Revisiting Almost Famous

ImageLast weekend I went down to Santa Cruz and did an interview with Marcel of Marcel’s Music Journal. Marcel is thirteen years old and already kickin’ ass and takin’ names in the local music blogging world. Seriously: Musicians are taking notice; trusting him with coverage on them. Writers and editors are following him in droves on social media. It’s a somewhat strange tale, and I knew I had to be there before this kid broke big (as big as one can with a blog, anyway).

When considering Marcel’s and MMJ’s trajectory, it’s pretty hard not to be reminded of Almost Famous (I was actually successful at keeping any mention of it out of the final draft; go me). Almost Famous, the story of 15-year-old William Miller, a fledgling freelancer who gets thrown into a plum assignment for Rolling Stone at the headiest peak of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, was the coming-of-age movie for every kid who grew up with cool parents. For me, it got the gears turning about pursuing a career, or hell, even just a hobby, in rock writing (I always hesitate to call it ‘journalism’). Even though it was not a practical career goal in 2000, and wasn’t even a practical career goal in 1973, and even though the entire film revolves around just how unglamorous and stressful and deflating and wholly uncool being a rock writer is, it just reinforced the idea that it was even possible.

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When Reporters F*!k Up

When in doubt, use a vintage postcard. That's what I always say.

When in doubt, use a vintage postcard. That’s what I always say.

This may be beating a dead horse at this point, but I’ve had something on my mind the last few weeks that I want to talk about.

Before we get into this, let me say I’m not mad (er, not that mad). I’m actually really encouraged. For the last three years, I’ve been operating under the assumption that “journalistic integrity” is an archaic, outdated notion that people in the 21st century couldn’t care less about — one so useless it required me to use semi-sarcastic quotes just now. I’m still not sure whether the people that were up in arms last week were actually concerned about transparency in news or if they just needed something to dispense all their anger into, but the fact that we, as one big society, are even talking about issues that I’ve always assumed were confined to first-year journalism classes is a really happy thing for me.

In the last week, there’s been a lot of discussion about bad reporting. I’m sure you’ve all heard about it by now. The most famous gaffes were, first, the Post’s stomach-turning cover story, and CNN’s factual trip-ups and rampant speculation that, in the end, only served to clog the information highway.

And pretty soon, hatin’ on “the media,” whomever that may be, became the cool thing to do. I didn’t really understand why at first. I had been watching CNN on the night of the bombings, and it seemed to me that CNN was just being CNN. I mean, they’ve been on the air for over 30 years; I figured everybody knew by now that taking tiny bits of news and streeeetching them into deformity is just how they do.

Instead, a darkening cloud started to gather on the social networks. Along with trying to make other people feel guilty about caring “too much” about Boston while there were so many other tragedies going on that week (because duh, it’s just not possible to care about more than one horrible thing at a time), blaming the media for all of this country’s evils became the theme of the week. Seemingly overnight, people became outraged that CNN would speculate and then backtrack (because, you know, they’ve never done that before. Yes, that was sarcasm), and that the Post, a notoriously sleazy tabloid, would go so far as to libel someone.

 I mean, seriously. Just look at that front page. It looks more like a Lolcat graphic than a newspaper.

I mean, seriously. Look at that front page. It looks more like a Lolcat graphic than a newspaper.

Still, I ended up taking it personally. Though I’m not in the arena of strict news-bringing myself, I was brought up in that field and couldn’t help but feel like, when people were throwing around that catchall phrase “the media,” they meant me as well.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t understand why everyone was upset. There were a lot of mistakes made that week. In fact, I’m not even really comfortable calling them “mistakes” — it was misinformation delivered as truth, and I think we can all agree that that’s not cool. But still, I was surprised that people suddenly expected the stupid to suddenly stop being stupid, and it bummed me out that so many people I know and respect used a few embarrassing incidents from outlets that have long and well-recorded histories of embarrassing incidents as an excuse to condemn all media outlets everywhere. As happy as I was to see the general public taking an interest in something I care about, it really surprised me that so many people, people that I know to be smart and sensible, rushed to place blame — which, when you think about it, is kind of what they were damning the media for doing in the first place.

Granted, the biggest of the mistakes made that week went far beyond something that would require a ‘we regret the error’ the next day. But, having been on the other side of things, the week’s events also left me thinking about just how amazingly easy it is to fuck up facts, even on a slow news day.

I remember learning about how to deal with errors when I was in journalism school. I’m not going to say I was sure that it would never happen to me, but I do remember making a clear decision to only half-listen to the lectures about it, because I, of course, would never have to worry much about making mistakes. I was going to be a magazine journalist, and make my living writing things like artist Q&As and essays about pivotal albums of the ’60s. Not interviewing drug dealers and then being hassled by the feds to hand over my sources. Clearly, I didn’t need to commit any of it to memory because, not only were the stakes never going to be that high for me, I just couldn’t imagine ever playing so fast and loose with facts. The only way I could see myself committing a horrific factual screw-up was through some complex chain of circumstances that I had absolutely no control over.

Before I was even out of school, I had already fucked up once. In writing a feature about a band, I had interviewed a fan of theirs, and wrote the word “Texas” in my notes a little too close to a statement about the first time she had seen the band in concert. When I went to write the story, I wrote that her first concert experience of them was in Texas — it wasn’t. She had simply told me that she had moved here from Texas.

I was absolutely shocked with myself. How could I be so careless? Why didn’t I double-check that? I apologized to her and changed the story, and vowed to myself to be more careful about taking notes from now on. And to start using a digital recorder

The next time was much, much worse. I interviewed a man who hosted a TV show about cheesy horror films from the ’50s and ’60s. The show sometimes aired on public television stations. I knew that — the reason I knew about him was because I had stumbled across his show late at night on the San Jose PBS channel. Still, in the final draft, I mistakenly stated his show had aired on “public-access television.”

He was livid, and rightfully so — there’s a big difference between public television and public-access television. Once again, I was angry with myself. Especially because I couldn’t even figure out how I ended up writing that. Not only had I read my draft a million, billion, zillion times over, I knew for a fact that what I had meant to say was public television. It scared me that I could fuck up so royally and not even notice when I did. Once again, I apologized and changed it.

Most recently I confused Switzerland and Sweden, as I am wont to do. Along with Guillermo del Toro and Benicio del Toro, Switzerland and Sweden are two things I constantly mix up — every time I walk into Ikea, I am saying Switzerland when I mean to say Sweden. The band I was writing about was made up of two women, one from Hamburg, the other from Zurich. Though I knew where Zurich was and that “Switzerland” always follows it in name, I went ahead and made a pun about their performance at the Swedish-American Hall and off to press it went.

