It has happened. It was necessary, and it happened. If those were the last two Sleater-Kinney concerts I attend, I can accept that. Nothing lasts forever, but there was something about The Hiatus that left a void, and now that void has been filled.
I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of why I love this band so much. But there is no denying the reality of that love. And after nine years of listening to “One More Hour” and “Good Things” and fighting back tears, not always successfully, I’ve been able to reacquaint myself with their work, and whatever tears remain are tears of joy.
I’m comparing those two shows not just to the previous twelve times we’d seen them, but also to my faulty memories and the curse of nostalgia. So I can’t be certain my comparisons are accurate. But in 2015, Sleater-Kinney is tighter and more confident than ever. Corin has always had The Voice, and she’s never been shy about using it. But now, I felt a sweet pride from her ... when she sang “LAAAAAND Ho!” in “The Fox”, the look on her face said “I have this gift, and I know it, and you know it, and isn’t it grand?” While she still isn’t the most active person on stage (except for one song, which I’ll get to), she has lost all of that I’m-not-the-star feel. When I use the word “confident” about these shows, I’m talking mostly about Corin. Janet’s entire style of drumming feeds off of her confidence, so I wouldn’t say in her case that there has been a noticeable increase. Carrie, always the most charismatic one, seems much happier now. Perhaps that’s unfair ... over the years, we didn’t know how hard it was for her, but with hindsight, some of that is revealed. Yet I felt none of it in these shows ... in fact, it was a bit unsettling at times, that Carrie was having fun when the songs didn’t necessarily have a lot of fun in them. Jillian (who deserves special mention ... she and I have been to 14 S-K shows together now, it’s a wonderful thing) remembers the days when the band was looser on stage, when Carrie was goofy and Janet told jokes. Now, they plow through their songs, one after another, almost Ramonesian in the blast, with only an occasional “thank you, San Francisco”. On the second night, Carrie started talking about how they felt a special bond with San Francisco, and it was a lot like the speech she’d given the night before. But then she veered off, mentioned writing “Jumpers” here, and then going into a long, shaggy tale about recording No Cities to Love on the sly in San Francisco. At one point, she was spinning a joking legend out of the making of the album, and Janet tossed in the comedian’s friend, bah-dah-BOOM, and we all laughed and Carrie said everyone should have their own Janet Weiss. (Sigh.) It was a lovely moment, and really the only such moment over the course of two nights, and it was one of the reasons Jillian said she thought she liked the second night even more than the first. They are more confident now, have more fun now, but the goofiness doesn’t often pop up.
A few personal highlights. “Price Tag” is an excellent opener, driven by Janet ... OK, I’m biased, but her more demonstrative displays clearly fired up the crowd throughout the two shows. She even got extra love from the crowd when she played harmonica during “Modern Girl”. The first show truly exploded four songs in, with “What’s Mine Is Yours” ... the out-of-nowhere noise-guitar middle, the overall power behind the performance, let us know early on that this band was still the best. (On the second night, “Turn It On” preceded “What’s Mine Is Yours”, and it was the igniter.) While the old stuff like “Little Babies” and “Words and Guitar” and “Dig Me Out” predictably got the crowd going, the material from the new album was also very welcomed, with “No Cities to Love” a sing-along highlight. I was hoping to hear two songs in particular, and got one of each at the two shows. “Youth Decay” came on Night One ... it’s a favorite of mine for the ferocity of Janet’s drumming, and for the line, “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house”. Late during the main set on Night Two came “Sympathy”, my favorite Corin showcase. Up to that point, I’d made it through almost two entire concerts without getting overly choked up ... I was just so happy that I was seeing them again. But “Sympathy” never fails to grab me, and Corin’s performance may have been the best I’ve witnessed, with an almost theatrical bent to her line readings, and when she held the final note about all the mommies whose hearts were breaking, for what seemed like forever, that was when I finally lost it.
The regular set ended both nights with “Entertain” and “Jumpers”, two songs I love that I also find ... not sure problematic is the word, but they don’t go down easy. “Entertain” is supposedly about lame bands, but I’ve always read it as Carrie standing down the audience, and the passion in her voice is disturbing. And “Jumpers”, which as far as I can tell is a real crowd-pleaser ... well, it’s one of my favorites, too, but it’s about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and if there’s room for multiple interpretations of “Entertain”, there is nothing ambiguous about “Jumpers” ... the singer kills herself, and the final “four seconds was the longest wait” is very emotional.
