Jazz Notes: Vision Festival, Day 1

This week, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers reports from the Vision Festival, the avant-garde jazz event in New York City.

billybang320It has been said, as well as disputed, that Manhattan is ground zero of the jazz universe. The city has always done quite well providing the opportunity for diverse live jazz performances. With the long-running JVC Jazz Festival (formerly the Newport Jazz Fest) being cancelled this year—a grim sign of the times—the fact that a large, well-organized avant-garde jazz festival can still happen is something to be celebrated. On Tuesday night, down on the Lower East Side at the Abrons Arts Center, the 14th edition of the Vision Festival kicked off in suitably regal fashion. Percussionist Hamid Drake, singer/dancer Patricia Nicholson-Parker and the festival’s founder, bassist William Parker, provided an invocation for the event, revealing an earnest, retro-beatnik spirituality that will undoubtedly pervade the week’s festivities. Parker played an unusual-looking homemade electric bass while his wife danced and recited poetry and Drake supplied intricate waves of rhythm on a large hand drum. Parker later switched to an Eastern-made reed instrument, and Drake added his own voice to the plaintive invocation.

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Live Review: John Wicks And Paul Collins, Campbell, CA, June 6, 2009

wickscollins400John Wicks, lead singer of almost-famous British post-punk, power-pop combo the Records, and Paul Collins, who tilled similar fields with the Beat, joined forces in an exemplary living-room show in the friendly confines of Casa Padilla, a modest condo owned by John Padilla, hidden deep in the suburban San Jose outback.

Wielding nothing but acoustic guitars and their well-traveled voices (Wicks’ raspy tenor and Collins’ booming baritone), they didn’t forget to bring the most important element: the small steamer trunk of terrific songs each has penned over the past 30 years. When the pair, who first met five years ago in Spain, kicked things off with a stirring rendition of “You Tore Me Down,” the Flamin’ Groovies’ 1975 comeback gem for Greg Shaw’s Bomp! label, the bar was set for a fine evening of jangling, melodic rock. Wicks and Collins didn’t disappoint.

Wicks, who now resides in Los Angeles, and Collins, based in New York, are in the middle of a nationwide tour of people’s homes. As a flock of northbound Canadian geese honked overhead, both chatted amiably in the back yard before the gig, while guests filled up on tacos, wine punch and mini-bar bottles of booze. Wicks explained the back-story of the Records’ best number, “Starry Eyes,” a delightful 1979 impaling of former manager Frank Silva, lounging about in the south of France while the band cooled its heels in London, waiting for its career to take off. “He thought we were off the boil, so he was busy with his new signing, the Yachts,” says Wicks. “Starry Eyes” concludes with the killer couplet: “We had no time for cocktails or working up a tan/The boys have all been spoken to, the writ has hit the fan.” Wicks has talked recently with the song’s co-composer, drummer Will Birch, as well as bassist Phil Brown about a full-scale Records reunion. Nothing shaking yet.

Collins, too, says he tried recently to reform the Nerves, the fabled L.A. pop/punk trio that featured Collins on drums, guitarist Jack Lee and bassist Peter Case. In 1976, the Nerves rented a Hollywood basement at the corner of Gower and Sunset at the onset of the punk revolution to showcase themselves, dressed in sharp, three-piece suits, alongside Smogtown crash ‘n’ burn aggregations the Dils, the Weirdos, the Zeros and the Screamers. Case would be happy to resurrect the Nerves, says Collins, but not with Lee, the man who wrote “Hanging On The Telephone,” later a worldwide smash for Blondie. Since Lee penned most of the Nerves’ material, that effectively derails a reunion.

Wicks and Collins got everyone’s attention tonight with a startling one-two punch: the Records’ harmony-infused delight “Hearts In Her Eyes” (also cut in ’79 by Merseyside folk-rockers the Searchers), followed by a nifty cover of the Hollies’ “King Midas In Reverse.” Collins explained to the crowd of three dozen how the Internet had awakened him to the possibility of making a profitable cottage-industry of his music. “I found out I had thousands of fans in Australia, in New Zealand and all over the world. So, John and I have become wandering minstrels.” Collins then showed why he he’s retained such a loyal fan base with a ripping version of his “I Wanna Be With A Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl.” Wicks laughed at a night out in New York for the Records 30 years ago when they thought they were big pop stars. “We went to the Palladium to see Rockpile, the Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds band, and people mistook us for Rockpile. It was very embarrassing.”

