Category Archives: Artist

SOUTHWEST SOUND AND FURY: A Short Overview of Indie and Punk in New Mexico

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A look at one of the more underappreciated and underexposed punk scenes in the U.S., originally published in the most excellent Dagger zine.

BY DAVID ENSMINGER (Special Thanks To Jobrian Stammer)

By and large, New Mexico is a wind-swept, arid slice of the U.S. known as the home to the nuclear bomb; vast white sands; an occasional gritty city; stretched-out Albuquerque, the notorious backdrop to Breaking Bad; uber modern popsters The Shins; and hot-pounding drummer extraordinaire Randolpho Francisco “Randy” Castillo, from Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue. It has nonetheless produced a startling punk community, especially from the 1990s until today.

In the 1960s, frat-rock, big beat, and garage nugget style music held some sway, in which King Richard and the Knights instrumental surfy forays broke through the din, while The Kreeg offered up desert-rock tuneage and Fe-Fi-Four Plus 2 unleashed psychedelic noodling.

Flash forward a few decades, though, starting with the time that band like Jerry’s Kidz electrified the state at joints like B&M (behind a lock shop), where Conflict from Arizona would stop by for insurgent gigs in 1983.

That same year Jerry’s Kidz released their opus “Well Fed Society,” a well-produced, manic, guitar-slathered, incisive EP (sonically resting between Secret Hate, Los Olvidados, and the F.U.’s) on Test Site; the fine-lined horror punk graphics by Jaime Trujillo (who sketched for Mutual Oblivion zine too) are grim, death-teeming, and memorable as Pushead, firmly within the skate-punk aesthetic (a shreddin’ skeleton leers on the back cover), while the tunes like “Marionetts” and “DWI” are smoldering bash’n’rock embodying frantic pre-hardcore rage and rigor. Check out the cut’n’paste images of E.T, skate crews, and the band in action on the insert. Singer David Duran soon joined Clown Alley, legendary mid-1980s Bay Area metal-punk provocateurs featuring Lori Black (later of Melvins fame), the daughter of Shirley Temple, who released Circus of Chaosfor Alchemy Records.

On the new wave and power pop spectrum, The Philisteens, a slightly geeky but fluid and focused power trio unit, were tightly coiled and electrifying, producing tuneful, hi-energy fare that reminds one of agile Code Blue meets a meatier version of the Police. Their gigs drew boisterous crowds at the likes of the Student Union Ballroom at the University of New Mexico, while the groovy light dance-pop of the Muttz (from Taos) drew similar college crowds, as did Beverly’s Boyfriend, who embraced Pat Benatar formulas. Most bizarre, though, might be The Wet Sox, a homegrown version of UB40 that played “NM Funk Rock Reggae.”

By the 1990s, though, punk had metastasized as the hammering genre of choice for many antsy, dissenting, feral, and fierce desert youth looking for kicks.

Santa Fe, a tourist-heavy enclave in the northern half where one can smell pine nuts roasting in the biting chill, somehow delivered Logical Nonsense to the world, who were grabbed up first by Very Small, then Alternative Tentacles, by the late 1990s. Their wall-of-noise and scum/thrash/grind/powerviolence is menacing and seemingly out-of-whack with the Polaroid picture, pueblo-lined nature of the city. Try the metallic “Death Approach.” One member later helped form Econarchy in 2013, a grind/hardcore unit known for releases like Economy Monarchy. Others in the 2000s, like Laughing Dog, bottled the grindcore method too.

On the southern tip, Las Cruces has been often overshadowed by its larger, West Texas sister city El Paso, which burgeoned with punk, from the Plugz and Rhythm Pigs to At the Drive-In. Often, lonely Las Cruces suffered brain drain, like the five punks who ventured north to Albuquerque in the mid-1990s to form the rockabilly-punk Jonny Cats, whose “Burning Rubber” 7″ (American Low Fidelity) is a pomade-drenched motorcycle classic. In recent years, Local Crap Records took up the slack in town, producing bands like The Casual Fridays and Homegrown Outlaws.

For years, the underground music scenes clustered in Albuquerque, centered mostly around Central Ave. and the university neighborhoods, where cheap rent, dry bursts of oven-like heat, abundant diners and eateries, as well as armies of skittering roaches were the norm. Record stores like Mind Over Matter, Natural Sound, Bow Wow Records, and Drop Out Records became epicenters.

Meanwhile, rock’n’roll clubs offered cheap thrills, from small dives like collegiate Fat Chance, all ages Club 909,  and the murky Dingo Bar, which booked the likes of Mike Watt, Unsane, God Bullies, and the Cows, to Golden West Saloon, which hosted road shows by the dozens, from Brainiac and L7 to the Dickies, Pegboy, and  Jon Spencer. The sister venue to Golden West was the much larger El Rey, which held terrific nights of brazen underground rock’n’roll, like co-billed Jawbreaker and No Means No drawing 1,000 kids.

Unfortunately, the Golden West Saloon, in the hands of the Kathy Zimmer family since 1929,  when her grandfather erected it, was ravaged by fire in 2008, after a linseed soaked rag in a plastic container spontaneously combusted, not long after the Business gigged there.

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Such spaces nourished locals like Elephant. Not unlike the Pixies, they were a tight, dual-gendered, gravely rock’n’punk outfit that released two singles and an album on Resin Records, a start-up label that incubated a variety of acts, like Bring Back Dad, ALLUCANEAT, Treadmill, Flake, and more. In fact, Flake toured out West on occasion, opening for notables like Archers of Loaf, Rocket From the Crypt and Yo La Tengo. They also cut the tune “Deluca” for a split single with Henry’s Dress, for Omnibus Records, and the Spork EP for Science Project before renaming and rebranding as The Shins.

Meanwhile, Big Damn Crazy Weight, whose thudding, thundering “Tijeras” 7” (on Resin) recalls the era of Amphetamine Reptile, landed a single, “Mighty As Well,” that debuted on Sub Pop in Oct. 1992.

Resin’s prime act was The Drags, the delirious three-piece garage ensemble that soon took up residence on Empty and Estrus Records, who released three of their non-stop action albums, including Dragsploitation … Now! Try the scurvy surf beater “$7 Bologna” or the full-bore smash’n’pummel “Shovel Fight,” a little like early Makers, or “Elongated Man,” a head-spinning mash-up of the Ramones, Ventures, and Man or Astroman? They even appear on The Sore Losers soundtrack alongside Jack Oblivion, ’68 Comeback, and Los Diablos Del Sol. And in a true testament to their stripped-to-the-bone, wild-ass charms, Rocket From The Crypt covered their “Allergic Reaction” on RFTC’s EP On a Rope in 1992.

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On the poppier spectrum, bands were aplenty, like the Alarm Clock, Young Adults, and the Ponies, but the persistently tuneful Rondelles (also members of LuxoChamp) drew the attention of Grist-Milling, Teenbeat, K, and Smells Like Records, producing fare that is garagey, smart, lean, and wooly. They eventually hightailed to Washington D.C. and toured with the likes of Mooney Suzuki before imploding. On the emo side of things, Silver, featuring writer David Ensminger on drums, self-released a 45 single as well as a split single with roiling Midwest greaser punks Nitro Jr. Guitarist Jobrian Stammer, currently a noted tattooist, continued in acts like Rollover 45, Better Off Dead, and more recently, the venal distorted grit of Losing It.

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In 1994, the tongue-tying, indie rock Triskadeckaphobia released “Lady Brown” on Superstition Records, while Luxo Champ (punchy keyboard punk ala Servotron) released their self-titled EP on Super 8 Underground, including titanic tunes like Spacerobotactionfun! Scared of Chaka blitzkrieged the states with their manic Dickies-meets-Marked Men energy, producing numerous quintessential cuts for 702, Sub City, Hopeless, and Empty Records, including a split with Word Salad for Science Project. As their more obscure counterparts, Word Salad pursued the dark side relentlessly, cutting drum-heavy grind for Prank, Dogshit Recurdz, and Hater of God.

Meanwhile, three adept sisters (Gel, Laura, and Lisa Baca) formed the core of the Eyeliners (formerly Psychodrama), who remain one of the state’s most prolific and recognized exports. Their stealthy pop-punk fare quickly rose to the top of the heap, making labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Lookout! Records, and even Blackheart Records scramble for them. Chew on “Here Comes Trouble” for snotty, leather-jacketed, melodic fury.

Meanwhile, young guns from Albuquerque over the last decade continue to ply their trade, like trad-punkers Party Vikings, the hybrid metal minders Leeches of Lore, and Russian Girlfriends, a nimble hardcore unit reminiscent of a thrashier version of early Asexuals or Samiam, whose debut LP was released by Orange Whip Records. Doomed to Exist (brute distortion that sounds like Japanese d-beat), Wulff, Lucia, Twelve Titans, Honorable Death, Embelisk, and Cobra Vs. Mongoose shred too, filling up places venues like the Launchpad, American Legion Post 49, and the Armory.

In addition, SceneXSplitter is now one of the self-made DIY media outlets that keeps the city abuzz.

Though most of the country thinks the southwest is a weird void, desert youth will never recede and keep quiet in the dustbin of history.

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This story originally appeared in Dagger zine.

LIFE’S A GAS: feedtime

Feedtime Sydney Opera House

With a much-heralded new album out—the first from the Sydney trio in over 20 years, and pressed on colored vinyl to boot—and with fans salivating over the prospect of additional activity, let’s take a plunge into ye olde editor’s Aussie archives.

BY FRED MILLS

Among fans of Australian independent rock, the name feedtime looms large, some devotees even going so far as to include the Sydney trio alongside such iconic names as Radio Birdman, the Saints, Cosmic Psychos, and Scientists. Part of the reason is no doubt related to the whole live fast/leave a pretty corpse angle, as feedtime burned brightly in the ‘80s then exited stage left before any rot had a chance to set in. You’ll shortly read what subsequently went down with these scuzz-blooze-rawk merchants. Indeed, some rather recent video evidence, below, speaks a zillion words:

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of breaking news: America’s own In The Red Records has just released a brand new album by what the label calls “Australia’s favorite misanthropic noise-makers” (wish I’d said that), and Gas finds Rick, Al, and Tom (no last names, please—guitar/vox, bass/vox, and drums, respectively) sounding every bit as beautifully brutal as on its four predecessors, 1985’s feedtime, 1986’s Shovel, 1988’s Cooper-S, and 1989’s Suction. (Consumer-wise, all of those were reissued in 2012 as part of the Sub Pop box set The Aberrant Years. There was also a brief reunion in 1996 that yielded the Billy album featuring a different lineup.)

