Van Halen in San Jose

It’s Van Halen like it used to be. Not better, necessarily, but most importantly, not worse.

VH put out one killer album in the late 1970s, a disappointing one after that, and a couple pretty good ones up to the mid-’80s. Then they got stupid, dumped their insufferable lead singer and spent two decades proving that even with a guitar god like Eddie Van Halen at the helm and his amazing brother Alex on drums, they really, really needed David Lee Roth’s vocals and cock-rock theatrics.

This year they got wise, and went on tour. Anybody who remembers getting a shiver at the base of their spine the first time they heard the thunderous opening to “Running With the Devil” on that first album needs to get out and and see ’em while they’re hot and before, if their track record is any guide, they implode again.

Eddie is clean, sober and soloing like you wouldn’t believe. Roth is looking old and slightly ridiculous strutting his stuff like he’s 22 and no teen-age girl is safe, but his voice is fresh and strong. He hits those notes he hit in 1978. Maybe he rested his vocal cords all those years Van Hagar was mucking up the reputation of one of the great American guitar bands. Alex is impressive, and Eddie’s 16-year-old son, Wolfgang, does fine on bass.

They’re playing almost every song on their debut album and perhaps a few from each of the ones after that. The first was that much better than the rest, so that’s not much of a surprise. The real surprise came about nine songs in — opening with the Kinks’ “You Really got Me” and ripping through “Runnin’ With the Devil” proved to be mere early-round warm-ups to a rousing “Everybody Wants Some” from “Women and Children First,” their third album. It was my favorite song of the night.

Somewhere in there, they slipped in “Dance the Night Away,” the radio-friendly hit single from the second album that utterly betrayed the promise of the first. It’s better in concert, I admit, but I’ll always associate it with the disappointment of discovering VH’s sophomore effort was a dim shadow of their debut. Hey, in 1979 these were matters of some import to teen-age boys who required songs about sex, girls and the hope of getting some.

After about an hour it was starting to look like they were checking required songs off a list, then everybody left the stage as if it was an encore. Then Roth came out alone with an acoustic guitar and started into a monologue about how he got into the music biz over 30 years ago, how he and his pals got stoned in a Pasadena basement, how he met a girl … it rambled a bit but but the payoff was “Ice Cream Man,” an old blues cover and one of VH’s best songs. Funny, sexy and delivered as only Roth could. All previous excesses were immediately redeemed.

Later, Eddie’s solo moment lasted more like 20 minutes … should’ve gotten tedious, I suppose, but he’s just so damned superior at it. You don’t complain in the presence of greatness. The solo paved the way for a pounding, spot-on rendition of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” the most muscular tune from that debut album. They really could’ve closed the show there, but obligingly played “Jump,” their biggest hit before Roth flew the coop. It was passable, which was good in a way because it let folks catch their breath and eased them toward the exits.

I had a free ticket to the show and had to be persuaded to go along. Van Halen isn’t a band I think about much anymore, beyond fond memories of the greatness of that debut album, the first record I ever owned (miraculously, the first stereo speakers I ever owned survived the assault). I wasn’t much much interested seeing an iconic band of my youth hitting the road as an oldies act.

It’s a credit to Eddie’s musicianship and Roth’s showmanship that they did not turn in a by-the-notes, rote recitation of their fans’ faves. They paused in the middle of songs, shifted tempos, improvised, goofed off a bit, and crafted an authentic concert. They know I know how all the songs go, I’m interested in seeing where the band goes with them.

So, yeah, they’re worth seeing on this tour — they’ve gotten raves on every tour stop — if you’re into the signature VH sound or if you’re a fan of world-class rock guitarists. It’s the Eddie and Alex Show, for sure, but something about Roth’s shameless, pile-on-the-ham stage presence completes the scene.

(Here’s another guy’s take on the concert, and here’s a set list).

Hardly Strictly speaking, Year 3

There’s a passage in the movie about Woodstock where Joan Baez takes the stage and sings a haunting a capella rendition of "Joe Hill."

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.
“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe, they shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

She’s this tiny waif on a giant stage, standing alone beneath a spotlight, belting out this old labor anthem to 500,000 kids who had no idea who Joe Hill was. The first time I saw it, I realized the power of a song to drill its way into the brain.

I saw Joan Baez sing that same song yesterday with her acoustic guitar, and a couple guys with electric and slide guitars for backup. It wasn’t the same, as it never could be. I already knew the wonder of "Joe Hill." What I never realized, until yesterday, was the wonder of Joan Baez.

In the old days, Baez sang with this fluttering vibrato in the higher registers that gave me the willies. She started out as a lefty folksinger before I was born and never strayed. She had her moment in the ’60s — a fling with Bob Dylan, the Woodstock appearance, etc — and as far as I was concerned, she was an icon of that time whose time had passed.

