MAGNET Heads To All Tomorrow’s Parties

ATPFor a certain type of fan, the migration of All Tomorrow’s Parties westward over the Atlantic has been a revelation. Unaccustomed to the small charm of a focused, boutique-style festival, American audiences have become inundated with sprawling monstrosities with 17 stages where every band that put out a record that year plays. In that sense, ATP New York is nothing if not deliberate. With the lineups cherry picked by various luminaries (this year, the Flaming Lips have the honors), the festival is outside the city limits nestled within the mountainous landscape and bygone glory of the Catskills, a vacation spot whose sheen has worn off considerably since Jackie Gleason last worked the rooms. Where else but New York could the resort hosting the festival, the charmingly decrepit Kutshers Country Club, seem chosen due to a vague sense of irony? It is with a brave face and incorruptible journalistic integrity that I will be delivering daily reports for MAGNET, acting as your eyes and ears on the ground in between what I hope to be an endless supply of bloody marys, bocce and my desperate attempts to befriend Jim Jarmusch. Also, I’m pretty sure bands are playing. I’ll be writing about them, too. 

—Matt Siblo

Live Review: Minus 5, Baseball Project, Steve Wynn 4, San Francisco, CA, Aug. 30, 2009

baseballprojectliveScott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon, the foursome who cut an album in 2008 as the Baseball Project, swung for the fences at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall before a modest-sized crowd whose enthusiasm overcame its lack of numbers. Most of those who showed up seemed to be either longtime McCaughey and Wynn devotees or friends of the musicians. Or both.

It didn’t take white home uniforms or grey road ones for the fans to tell who was who onstage. Wynn and Pitmon looked every inch the sharp, uptown New Yorkers. McCaughey and Buck, neither of whom has visited the barber all season, could’ve been mistaken for former members of Seattle-area grunge-meisters the Screaming Trees. It was like the odd couple times two. But not when it came to the music.

McCaughey and Wynn, both lifelong baseball fans who’d dreamed of writing paeans to their boyhood heroes, made it all come true with Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (Yep Roc). To fill out the lineup card for live shows, the foursome pumped up the concept by adding songs from Killingsworth (Yep Roc), the current release of McCaughey and Buck’s combo the Minus 5, and Wynn’s most recent solo outing, Crossing Dragon Bridge (Rock Ridge). Of course, they also ladled plenty of caramel over the Cracker Jack in the form of vintage Wynn-penned, nuevo-psych classics by the Dream Syndicate and a few reckless, last-chance power-drives from McCaughey’s Young Fresh Fellows. Sprinkle on a few peanuts in the form of Wynn’s collaboration with Gutterball, and nobody walked away hungry. Some could barely walk at all by night’s end.

“Past Time,” the Baseball Project tune that got national exposure on Letterman recently, was a fitting introduction to the baseball concept. As its lyrics state: “One thing you can say about the game is it’s not getting any faster,” which brings up the hardball question: “Pastime, are you past your prime?” A guarded “no” is probably the correct answer here.

“Here’s a song about the man who helped A-Rod make $30 million a year,” smirked McCaughey, introducing “Gratitude (For Curt Flood),” about the Cardinals outfielder whose lawsuit brought about free agency for baseball players—a move that came too late for Flood, himself. Afterward, McCaughey asked Wynn if he remembered that mean-spirited, live bootleg album that captured only the off-key vocals of Linda McCartney on a Paul McCartney & Wings tour. “My career could be in ruins if somebody’s recording us tonight,” moaned McCaughey, even though his angelic tenor sounded just fine.

McCaughey dedicated the poignant “Sometimes I Dream Of Willie Mays” to his dad, the man who ferried the youngster 50 miles up the peninsula from their Saratoga, Calif., home to windblown Candlestick Park. The most interesting of the baseball songs was “Harvey Haddix,” the sad tale of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw 12 perfect innings—36 batters faced, 36 outs—only to lose the game and his no-hitter in the unlucky 13th inning.

The first 10 minutes of each of the two sets tonight felt like the early innings of some baseball games: more like a tentative game of catch between the pitcher and the catcher. Not a lot of action. Things really got heated when Wynn brought his flamethrowing Dream Syndicate tunes out of the bullpen. “That’s What You Always Say,” “Tell Me When It’s Over” and “The Days Of Wine And Roses” sounded almost as tree-defoliating as the original Syndicate lineup of Wynn, guitarist Karl Precoda, bassist Kendra Smith and drummer Dennis Duck. Wynn and McCaughey took turns playing Precoda’s squirrelly leads and sometimes went toe to toe, a la Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. But Wynn missed a golden opportunity to bring up a famed remark by venerated Giants announcer Russ Hodges, who once referred to the Phillies infield of the ’60s as “the days of (Bobby) Wine and (Cookie) Rojas.” The unflappable Buck and the power-flapping Pitmon, who stuck exclusively to bass and drums, respectively, were a monstrous rhythm section all night long.

