It’s my, er, 29th birthday and to celebrate we are rolling the clocks back at the Stud to a golden age of SF nightlife—the classic house ’80s and ’90s at spots like the EndUp, DV8, 177 Townsend, and so many more. Plus we’re raising funds to keep local media independent!
This Sat/24, come out to hear legendary DJs David Harness and Rolo take us back! And a fabulous drag performance by Persia! The party is called Don’t Make Me Wait! and I can’t wait to see everyone dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Which, I mean …
DON’T MAKE ME WAIT! DAVID HARNESS + DJ ROLO ALL-NIGHT CLASSIC HOUSE Sat/24, 9pm-4am $10/$5 before 11pm
A fundraiser for 48 Hills! The Stud 399 Ninth St., SF More info here.
“Where would we have been without the Isley Brothers?” Paul McCartney asks, clutching the mike and turning to guitar player Ernie Isley. “We would still be in Liverpool!”
The crowd roars and Isley begins to strum the opening chords of “Twist and Shout.” The stage is crowded with top performers – Usher, Bon Jovi, Jennifer Hudson, Pharrell – who all join in a rollicking version of the classic.
Ernie Isley laughs as he recalls that memorable night in 2012, a benefit for the Apollo Theater. He had just met McCartney for the first time that evening.
Isley and his brother Ron — the current iteration of the extraordinary band that has been on the charts for decades — are headlining the final concert of the season at Stern Grove this Sunday, August 18.
I had a special reason for wanting to interview the renowned guitarist. We are both from Teaneck, New Jersey. One of my high school friends remembered that their mother, Mama Isley, played piano and led the choir at his church, First Baptist in Englewood, another that Ernie’s niece Tonya was captain of the Teaneck High cheerleaders in 1972. And we all remembered dancing jubilantly to “Shout!” We were thrilled when the Isley Brothers named their independent record label T-Neck Records.
The town is still pretty proud of these hometown musicians. The Teaneck Town Council is considering a petition to rename the street that the Isleys lived on from Van Arsdale Place to the Isley Brothers Place.
When told about the resolution citing the group’s “unique cultural heritage,” Ernie said, “That would be really nice if they do that — quite an honor.”
It would add to his many honors. In 1992, the Isley Brothers were inducted (by Little Richard) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three years ago, Ernie was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in Boston, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. The group received the rare Lifetime Achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2014.
Ernie Isley was just a kid when the elder Isley brothers formed a band in the 1950s. Over six decades, they have had four Top 10 singles on the Billboard 100, including the Grammy-winning hit, “It’s Your Thing,” “Who’s That Lady,” and “Fight the Power.” Thirteen of their albums have been certified gold, platinum, or multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Though now regarded as one of the country’s most exquisite guitarists, Ernie started out on drums and also played bass on “It’s Your Thing,” recorded in 1969. His older brothers influenced him a lot since they rehearsed at home.
“When I was just eleven and Marvin was ten, we would listen to them play for hours.,” he recalls. “There were great musicians in my brothers’ band. One of the guitarists happened to play guitar left- handed,” he paused before letting me in on the secret. “His name was Jimi Hendrix.”
Hendrix was a member of the band and an Isley houseguest from 1963 to 1965. “My eldest brother O’Kelly told my mom that they had just hired a new guitar player and he needed a place to stay for a little while – she didn’t know it would be for two years!”
“Our weekends were quite interesting. Marvin and I would be in the backyard playing with our friends – but when the band started rehearsing our kickball game would stop and we would run down the basement and listen to them play. They would play all day,” he recalled.
“Sometimes in the evenings, my mother would get calls from the neighbors complaining about the noise. You know, those same people, if you put them in a time machine and they went back to the old neighborhood, they would have a totally different attitude now!”
Ernie remembers Hendrix as a gentle spirit who had a good sense of humor and a good appetite. “He told my family how much he appreciated the hospitality – he was never charged for food or rent. My brothers even bought him a guitar. When he left, he asked my brothers for one favor – he wanted to take the white guitar with him. They gave it to him – it was the first Fender he ever had.”
Ernie was just 14 when he played his first live gig with his brothers in Philadelphia. “I was on drums then, but after I heard Jose Feliciano play ‘Light my Fire’ that made me want to get a guitar.”
He got his first guitar in September 1968, and learned to play by ear. Of course, Hendrix was a reference point. “If he’d been around to hear my guitar solo on ‘Who’s that Lady’ he would have given me something between a tackle and a bear hug!”
