Live 105's Not So Silent Night at the Oakland's Oracle Arena
All photos by David Sason
When R.E.M. announced their breakup back in September, reactions from critics and bloggers fell into one of three categories: summaries of an influential career; personal accounts of the group as gateway to subterranean scenes (ending sometime in the ‘90s, of course); or facetious assertions that they’d already broken up years ago.
My obit for the Athens, Ga. band could never be so flippant because I was one of the dwindling faithful. Long after the masses jumped ship, I remained. I knew the second half of their 30-year recording career not as the obvious commercial decline, but a rich period of experimentation that spawned excellent albums like Up, Reveal and Accelerate. Even their admitted worst record Around the Sun had a few brilliant songs.
But the same week the disbanding brought renewed interest, I spotted their 2008 photo book R.E.M. Hello – MSRP $29.95 – at the Dollar Tree. Two copies right there, nestled among the no-name crime novels, obscure self-help books, and an early adventure tale from L. Ron Hubbard. I had to buy both copies out of respect.
What’s more of a shame than their company on that shelf is that R.E.M. Hello documents some of the most celebrated tours of their career. During their last decade of touring, R.E.M. turned in some of the most inspired, impassioned, energetic performances of any band, young or old, completely eradicating any remnants of their sterile Monster Tour shows from 1995. I’ll never forget how their politically charged show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre in October 2004 impressed even my old jaded, New York hipster friend, who boasted of seeing them open for the Cramps at the Peppermint Lounge in ‘83 (under the name It Crawled From the South) and naturally swore them off after the I.R.S. Records years.
“Wow, they were great,” he told me at show’s end, completely surprised. “Michael Stipe is just one of the all-time great frontmen.”
Stipe had indeed become a great entertainer in recent years: extroverted, cordial, funny, and always trying to put on the best show he could. It’s no wonder that R.E.M. lost more fans the more comfortable on stage he became, because the singer’s “enigmatic” persona was a huge part of their early appeal. What a sin it must have been to see Stipe actually enjoying the spotlight, or playing “Shaking Through” as a request for a new bride at a 2003 Chicago show, or explaining his “West of the Fields” lyrics at a Berkeley show in 2008, or – gasp! – finally having his lyrics printed in CD booklets.
None of this turned me off, because to me the group was never the quirky college-radio grassroots phenomenon or even the political rock songsmiths of the late ‘80s. My era’s R.E.M. was the highly successful baroque-pop sensation of 1991-1992, when the fragile melodies, acoustic instrumentation, and eccentric ballads of Out of Time and Automatic for the People finally won over the kid who’d avoided anything without heavy guitars or a hip-hop beat. Their weird anti-love songs and thoughtful videos were a true “alternative” in 1991, when the biggest story in rock was the return of Guns N’ Roses. Visually they stuck out like a sore thumb on MTV, looking like uncles or librarians in their wrinkled, regular clothes. One member was balding, another wearing huge glasses, the next sporting a uni-brow, and worst of all, only one had long hair!
The release of “Shiny Happy People” remains the gutsiest move in their career, especially for a band that’d had their big break with edgy rockers like “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. Sure, “Stand” was goofy and corny, but this song and video, with its ridiculous choreography and bright clothing, were something else. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich famously mocked the clip on MTV News, calling it “very UN-heterosexual.” How much more “punk” was the cartoonish “Shiny Happy People” than Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from later that year, which was still a grinding, aggressive hard rock anthem? Thrift store clothes do not a strong digression make.
It was an incredible inspiration to see such a band – with absolutely no regard to what's "cool" or “hip” or "masculine" or “youthful” or “bad ass” or “rebellious” or even "rock n' roll" – conquering MTV and the charts because of their art alone. This had a profound effect on my own art appreciation throughout my life and my willingness to explore the gentler, more vulnerable side of music.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam reissues can’t escape the “grunge” tag, just as Murmur can’t leave “college rock” behind, yet Automatic for the People remains an unfettered masterpiece 19 years later. The album was reportedly playing on Kurt Cobain’s CD player when he killed himself, and I’ve always wondered what song he went out on. Hopefully “Try Not to Breathe” or “Find the River”.
