The house under the too-big sky
Yes, I get around to actually talking about the Neko Case/Calexico concert, but it takes a bit to get there. Bear with me. Or wolf, whichever works.
Going out to concerts isn’t something that I do a lot of any more, for a variety of reasons. I live in the sticks, I have kids, and there aren’t that many bands/performers that I really want to go out and see. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t listen to a lot of music. I do. Probably more than I have in some time, in terms of picking up relatively current new records. However, a lot of those bands are from overseas and don’t tour a lot, or they broke up already or etc etc.
And let’s face it. Going to concerts at a big venue is kind of a pain. Kind of really a pain. Driving, parking, douchebags. If I get to shows, they tend to be club/bar shows, or pretty small venues. The last time I attended a really big show, geez, probably The Cure in 2000 when they toured for BLOODFLOWERS. Before that, I think, maybe, Lilith Fair. Yes, I went with my wife. Yes, I’m a good husband.
So getting out of the house for a musical act is a pretty big deal, much less one that requires a two and a half hour drive. And dealing with Ticketmaster. Normally when I’m scraping together to see a show at the last minute, I go with Craigslist or Stubhub or the like, but everyone there was just interested in selling pairs of tickets. Until I perfect binary fission, there’s only going to be one of me (for which I’m sure all of you are thankful) so I only need one ticket. Ticketmaster (as suggested by my wife—see, going to Lilith Fair with her paid off) came through and at a better price than any of the other options I could come up with.
I know. I’m as shocked as you are.
The performers in question? Calexico and Neko Case. Both are big favorites of mine, and have been for some time. Since 1996 or so in the case of Calexico, who I saw open up for The Dirty Three at the scrappy powerhouse of San Diego alternative venues, The Casbah (where I saw a number of shows when I lived down there.) I liked ‘em then, and still like ‘em now. FEAST OF WIRE remains a go-to album when I’m looking for something atmospheric to work with, particularly if it requires any kind of (south)western flavor, which a lot of my work has, even if you haven’t seen it just yet.
Coincidentally, Neko Case is one of those performers I’ll come back to when I need something in that vein (though admittedly, it’s strongest on her album BLACKLISTED). I heard “Things That Scare Me” when I was first revamping the old STRANGEWAYS pitch and turning it into what would become MURDER MOON. If I’d had it on vinyl, I’d probably have worn it out. But I stopped buying vinyl a long time ago (a story for another time).
So getting a chance to see both of them at the same show? Mostly a no-brainer, once I got over ticket costs. Hey, when you’ve been seeing only the odd club show for the last ten years, you blanch at anything more than ten bucks a head. But I got over it…like four days ago…and then put the wheels in motion.
Drove. A lot. I say that I live in Sacramento or Folsom just so people have a spot on the map bigger than a pinprick to look up. I actually live between Folsom and Placerville. It was a long drive. Particularly when I decided to skip going down the 680 to San Jose and just oh, I don’t know, driving down the 12 through Napa and then down the coast to the 101 and into San Francisco. I doubt I could have picked a better day to do it. SF is usually chilly, but today was absolutely gorgeous, clear and sunny. Sure, there was a light blue haze, but nothing like the pea soup that genuinely rolls in and makes everything all pewter and mist. None of that today. Picture postcards and open-topped tour buses for everyone.
Stopped in town and visited with a friend. Made noise with guitars and a mind-melting array of effects pedals (I thought I had too many, and I probably do, but Ash has too many. You have too many pedals Ash.) And sneaked in lunch at my favorite teriyaki house in the city. Not a bad start to things. The 280 out of town was not the asphalt strip of hell I was afraid it was going to be, either. This was beginning to border on too good to be true territory. Or at least close enough that I could hurl a fuzzbox at it and have a good chance of hitting it square.
Traffic finally started melting down around Cupertino, which was tolerable, since that’s where I was getting off. And promptly got lost. Well not lost, but misdirected. I saved real lost for later in the evening. Luckily there were a bunch of Apple Computer signs to keep me redirected. Not kidding either. At least I knew I was in the right town. Hoteled. That’s a word, right? Then I cut across town to Comics Conspiracy, run by the inimitable Ryan Higgins, playing The Cure nice and loud through the store’s stereo system. It all comes back to The Cure doesn’t it?
