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Street Action

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

SUNSET JUNCTION, AUGUST 24-25

Sunset Junction has morphed from a pokey arts-and-crafts fair to a major musical happening, this year booking A-listers from Sonic Youth to Mudhoney to DJ Colette and Chaka Khan. Throw in tasty, reasonably priced grub, kiddie rides and enough gewgaws to preoccupy the flea-market/antiquing set -- all for just six bucks -- and you've got a summer soiree nonpareil. Even if you didn't find something to like this weekend, rest assured no sleazy promoter got rich off the Junction.

In a strictly musical sense, Saturday was just eight-hour foreplay culminating in Sonic Youth. The vibe was silly, in a high-school-sophomore kinda way, moments before the NYC art-rockers hit the stage -- "Quit pushing," "Excuse you?," "Bro, you elbow me once more," like an urban version of My So-Called Life. Once the area reached overcapacity, a phalanx of LAPD strutted toward the stage to mad-dog the rowdier ones and generally look hard. But even the heavy police presence couldn't dim the band's saintly aura. Sonic Youth have been around since '79, and the fact that, in the early twilight of their career, they still command a rabid fan base in folks 15 to 50 is a testament to their importance -- even if they did play heavily from their latest release, Murray Street, a conservative retrenchment into the commercial salad days of their Goo/Dirty period. Like the Stones, they'll still be selling out shows 20 years from now.

If Saturday was hobbled with adolescent self-consciousness, then Sunday's cosmopolitan tolerance of the "other" was for adults only. You had buppies lip-synching to Chaka Khan; cholos rolling to the Sanborn Stage's breakbeats; Gold's Gym ho's showcasing their cut torsos; and the summer's definitive drag-queen/king contest, Ms. Sunset Junction (congrats, Leslie Carlos). The dizzying diversity was marked even within music genres, like the punk/alt-rock offerings on the Bates Stage. Take Pansy Division, for instance. These two-chord clowns wear their orientation on their sleeves, nay, reduce it to a cuddly über-homo shtick that serves as comic release for gays and is non-threatening to breeders. The tunes ranged from inspired gay-porn ditties ("He Whooped My Ass in Tennis, So I Fucked His Ass in Bed") to tongue-in-cheek ballads like "What's All This Talk About Love (Sex, Sex, Sex)?"

Then it got serious. Sleater-Kinney, once lazily lumped into the queercore thing, have long since transcended the identity ghetto. The Portland trio is, quite simply, one of the finest rock bands of the last half-decade. "Don't they have a bass player?" a newly minted fan blurted out. "They sound so big for just three people." Guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker conjure palpable synergy, their roles differentiated only in that Brownstein is more lead guitar/sometimes-vocals while Tucker six-strings and mostly sings. Her opera-caliber tremolo is unsurpassed in guitar-based pop, probably all pop -- you could almost see her uvula jiggling. "I live a block away and I could hear her from my porch," said the fan. The girls burned through choice tunes like "One Beat," the title track from their new release (they're still on Kill Rock Stars, God bless 'em) and riot-grrrl ditties as far back as '94's Call the Doctor (Chainsaw). An obnoxious Mohawked kid screamed, "Pussy lickers!" but, sadly, there was no pink mafia around to stomp him into the ground.

CHRIS ROBINSON at El Rey, August 19

"You can hoot and holler all ya want," said Chris Robinson to the overzealous fans who never stopped screaming for the former Black Crowes singer during his otherwise serene set at El Rey. Billed as "An Evening With Chris Robinson," the show was a mellow sit-down affair, with chairs placed throughout the floor and Robinson and collaborator Paul Stacey in their own seats onstage, playing only acoustic guitars.

Robinson's groupies may not have minded that he's cut off his sexy long locks and grown a full beard, but the new look showed the singer's shift away from rock-star pinup and growth toward a more serious, stripped-down performer. Belting out the material from his upcoming solo release, New Earth Mud (Redline), a collection of bluesy ballads and lazy psychedelic ditties, Robinson was most affecting when he pushed the range of his voice and embellished each verse with the kind of impassioned intonations that made Crowes tunes so soulful.