However, the difference here is I’ve never done it intentionally. Again, I’m not really in a field that requires me to corroborate facts very often, but it’s deflating and disappointing when people make mistakes almost on purpose, like the ones that were made last week. It’s embarrassing for all of us in the big bad media.

At the same time, having been on the other side of things, I do sort of understand the motivation to make mistakes; accuracy be damned. I do think it’s important to remember that there are people behind every story you read (though I hear robots are on the way), and not all of them are great, upstanding journalists like in the days of old. And there’s a few simple reason for that: one is straight-up carelessness, the other is time. In the face of social media, there’s more pressure on writers than ever before to get the information out fast, fast, fast, before the great game of Twitter telephone distorts it. Sometimes, in the rush to get news out, 1st, 2nd and 3rd confirmations fall by the wayside. Realistically, you can have your news done fast or done right. Today’s audience wants both, and you know what? In 2013, it’s actually not unreasonable to ask for both. I just think, going forward, it’s important to consider what might happen if we start to expect both.

But in 2013, we also tend to move on pretty quickly — Dove might have implied that beauty is the key to happiness in their new ad campaign? OMG WHAT THAT’S SO UNFAIR I’M GOING TO…Oh hey look, a cat dressed as a shark — and this is one thing I actually hope we don’t dump in favor of a new distraction. But if we go through with this whole holding-the-press-accountable thing, we’re also going to have to start holding up our end of the bargain when it comes to interpreting news, and that starts with not believing everything you read on Facebook…even if it is news. If it sounds shady, it probably is. If what you’re reading is consistently shady, find somewhere else to get your news.

So what am I saying here? Am I saying the egregious errors made during the Boston bombings should be overlooked? Absolutely not. Should we accept that, with the speed at which news travels these days, information is invariably going to get muddled? Nope. Am I saying we should never question the media? Fuck no, question that shit! I’m saying, first and foremost, if you want thorough, thoughtful reporting, don’t watch CNN and don’t read the Post. They are not representative of the entire news media, and quite frankly, it worries me that so many people didn’t realize that.

What I’m saying is that I hope, in the future, people won’t pass such sweeping judgment. The next time this happens (because who am I kidding, it will happen again), I’m hoping people won’t toss around phrases like “the media” and “fucking journos” so loosely, and thus attribute a few sloppy mistakes made by individual reporters to the news community as a whole. Though I know a lot of people don’t like it this way, the fact of the matter is that news is just like any other industry: there are people who are just out to get your money (or to get you to click on that sensational headline), and there are people who actually care about the product they make and the audience they serve. For every well-publicized screw-up, there are a lot of reporters who, believe it or not, actually give a crap about getting it right.

Williams, Ebert and Those That Came Before Me

Paul Williams

Hi All.

I’ve been trying to update this blog more. I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but trust me I’ve been trying. But as I’ve whined before, spending my days working full-time, working part-time when I get home, and going to the gym as often as I can (I’m not some Pinterest-powered thinspo nut, I’m just trying to compensate for the fact that working in editorial means doing nothing but SITTING for over eight hours every day) leaves me with barely any time to sleep or cook healthy meals or catch up on Southland, let alone write. For fun.

Still, I wanted to finally put up a post because we lost two colossal critical voices in the last two weeks. First was Paul Williams, the founder of Crawdaddy! Magazine. His name probably doesn’t ring a whole lot of bells, but his legacy should. Rolling Stone made rock criticism widely available, but history tells that Crawdaddy! was the first, if only by a negligible margin, magazine to publish thoughtful, astute pieces on rock ‘n’ roll.

(Also, I was lucky enough to write a few pieces for the last incarnation of Crawdaddy! before it shut down entirely. One of my first writing gigs ever. I have never, ever felt so validated as a writer and so, so cool.)

Before Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, Creem and all its brethren came around, rock ‘n’ roll was considered to be just like every other form of popular entertainment: fun, sure, but nothing you’d dream of taking seriously. Remember, this was 1966: rock ‘n’ roll was barely in its pre-teen years. Just a decade prior, rock ‘n’ roll was freaking people out. Like, a lot. By 1966, it hadn’t yet been all that diluted: There was still a significant element of danger and vulgarity; a stinking unpleasantness about it to civilized society. It was for trailer trash, young punks, barefoot hillbillies; people who didn’t want to or who wouldn’t contribute to society.

Paul and those that came hot on his heels changed that. The music magazines that cropped up in the ’60s legitimized rock ‘n’ roll. Williams’ dissecting of it, then disseminating his thoughts on it, demanded a respect for it.

And you know what? We now give rock ‘n’ roll, and most other variants of pop music, the respect Williams thought it deserved. You still won’t find ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ listed as a major under Fine Arts programs at many universities, but think about all the artists from the rock-magazine era that we don’t just respect, but revere: Hendrix. Joplin. Richards. Lennon. Clapton. Dylan. They are rock ‘n’ roll to us. I mean, most of these people were not saints. They had plenty of demons to chase away with their music (and drugs. Lots of drugs), and parents still had plenty of reason to be scared of the influence they might be wielding over their kids.But Williams and company taught their generation how to separate an artist’s talent from their character and respect the art alone.

Roger Ebert

Just a few days ago, we saw the passing of Roger Ebert, which affected me just as much. I felt bad that I didn’t rush to post a fleeting tribute to him like so many of my Facebook friends, but what I wanted to say about him ran way over 140 characters. Ebert’s image is indelibly burned in my brain, maybe moreso than Williams’. I can’t count how many times I sat at the dinner table with my parents, Siskel & Ebert on the TV (Sunday nights in the Bay Area, if I recall). The two of them sitting in that “theatre” set that in retrospect is frightfully tacky, giving rapid-fire reviews of that week’s crop of movies. I can still hear the theme music in my head.  (Wait, no I can’t. All I can hear is the Entertainment Tonight theme for some reason.)

Ah, there it is.

If you’ve ever worked in criticism, you owe a debt to Ebert, Williams and their ilk. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t easy to be critical of something. It’s easy enough to express distaste or enthusiasm for someone’s art, but it’s REALLY hard to explain why.

Let me put it this way: What was the last meal you had that you didn’t love? Not something you out-and-out hated, but that just wasn’t as good as versions you’ve had of it in the past? It might have been a limp hamburger at the ballpark, or a hunk of lasagna at that new Italian place on the corner that was fine, but couldn’t hold a candle to your mom’s.

Now try and explain to my why you didn’t like it in 500 words or more.

Oh, and when you’re done doing that, give it some semblance of story structure. You can’t just toss some sentences together and call it writing. (You may think you can, but trust me, you can’t.) A real, complete review needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

What Ebert was so good at was delineating exactly why a movie worked for him, or didn’t, without coming off as a snob. And that’s because he wasn’t a snob: he wasn’t an expert on film; just a reporter who got the job thrown at him and discovered that hey, he was actually pretty good at reviewing. And that I’m sure is what made him so beloved.

