Monday, May 21, 2018

Time After Time


On my way into San Francisco to see Al Stewart the other night, I heard an expert on the radio talking about that Laurel-Yanni thing. He said that when something was missing from an auditory text, your brain will compensate with what it knows best. So if you are used to hearing lots of low frequency sounds, your mind will fill it in with low frequency sounds (“Laurel.”) If you are used to hearing lots of high frequency sounds, you’ll hear the other word, “Yanni.”

Basically, your brain erases what it doesn’t know, and fills it in with what it does. And since I was on my way to a concert, I wondered if this applies in some emotional way to music as well. Maybe this wisdom accounts for why some people like certain music that other people hate.

This seemed like an especially pertinent thought when it comes to Al Stewart, because he is one of those artists: either you like him or you don’t. I do, which is why I went to the the Great American Music Hall the other night to see him perform his 1975 album The Year of the Cat in entirety.

Who even listens to Al Stewart? Only old people, for sure. The Year of the Cat is one of my formative records. It sticks out of my mind along with a few other randomly assorted soft rock 70s shit that I will stand behind, including (but not limited to) Carly Simon’s No Secrets, Art Garfunkel’s Breakaway, and other tracks too numerous to mention.

That kind of music – the kind filled with what a friend tells me Mojo Nixon once dubbed “foo foo chords” — is specific to a time and place, and Stewart’s work epitomizes it. As founding member of the English folk movement, alongside acts like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, he writes musically complicated songs that are chord driven, melody riven, and verbose. The songs are tuneful, but they’re also a bit finicky,  the sonic equivalent of Thomas Mann or Henry James. For those who don’t know what it sounds like already, one can get an idea of the flavor of his work up by mentioning that early in the set, Stewart said, “This song needs a flute. Does anyone here play the flute?” 


Those are truly scary words to hear at a rock concert. But you know who plays the flute? I do. In fact, I play the flute really well, or I used to – I was first flute in the band and orchestra at my high school for all four years and this is one reason why I don’t want to hear it in a rock songs.

Or so I thought. But…I don’t know. My aversion to wind instruments in bands isn’t at all rational. Consider, for instance, the saxophone. The minute the saxophone began, I thought, god, what an embarrassing instrument! It’s like the fucking “Catcher in the Rye” of instruments, i.e., you loved it when you were young before you realized how emotionally manipulative it was. Also, for some reason, no one can play it on stage without leaning back on the guitarist in a terribly pretentious Clarence Clemons-y manner, and Stewart’s player was no exception.

AND YET. When the saxophone rang out in the song “Time Passages” I just had to shrug and go, all that corny emotion, all that goddamn sincerity, all that gushy stuff that got smashed on the rocks of punk rock and growing up, well, I’m just going to embrace my inner saxophone tonight. And after I did that, everything was all right.
Al Stewart, Great American Music Hall, May 19, 2018
This was the first time I’d been to one of those concerts where the band or artist plays one album in entirety. I always thought that sounded boring, but in this case, it wasn’t, as between each song, Stewart explained the genesis of each song and how he came up with its chords, even singing bits of parts that influenced by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and the way that he approached each track. But just as you either hear Laurel or Yanni, I’m not going to  convince you to listen to a record you’ve long since decided about, so I won’t tell you about what “Flying Sorcery” turns out to be about, how “Sand In Your Shoes” is just “Positively 4th Street” upside down, or how that first chord in “Cat” was evolved from a sound check at a Linda Ronstadt concert.

Suffice to say, live, the record held up well for me and the experience of seeing it performed was pretty profound. Indeed, as the music flowed over me I realized how much it had governed my life. And it’s not that surprising, really, because I always prefer books with plots and characters, rather than ones about emotional turmoil, and the same goes for songs. “The Night The Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ode To Billie Joe,” “Touch Me In the Morning,” even “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”…these are my secret jams, and that is Al Stewart’s forte. Every song on The Year of the Cat is like a little book, with lyrics that refer to the Basque Separatist movement, the Rhodesian conflict, A 16th century naval battle off the Azores, and Casablanca, and when I was a child I listened to it over and over again. (Needless to say, I did not understand the lyric, “she comes in incense and patchouli.”)


