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Politically 4th Street 

Thursday, Oct 21 2004
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Photo by Jay Muhlin

BRIGHT EYES, JIM JAMES, M. WARD at the Orpheum, October 14

My Morning Jacket’s Jim James had the gorgeous autumnal songs, the high, soaring vocals and the affable stage manner, but all night long it was Bright Eyes’ 24-year-old singer-guitarist, Conor Oberst, who received the (generally female) between-song hollers of “Owww-woooo!,” “I want to have your baby!” and “You’re a genius!”

Fiddling with his black hair, motioning for a vodka tonic, Oberst studiously ignored the mating offers, but after his strong midset suggestion that Kerry be every audience member’s choice, one woman finally got a reaction with “Less politics, more music!” “Fuck you,” snapped Oberst, and, as the sold-out house applauded, he added with a half-smile, “It’s all politics, people.”

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Is it, though? Oberst stuck exclusively to his emo-folk-rock band’s melodically anemic material, which meant plenty of petulance, relationship neurotica, small-life details and other emo specialty fare: clever couplets about coupling. Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far beyond “the personal is the political,” and, sheesh, calling this solipsistic stuff “political” in these times of war, torture and eroding civil liberties seems a bit disingenuous. Oberst is steeped in politics: He just participated in the anti-Bush swing-state tour, he’s an outspoken advocate of grassroots principles, and corporate-driven cultural homogenization has been the driving subject of his other band, Desaparecidos. So what’s with the Young Werther routine?

Much of this evening — M. Ward’s curly hair–harmonica–gruff half-sneer, the mass cover of “Girl From the North Country,” the Bob Dylan/Band-ish way the musicians drifted on and offstage, singing harmonies on one another’s songs — recalled Dylan, but something was missing: Dylan’s reckless, Ginsbergian refusal in the mid-’60s to divide the inner from the outer, the journal scribblings from the evening news. That was genius, and I wasn’t hearing it tonight.

Guerilla Black (Photo by Jonathan Mannion)

GUERILLA BLACK at the Key Club, October 13

On the Bob Marley–sampled “Hearts of Fire” from the new Guerilla City, Guerilla Black spits, “He look like Big/He sound like Big.” That’s right, but 27-year-old Charles Williamson’s similarities to the late Notorious B.I.G. end there: He represents the Guerilla City, Compton, a world completely different from Biggie Smalls’ Brooklyn. Still, when he shouted, “What’s pop-lockin’, West Coast?” over gunfire sound effects as he took the stage wearing a black beanie and a white T-shirt, four huge cross chains hanging around his neck, the 6-foot, 300-pound Guerilla’s appearance, baritone voice and hyperactive flow on the opening rap, “Guerilla Nasty,” couldn’t help but remind you of Biggie. Guerilla struck next with the reggae-based radio favorite “Compton,” a heater featuring Beenie Man on background vocals — “I’m B-L-A-C-K from the C-P-T/Where they dip them cigarettes in P-C-P.” On his third excursion, the catchy “You’re the One” (which featured Mario Winans on the album), G.B. showed he can move for a big dude; sweating, towel in hand, he danced around the stage like he was on Soul Train. But then he walked off.

After the diverse crowd representing Inglewood, Gardena and Watts chanted for more, Guerilla came out and sang a personal a cappella dedicated to four recent deaths in his family. “That’s it?” everyone seemed to be asking. Yes, Compton’s Most Wanted needed to deliver more than three songs. Dude is a really BIG talent, but the West Coast deserves more.

—Ben Quiñones

CAETANO VELOSO at Royce Hall, UCLA, October 13

Just one of the American songs on Caetano Veloso’s recent A Foreign Sound failed to come off live: Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma” (which supplies the album’s title). The arrangement was fine — tighter and smoother than the disjoined hip-hop of the recorded version. But on the night of the final Bush/Kerry debate, lines like “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” shouldn’t have been read from a music stand.

Aside from this bit of stage business — Veloso knew all the other songs cold — the show, like the disc, perfectly balanced intelligence and sheer musical pleasure. Dapper, graying and Bowie-slender, Veloso was in gorgeous voice, with a sweet, androgynous falsetto and impressively true pitch, especially on an a cappella “Love for Sale,” and his six-piece band, anchored by cellist–musical director Jacques Morelenbaum, blasted through DNA’s “Detached” and caressed jazz warhorses (“Body and Soul,” “Cry Me a River”) with equal conviction. Veloso’s critical distance from the sexist chestnut “Try a Little Tenderness” and the Hollywood-does-Rio exotica of “The Carioca” was evident in his precise second-language delivery, but backed by the players’ effortless rhythmic lilt, the tunes’ melodic grace was undiminished.

Despite the English-language emphasis, nearly a third of the show was aimed at the audience’s large Lusophone contingent, including “Manhã de Carnaval” (from the film Orfeu) and a two-song tribute to fellow pan-American star Carmen Miranda capped by guitarist Pedro Sá’s extended wah-funk solo. The most affecting moment placed the two languages in dialogue, pairing a cello-and-voice take on Rodgers and Hart’s witty “Manhattan” with Veloso’s more ambivalent (and funkier) “Manhatã.” Veloso bridged the two with a brief passage from his memoir, Tropical Truth, written well before September 11; even then, he read, he viewed its skyscrapers “as if they had been demolished many centuries ago.”

—Franklin Bruno

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