Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sigur Ros - Comerica Theater, Phoenix, Arizona April 2013

Sigur Ros's performance was an incredibly deep experience and very different from most concerts I've seen. As people who are familiar with their music know, the music is more orchestral than rock, but they use guitars and drums, along with lots of keyboards, strings, and horns to get their trademark ethereal spaciness.  And the vocals are not in English, they just sound like sounds. Its hard to describe the experience in words and that's part of what makes it so intriguing and powerful.  The music seems to really bring out a lot of emotions in people, but because its just abstract sound (and images when you are watching their stage show), it forces the listener to put their own meaning on it.  I think even people who are not all that inclined to be philosophical are guided towards that kind of experience and that speaks to the mastery of sound that Sigur Ros holds.  They know how to use sound to create an environment conducive to getting past a lot of psychologic barriers that most of us walk around with everyday.  I found it very therapeutic.

My wife is a tough cookie, a Midwestern farm girl without a lot of patience for stuff that is arty or indirect.  She likes things that get right to the point and she's got a pretty strong wall of defenses up for stuff she thinks is bullshit.  It can be hard to get through to her soft inner core.  Let me tell you that within the first song, the tears were flowing and  she was weeping almost all the way through the show.  Afterwards she described an incredibly cathartic experience of reliving almost her entire life, hopes, dreams, hurts, triumphs, loss, love, in short, the whole human experience.

The music seems to deal with things that are common to all humans, regardless of what culture or what point in time you are from.  Everyone is born, everyone dies, everyone breathes, eats, sleeps, dreams, etc.  They seem to get right to the fundamental elements of being human.  I wonder if coming from such a desolate and isolated place where there is mostly air, water, rock and fire has given them the kind of culture that allows them to do this with their music.  Human relations must be really valued in a place like that and perhaps they take more joy and pleasure in simple human interactions than people who live in cosmopolitan places do?

Its unlikely that anyone in the audience at a Sigur Ros show has taken psychedelics, but for me, a Sigur Ros concert is extremely psychedelic.  I didn't take any psychedelics (and its been years since I have) but I sure felt like I had.  At times I felt completely connected to something bigger than myself and at other times I felt completely alone in the universe.  That kind of existential dichotomy is exactly what my experiences taking psychedelics have been like, deeply spiritual, sometimes disturbing, sometimes euphoric, always cathartic.  I never took psychedelics to entertain myself, I always took them in order to have a transformative experience which is something else that I believe all humans crave, no matter what methods they use to alter their consciousness.  A Sigur Ros show is so far beyond mere entertainment.  Joseph Campbell would have loved seeing them as much as he loved seeing the Grateful Dead. This is art music of the highest caliber.  For me, Sigur Ros are achieving the highest purpose of art, to create an atmosphere and a sensory experience that is conducive to the audience having an opportunity to reflect on their own humanity and the nature of existence.  It was fucking awesome.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Who - Quadrophenia 2013

Seeing The Who’s Quadrophenia performed by its composer Pete Townshend and his main living musical partner Roger Daltrey recently gave me a deeply emotional experience.  As a piece of highly orchestrated rock created nearly 40 years ago, it has taken on sheen of timeless relevance like a classical symphony by one of the great masters like Bach or Beethoven.  In the 21st century, the brilliance of  Quadrophenia shines through more as a composition than how it is performed.  It does not matter that Daltrey and Townshend come nowhere close to the power and intensity in performance that they were capable of in the early 70s (how could they possibly do that well into their 60s even if the utterly irreplaceable Moon and Entwistle were still alive?).  Quadrophenia is a masterpiece with a deeply spiritual undertone about the universal experience of growing up and redefining one’s identity and because of that it is still powerful to this day.  I loved this album so much when I was 16 years old in the early 80s for reasons that I did not understand back then.  With 30 more years of perspective to hear it with, I have a far greater understanding of its themes and why the music resonated so deeply with me then and still does to this day.

