Matt Pond PA, 6.15.10

My first experience at the Independent was… a loud one. And a free one. It involved me and my photographer friend using earplugs and making hand signals at each other. Good times. The venue isn’t actually meant for music, only in the sense that quiet bands, like the ones I saw that night, instantly become quasi-metal-volume bands. It’s a bit overwhelming. But other than that, what a venue. It’s in that weird middle-of-nowhere part of San Francisco, where the city stops looking like The City and starts looking like a city. The blocks are longer, the noise outside the venue is relatively subdued, and there are a lot of gas stations and residential buildings. The crowd there was pretty great, too, save for one hyper-horny couple who insisted on shoving each other’s tongues down each other’s throats throughout the show. I moved; also, I’m bitter. But anyway, I’m not really sure what I was expecting out of the crowd. Maybe more hipsters? More punks? Who knows, but I liked what I saw either way.

The bands that played went in this order: good, bad, great. I feel like the first band was the one from Washington, but according to the website Wintersleep (via Canada) played first, so maybe I have it backwards. Anyway, sorry to those bands for getting them confused. The point I’m trying to make is that I liked the first and last bands, but not so much the band inbetween. The first band had a scrappy charm to it; the lead singer was pretty mesmerizing, cute, and definitely wasn’t trying too hard to be different. He sang honestly and purely, and let himself get caught up in the music without making an effort to draw attention to how cool he thought he was. Whereas the second group (The Lonely Forest, via Washington State, apparently) used a lot of weird coloring (distorted microphones, chord progressions that just DID NOT MAKE SENSE) to try and make themselves seem really cool, but it actually just came across as some sort of experiment conducted by a few mildly musically talented high school students. Like I could tell they knew how to play music, but they were a little too aware of the fact that they were an independent band doing independent things. Anyway.

Matt Pond PA, the headliner, was the headliner for a reason. Pond himself was witty and fun and awkward in a way that made me wish I didn’t have work in the morning. And their songs were crisp and tight and professional, yet not overproduced. They were just… experienced. And fun to watch. And it seems that they’ve been around for awhile, but still remain independent, so they’re probably doing just fine. I guess it really is possible…

Alkaline Trio, 2.18.10

Going to this concert was like seeing a group of old friends who had since befriended a bunch of people I wasn’t incredibly keen on. I say “old friends” because Alkaline Trio is a group I listened to religiously in high school, and not so much now; I attended the concert purely for nostalgic reasons. The bandmembers have since matured; Matt Skiba sported an actual Polo brand shirt and Dan Adriano a sleek (metrosexual?) jacket, yet their audience hasn’t changed. They’ve aged, maybe. They’re all still wearing the flannel shirts and the skinny pants and the black eyeliner and the band hoodies and the stringy hair. I stood out like a sore thumb, having just come from work. This is what the fans looked like when I was in high school, and I stood out then, too. But I grew up, and the band grew up. I guess we’ve just left everyone else behind. That part felt pretty good.

The Regency Ballroom did the band no justice. I didn’t make it in time to see the openers, so I can’t say for sure if it was the band’s levels that made it worse, but I will say that you should only attend the Regency if you know the band you’re seeing very well. That way you’ll know the songs and you won’t worry so much about trying to decide if you like them. Complaints aside, the venue is beautiful, even if it isn’t meant to rock. It’s got all this crazy-intricate moulding on the vaulted ceilings, and it just seems like it was an all-around badass place to party back in the day. The Trio certainly made it a party when they took the stage, anyway.

I’ve never been partial to emo music, but the Trio always held a special place in my heart. I love how their music is a constant wall of sound. No staccato. No silence. For a choppy genre, they’ve always been exceptionally smooth. And yes, they’ve gotten more mainstream and sold out and whatever, but their sound has improved along with it. They played a few of their new songs, which I didn’t care too much about, but they didn’t forget about their old stuff, either. San Francisco is one of their many homes, and we welcomed old renditions of Armageddon, 97, and San Francisco (the better of the encores, one being the cliche Radio). I was also stoked to hear my personal favorite, Crawl. Adriano’s voice is as beautiful (and underrated) as ever. It’s a pity that the venue made it impossible to hear it on that one and on Emma, both of which showcase his pipes perfectly. In any case, I’m glad I went. Same time in six years, okay guys?

Nneka, 1.27.10

Imagine my surprise—and thrill—when I walked by the Red Devil Lounge and saw this name on the calendar! It was a lovely feeling, to know that someone unique was practically coming to my door, and to know that I’d get to experience something from my Europe trip nearly two years ago all over again. I saw Nneka at Liege, Belgium’s Les Ardentes festival in July 2008 with my dear friend Audrey, who actually insisted we see this woman perform, and I’m glad I did. Nneka is a wee tour-de-force, standing much shorter than I remembered but taking no crap from anyone. Her music is political, first and foremost, and soulful, after that.