I know. You thought you were reading about a concert. When I get out this far, I try to pack a couple other destinations into it, otherwise I’m just wasting a trip out to the big city.
Headed up the mountain. I’m not joking about that, either. Drove over not one, but two deer grates and a couple miles of 1.5-lane road and switchbacks to get to the venue, winding through oaks and pampas grass like arrows stuck into the red hillsides. The venue in question is the old Paul Masson winery. Pretty site. Certainly beat the hell out of places like Irvine Meadows, though to be fair, it’s serving a much smaller audience. A much smaller and more affluent audience, given the Mercedes model demos and the profusion of gentlemen who exuded upper-middle-management maybe even having clawed their way to non-revertible stock options and their adorned significant others.
This is not a dig at the artists. They have an audience. They have earned it by way of both talent, sweat and likely more than one frayed nerve along the day. As a guy who’s trying to do the same thing, I can’t do anything but respect that.
At any rate, a beautiful venue with top-notch staff and booking agents. And really, there wasn’t a bad seat in the place. Well, maybe off in the wings, but that wasn’t me. Section A, Row H, seat 18. And there were beautiful people there. Oh, and the dad with his eight-year-old son seated right in front of me, cooler than me despite his pre-stressed and torn overshirt and too-long-to-suit-him-any-longer haircut. Still, he took his son to see Calexico and Neko Case. My dad did similar stuff for me, but more along the lines of Laker games and taking me to see 48 HOURS when it was more than borderline inappropriate, but highly educational.
Yes, I’ll start talking about the damn concert now.
Calexico came on to little, actually, no fanfare whatsoever. Which I have to say I kinda liked. Walk on, not particularly fancily-dressed, get to work. No, they didn’t ignore the audience, as I pretty much did in my one or two times of playing in front of anyone in the band at the time. No nonsense. Play the music, sure interact with the audience, make a connection, but really let the music do that.
The sound wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. Hard to keep everything working when you’re putting horns in the mix, I imagine, and some of the trumpet highs were pretty spiky, but nothing awful. Yes, I’m one of those horrible people who wears earplugs to most concerts. Mostly because I go to a lot of REALLY REALLY LOUD shows, like Sleep and Bardo Pond and Dick Dale (loudest ever-those Dual Showman cabs really slam out the volume). Seriously, that kind of music is felt as much as it’s heard. I figured this wouldn’t be such a punishing show. Nor was it.
Now, the last time I saw Calexico, it was 1996 or 1997, and they were opening up for the Dirty Three on the OCEAN SONGS tour. Back then, they were just a two-piece, Joey Burns and, man, I can’t remember. Probably the drummer. I know there was a vibraphone setup, and it may well have been the same vibes/trumpet player. I’d name him, but I’m just terrible with names. Seriously. I’m lucky to remember Mr. Burns’ name at this point. Faces, sure. Names, not so much. So I gotta apologize, and I’m too far away from Google to check it. Apologies. This was a full band, persussion, two horns, sometimes vibraphone, drums and lapsteel/second guitar.
Calexico took a fairly pared-down approach to the songs, which really served them well. Honestly, I found many of the arrangements on their more recent albums a little sweet to my tastes. If I was being impolite, I’d call them “fussy” but that’s a blanket complaint I use to describe any arrangement which is any more complicated than I’d take myself. A digression: on the one album that I’ve recorded (alongside my partner in noise Christopher Barrus, now of Ex-Detectives and Jacob Anderson, of Celesteville) we played straight and mixed it as it was played, adding some reverb to an already-reverb and feedback-soaked track). So my definition of “fussy” is probably pretty extreme and unapproachable.
Anyways, the band sounded great. And they still work the same magic that came out of those first few albums, HOT RAIL and THE BLACK LIGHT. Calexico takes a lot of familiar pieces (at least to me, having grown up in SoCal): surf music, Mexican radio, indie rock, country and wrap them up, presenting something pretty unique. Burns sings about men and their uneasy relationship with the land that shapes them, and he does it well. And a special shout-out to their drummer who knows that it’s about the spaces and not just hammering things as hard as you can.