Neither of these songs appears on R.E.M.’s new retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. Yet the two-disc set is the most effective introduction to the band yet, with 40 songs spanning both the I.R.S. and Warner Brothers years for the first time. As with all compilations, there are some unfortunate omissions (What, no “Wolves, Lower”, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Cuyahoga”, “Near Wild Heaven”, “Drive”, “Star 69”, E-Bow the Letter” w/ Patti Smith or “Walk Unafraid”?), but the first-time anthologizing of key tracks like “Country Feedback” and “New Test Leper” (and the rightful prominence of Green album) compensate nicely.
The three new tracks (recorded last summer) are unfortunately sub par, especially “A Month of Saturdays”, which sounds like a quick demo. But their inclusion provides proper closure, proving they gave us everything they had (something foreshadowed by the lyrical letdown on their last album) and that they, as Rob Sheffield recently put it, “ran it into the ground.” Not all of it was great, but the vast majority of it was.
My final two cents as a fan and critic? (deep inhale) A) Automatic for the People is their finest album, followed by Green and Out of Time; never before or after did they match this four-year period (1988-1992) of undeniable melodies, lyrical potency and imaginative instrumentation. B) Up (1998) is a ragged masterpiece, a compelling document of a band breaking up and piecing themselves back together. C) It’s criminal that their 1982 Chronic Town EP has not received the deluxe treatment it deserves; the true start of their renaissance. D) Their catalogue comprises the longest run of excellent albums by a single artist in modern rock history; I can’t even think of another. Even Around the Sun was 1/3 good, while all their others are at least 2/3 good. E) A huge part of what made R.E.M. so unique was that the traditional leads (singer and guitarist) were complete amateurs and wrote their own respective books, while the rhythm section (normally in the background) were highly accomplished musicians who injected amazing dynamics into each song. F) Mike Mills is an unsung genius. Just listen to his bass lines on any album. G) Dead Letter Office is the single greatest b-sides collection in history. H) The bootleg everyone should track down is a show at Oakland Arena in November 1987; surprise guest Warren Zevon plays kickin’ piano on a few songs, including their cover of Wire’s “Strange”.
A couple weeks after the Dollar Tree incident, I noticed U2’s gigantic picture book U2byU2 in the Novato Library’s oversized book sections. There it sat, right between the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, which is probably where Bono has always aspired to be. I pondered the longevity of R.E.M.’s legacy, now that they’re kaput. I also wondered where their book would go. Probably near the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and the Monkees. Although R.E.M. Hello only measures about 10 x 9, I think I’ll donate a copy to the library. Who knows? Maybe some unsuspecting music fan will stumble upon it one day and wonder what a mandolin is.
Come to think of it, I didn’t hate ALL of the snide breakup tweets. After the news broke, @peterbrynes tweeted, “The best part of REM breaking up is that they might inspire U2 to do the same.”
This San Francisco duo brought national attention to San Francisco with their 2009 debut release Album, featuring their shimmering brand of guitar rock, which echoed psychedelia, surf rock, punk and other styles without deviating from strong melodies. On their highly anticipated follow-up Father, Son, Holy Ghosts, Christopher Owens, Chet “JR” White and company sound downright gigantic and ready for the world at large.
Lead track “Honey Bunny” is an epic ode to a desired one, beginning as a galloping ‘60s-rock ditty replete with harmonies and surf riffs before becoming a slowed-down detour into dreamy, slide guitar heaven. Just as ambitious is first single “Vomit”, a compelling six-and-a-half-minute tale of romantic pining that teeters between quiet jangle and power ballad territory, ending in an explosion of sound: power chords, Owens’s full emoting, a female soul singer belting it out, clanging organs, etc.
Even the quiet songs like “Jamie Marie” and “Just a Song” are impeccably produced (by the group and Doug Boehm), with the latter tune’s coda full of strings and flutes that evoke mid-era Beatles, as does everything else on Father, Son, Holy Ghost (harmonies, lyrics, instrumentation, general cheekiness). Throughout the record, Owens’s voice is right up front in the mix while still retaining a reticence that draws you in. And while the songs here are not as intense and passionate as those on Album, they show the group working on their craft more than one would think. Apparently, Girls actually care.