Last week another ’60s icon — Bob Dylan — was on PBS for two nights in a documentary by Martin Scorcese titled "No Direction Home." Baez appeared throughout the documentary trying to help explain Dylan. She lived with the guy, loved the guy, had become absolutely fed up with the guy and was no more able to explain Dylan than anybody else was. Throughout the interviews she came across as classy, witty and a bit hardened by the events of the past 40 years. Baez almost cynical after all these years. Imagine that.

So yesterday I went to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with no particular agenda in mind beyond picking an interesting act from the five playing simultaneously on stages scattered throughout the park. I got there early, before the music started. I’d never heard of any of the opening acts and the only name I knew well in the early afternoon lineup was Baez, who came on at 1:15. I’d never seen her live and figured at the years had to have taken some of the edge off that voice of hers. I also figured she’d draw a huge crowd in a lefty town like San Francisco.

I wanted to see the same Joan Baez I’d seen in the Dylan documentary, and I knew that meant I’d have to be right up front. My plan: Insinuate myself into the front row one act before Baez, then hold that ground till Baez’s set was over.

The plan worked like a charm, with one unexpected bonus: After I’d tiptoed through the maze of blankets to find a foot-wide patch of grass right next to the fence separating the crowd from the stage, I looked to my left and noticed the guy sitting there looked familiar. He looked at me and we had a moment of recognition: it was Maurice, the landscape photographer whom I’d met via FOMFOK, the hiking group I hang out with now and then.

It turned out to be a good omen. Patty Griffin came on stage in a few minutes and proceeded to blow me away. She does ballads, blues, country, traditional, sings with genuine power and emotion. A woman next to me with a camera and a giant zoom lens is taking dozens of pictures; I see her aim her lens away from the stage and notice what she’s shooting: Baez is sitting on a platform by the stage, checking out Griffin’s set. She’s drinking Budweiser from a can at 12:30 in the afternoon. Helps her voice, I bet.

Griffin finishes her set to a standing ovation. About 15 minutes later, right on schedule, Baez appears on stage. She sorta threads her way through the first couple songs, not making much of an impact. "Geeze, Patty Griffin was better," I’m thinking. Well, Joan was just warming up.

I don’t remember the exact sequence, but I know things got better when she did a cover of Johnny Cash’s "Long Black Veil." Somebody in the crowd yelled "Joe Hill," and that’s when she played it. Then she said "This is a giant song by the guy who did all the giant songs." It was Dylan’s "Hard Rain." The crowd sang along, and she was hitting her stride.

Baez has to have that one a capella song that freezes the audience in its seats. This time it’s "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She almost hits some of those high notes of her heyday; I’m thankful that she doesn’t. It’s a riveting song, bringing mad applause from the crowd when she finishes.

She sings a heartbreaking version of Woody Guthrie’s "Deportee," a song about Mexican migrant workers killed in a plane crash on their way back to Mexico. She closes her set with "Jerusalem," the Steve Earle song that imagines (somewhat naively) that one day the children of Abraham will live together in peace. When it’s over this young woman throws a bouquet of flowers on stage, and Baez picks it up, beaming.

I’m fairly stunned when it’s over. Against all odds, to my mind, Baez has put on an amazing show.

I realize immediately that I’ve just had one of those transcendent musical experiences that will not be equaled anywhere else at the festival. It’s not even 2:30 and there’s at least four more hours of music to check out. It’s a relief to have the "Oh Yea!" moment out of the way, so I won’t have to spend the rest of the afternoon darting from stage to stage looking for it.

With no goal for the rest of the afternoon, I just wandered around from stage to stage. I happened past the Arrow Stage when Rodney Crowell was leading a sing-along version of Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone." Cool moment.

Also caught the set of the Knitters,’ a country band made up of former members of X, the famous L.A. punk band of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Lots of fun: fast, rowdy country. Met some people I know from the paper, one of whom looks upon Del McCoury as a bluegrass version of God incarnate. When another mentioned he hated Del McCoury, I thought sure a fight was going to break out.

The last band I saw was Los Super Seven, a conglomerate of Tex-Mex virtuosos. Their first song, sung by Joe Ely, one of my all-time favorites, was "Deportee." Not quite as soul-rending as Baez’s version, but strong nevertheless.

My only lament from Hardly Strictly Bluegras is that it’s getting too big for its own good. The area around the Banjo Stage was mobbed with people… must’ve been 5,000 of them out there. But bigger crowds will attract even bigger talent in years to come, so there’s always that to look forward to.

Pictures from Saturday here.

