Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2009

This has been a year of ever increasing changes in the indie music community. Growth, new talent, loss, opportunity, and the internal morphing of the bands themselves have contributed to an expanding scene that, standing on the sidelines, still appears filled with tremendous energy, dedication and innovation. And the level of talent continues to amaze me.

The music blogging world, of which I have become a part, is just as fluid as the music scene itself. The blogs of people who came into the scene around the same time I did, early in 2008, are growing and shrinking and reinventing themselves. I particularly think of Mouse of Classical Geek Theatre and Travis of Web In Front as sources of my inspiration, and Bronson of BuzzbandsLA continues to feed me historical context. I was also given the golden opportunity of joining the staff of Joe Fielder's Radio Free Silver Lake now that it has become a multi-writer enterprise.

I don't even know for sure how many albums I got this year, but I know I had to whittle this list down from about 40 that I considered. It involved local bands, national bands and international bands. I dump them all onto one list. In my mind, the little homemade self release that only gets heard by 200 people is just as valid as any international best seller. They're all part of our collective aural history now.

Once again I can say I had the immense pleasure of hearing all these albums performed live, often more than once. I think that has as much to say about living in Los Angeles as it does my own personal musical taste. Or it's just the happy collision of two worlds. Seven in the list are local bands and I'm glad about that. This is a reworking of the list that appeared at Radio Free Silver Lake on December 11th with the significant addition of a twelfth entry, making my top ten an even dozen.

Top Ten Albums (in order)

1. his Orchestra - Field Guide To the Wilds

his Orchestra have had a powerful hold on me ever since I saw half of their set last May at Spaceland where they were opening for Wooden Birds. I picked up this CD that night, plopping it into my CD player the next day it immediately became an instant compulsion. This was an easy choice as number one because, just as with last year's number one: Amen Namo by Amnion, I played it more than any other record this year, and for a months and months. It's like the perfect indie pop album; catchy melodies, full, rich orchestrations, intelligent lyrics and a real obvious joy at the creation of this music. Appropriately named his Orchestra, they are indeed a small orchestra with obvious classical training, headed by a gifted songwriter, Douglas, who conducts his army of musicians as tightly as a classical conductor. The crisp, structured compositions are fleshed out by an impressive array of instruments that on first hearing sound like sunny indie pop, but repeated listenings reveal layer after layer of surprising depth and seriousness. There isn't a bad song in the collection and one, in particular, "Interesting End of the Day", would be a perfect song...were it not so short. (Or is that why it's perfect?) In coming years, if I ever need to remind myself why I love this genre of music so much, I'll put on this CD. It's already a touchstone for me.

2. Red Cortez - Hands To the Wall (EP)

This EP earns it's spot near the top of my list because the initial 4-song release contains four of the best single songs released this year and any one alone could qualify as year's best song. It shows just what Red Cortez is capable of and why everyone is paying attention. I was especially pleased with this release because their previous recordings as The Weather Underground only hinted at the power and passion of their live act. Leading off with "In The Fall", which puts Harley's vocals out front and at the proper level, revealing a very powerful voice, you could introduce people to the band with this CD and they would all say, "Ahh yes, this is great". The whole band appears to be at a performance peak that continues through "World At Rest", "Laughing Streetcar" (love that title) and "All The Difference". The subsequent five song edition entitled Hands To The Wall includes "Fell On The Floor", another fine song. The second this CD ends I play it again. This band's live shows this year were electrifying and I love the fact this recording is as great as they are live. I wasn't sure the explosive talent of Red Cortez could be captured on disc, so now that we know, just imagine a full length by these guys.

3. The Happy Hollows - Spells

This white hot blast of musical energy is the near perfect representation of the band's live show. The dizzying blend of styles and influences that shape this band's unique sound is on display for all to hear. A lot of local bands, whose live shows are amorphous, spontaneous blasts of talent and energy, surprised me with their faithfulness to their live act, yet at the same time, bringing the discipline necessary to the recording medium. And The Happy Hollows did it maybe better than anyone. From Sarah Negahdari's vocals and virtuoso guitar playing, to Charlie Mahoney's thundering bass and Chris Hernandez' frantic drumming, everything you love about them live is here. And none of it sounds canned or 'by-the-numbers'. Even after repeated listenings it stays fresh. Production values are top notch and the addition of Charlene Huang's violin adds unexpected poignancy to a couple of numbers. This band's spectacular year has culminated in a signing with Autumn Tone records.

4. Le Loup - Family

I had so appreciated The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by Le Loup yet I still could not contain my joy at their new CD Family (released on September 22) by Hardly Art. Quirky, inventive, resourceful, this odd blend of various styles from around the world is beautifully realized. The elaborate vocal intricacies of this band are beyond parallel, from early Gregorian chants to tribal African vocal patterns and ordinary (hardly) three part harmonies, they seem to get their inspiration from any source available. The album also represents a real step forward for the songwriting, now that all members are contributing, Sam Simkoff's compositions are more focused and structured. The lyrics are intelligent, thoughtful and wonderfully cryptic. And on top of that, their live performances, like at The Echo last October, are explosions of music and dance. Their infectious set showed off a pride in the material and a love of performance few groups can equal. If you can get through this album without dancing around the room, you have no pulse. I wish they came around more often.

5. Silversun Pickups - Swoon

Oddly enough, I thought this album was a disappointment when I first heard it. I found the repeated use of the dropped beat a bit of a gimmick. But something kept me going back to it and gradually the songs took hold of me. In fact, I think it represents a step forward in their songwriting because the music seems more varied and sophisticated than on Carnivas. Embellished with some atmospheric ambient noises and nice orchestral flourishes, the production sounds even more ambitious. Brian Aubert's vocals are more powerful and assured than ever. Again traversing the darker edges of life, they take an unflinching look at what their fame has brought them. The sacrifices as well as the rewards. The lyrics are probing and honest, and very smart. The driving, propulsive energy in the music keeps it constantly swimming forward, like a shark. There's a 3 dimensional quality to the music, as if you're hearing it from deep in a well. I finally got to hear them perform it live this summer at Gibson Amphitheatre, and they brought all the passion and energy the music deserves to an electrifying performance that, unfortunately was ruined by over-zealous and unruly fans with an unseemly penchant for texting during the performance. Still, Swoon qualifies as an album of the year.

6. Telegraph Canyon - The Tide and the Current

This has got to be one of the most self assured and confident albums by a new band I've ever heard. So accomplished are all the elements that there's not one wasted note on the entire album. Solid and evocative songwriting is wedded to extraordinary gifts as singers, musicians and performers. This band is the real deal and all parts are in place for this enterprise to take hold in a huge way. A solid roots music background has obviously fueled this Texas band, aided by the current Southwestern indie rock/alt country sound. Telegraph Canyon adds their own twist to the genre with lush orchestrations and rich instrumentation, all impressively displayed whenever I've seen them live. Chris Johnson's vocals are of such strength and character, he sounds like a voice from another era, or a voice you think you've always known. The songs are all solid and quite remarkable. I played "Shake Your Fist" and "A Light In The Field" over and over and over again all summer long. In fact, I would say "A Light In The Field" could be considered one of the best songs of the year.

