Live Review: Gogol Bordello, Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 29, 2010

Fans stomping around in combat boots and military gear too stylish to ever be permitted at an Army base crammed into the Electric Factory like a throng of frantic shoppers in front of a Walmart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Only instead of re-reading their gift list for the 47th time and devising the best tactics for nabbing that half-price 59-inch flat screen, Gogol Bordello devotees were desperate to elbow enough room for themselves so they could flail in the drunken-pirate manner appropriate for this band’s act. While such a claustrophobic environment would significantly detract from most other artists’ performances, the infectious enthusiasm spewing from Eugene Hutz and family swallowed up the audience and didn’t allow room for crying over spilled beer. More on that later.

The nine-piece, NYC-based gypsy-punk band, fittingly conceived at a Russian wedding in 1998, is taking its caravan on a cross-country tour to promote latest album Trans-Continental Hustle. Onstage, every member displayed their musical dexterity, often switching instruments mid-song, then discarding them to spring across the platform in a bouncy march. Their furious, sometimes chaotic melodies mix swift accordion, arm-jerking violin, punk guitar, throbbing percussion and dub with Hutz’s unapologetically over-the-top, Boris Badenov, Eastern-bloc vocals.

Songs like “My Companjera” and “Raise The Knowledge” transformed the Electric Factory into a dock at a foreign port, where everyone is surrounded by cargo boxes filled with spices and perfume from the Orient and people are stumbling around slapping each other on the backs and sloshing stoneware beer steins.

Having fans using beer mugs with lids would have greatly benefited me. Three-fourths of the way through the show, as I managed to ignore the chick behind me who thought she was Hutz and screeched the words to every song so we’d know she was a true fan, I was in my dancing groove and suddenly received a Southern California-style drenching of watered-down Bud Light. I turned around to fixate my death stare on the offender, grabbed a handkerchief from a kind soul nearby to wring the mess out of my hair and debated the awkwardness of resuming dancing in my previous carefree manner after I’d just let loose a torrent of dramatic, angry verbiage. Luckily, the bassist moseyed over to our side of the stage and began urging us to clap and chant, and I soon forgot about the alcoholic transgression (at least until I had to pick apart sticky hair strands in my rearview mirror 30 minutes later).

Watching a Gogol Bordello show is like watching a five-year-old make cupcakes. Their faces light up with each stroke, they want you to help them in the process of creation, they’re dying to share the finished product with you, and they watch you giddily to make sure you are enjoying every morsel. Every single band member looked like they were having the time of their life onstage, and during the entire 60-minute set, I could taste the passion in every bite.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Pretty Lights, Oakland, CA, Nov. 24, 2010

At the ritzy Fox Theater in downtown Oakland, Calif., the glow-stick-festooned crowd was on a collision course with a Mack truck of pot smoke, rib-cracking bass and, yes, pretty lights. On the eve of Thanksgiving, a day of wholesome family gatherings and pilgrim-hat centerpieces, the ravers were out in full force, replete with tiny backpacks, glitter, leather vests, a plethora of phosphorescent jewelry and plenty of E. They came to see Pretty Lights, a.k.a. Derek Vincent Smith, the product of a thriving DJ music scene in Denver, Colo.

Rhythmically bouncing behind his table of laptops and sound boards in a white hoodie, flat-rimmed baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, Smith was the DJ who is too engrossed in his beats to notice the 67 women in the audience throwing themselves at him. That focus has brought him from college-dropout record-scratcher to Red Rocks headliner and music-festival draw. He emerged from the lush electronic-music environment of the Mile High City, and the influence of DJ Shadow and RJD2 can be heard in Pretty Lights’ deft blend of vintage soul crooning over spacey bell chimes and glitchy hip-hop beats.

Modern music is becoming both more fractured and universal, due to the internet and iTunes and MySpace. We’ve heard it all before, so we are more particular about what we waste our ear quota on. Artists like Pretty Lights have risen to the occasion, cherry picking the best of what’s available, then chopping and sorting and mixing to craft something completely fresh and pneumatic. It’s not unlike pop artists of the prior century—Andy Warhol with his soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein with his Ben-Day dots—wielding them as sharp statements on culture and art as we know it. In Oakland, Pretty Lights wielded his beats like a carving knife, serving up a slightly pink and tasty concert experience.