The song selection ran from their oldest albums up to the current day, maybe favoring FEAST OF WIRE above others, but that’s okay. It’s a stellar album, not a bum track on it. About the only complaint I had was that they didn’t play “Black Heart” but I bet I’m about the only person in the stands who would want to hear that oppressive, grinding, faltering track. I love it. Maybe my favorite by them, featuring the lyric “One man’s righteousness is another man’s long hard sentence carried out” which sums up STRANGEWAYS in a line.
Highlight of their set? “And Even Stevie Nicks” which is a pretty good song in and of itself, but when you run it into a Neu-styled motorik breakdown for several minutes and that turns into a few verses of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, you’ve got a recipe for my attention. It was a complete surprise. I suppose it shouldn’t have been, but listening to Calexico melt into the more angular rhythms of Joy Division was a sheer delight. Yeah, I said delight.
The sun set and the band disappeared for a bit, leaving me alone with the crowd. And what a crowd it was.
Frankly, there were a distressing number of soul patches on the men in attendance. Like more than one. Gentlemen, let’s approach this with a degree of honesty. You, in all likelihood, are a rather successful member of your profession, and judging by your waistlines, never missed an opportunity for a healthy meal (I’m there myself, fellas.) You are not a jazz musician. You are not a college student. You are not anything other than a middle-aged guy trying to fool yourself. The soul patch only announces this loudly. Try a full beard.
The cliché of the middle-aged dude trying to be cool (and again, I’m with ya there, fellas) was represented in such a degree as to border on the comical. I suspect that one or several companies had bought large blocks of seats, given that there were plenty of people who seemed only slightly less interested in the acts than their cell phones. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. They bumped up the ticket sales and pushed the venue closer to profitability, but man, if you’re not interested in the act, then why even show up for it? Yeah, I’m talking about you, rotund bald guy in the shirt that fit you like a sausage texting on your phone that was only slightly less visible than a UFO landing five feet in front of me. Dude. Really.
But then there was the totally epic drunk guy in the wings, writhing listlessly to Calexico’s set. It seemed like the music wrapped all the way around the world and then hit him, working on a several second ping response. I made a bet with myself that he’d be back for Neko Case’s set and be even more epically drunk. It was a bet I’d lose, since he disappeared at the intermission, never to return. I salute you, Epically Drunk Guy: you know how to take life by the horns, even if you’re leaned over the commode in the ladies room and being dragged away by the polite docents, insisting that you simply cannot be this drunk and still at the show.
So there’s this awful moment before you see a band for the first time, right? It’s like “Please don’t suck.” So many things can go wrong. The crowd can be dead cold and just flop like a decked mackerel. The sound dude could have been high as a kite and thought that perpetual feedback was what you were after. That high-school choir that seemed like such a good idea when you were talking things through could have been just as bad an idea as the bassist said, but whoever listens to that guy anyway? He’s the bassist. I’ve seen acts lust ladle backup musicians on and I’ve seen them just punch the clock, performing the songs from the album more or less in sequence and a little louder and even more lifelessly. It’s sad.
When your expectation come into play, things get all screwed-up. Better to let things just sorta happen. You know, like missing your turnoff and deciding to take the next one and double back only to find that that particular road doesn’t really let you double back until you might as well take that route into the city. “Just. Let. Go.” Durden 13:25.
Anyways, Ms. Case and the band didn’t suck. This is not to say they were perfect. There were rough edges and false starts. You know what? I fucking love false starts dealt with gracefully. Know why? Because it means that there’s an actual genuine imperfect human being at the controls here. You’re at a show as a shared experience with other imperfect human beings just sort of getting along the best way they can.
In short, the band isn’t simply executing a choreographed routine. Man, just fuck that gently with a chainsaw. Granted, this probably comes out of a career of not only not rehearsing songs, but barely being able to play, even when on the mic or on the air. Do it the way you have to do it. Don’t do the GLEE thing. Don’t be Milli Vanilli. But that’s an expectation of the audience that doesn’t know how the hell the real world works. That the records are often pretty artificial creations, carefully carved and shaped and sometimes too fussy. There’s that word again.
Stripped-down. Stripped-out. Figure out what’s essential and necessary and let the other stuff fall away. That’s a brave band. But it’s also practical. You can’t drag the studio with you on-stage unless you’re more or less just lipsynching.
