Oh you pretty things Don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane? Let me make it plain: Gotta make way for the Homo Superior
Velvet Goldmine, a movie David Bowie refused to sign off on, has a moment where Christian Bale’s character jumps up in the middle of his teenage living room, points at the Not-Really-Bowie-Because-He-Threatened-To-Sue on the TV screen, turns to his dad and exclaims “That’s me, Dad! That’s me!”
That is David Bowie’s true legacy. The patron saint of the misfit, the outcast. For generations now, he has served as a beacon of hope, that you can live in this world and Be Different, that the sad resignation of conformity presented by a Pink Floydesque modern industrial pastiche need not crush you into shape.
ALL EARS Nothing can replace the real thing, but once that trombone swings in with the vocal line from Michael Jackson’s “Working Day and Night” from the Off the Wall album, you may jump out of your seat.
Every year, the SFJAZZ Collective honors a particular artist, breathing complex, transporting life into the work with new arrangements. This year the award-winning, eight-piece ensemble takes on Jackson’s repertoire, Thu/22-Sun/25. It also adds a little context: “Jackson’s celebrity burned so brightly it often obscured the brilliance of his musical mind, a situation that’s only grown more pronounced since his death in 2009,” the Collective says. “We’re putting the spotlight back where it belongs, interpreting lesser known gems as well as epochal hits from his diverse and endlessly inventive songbook.”
We interviewed jazz bassist Matt Penman, an accomplished member of the collective since 2005, about the pleasures and perils of putting a jazz spin on such a beloved catalogue.
Housed in a stunning Mission Edwardian for 94 years, Community Music Center continues to bring music to the masses.
ALL EARS “Take up a musical instrument. Practice for at least 20 minutes every day. It will change your life 100% for the better.”
That sage advice from a well-known local music writer, famous more for his work on electronic genres than strumming the ukulele (his surprise instrument of choice), has stuck with me through the summer — as I scroll past upright pianos and stand-up basses priced to sell due to hurried moves, and glance fretfully at that gorgeous acoustic guitar an ex once gifted me, propped against a bookcase for rustic effect.
“All you have to do is walk through our doors and we’ll find a way to connect you with music,” Sonia Caltvedt, marketing director for the Community Music Center told me. CMC — a music school, practice space, concert venue, and general place of tranquil joy (despite the muffled cacophony coming from an upstairs drum rehearsal) — serves all ages, skill levels, and curiosities, at a price (sliding scale discounts available for those who qualify) that makes that “100% change for the better” an accessible reality. New student registration starts Wed/26 for the fall quarter, which kicks off Sept. 4.
Seriously, private lessons are available in everything from the cheun qum (Chinese banjo) to Hungarian folk-singing (don’t worry, good ol’ guitar, piano, and violin are taught as well). You can pick up whatever new virtuoso skill you fancy.
But first you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor, for CMC is housed in one of those magical old Edwardians whose rooms and floors seem to go on forever, a multi-dimensional maze of musical invention, a buzzing Winchester Mystery House of harmony and counterpoint.
ALL EARS It’s a perverse thrill it is to revisit the brazen music, poetry, and art of Lydia Lunch. In late 1970s and early 1980s New York, she and several other essential downtown No Wave figures were fighting a tide of Yuppie-fication, represented then on the music scene by sophisticated New Wave types, by fusing aggressive punk sounds with bleak, hyper-realist spoken-word poetry, avant-garde noise experiments, and confrontational performance art.
It’s a period that’s held up incredibly well, and has sparked its own industry of nostalgia for a “grittier” time, when art and expression ran as freely as heroin through the city’s veins. And it’s hard not to look at the No Wave period in parallel to our own times, as a new tide of gentrification washes over us — and our musical villains are much more odious than Talking Heads and Blondie.
Lunch could have spent her creative life trading in on her No Wave bonafides — her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ records fetch up to $200 used online — but she’s an incredibly restless, collaborative, and productive artist. A string of albums throughout the past four decades have taken different conceptual tacks, but retained her in-your-face vocal delivery and created new fans along the way. (My first introduction to her was via keening, goth-strut “Suicide Ocean,” off her 1982 1313 album, which was, oddly, a staple of late-night Canadian public radio).
ALL EARS Somebody may have built this city on rock and/or roll, but this weekend the wonderfully sprawling Megapolis Audio Festival plans to stretch its borders into truly mind-expanding territory, with a lineup that includes everything from block parties, experimental sound installations, potluck dinners, and wild afterparties to truly creative demonstrations of cutting edge technology and live performances from the likes of rapper Doseone, beloved sound collagists Matmos + Kevin Blechdom, soul powerhouse Fantastic Negrito, violinist Mia Zabelka, hypnotic ensemble Gamelan X, and more.
“We put a call out to basically anybody who had a good idea,” Managing Director Justin Grotelueschen told me. “We wanted to see what the Bay Area would come up with — and, as expected in a place as creative as this in terms of music and technology, things blew up from there.” Grotelueschen, along with creative director Nick van der Kolk and a team of 10 set to work trying to include as much as they could in the fest.
That means the opportunity to experience dozens of local musicians, engineers, scientists, inventors, and artists pushing the boundaries of sonic possibilities (and charming you with sweet performances). Experience an encephalophone that makes music from your brain waves! Make your own perpetual sound machine! Take an “unsettling audio walk” through the Omni Commons! Or just dance and eat a bunch of food at a really cool block party.
