Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds….

    by Jim Mello

Cross Center Bangor Maine 10/27/18

   It was raw, cold, had been snowing, was raining diagonally, and there is no real close parking, the exact opposite of Southern Cal, at least The Beach Boys mythic version. Surf wasn’t up.
     Turned my collar to the cold and rain and made my way to the Cross Center…one hour and fifteen minutes early because last week the ticket window person said because I didn’t buy the tickets direct from Ticketmaster I might “have problems” and, “somebody else might have your seat.” Gave me a chance to chat with Freeman, the manager of the local Bull Moose. Silver linings.
   And yes, the sound system was playing muzak version of Beach Boys songs…rather bizarre…even Dylan isn’t welcoming people with Sinatra covers. The couple behind me commented on it. I must confess, because of my love of Beach Boys harmonies, whether the subject matter be cars, surfing, or surfer girls; I was not too troubled by the muzak..kinda restful for the seniors among us. Kinda New Age Surf music. The guy in front of me, who is “into radio”…I was supposed to know him…but, he didn’t know me, the air guitar legend. Anyway, he knew the set list: three parts: Beach Boys hits/Pet Sounds in its entirety (depends on your point of view)…and two or three encores. He said there’d be a 15 minute intermission, but that didn’t happen. Not sure they could have gotten Brian in and out from behind the piano in that amount of time…besides looking lost and anxious, he was sporting a fairly large cast. They plunked him down behind the key board, and there he stayed. looking at times almost comfortable..
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Brian Wilson, photo from the Los Angeles Times

