Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chad VanGaalen at The Echo - June 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's more pictures I took.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts From Grace Slick on Grace Slick At The Grammy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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