I’m sure I’m one of a multitude of people in the world who feels like an outcast from their family (mine are all fundamentalist religious zealots or narcissistic alcoholics).  Even with the surrogate “families” of friends I have sought out and surrounded myself with there are still barriers of fear that too often keep us from total connection.  For us who on some level feel alone all the time and also love rock ‘n’ roll, the music serves a special purpose:  it gets us.  And that is no small thing because I believe that all humans have a deep need for connection with others who understand and accept them without judgment.  Most of us are not spiritual masters, nor are our friends and families, so unconditional acceptance and understanding is not something that is easy to get from people.  But music and literature and art can provide it.  If you are like me, you have at times felt the truth behind the words “…the music is your only friend, dance on fire as it intends…”

Water is a pervasive motif in Quadrophenia and I believe it represents life force in all its permutations.  The Sea is the source of all life, where life begins and where it ends, the alpha and the omega, the Divine, the Universal One. In rain and fog, rivers, lakes, and streams are bits of The Sea on a journey that will eventually lead back to the source.

“Let me flow into the ocean, let me flow back to The Sea, let me be stormy, let  me be calm, let the tide in and set me free!  I want to drown in cold water.”   

It’s not a complicated theme, nor is it new or unique; in fact it’s what Joseph Campbell would call an archetypal myth, one that crosses all time and all cultures, universal and deeply resonant to all humans and human societies.  This is what Townshend tapped into when he wrote Quadrophenia and this theme of the spiritual journey we are all on whether we realize it or not is a lot of what gives it its power, I believe.

I may know and understand a lot more than I did when I was 16 but I don’t feel much differently now at 45 than I did then.  I still crave to be understood by my family and I still feel alone much of the time and those feelings will probably be with me my entire life.  To be in the presence of the composer of that music and two of  those artists whose music made me, both as a teen and even still now, feel understood and not so alone in the world was incredibly joyful.   To appreciate the massive contributions of Moon and Entwistle, two of the greatest rock virtuosos that ever will be, and to mourn their loss added another layer of sadness and gratitude.  To hear that fantastic majestic piece of music performed by a full rock orchestra was awesome.  To have a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions and motivations and why the music moves me so much took this far beyond just a rock concert. To hear it build through the first stage-setting half into the power and bombast of the second half was thrilling.  When Doctor Jimmy finished and the music slipped into The Rock with the first hints of Love Reign O’er Me, I could feel the impending glorious crescendo of redemption.  The spiritual theme of Quadrophenia is the antithesis of the religious hypocrisy that I was force-fed yet rejected as a child.  I realized in a more complete way than ever before that this music speaks eloquently yet subtly the truths that have always been in my heart and my mind as far back as I can remember, ones that no one in my family will ever share with me.  Townshend, as the composer of these songs, not only understands the things I believe, but he believes in their importance enough to make it his life’s work to express them in music, a potent combination of big truths and grandiose powerful music.  To hear it played by him was to be validated, accepted, understood.  All these feelings swirling around, expressed in movement, rocking out, air-guitar, fans joining together with the band, out came the tears, weeping in pleasure, sadness, joy, relief. There it was, the transcendent experience that The Who had delivered to so many thousands of fans over the years, the highest level that a rock concert can attain, Townshend’s life work coming to fruition yet again, a symbiotic union of band and audience joining together to have a spiritual transformative experience, just like on the 1969 and 1970 tours, just like what he tried but failed to achieve again for the Lifehouse shows in 1971 and the ill-fated Quadrophenia tour in 1974.  So much gratitude coming out of me for his music and what it means.  It was truly a priceless, overwhelming, soul-cleansing experience of catharsis that doesn’t come around all that often and one that I am deeply grateful and extremely fortunate to have experienced.  I’m so glad that I lived in the times when the great masters of rock still played their masterpieces

Long Live Rock!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Set the Wayback Machine to 1992 - Me and The Mother Hips in Cotati, CA

I have an old friend Greg Brown, who was the booking manager of the Inn Of The Beginning in Cotati, to thank for turning me on to the Mother Hips. I knew Greg from Sonoma State University, where I was going to school and seeing as many Grateful Dead shows as I could in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Greg had been up to Chico and had come back with tales of wild street parties on Halloween and St. Patty’s day with thousands of people partying in the streets and getting crazy enough to drag couches into the streets and set them on fire and stuff like that. “Man,” he’d say “you GOTTA get up there, its CRAZY! People are coming from ALL OVER CALIFORNIA to party up there and there are some GREAT BANDS like this one called The Mother Hips, you GOTTA see THE MOTHER HIPS, man!” (Greg talked that way, he had lots of manic nervous energy for almost every topic he talked about). I’d tell Greg “Yeah, that sounds good, we should do that sometime” and then say to myself “Whatever, it’s a long way up to Chico for a band I’ve never heard of and who probably aren’t that good”. That was 1992 and I never made it up to Chico until 7 years later and I have kicked myself many many times for not heeding Greg’s good advice and getting myself up to Chico back then. Who knows how my life would’ve changed if I’d checked it out back in the early 90s? The first time I visited in 1999, I fell in love with that town and moved there shortly after for a few years.