The Isley Brothers have been lauded for their musicianship, their lyrics and their phenomenal range, which goes from doo-wop to funk to soul and R & B. That’s probably why their hits have been sampled by a wide array of musical groups, including Ice Cube, Biggie Smalls and Gwen Stefani. “Everybody has done ‘Shout!’” Ernie laughs, “it’s like the rock and roll version of Happy Birthday!” Their songs have also been covered by the country’s most celebrated musicians, from Aretha Franklin and James Brown to Marvin Gaye and Bruce Springsteen.
Even their songs that grew out of the turbulent 1960s and 70s, like “Fight the Power,” continue to resonate today. “Harvest for the World” whose lyrics represent the Vietnam War and the peace movement is completely relevant:
Dress me up for battle, when all I want is peace
Those of us who pay the price, come home with the least
Nation after nation, turning into beast
When will there be a harvest for the world
“Maybe that song will become part of some worldwide movement,” Ernie mused, “it really does involve an embrace of humanity.”
Yep, 90,000 people packed into Golden Gate Park on Sunday to revel in musical styles as various as calypso, throwback r&b, tribal soul, new country, and Kinshasa groove. Ace photographer Jon Bauer was there to snap it up. See Day 1 here and Day 2 here.
I love more than almost anything riding the N Judah during Outside Lands time. That sounds like a nightmare to most people, but seeing everybody in their cute outfits getting ready to do that most human thing—lose themselves in music—in our beautiful city zaps me with positive energy. I almost broke down crying at someone’s Hello Kitty halter top and sequined Elton John glasses combo this morning, I’m serious. Anyway, ace photographer Jon Bauer was on the scene, he’ll be bring some of that energy to the set over the next few days with shots of the fest. Yes it’s corporate, yes it has a kooky Grasslands cannabis smoking/marketing area, and yes I can hear it from my house in Lower Haight. It’s still cute. —Marke B., Publisher and Arts Editor SEE DAY TWO PHOTOS HERE. SEE DAY THREE PHOTOS HERE.
Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift. —Dante, TheInferno.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy. —Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
Pledge allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer/ What will it take to make you capitulate? —Grimes, “We Appreciate Power.”
I mostly thought of these lines as I watched 12 volunteers in shapeless brown flight suits get strapped into the pneumatic exoskeletons dangling by power cords from the ceiling of Gray Area in the Mission. They looked like concept art for a Matrix sequel, or instruments of torture from some runaway cyberpunk dystopia. And perhaps this is the point: In “Inferno,” an interactive installation by Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, robots have literally taken over and they are making us dance.
Part of the Gray Area Festival, which started last Thursday and continued through the weekend, “Inferno” is a classic example of the kinds of hybridization the foundation is interested in, the areas where art and technology can dissect or superimpose over each other, revealing; in their own words, forward-looking approaches to advancing culture and common good.
A combination of robotics, haptics, light design, and industrial music, each part of this performance (or piece, the distinction is not clear) seems to indicate a separate kind of worst case scenario we could experience as a species—or indeed, how technology could be leveraged to enable us to experience multiple, integrated varieties of hell all at once.
There is hell as Camus imagined it, as an eternal torment by some repetitive and mandatory activity.Though the dance certainly looked repetitive and almost laborious, some of the volunteers, guided by the hissing hydraulics, seemed to be happy under the command of their new robot overlords. The newly minted cyborgs improvised their own footwork to sync up with the jerky, nonstop movements of their arms, a kind of mandatory duet that more resembled someone, say, walking across a river of boiling pitch or evading the talons of befanged harpies than just enjoying themselves on a Saturday night.
There is then hell as Grimes imagines (or celebrates) it, which is one of total technological control in which we are willing and perhaps even enthusiastic participants.The programmed moves, as a byproduct of the mechanics of the skeleton used to produce them, resembled a uniformed military march or training exercise,as though participants’ bodies had been deputized to serve as unwilling participants in some cybernetic war. The implications are obvious: what if an entire army, hacked by trolls, stopped on the field of battle and just started flossing?
Finally, there is hell as Dante himself imagined it, concentric circles of worsening sin, punished for your deeds with some twisted reversal of your crime for all eternity in a cohort of your peers (for what crime, therefore, is the punishment dancing? The Hypocrites in the eighth circle of Hell are forced to walk around a single track for all eternity, wearing gleaming robes that restrict their movement. Are we the hypocrites?)
