Archive for October, 2010


The middle of October is usually a pretty safe bet for weather in the Bay Area.  The Indian Summer is hanging in and sun shine tends to be the norm.  Neil Young knows the region and he knows his fans.  And since he knows his fans so well, I doubt he was very worried about attendance for this year’s 24th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, despite the fact that both Saturday and Sunday were forecasted to have rain.

I looked at the awning covered seats in the front of the giant out-door Shoreline Amphitheatre with little to no envy as I weaved my way through the lawn.  Ah, the lawn people at the Shoreline, I have never known such a fine group of people.  Hanging tough, thousands upon thousands of people were encamped with tarps covering their belongings and adorned in full rain gear.  In many cases that rain gear was nothing more than a black plastic trash bag.

I have been coming to this concert since I was about 11, in 1994 I believe.  It has become a family tradition and my aunt and uncle and cousins were all in attendance.  All said, I think we had a crew of about a dozen.  My dad got there early and laid out plenty of tarp space for all of us and as my bother, my girlfriend, my friend and yours truly rolled in, the music was just starting.  Neil and his wife Peggy were doing some songs and introducing the exceptional children on stage, who the concert is ultimately for.

Of all the concerts in the Bay Area, this one really stands out.  The generosity of all the musicians, the intention of the concert, the school that it benefits and the fans that come out to support it are all truly working toward something greater.  Good fortune and talent should be shared and used for the betterment of people at a disadvantage, and this is a good example of that at work.

As the rain fell periodically throughout the evening and into the night, the crowd was treated to one fine musical act after another.  I felt like this was the best lineup in the past couple of years and each act held my attention.  Neil Young likes to choose new and old acts, mixing nostalgia with up and coming talent to appeal to all crowds and turn people onto new things.  The acts also have to be able to hold their own on the acoustic only stage.  Removing the mask of affect-pedals and synthesizers shows a band’s ability beyond what you may regularly hear.

When Billy Idol came out I was blown away.  The iconic 1980s musician has always stood in my eyes as somewhat of a novelty act and just a recognizable face of an era.  But his performance proved to be one of my favorites of the day.  He possessed an energy and forceful presence that completely answered my question of “why is Billy Idol still so popular?”

He is a timeless musician.  As a Bridge School veteran he was very comfortable on the acoustic stage and was great at engaging the children.  You could see the excitement in their faces as he came up and sang just for them.  It was heart warming.  He ripped through a set of music comprised almost entirely of tunes from his 1970s punk band, Generation X.  He closed his set with Rebel Yell, during which the Giants beat the Phillies to go to the 2010 World Series, the crowd erupted and it was awesome.

I remember the first time I went to Bridge School in the fifth grade I was to say the very lest, ecstatic, to see Pearl Jam.  They were my band at the time.  The early nineties were in full swing and among all the great music that was emerging, Pearl Jam was in my top 3 for sure.

So to see them again this year was great.  Eddie Vedder has an amazing voice and in my opinion is one of the best lyricists of the past 20 years.  Their sound transfers perfectly to the acoustic stage and despite the rain that was falling pretty heavily during their set, I think everyone was warmed by their melting sound.  We also snuck in a few bottles of red wine, so that didn’t hurt matters either.

The video montage of the children of Bridge School was a tear jerker as usual.  It reminds me how lucky I am to have full and uninhibited use of my body, a treasure that is greater than anything else.  These brave kids and their fantastic teachers work so hard to live life and it is truly humbling.  It gets me every time.

The night usually wraps up with Neil Young doing his solo thing.  And while I love Neil Young, his lula-bye voice is a little slow for midnight when you need something to pick you up before heading home.  This year was different.  This year he was joined by members of his original band, Buffalo Springfield to close the night out with a rocking set of music that hasn’t been performed for a long time.  The last time they were on stage together was in 1968.

Stephen Stills and Richie Furay joined old Neil, along with some accompanying musicians and treated the audience to some very old classics.  So old, I couldn’t personally tell you the names of the songs without looking them up.  But boy oh boy, my dad was on the spot to inform us youngsters of the entire history.

The night really closed with everyone coming back out on stage and doing a big, group rendition of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rocking the Free World.”

The powerful lyrics were shared back and forth between Eddie Vedder and Neil and it brought the house down.  Two musicians who have forged a bond over the years singing away and telling the people how it is.

