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.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I saw some great sets last week with some old and new favorite bands. The Monday night, August 10, residency of Local Natives packed Spaceland with the addition of a brace of Red Cortez fans storming the place, and they were rewarded with a powerful set of rock and roll from this amazing band
Red Cortez (above) just blazed through their material like a house afire. Unfortunately I got there after they had begun, so it was impossible to penetrate the crush of people up front. So I hung around in back where I could tell how great their set was, but also knew I was missing the full impact. I really love their new material and they continue to get tighter and tighter as a live band.

Local Natives came on and sang the hell out of their set. Can this band ever sing. Great vocal harmonies and solid songwriting combine for a terrific concoction of bright, shiny indie rock. I saw them in May at this venue, but with so many memorable shows this summer, I'm afraid I had forgotten how good they are. I have their EP, but I don't think it really hints at how strong they are live. Love the cover of Talking Heads "Warning Sign".

Wednesday, August 12, 2009, I unexpectedly walked into a super show at The Knitting Factory.
I wanted to go to show up for Avi Buffalo's first show ever at this venue, for The Parson Red Heads set, because they always sound great here, and to check out Roadside Graves, who turned out to be just as good as their myspace page suggested.

I'm sorry I missed the beginning of their set, but from the point I got there, Roadside Graves (above) made each song build on the previous one, so that, at first I found the band agreeable, then engaging, eventually intriguing and finally winning. The place wasn't packed, but those who were there were highly enthusiastic, greeting each song with increasing applause.

Avi Buffalo set up quickly and quietly and before you knew it, they were ready to go. And then they plainly and simply blasted off into the stratosphere, while we, back on earth, just stood there all agog at the magical display in the sky, over our heads.

I don't know what more this band can do, but this set achieved such a rare kind of musical brilliance that had me stunned, right down to the song order, that it's hard for me to imagine being topped. Usually after I've seen a band a dozen times or so, I begin to taper off, but this set, kind of like Red Cortez on Monday, makes me want to keep going to their every show.

Beginning with "Summer Cum" and moving through favorites like "What's In It For" and "Where's Your Dirty Mind", I was reminded at once of how beautiful their music is...hypnotically so. Matched by the entire band's astonishing mastery of their instruments and topped off by evocative lyrics that are simultaneously cryptic and direct, sometimes even confrontational.

So many stylistic elements are blended here, they're hard to pigeonhole, let's just acknowledge them as musical adventurers exploring uncharted terrain. The audience seemed to agree. I looked around after a couple of songs and the entire room was mesmerized. Ending with a new song, they left the audience hungry for more.

It takes a strong and brave band to follow a set like that, but The Parson Red Heads pulled it off. I thought it curious they began with a couple of quieter, slower song because the audience felt a noticeable drop in energy. But these are The Parson Red Heads and their songs have a tendency to build and build, sweeping the audience up with their growing ebullience.
They are pop song masters, but the songs are always anchored by their shimmering, psychedelic rock guitars that literally quicken the pulse, fed by the glowing harmonic vocals. By the middle of their set the audience was hopping and bopping all over the place. This was one spectacular show, that just sprang up out of nowhere, and it just reminded me how sorry I will be to see The Knitting Factory close in the fall.

(thanks to Doug Kresse for the Avi Buffalo and The Parson Red Heads photos)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Woodstock "Get Together" - Part 2 of 3

(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)

I went to Woodstock for the same reasons everyone else went. To hear music. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was already the stuff of legend, and this was going to be our East Coast version, featuring many of the same bands. D. A. Pennebaker's documentary, Monterey Pop, had been released in April that year, and I was one of the first in line at the Circle Cinema, just outside Boston, when it opened on April 30, 1969. The movie was great and it was in STEREO which was even better. I became obsessed with the idea of attending something like that.

All during the summer, the line up was changing day by day. Of course, for me, Jefferson Airplane was the big draw. I thought my life could not go on if I didn't hear Grace Slick sing live. It had been two years since Surrealistic Pillow had been released and I couldn't wait any longer. I only recently learned that they were the first band signed, and it was their name that opened the floodgates.

Music had been pretty great that year, so far. I was really into the Days of Future Passed album by The Moody Blues, and they were originally on the bill, so they were a huge attraction, as were Creedence Clearwater Revival who had three of the best singles that year with "Proud Mary", "Bad Moon Rising" and "Green River". I think everyone wished Led Zeppelin were playing because their second album was all anyone played earlier that year. Sly and The Family Stone, Santana and The Who all had big hits that summer, not to mention The Beatles' "Come Together" and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", which seemed like the greatest Stones song ever.