The tandem wound things up with of a sharp medley of the Hollies’ “Bus Stop” and “Things We Said Today,” by “the other John and Paul.” A couple of Nerves songs, “Paper Doll” and, naturally, “Hanging On The Telephone,” led to a stirring finale of “Starry Eyes,” an anthem that still gets the blood racing. “Tell all your friends to hire these guys,” said Collins as the pair knocked back self-congratulatory shots of whiskey.

“I’ve done about 15 of these shows since 2000, and I think this was the best one yet,” said starry-eyed host Padilla afterward, as the crowd began to depart. Having attended one show with John Doe and Jill Sobule and a pair by Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies, I’m inclined to agree. With a set list this good, how could it not be?

—Jud Cost; photo by Kristy Duncan

Live Review: Animal Collective, Oakland, CA, May 26, 2009

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People have been trying to do space rock ever since British producer Joe Meek topped the U.K. and U.S. charts in 1962 with “Telstar” by the Tornadoes, soon after the launch of the first Telstar communications satellite. Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Devo, Man…Or Astroman?, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized and even David Bowie have taken a crack at giving you the “deep space” experience. With Animal Collective, however, the point of view shifts dramatically. These sounds are meant to be created by extra-terrestrial creatures, presumably for their own enjoyment, if such a concept even exists in far-flung galaxies.

About 20 minutes before the show began, a roadie rolled a 12-foot white-rubber sphere into place, framed at the back of the stage by a large piece of glass that resembled the windshield of the Starship Enterprise. The giant globe would serve as both the planet of destination for the evening and as a screen to reflect a hyperactive lightshow that bounced off the web of giant concrete snowflakes on the ceiling of the Fox Theater. Four objects resembling either guitar amps on steroids or oversized church pulpits from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari began to glow ominously in the foreground. Illuminated by Dayglo light bursts and flickering strobes, these would be the audience’s focal points for the rest of the evening. Note to self: Bring sunglasses next time.

Every once in a while, you got a glimpse of what looked like an earthling wandering about on the shadowy stage, but whether human beings actually did any playing or singing was impossible to tell from the balcony. As the music ebbed and flowed, the sold-out crowd had to fit applause in whenever it could. It felt a little awkward clapping for inanimate objects, anyway. Avant-garde acts like the Residents had people up there to look at, even if they were topped by giant eyeballs. At the 50-minute mark, someone stepped forward and said something that might have been, “Thank you.” Or maybe not. The 80-minute set may have consisted of numbers from the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, but the live sound was much larger in scope, as though inflated by a giant bicycle pump to the point of bursting. Lyrics, much like those of ethereal Icelandic combo Sigur Rós, were indecipherable, as you would expect from visitors to this tiny blue planet.

Oddly enough, sprinkled in among the space opera were snatches of pounding tribal exotica that would have seemed right at home among the headhunters of Borneo. Or in a Calvin And Hobbes cartoon with Spaceman Spiff battling giant Jurassic reptiles. But the main thrust was interplanetary in nature. Some tunes successfully captured the hyper-drive blast of interstellar travel, while others sounded like you were stuck in a smelly Greyhound bus depot late at night in what passes for Tijuana on Rigel VII.

As I decompressed while removing hard hat, safety glasses and earplugs on the short walk to the Oakland rapid-transit station, I could have sworn I heard the comforting voice of HAL 9000, the super computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey: “So, what did you think of Animal Collective?” “I don’t know, Hal,” I said. “I kind of liked them.” A girl walking by gave me a funny look.

—Jud Cost

From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen At The Academy Of Music, Philadelphia, PA, May 13, 2009

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our Q&A with him.

leonard-cohen535cJohn Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen is a 75-year-old man at the top of his game. My previous “favorite concert of all time” was his show at The Royal Albert Hall in 1993 on The Future tour. And this was better. He certainly sang better. So I think I may have just seen my favorite-ever gig. Steering clear of 2004’s Dear Heather and with only a few glances at 2001’s Ten New Songs (the two albums he’s released in the last 17 years), Cohen, without a hint of nostalgia and with infinite grace, not to mention surprising vocal and physical agility, entertained us for three short hours with the very greatest of his greatest songs. The band was simply phenomenal—in the ’70s, they’d all have had beards and been called The Quiet Storm—fleshing out the programmed Euro-austerity of the studio records into living, breathing organisms. “I call to you, I call to you,” Cohen sings on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” “but I don’t call soft enough.” The sound embodies his lyrical vision.