7. Fol Chen - Part 1: John Shade Your Fortune's

This first full length album from the talented, genre-defying circus of a band, Fol Chen, is a terrific introduction to their live act, as the songs are faithfully recreated with all the studio flourishes this top production provides. The surprise is the quiet, introspective songs they don't perform live, which reveal different sides to this band that I was real pleased to learn about. I love the "John Shade" song and long to hear it live. Dense, swirling compositions has been a key element of this band ever since I saw their first concert at a "Let's Independent!" a couple of years ago, and they only continue to grow and mature. Beautifully produced, this CD has some of the best sound of any release I've heard this year. I also have the pleasure of knowing what great people this band is made of and I predict 2010 will promise great movement for this band. As a live act this band is always a surprise, trying out new variations of favorite songs... and they have charisma to spare.

8. Blitzen Trapper - Black River Killer (EP)

Blitzen Trapper's Furr had an easy position on my best list last year, and Black River Killer feels like extra recordings and outtakes from that album so it's inclusion is unavoidable this year, even though it only gives us six new songs. But every one of those six is a catchy attention getter that I couldn't get out of my mind. Another band from the fertile Northwest, their music is as instantly classic sounding as the way The New Pornographers or Calexico or The National are. There's just a solid songwriting skill that's undeniable. Watching the songs performed live at an El Rey show a couple of months ago only confirmed my suspicion that these are some of the finest songs this band has yet written. That was the best of the three times I've seen them. It's just perfect Americana folk-indie rock with thoughtful, intelligent lyrics, skilled playing and addictive melodies.

9. J. Tillman - Year In the Kingdom

This was one of my favorite finds this year. Though I'd met and chatted with Joshua a few times at Fleet Foxes shows where he plays drums, I had no idea the extraordinarily gifted singer/songwriter he is in his own right. The discovery was a revelation. These are some of the most heartfelt and moving songs I heard all year and played with amazing virtuosity by his own band. Also remarkable is the fact he released another full length CD this year, Vacilando Territory Blues, which actually also deserves to be on this list too. Another product of the Northwest, J. Tillman shares an affinity for nature with other musicians of the area which extends into Canada to include bands like Great Lake Swimmers whose writing this most reminds me of. Sharply attuned to the rugged geography surrounding him, he filters life's emotions through that prism and sees everything in it's relationship to it's place in the natural world. One thing I must add is that live, the music displays a power and sweep only hinted at in the recording that replaces some of the lush orchestrations of the CD with a passionate, sometimes ferocious, stage performance.

10. The Stevenson Ranch Davidians - Life and Death

After about a year hiatus, The Stevenson Ranch Davidians suddenly reemerged on the scene in October with this new CD. I was really into this band a couple of years ago and devoured the last CD, Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Anxiously awaiting this CD, Life and Death didn't disappoint. They are among a group of L.A. bands that appeal to the ever-present '60's flower-child that still lives within me, with their distant, vaguely anachronistic , pre-digital age music (see The French Semester... and Seasons often work this territory). I enjoy the utterly unpretentious lyrics and the simple, classic forward thrust of the melodies coupled with Dwayne's plaintive, world-weary vocals. It's a very simple formula, but they execute it with creativity and intelligence.

11. The French Semester - Good Friends Only I Could See

One of the earliest releases of the year (in January) and easily the record that got me through the cold winter months. This CD seems to come from a different time and era. It has a perfect, space-agey sixties feel to it that is so strong it could be a long lost recording from that era unearthed by a later civilization. I saw the band at Silver Lake Lounge, got the CD and was blown away by the surfy '60's jangle they recreate so beautifully. All the more astonishing as the band hails from all over the world and yet make the perfect sunny California sound. But it's the fresh and innovative songs that keeps The French Semester from being a nostalgia trip and very much of the current local scene. Like The Stevenson Ranch Davidians, they mine territory close to my heart, and they do it so well I followed them around most of the year.
This year has also brought about personnel changes that keep the band evolving and developing and I will willingly follow wherever they lead.

12. Mew - No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away

This is a recent addition since this list appeared at Radio Free Silver Lake as this album was a delayed starter for me. Mew really impressed me when I saw them three times during 2006 with their grandiose, symphonic combination of arena rock and pensive ballads, but I really hadn't paid much attention lately. When they came back to town earlier in the fall I got this new CD, No More Stories Are Told Today... and didn't immediately get into it. Even after the tremendous show at The Troubadour in September I still preferred their previous CD And The Glass Handed Kites. I was so blown away by that show that I got a ticket when they announced a show at The Fonda this month and recommitted to listening to this new CD. And it grew and it grew until all I wanted to hear were these new songs. I'm still in the obsession cycle with this album, playing it more than once a day. Songs like "Cartoon and Macrame Wounds" and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy" are so rich and strong, vocally and instrumentally they make me swoon. Seeing them live is mandatory as they always play among the most professional and inspiring sets by any band I've ever seen.

Honorable Mention:

I have to make this quick or I will never publish this list until 2010...(these were all strong contenders for the above dozen)

Manhattan Murder Mystery - Manhattan Murder Mystery (EP)
This is another local band I didn't believe could capture their unique live sound on disc, but they did and they even enhanced it with inspired performances of some of their audience favorites. Rough, raw and full of life.

Iron And Wine - Norfolk 6/20/05
This CD was a giveaway at the Hollywood Cemetery show and it's my favorite recording by this band. 18 songs and all of them among the best Sam Beam has written., beautifully performed both acoustic and with full band from a concert in 2005.

Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels
Latest album by the golden throated troubadour Tony Dekker is filled with the same beautiful dark melancholy compositions that he confidently delivers, further confirming his reputation as a highly gifted songwriter.

Vetiver - Tight Knit
The most solid, cohesive album yet by this member of the freak-folk movement that he performed splendidly at the Eagle Rock Center For the Performing Arts last April.

The Faraway Places - Out of the Rain, the Thunder and the Lightning
Another terrific band with a strong writing style and an assured and positive stage energy.
More in the tradition of the pop songsters of the '60's than the jangle rock of other bands, there's a refreshing crispness and directness of intent in their music that's very wlecome.

Grizzly Bear - Veckatemist
Though not quite at the level of Yellow House, this is nonetheless a compelling chapter in this bands evolving sound. Big, sweeping song structures that resemble architecture as much as music, involve the heart as well as the intellect.

Great Northern - Remind Me Where The Light Is
Great Northern came roaring back to life with this aggressive, forceful and very beautiful album. They gave a compelling live performance of the material at Silver Lake Lounge last March.

Sea Wolf - White Winter
Great sophomore album by this popular band shows confidence and growth both as a band and as writers.

J. Tillman - Vacilando Territory Blues
This other J. Tillman release of the year was as good as Year In The Kingdom, but only one could make the cut. More songs by one of my favorite voices in music today.

Last but not least...

