Thursday, March 19, 2015

No Sitting/No Thinking: Courtney Barnett Live LP Premiere

13 MARCH, 2015
After last summer's revelatory show at Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneertown, during idle chat with her rhythm section, Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie, I expressed pleasure that the show livelier than I was expecting from the LP...Bones positively bubbled: "Wait 'til you hear the new album...", which I chalked up to being on the home side, but now have a much deeper appreciation for his enthusiasm. We also touched on their thoughts on their forthcoming appearance at SF's Outsidelands Festival, which the band handled with ease. Now into the new year, that brings us current...

With the approach of her new album's release looming, Courtney Barnett showed off Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, (out on Mom + Pop Music in the States), with four invite-only listening parties around the world, covering Sydney, Melbourne, London, and a sole stateside appearance in LA. Friday the 13th didn't seem to faze her in the least, as she set up base camp at Dilettante in downtown LA. Expanding the confines beyond a mere listening party, the gallery was set up to display her "Chair" series of sketches, along with photos taken by Tajette O'Halloran during the studio sessions. Taking form as the trio version of the Courtney Barnetts, herself accompanied by drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane, they blew through the entire LP, track for track, in a spare, open space enlivened by projections of the artwork of Celeste Potter, who did the honors on Barnett's "Anonymous Club" video. Fellow Milk! Records artist Fraser A. Gorman took care of the opening duties, and he seemed intent on making his first trip to LA memorable. Highlights from his set included opener "Book Of Love" and an emotional reading of "Dark Eyes".

The band hit the stage, and with little fanfare, they slammed into the one/two opening punch of shaggy dog story "Elevator Operator" and first single "Pedestrian At Best". The first thought was of the overall comfort level of the band, and as much as I love the EP's, the consistency of sound brings back visions of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, circa This Year's Model, when the band was bedded in, and the songs just vibrated, exuding an urgency far and above his debut. "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)", while lyrically as advertised, was given a joyful rendition by Courtney. As the journey through the album progressed, intensity was the watchword, captured most notably in the harrowing "Small Poppies". Coming off the fiery conclusion, the band settle into "Depreston", with Barnett executing ornery guitar lines at the end. Dave and Bones backing vocals were more pronounced than on the recorded version, and the chemistry really clicks when they all sing together. Midway through, Barnett lost the use of her own monitor, but barely registered a shrug, and soldiered on, harkening back to last year's show, when she snuck onstage and restrung the opening band's guitar after a mishap.

"Aqua Profunda!" was introduced as "a song about swimming", and indeed, it was a song about swimming. With the typical Barnett subtexts, of course. "Dead Fox" once again hones what we could consider The Courtney Tradition, boiling up dizzying wordplay out of little more than throwaway lines and a chorus lifted from a truck's safety sticker to conjure a mortality meditation. Drummer Dave Mudie stepped up to the plate and made his presence felt during the driving "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party". "Debbie Downer" continued the uptempo stomp mode, setting up the grand finale. Following the "Small Poppies" template, "Kim's Caravan" turned a moody dirge with a "going up the river to see Col. Kurtz vibe" into transcendent guitar fireworks that served as the full bands farewell, and they went out on a high note, leaving the stage to Courtney for the heart-tugging ballad, "Boxing Day Blues", and she drew out the last notes, finally quieting the hum of the industry crowd, forcing them to lean forward, rapt.

Going in, I thought it would strictly be a "listening party", not a show, and it turned out to be much more than that...let's call it a sort of homecoming. With that for a warmup, the band will be moving on to turn heads in Austin at SXSW. They'll return to the US for some high profile festivals, including Sasquatch, and a return to LA in the company of Seattle's Chastity Belt at the end of May. Many thanks to Dilettante LA, Milk! Records, and Mom + Pop Music for the stellar hospitality and an unforgettable evening.