While the Inferno raged on in the city, down by the waterfront at Pier 70 the Institute for Sound and Music, Berlin presented the Hexadome, a thankfully less pessimistic but no less immersive series of audiovisual works by artists like Thom Yorke and Ben Frost.Images were projected on six screens surrounding the audience, who may choose to look in any direction.The works were in most cases so abstract they defy any real kind of analysis. (To put it another way, you are probably going to enjoy these works best if you are at least a little high.)
Some scenes resembled physically impossible landscapes or sites of worship for some future digital religion. Some others like what Salvador Dali might produce while designing a screensaver for Windows 97 after having discovered vaporwave. Familiar forms and patterns are rendered unfamiliar. By squinting, tapping into your inner pareidolic intuition, you can glimpse changing lights projected onto ultra thin membranes, and crystals scattering light in obvious defiance of natural optical law, a focus on microscopic constructs, the physics of scale, cellular automata, an entire universe of warped color and light discoverable in the first 12 nanoseconds of a VHS tape.
It is a wonderful tool for activating the imagination. Sonically, the bulk of the pieces seemed focused on a materials science of sound design, so to speak—imagining not only the sound itself but the object that might have actually produced it. (Hexadome runs through August 3.)
The bulk of the festival over the weekend concentrated mainly on talks running the gamut from artists and intellectuals to curators and historians from across the globe, like Monica Bello. She is the current artistic director at CERN, and showcased artists like Ryoji Ikeda—who designed a light display based on the infamous interference pattern of the double slit experiment—and others who built sculptural artifacts out of the wreckage of outdated LHC modules.Another talk focused on solving global food insecurity though technopagan theories of Gaian responsibility wherein augmented reality teaches children to garden (worth a shot).
The highlight of the weekend was obviously electronic music legend Suzanne Ciani, who presented her new work Under the Electric Sea. The piece is a live analog performance on a Buchla 200E, a machine which more resembles the command module of the Apollo mission than a musical instrument.
The diva of the diode humbly stood in line for the bathrooms with everyone else, then took the stage in front of her byzantine instrument, situated in the dead center of the Hexadome (in a visual collaboration with AudeRrose), with the audience on all sides watching her every move with rapt attention. In this setup, musical signals are physically rerouted through different parts of the hardware circuitry using changeable cables, where every module that the signal is directed through transforms the sound at the output in some way.
The adept performer must have some knowledge of the transfer function of each of these modules a priori in order to generate the kinds of sounds they specifically want for a certain piece by patching on the fly. Nobody knows how to tease such intricate soundscapes out of this kind of hardware like Ciani, who has been innovating the form since the ’60s.
Pure and corrupted sawtooth waves rose with an almost physical heft, practically leaving dents as they pinged off the corrugated metal roof.It was a somewhat more purposefully digital sound than Ciani is famous for. Single notes vibrate and then plunge octaves, structure and rhythm appearing and then collapsing again, Ciani proving that she has not retreated one centimeter from the experimental and radical, and is perhaps now doubling down.
The final day consisted of workshops, hands-on activities allowing those in attendance to explore this interface of art and technology for themselves. The workshop I attended, on the topic of homebrewed synthesizer design, suffered a bit from its ambition, which was to ensure that every random person who signed up (most with no technical background whatever) would walk out with a functional synthesizer they had soldered together themselves, from a kit.
This resulted in the instructor unfortunately having to focus far more time on the finer points of prototype board soldering technique then the more interesting theory of how or why a synthesizer is built this way, what the individual components are for, the electronic theory of why these modules were working at all. (Which, by some technical miracle, most were by the end of the session.) But really, nothing fires up the imagination like completing a project like this with your own two hands, switching it on, and listening to the sounds that come rocketing out.Isn’t that what we all came here for, after all?
When Amy Winehouse passed away in the summer of 2011, the British jazz singer joined the 27 Club, a notorious group of brilliant, talented, and fatally flawed vocalists including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, whose drug- and alcohol-fueled lifestyles left their devotees mourning them far too soon.
Fans admired Winehouse’s soulful voice and sincere songwriting on her debut album, Frank (2003) and top-seven follow-up Back to Black (2006) as well as her unique style—signature B-52 beehive, heavy winged eyeliner, and skin-tight cocktail dresses. But they identified and connected emotionally with her struggles.
The six-time Grammy winner’s mix of brilliance and insecurity inspired one of the many supporters, who offered tributes—flowers, teddy bears, and candles—outside her Camden house in the days following her death to leave a card that simply stated: “You might not have survived, but you did your best.”