   Then the band came on stage…10 musicians counting Brian who played piano all night…Any ten piece band catches my attention and these guys were good…a thermin (yes!), two keyboards!, two or three guitarists, depending on the song…bass, and a guy who played a huge saxophone..flutes, a clarinet?..and something that looked like an oversize harmonica…they were tight, flexible, at times jazzy…and well oiled…everything centers around Brian and whether or not he, or Al Jardine, can hit the (wonderfully harmonic) high notes.
    They started off with nine, yes, count ’em nine, Beach Boy hits! Only Logan and Ernie would have been moaning. The Fun Fun Fun had begun…Now, I’m not a big fan of some of the tunes, but they are in my DNA…pumped into my adolescent not-yet-finished-growing, reptilian(Pavlovian ) brain and I was dancin’ in my seat, playing air guitar, harmonizing with the wino few. The 15 year old girl next to me knew all the tunes, thanks to good parenting, and me and her dad were doing the high harmonies. What I realized was this was good old Chuck Berry based rock and roll(which you don’t hear very often anymore) with lyrics about living in California…cars…girls…surf…I like it , you can dance to it, its got a good beat. Ill give it a 75! It was great medicine for the melancholy mood I was in. (California Girls, I Wanna Dance, I get Around, Shut Down, Deuce Coupe, Surfer Girl, Water, Don’t Worry Baby (The Best Beach Boy song ever…so sadly romantic!), and Darlin’. The band was playful and loose and harmonically correct. Better than benzos IMHO…
    And, then this character (or caricature) appeared out of nowhere(backstage physically, but spiritually somewhere else), looking like a refugee from Bob Dylan’s “Cowboy Band”…hair like Dylans, a semi-too-tight fitting Nudie suit…kinda like Link Wray on acid. He was Blondie Chapin, and he was like a Shaman…moving about the stage like he was in a trance, while almost everybody stayed in place, and playing the best damn blues based guitar I’ve heard in years.Something transcendent happened and the light show intensified and for three songs Feel Flows, Wild Honey, and Sail on Sailor… we were in a different musical space…Beach Boys on acid…for real…and, just as quickly he disappeared….only to “appear” intermittently for the rest of the show playing mostly lead tambourine (my instrument of choice)…still never stopping, banging the tambourine on his chest, anywhere…sometimes with his hands..pure intrigue. Wild Honey was just that, wild…with burning guitar…great harmonies, and psychedelic lights. Good thing I resisted the THC.
   All that as a warm up to Pet Sounds! Now, I’m not one to claim Pet Sounds is the album of the decade or century or whatever…it did influence The Beatles (McCartney)..and has a few lovely songs on it, including “Caroline No.” Otherwise I’m ambivalent about Brian’s magnum opus “adolescent symphony for God (the West Coast God?). But live! With this band! Well, it came alive and Brian‘s compositional skills were evident. It was a thing to be heard. A blending of jazz, rock, and classical, and Four Freshman harmony that was an aural treat. I even didn’t mind “Sloop John B.”
    Even the adolescent themes, which really are universal themes about relationships, were heard from the perspective, my perspective, of fifty years of difficulty…Brian‘s romanticism banging into the real time pain of relationships but always with the hope of healing and reconciliation. I was flashed back to Friday Night Legion Hall dances (Put your head on my shoulder…) and everything since…all with beautiful musical contexts (except “John B”)…the sax player was great…the drummer was fantastic…
Brian served as an MC kinda…announcing the song, and who would be singing lead…and then there was Blondie drifting in and out like some disembodied ghost…
And, then it was encores and if you weren’t ready to dance then, what can I say? The security people kept people from dancing in the aisles…but some kids broke through..the rest of us boogied in place.
    “Good Vibrations” especially…only the Grinch would have refused to move…
then a quiet shift to “Love and Mercy”, the title track from a Brian solo album…kind of his theme song…he sang the best he did all night, and almost carried the vocal himself…
Love and mercy is what we need.
    All I can say is, Amen…
Waiting for Brian Wilson or someone like him)
the people drip in one by one
snaking into their seats
as muzaked Beach Boy songs
greet them
“Help Me Rhonda”
shifts nostalgia into fourth gear
the cold wet non SoCal Maine weather
blusters outside
dropping torrential rain
diagonal across the street lights:
the surf’s not up
Brian‘s sad saga the unsung soundtrack:
a fable of hope
an inspiration
in darkening times
until Brian appears
behind the piano
a literal figurehead
to his ten piece band
voice missing high notes
covered by the well oiled band
face distantly pained
mind on another plane
mirrored in grimaces
and nervous scratches
he never seems to quite be here
but his music
on the wings of faith
and expertise
soars… surrounds
lifts in exquisite harmonies
and musicians
channeling genius
bring melodies
that unfold into
some just discovered
jazz tapestry masterpiece
enveloping the audience
in this adolescent
Pet Sounds symphony to God
as the wounds of generations
lie open
to a Chuck Berried salve
dipped in wild honey
so sorely needed these fifty years later
leading us to
“Love and Mercy”
jlm 1027/18
Visit Jim’s Facebook page at Jim Mello:  Writer and Poet
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1942: An Album Review

Julian Saporiti has always been a masterful lyricist. His perceptive observations crafted with well-chosen words manage to convey mood and message without excess. Along with his writers’ feel for language come lovely, memorable melodies that embrace every line. Back in the early 2000s Saportiti brought his songs to life with his band the Young Republic, releasing a couple of impressive albums on End of the Road records before the band broke up in 2010.  You can hear their work hereAnd here:  

(Full disclosure and proud parent moment:  my son was in this band!)

Saporiti disappeared from the music scene for several years while he pursued studies in American history, earning a master’s degree in Wyoming and landing at Brown University to pursue a PhD. Now he’s back in the spotlight with a new collaboration with fellow Brown PhD candidate Erin Aoyama as the duo No No Boy and a new album called 1942. The time behind the scenes has been productive for Saporiti, and the new album glows with quiet songs of loss and longing. Inspired by his doctoral research, the songs evoke eras past from the Asian American perspective, illuminating their marginalized experiences during WWII and the Vietnam War.

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A major focus of 1942 is on the internment of Japanese Americans by their own government during WWII. Oddly enough, as Saporiti explores the plight of these internees, the stories blossom as love songs. In “Heart Mountain” a man looks forward to an idyllic future with his sweetheart, “with so much love that it spills and runs down in rivers past the house that we build.” But meanwhile, “a daydream must do” along with stealing kisses in the laundry room and admiring her “perfect crooked tooth.”   

