Since none of the local bloggers I read seem to have noticed this and I haven’t posted anything in a while, I thought I’d link these two blog postings by David Byrne.  I have always been a great admirer of Mr. Byrne; the soundtrack to Stop Making Sense was one of the earliest rock albums I owned and as a result my singing voice is irrevocably influenced my him, as anyone who’s joined me for karaoke can attest.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch either one of his two shows in SF this week, but you can read Mr. Byrne’s own impressions of his visit to San Francisco on his blog here: part 1 and part 2. It’s kind of a kick to read about him biking around the city to some spots that I know well, and I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t run into him, although really what would I say?

At any rate, his blog is unusually thoughtful and is always an interesting read. There’s also a (quite positive) review of his Monday night set at local music blog Hippies are Dead.

At its best, the music of Iron and Wine has an spare, intimate feeling, and it’s a peculiar irony that due to hs popularity it’s difficult to catch songwriter Sam Beam at a small venue any longer. The last time I saw him was at his show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, which is a beautiful old building with comfortable seats, but is still a large theater (seating 3,476, according to Wikipedia), and it was difficult to feel a connection to the band there. Earlier on Sunday he’d played a set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which I didn’t check out but which was reportedly incredibly crowded. So when I saw that Beam was playing an acoustic solo show at Bimbo’s 365 Club, I jumped at the chance to see him in a small room, and this show did not disappoint.

Opening band Sholi was pretty good; they didn’t quite knock my socks off, but they had pleasant dual vocals and some interesting twists in their song structures. The highlight was an Iranian song, about which the lead singer told us some of the history of but I didn’t quite catch it; the song was by an Iranian singer who had been exiled following the revolution there. It was an interesting mix between musical elements that sounded somewhat traditional and other elements that sounded more rock/poppy, and I wondered how much of that distinction was there in the original song versus Sholi’s interpretation of it.

After their set Sam Beam come out to a very warm reception from the audience. He was extremely affable and seemed to be in a good mood despite having had very little sleep; he spent a lot of time joking around with the audience and making various wry asides. At one point he talked about the show at the Paramount last year, and an audience member yelled out “you’re better alone!” Beam responded with “wow, that’s a very dark statement, man…” and talked about how his band was going to beat the shit out of the dude after the show (all in jest, of course). All in all he came across as a very down-to-earth, friendly dude, and I could almost imagine him as a talented friend who was showing me some songs he’d written. (Partly this was due to managing to stand way up front by the stage; Beam could easily have spit on me from where he was standing, not that he seems like an especially spitty kind of guy.)

He proceeded to play a laid-back, informal set. He got off to a bit of a rough start, and messed up in his guitar playing several times throughout the evening. For the very first song he had his capo on the wrong fret and it took him a few measures to realize what was wrong. For the most part he was able to shrug and laugh it off when he made a mistake, and the audience was so enraptured by his playing that nobody seemed to be put out, and as the set progressed he became more sure of himself.

I didn’t keep a set list per se, but the songs he played ranged widely from among LP’s, EP’s, and a few unreleased songs, and included some of my favorites. I’m not a huge fan of The Shepherd’s Dog, which replaces the spare, minimal sounds of the earlier records with overly baroque and complex instrumentation, and I actually found I liked the songs from it a lot better with only Beam’s voice and an acoustic guitar. The songs I recognized from this album included “Carousel” and “Resurrection Fern;” he also played “Woman King,” “She Lays in the Reins,” and “Sodom, South Georgia.”

Probably he highlight of the entire set was when he got the audience to sing along for “Naked As We Came.” I often feel ambivalent towards audience sing-alongs, especially when they drown out the actual band, but in this case everybody was singing incredibly softly, and Beam let them take over for a few choruses, and seemed to be somewhat moved himself by the performance. It sounded quite lovely and reminded me a bit of the chorus of voices from the Langley Schools Music Project.

He ended the set with “The Trapeze Swinger,” a long and melancholy song which has not been released on an album to my knowledge, but which is available online in the usual gray areas. (Incidentally, Beam said that the next album Iron and Wine puts out is likely to be a collection of B-Sides and so on in order to buy himself time to make a new album. He certainly has enough material in the various leaked songs that are findable online that he could put out another really solid album in the vein of the first two LP’s today, simply by collecting it in one place.)