The concert was sublime and profoundly moving, from the moment Cohen bounded onstage, through the humility with which he doffed his hat to every soloist, to the final moment he thanked everyone—and I mean everyone (and I mean by name, including the woman who looked after that hat)—after the valedictory hymn. So often he kneeled on the floor, as if in supplication; for Cohen, his songs are prayers. And the concert was, for its audience, a religious experience. All eyes are on Cohen, but his are beyond. Every performer of a similar vintage should be required to see these concerts as part of a compulsory refresher course, to hear the singer wring ever last drip of meaning from each word as though (literally) his life depended on it. The gentle humor, which has always held his work together (but which was ignored during the dull years, when his name unfairly became synonymous with the depressed bedsit singer/songwriter) is here, too, in his delivery and the show’s art direction. And in every line: a thought, a feeling, perhaps a change of content (“Give me crack and careless sex,” he now sings on “The Future,” replacing “anal” with “careless,” thoughtfully reconsidering a crisis).

Will I ever see Leonard Cohen again? I hope so. I wonder. His show is truly redemptive and leaves you feeling better and more generous. Even if you have been sitting behind the only person in this beautiful venue who is singing along and pumping his fists. It is by no means the smallest wonder of the night that I bore him no ill will. I had much better things to do. Watch a video of “The Future” from this year’s Coachella after the jump.

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Live Review: Fleetwood Mac, San Jose, CA, May 21, 2009

fleetwoodmac320The last time I saw Fleetwood Mac in San Jose, there was a near-riot—and it wasn’t because people were trying to get in. When the U.K./American outfit played the half-empty, three-thousand capacity San Jose Civic Auditorium in January 1974, somebody must have thought the local residents were pretty stupid. The band that followed warm-up combo Silverhead (fronted by Michael DesBarres, husband of famed tell-all author/groupie Pamela DesBarres) onstage was definitely not Fleetwood Mac. We’d seen their photos, bought their records, and these were five guys named Moe. Patrons immediately stormed the box office, demanding their money back and were told that the band’s manager, Clifford Davis, who owned the name “Fleetwood Mac,” had fired the original members and hired an all-new lineup. Sign this list, kid, and you’ll be mailed a full refund. Still waiting for that check.

The itch was finally scratched last night when Fleetwood Mac played to a near-capacity crowd of more than 20 thousand at cavernous H.P. Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks. Lindsey Buckingham and Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks climbed onboard the Mac express in 1975 and shepherded the group through its superstar period during a 10-year run. Buckingham and Nicks reminisced onstage about their local connections. Both attended Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park in the late ’60s, San Jose State in the early ’70s, then cut their only Buckingham Nicks album in 1973. “When we played the Fillmore West opening for Quicksilver Messenger Service,” said Nicks, “Bill Graham screamed at a guy who was heckling me, ‘Get out of my Fillmore and don’t ever come back!’ That’s when I knew we were going somewhere.” Dressed in her trademark, free-flowing ensemble, Nicks spoke warmly of the boyfriend/girlfriend days she spent with Buckingham, dedicating the band’s ’82 hit “Gypsy” to “the paper roses, the house we had in Los Gatos and the gypsies that we were.” Nicks, who just turned 60, tentatively tried a pirouette on ’76 smash “Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)” but gave up about halfway through. With her voice as strong as ever, it’s probably time to think about switching from playing Ophelia to a long run as Lady MacBeth.

Buckingham, a year younger than Nicks, proved especially feisty, reeling off a juicy guitar break on “Dreams” (“Thunder only happens when it’s raining”) and a solid vocal turn on a re-tooled version of “Oh Well,” a searing, stop-and-start blues number first cut by the 1970 version of Fleetwood Mac that featured guitartists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. It was also a treat to hear Nicks perform onetime Mac singer/keyboardist Christine McVie’s showcase number “Say You Love Me.” A hired keyboard player did his best to replace the USC marching band, the original accompanist (recorded at Dodger Stadium) for stirring 1979 number “Tusk,” a revered highlight of the Mac’s masterpiece double album of the same name.

Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (the band’s original namesakes) remain in place, with the stork-like Fleetwood, dressed in black knickers and red shoes, particularly nimble on a gavotte-styled bow that followed big hit “Go Your Own Way.” Everyone knew what the encore would be—the only ace in the deck they hadn’t dealt. 1977 classic “Don’t Stop” gained a second life as the campaign theme song for Bill Clinton in 1992. It sounded every bit as exciting in the first term of Barack Obama.

—Jud Cost