Greg was really big into local and regional bands and he was a pretty good talent scout. He booked Train into the Inn when they were unheard of. Now I’m not a Train fan by any means, but he was sure they were gonna be big and he wanted to get them into his small rural club while he still could and he was right. I didn’t have a lot of patience or tolerance for amateurish local bands, they just didn’t sound that good to me compared to the bands I saw live a lot, like The Dead and The Allman Brothers Band and Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Tom Petty and U2. But Greg was relentless that I check out The Hips. They were another band that he was sure was gonna be huge. So after lots of cajoling from Greg, I finally decided to check out The Mother Hips because they were coming to where I lived. That was in September 1994 at Magnolia’s in nearby Santa Rosa. They had played Magnolia’s earlier in the year, their first time in Sonoma County, but I didn’t go to that show. And for some reason, Greg didn’t go the night I first saw the Hips. He had met them in Chico and was working on getting them to play at the Inn Of The Beginning, but he wasn’t there that night, so I went solo and I didn’t know any of their music at all and certainly not what they looked like. The first thing I remember was seeing this really eccentric looking dude in the bar before the show. He had a Charlie Brown t-shirt on, long black hair and a kinda pear-shaped body, really androgynous-looking. He really stood out, even for Sonoma County hippie country. When he took the stage and sat behind the drums I thought to myself “Well, that makes sense, eccentric androgynous dude is in the band” That dude turned out to be Paul Hoaglin filling in on drums for Mike Wofchuck who I later found out had broken his arm. And then when this really tall and skinny blonde dude along with a short, dark-haired guy came on, they really made a strong visual impression. They seemed like a bunch of freaks and I was used to the hippie scene at Dead shows. The only normal looking guy in the band was Isaac.

And then they started to play. I didn’t know any of their songs at all and it didn’t really matter at the time. It only took one or two songs before I realized “This is NOT your typical local band, these guys play like seasoned vets, HOLY SHIT, these guys are GOOD!” They sounded different from any other band I’d ever heard, but they did sound like a weird and shocking combination of a bunch of bands I loved, a little bit of Black Sabbath and Crazy Horse in their heavy jams that would strangely intensify when they slowed down instead of the typical getting more intense the faster they played. They clearly had listened to some Beatles and other 60s pop based on their vocal style and catchy melodic song structures. The time signature changes sounded like a prog rock band or The Grateful Dead from 1968, very musically complicated and highly psychedelic with trippy stream-of-consciousness, spaced out lyrics. But then they would ride a simple roots rock groove like Creedence Clearwater Revival. There were not really long guitar solos, it was far more about the rhythmic interplay between guitars. The music was best when the bass and drums locked in with the guitars and created something together that was far better than what would happened when a lesser band would just wail a long solo while the others vamped behind him. This was a ROCK BAND as good as the best that the 60s and 70s had produced. They were tight, they were heavy, they had songs, they could jam in the most positive ensemble rock meaning of the word and they could sing and harmonize like the best harmony duos of all time! What the hell is going on here? How did a band this good come out of Chico? And how long have these guys been playing together to get so good? They had me captivated from the start and I was really just going to be able to tell Greg I went so I wouldn’t have to listen to him rave about the Hips to me any more. I mean I was predisposed to NOT like them and they freakin’ blew me out of the water.