Having featured the new album during the main set (it’s proof of the rightness of this hiatus-ending move, that the new album is so much a piece of what came before, and that their performances are as good as ever), the encores mostly looked back. Night One’s encores began with Corin making a pro-Planned Parenthood speech, after which she did something we had never seen over the past 17 years. Katie Larkin, the “fourth S-K member” on this tour, who spends the entire night off in a back corner, adding guitars and keyboards and percussion, comes forward to take Corin’s place on the stage and on guitar. Corin then proceeds to sing “Gimme Love” sans guitar, holding the mic “like a singer”. At one point, she ends up on the floor ... can’t say for sure what she’s doing down there, let’s just say that I’ve seen Carrie down there many times, but it’s a first in my experience for Corin. It’s as if she suddenly became Patti Smith or something.
On the second night, “Good Things” and “One More Hour” worked their way into the encore. “Good Things” is probably the first S-K song I really noticed, and “One More Hour” is simply one of the finest break-up songs of all time. Over the past nine years, both songs resonated with the context of the hiatus ... “why do good things never wanna stay” indeed. Now, they were just two songs I loved ... absent that context, I was able to bear hearing them again like I did back in the pre-hiatus days.
Both nights closed with “Modern Girl”. Carrie told us to take over singing the chorus, but she needn’t have bothered ... we were already singing. My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.
After the second show, I told Jillian that where Carrie has been a rock star from the first moment we set eyes on her, what the band is now feels more like an entire group of rock stars. Oh, Carrie is still the one who attracts our attention the most, and that will likely never change. But the confidence I spoke of earlier has the feel of Rock Star ... not in a look-at-me egotist way, but in a we’re-good-and-we-thank-you-for-knowing way. Since the announcement of the return, I’ve often wondered what they think of all the audience love they are getting. They surely always knew they were special in the hearts of their fans. And while there’s been quite a media blitz compared to the past, Jillian pointed out that the crowd seems to be aging with them ... not as many youngsters as you’d hope. But how does it make them feel, experiencing this unavoidable mass love from their fans? For me, the point is made most clearly in the video for “No Cities to Love”, where an array of cooler-than-cool celebrities like Natasha Lyonne and Daryl from The Walking Dead sing along. The measure of their participation is that each of them in turn melts into each of us fans ... these “celebrities” are fans, too, and they are just so happy to be in a Sleater-Kinney video.
Setlist Junkie Stuff: Over the two nights, they played 30 different songs (7 changes from Night One to Night Two, denoted below in bold). More than half of the songs each night came from No Cities to Love or The Woods. Every album except the self-titled debut was represented at some point. Of interest to no one but me: between the two shows, they played nine songs we heard at our very first Sleater-Kinney concert back in 1998: “Dig Me Out”, “Turn It On”, “Joey Ramone”, “One More Hour”, “The End of You”, “Little Babies”, “Get Up”, “Words and Guitar”, and “Good Things”.
|Price Tag||Price Tag|
|Oh!||Turn It On|
|What’s Mine Is Yours||What’s Mine Is Yours|
|Little Babies||Surface Envy|
|A New Wave||Get Up|
|No Anthems||No Anthems|
|All Hands on the Bad One||Bury Our Friends|
|No Cities to Love||The End of You|
|One Beat||No Cities to Love|
|Bury Our Friends||A New Wave|
|Youth Decay||The Fox|
|The Fox||Words and Guitar|
|Words and Guitar||Sympathy|
|Gimme Love||Dig Me Out|
|I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone||Good Things|
|Dig Me Out||Ironclad|
|Let’s Call It Love||One More Hour|
|Modern Girl||Modern Girl|
A handful of videos have already surfaced. The best are from concertkid. Here’s one, from Night One:
It was one of the stupider things I’ve said. I was, and am, much taken with the work of television critic Tim Goodman, currently with the Hollywood Reporter. Here in the Bay Area, we think of Tim as ours, thanks to his years of work at the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. One day, after reading a particularly good column, I emailed Tim and asked him something like, “Do you know how good you are?”
I see now that there were many levels of arrogance in that question. For one thing, there’s the impression I may have given that I was the only person in the world who recognized his excellence. This is nonsense ... Goodman is known across the country as one of our best TV critics. But even worse was the notion he might not have known how good he was. I’m not talking about an egotistic overconfidence. I’m talking about the ability to put words together in a way that informs and entertains. The underlying idea to my question was that he didn’t know what he was doing, he just did it.
