Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chad VanGaalen at The Echo - June 18, 2014

I've seen Chad VanGaalen three times before and each time was different, whether he was solo or traveling with other musicians, he has never been quite the same twice. But I was fairly shocked when the deep electronic noise of this tour almost knocked the wind out of me, nearly cracking a rib. He's always had a penchant for weird electronic background noise but it's usually in a more winsome vein. His recordings tend to be intentionally reedy and thin, a very purposeful low-tech sound, that perfectly compliments the tremulous and heartbreaking vibrato of his vocals as his odd and surprising lyrics take you on unexpected journeys.

I first learned of this artist through his music video and animation for the song "Red Hot Drops" back in 2006 when music videos were my only window to new music. His animation is as spare and oddly haunting, weird and witty as his music. When Band Of Horses played at Avalon in October 2006, Chad VanGaalen was on the bill with them and I went. I'd seen Band Of Horses in a small Hollywood Club (King King) before and wanted to see them on a bigger stage, but it was VanGaalen who captured most of my attention that night. It was hypnotic the way he was able to command the room with just his hushed voice and tiny guitar, playing songs of such delicate beauty it was almost heartbreaking.

He came to Spaceland on Mar 28, 2009 to tour on the release of the Soft Airplane, which was his best album so far. That was a hugely memorable show and forever committed me to seeing him every chance I got. This was a remarkably unique talent that piqued my curiosity in the subversive nature of his art. It seems simultaneously childlike simple and intellectually dark and intense. At the Culture Collide Festival in October 2011, I saw him next, but as he was in town for this show as a solo, and not on tour, it was not the best venue for him on the big outdoor stage in the parking lot outside Taix. He was not able to make much of an impression on a crowd that had been watching bands for hours already.

Releasing his latest album, Shrink Dust, in April, I'd had a chance to be confused, challenged,  curious and finally pleased by this latest entry. It took a bit of getting used to, but I think I've come to like it best of all. Appearing at The Echo, last Wednesday, June 18, I was really excited to see this show, so that when he began the set, with another guitarist and a drummer, the album was turned into a rock show. A hard rock show, and that was a surprise.

Beginning with the first few songs of the album in order, they were, frankly barely recognizable, and when on "Where Are You?" he crouched down on his soundboard and blew the back wall off The Echo with chest crushing noise, I wondered what was to come. Was he morphing into My Bloody Valentine? Things calmed down considerably after that and the charms of each song became apparent. "Frozen Paradise", "Lila" "Hangman's Son" and "Evil" are really beautiful songs and even though some were overcome by passages of pure noise, I began to see the point of it.

Taking all into account, I could have wished that Chad's vocals were mixed a little bit louder, but this was the first time I saw him play in arena rock-style and even though it was a bit much for the tiny Echo, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Oh, and the place was packed, so I guess a lot of people agree with me.

Here's more pictures I took.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts From Grace Slick on Grace Slick At The Grammy

What a magnificent opportunity to see and hear the legendary Jefferson Airplane singer, Grace Slick, as she reminisced on her life and career as a major figurehead of the 1960s rock and roll youth/protest movement at The Grammy Museum on Tuesday night (June 17). I attended this event with Azalia Snail of LoveyDove, who managed to get a picture with Grace (at right). And I want to thank my friend Adam Valentin Villanueva for getting us in.

The woman is smart, bold, funny and unfiltered. Her mind, at 74, appears as sharp as it always was, with that withering sense of humor intact. No wonder she was always my favorite rock star. She shied away from no subject and was forthcoming on any topic. Her embrace of the free-thought life-style of the hippie era, her place and stature in the band, her thoughts on her contemporary musicians, her battles with alcohol. Nothing was out of bounds.

Moderated by Scott Goldman, he was prepared with many insightful questions after bringing Grace to the stage. She strode up from the side, long white hair flowing, and stood before the audience as they cheered and applauded. She looked healthy, strong and very happy and with the same striking blue eyes. Asked about her earliest interest in the arts, she confessed that she started drawing at a very early age, maybe 3. While listening to her mother, who had been a semi-professional singer before marriage and motherhood got in the way, go around the house singing "I'll be with you in apple blossom time" she developed an interest in singing. She sang a lot in school, so there was a background in voice there.

