CMJ 08 – Gringo Star, the Ruby Suns, the Ettes

From the weirdly spacious, supercool white asymmetrical box of the Red Bull Space to the sweaty firetrap of the Delancey – here’s my first night of CMJ.

btw: music PR apparently floats on an ocean of Red Bull. Who ever needs purchase the stuff? It floweth like a mighty stream. The slender, shapely iced coolers full of the tingly, energizing Eurobeverage are discreetly available everywhere from the press area of McCarren Pool to the (okay, unsurprisingly) Red Bull lounge.

The crowd is sparse, perhaps reserving judgment lest they appear even faintly uncool for a second. But Gringo Star, an immensely likable quartet from ATL, thaws a few hipsters at the show, which essentially is the start of the whole five-day CMJ shebang. Gringo Star’s exuberant indie rock moves along at a great pace, subsuming Beatlesque refs and riffs, Southern pop, and Leone/Morricone references at high energy as three of the musicians circ among drums, guitars, and keyboards. They are surprisingly tight – no sloppiness despite the personnel rotation.

”]Gringo Star on stage at Red Bull Space
Gringo Star on stage at Red Bull Space [photo courtesy http://www.twi-ny.com]

Next up, cross and downtown: the New Zealand showcase in the basement of the Delancey. Say what I will about the low-temp, low-white-couch, high-ceiling, and low-energy Red Bull space (which isn’t even a public concert space) at least it allows attendees to see and hear the musicians. Many blocks east and south, the long, narrow, basement Delancey is about 80 feet long and 12 feet wide, ensuring that only the first, say, 20 fans in front can actually see the band. The ceiling, featuring a welter of jury-rigged wiring, hanging pipes, junk chandeliers, and dripping condensation, features a couple square yards of egg-crate foam over the stage in some kind of confused acknowledgment that there might actually be such a thing as acoustics. (Can you say “Great White” btw?)

No matter, the Ruby Suns, a guy (Ryan McPhun, Californian) and girl (a Kiwi, Amee Robinson) from Auckland, NZ, are whipping up the crowd with a drum pad, drum kit, guitar, and samples. Their indie pop swirls wistful arpeggios, snatches of melodies, layered vocals, etc. over every rhythm in the drum kit from calypso to steel drum to electronica – but it all goes by so quick and changes up so rapidly, the overall effect is pretty and charming. Music to play at work – wait. . . their song “Oh Movaje” is the theme in the WINDOWS VISTA commercial! Okay. check.

”]Ryan McPhun and a female Ruby Sun at the Delancey. Please note the ceiling (shudder).Ryan McPhun and a female Ruby Sun at the Delancey. Please note the ceiling (shudder) [photo courtesy http://www.twi-ny.com]

Rhys Darby (the actor who plays the band manager on Flight of the Conchords) emcees the end, then the stage clears (cumbersomely, since there is no side or backstage, and the musicians have to lug each instrument up and back thru the crowd). Next up: the Ettes, (replacing the originally announced Fresh Kills), whose lead singer Coco channels the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pretty exclusively while Poni, the incredibly hot female drummer, channels every male in the place to their knees, mesmerized by her 1) hot drumming 2) hot-ness 3) hot, mobile, supple, and extremely large lips.

”]OMG that drummer is so hot!
OMG that drummer is so hot! [photo courtesy http://www.twi-ny.com]

Say no more. Well, they were quite good, but every song sounds the same, and tho’ there were a few Ramones riffs in there, they could do with a variation in pace every once in a while.

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David Foster Wallace – “The only choice we get is what to worship”

I loved David Foster Wallace, and I’m so upset he killed himself. He was my favorite writer of my own generation. His suicide makes me truly sad. And a little scared.

Kakutani’s appreciation in the New York Times is as good as any, describing Wallace’s
“manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness — to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad “deep and meaningless” facets of contemporary life.” Read it if you want; it’s very good. It neglects to mention his deep love of hip hop, whose dense layers of allusions were just another way of doing what he was doing. (see his work with Mark Costello, Signifing Rappers.

Wallace’s death got to me on a personal level. In my first job in publishing, at Scribner’s, his manuscript, The Broom of the System stayed on our submission list for months. It wound up being published by another house, but oddly enough, when one of the Scribners’ editors went to Little, Brown, Wallace went with him, and Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown went on to publish Wallace’s gargantuan masterwork, Infinite Jest. With its tales of personal addiction to drugs and a whole culture’s death-spiral addiction to entertainment, its dense layered prose, blackest of absurdist humor, and insanely great wordplay pushed all my buttons. I love that book, messy as it is.

