Music

You can’t handle the truth! Bob Dylan in Winter

BOB DYLAN & HIS BAND and MARK KNOPFLER; Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA; Thu, Oct. 18, 2012

If you have been wondering if you should bother to go see Bob Dylan or not, now is the time to get off your ass and go. Dylan is on fire and the band is probably the best he’s been with since … well, The Band.

Guitarist Charlie Sexton is back in the fold and the whole group is firing on all cylinders. Dylan isn’t playing guitar right now, but more than makes up for it with some barrelhouse, Little Richard-inspired, work at the piano. Repeatedly stepping out from behind the keys to grab a harp and blow some of the best melodic lines that I’ve heard him play, Dylan proved he can be a consummate showman when he wants to be.

Naysayers who will tell you that his voice is shot are missing the point entirely. Dylan’s aged croak cuts through the cultural haze like a damaged warning from the end of days, a tenor that gives even old chestnuts like Ballad of a Thin Man and Highway 61 Revisited new and bone-chilling gravitas.

Opening for Dylan on this tour is his occasional partner in crime, Mark Knopfler, who turned in a sublime set of Celtic-tinged folk blues, much in the Richard Thompson mould.

The former Dire Straits leader drew almost entirely from his solo and soundtrack projects and was perfectly supported by a crack seven-piece band who fleshed out—yet never overwhelmed—the subtle arrangements. Knopfler’s set was a perfect appetizer for the avant-rockabilly-blues-punk-western swing of later day Dylan. What a show.

Setlist: Watching The River Flow, Love Minus Zero, No Limit, Things Have Changed, Tangled Up In Blue, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, High Water (For Charley Patton), Chimes Of Freedom, Highway 61 Revisited, Love Sick, Thunder On The Mountain, Ballad Of A Thin Man, Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower, Blowin’ In The Wind

You know we got a party, man — get the other record! #78

“Gut Bucket” James Brown 2006

James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, would have been (by most counts) 78-years-old on May 3rd. This Christmas it will have been five years since he passed away and it’s pretty safe to say that the world has been the poorer for it. I don’t think it hyperbole to say that Brown was determination, strife, and life force personified—not to imply that he wasn’t crazier than a shit-house rat. At the time of his death at 73, he had been readying a new album and charging up to make yet another global tour, working to put insane multi-state police chases and PCP-driven rants behind him for good.

In 2005, Rolling Stone sent author Jonathan Lethem to Augusta, Georgia to infiltrate the rarified air of James Brown’s world and report back. He likens the arrival of Brown in the studio to a physics experiment, “Lines of force are suddenly visible in the air, rearranged, oriented. The band, the hangers-on, the very oxygen, every trace particle is charged in its relation to the gravitational field of James Brown.” Lethem posits a theory that in 1958, Brown, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, had become a man unstuck in time allowing him to know the future of music before it would have naturally occurred and then making it happen at will.

This track from an August 2006 sampler from MOJO magazine was to be a sneak preview of Brown’s next album that was to come out in early 2007. Whether or not there is a great, lost, last platter from The Minister of the New Super-Heavy Funk is anybody’s guess. Judging from the lack of focus laid bare by Lethem’s piece, I’d guess not, but there is always hope. If nothing else, Brown was all about hope.

We could use a guy like that.

200th Post! The Drogues: Dutch Oven Demos

In celebration of the Monkey’s 200th post, we’re slinging a blast from the past, a splatter from the bladder: the piss ’n’ vinegar No Fact’s That Don’t Fit demos recorded by the Drogues at The Dutch Oven in Alameda.

Just listen to those scrappy young(er) kids before they fell victim to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and became bloated caricatures of themselves. Smith, you remember that time you drove the car into the swimming pool? Ha, me neither.

Sit back and enjoy these angry broadsides from a distant time when the government was lying to everybody, we were embroiled in a couple of wars overseas, and the price of gas was going through the roof. Thank goodness that’s all over … what? Oh, Drogues, where are you when we need you?

