Where the hell did this year go?
I’m sure we all say this by the time Christmas rolls around, rearing its pimply, red-and-green-splotched face, reminding us to stimulate the economy by buying stuff that’s just gonna end up in a trash can or forgotten on some already over-cluttered shelf by this time next year.
But, all ranting aside, this year did zip by particularly fast for me. Entering my first year of grad school, there were many late-night seminars that found me physically exhausted from a weekend of shows, struggling to dissect the deeper themes inherent in Melville’s short stories while my mind was still replaying Sons of Huns at the Gilman. Somehow I managed to attend 70 (and counting) of those suckers, almost all local band bills. Somehow I had enough time to discover some great new artists and see others I already knew grow and mature. Somehow I resisted the urge to scream, “This ain’t rock n’ roll!” in the middle of a classroom discussion, ripping up my book of 18th century British poetry and exiting the building to the sound of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
It was tempting, though.
I’m heavily sleep-deprived and a little weary and not too sure I agree wholeheartedly with when Warren Zevon sang “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but am still here with enough energy to remain excited about the Bay Area music scene. So here are the musical moments of the year that stay entrenched in my memory even after so much was pushed out to make room for literary criticism and MLA guidelines.
Gogol Bordello Will Save Us All
Seeing Gogol Bordello live is a revivifying experience. It’s a rock n’ roll baptism, a gypsy-punk hallelujah reaffirmation that life really can be incredible sometimes, that transcendence can be achieved even at a relatively ordinary event like a concert. This is indeed hyperbolic, but no amount of exaggeration comes close to communicating the intangible feeling that squeezes your heart and electrifies your brain in the middle of a Gogol Bordello show, when the crowd is crushing your feet and slamming into your body and sweat is dripping from every pore in your face but the moisture feels good because it reminds you that you are alive and distanced enough from the realization of your own mortality that you allow yourself to be exuberant, ecstatic, unshackled by daily responsibilities and everyday doldrums.
Okay, this is getting a little ridiculous. But also quite accurate. Because when the band busts into an epic instrumental jam or pulls out a song that gets the packed floor dancing like possessed pagans, you too will find yourself struggling to make sense of the senseless, the near impossibility of being able to clearly articulate what a great rock show can do to your body, mind and soul.
In The Studio
I’ve only just begun my series chronicling the creative processes of musicians recording in the Bay Area, but already I’ve gotten a bit too involved in the stories, contributing hand claps to Kendra McKinley’s upcoming album and a voice during some EPIC gang vocals on <a href=”http://www.iamtravishayes.com/”>Travis Hayes’s latest tracks. If I keep this up I might just snag an album credit eventually.
It’s been fascinating so far to observe just how different musicians act, write, create, perfect, and improvise in a studio setting. McKinley’s cheerful, detail-obsessed eccentricity was a far cry from Hayes’s more off-the-cuff approach, consciously adding the ideas and input of his bandmates to fully flesh out his personal arrangements. I don’t want to give too much away now since I will be publishing the full article soon, but just know that the new Hayes tracks are simply awesome. 2015 was pretty great in terms of music, but after previewing some upcoming songs in the studio, I can’t wait to hear what 2016 is gonna have in store.
A Quail Takes Flight
It’s easy to become jaded about bands as a musician. This is especially true when you’ve played numerous shows with the same acts, so many that you’ve memorized their set lists and stage moves. We are an often egotistical and narcissistic bunch. Yes, there is community; yes, there is mutual affection; yes, musicians are willing to share their talents with those in need. But sometimes we lose sight of that focus and forget that this music scene and our place in it is a whole lot more tenuous than we would like to acknowledge.
I’ve seen and played numerous shows with Curious Quail this year, and I enjoyed every one of them. I fell into the comfortable misconception that the band would always be around and I would always be playing shows with them and I would always see the same members. That misconception was shattered when I was told their bassist/vocalist Erin Keely was leaving the group because it takes a Herculean effort to make ends meet in an absurdly expensive Bay Area. Real life came crashing through, taking away a lovely voice and melodic bass from a great band.
At her last show with the band at Art Boutiki in San Jose, the whole stellar evening’s lineup acknowledged this parting and grappled with the transitory nature of life and relationships the only way musicians know how: by playing music. Zen Zenith shared the stage with his former bandmate for a few songs; Picture Atlantic, Dangermaker and (my band) The Y Axes all dedicated a tune to the departing bassist. And when Curious Quail closed out the long night with a soaring rendition of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” getting members from every group to join them on a stage too small for their massive sound, I stood by the PA, Erin’s voice blasting delightfully in my ears, and made a conscious effort to appreciate the moment. Time moves by much too fast and, thankfully, we have music to slow it down a bit, helping us to realize just how lucky we are to know these interesting, sometimes erratic, and mostly insane people who produce it.