The venue itself was classy and well designed, with strategically placed bars, a multi-tiered dance area and a lofty ceiling with walls adorned like an art museum’s cultures-of-the-world wing. It has an old-theater feel without the elbows in your face.

Pretty Lights lived up to its name. The light show in tandem with tracks like “Gold Coast Hustle” and “Hot Like Dimes” was like taking grandma’s warm apple pie and plopping a scoop of homemade ice cream on top. It didn’t just enhance it; it shot it into another dimension. Strobe lights, multi-colored lights, psychedelic swirling lights, clouds, fire and bubbles all pulsed with the blippy synthetic loops and drum cadence.

The set went on for more than two hours, but no one slowed down. Girls in furry animal hats were still grinding against the banisters, sweating out Four Loko as Pretty Lights wrapped up and sent them off to face their families the next day. Concert-goers can take comfort in the fact that Light therapy helps with depression.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: The Apples In Stereo, The Orange Peels, San Jose, CA, Oct. 31, 2010

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 Five: The Apples In Stereo

The wait for the Apples In Stereo to appear onstage at San Jose’s Blank Club seems interminable. It’s Halloween, so at least there are plenty of people in costume to gawk at. But by the time you’ve seen the guy with “Evil X” spelled out in electrician’s tape on the back of his T-shirt (with half the “V” drooping downwards) or the girl in the NASCAR racing gear lugging a steering wheel or someone wrapped up in the American flag or the guy in the Mr. Rogers-style red-and-yellow-felt superhero’s outfit walk by for the 25th time, it feels like you’re part of a living tape loop that will never end.

Then they switch off the barely watchable lo-fi big-screen TV that appears to be showing the top of the ninth inning of game five of the San Francisco Giants/Texas Rangers World Series. In its place is a video of Apples frontman/songwriting genius Robert Schneider in oversized sunglasses and spaceman gear, walking through a cave on a permanent loop. After 20 minutes, the video takes on the aura of a trapped Chilean miner endlessly wandering around his underground prison.

What Schneider described as “a short film” had looked captivating earlier that afternoon on his laptop, the same piece of hardware that had survived bouncing off a highway sometime during the Apples’ 2010 tour. Schneider had played the video piece on my dining room table while the BBQ chicken and portobello-mushroom caps were still being grilled for the nine-person Apples entourage. As he stepped outdoors to chow down, Schneider gasped, “What a perfect California backyard. I can see myself coming out here in the morning to write songs.”

It’s only right that the Apples and Oranges are on the same bill. The Orange Peels from Sunnyvale, Calif., cheekily described as “the Vale of Sun” by vocalist Allen Clapp, open the show with a tasty blend of pop originals, many of which, oddly enough, reference foul weather. “I don’t mind the rain,” trills Clapp in one of his songs, backed by versatile guitarist John Moremen, bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabe Coan. With Moremen’s former connection to late master Bay Area songwriter Jimmy Silva, “Hand Of Glory” has been added to the Peels’ set. A few new songs from their recent album, 20/20 (Minty Fresh), have the same power-pop sheen as onetime Berserkeley Records legends, the Rubinoos. “Allen Clapp’s songs are so great,” Schneider says afterward. “I can hear them being recorded back in the ’70s by the Bay City Rollers.”

About 25 minutes after their scheduled 11:00 pm start, the Apples, now swollen to seven members and dressed in deep-space regalia, march onto the Blank Club’s tiny stage to greet Planet Earth. “We are space travellers from the future, returned to the past to play our music for you,” announces Schneider, summing up the theme of the Apples’ seventh full-length album, Travellers In Space And Time (Simian/Yep Roc). Schneider, whose costume also mimics a duster from a spaghetti-Western, once described the new sound as R&B emanating from a space ship.