Blank Check Face (KC Mix)
Don’t Change the Subject
Gunboat Diplomacy
Perfect Attendance Record
Secret Camera
State of the Union
Transport Devices
Westworld (KC Mix)

Some shit from an old iBook: Flying into Baghdad

After the Drogues finally finished our magnum opus, No Facts That Don’t Fit, in 2005, we fell into the lamentable cliché of struggling to follow it up.

The three of us retreated to our respective lairs to work on pieces with the idea of bringing them to practice and roughing them up. That method never quite caught on, but I did end up with a few interesting GarageBand tracks, which—while totally inappropriate for a post-punk trio—have something going for them.

I had become obsessed with a Persian scale (which I have since completely forgotten) and that became the main riff to this tune. The answering bass line sounds like I was trying to channel my inner Bootsy. I have no idea what kind of music this is, or why I named it Flying into Baghdad—I think there was a lot of concern at the time that Iran was going to be dragged into the conflagration we had started there. Anyway, here’s some weird music from a weird time. Cheers.

You know we got a party, man — get the other record! #72

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Earth, Wind & Fire 1972
[Full disclosure: The first concert I ever attended was Earth, Wind & Fire —way back in 1979—and I think they’re pretty cool.]

In 1972, Maurice White and his cadre of pan-African funkateers were standing on the threshold of greatness. Having taken wardrobe and cosmic spirituality clues from Sun Ra and working up a sound that combined jazz, Motown, Sly and the Family Stone, and even P-Funk into a radio-friendly groove that would provide the soundtrack to the second half of the ’70s, they weren’t quite there when they recorded Pete Seeger’s haunting anti-war folk song. After two albums of finding their way, EW&F had just picked up the missing piece. Their third disc, Last Days and Time, is the first to feature four-octave secret weapon Philip Bailey—and for my money, he nails this tune.

R.E.M. — Collapse Into Now (2011)

Once again, the music press and the fan faithful are working on their “return to form” statements regarding R.E.M.’s latest rekkid. The Boys from Athens have just released their How to Diffuse an Atomic Bomb on the ’80s “alternative” rock colossus timeline. Think about it.

After releasing one of their most sonically ambitious recordings—New Adventures in Hi-Fi could be seen as their Achtung Baby—they incorporated modern sounds and studio techniques that stripped much of the heart out of their music (Up/Reveal/Around the Sun vs. Zooropa/Pop), slid into irrelevance, and came slamming back with a hard charger of back-to-basics rock: Accelerate and All That You Can’t Leave Behind respectively.

Like U2’s sophomore born again release, there is a lot to like on Collapse Into Now, but one can’t help feeling that time will show it to be nothing more than a successful stop-gap, hopefully, on the way to their late-period masterpiece (Yes, I think No Line on the Horizon was that good).

So, it is R.E.M. by the numbers? Maybe. Is that a bad thing? No. In a word (or five): Rickenbacker, mandolin, Patti Smith, boom!

Motörhead — The Wörld is Yours (2010)

There are three things in life you can be sure of: death, taxes, and Motörhead. With a documentary, Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son Of A Bitch, burning holes in the screen, and a punishing new album shredding speakers across the globe, the devil’s favorite band is having quite a year, unbelievably, their 35th in existence.

The Wörld is Yours
roars out of the garage with Born to Lose, as classic a Motörhead trope as speed, sex, and death (preferably from too much speed and sex). Drummer Mikkey Dee’s pummeling double bass footwork underscores Lemmy’s proletariat philosophical musings: Right now / right here / lose your mind / but show no fear / Burn slow / no excuse / so unkind / born to lose. How the band waited 20 albums and 35 years to write a song called Born to Lose is an utter mystery.

Road testing this album, I kept reaching for the volume knob, turning it up by turns through I Know How to Die, Get Back in Line, and Devils in My Head until the drivers of cars I started passing on the freeway were looking kind of scared.

