Speedy Ortiz at the Starline Social Club – June 9, 2018

Here is my review of a show I saw back in June. First band is Winter, led by bubbly Brazilian American Samira Winter. She is wearing a sparkly clingy top, a tie dye skirt and is playing a paisley strat. I really liked this band – they had a great psychedelic, shoegaze kind of sound. The songs were good, and had some landscape to them, as our old friend Michael Leary used to say. They are having a good time, and I would be happy to see this band again anytime. I sprang for their cassette Ethereality which I have been enjoying.

YouTube in its wisdom has decided I should be interested in Anna Burch, who is second on the bill. Her new video keeps popping up in my suggestions. I did watch the video for Tea Soaked Letter, which I thought was nicely produced, but kind of basic really. On stage Anna and band are all kind of awkward in a sweet way. My favorite song is Asking 4 a Friend, which she said was a song about “dating your drug dealer.” It’s a little grittier and more “Detroit” than some of the prettier stuff. They are having a good time. The bass player is a doll and has a big smile on her face for the entire show.

The club, which is not very big is not sold out for Speedy Ortiz, but it’s pretty darned full. They are playing Stereolab in between sets, which makes me happy. This was my fifth Speedy Ortiz show, which is a lot for me.

When people ask me about Speedy Ortiz – in my imaginary life where people talk to me about bands I like – I hear myself telling people that Speedy Ortiz are really really good, but I tend to prefer bands that are more emotionally raw. And I guess in a way it’s true my jam is bands that are a little more “unhinged” like Skating Polly or Joanna Gruesome. But having said that about Speedy’s comparative restraint, I have come to appreciate that the feelings informing Sadie’s compositions are quite powerful indeed. I think it may have taken me all these years of listening to their music to fully appreciate that. Anyway, I just want to say that there are strong emotions in Speedy Ortiz’ music, even if there are no visible scars.

Of the five Speedy Ortiz performances I have seen so far this was the overall best and most rocking one I’ve attended. Sadie’s clear voice had a little edge of hoarseness, which lent some additional grit. Backing vocals by bassist Audrey Zee Whitesides and drummer Mike Falcone were also excellent. I am a huge fan of Falcone’s drumming and the distracted professorial energy he brings. The band is really in sync and playing well together. Many of the songs are full-on raging, from opener Buck Me Off, Plough off of Major Arcana, and Ginger from Foil Deer, among others.

The set ended with crowd-pleasers Tiger Tank and No Below. Apparently No Below was featured in a video game. Sadie was sure half the audience was here for that song, but we were all clueless. She said “we’re not going to come back for an encore, so this is it” and launched into one I didn’t recognize, but it was great and had something to do with ‘too many boyfriends.’ Later I searched the lyrics and realized it was Taylor Swift from way back in 2012 (see video above!). Here’s the whole set list, as best as I could make it out:

1. Buck Me Off
2. Lean In When I Suffer
3. Lucky 88
4. Raising the Skate
5. Can I kiss You
6. Plough
7. Villain
8. The Graduates
9. Ginger
10. Drk Wrld
11. I’m Blessed
12. Moving In
13. Tiger Tank
14. No Below
15. Taylor Swift

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Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore – June 5, 2018

Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore

Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore

Since starting this blog, I’ve felt an increased desire to fill in some of the many huge gaps in my rock and roll knowledge. Like anyone, I tend to listen to what I listen to, so to speak, and add new discoveries based on stuff I find on the internet, bands that are touring with another band I like, and so on. Occasionally I’ll get turned on to a band that has been around for a really long time and making really awesome music and I’m late to the party. In the case of Yo La Tengo, I’m something like 35 years late to the party. But better late than never!

I had been aware of the existence of a band called Yo La Tengo for some time, but had never listened to them. At some point, for reasons I know longer remember, I added Today is the Day to my YouTube “Watch Later” playlist, and possibly even listened to it. More recently, one or two YLT songs popped up in my Spotify playlist radio. More time went by, and then many months ago I saw that they were coming to the Fillmore in June. I bought tickets.

I knew that if I was going to get the most out of the show, I should try to familiarize myself with their music. This is a rather daunting task, given their countless albums, and well known reputation for drawing upon an immense catalog of obscure covers during their performances. So I did what I could. I will say Spotify has a pretty terrific playlist of 50 essential YLT songs which I listened a number of times…

The day of the show arrived, and I motored up to SF from the South Bay, and parked at the Japan Center lot. I arrived well before the doors, so I walked up Fillmore St. and bought a cup of coffee. I strolled for a few more minutes, then made my way to the venue. Much to my surprise, I was 1st in line to the show, which hasn’t happened in a long time. The next two guys to show up were long time fans, with many YLT shows under their belts. My buddy Alex showed up after a while (Alex knew virtually nothing about YLT). Thanks to our early arrival time, we sailed through security, said ‘hi’ to top hat girl and grabbed a couple of apples on our way up to the balcony. We scored the most advantageous table in the balcony that was not reserved, which is where we spent the whole show.

The YLT lineup, which has remained more or less the same since 1992, consists of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew. They are all multi instrumentalists, but Georgia mostly plays drums and sings, Ira plays guitar and sings, and James plays keyboards, electric and upright bass, and guitar. James did sing in a reedy tenor on several songs, as well. They moved through their instrument and song changes as if following an inner choreography which was almost as fun to watch as it was to listen to. And yet they are completely unpretentious, which I think is one of the most refreshing things about this band.

Musically there is so much to listen to. There were trippy space jams, sweet love songs, beautiful harmonies and chaotic, lengthy feedback fests. I can see how each YLT concert would be a unique moment in time that they are creating with reverence and bravado understatement.