She hasn’t changed much since the last time I saw her, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I do wish that this eighteen months had brought her a bit more success. Les Ardentes is the Belgian equivalent of Outside Lands or Coachella, so to see her occupy a tiny San Francisco stage was a little weird. She has the ability to command much more of an audience. I suppose the venue choice is a testament to America and its stubbornness—to a certain extent, none of us will be able to fully understand her music, because we can’t comprehend how or why she wrote it. She hails from Nigeria, quite possibly the exact opposite of America in every respect, and her tales of corruption and messages peace do refer to specific events in her home country. But up until January 2009, her music might have hit closer to home than we thought, and while we’re in a better place now, it still may reach something if we give it more of a chance.

She sang many of the songs I remembered from her album like An Uncomfortable Truth, Suffri, and Heartbeat, but she did sing them with more maturity and less album coloring. Nneka has an interesting way of singing that’s incredibly difficult to describe. Her note transitions are almost mechanical, and she rarely wavers out of her semi-compact range. But she knows exactly how to use her voice, and it is beautiful each time. She also has more of a sense of humor than I remember her having, perhaps because she has had more intimate audiences since that festival. And San Francisco’s Nigerian community (all 5 of them?) made it out to support her.

The Red Devil Lounge, besides being the most convenient venue to my apartment, is pretty adorable. Yes, it is kind of red on the inside, and yes, there is a little devil presiding over the place. He sits atop the bar like a gargoyle, but he looks more lucky than evil. And even though the lounge is cramped, it’s set up rather efficiently. The upper deck is narrow, but the guard rails make for perfect lean-and-listen action. And the sound engineers have their own little nook, facing the stage directly but out of the way of all the patrons. For such a small space, the sound is decent. I found this out the hard way when the meek-looking opener, Bhi Bhiman, opened his mouth and a wail practically came out. But he redeemed himself with a song entitled “God is a Warriors Fan.” Yes, indeed, Satan loves the Lakers. And I love the Red Devil Lounge.

Phoenix, 9.17.09

There’s a first time for everything, right? A first time for a drink at the Warfield, a first time for the upper deck at the Warfield, and a first time for Europop at the Warfield. I experienced all of these in one night, and the experience was pleasantly surprising. In the best possible way, of course.

I’m not opposed to seeing a band cold — I saw Guster before I had heard of them, I watched Mingus Big Band without knowing any of their songs. And Phoenix — well, they were terrific. And, considering my first impression of them was AHHH LOUD HIPSTER MUSIC!!!!@!@!, they were phenomenal. But that’s probably an exaggeration.

They’re not meant to be deep. The music isn’t that deep, as far as I could tell. But it’s all pure power chords, complex backbeats, and major chords too. And that means excellent, happy, loud, syncopated dance music. That’s all you really need, right?

The drummer was absolutely amazing. And even though the rest of the band had almost no presence — they were shoegazers playing good music — the music spoke for itself. Bravo, Phoenix. You won over another American.

Sand City West End Celebration, 8.22.09

Every city in California (that I know of) has something like this every summer. All the art farts get together and sell their dumb art, some of which is actually not dumb at all. There is music and half-good, half-fried food and many people wearing crocs and walking their dogs and buying unflattering post-hippie outerwear.

I happened upon this celebration with my dad a few weeks ago, and it was actually quite enjoyable. He got me a few mini-posters from the 60s to add to my ever-burgeoning collection from the Fillmore. After an hour or so of wandering and encountering unwashed heathens and an AARP blues-rock band with age-appropriate groupies, we finally settled at the main stage where Champagne Sunday was about to swing for the fences.

When I saw that the band had a day of the week in their name, I basically dismissed them in my head. Taking Back Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—they’re all taken and they all sorta suck. It’s unbelievably contrived to try to match your name to the name of a forgotten band.

From our spot in the back row I saw an unassuming drummer, an equally unassuming bassist, a scraggly lead guitarist with a 30-year-old face and 17-year-old hair, and then there was the frontwoman. She was like Kelly Osbourne, except she clearly didn’t have enough money to make the wack clothes at least fit her properly. This girl was wearing one of those awkward string shirts that simultaneously falls apart and holds itself together. Kind of inappropriate for a family gathering, I thought. To match that, she had ill-fitting black skinny jeans, a studded belt that she had to have purchased at Hot Topic like 4 years ago and decided earlier this summer that it was cool again, and blonde/pink hair. In all fairness, I expected some dim-witted No Doubt imitation that turned into a screamo-fest with lots of jumping.

What I got, however, was a pleasant surprise. This band was so far from punk, emo, and goth that it would make Ashlee Simpson-Wentz jealous. The band was incredibly tight, considering their ages, and the two lead singers (the most ill-clothed of the bunch) blended perfectly when they sang together. Jessi, the girl, had just the right amount of humor and confidence for a frontwoman, and her voice was absolutely stunning. Not once did she sound like she was trying to channel Grace Slick or do her best Barbra Streisand. She sang all those twangy, country-rock-style (yep!) songs in her own voice, and it was damn refreshing.

My dad and I walked away in the middle of their set because we were starving, but we were also blown away. We got to brainstorming about them and, because we are related, thought about ways to help them, considering our clear expertise in the field. Though I jest with that wording, I’m sort of not kidding. My dad is in marketing and, well, someday I’d like to try my hand at promoting musicians, if I ever got the chance and did it right. So Champagne Sunday, if you’re out there, take this advice not personally but to heart, because we really thought you were great. And we think you could be even greater if you just changed a few aesthetic things.