I’m fond of layered allusions and reference, irony and word games, seeing patterns in widely scattered shards of culture — and believing, underneath it all, that there is something about being human that cannot be denied, or commercialized, or numbed. I think many of us are like that — maybe all of us 40-something, perhaps-too-well-read, despairing idealist/cynics raised with our mouths glued to the the biggest information pipelines humans have ever known. And he’s not the only writer my age who hanged himself, unfortunately; so did a very good friend of mine, also a writer, at an earlier age. All three of us shared certain addictive, depressive habits of thought with our peers – but their talent made them great creators, while my appreciation made me one of their fans.

I always felt like Wallace wrote the way I and many of my friends think–with a crazy-wide and deep range of references and allusions to both high and pop culture, playing games with words, sentence structure, punctuation — all the building blocks of written communication. But he had something to communicate beyond mere style points–just like the best hiphop, in fact. In his great 1987 piece on irony and TV — a sort of “Is Fiction Dead?/Why are we all writing piece?” he wrote about how irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and lamented that we can no longer talk about real moral issues – not without “air quotes,” as it were. Ha.

I kind of wonder if what’s happening in politics now, when we have an electorate animated by “American Idol”-like preferences for candidates based on their character’s entertainment factor, their likeablity . . . I kind of wonder if that wasn’t the last straw. Who knows. He was clinically depressed. Who knows. He wrote a great piece about McCain in 2000. Who knows.

I do know he wrote some true stuff.

from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech:

“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

“Getting more and more selective about about what you see and how you measure value” – I saw a lot in him, and I measured that value pretty highly. And he did not.

I wonder what Wallace worshiped, in the end.

Paul Weller @ Highline Ballroom, New York, 09/11/08

the Modfather

the Modfather

Shown this photograph, 80-year-old Mrs. Lola C. of Queens remarked, “Bring him home and I don’t need to turn on the oven.”

Lola’s daughter Flora was informing Mrs. C of last night’s destination, the Paul Weller show at the Highline Ballroom. O yes, Weller is hot.

Last night he played a smokin’ 2-hour set, with a youthful Seth Rogen lookalike on drums; a tiny, manaically talented control freak on guitar; and a giant nicotine monkey on his back.  (Mr. Weller stopped several times to feverishly light a fag and inhale like his lungs were gonna fall out if he didn’t.) Ah, the Brits. . . .

the Wellerfellas

the Wellerfellas

He’s apparently been thru the Reanimator, as he barely resembles the self that formed the Jam, then Style Council. The reinvented Modfather now owns a rabid fan base and a successful solo career, as well as one of the Worst. Haircuts. Ever.

bad hair forever

[pics courtesy Brooklyn Vegan, Kyle Dean Reiford]

Paul went on about 9:35pm, after a delightful set by the Rifles – a peppy, indie-rock Brit band well worth checking out at the Mercury on Friday in NYC – and played til 11:30, w/two encores, the first of which included his massive hit, “That’s Entertainment,” but no “Town Called Malice,” alas. The cozy Highline which holds a few hundred, was packed, with a mainly 40-something crowd.

Most recognized the material from Weller’s post-1995 solo career, which started off, pretty much with Stanley Road, followed by, among others, As Is Now, Illuminations, and the current album, 22 Dreams.

I LOVED it. Flora C. and I were’t prepared for how heavy the guitars were – there were some searing long solos in there, really hardcore stuff. He hit the title track from the brand-new 22 Dreams, early on, sat down at the keyboards finally for bit from Stanley Road, but it was the jaw-dropping guitar rock on “All I Want to Do,” “Sea Spray,” and “Come on Let’s Go,” in particular that stood out.

Yes, Liam and Noel Gallagher, and Gem were there. Liam jumped on stage, mutter-shouted something somewhat unintelligable, Noel looked cool and furtive in the audience, and Gem deigned to join on one song for guitar. Minor diversions. Oasis are such professional a-holes, tho’ they boosted Weller’s career immeasurably in the late 90s.

Weller’s always interspersed his solo albums with live ones, and I own no live ones. The studio albums are so much more introspective –opposite energy to the live show, for which I was totally unprepared. He really rocked out on a lot of stuff – almost ’70s style hardrock solos and jams.