The early reviews are true. The new Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration – an odd pairing to begin with – simply does not work. Recorded in a little over a month this spring, Lulu’s inception was Lou Reed playing “Sweet Jane” with the band at 2009’s starstudded Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Anniversary Shows at Madison Square Garden, which was well-received. But that was a beloved Velvet Underground three-chord classic, and Lulu is based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial “Lulu plays” from 1885 and 1904 Germany.
Like 2003’s The Raven, which was based on Edgar Allen Poe’s work, Reed’s lyrics here fit nicely with his career’s societal decay/underbelly motif. Yet despite being an initially interesting idea, Metallica’s accompaniment is jarring rather than complementary. Most tracks begin with the familiar Metallica sound – booming drums, crisp & down-tuned chords – before Lou Reed’s recitation comes in above it all, seemingly freeform in meter. Even more awkward is when James Hetfield joins in – not in any “singing” fashion like we know he’s capable of, mind you, but in full-on thrash-bark mode. Too haphazard, despite the varied talent present. A little more time spent crafting the songs might have helped.
There aren’t really any highlights, but if I had to pick one it would be “Little Dog” merely because it stays with its swells of quiet guitar feedback to serve Reed’s lyrical recitation and doesn’t switch tempos into full-on Metallica mode. On the next track “Dragon”, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Reed’s refrain “Are we nearly dead now?”
Surely Metallica fans will wish the boys had saved some of these riffs for their own next album. But it’s clear that Lulu is by Lou Reed/Metallica, for Lou Reed/Metallica. Kudos to both for following through on a whim. Perhaps it’s the catalyst they both need right now, like David Bowie’s Tin Machine. In that case, I’m curious to see if this shakes anything loose for either icon.
Although not nearly as catchy as albums Girlfriend or 100% Fun, Matthew Sweet’s last solo record, 2008’s Sunshine Lies was hailed as a welcome return to guitar-driven power pop, with A-list session players like Richard Lloyd in tow again. The audaciously titled Modern Art continues in this vein, but with much better melodies and more stylistic variety.
“She Walks the Night” is a classic Matthew Sweet single, a mid-tempo love song reminiscent of “I’ve Been Waiting” or “We’re the Same”. The anguished, bluesy “Ladyfingers” sounds like an Altered Beast outtake, with its throbbing bass and dark vibe, and the sparse, echoey “My Ass is Grass” reminds of Girlfriend’s quirkier half (Side Two).
Fittingly, Sweet is performing Girlfriend in its entirety this year, and these new tracks will fit nicely in the set. Sweet is an artist who needs no seismic shift with each album; his established palette still delivers.
Proving their triumphant Outside Lands performance was no fluke, the Brooklyn/Philly quintet return with their strongest melodies and most danceable songs since their beloved 2004 debut. This is a welcome change after 2007’s disappointing Some Loud Thunder, where frontman Alec Ounsworth and the boys seemed embarrassed of their gift for bouncy pop-rock gems, shrouding the songs in bad reverb and fake lo-fi aesthetics – a clear reaction to their shimmering/scintillating debut. Throughout Hysterical, Ounsworth’s voice sounds less nasally and more impassioned with a hint of desperation, adding inherent high drama to most songs, especially the title track and “Ketamine and Ecstatcu”, which sounds like a lost Echo and the Bunnymen tune. Not much musical variation except for the orchestral-acoustic curiosity “In A Motel”, but that’s what the next record is for. For now, it’s good to see such a promising group with their mojo back. Here’s me clapping my hands and saying yeah.
While Nirvana’s seminal 1991 classic is certainly worthy of the industry’s now-all-too-common “deluxe edition” treatment, this release suffers from the ubiquity of the bonus material in various official and unofficial releases. 1990’s “The Smart Studio Sessions” and 1991’s Seattle Halloween show have been mined endlessly by fans since the band’s abrupt 1994 demise. The “boombox rehearsal demos” are mildly intriguing, yet too grating to appeal to non-fanatics. Best of the Super Deluxe Edition are Butch Vig’s rough “Devonshire Mixes” (the tracks before Andy Wallace’s mixing), which offer a slightly edgier take on the album to partly appease those turned off by the original mix’s polish. The original album itself is just as catchy and rocking as ever, so your best bet is the 2CD deluxe edition (which includes all the original b-sides).
