Livemusic2019 reviews, week 22
My goal for 2019 is to write at least a little something about every show I see, preferably by the next day, we’ll see how it goes. I will compile weekly and post here as-is.
So, in that spirit, this is the twentieth of hopefully 52 posts…
OK, so last I wrote, I was in Minneapolis. I was there for a conference that I had organized, 3 years of work coming to a head. I don’t think you want to hear about it, but I did get out to see music Monday night and was happy when I heard of a few of the attendees going out to see music, including one guy who went to see John Medeski play with Todd Clouser having no idea who he was.
Since the whole ordeal was kind of a lot of work/stress/effort on top of my day-to-day and general non-sleeping activities, I convinced myself it would be a good idea to head to San Francisco for a couple days. See, JamBase was celebrating their 20th birthday and I was honored to receive an invitation. As someone who wrote their first review for JamBase in the fall of 2000 and still writes for them from time to time, I felt a personal need to be at the party. I’ve always loved having the outlet to pursue my hobby/passion, to write about music in whatever style I chose, about whatever music I wanted to turn people on to, no questions asked. JamBase has offered that to me for almost 20 years and I’m thankful. Not only that, but some of those pieces I’ve written opened things up for me in unexpected ways. I don’t think the Freaks list or the Freaks Ball would be what they are now if not for JamBase and all that implies along the way. JB has my implicit support and affection, so, yeah, after hesitating, I pulled the trigger and flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, no quite sure what I’d be seeing there, but knowing, in the end, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Saturday night was the “public” JamBase show at the Chapel. I checked into the shithole hotel downtown and made my way to the Mission on foot. It was a cool, beautiful day and I had time to kill. I figured a little stroll, a burrito and I would be good to go. Of course, of course, of course, as I’m waking through the Mission I hear music coming out of a restaurant and of course, of course, of course I poked my head in to see. It was about 6pm and there was a quintet just killing some gypsy jazz. Grabbed an ice tea and sat down in the bistro (Revolution Cafe) and got some engrossing hot club: guitar, violin, accordion, bass and drums. The guitar/violin combo was particularly potent, a poor-man’s Stephane Wrembel & a poor man’s Andrew Bird. I have no idea what these guys were called, but got about 45 minutes of excellent stage-setting music that was a good omen for the weekend.
Grabbed a burrito at El Farolito which I ate too fast, in a good way, (but, damn did I eat too much last week… ask me about the meal I had with 13 colleagues in a downstairs wood-paneled private room at Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis Friday, perhaps the best meal I’ve ever had). And then it was on to The Chapel.
This was my second time in this room which once was, surprise!, a chapel. Basically the frame of the main room still has the chapel feel, particularly the ceiling, but otherwise a big empty space. It’s a great-sized/-vibed room. Last time I was there was for Erika Wennerstrom and it was rather empty, but the room still worked with a light crowd. Saturday it was about 2/3–3/4ish full which was a perfect amount for the space as well. Actually, the crowd they got was pretty good considering that the show was competing against Dead & Co @ Shoreline and Lukas Nelson and a few others….
I got there while Ron Artis II was on stage and I was immediately drawn into his set. Actually, by the end I was very much in why-isn’t-this-guy-huge-already mode. He’s got a killer, soulful voice, better-than-average chops on the guitar, a winning stage presence and great songs. His band was guitar/bass/drums, but it really was the other two guys setting up a pocket for Artis. He was like some sort of halfway-point between Gary Clark Jr and Leon Bridges, but I liked him more than either of those guys. At one point he got up and moved over to an organ (there for the next band) and played a more-than-sufficient solo on the organ… and then proceeded to play the guitar and organ back and forth while sitting on the stool. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before. Brad Barr joined in on one song and they traded solos. There wasn’t a moment during the set where I wasn’t enjoying it, wasn’t entertained. The trio is from Hawaii which probably inhibits their ability to tour too much around here, but I would highly recommend checking these guys out, just feels like Artis is destined for greater things.
The second set was Big Light. I didn’t know a damn thing about these guys. Enjoyable jamrock. I have to say I was more than a little bit exhausted at this point after a week of 3-hours-a-night-sleep, eating, drinking, networking, organizing, that I had to find a spot upstairs to sit and kind of dozed off a bit during this set. I think when the music is very good, I can find that I can stay awake no matter what, but that wasn’t the case here.