Soon after this show they started playing Sonoma County pretty regularly, almost always on their way to or from San Francisco and Marin and Sacramento. They never played Magnolias’s again (no big loss, that was not a great venue) but they did many many spectacular shows at the fantastically quirky and homespun Inn Of The Beginning and a bunch of good ones at The Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, too. In fact, for years I only went to see them when they came to town which seemed to be three or four times a year. They came so often, I didn’t even feel the need to buy their records, I could hear them A LOT just by going to see them live in the County every time they came. I met Zane and Acid Mike one night when they came to Cotati, and I met Erin The Bead Queen and Daisy from Alaska and Sean Swickard from Santa Barbara there, too. I can’t remember where I first met Cosmonaut. Isaac’s hot girlfriend Courtney was often there and I think a whole bunch of the original Chico girls like Molly and Sabin showed up there a few times, although I didn’t know them then. There were also a whole bunch of regular fans I never met but who were always there every time they played, but who have disappeared from the scene. I had so many great nights at the Inn Of The Beginning and so many great memories like the time Greg Brown forced me backstage before the show one night and all I could do was sit nervously while mesmerized by Tim and Greg warming up with Glenn Campbell and Dillard and Clark songs. I was in heaven listening to their spell-binding harmonies and blown away by their knowledge of great songs. Or the time Greg Brown handed Tim a written list of requests right in the middle of the show and Tim pretended it was Greg’s grocery list and read it out loud to the crowd… “Milk, bread, eggs, CONDOMS? I think you gave me the wrong list, Greg”

So thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU to Greg Brown for forcing me to check out the Mother Hips 18 years ago and to The Mother Hips for giving me so much joy and happy times for years and years along with some good friends and a new community of music lovers to join just as the Grateful Dead were ending. You came into my life at the perfect time.

Download The Mother Hips' first album Back To The Grotto for FREE!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rich Robinson - Through A Crooked Sun

I caught the Phoenix , AZ show of Rich Robinson’s initial tour for his current solo album Through A Crooked Sun. I’ve been totally captivated by this record from the moment I heard it and I believe I’ve listened to it everyday since its release. On this record, Rich has come into his own as a songwriter and singer with an introspective set of songs tailored to his own singing voice and bringing together a nice set of less-than-mainstream 70s rock and folk influences (Manassas, Nick Drake, Woodstock-era Dylan, early Pink Floyd and early Fleetwood Mac, etc). He's quietly become a master-craftsman composer and its becoming more and more clear to me how much he's responsible for the Black Crowes' sound. I’d also been following the setlists on the tour, noting all the originals and great cover songs (Neil Young, Velvet Underground, obscure Rolling Stones, Clapton, Procol Harum, etc) that were in the rotation being changed up every night. To say I was pumped up for this show would be an understatement.

I was a bit concerned that the single guitar lineup of the touring band would not be able to satisfactorily re-create the sounds from the studio performances, with the pedal steel, slide guitar, and vibraphone guest spots and the double-tracked rhythm guitar parts from Rich himself. It wasn’t until the next day that I remembered this concern; not once during the show did I even think the sound was thin or missing something. I’d say that’s a testament to Rich’s ability as a guitarist and master-musician to come up with live arrangements for single electric guitar and keyboards (and the rest of the band’s playing sensitivity) that create a full rich sound, even recreating the quieter acoustic parts of the record with just a four-piece band. This band plays loud, there is no doubt, but even as heavy as they can get with all that volume, the music never lacked breathing room between the instruments.

On this last night of the tour, Rich seemed like he was in a pretty good mood, being fairly talkative and interactive with the audience, even if part of that interaction was deftly fending off talkers, song-requesters, and obnoxious groupie-type women. Rich, well-known for his subdued personality and smile-less facial expressions, even got in some uncharacteristic but dry humor. Someone shouted out that bassist Jack or Brian (?) whose birthday it was, was playing like a motherfucker and Rich ran with that one, saying “yeah he is” and dubbing Molitz “double-motherfucker” and making jokes about the delicate and easily offended sensibilities of drummer Joe Magistro. He talked about how attempts to name the band quickly fell to the basest level with “Interspecies Three-Way” being a contender pointing out that the figures of Gumby, Pokey, and a baseball player sitting atop one of Rich’s amps represented the failed candidate for the band name.

The set was great with Rich playing all but three songs from Crooked Sun. Surprisingly left out were Standing On The Surface Of The Sun and Hey Fear, but instead we got to hear the rarely played, gloriously beautiful All Along The Way. That came right after a slaying version of Gram Parsons' She, making for a very strong emotional double shot of soulful and introspective balladry. Other setlist treats included Dylan’s The Man In Me, a heavier electric arrangement of The Black Crowes’ What Is Home, a dirty dirty take on Cream’s Politician, and from Crooked Sun, Station Man, It’s Not Easy, Lost and Found, Falling Again, I Don’t Hear The Sound Of You and an extended ending jam on Bye Bye Baby (with Rich on a beat-up gold top Les Paul) that featured the band wandering purposefully through a jazzy Allman Brothers-like interlude of ensemble rock.