In “Two Candles in the Dark,” a boy is infatuated with a girl who doesn’t know how to dance (“my eyes are stuck on her/her eyes don’t leave her feet).  And there’s the “would-be Casanova walking three girls home” in “Instructions to All Persons.”

And yet we feel the undercurrent of despair. In “Heart Mountain” (the real name of an internment camp in Wyoming, the camp, in fact, where Aoyama’s grandmother was incarcerated) the lovers lament that “over and over our hearts are rapped by the rules,” And again, when the two lovers are dancing, the woman who can’t dance says she’s “gotta get out of this place,” not the idle lament of a restless teenager, but the desperate yearning of a woman incarcerated. Casanova has received a letter that begins “Instructions to all person’s of Japanese ancestry,” and in the context of the album 1942, we know what that means: he is being forced to leave his home to be interned in a camp far away, simply because of his Japanese heritage.

In “Ogie/Naoko” two young Japanese Americans living in Hawaii can’t see each other because of the restrictions of martial law (the backstory explained in the liner notes). “Where may our loyalties end?” Ogie asks Naoko, the woman he loves. “To each other, of course, to the end,” she answers. Personal bonds transcend political ones for these characters, and we love them all the more for that.

Yet Saporiti doesn’t back away from the political realities in these love stories. The unfair plight of these characters becomes even more poignant as we see them struggle with their bondage while at the same time experiencing the wonders of romantic love. “And he felt good, for a moment or so,” Saporiti tells us in the refrain of “Instructions to all Persons.” Of course he did. I would too, we think to ourselves, and in our empathy we find more disgust for the system that put these innocent people in such unfair imprisonment.

Other songs are more autobiographical, as Saporiti examines his own Asian American experience. In “Boat People,” a riveting tale of a doctor’s perilous escape from Vietnam in an flimsy fishing boat, he reflects that “my mother came here too, forty years ago.” And in “Dragon Park” he seems to be recalling his own youth as a Vietnamese-American in Nashville when he says “I know that Southern stare/not just at home but everywhere.”

Musically 1942 stays low key. Acoustic guitar is punctuated by well-placed strings. Piano, ukulele, and pedal steel are all used sparingly to good effect. Saporiti’s voice is consistently warm and expressive while Ayoama’s harmonies add clarity to the lyrics. I confess, I miss the drums and would like to hear a full rock band rendition of some of these songs, but clearly that’s not what Saporiti is going for on 1942. The quiet approach allows for romance and whimsy while also lending gravity to the underlying loneliness of characters stung by the irrationality of prejudice and racism.

1942 is an album about war and incarceration. And yet, it’s really quite lovely. Saporiti’s musical story of the Asian-American experience is ultimately one we find ourselves humming along to as we reflect on our own stories.

See also Indie Rocker or Academic? Former Young Republic leader finds a brilliant way to be both

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Indie Rocker or Academic? Former Young Republic leader finds a brilliant way to be both

A new album by Julian Saporiti is always a big event in my musical life. Julian’s former band, the Young Republic, made some of the best music of the early 2000s, and I’m not just saying that because my son was in the band.

Really.

I’m not.

Julian recorded this fall’s offering, 1942, with Erin Aoyama as the duo No-No Boy. It’s the product of several years of ambitious research into Asian-American history, in particular the Japanese internment camps that were part of U.S. policy in this country during World War II. The project is not only an album of new material that will appeal to a wide audience but also serves as part of Julian’s PhD studies at Brown University.

Recording the album was a long and collaborative process. Saporiti traveled to Illinois last summer to spend a week cutting basic guitar and vocal tracks with fellow Berklee grad Seth Boggess. “Over the course of the next year I tinkered with the album,” he said. “I’d have friends layer on instruments.” Those friends included recording artist Kishi Bashi who layered strings onto some of the songs. “I kind of crave feedback and collaboration,” Julian told me. “I’m more open than I used to be, for sure.                                                                              No-No Boy is currently touring behind the album, playing dates across the country from east coast to west and back again, culminating in a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center in mid-November. Playing libraries, universities and even a Buddhist temple, the tour is far from the typical rock band tour. “This project just effortlessly has an audience,” said Julian, due, he said, to “the uniqueness of the academic/historian/folk singer thing.” Performances on this tour are as much presentation as concert with Julian and Erin sharing family stories and human interest stories from their research along with moving images of the Asian American experience.