Overall I felt like this was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year, just because of that real sense of a connection between the singer and the crowd. I really hope he continues to play small venues in the future, they work incredibly well for his musical style.

I feel like I don’t have the deep visceral connection to My Bloody Valentine that a lot of folks around my same age do. I was aware of them in their heyday, but I didn’t really get into the whole shoegaze genre until well after its moment had passed, and even that was largely through drilling back through the antecedents of other bands and genres that I enjoyed, looking for influences. At that point it was pretty clear that they were big influences on everybody, but I never got quite to the point where I loved the music itself enough to listen to Loveless over and over again.

Nonetheless, the band reformed after years and years and were only playing six shows in all of North America on this tour, and they have a reputation as a mind-blowing live act, so eventually I caved in and bought tickets ($65 – super cheap!). This one show wound up being a weird nexus where tons of my friends from wildly disparate social circles attended a single event. Fortunately the joint is huge and I managed to avoid various inadvisable oil / water combinations.

The evening began in an orthodox San Franciscan fashion, which is to say that I had vague plans to meet up or coordinate with three separate groups of people, and that none of these sets of plans ever quite came to fruition, and also that once I was actually in transit the party I was traveling to meet moved on to a different bar. It’s par for the course, and as a native Californian myself I’m amply equipped to handle these sorts of last-minute adjustments. In any event, after going to and fro in the city, and biking up and down in it, I eventually found myself standing in the Concourse Exhibition Center as the second band, Spectrum, launched into their set. Spectrum is fronted by Sonic Boom of Spiritualized progenitor Spacemen 3, another band whose surface I feel I’ve barely scratched.

Spectrum played for a while and were a good match to MBV ‘s sound, though in retrospect they may as well have been some random CD plugged into the venue’s PA by a bored promoter for all the impression their music had on me in comparison with MBV’s sonic assault. Still, they were a good warm-up and their set got better over time as more people filed in to the venue, got drinks, and staked out standing spots. The scuttlebutt had it that the previous band was a flautist, and although the notion of “Sakura” being broadcast over MBV’s inimitable speakers held a certain appeal, my cohorts and I elected not to attend this part of the evening.

This was the first show I’d seen at the Concourse exhibition center, and while the venue didn’t quite live up to its reputation as the worst venue in San Francisco, it wasn’t great either. I wound up standing on the balcony rather close to the stage on the right, from where I was able to see the two guitarists for the majority of the show, though the drummer and bassist were pretty much invisible throughout.

My Bloody Valentine has a famously loud live act, and in this regard they didn’t disappoint. I’d brought earplugs with me, which was fortunate as the ones provided by the Concourse were pretty low-quality. I think I can safely say that this was the loudest show I’ve been to, including Mogwai who are also renowned for the pure volume of their concerts. In addition to being loud, MBV also set up a whole series of incredibly bright strobe lights directly behind, above and around the stage. Incidentally Mogwai also went for the bright strobe light thing, and I found it to be frankly pretty irritating at both shows. I joked to a friend afterwards that it was like enforced shoegazing. MBV doesn’t have the most dynamic stage show ever to begin with, but I felt as though I was being punished for watching them.

Oh, the music? It was OK. I honestly don’t know their work well enough to pick out songs by name, but there were a good number of tracks I recognized from Loveless. The sound tended to blend into itself and it was often hard to distinguish between instruments (in particular, the bass and rhythm guitar frequently got lost in the mix). Possibly due to our particular location in the venue, the drums seemed way too loud, particularly when the drummer made a prolonged attack on the toms, which seemed to be one of his favorite tactics. The vocals were not terribly clear, but the same is true for MBV’s recorded works.

The band closed out with a good 15-20 minutes of incredibly loud feedback, but not in a high-pitched, ear-splitting way. I could feel my clothes moving during this; it was somewhat impressive technically, but seemed a little self-indulgent.

Overall I had a pretty good time. If I hadn’t managed to get the relatively good spot that I did I think I might have loathed the entire event, and indeed I’ve read a lot of bad reviews of this show. It’s going to take a pretty amazing show to get me to go back to the Concourse, but I actually didn’t find the venue to be as hateful as I expected it to be, and I feel glad to have seen My Bloody Valentine.

