by W.S. McCallum
at the Stink Magnetic Corporate HQ, Wanganui
11-13 December 2008
In years to come, because of its pivotal, seminal nature, fated to be legendary, Stink Fest 2008 is going to be one of those events that lots of people will claim they attended, whether or not they actually did. Some will be able to prove it by pointing out their gilt-framed copy of the festival programme, or the tee-shirt they bought there, protected in a vacuum-sealed case, wired with trip sensors to foil any would-be cat burglars. Others, on the other hand, will be able to point themselves out in one of the photos below and say: “See, I told you! Damn, didn’t I look like a burning hunk of love in those days! Hell, I was sex on legs…” or words to that effect.
Not so long ago, the Stink Magnetic Record Company moved its corporate headquarters to Wanganui, a move that must have perplexed more than one mover and shaker in the New Zealand music industry, who all like to swim around in perfect circles in that overblown goldfish bowl known as Auckland while they fail to crack the international music scene. Well, faced with that option, why wouldn’t you want to move to Wanganui? Wanganui is the ground zero of Kiwi rock’n’roll. Johnny Devlin, the King, came from Wanganui. You might as well ask why anyone would want to move to Memphis! Anyway, to celebrate the move and the tenth anniversary of the label’s founding in 1998, Stink Fest B.C. (Bitchin’ Commemoration) was born.
The Stink Magnetic Corporate HQ is now ensconced in the old Wanganui Chronicle offices, a majestic piece of early 20th century architecture, complete with lion’s heads on the building façade, which stands in similarly distinguished but now down-at-heel architectural company on the corner of Drews Avenue and Rutland Street, a stone’s throw from Motua Gardens, just down the road a bit and around the corner from the local courthouse, and a mere couple of blocks away from the local police station. I’ll be honest: I thought the place was going to get raided. A confluence of unkempt youth, drinking, smoking and probably doing some other stuff too, all to the sound of raucous music - there was bound to be trouble. Well, I was wrong. The cops did turn up (two of them) on Friday night, but only to politely tell the mob boozing on the front steps to drink inside as they were in violation of the inner city liquor ban area. Then they drove off! What the…???? I was expecting them to come back with their mates, barge up the stairs, and push their way through the winding corridor to the graveyard room where all the music was happening, but they didn’t.
Stink Fest seemed to have a charmed existence. Although it was probably chaotic to organise, judging from the misleading, amended programme, on the actual nights it all flowed relatively smoothly.
Night 1: Thursday 11 December
Sets (W.S. McCallum)
Sets started the festival around 9.40pm on the first night and managed to blow away various visiting rock stars who were not expecting anyone from Wanganui to be so good. He cranked out a blistering set disturbed only by one dropped drumstick during the drum solo segment, which was soon solved by playing the drums with his hands instead.
Shaking Luke Wood & El Ritmo Muerte (W.S. McCallum)
More Shaking Luke Wood & El Ritmo Muerte photos
Next up were Shaking Luke Wood & El Ritmo Muerte, both from the Lyttelton group Damned Evangelist. They caught my attention by doing “Strychnine” by the Sonics. That takes nerves at the best of times, but they looked like they could pull anything off. Shaking Luke Wood, who looked amazingly like a Texan maths teacher, played cable-shredding Telecaster guitar, while his Mexican wrestler buddy pounded away on the toms, adding comments and vocals in Spanish.
The Death Rays (W.S. McCallum)
More Death Rays photos
Continuing the Wanganui presence were the Death Rays, consisting of two sisters dating two cousins. Billed as a “psychedelic country love band”, they certainly had the love component covered, and even included a cover of “Sea of Love” for good measure. The country element was encapsulated by the country guitar sound, and a cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams, while the psychedelic element was reflected in the atmospheric freaky 60s guitar playing. The love theme was further enhanced by Voodoo Savage, standing in the audience, who professed his undying man-love for the male vocalist by repeatedly shouting out: “I LOVE YOU MAN, I REALLY LOVE THIS GUY, I REALLY DO” etc., and stepping forward to embrace him at one point, which prompted one heckler to yell out “GET A ROOM!!!”