Feedtime 2012 in Minneapolis

Indeed, from Side A’s ready-to-rumble murky-roar of opening track “Any Good Thing” and the slide-guit/barked-vocals sonic maelstrom that is “Hopeful Blues,” to the sheer locomotive aggression powering “Fifty Eight” (more slide) and the hypnotic, pulsing, verging-on-anthemic (term used loosely) “Grass,” Gas is pure feedtime—sounding for all the world like the band simply dipped out the side door for a quick smoke then popped back in, picked up their instruments, and continued the set. Three decades seem not to have diminished the lads in any way, and with Mikey Young (Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring) at the studio helm, the sonic chaos isn’t reigned in a whit; Young, who also recorded the 2015 one-off reunion single for Sub Pop, “Flatiron” / “Stick Up Jack,” has a keen intuition for what makes feedtime tick. That single, incidentally, is not included on the album for some reason, but with 14 fine tracks here, seven per side on a gorgeous emerald/splatter vinyl LP, no one’s getting shortchanged.

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So. As long as we are celebrating the return of feedtime—no word yet on a tour, but we can all dream, eh?—let us peer into the BLURT archives for some relevant verbiage on the band. I consider myself eternally honored to be a card-carrying feedtime fan from Day 1—please, keep your envy to a minimum—having both reviewed and interviewed the band back in the day. More recently, a few years ago, in 2012, BLURT published a kind of mini-roundup of relatively new Australian bands we felt were worth keeping an eye on. Among them was feedtime, definitely not a newcomer. But because Sub Pop had just released the box set, and plans were afoot for a brief reunion tour to promote the box, a profile of the band seemed in order. (Below, a clip of the band live at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern in 2012, with guest Mark Arm.)

I duly conducted an email interview with feedtime’s Rick plus their friend and old Aberrant Records label boss Bruce Griffith to get the lowdown on the box as well as concurrent outtakes/unreleased compilation titled This Is Friday on the S.S. label, not to mention the possibility of a fulltime reunion and extended tour for the original trio. At the time they were adamant that wasn’t going to happen, and as Griffith put it, “There are no feedtime plans beyond the 2012 US tour. This is it, folks. If you wanna see feedtime, you need to attend one of these shows.”

But then 2015 rolled around. Against all odds, feedtime was once again back, having followed up the brief 2012 American tour with some Australian shows in 2014 (above is a live clip from a Brisbane show supporting Mudhoney; also read a revealing interview with all three of them that year for Mess and Noise HERE), planning a fresh Australian tour with the Oblivians, and with new studio material, the group’s first in two decades, via the aforementioned “Flatiron” single. So at the time, prospects for a full-length seemed good. It took a couple of years, but here in 2017, it’s finally arrived in the form of Gas, so for everyone who arrived late to the feedtime table, allow me to peel back the years for your edification….

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The trio of feedtime– Rick, Al, and Tom, and for publishing purposes the surnames listed on the Sub Pop single read Johnson, Larkin and Sturm—on guitar, bass and drums, respectively, originally formed in Sydney circa ’79 and went on to cut four hugely influential albums in the ‘80s before splitting at the end of the decade: feedtime, Shovel, Cooper-S and Suction, all released in Australia via Bruce Griffiths’ iconoclastic punk/noise label Aberrant (Rough Trade released the latter 3 in the US). The group’s 1989 breakup came on the eve of an American tour, Rick years later admitting in an interview with Seattle’s The Stranger, “feedtime broke up because I was having a breakdown, that’s all. There was a lot of anger and darkness that underlaid a lot of feedtime’s makeup. I had to remake myself or die. Allen felt that he might have to do some repair work as well…. Some stuff about feedtime involves very hard stuff and needs to be left alone.”

There was also a brief reunion with a slightly different lineup (Tom replaced by a new drummer) in the mid ‘90s that resulted in the Billy album for Amphetamine Reptile, and then they were no longer once again.

Though feedtime never toured the US during its initial heyday, American fans of pure, primal, skronky blooze-noise eagerly embraced the band—Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, for example, was a very vocal supporter—and they became a mainstay of the fanzine underground. Yours truly can testify to the trio’s prowess; during the ‘80s I authored an Australian music column for east coast rock zine The Bob, and feedtime was a fixture in the column. I also oversaw the release of a 7-song, 10-inch Australian flexidisc for issue #34 of The Bob, and feedtime’s “Trouble” was one of the key tracks. The accompanying interview I did with the band remains one of my fondest memories from that journalistic period: Far from being the thuggish neanderthals that their heavier-than-heaven sound might have conveyed, they were funny and engaging, humble to a fault, and eager to reach out to their fanbase while remaining clear-eyed about their overall position in the music world. (Below, check out a unique version of “Paint It Black,” described by the YouTube uploader as “The Rolling Stones as only feedtime could play them. Recorded live at French’s Tavern, Oxford St, Sydney, Australia, September 26, 1986 by Peter Newberry of Painkillers. A version of this cover appeared on the band’s 1988 LP ‘Cooper-S’,”)

 When Sub Pop announced the four-CD The Aberrant Years, then, it was like manna from heaven for longtime fans of the band. Three of the discs contained bonus tracks, and a thick booklet completed the picture. As the label put it:

This burning energy existed for some ten years and produced some of the most powerful, creative and personal rock and roll music we are ever likely to hear. The songs are out there to discover and relate to and when they hit they explode and you’re never the same again, but you’re grateful for the experience. This isn’t “noise rock,” this is a groundbreaking FORM of music that knows its roots but applies the lessons to a wider scope than their peers.

It’s heavy but life is too and some of us know this and we channel that power into art and sometimes beautiful things are created. Sometimes it’s too heavy and nothing seems to work out. Sometimes you just need to laugh it off and stand at the back of the room for a while. This is perfect sound and pure art. Avant-garde pub-rock. All hail the concrete urban blues.

Hail hail indeed. But as you might surmise from the subsequent arrival of the Sub Pop single and the news about the Oz tour with The Oblivians, things changed. The one-off nature of the 2012 tour for The Aberrant Years apparently laid the groundwork for something more long term, and perhaps more substantial. In that Mess and Noise interview with the three musicians, Tom observed how, for him, nowadays, “the intensity is the same but with less desperation than there was 25 years ago, certainly at least on my part. I like to think the intensity is the same, but I think maybe 25 years ago it was a crutch that held me up, whereas now, it’s a thing that’s pretty good to do and every time you do it, it evokes something in you.”

Al agreed, adding, “I think collectively, when you’ve got three people creating a single thing, that’s what’s special. And I think the joy you get when that happens is fantastic. And I’m almost thinking when I hear us rehearse or play these days that we’re playing even better than we ever were.”

And Rick summed up the difference between then and now, saying, “You’re not palliating a preexisting painful condition, the meaning of it has changed I think. It’s not an act of divesting yourself of pain or putting a lid on it and shouting about something, it’s just opening up and narrowing down into a focus.”

Here’s that 2012 interview, never published before in its entirety. (Below photo by the inimitable Caroline Birkett, Oz photog extraordinaire.)

 

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 BLURT: What the hell has everyone been doing in the years since feedtime disappeared?

RICK: We been just mutting along doin’ stuff.

 

Why feedtime in 2012? I thought we buried you guys good and proper…

RICK: Scott Soriano, of S.S. Records, asked us to a birthday party in 2011… and Sub Pop’s Mr. Poneman was interviewed one day said he’d have done shovel if he had the chance. Bruce got in contact, and off we go!

BRUCE: In late 2010 I received an email from Scott Soriano, asking if there was any chance feedtime would play the label’s 10th anniversary weekend in May 2011 if he covered airfares and accommodation.  He’d long been a fan, and the band was part of his “dream 10th anniversary line-up,” and as much as it was a massive long-shot, he had to at least ask.  Much to his surprise, the band said yes.

A little before that, and entirely unconnected, Carmel, drummer Tom’s wife, heard Jonathan from Sub Pop being interviewed on national “youth” radio station, Triple J, discussing the five albums he wished Sub Pop had released.  Shovel was one of them.  Carmel tipped me off and, as we were looking for someone to remaster and reissue the Aberrant feedtime albums and Sub Pop was literally the “dream label” (and their natural home), I sent Jon an email – “Would you like to…” – and immediately received a “YES.”

The [anniversary show in San Francisco], a “one-off,” was so good that Dean from Sub Pop, who’d traveled down for it, took me aside afterwards and asked what the chance was of an 8-10 gig tour in 2012 to promote The Aberrant Years re-releases. The guys liked what was proposed and what’s actually an 11-gig 2012 tour is the result.

 

What is the Australian press—and fans—saying about feedtime? Long memories? Fond memories? I know you guys were, in a sense, the “odd men out” of the scene back in the day when I covered you for The Bob and other US mags, yet your very underground nature seems to be what has made your legacy, as it were, endure.

RICK: The Australian press is ignoring us completely, except for the mighty Murray Engleheart who writes for Brag mag. But we made some people happy enough when we played in September [at the S.S. Records show]. You can see some on YouTube… feedtime sando.
BRUCE: There seems to be a lot of excitement among fans—old and new, and there seem to be a lot of new—about the re-issues. Deservedly, they sound amazing.  I know some people aren’t keen on ‘remastering’, but going back to the original analog masters and hearing them, and comparing them to the ‘80s pressings, I was astounded by how much was lost [with the original pressings].  The master tapes sound way better than the releases of the day.  The new versions are absolutely true to the recordings – everything is there.  It’s the full glory and as the recordings get better – as they do progressively over the albums – the reissues sound increasingly amazing. The leap in just feedtime is already considerable, but by the time you get to suction, with Trafalgar Studios production values and Butch Vig mixing – woah.

The press never got behind feedtime here, and nothing has changed in that regard.  Murray is their sole supporter. Incidentally, we highly recommend Murray’s book Blood, Sweat & Beers; essentially the story of Rose Tattoo and X, along with The Angels, Billy Thorpe & The Aztec, Coloured Balls, Buffalo.  A great read which captures the era and feel of the music brilliantly.  If that music’s of interest, it’s a must.

