Photos by Wild Don Lewis
DEERHOOF, VIVA K., EVENING, Our Time screening
at the Derby, May 23
“Rock is the new dance” is the new swing, apparently. It’s been 15 months since the Derby relegated the dwindling lindy-hop crowd to the back bar every night but Monday; tonight, Scott Sterling’s Fold annexed even that space. The occasion: a screening of Our Time, a well-meaning documentary by Piper Ferguson and Ravi Dhar (also guitarist of the middle-billed Viva K.) that oversells the current Brooklyn-centric garage and electroclash scenes via generous live footage and numbingly repetitive interviews. (Can you say “Williamsburg”? Can you say it again?) The filmmakers want to make a case for the political urgency of this crop of bands, but inclusions as bland as the Realistics or as witless as W.I.T. don’t help.
As for the 3-D portion of the lineup: Evening, featured briefly in the film, are a Bay Area five-piece with a tightly coiled rhythm section, a Fender Rhodes–pounding front man and a thorough familiarity with Interpol’s effects-box settings. Locals Viva K. were more substantial, despite the so-old-it’s-new-again combination of programmed rhythms and Dhar’s muscular guitar. (Remember Blackbird?) Except for “Love Everybody,” their songs were driven less by hooks than by Scott Zweizen’s lively bass parts and the compelling presence of singer Christine Evans, a rail-thin, full-throated cross between Karens Carpenter and O.
In this fashion-forward company, Deerhoof’s near groovelessness was downright invigorating. Bent pop material like “Dummy Discards a Heart” from their recent Apple O’ was transformed into something much further out, thanks to the Cream–meets–Red Krayola interaction among guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen and drummer Greg Saunier, an inspired, almost overpowering player. These three did most of the heavy lifting, but Japanese-born bassist Satomi Matsuzaki defused their muso machismo in disconcerting ways, as when a lengthy passage of Nels Cline–worthy instrumental improv was cut off cold by Matsuzaki’s stratospheric second-language chirp: “Bunny bunny bunny bunny bunny.”
BUILT TO SPILL, DRAW, SOLACE BROTHERS
at House of Blues, May 24
Formed in 1992, Built To Spill developed their initial following amid the Pacific Northwest’s indie-rock scene, then caught up in grunge’s brief commercial ascent. BTS’s front man, Doug Martsch, is from Idaho, and one guesses Seattle seemed a more attractive home base than some hick bar in his native state. Indie rock, however, has also made for an awkward home. Sure, Martsch’s voice is a nasal whine — a tone used by many an indie singer — but his songs stretch out as long as seven minutes, and his guitar playing has more in common with the note-bending solos of Neil Young than with the messy, short-attention-span scrawl of those with roots in underground pop or punk.
The categorization error was readily apparent at last week’s shows at House of Blues. Martsch took the stage at around 11 p.m. joined by usual bandmates Scott Plouf on drums and Brett Nelson on bass, and a grizzled rhythm guitarist who went unidentified. Save for the drummer, all of the band members had beards and appeared to be in the early stages of male pattern baldness. Martsch wore a T-shirt with the words “Musician’s Pro Shop” on it. It seemed an ironic indie-rock gesture until you noticed it also included the store’s location, his native Boise. (That’s right, he’s not just a spokesman, he’s also a client.)
The band fitted little more than a dozen songs into an hour-and-a-half set. Their choruses expanded into dreamy rock songs with long solos and odd time changes, and when they erupted into a particularly intricate instrumental passage, bright white spotlights illuminated the group. One could imagine Phishheads appreciating the band as an opening act, a relatively restrained and tasteful first course. Martsch’s voice was the only thing rooting the group’s songs in indie rock. (It also provided a point of focus that differentiated them from the darker, more ruminative rock of the openers, Draw and Solace Brothers.) With former Pavement leader Steven Malkmus playing chooglin’ rock music these days, and groups like Tortoise and Sonic Youth passively courting the jam-band audience, college radio dials are ripe for a new format: indie classic rock. (Alec Hanley Bemis)
at the World Stage, May 16
Consider Tri-Factor, the unsurpassed living embodiment of American African improvisation, individually. Hamiet Bluiett (“Blew-It” to his friends) churns up the guts on big-ass bass sax, swingin’ it island-style or extracting wondrous overtone effects ranging from jet-engine howl to sweet whistle-tweet. Billy Bang, vested like a 1920 street dancer, plugs his fiddle into his Fender amp and saws a devilish jazz barn dance one moment, bounces his bow with a dirty slap the next, then plucks a beefy pizzicato that sounds like a thumb piano — the man plain reeks with hot technique. Kahil El’Zabar, the Freud-bearded Mr. Charisma, stirs the traps like a tornado comin’ in low before blowing you away with his three African drums, tossing the baobabs around so you got limbs and twigs all rammed through your grateful torso.