Special appearance from John the Sound Guy


Behold...the chairs...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Summon The Spirit, Cut To The Bone: Lucinda Williams Live

06 MARCH, 2015
In yet another twist to keeping the touring grind fresh, Lucinda Williams' recent strategy, the Tour of California, paid dividends with her making a rare central coast venture to land at the historic Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Started as an opera house by Jose Lobero in 1873, the theater has seen history ranging from Marian Anderson to Baryshnikov, with green room photos serving as a veritable museum. According to local lore, Williams herself was positioned to play here, commensurate with the Car Wheels On A Gravel Road tour in 1998, but postponed due to an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live. Aside from appearances at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, and down the highway at the Ventura Theatre, it was only now that this was put right.
Lucinda kicked out the jams in a show that threatened the three hour mark by the time the final curtain call was made, spotlighting her most recent work, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, the first release on her own Highway 20 label, while leaving plenty of space to backtrack through her catalog. Accompanied by the mighty Buick 6, (David Sutton bass, Butch Norton drums, Stuart Mathis guitar), she launched the proceedings with the swamp creep of the new "Something Wicked This Way Comes", then dropped into the Car Wheels title track. When she had a coughing fit before the first chorus, the band dropped perfectly into the groove, waiting it out, but it was Lucinda who waved them off, perfectionist as ever, and insisted on taking it from the top. Aside from that, her whiskey voice has aged well. "Drunken Angel", also from Car Wheels set up "Pineola" from Sweet Old World. Back on track with the new record, she served up a simmering version of "West Memphis", prefaced with a shout out for the documentary on the West Memphis Three case. Visiting Car Wheels once again, "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" led to the first break.

The band departed and Lucinda picked up the old Martin J-45 for a tribute to her father, the poet Miller Williams, with her interpretation of his most famous poem, "Compassion", which lent a phrase as the title of her new LP. She stayed the course with the new, segueing into "When I Look At The World", a song that received one of its first live airings during an appearance at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur a few years back. Stuart Mathis came back out to lend a hand for a duet on "Lake Charles", and the full band returned, with David Sutton switching to a standup bass and lending a certain gravitas to "Are You Alright", from 2007's West. Switching gears, Essence (2001) provided 3 of the next four tracks, "Blue", "Are You Down", and "Out Of Touch", broken up with the new "Protection". What hasn't changed, after all these years, is that for every nook and cranny of American Music that she's explored, when it comes to the stage, she's all about the rock and roll, and as the night went on, she gave the band their fearsome head, standing back in the wings at one point to marvel. While seeming a little thrown by the totally seated audience, her coping strategy seemed to be to take it louder. And there were no complaints from attendees, although one can well imagine the shudders that ran through the theater staff at her suggestion of ripping out a couple of rows of seats. By this time, the band was hitting on all cylinders, and a rousing "Change The Locks", from her much loved self-titled LP, originally on Rough Trade, was just the ticket. Closing out the main set, it was back to West for "Unsuffer Me", with positively creeping bass from David Sutton,  the new "Everything But The Truth", and the title track of Essence, which got a loud "thank you" from the crowd, and highlighted drummer Butch Norton, before ending with the stomping "Honey Bee" from Little Honey.

While the audience was hooting and hollering for the band's return, the eye was drawn to the edge of the stage, where another amp was being set up. Turns out the evening's surprise was old hand Doug Pettibone joining the festivities. Sweet Old World's "Hot Blood" started the ball rolling, giving way to "Righteously", from World Without Tears, and finishing with a rambunctious "Joy". And still that wasn't enough, as the crowd refused to let it go. Out popped the band for a cover of AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top", followed by Neil Young's already classic "Rockin' In The Free World", between which Lucinda observed: "I'm not your typical Americana artist." We'll let that stand as the last word.

Picking up opening duties on this tour was Alabama's own Kenneth Brian Band. As a study in post-Skynyrd Southern Rock, they met all the criteria, and it is meant as a compliment. While many write Skynyrd off as a bar band, there was always a heavy outsider element of being a long hair in the South, and a humanism to Van Zandt's writing. With an open dress shirt exposing a heavily tattooed torso, the connection was easily made. The stark originals caught the ear, but the feet started tapping with a sublime Freddie King cover, and from then on, he had the audience eating out of his hand. Final thoughts on the night: while the proliferation of technology and the Internet has broken the shackles for artists who never could have been heard before, the dark side lies amidst corporate sprawl, prefab bands, and identikit radio; hastening disappearing regional affiliation is one of the sadder parts of cultural evolution. Which is a terribly long winded way of saying that the most striking thing about both of the evening's acts, aside from the chops, is that concrete and comforting sense of place.
special guest Doug Pettibone