Most essential of all is the Live at the Paramount DVD, which presents video of their full Halloween ’91 theater show for the first time ever. It’s thrilling to see the power trio on their last tour of small venues, just before platinum status (especially for those who missed their SF show at the Warfield five days before this was filmed). With a sparse stage design comprised of a single solid color behind the group and a few searchlights, Nirvana's performance stands on its own, justifying all that hype two decades ago.
This New Jersey quartet’s 2009 eponymous debut was full of wistful, care-free jangle pop tunes that reminded the garden state has just as many gangly undergrads as guido juiceheads. On Days, the band repeats the formula for the most part, again providing a droning, Velvets-y beach day alternative to Jack Johnson. “Municipality” is one of the only selections with any noticeable variation, with its slightly more complex structure and subtly mournful guitar riff and piano accompaniment.
Singer-guitarist Martin Courtney seems aware of this on “Younger Than Yesterday”, which also features a welcome touch of musical progression/dynamics. “It took me all summer long, just to write one simple song,” he sings, “there’s too much to focus on, clearly there’s something wrong.”
This album is a slight letdown after two years, but the world can always use a good dream-pop band, and Real Estate does it well. They’re still a band to watch (for now), but they need to realize that summer just ended.
Director Dave Markey’s ramshackle super-8 chronicle of Sonic Youth’s 1991 UK tour gets the remaster treatment for its 20th anniversary DVD release, but it’s hard to tell since it retains its half-charming/half-frustrating grainy punk aesthetic. On second viewing, one wishes for more traditional, clear footage of the Goo-era performances, but the film still serves its original purpose as a glimpse at Nirvana right before superstardom and the rest of the college/alternative rock scene (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., etc.) on the cusp of the impending media spotlight. The highlight of the extras is a Q & A session with Markey, Sonic Youth and J. Mascis from a 2011 screening in which we finally learn the hair-metal origins of the film’s title.
After 2009’s Wilco (the Album) saw the group rebounding from its wholly bland predecessor Sky Blue Sky, healthy expectations were at least back (if not exactly high) for their next album. Like The Album, The Whole Love is a mixed bag that shows off the Chicago group’s various mastered guises, from country balladeers to kraut-rock groovesters and rootsy American rockers. And while the up-tempo numbers are enjoyable (especially the organ-driven clap-fest “Standing O”), the lasting impressions are born of the softer numbers such as the Beatle-esque “Sunloathe”. One highlight is the gorgeous “Black Moon”, an Elliot Smith sound-alike that ends with a stirring orchestral accompaniment never before heard on a Wilco record.
Stylistically, The Whole Love sounds at first like 1999's Summerteeth, but these new songs’ immersion in lushness and strings (without the usual tension and dark undercurrent) is something new for the group. Jeff Tweedy and crew inhabit the ballads deeper than before, which is as worthy a use of the players as the quirky rockers and extended jam fodder. The 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is a haunting, whispered acoustic guitar/piano number that features Tweedy’s most intriguing lyrics in years. It’s the best song on the album and a positive sign that we may eventually get Tweedy’s very own Nebraska. Hopefully the next Wilco album will pick up where this track leaves off.
I'm not sure what's more amazing: singer Sade's understated anti-diva confidence or her jazzy, soulful music's ability to touch an audience, even after a full decade away. Last night at the HP Pavilion, at the first of three Bay Area shows (she and John Legend play Oracle Arena tonight and tomorrow), the Nigerian-British vocalist and her eight-piece all-male band simply enchanted the surprisingly eclectic crowd with faithful renditions of her three-decades-plus career. The setlist spanned from first single "Your Love is King" to "Soldier of Love", the title track to her most recent album, released in 2010 after a decade away from the public eye. The latter served as the opener and with its mixture of live dancing and video projection backdrop set the stage for the rest of the show's impressive visuals. Each number was complemented perfectly by a mood-appropriate multimedia art exhibit, from the film noir/city skyline of "Smooth Operator", to the fire and sun imagery in the intense "Pearls", to the sustained orange warmth in her classic lullaby "By Your Side", which translated palpably to the countless swaying couples in the near-capacity crowd.
