Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Skanksgiving from the PieTasters! (and friends)

How better to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season but with a multi-band jamathon at the 9:30 Club, singing and dancing your way to a well-deserved vacation day?

On Wednesday Nov. 21st, an r &b/soul/ska fest filled the stage (and we mean filled!) as Lionize, Westbound Train, the Slackers, and DC's own PieTasters and about a thousand of their closest personal friends filled the floor and danced, danced, danced the night away in a joyous romp full of good vibes and good songs. The bands are all old friends, having shared members in some cases and toured together, and you soon had a distinct (and unique) feeling of camaraderie that you were at an Animal House-era frat party. There were no strangers here, only friends you hadn't met yet. Togas would not have been out of place. Even the amps and drums were shared by all, left up to speed the transition between sets, a rare demonstration of trust and testimony to the cohesiveness and rapport among this crowd.

Lionize was first, playing a loose blend of ska and reggae that would become a recurring theme and familiar sound as the night went on. I picked up their cd EP, Mummies Wrapped in Money, a bargain at $5) and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly "Surrender," "Killers," and my personal favorite, "Brains!...Brains!!!..." (asking the musical question, "Do you want to be a zombie like me?") They were followed in short order by Bostonians West Bound Train, who added a horn section, with singer Obi Fernandez doubling on trombone.

Somewhat more upbeat and playing with a style that relied more on ska and R & B than reggae, Westbound Train also turned in a solid set, keeping the audience on their feet and skankin'! They were followed by the very capable Slackers, who did their part to maintain the groove. The heady atmosphere and ska fest was capped by Indication Records recording artists, the PieTasters, who played a set featuring music from throughout their 17 year history, pumped up with frenetic energy, stellar interplay, and first class musicianship.

If you've been watching lately, you already know that Steve Jackson, Toby Hansen, Carlos Linares and Jeremy Roberts (comprising approx. 45% of the Pietasters) were our guests last month, filling us in on their latest adventures, an imminent European tour, and promoting the new cd, All Day (visit to find out where to pick this up) their 8th recording and a real throwback to the late 50's and early 60's, evoking memories of transistor radios playing a blend of old school Memphis and Motown soul, R & B, and beach music, with some island- influenced two- tone, ska, and reggae thrown in for good measure. Some standouts from the new record included the catchy "Don't Wanna Know," ""Change My Ways," and "Fozzy (Part I)" (reminding me of classic Otis Redding), along with an upbeat, energetic cover of the Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together," that absolutely brought the house down.

While all the bands were fun, and could likely have headlined this or other venues themselves, it was the tight sound of the PieTasters that brought out the crowd, as several hundred people twisted, bounced, danced, spun, and skanked along in unison, shouting out the lyrics as Steve Jackson obligingly pointed his microphone into the audience. This eventually culminated in members of the crowd stage diving, a trio of young ladies who danced onstage with the band for several songs, and finally an amicable mosh pit actually moving onto the stage as twenty or thirty fans bopped along, with the band's brave acquiescence (and even encouragement!) on a couple of tunes. Again, this only added to the friendly, collegial atmosphere, perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the group's popularity and sense of identity with their fans.

That's something ya don't see every day. And the kind of stuff that brings me back every time. Skip the big arenas, and check out some bands that are genuinely glad to see you there! And they'll do their damndest to ensure you have the time of your life!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Neil Young: Timeless