This tour is more befitting a performer in his thirties, said Julian, in contrast to the spartan, hand-to-mouth touring days of the Young Republic. “This time there are honorariums and food and big arts institutions with lots of money who say ‘come and play,’” said Julian. Gone are the days of “KFC buffets where we stuff food in our pockets.”

Image may contain: Julian Saporiti and Luann Yetter, people smiling

photo by Sam Carignan

Last fall Julian came to the University of Maine at Farmington not only to give his musical presentation but also to visit my classes where he talked at length about his research and aspects of the Asian American experience of which my first-year college students were unaware. They learned a lot from both the classroom visit and the performance, and Julian says that educational aspect is the main focus of this tour.

Many days off from the public performances are filled with school visits and workshops, and No-No Boy is selling not only the album but also an annotated lyric book. “We’ve already had teachers that are using this in the classroom, along with the images,” he said.

Despite the academic slant, No-No Boy can play a rock club when the opportunity arises. The have opened for Kishi Bashi in more traditional rock venues. “That poor unsuspecting indie rock audience,” Julian joked. But in truth, he said, those shows have gone over well. The duo can stage what Julian described as “an indie rock show with projections behind us. The material is really malleable in that way.”

Back when I knew Julian in the Young Republic he was firmly planted in the music business. Although now he’s as much scholar as musician, he sees a link between his first band and the work he’s doing now. “The foundations are with the YR,” he said. “In ‘Black Duck Blues’ you see the theoretical principal developing. I just hadn’t read a book yet in my life.”

Saporiti seems to be happy combining the music business with academia. He seems passionate in his desire to “illuminate the understudied past” as his promo material explains, and he knows that using his music business skills and experience can help him find an audience. “One of our videos has 5000 views,” he said. “That’s a lot more people than are going to read my peer-reviewed articles.”

1942 is available through Bandcamp, Apple Music and other music services.

A trailer for the album can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1z4J9avL400

 

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Mid-Week Magic: Jeremy Loops and Mt. Joy

Last Tuesday Frank picked me up on campus right after I wrapped up my journalism class and we headed to Portland in the rain. This mid-week diversion was prompted by a stunning convergence of events (what my friend Mello would surely label a harmonic convergence) that resulted in two great bands playing within a couple blocks of each other in Portland on the same night.

When I see a show in Portland I like to stay over, not a cheap thing to do — impossibly expensive in the summer, and pricey even now in September. So getting two shows for the price of one night in the Holiday Inn is a good deal. And there they were: Jeremy Loops, all the way from Cape Town, South Africa opening for Milky Chance at the State Theatre at 8 p.m. and Mt. Joy headlining at Port City, show starting at 9.

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Jeremy Loops at the State Theatre

The rain was relentless, so we were dripping wet by the time we entered the State Theatre and made our way to the floor. Loops was already on stage, alone, with an acoustic guitar, and no doubt the majority in the audience were thinking at this point that he was fairly pleasant opening act. Then appeared the drummer and bass player, and the show got a little livelier. When sax player Hiram Koopman arrived on stage, audience attention kicked into high gear. Koopman, frame impossibly lean, dreadlocks wondrously long, is a South African Clarence Clemons counterpart to Loops’ Springsteen showmanship. Next came Motheo Moleko adding an unexpected rap to build on the energy even more.  By now the crowd was with Loops and “Squad,” happy to participate in raised-hand claps, arm wavings, and sing-alongs at the band’s bidding, to the point where everyone in the room seemed to forget these guys were the opening act.