Considered together, they commit more than three times the crime, a cooking machine that rocks you to and fro and shakes you side to side while passing the coals for continually changing demonstrations of blister-fingered juggulation. You honestly feel that this can’t be happening in the same world as American Idol. (And it’s not.)
The fine drum exploder Cindy Blackman is called up from the audience. Reluctant at first, she settles behind El’Zabar’s kit while goalpost-thin guest mouthman Doc Sebi proclaims his proto-rap, then she locks in and whips into a high-tension solo that pulls against the beat till it damn near snaps. The roof is raised, then the walls are razed. We tiptoe out through the rubble. (Greg Burk)
THE ART OF FACT, DJ RANDM, DJ SPOOKY, JOSH 1, POET NAME LIFE, ROCKY ROCK, STYLES OF BEYOND
at El Rey, May 24
The good break appears but may never return, no matter how dearly one might wish it to: As Randm’s set segues effortlessly into Josh One’s beatmatching, weals of red light work their way across a lone b-boy doing pushups on the empty dance floor. There is a certain revelatory revelry in a DJ playing a familiar song — the thrill of goose bumps traveling the spine like the blossoms of springtime. Poet Name Life accentuates the positive with many a “Yeeuh!”; turntable and samples mix funkified “Für Elise” with dubby echoes and a bhangra shuffle. The Art of Fact’s Talent and Reason chant softly over trad orchestral flute and pants-shaking bass mantra, their affection for the crowd driving the rapport between them. (Hip-hop is, after all, the story of one man’s life as told through his heartbeat.) Rocky Rock unleashes two heavily syncopated tracks, beats flowing like mercury and equally concentrated, while Styles of Beyond bring the crowd closer via maximum NRG, a minimum of bullshit and a modicum of “Yes yes y’all!” in their revue of covers (“Gigantor,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog”).
DJ Spooky’s laptop projects images of collaboration with poet Saul Williams in the multimedia protest Not in Our Name. “Planet Rock,” test patterns and Sesame Street’s Bert blur in a flurry of warring images dissected only by blinking. The flip side of multimedia presentation is the pressure for a constant turnover of the Spectacular. Spooky’s rapid progression of images — like the 2’30” pop single — occurs so quickly that a certain amount of discourse disintegrates. Concepts are repeated because they must be. Obey. Resist. Stay asleep. (David Cotner)
THE STRATFORD 4, PEDRO THE LION
at Henry Fonda Theater, May 20
A foggy night in San Francisco is as common as a sun-steeped summer morning in Los Angeles. When low clouds blanket the city’s airport, only dim lights keep planes from whizzing into each other. From this setting of mystery and hit-or-miss tension rises S.F. noise-pop quartet the Stratford 4. Equipped with an armory of interlaced guitar effects, the band navigates the wall-of-sound super runway of Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine. Singer and guitarist Chris Streng used to play with members of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and his bandmates Andrea Caturegli (drums), Sheetal Singh (bass) and Jake Hosek (guitar) noodled around in Bay Area outfit Triplo. Amid both critical praise and indie disapproval of their new sophomore release, Love & Distortion, the Stratford 4 have begun to ascend.
Many at the Henry Fonda Theater last Tuesday showed up for headliners Pedro the Lion, whose slow-paced brand of emo-core ricocheted from melodic melancholia to pure (reviewer) boredom. The Stratford 4, however, kept up an inspired pace during their sweetly brief five-song set. The swirling framework of opener “Where the Ocean Meets the Eye” bled into Sheetal and Andrea’s catchy beat-and-bass backdrop on dark pop ditty “She Married the Birds.” Attractive and lanky, eyes cast upward, Streng reflected on Golden Gate Park and girls in his Brit-inflected twang.
