, a Glendale, Los Angeles County native, spent a miserable freshman year at a Brooklyn college several years ago. Suffering from her first winter weather season and seasonal affective disorder, she dropped out and returned to her meteorologically comfortable home. She wrote a series of open love letters to her home state and teamed with Bruno, a veteran of the Los Angeles “indie” music scene. (You may notice that she shares her initials with those of her band name.) The fiercely independent songwriter rejected major label deals, and the two have released three LPs and several singles/EPs. (The new album was offered as a package deal in digital download form with the purchase of a concert ticket, in harmony with the theme of this weblog, but this band sounds most gloriously crisp and organic on vinyl, on which format all of the releases are also available.)

Cosentino’s songs are simple and can be repetitive musically and lyrically (she essentially writes two kinds of songs—open love letters to the once-Golden State, still golden in her mind, and love letters of sorts about less-than-entirely-functional human relationships). On stage, they could benefit from a little more spontaneity and variety (something else they share with Genesis despite their decidedly non-prog, “indie” roots). Leaving aside those caveats, they are required listening (and viewing) in a moribund culture of baby boomer nostalgia shows and American glorified karaoke idol/America’s Got Ballast shlock simulacra.

Bully opened. Their frontwoman’s voice (when it wasn’t screaming) sounded like a raspier, flatter version of Sophie B. Hawkins’s, which was pleasant enough (and by far the highlight of their performance). In the interest of space (and the “if you have nothing [else] nice to say” cliché), I won’t opine further (except to note that their interminable thirty-one minute set felt like an hour and thirty-one minutes).

At 10:16 PM PDT, after a heterogeneous selection of pre-show music from girl groups to metal, the houselights were lowered again on a stage that was backed by a wide projection screen over the drum riser. A video show began while a speed metal song played in the background and the five players took the stage. The blurred, out-of-focus images of palm trees, waves, and other local images continued throughout the tight and tightly-executed eighty-minute set. Perhaps they brought necessary subtle visual augmentation during gigs away from the “best coast”. They seemed superfluous though not distracting on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.

The set commenced with the title track from 2012’s The Only Place (Mexican Summer), and the paean to the left coast works well as an opener on record and stage. I think new member Joe Bautista played a few lead licks on this one, but he played competent, supportive rhythm guitar (and occasional keyboards) for the rest of the set. (According to Wikipedia, the touring lineup is Cosentino, Bruno, Bautista, and the now-veteran rhythm section of bassist/background vocalist Brett Mielke and drummer Brady Miller. If so, I am confused by the “CC” on Miller’s bass drum head. If any of this information is inaccurate, blame Wikipedia—and the paucity of information about the touring lineup on the band’s official website and Facebook pages.) The five professionally played a lineup of songs similar to the other shows on the tour with a cohesive integration and competent professionalism lacking in so many artists these dark days, especially among bands of their provenance and sensibilities. This band has matured and strengthened since their last appearance at the Wiltern three years ago. Cosentino (self-described as awkward in the past) is considerably more socially deft and confident now, and her voice, which used to falter and frequently fall flat, consistently soars now. Billy Joel once referred to the concert stage as a crucible, and the results of these five’s determined art substantiate his idea. Dave Marsh once opined that those who make the best records don’t always (or even often) make the best shows. Although he had a point, Best Coast (touring edition) is a reminder that there are exceptions (or partial exceptions).

It is impossible to succinctly describe a Best Coast live performance; one really has to be there. Cosentino frequently strums rhythm guitar, but many of the highlights of the show occurred when she put it down and concentrated on her vocals. The new album’s title track was one of them—it’s a twist on the band’s local pride tinged with ennui. Bautista’s rarely-used keyboard was effective on it. Cosentino picked up a tambourine for another highlight, “Dreaming My Life Away”, which departed from the studio recording (from The Only Place) in subtle and unsubtle ways in which many of the other songs did not. The bouncy “When I’m With You”, which preceded it, provided an instructive example of what Frank Zappa called contrast and relief in a stage setting, something this band (at least instinctively) understands. Cosentino picked up her Fender Stratocaster for “Feeling OK”, the opening track of California Nights and one of the reflective album’s more sanguine songs. Bruno never takes a solo per se, but his performance was essentially one long basic but effective Sixties-style guitar solo of reverb-drenched lead lines. (Unfortunately, he occasionally devolves into anti-musical modernist noise, but it’s rare enough that it doesn’t significantly detract from the live show’s value.)

The main set closed (as usual recently) with “When Will I Change” (which is more congruent with the darker tone of the new album and the darker side of the once-Golden State). The band left the stage without a goodbye (though the song of that name was played much earlier in the set), and returned to deliver the typical two-song encore. The first was apparently Oasis’s “The Hindu Times”. Prefacing the band’s breakthrough single (still their best-known song), “Boyfriend”, Cosentino couldn’t avoid praising Friday’s Supreme Court decision for what she noted was the second consecutive evening. “Boyfriend” is a wonderful song, but it works slightly better in the studio and is an anti-climatic regular finale. It was even more anti-climatic in the context of last night. Ironically, “Boyfriend” has a drum introduction that sounds similar to Max Weinberg’s opening fusillade in Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands”. Springsteen, who uniquely spices each set from coast to coast and beyond, still has more to teach them.  “Boyfriend” (and the show) ended with a minute or two of Bruno and Bautista, by then alone on stage, making modernist noise and feedback to no discernible good end. It was an incongruous, anti-music end to an otherwise stellar, melodious evening.

  This band still has a few weaknesses, but the band keeps getting better. And they were unusually mellifluous and instrumentally tight to begin with. Best Coast is a welcome antidote to much of the malaise and schlock of a culture in serious trouble of entropic disintegration. Rock is a dying art form, for better or for worse, and live music is not far behind (for worse). That’s easy to forget when listening to Best Coast. You should see them.



Best Coast
The Wiltern
Los Angeles
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Spring/Summer 2015 Tour (for California Nights)
Support: Bully

Set:
The Only Place
Heaven Sent
Fine Without You
Goodbye
Do You Love Me Like You Used To
Crazy for You
No One Like You
So Unaware
California Nights
When I'm With You
I Don't Know How
Dreaming My Life Away
Fade Away
Fading Fast
In My Eyes
Feeling Ok
Our Deal
Jealousy
When Will I Change

The Hindu Times
Boyfriend


The Wiltern stage before the show. Those at the front must have been able to read the setlist hanging from the keyboard, spoiling any surprises.

The live band.

A provocatively-dressed Cosentino (who commented that she would never wear that anywhere but her hometown) singing "Dreaming My Life Away".

Thanks to the two congenial young ladies who graciously allowed me to photograph this outside after the show.