Boss Christ (W.S. McCallum)
More Boss Christ photos
Rounding off the evening was Boss Christ, a bear of a man with a big beard, who appeared wearing a black tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “THE BOSS” to pound his bass drum and stroke his guitar. It was emotional. It was moving. It was like watching a Pakeha equivalent of Leadbelly, complete with heaving vocals and wild sermonising.
Night 2: Friday 12 December
Friday night was noticeable for its different demographic - the majority of the audience was up from Wellington, Stink Magnetic’s former stomping grounds, to see the rest of the fest for the weekend.
Zombie Prom Queen (W.S. McCallum)
Being caught off-guard by the fact that, unlike the night before, things started closer to the advertised start time of 9 pm, I missed most of the opening set by Zombie Prom Queen, apart from the last two songs they did, which included an old Axel Grinders number.
Slim Chants (W.S. McCallum)
More Slim Chants photos
They were Slim Chants, right? I hope I got the name right. Here is the moment to add a mention about the Festival programme, which was a bit of a nightmare - none of it in order, with 3-point type in red ink that on more than one occasion had me out on the footpath, standing under a street lamp trying to decipher it. The programme featured bands billed in it that were cancelled, replaced by other bands that never showed. An MC to introduce the acts would have been a good idea, and would have lent a bit of continuity. So as far as I can tell, this lot were Slim Chants, because they had a saw player, and that was the only band I could see in the programme mentioned as having one. In any case, the band were like a slow-moving train on a regional branch line, slowly building up momentum and blowing a loud whistle from time to time, but once they had achieved a head of steam, they were unstoppable. At least until they stopped.
The ghost (W.S. McCallum)
Which brings us to the Stink Fest awards ceremony. I was wondering about the ghost that appeared during this particular set, but all was soon to become clear, when he sat down behind the drum kit to do the drum rolls for the various award announcements. The high points were the announcement of the award for the best all-nude album cover, and the award for the most in-bred band, which went to the Death Rays, and the fact that so many awards were won by Boss Christ, which may have had something to do with divine intervention.
Golden Axe (W.S. McCallum)
More Golden Axe photos
Golden Axe: “If you miss this, then you are a dick”, or so it was emphatically stated in the programme. The programme also called them “the Kings of Kiwi Kraftwerk”, which is a fair description, although Kraftwerk were always more cutting edge with their gear than Golden Axe, who definitely have a preference for second-hand junk shop equipment, including a microphone made from a headphone can, lashed to the face of one member of the duo using box tape, and which produced Darth Vader-like vocals. It was a tense set that had the latent disco bunnies in the audience moving.
Heavy Turkey (W.S. McCallum)
Heavy Turkey are a drum and bass duo who definitely do not do Drum & Bass. The bass was more like heavy metal than anything else, and the drumming kept pace with it. There were some minor teething problems with inter-song samples, but aside from that it was a striking set.
The Tape Men (W.S. McCallum)
More Tape Men photos
Rounding off an entertaining and varied evening were the Tape Men; three guys in black pants, white shirts and bow ties, with their heads wrapped in black tape. It was the most original look of the festival, and their set was dynamite. The sound was mainly 60s instrumental rock in its outlook, but with a few other elements thrown in, including what sounded like a Bailter Space(?) number, with the ultimate result being complete mayhem. One Tape Man danced on his amp, while another played with his guitar over his head, but the high point was when members of the audience spontaneously lifted up the drummer and his kit, and transported him into the audience, all in the middle of an instrumental in which he still kept playing.
Night 3: Saturday 13 December
Saturday night in downtown Wanganui. Not a pretty sight. Fortunately there was the final night of Stink Fest to go to, where members of the audience stood around wearing boxes on their heads.
