June 12, 2006

Springsteen, Seals 'n Shit

We saw Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band one week ago at the Greek Theatre in LA. It was unquestionably a hell of a show. My girlfriend sent this synopsis to a friend of ours:

"wow bruce springsteen is amazing. AMAZING! i was completely blown away :) there were 17 people on the stage: a trumpet player, two trombones, a tuba, a drummer, three backup singers brandishing various percussion toys (tamborines, triangles, cool shaky rhythm things, etc), a piano man, an upright bass player who frequently lifted the bass in the air as he was playing, two violinists (or violas, i can never tell), 4 guitars/singers including bruce and his wife, oh, and an accordian! also twice one of the guitarists switched out, once to play a huge upright drummer-boy style drum and the second time to play a washboard with spoons! they rocked out to all these awesome old folk/protest songs, a few hits, and a few written-just-for-the-show-to-spite-our-favorite-president passionate ballads. and to top it all it was in this awesome ampetheater in a park in LA with a backdrop of mountains and evergreens. totally worth the drive up through traffic and almost passing out at the wheel coming back at 1am!"

I'd also like to point out that Bruce's re-working of a song by Blind Alfred Reed called How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live into a Post-Katrina lament brought the above reviewer to tears. But despite the glowing reviews and large amounts of press that the album and performances have recieved (Pete at has a great collection of material here), some people are still being taken by surprise after they've paid $100 for a ticket and Bruce Springsteen does not play "Dancin' In The Dark." From the Washington Post review of the show back home:

Baffled by the sight and sound of an upright bass and a tuba onstage, as well as a certain 56-year-old rock-and-roll star who wasn't obviously acting the part they envisioned, many of those ticket holders spent a good chunk of the night crying out for "Thunder Road" and "Born in the U.S.A." while bemoaning the fact that the Jersey guy Springsteen suddenly sounded as though he were from (gasp!) Kentucky by way of New Orleans.

They continued to sing even after Springsteen gave the two lingering musicians the hook. The crowd stopped only when a sweaty, beaming Springsteen returned for an encore, prompting him to commend the crowd. "Well done," he said. To which a guy in section 101, row N shouted: "Now play the good stuff, Bruce!"

The idiocy of this is palpable and frustrating. Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen has not renounced his old material, or retired it a la Jerry Seinfeld. He is, however, trying something new, something that many people are grateful for and enjoy tremendously. Forcing Bruce to play the same hits of the 80s over and over again into his increasingly middle aged years would not only be embarassing, but it would also be unfair. These people undoubtedly hear "Dancin' in the Dark" on classic rock radio on a daily basis, so you can't blame them for realizing that things have changed, that The Boss is relevant and kicking ass again. But you can still mock them, and you can still use it to transition into the most pressing local matter we have here in San Diego...

This problem of people grasping at a past that no longer exists applies to us, much more hilariously, here in San Diego. I speak of course of the colony of seals that now inhabit the area of La Jolla known as the "Children's Pool." There are at least five dozen seals that have taken up residence about two miles from my house for many months out of the year, and lie on the beach all day long, occasionally flopping around or giving birth to baby seals. We checked them out again last weekend because my parents were staying in a nearby hotel. They made me realize that my rating of hilarity on the Muzzle of Bees "Get To Know Your Blogger" segment was WAY out of wack. It should have read

#4: people dressed as animals.
#3 Animals dressed as people.
#2 Animals dressed as other animals.
#1. Seals.

seal with party hat

Seriously. Just look at them. Put a little party hat on one of them and let the laughs ensue. Late at night, fat people must sob loudly into their tubs of ice cream at the unfairness that is peoples perceptions of fat people as disgusting and loathsome, yet fat animals as cute, cuddly, hilarious and huggable. Hundreds of people turn out to see the seals every day for just these reasons.

