Aside from being the most visually satisfying place to see bands in S.F., the Great American Music Hall, by virtue of its name alone, can apparently honor performers in just the right way. To call Old 97's (who played the Hall Aug. 7) great American music isn't hyperbole. They live up to the name the way many greats have throughout the history of U.S. pop: by writing catchy songs that, through lyrical invention, speak to listeners in voices much like their own about experiences they think they've had. As Americans, we like to imagine ourselves as part of a great and righteous story. We love unrequitedly, we hurt inconsolably, we bear up under adversity heroically. (Supposedly.) Stories about these attributes, played to a steady backbeat and set in a soaring major key, form the basis of much that is enduring in one of the most American of pop music forms: country and western. Old 97's take this formula, throw in some punk-inspired tempos, moves, and attitude, and come up grinning with an audience clenched in their teeth.
The show started promptly, with the opening band, Blueland, leaving the stage just before 9 o'clock. (I saw the singer checking his watch during their last song, something I and many in attendance had been doing early in their set.) Blueland are a Britpop simulation with a few decent songs and no surprises. Their singer -- all fluttering eyelashes and hair parted just so -- is a self-conscious putz and, frankly, embarrassing to watch, but also perversely fascinating, like someone sitting across from you in an emergency room with a compound fracture. Word has it that Blueland have some big local industry insiders behind them, so I'm sure they will find a video director skilled enough to make them look like stars.
I was surprised to see Old 97's looking as collegiate as they did. I had imagined a vaguely hip coterie -- maybe with matching jackets, a string tie or two -- not a poli-sci field trip. Regardless, after making an announcement about their regular drummer's ear infection and the "battlefield promotion" of their manager onto the drum throne, they proceeded to make all discussion of their look irrelevant.
Running through almost their entire new album Too Far to Care (as well as several older originals and a couple of covers), Old 97's managed to remain entirely entertaining through their entire set, never once resorting to the kind of gimmickry upon which lesser bands with similar sounds lean heavily. There was no phony aw-shucks hick act, no glib trailer trash references, just tightly arranged songs and musicianship that went as far as it had to and no further. (A band without a shtick? S.F. groups take note!) The guitar lead on "Streets of Where I'm From" was shrill and evil, but precise and melodic at the same time. Consistently, the lead guitarist checked in with tasty little slices of rockabilly pie, each one surprisingly fresh live, despite occasionally sounding rote on the recorded work.
The greatest asset Old 97's possess is gifted singer and lyricist Rhett Miller. With songs this straightforward, a clever lyric can be the difference between a classic and the musical equivalent of chewing gum, ready to be discarded when its three minutes of flavor have elapsed. While "Melt Show," "Barrier Reef," and (especially) "Niteclub" have yet to be officially added to the rock canon, they stand a better chance than many of their contemporaries. From "Barrier Reef":
My heart wasn't in it, not for one single minute
I went through the motions with her [nice pause here] on top, and me on liquor
Didn't do no good, well I didn't think it would
It's a tidy summary of a situation many men pretend to be in, with the ironic pause tipping us off that the protagonist is aware of the listener's ear and likely skepticism. Miller hit all his notes, and his occasionally too-clever lines lost some of their smugness in his powerful voicing. I wish he hadn't thrown away one of the few really poignant phrases on Too Far to Care -- "My life was misspent, don't let me be misunderstood," from "Niteclub" -- but I suppose a song about the miseries of touring is probably easier to sell when a crush of singing, dancing, fist-pumping fans isn't smiling into your face. Don't let me be misunderstood, however: Old 97's put on the best show I've seen in many months.
(Special thanks go to the Great American Music Hall for keeping the bill to two bands; the show let out by 10:30, just right for us working stiffs.)
-- Paul Kimball
Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival
featuring the Refugee All-Stars
Wyclef Jean, one third of the Fugees, wants to televise his revolution. In addition, he wants everyone from Erykah Badu to Downtown Julie Brown dancing in the streets of every chocolate city throughout the African diaspora. It's that kind of raging ambition that makes this side project much more than an opportunistic spinoff of The Score, his group's landmark 1996 recording. It also means that if the Refugee All-Stars become a supergroup, then U2 will look pretty damned modest by comparison.