Three guys with boxes on their heads (W.S. McCallum)
The Wrongdoings set a high standard for the final night, with an outstanding set of bar room country-influenced rock. Reta Le Quesne was the star of the show in her frock and pearls, letting rip on the guitar, singing songs about love and betrayal, and even playing spoons at one point. In trying to describe Reta musically, I would have to say she is like a Kiwi Lee Hazelwood (minus the moustache).
The Wrongdoings (W.S. McCallum)
More Wrongdoings photos
She did stop to comment early on in the set about being freaked out by the three guys with boxes on their heads, but was reassured by a member of the audience who yelled out: “Don’t worry Reta, you’re the only one who can see them!”
Reptilian Future Cops (W.S. McCallum)
More Reptilian Future Cops photos
Reptilian Future Cops were so obscure that they were not on the programme and not even the Stink Fest door committee could tell me their name. I did manage to corner the bass player though, who informed me they are the guy from Cortina singing, with a pick-up band consisting of bass, guitar and keyboards behind him. Along with the programmed drums, they provided a vehicle for a rant and a rage that broke out into a heavy metal guitar frenzy.
Bad Evil (W.S. McCallum)
More Bad Evil photos
Bad Evil is a lone guitar-slinging masked marauder. “Lock up that liquor and distract your daughters” warned the official Stink Fest programme. Well, it was too late, because the empties were already piling up and the front row was wall-to-wall chicks, with the exception of this long-haired blond guy who was curiously appealing in a trans-gender sort of way. Oh, and there was me too, solely there for professional purposes. Getting back to the music, Bad Evil played wild rocking guitar with a fast rhythm. He even had the chutzpah to perform Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” and got away with it. And I forgot to tell him that if he doesn’t have it already, he should get Eddie Cochran Live At Town Hall on DVD - $10 from the Warehouse and priceless.
Voodoo Savage and His Savages (W.S. McCallum)
More Voodoo Savage and His Savages photos
Voodoo Savage and His Savages then took the floor, with the two non-drumming Savages clad in brown plastic rubbish bags to emphasise their 21st-century primitiveness. They are a trio with heaps of energy, and provided an impressive display of horizontal floor-rolling guitar just as I was changing the film in my camera. Oh well, at least my batteries didn’t go flat, unlike certain official-looking people waving their hi-tech video and photo gear around the place. The beat was steady as a rock throughout, apart from one slip-up in the first song they ever wrote, which promptly fell apart, but they soon put it back together again with a vengeance. And who else has ever written a song about a Katipo? What more do you want?
Knife Fight (W.S. McCallum)
More Knife Fight photos
Knife Fight. What can you say? What words can you use? These guys were like a series of explosive charges rigged up in series on a demolition site. Their set consisted of one shock wave followed in quick succession by another and another and so on. If there was anyone whose stamina was flagging after three nights of great music running till two in the morning, Knife Fight were definitely the wake-up remedy, as the audience went bonkers. A great way to round off the 10th anniversary celebration for the Stink Magnetic Record Company at its new Wanganui corporate offices.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 16 December 2008
Uni & Her Ukekele
Mighty Mighty, Wellington
15 November 2008
One of the things I was wondering about as you took the stage was whether you would be able to make yourself heard above the noise. At Mighty Mighty, they are more used to having loud rock bands than a diminutive singer with a lone ukelele. My standing by the bar probably didn’t help. It’s a long bar, with lots of drinkers. Your voice cut through it all though. You have a really good set of lungs. At one point I wanted to shout out to tell everyone to shut the fuck up - there’s someone performing up there. There were too many people down by the bar busy socialising for my liking. A group to my immediate right was particularly annoying. They were deaf (but far from dumb) people signing.
Whaaat? Noisy deaf people signing?! What’s that about? What are deaf people doing at a concert? Hey, equal rights and all that, but isn’t that about as pointless as a bunch of blind people turning up at an art gallery to wave their canes at the paintings? Or hey, I know, why don’t I get together a band of atheists and we’ll all hang out and socialise in a church during a sermon next Sunday? Those religious people won’t mind; it’s just that God stuff that we can’t perceive anyway, so we’ll just carry on and make a whole lot of noise like it’s not there.