In addition to their hyperactive singer/guitarist, flanked by longtime stalwarts John Hill on guitar and Eric Allen on bass, the band now consists of Bill Doss (formerly of the Olivia Tremor Control) on keyboards, onetime Deathray Davies member John Dufilho on drums, John Ferguson on keyboards and vocoder-rigged mic and Ben Phelan on guitar, keyboards and trumpet. After he spent a week at a math conference in San Jose last year, Schneider was determined to play the rebuilt steel-and-glass hub city of Silicon Valley on his next Apples In Stereo tour.

The current set is a fine, career-spanning mix of the new record along with a healthy dose of the band’s high-water mark to date, 2007 album New Magnetic Wonder, a disc so appealing that some of its hypnotic tunes (“Sun Is Out,” “Energy”) were used in national advertising campaigns. They also dig deep into the trunk for “Strawberryfire,” a psychedelic gem that so perfectly recreates the Beatles it could be a Sgt. Pepper outtake. With the extra personnel, Schneider can now recreate live more of what he hears in the studio, such as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass-like trumpet flourishes and a rocking cowbell ensemble right out of the Move’s “Do Ya.”

Schneider, who early in his career had a tendency to blow-up his voice early on a tour by over-singing, is now completely in control of his trademark instrument, with the ability to pump out those high-fructose, Sugar Pops-spiked vocal lines from start to finish. “We’re gonna play the next song backwards,” Schneider says before launching a Brian Wilson/John Lennon-style experimental float upstream to some outback village. Some of Schneider’s songs, “Dignified Dignitary” from Travellers, for example, are as lyrically deranged as the Mad Hatter—and as addictive as a double espresso.

“OK, here’s our second song,” Schneider slyly announces from behind a beard that would do S.F. Giants closer Brian Wilson proud. It’s now well more than an hour into a set that careens from an interstellar fly-by of the third moon of Pluto to a Power Puff Girls Saturday-morning cartoon fest in the blink of an eye. The meaty encore is dictated by a houseful of rabid Apples fans who dredge up requests for early numbers from classic albums Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution.

“See ya in the future,” salutes a sweat-drenched Schneider, whose evening’s work is far from done as he leaves the stage. True to his upbeat nature, Schneider begins to work the house like a political candidate, hugging anyone at least twice who comes up to congratulate him afterward. He’s the rare example of a man who has found not only what he wants to do, but exactly what he was born to do. The Apples In Stereo, using a bigger deck of cards wielded by sharper players everytime they pass through town, keep getting better and better.

And tonight is also a fitting cap for this six-show “Octember” stroll through the MAGNET years. Maybe you wouldn’t stay up so late at night, anxiously staring at that date circled on your calendar, if all class reunions were this much fun.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Gorillaz, Oakland, CA, Oct. 30, 2010

The virtual band created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett has burgeoned into a real-life phenomenon, with a 12-year string of Billboard hits, sold-out arenas and critical acclaim. At the drafty Oracle Arena in Oakland, the cartoon characters seen in the narrative music videos took to the flesh as a star-studded collective to wreak havoc on our senses and make love to our ears.

Although the venue is typically used for Warriors games, motor cross and Roger Waters concerts and was not conducive to schmoozing or dancing like some of the more intimate San Francisco venues nearby, those who chose to stand up and flail around could do so without feeling self-conscious, as seats were strategically placed to direct everyone’s attention to the stage.

Gorillaz unleashed a fire hose of visual stimulation with a carousel of vocalists, players and instrumentalists (including an Arab-American unit performing the intro to “White Flag”), gliding on and off stage while music videos and intervals of cartoon dialogue pulsed on the massive screen overhead. They ran with the Halloween theme, with grinning jack-o’-lanterns placed around the stage and band members wearing perspiration-smeared zombie makeup and sporting Inglorious Basterds army-sergeant uniforms and goblin masks.