Touring behind such a fantastic album made it easy to love any originals that Rich chose to play on a given night and if you add to that his excellent taste in choosing covers (slightly-off mainstream ‘70s rock and folk music), you just can’t go wrong no matter what the setlist was, but I was left wanting to hear all the songs from the tour that I missed. I wish I could’ve gone to multiple shows, but it didn’t happen this time. Musically, the show was very satisfying, largely due to the years of collective experience of the musicians, who have somehow quickly, in just one short tour, gelled into a rock ensemble who make it look easy bringing to life all these great songs. Rich played mostly Gibson SGs or Fender Telecasters, but dipped into a Les Paul and a Stratocaster here and there, using his guitar quiver like a master painter uses his colors: each one had uniqueness in sound used by the artist to convey their vision. Keyboardist Steve Molitz from Particle used a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano with a second keyboard on top with Leslie rotating speaker to get a range of classic keyboard sounds including a real nice Wurlitzer/Hammond organ tone. The rhythm section was solid, led by Magistro’s deft drumming. I’m not sure if the bassist was a dude named Brian or if it was Jack Daley playing, but the guy laid down a good foundation of groove with some nice melodic touches that made him seem every bit the equal of the other guys on the stage.

Rich announced his intention to tour the US some more in March (preceeded by some shows in the UK and Europe in January) and that stoked me, because I am really digging where Rich is at right now doing his own thing. I keep flashing back to David Gilmour's About Face album and tour in the early 80s because this Rich Robinson album and tour seems similar in that its a masterful second solo album from a guitarist from a famous band touring in far smaller venues than he typically does and by and large the whole enterprise is flying under the radar and is getting far less attention than the quality of the record and the live show deserve. I have always felt very fortunate to have been turned on to that Gilmour album and to have caught the tour live, because it was monstrously good. I feel the same way about Rich's Through A Crooked Sun and I highly encourage you to check it out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band

For those of us who were not old enough to actually attend rock shows in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, I believe it’s hard to really get a feel for what it was like to be there in person, hearing and seeing these bands live, reveling in the experience. Audio recordings are only somewhat helpful in trying to be inside the experience. We read and hear stories about the great rock bands of that era, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones and hear them called the greatest rock bands of all time and based solely on their studio albums, I have no argument with those claims. But still, when you’ve only seen The Rolling Stones in the ‘80s and ‘90s and heard live recordings from their classic era of dubious sonic clarity, it’s easy to disregard the title of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” as hyperbole.

So it’s a fantastic treasure unearthed when you get to see a high quality video recording of The Stones in their prime, as with the recently re-released Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, filmed on the infamous 1972 American tour just after the release of the juggernaut Exile On Main Street.

This is quintessential rock ‘n’ roll power, pure and simple. It’s The Stones in what many believe is their finest hour, firing on all cylinders, a clean and lean rock ‘n’ roll machine, debauching and rocking across the US. Jagger’s kinetic frenzy and showmanship charm seem to hold a genuine power over his audience. His vocals may suffer at the expense of all that dancing, but watching him you know he was the penultimate rock ‘n’ roll frontman for good reason. Keith Richards’ tight but loose swagger on rhythm guitar has really come into its own on the Let It Bleed-Sticky Fingers-Exile On Main Street songs. Young gun Mick Taylor on lead guitar is by far the best foil for Keef the band has ever had and even though he stands stock still and expressionless in these performances, his playing brims with vitality. Even minimalist Charlie Watts lets fly with a few power fills on drums. Highlights include a blistering All Down The Line and an electric Dead Flowers with Mick and Keith sharing one microphone.

So if you are doubtful or even just curious about why The Stones are dubbed the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, watching this footage of them live in 1972 may leave you nodding your head in understanding or maybe even dancing around your living room.