A jazz Saturday

I had all day Saturday to kill so I dropped in on the San Jose Jazz Festival.
There’s no admission to the fest, so to some extent you get what you pay for.
So much attention goes into fundraising and cajoling bands to come to San Jose,
I suppose, that such things as program guides or maps of the festival are things
which you have to get along without. Well, if you’re too lazy and unmotivated
to ask somebody where such things might be found, which describes me to a T.
I had no idea, for instance, that there were at least three indoor venues
featuring interesting and wonderful jazz artists. Of course, sitting on the
couch back home in my Friday edition of the San Jose Mercury News was a complete
guide to the festival with maps and arrows and advice on the must-see acts.
Heck, anybody can find cool stuff that way.

So anyway, if you Googled San Jose Jazz Festival and happened upon this page,
be assured it is not representative of the mind-boggling range of talent that
appears at the festival every year. It’s just some stuff I saw on a Saturday
in the summer of 2005.

The first cool thing I saw was this cop on horseback riding his horse right
into a tent where they were selling beer. He only jokingly ordered a draft from
the tap.

I wandered down to the blues stage, where Lara Price and her band were belting
it out.

The Salsa Stage drew big crowds all afternoon.

Vission Latina keeps the crowd grooving. I seem to recall the lead singer mentioning
he was from Cuba.

The crowd endorses the Salsa sound.

Over at the Big Band Stage, a bunch of people who’s great-grandparents were
into Benny Goodman keep the swing, well, swinging.

Dancers with long hair often produced the coolest photos.

I got these pix sitting on the sidewalk about eight feet from the stage, which
is one of the great things about checking out the less-popular venues: you can
always sit up front and see the expressions on the faces of the performers as
they perform.

The Main Stage is roped off down at the front and you have to have a special
wristband to get in. I have no idea where to get the wristband, no motivation
to find out. The grounds nearby are full of people with blankets and lawnchairs
… it’s a nightmare to navigate so I end up avoiding the Main Stage. This is
Soul Live on stage; I’m sure I’d have loved ’em if I could’ve gotten a seat
up front.

Back at the Salsa Stage, Eric Rangel y su Orquestra America have taken the
stage. One of Eric’s bandmates was doing one of those silly things bandmates
do because the lead singer is too busy singing to do what comes naturally, which
is to say, elbow him in the ribs or perhaps bop him in the jaw. He’s up there
singing and one of his cohorts is behind him running his hands all over him
with mock-homosexual ardor. It’s pretty funny until somebody takes a picture
of him doing it.

Back to the blues stage. Graying white guy wearing strange shirt: this is perhaps
the modern blues audience personified.

That’s the De Azna Hotel down at the end of the street. It’s where I spent
my first night in San Jose — quite a swanky joint, provided somebody else is
paying for your hotel room.

More Salsa Stage grooviness. I don’t recall seeing a flute in a jazz band before.

I’m not sure who these guys are, but they belt it out in Spanish with impressive

A man and his trombone at the Latin Stage.

Back at the Big Band Stage, all the big bands had gone home but a Spanish/gypsy/mambo
flavored band called Alma Melodiosa got everybody moving for a segment called
Jazz After Dark.

Alma Melodiosa is a great combo with pleasing eye candy in the form of this
backup singer who had these castanet-thingies draped over her nether regions,
providing backing rhythms as she grinds out fetching belly-dancer moves. I sorta
felt sorry for the lead singer, who had a powerful, haunting voice, because
obviously all the attention will be drawn to the gyrating babe to her left (who
was a fine singer in her own right, but I don’t think many people were paying
attention to her voice. Well, a least not the guys).

Low light, moving musicians and an unsteady photographer’s hand provide novel
visual effects.

I’m sure there was more to see but at this point I’m jazzed out.

Dusting off the Pixies

I saw the Pixies play last night in San Jose’ s Civic Auditorium. The stage looks out over an old basketball court, which seems fitting because the concert proves there are no slam-dunks in rock ‘n’ roll.

The Pixies played two sold-out shows Monday night in San Francisco, and seemed content to pick up an easy paycheck for another 90-minute stroll down memory lane 40 miles south in San Jose on Tuesday. How hard could it be to fill an old auditorium that holds maybe 2,000 in a city with a population of 900,000-plus?

Harder than the Pixies’ handlers expected, I imagine.

I noticed it the first time the light show cast those big white high-beam headlight spots out from the stage onto a room barely half-full.

Granted, San Jose’s live-music scene is on life-support at best. But the Pixies are legends, even if they haven’t had a great album in 15 years. Frank Black, the chubby bald lead singer, has had some interesting solo albums and Kim Deal, the bass player, had a good gig for awhile leading a band called the Breeders. The Pixies were all the rage back in the late ’80s: way cool, way ironic, way sarcastic. Indie-rock darlings adored by all right-thinking fans of piercing, catchy guitar licks and songs about the lighter side of debasement and toxic sludge from New Jersey.

A band this cool could never become a nostalgia act, right?

Well, it must be time to officially welcome the Pixies to the oldies circuit — what else to say when the band plays so many gems from its beloved “Doolittle” album that you’d think it’d been released last week rather than 1989?