However, Siskel and Ebert’s everyman reviewing style, the easily-digestible thumbs up-thumbs down rating system likely has more than a little to do with the fact that now everyone thinks they can be a critic. The ease at which one can publish nowadays combined with the willingness of so many publications to accept unpaid submissions means that criticism has mutated. Though it’s great for click-throughs, true criticism isn’t unceremoniously trashing a piece of work, or worse, getting some kind of glee out of doing so.

I’ll admit, I did my fair share of trashing in my early days of writing, and I’m not really proud of it now. I feel like an asshole when I think about it. I wasn’t even doing it in a critical capacity: I was writing calendar listings. And if I was assigned a write up for a band that I didn’t like, I could think of no reason why I shouldn’t make it known. And man, seeing it in print the next week always left me feeling a little conflicted: it’s not that I felt all that bad for them. I mostly I felt bad about myself. I wasn’t asked to criticize them. All I had to do was tell the readership of this newspaper that the band was going to be playing a show. They didn’t ask to be shit all over. Hell, the didn’t even know they were going to be getting a mention in that week’s issue, let alone dragged through the mud. Why did I feel they deserved it, and what’s more, what makes me the authority on who’s bad and who’s good?

But you know what? My editor loved it, so he kept letting me write like that. And I kept doing it. God, I’m a dick.

Anyway, this past week and a half or so has had me reflecting on Williams, Ebert, my own journalistic transgressions and criticism as its own art form. I think it’s time for me to reinforce to myself and others what a review, a good review, is and should be. True criticism isn’t being an asshole for the fun of it. It’s breaking something into a bazillion pieces (something you should really never do if you want to enjoy something), then taking a few steps back and examining them. Then you belly-flop onto the pieces, roll around in them for a little bit, try to put them all back the same way you found it and see what it looks like when you get back up. Then trying to explain what it looks like to a billion strangers, with at least modicum of eloquence.

If we really want to live up to our status updates, let’s start demanding more from our criticism. That doesn’t mean we can never speak ill of anything ever again — let’s face it, some things deserve it, and honestly, sometimes the reason is so obvious we don’t need to say it — but let’s try a little harder to understand why. Let’s look for pieces that dissect and delineate. We owe it to them to bring criticism back to an art form.

Songs I Could Listen To Over and Over Again…The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”

the-animals-the-house-of-the-rising-sun-mgm

I’ve decided to make 2013 the year of musical transparency for me. As I alluded to in my last post, I have gotten to the point where I am downright embarrassed of my own musical tastes. Everybody else is just SO MUCH COOLER than me. How have I tricked so many editors into thinking I’m a worthy music reporter? Just last week at work I went from the UHF soundtrack to some MC5 selections and on to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Don’t tell me sane people find that a perfectly normal range of music to work to.

But, nonetheless, music is my job. And the more I establish myself, the more people want to know what I “like.” It’s time for me to get over my stupid, stupid embarrassment about it. And there’s no better way to do that than to just lay it all out there. Thus, I give you what I hope will be a recurring column  in this little blog: Songs I Could (And Probably Will) Listen to Over and Over Again For The Rest Of My Life And Never Get Tired Of. SICAPWLTOAOAFTROMLANGTO for short.

I’m starting with a long-established favorite of mine: The Animals, “The House of the Rising Sun.” Just a few short years ago, as it played on the PA in a restaurant (Blue on Market in SF — which Google is now telling me CLOSED SIX MONTHS AGO. OMG RIOT), I decided to officially proclaim it a favorite song.

Well, a favorite song of the pop realm. I have other favorite songs, but they’re entirely different: “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, “Rhapsody in Blue” by Gershwin. It just doesn’t seem fair to call it a favorite in comparison to those, because they’re not equal.

Anyway, “House of the Rising Sun” has always been a song I am really drawn to. An old American hill song that’s been covered by freakin’ anyone and everyone, I’m pretty partial to the most famous version: The Animals’ 1964 recording; the one that’s all over classic-rock radio. I grew up on the British Invasion, so anything that sounds even remotely like it could have been produced across the pond between ’64 and ’68 I am sort of innately drawn to. But above all, it’s that damned creepy mood that I love about it. It’s a lot like what I love about “Feed the Birds,” actually. Six notes in and you get that little rumble in your gut, this innate sense of dread. And yet…you want to get closer to it.

Or maybe that’s just me.

(Also, OMG, accidental Google discovery: did you know there’s like a bunch of GIFs created for this song? Not that many, but still. Even four is a lot more than I ever expected.  Just seems like a really strange use of the GIF format to me.)

It’s also a song that I’ve been wanting to learn on the accordion. I’ve been trying: it’s actually not as hard as it looks. It will still take me a while to get as good as this guy, though:

(One of the) Best of 2012: Laura Jane Grace’s Santa Cruz Debut, September

Image

As a music writer, I get asked about favorites a lot. Mostly by people who don’t know me that well: my parents’ friends, for example, or dudes who are trying to hit on me. “Who’s your favorite band?” “What’s your favorite album?” “What kind of music do you like?”

I hate these questions. I’m not saying people shouldn’t ask me this — they’re just being nice, after all — but I am SO BAD at coming up with definite, final, irrevocable answers like that. I’m always afraid I’ll say something that I’ll change my mind on later, or worse, something that will make me look incredibly uncool. Also — and I’m sure other music geeks will back me up on this — favorite albums, bands, shows just don’t exist. I have more than a handful of artists, works and experiences that I love intensely, and all for very different reasons. I can’t say one is the best or even that one is better than the other. It’s not fair to me or the bands.

So when The Bay Bridged (oh hey, by the way, I write for The Bay Bridged now) asked us bloggers for our picks for best of the year, I panicked a little. I had plenty of great experiences working for them that year, but don’t make me choose! And please don’t make me reveal my own personal tastes! I’ve become very comfortable in my little fly-on-the-wall role as a writer these last few years; so much so that writing about myself as a person now makes me a little squeamish. But I wanted to contribute something, so I pitched them a piece about my friend and colleague Eric Fanali‘s Sixteenth Anniversary show back in August — one of the most exhilarating live experiences I’ve had this year.

I banged the piece out in about an hour. I’ll be honest: when I finished it, I didn’t love it. It felt a little indulgent, like it would really only appeal to me, Eric and other people that like to pretend they’re still sixteen, but hey, they can’t all be my best work. And if you’ll permit me to get a little braggy here, even my sub-par stuff is still better than a lot of the other garbage that’s out there in the blogosphere.