But in any case, further up towards the front, everyone was certainly paying attention and having a good time. You even had your own lone male go-go dancer at a very early point in the concert. I knew you had cracked it at that moment. The loner dancing conspicuously is of key importance. If there isn’t some nerdy exhibitionist prancing about within the first few songs, you’ve lost it. This is a Kiwi social custom - once the nerdy guy is up there enjoying himself, everyone else feels it’s okay; that they now officially have permission to loosen up and enjoy themselves too. So that lone go-go nerd was the turning point. Once you had him, you were home and hosed.
I was sort of hoping you would play more of your original stuff, but I understand you need the 80s hits to get the crowd moving, and they all worked - people were singing along and having a great time. The balloons and confetti crackers were a great idea too. And you did perform “I’m On My Way” and “My Favorite Letter is U”, so I can’t complain.
Then the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra all lined up on the stage with you to round off the evening. What a photographic nightmare! I tried, but I couldn’t capture it properly on film - eleven people in total, straggling across the stage, with all these bobbing audience heads in the way, and that was when I was standing on a chair! Still, the music was great - “Dancing In the Dark” was outstanding, and I would never have believed you could perform that Outkast song on ukeleles, but there you go.
Sorry I didn’t get to say hello after the concert, but it was a bun fight up there at the front and I had to accompany my friend through the means streets of Wellington to catch her ride home. Maybe you can come around for dinner next time I am in the Bay Area. Oh, and thanks for the song dedication - I almost didn’t hear you say it, what with those far-from-dumb deaf people socialising at the bar, but I did appreciate it.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 25 November 2008
at the Jewish Community Centre, San Francisco
6 October 2008
Kinky Friedman is famous for many things. He is a well-known writer of detective novels. He ran for Governor in Texas a couple of years ago, and he has the distinction of being a Jewish country singer from Texas, which is a rare breed, but the thing I always remember is an entry in a book called The Rock Record that I used to own years ago. It was a trainspotter’s reference guide to who played on what album. The stand-out entry was Friedman’s Lasso from El Paso, an early 70s album with a stellar line-up on it that included Doctor John, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm from the Band, T-Bone Burnett, Ronnie Hawkins, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and Eric Clapton, among others. He can also lay claim to being the only performer who appeared on the TV show Austin City Limits but never had his performance screened because the TV station objected to broadcasting songs with titles like “Asshole from El Paso.”
This particular evening, Mr Friedman was only supported by Jewford Shelby (also known as “Little Jewford”), one of the original members of his band The Texas Jewboys, who pitched in with the occasional comment in-between playing the Community Centre’s well-tempered piano. Snakebite Jacobs, another old sidekick, was rumoured to be playing, but did not show.
The performance was a mixture of talk and song, with a reading from Kinky Friedman’s latest book What Would Kinky Do? in tribute to his late father thrown in too, a combination which was more or less what I had expected. The guitar playing was clean and clear as he picked his way through songs from his own repertoire, with memorable titles like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” (with three-kazoo accompaniment from Little Jewford), in addition to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Peter LaFarge (originally recorded by Johnny Cash). Little Jewford also contributed an immaculate rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on piano.