Classically trained singer Mia Karter has taken her tribute to the late singer’s iconic music and style to the next level with The Winehouse Experience, a nine-piece ensemble complete with a horn section and choreographed background singers that honors Winehouse’s warm vocals, soulful songwriting, and signature style with faithful renditions of the original hits, including “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good,” and “Back to Black.” They also play the classics that Winehouse herself covered, like “It’s My Party,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
I spoke to Karter, who’s bringing The Winehouse Experience to San Francisco (Sat/20 at the Swedish American Music Hall) about Winehouse’s enduring musical appeal, resonating with her troubled life, transforming into the singer, and what she thinks of the on-again, off-again Amy Winehouse hologram tour.
48 HILLSWhen did you begin covering Amy Winehouse?
MIA KARTER I began covering Amy Winehouse when I played in nightclubs and bars, and then I started The Winehouse Experience in May of 2014.
48 HILLSWhat appealed to you about her when you first became aware of her?
MIA KARTER Amy and I share a similar vocal style. She is truly a jazz singer. Motown, soul music, all of the genres she pulls from have depth and emotion with layers of production that convey so well in a live setting.
48 HILLSWhat was it about her music and-or her personality that resonated with you?
MIA KARTER As an independent female artist, Amy’s style was unique, but also classic. Her musical roots run deep, while lyrically she challenged the status quo. She spoke about her addiction and she told the dark side of the story of love in a way that was brutally honest and poetic. It made some people uncomfortable, but it resonated with me.
48 HILLSHow did you learn of her death and how did that impact you?
MIA KARTER I learned of Amy’s death on the news; it was tragic. I think it’s always devastating when a young artist who has barely begun sharing their talent, is lost. Amy had so many more songs to write. Doing this show really demonstrates how influential she was because her fans adore her and they keep coming out.
48 HILLSYou have such a beautiful voice and have done your own music. Why start an Amy Winehouse tribute band as opposed to just focusing on your own material?
MIA KARTER I have written and recorded lots of my own material over the years. Originally, the tribute band was put together to perform a couple of shows. I never expected it to have the success it did. The reception has been so wonderful, so we have continued.
Amy’s fans are devoted to her and it’s truly an honor to bring her music to the stage with an incredible group of talented musicians and give them the chance to experience it.
48 HILLSHow do you transform into her each night? What goes through your mind when you’re performing as her? Are you, in some way, embodying her?
MIA KARTER Hair and makeup is an intensive two-hour process. I do not consider myself to be embodying her; I am paying tribute and celebrating her music and her legacy.
48 HILLSWhat do you think about the Amy Winehouse hologram tour? Is it appropriate or inappropriate and why?
MIA KARTER I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s a little bizarre. I’m not sure you’ll be able to get the energy that you get from a live artist interacting with the crowd and the band.
THE WINEHOUSE EXPERIENCE Sat/20, 7:30pm, $20-$30 Swedish American Hall, SF More info here.
Contour: The peripatetic Cate Le Bon (playing the Chapel July 9) hand-made 100 mugs in conjunction with the release of her 2013 LA-based album Mug Museum. This year’s Reward was written on piano during a period when she attended woodworking school in the Lake District of Cumbria, England; at the conclusion of that period, she crafted a desk-like oak chair or throne with circular fixtures. In addition, Le Bon has expressed an affinity for the architecture and design of Frank Lloyd Wright, Craig Elmwood, Le Corbusier, and Lina Lo Bardi.
How do these bits of info relate to song and sound? Over time, Le Bon’s music has morphed from the more traditional folk and rock structures of 2009’s Me Oh My and 2012’s Cyrk into sonically odd shapes and contours. The beginning of this transformation might be Mug Museum’s “Are You With Me Now,” which has a spinning quality akin to clay being thrown on a potter’s wheel.
There’s also a skittering spikiness to the sound, a trait that grows more characterful on 2016’s Crab Day, recorded at NorCal’s Stinson Beach. There, the manically delighted “Wonderful” lopes forward loonily between choreographed high kicks, the voice and clarinet arrangement of “Yellow Blinds, Cream Shadows” flutters down to the ground like a breath-blown whirligig and, aided by marimba, “We Might Revolve” spins itself dizzy. The liner notes of Reward use the umbrella term “percussion” to describe strange assortments of instrumentation. The syncopated closing section of “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” matches Krautrock in terms of hypnotic effect. On “Magnificent Gestures,” varied scrapes across a guiro punctuate each bar like funny punchlines.