She recounted the many moves her family embarked upon, moving from Chicago, to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco all before she was 6. How she was a blonde overweight kid until about 13,  when she became tall and thin and auburn haired. She jokes that she's back to being blonde and overweight. After high school she took off for New York City before beginning higher education at Finch College in Florida. A call from a friend urging her to come to San Francisco came after that, and the rest is history.

Her early career with Jefferson Airplane was in the heady first days of the Haight-Ashbury scene and all the bands played together and became one big community until major label interest zeroed in on the ever-more-famous San Francisco scene. The Airplane was the first to be signed, and it was RCA who took the chance on one of these hippie/acid rock bands. Followed almost immediately by The Grateful Dead to Warner Bros., Big Brother and the Holding Company to Columbia, Steve Miller Band to Capitol. All the major labels wanted a piece of the pie, but once that happened they were sent out on the road so often they lost touch with each other and the sense of community was gone.

She covered the years with the band with fascinating tidbits about what piqued her interest as a songwriter. which was the fact that finally they could tackle subject more diverse than just "Oooh, my boyfriend/girlfriend left me" She loved the expanding social and cultural concerns that lyrics were finally able to address. Decrying The Beatles early career: "Christ, you guys are 24 years old and you want to hold somebody's hand?! defined my own exact opinion of their early empty pop songs. "After they took LSD that all changed," she said. The opinion that their music became much more complex and interesting, post acid, is a viewpoint I always held and certainly think it is now pretty universally accepted.

While on tour in Europe with The Doors, each headlining every other gig, they were in Amsterdam and people would come up to them offering drugs. Grace said "Thanks I'll save them for later, whereas Jim Morrison would sit right down on the sidewalk and do them all up. He treated his body as one giant pharmaceutical experiment."

When The Who were their alternating act on another tour, Roger Daltry walked over to the edge of the stage one night and kicked all eight monitor off the stage because, Grace confessed, the sound technology back then was frequently terrible. "They would hiss, pop, crackle and never sounded like your real voice coming back at you." I remember that, after seeing Jefferson Airplane at the Music Hall in Boston in October, 1969 and April 1970, my ears were still ringing more than a day after.

Scott asked her what she thought made her and Janis Joplin so successful and her answer was simple: "We were doing what we really wanted to do." And I will add: and because they were so damned good at what they did.

Of her contemporaries, she identified David Crosby as, really, the one she has remained close to, and I immediately thought of their great voices together on songs like "Triad" from Crown of Creation. Citing the Monterey Pop Festival as the best of all the festivals, she recalled the astonishment of seeing artists like Ravi Shankar and The Who. Jefferson Airplane also played Woodstock and Altamont, the only band to play all three.

She said that no one is making good music anymore, but I suspect she has not been exposed to a lot that is not in the mainstream, where her opinion would certainly be valid. I thought to myself, "if only she could be listening to what I hear every night I go out to the clubs, some of which is so rooted in style and substance to the sixties. She does say she still likes The Rolling Stones and thinks Steve Perry is the best rock and roll singer of all time, (to some audible disagreement from the audience) just to test our preconceptions.

It was just great to hear her wit again. Some nuggets:

She is driven crazy by Celine Dion's chest pounding while singing: "Dear, we know where your heart is."

She admitted she really developed a strong self confidence by the age of 25. That would be just about the time she joined the Airplane. Believes that the RCA recording studio on Sunset was the best studio they ever recorded in. Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At Baxters were recorded there.

She had choice words for the music she was forced to sing in the last days of a band now called Starship. "We Built This City". "Really?" she said, "What city?, There's no city built on rock and roll. San Francisco was built on gold and trade." Hastening her retirement in 1989.

She began expressing herself through painting not long after that... and has never stopped. She recalled that, during her childhood, her father had a hobby as a stamp collecting, and she would notice that occasionally he become so involved in the process of fastening the stamps to the pages he would forget to breathe and suddenly gasp a small, sudden intake of air. As if the lungs were becoming desperate. She experiences the same sensation when painting. Becoming so lost in the singular focus of the act that breathing seems a break in the concentration. I have to admit I know this sensation.