Anyway, it wasn’t until a few days later that I realized…

Laura Jane Grace.

As I’m sure it was for a lot of people, hearing about Tom Gabel’s transition to Laura Jane Grace earlier this year was a big surprise to me. My first thought was…well, OK, my VERY first and very selfish thought was, “What a damn shame, he’s so hot.” My second thought was, “I hope the band survives.”

Because you just never know with these things. I knew enough about Tom and Against Me! to know that they would likely keep going and the band itself wouldn’t implode, at least not immediately. But that’s a major, major change for any person in any relationship to go through. And who knew how the fans would react. Punk is known for being open and accepting, but it’s also known for being a pretty macho scene that might draw the line on the whole “open and accepting” thing at something like this.

To my astonishment, the fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive. For some odd and very encouraging reason, the Internet put its troll tendencies aside for her. When the news broke, I fully expected the reaction to be a melee of knee-jerk moral outrage and grade-school taunting. Instead they showered Grace with kind words and bountiful encouragement. A good sign indeed.

Near the end of the summer this year, I was logged into Facebook and saw an ad on my right margin that announced that Against Me! was coming to Santa Cruz, which is about 30 minutes away from me. This was my chance to find out for myself if the band was likely to survive or not. I messaged my cousin Megan and we made plans to check it out. (Let this also go down in history as the only time that a Facebook ad has ever worked so directly on me.)

We got there a little early so we could stuff our faces with Taqueria Vallarta before the show, watching hoodie-clad teenagers queue up at the venue, just across the street from the taqueria. I felt weird about it: I’m 26. Should I really be hanging out at shows that draw mostly 17-year-olds? But I had already bought the tickets and dragged Megan all the way down there, so whatever. We finished up and got in line.

It was apparent almost as soon as we walked in that yes, I should be hanging out here. I was lucky enough to catch Against Me! back in 2009 on their surprise tour stop in San Jose, a date that was subbed in at the last minute to replace a cancelled show at Gilman. Against Me! had always been a band that I liked fine and that I really respected, but they were never quite appealing enough to me, for whatever reason, for me to fully embrace them. Seeing them live changed that. They were raw and powerful and commanding and everything a live band should be. It was a beautiful, galvanizing experience, and it’s in that top tier of best — favorite, if you will — concert experiences for me.

This time around, as I had predicted, things were different — after all, Against Me! essentially had a new leader. But you know what? They were still fucking incredible and it was still one of the single best live shows I have ever seen. I went into it as objectively as possible – again, a byproduct of my line of work. I was really conscious of not letting my personal want to support her as a transgender person interfere with my opinion of them musically. And from a completely professional, unbiased standpoint, I would like to formally say that Against Me! still fucking rocks. I feel silly for every doubting them. They were still raw and powerful and commanding like I remembered, but instead of coming out spewing rage and condemnation (and I say that with love; rage and condemnation is an important component of a functioning democratic society), they played with…hope. It was weird: they were playing the exact same songs as last time, but it seemed to come from (and play to) a completely different part of the brain this time around. As soon as the lights dimmed after the third opener, they came almost bounding onto the stage. Grace herself was just beaming. Beaming. They’re a whole new band, but are still a fucking force.

(Also, on an unapologetically shallow note, can we talk about how SUPER-HOT she has been looking lately? Sheesh.)

So how can I wrap this? The only thing I can say is — and I hope I’m right about this — things are really changing out there. If I can hope for something myself, it’s that the instantaneous acceptance of Grace’s arrival is a very, very good sign for the world. Day by day, we’re inching closer and closer to the kind of world I would like to live in. Not that this one isn’t the kind of world I would like to live in, but there are still many things I’d like to see change. Let’s see how far we get in 2013.

I know you’ve said you don’t want to be treated as a hero, Laura Jane (is it Laura Jane or just Laura?) but I would still just like to say go you. I want to meet you some day. Maybe next time you’re in Santa Cruz, we can stuff our faces at Taqueria Vallarta before the show.

I Wrote This: Cass McCombs profile, Paste Magazine

Oh em gee, you guys, where have I been? I have, as usual, been splitting my time between working and galavanting around the Bay Area, both on and off assignment. Funny how the number-one thing that prevents me from updating the blog is the thing this blog is about: my freelance work.

Lately I’ve started working with Paste Magazine, though my work with them came about under unfortunate circumstances: Crawdaddy! closed up shop over the summer, and their freelancing team got passed along to Paste, which was also part of the Wolfgang’s Vault family. It was tough to break in at Paste — after taking on the Crawdaddy! writers in addition to their existing freelancer pool, there was a lot of competition for assignments — but I completed my first assignment for them last month: a profile of the elusive Cass McCombs.

To be honest, I knew nothing of Cass McCombs’ reputation going into this project, and I still kind of wish I didn’t: rumor had it he’s…well, read along and you’ll see.

If you have an mPlayer account, you can read it here. But it’s likely you don’t (though you should: Paste affiliations aside, mPlayer is a very cool little gadget. You can easily lose several hours playing with it if you have no pressing engagements and no clocks within view), so here’s a copy-paste of the story:

It’s safe to assume that Cass McCombs doesn’t have a Twitter account. He’s become as famous for keeping mum about pretty much everything as for being a gifted songwriter. Interviews dating back several years reference his thinly veiled disdain for conversation, all of them using cautionary but upbeat adjectives like “reserved” and “enigmatic” to describe him. They all seemed to suggest one of two things: that he harbors a deep resentment of the press or that he’s some kind of merry prankster. Or both.

However, the reality is that McCombs is almost disappointingly approachable. After releasing his fifth album Wit’s End in April, he’s already back with another full-length called Humor Risk. “I wanted to keep the momentum going from Wit’s End, he says in a soft-spoken voice. “We had to speed up mixing on Humor Risk just to get it out before the end of the year. The most frustrating thing is being told you have to wait six months [to release music]. It’s like artistic constipation.”

Humor Risk marks McCombs’ first attempt at introducing comedy into his music, a surprising turn for an artist known for his opaque brooding. But fans will recognize the album’s uptick in major chords as well as McCombs’ wry lyrics. “I think it’s a revolutionary idea to use humor in music,” he says. “I believe that because of the commercialization of music, people take it very seriously. We want to uphold this idea that it’s worth your hard-earned money. I don’t believe my music has any value. Music should be free and fun and not heavy.”

And yet, McCombs fans are a fervent bunch. There are a few artists who can inspire mass worship on the level that he unwittingly commands—his Facebook page is littered with comments calling him a genius, inspiring, un tremendo artista. Even critics are unapologetically adoring. It’s an awkward position for someone who operates as an outsider.