Monday, October 11, 2010

“Buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I come ‘cause I can’t stay long…”

In general, although I have been a follower for many years, I have a big sense of disappointment about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers concerts in the past 10 years because of his play-it-safe, please-the-mainstream-casual-fan approach. Even though his radio hits are very good songs, there are many many equally good songs in his songbook that almost never get played live. There is so much potential for brilliance in a Petty concert (the Heartbreakers seem to get better and better as a rock band as time goes by) and yet what fans are hearing on the Mojo tour is a short show (17 songs, 90 minutes) of all radio hits, a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover that has been played regularly in the past decade and four new songs from the Mojo album. The setlist has been virtually identical every night of the tour (although First Flash Of Freedom and You Wreck Me were being played earlier in the tour, they have now been dropped). There are no back-catalog rarities, no classic duets with Stevie Nicks, not a single bone thrown to the hardcore fans tired of hearing Free Fallin’ at every concert since 1989, and only one song from the quintessential Damn The Torpedoes record. We are in the times when former concert staples Here Comes My Girl and Even The Losers have become hoped-for rarities that don’t get played at all anymore. I find that astounding. Tom was even apologetic about playing King’s Highway, not exactly a rare song in the concert repertoire, because “its not a single or anything, I just thought it would be fun to play”. And 90 minutes is not even enough time to cover all the radio singles, if radio singles is all that is gonna get played. Passed over on this tour were I Need To Know, The Waiting, You Got Lucky, Don’t Do Me Like That, and Jammin’ Me. Playing all of these songs (or better yet, 5 or 6 nuggets from the past like Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, Straight Into Darkness, Change Of Heart, The Wild One Forever, etc) would add only about a half hour to the show, making it a solid and respectable two hours. If Springteen and Bob Seger can play over two hours at their ages, I'd think Petty could do the same.

But that being said, when I went to see him in Phoenix last week I had a good time and a renewed appreciation for what you get at a Petty show at the end of this decade. After all, all those radio hits are freakin’ great songs and its fun as hell to sing along with an arena full of fans, be they casual or hardcore. That renewed appreciation might have been in part due to the embarrassing experience of Chuck Berry’s opening set. You gotta give Chuck credit for still taking the stage at age 84, but he was painfully out of key on every song and seemed genuinely confused about what song was being played. He was given a loving response by the audience as befits his stature in rock ‘n’ roll history, but it was very sad to see him playing so badly. So one never knows how long the rockers will be able to keep rocking with a minimum level of competence. By comparison, Petty and the Heartbreakers, most of whom are approaching 60, sounded as much as ever like the powerhouse rock band they’ve consistently been for well over 30 years! Listen To Her Heart was as always two and a half minutes of jangly Byrdsian power pop pleasure. I Won’t Back Down is a great song of defiance no matter how many times it has been played live. The epic ending solo on Runnin’ Down A Dream was as hot as ever. So even if The Heartbreakers now ignore the vast majority of their recorded songs when they play live, at least they are still in fine form and playing well and we gotta enjoy that while we can, because it won’t last forever.

A lot of the music on Mojo was inspired by Mike Campbell’s acquisition of a classic Les Paul and Petty’s urging of Mike to cut loose guitar hero-style and get a Peter Green kind of sound. Campbell has always been an economic tone-meister of a guitarist, but at this show anytime he strapped on that Les Paul, that song instantly became heavier and dirtier. Mary Jane’s Last Dance, in particular, benefited from the Les Paul tone. The solo in Good Enough (the slow blues rave up from Mojo) was suitably killer. All the Mojo songs were played in a group about ¾ way through the show. Missing were the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers-ish First Flash of Freedom and the lovely ballad No Reason To Cry. All in all, a satisfying show only if you take it as it comes and appreciate it for what it is.

I still dream, though, of Petty concerts in which a revolving selection of the radio hits are blended with a rotating cast of back-catalog nuggets from night to night. In this scenario, if you want to hear your favorite popular song, you might need to see a few shows, but in return you are rewarded with the chance of hearing some less-well known songs that are liked buried treasures. This keeps the fans anticipating what they might hear and presumably keeps the band from being bored by playing the same show and songs night after night after night. That is basically the exact model that The Black Crowes have been following for years in their live shows. Maybe one day, Petty will do a rarities tour in which he digs deep and shows off the impressive song catalog he has amassed over the years.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wilco - Aspen Snowmass Festival 9/3/2010