And oh, jeez, despite his sculpted cheekbones and still fine physique, his hair is SO bad. Still he’s so much fun to watch. (I kept mentally giving him new, better hairstyles in my mind as the night progressed – lol) Weller got ever more intense and twitchy as the night went on, lighting cig after cig, angrily gesturing to roadies constantly re: bringing his mic up, etc. doing funny little rocker head moves and dance flails– he’s a little kooky and cranky, I’d say, but brilliant.

And damn does he smoke! There was an odd “space”-like drum solo at one point, when Weller stepped to the side, lit and inhaled a HUGE nicotine drag, and nodded and bopped a bit as the drummer whaled about on the set. About three chain-smoked fags later, a roadie removed the fourth burning cigarette from a corner of the piano, and Weller turned around, looked for it, and then mock/seriously/angrily arced a cup of coke or beer across the stage into the audience. There’s some major scary energy there, but damn, did it work in concert.

And that incredible voice. Nope, don’t need to turn on the oven for the heat, Mrs. C. I’m with ya on that one.

All Points West Pt 2 – K’naan, Roots, Radiohead – Liberty State Park, 08/09/08

The good stuff! (remember, all photos are selects from the huge, crazy-great This Week in New York full photo sets on flickr)
5pm: Somali hiphop artist and about-to-be world music star K’naan took the smallest of the three stages, with probably the biggest backstory of the festival.
Ck out his Wikipedia entry, his myspace page, and his own website (www.dustyfoot.com) cause his journey from Mogadishu, Somalia, to the UN, to Harlem, to Ontario is worth it.

After “the African Way,” K’naan admitted that his recent Lollapalooza appearance, he entirely forgot the whole second verse of a song, only to see the front row of dedicated young fans mouthing the correct words in disdain, as he “made some stuff up. . . hey, I recorded that album, like four years ago”

His stage presence is remarkably relaxed, direct, and intimate; his lyrics are fierce, poetic, and intricate. The small but dedicated crowd was treated to several tunes from his upcoming album, Troubaour, and his neat explanation of the original 11c. French troubadours, with whom he feels a bond.

He admitted that the album is supposed to come out in September. “but it won’t,” he said with a smile. “because I haven’t finished it.” The album was recorded at Bob Marley’s old house in Jamaica, where K’naan talked about feeling the amazing spiritual vibe, and features contributions by Ziggy Marley and Junior Gong–probably along with other Marley offspring, with whom K’naan is close, sharing not only Marley style but also dedication to the ideals of Bob.

Tunes from Troubaour included the upfront “I Come Prepared,” the plea to “Take a Minute,” and “abcs”–available now, free somewhere via some kind of special telephone download. Many were punctuated w/some crazy street sounds and whooping sirens, courtesy of dj One Tyme, who used to spin behind reggae/dancehall fave Elephant Man.

Exhorting the crowd to sing along “ha hey” to some Somali prompts, K’naan kind of gave up in despair at the enthusiastic but rhthym-challenged response. He finished up with the beautiful “Waving Flag” [“they call me freedom . . . just like a waving flag”] and returned for an encore of his worldwide hit “Soobax.”

7:30 The Roots on the second largest stage. Un-f*cking believable. The Roots play with all live orchestration, and Black Thought rips it up onstage with breathtakingly deft raps over insanely great work by the band. Here he is with ?uestlove on drums

Guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas played with the tunes, the beats, and the kind of cocky self-assured mastery that you get only . . . when you’re actually a master. From jazzy bits of “Favorite Things” to the opening to Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” it seemed like Douglas channeled every African American guitar hero from Jimi Hendrix to Robert Johnson from his giant cranium into his taut, live-wire body.

On the sousaphone, “Tuba Gooding, Jr.” postured like he was vying for Class Clown in the yearbook but played like a man who knows the power of the large horn like a bass, adding some serious weight on the beat to the very body-cavity thumping lines coming out of the speakers. Heavy, man. and funny as hell at the same time.

The Roots ended with a brilliant frenzy of jazz, rock, R’n’B, TSOP, synths and more in perfect synch with the crowd. Without a doubt, they were the best live performance of the show, melding moment-by-moment improv brilliance with the mounting crowd excitement, feeding one off the other to show how live music should be done.