The Year of the Cat was Al Stewart’s 7th record and it was a smash hit, as was the follow up, Time Passages, the only other one of his works I own. At the Hall, he played the title cut to that record before beginning the Cat sequence, and for personal reasons it struck me harder than the rest of the set altogether, because “Time Passages’ is a song about the way that time, on occasion, exists on a parallel plane rather than on a continuum, like when a veil lifts and you find yourself in two eras at once. Like when, earlier in the day, my father, who has dementia, had asked me who the middle aged man in the living room following him around all day had been. Of course, there was no middle aged man in his living room, and the question made me incredibly sad. But when I was listening to Al Stewart, and he sang, “I know you’re in there, you’re just out of sight,” I thought, maybe the middle aged man did actually exist, and only my father could see him. Or maybe the middle aged man was himself, earlier in the century, when he was a whole person.

And then the saxophone came in, and time slipped for me as well as my father, and as I listened, I heard both Al Stewart playing at the GAMH, and myself standing by the piano, in the same sun room we’ve now converted to a bedroom for my Dad, practicing the flute, the music wafting out the window past the long gone wisteria. And then I had this sudden revelation. I play flute because of this record. Not in spite of it. Not alongside of it. No: this is the origin of that impulse, as are so many other things that wend in and out of my life, all because of music, and all of those things to the good.

Yes, just as my best friend Isabelle’s dream, born of a Marianne Faithfull song, has always been to drive around Paris in a sports car with the top down in the rain, mine is to wake up in a foreign city in a country where they turned back time. The cat experience is a  part of who I am, and hearing it again was like a key turning in a lock.To be honest, that's a door I might shut in a little while, but from now on, I'll remember how to get in. 


The year of my cat.





Monday, May 14, 2018

BFD by 105.3


 By CATO


On May 13th, 2018, I was supposed to go to Portland. By noon, I was going to be celebrating my cousin’s college graduation, eating Japanese food and visiting my good friends in Olympia, Washington, while simultaneously skipping a concert I thought was a week later in date. I was going to have fun.

But as life would have it, at noon on May 13th 2018, in actuality, I was asleep on the BART train I took to Concord, California on my way to see the ALT 105.3 BFD concert held once a year at the Concord Pavilion.


Usually, I hate stadium concerts. They’re big and outdoors, you can’t see the artist, and the amount of children under the age of seven rivals that of your local library and park. The only good stadium show I’ve been to has been to so far has been Beyoncè, and the ticket cost more than my left kidney and it was Beyoncè, of all artists. It’s obvious she would be good. But I figured for the cheap cheap price of $20, seeing over five performers wasn’t a bad deal. I’d never been to the Concord Pavilion before, and despite the fact that my Uber driver got a ticket and I took a nap on the way to the show, I thought Concord was a cute city.

To be honest, when we got to the venue, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting something along the lines of Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, and the amount of food stands with different choices available didn’t even compare to that. There was only one menu to order from, and garlic fries were apparently part of the secret menu. It made me sad because half of the fun of stadium/pavilion concerts is the food.

But none the less, I still ordered $32 worth of chicken and fries, and we found our seats in the middle of the set by Nothing But Thieves.

I soon decided that although I couldn’t really see the artists or smell the BO of everyone standing in the pit, I liked the area we were sitting in. It wasn’t too far away, I was sitting down, and no one was sitting in front of me. After getting comfortable, I was able to concentrate on the actual band. I ended up spending the whole performance eating chicken nuggets that tasted like elementary school cafeteria food and squinting because by that point, I decided was too sunny out; however, I thought the singer was cute and enjoyable to listen to as he had one of those funny English accents and swore too much in a boyish way that makes you laugh if you don’t think about the fact he said he liked using the word “cunt.”