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Jeremy Loops and band at the State Theatre

Loops and band routinely headline shows around South Africa and could be found pretty high on the line-up for any number of European festivals this past summer. Songs like “Down South” showcase their sound marvelously: the African sort of chanting that Loops “loops” into a swirling overture, the unexpected saxophone and rap solos, a beat that sounds a bit Jamaican to our ears but I suspect is purely African.

Someone from the crowd called for “Gold” from Loops’ new album Critical as Water, and Loops seemed genuinely sorry not to launch into it. But an opening act plays under strict time constraints and far too soon the Loop Squad was taking its bows.

Frank and I had plenty of time to run over to Port City, dripping all over a new venue after another dose of rain. Even when I was young I didn’t like standing for shows, so Port City is not my favorite venue, unless I’m lucky enough to get a seat at the bar. This time I got lucky, and we settled back, beer in hand, for show #2.

IMG_2483No hip hop, no saxophone, no surprises here; Mt. Joy are old school, and in all the right ways. Lead singer Matt Quinn has a strong voice with impressive range and writes quirky lyrics, stringing together vivid images in Beat poet style. A couple times during their set in the middle of one of their own numbers, the band segued into a classic rock song, the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize” at one point and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” at another, then gracefully moved back into their own tune. I’ve never seen that done in concert before, but it’s a great way to make a nod to some of your sources of inspiration without turning into a cover band. “Astrovan,” which came fairly early in the set, was the highlight for me. “Angels smoking cigarettes on rooftops in fishnets in the morning” is as good a way as any to begin a song, and I bet Bob Dylan would agree. While the band can fit pretty neatly in a folk rock category, there is, in Quinn’s voice and the arrangements, a bit of soul woven in which adds color and texture to their sound.

IMG_2491 (2)After the high energy of Jeremy Loops, I was afraid Mt. Joy might disappoint, but they did not.  In fact, they provided the perfect mid-tempo tone to the second half of the evening, and Frank and I left Port City feeling a sense of accomplishment in seeing two such memorable shows in one night. The next morning, after a quick coffee and pastry on Congress Street, we headed back to Farmington. Frank dropped me off back on campus and suddenly I found myself standing in front of a classroom full of students, and it was Wednesday afternoon.

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Stylin’ with Lindsay Mower

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Left to right: Joe Hodgkins, Lindsay Mower, Matt Mower, photo by Gia Pilgrim Charles

When it comes to her career, or just about anything for that matter, Lindsay Mower has boundless enthusiasm.  She walks into Java Joe’s with her customary bright smile, her brown eyes sparkling and her curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, eager for our interview. The music career, she reports, is going well.

“We’re doing better than ever,” she says of her band Natural High Jumble. “We’re just wrapping up our Late Summer Tour…We felt really stylin’ because we got a Thule rack on our Honda for our stuff when we are on the road!”

I first met Lindsay when she was a freshman in my college writing class. The theme was Bob Dylan, which she embraced wholeheartedly. I serve as advisor to the student newspaper, and at the end of the semester I recruited Lindsay. She embraced that too, and despite a busy schedule that already included playing music live, she devoted considerable energy to the paper, working on layout, editing and reporting. She was a community health major, and of course she embraced that too. The last time I’d talked to Lindsay she was finishing up a successful internship and planning to take a job with the same agency: full time, salary, benefits, all those real world perks.

Today she tells me there’s been a change of plan. She is devoting herself to her music, and beyond a couple days a week working at a local farm, music is paying the bills these days.  

What tipped the balance, I asked her. “I had to take a drug test for the job,” she tells me bluntly, “and I didn’t want to change my lifestyle that much. It was one of those things that made you think. Do I want to take the straight edge route or have a fun, adventurous musical journey?  It was a no-brainer at that point for me.”

These days Lindsay’s life revolves around playing live with the band, and most of the time she doesn’t have to venture far from home in West Farmington. “We love to play at Tuck’s right here in Farmington,” she says. “It’s so intimate and we see all our friends.”

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The band at Tuck’s Ale House

The trio, comprised of Lindsay on vocals and guitar, brother Matt Mower on drums and Joe Hodgkins on lead guitar, has also played farther afield in cities including Burlington and Portland. They’re even attracting a fan base that travels with them.  “At least one car of people comes to every show,” she says. “We have a little community now.”