One of Sleater-Kinney’s most popular songs is “Modern Girl” from The Woods. On the current tour, it usually gets played during the encores, often as the very last song. It’s seems like one of their simpler songs, with Carrie singing, Janet coming in on harmonica and then drums, Corin mostly taking a backseat. It has a pretty melody. But what gets me is the oft-repeated line from the chorus: “My whole life was/looks/is like a picture of a sunny day.” Carrie may begin by singing, “My baby loves me, I’m so happy, happy makes me a modern girl”, but by the end of the song, the singer is angry, even given her baby’s love. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though ... it’s inherent in that chorus. Her life isn’t like a sunny day, it’s like a picture of a sunny day, and the addition of “a picture” makes all the difference.
I appreciate that this isn’t exactly the deepest bit of close reading ever done. But the thing is, for a long time, I wondered if Carrie knew what she had written, or if it was “just” inspiration. Which is as dumb as thinking Tim Goodman didn’t know he was good. That lyric exists as written ... the person who wrote it knew what she was doing. It’s arrogance to think otherwise.
And this is true of all of their work. Carrie’s idiosyncratic guitar lines? They don’t come by accident, as if she were a primitive guitarist who “doesn’t know what she is doing”. Her idiosyncrasies are purposeful. The way Corin and Carrie blend their vocals, rarely using straight harmonies and often singing entire different lyrics simultaneously? They made a conscious decision to do this. The way they pretend they don’t want a bass player, then give Corin lots of bass lines to play on her guitar? Not an accident.
And yes, I know this is obvious. Or should be. Except too often, I unconsciously assume I know more than the artist. I’m not talking about some version of reader-response theory, where once a text enters the world, it becomes ours. I’m talking about the idea that the artist never knows what they are doing, never really owns their work.
This weekend, we'll be seeing Sleater-Kinney for the 13th and 14th time. Here is the first song they played, the first time we saw them, in '98 ... the concert came about 4 months before we saw them:
Nine years ago this Sunday, we saw them for the 12th time ... thought for many years it would be the last time. Here is what they closed the main set with that night:
I don't expect to hear either of those songs this weekend ... neither has turned up on the setlist through the first 40 or so shows of the current tour. We will get this, which opens the new album and which has opened virtually every show on the tour:
And we will no doubt these songs from the new album, as well:
I can't be inspired to write about the usual topics here, not with Baltimore. Here is a picture of today's baseball game between the visiting Chicago White Sox and the home Baltimore Orioles:
This inspires comments like "Your broadcast today from an empty Oriole Park is full of auditory delectables ..."
The title of this post refers to the classic James Brown album from 1962. It also refers to a book in the 33 1/3 series, this one written by Douglas Wolk, about that album.
Wolk weaves a detailed analysis of Brown and the album with a narrative describing world events at the time the album was recorded. The concert occurred during the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk works at tying Brown's combustible live show with the potential for fireworks happening out the walls of the Apollo, just two days after Kennedy had given a speech to the nation about the crisis:
"It's getting a little cold outside," he declares, and there's a rustling of assent. (It was: the weather on the night of October 24 was nasty, in the mid-to-upper 30s Fahrenheit in Harlem. Brown's staff had gone out and handed complimentary cups of coffee to people waiting in the long line outside the Apollo, making sure they were in a good mood when they got inside.) But then he adds: "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' about? I said it's gettin' a little cold outside." That's a nudge. He's not talking about the weather. He's talking about the chill everyone in the room has been feeling for the last two days. But that's outside; this is inside the temple of Apollo, where the famous flames burn.
It's an interesting approach, and I do remember my ten-year-old self, aware that something was going on, looking at every plane that flew by wondering if it was from Russia. So sure, missiles were on everyone's minds. But for the most part, I found these sections of the book mostly digressions, and I would get antsy for Wolk to return directly to the album.
Which is where rewards are to be found, for Wolk does a terrific job. He has clearly listened to Live at the Apollo many times, and more carefully than most of us, I suspect.
Turning up "I Love You Yes I Do" as loud as it can go is also a good way to admire the amazing recording quality of Live at the Apollo. You can make out the cries in the crowd, and bits of the Famous Flames' off-mic backing vocals; you can also hear a little squeak right before each beat. Perhaps the drum kit had a squeaky hi-hat, or the organ had a squeaky speaker?
The majority of the book, as with the album, is "Lost Someone". It is to Wolk's credit that reading his writing on "Lost Someone", you want to immediately put the song on. (OK, I pretty much always want to put that song on.)