Another Bay Area musician will be concreting himself into the hall of fame of Bay Area greats, this New Years Eve.  Les Claypool will be performing his 20th New Years Eve concert this year, and he will be doing it with his original band, the one and only and all mighty Primus.

For me, this will be my sixth year seeing Claypool do his New Years Eve performance.  I jumped on the bandwagon for the 2005/2006 extravaganza at The Fillmore and haven’t dared look back ever since.  It was a wild night of blurry confusion that ended with a twisted rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice,” where a group of white rabbits infiltrated the audience and began to dance with me.  Luckily, I was in a yellow jumpsuit so I got along with them really well.

Since then, his NYE show has taken fans to Santa Rosa, The Fillmore and even one year at the War Memorial Opera House where he split the bill with Zappa Plays Zappa.  For that occasion, Claypool treated guests to a full blown 3D movie behind the stage during the concert.  It was wild.

But none of that compares to what is going down this year to celebrate the 20th annual NYE celebration.  Unable to pack his bag of tricks into one night, Claypool is stretching this NYE into a two night run at the Fox Theatre in Oakland.

For the first night, Primus will be playing their second studio album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety.  This classic album houses some of the Primus greats, such as Tommy the Cat, American Life and Eleven. 

But the real kicker for me and so many other fans of odd music is the surprise opening act, The Residents.  The Residents are from a world all of their own.  Started in the late 60s, this enigmatic troupe of musicians has been creating experimental music and performing bizarre shows entirely in costume for the span of their career.

Their fans define Cult Following, as this band which has never made it into the mainstream continues to sell out shows, produce new albums and devise new concepts and themes under which they perform.

Their original costume of choice was four large eye ball masks, worn by all members of the group.  Over the years they have evolved and changed and are currently in a new era where the singer is costumed in a robe and an old-man mask.  The keyboardist and guitarist are adorned in some sort of tentacle attire which is kind of hard to describe.  They have been touring for the past year with their Talking Light Tour.  I saw the opening show of this tour last January in Santa Cruz and it was mesmerizing and haunting.

Claypool has been a long time fan of The Residents and they have been a heavy influence on his own music for some time.  Primus has covered several of their songs over the years.  Having these two bands perform together is a wet dream for those who love bizarre and indefinable music.

Primus hasn’t performed a NYE show since 1999.  Les Claypool has been doing the annual freak outs with one of his many musical spawns.  Always a revolving door of musicians with a few mainstays, he performs under The Frog Brigade, The Fancy Band or just Les Claypool when he doesn’t want to label which ever group of musicians happens to be on stage that year.

So, once again all the stops are being pulled out for the 20th anniversary.  As the poster says, Les Claypool’s Fancy Brigade will opening for Primus on NYE.  Well, this is just too much to handle.  A Claypool fan’s ultimate dream, come true.  It is unspecified exactly who will be the meat of this Fancy Brigade, but I have a few hunches. 

It would be too much for me to delve into the workings of the Claypool family of musicians, as it is like a soap opera that requires a lot of explaining and may prove to be boring once in text.

Alright, I’ll just say it.  This is my hunch for the Fancy Brigade:  Les Claypool-bass, vocals; Eenor-guitar; Jay Lane-drums; Skerik-saxophone; Mike D-percussion; Gabby La La-sitar.

Mike D and Skerik will already be there that night as the first openers, performing in their other band The Dead Kenny Gs.  Eenor could be replaced by Brian Kehoe on guitar and Paulo Baldi could drum instead of Jay Lane.  But, since Jay Lane is now the drummer for Primus, it would make sense to only have to set up one drum kit.  You see what I’m saying?  There is a lot of moving around in these musical circles.

Oh yeah, Sam Bass might be there to play cello too.  Or what if Todd Huth shows up?  Or Adam Gates? Or MIRV?  The possibilities are endless and for me, my mind is in a whirl of day dreaming excitement.  Soon, those day dreams will become nightmares and the freaky madness will ensue.  Good lord, what if Buckethead made an appearance?  That really would be too much, or maybe just right.  Hmm?

Halloween just isn’t close enough.  I’ve got costumes and I want to wear one right now.  I want to shed my skin as a human being and forget about the real world while I adorn my body in dusty attire.  I want to dance with thousands of crazy people. Watch stuff burn, spin, wobble, shake, rattle and roll.  Like they say in that annoying Black Eyed Peas song, “I wana rock right now!”

I was joined yesterday by thousands of others who I can imagine were feeling the same way.  Those of us, who don’t need much of an excuse to dress up and be wild, flocked to the 11th annual Burning Man Decompression party.  