Adding even MORE to the hilarity of this situation is that in a DC Springsteen Fan-like manner, Old Coots such as San Diego's Roy P. Poston still believe that the Children's Pool should be used as a place where they should bring their children to for beach time! He writes to the UT:

"I thank God that I had an opportunity to introduce both my children and my grandchildren to the wonders of the sea, diving and the conservation and preservation of all forms of marine life. I am disheartened and saddened at the possibility of not being able to introduce my great-grandchildren to this enjoyment of the ocean by starting them in a controlled, sanitary and healthy swim area like the Children's Pool....I implore anyone with political influence and the public in general to step forward and voice their desires to restore this area to the children and have the natural, clean, healthy interaction with the marine life that we have enjoyed for many years."

I can just imagine Mr. Poston's Great-Grandchildren's dismayed reactions at the reading of his will where he posthumously reveals to them through his executor that all those pictures of them building sand castles and doing handstands in the surf were on a beach that had recently undergone a rudimentary cleaning to remove the massive amounts of seal feces that had accumulated for the good part of a decade.

Roland M. Gray also adds this trenchant point:

"Apparently it is beyond the comprehension of the various animal rights groups that the Children's Pool in La Jolla was expressly deeded to the city as a playground for children, thus the name. It was never intended to be a seal rookery."

Oh my god! He's right! Now that I think about it, 8 years ago, I never intended to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline! It's as if outside forces have some how impacted the impenetrable realm of my will and allowed changes to occur in the real world!

Back in high school, my friends and I used to joke about a made up place called "Shit Beach." It was pretty much a nice resort, but instead of sand on the beaches, there was just tons of shit for some reason. We would pretend like there was a family that always took their summer vacation at Shit Beach. The kids would protest, but the dad would act like the dad in Calvin and Hobbes, and would force Shit Beach upon them saying that it builds character. Details were added in over the years, like the fact that to get to Shit Beach you had to drive past several much nicer, non-shit beaches, and that Shit Beach was inexplicably a more expensive place to take a vacation than these other nice beaches. None of it mattered: This family had always taken their vacations at Shit Beach and the father would be damned if they were going to stop now.

I think it struck me when I say this sign:


This is Shit Beach! These wealthy La Jolla moms and old La Jolla coots want their kids and grandchildren to be able to play on Shit Beach! For the love of god people, why?! Let's look at the reasoning here:

A) Pro seals:
-People like the seals.
-They are hilarious
-You can't see the seals anywhere else
-You can get seriously ill if you play on this part of the beach
-But there fortunately are elevated platforms that you can observe the seals closely from without setting foot on the beach
-There are miles of nice beaches to the immediate south of the seals. Literally about 100 feet away.

On the other hand:

B) Con Seals
-80 years ago a dead lady said this place should be called the Children's Pool

Now listen. You can play Dancin' In The Dark all you want. You can have a few too many drinks and do the dance from the video. You can leap out of your seat when Bruce plays it at his next concert. But sometimes Bruce just isn't going to play the songs from his album that came out 22 years ago. If you're a fan, maybe you should check out the new album, people seem to really enjoy it. Don't like that style of music? OK, I'm sure he'll tour again with the E Street Band, and then he might play Dancin' In The Dark. Until then, while you don't get exactly what you want, the rest of us will enjoy the nice little surprise Bruce prepared for us this year.


The same goes for the seals. That area may have been the Children's pool. But nobody in their right mind would let their children go down there to play now. Should you yell out loudly for the hits of 20 years ago, or maybe see if, like everyone else, your kids enjoy the unique experience of the seals just as much as they would have enjoyed digging in the sand?

Ponder it while you listen to some of these greatest (s)hits:

Re-Ree - Mr. Brown
The Bloody Hollies - Tired of this Shit
The Circle Jerks - When The Shit Hits The Fan
Wu-Tang Clan - Dog Shit
Tom Waits - Looks Like I'm Up Shit Creek Again
Bruce Springsteen - Dancin' In The Dark