In July, that year, I had seen two local concerts in Cohasset Massachusetts on two consecutive Sundays. The first was July 13, Arlo Guthrie, because I liked "Alice's Restaurant" and the movie was set to come out on August 20. The second was on July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I was already up there to greet them because I had seen Joni Mitchell earlier in the day and she put me into orbit. Both artists were a huge draw for me as well.

Traffic became very heavy before we exited the N.Y. Thruway around 11 A M, on Friday, August 15, 1969. We still thought we had plenty of time to get there. But once we ventured onto Rt. 17, we discovered a country road that would lead us to the festival grounds where traffic moved like a parking lot. But somehow, nobody seemed to mind. I don't recall one cross word or flared temper, though it could certainly have been a most exasperating situation.

The two lane road quickly became one way, then three lanes, then four lanes...all in the same direction, using the shoulder of the road as lanes three and four. Further off the road, cars would just stop and not go any further, the occupants, climbing on the roofs to watch or joining the flow of walking humanity...all in the same direction. It got amazing pretty fast and the feeling was intoxicating. There were so many of us! We'd never seen so many of us. This was an occasionally residential route, where, between the fields and forests, we'd come to pockets of houses. The residents had assembled on lawn chairs in their front yards and gawked, amazed at the endless parade of hippies and freaks flowing past.

They gave water and drinks to anyone who asked and appeared, not at all afraid, but fascinated, flashing peace symbols back at anyone who flashed one first. The spirit of community and camaraderie were already in evidence everywhere you looked. Even in 1969, hippies and members of the counter culture were not commonplace outside of major metropolitan areas, so they really stood out against the cookie cutter culture of the time. This was a time when there were only car radios to provide any music for this rolling caravan of the soon-to-be Woodstock Nation. So everyone tuned their radios to WABC out of New York City. Everytime "Get Together" by The Youngbloods came on, all cars turned their volume up full blast and the hills rang with "Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, got to love one another right now..." What could have been sappy and calculated was, on the contrary, such a natural outgrowth of the circumstances, it was completely spontaneous and highly inspirational. I've always associated that song with Woodstock more than any other, even though it wasn't part of the festival itself. That Dino Valenti song was even part of Jefferson Airplane's early repertoire.

It probably took us six hours to go 15 miles to where we decided we'd better park or we would reach grounds that were already full and there would be no way to turn back. I recall a beautiful flat green field with lines of very tall trees forming the borders between lots. We parked next to a row of trees which probably afforded us about a 15 foot square of land for our tent and living supplies.

As soon as we set up our camp, we headed toward the festival sight, probably around 4:00 o'clock, because we walked about two miles to get there and it seemed to be around 5 when we got there. Here is where my memory gets hazy, mixing what I saw in the movie with what I remember seeing. I recall the excitement level rising with each step we took, and the sound of the music's concussive beat getting stronger till we saw what looked like a distant field of flowers through the trees.

Of course, that turned out to be the crowd on the hillside and as we walked along the road directly behind the stage you couldn't help but feel dwarfed by the tall yellow structures flanking the stage and which have become such iconic images of Woodstock.

Discovering that no one wanted to collect our tickets, indeed, there was no place to go to for admittance, we just started up the hill on the right side of the crowd facing the stage. But I think we knew right away that we were too late to get anywhere into the middle of that heaving mass of humanity. I remember we heard most of the set by Sweetwater (at right), who's lead signer, Nancy Nevins, resembles Grace Slick vocally, so I liked that band instantly. John Sebastian had played right before them, but I can't remember if we heard any of his set.

We figured that Friday night was pretty much of a wash, as we couldn't get a spot to sit, we were hungry and thought that, during the night, the crowd would shift. We headed back, thinking that if we came back early enough in the morning we'd surely be able to get ourselves into the audience.

Walking the two miles back to our tent, seeing nothing but masses of smiling, happy people, it was a garden. We ate dinner, chatted with our neighbors. We may have even played cards. While we slept that night, the first rain came. Not a torrential downpour, just a steady, wet rain shower. When it ended, and we woke up around 2 AM, we opened the flaps of the tent and saw a heavy mist all over the glistening field. Then, off in the distance, we heard the sound of a woman's voice...singing. The song was "We Shall Overcome" and the unmistakable voice was that of Joan Baez, so clear, like a bell ringing softly over two miles of hills, carried by the moisture in the air. A magic moment, so fresh in my mind, it could have been yesterday.