Motörhead has never been a “message” band, but if they ever had a point, it is this: everything eventually fails you except, well, Motörhead. Get Back in Line, especially, showcases just what the band does better than just about anyone else standing: an unrelenting riff, a hypersonic beat, and a bass player that’s big, pissed off, and wired out of his warty skull equals rock.

The trio does not slow down until the fifth track in, Rock ’n’ Roll Music. For any other band, this would be a highlight and probably the hardest song on the album. That’s Motörhead’s curse, they set the bar pretty high—high enough that a boilerplate boogie about rock, just doesn’t make the cut. Maybe Kilmister, et al., are still aiming at illusive, non-existent radio play, a strategy that dogged their 1992’s outing, March or Die. I don’t come to this table, however, looking for subtlety.

No worries though, the boys come slamming back with the next track, Waiting for the Snake, which paints (what else?) a fatalistic picture of the state of modern society.

The album takes an even darker turn with Brotherhood of Man. There’s no way to describe this song other than: Heavy as Fuck. When Lemmy grunts, Now your time has come / a storm of iron in the sky / War and murder come again / lucky if you die, you damn well get off your ass and lock the front door.

Bye Bye Bitch Bye Bye
is prototypical Motörhead, and just about the most perfect album closer I can imagine. Philip Campbell, guitarist since 1986’s Orgasmatron (and, Christ, did that really come out a quarter-of-a-century ago?), lets loose with everything he has left, leaving your speakers smoking, and your ears ringing. The way God, or Lemmy, intended.

Coming soon: To the Bottom

No, this isn’t another post about the falling dollar. Ignore those cries of doom and gloom; this is something to help realign your chakras, and rattle the dust from your rafters. I’m getting the chance to put together an on-going radio show at 88.1 KSRH, the station at San Rafael High. It’s going to be called, “To the Bottom,” and will spotlight … what else? Bass in yo’ face—with a modicum of grace.

Here’s the playlist for the inaugural show:

To the Bottom — #1
To Defy the Laws of Tradition — Primus, Frizzle Fry (1990)
SuperWhat? — Boosty Collins, Superbad OST (2007)
The Guns of Brixton — The Clash, Live at Shea Stadium (1982/2008)
Miss You — The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
Politician — Cream, BBC Sessions (1967/1996)
Higher Ground —Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk (1989)
Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not — X, Los Angeles (1980)
Natural’s Not in It — Gang of Four, Entertainment (1979)
Blank Generation — Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Better Git It in Your Soul, Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Those of you that know me will wonder about the lack of Mike Watt on this show. I was thinking of pulling together an all-Watt show with a song from all the different projects he’s been involved with. Stay tuned!

Please feel free to post your favorite bass-tastic tunes in the comments section and I’ll try and get ’em on the show. In the words of the great Bootsy Collins: “Diiiig.”

Mike Watt & the Missingmen — hyphenated-man (2010)

***Update: Watt’s new album finally has a domestic release date of March 1—on his new label, clenchedwrench. Buy one for yourself and one for your greasy granny!

To be familiar with punk rock veteran Mike Watt is to know and appreciate his idiosyncrasies, moreover, to have learned to expect him to make those left turns that light out for the territories and sometimes veer into the weeds. The thing about left turns, however, is if you make enough of them, you end up heading in the same direction that you started.

Ever since forming the seminal ’80s punk band, the Minutemen, with his boyhood chum and dueling partner D. Boon and surfer/rhythmatist George Hurley, Watt has consistently taken the road less traveled by. The Minutemen are famous for incorporating jazz, funk, hard core, Beat poetry, and the kitchen sink into their own personal strain of musical and philosophical expression. For a group that eschewed branding and easy cut-and-paste sloganeering, if it could be said that they had a motto, it was “Punk is whatever we made it to be.”

Watt and his various co-conspirators have always viewed punk rock as a big tent sort of affair. The whole reason this type of music and scene appealed to three dudes from San Pedro, California was the lack of inherent rules. In keeping with that spirit, Watt has released (in Japan at least, see right) his third concept album, or “opera;” the first, Contemplating the Engine Room, used his father’s experience on Navy submarines as a metaphor for his own life in an Econoline van, and the second, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, mapped his near-death sickness onto Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Both of these works were very personal in nature, and in the case of the last one, perhaps a little too personal at times—but, hey, who said punk is supposed to make you comfortable?