I can't quote the whole book ... you really need to read it, listening to Brown all the while. But I can't resist a bit more:
[W]hen he recorded LATA, he knew he was being recorded, and he held back, so he wouldn't overload the microphone and get distortion all over the recording, because theyn Syd Nathan would never let him put it out. Live at the Apollo, my friends -- Live at the Apollo is the sound of James Brown holding back. ...
James Brown has been singing "Lost Someone" for almost eleven minutes. Time has bent and suspended under the week's incredible gravity.
Wolk makes a point ... maybe it's one everybody already knew, but it hadn't occurred to me before. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest albums ever made, a crucial part of the history of James Brown. Yet it comes before the period when Brown changed music, when he had his biggest impact. I might play "Lost Someone" once a day until I die, but in the end, it's just a stunning performance. But with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a marker, funk becomes king. There are hints of that future in Live at the Apollo, but only hints.
There are thousands of records that bear James Brown's influence, and a lot of them even namedrop him, but almost all of them take off from his 1965-1974 funk period. You can scarcely hear the echoes of the massively popular Apollo in the music of anyone other than James Brown himself.
Been thinking about rock critics, Robert Christgau in particular, for an upcoming project, and it seemed like a good time to post something here about those thoughts.
I'll get to Xgau in a bit, but I should start with a few others. The most influential rock critic to me was Greil Marcus. I've read him pretty much since he started writing. When I was a factory worker, his Mystery Train intrigued me enough that when I finally got to Cal as an undergrad, I wrote an American Studies major because that's what he'd done when he had been at Cal. Later, I had the pleasure of a period when he and I were both teaching in related departments, with offices around the corner from each other, giving me a chance to pick his brain.
He is also part of a line that led, if I can be presumptuous, to me, drawing attention to the ways we are influenced by those who came before. Pauline Kael is my biggest influence, and she was an influence on Marcus, as well. Knowing some of the professors at Cal that he had admired, I found myself taking courses from them and, when possible, having them on various committees I needed in grad school.
I once wrote, soon after the deaths of Kael and one of those Berkeley professors, the wonderful Michael Rogin:
Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself. I can think of no greater tribute to our late mentors, Kael and Rogin, than that I might just once provide inspiration for the next generation.
Robert Christgau was not that person for me. He was New York, Marcus was Berkeley. But I've been reading him almost as long as I've read Marcus. And the line of influences is complex, like in the case of Ann Powers, who I met when we were in grad school together. I admire her work tremendously. Over the course of her wide-ranging career, she found herself working with Christgau, and they were a great match. These connections often work their way into our souls indirectly, so when Ann wrote a truly beautiful essay, "As I Get Old", for an anthology of essays in honor of Christgau, she never mentioned The Dean, yet you could feel his presence all the same.
Before I finally return to Christgau, a sidebar re: Lester Bangs. It's funny, I loved his writing, but I never thought of him as an influence on myself, nor did I ever try to emulate his writing (a problem I have with many other writers). But when he died, it broke my heart all the same, and when I want to re-read some great writing on music, his pieces on Astral Weeks, and the death of Elvis, are never far from my mind. Meanwhile, those influences still turn up in interesting places. Last Sunday, long-time film critic Mick LaSalle responded to a question about any former film critics who had influenced by writing, "I think one critic did influence me, not in terms of style, but in terms of showing me how much freedom you can allow yourself, how personal you can be, how you can more or less write like you're just talking to people. That’s Lester Bangs."
When I think of Robert Christgau, I don't usually think of the alleged purpose of his Consumer Guide, although I have a tendency to buy any album that gets an "A" from The Dean. What amazes me is how he can stuff so much into so few sentences. He was a master of the Twitter form before Twitter was invented. Take his Guide from June 1988, which included a review of a Joan Jett album that I've been quoting ever since:
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Up Your Alley (Epic) Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is, and by closing side one with the cover exacta "Tulane" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," she comes this close to convincing me she's made the leap. But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B PLUS
Or, from the same guide, an example of the aforementioned ability to squeeze a lot into a little space:
HAIRSPRAY (MCA) Conceived by collector John Waters rather than some marketing strategist, this is a party record that doubles as proof of a sensibility, refurbishing the pre-Beatles '60s not by polishing girl-group touchstones but by mining the middle of the r&b charts. Dance mania rools, from the swinging popcult ecumenicism of Ray Bryant's "Madison Time" to the "Squish squish" backup of Gene & Wendell's "The Roach." The plot-advancing "Town Without Pity" doesn't quite fit, but by sticking Little Peggy March's "I Wish I Were a Princess" in between the funky-girl touchstone "You'll Lose a Good Thing" and the protosoulful "Nothing Takes the Place of You," Waters points up both its objective laughability and its seriousness in the mind of the behearer. This is camp at its best--giving the ridiculous its due because the ridiculous makes life worth struggling for. A MINUS
Having said all of this, I'd be lying if I claimed I was never clued in to something new-to-me when reading Christgau. Here are a couple off the top of my head.