“I don’t Google my name, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says of it all. “I’d be afraid of what I’d find…I’m trying to piss people off! If you’re saying I’m not, I must be failing.”

McCombs grew up in Concord, Calif., in San Francisco’s East Bay. It’s not the tumultuous East Bay that rappers and punks (and now, Occupy protestors) have made famous, but a sunny suburb about halfway between Oakland and the tenuous boundary of the Bay Area.

He left Concord in 1999, but he never really landed anywhere, leading something of a nomadic existence since—Humor Risk, he says, was recorded in “different studios; different bedrooms” all across the country. Though it seems that pretty much any city he’s stayed put in for more than a few months claims him as their own—he’s been linked to New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles—he begs to differ. “I’d consider the Bay Area my home,” he says. “I’ve spent probably the most time there. It’s a place where I can go and—I wouldn’t say I get in touch with myself, but every time I go there it’s an entirely different experience. Especially San Francisco. Fortunately, Chinatown stays the same,” he adds with a short exhalation that might be a laugh.

Maybe he’s just in rare form this afternoon, or maybe his whole creepy-neighbor persona is just a role people have thrust upon him because they don’t want to believe that he just doesn’t talk much. Even his music hearkens back to old cowboy ballads, often appropriating the use of characters to tell a story. When he does refer to himself in first-person, the truth is usually buried deep in metaphor or simply lacking in details.

It’s these nostalgic tendencies that have McCombs lazily tossed into the “Americana” category. Each album is very different from the next, but it all, in some hazy way, evokes something very American: two-lane highways, high-school sweethearts, boarded-up farmhouses you pass on your way to somewhere else. It’s not a boot-in-your-ass kind of Americana. Not even a schmaltzy John Mellencamp kind. The mood and melody sound like a simple, rustic, American Gothic USA, but there are still modern touches to it all: a sudden syncopation, a jazz organ, a dash of dark humor. Still, he’s not sure the genre suits him.

“Americana, it’s a weird term; a modern term,” he almost whispers before a long silence. “…Yeah. Fuck it. I’m not Americana.

The Statistics of Suicide.

I actually wrote this about a year ago in my personal blog, about something that happened on my way home from my old job.

I guess if I had to pick a day to die in San Francisco, today would have been a pretty good one.

It started with helicopters, just as it always does at the Discovery Museum. Normally, the sound of passing aircraft doesn’t elicit a response from me, but this time the motors sounded close. I figured it was just a low-flying plane; not much cause for concern. Outside the doors of the Playhouse, I could see Brian and Matt standing in the middle of the plaza, talking into their radios and looking upward.

Liz came in moments later. “You hear that?” she said as the thud-thud-thud of the helicopters stagnated above us. “Come with me,” she said. I had been out the last time this happened. We have a big field next to the museum; the nearest open area to the bridge. If someone survives, the Coast Guard lands in the field until an ambulance can get there. Sometimes they wait there as a precaution.

“Yeah, I should mention that this happens sometimes,” she said to Zoe and Justine, two new-ish girls who hadn’t yet been present for a ‘situation on the bridge’. It happens with stunning regularity, and, due to our waterfront location, we almost always end up inadvertently affected by it when it does happen.

We went to the front gate to see what stage of crisis they were in. A small CHP helicopter was parked near the edge of the grass, with a handful of emergency personnel standing near the head of it; waiting. Making smalltalk until they were needed. It was 4:15 and nearing the end of my shift, so twenty minutes later I was in my car and headed for the bridge.

Traffic didn’t seem awful until the on-ramp. Cars for miles, just short of a standstill. But at least they were moving, and moving faster than the cars on the northbound side, which weren’t moving at all. It was a tough merge, but we were still more go than stop. It didn’t seem to indicate anything more traumatic than maybe a fender-bender.

I kept an eye out. Besides the traffic, and besides the fact that it was 72 and sunny, it looked like an average Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. Joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers ambled by. Everyone had their windows down; Top 40 songs wafted over the rumble of engines. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. On one side, the city on the edge of the world, and on the other, just the Pacific and the great, gaping horizon.

Just when I had assumed it was another mysterious traffic jam without rhyme or with very little reason, I caught the caution tape out of the corner of my left eye. It was surprising. It was pretty far down; near the toll booths — most people aim for the center.

I knew it was tacky of me and I knew it was going to hurt, but I looked anyway.

I made a quick glance and caught it all. The long-haired cop presiding over the scene, flanked by his colleagues in harnesses ready to make a quick dive if necessary. All of them an equal distance apart from one another, hands on hips, looking down. Their motorcycles leaning lazily against the railing just outside the tape.

And at their ankles, a dirty-looking man in a red windbreaker on the other side of the bars, looking down and clinging to the side of the bridge. A clear, sharp city skyline behind him.

“Oh my God,” I breathed without even really thinking about it. I got what I asked for, so I turned to face my windshield and drive away.

And just like that, the traffic was gone. In one quick motion all the rubberneckers in front of me were sliding through the toll booths and on their way home.

There was a flush of adrenaline, and my limbs went a little weak. I lifted my foot to the gas. It felt heavy.

And the whole way home, a statistic floated in front of me:

They always pick the San Francisco side.

Update: According to my stats, this entry is getting a lot of interest. For all who are interested, there is a fantastic New Yorker piece from a couple years back that gives some background to this little vignette: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/13/031013fa_fact

I Wrote This: Frank Turner: Hardcore-Folk’s Barroom Hero

Remember this entry?

I made it happen.

Last week I sat down with the talented and charming Frank Turner before his show at Bottom of the Hill. It was supposed to be just a review, with a possible Q&A, if the interview turned out to be compelling enough to read. It ended up being, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve written in about two years.

The version that was put up today was edited, in some cases rather heavily. I’m posting my original draft here so you can get a clearer, fuller picture of what went down, and a better understanding of his personality. I am also working on a way to link to a transcript of the interview, because he had a lot of really interesting stuff to say. He just used a lot of words — about 4,500 of them, to be precise — to say it, and I know that long of a draft will only interest a certain amount of people and totally alienate the rest.

However, I am very, very proud of this story, and pleased I got to meet Frank and hear what he had to say. I hope he was pleased to meet me, too. I’d love to do it again sometime.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/05/12/frank-turner-hardcore-folks-barroom-hero/

If Frank Turner weren’t a professional musician, he’d likely be a paleontologist – or possibly a sea captain; he hasn’t decided yet. He’s already been a research assistant, and also a computer programmer, a career that, as I suggest one evening in San Francisco, he can always fall back on if his current gig doesn’t work out. However, in light of the sold-out show he’s hours away from headlining, that doesn’t seem very likely.

photo by Megan Amable

Frank on stage at Bottom of the Hill, May 2011

Turner has, in only a handful of years, become the kind of artist that inspires tattoos in his fans. Of his lyrics, mostly, but also of his logo: a large black X, with his initials filling the horizontal gaps and “HC” on the vertical — Frank Turner Hard Core. It certainly helps that most of his choruses, even out of context, represent a credo, a code, a battle cry. His songs are cast in a sense of urgency, bordering on panic, about the looming threat of death.