The music was also interesting, to say the least, and each song was unique in its own way, and as the singer (Conor Mason) said in his own words, “Writing the same thing over and over again is boring.” I thought it was a good thing to say, not just because I agree with it and have an appreciation for the recognition of, but because I enjoyed each style they played as well. Kinda a rare feat, I think.

They were definitely the type of band where I thought multiple times, “I should look this up on YouTube so I can thoroughly enjoy it more while I try to knit or do math homework” but that is not something I can blame on the band as seeing a concert at 2pm is lame anyway and the pit was pea-sized at that moment.

However I did notice that after their show, a good amount of people started to leave and to me it says something to see the crowd go just because they only wanted to see you.

After Nothing But Thieves, there was a mediocre less than 15 minutes break (aren’t we supposed to wait at concerts?) which consisted of a man wishing us a happy Mother’s Day, which he went on to wish to us between every set, and then Billie Eilish was up next. I went into her performance having no real strong feelings towards her, except that I liked a mere two songs, “Bellyache” (remix) and “Copycat.” I mostly felt contempt towards the fact that she is famous at 16 and I’m not, which if you’re her, can only be a good thing: that someone watching you with freshly-peeled eyes is jealous.

But whatever, she’s sixteen and had a crowd well over (insert large number because I’m bad at sizing) which included me in Victoria’s Secret leggings, an ugly ponytail, and a gap jacket that had fake grass stuck to the inside from the last fire drill at my school.

I think, after watching and processing this show, and drinking two 32-oz Mountain Dews out of a souvenir cup that I got for $8 I realized a few things I guess I wasn’t clear about before. She performed songs like “Bored” and “Bitches Broken Hearts” (which she said was her first time performing live) with a very sweet and steady voice that was very pleasant to listen to, and interacted with the crowd in ways that helped me understand why she was so charismatic. Her energy was very fun to be a part of, despite her Danielle Bregoli mouth, and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Through the few technical difficulties she had, her singing stayed strong and consistent and didn’t tire the whole time.

That being said, she had many moments where I felt as though her voice cracked against the song or got intensely loud or she stopped singing to reveal lackluster backing vocals of her prerecorded voice. It might have been because she appeared very energetic and spent the entire time dancing to her two person band (which is very admirable, as I can barely walk up steps and talk at the same time). One of them even took breaks to dance with her, and they did a few cool routines in sync together.


She was followed by a band called AJR, who I knew and still know little to nothing about. As with most music that exists, a lot of the artists that played at BFD ended being people who I eventually ended up recognizing and saying stuff like “ohhhh I know this song” to. AJR was no exception to that.

The band consisted of three dudes who all looked like chemistry teachers. The pianist danced like the floor was lava (Ryan in the glasses) and the singer wore one of those crazy looking Russian hats made out of fur that covers the ears (which I personally thought looked dumb in this California weather). As for the guitar player, I vividly remember thinking when deciding what to say about him that there wasn’t anything noticeable to talk about and that I had nothing to say about him anyway.

About one or two songs in they did a weird trap/ dubstep remix to the song “Lollipop” that made me feel a little constipated, and as my friend said after it was over, “That was the dumbest shit I've ever seen and I go to a big high school full of hot heads.” Thankfully it only lasted about a minute and they performed their hit single “Sober Up” Next. As with the rest of the show, their energy was fantastic and happy-making and you could tell that all three of them were full of talent because the song really showed it. It was bright, and colorful and they seemed to be enjoying themselves as well, which is just as important as the audience’s happiness as well.

The cover they did, of “Location” by Khalid, was followed by another trap remix to the “Heigh Ho” song from Snow White. It was equally as unenjoyable, but because we were past the first song blues and had just heard a really spectacular live cover, it wasn’t as embarrassing and I tolerated it just enough not to get a third soda during the performance.

Overall, the crowd loved it and for the most part, so did I, even if it wasn’t to my usual taste. AJR just made me happy to listen to. Their music was a combination of the most popular thing you’ve ever heard, and enjoyable yet sad pop that can be listened to by anyone; and for a concert in a pavilion, they were incredible. Even though my friend commented, “it sounds like they wrote it all on Adderall,” the spirit and happiness they let off while singing was more than awesome. Seeing them live is definitely not a waste of time.