Jefferson Airplane - The Woodstock Experience
This recording, released to coincide with the famous concert's 40th Anniversary, was a revelation to me, because I'd alway been told their performance was sloppy. Imagine my surprise to hear a sharp, powerfully played and sung set with some of my favorite Airplane songs and Grace Slick sounding astonishingly pitch-perfect in spite of the circumstances. The vocal duels with Marty Balin are very special indeed. I heard they had been up all night, were on acid, and exhausted when they played at 7 AM in the morning, but you'd never know it by this incredibly professional performance. It's why they were my favorite band. And, in fact, Rolling Stone finally gave one of their albums a good review!

Coming next... my favorite shows and sets of the year.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Sudden Surprise Show December 26th

For those of us stuck in Los Angeles, alone and friendless over the holiday, a special treat came on my radar yesterday.

A show at the Echoplex the night after Christmas with Avi Buffalo, about to become the next break out band, Wait.Think.Fast, Angus Kahn, Moses Campbell and Barrio Tiger promises to be a super Christmas present for those of us lucky enough to attend. I got a ticket the minute I heard about it and look forward to spending an evening with friends that are like family.

Avi Buffalo will be heading off to New York for a couple of shows in January and there are no other shows scheduled for them in December in L.A. so catch them while you can on December 26 for only $8.

(photos by Doug Kresse from the Avi Buffalo show at The Knitting Factory August 12, 2009, thank you Doug and have a great holiday)


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mew at the Henry Fonda - Dec. 14, 2009

An odd thing happened in the days leading up to this show. I had purchased the latest Mew album, No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away, before their last show at the Troubadour in September. But it is not immediately accessible and it wasn't until I went back to it to prepare for the show at the Fonda that I perked up and realized, "This is really, really good". As much as I loved And The Glass Handed Kites, and thought it may be the ultimate Mew record, I found myself becoming increasingly obsessed with some cuts from No More Stories..., to the point that I wanted to hear them performed more than my former favorite Mew songs. I think this is a testament to the growth and extreme talent this band shows off effortlessly. And I think, on the strength of Monday's performance, they're only going to get better.

What a stunning show. I arrived after the first band had played and was surprised at the size of the crowd. It looked sold out to me. Being The Fonda, I still managed to get up close, and over on the side, which I prefer it it's super crowded, also to be able to see the singers around their microphones. And the crowd was one of the best audiences I've encountered at a big show. Courteous, attentive, worshipful (when called for) and a pleasure to be among. In contrast to the Troubadour show, now the audience knows the new material and greeted it with rapturous applause.

They didn't even play my favorite song from the new album, "Cartoons and Macrame Wounds", but I was still completely satisfied. Opening with "Hawaii" with it's shifting tempos and salsa rhythms which break away into their trademark thunder, the impossibly complex vocal patterns sent the crowd soaring from the very start. The developing density and complexity of the sophisticated songwriting is easily evident in "Vaccine" and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy" The lyrics belie the fact that English is not their native language in their intelligence and poetry.

Of course they performed the crowd pleasers from Glass...Kites including the amazing opening song, "Circulation of the Wolf'", which they seamed to "Special", and "The Zookeeper's Boy. It's also a pleasure to watch Jonas Bjerre (seen above) sing with absolutely no nonsense. It seems so easy for him and his otherwordly demeanor only adds to the effectiveness. And to see how the band's four singers work together to ensure a perfect blending of voices , at just the right level. It's sublime to see and to hear.

Yes, they did make the Fonda vibrate as few bands can do, and, indeed the music can be overwhelmingly powerful, but it never, for an instant stops being supremely beautiful. Maybe some of the most beautiul music I've ever heard. With the addition of an extraordinary lightshow and film projections that are hypnotic and bizarre, even occasionally disturbing (the fiddle-playing cats come to mind, with their blinking eyes) the whole evening took on the feeling of grand theatre.


(Thanks to Kmetron for the great shots from Mew's show in Brussels)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Heads Up

Saturday, December 19, is a night fraught with terrible choices. My first desire was for the X/Calexico Christmas show at The Wiltern, which I heard about months ago but, owing to finances, failed to get a ticket for. I have seen Calexico a few times and they're one of my favorite live band, but, and this may get me drummed out of the music community, I've never seen X live, and this would have been my chance were it not for Elaine Layabout.

The 3rd Annual Christmas Sweater Festival also takes place on this night. Last year's event at Echoplex was so well attended and fun that this year they've moved to the far swankier environment of El Rey.

Like last year they also have a stellar local line up with The Deadly Syndrome, The Pity Party, Eskimohunter, Castledoor and more and is likely to lure many an Eastsider to the Wilshire district. I love all the bands but am especially disappointed to miss Eskimohunter, who so impressed me at the Abbot Kinney Street Festival this September that I've been chasing them down to see another show ever since. Damn!

As you can see, The Monolators, are playing an instore at Origami Vinyl at 7, so one could, theoretically, attend this, then fly over to Pehrspace for...

This is where I'll be to hear my good friends, Cave Country, woo the hoedown audience with a set of their beautifully composed and sung alt country. What I'm really looking forward to is the set by Tenlons Fort. He performed a solo acoustic set last November 5th at The Echo at one o'clock in the morning that I haven't been able to shake off yet. It was one of my favorite sets of the year and the brilliance of the songwriting was matched by the performance itself, a highlight being when Nate Cole of Castledoor joined him onstage for a stunning duet on a memorable song called "You Won't Be With Me". Also on the bill are The Mystery Lights and Tomorrow's Tulips and since Elaine has yet to disappoint me, I'm sure they are worth checking out. Did I mention Elaine and the Layabouts will be playing a set too? Count me in!


Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Wish I could attend this show tonight. As a follower of The French Semester (photo below by Olivia Hemaratanatorn) for the last year, and with their previous CD Good Friends Only I Could See vying for a position on my 10 Best list, I look forward to the Forces Afield EP featuring their newest line up. And Seasons, too. I've probably seen them more than any other band this year and they have yet to disappoint me with a lackluster set. They never give less than 100%. With The Monthlies and The Spires on the bill, this makes for one of the week's top shows. And it's presented by my friends at ISGOODMUSIC.

I have to work tonight and much of my spare time is spent concocting all these end-of-the-year lists, so I'll not be out a lot this week. I'm part of the Radio Free Silver Lake compilation committee, so that will appear first. I'll be posting my Feed Your Head 10 Best lists closer to the end of the year. And I was invited to take part in the Deli Magazine poll of the best break-out bands from L.A. to look for next year.

When I first started writing this blog a year and a half ago, I couldn't have imagined I would be in a position to participate in this sort of thing...and I can't believe how much fun it is. It's been a year of big changes.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

All Things Friday

Friday night is crazy with choices. Maybe Castledoor at The Echo, The Airborne Toxic Event storming Walt Disney Concert Hall (what a perfect setting for their brand of grand orchestral rock), Slang Chickens and Pocahaunted at Gallery 1018, Cinematic Sunrise at The Troubadour, Big Whup and Cobra Lilies at Echo Curio. I may just solve the whole thing by heading over to the Klaws/Mountain show in Santa Monica, see above.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

How To Fight Records, Dramaturgy and Feed Your Head present a Show at Mr. T's Bowl on Friday, November 20


Here's the promotion I put up on Radio Free Silver Lake to support this show. Please come out, it should be a great night.