Let me say right off that this was one of the best rock 'n' roll concerts I've ever seen. Truly, I put it up there with the best shows I've seen by U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Grateful Dead, The Black Crowes and others. I know that's a big statement, but its true. I found myself floored that in 2010, I can still find a rock band that can blow me away to my core. Hallelujah! And I'm very surprised that Wilco is such a band, a couple years ago, I'd never have thought that would be true. Sometimes I just miss the boat on a certain band maybe because my tastes change over time or the band develops in some way that lets me appreciate them, whatever the reason. In this case, I don’t think my tastes have changed that much, but I do think that Wilco has developed into a band that I can really get into since Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen joined in 2004 and finalized what I believe is the strongest lineup of their career. In my mind, they’ve successfully balanced the dark, arty, ambient noise-rock elements of their music with the rooted, soulful, classic Americana. I also think bandleader Jeff Tweedy is probably a happier and emotionally healthier person than he has been in the past, which naturally comes across in the music. And most importantly, I think Wilco has simply become more seasoned, skilled, and experienced while not losing any of their passion and drive.

So going up to Aspen, Colorado to see my first Wilco show since I became a fan, I had pretty high hopes and expectations for the show. I was extremely surprised, from about mid-way through the 2+ hour show until the end, to find my hopes and expectations shattered and exceeded in every way. My jaw was hanging open and I was grinning like a fool, that’s how amazed and thrilled I was at the rock brilliance I was witnessing. Wilco are frickin’ tight, especially while rocking out so hard. These guys were killing it! And all these Wilco fans were just smiling their knowing smiles and singing along like it was a commonplace experience for them (which it probably is), while I, a newcomer, was blown away, surprised even beyond what I was expecting that Wilco were this powerful! I know that seeming musical telepathy only comes from lots and lots of time playing together, which Wilco do with a relentless touring schedule of very long concerts (these guys earlier this year were doing 3+ hour 38-song two-set shows regularly). I knew they were really good based on watching the Ashes DVD, but being there in person, watching and listening to them gradually build the intensity over the course of 2 hours (a short 26 song festival set for them) truly floored me and took my appreciation to an entirely different level. Seeing this show was a lot like the first time I saw the Grateful Dead; I was filled with ecstasy and all I could think about was “When is the next time I get to see this band?!” I will now go see Wilco anywhere, anytime I am able. You never know how long a good thing like this will last. I am now kicking myself for all the times in the past 5 years that I could have seen Wilco but did not. I feel fortunate that I finally caught the Wilco train while its still going strong.
So what makes Wilco so great? Wilco play as a true rock ensemble, and by that I mean a collective of musicians who a) are trying to make their part add to the whole to make it better and b) really, really listen to one another. This, too, sounds like the Grateful Dead, but the Dead never rehearsed and they definitely took a laissez faire approach to making musical magic, while Wilco seem bent on tight arrangements but somehow with them it doesn’t sterilize the magic, it just makes it incredibly tight. Wilco’s realm is a diverse palate of American music style, also like the Dead, touching on folk, dissonant noise rock, rock ‘n’ roll, 60s pop, soul, classic R&B and a bit of country now and again. There are not a lot of solos, their music is more about hitting a rhythm groove and digging deep into it. Kingpin’s wicked slide guitar riff was so heavy and nasty, I was hearing Led Zeppelin in my head. Wilco slowly builds up a head of steam as the concert goes on and by the end of the show, that train is barreling down the tracks, unstoppably strong rock music. It’s not complicated music, but it is precise and perfectly timed. It’s not too dense, but it is rich and full in arrangements. It’s not showboaty, but the band is filled with brilliant musicians playing as hard as they can at times (Nels Cline on guitar and Glenn Kotche on drums, in particular, are madmen, just wailing on their instruments with gleeful abandon). For me, live rock music doesn’t get any better than this, folks. I don't say that lightly and keep in mind the literally hundreds of rock concerts I've seen in my life that I am favorably comparing this Wilco show to. I do believe, as a live band, I like Wilco as much as any band I’ve been able to see, and that is some pretty heady company, I’d say.
And just so you know I'm not alone in my ravings, here is a review of a London show from just last week.
So, my friends, here I am, with yet another post praising the charms of Wilco, risking boring you or being accused of unbalanced obsessiveness (fair claims, both), all in hopes of doing you a service and convincing you to get yourself to a damn Wilco show! You can thank me later.