Collaboration: While much popular music views collaboration between artists as a commercial transaction, in the case of Le Bon it’s forged by a desire for mutual exploration as much as admiration. Perfume Genius duets with her on Mug Museum’s “I Think I Knew,” while Kurt Vile provides guest vocals on “Magnificent Gestures.” Under the name Drinks, Le Bon has made two rangy albums with the Bay Area’s Tim Presley; 2018’s rural France-set Hippo Lite frequently spikes a Young Marble Giants vein amid musique concrete touches like typewriters and chirping birds.
On the Crab Day tour, Le Bon and her live band doubled as the improvisational opening act Banana, who’ve put out an album that can be found on Bandcamp. She’s also added her signature as a producer to albums by Presley and most notably the Atlanta-based Deerhunter; on this year’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, the runaway piano bridge of the standout track “What Happens to People?” has her stamp all over it.
This collaborative spark extends to Le Bon’s music videos. The one for Mug Museum’s “Duke” is a tour diary that doubles as a magic act before turning into a VHS slasher film. Beginning with Crab Day, Le Bon has worked with the British visual artist Phil Collins, creator of the international Smiths karaoke series “dunya dinlemiyor.” The pairing has reached its zenith to date with the poignant video for Reward’s “Home to You,” a community portrait of the Lunik IX neighborhood in the Slovakian city of Košice that one could argue is one of 2019’s best films. Moving away from and then back to an orchestral version of the song performed by young and old at a local music conservatory, Collins captures grace notes of good humor, youthful energy and aged resilience in the face of poverty.
Humor: It’s hard to pinpoint Le Bon’s sense of humor with the right adjective. Whimsical? Too cutesy. Droll? Only in the common but contested usage of the word, and it doesn’t run bone-dry. Wry, maybe? It’s been there from the beginning. Me Oh My’s “Terror of the Man” mines the ambiguity of its title—is she describing being terrified, or gently mocking a man’s heightened state of fear? Reward includes a song titled “Sad Nudes.”
A key to her peculiar humor might be found in a couplet within “The Light” on Reward: “You must die a little/You must exercise.” The first line ascends and descends like hopes being dashed, while she half-sings the second line with a dubious tone. Time and time again, her plummy, slightly questioning voice adds a bemused quality to the words she’s singing. She also is fond of toying with deliberately off-key notes, or as in “Duke,” testing her vocal limits, climbing the scales to see exactly how high she can go.
But the humor in Le Bon’s music also springs forth from her guitar. “Nervy” and “zany” are two words writers have used to describe her riffs. Over a slightly cuckoo rhythm, a riff halfway through the wittily off-kilter “Magnificent Gestures” attacks the ear like a cartoon mosquito. By the time of Mug Museum, Le Bon’s increasingly individual guitar style had that of Television’s Tom Verlaine as its closest relative. Not exactly shabby company. “I can always tell when it’s her playing guitar,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco told Pitchfork back in 2015. “Whenever I try to figure out her guitar parts, they’re way harder than they sound.”
Elocution: Le Bon may make rock music, but she doesn’t vocalize like a rock singer. An NPR writer commented on her “thickly Welsh voice,” but to this ear, her singing is marked by a bell-clear elocution that means most every word is clearly heard. In fact, if there’s any vocalist Le Bon reminds me of, with her well-rounded long vowels, perfect, stately diction and hint of mirth, it’s Billie Holiday’s personal favorite jazz and cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer. It’s almost a four-hour trek from Mercer’s Northern birthplace of Burton on Trent to Le Bon’s town of origin Penboyr, so go figure. Anyway, Wales is known as the “Land of Song.”
What matters is that Le Bon’s melodic choices as a singer and lyricist are simultaneously signature and hard to predict. One example is the aforementioned “Duke,” which reaches a climactic vocal height, perched on the recurring word here, that is comical. Another is a moment between consecutive choruses on Reward’s “Home to You,” when sound slips away and Le Bon lets out a delighted sigh.
Progression: Le Bon gets better—and more idiosyncratic—with each album. Time will tell, but Reward is perched on the precipice of masterpiece status. The mark of an artist who is always up for a new challenge, its keyboard-based compositions are a departure from earlier guitar-centered works.
The paradox is that Le Bon’s growth and progression as a musician is increasingly suffused with a sense of loss. Mug Museum was composed after the death of her maternal grandmother. She’s been both candid and vague about the fact that Reward was written after receiving some bad news while on tour in Miami. That its opening track takes the city’s name, containing mi ami, as its title and one-word chorus suggests a romantic breakup. (Me, oh my.) That suggestion grows stronger on Reward’s second track and first single, the casually regal “Daylight Matters,” with its combo of synth, sax and mellotron suggestive of Bowie’s Berlin era.