All of this was secondary, of course, to 52-year-old Sade Adu herself, who was a formidable vision of youthful perfection - flawless in both buttery voice and flowing physicality. It was astonishing how little she seemed to age from the days of her 1980s videos, some of which appeared behind her. She and her band were simply adored from start to finish; each dance move, smile, gesture and instrument solo were met with bursts of applause and impromptu standing ovations like I've never seen before. The famously reclusive singer was fairly talkative as a result, and gushed more than once in appreciation and genuine surprise at such outpouring of love. Her versatile band was a revelation, especially when they turned "No Ordinary Love" into a surprisingly potent rock power ballad. Their skill more than justified Sade's lengthy anecdote-heavy introductions of each member, perhaps the night's strongest confirmation that she's a class act and "just one of the guys" despite her incredibly sensual charisma. Sade's tour just could be the most worthwhile arena show of the year. Let's hope it won't be another decade until the next one.Sade and John Legend perform at the Oakland's Oracle Arena Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets are still available here.
The Tucson-based band Calexico have put out consistently beautiful, challenging, and eclectic recordings since the late nineties. We talked to founding member (along with drummer John Convertino) Joey Burns, about the European Southwest, borders big and small, and how it felt to have his music played in outerspace. Check out the full article in this week’s Bohemian.How did it feel to have your songs played in outer space?
Well, it was a big honor. We’ve got to know Gabby (Gabrielle Giffords) and Mark over the years and for me, the whole personal connection made it mean more on that level then as a news item or an achievement for the band. It felt more comforting to know that the music meant something to some very good friends of ours. As you can imagine it was a really emotional time and it’s the second time that Gabby has played a song for her husband Mark out there in space, of ours. The first time we chose “Crystal Frontiers,” which I thought was a good wake up call because it has horns blaring . They asked me to suggest one and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll suggest one,” and so the second time I chose the song "Slowness" which is more of a ballad and a duet, and its about reaching out over that space, or out into that space, thinking of a loved one in the past, or just thinking of them in the now, so it was very sentimental and it was really honest.Calexico is so steeped in geography. The music really captures the eerie spacious magic of the desert.
Ther's a lot of similarity between the desert that surrounds the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle-East. Corsica. Southern Italy. Parts of Spain. The Iberian Peninsula. There’s something about that region I connect with, and it must come from growing up in Southern California. If you travel down to Baja it feels a lot like if you’re traveling on a small road on the island of Corsica…which I’ve done and I’m always surprised..”oh yeah, there’s cactus over here.” There is this connection. So I just want to put that out there. I admit there is a fair amount of cinematic quality that is evocative of the Southwest but it’s also the European Southwest too. We think of the desert as so Southwest.
A lot of the music that is inspiring to both John and I and the other members of the band comes from a lot of different places, whether it’s a jazz background, or sensibilities that influence folk and pop and rock and roll, for years, but coming from this European standpoint, or from this Afro-European influence. Maybe a Cuban influence coming into New Orleans by way of Africa. We generally tend to take the road less traveled. If there are a lot of people doing any kind of particular musical styling, we’ll generally drop it because there’s no real use in doing it because we’re more interested in finding new sounds and new expressions.
A lot of that comes from this connection to the past but not always the recent past, more like a hundred years ago, or 70 years ago. There’s an affection for, and maybe a pining for these days that are long-forgotten. But it’s also about looking at what the maestros were doing, or artists , writers, painters, poets, you know, what were they doing a hundred years ago, what were they into. It gives you the opportunity to go outside your immediate bubble. I can see where that mindset or aesthetic has influenced a lot of bands, whether its Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, mostly the folk bands I see, Beirut especially. Bands that go outside of the normal definition of what a contemporary indie rock or folk band can be. There’s a lot of world music influences too. There’s a lot of different languages coming in on some of our records. It’s all that kind of mixed up, melting pot, which you’ll find in the Mediterranean especially, because of all of the proximity to these different languages and cultures surrounding this big body of water.
I liken our musical input and connection to that. In the Southwest, you have a little bit of that, more so than in Kansas or Seattle, because there’s more than one language being spoken. I like living on the border near the U.S. and Mexico because there is an element of hybrid cultures and it’s beautiful, I love it.How does being so close to the U.S./ Mexico border influence your art and music?