They offered up a perfect mix of old and new songs off their various albums and EPs, with uptempo dance numbers like “DARE” and the emotional “Cloud Of Unknowing,” featuring Bobby Womack (during which they showed graphic clips of war planes crashing). The set list delighted even the most casual fan (a.k.a. parents chaperoning their 12-year-olds—“Hey, it’s the iPod song!”)

As disgruntled as fans may have been about the wallet gashing they endured on the $100 tickets, $30 parking fee and $8 watery beer, the constant barrage of animation, Yukimi Nagano’s tinkling voice, masked brass players, vigorous rapping and Albarn’s lithe vocals and attempted political banter made the outside melt away, if only for 90 minutes.

—text and photo by Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Of Montreal, Janelle Monae, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 29, 2010

The members of Of Montreal were not the only ones bedecked in wigs, drag and glitter tonight. On the eve of Halloween, the fans rivaled the headliners in costume-contest categories such as most creative, best Janelle Monae impersonation and best “I’m supposed to be a nurse/fairy/policewoman, even though I’m wearing a four-inch skirt.”

There was an ocean of sweaty, painted bodies milling around the gilded halls of the former vaudeville theater, along with a high frequency of glow sticks and hand-holding, the latter probably because guys don’t want to admit they like Of Montreal and so get their girlfriends to bring them.

Janelle Monae opened with an ear-tingling, hip-swiveling act that was part James Brown, part Gnarls Barkley and part Whitney Houston. She hushed the room with her epic pipes on ballad “Smile,” and a scrum of actors lumbered around onstage in hooded cloaks for “Dance Or Die.” Of Montreal’s flamboyant frontman Kevin Barnes joined Monae for a guest appearance before segueing into the main act.

Barnes and Co. crafted a performance best described as Alice In Wonderland—the Penthouse centerfold version–on acid. The lead singer pranced around in a purple leotard, frilly apron, headscarf and billowing tunic probably stolen from a noble at the Renaissance Faire, kicking aside most of his clothes halfway through the show. Players in head-to-toe, skin-colored body suits wearing skeleton and swine masks writhed among the unfazed band members.

While a portion of Of Montreal’s set included classics such as “The Party’s Crashing Us” and “Suffer For Fashion,” the band mostly featured songs off latest album False Priest, a Prince-like, collaborative body of work that lends itself to funk devolution. During each psychedelic, guitar-scratching “Let’s Get It On” montage, Barnes would perform antics that made the audience’s collective jaw drop. He grinded with a pig/human female in a way that would make Lil Wayne blush. Another time Barnes mimed fellatio and squealed, “You just made my mouth pregnant! What will my dentist say?”

The encore was a Michael Jackson tribute, featuring “Thriller” and “PYT.” During that time, several fans clambered onstage and began an impromptu dance party with the band, although the guitarist had to shove off a couple stumbling lushes.

Even without the added excitement of the crowd being able to prematurely show off their clever/slutty Halloween attire, Of Montreal has upped the ante yet again with its crew of players and ever-evolving Pan’s Labyrinth-ian props. However, next time it may be better if the band scaled back the theatrics and focused a bit more on what it does best: play music.

—text and photo by Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Greg Dulli, Craig Wedren, Baltimore, MD, Oct. 23, 2010

“This is the first time I’ve been hot on this whole tour,” said a gleeful Greg Dulli near the end of a rousing set on Saturday night at Baltimore’s Ottobar. If you’ve seen Dulli live with any of his past or current outfits (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), this might be a surprising thing to hear. But this 14-date U.S. tour, billed as An Evening With Greg Dulli, featured Dulli in a stripped-down, mostly acoustic setting. Backed by a violinist/cellist (Rick Nelson) and an acoustic/electric guitarist and backup singer (longtime Dulli bandmate Dave Rosser) for the entire tour, the group also added a drummer (Greg Wieczorec) over the last few dates. In this arrangement, Dulli’s normally howling songs were stripped to the bruised bone; their core of torment and dark urges laid bare. Despite the unplugged delivery, the show had a magical, sweaty fire that made it feel like a searing rock performance fitting of Dulli’s usual incarnations.