On Friday, November 16, that same majority of your 1600 crew invaded DAR Constitution Hall, for a chance to catch the Grandaddy of Grunge, Mr. Soul himself, Bernard Shakey's alter ego, the man that ain't gonna burn out or fade away, the immortal Neil Young. Supported by friends and family (his wife Pegi doing her own set before joining Neil to provide harmonies), Ben Keith, Rick (the bass player) Rosas, and ever- reliable Ralph Molina on the drums.
We actually walked in during the first or second song of the opening act, Pegi Young, who was accompanied by both Keith and Rosas, and guitarist/harmonica player Anthony Crawford, who were well-rehearsed and comfortably folky-country to give a nice introduction for the show. Pegi Young's voice is clear and conveys emotion well, reminiscent of no one in particular, but at ease and in command. She played both original material and songs written by other friends and colleagues from this remarkable circle of friends and contemporaries with equal aplomb.
Her roughly forty minute set was followed by a brief intermission, then Neil took the stage for a solo set. In a loose fitting gray suit that looked to be splashed with white paint, Neil strummed guitar, and played piano, keyboards and even a little banjo, opening with "From Hank to Hendrix" from Harvest Moon, followed by "Ambulance Blues," also on acoustic guitar. Next up was "Sad Songs," one of the new songs from his latest CD, Chrome Dreams II. He would continue interposing classics like "A Man Needs A Maid," "Harvest" and a slightly updated "After the Goldrush" ("look at Mother Nature on the run/ In the twenty-first century") with more recent songs, such as "Love Art Blues," and in the second set, a powerful reading of "The Believer" with the band, making the most of one of Neil's signature meandering grooves, culminating in some bluesy back and forth exchanges between Keith, Rosas, and Neil, jamming on it and improvising at their finest.
The second set was full of many moments like that, and some unlikely and relatively under the radar songs turned up. The band kicked off with "The Loner," a great tune from Neil's first album I'd never heard live, followed by a favorite, the title cut from his second release, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The set also featured a stellar rendition of "Winterlong," as well as new tunes "Dirty Old Man," "Bad Fog of Loneliness," "Spirit Road," and the previously mentioned "The Believer." The night ended on a high note, with "Cinnamon Girl," "Tonight's the Night," and another recent instrumental, "The Sultan," as encores.
The sound was also very good that night, surprisingly so on the louder electric arrangements. Constitution Hall, while usually more than adequate for acoustic performances, often is not so forgiving when a band turns up and plays with a lot of feedback and distortion. But someone did an excellent job of managing the sound that night, and deserves credit for making a frequently problematic venue sound good.
Not much else that can be said, but Ben Keith told us they'd be back next year...and we're holdin' 'em to it!!

Monday, November 12, 2007

This Magic Moment

Once again, your intrepid 1600 team (or at least a majority thereof) was at the MCI Center on Veteran's Day to witness the triumphal return of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to Washington. No, that isn't a deafening chorus of boos* you heard that Sunday night (and again Monday, no doubt), that was about 20,000 standing, cheering, transfixed fans bellowing "Bruuuuuuuce!"

Yes, even as Jerry was busily editing that day's interview with DC's ska- soul legends the Pietasters, Steve and Bob were off doing what they do best: slacking, drinking, dancing and singing, albeit off- key and painfully hoarse to the familiar tones of the Boss and his all star band, sounding every bit as good as they did 30+ years ago when they became American icons! (Look for that 1600 icon show sometime in 2008) They were all there- Max Weinberg getting a hall monitor pass from Conan ("Potatoes") O'Brien to tour with his old Boss, Little Steven taking a break from his weekly Underground Garage radio show to trade licks and harmonies with Bruce and Patti, and of course, Clarence Clemons, nattily attired in black, including a felt fedora looking very much like an extra from the cast of American Gangster.

And while not the four and a half hour marathon that made Bruce and E Street famous in their 70's and 80's heyday, this performance was a solid two and a half plus hours, featuring some old favorites, as well as a majority of the songs from their most recent release, Magic.

As expected, the setlist varied little from previous nights. "Radio Nowhere" was a great launching point, and the band slipped right into a powerful and moving reading of "No Surrender", followed by "Gypsy Biker," "Magic," and "Reason to Believe" (and no, he didn't cover Rod Stewart and the Faces). All of the new material, including "I'll Work for Your Love," "The Devil's Arcade," and the closer, "American Land," written during the We Shall Overcome- The Seeger Sessions release from 2006, were all solid and tight, and stood up well beside classics like "Night," "Tunnel of Love," and "Badlands."

The relentless pace kept up virtually non-stop, with occasional asides by Bruce as the band toweled off and rehydrated, laughing with the crowd once again as he commiserated with the people living in "this wicked city." One unexpected moment came when "Growin' Up" was added to the set as a preface to other early favorites "Kitty's Back," and the song that put them on the map, "Born to Run."

I also note that while Nils Lofgren and Miami Steve Van Zandt played a number of blistering leads, Springsteen played just as fiercely, and dazzlingly as his bandmates. Bruce has always been acclaimed as a peerless performer and great songwriter, but his skills as a guitar player have often been overlooked. And while he doesn't need to showcase his skills to improve his reputation, it should be noted for the record that his style is not flashy, but unique, understated, and tasteful, without a lick ever seeming out of place, wasted, or over the top. I can't say that for a lot of the critics' darlings that get more exposure and credit, without either the chops or the catalogue that Bruce can claim.

The upshot was a very satisfying evening, nearly 30 years after my first E Street show. And it sure isn't gonna be my last!

*Unlike the deafening chorus of actual boos heard this August at RFK in the final game played there between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, when the now indicted Barry Bonds stepped in to pinch hit, grounding out to short. Those boos were laced with cries of "cheater," "loser," and "bum," which were also not heard during the E Street Band's performance at the Phone Booth.