Overall there is a genuine sweetness in YLT’s music. There is an intensity, too, in some of the noisier jams, but I think the warmth and sweetness of this trio is the over-arching feeling. Most of their songs are love songs – usually about loss or unrequited love. There are a smattering of numbers about random things – baseball, motorcycles, movies, etc. There are no songs about politics which I find interesting. The complete lack of reference to the state of the world, oppression, etc., seems remarkable, and it seems like a conscious decision. It means YLT space is maybe a place of refuge from that aspect of reality.

The first set consisted of 10 songs, and they were mostly slow and sweet. The second set, consisting of another 10 songs, was considerably more raucous, with many extended noisy solos. For the encore they brought out Calexico, fresh from their performance at GAMH. Calexico is a Tex-Mex band and they contributed a horn section and accordion to the instrumentation. There were 3 songs in the encore, ending with Comin’ Back to Me by Jefferson Airplane (one I actually recognize).

I stopped at the merch booth and picked up Extra Painful on vinyl for the heart-stopping price of $40. This is the “Limited deluxe 21st-Anniversary edition of the 1993 classic Painful” with 10 unreleased tracks, etc. If your a YLT noob like me, I can recommend this as a good starting point, as well as 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, which Stereogum (and many others) recommend as “the pinnacle in the story of Yo La Tengo”.

So what are you waiting for? How will you discover some new, or “new to you” music today?

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Diet Cig and Eve’s Peach at the Crépe Place – May 25, 2018

Diet Cig at the Crepe Place

Diet Cig at the Crepe Place

Gawd, writing about music is so fucking hard. Why do I even try? Because I am passionate about it. I want to communicate that burning essence of being squished together with my fellow humans, watching other humans on a stage make loud electrified music with their voices, guitars, drums and maybe a keyboard. Why do thousands of girls and boys skip out of pottery studios, philosophy lectures and barista jobs to drive around the country in a van with bald tires and a rusty muffler, playing to tiny crowds in cramped bars, making no money, with no hope of commercial success? And yet, was there ever an art form so intoxicating, so immediate? Rock and roll can lift me out of life’s day-to-day struggles, disappointments and failures. Rock and roll can fill me with joy and ecstasy like few other things. Rock and roll is my religion, and venues are my church.

The Crépe Place in Santa Cruz is one of the smaller and more intimate houses of worship I’ve been to. I arrived about 15 minutes before my son and his friend who were joining me. The drums and amps were crammed into 9×12 area to the right of the door, opposite the bar. The bar is decorated with tons of nostalgic paraphernalia and old movie posters like “Marihuana – Weed With Roots In Hell!”. The kids arrived, and in about 15 minutes we were seated at a table in the large outside garden area. We had chamomile tea, mozzarella sticks, and crepes. The food was satisfying, but hardly inspired. But the funky patio environment more than made up for it. The members of Diet Cig and some friends were there at another table, which was kind of cool.

A little after 9pm we made our way back to the bar area, and slipped into a spot about 12 feet from the performers. Eve’s Peach from San Jose were the opening act. They consist of Nikki (on guitar), Steven (drums) and Amy (bass). I did not connect with this band at all. About halfway through their set drummer Steven and the guitar player switched instruments for two songs. They were much better, I thought, in this configuration. Steven’s guitar playing was a little more riffy and unpredictable. They switched back for the last 3 songs, and then they were done.

Diet Cig are Alex Luciano on guitar/vocals and Noah Bowman on drums. They released an EP in 2015 called Over Easy, and their new full-length is titled I Swear I’m Good At This. And, in fact, they are brilliant, sweet and snarky all at once. I kinda feel like the rock and roll duo is an archetypal, but tricky configuration. It’s the most minimal combination you can have that is still legitimately rock and roll. Like if you were to take something already as essential as the Ramones, and then boil it down further, add a Peter Pan-like front-person – you would get Diet Cig.

I was glad to be close to the stage when Alex Luciano picked up her guitar and stepped up to sing. She is not very tall. But what Alex lacks in stature she more than makes up for in bouncy, radiant energy. Their set began with Sixteen, a song about many messed up things that can happen in high school sex and romance. Alex has a message for the audience, too, which is important. She was very clear that she wanted folks to be safe and have fun at the show – in a consensual way – thank you very much. In a later pause between songs she said wanted to encourage, women, POC, non-binary, queer, etc. people to make music and art. (No offense to all the cis-het white males in bands, but maybe there’s enough of you already.) At one point she made us all repeat “I will not water myself down for anyone!” You know, not everybody can pull that shit off, but I was 100% yelling “I will not water myself down for anyone!” at the top of my lungs. Thank you.

Their music is formed from simple elements, but combined in a way which is expressive and inventive. Alex’s guitar sound is perfect like a dirty martini – shaken and not stirred. Just the right amount of distortion. There are softer, slower parts, followed by quick tempo changes and angsty blasts of guitar and percussion. Luciano’s lyrics are also the stuff of genius, wringing poignancy and humor from cringeworthy situations and encounters.

A word about Noah’s drumming. There seemed to be nothing complex or flashy about it – but man he really hits hard! Like he really has a point to get across. Anyway, it really works for me. But the main thing about Diet Cig is the infectious joy they put into their music. Alex jumps around, on top of the drums, speakers or whatever is handy, then jumps down, rolls around on the floor, etc., while strumming. She played while walking through the crowd. Favorites included Apricots, Maid of the Mist, and Tummy Ache (“it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt”). They closed with super snarky Harvard and Alex banging out the final chords from on top of a table on the opposite side of the room from the stage area. There was no encore nor was one really needed after the preceding performance. By all means, get out there and support Diet Cig any chance you get, for they are spreading love and rock and roll wherever they go.

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