Getting up the next morning, we headed back to the stage and the crowd had swelled enormously overnight. Even moving along the road was difficult on foot. The crowd in front of the stage had intensified and we knew getting in there was all but hopeless. We wandered, dazed for a couple of hours, just soaking in all the sights and sounds, part of our psyche's being taken over by the Woodstock notion. Like when you leave home to go to college, or see your first concert, or you smoke your first joint, you know nothing will ever be quite the same again. That was the feeling.

Then the clouds built and the threat of storm became unsettling, thinking about all these thousands of people running for cover. So we thought we'd better head to our distant tent for protection against the elements, whatever they were. When the storm seemed definite we feared the worst and decided to head out while the roads were slightly clear. Our disappointment was palpable, and our uncertainty that we were doing the right thing, made the whole exit a blur.

We were furious with ourselves for leaving, but at 18, with a mother's car, and a 16 year old with us, felt we had to. In retrospect, I feel we did the right thing, because one had to get there at least three days before to even get into the field, and we never would have. We drove through some intense storms, but once the clouds cleared and the sun came out, we realized we'd emerged from some strange rabbit hole only to learn that the whole world's attention was on Woodstock.

Last Sunday I attended a screening of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, which was pretty interesting. I'd read the book last year and had found it fascinating and even moving, and knew if anyone could do it justice, it would be Ang Lee. Unfortunately they didn't really find a focus for the screenplay so it plays like a series of vignettes, but visually and historically, it is very impressive indeed. They really capture the look of the time, without much of the slick Hollywood gloss that usually destroys any recreation of the sixties (remember Forrest Gump?).

There were two moment which really struck me. The first being when Elliot Tiber and his father are observing the nude bathers and suddenly, off in the distance, the deep concussive beat of the first Richie Havenssong is heard and a character murmurs, "It's beginning". The other is when the concert is in full swing and someone tells Elliot go on over a take a look, saying, "Take a look into the center of the universe". That was how it felt. At that time, in that place, it was like gazing into the center of the universe, and, like looking at an eclipse without frosted glass I think our eyes were permanently singed.

next: Back to Planet Earth.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Feed Your Head Presents

I'm so excited because Seasons asked me to present their EP Release event at Pehrspace on August 22.

This is the first Feed Your Head Presents event and I couldn't be more excited about the line up.

Thanks to the Seasons art department for the fabulous flyer:


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Woodstock: The Context of 1969

(This article first appeared on Radio Free Silver Lake)

O.K., now it's August, and the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock is looming, and it's become impossible for me not to fall prey to the nostalgia being pushed at every turn. First that big, giant fortieth commemorative DVD box-set came out, which I finally watched this weekend. It has stunning sound, the movie is finally letterboxed properly and the extra performances are great to see.

Then I picked up the double disc CD release, box-set of Jefferson Airplane's whole Woodstock set, which is a mind-blower and maybe one of the best Airplane recordings ever, released with a brilliant remastering of the album Volunteers, which came out in November that year. They've also released the entire sets of Santana, Sly and The Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, each as a separate box set or together in one package.

1969 was an amazing year, following, as so happens, another year of amazing events, 1968, when I graduated high school and was turned loose on the world, amidst the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, the Viet Nam war draft and the soon-to-be election of the dooming and the doomed Richard Nixon.

By summer of '69, I was living at home on the south coast of Massachusetts, going to summer school in Boston, trying to get decent grades to augment my miserable academic record so I could transfer to Emerson College, move to Boston, and simultaneously study film while avoiding the draft.

Of course, by the time I was in Emerson College in September, the random draft had been replaced by the lottery draft, so student deferments meant nothing. Fortunately, my lottery number was in the 300's, and they never got close to that.

My friends and I got our tickets mail order through an ad in The New York Times, probably in June, and watched the list of bands get bigger and bigger each Sunday the ad appeared and he location of the event kept changing.

August 1969 was pretty hot and muggy in the northeast, as Americans, cheering Neil Armstrong's moon walk, were still reeling from the previous year's killings and riots and a war that was deeply dividing the country. On Saturday, August 9, a bunch of us went into Boston to see a couple of newly opened films that the critics were raving about (this was back when there were smart critics you could trust). We saw Lindsay Anderson's If... in the morning and Midnight Cowboy in the afternoon. Both films rearranged your brain and both were X rated, at the time. I was so proud to be 18 just as the X rating came into existence, as there were no restrictions before that, except your parents or theatre manager.

After the films we were in some boutique on Tremont Street when it came across the radio that Sharon Tate had been slaughtered along with a group of her friends in Beverly Hills the night before. That was one of those moments when you feel the blood drain right from your head. So that was what the world felt like that week.