In the Pixies’ prime, the lead singer called himself Black Francis. He sang demented songs with a sarcastic edge that told us he was really just sorta kidding around here. And his lead guitarist, Joey Santiago, coined blazing riffs that cemented the sarcasm theme. Together with a killer rhythm section of Kim Deal on bass and David Lovering on drums, the Pixies created a screamingly catchy sound.

Last night, it seemed like Black Francis/Frank Black and Deal were punching the clock. The Black One’s voice has none of the edgy wail of old, and Deal looks like the mother of a couple middle schoolers who’s playing in a rock band to pay for their summer camp. They’re credited as the creative force behind the Pixies but they’re not showing me much, enthusiasmwise. At least Deal smiles most of the way through.

Santiago, though, seems genuinely proud of those riffs he came up with way back when. He plays with verve, determination, precision. I knew last night that no matter what supremely cool lyrics Deal/Black wrote, Santiago’s the man behind the Pixies’ signature sound.

Lovering pounds his drums with equal power. At one point, he throws a drumstick over to Santiago, who does some slide work with it at the top of his guitar’s neck. Then he throws the stick back to Lovering, who catches it on the fly and doesn’t miss a beat.

Nice to see two guys having some fun up there.

The Pixies played for about 90 minutes, clocked out and moved on down the road to L.A. They were worth seeing, another of the greats from way back when to add to my life list.

So today I’m thinking about those blinding lights shining out over the audience. Those lights are not about us, they’re about the rock star’s desperate need not only to hear the fans, but to actually see them.

What comforting lies do they tell themselves when those lights illuminate the reality that they can’t fill this room on this night? The bandmates could tell themselves, “well, San Jose’s just a lame town with no taste in music.” Or it could think “well, everybody in the Bay Area who wanted to see us got their chance at the Warfield on Monday.” But I can’t help imagining them seeing their future in the empty spaces at the San Jose Civic.

A rock concert makes us vividly aware of the fact they — the band — are up there, and we, the fans, are down here. There’s something wonderfully equalizing about seeing a once-great band up there trying to prove it still deserves that spotlight, and looking around the room and realizing how many people think otherwise. Because apart from the 500 or so of us in the room, it’s damn near everybody.

That’s more than equalizing, come to think of it. It’s downright humbling. I’m not sure I’d wish it on anybody.

Drive-By Truckers at The Fillmore

Patterson Hood’s singing a song that wonders who’d drive his car, listen to his tapes, play his music, after he’s thrown himself off Lookout Mountain.

His band is pounding out an ominous rhythm but his players look oddly upbeat. It’s dark, dangerous material typical of the Drive-By Truckers, who spent a good three hours Saturday night trying to deafen everybody within 20 yards of the stage at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

Hood adores his material, plainly lives to get up on a stage and share it at extreme volume. It feels so good he never stops smiling.

Even when he’s singing about suicide. Or that song about a musician who’s dying of AIDS and can’t stop now because he’s got another show to do.

The crowd eats this stuff up. I’m no different. By the end I’m shouting along to a rousing chorus of “shut your mouth and get your ass on the plane.” The plane will crash, killing the leaders of a popular rock band. We know this, we scream along anyway. After all, the song’s operative line is “living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time.”

The strange magic of the Drive-By Truckers is their ability to write murder ballads with jet-blast rhythms and piercing, rapid-fire guitar solos that make their fans feel good about the experience of hearing them. They pull it off because their songs about death are really songs about life, that is, why it’s worth living flat-out till your last breath. Sure, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy to us in the mortgage-paying masses, but the Truckers give us a few hours of escape.

The Truckers’ songs would not be mistaken for escapism, though. They’re usually about people trying to hold onto a few scraps of dignity in a world that’s given ’em the shiv. Can’t help wanting to root for people who just keep hanging in there. These aren’t always nice people, but they do have a story to tell.

The Truckers, who traveled out here from their base in Athens, Ga., have filled their records with songs about forgotten Southerners (and a few remembered ones, like George Wallace and Lynyrd Skynyrd). Hood’s voice is scratchy and hard to listen to sometimes, which deepens the effect of his stories, whether they’re about trying to get out of a town called Buttholeville or wondering why everybody in his town is coming down with cancer.

It’d be enough to have one guy in this band writing these Southern gothic songs, but the Truckers have three of ’em. One of his cohorts is a gaunt guitar ace named Mike Cooley, who’s been writing and performing with Hood for 20 years; his baritone could pass for a punked-up Merle Haggard. The other is a baby-faced, 20something guitar ace named Jason Isbell who joined the Truckers a few years ago and wrote one of their signature songs in his first week with the band.