But they’re also coated in a rare glee, a giddiness to even be alive in the first place. None of it is very punk rock at all, but that’s what most people would call him.

On the spectrum of punk rock, which has only grown more complex and accommodating since the genre’s big bang in the late ’70s, Turner is still an outlier. In sound, he’s one of the last people you’d expect Epitaph Records to snap up. But in all other respects — his desperate, breathless delivery, his defiance and his unwillingness to settle down — he’s right at home on the flagship punk label, which became his American home in 2009.

Turner has arrived in San Francisco just in time for the city’s annual heat wave — 85 degrees in the first week of May. He doesn’t mind: as soon as I find him, waiting at the bar in the dimly-lit Bottom of the Hill, he requests that we “go sit in the sunshine”. I oblige, as the sun has retreated behind the rooftops and a breeze is coming in, the latter of which can’t be good news for the fire that’s raging somewhere across town. We escape into a central atrium, a place that, even amidst the sound of helicopters droning somewhere in the distance, is still the quietest place in the already-quiet Potrero Hill neighborhood. Aside from the amorphous swatch of smoke that hangs over the downtown skyline, it’s one of those pleasant, postcard-pretty evenings in the city.

“That is a well-worn notebook,” he observes as I take out the notebook I’ve had since college. The notebook is almost full, and makes sort of a sad, defeated sound when I drop it on the table in front of me. He folds up a pair of limited-edition Ray-Bans and places them on his side of the table. We get down to business.

All of your songs have such a sense of urgency; they’re all about life and death. Did anything happen to inspire this?

“No, I’m not like a plane crash survivor or anything…A lot of what I do is motivated by the fact that I’m terrified by the concept of death, but in a good way,” Turner doesn’t make eye contact when he speaks. When he talks, his head is often down or to the side, his eyes searching for something to focus on. “Time is short, and well, uh…I can’t remember who said it; I think it was Pliny who said, ‘Art is long and life is short’. I think. It might be Cicero.” (I look it up later. It was Hippocrates.)

“So yeah,” he continues in his charmingly anxious way. “I don’t know, it just kind of seems to me like we should get on with things. Like, I would love to be a paleontologist…”

He pauses and pulls a vibrating phone – and then another phone – out of his pocket.

 Two phones?

“Oh, I know, it makes me look like a drug dealer. American phone, British phone, that’s my excuse,” he says.

“Yeah, and, you know I’d love to be a paleontologist but that’s kind of a lifetime. I’d love to be a botanist, I’d love to be a sea captain, I’d love to be a stunt pilot…”

 Are there even any jobs for sea captains these days?

“Yeah, you know, apparently! I was reading somewhere – this is actually my long-term plan, if everything goes to shit…apparently they’re having a real difficulty finding people who want to captain oil tankers because it’s a really, really lonely job…but you get paid a shit-ton of money to do it as a result. And it’s like man, that’s what I’m gonna do, fucking hell. If I’ve got a tragic story to hide, I’m gonna be an oil tank captain.

“…Um, yes. So, anyway, unfortunately there’s no kind of dramatic story about me getting wiped out in a plane crash or anything.”

 Your sound is such a funny little blend of kind of quiet and introspective, but also very defiant. How did you develop that?

“Something I try really hard not to do is to think in an analytical way about songwriting. Because, to me, that’s when bands kind of break the spell. It’s funny; lots of people use folk-punk and all those kinds of things (to describe me).”

 I saw country on the website for this place.

“Funnily enough, I think if I had to choose a genre I’d call myself a country singer…I play my own songs, therefore I’m not a folk singer. Punk, OK fine, but country seems to make sense to me, in the sense that TownesVan Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Ryan Adams are like 3 of my fucking heroes. Especially Townes Van Zandt. He’s like the songwriter’s password. You meet somebody who writes songs, you say, ‘Townes Van Zandt?’ and if they know what you’re talking about, then they’re in the club. If you meet someone who’s a songwriter and they don’t know who Townes Van Zandt is, then you have to play them some, and if they still don’t get it, then they can…get fucked as far as I’m concerned.”

How has coming from a punk rock background influenced your life?

“You know what, I think this is – OK – right – I’m wary of saying what I’m about to say cause I’m aware that I’m partisan on the issue, but, to a degree punk is a youth tribe…(but) I feel like the kids that grew up with punk come away with a philosophy about life. And that to me is why punk is better,” he chuckles. “And that’s why I’m wary of saying that, ‘cause I don’t want to be denigrating to anybody, but it is more or less a youth culture…”

In the end we all grow up to be the same people, more or less.

“Yeah, but I do really strongly feel like punk taught me a lot of things…punk is like a playground for kids to experiment with life; how to treat other people, how to deal with politics, all those kinds of things. Punk taught me things about self-reliance, and about just being honest, and not taking any shit from anybody, or giving anybody else any shit. For me, Black Flag still define how I think about it…” he extends his arm to point out the Black Flag logo tattooed in the inside of his left wrist.

It’s around this time that his tour manager, Jimmy, slips out onto the patio with us and slides a dinner menu in front of Turner. He briefly scans it while I continue.

A lot of songs are so autobiographical…I mean, you don’t necessarily call people out, but…how do your friends, exes, enemies, feel about being used in your songs?

Turner gives a low, devious chuckle. “That’s a good question. For my part, it’s fine because it’s kind of hard to tell unless you know the back story. I write true stories because I’m not very good at making up fiction, but I think it’s always with a degree of circumspection. Certainly, in a number of cases, names have been changed to protect the innocent…in some cases they haven’t. There have been occasions when I’ve had altercations based around songs. Which is a shame, because you know I don’t actually feel like it’s my place to interfere with other peoples’ lives…”

Jimmy comes back out. He needs Frank’s dinner order.

“Um, can I get the pasta special? The penne marinara?” He pronounces pasta in the British custom, with short vowel sounds.

“…And that’s it? You don’t want anything else?” spurts Jimmy, almost incredulous. “I mean, look over the whole menu just to make sure.”

“ OK, with the green salad,” Turner acquiesces. “Thank you.

“So yeah, I’ve had some…I’ve had a shoe thrown at me once.”

 In public?

“Yeah, kind of…it was in a dressing room, but there were other people there. She threw her shoe at my head. She missed, I’m pleased to say. But that was…that was pretty bad,” he laughs a little, at the ground.