Park(ing) Day (9/19/08)

September 23, 2008

This past Friday was Park(ing) Day, during which enterprising urbanites worldwide set up impromptu parks in car parking places. The whole event falls right in line with my nascent obsession with geographical art, and it was a fine day, so when lunchtime rolled around I looked up the nearest park location to my office, grabbed a big bowl of udon from Yo Yo’s, and walked a few blocks down to Jackson and Montgomery to spend some time in the park.

After walking around for a bit I found it directly in front of an upscale eatery. It seems that the various Park(ing) spots all operate on their own autonomy and are only loosely coordinated by the REBAR group which initiated the idea. In this particular spot two friends had set up the mini-park, and I’ve completely forgotten their names, but he was a graduate student at Stanford and she was an architect. I introduced myself to them, sat in one of the chairs they offered, and proceeded to chat and eat my lunch.

Their parking spot was not as elaborate as some that I’ve seen pictures of, but it had a homey feeling nonetheless, with a little succulent on a table and several folding chairs set out on the sod. After a last-minute scramble for sod, they had set up their park largely with left-over sod from one of the other Park(ing) Day parks, and had transported it from the Mission (I think?) to its current location on a bike with a trailer. The student told me this was a formidable task and I believed him.

I spent the better part of an hour in their park, eating my udon and talking about this and that with the park creators and with friends of theirs who would stop by from time to time. We would also talk to the occasional passer-by, including a somewhat eccentric French woman who talked a lot about riding her bike and then seemed to offer us a role in a movie. The Park(ing) organizers and their friends all seemed amiable and in good spirits. When my lunch break was over I bid my hosts farewell and went back to the office.

All in all the experience was very like that of whiling a way some time in a public park. There was a definite feeling of being in a public space, a place where a lot of different people who were in the immediate vicinity could sort of meet and interact with one another on neutral ground. In a way I felt like by virtue of being the guy who just dropped by out of the blue I was fulfilling a classic role in a public park, that of the friendly stranger. (I figured I should either aim for that archetype or else mug them.)

The area this spot was set up in does not lack for public spaces, but inasmuch as one of the points of Park(ing) day seems to be about the act of reclaiming private space for the public domain, I’d call the operation a success.

I won’t mince words: the Warfield is a horrible venue, rightfully loathed by most concert-goers in the Bay Area, and it’s a testament to the appalling nature of the only two worse San Francisco venues that the Warfield isn’t the absolute nadir of all possible rock clubs of its size (the other two contenders are the Grand, with incredibly bad acoustics and laughably amateurish sound engineers, and the Concourse Design Center, which is basically a huge warehouse better suited for comic book expos than rock concerts – stay tuned for my My Bloody Valentine review for a firsthand look). It takes a mighty performance to overcome the inherent shittiness of being forced to stay in the place for more than an hour or two. Fortunately, Nick Cave has still got it and I was able to have a pretty enjoyable time there.

I got to the show right around 9:00 and opener Red Sparowes was just starting their set. I’d tried to see them several months back at Bottom of the Hill, but that show was sold out, so I was glad to get a chance to see them. The kind of music they play is apparently called metal these days, although to me it didn’t sound all that different from the stuff that Mogwai or A Minor Forest or any number of “post-rock” bands were putting out during the faraway years of the mid-nineties. I was inclined to like them at first, and they have a big sound that actually works pretty well with the Warfield, but after a while I found myself tuning them out. Their music is droning in a way I enjoy, and seems like it would be good to listen to at home, but it just didn’t hold my interest on stage. Partially this may be because there are no vocals, so visually the band isn’t terribly attention-grabbing.

I had managed to get a floor ticket to this show, which is basically the worst possible way to get a ticket to the Warfield unless you either arrive super-early and are able to snag a place in the very front my the stage, or are a good bit over six foot three or so. Neither of these apply to me, gentle reader, but because I was there a little early I managed to make my way down to the central pit, closest to the stage. This is what a floor ticket at the Warfield is like: there are a billion people in the little pit area with you, and about a quarter of them seem either to not know or to ignore the unspoken rules of personal space etiquette at a show, and so when you go home at the end of the night you’re covered in somebody else’s sweat.