April 25, 2006

Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Sertainly iS Stupendous

allen a dale

Bruce Springsteen's new album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" is terrific. Take the drunken, jaunty Sherwood Forest style jams of the Merry Men in Disney's Animated Robin Hood, but with Bruce Springsteen singing instead of that rooster. That's exactly what a good portion of the album sounds like. Many different instruments shine, and each one brings a different kind of exultant joy to the mix. Washboards, accordian, horns, each sometimes called out by name by Bruce when it is thier turn. A Rolling Stone article talks about how long and how many takes each song took, but they did a damn good job of making it seem fresh and energetic as it did on the first take. The album is also balanced out by its fair share of downtempo, balad-esque songs, which makes sense, since a good deal of them originally were the protest songs made popular by Pete Seeger in the early 60s. However, it's hard to even hear the song about the Oklahoma man who loses his entire home without wanting to join in on the call and response "Blown aways" on the chorus. Even some of the slower songs have break outs of banjo or New Orleans funeral-style horn sections. It seems rather ironic that after years of championing the working man, hell, after recording a whole album named after Tom Joad, that Springsteen would let these songs come out in such a raucous, fun style, but it's to all of our benefit that he did. This album may not change the world, but it's really enjoyable to listen to.

I don't know much about Pete Seeger, and that may not change any time soon. The one story I am familiar with is that while Bob Dylan was plugging in and kicking ass at the Newport Folk Festival, Seeger decided this equated the sky falling, and took up the role of Chicken Little (but with an axe) and tried to cut cables backstage to halt the performance. That would be really awesome if it were attempting to halt some other kind of performance. A maniacal man of the people wielding a hatchet and risking electrocution to prevent the Sly Stone tribute at this year's Grammy's would have been pretty cool. Alas, he was instead attempting to interrupt one of the most acclaimed and legendary performances of rock history, and has likely been scorned by future generations because of it. Although, Chicken Little (with an axe) might prove to be a more profitable franchise for Disney.

bruce with guitar

The albums which spring readily to mind when trying to compare The Seeger Sessions to are Bob Dylan's mid 90's albums "Good As I Been To You" and "World Gone Wrong." Both of these albums contained traditional material, from various sources. Good As I Been To You even ends the Exact same way The Seeger Sessions did, with a cover of Froggie Went a'Courtin'. (The album shares another song with Dylan's first album, Springsteen calls it Eyes on the Prize, and Dylan called it Gospel Plow.) But where Dylan paid tribute to these influential songs with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, (with great results), Springsteen sounded like he wanted to make an album that every baby boomer who bought Born In The USA down to the jaded hipster who owns but doesn't listen to Nebraska could hopefully appreciate. This album has already been the soundtrack to several raucous evenings of outdoor fun since I discovered it, and I feel that the summer months will continue on with a most unlikely soundtrack: the songs of a 80 year old man sung by a 50 year old man, with his drunken crazy jug band in tow for good measure. Actually, that sounds pretty much exactly how a summer soundtrack should....

Buy the album at where you can also watch a video of the band recording John Henry.

The hits just keep on coming! Listen to the whole album at AOL Music

Springsteen also discussed the album yesterday on Good Morning America, complete with performance footage. He says he has some Webb Pierce on his ipod. Anybody know who that is? He also performed "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" live today, watch the video here. It pretty much looks like the most fun concert of all time.

April 04, 2006

The Beat of Soweto Proves to Indeed Be Indestructible


Everyone should have a friend with musical tastes like my friend Andrew. By no means is his collection or tastes all encompassing, nor would I feel right calling it random. I think it would be right to call it unconstrained by era, fidelity or language. Through various phases, he has cajoled me into listening to reggae, The Grateful Dead, and hissy, tinny recordings of musicians from six decades ago. Some of it has stuck, namely the Dead, some of the genres of reggae were not so lucky (thank god.) But seeing that he has sent me cds, occasionaly just identified by a single word, is always an interesting experience. When seven or so albums turned up the other day, I knew that something worth writing about would come of it.

Indeed it has. The CD labeled "Soweto" has turned out to be The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, a compilation of South African artists that was released in the mid 80s. According to Andrew, this CD is "What Paul Simon wishes that Graceland had sounded like." Heavy words. I'm a big fan of Paul Simon, and don't think Graceland bashing is territory to enter into lightly. However, I was aware that Simon's usage of South African musicians on a good number of the tracks for the 1987 album was controversial at the time. Since I was six when the album came out, I was oblivious to the controversy, and only vaguely aware that I liked the song about the guy called Al. I don't care to learn about the controversy, nor do I think i would be the one to definitively explain it. If Paul Simon exploited the explosive political climate in South Africa in 1987 to generate publicity for his record, this "hype" has been forgotten by now as the record has proven that it stands the test of time on its own musical merits.