Any kind of border region is fascinating. You’re surrounded by a predominant ly Hispanic and Latin community and I love it, and I still do. It’s brought me closer in to wanting to know more. I have this huge appreciation. When I travel, I’m always intrigued by those regions as well, whether it’s in Europe or South America or wherever. I love seeing how people adopt several different languages or cultures or traditions. And that’s what gives life to a lot of interesting art and expression. Music or literature or food, especially and wine. I’m a big fan of that. That’s something that runs at the core of a lot of this. This real honest appreciation for diversity. I feed off of it. I love it. I embrace it.
It doesn’t raise any kind of fear, like I see it doing to others around me. It’s really kind of unusual. And maybe it’s openness and perspective that I really appreciate when I talk with others who feel more of an openness to immigration policy or just embracing things that they don’t know. They don’t close up. They continue to open and want to learn more, and read more, and talk with people. And that’s a positive thing. It’s something that our country has been founded on, so I find it really interesting that there is so much animosity and fear and misinformation that’s spread through a lot of our own state, here in Arizona, our own state legislature and media. It’s really puzzling to me. I’ve seen it escalate and become more and more of a topic not only locally but nationally and internationally. There’s something really interesting about the times, whether you’re in France or in Arizona. When economic times are difficult, immigration and immigrants become a focus for blame and negativity and it’s not good or healthy.
So musically there’s a lot of characters, a lot of stories, and feeling are influenced by that. But it’s not 100% about that, you know it’s matters of the heart and day-today, boy-meets-girl stuff. But there is a depth to some of the music that we like and some of the music we write and record and perform and I think that’s what draws some of these audiences to this feeling, to this aesthetic that we’ve highlighted. Whether it’s audiences in Arizona, or Northern California, or Çhicago, or Mexico City, I think people have come to realize this signature sound. And it’s not just having to do with the physical aspects of making the sound, it has to do with musicians and the purpose and what it all stands for.What are some upcoming Calexico projects?
We’ve just wrapped up a couple of soundtracks on films that are just coming out or about to come out. One is a soundtrack to a documentary called Circo. It premiered at the L.A. film festival. It's the story of the Ponce family, three generations of circus performers traveling through rural Mexico—Sierra Madre. The other one is a feature film set in Ireland called The Guard. It premiered at Sundance and is coming out later this month.
I worked with Amos Lee on an album recorded in Tucson. I played on the album and produced it. We’re also going to put out a collection of vinyl in November. We’re going to release all of these recordings on vinyl—an eight album set. Twelve pieces of vinyl. It’s more of showing our love for vinyl and for those audiences and people who love our music, this is kind of a special gift for them. There will be lots of extras in there too. Notes, pictures, and mementos.
"Music should be big," says Laura Regan of Bridget and the Squares, a piano and drum duo from Brooklyn, New York. Regan and drummer Kyle Thompson stand outside of Cast Away Yarn Shop in Santa Rosa after a swooping and energetic set played before a pleased Monday night crowd. 21 year-old Thompson, the band's drummer since last September, drives the the songs with a gleeful, hard-hitting precision while Regan's husky, powerful voice swoops between soaring melodies Piano tends to carry an element of drama and the band drinks from the vein of Amanda Palmer, wearing theatrics on their sleeve, with an ease made possible by reach-for-the-sky and hit-the-mark vocals.
28 year-old Regan, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, says that recently she made a leap in her music, moving away from twee indie rock to a more bombastic sound, inspired by the "epic arrangements" of bands like Muse and Ours. "I stopped wanting to disguise the intense emotions and just wanted to attack them," says the petite, black-haired woman, "It's funny because I'm small, but I like big things."
The Boston native says that finding a musical kinship with Thompson, a recent transplant from Las Vegas, has helped bring the band's sound closer to her vision; she grins while describing practices that grew progressively "louder and louder and more intense." As we talk, an enamoured fan shoves a cell phone into Regan's hand, asking her to say hello to his friend, and she does so with the friendly enthusiasm that exudes from the band in general.
In the midst of a U.S. tour (fueled by yogurt, carrots, and hummus--they say with a laugh), Bridget and the Squares plays in Las Vegas next and then make their way south, so try to see them before they hit the big time so you can say you "knew them when..."