"Old friends and party favorites, Manhattan Murder Mystery, headline a show I'm co-presenting with Dramaturgy and How To Fight Records, at Mr. T's Bowl. The reverb drenched distortions from Kill Kill Kill, the stripped down, minimal post punk of Meho Plaza, who are releasing an EP, Made of Gold, tonight. The Ross Sea Party, perform pretty indie pop tunes with distinctive vocals and '60's style rock and blues is provided by The Downtown Train in a widely varied line up that's sure to please everyone."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Art At A Gallery

Elaine Layabout put together a show that really deserved to be in an art gallery, because all four bands displayed an artistry uncommon for a single band in an evening's line up. But for all four bands to inspire and invigorate was something very special.

By the end of the evening of November 12, 2009, the audience was punch-drunk, not from alcohol (alright maybe some alcohol) but from soaring spirits and aural satisfaction. As the evening began with a sound check by Tommy Santee Klaws (at right) that was inspirational, it provided a hint of what was to come. Even the sound check struck the early attendees silent.

This was my first trip to the Gallery 2023 which can only be reached by being squirted out the back end of downtown Los Angeles. Quite a trip on subway and bus, but so worth it I would do it again in a heartbeat. It's one of L.A.'s secret treasures. This was also the second Thursday of the month, meaning it was also the night of L.A.'s downtown Artwalk, which may partially account for the excellent crowd that came to the show. Excellent in number and excellent in quality.

I was glad so many were on hand to witness Tommy Santee Klaws. I've been singing the praises of this band for over a year now and I'm thrilled to see people are finally catching on and a following is developing.

Beginning at ten, I realized this was going to be a long night and I might as well relax and sink into it. An excellent sound mix and the beauty of their voices and the huge sound of the full band had the audience in a trance in an instant. There appears to be no end to Tommy's songwriting resources as they always include brand new material on their set lists. The music is like honey to the ears with lyrics that their upright bassist, Tom Paige, described to me as "dark-folk". I like the term.

I can't get enough of this band and their swift set was over way too soon. But it has been a little while since I've seen them with Dirk Doucette on drums and his drums were louder and more powerful than ever and it ramped up the music a notch on every song. I've never heard the songs with so much punch before.

Next up was Austin's Monahans, who performed a tight, melodic set of their distinctly powerful indie rock with it's driving beat and carefully executed vocals. I'd never heard them before, but since, have learned how many in the local music scene have played with them or admire their work. I must pick up their recordings and see them again when they are in town.

The real lure of this show was the opportunity to see Telegraph Canyon (below) for the third time. It is a testament to the quality of this remarkable band that, in spite of persistent sound problems and the fact they didn't play my favorite song, "A Light In the Field", this was still one of the best sets I've seen by any band this year.

They swept the audience off their collective feet and won a slew of new fans this night with their fully realized genre-spanning atl-country indie. I first encountered them at Elaine Layabout's third Hella Hipster Hoedown at Pehrspace last June, picked up a couple of CD's, met the band and became addicted to their superb CD, The Tide and the Current. By the next time I saw them (September 11, American Legion Hall 206) I knew every note and every word of their songs, so to hear them so fully realized live was both reassuring and a revelation.

They sang "Into the Woods", "Shake Your Fist" (my other favorite song), "Safe On the Outside" with Austin Green clackity-clacking away on the drum casing. The highlight, I think, was the beautiful "Reels and Wires" which pulls you in with Chris Johnson's (pictured at left) evocative vocals, when the song drops into a reverie of choir vocals and Tamara Cauble's stunning, plucked violin which completely washes over you to hypnotize by it's conclusion.

Eschewing the mikes on a couple of songs, to hear a full, orchestral band, playing in complete harmony and perfect balance, as they stood right in front of me was an experience I will treasure for all my days. That sounds dramatic, but that's how it was. Every member of this band seems an accomplished musician so I'll name them. They are: Chris Johnson, lead guitar and vocal, banjo; Tamara Cauble, violin; Andrew Skates, organ, piano, mandolin; Chuck Brown, Bass; Eric Wolfe, electric guitar; Austin Green, drums. They all play and sing more than I've listed, but you get the idea.

I felt totally electrified by this point and then Restavrant came on to blow my mind one more time. What is this junk-house rock and roll amalgamation they play? Where, in their devious little brains, does it come from? It's like rock-a-billy. new wave, punk, folk, disco, with a heady dose of psychedelia that is completely original. Identified as Troy Olaf Murrah and J State on their myspace page, I assume J is the one on the percussion where any and every metallic or wooden object became fair game for his rapid fire drum sticks, which looked more like clubs. Troy is the singer and guitarist and keeps the whole thing from flying off the rails. Don't miss this band.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Feed Your Head presents it's 3rd Show

I am happy to announce a show presented by How To Fight Records, Dramaturgy and Feed Your Head, with a bunch of great bands including one of my personal favorites, Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Will post more details later:


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Le Loup at The Echo (10/28/09)

I'd been looking forward to this show for a long time, ever since last April (2008) to be exact. That was the first time Le Loup played L.A. and I was a new fan who was thrilled by the energy and quirky creativity Sam Simkoff and his band displayed.

The songs off the first album were mighty strange and yet hypnotically enticing. Not unlike Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, it seems Sam Simkoff first recorded his material all by himself and the need for a band came later, and like Grizzly Bear, he surrounded himself with equally gifted musicians, forming a collaborate effort.

That show was also at The Echo and I think there were seven members of the band then. But however many, it was a celebration of music and tribal beats and dancing. Sam is one of the best dancer/singers I've seen. And when four or so members of the band circle around the second drum set (up front) and bang away, well, it just goes right through you.

The band was quiet for over a year while they worked on their second album, Family, which was released September 22, and what a revelation that was. The band, whose current lineup includes Christian Ervin, Michael Ferguson, Robert Sahm and Jim Thomson, has congealed and is now writing songs that are tightly structured gems with an astonishing array of influences and lyrics that are intelligent and thought-provoking . Nothing, it seems, is off limits.

The first song, "Saddle Mountain" starts off like a Gregorian chant and moves into the rhythm and pattern of Renaissance dance music. Unbelievable. Layering on drums and a variety of percussion, the whole thing suddenly makes you want to dance.

Another song, "Morning Song" begins like a Muslim call to prayer and segues into an African tribal chant, or a jug band, but always the top priority is melody and these song stick in your head like they won't let go. Sometimes the vocal choir effects remind me of Grizzly Bear or even Fleet Foxes, but then banjo picking or a tribal beat starts up and they're in a territory all their own. The music is nothing if not unpredictable, constantly keeping you guessing. I think it's brilliant songwriting.

The whole interior of The Echo just melted away the minute they began as they played many of the best songs from Family and a couple of the most amazing songs from the first CD, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly like "Outside of This Car, the End of the World" and "We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!".

Apart from Sam's vocals occasionally not being loud enough, generally the sound was excellent, especially on the vocal patterns and harmonies when everybody was singing. Using pre-recorded samples for some of the more complex numbers made the band seem larger than they are.