Today

Could you give me some more info on the [Sub Pop approved] feedtime “outtakes & unreleased’ album, Today is Friday, that S.S. Records has released?
BRUCE: It was never a condition of playing SS10, but Scott Soriano was keen to have a feedtime release and asked if we had anything lying around. I knew we did – I had high quality cassettes of the full feedtime session, the full shovel session, Cooper S outtakes, and eight reels of quarter inch tape, their contents largely unknown.  Sub Pop wanted to keep the boxed sets ‘pure’ – precisely as the releases were originally issued, track-wise, with bonus tracks restricted to actual Aberrant releases, hence the singles, B-sides, giveaway tracks, etc.). So they gave their blessing to Scott doing a release of “lost” stuff.

One of the reels contained mixed tracks recorded for shovel, which were only left off because of the limitations, time-wise, of the LP format. The feedtime session produced an entire side’s worth of recordings of songs which didn’t end up on feedtime – again, for time/length reasons – which were re-recorded for shovel.  So there are shovel tracks with feedtime sonic feel, kind of a ‘third side’ of feedtime.  Several of the reels were recorded live at the infamous (and violent) Central Markets Hotel, and we lifted some tracks from them, along with a version of Flipper’s “Life”, recorded in The Pit, a rehearsal/recording space Adrian Symes had dug beneath the floor of the house his was renting at the time.

Among the titles, you’ll spot previously unreleased songs ‘Ebgd’, ‘Garbage Scow’, ‘Tatts Willie’, ‘Life’ (Flipper) and ‘I Don’t Care About You’ (FEAR).  Of the released titles, we made sure to pick versions that offered something unique and different to the previously released versions.

Incidentally, the cover art for Today is Friday is a drawing by Tom’s daughter, Mandie, when she was about five I think.  Scott asked if we had anything like the feedtime cover, which was drawn by original drummer Dave’s son, so Tom and Carmel knew exactly the thing.

Where, if anywhere, is the Billy album in all this?

RICK: Billy‘s no place in this.

BRUCE: Billy wasn’t released on Aberrant and features a different line-up. It’s a solid album, we like it, it’s just not part of the Aberrant era.

Why the initial breakup, the reformation, then the next breakup?

BRUCE: It’s a complex [thing]. The ‘89 breakup they always say was because Rick and Al needed to put down the mindset that enabled them to create feedtime music. As feedtime was as much, if not more, about feel than a hostile view of the world, they’re able to do feedtime in 2012 but it still requires going to dark places, mentally—especially for Rick. Hence this will be a very short-term reunion.

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Ed. Note: Well, that was 2012, this is now. Things change. We’ve got Gas, literally, and as the saying goes, this is feedtime’s world; we just live in it. All respect to Rick, Al, and Tom, along with the mighty Bruce Griffiths of Aberrant fame, and the Sub Pop, S.S., and In The Red labels for carrying the torch forward. Order Gas from In The Red or seek it out at your local independent record store so you can score that sweet green vinyl LP, pictured below.

Feedtime colored wax

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart 2017

A review of new music, plus a dip back to ’05 for some older music. Guest starring the Byrds, a Mule, a holiday celebration, and the power of the internet. Sometimes those dang rock critics can be useful.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN AND FRED MILLS

Ed. Note: To mark Marty Stuart’s brilliant new album Way Out West (Q Prime), recorded with his band the Fabulous Superlatives, we thought it appropriate to republish our Stuart appreciation, originally published in 2014, alongside Lee Zimmerman’s album review. Enjoy.

Like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart is an American original, part of an older breed of tattered troubadours whose obvious affection for the essence of true and traditional country music is part and parcel of his inherent musical repertoire. So it’s no accident that his 18th studio album, Way Out West, becomes an unblemished token of his appreciation for the music’s timeless heritage.

Produced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, the album is brimming with the vivid imagery of wide open spaces, stark landscapes and the classic visage of the great American west. Not surprisingly, much of it unfolds as a sprawling soundtrack that invokes that last great frontier, a dazzlingly orchestrated melange that would serve well as a Sergio Leone classic of the western cinematic variety. In fact, after opening with a brief Native American invocation, “Desert Prayer,” Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, launch straight into “Mojave,” a surf instrumental with overt spaghetti western flavorings.

When Stuart veers away from that format, he does so discreetly. The title track pits cowboys and Indians against outer space aliens in an eerie narrative laced with psychedelic suggestion. The staunch south of the border sounds of “Old Mexico” is stirred with authenticity and rugged romance, while the unfettered stomp of “Quicksand,” the rollicking rhythms of “Torpedo” and the robust delivery of “Time Don’t Wait” add their own air of authenticity, all of which affirm Stuart’s diehard devotion to his subject and his stature as one who has never lost faith in the form.

Incidentally, if you happen to be a vinyl aficionado, Stuart’s own Superlatone imprint is offering the wax version of the album—autographed, at that. —LEE ZIMMERMAN

Way out West

 Ed. note: Go HERE to listen to a hugely entertaining interview between Stuart and Teri Gross on a recent episode of her NPR program “Fresh Air.” You won’t learn all you need to know about Stuart, but it’ll work nicely as a primer if you aren’t intimately familiar with the dude.

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On December 16, 2005, I wandered into Asheville (rhymes with Nashville) venue the Orange Peel, primed and pumped for that year’s Warren Haynes Christmas Jam pre-Jam, part of the annual Haynes Jam ritual; I faithfully attended every one of those events during the 10 years I lived in Asheville, from 2002 through 2011, and I was honored to be a member of the attending media for most of those years at the pre-Jam festivities held at the Peel the night before the official event at the Asheville Civic Center. (Important note: I faithfully purchased my Jam ticket each and every year as it was a benefit for the local Habitat For Humanity chapter, which I felt strongly about supporting.)

Marty Stuart was to be among the special guests for the ’05 Haynes Jam, and as these things tended to work out, he arrived a day early in order to participate in the pre-Jam. The evening unfolded on schedule, with friends and associates of Haynes, along with already scheduled Jam (proper) artists who were in town, getting up onstage at the Orange Peel for a kind of preview-and-icing-on-the-cake of the Jam (proper); the concert was also broadcast, as per tradition, over local public radio station WNCW-FM (Spindale, NC), and listeners were encouraged to make donations to Habitat. Pretty soon Stuart was up there with Haynes, members of Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and others, steaming through a ragged-but-right version of the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman.”

Not long afterward, during a break in the festivities, I was backstage talking to Haynes as Stuart himself came wandering up. Warren introduced us, and I congratulated him on the Byrds song, long one of my favorites, and that if he heard anyone singing loud and out of tune from the audience during it, that was probably me. I added that I’d always loved the version from the Untitled album era, and that he’d hit some pretty mean guitar licks while performing it.

“I really appreciate that,” Stuart replied. “And since you mentioned Untitled, you might like to know that I was playing Clarence White’s old guitar during the song.”

Well, damn. Clarence is one of my heroes, I tell him. He was one of the giants. To which Stuart nods vigorously. “I picked that guitar up a few years ago. When I play it I can really feel something special.”

“But,” he continued, “I really screwed up the lyrics on that song. Just couldn’t remember ‘em off the top of my head. We’re thinking we might do it again [at the Jam] and I need to figure ‘em out so I don’t embarrass myself.”

I mentioned it would be easy enough to get the lyrics off the internet, and at that he quickly shot back, “You think you could print them out and get them to me in time for tomorrow night?”

That I could indeed do, Marty. I will be backstage and downstairs at the Jam tomorrow night and can bring ‘em with me. “Oh wow, if you could, I thank you in advance. Just come find me.” Stuart then turns to Haynes, nodding at me: “You can always count on a journalist when you need something like that.” This may be the first and last time a superstar musician has endorsed the career known as “rock critic,” considering the general legacy of tension that exists between artists and writers, but I’ll still take the endorsement.

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Saturday morning: log onto computer; find “Mr. Spaceman” lyrics; print out.

Saturday evening: head to the Asheville Civic Center for the 2005 Warren Haynes Christmas Jam; present my ticket plus backstage pass to Civic Center security; head downstairs to the artist area.

Sure enough, it’s not long before I spot Stuart wandering around, talking to folks and availing himself of the buffet. He spots me heading his way and turns in my direction, smiling. I smile back, produce the page of lyrics, and simply say “As promised.”

Stuart scans the paper, grinned a Cheshire Cat-worthy grin, then grabs my hand and pumps it hard. “Man, how can I thank you?” he says. “Well,” I reply, “How about signing this for me,” showing him my CD cover to his ’99 album The Pilgrim.”

He snatches it plus the Sharpie pen I’d smartly thought to bring from me and, as he inscribes the booklet, asks if I have his latest album Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota, which earlier. “Listen,” he says, “C’mon over here with me to my tour bus so I can get you a copy of it.”

***

So I’m walking through the bottom of the Asheville Civic Center, Marty Stuart’s arm around my shoulder, leading me to his tour bus, talking about how cool it is to be playing the Haynes Jam (“Everybody I know who’s played it says they had the best damn time of their lives!”), and then ushering me into the bus and sitting me down while he gets a copy of Badlands for me.

“You said you were a fan of Clarence last night—you wanna see his guitar?”

Holy shit. Here I am, sitting on Marty Stuart’s tour bus, and he’s handing me one of Clarence White’s guitars, and I’m somehow managing to form a “D” chord then a “G” chord then an “E” chord on it without shaking uncontrollably. Marty Stuart is telling me about his guitar collection, and his country music memorabilia collection, and how awhile back he decided somebody had to start collecting all this stuff in one place and could be archived carefully so it didn’t all wind up in places like eBay and the Hard Rock Café. He shows me a few other guitars, although if he tells me they belonged to famous people, I don’t hear him because…

Holy shit. Here I am, holding Clarence White’s guitar and strumming chords on it in front of Marty Stuart.

Luckily I come down to Planet Earth before I take an interstellar piss in my pants, and I make some kind of semi-intelligent comments in Stuart’s direction. (Memo to music fans: this is where being a rock critic comes in handy. You can dredge up all manner of semi-intelligent music comments on command, even when you’re essentially speechless.)