The Stratford 4 sway more than smack, and “Telephone”’s 10-minute-long windstorm ended the night on a heady note. As a smoke machine blew gusts of blue fog onto the stage, Hosek fell into the loud drone of his guitar. The ultimate musician’s ode to “Mom,” the song rose into a blissed-out crescendo worthy of familial adoration and California hazy love. Streng sang, “I heard her smile at the end of the line/She said, ‘Son, you’re gonna be just fine’.” (Solvej Schou)
at Spaceland, May 25
Calla’s disorganized notes call up a heavily grunged version of the Cure — it’s not that they’re the same band, but you expect they share some posters. Pictures of earthquakes with fissures looking distinguished, like rockers that age well, all those beautiful wrinkles. But Calla doesn’t sound like the Cure. Calla sounds like a) Calla b) a storm always on the verge of breaking, granting resonance to every chance incident . . . this word . . . this discarded tin . . . right when you turn forever away . . . could be the moment Calla lets the storm loose like the sky, like the sky’s a black tomato ripe and finally smashed. Rocking out a card that could be drawn at any moment from the band’s jet deck. But drawn slow — Calla is a cruel dealer, ready to make you or break you but never ready to hurry.
If there’s any reason to bring up the Cure it’s this: This too is music that shelters you from the darkness it illustrates; this isn’t merely rain but rain safely drizzled across your windowpane. Calla is a low sound like something in the cellar — it could be something terrible — but for now, only available, only beautiful.
Perhaps in Calla’s favor, perhaps not, the show seems like a fashion show; something is definitely being modeled, and certainly with the attitude of starved abandon. There’s a runway the band slouches across. There isn’t a philosophy of need emanating from this music, but there is one of weakness — something effete and moppish; listening makes you feel like you fucked up and now you need to make up. But what do you offer a band offering dirges like boys offer flowers? Spaceland’s crowd seemed an offering themselves, doing their best to look like storm clouds — movement scarce, but movement rife with portent. Reading the crowd like reading tea leaves — everyone listening to the music like it’s their cruel and perhaps indelible fate. Calla is a roll of the dice — pale and full of as much meaning as you can allow yourself. Can I say one more thing? Snake eyes. (Russel Swensen)
at the Derby, May 20
It wasn’t the recent will-she-or-won’t-she-pose-for-Playboy rumors that made people press like carnival rubes against the stage, gawking at the attractive enough Neko Case. Besides, beauty’s a curse, as she warned on “Pretty Girls” (“around curves so comely and sinister, they blame it on you, pretty girl”). “I love her voice,” folks kept saying mantralike, almost apologetically, as if to explain why they’d been dragged out of bed or away from other things. You could bask in a voice that big and radiant, and it was especially suited to the room, arcing unbroken along the curving wooden spine of the Derby’s inside-the-whale ceiling.
Between songs, Case came off as pleasantly self-deprecating, apologizing for sounding “like one of those husbandless trolls in their 30s,” after a series of sharp asides about friends having babies. She lauded upright bassist Tom V. Ray’s ZZ-length beard, and wrestled throughout the set with her stubborn tenor guitar’s tuning. “These guitars are mad at me,” she explained. “They’ve been in the closet a while, and they’re having their way.” The voice justified all minor distractions, though, coiling up languidly in the arms of the Sylvia & Wood standard “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and trailing off celestially desolate among Jon Rauhouse’s pedal-steel shivers on Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken.” While Case imbued these and other writers’ tunes — including a contrastingly ebullient version of Bob Dylan’s “Bucket of Rain” — with a modern kind of Patsy Cline/Dusty Springfield charisma, the former punk rocker was most affecting on fervently delivered, multilayered original ballads like “Blacklisted” and “Deep Red Bells.” Even with a voice that can fill canyons, it was the somber way she delivered those chilling, more personal words that later carved trails in the memory. (Falling James)