A modest crowd was, nonetheless hugely enthusiastic and demanded an encore, which I was grateful for. I could have listened to them for three hours.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

his Orchestra at the Light FM Residency

On Monday, October 19, 2009, I headed on over to Spaceland, not only to see Light FM and to pick up their new CD, Let There Be Light FM, but to see his Orchestra (at right). I happened on this band much the same way as I discovered Division Day, and in the very same venue. Walking into Spaceland to see the headliner a couple of years ago, I ran into Division Day midway through their set and was immediately transfixed by the gorgeous sound emanating from the stage and the hook-laden inspiration of their writing.

I snapped up the CD, Beartrap Island then and there and it became one of my favorites of the year. I only saw part of their set, but became obsessed with trying to see them again, yet as the weeks turned into months, I was foiled time and again by competing concerts. I have since seen them many times. Same thing with his Orchestra.

I went to see The Wooden Birds on May 28th, this year, and walked into the last three or four songs by h.O. and was flabbergasted by the music. I remember looking around to see if anyone else was noticing and saw Spaceland full of people staring, mouths agape, at the band on stage.

I recall the spectacular harmony vocals and the furious sawing away of three band members on violins. It was sublime and electrifying. I picked up their CD Field Guide To the Wilds, and upon first listening, decided this was one of the best bands I've heard. For so young a group, they play and perform with a passion and joy and solid professionalism most groups can only hope to emulate.

This would be only my second exposure to the band live, and now I not only knew the music, but every single lyric. Douglas took the stage alone, to begin with a simple acoustic folk song, but before long was joined by Whitney at the keyboard who sang harmonies. A guy dancing in front climbed on stage and donned a guitar, another climbed up on stage and sat at the drums and gradually his Orchestra took shape on stage.

The first song was unfamiliar, but every bit as good as all their other compositions. Which is to say excellent. Every song lifted me higher and my opinion of the band rose accordingly. they sang "Black Coffin", "Hybernation" and my favorite, "Interesting End of the Day" from the CD, among a selection of early material I'd never heard. But it was the finale of "Since I" that was so powerful and theatrically extravagant that set my heart soaring. I can't believe how perfect this band sounds. his Orchestra are just one of life's special things.

I'll talk about Light FM's wonderful set when I review their new CD, Let There Be Light FM at Radio Free Silver Lake next Tuesday.


Friday, October 16, 2009

In A Reflective Mood

Sorry to neglect my Feed Your Head fans, but this year is accelerating at such a rapid pace, I'm struggling to keep up. Never in the wildest dreams of my youth could I have imagined that, approaching 60, I would be having the time of my life, and that it would involve rock and roll.

Caught up in this whirlwind of a current music scene that is so vibrant and inspiring, discovering how much I love writing has been a revelation and had given me more fulfillment than, perhaps, anything else I've ever done.

Music always had a powerful hold over me. I'm told by family that I was rocking back and forth, hour after hour, to the same record, over and over, by the age of three, and by four, I was consciously amassing favorite records. But, never having the confidence, or believing I had any talent to pursue music, I tried and failed at various instruments, though whenever we visited a house with a piano, I would go right for it. We had a piano in our house until I was about 14, but I couldn't get the hang of piano lessons, so I taught myself to play my favorite songs by ear. (I'm sure in a most perfunctory way). I never entertained the notion of a life's pursuit of music and thus, I gravitated to the visual arts, where I have made a home for myself to this day.

But I remained a constant music listener, constant in that it filled nearly every waking hour of my existence well into my thirties, with current music recceeding further and further into the background during the 1980's. I blame it on Reagan. Music just lost it's relevance for me and I lost interest. From 1990 to 2005 I probably heard all of 6 different new rock songs in that span and didn't look any further.

Since I fell down this rock and roll rabbit hole on August 1, 2005, (I remember the moment), of course, I have been educated by people, and, indeed there were pockets of greatness here and there in the bleak landscape. But distribution was so fucked up back then by the major labels and corporations that indie music was hard for an ordinary person to find. Or purposely squelched.

What's happening now seems so different than anything that's gone before, partly because nobody knows where it's going, or even how long this creative energy level can be maintained by so many talented artists at the same time. But the controls are off, and the boundaries have been knocked down, and there's a spirit of cooperation that bodes well for the future. It's why I've become a believer in the theory that, as far as rock and roll is concerned, the best is not in the past, but in the future. When I discovered this, after observing for about a year, I became determined to be a part of it, to try to contribute something. So I started blogging.

Tonight I begin a run of five show in five days (if I can hold out), from Darker My Love tonight at Echoplex, to Grizzly Bear (below) on Tuesday at the Palladium. I'll keep you posted.

Just heard that Avi Buffalo have signed with Sub Pop Records. Congratulations on a well deserved placemant to my friends, Avi, Sheridan, Rebecca and Arin.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September - Various Shows and Sets

So many memorable shows and events have been happening lately that I can't keep up. Never did I expect what writing a music blog would bring. Every day there seems to be more opportunity, another path to follow, more people to meet, more fun to be had. The friends I've made in the music community are best surprise of all. Kind of revives my faith in humanity. (Provided I can continue to avoid tea-baggers and other knuckle-draggers.) Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglove of The Swell Season, above.

September has been a good month for shows beginning with Mew wowing a sold out crowd at The Troubadour on the 1st, followed by Division Day 's record release show the following night at Spaceland. The Happy Hollows spectacular performance was next, on the 4th, for their own release party for Spells, which was also a party to remember.

On Sunday, Sept. 6th, I attended the Rodgers and Hammerstein concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which was specifically set up to honor the film versions (and their orchestrations) of the original Broadway shows. (scene from The King and I above) They showed selections from the films with the orchestral tracks removed, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra provided live underscoring, conducted by the son of Alfred Newman (one of the original orchestrators) David Newman. It was like dying and going to Rodgers and Hammerstein heaven for someone who was raised on these things.

Elaine Layabout hosted one helluva "Hella Hipster Hoedown" featuring eight scheduled bands, including Crooked Cowboy, Les Blanks and Country Pizza!, but it was Telegraph Canyon (above), who took the stage near midnight, that played a near perfect set of their beautifully written rock. Hailing from Texas, they were here a couple of months ago for another hoedown, but since seeing them then, I got hooked on their wonderful CD, The Tide and The Current. Now, I knew the material and to hear them deliver such a powerful and serious performance, it was almost humbling. They really impressed those present and we were still talking about it days later.

On Saturday, the 12th, I saw an impressive show by Brendan Benson at The Troubadour, that opened with a set by Frank Fairfield that had the crowd cheering. From the 17th to the 20th I took in four shows in four days beginning with the Sea Wolf/Afternoons/Sara Lov night at The Troubadour and back to the same venue the following night for Everest and The Parson Red Heads which made for two nights on the West Side of sterling East Side indie rock.

Friday was the Release party for Cobra Lilies, hosted by Elaine, again at the Legion 206 in Highland Park, which included a fashion show that involved murder, and a wonderfully hypnotic, oddball set from Amanda Jo Williams followed by a set by Tommy Santee Klaws (above) that showed the uninitiated what I have been raving about the last few months. This is one amazing band with a wholly unique sound that left people breathless.

