If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.
This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.
Night Two: The Clean
The atmosphere was electric in San Francisco’s Independent club tonight: The Clean was in town. Lifelong good-will ambassadors for Kiwi rock, the Clean is the very embodiment of a cult band. Its fame has spread worldwide by tiny pockets of devotees who don’t mind waiting five or 10 years to see the band perform. Since drummer Hamish Kilgour has been living in New York for some time, while guitarist David Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott remain on New Zealand’s south island, the Clean tours and records only occasionally.
The legendary trio has just arrived in San Francisco from playing Matador Records’ 21st birthday party in Las Vegas. And no one is more thrilled to see her heroes perform than tonight’s opening act, Barbara Manning. Surprisingly, she says she’s never seen the Clean play live, even though she spent quite a while in New Zealand more than 10 years ago, recording Barbara Manning In New Zealand, an album cut with Scott, David Kilgour, Chris Knox of the Tall Dwarfs and Graeme Downes of the Verlaines, along with the boys she brought with her, Calexico backbone Joey Burns and John Convertino.
The brothers Kilgour formed the Clean in 1978 in Dunedin and would soon settle on Scott as the band’s permanent bassist. Their early sound was an exciting blend of DIY punk rock and the pervasive influence of the Velvet Underground. They’ve had hits in their native land on revered indie label Flying Nun, and their worldwide sphere of influence has found both Yo La Tengo and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as card-carrying fans.
It’s almost as entertaining to spy on Manning squirming with delight in the seat opposite mine as it is to watch the band cover most of the highlights of its career. Hamish Kilgour’s drum technique is obviously homegrown, but that never stands in the way of his unwaveringly solid timekeeping, just as steady as Ringo Starr himself. David Kilgour’s guitar playing, as you would expect, has come a long way in 30 years. From the effective-yet-spindly early days, it’s grown to an economically lush-yet-ringing sound that easily fills the room. The alternating of lead vocals of David, Hamish and Scott give a welcome change of pace and plenty of variety for a three-piece.
When someone calls out for “Tally Ho,” their maiden hit single from 1978, David replies, “I dunno, it’s about fox hunting, and we don’t like fox hunting, do we?” Then they go ahead and play it anyway. David, whose eyeglasses have turned dark in the spotlight, moves over to a fourth mic to hammer out some Suicide-inspired chords on a mini-keyboard about the size of a loaf of bread.
When some unexpected feedback pops up during the set, Manning hollers out to David, “Give it a whack!” He does, and the irksome sound subsides. As the band winds things down, Scott, whose own mythical band the Bats played this venue back in the ’90s when it was called the Kennel Club, mutters for no apparent reason, “Never leave your wallet on a plane.” Maybe it’s a song he’s working on. With the Clean’s sporadic touring schedule, it may be 10 years before we find out.
Belying the even keel of her sultry mezzo-soprano singing voice, Manning has always been an excitable girl when she gets onstage. Tonight she was on fire. “I’m more excited than you are,” she nervously told a crowd of admirers, many of whom had come to see San Francisco’s onetime queen of underground rock back in the saddle.
Manning had worked the room like a political candidate earlier, hugging old friends, kissing babies. Since she last played S.F. at the Make-Out Room for the 20th reunion of her former band the 28th Day in 2003, she’s graduated with a degree in biology from Chico State University. “I think I want to teach biology in high school,” she says before she takes the stage with what she describes as her “power pop band,” Rocket 69.
Nattily attired in a brown-and-white-checked dress with black go-go boots, Manning sounds terrific as she belts out “Teenage Depression,” the title song from the first LP by Eddie And The Hot Rods. Just being back in the former Kennel Club has doubtless brought back a flood of memories. “I remember playing here with Roger Manning (no relation) when the sound man told me, ‘You are the most unprofessional musician ever,'” Manning reveals. When she subsequently double-clutches on an intro, one of her old pals yells out, “Unprofessional!”
“Here’s a great song by somebody I just saw yesterday,” says Manning, referring to the Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. “My guitarist, Maurice Spencer, is going to sing it, and I think he does it better than the guy who wrote it. But don’t tell him I said that.” Spencer does a fine job on Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind.”
After a stellar reading of one of her own songs, “Sympathy Wreath,” Manning continues her tradition of coming up with the most entertaining between-songs patter this side of Robyn Hitchcock. “How many people have seen Barbara Manning fall down the rabbit hole?” she asks. “Better yet, how many people here have tuned my guitar for me?”
Manning wraps up her set with what could have been an all-time power-pop one/two knockout punch. But it turns out to be a false alarm. She delivers the goods with the Records’ “Starry Eyes,” easily one the most thrilling songs from the ’70s, but then announces the last number would be something by the Only Ones. Instead of the one-hit wonders’ classic “Another Girl Another Planet,” Rocket 69 plays “City Of Fun.” When asked afterward why she didn’t play “Another Girl,” Manning replies, “I didn’t play that because that’s what everybody was expecting.” Huh? Personally, I love “Another Girl Another Planet,” and I’ve only heard it played live once, by the Only Ones themselves, at S.F.’s Old Waldorf in 1979. But at least that was the only disappointing moment during a true “rabbit hole” evening.