Hopefully that paints the picture. I’m not the most touchy-feely guy and I probably wouldn’t do well on the Tokyo subway, but I can deal with close quarters and crowded venues when music is the purpose. But somehow I wound up stuck behind a tall beefy dude who could not stand still, and who continuously crept his body backwards as he shifted relentlessly back and forth from one foot to the other. The result was a sort of ongoing war of attrition waged against my personal space, and I frequently found myself needing to will myself to relax in order to avoid flipping out. Occasionally I thought of my own calmness as the only bulwark the crowd had against a festival seating trampling incident. As people naturally shifted around during the set I finally managed to get to the side of this dude and from then on I didn’t have to deal with constant and unpredictable intrusions upon my person.

I suppose that’s more than enough ranting about how crappy the Warfield is and I ought to touch on the actual show I was there to see. I’ve listened to Nick Cave since high school, when I somehow acquired a tape with Henry’s Dream on one side and Neurosis’s The Word As Law on the other. Since then I’ve followed him over the years, and though he lost me a little during his slow and Christian years I’ve really been enjoying his latest, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I’ve also never seen him live, so I was there partly as an exercise in checking an item off of a list.

First off: what you have heard is true. Cave has got the same proto-skullet and mustache you’ve seen in his recent videos. This did not seem to damage his charisma in any way, and he was a commanding presence on stage the whole time, alternately dancing, swinging around, rocking out with the guitar, or piano balladeering. During the set, he got not just one but two bouquets of a dozen roses from audience members of the female persuasion. For the most part the Bad Seeds were solid, though the Seed manning a second trap set and a bunch of marimbas and wasn’t always audible in the mix. The sound was generally a little washed-out and muddy, and I couldn’t tell if it was the band, the sound board personnel, or the venue to blame.

Altogether the band put on a racuous set and the crowd seemed very receptive to it. I liked it a lot myself, though as I mentioned my enthusiasm was tempered by being squished like lowing cattle into too small of a space. Warren Ellis, Cave’s weird-beard sidekick, was playing a variety of fanciful instruments over the night; at one point he was playing what looked like a viola with a pick as though it were a guitar, and for “Dreamland” he had one hand inside what looked like an empty paint bucket (this last produced no audible sounds, or if it did I couldn’t differentiate them). Most of the time he was playing a miniature electric guitar, which made him look weirdly out of scale, as though he were some hulking giant of a guitar player and through a trick of perspective he was made to seem the same size as Nick Cave and the other musicians.

The setlist was good, and included “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry” and “Stagger Lee” and “The Mercy Seat” among its older components. Overall it was a good show, but I was glad to emerge on Market and Sixth (not a phrase you’re likely to hear often, by the way) and see the Warfield slowly fading from view.

Sunday morning I spent some time biking around with a friend of mine at the Sunday Streets event. It was novel to casually bike down the Embarcadero without worrying about traffic, although in some ways Golden Gate Park provides a nicer Sunday car-free experience. The weather was great and it was pleasant to see a lot of families and a diverse SF crowd out enjoying the sun and getting some exercise. Overall it was a nice ride, but there didn’t seem to be a ton of activities that interested me enough to stop at them (in fairness, I hadn’t checked the website to see what was going on, either). I had stuff to do in the afternoon, so I took off before we got to Hunter’s Point and Bayview. Just before I did, we happened to come across a brief 15-minute walking tour of Pier 70.

(Aside: this blog is not going to become a blog about walking tours. I mean, I like them, but really. I need to start catching more shows to leaven out the mix a bit.)

The tour was put on by SF City Guides, an organization I’d like to get to know better one of these days. It was led by a man named Ralph Wilson, who is the author of the official unofficial site about Pier 70, pier70sf.org. For a 15-minute talk, I thought it was pretty great, covering a wide swath of historical time without going terribly in-depth in any one part, and finally touching on Proposition D, one of approximately 300 ballot measures in San Francisco’s upcoming election. The actual walking was pretty much limited to heading about fifty feet down a single street, which was fine. The “history” section of Mr. Wilson’s site probably covers about the same information we got on the talk. City Guides puts on a longer walking tour of this area and Dogpatch, which looks to be pretty interesting.

Later that afternoon I hopped on my trusty bike once again and headed up over Arguello into the Presidio to see Shakespeare in the Park‘s current performance, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. I don’t have all that much to say about this; it’s one of the Bard’s least-beloved works and for good reason. It starts out with some incest and includes lots of scenes where Pericles’s daughter is only just able to talk herself out of being raped by various people; besides that, it’s chock full of deus ex machina of the old school, where the deus appears on stage and tells the protagonist what to do (the machina itself was thankfully missing in this production, however).