Sunday was the engrossing show at the Masonic Lodge of Hollywood Forever Cemetery with The Swell Season where Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova enchanted a great Los Angeles audience in one of the best shows of the year. I reviewed it for Radio Free Silver Lake.

I got to present my second show last Friday, September 25, together with Dramaturgy, featuring The Faraway Places, who delivered their '60's influenced indie rock with great style and conviction, following a real audience grabbing set of Creedence Clearwater Revival covers by Ramble Scramble that had the rather large crowd dancing. The Health Club I enjoy more and more each time I see them and their assured playing is what makes this post-punk garage band stand out.

Sunday, The 25th Annual Abbot Kinney Festival in Venice was my first time at this event and I have to confess, I barely saw the Festival itself, positioning myself in front of the Brooks Little Radio Stage from Dios through Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros and saw five remarkable bands in a row. Dios sang wonderful songs from their latest CD, and sounded revitalized by the new material. Followed by a tight set by a three member version of The Parson Red Heads (Sam, Brett and Evan, in photo) who sang beautiful three-part harmonies. French singer/now indie rocker, Soko, was a real surprise, giving us country-tinged psychedelic rock that I fell for on the spot. Eskimo Hunter play a kind of easy, melodic indie rock style that is probably my favorite and I was glad to finally see this band and, as of now, they are the band I want to see again immediately. Really beautiful music.
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros (above photo by Michael Camacho for LAist)were a revelation. Just before they took the stage, there was a sudden rush of media that flooded the stage. The buzz on this band must be huge and I must say, judging from this performance, the rush is justified. An electric set was performed, with Edward, not 16 inches from my face at times and it was a superb way to get to know them. I saw them once before at El Cid at 1 AM the night of the '08 Sunset Junction and they played for about 14 friends that night. A LOT has happened since then.

Blitzen Trapper finally played the set I've been waiting to see them play on Monday, Sept 28, at El Rey. Seeing them last year at a packed, hot Echo was a great introduction, but not ideal. I wasn't close enough, though I loved the music. Last July at the Hollywood Bowl, they were undone by the requirement that the opening bands play softly, and across a gulf of indifferent concertgoers. So this show was what Blitzen Trapper are all about. The photo a right is from the Glass House, shot by Doug Kresse. A string of unforgettable songs, great sound, great lights. They play irresistibly rocking songs, occasionally pausing for a song of quiet reflection that is so lovely and profound, there is no lapse in audience concentration. Highlight brilliant new songs from their EP, Black River Killer, the new songs were my favorites of the night, though "God and Suicide" is still one of my favorite songs of all. I'll write a fuller review of this show later.

The month ended with Kevin Bronson's First Anniversary celebration of his Buzzbands blog with a show by Eastern Conference Champions and Voxhaul Broadcast, each releasing EP's at the same event. Both are bands I've heard about over and over, but have neglected to see before, and both were absolutely electric. Terrific songwriting and musicianship with charismatic lead singers, they had the large turnout primed and enthusiastic. Congratulations to Kevin and the most comprehensive music blog in town.

Now we move on to October and what may be the busiest month of the year.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

New EP: Seasons "Summer"

The Summer of Seasons is the new EP release by the Highland Park orchestra, and yes, they are an orchestra that expands and contracts with each live show. This means that the songs I have have grown to love, over the many times I have seen them live, have no rigid, formal shape. Whether there's an accordion or not, three guitars of two, one tambourine player or a tambourine section of five (I saw that once), the songs are molded to the evening's ensemble makeup.

That's why hearing the recorded versions is a little jarring to someone who isn't used to getting to know songs live before knowing the final formal versions. Like someone sat them down and said, "just concentrate on the damned song". The result is slightly tamer, more structured takes on the compositions, with the benefit of a clearer understanding of what the songs are and the knowledge that this band knows exactly what it's doing.

It begins with a simmering sound, like when you're laying on the summer beach and watching the waves that ripple up from the hot sand, and the beat begins, pulling you into "The Weight", which is one of Seasons' best songs. Beginning quietly, Nic lures you in before cutting loose with his trademark roars that proves he means what he's saying, "get off my back!" Highlighted by astute guitar work and John's twinkling piano, it's a real, typical Seasons grabber.

Then the album goes heavy into summer mode with three relaxed, laid back ballads that make no demands except you sit back and enjoy. I haven't seen them do this live so the direction is unexpected. When they performed this at the EP release party I presented in August it was given their characteristic swirl of psychedelia. On disc, you hear the songs beneath the swirl.

They finish with a new take on "The Sea" that becomes a battle to the death between Godzilla and Ghidrah as the monsters roar and the relentless beat pounds and then breaks into a dance beat that always makes a live audience crazy with movement.

I kind of miss the ramshackle quality of their first CD, but as a companion piece to their previous EP, Spring, this is a natural progression. I've been listening to it for a month now and wanted to wait till it sank in to comment, and it's an interesting step for this remakably talented band.


above photo: CGT

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Just want to urge everyone to attend the show I'm presenting with Dramaturgy at Mr. T's Bowl this Friday.

Great bands, great people, great dance party...


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hollywood Forever Welcomes The Swell Season

WOW! Suddenly a friend alerts me this morning that a secret show by The Swell Season has been announced at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery this Sunday, September 20, 2009 and tickets are on sale NOW.

I sped over to Ticketweb and secured a ticket. What luck, 'cause I'm sure this will sell out as soon as word spreads.

This is the couple from the movie Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and their band, who have so charmed audiences both on film and in concert appearances. Personally I've seen them three times previously and each show has been a very special event. They appear at The Wiltern on November 18, but this is a chance to see then in a more intimate setting.

And on a sad note, Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary has died and an era comes to an end. They were the first folk music I ever got to know and their mixing of political messages and beautiful music was an inspiration to me.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Next Feed Your Head Show

Feed Your Head and Dramaturgy are presenting a show at Mr. T's Bowl on September 25, 2009. That's a Friday night and everyone must attend. Chris Colthart of the headliner, The Faraway Places, designed this terrific flyer which I'm proud to put up now. Excellent support will be provides by Ramble Scramble, which features members of Brian Jonestown Massacre and Mirror Mirror, and perennial L.A. favorites, The Health Club, plus a couple of great DJ's.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Fall

Here comes the fall season and numerous artists, both local and otherwise, are lining up shows for September and October. In fact, October looks like the strongest month of the year (as it often is) with everyone from Grizzly Bear to O'Death coming back to town.

After Mew, Division Day and The Happy Hollows last week, things kick right back into high gear with a colossal "Hella Hipster Hoedown" on Friday, September 11 at the American Legion Post 206 in Highland Park featuring eight bands. Elaine Layabout's shows are always knock outs, but with bands like Telegraph Canyon, Crooked Cowboy, Les Blanks, Slings and more this will be a celebration. And the Post 206 is perfect because it can handle a big, rowdy crowd.

