A Record A Week: Brothers & Sisters, The Allman Brothers Band (3)

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I don’t love when people ask me what the best concert I’ve ever been to is — I’ve been fortunate to go to a whole lot of good shows over the years. And they’re often so different from each other! But, seeing the Allman Brothers at the Greek Theater in September of 2003 is definitely high on my list of shows. The Greek, for one, has to be one of the best venues anywhere, ever — it’s gorgeous, there’s not a bad seat in the house, and it’s usually GA. The band was on — Warren Haynes was touring with them, and man, does he know how to shred a guitar. And, my concert buddy/partner and crime and I got backstage, which had to have been one of the more thrilling incidents of my 16-year-old life.

I can’t help but think of that show — being front and center while they raged through their joyous, slide-guitar filled brand of Southern Rock — as I listen to Brothers & Sisters. This album is one of the “borrowed” ones, courtesy of my dad — you can see his initials written on the cover. While I think Eat A Peach is a more comprehensive Allman Brothers album (it is longer, after all), Brothers & Sisters has two of the band’s biggest hits, ever — “Jessica” and “Rambling Man.” Plus, I love the photographs making up the album art, the full-album spread looks like a group of people I’d like to hang out with.

Listening to this on vinyl, I find myself going back to the assumption I reached more than a decade ago: this is exactly what music should sound like. And when it’s this damn good, why mess with it?


A Record A Week: Waylon Jennings, I’ve Always been Crazy (2)

May 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Man, sorry for the slacking on last week’s post – I had some technical difficulties with my player’s mp3 encoder. Stay tuned! I’m determined to make that bad boy work.

This week’s pick is a purchase I made last week over in Alameda at a record store-cum-vintage shop, following a tasty lunch at Burma Superstar (and giving a talk to my dear friend’s class of high school freshman, eep). I’ve loved Waylon Jennings for as long as I’ve loved country music — and use him, along with other classic country superstars like Merle Haggard and Steve Earle to try to convince my non-country lovin’ friends that it is a more than worthy genre. In addition to being a great deal ($2.76!) and having an amazing photo as the record art, this is a solid collection of tracks replete with Waylon’s rich, low vocals and twanging guitar. I’m loving “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand,” a mouthful of a title with a swagger to match. Another great surprise: the first six minutes of the B-side is a medley of Buddy Holly covers! Specifically, “Well All Right,” “It’s So Easy,” “Maybe Baby,” and “Peggy Sue.”

It may be my new life goal to acquire a guitar strap with my name emblazoned on it just like Waylon’s.

A Record A Week: M. Ward, A Wasteland Companion (1)

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

For my inaugural Record a Week post, I debated picking a classic — an album I’d pilfered from my parents, or found on the street in perfect condition (I’ve got two, I’d tell you what they are but that’s giving away the surprise!). Instead, I went for one of my newer vinyl acquisitions: M. Ward’s most recent release, A Wasteland Companion. I purchased the album at his recent show at the Fillmore here in San Francisco — a good time of a performance that included a heart-stopping acoustic set and a cover of “Roll Over Beethoven,” that set the Fillmore’s disco ball into full swing.

What struck me about A Wasteland Companion on vinyl is how neatly it divides in two. When I reviewed the album for Indie Shuffle, I mentioned a specific track that, for me, distinguished the break between the breezy, pop-inflected opening tracks to the more guitar-driven, experimental and ultimately interesting tracks. With the record, that break is acknowledged as you flip from side-A to side-B.

I like the idea of an album as a two-part effort. And I think the best ones (I definitely consider A Wasteland Companion to be quite far up there, at least in terms of recent releases) manage to use that split to their advantage (exploring two different directions) while maintaining the overall cohesiveness of the album’s sound.

A Record A Week

April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve finally done it: after talking about it for years (and years, and years) I finally got myself a record player. Specifically: a”Jensen JTA-460 3-Speed Stereo Turntable with MP3 Encoding System and AM/FM Stereo Radio” (say that three times fast). It was pretty inexpensive, has a built-in speaker (though I’d like to upgrade to more serious speakers at some point), and, most importantly, gives me a great excuse to work on my record collection. In honor of this new pursuit, I’m going to be writing a weekly installment called, you got it!, A Record a Week. I’ll snap some photos of the cover art and records, can fill you in on how I acquired it (spoiler alert: a whole lot of my budding collection is on ‘loan’ from my parents), and what I’m digging about it that day. Got any thoughts on what I should be checking out? Don’t be shy, comment!

And happy listening.