Rather than accepting the traditional party line of rap music as an Eliza Doolittle in search of MC Higgins' finishing before entering the academy of black popular music, Clef repositions hip hop with a core attitude that underpins all black popular music, as well as as a partner on equal footing with R&B, gospel, jazz, and other gorgeous Afrodiasporic sounds. He accomplishes this by creating a messy sprawl of diverse genres, linked by a dusty sound and a clever running skit about Clef in court. In fact, this is one disc where the between-track skits are as powerful as the music they link. The primary narrative has Clef on trial, prosecuted by a buppie lawyer who only sees the caricature in black archetypes. It's a vital reminder about the return of virulent class conflict to the African-American community. Another tangential skit has a record company-type demanding a more gangster style in Clef's music, followed by an interview with an inarticulate gangsta rapper. Clef seems deeply aware that an essential part of all black American music is to give voice to the disenfranchised; the link to hip hop should be rather obvious.
The Carnival presents a wide variety of styles and guest stars, including the Neville Brothers, the I-Threes, and Celia Cruz -- all sounding like card-carrying members of the Refugee camp, rather than idle status-gropers. Rarely has such an aggressive advocacy of black multiculturalism found its way into the Billboard Top 30.
Still, the document runs a tad long. "We're Tryin' to Stay Alive," which features a savvy reworking of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," comes across as lighthearted relief when it arrives so late in the stages of the 76-minute disc. This long haul shows that Clef is clearly in love with the podium, but at least he has something to say. Due to recent deaths and adverse publicity, hip hop has spent the last few years defining what it is not. Clef's anthropology results in a much clearer, positive definition of hip hop as an ideology of resistance.
-- Martin Johnson
Little Darla Has a Treat for You, Vol. 7
Modern Day Paintings by Original Musical Artists
Taxonomically speaking, roughly three genera exist within the frustrating, narrow (-minded) family of indie rock, under what's now called alternative and above most subterranean punk. Two recent compilation albums from the Darla and Fingerpaint record labels feature species of indie pop, indie folk, and indie rawk, but only one album breathes life into the whole gasping lot.
The local-based Darla Records' Little Darla Has a Treat for You plays like a mix-tape from that friend of yours who you love for spending way too much time and money at the record store, while the New York label Fingerpaint's comp sounds more like one of those cheap promotional jobbies that the majors insist on pressing every six months or so to showcase their recent crop of radio-ready singles.
Make no mistake, the seventh volume of Little Darla is a promotional item, pieced together from Darla's and associated labels' record rosters and priced to move units at $6. But the record also serves a larger purpose: It's a barometer of current indie rock that proves there is hope within a genre stifled by folks who aren't willing to toy with the heartstrings of creativity.
Little Darla begins with a cut by Valerie Lemercier, a Parisian actress whose sultry voice sounds a hell of a lot like Brigitte Bardot singing a sweet Serge Gainsbourg number over a Herb Alpert horn section. Next, Orange Cake Mix's bedroom (shower) vocals meet disposable keyboards, in sort of a cheap, muted Magnetic Fields riff. Then it's the warm, lush pop of Ciao Bella, a promising Alameda band. The song selection might appear disparate, but all three cuts -- and indeed the rest of the 73-minute CD -- are refreshingly open to quality recording and instruments (quasi-harpsichord, heavy strings, phasers, cheesy organ, samplers, drum machines) that indie rockers used to just stare at with the cocked heads and blank expression of Hello Kitty.
The intent of Fingerpaint's Modern Day Paintings is murkier. "Lampshade," one of Beck's lovelorn laments, opens the compilation. Although Beck wants his vocal affectations to make this bluesy ode to slacker love sound sad or run-down, he just sounds drunk. From there, the Campfire Girls go guitar-heavy-altrock with the disturbingly insular "Perry Farrell Ate My Girlfriend." Later, Holiday Flyer flits in with a breezy indie pop number that bands like Cub and Holiday (no relation) forget about after long naps.
Darla's record still features the hallmark of indie rock: bursts of surprising sincerity (Ciao Bella) allowed by reflexive irony (Super Friendz; the Clears). But unlike Modern Day Paintings, as Little Darla shifts from lo-fi ambient (Tommorowland) to heavy psychedelia (Bevis Frond) it never sounds like the same old song.
-- Jeff Stark