McCaughey’s country-ish “Dark Hand Of Contagion,” with Wynn and Pitmon taking the background vocals originally cut by Portland girl group the SheBeeGees, sounded a little like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, even without the pedal-steel guitar. Wynn’s signature Dream Syndicate song, “The Medicine Show,” may seem like it has tent-show roots, but it really has more in common with Appalachian murder ballads and the Carter Family than snake oil and bottles of nerve tonic.

You knew they were getting ready to outline the bodies with chalk and seal off the area with crime-scene tape when the quartet dug into “Revolution Blues,” Neil Young’s fairly obscure rocker from On The Beach. Even Young, himself, might’ve followed up that mayhem-inducer with McCaughey’s bellowing “Shit Man.” (If he knew the tune.) And how better to end this blissfully long night than with a ripsnorting version of Great Pacific Northwest eardrum-shredder “Strychnine” from what may have been the best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, the Sonics.

As a good-night salute, the ever sharp McCaughey said, “Rock ‘n’ roll music appreciates your dedication to rock ‘n’ roll music.” It was enough to finish off what equilibrium remained after a dizzying evening of, you guessed it, rock ‘n’ roll music.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Joe Pernice, Philadelphia, PA, Aug. 8, 2009

joeperniceliveFor starters, you had to respect Joe Pernice for the degree of difficulty of the tour he is attempting. Working without the safety net of his crack Pernice Brothers cohorts was the least of it. Lots of singer/songwriters do that. But Pernice’s show at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel was advertised as part reading of his new novel and part set of the cover songs he released as a “soundtrack” to accompany the book.

It is with great relief that we report the selections from It Feels So Good When I Stop were entertaining and compelling, both in content and in Pernice’s delivery. There was none of the awkwardness that stifles some author readings or the raging egotism that spoils others. Pernice read with the same keen ear he brings to singing his gorgeous and literate pop songs. He read two sections, both funny and sharply observed. One related a drunken conversation about Hitler’s mustache, the other a fictional (ahem) interaction with Lou Barlow during a gig at Brownie’s in New York.

The best gauge of Pernice’s reading: When he said he was finished reading from the book, none of the 75 or so in attendance cheered in that let’s-get-on-with-the-music tone that would have changed the temperature of the whole performance.

The second part of Pernice’s gamble paid off, as well. You don’t generally go to see a songwriter of Pernice’s caliber to hear him sing other people’s songs, especially oddities like “Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins or Sammy Johns’ ’70s hit “Chevy Van.” But the twist here worked. These are songs that figure in the novel, and they’re in the novel because they affected the author in some profound way during his formative years (mostly).

So it turned out that Pernice playing covers with an acoustic guitar is a wonderful idea. His passion for the songs came through, and they were transformed by his airy, ethereal voice and songwriter’s sense of dynamics. Highlights included Barlow’s “Soul And Fire” and James And Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” and, yes, Pernice’s heartbreaking take on “Chim Cheree.”

Pernice capped the evening with a short set of his own songs, selected, he said, because they worked best without the lush pop arrangements of the recordings. “Amazing Glow,” “How Can I Compare” and “Pisshole In The Snow” felt more immediate and direct in this setting. And “Bum Leg,” from way back on the Chappaquiddick Skyline album, was a perfect downer of an encore.

There’s no way to know whether Pernice will focus on writing fiction or making records from here on out. This project takes a step in a new direction with the book while standing firmly on familiar ground with the CD. For a night, at least, Pernice made the two pieces fit perfectly.

—Phil Sheridan

Live Review: Count Five, San Jose, CA, Aug. 2, 2009

count_five2Count Five, the San Jose, Calif., garage-rock legends who hit the top of the national charts in 1966 with “Psychotic Reaction,” returned to the scene of past glories at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. An unseasonably temperate 75-degree Sunday in August should have drawn more than the 50 or so curious souls who wandered in to plop down onto plastic patio chairs for a ripping good 90-minute set of ’60s smashes. It was hard to believe this was the same venue that once drew mobs of the faithful for Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin—all at the top of their game—for the Northern California Folk-Rock Festivals of 1968-69. That’s because things have changed dramatically since then.

With its archaic concrete bleachers demolished years ago and dwindling attendance since then, the local county fair pretty much went out of business for a while. Now it’s back on a very scaled-down basis (free admission, free parking), but if the skimpy Sunday-afternoon crowd is an accurate barometer, the basic operation is still on life support. The big chips this weekend were no doubt riding on the success of a Sunday-evening show in a newly opened mini-arena: an all-’80s event that featured Missing Persons, Naked Eyes, A Flock Of Seagulls and Tommy Tutone at $25-$35 a pop.