The crowd (well, me at least) had leaned hard into their Saturday night by the time Dulli and his band took the stage after 11 p.m. With the Ottobar’s website stating the show would start right at 9 p.m, the place was packed early. But Craig Wedren, former lead singer for Shudder To Think, didn’t take the stage until more than an hour after that, giving people plenty of time to throwback Baltimore’s iconic National Bohemian beer. It was worth the wait, though, as Wedren serenaded the crowd with his beautiful, fluttery voice. Standing alone in front of two microphones, he often looped vocal, guitar and simple beat parts to flesh out his odd-but-gorgeous songs. Highlights included Shudder To Think tunes “Red House” and “Hit Liquor” and a song he recorded for the HBO show Hung.

Dulli’s set started with him sitting at the keyboard, pounding out “The Killer” from the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle. From the beginning, this show was on a whole different level from the performance earlier in the week in Philadelphia. The band was visibly amped up and played harder and louder. The room rocked in response. Dulli whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Again” early on in the set and really never let up. The set list covered nearly every record in Dulli’s catalog, with the acoustic setting being the perfect chance for Dulli to dust off gems like Congregation’s harrowing “Let Me Lie To You,” “Step Into The Light” from Black Love, the overlooked “The Lure Would Prove Too Much” from the Twilight Singers’ A Stitch In Time EP and piano-driven Gentelmen classic “What Jail Is Like,” which led off the band’s first encore. Dulli also pulled from his Gutter Twins project and shared a number of songs from the next Twilight Singers record, which is due via Sub Pop in 2011.

Dulli mostly strummed an acoustic guitar, only taking to the keyboard on a few songs. He drank bottled water. No ceaseless smoking. No alcohol. He’s now entrenched in his mid-40s and while he still wants the crowd “to make party,” he himself has seemed to reign in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But this more sober stage act has not muted any of his showmanship power. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to craft a set list where songs build on each other, each one topping the next. A signature Dulli move is inserting a line or two from other songs into his own. Examples tonight included a nicked verse from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” at the end of “Teenage Wristband,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” appearing in “66” and even a teaser of his own “Milez is Ded” popping up at one point, which sent the crowd soaring.

No surprise, then, that after the band’s encore (which included the Twilight Singers’ “Candy Cane Crawl” and a blistering cover of Jose Gonzalez’s “Down The Line”), the crowd didn’t even look toward the exits. They continued to clap and howl until the band came back out and did a breathless rendition of Björk’s “Hyperballad,” with everyone in the room singing along. Glazed with sweat, Dulli and the band retired for good despite protests for a third curtain call, the U.S. leg of this tour closed out with a truly great evening.

—text and photo by Doug Sell

Live Review: Hoodoo Gurus, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 14, 2010

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 Five: Hoodoo Gurus

Some nights you don’t want to think of rock ‘n’ roll as great art. The Hoodoo Gurus know just what you need: to be hammered upside the head with terrific songs, one after another, until you start bouncing up and down like a brainless organ grinder’s monkey, begging for a banana. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall is about half-full of people tonight, mostly in their 40s, who have left their social-networking devices in their pockets, so they can beg for bananas and concentrate on the thunder from Down Under about to beat them senseless.

Led by genial frontman Dave Faulkner and longtime members Brad Shepherd (guitar) and Mark Kingsmill (drums), along with bassist Richard Grossman (added in 1988), the Hoodoo Gurus stroll on stage after a short DJ set of stuff they grew up on: Velvet Underground, Flamin’ Groovies, Stones, Roxy Music. Faulkner’s trying to grow some of his hair back from the cueball-shaved look he sported for the band’s previous S.F. visit at tiny Cafe du Nord in 2007.

Faulkner formed Le Hoodoo Gurus in Perth, Western Australia, in 1981, but soon moved to Sydney and acquired Shepherd and Kingsmill. The Gurus were one of the de facto leaders of a brilliant assault force of Aussie big-guitar bands from the ’80s, most of whom achieved at least cult status in the U.S. It’s a lineup that included Screaming Tribesmen, Died Pretty, Celibate Rifles, the Sunnyboys, Eastern Dark, the Hitmen, the Scientists, New Christs, the Stems, Lime Spiders and the Hard-Ons.