Well, soon enough I am getting up and thanking Stuart for his autograph, the CD, and the hospitality, and descending down the stairs of the bus back into the bottom of the Asheville Civic Center and, it seems, to the real world. Stuart thanks me one last time for the “Mr. Spaceman” lyrics, then stays behind on the bus to stow the guitars away.

A couple of hours later, onstage for his Haynes Jam set, Stuart plays a tune or two then is joined by Haynes plus Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools on bass and Gov’t Mule’s Matt Abts and Danny Louis (on drums and keys). They do rousing versions of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” then as set-closer, you guessed it, “Mr. Spaceman.” Stuart nails the lyrics this time—no doubt having closely scanned a certain piece of paper before his set—and the Civic Center crowd roars its approval while singing along. As the song comes to its anthemic conclusion, Stuart steps to the edge of the stage to nod and wave a thank-you to the audience. (As it turns out, he’ll be back next year for the 2006 Jam, this time with his band The Fabulous Superlatives in tow.)

Me, I’m out there in that Civic Center crowd too, and while I’m in no way vain enough to think for one moment that he was up there waving at me, well… rock ‘n’ roll’s always been a little about dreaming and wish fulfillment, so….

Thanks, Marty. You are the real deal.

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Photos Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

 

 

SXSW 2017 Photo Gallery

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Exclusive pics from this year’s clusterfuck in Austin. That would be Texas, incidentally. Go HERE to read our official report and individual show reviews from SXSW 2017.  Pictured above: Mike Mills and the Big Star’s Third ensemble at Central Presbyterian Church on March 17.

BY SADIE CLAIRE

March 11

Ja Rule @ Sellers

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March 13

DJ Jazzy Jeff @ Cafe Blue

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March 14

Erykah Badu @ ACL Live Moody Theatre

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Thievery Corporation @ ALC

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Wu-Tang Clan @ ACL

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March 15

Warren G @ State Side

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Warren G & Karam Gill

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DMC @ Convention Center interview

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March 16

Pvris @ MTV Woodies

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Khalil Haat @ Russian House

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Jidenna @ YouTube

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Hanson @ Bungalow

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Powerglove @ The SXSW Gaming Opening Party

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March 17

Garth Brooks @ Convention Center

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Silences @ British Embassy

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Big Star’s Third @ Central Presbyterian Church

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New Politics @ Brazos Hall

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Weezer @ Brazos Hall

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Sadie Claire is an Austin-based photographer. Find her at www.SadieClaire.com .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW 2017 REPORT

SXSW 2

This year’s Xmas in March for music nuts braves two storms along with immigration dust-ups and more overcrowding than usual for Austin. See below for our exclusive photo gallery in addition to the report.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY JASON GROSS

Two storms hovered over the annual SXSW festival in Austin.  The first one was weather-related- Stella, a category 3 blizzard that beat up the east coast just as the music part of the festival was beginning, causing a number of speakers to cancel out.  The other storm was a political one over immigration starting with a Tweet from Todd Slant about SX contracts, followed by pushback from SXSW, followed by SXSW vowing to change their 2018 artist contracts. Judging by downtown foot traffic, it felt like attendance might have been done a little but regardless, plenty of performers and attendees made it to the Texas state capital. At one point on Friday the 17th, the Sixth Street area (where most of the clubs are) was more packed with people than I’d ever seen in the 18 years I attended and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing- thanks to the ‘safety’ barriers installed in the middle of the street, the road left barely any breathing room and made for a situation that could have easily turned dangerous. Funny what we’ll do and put up with to see some music and chow down on BBQ.

Aside from some clueless volunteers, the festival went along again just fine otherwise, with the tech/Interactive portion as the main pull, followed by the Comedy and Film sessions with the Music part pulling up the rear as usual.  There was some impressive panels and speakers this year too- I missed the Nile Rodgers, Mick Fleetwood and Lou Adler interview sessions but have write-ups of the Prince and Garth Brooks sessions below.  We also had a music journo panel with Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune), author Chuck Eddy and Rachel Brodsky (Paste) that wasn’t all doom and gloom and I had to politely take turns telling everyone to shut up to keep things moving along. (KJZZ/NPR did a nice interview with me beforehand about the panel too-
https://t.co/wbFGrUej7D – and I did a pre-panel write-up about music scribing for the Reverie Report).

And a bunch of bands showed up again too of course. I usually avoid the big name shows (Garth, Migos, Gucci Maine) ‘cause it’s a pain to get in and not too fun to be sardine-packed in when you make it in.  Otherwise, I find SX a great way to find out about a lot of acts I wouldn’t know about otherwise. I always say it’s a musical smorgasbord where you can aurally pig out, especially since most clubs are easy to jump to from one another (something that NYC can’t match).  I noticed that despite the immigration controversy, there was plenty of impressive foreign acts there, even a showcase of music from the list of travel-banned countries.  And of course, there was no shortage of political commentary, running from the very subtle to the very blatant, concerning an ego-driven, thin-shinned orange autocrat. I caught almost 50 memorable acts and learned about a bunch of good albums from2016 that I didn’t know were out there.  You’ll no doubt recognize a couple of names here but I tried to bear down on acts I didn’t know about before I hit Austin.  Maybe you’ll like some of ‘em too and even support ‘em.

***

Below, check out a Spotify playlist of the acts reviewed here. Following the text you you can also see a YouTube playlist of footage from some of the shows.

A Giant Dog

  • A Giant Dog (Barracuda, March 16th)
    • Eternally clad in gym tights, singer Sabrina Ellis pulls double duty in the appropriately named Sweet Spirit but here’s where the Austin local rocks out as ringleader/cheerleader, appearing here beside a giant inflatable dragon with its wings flapping.  She/they sing so passionately about rock and roll that you’d think they’re hushing up the stupid naysayers that keep insisting the music’s dead.

Bad Pop

  • Bad Pop (ScartcHouse, March 14th)
    • What happens when you combine a geek, hipster chic and a long-haired wrestler-type dude? You get these hilarious indie rock Canucks.  Chris Connelly (guitarist/geek) has plenty of sly stage banter and an occasional robot vocal, Catherine Hiltz (the hipster) doubles on bass and trumpet at the same time and drummer Aaron Klassen (the dude) is an impressive driving force, even if he’s resultant to solo.

Sho Baraka

  • Sho Baraka (TenOak, March 18th)
    • This California (via Canadian) Christian rapper put out one of 2016’s finest releases, The Narrative. And though the grooveful songs came through for the show, his beef about his late slot and the sound guy got kind of tired after a while.  Did have some meaningful things to say about why inner city projects spring up though and he’s always one stylish dude.

Bastards of Fate

  • The Bastards of Fate (Tellers, March 17th)
    • Singer Doug Cheatwood looked like an office boy but with the rest of his bizarre post-rock band on the small stage, he took to the floor with the crowd, shining a light around himself most of the time and used his voice as a sound effect. Makes you wonder how he’d do on a bigger stage.

Benjamin Booker

  • Benjamin Booker (Container, March 15th)
    • I admired and respected this blues-rocker but wasn’t totally sold on him until this show where his admiration for the Gun Club came out, even in his casual manner.

Boyfriend

  • Boyfriend (Palm Door on Sixth, March 16th)
    • She calls her act ‘rap cabaret’ but that sells this diminutive natural actress short. Clad in a wedding gown and then panties, bra and curlers, she led her dance crew through some high-end gymnastics with a knee-slapping number where she complains to her man that he doesn’t satisfy her as good as her hand.

Garth Brooks

  • Garth Brooks (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • You might have heard of this country megastar and he was definitely the BMOC star of the music fest. I like some of his early stuff and was curious to see what his ‘keynote’ was like though I didn’t need to see his big late-announced show on Saturday.  For tech, he’s definitely tone-deaf, even if he was there to boost his partnership with Amazon.  He did have something meaningful to say about the dying art of songwriters in Nashville though and it was kind of refreshing to see such a huge act be so low-key and casual.  Too bad that he didn’t bring out Chris Gaines for a cameo.

Chain of Flowers

  • Chain of Flowers (Sidewinder, March 15th)
    • These Cardiff boys took their name from a Cure song and you can see the influence- the sensitive vocals and synth riffs/atmosphere. They do have a strong sound though, especially with singer Joshua Smith (related to Robert?) who shared a beer shower with us. Just hoped that it wasn’t domestic.

Kasey Chambers

  • Kasey Chambers (Cooper’s, March 15th)
    • Cooper’s is a great place for BBQ but too cramped for shows and though she was a little long on banter about her life (quite a thick shrimp-on-the-barbie accent), this Aussie country legend brought the goods with her voice and her songs. Nashville should get up some courage and just adopt her.

Sturle Dagsland

  • Sturle Dagsland (Tellers, March 16th)
    • Even though the entire audience for the first five minutes was just me and the sound guy, this Norwegian experimental artist put on one of the most memorable shows at the fest. Alongside his brother on guitar, he ran through all kinds of theatrical dancing and pawing at instruments strewn around the stage (including bamboo sax, skateboard, harp, bells, homemade instruments) like it was a mad scientist’s lab.  When he intro’d the songs, he gave the titles as squeaks and squawks.  Wondering if the songs actually had titles, he later told me that ‘they don’t have names in any readable languages.’ Can’t wait to decipher them later.

DakhaBrakha

  • DakhaBrakha (Austin Convention Center, March 16th)
    • Just your typical trio of Ukrainian women with big fur hats who play modernized traditional music, including a cellist who raps in their native language and a crazed drum circle that would drive jam band fans wild. Not so typical actually.

Dark Times

  • Dark Times (BD Riley, March 14th)
    • This Oslo trio ID’s itself as punk but there’s an arty, drone-filled edge to them that sets that apart. Maybe it’s AK’s angry, insistent vocals and noise guitar.  Maybe it’s her background in radio that also gives her roots too.

DJ Yoda

  • DJ Yoda (Valhalla, March 17th)
    • Though the accompanying rapper didn’t do much for this London DJ, he proved himself worthy of all the mixtape buzz by making dance music out of early 70’s mellow classics like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Has Girl Talk done that yet?