Bishop Briggs though, is an artist I’d rather not see again. To say I was bored by her would be an understatement. The moment she came on I might have well been snoring.

It’s not that I thought that she was untalented, quite the opposite, but the songs she produced from her mouth all sounded the same and a little bit scary, which if you’ve been sitting in the same seat for three sets is kind of unappealing. All of the songs were like the ones you heard on Pandora radio when you were in 6th grade, and she had a voice that dubstep artists really like to feature on their singles singing about dubsteppy things that also get played on Pandora radio when you’re 12.

That’s when I decided I needed a bathroom break.

When I got back, she was still dancing on her tiptoes while half moaning half whisper-singing songs that the devil probably listens to when she’s in a good mood and I was equally as bored. Luckily, one of my friend’s old friends showed up, and we had a great time shaking salt onto shitty kettle corn and discussing how much we could sell smuggled in weed for. Eventually it turned into a conversation about people they knew who were addicted to coke, but by that point I was just listening and Bishop Briggs was playing her hit “By The River.”

As with everything that sucks, it kinda sucks to see two artists you don’t really like perform in a row. Not that I knew that I didn’t like the next band, but I found out soon enough.

I don’t really know what I was expecting from Judah & the Lion, but what I got was bad. That’s the best way I know how to put it, I’m just trying to be nice.

Haha.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you can imagine white people playing country K-pop, then Bam, you’ve just imagined Judah & the Lion, who I mistakenly called “Judah & the Elephants” twice.

I don’t know if there were three, four, or six members in this band, but a bunch of people ran out at the beginning of their set in the ugliest outfits I’ve even seen (camo overalls on a MAN, white jeans matched with a white T-shirt, and a bearded hipster wearing a baseball cap) and began playing music that can be described with the phrase, and I quote, “I don’t even understand what they’re saying.” It was a mixture of country and pop that was beaten with a synthesizer and sang by the creepiest dudes you’ve ever seen. They were the type of white guys who would yell at you on a Muni bus or try to give you a Bible lesson before you tried to walk away. (They were later confirmed to be from Nashville).


So, I decided to take another bathroom break and get my third soda, and when I came back the main singer was chaotically dancing with his shirt pulled over his head, making it look like he was a depressed ghost or a member of the KKK, which I didn’t like. They finished up that scheme with a “sadly only two more songs!” And I finished it up with “two more????”

Judah & the Elephants ended up being another band with a big hit that I recognized (“Take It All Back”), and to their credit it’s a song I both like and enjoyed hearing live. They performed it for too long, though, and if I was the only audience member I would’ve had their own band play them off stage. But like with everything, the world doesn’t revolve around me no matter how much I want it to and I had to listen to a whole 7 minutes of a song that while I do like, is kinda weird to see the singer of run off stage and high five the hands of people in the cheap grass area. He looked sweaty too.

At least that was it and I got 10 minutes of silence before James Bay came on.

By that point in the concert, I was ready to leave. It was going to be a long BART ride home and because the show was on a Sunday, as lazy as a student as I am, I did want to get some sleep for Monday.

It was “I’m ready to go when you are” time, and my friend graciously agreed to leave as soon as she was satisfied with whatever the artist played. Of course, it meant skipping Awolnation, the War On Drugs, The Dirty Heads, and blink 182, but YouTube exists and so does money and so do other tours for you to see them on, so we knew this would be our last set.

James Bay is an apparently English guy known for his song “Pink Lemonade,” (also a hit) which I surprisingly didn’t know. To my delight, it turned out also to be a song I would most definitely listen to again.

However, I thought something must’ve been wrong with his microphone because all his words sounded too deep and slurred to be natural and either my hearing was done for the day or he just didn’t care. I forgave the situation because he played guitar very well. It was the type of guitar that makes you think the person is playing it is sexy, but I couldn’t really see his face so I’m not too sure if that’s true.