From Wales to Los Angeles to NorCal to southern France to Marfa, Texas and back again, Le Bon is a creative globetrotter. But more than a realization that you can’t go home again, “Daylight Matters” is defined by a hard-won awareness that home, especially one shared with a beloved, is always a temporary zone, forever ineffable and inexorable. Haunted by the fact that a cherished memory is “never not there,” here Le Bon’s lyricism is piercingly direct and simple. “Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you/But you’re not here,” she sings, “Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you/But you’ve gone.” Left off the lyric sheet is the bridge’s broken murmur of “come back.” If you know the pain of a rare intimacy irrevocably damaged, this one’s for you.
MUSIC REVIEW More than four decades into rap’s existence, the genre still struggles with how to present itself live. The bulk of rap shows I’ve seen are more like a DJ set with the rapper hosting, shouting ad-libs and entreaties as their own music blasts from the best speakers you’ll ever hear those songs on. An MC with enough energy can mitigate this problem. Young Thug and Big Boi are two of the best live rappers I’ve seen, if only because they’re so animated as they go through the motions. But when you’re going stop to stop, playing for crowds in towns you don’t care much about, it’s hard to keep up a smile.
Another approach is to bring live instruments into the equation. Live music is almost always more interesting when it’s generated on the spot, because it gives you more to look at and adds a degree of spontaneity that almost guarantees you’re getting something different from what you hear on record. It also guarantees you’re getting your money’s worth, that people are actually working to put on a show for you rather than simply showing up, collecting their cash, and getting back in the van.
Seeing Oxnard rapper Anderson .Paak and his full backing band the Free Nationals live at their 6/27 sold-out show at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last Thursday, I noticed something curious through the dazzle of the set. There were two drum kits, one manned by the Free Nationals’ Callum Connor and the other by .Paak himself. For long stretches of the show, neither was audible. And when the two drummers synced up, it wasn’t exactly Tony Allen and Ginger Baker going kit-to-kit on Fela Kuti’s Live! Pre-recorded drum beats often did the bulk of the percussive load-bearing, and I had to tilt my head to hear the crash of Connor’s cymbals.
.Paak banks on his artistry. He sings and raps, and as in so much modern hip-hop, the lines between the two aren’t always clear-cut. He’s gifted with a honeyed-gravel voice not a million miles removed from fellow Dr. Dre protégé Kendrick Lamar’s. Put him behind a kit and you have a perfect image of talent and professionalism, especially in tandem with his hat and sunglasses, which make him look like a hip piano teacher, the kind of guy you expect to use words like “cat.” He’s the perfect candidate for a Tiny Desk concert, where you can see him trade grins as well as licks with his dutiful backing band.
Yet the superfluous second kit suggested that most of the artistry we saw on set was for show, that the backing band was more to have something to look at than to improve the music, that .Paak was drumming more to get a whoop out of the crowd (I saw Margo Price do something similar at last year’s Outside Lands, to much more skepticism than I saw here) than because he wanted the extra percussive heft that two drummers can provide a band.
Perhaps you need a little sleight of hand to be a showman. That word is, after all, most associated with P.T. Barnum, who was wont to do things like graft the top half of a monkey’s skeleton to the bottom half of a fish and pass it off as a new animal. But .Paak is very eager to show. During “King James” the lyrics flashed across the massive screen behind him, ensuring the crowd went apeshit when he sang “if they build the wall let’s jump the fence.” He was often less audible than his two backing singers, who were the most musically essential Nationals—and, with their turquoise suits and quicksilver choreography, the most interesting to look at.
The Bill Graham is a big venue, and big venues call for big spectacles; if you’re shelling out a ticket for a show there, you want a show. But artistry as a prop is no match for real, cold-eyed, uncompromising, take-it-or-leave it virtuosity—and that came in the form of opener Earl Sweatshirt.
The Odd Future alum is, at 25, already an elder statesman. He made his most beloved music in his teens, but he’s spent most of his ensuing career escaping the shadow of that technically astonishing but often morally reprehensible music. His most recent album, Some Rap Songs, is a swampy soup of funk bass and diseased samples that more closely resembles Sly Stone’s most pessimistic music than most of what you’d think of as rap. It’s also interesting because the drums are mixed almost into oblivion, making it impossible to really dance to.