Dream Wife

  • Dream Wife (Maggie Mae’s, March 17th)
    • Boosted by confident Icelandic singer Rakel Mjöll, this London band started as performance art and you can see that in their act, a cunning poppy-punk mix of sugar and spice. The Friday show I caught was their 3rd gig of the day and 8th gig at SX and it showed occasionally- guitarist Alice Go struggled mightily to stay aloft.

Kinky Friedman

  • Kinky Friedman (Threadgill’s, March 18th)
    • Though they frown on unofficial day shows, there’s plenty of non-showcase action going around during the fest. One example was a great singer-songwriter showcase featuring this Jewish comedian, Willie Nelson pal and conservative Democrat. The jokes were as good as the songs and he even pulled out one so new that an audience member had to hold the lyrics next to him just in case he forgot the words (which he did).

Frontier Folk Nebraska

  • Frontier Folk Nebraska (Swan Dive, March 18th)
    • As much of a misnomer as the Austin pizza joint called Hoboken Pie, this Cincinnati quartet provided anthemic, roots/indie rock songs that any Drive-By Truckers fan would appreciate. Don’t let the Southern rock logos fool you though- good ol’ boys they ain’t.  They’re good boys for sure though.

Gabriel Royal

  • Gabriel Royal (Stephen F’s, March 18th)
    • A soul-styled cellist is the type of act that stands out but he’s more than a novelty. He does have soul for real and a voice to go with it and he sounds just fine plucking or strumming his instrument all by himself.

Grandaddy

  • Grandaddy (Stubb’s, March 17th)
    • They didn’t have the production/videos of a smaller NYC gig I caught recently but the bigger stage (at Stubb’s) suited the grandeur of some of the early material of this recently reunited band, earning their headline spot for the evening. Jason Lytle’s high pitched voice filled the warm Texas night nicely too.

Hanba!

  • Hanba! (Flamingo Cantina, March 16th)
    • If the Pogues can do trad-punk, why can’t this unplugged Polish band do the same? Featuring banjo, tuba, accordion, parade drums and clarinet, they not only had the punky fast-paced chants down, they also provided a history lesson and a sly warning to us Yanks about nationalism.

High Waisted

  • High Waisted (Cheer Up Charlie’s, March 18th)
    • Though I loved their “Party In the Back” single, I wasn’t sure if there was more to this poppy little indie band. Thanks to singer Jessica Louise’s cheery spirits, there was.

Idle Bloom

  • Idle Bloom (Sidewinder, March 14th)
    • Though they’re from Nashville, they’re definitely not conservative- this indie band dished out the most in-your-face anger about the Orange Imperial Menace that I heard at the fest. Guitarist/singer Olivia Scibelli and bassist Katie Banyay twist through songs that are gnarled and somehow catchy at the same time. Would be great to think that some hometown country acts could pick up on their vibe somehow.

King Cayman

  • King Cayman (Trinity House at Old School, March 14th)
    • This tireless wild man, one-man band, who was barely visible through his shaggy hair, blazed through one song after enough with such furry that at first I thought his garage-rock sound was garage-dance-drum-and-bass related. He’s definitely got his BPM’s notched up high and even if some of it sounds the same, who cares if there’s a great sound attached to it?

Lizzo

  • Lizzo (Stubb’s, March 15th)
    • Even when she went poppy, this Minneapolis rapper still hasn’t quite gotten the respect she deserves. She’s got a strong attitude, great dancers, an impressive stage act and an amazing polymath DJ backing her up- that would be Sophia Eris and you should remember that name.  Is the pop market really that freakin’ stupid that it has to reject a talent like this just ’cause she’s large-size?  Guess so.  Their loss.

Low Cut Connie

  • Low Cut Connie (Tellers, March 16th)
    • This Philly rock and roll (not rock) band never fails to bring it live. Singer/leader Adam Weiner is a born-showman, banging on and standing on a full sized piano, taking a stroll through the audience and assuring us that we’ll make it if we all stick together (a subtle political reference). Didn’t even mind it when he grabbed and tossed my cap.

New Pornographers

  • New Pornographers (Empire Control Room, March 15th)
    • OK, so you know who these guys are but almost 20 years on, it’s worth reminding ourselves what a pleasure they are. Carl Newman’s a great songwriter and singer Neko Case is an eternal treasure.  Hope they stick around for another 20 years.

Octopus Project

  • The Octopus Project (Mohawk, March 15th)
    • This brainy, rock/indie/post-rock Austin outfit is worth multiple viewings. Your head will spin watching them switch instruments, which occasionally includes two sets of drums and you can’t help but be drawn to Yvonne Lambert with her retro outfits and Theremin theatrics.

Tunde Olaniran

  • Tunde Olaniran (Sidewinder, March 16th)
    • This ‘Afro-futurist’ rapper from Flint started out with a taped newscast about his hometown’s water crisis. Soon, two mysterious dancers appeared, followed by him in African-like garb, performing in front of billboards insisting this was homophobia, transphobia, etc. free zone. All those good intentions weren’t wasted either with a big-hearted, soul-searching, stirring act to go with it.

Orkhestra Kriminal

  • Orkestra Kriminal (Austin Convention Center, March 15th)
    • Except for racist scum, who doesn’t enjoy some wild klezmer (‘yiddish gangster’) music with sousaphone, musical saw and violins? What really makes this Montreal crew go is their engaging, footloose singer Giselle Claudia Webber.

Paws

  • Paws (Sidewinders, March 17th)
    • I was curious to see if this catchy Glasgow indie band still had it after their wonderful Cokefloat! debut from 2012. Glad to see that they did.

Plastic Pinks

  • Plastic Pinks (Hotel Vegas, March 18th)
    • Though they had shows all over the place, these wild-ass Miami rockers had no official SX showcase gig per se. Tracking them down was worth it though- between their Stooges-riffs and hyperactive singer June Summer (who I first thought was over-enthused roadie) who could play cagey and manic in the blink of an eye, they dominated the tiny indoor stage that they were given.

Lisa Prank

  • Lisa Prank (Las Cruxes, March 14th)
    • Sporting an adorable princess outfit, a sweet attitude and a sticker-filled guitar, it was hard not to fall for this lo-fi singer and her invisible, foot-controlled ‘band.’

Priests

  • Priests (Cheer Up Charlie’s, March 16th)
    • After falling in love with their jangly, jagged “JJ” single, I was a little let down by this DC indie band’s debut, wondering if they had anything else substantial going on. After singer Katie Alice Greer shouted and pleaded and sly moaned through their set, it was obvious that there was much more to them than I thought and that she was their not-so-secret weapon.

Prince Panel

  • Prince Panel (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • With his ex-band mates Andre Cymone and Dez Dickerson there and ex-manager Owen Husney (who also signed him to WB), it was a dishing fest but who doesn’t want to hear the inside stories of the Purple legend, including how paranoid he was about being recognized BEFORE he was famous? Not to mention how all his weird interviews were actually carefully planned stunts.  All of which just makes us miss him more. And we even got a sneak peak at the upcoming documentary about the Purple One.

Pussy Riot

  • Pussy Riot (Speakeasy, March 15th)
    • Surprised to see that more people didn’t make it out to see these Russian political dissident legends. Of course they pissed all over Putin and made hay of their legal run-in’s as much as Lenny Bruce once did. But their multi-media theater piece with goth-dance music and translations from Russian was amazing.  As Maria Alyokhina sang occasionally wearing a terrorist mask and singer/saxist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova stood resolutely next to her, there was only certainty and determination in their faces and voices as if they were ready to stare down any opposition.  They were fearless. They were a role model for battling an authoritarian head of state.  Only when the words “Russia will be free again” came on the screen, followed by a roar of approval from the crowd, did a smile creep across Alyokhina’s face.  She believed it and we believed it too, thinking thought that we too would be free someday.

Qawalistan

  • Qawalistan (Palm Door on Sixth, March 17th)
    • Pakistani fusion might sound like a world music nightmare, especially when it comes from a band who loves Deep Purple and Black Sabbath but luckily, this group leans more on local influences than Western ones. Though they had a guitar and drum kit in their ranks, singer and harmonium player Imran Aziz Mian Qawal dominated with his wailing vocals, backed by tabla and dholak drummers that also gave a trad link and grounding to the music.

Qualiatik

  • Qualiatik (Clearport, March 15th)
    • A well planned out schedule can fall apart but still come out OK. Here, I was supposed to see a different act but ’cause the schedule ran late, I saw this one-woman Philly act which she claims as a ‘multi-media act.’  She’s got great surreal videos/visuals, good command of keys/drums/electronics and an expressive voice that makes you think that she could be a star someday.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

  • Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (Container, March 15th)
    • Even before Sub Pop snatched them up, I was taken by these dreamy-sounding Aussie rockers- no surprise then to find out that the band is made up of relatives and school chums as the music sounds like it, aided nicely by guitarist Joe White’s airy sound. Just be glad that they’re on a (big) indie so that some A&R guy doesn’t make them change their name to make it ‘simpler.’

Whitney Rose

  • Whitney Rose (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 14th)
    • If you love old-school country, this honky tonk gal is for you. Her recent EP South Texas Suite is a gem and she’s got a gorgeous voice to carry any song she chooses, which happens to be ones that she writes herself.

Slotface

  • Slotface (Sidewinder, March 15)
    • Originally called Slutface (they still insist on saying it that way), this Oslo band boosts feminism and conservation causes but what comes out in the tunes is their subtle but insistent singer/lyricist Haley Shea (who has shades of Garbage’s Shirley Manson in her) and the songs from a guitarist named Tor-Arne Vikingstad whose catchy music never let on that he was once in a hardcore band.

Slowkiss

  • SlowKiss (Friends, March 14th)
    • Even in Chile, grrls will girls. With energy to burn (L7 fans for sure), they were one of the most impressive SX acts this time around with guitarist Elisa Montes and bassist Victoria Cordero trading vocals and creating an emotional pull to the music.  Drooling boy fans picked up on their leg tattoos but all I noticed was their charging sound.

Spook School

  • Spook School (Sidewinder, March 17th)
    • With so many new acts to see at SX, the temptation is to skip repeats from before but I couldn’t resist with these inedible, yearning Scots who have roots in queer punk (singer Nye Todd is transgender) and comedy. Nice to see their haunting way with a tune hasn’t disappeared and their drummer is still a dry, hilarious MC.