Seismic Aesthetics

March 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I was just shy of three years old when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. It was October 17, 1989 at 5:05 pm, and I was in my parents’ room on the third floor of our house in San Mateo, California. I was also in the middle of a temper tantrum. A dimple-faced little girl with white-blond hair and dark brown eyes, my smiles were deceptively sweet considering the sheer volume and intensity with which I could scream when inspired. I don’t know what spurred this particular outburst, but I do know that I continued to howl with unabated enthusiasm when the ground started shaking (with a surface wave magnitude of 7.1, 6.9 moment magnitude) along the San Andreas fault line. Why would I have been surprised? Of course the world was rumbling; I was angry.

Regardless of the reason for my fury, I’m convinced that in those 15-20 seconds, as I firmly stood my ground with feet stubbornly planted and fists clamped, I was predestined to become a real San Franciscan. Before you deem this ridiculous, that a two year old with no conscious sense of San Francisco, let alone any kind of (questionably overblown) civic pride, bear with me. Explanations are to come, but first, the story of Loma Prieta at my childhood home in San Mateo.

The house is on Maple Street, a relatively wide and busy street for our suburb. It is a Spanish-style building constructed in the 1930s, with beige walls and red tiled roofs. Originally two stories, my parents built a third-story addition when my mother was pregnant, which housed their bedroom and bathroom. Climbing the stairs to their bedroom felt something like ascending a tower in a castle; I’d take the yellow-carpeted stairs on my hands and knees until I was old enough to run up them two at a time. There room seemed a bastion of grown-upness, filled with hidden treasures like wedding photos and costume jewelry.

This was where we were when the earth began to shake. My mother (she was sitting a few feet away on her gold-framed bed atop a crisp, white duvet, a marvel of cleanliness in retrospect) was shocked into stillness at first, but when the lamp from her bedside table flew past my head, I imagine she was spurred to action. A heavy, ceramic object, topped with a lampshade made of some French-looking fabric; it undoubtedly would have knocked me over had it made contact. Amazingly, instead of crying more, I was so startled by the flying object’s proximity that I gasped, and finally, was silent.

I don’t remember the close encounter with the lamp, but do recall seeing small glass objects tumbling off my father’s dresser, made of the same glossy dark wood as the nightstands, onto the floor, and remember the way the ground seemed to roll, wave-like. Pictures of those seconds flash by uncompleted, like a carousel slide projector only a quarter-filled. But it is one of those stories that has been told to me so many times, and that I in turn have recounted, that I tend to think of it as pure memory.

There was the part about my Swedish au pair named Lena who, being from a country not on an active fault line, ran out of the house and onto Maple Street, screaming. Later that evening when there were after shocks, she began panicking again and I stroked her hand saying, “It’s okay!” I was a nice child when I wasn’t screaming my head off, apparently.

And the dramatic flourish provided by my father (a decidedly undramatic personality), who was leaving his office in San Francisco. Having just gotten off the phone with my mother to tell her he was heading home (this was probably why she was on her bed; her phone was on the nightstand), he had stood up from his desk and was in the doorway of his office when the shaking started. This was where he saw a large bookcase topple over, crushing his chair almost instantly. Unsure of what else to do, he went to his car and drove back home to San Mateo, noticing how eerily empty the freeway was due to the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge.

The lore of “where we were” when it happened has stuck, urged on years of playground conversation with friends — one thought her uncle had climbed up a ladder and was bodily shaking her house, as he sometimes shook the family station wagon. My story was told, retold, and given a new life when, at 18, I moved to Philadelphia to attend college and had the pleasure of informing my new, east coast-based friends about my singular experience in “the big quake of ’89.” They were delighted; they may have had hurricanes to contend with, but earthquakes were a mysterious disaster with which they had not been much acquainted.

So I would go on, telling them about earthquake drills in school, which required us to dutifully crawl under our little desks and curl up with our hands over our necks to (in theory) prevent paralysis from falling objects. Thankfully, I never had to put this into practice — considering the flimsy construction of the desks and the length of my spine that extended far down from my hands’ questionably protective shield. Far more fun were the earthquake survival packs — small bags of snacks and juice collected at the beginning of the school year in the event of a building-collapsing quake that left us all trapped. When this did not occur, we’d get to tear into the Chewy granola bars and Capri Sun juice bags on the last day of school. Disaster pack? More like party pack!

Thinking of an earthquake severe enough that it would leave full classrooms of children trapped and subsisting on granola bars is, when I think about it, not something to take lightly. But that’s how I tell of the precautions taken by Northern California elementary schools, because that’s almost always how I talk about earthquakes. 

I remember watching footage of the Bay Bridge and its damage. But to my shock and intense inner embarrassment, I not only had no recollection, but no conscious knowledge of the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in West Oakland. Of the 63 deaths caused by Loma Prieta, the Nimitz was responsible for 42. The top deck of the freeway collapsed entirely, crushing the cars below. Rescue workers and neighborhood residents worked tirelessly and mostly fruitlessly attempting to extract bodies, or parts of bodies, from the melee of shattered pavement and twisted metal.  Maybe I mixed these details up with my memory of the bridge; maybe I simply blocked it out. It’s a horrible thing to remember, and retrospectively, I feel a shudder thinking of the ever-present possibility that something worse might happen when the next big one hits.