I was dithering back and forth about going to see Brendan Benson at The Troubadour on Saturday. I have really enjoyed his band's work and his terrific indie/folk/pop songwriting, before he ran off to join The Raconteurs, and have been wanting to see him for years, but when Frank Fairfield was announced as the opener, that clinched it and I bought a ticket. I saw Brendan with The Raconteurs at The Wiltern on September 20, 2006, but it didn't satisfy my urge to see Brendan Benson, so now I will get my chance. Frank Fairfield, I've seen a number of times, when he toured with Fleet Foxes and in clubs around town, but not for a while. So when I ran into him at The Echo a few weeks ago at the incredible J. Tillman show, I resolved to see him the next chance I got. I expect this to be a remarkable show.

Further along, on September 16, The French Semester, Rademacher and Downtown/Union play the Silver Lake Lounge, which is three incredible bands for the price of one. Radio Free Silver Lake is sending me to The Troubadour on the following night, Thursday, September 17, to review Sea Wolf, Afternoons and Sara Lov, each one worthy of headlining their own show (which they all often do), but together it'll be overwhelming. Sea Wolf and Afternoons are made up of the pieces of Irving (photo below by Gail Salmo), a band I really got into way back when I first got into the local scene ('05), and whose albums I still play. It will be grand to see them play together. And Sara Lov has been one of my fondest memories of discovering a band, when The Devics opened for The Black Heart Procession a few years ago at The Knitting Factory. I've been a fan ever since and have seen her solo many times. The next night I'm back at The Troubadour for Everest, The Parson Red Heads and These United States, for another round of three great bands. I should be pretty punch-drunk by this point bombarded by incredible music.

I want to go see Blitzen Trapper and Wye Oak at El Rey on September 28, but I haven't gotten my shit together to buy a ticket yet, and hope it won't sell out before I do.

October brings Loney, dear back to town for a date at The Troubadour on the 1st. The great Eagle Rock Music Festival on October 3 may see me announcing a band from the stage... which is daunting. Great Lake Swimmers play their first L.A.big-venue show (as far as I know) at El Rey on October 12, The Black Heart Procession on Sunday the 18th at Echoplex and Grizzly Bear at the Hollywood Palladium on the 20th.

But what I'm really looking forward to is the chance to see the New York band, Le Loup. They came to town, last time in 2008, to play The Echo on April 5 and I had just become obsessed with their incredible homemade-band jamboree sound. It's quite an experience live and I urge you not to miss it, Wednesday, October 28 at The Echo.


Friday, September 4, 2009


I'm still vibrating from some recent shows that I just can't shake. Two massively great nights in a row commenced with Mew at The Troubadour. I was given the royal treatment on Tuesday night, September 1, 2009, when I walked in and was immediately handed a V.I.P. pass allowing me access to the reserved balcony seating overlooking the stage.

The venue was packed and hot as I wandered in and heard the last few songs by Luke Top. I remember seeing them at one of Joe's "Let's Independent!" shows last April ('08) and I was impressed then and was impressed now. The set by Mew was mind blowing and the audience seemed to agree with me. People were screaming and cheering each familiar song as it began and especially when it ended since each number surpassed everyone's expectations. Haven't seen many more perfect sets that this one (once the sound was correct), so I'll be publishing a full length review on Radio Free Silver Lake next Tuesday.

The following night I was off to see the Division Day record release party at Spaceland. It was a show I was anxious to see as I'm quite taken with their new CD Visitation and wanted to hear it live. The crowd was small when I first got there, but I soon ran into photographer/fellow insatiable concertgoer Doug Kresse and then Web in Front 's Travis Woods and Classical Geek Theatre 's (and now Radio Free Silver Lake contributor) Ben "Mouse" McShane and was blindsided by the realization of how much has happened in the year I've known these guys. They all inspire me. But the scene is expanding so fast that we don't run into each other nearly enough these days.
I enjoyed the Division Day (Doug Kresse photo above) set, but it's clear they're still experimenting with the live versions of the new songs. Some sounded set and great, like "Planchette", which explodes into a shimmering wail of noise, dense and beautiful. Others sounded less focused than on the recording, but that will all be solved during touring, I've no doubt. This band seems to pride itself on a polished and powerful live performance. Just the chance to chat with the band and see (new) old friends was enough reason to enjoy the night.

Tonight, The Happy Hollows record release party proved irresistible to me so I decided to cancel all plans and attend. And The Pity Party, too. I think I need to move a cot into Spaceland and take up permanent residence. I hear The Happy Hollows CD, Spell is smashing.

Sunday I indulge my inner musical comedy freak with a show at the Hollywood Bowl that is as highly anticipated as any other show I've seen this year. It's the Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies concert, The Big Picture extravaganza. They'll play clips from the film versions of their shows and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by David Newman, will accompany the clips with the extraordinary and timeless orchestrations that were provided for these classic films by the likes of Alfred Newman (David Newman is his son), Irwin Kostal and Robert Russell Bennett.
They'll feature scenes from The King and I, South Pacific (above), Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music and Carousel on the giant screen and the music will sweep over you like a tidal wave. These movies were some of the first gloriously STEREO movies ever made and they all figured huge in my childhood. Oklahoma! (1955) was the first movie made in 70MM (after experiments in the '30's) and featured all the technological advances of the day, and it still has some of the best sound ever heard, to date, in a movie theatre.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Surpassed Expectations

"Everything is moving so fast, I am unlimited." Those lyrics from Great Lake Swimmers really sum up how I'm feeling these days. My involvement in the music community is growing by leaps and bounds till I'm not at all sure where it's going, but I'll hang on for the ride.

The more I write, the more time I want to devote to writing. It's a self-perpetuating machine. So I want to use this website to experiment a little and just jot down random notes and organize my thoughts a little for more formal writing.

I wanted to review a couple of surprising shows I saw a couple of weeks ago, but never had the time to write a formal review, so I'll put up some notes:

I knew the J. Tillman concert would be beautiful, but I wasn't prepared for just how beautiful and powerful it actually was. Beginning with the first song, the difference between his recorded material and his live performance was awe-inspiring. I had picked up Vacilando Territory Blues a couple of weeks ago to familiarize myself with his music and was taken in by the lovely compositions, his sweet, but steady voice, reminiscent of Sam Beam, and the occasionally sweeping orchestrations.

Appearing with a new band incarnation on August 20, 2009 at The Echo, he has moved away from strictly folk songs toward rock, and it's a nice move. Consequently the set was far livelier and more powerful than I had expected and to see Tillman thrashing about, banging on the tambourine, showed just how passionately he feels this music. Singing material from his forthcoming album, he and his band delivered a rousing program of unfamiliar but immediately engaging songs. With the blending of harmony vocals, beautiful instrumentation, and atmospheric sound effects it was a set of unforgettably haunting melody and sublime mental images.

I look forward to the new CD, Year In the Kingdom, due out on the 8th. It smells like a breakthrough album. Evan Way, who opened, in a bass-less version of The Parson Red Heads, opined that the new CD was a major step forward for the artist, who is also his friend. Having seen J. Tillman as drummer with Fleet Foxes, it was astonishing to see him step out and take the lead in a creative, intelligent and artistically forceful band.

It was also fun to see The Parson Red Heads as an acoustic outfit who primed the crowd nicely, slowly building us up for the headliner. Singing songs from their usual catalog, but with a gentle, delicate edge that lent a special poignancy to the compositions, I found it especially engaging.