Spoon

  • Spoon (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • These hometown heroes had a three-night curated residency at the Main and still managed to do a morning showcase for KGSR radio and this afternoon show to boot. Smart move though as they were pushing a fine new album, Hot Thoughts. I’m schizzy about these guys ’cause I like ‘like’ their albums and honor the craggy, difficult nature of their music but not sure if I always love it. Live though, Britt Daniels is an effective frontman, just active enough without being too showy. Despite my reservations, they’ve got a great band too, especially with recent-addition Alex Fischel on keys.

SuperGlu

  • SuperGlu (Latitude 30, March 18th)
    • Good news for Brit-pop fans who thought that Oasis was too thick and Blur was too clever- these Coldchester brothers and their bloke chums might provide a happy medium for you.

Sweet Crude

  • Sweet Crude (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 16th)
    • Another fortunate accident as I meant to see a Korean punk band called No Brain playing next door and instead, I came across this folky NOLA dance-pop outfit who cite ELO, Talking Heads, Lost Bayou Ramblers as influences (also Miami Sound Machine even if they don’t know it). Singers Sam Craft & Alexis Marceaux surround themselves with drums and a festive spirit that would rock the hippest of Bar-Mitzvahs. And they’re real Bayou folks- half their website is in French.

AJ Tracey

  • AJ Tracey (Empire Garage, March 18th)
    • Nowadays as strong, if not as varied, as its American counterpart, UK rap, aka grime, is some of the most cutting edge music coming out of pop culture now. Though slack timing meant that I missed grime star Rude Kid, Tracey showed why he’s got a string of sold out UK shows coming up. His tight, rapid-fire delivery was a pleasure to watch.

Uyarakq x Peand-eL

  • Uyarakq x Peand-eL (Cedar Street Courtyard, March 16th)
    • A Greenlandic rapper sounds like just another novelty but Peter Lyberth aka Peand-eL ain’t no joke, even if he dresses like a dad on holiday. The guy had good flow (rapping in kalaallisut/Greenlandic) and even had some harsh political words for his homeland’s government, including protest rally sounds in his songs via his dance-music partner Uyarakq (who describes his genre as ‘dad-jokes’).  If you’re curious about more, there’s even a Nordic festival in the fall, you can check out.

Weaves

  • Weaves (Maggie Mae’s, March 17th)
    • Jasmyn Burke stands out not just because she’s a black singer leading punky indie band but also because she counts Karen O and Koko Taylor as influences and sounds like it. It definitely helps that she has guitarist/actor/comedian Morgan Waters backing her up with all kinds of wonderful sound effect noises. Where else but in Toronto could this happen?

Zeta

  • Zeta (Speakeasy, March 17th)
    • Venezuela may not be the place you’d think of for great hardcore/art-rock/post-punk music but that’s what this foursome has to offer- think of them as a less monotonous version of Helmut with still plenty of volume. When a rapper came on for a few songs, you didn’t get nightmares about Limp Bizkit either.

Jason Gross is a longtime contributor to Blurt and also is the archivally-minded genius behind that most excellent music site Perfect Sound Forever. Below, view some of the bands he saw in Austin this year.

SIREN’S SONG: Steve Hackett

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

In which we resume our conversation with the British guitar maestro. Go here to read our 2016 interview. New album The Night Siren arrives March 24. Tour dates for 2017 are here.

BY BILL KOPP

During his time with Genesis, guitarist Steve Hackett released one solo album, 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte. That album featured two of his then-current band mates – bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins – helping out, and only one track featured Hackett’s vocals. So after the unassuming Hackett left Genesis in 1977, it may have come as a bit of a surprise to that group’s fans that he would embark on a successful and prolific solo career. His latest album, The Night Siren (set for release March 24) is Hackett’s 25th solo album. (In contrast, Genesis released only 15 albums of new studio material in its nearly 30 years as a functioning group.)

And while he was always a superb instrumentalist – one listen to his sublime guitar solo on “Firth of Fifth” from Genesis’ 1973 LP Selling England By the Pound is all the proof one could need – Hackett has grown immeasurably in the past few decades as a musician, a composer, and a vocalist. And at age 67, Steve Hackett may have just made the finest record of his career in The Night Siren.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Hackett twice before: in 2010, shortly after the release of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, and again in 2016 on the eve of a North American tour. In that first interview, we discussed the backstory of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth: the painful dissolution of Hackett’s second marriage, and the development of a new relationship – one that is both personal and creative – in its wake. In our second conversation we focused on two topics: the documentary film Genesis: Sum of the Parts and Hackett’s ongoing “Genesis Revisited” live and studio projects.

For our third conversation, the main topic would be The Night Siren and his development as an artist. The following is an edited transcript of our interview, which took place in mid-January 2017.

BLURT: The underlying theme of The Night Siren is a call for unity in divisive times. Can you tell me a bit about what led you toward that theme?

Well, I think more and more it seems that the world seems to be heading towards right-wing politics. The refugee crisis seems to have gotten to the point whereby the rest of the world seems to be adopting a kind of fortress mentality, instead of assimilating the people and trying to fix the problem that we’ve created in the first place. It just so happens I have friends from all over the world, and I have two working on this album – one from Israel, one from Palestine – and I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible for people to do what musicians have done naturally for years and years and years. We naturally cross borders; this is what we do. Music is a great big melting pot and I think that – at the very least – music is an ambassador for peace. And we’re showing people that there is a common language, and it’s the language of the heart.

You often record at home using your home studio; other musicians will often send their tracks digitally. Was that the method that you used on this album as well?

Yes, but it’s part of it. Some of it was done on location in different studios with different people, but I did quite a lot of it at home but then I did get a lot of facilities as well to record other people. For instance, Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan was recording in Budapest. Some stuff was recorded in Miami; Nick D’Virgilio was recording there. Many people sent in their stuff, but sometimes I went to them. So, yes … it’s a bit like making a movie on location. But sometimes you don’t even have to visit that location, of course. The “second camera unit” is out there. We file share, but we also have conversations face-to-face.

Time was, musicians would all show up in a studio together and work on an album; do you think those days are pretty well gone for good now?

No, I don’t think so. I think bands still function like that, but technology affords you the facility of being able to work face-to-face yet remotely. It means that people get their parts right, and then they send you something that they’re happy with instead of people interfering with each other’s performances before the other guy really knows the song. So you have a chance to perfect it, to send someone something that’s in time and in tune with the song.NightSirenAlbumCover

I’m a big fan of Nick D’Virgilio’s work back when he was with Spock’s Beard. How did you come to know of his work and bring him into the project?

I first heard about him via Genesis [D’Virgilio was a member of Genesis in the group’s post-Phil Collins era; he played on the final Genesis album Calling All Stations – ed.], but funnily enough I first saw him playing with Cirque Du Soleil in London. I was very impressed with him. And I went to meet him, I think, halfway through that show. He’s just sent us an extraordinarily impressive drum check for one of the songs, “Martian Sea.” He’s a great player.

One of the things I’ve found sort of curiously interesting about him is that his career trajectory is a little bit like Phil Collins: he was the drummer in a band, then the singer left and he ended up being the lead singer … and then he left.

Yes. Well sometimes it works like that. I think we were lucky with Genesis to have two fine singers. I wasn’t doing vocals at that time … I was a slow starter, but I do quite a bit of that myself these days.

Speaking of which … as much as I like your vocals on your previous albums, there seems to be kind of a leap forward in the vocal texture and everything on this one.

Yes, I think I’m looking at vocals in the same way that I look at guitars, so I interact with it and insist on certain effects on the voice and I don’t leave it to chance. When you sing a vocal it’s like, where do you want it to come from? Do you want [the vocal] to be right in front of you? Do you want it to be at a distance? And at what distance? So I think the more confident that you get, you can get a better product out of it. If you treat it just like an instrument.

It becomes more specific with time. You think, “I’m looking for that character; I’m looking for something where I can sing it low and hard with a lot of reverb on it, and then sing the melody up the octave.” That’s a vocal style that I started off with many years ago, and I didn’t really follow it through. And I realize that I took exactly the same approach on “Behind The Smoke,” and in a way that’s the vocal style that I think really moves me. I love the idea of it starting out as one thing and perhaps acoustically, and then it becomes something else and builds and builds.

There is a sweeping, dramatic feel to a lot of the tracks on The Night Siren, even more than on some of your previous work. And I’d argue that you’re very, very effective at establishing, shall we say, sort of an emotional backdrop, even before the lyrics come in. So I’m curious: as you’re writing and arranging, is it a conscious goal of yours to create music that serves as sort of a sympathetic or complementary basis for the lyrics?

I’ll tell you what: when I think of the people that I’ve been influenced by, I’ve noticed that there’s something in the way that they use the instruments. And I’m thinking of two acts in particular: the Beatles and Jimmy Webb, particularly Webb’s work with Art Garfunkel on the album Watermark. It’s as if everything has been discussed, everything has been thought about and there’s nothing in there by chance. When those arrangements work like that, you’ll find that it’s hugely influential for certain people.

I know that with Genesis, we all did an interview where we’re talking to Melody Maker at the time and saying that our favorite single was “MacArthur Park.” It was four out of five that said that; we had no idea that each of the others had felt the same way! Jimmy Webb was a template for that, also the Beatles [were]. I think there are some things about that and the work with George Martin where – sometimes – the orchestral dress was as important as the tune.

I had the pleasure of seeing you in Atlanta on the tour last year. The way that you split the concert into two parts was very effective; the audience absolutely loved it. Are you going to take a similar approach on this tour?

Yes. The idea of Genesis Revisited as an ongoing brand is something that I feel is hugely emotional for me. To do that – to re-present those songs that we all fought hard for back in the day – it’s great. But at the same time, I don’t want to be pensioned off into that “Oh, yes: this is what he once did, and this is his most famous thing,” being comfortably retired and keeping the museum doors open for glorious exhibits.

That’s a great thing to do, but on the other hand there is vital music. And the responses to the new stuff that I’ve done have been very, very good, both at concerts and also with record sales. So I can’t complain of that, but I think that Genesis always did open the door for me in a sense.

The concert – one set of your solo music and another of Genesis classics – is a bit like seeing two different shows.