Earl’s torrent of language was the defining fact of his performance, and when he wasn’t spitting, he swayed like a rag doll, teetering as if about to fall over, as if the act of rapping was the only thing keeping him alive. His only prop was a video loop showing images of black men, one seemingly suckling at a woman’s breast. “I’m going to rap at you for 25 minutes, then I’m gonna get out of here,” he said as he shuffled onstage. Take it or leave it. Most people took it, and the Graham was a sea of nodding heads and plumes of blunt smoke.
“He’ll play his early music if he’s in a good mood, his new music if he’s in a bad mood,” I heard one concertgoer say to his friend. Earl must’ve been pretty grumpy. Music from 2010’s EARL was off the table, and his lyrics were cryptic when they weren’t disarmingly personal. Like .Paak, Sweatshirt presented himself as a professional, but his definition of the term is more dogmatic than technical. His almost misanthropic intent was exhilarating, and all the pyrotechnics that shot out of the stage during .Paak’s set seemed pale next to the fire that burned in Earl Sweatshirt’s eyes.
Spin Doctors’ frontman Chris Barron can easily flash back to his first time playing San Francisco.
It was 1991 and his neo-hippie jam band was between touring its first EP Up For Grabs, a live recording that captured its predilection for musical improvisation — with some tracks lasting upwards of 10 minutes — and the release of Pocket Full of Kryptonite later that year.
But Barron didn’t know if he could take the stage at DNA Lounge for even one second after a friend of the band took him to Haight Ashbury and gave him a hit of Owsley LSD as they sat on the front steps of the famed Grateful Dead house.
“He was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s very pure and not that strong,” the singer told 48 Hills. “But when it was time for me to go on, I was in this jungle of neon color that I could barely find my way through.”
Not trusting that he could sing in pitch, he went to the back of the tour bus, and finding the band’s drummer Aaron Comess, he laid down on a bench and put his head on his bandmate’s lap and said in a panic that he didn’t think he could hear pitches and therefore sing that night.
Comess had him test out his theory by playing their rock track, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” on guitar, and once the two were confident that the singer could perform in perfect pitch, they took the stage with Barron still tripping.
“It was like singing in this cave on an alien planet,” Barron said. “If you’ve ever seen the bar scene in Star Wars, imagine being the band onstage and seeing all these people with googly eyes and trunks and long necks and just vaguely being able to see these strange faces out of the gloom. Then I spilled some water onstage and stepped in it, and it was like globules of mercury flying everywhere. So that was my first time playing in San Francisco.”
Six studio albums and 2,000 shows later, the band is still best known for the five times Platinum LP Pocket Full of Kryptonite, high-charting rock hits “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” and for sparking the ‘90s jam band movement alongside Blues Traveler, Phish, and Widespread Panic. The Spin Doctors will return to the Bay Area for a special 30th anniversary show (Sweetwater Music Hall, May 17, 9pm) featuring the hits, favorites, and deep cuts.
48 HILLSI’ve always thought of Spin Doctors as a San Francisco band, but you first formed in New York City in late ‘88, after John Popper left your then band Trucking Company to found Blues Traveler. What drew you to guitarist Eric Schenkman, drummer Aaron Comess, and bassist Mark White?
CHRIS BARRON We always had incredible chemistry together as musicians. I just thought that Eric was the most incredible guitar player I had ever heard, and I still think he’s one of the most incredible guitar players.
Everyone in this band is such a cool musician. Each of us thought that the other guys were the best guys for the job. It was musicianship, and when we play music even today, there’s still this special chemistry where groove-wise we’re in each other’s pockets.
48 HILLSSpeaking of pockets, what stands out most when you think back to the recording of “Pocket Full Of Kryptonite”?
CHRIS BARRON For me, overall, it was that childlike dream-come-true kind of moment that sadly not a lot of people get to have. The band always had contentious chemistry as people, so we were in the studio and there was a lot of friction. But for the most part, we were walking on air. We couldn’t believe we were making a record.
At the same time, there was a bit of I was six years old watching our little Sony black and white television. Shirley Temple came on. It must have been 1974, I was six years old, and I took one look at her and thought, “I’m gonna marry her and we’re gonna sing and dance.” I didn’t know she was older at the time. I just thought she’d come out of the TV and marry me. My wife, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, is a grown-up Shirley Temple in a way. She’s a genius theatre actress.
But I’ve wanted to do this my entire life, so making “Pocket Full Of Kryptonite,” there was partly a sense of I can’t believe I’m doing this, and part of me felt like it was inevitable and probably going to happen all along.
48 HILLSYou had five charting singles off that album. I have to ask about the two that your band is most known for: “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes.” So I always thought that “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” was a diss track about an ex. But you admitted more recently that it was actually about your former stepmother?