In-between the seven songs performed there was a lot of talk. Predictably, a good portion of it was dedicated to politics, and watching the politically unconventional Texan negotiate the difficult task of not offending a middle-class liberal San Francisco audience was entertaining to say the least. Particularly contentious was his assertion that Laura Bush (a friend of his) was an okay lady, because “she’s a librarian and who ever heard of a bad librarian?” Well, actually Mr Friedman, having worked in that profession, I could regale you with tales of various power-tripping frustrated housewives, along with the odd vindictive misandrist lesbian, and even the occasional short-tempered bitch from hell (and I haven’t even got onto the male librarians…), but even without the benefit of my career experience, the audience did not seem too convinced about that particular point. His reference to foreign workers without papers as “illegals” did not go down too well either. Still, generally speaking he got more laughs than harrumphs, and got away with poking fun at a broad range of figures on the US political scene.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 20 November 2008
The Matching Suits and Messer Chups
at Menza pri Koritu, Metelkova, Ljubljana
5 June 2008
The flyer was so superlative in its description, it was enough to win me over: “Messer Chups - Russia. Vampire surfing on vodka and an electro wave?? The eagerly-awaited phantoms of bizarre retro-avant-guard electro-surf. Finally they are playing here too!”. The venue mentioned was Menza pri Koritu, which is in a place called Metelkova.
Metelkova is a complex in central Ljubljana (Slovenia) that used to be an army barracks, right from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through to the collapse of Yugoslavia. In December 1990, the Network for Metelkova was founded to turn the disused barracks into a cultural centre and, after three years of protracted disputes with the city authorities, it occupied the complex and converted it into a series of bars, galleries, clubs and venues for cultural associations, including a hotel which is housed in the renovated military prison on the site.
The first problem for me was finding the venue, which was not very clearly signposted, and was one of several possibilities scattered around the site. After some directionless wandering around, I collared two locals: “Dober večer! Ali vi veste kje igra ruska skupina nocoj?” (Good evening, do you know where the Russian group is playing tonight?”). They sniffed a bit at my pronunciation, but did at least point me in the right direction; a building across the courtyard with a striking sculpture of multiple Gollums on speed towering over the entrance.
The start time on the flyer was 10 pm, but it was one of those places where they like to keep you waiting at the door, although eventually they opened up and let the crowd standing around outside in through the hallowed portal. “Menza” means canteen, and it was hard to imagine the Yugoslav troops that used to sit in rows here, slurping their food from their plates and chewing on bread. The crowd was mainly in its twenties, but there were a few older people wandering around, including a guy in his fifties with a cane, flying the flag for earlier generations of surf music lovers.
Although the flyer proclaimed that The Bananas were the support band, it turned out to be The Matching Suits, from Ljubljana. The four-piece band arrived on-stage wearing funny hats and matching tee-shirts, but there was not a suit in sight. The Matching Suits formed in early 2005 and have a free album you can download here. They played a set of instrumental and surf rock that was very entertaining, and consisted mainly of their own material, although they included “Miserlou” and a medley involving the James Bond theme and the theme from Goldfinger. Their joke for the evening was to insist on calling nearly all of their songs “Russian Roulette”, which got a few laughs the first time, fewer the second, and from then on proved to be a good example of the law of diminishing returns.
The Matching Suits (W.S. McCallum)
More Matching Suits photos
When Messer Chups took to the stage, I was already standing at the front left, and nearly got trampled by a stampede of “professional” photographers who belatedly worked out they had gotten their positioning wrong. What a bunch of wankers! They waved their big-arsed digital cameras with telephoto lenses around like the giant penis substitutes they were and generally carried on like a gaggle of prats. One of the joys of having a pocket camera however, is that you don’t need to act like some poseur setting up the shot, and I was able to take photos in spite of them. One of them was even bemused that I don’t use digital - sorry darling, but that’s so 1990s!
The reason why the photo posse had gotten it wrong was that the right-hand two thirds of the stage was actually occupied by a large projection screen showing a carefully crafted video mixing vintage horror, sci-fi and cult movies with film clips of strippers, starlets, and other period material. In a bold move, Messer Chups had solved the dilemma that has faced instrumental rock bands since the 1950s: how do you keep the audience’s attention when you are playing instrumental-only music?