Lindsay describes the band’s sound as “smoky, jazz rock… I grew up playing in jazz bands on saxophone,” she explains. “I didn’t listen to a lot of rock music. Mom listened to jazz. I know jazz and that’s basically it.” In college she found more influences including fellow classmate and musician Lauren Crosby and her “folksy blues stuff.” Bandmate Joe adds another dimension to Natural High Jumble. “He has a more jam band, Grateful Dead sort of sound,” says Lindsay. “If you break down the chords, they’re all jazz chords, but Joe just shreds over it for ten minutes.”  Lindsay’s own approach to guitar is purely intuitive. “I just know the shapes,” she says. “It’s geometry to me, and I can hear when it is wrong.”

The band features not only covers but also Lindsay’s originals with quirky lyrics about blueberries and rosemary bread and “mouth feel.” Songwriting, she says, is an ongoing process, and a mystical one to hear her describe it. “I have words floating around in my head for weeks or sometimes years,” she explains. “Usually I don’t even know what the song is about until afterwards. I’ve written songs about people I haven’t met yet. I almost manifest my future through my songwriting.” The band’s original recordings are developing a following online with a healthy number of listeners on the usual platforms. A couple summers ago Lindsay recorded solo material in Norway with a Bergen producer called Rabaldermannen Johannes, and the band has recorded in Kingfield with John Winter. Future plans include recording an EP in November. Next spring Lindsay plans to return to Norway, this time with her bandmates. “We would just like to meet people over there and be inspired,” she says. “Bergen is really a musical city.”

Lindsay’s fantasy scenario for the band seems to match her free spirit. “I want this big old 1963 Dodge Van,” she says. “I want to put a couch in it and just drive to festivals like Coachella and play there. That would be my dream come true, definitely. A big crowd with people dancing.”

Listen to Natural High Jumble here:

SoundCloud: soundcloud.com/natural-high-jumble

Bandcamp: naturalhighjumble.bandcamp.com

Follow Lindsay here:

Facebook: facebook.com/lindsaymowermusic

Instagram: @lindsaylaurelmower

 

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Phoebe Bridgers

One reason I decided I could start this music blog is that I’m counting on guest posts from  friends who are both music fans and good writers. None of my friends is a more dedicated fan or better writer than luxbndr. We’ve seen many a concert together, and he’s often inspired to write a review afterwards. Here’s a good one from last summer:

Portland, Maine

July 27, 2018

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Phoebe at Port City, photo by me

More than a year ago I gave an old-school tube amplifier to Atlas,  a young man who had become enamored of analog technology. If it was analog, it was pure. Atlas liked pure. He got it. Awhile later he returned with the amplifier, repaired, functional and ready once again to “pound sound.” When he brought it back (which was not MY intent…I had hoped to be rid of it) he passed a 45 single on to me of an artist he knew……who not only had recorded this 45 single and was finalizing an album, but had also worked with him on restoring that old tube amp. Her name… Phoebe Bridgers, and the friend and fellow musician who assisted Atlas and Phoebe in the amp repair, one Harrison Whitford. had also recorded some music, which Atlas kindly shared.

Forward cut…..Phoebe’s album has been released….I mention this to fellow BobKatz, Luann, who immediately recognizes Phoebe Bridgers ….”she’s great!”….. I inform Atlas as well… who smirks and says…”hey, who knows, she could play Portland someday, wouldn’t that be cool”

Someday arrives….. July 27, 2018. Port City Music Hall.

A pilgrimage. And as in all pilgrimages, signs and portents. Dark sunset clouds with silver linings attendant ….a full moon obliterated by thunder, lightning….….an electric night. The works….

The works….which means crafty beers and three pizzas at Otto’s….and standing in rain at the gates to the Hall, as pilgrims are wont to do….standing at gates…. raining. Pilgrims never get a break. But wait….behold! The gates to the Hall are parted…opened almost an hour before schedule as the Keepers of the Gates rained mercy upon the masses. Portents abound…..the clotted Moon pulls.