But I can’t pause on this for long. Waiting for the big one is simply a part of living in San Francisco, something that I finally got around doing after college. I grew acquainted with the city I’d always considered mine, and earned the ownership I’d long assumed. Reading the past accounts of Loma Prieta I can picture with perfect clarity the fire in the Marina District, the helping hands in the Mission, and the business-as-usual chaos of Chinatown. And I naturally took to the San Francisco insouciance with which we all discuss earthquakes that might hit, and earthquakes that we’ve been through. Really, it’s the only way we get through the day in our fault-line-proximate city.

The geographically specific natural disaster is nothing new. Everyone becomes somewhat steeled against their particular brand of disaster, learning to laugh cavalierly and dismiss an outsider’s fears as naïve. I, for one, am terrified of tornadoes — I’ve never experienced a real one, but repeated viewings of both The Wizard of Oz and the 1996 classic Twister greatly affected my image of the horror and destruction they could bring.

In the same way that tornadoes seem to strike those (tragically) flat parts of the country most, I’m inclined to believe that earthquakes, while common all over California, are particularly suited to San Francisco’s topography. The city’s much remarked-upon hills, steep in gradient and frequent in occurrence, suggest the extreme seismometer waves created when fault lines give way. Buildings look jumbled, perched on hills suggesting inaccurate heights.

And this is why I believe that, at the age of two, I forever declared my allegiance to the city of seismic aesthetics as I howled indignantly in the face of disaster. For one, my earthquake-balancing muscles were clearly intact, and are remarkably similar to those needed to navigate down a steep hill on foot. Try it in high heels; you’ll feel the sensation of the earth about to give way from underneath, similar to the rolls of the earthquake.

My completely instinctive response to Loma Prieta, to not be afraid, showed the early signs of a San Franciscan’s inner steel. New Yorkers are given credit for toughness, but we San Franciscan’s stand up to a constant barrage of ignorant insults to our city that is, unquestionably, the greatest place on earth. We’re all hippies, we’re all gay, we’re all vegetarians whose idea of cooking is to put a fig on a plate. It’s cold in July. There are no seasons. And there are earthquakes, for god’s sake!

Yeah there are. And we take those critiques in the same manner we take our quakes, with a smile that’s half-smirk, secure in the knowledge that these people just don’t know what they’re talking about. We ready ourselves internally for the constant possibility of earthquake in the same way that we smile at the hippie-bums on Haight Street and always, always bring a jacket when we leave the house, especially in July. We do it with pleasure, because it’s all a part of the privilege of getting to live in a magnificent place on the lip of the Pacific.

The last earthquake I was in occurred in January, when I was back on an extended school break. I was at my sometimes-home in San Francisco, a cozy and cluttered apartment on Green Street in North Beach, a neighborhood filled with old-school Italians, new-school Italian-style tourist attractions, and hidden corners revealing Beatnik history. I was sitting on a bright green velvet chair in the apartment’s bay window; my boyfriend’s brother sat nearby on the couch. Suddenly, we heard a knocking sound — persistent and increasing in tempo. I looked up, convinced it was the apartment’s cat, Jade, tapping on the door. Then, the room began to sway, the windows rattling in their frames. Nick and I looked at each other, eyes widening, both smiling slightly (out of surprise and nervous energy).

“Is this an earthquake?” I asked needlessly, knowing the answer long before his affirmative. “Should we… stand in the doorway?” I added, feeling foolish. “Uh, yes, yeah!” he responded, and finally we unfroze. We both loped awkwardly to the nearest door, pinning ourselves against either side of the frame. Almost instantly, the quake stopped. We looked at each other, started laughing, and stood there for a minute longer for good measure.

Returning to my computer, I was greeted with a barrage of gchats all uniformly saying, “EARTHQUAKE!!!” I responded in kind. It had been a small one (4.1), but in the moments following, we all delighted in having felt it, and of course, in coming away unscathed.

I looked up and smiled. “Awesome,” I said.

The Tribute Band Thing

February 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Tony Russo is frazzled. He’s sitting backstage at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he has showed up just half an hour before he is meant to go on. On his way here, he had to make a detour to pick up his girlfriend, Rebecca, and then he got carded at the door. Despite the fact that he’s 42, and looks it. “Must be ‘cause you look so young!” his band mates tease, but Tony guesses that the bartender thought he was looking to make trouble. He leans back into the faded, L-shaped couch hugging the wall, sighs softly and closes his eyes. But, he has a show to do.