8:30 Radiohead This is how live music IS done, when you are one of the most popular, cerebral, and venerated bands of the decade playing to about 50,000+ people in an outdoor field with no raked seating, no natural amphitheater, and no room. I always feel like Radiohead’s stuff is kinda chamber music for rock fans, capable of being both intellectually and emotionally huge yet incredibly personal and searingly intimate at once. They seem an odd match for an outdoor megafestival, yet Thom Yorke’s quirky posturings and spamodic, nerdly dance moves manage to translate strangely well via multiscreen monitors and their justly celebrated and very sophisticated light show.

Opening with Reckoner, they played (this is not a set list) Kid A, You’re All I Need, Nude (no remixes!) We are fishes, Wakey Wakey, No Surprises, Bangers and Mash, among much else. Occasionally calling to mind the chill of Pink Floyd, they nonetheless managed to communicate with the crowd despite practically no banter, except when Yorke screwed up Videotape. They ended with two encores, including Pyramid Song and Fake Plastic Trees.

then, once again meek and bleating, we sheep, denuded, shorn of our cash, tired and used . . . we humbly lined up for an almost two-hour wait to get on the ferries. for a 15-minute ride.

but for nine hours of music, a sunny day, and the Roots and Radiohead, it was worth it.
And re; Pt. 1: well, nyah, nyah, border guard — despite your best efforts, I didn’t give the corporate masters any cash, for I didn’t buy ANY food – i had managed to sneak some granola bars and a Milky Way in, after all ; )

All Points West Pt. 1 – Nicole Atkins, Chromeo, Metric – Liberty State Park 08/09/08

All Points West – a 3-day extravaganza of 3 stages filled with the top indy/alternative (well, sort of) music the current scene has to offer.

A more corporate, managed, ultra-controlled and manufactured experience it would be hard to imagine, esp compared the previous evening’s arty collectivist goodness of 88Boadrum (see previous blog).

apw was on an “island” off Jersey City that required a ferry ride to reach. A $20 per person (purchased in advance on Ticketb@ast@ard, or $30 at the landing) ferry ride. The expensive, highly limited parking passes were were sold out far in advance.

The trip from Wall St via NY Water Taxi took 15 mins., tops. it took longer to walk the causeway from the ferry to the showgrounds than to ferry from Manhattan to “liberty” island.

the only thing liberated on “liberty” isle was our cash. Already bleating like sheep, we were herded toward gates where Draconian gatekeepers went thru everyone’s bags, ruthlessly collecting contraband – not cannabis, but even MORE evil — i.e., food.

No food allowed. I had brought a single whole wheat pita with a little peanut butter spread. GONE. Because white bread and much festival food just screws w/my stomach, and I was gonna be in the sun for 9 hours, w/only my pal PortaJohn nearby, it seemed like a good idea. NOT. I was advised I could bring in food only with a doctor’s letter. As I hollered, “Better give that to the homeless!” the pita was carried away.

here’s the border guard, holding the offending flatbread:

The place was hilariously fake and corporate, but the music was fine. Saw Your Vegas, Nicole Atkins, The Virgins, Chromeo, the Black Angels, Metric, a bit of Animal Collective, K’naan, the Roots, and, of course, Radiohead. Missed Kings of Leon and a few others.

here are the photos, all courtesy mr. twi-ny of This Week in New York. (for MANY MORE that will blow you away with their excellence and general coolness, you must go here: This Week in New York’s FLICKR. Seriously!)

Nicole Atkins was charming, quirky, and a pretty funny songwriter. “Pork, Grilled Egg, and Cheese”was a highlight.

Chomeo was their usual silly Francophile disco dancebeat self. I didn’t stay for much of their set, since it seemed exactly the same as the one they used when they opened for Justice.

Next on the main stage was Metric. Emily Haines is to Metric as Debbie Harry was to Blondie. They are not the band, but they are.

Next, the good parts:K’naan, the Roots, and Radiohead. yee=hah these bands were hot!

Dizzee Rascal, Highline Ballroom, New York, July 18, 2008

British hiphop, rap, grime — The future of Hip Hop — genrefy him anyway you want, but 21-y.o Dizzee Racal is something else, esp live.

Friday night in Manhattan at the small Highline Ballroom, with its impressive soundsystem and functional, comfy vibe, Dizzee arrived about 10 mins before showtime — my concertgoing companion, the lovely Leyla, spotted him entering, with a posse of two and trademark Cap Back.

Bouncing on stage, with DJ Aaron LaCrate and his backup singer, Dizzee gave props to the proper authorities in an RUN DMC black t-shirt and smoking red-and-black hightop Nikes.