Messer Chups (W.S. McCallum)
More Messer Chups photos
Mind you, the band itself was striking enough to hold your attention in any case. Oleg Gitarkin on guitar looked like something out of a teenage horror film (I mean that in the nicest possible way…), and his bass player, Zombie Girl, with her very cool leggy Betty Page look, had the photographers stumbling over themselves. The music was outstanding, marred only by a crackling plug at one point, which a technician quickly sorted out. The performance was perfectly conceived, with the music matching the on-screen imagery, with breaks between songs being signalled by enigmatic sound-bites from the films being projected. Oleg Gitarkin is an outstanding guitar player with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his genre, judging from the sounds and technique I saw on stage that night.
The only down side to an amazing night out was that, towards the end of it, some post-pubescent moron with ratty little dreadlocks slapped me on the back of the head and tried to goad me into a fight. He nearly succeeded. He had been drinking and wanted to prove something. I looked at his head, and then at the vertical metal structural post beside his head, and observed it would be very easy for me to make the former connect with the latter, but concluded it would just ruin a good night out. After ignoring him the first couple of times I turned around, asked him rhetorically what his problem was in Slovenian, and then told him to bugger off in Russian. It had the desired effect, even on his dulled brain: the tall man with a shaven head dressed in black is bellowing at me in Russian! ABORT ABORT ABORT!!! He possibly thought I was a mafia man (Slovenes tend to have a rather clichéd image of Russians). Anyway, he shuffled off promptly.
Messer Chups carried on, providing excellent renditions of “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and “Apache” along with all of their original instrumentals, and received a rousing audience response, but I left before the encore ended, deciding it would be best to be well gone by the time the handful of boisterous drunks in the audience started spilling out into the courtyard and looking for a target for their pent-up aggression.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 22 June 2008
Lucy Wainwright Roche and Loudon Wainwright III
at The San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington
22 February 2008
I arrived at the San Francisco Bathhouse shortly after 9pm and was dismayed to see that it was dotted with little round tables with white table cloths, around which baby boomers were huddled, sipping on their white wines. The atmosphere was more like some Ponsonby nightclub than a Greenwich Village folk music haunt, which was the sort of venue Loudon Wainwright started playing in during the late 1960s. Oh well, times change…
The first band of the evening, about whom I know nothing, but whose members Loudon Wainwright later claimed were all his illegitimate offspring (the result of a swinging weekend he had here in the early ‘80s apparently…) was just finishing while I tried to convince the barman that yes, I wanted my Coca Cola WITHOUT ice, even though it wasn’t chilled and it was a warm summer’s night. The guy obviously didn’t know that a man’s gotta have his Coke straight, or else all those chemicals just don’t strip your stomach lining right.
Lucy Wainwright Roche (W.S. McCallum)
Lucy Wainwright Roche (Loudon Wainwright’s daughter) started her set at 9.30, introducing herself as the nerdy little sister in relation to her older and better-known siblings. She launched into songs about travelling on the road (“Next Best Western”), a song from Hair (a musical which she said she much preferred “with less nudity”), “It’s The Saddest Sound” (which was done as a sing-along) and “I Wanna Be With You Everywhere”. Throughout she sang in a crystal-clear voice, accompanied by straightforward guitar that complemented it well.
There was a very short break, following which Loudon Wainwright appeared at 10.10pm and started his set with “The Swimming Song”, one of his early recordings. He seemed perplexed by the microphone stand, which was too low, and which left him undecided as to whether to sit or stand, upon which he alternated between both until a sound man took pity on him and finally came up on stage to adjust the height a few songs into the performance. The second and the following few songs jumped three decades forward to this century, and included “In Heaven”, a song about Loudon Wainwright I, and the “Presidents’ Day Song” (from 2004). This was followed by “Doin’ The Math” from the recent album Strange Weirdos.
With reference to the age-related mathematics in the previous number, he introduced the next song (“A Guilty Conscience & A Broken Heart”) with the comment that “Most of my songs are about death and decay; it used to be about shitty love, but now it’s about both”.