Six days later, I got up at 3AM, got picked up by the one who was driving her mother's car at 4AM and we headed out to the highway, armed with the AAA maps provided by our parents. We were such good little suburban kids, we didn't even take any pot along with our tent, our concert tickets and the cooler with hamburger and soft drinks.
To say it was a ride into destiny would hardly be an overstatement. Even without taking any mind altering substances, in retrospect, I'm not sure I ever really came home from that trip. Though it took years, even decades, to realize that truth.

At the time, we all went home and resumed normal activities. I got accepted into Emerson, moved out of my parents house for the last time and got an apartment on Beacon Hill. That fall, Easy Rider opened to great acclaim and huge box office, really proving that movies were also fueling the counter culture movement, along with Broadway, where Hair was causing a sensation. It was everywhere.

Most surprising at the time was how the whole world kept talking about Woodstock, and the promised movie and coming record album and trying-to-recreate-it promises. Over time, as the legend grew, it would take an ever increasingly important place in my own personal history. Notwithstanding any of my other accomplishments in life, it became clear that my epitaph would remain: "He Who Went To Woodstock".

Next: Why I went, what happened, what happened next and what's happening now (and why it's happening).


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Xu Xu Fang Showcase and An Evening at L'Keg

Xu Xu Fang were the subject of showcase at Swinghouse Studios in Hollywood on Thursday, July 30, 2009. Invited audience members included fans and friends of this band, who are rapidly becomming known as one of the best psych-rock bands around.

Located on Willoughby Ave., the Swinghouse performance space is a large, tall, black box of a room with some couches and sitting platforms. The majority of the space is taken up by the stage area, and the food and drink flowed freely, heightening the sensation of seeing a private performance for insiders.

Doors opened at 7, with the band taking the stage at 8, amidst a brace of candles they had set up all over the stage, which made fitting Xu Xu Fang in that space a challenge as they are now a band of 10. Now featuring four back up singers, their sound was full and rich, with the additional singers freeing lead singer, Barbara Cohen, to exercise her prodigious vocal powers, with the melody carried by the cooing, smooth back up.

The place was so dark and atmospheric anyway, they didn't need a lot of fog, so I was able to watch band leader, Bobby Tamkin, and focus on his extraordinary, versatile drumming. It can be sly and steady, or hammered with bombast, blasting the song forward.

They played a solid set of some of their best songs. I could have used a little more ooomph in the lower registers, but overall the sound was good. The heavy wash of guitars, combined with bass and keys, create a hazy sonic atmosphere before the drums anchor the whole thing as Barbara's voice eilther swoops in from above or bubbles up from below. Their music is very visual and I'm always intrigued by the construct of these towers of psychedelia.

It's been a while since I've seen them, so it was great to come out and see them all and offer my support. Xu Xu Fang seems to really be on a roll.

Friday night, July 31, 2009, was the end of a loooong week, and I needed to just sit and listen to some beautiful music. I got just what I was looking for at L'Keg. Tommy Santee Klaws were playing a show with Marshweed, who opened for Tommy back in early July at Echo Curio, where I had been severely impressed by the magic they created that night.

L'Keg is a really homey and inviting little gallery near Pehrspace in Koreatown, and this was the closing night of their current exhibit, highlighted by some musical performances. Nights like this are really what makes this whole music/art scene so special. The opportunity to meet and get to know such creative people is an honor, and I'll always feel a bit humbled by it. I enjoy the big shows I go to, a lot, and try to see a huge variety of bands, but these small intimate gatherings are the fuel that burns this fire in me.

Marshweed above, at Echo Curio

Heather Lockie and her sister, Shaun, and the gorgeous contrebass of Laura Steenberge form Marshweed. They begin so quietly, with Heather alone on a banjo, and singing so softly, everyone leans forward. Of course, this was an unmiked set, so the effect was pronounced. That feeling that the music was private and almost not meant to be heard, only to realize that the wit and irony is making you listen.

I can't go on forever. I'll just say it was another wonderful set that proved I was not mistaken. I loved the songs I'd heard before, was impressed with the ones I hadn't, and especially loved "Je t'adore Fyodor", with it's wonderful interpretive presentation. Now I've seen Marshweed twice, and look forward to more.

Nora Keyes was an artist I haven't seen before, but she came highly recommended. Utilizing a high falsetto, she sings brutally honest lyrics with an unyielding vibrato, that was reminiscent of Yma Sumac, and at times, Edith Piaf. Very impressive.

Good friends, Tommy Santee Klaws (above) performed acoustic and as the full band for a performance level that rivalled their best sets. This band can be so loud, without any electronic help, it amazes me they don't blow out the back walls when they are amplified.

They played such an impressive set of their beautifully crafted songs, the audience demanded an encore. A super wonderful night.