“Wow, what a place!” Faulkner marvels at the ornate, Edwardian interior of the Great American Music Hall. “If we neglect your particular orientation, just give us a kiss,” he adds before launching into something from what he describes as “our much-neglected Mach Schau album. It didn’t sell much.” Like most of the anthems from a band savvy enough to title one of its nine albums Magnum Cum Louder (including those from current release Purity Of Essence), the song seems tailor-made for a thorough sonic shower, guaranteed to leave you refreshed if a little sweatier.

“I Want You Back,” from their 1983 debut longplayer Stoneage Romeos, features chiming guitar work and high-pitched, signature “Aah aah-aah, aah aah-aah” background vocals. “What’s My Scene,” from 1987’s Blow Your Cool, gives Shepherd room to stretch out on a spiraling guitar solo reminiscent of the best work of True West’s Richard McGrath.

“Now we’ll play that tribal number that you do so well, sir,” says Faulkner, bowing in the direction of Kingsmill, whose flailing, caveman drums strike enough sparks to ignite a raging bonfire to help ward off nocturnal danger. “Leilani” is a steaming, Bataan death march through the remote jungles of New Guinea, deep into a forgotten, headhunter-infested land where crazy reports of Stone Age reptiles have made their way back to Australia. The hypnotic “Whoa-o, whoa-o, whoa-o” auxiliary vocals meshing with Kingsmill’s throbbing floor-tom work make you well aware that it might not be a good idea to stray from the main path. Like most of the Gurus’ signature favorites, “Leilani” has been extended live into a 10-minute epic guaranteed to give you your money’s worth.

Faulkner seems truly sad to announce, “We’re going to have to break our string tonight with our next selection. Every show we’ve ever played in San Francisco has always featured a member of the Flamin’ Groovies. But I don’t see him anywhere about tonight.”

M.I.A. is guitarist/songwriter Cyril Jordan who covered “Bittersweet,” originally from the Gurus’ 1985 LP Mars Needs Guitars,” on a 1986 Groovies album titled One Night Stand. The tune sounds properly bitter and sweet tonight, played in missing-man formation. “Thanks, Cyril,” Faulkner murmurs as the last notes decay about him.

As a band that’s been playing with practically the same personnel for almost 30 years, the Hoodoo Gurus have become a well-oiled, rust-resistant machine. Their set list is backloaded with winners, none more bloodcurdling than Faulkner’s gem “Like Wow- Wipeout,” which poaches the Spectorian drum intro from the Ramones’ “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” then runs in the other direction with it. (“I kiss the ground on which you walk/I kiss the lips through which you talk/I kissed the city of New York when I first met you.”) Once again, Faulkner screams out his utter devotion to some road conquest, while Shepherd turns a “chainsaw massacre” guitar solo into a screaming delight that channels a Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds rave-up along with the Count Five channeling the Yardbirds. It’s a blistering gem, the Hoodoo Gurus at their very best, forced to watch some girl eating cake while they have to eat the crumbs. Of course, they’ll eat those crumbs for as long as the band exists. And like it!

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Teenage Fanclub, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 12, 2010

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 Four: Teenage Fanclub

For anyone who loves “melodic pop music with an edge,” it bordered on nirvana to experience Teenage Fanclub at its best in San Francisco. (And yes, it’s true, Kurt Cobain also loved these guys.) That’s how the Scottish band’s Norman Blake described its sound to me a few months ago, as he turned thumbs-down on the commonly used “power pop” classification, thus linking arms with a small army of the disaffected that also includes fellow travelers the Posies, Tommy Keene and Velvet Crush.