What does sort of irk me is this sentence from the description of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.

Before Paul Simon, Sting, and Peter Gabriel started their explorations and exploitations of African music, this stunning set of music was already out there showing the world how it was done in South Africa's townships.

Now when you lump Paul Simon in with that "illustrious" crowd, it sort of makes you do a re-evaluation of things. Both of these guys have used South African sounds? Sting of I Used To Be Cool Once fame? The same Peter Gabriel last seen trying to get the entire Olympic village to never listen to "Imagine" again? Are there people out there, snarky people who probably call the album "Dis-Graceland" (like they were the first one to think of that), who think of Paul Simon as one of those types of musicians?

Graceland - Still OK by me

My musical taste is not very subject to revisionist history. As a big Graceland fan, hearing The Indestructible Beat of Soweto compilation makes me feel a bit like I did when I learned that Dr. Dre had pretty much lifted all of the music for "Ain't Nuthin' But A G Thang" directly out of someone elses song. It's disappointing at first, but then I feel glad that I didn't know the music was lifted from somewhere before I heard the derivative work. Had I heard the original first, I might never have been able to appreciate the derivative/homage work, and then I would be deprived of the memories and associations I had with that work. And who knows if I would have been open to listening to these African musicians singing in a strange language, making wierd vocal inflections, and using bizarre instruments to create a joyous mix of acapella, bluegrass and zydeco had not Paul Simon eased me into it when I was six years old?


Well the answer to that is probably that I would have still appreciated the music on the Soweto compilation. It's about as infectious good time sunny day music as you can get. The instantly recognizable harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are of course represented on this compilation, but you also get a wide more variety of artists that you've never heard of. Standing out instantly is the unique "Groaning" voice of Mahlathini. Deep, gravelly and unlike many things you've heard before, this guy sounds like he would be the kind of guy that would sing part of a song and retreat to the side of the stage, but you'd be unable to take your eyes off him for fear that you'd miss him do something awesome. You've also got the fiddle playing of Moses Mchunu, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Cajun Zydeco record. I had always assumed that Simon incorporated disparate elements of South African music and Creole on his record. Now I realize that this South African sound just had many more elements to it than just what you could identify as South African on the surface. Also standing out is Johnson Mkhalali's Joyce No. 2, incorporating squeezebox, bass and stacatto guitar all so familiar sounding that even the most ardent Simon supporters couldn't help but feel that he pulled a fast one on them.

This album is far from under the radar. It was evidently named Album of the Year by the Village Voice in 1987, but I would be surprised if it had sold 1/50th the copies that Graceland had. Well now is your chance to check it out for yourself. I don't see how you could lose with this baby. If you like the music of Graceland, you'll love this album. If you're a hipster who wants to bemoan Graceland's obvious accomplishments in favor of something more esoteric at parties, this is perfect. If your tastes fall somewhere in the middle, in that foreign realm that we simply call "fans of good music," you win as well. Highly recommended.

Buy it at Amazon: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto

MP3 samples: I Have Made Up My Mind - Mahlathini, Nezintombi & Zomgoashiyo
Joyce No. 2 - Johnson Mkhalali

February 21, 2006

You Da Man Man - Six Demon Bag

Man Man - Six Demon Bag

I still remember the first time I ever popped in a Tom Waits CD. It was a copy of Frank's Wild Years that a friend had left at my house in high school and I didn't make it through the second song. The wheezing rasp of the singers voice combined with the bizarre calliope meets 1920s Europe was something that I knew I could never find pleasurable. Of course I was wrong, and I now realize that at that point in time, being familiar with only Classic Rock and Alternative hits played on the radio, I was in no way ready for Tom Waits. My process of learning to appreciate and then love Tom Waits can best be compared to the concept of gateway drugs. Diving right into Frank's Wild Years would be equivalent to a high school freshman shooting up heroin before they've had a chance to explore their limits with cigarettes, (Closing Time & The Heart of Saturday Night), then beer, (Nighthawks at the Diner), and then liquor, (Small Change), before gradually working up the ladder to the really hard (and borderline illegal) stuff, both drug and music-wise.