CHRIS BARRON Yeah, I lived with her from age nine to 18 until my parents split up. She had a lot of problems and did a lot of screaming. She had a borderline personality disorder with malignant narcissistic tendencies. She was a tough cookie.
48 HILLSOne of the things that always touched me about that song is the part where you soften toward her at the end. She caused you a lot of grief, but you still clearly have some sensitivity toward her.
CHRIS BARRON Yeah, she actually passed away a couple of years ago, I heard. I haven’t been in touch with her since my parents split up.
48 HILLSNow, as far as “Two Princes,” I have to ask about that now iconic neo-hippie outfit you wear in the video. To a lot of people, you’re probably as associated with that Guatemalan hat and long knit sweater as you are with the song, itself.
CHRIS BARRON I bought the Guatemalan hat on the street in New York City because I was broke and it cost $6.
As far as the sweater, that shoot, which took place in December, went until two o’clock in the morning, and that night it dropped down to below freezing. So I had been sitting in the trailer with the hair and makeup ladies just trying to stay warm and drinking a cup of tea.
Then Rich Murray, the director, came in and said, “Alright, we’re ready for you guys.” I was freezing, so the hair and makeup lady gave me her long knit sweater to walk out in.
Rich was like, “What the fuck are you wearing?” And I was like, “Dude, I’m freezing.” And he was like, “What the fuck is that sweater supposed to be?” And I said, “It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’m freezing.” And he was like, “I have no time for this. Everybody’s on overtime. We’re going to go over budget. Get the fuck in front of the camera. I don’t care anymore.”
That’s how that look came to be, completely because I had a $6 hat on and a lady’s sweater.
48 HILLSShortly after the release of your follow-up LP Turn It Upside Down, in 1994, Eric Schenkman left the band pretty abruptly by walking offstage during a show in Berkeley. White followed in 1999. What happened?
CHRIS BARRON We had been just crazily overworked, and we went straight from the long slog of getting the first record to take off, killing ourselves on the road — back into the studio. The label sent us down to Memphis to work with an amazing producer, Jim Dickinson, but we needed some rest and maybe some group therapy.
We always cared about each other and would hurt each other’s feelings in certain ways and never really resolve it. So at that point, there was a tremendous amount of tension and the band was a seething cauldron of mutiny and resentment. And Eric cracked and left the stage, and after that, we ended up splitting up for seven years.
48 HILLSThen in 1999 you suffered rare vocal paralysis and your entire musical career was in jeopardy after doctors told you that you had a 50/50 chance of ever singing again.
CHRIS BARRON That was a nightmare. I lost my voice for about a year and I could only whisper, so it was a lot of me writing things down on pads. People thought I was deaf and started to mime things, and it was like, “No, I can hear, but I just can’t talk.” So it was really kind of a shitshow and looking pretty bleak, but thankfully I came out on the right side of it.
48 HILLSTwo years later, the Spin Doctors reunited and two more studio albums followed. 2013’s critically acclaimed If The River Was Whiskey, was more of a blues record, and the rumor is your next album will be more of a rock and funk record.
CHRIS BARRON We definitely came at If The River Was Whiskey as a blues record, but we always approached the blues from a personality place rather than a genre-based place. I think each guy in this band sees American music along this spectrum, from field songs through the blues through Dixieland, country, and jazz all the way to bebop — and rock ‘n’ roll is somewhere in the middle. And you’re just picking the notes and the motifs that are going to serve the music the best.
48 HILLSHow do you balance the need for hits with the urge for experimentation?
CHRIS BARRON We’ve always come at music from a more authenticity perspective, and the older we get, the more we do this. It’s about virtuosity, and virtuosity is not about doing some kind of musical gymnastics. It’s about being so well versed in whatever you do that you can authentically present your personality with your art.
When you do that, you’re going to make something good, and sometimes it’s commercial and sometimes it’s not. But it’s not like we come at each record going, “We’ve got to write a couple of hits or the record’s a failure.”
48 HILLSDo you still enjoy singing “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes”?
CHRIS BARRON We got lucky with a couple of songs on Pocket Full Of Kryptonite that got really big and they’re most of the tunes we’re known for and people still enjoy listening to after all these years, so we do enjoy playing them.
You know the song that kept us out of number one was Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart.” I would always say that I would rather have a song like “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” go to number two than have to sing “Achy Breaky Heart” for the rest of my career.
SPIN DOCTORS – A SPECIAL 30TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW May 17, 9pm, $32/$27 Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley Tickets and more info here.