Opening for the band was the Chelsea Set, a new Santa Rosa project comprised of folks from the Spindles. Singer Sari Flowers spins wry, feminist lyrics around lilting pop melodies, like a cross between the Go-Go's, the Spinanes, and Lucinda Williams. It was just the kind of music you want to hear while surrounded by skeins of red, pink, green and glittery wool and alpaca; the perfect music for a warm summer night in the soft belly of an Alice in Wonderland-esque yarn shop.
*Photos by Kate Polacci
Best known for singing with the legendary L.A. punk band X, Exene Cervenka is a bit rough around the edges, and that's a good thing. She says she’s not a role model, but to the wild-bitten women out there, those that sing their hearts out and dream of being on a stage, she is nothing short of an inspiration. In the following interview for this week's Bohemian, she speaks about finding individual voice, feminism, singing with John Doe, and why girls need to be reminded that they are much more than what they look like on the outside.How did you find confidence in your voice?
Well, I certainly had to find it. I hadn’t sung in any way shape or form my entire life until I was 20. John Doe and I would sit around and sing old songs. Hank Williams songs. George Jones songs. Any kind of old song that we felt like doing. Singing was incredibly difficult for me. I had to make up my own voice, and I’m glad I did because my least favorite thing in an artist is imitation. I would not want to sound, or do, or be, or act anything like anyone else. I just don’t believe in it. People should, if they’re going to be an artist, develop their own voice. It’s a lot harder than copying someone else’s voice.How might someone develop that?
You can practice singing with no instrumentation. By yourself, no one listening. Learn to sing at different volumes and different intensities. Also, you need to sing from your diaphragm and not your throat, which is why I’ve never had to cancel a show because my voice went out.
It gets easier to sing just like it gets easier to play guitar. It gets easier the more you work at it and the more you enjoy it. The more fun you can have with it, the easier it will get. So sing little nursery rhyme songs by yourself, that you know the melody to. And sing to simple music.
When I sing with X, there’s a lot of chord changes. John’s singing, I’m singing. That was a hard thing to start out with in a career in music. I didn’t start out with simple songs. Now, when I write songs, I write them so simple I can sing the crap out of them. You know what I’m saying? Like chord changes and lots of notes and things, that’s hard. Start with some really great old songs! (she sings a measure of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.”)We live in a society that tends to devalue artists. What has sustained you as an artist throughout your long career?
What’s sustained me is knowing what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing and there’s no real way out of it. So, I always make the best of it and I don’t give up on anything. And I represent myself as best I can. Not as a role model maybe, but as an example to people of what you can do. Because I’m not a trained singer.
You know, I do a lot of things I’m not supposed to do. You just have to have determination. People think of ambition and they think of determination and they think of, you know, these goals people set, and never giving up. It’s not really like that as an artist. It’s just who you happen to be. You don’t have to force it, and be ambitious and be angry if things don’t go your way. You’re just an artist. You don’t have to have any pressure other than that. That’s plenty right there.What advice to you have for artists and writers etc., especially women, who are just beginning down that road?
That’s the really big important question. I believe that everybody is like a self-begotten divinity. Inside of us there is all of the power to be whoever we should be, want to be, are. We’re not even allowed to find out who that is. You go to school. You get a job. You have kids, whatever. You hear about it all the time, a mid-life crisis some people say. Who am I? And why am I in a cubicle?
We become an artist out of a desire to be a creative individual. And then, you try to conform to what’s going to be popular. . . you know, you end up in the cubicle again. Like a sheeple. But you have to be able to. . . I’m sorry. . . get rid of your ego. And you have to enjoy what you do. It has to be the best greatest thing, and everyday you’re so lucky, you think, that I can sing or play guitar. Or be in a band. Or play music. Or be an artist. You can’t be like, “My life is so hard. I don’t make any money. Why am I so talented and yet other people get better situations?”
As far as being a woman, you have to realize, there are more women than men in this country, yet we’re still called the minority. So we have, kind of, self-subjugated ourselves. We allow that to be the terminology that describes us. And you’re starting with a bad run of youth. For a couple of generations, the kids during the Clinton administration, and a lot during the Bush generation, you didn’t have a lot of real important social movements by young people. Because that guard was let down, things got worse. The young people now that are like 17-35 need to step it up a little and make up for that loss of movement because I think people are looking around and going, what happened? What happened to the culture? What happened to the environment? What happened to the economy? What happened? What happened?