Isbell’s song was “Decoration Day,” title cut from the band’s 2003 album. It takes the perspective of a guy whose family’s been feuding with another clan for god knows how long. His dad instructs him to beat a son of the rival family, “but don’t dare let him die.” Some kind of macho signal sending, I suppose; the payback: seeing his dad murdered on the front porch of his home. The crowd sings along, roaring, whistling and clapping out its approval at the end.

“Decoration Day” was the third song the Truckers played Saturday. It had the same lyrics, same licks, same personnel as the studio recording, but the live version seems to hit with twice the force, and not just because of it’s so loud the bass drum is inflating my windbreaker. Part of me wonders, why play such listenable songs at near-unlistenable decibel levels? But another part of me — the one that bought earplugs just in case, the one that decided 30 seconds after the music started that earplugs at this concert will be like sex with a condom — craves the ear-crunching, chest thumping bigness of the Truckers’ live show. My ears’ll be ringing for days and I’ll use those earplugs the next time I see these folks; after all, earplugs are prophylactics for the ear canals, with similar benefits.

As I’m watching the band, I’m also watching the crowd. For awhile I stand behind a tall young woman who’s head is bobbing slightly in tune with the band. Seems kind of non-committal and I wonder: how can you have a mild reaction to the Truckers? I feel like there are two choices: fleeing the premises or shaking one’s fists and booty with mad abandon.

Later, near the end of the show, I’m standing next to a guy who has no expression on his face at all. The band’s searing three-guitar attack leaves him totally unmoved. Maybe the woman I noticed before was just shy about shaking her thing in public. But this guy has no thing to shake, at least for the Truckers. What’s that about?

By the time the Truckers have finished their second set of encores, everybody in the room is flat worn out. The houselights come up and we’re thankful for the rest. It’s sort of a natural reaction to the full-tilt sound of the Truckers — for the last 90 minutes its one song after another building up to blazing crescendos, any one of which would close the show for a lesser band. But the Truckers keep on, well, driving.

I walk out of the Fillmore feeling a bit like I feel after a long, invigorating hike. Tired, a bit sore perhaps, but satistifed in the experience of getting to the end of something worth doing.

Hardly Strictly speaking

Every year for the past four, this millionaire from San Francisco has been
bringing the world’s greatest bluegrass performers to town and inviting everybody to come
see them — and the admission’s free. Just bop over to Golden Gate Park, pull
up a patch of grass and listen to two days of amazing picking and fiddling.

Originally it was called the Strictly Bluegrass festival but it evolved into
the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival — which is where I spent most of Saturday
and Sunday. One nice side benefit of this free festival is that you can walk
right up to the front of the stage and take pictures of the performers. Two
days of this gave me a fresh appreciation of what concert photographers go through
— it takes exact timing to anticipate when an interesting expression will appear
on a musician’s face, then you have to hope there’s no microphone in the way
and reconcile yourself to the fact that the minute you set the camera down,
something really cool will happen. The highlights:


Imagewise, the day got off to an auspicious start when I took the BART train
to San Francisco on Saturday and noticed this little baby peeking his head behind
his carrier and making impossibly cute faces at me.

OK, enough of full-cuteness mode. Back to the main topic:

The festival is on four stages, and as I approach the first one, I hear this
guy named A.J. Roach singing — I kid you not — about dying of black-lung disease.

His band seems pretty cheerful, considering the subject matter. Maybe they
think "if he keeps this up I’ll have no choice but to launch my solo career."
A.J was a capable mountain wailer but I had to see who else was mixing things
up elsewhere.

These jumbo hula hoops are always popular.

Here’s the Hot Club of Cowtown, a really swinging Austin, Texas, string band.
I had to leave before I developed a crush on the blonde fiddle player.

It was a day for Emmylou Harris sightings. That’s her in the black cowboy hat.
She closed the show Sunday.

I was wondering what it is about bluegrass that ignites an irresistible urge
to dance. Best I can figure is that the rapid-fire plucking of guitar, mandolin
and banjo strings becomes a kind of percussion, which just seems to set toes
tapping, legs twisting, hips shaking. (OK, so I’m asking you to accept the premise
that percussion makes music danceworthy … it’s just a thought, but I’ll stuck
with this theory till a better one comes along).

Speaking of pickin’, here’s a couple guys from Hot Rize attempting to warm
things up. They were a pretty hot combo, but no match for what the weather gods
sent us this weekend: Cold, windy, damp — hell on any exposed extremities,
and hard on wooden musical instruments that kept expanding and contracting and
getting out of tune.

The Banjo Stage draws a nice crowd.

Kevin Welch, center, Kieran Kane, left, and their fiddler, whom they called
Fats (because he’s the skinniest guy in six counties, I suspect). Their set
was better suited to a small, smoky room in a bar rather than the expanse of
the outdoors. If you’re into singer-songwriters who don’t suck, check these
guys out. Excellent lyricists who harmonize well. One of the funniest moments
from the weekend happened during their set: Between their songs, one of the
bands at the next stage over receives a thundering ovation, and Welch says in
this droll twang of his, "sounds like they’re having more fun over there
than we are." Yeah, you had to be there.