Unfortunately, not much of his new material allowed him to reach those kinds of heights. Exceptions included the funky "Safe in the Arms of Love" and the twangy "Untangle My Mind," which, like a lot of his new stuff, seemed to be inspired by his marriage to Kate Hudson and his tumultuous time in the Crowes (who are officially "on hiatus"). His inspired selection of covers, in fact, showed Robinson's vocal gifts best. Ranging from the uproarious (Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman") to the obvious (the Stones' "No Expectations") to the curious (the Carpenters' "Close to You"), Robinson made each song his own, and kept the set from feeling too coffeehouse folk-rock.

 

Still, it wasn't enough to please the Crowes admirers who came hoping to hear old faves or see the crooner rock out like he used to with his bro and the B.C. crew. "This is just way too James Taylor," one fan was overheard musing. But these days Robinson is obviously more concerned with raw reflection than shaking his moneymaker. (Lina Lecaro)

DJs SAEED & PALASH at Red, August 23

It's flag-waving season, so here goes: Despite our enchantment with anemic, bump-snorting superstar jocks from across the pond (they do indeed mesmerize with those perfect blends and cold beats), the USA is where new music evolves. It was the bittersweet alchemy of the African-American experience that long kept us on top, but immigrants and their sons and daughters are taking over the innovation machine as the browning of America seeds fresh sounds from people like Iraqi-born Saeed Younan and his Bangladeshi production partner, Palash Ahmed.

The Washington, D.C., duo are at the forefront of progressive house, a variant of Yankee post-disco usually associated with British cover jocks but which has been taken back by Saeed & Palash, their Iranian-born D.C. buddies Deep Dish, gay-community legend Danny Tenaglia, Cali Latinos Hipp-e and Halo Varga, and the Balance crew from planet Florida. Where U.K. progressive can suck in its cheeks like a supermodel, the Saeed & Palash strain has a fat-ass, exotic percussion and a downtown attitude. Arena in Hollywood is a former ice factory where Red's Friday-night Asian-American massive likes trance hard and fast. But Saeed & Palash took turns taming the vibe by pitching down the bpm and funking up the 4/4 beats. Their brooding bass lines felt almost Californian, Funky Techno Tribe­style, as the floor jammed with hypnotized marchers. A sample of "We Care a Lot" lightened the air, then a gorgeous female vocal track killed with the girls. The duo's recent mix CD, TIDE:EDIT :07, is a showcase of the sometimes gloomy progressive sound of now -- relentless congas, twisted low end, sinister strangers whispering at you -- but S&P felt much more optimistic live onstage, like they'd found an exit from the cave and were taking us there, candles in hand.

With DJs all over the globe trying so hard to be more tribal than thou, it's a lesson to see two of the sound's hottest producers (they've remixed progressive hits ranging from John Digweed's "Voices" to the current "U Need It" by Peter Bailey) thinking outside the record box and reaching for new flavors. It's this kind of human chemistry that makes America the leader of the e-world. (Dennis Romero)

MICHAEL GIRA at the Derby, August 16

"Is it going to be like this all night?" someone asked me at the Derby's bar, three songs into an uneven, morose set by W.A.C.O., which followed an uneven, morose set of murder ballads and sea chanteys by Dame Darcy. I replied, "It's only gonna get worse -- or, I guess, better." Realizing that she and her pals were here looking for an evening of Johnny Red Hot and His Rootin' Tootin' Snazzy Dressers or whatever swing-type action used to be Friday-night fare at the Derby, I told her, "It's not gonna be a dance party here tonight."

And it wasn't. It was Michael Gira, founder of '80s/'90s power-rock gods Swans, alone onstage with acoustic guitar and his many demons, singing to an audience seated on the Derby's dance floor and standing 'round the bar, straining necks to get a view of the man who almost single-handedly birthed, for better or worse, the industrial-rock genre.