The evening was over as quickly as it began, and I was floating on air, just to have been in the room. It was great to see that her built-in bullshit detector is still 'laser point' accurate. She told an amusing story related to her artwork and I think it goes like this: Her first subjects were animals because they
were comforting and made her feel good. Particularly as she was in a relationship with a bi-polar partner, which was making life difficult.

Eventually they evolved into her first Alice in Wonderland-themed paintings of the White Rabbit, and at an exhibit someone came up to her to try to find out the hidden meaning, or what her intentions were, or what was he not seeing, and she deadpanned in a flat voice "It's a bunny."


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Conversation with Grace Slick at The Grammy Museum - June 17, 2014

It just doesn't seem right not to post something at this aptly named blog in honor of A Conversation with Grace Slick taking place at The Grammy Museum tonight (Tuesday). To this very day I can recall the absolute shock I experience upon listening to the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow for the first time on my 17th birthday (8/19/67). It was the first album I ever heard where every single song was great.

In January 1967, I'd been listening to "My Best Friend" on the radio, which was the first single from that album and loved the song, though I didn't realize that there was a female voice in the mix (all radio was monaural in those days, so it was hard to tell), until "Somebody To Love was released in April and I became curious who this powerful voice belonged to.  It was the release of "White Rabbit" in late June (Summer of Love) '67 that clinched it for me.

We had studied Ravel's Bolero in music appreciation in school (yes, we had such classes back then, before Reagan and the republicans had gutted public education) and I loved the progressive layering upon layering of the piece.Tied in with my love of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and the potent and specific references to that text by Slick in her lyrics, along with the invitation to a different lifestyle, and I was the ideal target for the song.

Over the course of their career, Jefferson Airplane repeatedly pushed the boundaries of rock and roll and I happily went along for the ride. Each subsequent album stretched and pulled and pushed my musical tastes into areas I would never have considered and it was always thrilling to hear where Grace would take her voice on each new record. They also became more political as I became more political and seeing them in concert was always an adventure.

Now, these many years later, I still appreciate what they did for me and I have felt that influence to this very day. Grace Slick continued to be a force in rock and roll till she retired her voice in the mid 1990s. Channeling her talent to a paint brush, she began to be a serious visual artist, penned her autobiography and pulled back from a public life. Tonight's conversation will cover both her music career and her painting endeavors, accompanied by an exhibit of her art. For me, it will be as thrilling as it is emotional.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Jefferson Starship 40 Year Anniversary

Just had to post a note about the upcoming show on Friday, May 23 at The Saban Theatre. As the name of this blog indicates, and anyone who knows me knows, this is an extra special treat for me as I have been following Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship since 1967. Whatever the band's make up, I'm still looking forward to hearing whatever they choose to play live again after all these years. The last time I saw Jefferson Starship was in 1977 at Boston Garden, not long before I moved to the West Coast, and they were performing material from both entities and the band was in tip top shape. By the time I was living in Los Angeles they were hugely popular and played only stadiums (which I refused to attend), so that's why it been 38 years. I'll let you know how this turns out.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Aaron Embry Begins April Residency At Hotel Cafe - April 1, 2014

Tuesday night, April 1, was the first night that Aaron Embry introduced his new material during a bi-weekly residency at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe which will continue throughout the rest of this month. He performed for an audience full of friends and acquaintances in a set that sounded as intimate and comforting as sitting around a fireplace in someone's home. His eagerness to get these songs out there was matched by his wide-eyed shyness about singing lyrics that are even more personal and deeply felt than much that has come before. The small figure on the stage suddenly swamped the place as he sang and sustained a total grip on the audience.

The unabashed delight he takes from singing a line like, simply, "I love you Nikki" to his wife, he explained, becomes a declaration that strengthens their bond each time he says it. Revealing a window into his creative process, he shared stories about each song. Especially touching was the sing-song rhymes and burbling vocals for the song dedicated to daughter, Mayla. It was so personal it felt like eavesdropping.