You’re absolutely right, and it is like two separate shows, or two separate films in a way. A film for the ear. But that’s how it feels: that music is very visual, and the Genesis stuff is held in such high esteem by an otherwise disenfranchised following of early Genesis, which included Peter Gabriel as well as Phil Collins as singers. I think it was a very interesting line-up from 1971, when we had both Phil and Pete in the same band at the same time, and of course Pete was the original vocalist.

You stay quite busy; you’ve been releasing an album a year since 2011 or so.

I’ve tried to keep that up, yes. And we’re doing a lot of touring. More and more territories are opening up to us – me and my band – and we’re going to new places we haven’t been before, such as New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. South America as well. So it’s a very, very interesting time. We’re doing the East Coast tour first of all, and then we come back and we do the U.K., we do Europe. We just keep motoring throughout the year.

Is there any chance that you’ll do an additional North American leg after the run of dates that conclude in May?

That may happen later this year. I’m hoping that we’ll come back and, having concentrated more on the East Coast, we may be able to concentrate on the more inner Mid-West and West Coast. But that’s all in an ideal world. Deals have to be done, brokered and all of that, and it’s whatever [management and booking] come up with.

You’re taking part in the Cruise to the Edge again this year. How many of those have you done now?

I’ve done two of them and so this will be the third. I didn’t do the last one but looking forward to that but I’ll be sad to be doing that without the late great Chris Squire, of course.

What do you like best about the floating festivals?

That’s very interesting. It’s a very good way of putting it, “floating festival.” Well, quite apart from people cracking jokes … the first time we ever did it saying, “Well, we’re all in the same boat, ha, ha, ha.” But it’s more than that; these things are huge. They are like floating palaces or floating towns, and everyone goes off. And it’s a microcosm, isn’t it? For a while, and it’s a life on the ocean waves. You either like being on boats or you don’t, and it so happens I do. You get to visit places, you get to meet people, you hang out with the whole crowd, and people loosen up. Bands start to join each other and sit in with each other, and it’s a little bit of jamming that goes on. And that’s very nice.

Photo credit: Tina Korhonen

 

BACK TO THE WELL: Old 97s

PressPhoto

For their latest album, the long-running band decided that recording in a familiar-yet-fresh surrounding was more than just a game plan—it could unlock musical magic anew. Frontman Rhett Miller explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

It’s been 20 years since the Old 97’s recorded their breakthrough record, Too Far To Care. Their third album and first for a major label, that 1997 record spawned “Time Bomb,” “Barrier Reef” and a slew of other songs that have gone on to become set staples for the band.

It was recorded at the unassuming Village Productions studio in a little Texas border town not that far from El Paso, tucked amongst 2,000 acres of pecan trees. Not exactly the glam you’d expect from a band newly-flush with record label money.

In the two decades since, the band has toured the globe countless times, put out seven more releases and managed to help pioneer the alt country movement in the process. So, it seems an odd move that the Old 97’s would choose to return to that small studio to record their latest, Graveyard Whistling (ATO Records), rather than opt for some state-of-the-art alternative elsewhere.

One track into the new record, though, and you can see the logic behind the plan as the band emerged with one of their most consistently-satisfying records since, possibly, Too Far To Care.

Frontman Rhett Miller spoke with BLURT recently about the choice to return to Tornillo, Texas to record, what had changed and the note he found in the nightstand there.

BLURT: What made you decide to go back to Tornillo, Texas to record this record?
MILLER: In the two decades since we recorded Too Far To Care at Village Productions outside El Paso, the studio changed its name to Sonic Ranch, tripled in size, and became a bona fide world-class studio. We’ve wanted to return there for years, but it took a nudge from Vance Powell, Graveyard Whistling’s producer, to bring us back into those dusty pecan farms along the Mexican border.

As soon as we pulled up to the Hacienda we knew it was the perfect time for us to return to this magical place that had haunted our dreams for two decades.

Obviously, a lot has changed with the band since you were last there. How much had the studio changed during the time?
Despite the studio having grown in size and stature, many things remained the same. The room where we cut Too Far all those years ago was virtually unchanged, as were the hacienda bedrooms. We each stayed in the room we’d occupied during the Too Far sessions. I can’t understate how the surreal the sensation was of having blinked and seen two decades disappear.

Can you talk about the note you found in the nightstand?
My craziest time-machine moment was when I opened the bedside table drawer and found two handwritten notes I’d left there twenty years earlier. Suffice to say I had to sit down and collect myself.

You mentioned that you recorded Too Far To Care there. By going back to that studio, did you guys want to capture a similar vibe to what was on that album?
Too Far, our third album as a band and first for a major label, has always been something of a touchstone record for us. Fans and band alike point to those songs and performances as the distillation of what is good about the 97’s.

So, the idea of returning to that room and seeing if there was any residual magic appealed to us. Turns out the place was full of magic.

I can’t help but notice the back-to-back songs “Jesus Loves You” and “Good With God.” As a native Texan, I know it’s hard to escape religion there. Can you talk about the meaning behind these two songs?
I grew up in Texas going to church constantly – singing in choirs, serving as an altar boy and acolyte, sometimes just nodding off in the pew. I loved the music. The rest of it got a little complicated. As the songs on this record revealed themselves, I sensed a theme of culpability, of sins coming home to roost.

“Jesus Loves You” is a bawdy sentiment, but definitely wrestles with questions of the spiritual versus the prurient. “Good With God” is more about hubris in the face of karma, which seems like a dangerous proposition to me.

This record is a follow up to Most Messed Up which was your highest charting record. Did it add any more pressure when you started working on the follow up?
Yes. It was a strange sensation for me to have our eleventh album come with such heightened expectations. It definitely made me conscious of making it a different album, a progression rather than more of the same.

You’ve got the new record coming up and a tour. What’s next for you?
I’m working on writing songs, poems, long-form fiction and instructional prose on the craft of songwriting. Like a shark, I must swim or die.

OLD_97S_round4_colors.indd

The band will be hosting the “County Fair 2017” in Dallas next month:

DATE: Saturday April 8th

Location: Main St Garden Park in Downtown Dallas

Lineup:

Old 97s
Lucinda Williams
Mavis Staples
The Jayhawks
Jonathan Tyler
Lydia Loveless
The Vandoliers
Texas Gentlemen
The Gordon Keith Band

Amenities:

45 foot Ferris Wheel
Midway Games
Food Trucks
Kids 10 Under Free
Dog Friendly

 

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… California Oranges’ “John Hughes” (2000)

california oranges

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly. Now Prof. Hinely dials the wayback machine to 2000, as John Conley talks about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.”

BY TIM HINELY

You’d think that being two hours east of San Francisco that Sacramento would be a veritable wasteland of musical talent. Ah…but you’d be wrong. Oddly enough for the capitol city of the Golden State (with a population of under 500,000) this hamlet has produced some of the best indie rock music out there. From Tiger Trap to Rocketship to Baby Grand to Arts & Leisure to too many others (you’ll see ‘em below). Well, a big part of that fabric is the music of the crew of John Conley and his sister Katie, the Levine Brothers (Ross and his brother Matt) and Verna Brock (who was also in Rocketship for a time as well as doing her solo project under the name of Beanpole). They’ve been spread out amongst bands like Holiday Flyer, Desario and Soft Science, but there was one band that all of them had passed through at one point: California Oranges.

For their self-titled debut from 2000 (On Darla Records) the band was a trio of John, Verna and Ross. For later albums both Katie and Matt came aboard to make the band a 5-piece, but this particular song, “John Hughes” was from the previously mentioned debut.

For those of us used to the (mostly) very soft sounds of Holiday Flyer, “John Hughes” came popping out of the speakers like an M-80 stuffed inside a high school locker. A joyous blast of unbridled melody. The song is all about a guy trying to get the courage to ask a girl out, which, as we males know, in those high school years were the mostly nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing experience (personally I had to know 100% that the girl liked me before I would even ask her out and even then I’d be ready to have a heart attack while other guys in school, those with no fear at all of rejection, would walk up to any girl an ask them out, usually getting shot down and laugh about it).

“John Hughes” is one of my favorite songs by the California Oranges and I was curious about its origins. I shot some questions over to John Conley and he was more than happy to give me some answers.

BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

CONLEY: Well, I guess John Hughes and his films. As I teenager I could really identify with the characters. I must have been re-watching at the time. I was also really into Kevin Smith (he is referenced is the song) and his films reminded of the Hughes.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

If I remember correctly, it came together pretty quick.

I think it was one of the last songs I wrote for the first album.

I had the main guitar riff and the melody and first verse.

I remember showing the song to Verna and Ross, and they both really liked it.

I think we knew at that point it would start the album.

Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (i.e.: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)

I’m pretty sure it was one of our most popular songs. I was going to be featured in a documentary about John Hughes. Ross Levine and I were interview for the movie and the band rerecorded the song to be included on the soundtrack. We were told we made it through the 3rd or 4th cut of the film. During the editing process of the movie John Hughes passed away and the music portion of the movie was shortened.

Here are some links about the film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0fPLN459_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don’t_You_Forget_About_Me_(film)

john conley

Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?

It stayed in the live set up through the 3rd album.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

No, I think it’s a good snapshot of where I was as a songwriter at the time.

I wanted to do something very different from Holiday Flyer. I feel we mostly succeed. When the band started playing live, one comparisons we got was Belle and Sebastian meets Ramones.

I always liked that.

Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?

I think the recording came out cool. We wrote and recorded that album very quickly. Verna (Brock) and I each had 5 song ideas. We rehearsed with Ross (Levine) 3 or 4 times and recorded and mixed the record in the evenings or a week. JH is my favorite song on that album. I do have some problems with the production on that album as a whole, but “John Hughes” came out great. We also recorded a cover of Vanilla Blue by Naked  Raygun during that session that is one of my favorite recordings California Orange did.

 How do you feel about it now?
I still really like this song. It’s so different from what I’m doing now in Desario, but I’m proud of this period in my music career.

 

BEFORE THE JOSHUA TREE: U2

U2

What were YOU doing when the Irish rockers were touring behind The Unforgettable Fire? Here’s how a die-hard U2 fan (with more than just a little at stake…) found himself one night in the bowels of an arena, swapping slugs of red wine with Bono himself and ruminating upon the twin poles of fandom and stardom.