Loudon Wainwright III (W.S. McCallum)
Following “A Guilty Conscience & A Broken Heart”, he took the opportunity to throw in another three songs from Strange Weirdos, which he helpfully pointed out was on sale at the merchandising table, and then performed the B-side to his only hit single, the A-side of which was “Dead Skunk”. The mere mention of these two words had one woman seated near me nearly wetting herself in excitement, but she wasn’t to hear the A-side that night. I have the impression that Loudon Wainwright hates “Dead Skunk” - not surprisingly given that it is a throw-away novelty tune and he has a huge repertoire of other material with a lot more going for it.
After performing “Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House”, he did relent and took a request: “Unrequited to the Nth Degree”, which involved some healthy audience participation on the choruses as the guy portrayed in the song laughed about how he would have the last laugh when he died and his girlfriend went to pieces over him. Loudon Wainwright then chose to even out the gender balance by following “Unrequited…” with “I Wish I Was A Lesbian”, in which a girlfriend points out it might be better if she didn’t have to put up with men at all. Another request that night was “Delaware”. He claimed that in terms of remembering his songs “anything before 1984 is gone”, but happily it was not true.
Loudon Wainwright came back for an encore, but by this time the audience was getting a bit pushy, with some guy yelling out “We expect at least five songs for the encore”, which might have sounded smart from where he was sitting, but is just obnoxious if you are a performer on-stage. Still, it was a great show, and there were even CD signings after the show, upon which I mentally kicked myself for not having brought along all my Loudon Wainwright LPs going all the way back to the first one.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 28 February 2008
Raccoons, Cubik & Origami, French Miami
at The Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco
26 December 2007
The Hemlock Tavern is located in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s seedier neighbourhoods, and offers parking up an adjacent alleyway that sounded a bit ominous prior to arriving there, but turned out to be well lit, and even had a parking attendant in the form of a homeless person pointing out recommended parking spots. The tavern itself consists of a front-of-house area with a very large bar, and a back room where the music occurs, through which entry is obtained after having been relieved of a modest amount of money. They even offer free earplugs, should you wish to retain your hearing into middle age, although being deaf does give one a certain degree of leeway when it comes to ignoring people you can’t be bothered dealing with.
The opening act were Raccoons (no, they weren’t actually raccoons, their name is “Raccoons” - okay?). I was surprised to find out subsequently on their MySpace site that this Bay Area band actually has four members, because that night they seemed to be getting on fine with just two, performing their songs with a mixture of 12 or 6-string guitar, keyboards and bass guitar. They succeeded wonderfully in getting across their airy, dreamy songs, built up over a keyboard drum machine in lieu of an actual drummer.
Raccoons (W.S. McCallum)
After Raccoons, a quick exit was required to answer the call of nature. Males with a full bladder who wish to relieve themselves at The Hemlock Tavern will be delighted to know that this is an excellent way to make new friends and bring out the latent exhibitionist in all of us, as the men’s room has a large door that opens directly onto the main bar area, and the urinal is strategically placed in a position just beside the door, thus ensuring that you can practically shake hands with the startled person stepping into the toilet. Those wishing to do number twos have the privilege of squatting behind a plastic screen and chatting through the gap with other punters as they wash their hands. I was also informed that the women’s toilet is equally intimate.
Cubik & Origami (W.S. McCallum)
Cubik & Origami had set up in my absence, with their instruments consisting of a dinky looking synth bass, a laptop and an electronic box. After a tepid start, the duo began fighting an electronic war of attrition, shifting the beats, the mix and the special effects (which included a plastic maraca, and a frog-shaped woodblock among other things) until they finally won me over. They were inventive, original, and ultimately thrilling to watch. I kept wondering how they could possibly move their non-stop music-making into yet another entrancing phase, but they kept pulling it off nonetheless.