Have Moicy! ("[T]hirteen homemade, chalky, fit-for-78 songs that renew the concept of American folk music as a bizarre apotheosis of the post-hippie estate. No losers, though--just loadsa laffs, a few tears, some death, some shit, a hamburger, spaghetti, world travel, crime, etc. A+")
I knew Al Green, but Christgau helped me appreciate Al Green. ("Al Green's Greatest Hits [Hi, 1975] Green is less open and imaginative than Sam Cooke and less painfully word-wise than Smokey Robinson, but he belongs in their company, that of two of the half dozen prime geniuses of soul. His musical monomania substitutes Memphis for James Brown's Macon, and the consistency of his albums is matched only by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. But because he spins his music out over an area not much larger than a hankie, the albums also translate beautifully to a greatest hits format, and this is flawless. For those who refuse to believe the LPs contain hidden treasure and don't care that the singles 'all sound the same.' And for those, like me, who can go both ways with him. A")
And it wouldn't be a post about Xgau without one of these, reviewing a PJ Harvey album. ("Rid of Me [Indigo, 1993] Never mind sexual--if snatches like 'Make me gag,' 'Lick my injuries,' and 'Rub 'til it bleeds' aren't genital per se, I'm a dirty old man. And if the cold raw meat of her guitar isn't yowling for phallic equality, I'm Robert Bly, which is probably the same thing. She wants that cock--a specific one, it would seem, attached to a full-fledged, nonobjectified male human being, or maybe an array or succession of cocks, it's hard to tell. But when she gets pissed off, which given the habits of male human beings happens all the time, she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own. After which it's bend-over-Casanova and every man for him or herself. A")
Inspired by Alex McNeil, who played music from 1965 last week, I give you music I remember at our house from that year (I turned 12 in June).
Alex played "She Belongs to Me" from Bringing It All Back Home, which was the first Dylan album I personally owned (having an older brother meant I didn't have to buy too many records until he went off to college in 1964). The one single from the album that charted was the song that kicked it off, "Subterranean Homesick Blues":
In 1965, we were still buying the U.S. versions of Beatles albums (although my brother had a German version of Help!). "It's Only Love" was on the U.K. Help! and the U.S. Rubber Soul:
B.B. King's Live at the Regal was long my favorite of all blues albums ... maybe still is. I can remember one night when my parents were away for the weekend, and me and a couple of friends were staying up late, getting high and listening to music with the TV set on with no sound. At one point, B.B. laid down one of his most mind-boggling licks, and we all stopped whatever we were doing and just listened with our mouths open. This video is of "How Blue Can You Get", which was also on the album. This version is from 1972 ... I saw him once, in 1971:
Finally, Alex included this song, "There But for Fortune" ... I didn't own it, but it often turned up on the radio, and I loved the guitar so much. I've told the story before ... I always wondered who was playing that guitar. I knew Joan Baez was singing, but never found any credits for the track. Then a few years ago, I found this video, and realized it had been Joan all along:
Twenty years ago today, we saw Liz Phair and Jewel at the Warfield. Phair was performing solo ... well, so was Jewel. Phair's last song was "Fuck and Run":
Jewel was just starting out. Her closing song was "Chime Bells":
I could say a few words, but they would pale next to the sound of JB pleading, "I'm so weak". If you want to read about Live at the Apollo instead of listening to it, Douglas Wolk wrote about it for the 33 1/3 series, and it is definitely worth checking out.
The album was recorded in 1962, and released the following year. Back in 1963, it wasn't easy to get a near-eleven-minute song on an LP. "Lost Someone" was cut in half, with the first part ending Side One and the second part kicking off Side Two. We all got used to flipping the record in mid-song, but in the CD era, that is no longer necessary. Here is one of the all-time greatest artists is popular music history, with what I think is his greatest performance (and probably the band's greatest performance, as well):