Looking more like stocks-and-shares salesmen or country veterinarians than rock icons, Blake and fellow guitarist Raymond McGinley and bassist Gerry Love—each of whom writes his fair share of TFC’s material—packed the Great American Music Hall to the rafters with the faithful after the venue was switched at the last minute from the much larger Fillmore Auditorium. TFC’s 75-minute set, tight as a python’s death-grip on a goat, had fans stomping on the floor and singing along football-style like it was a vintage set by Slade. The soaring three-part harmonies and stirring melodies of Teenage Fanclub—frequently compared to Big Star, the Byrds and the Beach Boys—were the most exhilarating thing heard in these parts since the halcyon days of the Cyril Jordan/Chris Wilson-era Flamin’ Groovies.

It was all business with the Fanclub. Just the basic red, yellow and blue stage-lighting and an auxiliary crew that included a drummer and someone on keyboards and extra guitar. No anecdotes about opening tours for R.E.M., Radiohead or Nirvana or of palling around with the Vaselines back when in Glasgow. Just an endless stream of those perfectly realized, breathtaking songs, each one with the lead line sung by the man who wrote it and drawn from a back catalog that includes highly lauded albums such as 1991’s Bandwagonesque, 1995’s Grand Prix and 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain. From the occasional grunge moments of 1993’s Thirteen to the sunshine pop excursions of 2002’s Howdy, each of the band’s nine albums, including the recent and very fine Shadows (Merge), rates at least a very-good-plus, a standard of excellence met by very few.

Guitar solos barely exist in the rhythm guitar-dominated live show of Teenage Fanclub. Instead, you’ll find an occasional, unadorned 16-bar lead break, tastefully executed a la George Harrison, by either McGinley or Blake. A few songs drizzled some backstage Flying Burrito Bros.-style pedal-steel guitar like backwoods barbecue sauce.

Now that the lads are all pushing 50, it adds an extra layer of irony to the franchise tag they chose more than 20 years ago, at a time when they hadn’t a clue this would turn into a career. “We thought there were a lot of pretentious band names around at that time,” said Blake. “So we liked the idea of having something that was the antithesis of that. Something that was completely dumb and meaningless.” And, he added, they’ve never regretted their choice. When a European border guard recently asked their driver the name of the band he was transporting, the official remarked, “Teenage? These guys look like a bunch of pensioners.”

Maybe grey hair is making the customary inroads, but the Fanclub still sings with the zeal of adolescent choirboys and writes songs like nobody else. And when they wrapped things up with Blake’s “The Concept,” the lead-off batter from Bandwagonesque, everybody in the house joined in, all but drowning out the onstage vocals. This hackle-raising anthem has always been an alchemical blend of joy and sadness, and just when it looks like the song has run out of gas, it’s kick-started back into full bloom for a stratosphere-scraping finale.

It’s plain to see, more than two decades down the road, Teenage Fanclub is a timeless outfit that has survived the trendy days and occasional excesses of the grunge and Britpop scenes, stayed true to its vision and has come out the other side of the tunnel all the better for it. It may seem odd to say at this time in life, but the best days of these grizzled professionals may still be in front of them.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Guided By Voices, Times New Viking, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 5, 2010

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 Three: Guided By Voices

A distinct demographic filled San Francisco’s run-down Warfield Theatre for the return of the classic, early-’90s lineup of Guided By Voices. Long before the music started, people all around me were talking about the band’s guiding light, Bob Pollard, as though they had a personal connection to the Dayton, Ohio, native and what he’s been doing since he broke up the band in 2004. They were citing obscure examples to each other of Pollard’s voluminous output over the past 30 years and how to acquire rare material available only as downloads or inserts in Swedish magazines.

It almost felt like I was an onlooker back at one of those record-swap, collectors-only gatherings of overweight, middle-aged guys with pony tails bending over hundreds of orange crates full of vinyl albums until their butt cracks were exposed in an unsightly manner. You could see some of them tonight, struggling to fit into the Warfield’s ancient, pre-stadium-style seating. But there were also entire families—moms, dads and their fully grown children—ecstatically bouncing up and down to the kinetically addictive melodies of Guided By Voices.