The jury is still out on that one, but Count Five sounded amazing, playing for a crowd you could have wedged into a 7-Eleven. Harmonica-wielding singer Kenn Ellner has become an even more dynamic entertainer than he was in the band’s early days, now very comfortable with the Keith Relf-like vocals on Yardbirds staples “I’m Not Talking,” “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You.” And the razor-sharp leads of original guitarist John “Mouse” Michalski (who once made American Bandstand‘s Dick Clark smirk, “Yeah, the big guy is always called Mouse,”) is still the closest thing going today to his readily apparent six-string hero, Jeff Beck. Matched with the band’s original bassist, Roy Chaney, the effect is devastating.

Kicking things off with a rousing version of the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” Count Five cherry-picked a superb set of ’60s gems to flesh out their short list of band originals (“The Morning After,” “Double Decker Bus”). Ellner recalled the night the band opened for the Dave Clark Five at San Jose Civic Auditorium, then blew the place up with DC5’s “Glad All Over,” dynamic enough for a ponytailed blond in a pink and lavender sun dress to skip and pirouette in all the right places as she walked by.

Just as ardent, if not quite as winsome, was the shirt-less Charlie Manson look-alike who shook it down in front of the band nonstop, from the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now” to Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.” Most of the rest of the sedentary crowd managed to get up and shake something to the grand finale, a tree-defoliating runthrough of “Psychotic Reaction.” It’s an anthem that once caused notorious rock writer Lester Bangs to rhapsodize about purchasing Count Five’s only album, then fantasize about a non-existent string of follow-up LPs, detailed in his posthumous, Greil Marcus-edited compendium Psychotic Reaction And Carburetor Dung. You could almost feel the presence of the revered other gonzo journalist this afternoon, rumbling, bumbling and stumbling through the clouds in pure ecstasy.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Mark Eitzel, Philadelphia, PA, July 28, 2009

eitzel350bAs the leader of American Music Club and a solo artist, 50-year-old Mark Eitzel has toured with numerous configurations and players during the past two-plus decades, from a full band to solo with guitar. This night in Philadelphia was the penultimate stop on a small tour mostly confined to the Northeast corridor that featured a new arrangement: just Eitzel and a piano player, Marc Capelle. Billed as “Mark Eitzel Performs American Music Club,” this “kind of a Tony Bennett thing I guess,” as Eitzel wrote on his blog, gave him the freedom to concentrate solely on singing—and his hilarious stage antics. Eitzel has always been a mix of stand-up comic, self-deprecating curmudgeon who constantly apologizes for his “stupid songs” and confident showman. And with just a microphone in his hand, here Eitzel was free to fully indulge in a sad-clown lounge-act persona that fit him well.

Hopping onto the stage at Johnny Brenda’s in a trucker hat and baggy chino pants, a bearded Eitzel fidgeted around the whole set, repeatedly sitting down on a chair, then getting back up again (often during songs), all while alternately beaming to the crowd and shying away. After saying hi, he talked about getting a new career, such as cleaning toilets, but only for “people who are sanitary.” Then, on a dime,  he started singing and sent the crowd from loose laughter to arrested silence with a longing cover of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and his own wrenching “Mission Rock Resort.”

This pattern would happen throughout the show. Eitzel would crack jokes about his life, his age, Roberta Flack, other shows on the tour, former band members, Facebook, and then casually launch into poignant laments such as AMC tunes “Decibels And Little Pills,” “The Thorn In My Side Is Gone” and “Nightwatchman” (Eitzel got choked up at one point during this one) that just inspired awe with their bruised lyrics and Eitzel’s room-filling voice. He may have the most human voice in rock music. It is all of this at once: sad, defiant, wounded, sentimental, understanding, hopeful, resigned. Big as the biggest adjective and commanded with elegantly flawed grace, Eitzel’s voice can make your ears cry. The way he draws out syllables, the way he pulls back from the microphone to sing unamplified and then leans loudly back in. Astonishing.

On a few tunes, including a beautifully rendered “Last Harbor” and one from a musical Eitzel recently wrote with British playwright Simon Stephens, Capelle would start the song and Eitzel would immediately ask him to slow it down. “Slower, slower, slower,” he said at one point, walking over to the keyboard and coaching Capelle’s fingers down to a lilting crawl.

If you have seen Eitzel live, you know he sometimes can’t seem to wait to get off the stage and has a tendency to abort songs and end sets abruptly. On this night, he never seemed to want to leave. After taking a bow together following the main set, Eitzel and Capelle treated the crowd to two encores. The first featured a cheeky reading of “Me And Mrs. Jones” with the “Mrs.” changed to “Mr.” For the second, Eitzel offered a choice of either “Blue And Gray Shirt” or “No Easy Way Down.” The fans shouted competing preferences. So they played both, the piano floating just perfectly, unobtrusively, under that wondrous voice.

—Doug Sell; photo by Lea Bogdan