The decision by director Kenneth Kelleher to stage the whole thing as a sort of Wild West show was a peculiar one, since the narrative is heavily weighted with nautical voyages and one doesn’t often see sea journeys in cowboy movies. Still, it did work well enough to emphasize the frontier aspects of some of the many locations, I suppose. The most unfortunate thing about it was that many of the actors spoke in thick country aspects, which is fine but it made all the go to! and forsoothing seem a little, ah, anachronistic. I also felt that some of the comedy bits came uncomfortably close to mugging, but I often think that about Shakespeare, so it may just be a matter of my own taste.

Lead actor Michael C. Storm did an outstanding job as Pericles, and his performance was often the only thing about the play that kept me engaged in it. I also liked a lot of the staging, in particular during a storm at sea. And the play was logistically well-handled; I’d been afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear, but the actors were well-miced and the sound system was excellent. Overall it was nice to see a play outdoors on a nice day for free, it’s just a shame that this was the play it was.

It was a nice sunny day on Saturday, and I hopped on my bike and headed out to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to check out their current show “The Big Ideas.” I had originally gone down there with the hope of going on “Everything is Better Now,” described as “a bus tour of locations of public and private emotional crisis.” Unfortunately, the bus tour was already overbooked, so after lingering around the waiting crowd for a short time and hoping that a sudden illness would strike someone, I gave up and went into the museum.

This was a free open house day for the YBCA, showcasing their “Bay Area Now” exhibit. I’d heard about this show mostly that it wasn’t amazingly great – in particular from this review by Tonya Warner in the art review site Shotgun Review, which called it “underwhelming” and “fractured and indecisive.”

Overall the show didn’t blow me away, and I agree with Warner’s assessment that it didn’t seem terribly cohesive, but there were definitely things there which piqued my interest, and it was pleasant to be out at a museum on a nice day and to see it packed full of people looking at art. I think my favorite artwork there was an installation which was simply a big dark room. The artist had installed some sort of filter-looking things above the room, and the walls were sort of sketchily painted, but it was a very stygian situation in there and the pattern was hard to make out. It rather looked as though the paint had been made with house-painting brushes on white against a black background. In any event, it evoked a definite feeling of reduced sight which was interesting to experience. At the same time I wondered to myself whether a dark room constituted art, even located as it was in a museum. I didn’t take the time to read the gloss, which I regret a bit now. The room would have been a good place to lie in wait and then jump out and scare someone, but although I was wearing muted colors I decided against doing so. You never know who might be a secret black belt in karate.

There were also a few performance pieces that I happened to stumble across. One consisted of a woman dressed in a vaguely Burning-Man outfit with spangles and big sunglasses who walked around the gallery I was in, occasionally dancing, followed closely by a man in a suit and tie who was wearing a sort of clock getup around his shoulders and head. The clock man would periodically shout out “BONG!” at the top of his lungs, not unlike a clock striking the hour. My feelings toward this pair veered rapidly between annoyance and amusement, but I eventually got over my desire to pay attention to art that wasn’t whatever they were doing at the moment and wound up being fairly engaged by their antics. I’m quite certain that YouTube footage of this event is about to come into being, and if I can track it down I will link it from here.

Shortly before I left I talked to a docent for a while who is involved with something called pharaoh maybelline’s sound trough, which seems to be a venue for noise shows and may be the subject of a future post if I am able to make it to their next show on the 28th. I told her about going to see the audio tour of Golden Gate Park “If you consider…,” which is also a good candidate for future review. In general I am extremely interested in art which focuses on psychic geography, if you will, and on overlaying a new meaning on the existing physical world. This was one of the things I liked about the tree tour; seeing the city from the point of view of which trees were planted where sort of forced a new perspective on me.

There is much more to say about this geography idea, which has only formulated itself into a coherent thing in my mind over the past few weeks, but it will need to await another day for me to delve into it farther. I will say that I was encouraged to see that the YBCA exhibit includes a good deal of tour-related performance pieces under the (cryptic) name “Ground Scores,” and I hope to try to attend some of the remaining ones if I can, because the aesthetic direction they lean in is one that really appeals to me.

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