The final set was billed as “Camp Harry All Stars” but was, in reality, Surprise Me Mr Davis, the original quartet consisting of Nathan Moore backed by the Slip. This was a side-project that had the beefed up torso and muscular arms of a touring headlining act and despite however many years it had been since last they played, they certainly looked the part Saturday night. It’s such a treat to see the Barr little-”b” brothers play in any format or band, they’re both so ridiculously talented on their own and together play like ridiculously talented brothers should. Moore is such a great songwriter/frontman/storyteller/person(I assume), that it’s almost impossible not to be entertained with everything he does. I have no clue when the last time I had seen Mark Friedman play the bass, probably the last time I had seen the Slip at Mike Greenhaus’s birthday, but I always loved his energy there. So, yeah, was awesome to see them all playing together and they totally killed it. I like SMMD because it’s so focused around Moore’s songs that when they finally unleash the hounds and rock out a bit, you’re kind of, er, surprised. There were some good jams and at one point Moore just left the stage completely and I know I wasn’t the only one in the room thinking they’d play a couple Slip songs… instead we just got a “Slip jam” that was as expansive and jammy as anything that went down all night. And, it would appear, a presaging moment for a weekend that had, in retrospect, only just begun.
I want to say right here that it’s good to do good. Because it feels good, but also when you do good things for people they might want to do good things for you someday. It’s karma, it’s real and it got me into Terrapin Crossroads Saturday afternoon. It was a short visit, didn’t get to stay for any of the Phil Lesh & Friends set, but it was an absolutely perfect fucking day in Marin and after a really nice birthday brunch hang nearby, I hopped over to Terrapin where the Mother Hips were a song or two into their set. I’ve listened and enjoyed the Hips before, but never seen ’em, so was glad for the chance. The show was sold out and already the astroturf “lawn” at Terrapin’s outdoor “beach” area was almost totally full. There’s something so fun about seeing shows out West, in the Bay Area in particular. It’s like the Upside Down of the NYC livemusic universe. In fact, I was joking (to myself) that I would see all the people I knew from NYC shows over the course of the weekend, doppelgangers with a slightly CA-headier vibe. It’s like we’re all doing the same thing, but it feels like they’re doing it in a foreign language out there. Along with this, either additionally, or maybe because of, but the pervasiveness of the Grateful Dead as culture/religion/forebear in the music scene out there cannot be overstated. This weekend maybe especially, but it’s everywhere on normal weekdays as well. This weekend happened to see two Dead & Co shows at freakin’ Shoreline, a backyard Phil & Friends show and the JamBase 20th birthday shows…. on top of everything else (I’m betting a Dead coverband or two played somewhere in the Bay Area over the course of the weekend).
So, that was the vibe back there at Terrapin. I don’t know if I want to live out there, but it’s sure fun to visit every once in a while. The Hips obliged with some serious Jerry-esque vibes. Not in a bad way, I really enjoyed the hell out of their set, a kind of San-Fran rock band that was song-centric, but not afraid to let the freak flag fly on multiple occasions. Their set ended real strong, a cover of Friend of the Devil that finally put the dreamy Garcia-waves that had been floating around onto terra firma and then an original that I wish I knew the name of, but was really excellent, their best work of the set, a bubbling, happy thing that was perfect in that spot and then they finished with a cover of Neil Young’s Cowgirl in the Sand, perhaps my favorite NY song. Man, I always wonder what the hell “purple words on a gray background” means, by the way. Never got a satisfactory answer to that one, but I absolutely adore that lyric. Anyway, somewhere in between Friend of the Devil and Cowgirl in the Sand and that sweet original song, the Mother Hips showed me who they were in the live setting and damn, I liked what I heard.
From there it was on to Sweetwater in Mill Valley for the main event. I don’t know if I can do this thing justice. It was like the coolest wedding you’ve ever been to, but instead of two lovers tying the knot for eternity, it was livemusic and the community that’s head-over-heels about her getting hitched… or maybe renewing their vows. I mean, there was an outdoor reception with a little piano/drums duo doing little NOLA ditties, and then Ron Artis II hopped in for what would be the first of many sit-ins and collaborations throughout the night. This was at 4pm, by the way, it was a looong day and it started out nicely, beautiful day on the patio, an brewed-for-event beer and signature cocktail, passed appetizers, the whole shebang. Then Natalie Cressman & Jennifer Hartswick joined in and seemed to properly christen the night… the wind was blowing their sheet music around so yours truly, in all his chivalry, had to stand in and hold the music down so they could finish. Just the kind of shit I’ve been doing for JamBase for a decade or two.