After these guys finished, Nick Lowe, who had some hits in the ’80s, came on
the same stage — his name alone attracted twice the audience and triple the
applause but he didn’t seem nearly as good as Welch & company. Could be
an example of fame distorting reality, or merely me identifying with the unfamous.

These kids in front of us were a hoot: constantly raising hell to their mom’s

Shay, a guy I work with who knows more about bluegrass than anybody else I
know. He used to work for Rounder Records, which handles tons of folk/roots
bands. He’s always seeing former clients of his at these concerts.

John Prine, who dusted off an anti-war song of his from the Vietnam Era. It
goes like this

"But your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore,
they’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war,
Now Jesus don’t like killin’,
No matter what the reason’s for,
And your flag decal won’t get you
into heaven any… more"

Prine’s voice sounds like a gravel road but he’s still got a lot of singing
left in him. He played a fabulous set — lively, sarcastic, well paced, covering
a 30-year career. He’s the real deal … catch him if you get the chance.

Emmylou, center, guest stars with Buddy and Julie Miller. Buddy’s a fabulous
guitar player and Julie’s a bit of a space cadet but she’s got fine pipes. I
caught a few of their songs and wished I’d have seen more. With four stages
and dozens of bands there were lots of tough choices: I had to miss Steve Earle
to see Prine, and I never even made it over to one of the four stages. But nobody’s
complaining at these prices.

Saturday’s headliner, the living legend and godfather of bluegrass, Ralph Stanley
— center, holding his hands to keep ’em warm. He did the a capella version
of "Oh, Death" from "O Brother" that was a bit too haunting.
The lyric goes, "Oh, death, won’t you spare me over for another year,"
and I got the feeling that Ralph — who’s been at this for half a century —
was hoping his song might ward off the Reaper.


Lest you worry that all his music distracted me from my hiking, rest easy:
I walked four miles from City Hall the park site both days. I invited the folks
at Walk South Bay to come along for Sunday’s walk.

That’s the San Francisco city hall up ahead. It’s uphill most of the way to
the park from here, but the hills are mild compared to what I’m used to. Only
two of the Walk South Bay folks took me up on my invitation: Gilad, an immunology
researcher at the University of San Francisco (he’s one of the mosaic of scientists
searching for a cure for AIDS) and Angelika, a research assistant at the university.
She’s from Germany, he’s from Israel — a true international couple and wonderful
company for a walk through the city.

We stopped at the botanical gardens in Golden Gate Park — they are truly stunning.

Gilad and Angelika stopped by the bluegrass fest for awhile, but they found
they weren’t dressed warmly enough to stand still and watch music, so they kept
on walking another couple miles down to Ocean Beach. I’m hoping I’ll see ’em
on another hike.

OK, back to the festival:

Here’s the Texas singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who played an extremely
polished set. He sings in a high register that reminds me a lot of Willie Nelson,
except Jimmie Dale has a smoother voice — the pitch without the crackle. This
guy proves why you have to peel past the layers of fame to find to the really
interesting musicians. Willie Nelson is an icon for sure, but the key to his
appeal is not his fame or his hit records: it’s his distinctive musical style.
Willie can make anybody’s songs sound good, and the same is true of countless
indie musicians like Jimmie Dale Gilmore who barely scratch out a living playing
music. It takes a lot more patience to sit through songs you’ve never heard
before but the payoff is hearing something amazing for the first time.

Steve Earle sits in on a songwriters session. He’s singing a song about a 19th
century juvenile delinquent; earlier he sang that song of his written from the
perspective of a guy about to be executed by lethal injection. Amazingly powerful
song, really gave me the chills. (When Steve trots out his causes at every show
the audience is silently saying, "Shut up and sing, dammit" — and
it’s like he reads our minds and knows it’s going to take some kick-ass performing
to melt that annoyance away. Then he does it.)

Ricky Skaggs, center, and Kentucky Thunder. They play fast and furious, tight
as a snare drum.

Del McCoury, right, and his band. The best bluegrass combo I’ve ever heard.

A dancer nearby swings to the twang.

The Gourds, another good-time Austin band. I stayed for a couple of their songs,
then headed home.

Yeah, it was cold, windy, and all-around terrible weather for an outdoor music
festival. But the only regret I have is a kind of buyer’s remorse that happens
when you’re grooving along to one band and hear a huge round of cheers for a
different band closing its set at a nearby stage. Even then you realize somebody
else is having a good time over there so it’s hard to feel too terrible about
missing their fun, especially when you know they’re missing yours.