He tore into the trademark high-energy highspeed lyrics of Where’s Da G’s, and the show was heavy on more material from his third album, Math + English, including Bubbles, Wanna Be, GHETTO, and a joyous Flex, which got a number of the ladies doing exactly that.

Dizz’s relation to the crowd was a lot more relaxed and playful than that at his May 08 show, just two months ago at Webster Hall.

Probably cuz the crowd at Highline was
1) a lot more knowledgeable bout his music
2) a lot more British (he shouted out to ‘the Brits’ on several occasions, to massive response from at least 1/2 the crowd)
3) a lot more mixed, in age, race, and style
4) a lot better dancers.

Dizz’s formidable intelligence (c’mon, those lyrics are INSANELY smart) is balanced by is impressive confidence and knowledge of and true respect for his forebears. Midway thru the show, a blistering rendition of his first US hit, Fix Up Look Sharp, got good response, but it was his show closer, Dance with Me, that brought down the house. (He was accompanied on stage for the last two songs by three mysterious eminence grise of rap — old guys, one with massive flash and a fine, fine, silver skull-headed cane. Wish I knew more! any IDs from the more knowledgeable are welcome.)

Was a privilege to hear what has topped the British charts for the last 5 weeks, cuz Dance with Me is Dizzee’s mega hit — it got the girls flexing, the bodies bumping, and the Brits cheering.

The crowds don’t show up in NYC for Dizzee like they should – but we’re lucky to get him in small venues. We’d never get near him in Britain!

Lit Minds is cool! Literary Mixtapes – yeah.

The very excellent http://litminds.org/blog/2008/05/literary_mix_cd.html blog today is pimping Martha Pettit’s “My Awesome Literary Mix CD.”

and so am I!

Martha works at the San Fran indie bookstore The Booksmith. She created this list, as quoted in Lit Minds, because “I was inspired by the song Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush; [we] were discussing what a great song it is and I relayed the story of a friend who also loved the song but had no clue that it was a reference to Emile Bronte’s novel.”

So what Martha did was make a mixtape list of great songs and the books that inspired them or are referenced by/in them. Way cool.

I love it cuz I’ve always been fascinated by creative connections between different genres of art. A song, a movie, a painting, a book – what are the similarities and irreducible differences? A lot of artistic – hell, a lot of human – expression is based on riffing on previous human expression. That’s what culture IS. That’s why I named my blog Palimpsest – most of our culture is an accretion of layers of reference, whether we know it or not. And i LIKE to know it!

That’s my thing: That’s why I majored in Classics and art history – cuz I loved to tease out the references to the old in the new. It adds a little frisson of “A-ha!” when one realizes that the cult classic movie The Warriors is based on the plot of the ancient Greek historian Xenophon’s Anabasis.

As I recall, my college entrance essay was on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and its roots in and references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Doors’ The End. I’m damn glad I don’t still have that essay, but I would add the Doors (even tho’ I hate them!) and Heart of Darkness to this list!

Here is Martha Pettit’s full playlist for your listening and reading pleasure:

MY AWESOME LITERARY MIX CD

by Martha Pettit, The Booksmith

1.”Killing an Arab” –The Cure (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

2. “Tear in Your Hand”-Tori Amos (Sandman series by Neil Gaiman)

3.”Wuthering Heights”-Kate Bush (Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte)

4.”Ghost of Tom Joad”-Bruce Springsteen (Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

5.”Paranoid Android”-Radiohead (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)

6.”Mr.Tambourine Man”-Bob Dylan (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson)*

7.”Satellite of Love”-Lou Reed (Ghostwritten by David Mitchell)*

8.”The River”-P.J. Harvey (The River by Flannery O’Connor)

9.”Myla Goldberg”-The Decemberists (Bee Season by Myla Goldberg)

10.”Ground Beneath Her Feet”-U2 (Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie)

11.”Norwegian Wood”-The Beatles (Norwegian Wood by Hakuri Murakami)*

12.”Disorder”-Joy Division (Crash by J.G. Ballard)

13.”Girlfriend in a Coma”-The Smiths (Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland)*

14.”La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie”-Belle & Sebastian (Catcher in the Rye by J.G. Salinger)

15.”Holland 1945″-Neutral Milk Hotel (Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank)

16.”Alice”-Tom Waits (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)

17.”Little Green”-Joni Mitchell (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore)*

18.”My Vien Ilin”-Ted Leo & the Pharmacists (The Odyssey by Homer)