Overall he mostly reminded me of a less pretentious version of the Arctic Monkeys that didn’t involve smoking weed or breaking up with your girlfriend to enjoy. And as someone who likes like, two Arctic Monkeys songs, I liked him.

But after his second slow and boring song, my friend had her fill and we decided to leave. On the way out I tried to buy a cool Bacardi can that the staff were selling for $20, but ended up finding a free one on the ground instead. It wasn’t in the color I wanted but it was free so I can’t complain.

Although we only stayed for a handful of the sets, I believe it wasn’t a terrible experience. I had a good time, my friend had a good time, and although we missed the final acts, it was definitely worth the $20 I paid for the ticket. I went into the show not knowing I would see tons of talented AND popular artists who play on the radio, and even if I was bored by two of them, seeing them live definitely made up for second hand embarrassment I felt towards Bishop Briggs and Judah & the Lion’s subpar performances.

As my mom always says about movies and concerts and the like, “it’s good to go into things with low expectations, because if it ends of being good, then it ends up being really good.”

And it was. 

You can find my poetry here, and if you want to pay me for my labor or just be really nice, my Venmo is @princesscaitie


Monday, April 30, 2018

Downsizing


The other day as I was driving through Fremont, California, on my way home from Oakland, I turned on the radio and heard the words “Fremont California” in a story about Tesla, and then when I got home the words “Fremont California” jumped out at me in a Facebook post for a house concert there. So I thought, well, that must mean it was meant to be, and bought a ticket for it.

I wasn’t quite sure who Eric Bachmann was but I did remember his old band the Archers of Loaf: an early 90s indie band on Merge with a Pavement vibe and a college radio presence. To be honest, though, I was more attracted to the idea of a house concert in Fremont. 

A house concert is one at a person’s home, where the money goes directly to the artist. Usually they are in hipster places like city lofts or craftsman mansions: having a house party in Fremont seems almost antithetical to the concept. Fremont is a place where art cannot exist. Back when I was little, my parents used to take us there on Sundays sometimes, in order to visit the model home open houses that so many of the housing developments were putting up. My parents didn’t want to buy a model home, however. My dad was an architect, and I now realize that going to see these abominable homes was the equivalent of when I go see Def Leppard play an Indian Bingo Parlor. He went there to mock them.

A half century later those developments are still there, and if anything, uglier. But when I was a rock critter, I had a mandate to go to the weirdest shows possible. So come Friday night I crossed the Bay on the Dumbarton Bridge to experience the full Fremont effect.

Fremont’s geographical setting isn’t naturally ugly – it’s nestled between the Bay and some golden velvet hills – but once you leave the freeway, you will only see one of two things: high beige stucco walls surrounding hideous subdivisions, or industrial parks and strip malls mostly taken up with storage units. There are so many storage units that its hard not to think about what awful things must be packed inside them. As I drove towards the street that house concert was on (appropriately called “Grimmer”) I passed every possible low-end box store you can name, a bunch of Chipotles, and something called “Unitek College.” I don’t believe that Unitek College is really a college, do you?

In short, Fremont still reminds me of those ten story buildings in Seoul and Beijing that are crammed to the brim with T shirts and handbags and knockoffs of everything. When capitalism comes to an end, all that stuff will be the cause of it, but in the meantime, I drove on and on down Grimmer lane, and presently, I came to the location I sought, which was not a house at all, but a brew pub in a storage unit called Das Brew.

The concert was not in the brewpub, though, it was in the back storage unit where the vats where they brew the brew were. A nice woman named Priscilla, whom I discovered was the owner of the brew pub, ushered me back there and for a few terrifying minutes, I was alone, sitting on a couch surrounded by a few beat up folding chairs. Priscilla served me a beer and handed me a bowl of broken pretzels.


So I sat. For a little while, the only people there were me, Priscilla, her husband Jan, and Eric Bachmann himself, but presently, we were joined by exactly 16 other patrons. It was extremely intimate, and also a little bit spooky. Suffice to say, sitting on a battered old couch surrounded by beer vats in the back of a storage unit in some industrial park in Fremont – that isn’t a place I’d envisioned myself being. Ever. But that was also the beauty of it. And then Eric Bachmann began playing, and the beauty part intensified.

