Monday, March 9, 2015

A Genre-bending Trip to the Past with Swervedriver and Judy Collins - Feb. 5 & 6, 2015

What an interesting journey this has been. First an evening in the nineties followed by a night that spanned the sixties through the eighties. Swervedriver and Gateway Drugs played at The Roxy on Thursday, Feb. 5 representing a piece of indie history along with a jolt of the new with the young upstart shoegaze/garage/psychedelic band.

Back in 2008, when I was still getting my feet wet regarding the indie rock movement, I knew that Swervedriver were a profound influence on many of my favorite local bands at the time, including Film School and Xu Xu Fang. So when I heard that they had come out of retirement for a reunion tour and were going to play The Fonda Theatre, with Film School and Xu Xu Fang as opening acts on May 31, 2008, I jumped at the chance to see them live. I consumed as much of their recordings as I could, leading up to that night and it turned out to be one of those evenings you never forget.

It was fun to go back to The Roxy, where I haven't been in quite a while. But I will say, as much as I enjoyed the evening, there was a bit of overkill in the arena-like sound that moshed all the low end into a distorted drone that all but obliterated the vocals on most of the songs and allowed little opportunity for subtlety. Still the energy and precision that went into the Gateway Drugs set was inspiring as this young band already have considerable stage presence, led by
Liv Niles (at right) cool reserve, that is matched by the confident songwriting skills they display. This attractive band is going places!

I'm glad their album has already burned its way into my brain so I could mentally fill in what was missing in the vocals. It appears that all four band members are singers but the sound mix only favored one. Both Magick Spells and the Swervedriver album, I Wasn't Born To Lose You, rely on stunning vocal harmonies, only some of which I got to hear that night.

In particular, the first Swervedriver album in 17 years reveals a mellowing from the sheer bombast of their past to a more melody driven style which absolutely fits them. There are so many reverential, hypnotic passages that make you feel as if you're floating six feet above the earth in a meditative state. It's a truly beautiful album, maybe their most beautiful and that may sound like a sacrilege to their old fans, but I think it's true.

They fed a hungry audience a superb mix of old and new material which fits together, matching the maturity of their new material with the raw ferocity of their early work. Judging from the audience reaction they delivered just what they wanted. Their new album makes them sound like a fresh new band and their live performance was just as fresh. In spite of my bitching about the sound, I did enjoy myself and the energy level from both bands and the audience was intoxicating.

The following night represented the flip side of the coin, but great music is great music. Saw the legendary Judy Collins for the first time as she held a sold out Saban Theatre audience in the palm of her hand on Friday, March 6. She sang a remarkable array of songs in her 1 hour 45 minute set and with the accompanying pianist and the Passenger String Quartet, was able to sample all the many genres she has explored during her 55 year career.

I had many of her albums from the 1968 Wildflowers through Judith in 1975 and she had a huge impact on me (and the blooming folk rock movement) achieving a life-changing effect with that 1968 album which took me by the hand and led me toward the Hippie movement. I had just left home for college and was ripe for every new experience, having just barely being accepted to university in the nick of time to stay out of the draft. The album was a huge best-seller and it also introduced the world to the writing of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, featuring two of her songs and three of his. So as a long-time fan, I was familiar with everything she played, beginning with "Song For Judith" which proved her voice can still still strong and flexible and pure as a mountain stream.

Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Collins, Arlo Guthrie (1968)
What I didn't expect was what an expert raconteur she is. She paused between each number to either relate some history surrounding the next song, or regale us with stories of her past, including an unashamed admittance of her alcoholism 37 years ago. Her stories of the mid sixties folk movement in New York City and the Laurel Canyon hippie scene a few years later were both informative and incredibly amusing. Lasting friendships with Joan Baez, Stephen Stills and Leonard Cohen and other has sustained her, as well as her family.

Cass Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Collins, Joan Baez

Following the opening number she sang a series of songs written by contemporaries to which she lent her considerable interpretive skills that make hers seem like definitive versions. First, her biggest chart-topper, "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell was performed at a slightly different tempo, revealing a jazz element I never would have associated with the song, but which was fresh and original.

After telling a story of sitting in the stairwell of a Greenwich Village hotel, and being transfixed listening to a young musician behind one of the doors finding his way through the writing of a song,  she sang that song; "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan. Her long friendship with Joan Baez
Collins, Stephen Stills
seemed cemented when Collins recorded Baez' "Diamonds and Rust", which she had written about a bad boyfriend (Dylan). It's a beautiful song and she sang it to perfection.

It was during the Laurel Canyon years when she fell in love with Stephen Stills that he wrote "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" for her, but instead of performing that multi-part opus, she elected to sing "Helplessly Hoping". She also gave us a rendition of "Albatross" which is an intensely challenging song that she wrote evoking a very French/Piaf mood, and her voice, once again, was up to the sudden tonal shifts that would confound any normal singer.

Leonard Cohen urged her to try writing her own music after she had released a number of albums featuring other artists work and she answered with the lovely "Since You Asked" which she sat at the piano to play. Always one of my favorites of her songs, it was surprisingly moving to hear her sing it live.

Tales of her childhood with a father, a disc jockey who loved show tunes, and his contemporaries who introduced her to folk music via Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie set her on a path toward music and an appreciation of a variety of genres. She studied, piano as a child and was expected to pursue that instrument, as she was quite accomplished, when folk music led her to discover her voice. She dropped everything to focus on that, much to the consternation of her piano teacher.

This story made poignant the  medley of "Children And Art", "Sunday", and "Move On" from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In The Park With George, which got her the first standing ovation of the evening. We share a passion for Sondheim, as I got to see four of his first shows during the 1970s in Boston before they went to Broadway. So when she sang "Send In the Clowns" I couldn't help but get one of those 'circle-of-life' moments as I recalled sitting in the Colonial Theatre in Boston in 1973 watching Glynis Johns introduce the song to the world as A Little Night Music was in try-outs (photo at left). 

 She announced that she's taping a special for PBS called Finding Sondheim which will air later this year, that she had been in New York City that morning, flown to L.A. for this show, and was at the Metropolitan Opera the night before. At 75, this woman is unstoppable. Bravo.

Leaving the stage at the conclusion of "Send In the Clowns" to tumultuous applause, she returned a minute later to send us on our way with an encore that was no surprise, "Amazing Grace". Coaxing a very willing audience to sing along, her voice still soared above the rest with another one of her biggest successes. Reminiscing on the evening, one can't help but wonder at the range and impact she's had and how her reputation has yet to be assessed properly, a common problem with genre-hopping artists like Judy Collins. Perhaps the next 15 years of her career will remedy that fact.