Sunday, July 30, 2006

North Beach Jazz Fest: Where is the Jazz?

It was hard to find some Jazz at the North Beach Jazz festival this weekend. I realize that in this Bonaroo generation, there is power in combining musical styles and showcasing them together, without boundaries. But starting on Thursday Night on Grant Street and riding throughout the weekend, there was a lack of the core style and wayyyyy too much Jam Band bah-foo. In general (with the odd exception in the crevices): no hard bop, no dixiland, no big band swing, no free-form cutting edge…nothing (and if there was, it was sure hard to find, and definitely not in the headlining spots, and most definitely not for free).

The festival boasted some mighty names: Will Bernard (who I worked with at the WB), New Monsoon, the wonderful Rondo Brothers, Lee Cleary and the Stooges Brass Band from New Orleans. But none of these artists were playing a signature style of Jazz—the Stooges came the closest (ripping off last year’s headliner The Rebirth Brass Band), until they broke into their hip-hop crowd pandering shout-outs while covering Jackson 5 and the Commodores. YUCK!!!!!

In Washington Square Park, the DJs in between the sets more often played rap and dance music. There was no Jazz to be found. In a town that boasts the likes of Ben Goldberg, the Broun Fellinis, Joshua Redman, Weasel Walter and Graham Connah, there is no reason not to infuse some Jazz into a Jazz event. Hell, bring back Charlie Hunter!!

The Fillmore Street Jazz Fest a few months back, while not as prestigious, embraced the music style advertised on the Marquee. Example…main stage: the Junior Jazzers, the band from the Berkeley’s Young Musician’s Program, were amazing, covering Monk and Ellington in a youthful, yet stylistically grounded way.

Luckily, San Francisco being the musical city that it is screams of Jazz most weekends, even though the performers are often unknown. There is the duo-sometimes-trio-sometimes-quartet that play underneath the bridge across from the Conservatory Of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. They stun passers by with their grooves and solos (the guitarist and saxist are killer)—I need find out their names. The Park also boasts at times a lonely but alive sax player underneath the freeway that connects the Richmond and the Sunset. There is the drum circle on hippie hill that has regularly attracted horn players and other instrumentalists, transforming the pack into an extension of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s alien bliss. And never forget the Church Of John Coltrane in it’s new residence on Fillmore. Come noon on Sundays, it is a treat.

Either change the name of the North Beach Jazz Festival to the North Beach World Music Pillow Fest or start programming the style of music that is supposed to be featured in the first place (which would then allow the showcasing of other styles). It makes sense and, believe it or not, the youthful audience that is so desired will still come and drink in the sun.


Meanwhile, Stern Grove was alive with Opera Music this afternoon featuring prize soloists Stephanie Blythe and Lawrence Brownlee. The sun sparkled on the orchestra which sounded absolutely amazing through the still new two year old sound-system. Highlights included a piece from Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera and a rarely heard omitted piece from the original Barber Of Seville by Rossini. It has been an amazing season at the grove thus far.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Kings Of The Weirdo Beardos

There are beards everywhere in San Francisco right now…it is a damn epidemic and not a pretty one during this sweltering summer we are having. Fuck, I am wearing a beard myself, showing off my age with each grey strand shouting out amidst the newly-timid brunette ones. Beards have also mossed all over the music here in town. We have this fuzzy, hairy folk scene that has grown itself into the world consciousness through the Indian-style sittings of Devendra Banhart.

I think that the latest Devendra release has its problems (c’mon Mark-like Bolan…do your homework for us…20+ songs like these are not an album, they are a sketchbook). But his co-horts in faciality (pronounced face-ee-Al-ih-tee) Vetiver have probably put together one of the year’s best records. TO FIND ME GONE (DiCristina) showcases some amazing pop songs framed by a minimal folk-pop sound that is as refreshing as early morning foggy dew. The opener “Been So Long” (alt version from last year’s Between EP) lulls you into a meditative trance followed nicely by the pulsations of a very JJ Cale/Tony Joe White “You May Find Me Blue”—dig the groovy twang guitar and all that wonderful tattooing chorus. By the time “Idle Ties” comes in clean-up, probably one of the best songs of the year neck and neck with Howlin’ Rain’s “Calling Lightening With A Scythe”—by the time “Idle Ties” come in, it becomes apparent that this truly is a beautiful, classic rock record. Add to that the sudden but fantastic almost Dave Shannon-eque fuzz guitar-bath on jam #9, "Red Lantern Girls," and it seems that there is nothing in rock that Vetiver can't do in the studio.

King Vetiver and SF Richmond resident Andy Cabic, who wrote, played and co-produced the album, is obviously in peak form on all fronts. He may be a weirdo beardo, and his band mates may include poster children weirdo beardos, and he may come from this oh-so hairy San Francisco scene, but this record—this recorded moment in time—is pure classic pop goodness with the most organic arrangements and environments. Genre defining and defying.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

She Wolf RIP

Jessie Mae Hemphill , known in the blues world as the She Wolf, passed away last weekend of complications from a perforated ulcer. She was 78 and had been battling ill health for years. She was the granddaughter of blues legend Sid Hemphill (who was a mentor) and made a name for herself with her Hill Country shakin' blues style which she played in tight leopard skin pants, cowboy hat and high heals. Sexy. Bluesman Richard Johnston introduced me and friends John Blaufarb and Mayor Jane Rule Burdine to Jesse Mae after she had been permanently disabled by a stroke, which froze half of her body and put a dead stop to her career. In our meeting, she was all smiles with her little dog constantly in her arms.

David Evans produced her best work (and married her, for that matter...for a short time anyway). The album She Wolf is the finest moment; it is one of the finest examples of Hill Country Blues...with its joyfully monotonous, trance inducing beat and mosquito slide guitar. Jump baby, jump! And it is hard not to love Jesse Mae's calm but driving vocals.

My favorite story of Jesse Mae cannot be told took place immediately following the double funeral of Otha Turner and his daughter Bernice Pratcher, both whom I loved. That was a heavy and tragic day, and Jesse Mae's actions...right in front of the church...took my frown and turned it upside down. Otha would have smiled, that much is true. Come to the Outer Richmond and buy me a drink if you want to hear the tale.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Flaming Lips take over The Greek

Last night I saw one of the most mind-streaking, surreal and epic shows of the year as The Flaming Lips descended into Berkeley. Singer Wayne Coyne actually told the audience to explain to their friends how he had descended from the sky in a giant plastic bubble and surfed the crowd (he did actually crowd surf in his John-Travolta boy-in-the-plastic-bubble imitation). The entire show was an overload of visuals and sounds...from the sexy female aliens on the left side of the stage, to the manly Santa Clauses on the other side, to the road crew dressed as the Superfriends, to all the confetti canons and smoke was all there. Musically, they keep getting closer and closer to that organic live sound the Lips were always known for. They did not dig deep into the repetoir, staying close to the last few records. They did "SHE DON'T USE JELLY" from the amazing Transmissions From The Satellite Heart as well as "Spoonful Weighs A Ton" and "Race For The Prize" from the classic Soft Bulletin while Wayne had the crowd singing along to the "YEAH YEAH YEAH" song and Yoshimi. Hats off to Steven Drozd, former live Lips drummer, now playing everything else as well. His guitar riffs during the instrumental songs, as well as some of the more known album tracks, was nothing short of unexpected and awesome. When did he develop into a guitar god?
At War With The Mystics is a great record, and I have to say that live..I might have even liked it better. A cohesive, well thought out, fantasy trip of epic proportions.

They are taping their Hollywood Bowl show for a DVD...maybe this was a warm up to it (and would explain how over-the-top the visuals really were).