We flow into the Hall and slip in the filtered darkness to assignations, basking in lilypads of light, waiting. Port City Music Hall seats about 550 people max, with comfortable select seating for maybe 50-75 of the crowd. Mostly it’s a standing type of club. That’s fine if you’re 20 but we’ve done our stand up time….we went for the pricier option and did not feel guilty at all in having a seat and pulling up a beer.

Souls increase and a tipping point…. opening act, Angelica Garcia stands in platformed light…. the songs begin. Angelica’s voice is strong, full of soul and sound. A controlled force, defiant, definite, adamant, convinced. Full command of a southwestern guitar, nuanced and strong. Some compositions her own, some from deep in history. Angelica goes forward, moving out of history into future approaches to music. This is where her set gets tricky. She sets up a sort of i-pad style studio on her mic stand…. Angelica “builds” sounds and loops, hitting buttons, entering data….piling her voice on her voice and, in effect, creating her own multiple harmonies and counterpoints. Music loops and dubs are hard to create effectively, timing and all that….but they can create amazing underwork and jumping off points. Angelica creates a warm space for Phoebe and Band.

….. Break

. …Souls build

Lights dim

Phoebe Bridgers and Band slip into light, ambient band sounds accompany. Recalling our most recent concert Snail Mail, the Katz note that this band has a much better command of presentation. Snail Mail seemed thrown together from the morning vestiges of floor laundry from a keg party. No consistency, zero theme. Phoebe’s band? Sharp. Like Dylan’s 90’s group….suits, shirts, ties…okay, no fedoras. But serious and all on the same page. We’re in good company. Prepared. Phoebe stands and flows…in a mix of choir, nun and mendicant….light and dark. Her mic stand snaked with bulbs and lights. Presentation. Her guitar muted by a sheet (Paper? Cardboard?) strapped across the soundboard. Nothing but string.

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Confident….her opening song “Smoke Signals”….starting with the famous song… normally expected to be rousing closer, maybe evocative encore. For the next hour/plus, Phoebe and Band will attest, confess…protest…without benefit of closed confessional or thoughts expressed in confidence to a friend. Open and direct….brother and sister plotting an escape from abuse, the end of a broken painful relationship, the murder of an abuser. Voices move….conversational between lovers in one, introspective, self-accusatory in the next, but all unmasked…core….real voices. And Phoebe’s voice lifting them all… suggests..spins around notes like…well, like a smoke signal. Like a being …and a ghost of the being. Meanwhile, the supporting work by the band has that same hint of “something underneath”. Nuanced notes and voices that seem to swirl around a suggestion, something implied that is there…. but not obvious. Like jazz musicians playing off a melody…but it’s not exactly jazz, either.

An aside….the whole history of humanity can be seen as exercises in dichotomy, especially in contemporary post-industrial, “either/or” society. Comparisons degraded to “black/white”….“yes/no”. Ones and zeros. Nuance no longer exists. There used to be over 300 gradations between black and white. Neil Young…defender of analog and feedback..inventor of a deep digital music program (PONO) ….once professed “there’s a lot of data between zero and one”

That’s called “nuance”….The colors, the sounds, the smells and touches…there’s a gradation between freezing and burning….a lot of “data” between 212 F and 0 Kelvin. That same gradation exists on every sensory plane, including sound, and are just as important.

Well, this nuance was what Phoebe Bridgers and band brought to Port City. Gone were the algorithms provided for “ease of musical choice”….you know…the Pandora and Spotify ones that say “if you like Emmylou Harris you will like etc etc etc…. Joni Mitchell? May we recommend…”

Every one of us in the group had fallen into the same trap given to us since grade school. Compare and contrast….so we kept trying to describe Phoebe Bridgers in terms of who she was most reminiscent of…..mistake!