My goal is to help motivate women to take more control of the culture and the society, and ultimately, the political system. Because if they don’t, we’re fucked. Because women and children are last now instead of first and they seem to be fine with it. Schools are closing, people are getting uneducated instead of education and women seem to be fine with that.It seems to be ingrained into us as a society. I find myself in situations, even after educating myself about feminism, where I say about patriarchal ideas, “Oh, it’s being replicated…again.”
Well, two thousand years of slavery will do that to a people. You know belief systems were designed to subjugate women. That’s why they were designed. Think about it. From the Book of Genesis on.
We have to change our consciousness, we can’t just do the work. Doing the work hasn’t done anything. We’re back where we started in 1976 for women’s reproductive freedom. I mean, we’re about to lose a lot of that, because of not being on guard. It only takes one little chink. The people who are against the public interest—that think of us as consumers only and not citizens or people. The people in power, the people in government, people with the money who invest in the government, they’ve disabled us because they have millions of lawyers who look for nothing but loopholes in the law and lobbyists who write new laws and then give it to the people in government as if they wrote it. And most of those people tend to have a very strong right-wing ideology. And they are anti-woman.
Every time they can, they slip in and dismantle another piece of legislation that people fought for thirty years to get. Hundreds of years to get. Thousands of years to get. Just being a woman is a political statement. And if you’re on stage, that’s a bigger statement.
I was at an event the other night and at the end there was a big, all-star, everybody get together at the end of the night guitar thing. There were sixteen men on stage and Rosie Flores. We were all so happy she was up there because I just can’t bear one more, all-male music party. I’m so sick of it being, all guys all the time. And there’s no reason for it except for self-censorship and self-subjugation. No one said you can’t be in a band.
What we have to stay away from in music is the hardcore male element that took over punk. Because that language will not be accepted when it’s spoken by women. Women shouldn’t speak a man’s language anyway.
The alternative to that isn’t being some kind of insipid singer-songwriter writing about her boyfriend. It is finding your own voice, which we already talked about, and that makes an original take on things and then it’s like nobody’s voice but yours, nobody’s language but yours. That’s a good example to set for girls, because that’s what they’re fighting against. They want to be individuals but they totally have to conform to standards of beauty and standards of weight and standards of appearance and standards of dress, and standards of roles. Like, you can be Beyonce but you can’t be Willie Nelson. You have to conform to this sexual stereotype primarily, to be pleasing to men. You have to look good and sound good, you can’t be rough around the edges.
They write jingly-jangly tunes that brim with infectious energy tempered by a certain dark edge.On Friday April 15, Sonoma County got it's own dose of fuzzed out, edgy garage rock when up-and-comers Sharky Coast played at the Arlene Francis Center. Still in their teens, the members of Sharky Coast draw on musical influences (The Troggs, 60's surf music) from way before their time. Just out of high school, Nick O' Rooney slings his guitar high, singing and strumming crunchy, wizened blues-based chords. Drummer Christine Ortmann holds a steady beat, punctuated by brash, ringing symbol crashes. She tends to grin when she hits the symbols particularly hard. It's always rad to see a band that's genuinely having fun; that enthusiasm tends to travel into the audience, and Friday night was no exception. The band has been playing house shows, coffeehouses, open mics for the last couple of months. In an post show conversation O' Rooney revealed that this was one of the band's first shows at an actual venue with a stage.Ortmann says that she and the intrepid guitarist met over MySpace and bonded over a love for garagey indie rock. O'Rooney, who wears a gray cardigan that looks like it might have once belonged to a math teacher in 1962, lights up at a comparison to Thee Oh Sees mastermind John Dwyer. "They're one of my favorites," he says with a big smile. O'Rooney says that he's been looking for more bands that played garage rock in the North Bay, without much luck thus far. He hadn't heard of Sonoma County's resident garage maestros Huge Large, but said he'd check them out. A show with another local garage rock band was arranged right there on the couch, the plans yelled over a banjo being played by the Hootenany band on stage and, well...hey...isn't that just how a scene gets going?Sharky Coast has a demo coming soon and Facebook Page. They play on Saturday, May 14 with Derailed Freight Train and The 50/50's at the Toad in the Hole Pub. 116 5th Street, Santa Rosa 707.544.8623