 What it’s like to have a room full of people singing your life back at you?

“For the most part it’s cool, that’s what I’m trying to achieve. If I didn’t want that, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there are days when…particularly ‘Long Live the Queen’ can be…”

He looks down and away again, and this time his voice drops off. “Long Live the Queen” is a true story, a song about a dying friend that won him that adoration of fans and some media in England a few years back.

“And it’s funny because that’s, like, everyone’s favorite song. Which is great and fine, and…”

He takes a long pause.

“And the thing is, I know that Lex would be stoked about that.”

 So there’s a real name.

“Yes. And in fact she’d find it hilarious. With that song I made damn fuckin’ sure that Lex’s family were cool with that song before going anywhere near anyone with it. So yeah, there are days when it just feels weird but…such is life, I guess.”

 That’s what you signed up for.

“Right. And that’s a general rule about pretty much everything I do; it’s very difficult for me to complain about, because I could simply not do this, and I’d be fine.”

 How do you keep yourself from going crazy on the road?

“By staying on tour. I would go fucking crazy if I stayed at home…It’s a funny contrast, cause I live a life that’s predicated around freedom, but at the same time, actually I live a very organized life when I’m on tour: you get up, you travel, you do press, do sound check, do the gig. I know what I’m doing for the next like year and a half. It’s in my phone,” he picks up one of his phones and waves it around. “And if I don’t have that structure around, that’s when I start getting too fucked up and start getting back into doing too many drugs and stuff, and just kind of being a fucking mess of a human being, basically.

Photo by Megan Amable

Frank Turner: Songwriter, tattoo enthusiast, and aspiring sea captain.

“And, you know, if you look at the number of shows I do in a year it’s roughly the number of Mondays to Fridays in a year.”

 That’s very true. And I’m sure it’s preferable to sitting in a chair all day.

“It absolutely is, but that’s why to me it’s not a particularly remarkable amount of touring to do. B.B. King did 300 shows a year for like 30 years, without ever once saying to anyone, ‘Check me out, I’m amazing.’ And he’s still doing 150 shows a year, and he’s like 80 years old. And that to me is the inspiration. I don’t really care about bands saying like,” he adopts a mocking rock-star voice that’s sort of Spinal Tap and sort of Tommy Chong, “’Man, we just toured for like 2 months, man,’…well, so did the guy at the office. The guy at the factory just spent 2 months clocking in every morning. I think there is a tendency within rock ‘n’ roll for people to kind of play the martyr card to a degree, and it’s kind of like, do your fuckin’ job, shut up, get on with it. You have the fucking best job in the world.”

 I take one last look through my well-worn notebook.

 OK, that should about do it.

 “Okay! Sweet. We have been yakking for a massive 25 minutes. Now, let’s see who has been texting me…”

He turns his attention toward one of his phones, and I turn my attention toward finding a taqueria, as it is now 7:30 p.m. and I am starving.

There’s a long line outside when I return. Inside, there’s a Johnny Cash pre-show playlist happening as fans filter in. The very first time he came to San Francisco, he played to a room that amounted to “about eight people”. Tonight’s a little different – a sold-out show.

There’s a crush of beards, body jewelry and firmly-raised fists towards the foot of the stage when Turner takes it sometime in the 10 o’clock hour. He starts in on a set list of songs that celebrate folk heroes of all variety, from Bob Dylan to William II to Steve Slater (you know, this guy). People who embody the things Turner took away from his punk rock past, or who seem to demonstrate that they’re pretty happy to be alive.

Even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, his shows are passionate. They take on the energy of some kind of religious congregation, especially in smaller venues like this. His stage presence is ebullient, joyous; his fans speak the word of FTHC. Turner shuts his eyes tight when he sings, but opens his mouth so wide that sometimes it’s possible to see a gap in the back of his teeth. You can’t really dance to it, and you can’t really form a pit, but there’s so much emotion bouncing off the walls that your body is telling you to do something in response. All you can really do at a Frank Turner show is shout until your face turns red, and that’s what everyone does for an hour and a half.

Judging by the sold-out crowd, this might be one of the last times he’ll be able to get away with playing small clubs like these. He’ll be back again in the fall to celebrate the release of a new full-length album, England Keep My Bones, by embarking on another tour, this time with a full band to back him up. Maybe it will be easier to dance next time around.

Two days later, Turner posts a photo on Twitter of a new tattoo, just under (or above, depending on your viewing angle) the Black Flag logo: TVZ, for Townes Van Zandt, and a small skeleton key next to it: the songwriter’s password. No matter how big a rock star gets, he’s still someone’s fan.

I Wrote This: Ex Post Facto: The Pogues, Rum Sodomy and the Lash

So, apparently my editor had what she calls a “run-in” with Spider Stacey from The Pogues a few years ago, which explains the italicized paragraph at the top. Now I’m kind of afraid he’s going to come after me, since the only name on this document is mine. Um, hi Spider Stacey. Just so we’re clear, I don’t have a problem with you. Friends?

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/03/17/ex-post-facto-the-pogues-rum-sodomy-and-the-lash/ 

Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate an album, and it took me more than a while to appreciate the Pogues.

I’m a pretty proud person when it comes to music. Proud of my discoveries, proud of my impeccable taste, and proud that I knew “that band’s” name three years before you did. I don’t take suggestions easily, so when the Pogues showed up on a mix made for me by a friend, I was ready to dismiss them. But the track was all right. It was a Christmas mix; the song was “Fairytale of New York.” You may have heard of it.

I’m proud, but I’m cautious. Bands must endure a rigorous screening process before being inducted into my collection. So I took a gamble on 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God. It didn’t impress me, but I hung onto it because the Pogues are everything I should like: They’re loud, they piss people off, and they’re kind of weird. But the album still felt a little dated to me.

I didn’t kick them off the iPod, but I skipped over them pretty much any time they popped up in shuffle. A few years later, I found myself a broke college student spending one lazy late afternoon in the big Rasputin Records off Union Square. On the employee picks rack, for only $4.95, sat Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. There was a sticker affixed to the front with a glowing, handwritten review from a cashier. And if it was good enough for someone in Rasputin’s employ, I thought it would be worth a spin (for $4.95, anything is worth a spin). I brought it back to my dorm, thinking it would help me finally understand why everyone waxed rhapsodic when speaking of the Pogues.

It didn’t.

Then one day I had my iPod on shuffle while walking home from the mall next to school, taking my usual shortcut through the forgotten back end of campus, and an unfamiliar banjo intro began playing. “What is this?” I mumbled, momentarily stunned by the beautiful simplicity of the banjo, and looked down. It was “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, the last track on Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Needless to say, it had caught me off-guard.