He peels off his shirt, revealing a healthy expanse of middle-aged torso and allows a tech attaches a mic-pack to his back. He, meanwhile, is coating his belly and chest with a layer of incredibly strong smelling body spray. He pulls on a fitted black t-shirt, runs his fingers through his hair, and reaches into his bag for a black sunglasses case. Removing the shades, Tony faces the mirror and puts them on. He grooves back and forth, and transforms. He is no longer Tony Russo, New Jersey resident with a day job. He has become Tono, an eerie approximation of U2 front man, Bono.

The resemblance is uncanny. The face structure and stance is right. The tiredness disappears. He suddenly seems out of place in this small, dingy backstage space. With an adjustment of the glasses and a final look in the mirror, Tono is ready. He wields his microphone and half climbs up the steps to the venue’s small stage. He launches into the opening number, strutting and preening, standing on the very edge of the stage. The crowd goes wild.

I’m here to check out Tono’s chops, and those of his band, Unforgettable Fire, or UF2, a U2 tribute band. I’ve made the journey on this cold, Saturday night in an attempt to make sense of the Tribute Band Thing (TBT): the people who put in time, energy and musical talent into imitating the music of others. Musicians (and music critics) spend a lot of time talking about creativity — about the desire to create your own sound — and yet an active tribute band circuit speaks to a higher musical truth: people want to hear what they know. They want familiarity. And musicians, perhaps purely out of love of the music, perhaps out of a self knowledge that they will likely never “make it” any other way, want a crowd that responds to them.

UF2 was formed by drummer George Levesanos in 1995. George, 46, is a short, stocky man with a kindly smile and dark brown hair combed back. He is outgoing and articulate; it doesn’t surprise me that he handles the band’s press inquiries (in this case, me). He explains his motivation for forming UF2 back in ’95 in between sips of beer and greeting fans who approach him with a handshake or a hug.

“We’re all fans of the music,” he says. “We’ve done original stuff. But I was like, hey I love U2, let’s try it. There wasn’t a big tribute scene at the time so we thought we could really blow them away by playing U2 perfectly.”

George introduces me to bass player Craig Kiell and guitar player Mick Normoyle. Craig, 49, is a tall, grey haired guy with a booming voice and an evident appreciation for Guinness (he’s wearing both a hat and a t-shirt with the beer’s logo). Mick is far quieter and soft-spoken; he resembles George Harrison. All three guys are married with kids; Tony is the only one without a family.

As I listen to the three members of the backing band riff on each other, the dude-love aspect of UF2 is clear. “I talk to these guys every day!” Craig exclaims. George and Craig talk about how they were both a part of the hair metal scene in the ‘80s, though they didn’t know each other at the time, and begin recounting various ways they got their hair “fucking huge.” Craig demonstrates on me, winding strands of hair against my head.

“The band…it’s all about the escape,” George tells me. “For us, and for the audience. That’s why you come to a show, right? To get to escape for a while.”

“So it’s kind of like a super hero thing,” I suggest. “By day he’s an accountant, by night he’s a rock star.”

“Um, I am an accountant!” George says, laughing. “How’d you know?”

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Sounds of the Subway: The Surprising Motivations of New York’s Underground Performers

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the amazing things about New York is the music:  it’s everywhere. Even in the subway. I got to know three very different kinds of New York subway musicians — a gypsy-funk band, a certified saw player, and a rail-riding banjo renegade — to learn what inspires these musicians to go underground, literally.

The lead singer, a petite woman with a dark blond bob, is wailing out a high note while beating a tattoo on the djembe drum between her knees. Flanked by two longhaired men, one on guitar and the other on bass, she opens her eyes and looks at the crowd with a smile. A group of elderly men and women nod their heads in affirmation, and in time. A lanky man in a plaid, collared shirt rocks back and forth alone. And upfront, a little boy in a leather jacket frantically digs in his pockets.

He pulls out a small handful of pennies and drops it in the open case that sits in front of Kathy Veane, the lead singer of SisterMonk. She takes a quick break from the song, calls out “Thank you!” into the mic. The small boy rushes back to his parents, and the three members of SisterMonk play on, as hoards of rain-soaked New Yorkers rush by them in the Union Square subway station on a blustery April afternoon.

SisterMonk, comprised of Veane, bass player Trevor Hochman and guitarist Jody Rubel, is one of one hundred plus musical groups in the MTA Arts for Transit program, which allows artists to audition for permits to play in New York City subway stations. One of 25 new groups added to the program’s roster in 2010, SisterMonk  put on the kind of show you expect to see at music clubs above ground, not in the middle of your commute. Watching a beatific smile spreading across Rubel’s face, it occurs to me that playing in the subway may be more than an artist’s last resort.

“When you play on the subway, it’s like religion or something,” Jody Rubel told me in a phone interview following the Saturday performance. “It’s like we’re all here together, we’re going to share this experience, share some music. It feels like we’re all bonding, somehow.”