Accompanying himself on the guitar and harmonica, his voice is still the wondrously flexible instrument it's always been. With, perhaps, a bit more tenderness as these deeply felt songs demand. The thrill of his first public performance of these works was transferred directly from performer to observer as both Aaron and his fans and friends were giddy with delight. Many of the songs deal with his firm grip on his spirituality which informs and comforts his soul and ignites his creativity.

As a finale, he put down his guitar and moved over to the piano for a couple of more familiar song which, nonetheless, were beautifully delivered with a freshness and clarity that made them feel new. On April 15th and 29th, Aaron Embry will be returning to Hotel Cafe to further develop the live performances of this material and I expect to be there every step of the way.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Lost In The Trees at The Echo - March 20, 2014


I always end up being unexpectedly overwhelmed by Lost In The Trees every time I see them. Thursday night, March 20, at The Echo proved to be no exception. Touring for the first time as a stripped down combo, departing from the large orchestral make up of the band before, they look more like a rock band now. It's an interesting direction for them to take, with no loss whatsoever on the impact they have on stage.

And this new ensemble is what makes their new album, Past Life, such a surprising departure from their previous releases. I'll have to admit, I was surprised at the crowd that pushed their way to the front as the band came on stage, with an urgency usually reserved for big, popular bands. Their audiences usually remind me of the studious and academic audience you would see at an Andrew Bird or Okkervil River concert. They now have an expanding fan base, probably from the heavy radio play of  Past Life. This makes me very happy as they have always deserved more acclaim.

Starting off with a couple of songs from the new album, I got used to the new sound coming from the new configuration of the band. Unfortunately, from where I stood, the vocals were lacking in the sound mix during "Excos" which has subtle vocals to begin with, so I began moving around the crowded room to try to find a better sounding spot. I wasn't sure whether it was my geographical adjustment or else they had fixed the sound, but from then on the mix was perfect.

The title song, "Past Life", was next and represented precisely and flawlessly revealing the newer, almost upbeat, attitude that permeates most of the album. With many of the formerly orchestral passages replaced by funky dance beats and some prerecorded backgrounds, it surprised me to hear that it is so effective and engaging...and powerful in a live setting.

"Neither Here Nor There" from A Church To Fit Our Needs came next and was brilliantly rearranged for a five piece band sounding every bit as complex and dense as the fully orchestrated version. That took me by surprise and I realized then that his was going to be an astonishing show. From that moment on it all became a blur of new and old material, all performed for maximum impact, and lifting me higher and higher.

The new songs are no less deep, thoughtful or penetrating than their predecessors, it's just more dancey. Most of the new album was played, mixed in with some material pulled from their first two releases.All the piercing power of Ari Picker's sweet voice is here, and more, as he appears more vocally relaxed than ever. The clear, high, ethereal soprano of Emma Nadeau, a defining characteristic of Lost In The Trees since the beginning, provides the important counterpoint and is as vital to this new ensemble as ever. I have to admit the new album hadn't had time to make a big impression on me as I only bought it Tuesday. But, as has happened to me many times, to hear it live raised it way, way up in my estimation. It's a gorgeous and serious work of great inspiration and beauty. It just goes to show you, the time to make up your mind about an album...is never. That gets truer as I get older.

The whole show was startlingly unconventional in it's stage lighting, going for stark and jarring changes that were both fueled by the music and intense in their bold contrast. The background was frequently lit up by a white light version of the Past Life album art, which would blanch out Ari's face like a headlight in the night. He asked for his mic to be upped during the song "Rites" where his writing really gets to shine; "and every harm, every violent moment, all of our faults aside, drift through rooms of white light." Stunning. The whole set sped by and I was left reeling from it, vibrating the whole next day.

photos too

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Starting the New Year Right, Part 2

After all that fun at the FOMO Fest, I was well primed for my own show on Saturday, January 4th at Lot 1. I was able to enlist the help of Rebecca Balin in booking the show, and she got all the talent to sign on, so this whole evening was very much thanks to her.

Two of the acts I knew by reputation, for both Charlie Clark and Meredith Meyer have substantial followings. Jill Avilez is a talent I had witnessed first hand when she dazzled me with one of her bands, The Love Absurd (she plays in five) last year when they played at my show in June.

