Crack Sabbath, Charlie Hunter, and Wilco

August 22, 2007

Three recent shows, all great, all totally different.

Crack Sabbath. My wife’s cousin Doug and his girlfriend Tabetha were in town, and he’s a fan of progressive music, funk, and jazz, so I figured he’d appreciate Crack Sabbath. They’re one of Seattle sax-god Skerik’s many projects, doing punk-jazz covers of everything from Miles to the Buttholes. This night, they started off with some pretty standard funk jazz jams, including their take on “Caravan,” which it seems like every hippie jazz band in Seattle has to cover at least once. Meh.

Then Brad Mowen got up and sang their hit, “Making Out With My Dad” (next line: “because I’m all that he has”) and the weirdness surprised some of the sorority bunnies in the crowd. They followed with some Seattle covers–Nirvana, Jimi–and then Brad came back and he and Skerik screamed at each other over a black-metal drone. It kept going. And going. The sorority bunnies got nervous and went to the bar. Doug and Tabetha started looking at each other and thinking “what the hell is this guy into?” The drone got louder. The bass player, Keith Lowe, spent some time on the floor. Then it ended, and they went into what sounded like another funk jam.

Except…Skerik did a funny introduction for keyboardist Ron Weinstein to take the mic, which he did, and proceeded to talk at length about the death of America, as indicated by the refusal of Karl Rove and other Bush administration appointees to take the stand. When he was done, Skerik noted that his message had been brought to us by Procter and Gamble. Then they ended with a funk jam, which seemed to erase most of the dark vibes from the room.

I would have stuck around for the 2nd set, but my relatives were obviously ready to leave, so we did. Doug, who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, said that no band like that would last five minutes in that area–if they started up playing a punk-jazz version of Nirvana, it would cause a riot and the cops would come. He was serious too–apparently a lot of cokehead ex-surfers–mostly older guys, 40s and 50s–combined with sailors and racial tension, and you get lots of fights.

Charlie Hunter. An amazing musician with a shtick: he plays guitar and bass at the same time, on the same instrument–it’s got three bass strings and five guitar strings, two pickups fed through different amps (bass and guitar amps), and he’s always using all ten fingers to pick and pluck and strum and hammer on. Sometimes, he feeds the guitar through a rotating Leslie speaker, making it sound like an organ. It’s an amazingly complicated sequence of events, and I saw him a bunch of times at the Elbo Room in S.F. in the early 90s, and never did figure out exactly what he was doing.

The last time I saw him, at the Century Ballroom in Seattle in 2000, he blew my mind–he was the only melodic player on stage, sharing it with a percussionist and a drummer, and it was kinetic and wild–I seem to recall he took a tambourine solo and even killed that.

This time, the venue was Jazz Alley. I’ve only been there once before, and I don’t care for it–they serve dinner, so there are always people eating and waitstaff bopping around during the music. And it always seems a little bit restrained, like some of the audience members feel like they’re in jazz church.

So it was this time. He’s lost a string–it’s only a 7-string now–and he isn’t playing through the Leslie anymore. It was still a beautiful melodic show, and his keyboard player Eric Deutsch produced some amazing effects, but my expectations were high from last time and it just didn’t rule.

Who showed up for a guest appearance? Mr. Skerik himself. We saw him at the next table and figured he was probably invited, but it took him about a song to get into the groove. After which he knocked the audience dead. That was the highest point of the show.

Wilco. I agree with this reviewer: Wilco is the one of the best performing rock bands in the world.

I’ve seen them three times. The first was in the concrete bunker of Memorial Stadium at Bumbershoot, and although they only had 45 minutes, they were good enough that I went out and bought their two most recent CDs at the time, Summer Teeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, shortly after that. I particularly liked “Misunderstood,” where he belts out “I’d like to thank you for nothing…nothing…nothing…” at the end. Each “nothing” echoed through the stadium as the backing band stopped between each word. I’d never heard the song before.

The second time was at the Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge a couple years ago, and while the festival sucked, they were the highlight of the day.

Last night, they played Marymoor, a beautiful park out in the suburbs of Seattle. (Redmond, actually, just down the hill from global Microsoft headquarters.) A perfect summer evening, clear and warm enough for no jacket. The sound was phenomenal for an outdoor show–they had six instruments on stage at all times, plus up to four backing vocals, and you could hear each part crystal clear if you chose to tune in, or listen to the blend of the noise washing over you.