Located on Mariposa Street in the Dog Patch district just below Potrero Hill, this six block street party is an aid to help us fragile beings struggling with the realities of work, school and life in general; to help us decompress and re-enter the land of the lost.  Land of the lost is of course a severely cynical and self-important term I have just now created to represent those not cool enough to go to Burning Man.  Sarcasm intended.

Although, I don’t believe everyone there had been to Burning Man.  As I started throwing fistfuls of dust collected directly from the Black Rock Desert specifically for this very purpose, into the air; not everyone seemed to think it was as funny as I did.  A gripe that in my opinion has no legitimacy.  It’s dusty as hell at Burning Man, and by golly I was going to make sure it got dusty at Decompression.  Which I did, over and over again, telling people it was the ashes of my grandmother.  I know, I know.

At just ten dollars a person (provided you were in costume, $20 for laimos in street wear) the fund raising event is quite a bargain.  It is a macro-climate of the actual event.  Fire is spitting into the air from a variety of orifices, funky art cars line the perimeter, huge sound systems pump out a range of throbbing techno, art installations dot the street, a few stages for live music/acts and plenty of games and small to-dos to keep things interesting.

Again, my strong belief that people are just dying to have a good time is confirmed.  Most people look happy.  In true San Francisco tradition there is a fine selection of freaks and oddities.  But the thing I always learn about freaks and oddities is that they are more often than not quite normal.  They, like my self, really enjoy acting weird when the situation lends itself.  I consider myself a mild mannered person in most settings, but inside is a boiling pot of goofball mischief.  And that pot needs its lid lifted more than just once a year on Halloween.

So you get a lot of people united by this passion to be creative, experimental, dancing together or just weird for the sake of weird.  It isn’t quite Burning Man.  It is in the middle of the city and only costs ten bucks, so naturally some riff raff are going to find their way in.  I did see a fight.  Granted, the kid at the source of the fight was very fucked up.  I had seen him previously making his way around the dance floor.  He was hanging onto girls and just not observing the sanctity of other people’s feelings and space.  I imagine he got put to the ground, which he did quite violently, after getting in the face of someone’s girlfriend.  It was unfortunate to see when otherwise the mood was so good.

In contrast to the larger soundstages, set up by theme camps from Burning Man, the stage at the north end of the street hosted some fine live music.  A group called the Burning Band treated the small crowd to some funky old time polka tunes.  With lots of big brass instruments, an accordion, a fiddle and who knows what else, they had the crowd swaying to and froe like it was a German schnitzel festival.  I repeatedly and openly requested the Chicken Dance, but my desires were not met.

For those of us who do go out to the desert, it really is nice to see all the art and get that feeling of “home” for a day.  It is the people that make it though.  Humanity never ceases to amaze and amuse me.  Where else do you get to see a naked dude, three branches up into a tree, dancing has ass off?  Not many places.

Like the Burning Man event itself, Decompression is a means to express art and creativity.  To give and share what you are able to create.  It is a mission to unite people through a common draw and hope that people take away something positive and spread it beyond themselves.  It’s also a good party.

Did you notice your cell-phone reception was a lot better this year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?  All across Golden Gate Park, temporary cell-phone towers stood tall, keeping concert goers connected all through the weekend.  But it was not just these towers of electric connection that were keeping people together this last weekend.  But rather the three days of free and highly eclectic music in a beautiful and historically uniting setting.

As I walked into the park on Friday afternoon with my girl friend Jen and my friend Jason I instantly felt good vibes pouring out from the interiors.  The three of us kicked up some dust as we walked east along the polo fields, the sound of music growing louder with each step.

My prime objective of the afternoon was to see The Seven Walkers.  All I really knew about the Seven Walkers was that Bill Kreutzman, drummer from the Grateful Dead was in the band.  As we approached Arrow Stage, wind and cold air from the ocean playing on our backs, I could hear a cover of “Sugaree” by the Grateful Dead.  There is something magical about walking into the park to find hundreds of people gathered on a lawn, dancing to Grateful Dead music.  Our timing was perfect and set a great pace for the weekend to come.