Opening act was Teena May who, with her straightforward candor and raw emotion, simply and completely "blew the roof off the place". She brought in her own large following and it was easy to see why. A part-time New Yorker, her songs have a sophistication and intelligence that are characteristic of many East Coast artists. Even reminding me of the early and challenging confessional work of Laura Nyro that I enjoyed as a teenager - like exposed raw nerves, along with the definitive jazz influence. She calls her songs 'stories' and indeed, they have a definite narrative flow, but with the maturity to turn personal pain into triumphant art.

Accompanying herself on guitar, she has a gorgeously strong and expressive voice which she handles like a complex instrument. Joking about how some have told her to temper her broken relationship songs with some lighter fare between the romantic rants, she had a nicely modulated sets with some positively uptempo numbers here and there.

Because she had struck up a conversation before her set with Runson Willis, the multi-faceted musician I met last year when he played my show in Dec. '12, she invited him onstage to join her with his harmonica for a couple of songs. Uncanny how well he fit into her songs, it was truly inspirational to see two accomplished artists make an instant musical connection that sounded like they have been playing together all along.

After the excitement of the first set, we were able to wind down with an intimate set by Meredith Meyer, and she and her guitar enchanted with perfectly crafted folk/pop songs that build on the tradition of the great female singer/songwriters who came to prominence in the late sixties/early seventies, from Joni Mitchell to Melanie to Bonnie Raitt to Stevie Nicks, etc. She seems to have an uncanny talent to compose catchy tunes that never sound derivative and she presents them with a refreshingly unflashy vocal style.

Personal stories were turning out to be a theme of the evening and the cool, calm, almost stately demeanor of Ms. Meyer offered a wonderful contrast to the previous performer's emotion. She has a steady and confident presence and, though petite in stature, she filled Lot 1 with the soft, melodious sound of her reflective and specific songs. The lyrics sound autobiographical in their attention to detail and the exactness of the references to real life. She even has written a song called "Storyteller Girl". That's an apt description.

Headliner Charlie Clark was next, and even without a full band, the man from Glasgow, with just one accompanist, who added wonderful harmonies as well as playing the harmonium on a couple of songs, presented a well rounded set that incorporated songs from his impressive catalog, as well as a tune that (he said) he had just written that afternoon. His music is a happy collaboration of American roots music and the ancient tradition of early European folk songs. Also a storyteller, he sings song about growing up in Scotland and about living in America with a yearning nostalgia that I found touching.

He told a familiar story I could relate to about growing up in a picturesque and idyllic pastoral location, but filled with people he couldn't wait to get away from. Afterward, he and I talked about how I empathized with the childhood spent in a kind of environmental paradise (in my case a seacoast town near Cape Cod) and the ever-gnawing need to get the fuck away. I mean, there was no where to go but OUT. So his song reflect a kind of restless desire for growth and new experiences, cogently told. I look forward to hearing him play with his full band.

And finally Jill Avilez took the stage to shake the very foundations of Lot 1 with a sultry, sexy and sly solo performance that made the hair on the back of you neck stand straight up. Armed with her tall upright double bass violin, which she strokes and strummed and plucked and slapped, she lets her heroic voice steer the songs. Ironic humor laces her lyrics which are already wry takes on life, love and other things, and which are complimented by the swaggering personality of the singer. She can purr and coo or let loose with a piecing bellow that keeps you on the edge of your seat (if one were sitting).

It was a swinging and seductive set that the audience just ate up. Teena May came back in and became an enthusiastic supporter on the spot. Admitting to me later that she had been nervous about playing solo, Jill must have found the overwhelming appreciation of the people who had stayed enough to assuage that fear. It was a hair raising ending to the night. I'm looking forward to booking her four other bands this year.

Of all the Feed Your Head shows I've done (and that's now over 30) this was one of my favorites. A big thanks to Rebecca Balin for the line up and huge gratitude to the wonderful performers who gave so much for us to enjoy. And thanks to Eileen and Jason for their hospitality, as always. And Sean Guerin for sound duties, always the best.