But there weren't really demons up there with Gira. When you see him play -- working himself into a red face, howling, playing repetitive guitar parts so ferociously that his fingers' calluses swell and bleed -- you realize that he's up there utterly alone. In songs like the Swans' "Failure," which he performed tonight, Gira occupies the furthest existential position imaginable, where the only options seem to be disgust for others, for oneself, for commerce, for the servant-master setup at the root of every human relationship -- followed by a wry laugh at the self-seriousness and self-pity of all that disgust and fatalism. (Then there's the sadistic humor of last resort, the kind of pitch-black jokes you make when confronted with the bottomless cruelty of the human race. Deep in the set, an audience member yells, "Call the police!" Gira instantly replies, "No thanks, I don't feel like sex right now" to gasps and laughter.)

 

At the same time, we can be in the presence of absolute, puzzling beauty. That's what's in Gira's songs too, and that's what happens tonight during this stunning, magnificent, tiring and distinctly un-dance-party performance. Breaking through the morbid drones and laments, through the lyrics filled with nooses and snakes and shame and rape, is an occasional pretty guitar line or vocal melody, sung in that deep, authoritative voice of Gira's that is as fundamentally true as all those other men in black: Ian Curtis, Scott Walker, Johnny Cash, etc. It might not be what you want to hear on a Friday night, but it remains a voice -- a vision, really -- to be reckoned with. (Jay Babcock)

JONATHAN RICHMAN at the Fold, August 22

Nailed above the stage of the Silverlake Lounge is a sign that says "SALVATION," made up of many tiny white lights. It floats above performers' heads like a thought bubble, a halo, an annotation. Jonathan Richman's three-night, sold-out stand at the 100-something-capacity club was a match made in a special kind of heaven where seedy evenings come to innocent ends.

The venue does double duty most weeks. On Fridays and Saturdays it's a gay bar that targets the Latino demographic and plays host to mariachi bands and drag queens. A succession of indie up-and-comers and the occasional alt-rock star fill the place (or don't) during the week. But Richman's set allowed you to imagine a club that could unify the two scenes, creating an ideal Tijuana of the mind -- a TJ where the donkeys aren't spray-painted like zebras so frat boys can take their pictures next to them, and where the whores would be loved, truly loved, by fragile Johns named Jonathan. Preceding "El Joven Se Estremece" ("The Youth Trembles"), a song about a young man's fears upon his first visit to a bordello, an audience member asked Richman if he knew the Spanish term for prostitute. "Puta," he replied. "But I'm not going to need that word."

The 18-song, hourlong set was filled with the eccentric staples that have earned Richman his intense cult following: the songs sung in Spanish and Hebrew as a kind of sideways tribute to French chanson singers such as Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf; the ballads about affections lived through the body of an adult, but viewed with the glee of a kindergartner; the ragtag collection of idols (Pablo Picasso, Velvet Underground, Harpo Marx) to whom he dedicates his songs; amplification levels set so low that he'll be able to rock & roll tinnitus-free into his latter years. "Just because we're getting older doesn't mean we have to close up shop," he sang in the evening's first song. Richman's between-song banter highlighted his precious, Luddite world-view. Early in his set, he relayed a message from one of the 50 people lined up outside the club, hoping to get in. "Nate, your friend Dan tried to make it, but he couldn't come," Richman told the audience member. "He's gonna send you a note tomorrow. Some kind of mail." (E-mail, Jonathan. It's called e-mail.)

The Silverlake Lounge was the perfect home for Richman's music. You could get close enough to see his sad, Margaret Keane­ meets­van Gogh eyes, and the sordid yet virtuous vibe made crowd-pleasers like "I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar" extra vivid. "In the first bar, things were stop and stare," sang Jonathan, his adenoidal croon overpowering drummer Tommy Larkins' disco beat, "but in this bar, things were laissez faire." Right then Richman unslung his acoustic, unleashing a hip-grinding dance solo. (Alec Hanley Bemis)


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