French Miami (W.S. McCallum)
More photos of French Miami
Having had enough toilet-related excitement for one evening, I held it in whilst waiting for French Miami to take the stage, but they certainly didn’t once they got started. Consisting of Roland Curtis, Jay Heiselmann, and Chris Crawford, the San Francisco band has been together for just over a year and show just how much energy and inventiveness can be packed into a 3-piece format. The band were very cohesive, with an extremely tense, edgy sound, split-second timing, a rock solid rhythm and some very original guitar playing. The vocals reminded me of Toronto’s Constantines, as did the whole “take-no-prisoners” approach to their performance. I got to thinking as I watched them that if the two bands ever performed together on the same bill, it would be an outstanding show. Still, putting idle fantasies aside, that particular night French Miami were like the cherry on the top of the cake of a varied and entertaining bill of entertainment.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 10 February 2008
at Yoshi’s Fillmore, San Francisco
3 January 2008
Uncredited publicity shot
from the Yoshi’s Jan 08 brochure*
Yoshi’s has long been a jazz institution in Oakland, and so there was a great deal of anticipation when it was announced that the club was going to open a branch on Fillmore Street, which, fifty years ago, was the hub of San Francisco’s jazz scene and is now undergoing an officially sanctioned revival, complete with a jazz walk of fame, Hollywood Boulevard style.
Yoshi’s Fillmore, which opened in 2007, is a long way from the jazz scene of yesteryear, with a very upmarket building that includes its own restaurant, and even an underground carpark. I arrived for the second performance at 10pm, acting on the assumption that at a late night session the performance by this legend of free jazz would be longer, and more intense. I was ushered to a table in the second row with an outstanding view, ordered a drink, and waited for the show to begin. Here a quick note should be added about the drinking arrangement. In addition to the $28 ticket price, $3 booking fee, and the parking fee for use of the carpark (just try finding street parking…), the purchase of one drink is mandatory. No problem, I understand that they are trying to create a club ambiance, but it is rather annoying to be distracted from the show and hustled by the waitresses continually hovering around asking if you want a drink. I have had my drink already, as required by the house regulations, and if I want another, I will ask for it, okay?
Like the waitresses moving around the tables, Pharoah Sanders hovered ungracefully during most of the one and a half hour performance. From the time he walked on the stage just after 10pm, through to the end of the show at 11.30pm, he turned out to be an ephemeral and distracting presence rather than the centre of the show. Let me explain:
His presence on the stage at the outset lasted no more than a few minutes, during which he tooted away desultorily on his horn for a short while, before twisting its mouthpiece, removing it, examining it unconvincingly, checking the rust spots on his instrument, and finally wandering off behind the curtain on stage right, only to discover it was a dead end, and then coming back and negotiating his way through the curtain at the back of the stage.
He left his band to hold the fort (superbly) for a good 45 minutes. They were improvising away, playing extended solos, lah dee dah dee dah… and clearly wondering what the hell was going on. Pharoah Sanders finally ambled back on stage several minutes before 11pm to toot away for a few minutes to close the opening piece. Five minutes later, just after the second number had started to get moving, he wandered off again. At 11.04pm, he shuffled back on stage, shrugged grumpily at the piano player, and then stood on stage for five minutes before finally starting to play. For six minutes, the floodgates were opened, and it was something to behold, but blink and you would miss it, because then the second number in their set abruptly ended.
During the third number, we got a glimpse of what the show might have been if the star performer had actually been there. For a scant 11 minutes from 11.19pm to 11.30pm, he wowed the crowd with what they had been expecting, and then suddenly it was all over. The lights came up, the piped music came on, and the prerecorded MC gave us a spiel about “y’all come again folks” or words to that effect.
So to sum up, out of a one and a half hour show, the star performer was only actually on stage for about 25 minutes, and he played for only about 20 minutes. I recall less about the actual playing and the music than I do about the valse-hésitation executed by Mr Sanders as he hung around the edges, not doing much in particular. He may be a legend of free jazz, but that particular show was a poor excuse for a performance. Cheated? I felt robbed.
* I would have taken my own photo, but Yoshi’s has a policy of no photography, apart from one annoying approved photographer who was clicking away with a giant camera and getting in the way. That’s jazz, folks.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 9 February 2008
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