This time out, Watt enlisted guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales, collectively called the Missingmen, to help create a cycle of 30 “little songs” that were inspired in part by the proto-surrealist paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. On his website, hootpage.com, Watt writes that the new punchy, ultra-lean tunes owe much to the Minutemen’s econo credo of “no filler, right to point, and distilled down to the bare nada.” Specifically, it was the We Jam Econo documentary that finally got this restless artist to slow down and take a look back, allowing him to recognize something beautiful and utterly vital in the short form.

At the virtual needle drop, the album leaps out of your speakers/ear buds with arrow-pierced-egg-man. Clocking a mere 1:19, the song is a clarion call from the pit, a diseased chunk of meat thrown over the wall to help spread the cotangent. Watt’s bass is greased up and firing on all cylinders. After playing the conservative sideman with the Stooges for the past couple of years—as if anything Stooge-related could be called conservative—it’s great to hear him playing, if not more aggressively, then more dynamically.

Interestingly enough, the bass was the last piece of this particular puzzle to be added. This time out, Watt wrote on guitar, showed the Missingmen how the songs went, then retreated to later respond to what they had come up with. If he didn’t “chimp” (or write about in Pedro-speak) this unorthodox method, I would have never guessed that this music was anything but organically grown. It sounds like three guys jamming in a sweaty-ass shed and hollerin’ about … 16th century religious art from the Netherlands.

The tendency to play “spot the influenced influence” as is hard to resist as Watt’s music has touched so many fellow artists over the years, just as playing within an ever-widening sphere of musicians has continued to color his own work. On bird-in-the-helmet-man, I hear echoes of Albert Bouchard and early Patti Smith-infected BöC, while belly-stabbed-man’s “gut kicked – hard / truth hits – hard / emotions gush – but no word hole” is a Pop Group Amnesty Report from the depths of hell.

If I had to call a break-out single for “alternative” radio play (as if there were anything resembling a valid record and/or radio industry anymore) it would have to be the Trees Outside the Academy-era Thurston Mooresque hollowed-out-man with its pleasant droning melody, relentless drive, and totally fucked-up lyrics. “Now the hat that’s worn is like a horse track / pairs of peckers promenadin’ ’round a sack / a swollen bagpipe waitin’ for the ear-knife / castrate hack,” makes a perfect sonic flipside to Sister’s (and Watt’s own Ball-Hog or Tugboat’s) Tuff Gnarl.

The song that most evokes the spirit of Pedro for me is, appropriately enough, finger-pointing-man. Here, Watt’s lyrics sound like they could have been torn from his own Spiels Of A Minuteman folio. “Conviction’s like some affliction / without the clout of some doubt / it’s fuckin’ nonsense / ignorin’ content / and letting’ the mouth just spout.”

The sharp angularity of Tom Watson’s chording juxtaposed with the singsong delivery of funnel-capped-man, brings to mind San Francisco’s Deerhoof, in fact, the first time I saw Raul Morales play, I was reminded of the ’Hoof’s Greg Saunier—if not stylistically through their respective jazz-inflected approaches—in the giddy zeal that they both seem to take in playing drums.

Over the years, Watt’s vocal delivery has become more like his bass playing, a distinctive and singular expression of his muse. Printing out the hyphenated-man lyrics from the hootpage may help you find your way inside Watt’s vision, or you can just let the Missingmen’s churning accompaniment propel you headlong down their peculiar rabbit hole. Using one of Bosch’s less fantastical icons as an avatar, Watt lays out the impetus for the opera in own-horn-blowing-man, while keeping one eye out for any hint of lurking solipsism. “Go figure the trigger / to really holler, fuckin’ holler / and hoist yeah, foist / expression from repression / not badge-buffin’ or baggin’ wind / but to get out what’s stuck within.