Welcome to Hicksville

It’s 7 p.m. Saturday night in front of the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. We’re standing in a line with seven other people who bought advance tickets. Another line is forming at the ticket window … about a dozen people are in line to buy their tickets or pick them up.

This tiny gaggle represents the population of the earth willing to line up here an hour early to see Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks . I notice a piece of paper taped to the front door says no alcohol is allowed in the Rio. Swell. One poster announces a musical ensemble that will perform all the songs from the Beatles’ White Album sometime in the future, and another announces a Biker Movie Marathon of a few weeks back, sponsored by the Harley dealer across the street. Missed a chance to see both "The Wild One" and "Easy Rider" on a big screen. Crud.

By the time they let us in, a couple hundred have lined up behind us. It’s a fine crowd for a decent-sized pub, but the Rio holds 600. We find seats in the center, about six rows back. They would be great seats, except that the springs are worn out and it’s impossible to find a position that feels comfortable.

After we decide these seats will do, I make a drink run. Coffee and water are the choices. And maybe tea. What kind of concert is this? Anyway, I come back with my bottled water, get somewhat settled back into my seat that cannot be settled into, and the first thing I hear is the megaphone of this loud-mouthed matron behind me. She’s got herself turned around sideways in her seat and is shouting down to her friends. The closest things to her mouth are my ears. I look over at Melissa and she’s holding her ears and counting backward from 100. This woman blabs loudly and constantly for the next half-hour as we wait for Dan and company to take the stage. I want to reach back and throttle her but decide to wait her out. The band will be louder, I figure.

Finally the lights dim and we see Dan and the band walking down the aisle toward the stage. It can’t have escaped his notice that the room is maybe two-fifths full. He walks up to center stage, gazes out over us and assumes the look of a bandleader calculating how much of the gate receipts he gets to keep after everybody else gets paid. What happens is we get what he was paid for. Which, it appears, wasn’t much.

Dan sings, plays rhythm guitar and amuses the crowd with ironic/sarcastic banter between songs (everybody chuckles when he refers to all the band’s records as "The White Album"). His band is a bass player, a fiddle/mandolin player, a lead guitarist, and two blond-haired backup singers, the Lickettes. One of them is tall, thin and slightly aloof. The other is shorter, a bit frumpier but by any estimation the only person on stage having any fun. Always smiling, she grooves, she plays strange hand-held percussion instruments, she stops between songs to mop the perspiration from her brow. Near as I can tell she’s also the only one working up a sweat.

The Hot Licks’ sound is grounded in the two acoustic guitars, spiced up with the violin/mandolin and the Lickettes’ voices. Hicks calls it a mix of jazz and folk, which it is, except without the cloying lyrics of folk songs and the musical virtuosity of accomplished jazz soloists. His players are good, but they’re not supposed to wow you into that stunned silence that ends only when you burst into applause because, well, that’s what you do when the band is having one of those crazy-amazing interludes.

We don’t get much crazy-amazing from Dan & Company tonight. It’s more like, "OK, that was pretty good, now let’s see if the next song is any better." Don’t get me wrong, this is a good band that plays well together. It’s not like it’s agony to sit through each song or anything. Everybody does their bit, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s the room being too big for this sound, or Dan having some lifelong grudge against Santa Cruz. Maybe it’s me being aggravated by the mouthy woman behind me (who did quiet down during the show).

I think we were all kind of glad when it was over. I’d advise anybody who likes acoustic music to check out Dan and his band — if it’s a small venue. Dan’s goofy, half-mumbled wisecracks are half the fun, but he needs a more intimate room, like a bar or club, for it to work. And, I suspect, he needs to be reassured that he’ll earn a paycheck from the night’s proceedings.

Going to a show tonight

We’ve got tickets to see Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz tonight. The event: Holidaze in Hicksville. Dan and his band have been around since the late ’60s. Master Trivian John Orr gave me a copy of their live album, “Alive and Lickin’,” a couple years back. It’s a hoot — humorous and musically rich.

I’ll report back tomorrow.

Here’s a Dan Hicks overview from the Gleaner in Henderson, Ky. Seems Hicks’ tour culminated last night at the Fillmore in San Francisco. No telling what’s in store tonight.

Saw some jazz last night

We saw Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis in San Francisco last night. Nancy does
this jazz show on NPR that I used to hear on my drive home … swear to God
the first time I heard her say "This is Nancy Wilson…" I thought,
"Wow, that sister from Heart is a jazz singer now." Sorry, she’s the
only Nancy Wilson I’d ever heard of growing up in the ’70s listening to Album
Rock Radio.

I suppose I went to school with kids who had heard of the real Nancy Wilson,
the one onstage at the Masonic Auditorium last night. If so they should’ve passed
the word around … not that we’d have listened to them, but at least they’d
have the comfort today of knowing they were listening the right one — who should’ve
covered a silky version of "Crazy on You" to score some irony points
with the few of us who’d have gotten the joke.