Steve Sez:
BONDS RULES!!! Who gives a shit if he lied about what he put in his body. Most people my age have lied many times over about what they put in their body. And it sure as hell isn't the government's business anyway! Jail time for this? Are we crazy? The next thing you know someone will get impeached for lying about a blow job.

So now the home run king and the hit king won't be in the baseball hall of fame. The way I see it, it's like Foghat and Rush not being in the rock and roll hall of fame. Bonds can now join Rose, Lonesome Dave and Geddy in a line of hall of fame injustices.

And speaking of injustices:
--OJ was only trying to get his stuff back so he could pay off Fred Goldman.
--Britney's not the only parent who ran a red light with her kids in the back seat.
--84 minutes in jail sounds like a long time to me as I'm sure it did to Miss Lohan.

By the way Springsteen Rocked!!! Growin Up into Kitty...nuff said.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Zappa Plays Zappa

The Legacy lives on.

And it was very much like old times.

On Wednesday, November 7, the Warner Theater was the place to be when Dweezil Zappa and the Zappa Plays Zappa band, a well-rehearsed, seven piece ensemble running the gamut from guitar, bass, and drums to sax, flute, and rock n' roll xylophone stormed the stage for a visit to DC. It was an unusual performance as you would expect: the music entirely dominating the presentation, but containing moments of spontaneous mirth and merriment that certainly would have done the old boy proud. And Frank was not only the inspiration, but a participant in the show too, after a fashion.

They got off to a furious start with "Zoot Allures," a tasty instrumental from FZ's mid-70's era, followed by "Lonely little Girl," and beatifically smiling his infectious grin and deliberately pronouncing each accented syllable, we were treated to the sight and sound of Frank himself, first tearing through a great rendition of "Cosmik Debris," as well as footage of him later in the 3 hour set, shutting up and playing the hell out of his guitar on the "Dog Breath/Uncle Meat" medley (referred to in the program as "Dog Meat.") Other classic and more obscure Zappa compositions included "Wind Up Working in a Gas Station" (also from Zoot Allures), "City of Tiny Lights" from Sheik Yerbouti, a dazzling jam on "Dupree's Paradise," "G Spot Tornado," a piece originally performed solo on synclavier by Frank (as Dweezil noted, during one of his "people are so annoying" periods) which sounded even more powerful as filled out by the band, and a choreographed "Willie the Pimp," which featured the playful slap and tickle silliness that many recall as Zappa's trademark.

And while humor was certainly one aspect of Frank's storied career, the show also showcased the skill, versatility, and sheer virtuosity Frank and his incredible bands always demonstrated, pulling off these arrangements live. I was always blown away by the amazing bands that toured with Frank, and occasionally, he'd even put down the guitar (that guitar which, incidentally, Dweezil still plays!), turned his back to the audience and pick up the baton to conduct. Dweezil didn't exactly do that, but the band clearly cued on his signals, and followed his lead. For his part, he showed a tremendous knowledge of his Dad's chops, executing dizzying runs down the frets at breakneck while speed looking cool as the proverbial cucumber, then picking up a line again a few bars later, not playing Frank's songs note for note, but keeping faithful to their character. He didn't try to match his father's speed or almost frenetic style, but captured it successfully, nonetheless, a true student of his father's work and one of only a handful of men alive that could do him justice. He also gracefully laid out on the songs that featured videotapes of his father performing, looking up at him and back to the crowd in reverence and acknowledging that iconoclastic wild man from Baltimore who made the night possible.

Veteran Zappa sideman Ray White was their special guest, offering up dynamic vocals occasionally supplemented by guitar (and hot water bottle- but I'm not gonna explain that, you'll have to figure it out, or hope they play it at the show next year!). The rest of the band was capably filled out by Aaron Arntz on keyboards and occasional trumpet, Pete Griffin on bass, Scheila Gonzalez on sax, flute, vocals, and keyboards, Jamie Kime on rhythm guitar, Joe Travers on drums and vocals, and percussionist Billy Hulting on marimbas and various percussion (including the forementioned xylophone, a staple with any ensemble performing Zappa pieces).

The show ended with a somewhat truncated version of the Bongo Fury collaboration between FZ and Captain Beefheart, "The Muffin Man," that probably should have included Frank's hysterical intro, the recording of which even he could not get through without laughing. This was the second year of the Tour de Frank, and if the performance we watched was any indication, the tour will continue spreading the word and wisdom of Frank Zappa for many years to come. It was a labor of love that didn't go unnoticed- and five will get you ten that when the Tour de Frank returns, that entire crowd will be back to see what surprises are in store next year!

Bravo and well done to Dweezil and his band, for their painstaking recreations of Frank Zappa's unique songs- you could almost see Frank up in the rafters, baton in hand, nodding and striking up the band for another encore.