Grist From the Mill
The most frequently repeated joke about the '60s was that if you could remember it, you weren't there. Along those lines, the morning after the overwhelming spectacle that was the New Times Music Awards Showcase, the hazy cloud of amnesia that fills my head might be my only solid proof that I was actually there.
From my subjective perspective, this was the best yet of our Mill Avenue hoe-downs, but it has to be said that this event, like a SXSW or any similarly huge gathering of bands, defies all attempts to have a definitive experience. I raced from venue to venue as quickly as my atrophied limbs could take me, and yet I struggled to see more than about a third of the 47 acts who performed. Be that as it may, I couldn't help but make a few observations.
With any event of this scope, a few glitches are inevitable, and this year's showcase saw two problems emerge as D-Day approached. First, the salsa-flavored Pan-Am Orchestra was forced to pull out because a couple of horn players had conflicting, highly lucrative gigs they couldn't pass up. The second problem--the 11th-hour closing of Valley Art Theatre, with the building's tenant, Krista Griffin, being evicted by owner Dan Harkins--was bigger, but it had the ironic effect of solving the first problem.
Suddenly, we were stuck without a key venue, and needing to find slots for that venue's bands. As a result, the hole created by the Pan-Am Orchestra allowed the Scottish rock warriors of Haggis to put on a braveheart display, and make the move to Hayden Square. Dislocated Styles likewise benefited from the Valley Art fiasco, squeezing into an 8 p.m. time slot at Hayden Square (the other bands earmarked for Valley Art, Polliwog and Know Qwestion, moved to Bash on Ash and Fat Tuesday, respectively).
The showcase's newest venue, the Green Room, was an indisputable winner, with consistently large crowds for its rock-dominated slate of bands. At 4 p.m., Chula inflamed an already sweltering afternoon with a fiery set, including such venomous highlights as "All I Wanted" (kind of an emo "I Will Survive" for the late '90s) and an impressive cache of new tunes. Chula singer Yolanda Bejarano also provided one of my favorite moments of the day, when she joined Vic Masters and me on Larry Mac's live KUPD show from outside the Valley Art and gushed: "I love KUPD because they play Bon Jovi, and I love Bon Jovi!"
After Chula, I had just enough time to catch the final moments of jazz crooner Dennis Rowland's show at his home away from home, Beeloe's (his band had played the club the night before and left its gear intact overnight). As a tribute to both his favorite club and his stellar five-piece band, Rowland reworked Duke Ellington's standard "Duke's Place" into a song called "Beeloe's."
After catching Haggis at Hayden Square (their by-now-customary AOR opening tease was a snippet of Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise"), I saw Reuben's Accomplice at a packed Balboa Cafe, where people were still raving about the hypnotic dream-rock that Sleepwalker had played an hour earlier. Reuben's Accomplice is consistently great, but this was a particularly brilliant show, with their wiry guitar figures and thick bass chording perfectly complemented by gutsy unison vocals.
The Revenants followed at Balboa, opening with a skintight treatment of their secret classic "Even Hookers Say Goodbye." On this, and other ace Bruce Connole originals like "She," Connole showed that he has fully mastered the difficult trick of making his Fender six-string sound like a twangy Nashville pedal-steel. His dry sense of humor was also in full effect, as he introduced one song by saying, "This is one of those slow, ridiculous, self-pitying waltzes we seem to excel at."
After catching just enough of Sistah Blue to hear harpist extraordinaire Rochelle Raya blow an almighty mess of blues, I ventured to the Trails parking lot, always one of the funkiest showcase sites. Radio Free America, forced by the circumstances to tone down its normally elaborate light show, nonetheless inflicted considerable damage on the proceedings with its gloomy brand of computer-chip, "Rock Me Amadeus" techno. Making light of the circumstances, guitarist/keyboardist Tim Elas announced, "I feel like stage diving, but I don't like concrete that much."
While drunken louts at Bash on Ash literally screamed and banged on the rest-room tiles, Windigo poked fun at the club's penchant for swing music by hitting the stage in snappy suits. Not to fear, Windigo front man Matt Strangwayes ended the show shirtless, with a rubber dildo dangling from his right index finger, as his band cranked out the world's loudest version of Blur's "Song 2," accompanied by a parade of exuberant dancers. The song's chorus did for me what music always does at its best. It articulated the way I was feeling, and summed up the day with great eloquence: "Woo-hoo!"
Yeats couldn't have said it better.
Up on the Rufus: On the same night that VH1 bored a nation with its second annual "Divas" celebration, an infinitely purer display of divadom came from the immensely talented Rufus Wainwright, who cast a redoubtable spell at Bash on Ash. Wainwright and his nimble three-piece backing band confirmed what his gorgeous 1998 Dreamworks debut album suggested: that this offspring of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle has the broad musicality of an early Randy Newman crossed with the voice of an angel (albeit an eccentric, somewhat nasal angel).
He also showed himself to possess enough bratty attitude to make most self-proclaimed divas flinch. Sample patter: "This is a song about death." Audience member: "'Free Bird!'" Wainwright: "'Free Bird'? Get her out of here! Somebody get that girl a drink!"
Beyond his miraculous pipes and charismatic fragility, the openly gay Wainwright has something of a Judy Garland-in-reverse effect working for him. Whereas Garland earned sobs of empathy from gay males every time she mourned "The Man That Got Away," Wainwright draws some of the same nods of recognition from straight females when he sings: "I don't want to hold you and feel so helpless/I don't want to smell you and lose my senses."
Wainwright's dazzling display was only slightly sullied for me by a group of noisy frat-boy pseudo-jocks who apparently took a wrong turn on their way to McDuffy's and planted themselves right next to my table. Throughout Wainwright's set, they drunkenly bragged of their prowess with the other gender, and their only acknowledgement that there was a musician onstage came when one of the pinheads said to his friend: "He's no Billy Joel."
Next to Wainwright's offhand grace, opening act Ben Lee couldn't help but be outclassed. Lee's heart is in the right place, and his naive passion is never less than endearing, but he often falls into the sizable gulf between aspiration and achievement. When he was backed by his solid band, the results were palatable, but a solo version of Dylan's done-to-death "Don't Think Twice" was not only obvious (Mike Ness performed a solo version of the same song on 120 Minutes three days earlier) but painfully overwrought. The whole point of the song--a sly, understated denial of evident heartache--got buried in Lee's hysterical, mike-eating rendition.
Alice's Repertoire: My favorite piece of trivia in the booklet for Alice Cooper's new four-CD Rhino boxed set: Alice's revelation that he was backstage when Frank Sinatra covered his 1977 hit ballad "You and Me" at a Hollywood Bowl concert. According to Cooper, Sinatra came off stage and said to him, "You keep writing 'em, kid, I'll keep singing 'em."
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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