Phoebe Bridgers was Phoebe Bridgers…self-deprecating one minute, torn by the world situation the next…always feeling and always open. She was there, in the pocket and she brought us all in. I have been going to concerts since (ahem) 1970. One can be forgiven for getting a little jaded by it all. How can an artist bring a new trick to this battered hat? Well, actually…Phoebe Bridgers did. I won’t do a song-by song review but here are a couple keepers from the night……

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Smoke Signals….the opener…of course….complete with Twin Peaks guitar and a voice that had the lift and drift of the smoke it spoke of.

Funeral….I worked with homeless kids for awhile….the death of promise can devastate and Phoebe hits the wall on this one. A delicate gut punch, if there is such a thing.

Demi Moore….one of those “my gawd, what am I capable of” horror moments…and a real good reason to not go there! Her brief monologue in front of the song…crazy and funny and “my gawd”

Steamroller…..a great song and (of course) one of those concert nuggets we all hate to love….a b-side on a now rare 45….try and find THAT for your mixtape!

Killer and The Sound….the official video does not do justice to Phoebe’s full-lunged blast on the live band version….it was the screamer of the night

Two cover songs as well….a duet with Julien Baker, who was in town co-billing with Courtney Barnett, on Gillian Welch’s wry “Everything Is Free” …”I’m gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn’t pay”….took the song to a great level

and “You Missed My Heart” the encore/closer of the night, by Mark Kozelek….with Phoebe slowly relating a nightmare of events until she ended…curled up in a ball on stage

It was great to see a group bring it together for the night, finding the crack where the sound and light come in…it’s why I love live music….when it’s on, it’s ON and everyone is lifted…sometimes hard to find….but worth every mile. Thanks to Phoebe and band for bringing it all to Portland.

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What I’m listening to now…

 

Saintseneca, especially “Frostbiter”

Lead singer Zac Little has got a sort of plaintive tone to his voice that I just love. The album is full of dynamic folk/art rock and droll lyrics. “Frostbiter” begins dramatically with some swooshing sorts of organ sounds, and then Little begins to tell us that “When Grandad died I got his knife.” Oh my gosh, he’s such a good story-teller that I’m sucked in immediately. The song just gets better from there, and it was definitely my favorite of the summer. “Pillar of Na” is a reference to Lot’s Old Testament pillar of salt. (Na symbol for salt, get it? I didn’t. I had to be told.) The album was produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), which goes a long way towards explaining why I’m captivated by the way this album sounds.

Juliet Naked, soundtrack

The new film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s wonderful novel Juliet Naked doesn’t seem to be playing anywhere in Maine, so for now I’ll have to content myself with the soundtrack. These songs sound like ones that the mysterious, used-to-be-sorta-famous main character Tucker Crowe might have written. They are of an era, not spell-binding like a Dylan or Leonard Cohen song, but good enough that we can imagine a cult following built up around them (think Nick Drake or Alex Chilton). Ethan Hawke, in the role of Crowe, deftly handles the vocals on most of the tracks. Highlights include Robyn Hitchcock’s meditative “Sunday Never Comes” and Conor Oberst’s “LAX,” which gets three different treatments on the soundtrack, as a wistful ballad, an urgent rocker and a bare bones demo from Oberst himself.

Not so current…

I didn’t make the transition from cds to digital music until this year, but subscribing to a music service is now making the way I find music much more spontaneous. I can be working out on the elliptical machine at the gym, listening to some song I saved to my ipod years ago from some compilation cd, and suddenly become curious about the band. A quick search as I’m pedaling, and I can jump right to more songs from some band that had barely been on my radar. I can imagine twenty-somethings giving me blank looks right now, wondering what the big deal is. They don’t know how hard it used to be track down obscure records or how expensive it could get to indulge every musical whim.  Here are my latest indulgences:

The Allah Las

This is the band I found recently on an old compilation cd. They sound like the Moody Blues met the Ventures, and then time traveled to the new millennium. Their most recent album is from 2016. Check this out:

 

The New Mendicants

Another recent band channeling long ago sounds, these reminiscent of top forty radio from about 1967. Imagine the happy flower power of the Cowsills, but with lyrical content. Their first song on their 2014 album Into the Lime, “Sarasota,” may or may not be about the land boom of the 1920s, but it’s lovely:

 

 

 

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