Released in 1985 and co-produced by Elvis Costello, one of Britain’s most prized musical exports, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash has risen to classic status in Britain, consistently ranking in “all-time” lists of albums compiled by music magazines. Frontrunners in many of today’s various indie genres are quick to cite it as a major career influence, and its rustic, down-home style is written all over every “folk”-derived movement that has cropped up in the underground since the mid-‘80s.

I say most of what I am about to say with great hesitation, as I don’t feel adequately qualified to extol the virtues of the Pogues. After all, I almost had to force myself into liking them, and I absorbed my appreciation from someone else, which leaves me without the element of discovery and ownership that usually informs fanaticism. But, in my possibly skewed opinion, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash has stood the test of time, and outlasted the majority of music produced by the Pogues’ peers with very good reason. It could be released tomorrow (for $9.99 on iTunes, probably) and still sound like nothing else out there. It’s rooted in heritage and history, and like me, proud to the point of being defiant. Far more flexible and far-reaching than the band’s later recordings, this is Pogues’ mayhem at its finest.

What grounds this record in rock history is not any kind of forward-thinking, “ahead of its time” quality—it’s in the album’s appreciation for songs long gone. Rum Sodomy includes some rare old tunes dressed up in a 20th-century veneer, which are almost indistinguishable from the Pogues’ own work. The Pogues interpret the best in American and Irish folk music, cowboy ballads and sea shantys on Rum Sodomy, spinning two-minute tales of outlaws, rogues, and undesirables. While the band didn’t succeed in making this kind of music relevant again, their newer versions raise just as much hell as they were originally supposed to, possibly more. Popular songs, if they survive at all, have a tendency to lose their original ferocity over time. But with Rum Sodomy, the Pogues succeeded in preserving a kind of folk that may have otherwise been forgotten, in the raucous style it was intended to be heard in.

Making up the majority of the album are the Pogues’ original compositions. All of them are covered with the same film of sagebrush and moonshine, salt water and whiskey, as the old ballads they evolved from, proving that the Pogues can write fantasy folk that is just as forlorn and/or as fuck-all as the real thing. The additional tracks, added to the 2004 re-release, are also excellent. Listen for “A Pistol for Paddy Garcia”, a galloping, dusty-trail anthem that sounds like the end theme to a lost Tarantino project, and “Body of an American”, a song that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Flogging Molly open for stadium-sized acts.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash proved to be the turning point for the Pogues, the album that established their signature sound—a drunken orchestra of accordions, fiddles, and punk-rock pennywhistles blanketed in earnest, wailing vocals, all shielding a sentimental center. Costello’s production, which coupled his acquired industry know-how with his determination to retain the band’s charmingly sloppy sound, makes the record an essential portrait of the artists as young men (and one young woman). Instead of shying away from settling into such an antiquated sound, they accepted it as their own, making them the epitome of all that is cool without them ever having to try—which, by that age-old logic, is the coolest thing of all.

I Wrote This: The Dresden Dolls at the Warfield, San Francisco

Thanks to the Captain from over at Brainrotting for being my plus-one and holding the camera high above everyone else’s heads.

http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2011/01/03/live-show-review-the-dresden-dolls-at-the-warfield-san-fracisco/

Click the link for more photos and fun stuff. Also, if you wouldn’t mind, click the Facebook ‘like’ button at the bottom. Each and every like feels warm and soothing against my ego.

There are certain cities where the newly-reunited Dresden Dolls must know they are always welcome. Though, there are bound to be Dolls fans in most urban regions of the US and beyond, the Dresden Dolls, a band known for their theatricality, gender-bending and debauchery, thrive in well-known freak capitals like Seattle and New York. Ergo, it makes a whole lot of sense that the Boston-based band felt comfortable spending their first New Year’s Eve together since their 2008 hiatus in the end-all, be-all of freak capitals: San Francisco, California.

The Dresden Dolls, comprised of singer/pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, quietly slipped off fans’ radar after the release of their last album in 2008, taking an unannounced, indefinite break. Palmer went solo while Viglione lent his talents to other groups, and most fans lost hope, but remained on standby in the event of a reunion. In October of 2010, the Dolls announced a reunion tour and very quickly hit the road, winding up at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre on New Year’s Eve.

YouTube sensations Pomplamoose kicked things off, setting the tone for the evening with a contagious enthusiasm and an arsenal of fun covers that got the crowd, even those in the balcony, moving. Longtime friend of the band Jason Webley made a surprise appearance, staying just long enough to perform his patented “Drinking Song” and get the crowd inebriated in his own unique and “rather economical” way.

A typical Dresden Dolls show is nothing if not festive, usually marked by costumes, chaos, and pre-show performances organized and acted out by fans. Instead, the night’s show played out like a happy homecoming, like old friends reuniting. Ditching the usual showmanship for a quiet entrance, the band tiptoed onto the stage during Webley’s performance. Palmer was dressed for the occasion in gloves and an elaborate bustle, and Viglione wore track pants instead of his traditional face paint and felt bowler.

After welcoming them with raucous, piercing applause, the audience stayed silent, almost reverent for the Dresden Dolls’ soulful version of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer.” From there, it was a revue of the band’s older material. Viglione lounged behind his kit and Palmer sat at her keyboard with legs stretched out at comfortable angles as the two smiled, narrated, and laughed their way through mellower selections from their 2003 self-titled debut and the popular follow-up Yes, Virginia, easing into heavier songs like “Gravity” and Palmer’s “Astronaut” as the night went on. The audience knew the words to every song, some of which were, as of midnight, eight years old—a lifetime in the age of digital downloads.

Most of the evening was casual and relaxed—so relaxed, in fact, that the set list the band had mapped out ran short. Amidst several unsolicited requests from the audience for the Dolls’ version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, a live standard from their glory days, they began killing time with covers and extended versions of their more upbeat songs like “Mandy Goes to Med School.”

As midnight approached, the Dolls invited all of the night’s performers onstage for a round of “Auld Lang Syne”, led by Webley as balloons rained from the ceiling. The Dolls then quickly launched into U2’s “New Year’s Day”, confetti cannons deploying around them.

Though both midnight and the show itself had come and gone, the audience refused to leave. The two encores that followed were closer to the Dolls’ usual antics, with Palmer ending up manhandling fans in the balcony. At 12:37am., the band finally caved and wrapped with “War Pigs”, to the clapping, shouting delight of the audience. Before exiting the stage, the two took a bow and embraced, and seemed genuinely happy. San Francisco has long been known for taking in wanderers, dreamers, and misfits, and if their New Year’s performance was any indication, the Dresden Dolls will always have a loving family of fans in San Francisco.