Then the doors opened and we moved inside. Or some did and some didn’t. It was a fluid evening, held in a perfect spot for it, with an outdoor space, a front bar and then a large music room in which the crowd waxed and waned all night, the moon passing through the month, charting the seasons, the phases of Jamband land. The music started with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and even though I only saw the band 4 or 5 times, I was filled with waves of jamband nostalgia. The time I saw Yonder Mountain String Band open for JFJO at the Wetlands in one of the stranger pairings, but classic jamband-era billing, especially at the Wetlands. There were less than 50 people at that show, less than there were to see the trio reunite after all these years. I recalled the first time I met Ted Kartzman, co-founder of JamBase, after writing for the site for months, finally meeting one of the people there, at Berkfest, old school jam-fest, during the JFJO set. Let me tell you, they sounded fucking great Sunday night. They reminded me how much more diverse the jam “scene” was back then in the late nineties/early aughts, how being a fan of that music meant you took risks in your listening, meant showing up at the Wetlands or Berkfest or wherever without having a fucking clue what you were going to hear. It meant you listened to bands like JFJO who were funky and jammy, but also very experimental, appropriate for the Stone or Tonic as much as Wetlands. they did some out-there shit, they inverted the tone for me, black-to-white and vice versa. They were in that space Sunday, Reid and Jay and Brian Haas just going pure exotica, but maintaining the funk. Boy, did we love the funk back then!
Am I going to run down the whole night like this? No, but the whole thing was like this, like some sort of week-at-the-Wetlands thing. Holly Bowling made sure we got both a Dead and a Phish cover in, because where the fuck would we have been without at least one each of those? Cassidy > Divided Sky if you must know. Tea Leaf Trio with guests and rejiggered format (Lebo on guitar). Stripped-down version of Strangefolk (has your jamstalgia radar gone haywire yet?).
The best set, probably, was the one that felt most like the old days, a true all-star jam that you might have seen at the Wetlands or similar. Led nominally by Hartswick, it featured members of the Disco Biscuits and Lebo and some dude I’d never heard of and Nick Cassarino on guitar. Artis hopped back on stage at one point and Eric Krasno did as well. This was old school, funky-as-fuck jam session. They did some killer covers and everyone took solos and they jammed ’em out and good-lord, their version of Love the One You’re With a-la-groove was probably my highlight of the night. By the way, they kept handing out all this awesome finger food all night, perfectly paced, a wonderful meal in small bites spread out from start to finish. That was the metaphor for the night as each band played a tasty-as-fuck 45–60 minute set and just kept getting better.
The end of the night kind of went Nathan Moore > Surprise Me Mr Davis (with Holly Bowling and Lebo) > The Slip. I will admit, I was pretty gassed by the end and maybe took a cat-nap or two, I’m only human and I’d been drinking since 4, but still… the SMMD thing was awesome and then the Slip played a set like they’d never stopped playing, and maybe they haven’t. Maybe they’ve been there all along. Always loved the Slip, although i won’t say I’m anywhere near as die-hard as many. They really are the sharp cusp between jam music and art rock and indie rock, somehow occupying this pointy tip at the intersection and sounding comfortably familiar and breathtakingly different at the same time. Krasno joined them a couple times, one big back-and-forth in the middle. Apparently of all the musicians who played, Kras was the only one who wasn’t supposed to be there… he was playing with Phil at Terrapin and got wind or an invite or whatever and he showed up, guitar in hand. I loved it every time he got up because he just plugged in and started playing. Didn’t futz, didn’t make a scene, didn’t wait to get things perfect. He just plugged in. And played. And played. The throughlines from 2019 to 1999, from NYC to San Francisco, from the Dead to Phish to the Slip and beyond (although there wasn’t much of the beyond this weekend, it was a pure nostalgia fest of the highest order), all of those things were there.
The Slip opened their encore with Baba O Reilly and just kind of killed it. I mean, Andrew Barr on drums!! They should play more The Who songs, now that I think of it. I mean, Andrew Barr! On drums! Sofuckinggood! And then they’re at the end coda, the Katie Jacoby part, but no violin, just bass/guitar/drums and they’re finishing it up and Krasno just plugs in. And plays. And then it was a quartet just riffing on that end jam for a while longer than they had played. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. Doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s after midnight, 8 hours after everyone got there (did I mention the cocktails and food?) and the musicians are having more fun that the crowd and let me tell you, the crowd was having a fucking blast. Because it was a wedding and what kind of assholes don’t like weddings? Lots of love, lots of friends, lots of family, friends that are like family and new friends that might become that way someday, given the chance. Hugs and stories and memories and lots of great music, most of it of a certain stripe, much of it that maybe has faded to memory along with the tales of the High Sierras and Wetlands and Berkfests and Phish shows and whatever else, but a kind of music that was king once again, at least for that one night in Mill Valley. The late night snack was grilled cheese, and it was like the best lot grilled cheese I’ve ever had and they handed out posters at the end and, man, oh man, am I glad I went out there this weekend.
To another 20…