The Seven Walkers put on a great show, combining the psychedelic sounds of 1960s San Francisco rock with a twist of some New Orleans jazz.  Along with Kreutzman, the group consisted of George Porter Jr. Papa Mali and Matt Hubbard.  As a band made up of previously accomplished musicians, they were thrilled to be playing together in this formation and in support of their new album.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys put on a fabulous display of good old-fashioned bluegrass.  Having grown up going to bluegrass festivals with my family I always feel a special kinship to this type of music.  As fiddles, mandolins and banjos ripped through the think fog of Friday evening my feet and those of thousands of others kicked up grass and flew through the air in time to the fast paced music. Only when the band slowed down did we.

I also noticed something I have never before caught onto.  There must be a sound laced into the high pitch, high paced frequency of this type of music that really gets all the dogs within earshot all worked up.  At first I thought it was a coincidence, but three to four instances of dogs responding in this manner and we were convinced.  Perhaps an official study should be conducted to be absolutely sure of this phenomenon.

After finishing off the beers we brought, cleaning out a pirate beer merchant of his inventory and an incredible show by The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs; we were ready to make our way back to camp.  Oh wait, I just live twenty blocks that way, we’re not camping at this festival.  This fact is one that played a pivotal role in the weekend being such a fine musical experience.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue tore the Star Stage apart at 11 a.m. on Saturday.  What a way to start a day.  The cool coastal air kept everyone feeling fine in the face of blisteringly hot funk/jazz that wailed into the moderately sized crowd.  It was after this show that I learned the ways of the Star and Towers Stage.  The two stages were right next to each other, and would rotate on performances, giving each stage about an hour break between performances.  Red wine, a blanket, a hula-hoop and a broadcast of the music coming from the other stage kept us content until Hot Tuna Electric arrived on Star Stage to give us some of that good old rock and roll.

Aside from some stages being overwhelmingly crowded at some points, the festival really goes off without a hitch.  A minor amount of efficiency can assure that you will see at least four whole bands in a day and if you really want to run around you could see even more.  Portable toilets were ample and conveniently located at all stages and thoroughfares while a variety of food vendors were set up at each stage.

I couldn’t help but feel a total sense of community within the crowd all weekend.  Never did I witness any fights, bad behavior or any of the other hiccups of humanity that seem to surface when you host over half of a million people in one place at a time.

I love the idea that more than half of a million people leave that festival radiating that sense of community and spread it to those they encounter afterward.  It perpetuates neighborly love and in my opinion is an ideal that keeps San Francisco the open minded, peaceful place that it is.

Sunday was just fantastic.  The March Fourth Marching Band opened up the Porch Stage with their dose of oddity, circus-style entertainment.  Bringing the Burning Man flavor the 12-piece band flooded the small stage with drums, brass and homemade costumes.  Stilt walkers flared about the audience and performed stunts in time to the funky, energetic marching band music.

As I walked through the field leading up to the Arrow Stage I was damn glad I had friends who had secured a front row spot for the day.  With our primo vantage point we sat and danced through Moonalice, Rail Road Earth, Keller and the Keels and bit of Yonder Mountain String Band.  A quadruple threat of performances that would have made the entire weekend worth while all on their own.

But the weekend wasn’t quite over.  The fantastic thing about this festival is the variety of music.  While much of it could be put into a few loose categories, some acts still stand out on their own as indefinable and completely unique.

Mike Patton made that happen on Sunday afternoon.  After Elvis Costello left the Star Stage the majority of the crowd left with him.  The wildness that was soon to ensue was largely unknown to the average concert goers; and bigger more recognizable acts drew the masses away.

What was to be shown next was the mighty Mondo Cane.  Front man for Faith no More, Mr. Bungle, Fantamos, Tomahawk and Peeping Tom; Mike Patton delivered his orchestra backed rendition of Italian opera and pop songs from the 1950s.  Upon explanation it may sound a little hokey, but as a seasoned concert attendee, I can honestly say it was one of the most awesome musical performances I have ever seen.  (If you have a minute, these links are a great collection of youtube videos.)

Anyone who knows Mike Patton, will immediately understand how this could and indeed does work oh so, so well.  His vocal range is out of this world and he really shows it with this project.  To see this singer, who is probably one of the most creative and diverse artists of the last 25 years bring this new project to the US for the first time was the real treat of the weekend for me.

Another year down, my best yet.  We joined the hundreds of thousands in departing the magical meadows of Golden Gate Park.  Mystified by having such a great weekend offered to us for free right in our own front yard, we all headed home to the inevitable realities of Monday.  But the city’s positivity battery was charged up and I am sure everyone went home feeling lucky and grateful for the gift.  Thank you Warren Hellman, I promise one year I will make it to your show too.