I have about a dozen jazz albums, most of them Legends: Charlie Parker, Miles
Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson.
Of the bunch I like Oscar the best, because he plays with this bluesy groove
the feels the most like Rock ‘n’ Roll when he’s really cooking. My knowledge
of jazz limited to my exposure to these LDGs — Legendary Dead Guys — and I
know zilch about the music of Nancy & Ramsey. I picked them out because
I knew they were big names among living musicians, and I needed something to
do on my birthday that would not leave Melissa deaf, because she needs her hearing
to be able to respond when I say, "honey, could you grab me a beer outa
the fridge?" See, this is why guys secretly crave rock ‘n’ roll: they want
their hearing to be shot so they’ll have an excuse for not listening to their

Anyway, this is what I remember: The show opens with Nancy and Ramsey walking
to the front of the stage. If you know Nancy was born in 1937, your brain screams
that she has absolutely no business wearing that slinky black floor-length gown
with the plunging neckline. She may be eligible for full Social Security Benefits,
but boys I’m here to tell you, the woman looks great in that getup. How can
she have acquired so many years and so few lumps? Amazing. Oh yeah, then she
started singing.

She opens with "Moondance," the song Van Morrison made famous. She doesn’t
bring anything new or inspiring to the song… she has a lovely, powerful voice
but doesn’t show it off here. Obviously she’s warming up her vocal chords and
the crowd with some easy stuff to get us in the mood. She has her own keyboard
player, so Ramsey sits at his grand piano doing a few finger rolls and looking
as if he they don’t pay him enough to play Van Morrison songs. But as I said,
it’s a warmup.

During the first couple songs, the bass player — who’s thumbing a standup
bass — keeps trying to steal the spotlight by playing these really intricate
solos. I’m trying to enjoy the show but I can’t stop thinking, "why the
hell doesn’t this guy understand that a bass was not meant to play solos?"
I mean, drum solos are bad enough, but bass solos — fingers pounding strings
in the vain hope of sounding as cool as a saxophone — are generally insufferable.
This guy is no different: He’s really, really good but he’s starting to annoys
the crap out of me. I want him to get back to playing rhythm, and when he does,
everything is fine.

Nancy departs the stage to polite applause after a few songs, and now it’s
time for Ramsey to show us his stuff. Some of the LDGs in my collection are
what I’d call hardcore — Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker — geniuses
who are absolutely uncompromising. If you enjoy their work it’s because you
can appreciate greatness; they played however they damn well pleased. Ramsey
Lewis is a born crowd-pleaser, so he’s not hardcore. He has chops, though; I’d
call him smoothcore. The first song is a rousing, grooving number that brings
thunderous applause … easily 50 percent louder than the thanks we bestowed
on Nancy. Ramsey isn’t just working the keyboards, he’s working the room.

After about three or four songs (they seemed to run together), Ramsey and his
bassist and drummer start playing another jumping tune that the crowd wants
to clap along to. Except the guys keep changing the tempo and frustrating such
attempts. It’s a fun jazz tune, with moments where Ramsey slows to a complete
silence, then tears off in some new direction. Towards the end of one of these
diversions, I notice the bass player has picked up a bow. The music stops for
a second, then the next thing we hear is the low, tender moan of a bow being
dragged over strings. Sort of like a cello solo, but way deeper. The effect
is stunning — the bass violin seems to have its own voice, and it’s singing
its own tune. Almost brought tears to my eyes. The solo lasts a few minutes,
the stops, and the trio blasts off in another direction, this time with an even,
solid tempo that allows the crowd to clap along. When it’s over, the crowd is
thundering and I’m thinking: I could go home now, that’s one of the must riveting
things I’ve ever experienced.

Turns out that’s the end of Ramsey’s set and it’s time for Nancy to come back
out. Now she’s wearing a floor-length red dress, minus the low neckline. She
still looks marvelous. Here’s where I wish I had more of a taste for vocal jazz
— Nancy’s got great pipes and incredible stage charisma. She talks about her
life as a musician between songs of heartbreak and loss, and I can’t help wondering
if the guys in her own band were the ones who put her through all that. She
sings it like she’s lived it, and the crowd eats it up.

My problem is that my tiny idea of jazz is a piano, a saxophone, a trumpet
making sounds that are beyond words. Adding a singer subtracts the musicians
and takes that mystery away. When Nancy sings I feel her pain and recognize
her talent — yeah, she’s the real deal among jazz singers. But I don’t get
that sense of wow that happens when a jazz combo is really pounding it. Nancy
doesn’t move me like that, but it’s still entertaining to see a pro in action.
She has grace, poise, class, and she’s sexy beyond her years.

And when it was over my ears weren’t ringing.