When Times New Viking, an accomplished-yet-nervous three-piece from Columbus, Ohio, took the stage to run through its set list as fast as it could—hardly any breaks between songs—to polite applause of a few dozen or so, the bans seemed grateful that only one rude guy had hurled an insult their way. “Keep it short and sweet: Nobody wants to see you,” bellowed some lout with an English accent from the balcony, except the trio drowned out the “see you” part with an ultra-quick start-up. Fortunately, they’ve improved the Warfield’s PA since a disastrous 2007 Stooges show where the only audible elements were the bass and the kick drum: no vocals, no guitar.

The excited multitude chanted “GBV” on at least three occasions and still no action. Finally, a professorial voice from some obscure instructional LP began to drone on about how to do something or other in measured tones as the stage lights dimmed to a street lamp-lit, film-noir level—and their heroes bounced out onto the stage. A fit-looking Pollard did pirouettes and pointed one leg at the ceiling like a gymnast warming up for a big meet. Legs akimbo, baggy-panted bassist Greg Demos practiced his Buck Dharma/Blue Öyster Cult rock-star moves and Chuck Berry duck walk, while twin-anchor guitarists Tobin Sprout on the left and Mitch Mitchell on the right tuned up as drummer Kevin Fennell fiddled with his cymbals.

“Hi, Frisco,” shouted Pollard as the crowd went nuts. There were very few here tonight old enough to remember late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who loathed the term “Frisco.” For some reason, Pollard announced a song in a Rodney Dangerfield/Jackie Leonard vaudeville comedian’s voice. “Hold on, I’ve got to catch my breath,” Pollard said after another number. “I’ve had this problem before, where I’d play one show and the next day I couldn’t talk. I’ve gotta learn how to sing from the diaphragm, somebody told me.” The obvious birth-control double entendre—Old Bob singing into somebody’s diaphragm—was not lost upon the crowd.

Pollard, who must have written more music than anyone since Italian baroque master Antonio Vivaldi (a man who frequently penned two concertos over lunch), is the undeniable world champion of the three-minute pop song. Yet something seemed slightly off during the first half hour of the set, probably more to do with the band’s lack of rehearsal than anything else. The songs were going by too fast, the tempos seemed rushed. Nothing was sticking to the wall.

It took a few selections by Sprout, Pollard’s able musical foil, to get everything back on track. “Now here’s something by Toby Sprout and his gang of merry men,” announced Pollard as he faded into the background. A tall, gangly dude standing next to me started flailing away at ill-advised air guitar until his left elbow shot out and knocked the ballpoint pen out of my hand and over the lip of the balcony. Hopefully, no one below was looking up as the 79-cent missile hurtled downward. Sprout’s voice, distinctly lower than Pollard’s, is well suited for his minor-key-tinged songs that seem more Simon & Garfunkel folk rock than Pollard’s all-over-the-map, intensely garage/psych/power-pop numbers. By the time self-described “Uncle Bob, old avuncular Bob” had taken control of the tiller again, his caffeinated, angular songs seemed just like the good old days, leaping off the pages and grabbing you by the throat.

The plan tonight was for GBV to mostly play material from four of their best albums, cut by this crew: Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under The Bushes Under The Stars. But some of the material from lesser-known EPs like Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer also made the cut tonight. It was the most exciting evening with Guided By Voices I’d ever spent. No one got too bombed to stand up. The music, once it reached cruising speed, was unforgettable.

“I used to be a school teacher,” said an almost-confessional Pollard during a rare lull in the proceedings, as though we were all sitting around the fire while snow fell outside, downing a few brews. “I’d tell kids to follow their dreams and drink a lot. No, not really,” he tried, too late, to backtrack. Pollard now seems to be the indie-rock poster boy for taking his own advice. Since abandoning the “chalk brigade,” he’s had a few beers along the way and created an entire musical universe out of thin air. People love this music more than Pollard ever would have imagined back in the struggling, early lo-fi days of his band. To be in the presence of the same men who forged this wonderful material, playing it as well as they ever did, is not only a distinct pleasure, it’s almost an honor.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: The Clean, Barbara Manning And Rocket 69, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 4, 2010

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.