I remember waking up the day after the Gold Minor-hosted Gold Rush Festival ended, regaining semi-consciousness in the hazy morning light, shivering in the naked glory of nature, feeling like Death after He pulls an all-nighter working a civil war. The river separating the campground and stage was calm, eternally undisturbed by the revelry of the past two days. Before passing out the night before, I vaguely remember being soothed by the sounds of Kat Robichaud belting out a crushing rendition of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and, a little later on, Gold Minor rolling out their atmospheric rocker “The Calling.” When I made the long trudge back to my car, dehydrated and aching all over, I felt a bit ambivalent about the previous night’s excesses. No, I’m not a rockstar, but last night sure made me feel like one.
I’m not so much Thoreau when it comes to nature as I am Woody Allen: paranoid rather than peaceful; uncomfortable instead of infatuated. But promise me a chance to play a DIY music festival in the depths of Placerville? I’ll take that opportunity in a heartbeat, and I’m more than satisfied with the experience. Gold Minor put on a helluva show (as they always do) and delivered a number of exceptional Bay Area acts to round out their impromptu lineup (featuring, among others, Beautiful Machines, The Bad Jones, The Love Dimension, etc.). They also provided food, built their own stage, and prepared plenty of moonshine to go around.
I don’t know if I said it explicitly yet, but those dudes are awesome. The Gold Rush Festival proved to me that you can do great things on a relatively low budget and few resources if you can surround yourself with like-minded artists all working towards a larger goal. That’s the spirit of community. That’s the spirit Gold Minor and the bands in their social circle embody. That’s how we keep San Francisco culturally relevant and, most importantly, safe for rock n’ roll.
San Francisco Is Still Cool
Here’s the scene: I was killing time before an interview with Vela Eyes out in Hayes Valley. It was early February: cold, wet. I was exhausted from my first few weeks surviving grad school and looking for a coffee shop without an embarrassingly cute name, getting more frustrated with every further fruitless step. As I passed by artisanal cupcake shops, boutique comic book stores and other atrociously adorable products of tech-fueled gentrification, I started to question: is San Francisco really this lame? Does all the future hold for this city a nice pair of designer jeans and a box of organic doughnuts? Is this the culture that people pay two grand a studio apartment to be a part of? Gross.
Finally I find a coffee shop and it probably has an embarrassingly cute name but it smells like coffee and looks like coffee and I need coffee. So I walk in and order my coffee which is most likely overpriced but I suppose it beats shelling out to the corporate behemoths and as this justification is racing through my head some guy asks me, “So you like Black Sabbath?”
What kind of question is that? Of course I like Black Sabbath. Everybody likes Black Sabbath. And that’s when I realize I’m wearing my “Listen to Black Sabbath” t-shirt and is probably what prompted who I think is a homeless man to broach the topic in the first place. I probably mumble some barely coherent response as I try to push my way past him to the door. But he keeps up with the questions. Now he’s asking about particular deep cuts and my opinion of Bill Ward’s drumming technique and the arena-rock sound explored on Vol. 4 and before I even realize it we’re in the middle of a full-blown conversation about heavy, old-school rock, now branching out to underground San Francisco gems like Blue Cheer and Moby Grape. It was a total music geek conversation with a scatter-brained, burnt-out ex-hippie, a true refugee from a time when San Francisco legitimately was the center of the artistic universe, when the Summer of Love in ’68 could be imagined as a viable reality for America. And then that reality was hijacked by Nixon and Big Business and the Domino Theory. Manson murders peace and love, Vietnam traumatizes two nations, Altamont proves rock n’ roll ain’t gonna save the world. The strung out ‘70s begin.
This dude was a survivor of lost optimism. He had lived in the city since his early teens and somehow still manages to cling onto a place right around the corner from this embarrassingly cute coffee shop despite the city’s precarious economic climate and its not-so-subtle disdain for the poor. He’s seen neighbors evicted, cherished taquerias go under, beloved bands break up or move to a more affordable city. He’s a survivor alright.
Vegan ice cream shops and luxury apartments may be popping up faster than you can count, but this grizzled, long-haired, long-bearded veteran of one too many Golden Gate park acid trips is here to stay.
There is reason to have hope in this city after all. Cool ain’t dead just yet.