ALL EARS One possible positive about the so-called tech boom? Truly culturally curious newcomers to the Bay Area may have spurred another boom — one in contemporary music. And not just the electronic music kind, as one one might expect of computer geeks (although edgy techno has been doing very well). Fresh, genre-hopping compositions and good ol’ experimental music are having another heyday. Shows by obscure recent composers, diverse ensembles, and longtime apostles of oddball sounds are regularly packed by young people eager to hear the next new thing first.
Newness is definitely on the menu on Saturday — the sonic palette ranges from lovely leftfield indie and folky strings to jazz-inflected electronic and full vocal chorus (listen to most of the artists here) — when Switchboard, also directed by Ryan Brown and Jeff Anderle, features Brass Magic, Kitka, Powerdove, Black Spirituals, Friction Quartet, Random House, Nathan Clevenger Group, and many more contemporary acts. Honestly, you will hear the world here in eight hours, for only $20 dollars! Get on it.
ALL EARS The 33rd annual installment of the SF Jazz Fest doesn’t hit until June, but the recently announced lineup — as well as a feast of a summer season — already has me slavering. Tickets go on sale for members April 1, with more released for everyone on April 15, but it’s good to go in with a well-prepped game plan, especially if you love discovering new music.
The Jazz Fest has always been a magnet for varied sound, but this year seems especially wide-eared and youthful. That may just be a result of the globalized musical times we’re living in, and the renewed interest in experimental genre explorations — and I’m all for it.
June 9-21 sees 43 SF Jazz Fest concerts at the SFJazz homebase and various venues. After that, the SFJazz Summer Sessions brings dozens and dozens more to the SFJazz center. Jazz Fest highlights for me include Ethiopian/Israeli singer Ester Rada, epic R&B experimentalists Robert Glasper Trio, Hammond B-3 organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith, groovy young Texans Snarky Puppy, local pop-soul sensation Goapele, percussion wizard Pedrito Martinez, and a tribute to legendary Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecouno.
ALL EARS It’s been a few years since the disco edit resurgence — which used recent technology to take songs apart and rearrange their elements into kaleidoscopic new shapes — moved away from the expected floor-stompers and into a more psychedelic rock and 1970s AOR directions. It was a wonderful opening of nightlife’s musical palate, equal parts mellow lysergic tang and fine chablis.
Perhaps the apex of the movement is upon us: Other than a (much hoped-for) night of hi-hat-spritzed Led Zeppelin, a dance affair that flies us through Fleetwood Mac’s back catalogue on a mirrorball of dazzling dance-floor sounds seems about as far as this thing can go. Hand me a shawl, a tambourine, and possibly a little spoon: I’ll hop aboard.
ALL EARS Last year kicked off with one of the biggest, baddest Bay Area live music family vibes in a long time. Over the course of three nights, 1800 people were treated to an extravaganza of local bands celebrating Sly & the Family Stone’s still-very-relevant 1969 political funk album Stand! The UnderCover project, which brings together local musicians to cover legendaryalbums, really turned it out with this one, celebrating a hometown hero’s legacy and bringing this necessary music to a new generation.
“Everyday People,” “Stand!,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” “Somebody’s Watching You,” “You Can Make It If You Try” — the whole album is stamped on this country’s musical memory, and the album’s potent mix of political message and funky celebration broke ground for decades of followers.
Now, the Stand! tribute returns January 24 to Oakland’s Fox Theatre. (I’m telling you about it now because it will sell out.) The premise is simple, although the execution is tricky: Get nine large bands, containing more than 175 musicians, to cover the album’s songs — one immediately after the other. It’s almost like a musical magic trick, and of course everyone ends up on stage in a huge group hug at the end. Great players like hip-hop/classical act Ensemble Mik Nawooj, trumpeter Will Magid, jazz legend Marcus Shelby, the sharp-suited Jazz Mafia, funksters Bayonics, fabulous singer Zakiya Harris, soulful operators Con Brio, and many more burn up the stage. (Catch the full lineup here.)
This time, five members of Sly & the Family Stone, including founding members Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini will also be in attendance, and may even take the stage. Oh, and the whole thing is preceded by the first ever Sly & the Family Stone convention, Love City, takes place right before the event.
I spoke with UnderCover’s Lyz Luke, who’s producing the event with partner Yosh! of Faultline, about taking on this musical landmark — and how the heck you fit all those people on stage.
ALL EARS This year, I stepped out as a professional DJ for the first time in who knows when — and it was hard! But totally worth it. (Hopefully to dancers as well). Playing records you love to a crowded floor is a great feeling, so kudos to the people who do it for life. The fact that there are all kinds of shiny apps out there to make it easier paradoxically forces the real DJ talents to up their game, whether in the rarity, quality, and/or intelligence of their selections, their “brand” identity and cohesiveness, or just their ballsy joy in the belief that they can pull off something as dicey as making a sea of strangers fall in love. Really you need all those elements to make it happen — if anything, 2014 has taught us how many empty “brands” there are out there when it comes to taking to the decks.
Anyway, digressions. There’s such a sheer overload of mixes out there that there’s no way I’m going to decide what was “best” from 2014, which depends upon being able to hear and weigh everything out there. The mixes below are the ones that fascinated me and opened new worlds in my earbuds. They span all kinds of genres and come from everywhere. They’re ones I’ll take with me into the brand new year, fresh with wonder at what I’ll hear next.