They’ve taken it out even further since the last time I saw them–on record, one of their songs, “Via Chicago,” is more or less a pretty pop song with some odd psychedelic bits in the background, similar to the kind of things the Beach Boys and Beatles did back in the late 60s. Last night, the band basically broke into a full-tilt Sonic Youth meltdown in the background while Jeff Tweedy kept right on singing through and playing the rhythm, then they all locked back in to the pop song at the same time. The lead guitarist, Nels Cline, has become one of my favorite guitarists–he seems to be able to play anything, wildly experimental and beautifully melodic, jazz and rock and country, fast when he needs to be but never wanky. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are sometimes heartbreakingly honest (“Misunderstood” still gets me all the way through), sometimes way dark (“I dreamed of killing you again last night, it felt alright to me”), occasionally mysterious. (“Impossible Germany. Unlikely Japan.” ??) His banter’s sarcastic and funny without being mean or going on way too long (like Neko Case does).

Here’s how good they were: I don’t own their last two records, and hadn’t heard half the songs they played last night. I enjoyed those songs as much–in some cases more–than the songs I knew. I remain convinced: Jeff Tweedy’s in it for the long haul. He wants to be Neil Young or the Grateful Dead, playing better and better shows, selling out bigger and bigger arenas into his 50s and 60s or as long as he can. Mediocre record sales be damned. And he’s the only one of the 90s indie generation that I think can pull it off, with the possible exception of Pearl Jam, who I don’t like but seem to have that same kind of live integrity.

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Deadheads and Haters

August 3, 2007

Every few years, one of Seattle’s free weeklies publishes a semi-ironic article explaining that the Grateful Dead are, in fact, not that bad. A few years ago, it was this review of Dick’s Picks in The Seattle Weekly; this week, Stranger music writer Jonathan Zwickel (one of the few music writers there who I can stand) admits that he, too, likes the Grateful Dead, and reveals the shocking secret there are other famous indie hipsters in Seattle who like the Dead as well.

See, there’s this code of religion in the indie rock world, at least in Seattle, although I imagine that similar rules apply everywhere. Punk is the best music and all of it must be appreciated for its energy and attitude and don’t-give-a-fuck youthfulness, no matter how derivative and boring it is. Not being able to play an instrument is cool because it makes no-talent writers feel like they, too, could be cool by playing in a rock and roll band.

Some classic 70s rock is ironically cool as well, but only if it’s guitar-heavy, second-tier, not-too-serious stuff. You know, the stuff you used to sit through while waiting for the good bands to come on when you listened to “classic rock” radio back in the 1980s. Listenable, not an immediate radio-changer like Journey or Bob Seger, but nothing particularly special.

Also: you have to pretend to like techno/DJ/electronic/whatever they call that videogame music these days, or you’re a dinosaur. You have to pretend to like hip-hop or you’re a racist. You have to pretend an ironic appreciation for disco or your a homophobe. You are allowed to have differing opinions about experimental stuff–noise, black metal, free jazz–as long as you pretend to like at least one of these artists or albums in one of these genres from time to time. Otherwise you’re shallow.

Anybody who’s hung out with “serious” music fans in the last 10 years knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The Grateful Dead are at the bottom of the list. They’re the opposite of punk: no cute lead singer, no thrashing, no tatts. Long meandering songs. Competent musicianship.

A few points to these writers:

  1. Most of us, music fans and musicians included, stopped caring about others’ taste in music some time after high school. OK, you might turn me on to something I’ve never heard before that I actually enjoy–that’s worthwhile. Or I might know that your parties will feature some music that I can’t stand (Gypsy Kings, Norah Jones). But the Grateful Dead are a known quantity. I get nothing out of knowing that you like, hate, or are indifferent to them. All you’re doing is playing the reverse-hipster card.
  2. Deadheads can be really annoying. But so can any type of hardcore fanatic. Sports fans, Christians, gay men who talk about nothing but gayosity.
  3. The first not-so-big secret about the Dead is that their albums were never a good representation of the band. You had to see them live. The second not-so-big secret about Dead shows is that the higher you are, the better they sound. I saw them three times on their 80s and 90s shed tours. The first time I was sober and was so bored I left early. The second time I was stupendously high and they rocked my world. The third time, I was fairly stoned and they were fairly good. Now you may think that’s not a talent, that every musician sounds better high. Wrong. Cheesy, poorly produced pop music sounds worse when you’re high. Some music sounds good sober, better drunk, but not so great high (Rolling Stones, Tom Waits). Some music is attractive when you’re sober, but opens up into something completely different when you’re high (Coltrane, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd). But the Dead are one of the few–perhaps the only–artist for whom one’s enjoyment is directly correlated to how high one is at the time experiencing them.

When people tell me they hate the Dead, I know they’ve never been really high and seen them live. When people tell me they love the Dead, I know they took psychedelic drugs at their shows.

Just like when the entire staff of The Stranger writes about how great Daft Punk was, I know (a.) they never lived through the epic arena rock shows of the 70s and early 80s and (b.) they were all on ecstasy or something better.