They opened with “Things That Scare Me” from BLACKLISTED which put a smile on my face. Oddly, though, that didn’t get the biggest reaction from the audience. I guess it’s not her most popular LP, though it’s my favorite by a tear-stained eyelash. Or several of them.
Most of the song selections favored FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD and MIDDLE CYCLONE which makes some sense, I suppose. The crowd went nuts for “This Tornado Loves You” and “People Gotta Lot of Nerve” (which I actually heard first in ROCK BAND, kind of a weird thing.) All good songs, don’t get me wrong. This is what happens when you don’t really plug into big music outlets at all and just buy records on your own. Your tastes sorta wander out from the crowds’. Another cross to bear.
The band was joined a few songs in by the screeching of baby barn owls. At least I think they were barn owls. I’m not an owl screech analyst and I didn’t have the app for it on my phone. There was a several-minute digression as the entire place went silent and just listened to the urgent demands of the hungry little birds. This happens when you play in outdoor venues. You take it in stride, sharing the stage with bossy little divas that you can’t even see.
Again, I’d shout out to the individual bandmates by name, but I’ve got a mind like a steel sieve. They go in and rush right out. None of them were in particular show-people, though the backup singer brought quite the presence when the moment called for it. No jumping into the splits, no windmill guitar strokes, no drawing of elemental powers to hold the audience in your thrall. Just playing the music and rolling with the changes. Pretty much my Platonic ideal of performance (but I’m an anti-performer: I just want a fog machine and some airport landing lights and a bone-crushing sound system—in short, I want to be eaten by the music I make.)
This does not make for great T-shirt or dope-smoking fantasy material, I’ll confess. But I suspect that the band is more interested in actually being musicians and not simply a group of performers. There’s a time and a place for that (the ZIGGY STARDUST concert film being a superlative example of a band doing both at once.) This wasn’t it. Nor should have it been. It wasn’t the thing that they were trying to do.
I dunno. I’m not particularly a good descriptor of music. But in terms of an experience, it was exactly what I go to a concert to see and feel. Make the music up on the stage, make it live, let it go other places if it wants to, don’t be a total control freak.
So apparently “Wish I was the Moon” is going to be used in TRUE BLOOD, Ms. Case joking that “It’ll probably be used over a scene of vampires fucking or something,” which makes me a little sad, but then Quentin Tarantino turned “Comanche” into a song about sodomy by a leather-clad goofball. The song will survive and live past it. And there’s all those sweet royalties from that.
Ms. Case sung her songs about fragile-yet-defiant people at war with themselves and choked by regret, about the world locked into ever-smaller concrete cages, and about the funny animals who make great big steel birds that eat sparrow-laden hawks without even trying to. So many perfect lines. I envy her ability to boil a lot of complexity into deceptively simple language. There’s a lot of lyricists who can make the piquant observation, but not make it feel natural. Ms. Case makes it look effortless (though I’m sure it’s not, or then I’m even more envious.)
Never seen a white Gibson SG before, either. Kinda cool. Been a long time since I’ve played one. Wonder if the action is as low as I remember it. Also, after watching two bands with lapsteel players, I got a severe curiosity as to what I could do with one. Not much of a double-picker, but perhaps I could learn. Or I could just park an E-bow over one of the strings and let the rest resonate sympathetically. Anyways, he made it sing from underneath his unruly shock of graying hair. Though the standup bass still intimidates me. Anything without frets and I get a little nervous.
The set wasn’t quite long enough. It never is, not when it’s going right. The encore ended with a huge version of “Knock Loud” with Ms. Case’s voice competing with the squalls of feedback. It was the thunder and she was the lightning, if only for a moment or two, the storm hanging over the lonely house under a sky too big for it. I’m not one for “best show ever” pronouncements, so I won’t make it. But it was a great show, powerful enough to wash away the fuss and effort and heat of the three plus hour drive down.
Still trying to talk myself out of going to the show in Reno on Tuesday. I could park the kids with their doting auntie in Minden. That’s only 90 minutes away. And I hear good things about Y La Bamba. That I do.
EDIT. Didn’t go. Sorta wish I had. Would have made for a better day than it’s turning out to be.
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