August 26, 2009 found me at Spaceland to see Fruit Bats for the third time. I became a fan of this band a few years ago when I stumbled across a video for the song "Lives of Crime" that was so funny and oddly touching I couldn't stop watching it. I was also attracted to the quirky melody that seemed to exist in its own reality, but having backed into music the way I did, when I asked someone about Fruit Bats, and they said they sounded like The Shins, I said, "The who?"

Yes, I hadn't heard of The Shins. It took about 6 seconds of listening to Chutes Too Narrow to become a die-hard fan. I often find the sub-genre first, and then move up to the genre itself. So when Fruit Bats' Eric Johnson was grabbed by The Shins to join them as a member of their touring band, it seemed pre-ordained.

On April 12, 2006, Fruit Bats played a terrific show at The Troubadour and I was impressed by the clever, witty songs and the professionalism of the band and I looked forward to future releases and performances by them. Then I read Eric was joining The Shins on their Wincing the Night Away tour. Sure enough, when I saw The Shins at The Orpheum on April 15, 2007, there was Eric Johnson on stage and it was a perfect match of sensibilities.

I feared it might be the end of Fruit Bats, but earlier this year , Eric relocated to L.A. and the band played The Echo in February, nearly three years since their last local show. He also showed up playing with Vetiver at their show at Eagle Rock Center for the Arts in April, so he's an asset to many bands.

Now a new CD is out and this August date was in support of it. It was great to hear Eric as lead singer again and the new material is more folky than before, but musically, it feels like a natural progression. Surrounded by a really tight band it was a solid set by a band that really knows what it's doing.

The Ruminant Band is the new CD and the songs sounded even better live. Not generally paying attention to such things, I was surprised when I opened The Rolling Stone yesterday and saw it is the number one on their Top Ten College Radio Albums list. Wow, this could be the breakthrough for this band, too.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Great Northern Under the Stars

On Wednesday, August 19, 2009, I decided to spend my birthday alone, and just wandered over to Pershing Square to see the band I've probably known the longest during this music odyssey I'm on. Great Northern were playing a free show for "Spaceland Under The Stars" in the square and I was anxious to see them repair the damage done by their last show.

I saw them at the Bootleg Theatre on a bill with Xu Xu Fang a couple of weeks ago, and for whatever reason, the sound was so distorted their vocals were buried in a mush of noise. Xu Xu Fang had survived, but Great Northern suffered so, I had to leave.

Believing the show began at seven, I went right from work and as I walked up out of the subway, I could hear the strains of "Story" and I figured they had just begun. Entering Pershing Square, I realized this was just their sound check. There were only a few people milling about, and the audience area wasn't even open yet. So I sat around, gazed up at the beautiful buildings lit by 'magic hour' sunlight, and wished I got downtown more often.

Soon enough, I met up with Rebecca Balin and some friends, so we passed the time talking music and movies until the band came on around nine. Apparently there was supposed to have been an opening band, but when Great Northern took the stage, Rachel Stolte apologized for the first band not appearing. I didn't mind because what I wanted for my birthday was a Great Northern fix. And they delivered.
(photo by Miny Moe)

I knew the sound mix would be good, from the sound check earlier. Perhaps I was too close to Rachel's guitar speaker, for it was a little overwhelming at times, but, overall the sound was fine. I was particularly pleased that Solon Bixler's vocals were miked at a level close to Rachel's so the weaving in and out of their voices was clear and concise. Nice job, and very important for this band's overall impression.

Featuring mostly selections from their superb last CD, Remind Me Where The Light Is, they also played a new song, which I considered a highlight of the set. The band is tight and focused and has that full, rich Great Northern sound, which is impressive for only four players. Had a chance to chat briefly with Solon afterwards, before they drove off to Phoenix for a short Southwestern tour. They'll be back in town briefly after that, before going off to the Pacific Northwest. This band never stops.

It was a most enjoyable, low-key birthday. Just the way I like it.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Woodstock, Aftermath and Impact (Part 3 of 3)

(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)

Nearly three years ago I was invited to a reception and screening of Woodstock, The Movie at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In attendance were many of the participants and it was a terrific evening of reminiscences by the likes of concert promoters, Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman, performers Country Joe McDonald and Michael Shrieve, personal relations delegate Wavy Gravy, and documentarians, photographer Henry Diltz and film editor/assistant director Thelma Schoonmaker.

The screening was exciting and each musical performance was greeted with waves of spontaneous applause, but, although most people seemed to react with a misty eyed nostalgia for the good old days, my own reaction was quite different. I had only been back into rock music for about a year and I was so consumed by what I was hearing, there was no room in my brain for missing what was gone. It was great to see the history, but I felt that rock is now as vital and alive as it has ever been. Potentially in a real renaissance.

Leaving the festival on August 16, 1969, we drove straight through to my grandmother's house in northern Massachusetts, arriving caked in mud. We'd tried to wash off in a gas station rest room along the way, to little avail. That was when we learned the extent of what was happening back at the festival, and it seemed to turn into a bigger news story as the hours passed. And this was before the days of the 24-hour news cycle.

After Woodstock, the anti-war movement took precedence in my life, as I tried to juggle college with un-civil activity. Woodstock had broken the dam for me and I began attending as many concerts as my meager income would allow. Living in Boston, a good college town, we always had someone coming through. That was when I first saw the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, The Moody Blues, Tom Rush, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Steve Miller Band, Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and more.

That December the notorious concert at Altamont Speedway Free Concert took place and was marred by bad planning, violence and even death. Showcased in the documentary, Gimme Shelter, it would be hyped as the death of the Hippie Era. It was hardly that, just as Woodstock wasn't the beginning of anything. Cultural shifts are more gradual and only represented by these events, not caused by them. The picture of a birthday cake seems appropriate here.
I was always surprised at how fast they put the documentary together, getting it out in March, 1970, just eight months after the event. I was working at a pizza shop on Charles Street at that time and I used to work until 11 PM every Friday and Saturday night, and when Woodstock opened at the Cheri Theatre in Boston, for the first three weeks, I would get off work and head right to the theatre to get in line for the midnight show. These shows were really like an extension of the festival itself with audiences dancing in the aisles, the management looking the other way as people broke out the joints and wine and turned the theatre into a great big party. I guess it was as close to the performances as I would get. What struck me watching the film recently was how contemporary it looks again. The Woodstock generation appears to have direct descendants in the current music scene. So much of the music I enjoy today could be folded into the playlists of the underground FM radio stations that sprang up in the late '60's through the '70's, like WBCN in Boston, so that, at my age, it feels like the completion of a circle.

I think that is why the whole 40th Anniversary thing has had more impact than any of the earlier anniversaries. People seem a little more open to it without all the envy and resentment that has accompanied previous Woodstock birthdays. It's distant enough in time as to have taken on a semi-mythic status. I guess in the future some subsequent legends of Woodstock will have a spaceship landing on Yasgur's farm and letting a whole generation of hippie aliens off to try to move the human race forward just a little step. I like to believe that we, at least, tried.