1. The name has to go. “Champagne Sunday” sounds like the name of a song by a resentful Catholic schoolgirl. Maybe you were her once, Jessi, but your band name needs to be short and sweet. A plural noun, a last name, whatever. “The Kinks” or “The Smiths” or something like that. Let people judge the music after they listen to it.

2. Jessi: Let’s compromise. You’re not a punk band, so don’t dress the part. You can still express yourself without wearing a studded belt. Opt for heels—you’re the star, and you should stand out. Wear a color. It doesn’t have to be lavender with bunnies on it. Try forest green. Maroon. Anything to make you look older. A dress might not be so bad, either. You’re in an earth tone band. Stick to those. But you can totally keep the hair. It’s you.

3. Jared: Cut your hair. And get rid of the peace-sign shirt. I watched a video on your website and you were wearing it there, too.

4. All: You clearly care about your music, so why not care about your presentation? Matching is a very mod thing to do, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But would it kill you to wear a button-down instead of a tee? Your instruments are all color coordinated. Why can’t your wardrobe be, too?

Outside Lands, 8.29.09

I suppose I’m a cynical person. I can be bitter, difficult, whatever too. I’ll admit it. So Outside Lands—my first actual OL experience, due to an unfortunate non-Radiohead incident last year which you can ask me about if you want—was really quite pleasant. I’m so glad it was, too. There are all the rumors, you know, it’s outside, there’s mud, there are smelly hippies, it’s hard to see, all that crap. But really, everyone was nice (except for that one bitchy screamer during DMB), the food was delicious, the weather was perfect, and the music sounded amazing. Props to SF for putting on a solid, welcoming event.

I caught 5 acts total, the first being Street Sweeper Social Club, an unusually loudmouthed, chipper rock group whom I breezed past as I entered Golden Gate Park. I’ll give them a little credit for actually instructing people to stand up and enjoy their music, but once you have to do that, it’s usually a sign of a deeper problem. Then I moved on to Jason Mraz, who I couldn’t actually see, but who actually performed a funky, scattered set. I was expecting all the standards (The Remedy, You and I Both, etc) but he only played “I’m Yours” and then expanded with funk and reggae a bit in the rest of his songs. I basically just want to hug him, that’s how cute he actually is. I admire a guy who can come into the music industry and maintain such a clean, happy image. His music sounds so pure and genuine. It’s hard not to like the guy. And his voice is beautiful. He threw in some opera stuff towards the end that was pretty charming, too.

After that, I checked out Os Mutantes, a band from Brazil that I found pretty underwhelming. Their harmonies were great and they seemed like they were enjoying themselves on the stage, but their music wasn’t particularly intriguing. Considering they’re from Brazil, I would have expected something a little more exotic or different. Not the case.

From there, I chose TV on the Radio over the Black Eyed Peas, and THANK GOODNESS. Not only did I get a taste of the annoying Peas during DMB later that night, but TVOTR is actually as good as people kept telling me. I remember hearing them on Colbert and thinking they weren’t that great, but their music is weird enough that it doesn’t really translate on television. Ironically. They are captivating on stage, which is almost funny because no one really moves, save for the lead singer, who doesn’t even move that much. The big dude with the beard barely did anything and he managed to bust out a consistent falsetto and some amazing guitar. The lead singer, meanwhile, kept the crowd going with these adorable hand movements and cute little dance moves. Apparently he was in “Rachel Getting Married,” which is also sweet. Gotta love the double/triple threats. Anyway, TVOTR reminds me of a band that my dad would have liked if he grew up now. The band disregards stereotypes of musical style and race, which is something that’s prevalent but kind of ignored. Honestly, you don’t see too many black guys in rock bands anymore. Maybe on drums or bass, but it’s just not a common thing. They’re all in rap. It’s just the way it is. TVOTR basically says, F THAT. They’ve got good musicians and interesting music, and that’s all that matters.

DMB does the same thing. Let me now transition to the Main Attraction, which for me was obviously my 5th time seeing the Dave Matthews Band. I can say without hesitation that this show was the most energetic one I’ve ever attended. Dave and co. were genuinely enjoying themselves, so much so that I’d actually describe Dave as “chatty”—the end of every song brought a comment, a joke, a noise, a “thank you,” whatever was on his mind. He had a delicious frog in his throat, and he thought we smelled good, and he danced like crazy. He was amazing. I hope to dance like that. He was so awkward that he went all the way around to being cool again. Tim Reynolds was on, especially during “Lie in Our Graves” and “All Along the Watchtower”—I only wish that the set would have been longer than two and a half hours, but it was beautiful, all of it. And Robert Randolph came on to provide some of his smooth slide guitar for the encore. What a treat. Here’s the setlist:

Why I Am
You Might Die Trying
Don’t Drink the Water
Stay or Leave
Corn Bread
Lie In Our Graves
Alligator Pie
Shake Me Like A Monkey
Jimi Thing
Sexy Motherfucker
You And Me
Ants Marching
Two Step
All Along The Watchtower
Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again