In case you missed it, Bachmann’s work in the Archers was jumpy, tuneful, verbose, poppy. Songs like “Web In Front” and “Revenge” are essentially band driven compositions that beg for drums and bass and remind you of hopping up and down in a sweaty club in a college town: they are the embodiment of a sound that suffused the youths of a very, very few of us. By contrast, his solo work, often recorded under the named Crooked Fingers (and more recently under his own name), is more contemplative, even folky. It features intricate fingerings and long drawn out chords, and sometimes is played on banjo, and the lyrics are more like short stories, rather than the fleet, sonic emotions that get caught and solidified into a chorus and then shot back at you the way a great indie rock song does. Bachmann’s solo work like “Mercy” and “Carolina” are in a wholly different mood than that stuff; a different key of life. At Das Brew, he played both types, on acoustic guitar and on banjo, and they all sounded just great.

Of course they sounded great. He was so close to our faces that we could watch the chord changes, and check out where the capo was, and see exactly what craft goes into that kind of very intense musicality. And I was reminded, as he played, of the healing effect that music has: any music, any notes, any chromatic rendering of sound waves, can actually go into your heart and mend it. It can mend you, and it can mend places as well. For that evening, it mended Fremont, and instead of seeming like a wasteland, I was able to see it as it really is beneath the buildings, as the Costanoan Indians saw it. Green, warm, charming…a place where the light is very lovely in the evening. And I saw more than that. I saw into the future, when all the empty Walmarts and Best Buys that the coming apocalypse will create will become warm little spaces where small bands of likeminded people will gather to listen to music, and artists like Bachmann will be paid a living wage.

Because here’s the thing. There were nineteen people in that room, including myself and the owners, and for ten of them, huge Bachmann fans already, this was the greatest night of their life. Not only were the songs beautifully performed (and the sound in storage lockers turns out to be excellent) but Bachmann took requests, answered questions, exchanged quips, told everyone how he wrote each song, and even, at one point, left the room to get his little dog Lupe, who was cooped up in the van.

A long time ago, I wrote a column in which I mused on why the least expensive concerts are often the best, and this was a case in point. I know a lot of people who have paid four figures to see Bruce Springsteen play Broadway this year, and while I definitely get that, it’s hard to compare it to this concert, which cost $30, but you got to write the set list and pet the artist’s dog. Surely there is no comparison. 

All you had to do was know about it. The two men sitting next to me were from my neck of the woods. They were on a platonic boy date (ie wives left home) and I asked them how they got into Eric Bachmann. One said, he’d heard the song “Rotting Strip” somewhere and had immediately bought all his records. When Bachmann played that song upon his request, I had to look away so as not to witness his emotional collapse. 

As for the other audience members, for them the whole show was a revelation. “But…how did you even find out about him?” asked the people behind me, who were Priscilla and Jan’s next door neighbors. “Why isn’t he better known?” They bought every one of his CDs. Another concert goer, Don, who was in his 60s and had to share the couch with me because his back hurt, told me he listens obsessively to college radio. Remember those days, before the media got detached from time and space by the internet, when you used to wait breathlessly for a special time to turn on the TV or radio? Don still lives in that world. “Listen to KKUP tomorrow from 3 to 6,” he told me. “That’s the very best show out there!”

As for Priscilla and Jan, they told me they first heard of Eric Bachmann when their son played a Crooked Fingers record on a cross country journey they took in their van. I am not sure what the leap between loving that record and booking him for a house concert at their brew pub in a storage locker in Fremont was, but I salute the spirit that made that happen, and the forces at work that are doing it. Watching Eric Bachmann play utterly artisanal music at an artisanal brew pub made me wonder if we’re all on the wrong tack these days, with our data mining and our google analytics and our obsession with followers... Instead of looking for the widest possible audience, from now on I want to look for the smallest one. I want to look into my reader’s eyes, and write for them one by one.