The analogy out of the way, we can then fast forward to the present day, where simply the slightest comparison to Tom Waits in a review is enough to make me eagerly seek out a new artist. Oftentimes the reviews are misguided. One review I read of Joanna Newsome's album compared her voice to both Tom Waits and Jeff Mangum. The author must have been joking, or somehow accidentally typed those two artists names as he was trying to write "Miss Piggy undergoing invasive surgery." The problem with reviews is that it is impossible to really judge why an artist is being compared to Tom Waits. With Joanna Newsome, it was evidently an attempt to illustrate that an artists voice is outside the conventions of what you think a singer should sound like. A comparison made to M Ward was more thank likely referring to tone of Waits' earliest material, since the subject matter, and vocal stylings could not have been more different. Captain Beefheart may have inspired Waits' gruff vocal stylings, but doesn't have the underlying pop sensibilities of the man who managed to write songs covered by the Eagles and Rod Stewart.

All in all, Tom Waits remains an artist so unique that in some MP3 playing software, you can label a particular songs genre as "Tom Waits." Though his fans seem to be numerous on the internet, it seems like I never run into them in real life. For those of us in San Diego who do appreciate our hometown hero, I finally have a CD that authentically approximates the experience of listening to one of Waits' late 80s or early 90s albums: freaky, weird and guaranteed to have 90 percent of your friends asking you to put something else on.

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February 14, 2006

Flaming! Lips! War! Mystics!


When you pop in the Flaming Lips new CD, “At War With The Mystics,” do yourself a favor and skip the first track. Tell yourself that you’re doing this because it is called “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” and that with that name, it’s probably just a throwaway. You came for the good stuff, the conceptual journey through the titular War With The Mystics, not some track named with a tossed off shout out to a fellow critical darling. So take my advice and just drag the Yeah Yeah Yeah Song to the back of the playlist, where it will play after the other 11 songs on the album have finished up. This way, you can pretend that the wonderful, frenzied four minutes and fifty one seconds of the album opener is instead the closing preview of what the Lips will be up to on their next album, and not a woefully uncharacteristic intro to an album whose energy and spirit never live up to its initial offering.

As I pointed out last Friday, this new album by the Flaming Lips has been far and away one of the more anticipated releases of the year. It seems that everybody put songs from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robotson their mix cds, and that anyone who saw the band in concert during the past five years only had the collective genius of the group cemented in their heads, thanks in no small part to the dementedly fantastic stage show. In fact, this seemingly universal acceptance of the Lips probably obscures the fact that the band is just about the weirdest of any band to see mainstream acceptance in the past decade or so. That "At War With The Mystics" confounds expectations and teases us with promises of what it could be is not as much a testament of the strangeness of the album itself, but rather to the skewed perception that the we the public have of the Flaming Lips themselves.

When the Flaming Lips appeared at the San Diego Street Scene in Summer of 2005, their set coincided with performances by The Used and Method Man, with Snoop Dogg and 311 playing soon after. When Wayne Coyne addressed the crowd, and told them that when they encountered anybody who had been watching either of the other two stages, that they should tell them that they missed “The best fucking performance of the whole day,” there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that he was right. After all, The Flaming Lips had a giant bubble for Coyne to travel out in the crowd in, two dozen costumed characters on stage, incredible video accompaniments for all the songs, and a singing nun puppet. To even begin to compare it to the already forgotten The Used or deodorant spokesperson Method Man’s hype guys rapping overtop him to “Bring The Pain” was not something that people were even really considering a possibility. But this is where the Lips encounter their own peculiar dilemma. Their weirdness has gotten them this far, because that weirdness has at times traveled a similar path to the tastes of a more discerning group of music listeners. At times these listeners will be willing to adjust their tastes to the latest offerings from their musical heroes. At other times, the Flaming Lips will produce music that while unique, proves confounding and ultimately disappointing to this same group.

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