BY FRED MILLS

On October 1, 1984, U2 released their groundbreaking album The Unforgettable Fire. Almost exactly three decades later—this week, to be precise—U2 releases their Songs of Innocence album.And while it’s too early to say what the critical judgment will be—based on online commentary in the wake of that debatable move to offer it for free via iTunes a month ahead of the physical release, there probably won’t be a clear consensus—it’s a shoo-in to be a commercial smash and seems destined for multiple Grammy nominations. That latter notion is underscored by the rather cynical strategy on the part of the band’s label to slide a small handful of white label vinyl LPs to retail a few days before the deadline for Grammy consideration this year.

Having listened to it pretty steadily since the digital unveiling and then again this weekend when I got a copy of the two-CD deluxe edition, I suspect my own comments will be qualified but mostly favorable, particularly when comparing it to 2009’s atrocious No Line on the Horizon, which hold the unique position in my U2 collection of, er, well… not having a position at all in my U2 collection, as it’s the one U2 record I’ve never bothered to purchase. And I say this from a position of being a more than just interested observer: from 1983 through 1988 I edited and published a U2 fanzine called U2/USA, diligently expressing my sometimes—okay, frequent—over-the-top fandom with two equally enthusiastic writers and photographers and a host of contributors who’d been permanently bitten by the U2 bug. For me, it turned out to be not so permanent, as I became gradually disillusioned in the aftermath of the Rattle and Hum film, partly due to a nagging sense that U2 had outgrown its grassroots fanbase and partly due to a realization that said fanbase had expanded exponentially and things were steadily getting weirder. (Some of this I’ve documented previously, in particular the so-called “Miranda incident” in which I was privy to some of the same unpleasantness detailed in Vanity Fair’s 1999 expose The Miranda Obsession, by veteran journalist Bryan Burrough.)

U2USA 4b

But that would come later. In 1984, I was dealing with a pretty big obsession of my own, and that was U2. I wrote a lengthy, impassioned review of The Unforgettable Fire for the fourth issue of U2/USA, and then when the tour promoting the album hit the states in the spring of ’85, I immediately grabbed tickets for the magazine staff for the April concert in Hampton, VA, and I also requested backstage passes through the group’s management, aiming to take in the soundcheck and, with luck, conduct an interview with Bono.

On the morning of April 10 I arrived at the Hampton Coliseum, had coffee with the Coliseum manager in order to get his take—based on the number of people already in the parking lot and sitting on the sidewalk outside the venue—on what was shaping up to be a pretty sizable crowd. He seemed nonplused, although he did note that other bands in the recent past had posed problems: “Duran Duran and Van Halen were our worst shows, crowd-wise. Too rowdy, lots of alcohol you know.” Following that I met with U2’s Production Manager, Steve Iredale, who already knew about our fanzine and who soon steered me to the group’s manager Paul McGuinness and his assistant Ellen Darst. McGuinness in turn called Bono over and introduced us. Everyone was gracious towards me and seemed genuine interested in the ‘zine and what we were all about; recall that at this point in U2’s career the musicians were not megastars, as that wouldn’t come until The Joshua Tree era, so it was probably a no-brainer to treat with respect those folks who were actively helping to promote the group. I was handed a blue/white laminated “U2 Tour 85 The Unforgettable Fire – Backstage” pass and invited to hang around and watch the soundcheck if I wanted to. Later I learned that the pass wasn’t just for the Hampton show—it would get me backstage access for any dates on the entire tour.

U2 passes

***

From my original notes and report: U2’s soundcheck was fun, even a few surprises. I heard some unfamiliar riffs from the Edge that progressed into a casual version of “The Three Sunrises” and possibly some of “Love Comes Tumbling.” Adam danced around on the stage a bit, perhaps out of restlessness but I prefer to think he was just in a good mood because he also stepped up to the mic and sang. The band dutifully responded to the soundman when he requested them to do this or that: a bit of a capella from Bono; a quick bass run from Adam; give us one more cymbal crash please, Larry; let’s check out the sequencer intro for “Bad” and your “New Year’s Day” piano part, okay Edge? The Edge, in fact, seemed to play the part of conductor rather than Bono, with Adam and Larry cueing off his nods and looks. Which was a good thing, as there has to be some semblance of order in a live situation—who knows what Bono might do on any given night.

Later, after the check, Bono walked up and plopped down next to me on the instrument cases I’d been sitting on. “Are you doing okay?” was the first thing out of his mouth, and as he gargled lemon tea we chatted briefly about the ‘zine; he apologized for having to keep things short but his throat was in rough shape and he had to save it for the concert. Pledging to continue the conversation another time, he signed some record sleeves then politely excused himself and headed off for some much-needed pre-gig quiet time. I was able to get the records signed by the rest of the band, and then I settled in to watch the deluge.

At promptly 6:30 pm the doors opened and it was more of a stampede to be the first to get in the front row, if you can call it a “row” since the entire Coliseum was general admission and there were no actual seats on the floor. Later I’d observe some of those lucky first-arrivals become the first casualties of the evening when security would have to haul them over the metal mesh barrier in order to keep them from being crushed by their overly excited fellow concertgoers. There were tons of U2 teeshirts in evidence, some from previous tours and others just-purchased and hastily-donned. Programs and posters were waved in the air, cigarettes were smoked (yes, this was in the pre-no-smoking-in-public-buildings era), soft drinks guzzled, and emotions were steadily heightened. An hour and a half or so later opening act Lone Justice was finishing up its set and the U2/USA crew had found some seats a few rows off the main floor, waiting for the main event…

Setlist: 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, I Will Follow, Seconds, MLK, The Unforgettable Fire, Wire w/Give Me Some Truth, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Cry, The Electric Co. / Amazing Grace (snippet), A Sort Of Homecoming, Bad w/Ruby Tuesday/Sympathy For The Devil, October, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love) // (encores) Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Gloria, 40

After the concert, the backstage scene was strangely calm—no mob of fans, other than about 30 kids outside at the loading dock, hoping for a sight of the band; no crazed groupies (well, almost: one tenacious young lass slipped past security and was immediately scouring the area for souvenirs, mutting something about needing to find “bits of Bono”); just the crew tearing down and starting the load-out process. U2, in fact, had already left, being exhausted and looking forward to a day off before heading to New Jersey for a three-night stand at the Meadowlands. En route back to the hotel, I stopped in the parking lot to look at the wares of a bootleg teeshirt vendor; I’m not normally a teeshirt junkie, and I’d already bought an official program (pictured below) but this one seemed apropos of the evening, as it read “U2 USA Tour.”

Tour program

 

***

April 29, Atlanta: Fresh from a four-day vacation in the Florida sun, U2 arrives at The Omni and prepares for soundcheck. I’d already picked up my ticket (and discovered it included an additional “work personnel” pass, although I wouldn’t need it since I already had the aforementioned laminate) so I’m wandering around when I bump into Larry and Edge; the former remembers me from Hampton, but Edge doesn’t until I mention the fanzine, at which point he grins broadly and tells me how much he likes it, adding “Hope to see you later tonight” in his unmistakable soft Irish voice as he ascends the steps to the stage.

There’s a lot of clowning around during the check. They do “The Three Sunrises” as well as an untitled funk-rockabilly number during which Bono does some impromptu off-the-wall scatsinging. Bono also walks slowly around the entire upper level of the arena stopping periodically to listen and making sure the sound is acceptable at all points. “Sounds very nice,” is his judgment, when he returns to the stage. Initially I’m sitting in the stands myself, but one of the crew comes over and politely informs me, “They’d prefer not to be observed.” Gesturing at some cases, he suggests I go sit over behind the stage. Members of opening act the Red Rockers join me to watch the rest of the soundcheck. When U2 is done Bono comes over to talk with me and RR drummer Jim Reilly and he pledges to finally get that interview done after the show.

Setlist: 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, I Will Follow, Seconds, Two Hearts Beat As One, MLK, The Unforgettable Fire, Wire, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Cry, The Electric Co., A Sort Of Homecoming, Bad, October, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love) // (encores) Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Gloria, 40 [source: U2setlists.com]

The post-concert scene backstage at the Omni is the polar opposite of Hampton. There are tons of folks with day-of-show backstage passes stuck to their silk blouses and satin baseball jackets, and it seems like there is more per capita teased blonde ‘dos (for the females) and mustache-and-shag hair (the males) than any concert I’ve ever been at since the ‘70s. Atlanta is a music biz town—although not necessarily the most sophisticated one, I determine, after observing an excited girl thrusting a tour program in the direction of one of the Red Rockers only to be disappointed to learn that he’s not a member of U2.

U2 passes 2

Brown triangle

 

Security eventually begins herding people this way or that way depending on the type of access designated by their passes (VIP, Hospitality, Press, etc.). And I do mean herding: “All of you with the Brown Triangles must do down here and wait.” “No, you must go back around to the press area.” “Anybody without passes must leave the area immediately!” Me: “Where do I go?” Security, squinting at my laminate: “Uh, you can go wherever you want.” So I follow the Brown Triangles down the corridor past the dressing rooms and showers to a medium-sized room serving as the official Hospitality Room. It’s quite a layout of eats: two, count ‘em, 2 bowls of chips, one bowl of dip, one bowl of peanuts, one plate of sliced cheese. I grab a canned Pepsi and a handful of chips and go perch on a table in the far corner of the room, trying my best to look cool and detached. This isn’t the easiest thing to do when you’ve got crumbs of chips smeared around the edge of your mouth but I resolve to make the best of it.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of people talking amongst themselves and steadily eyeing the doors, Bono comes in, still wet from his shower, ready for a standard music biz town meet-and-greet. Initially, folks approach him tentatively, offering him flowers and candy and books (plus the de rigeur stuffed animal) and shyly asking for autographs. Then the more aggressive label-and-radio people take over, demanding kisses and hugs and posing for photos with him. I swear at least 10 different guys with shag haircuts and mustaches tell Bono that they were the first local DJ to play U2 in Atlanta or the first record company employee to push U2 product in the region. I think to myself that these folks will be saying the same thing in a few weeks to Elvis Costello and Ted Nugent when they play Atlanta.

But there are some genuine fans in there as well, including some old friends that Bono obviously recognizes and greets warmly. There’s also the guy who was lucky enough to be pulled onstage during U2’s set and play guitar during “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”; I talk to him some and learn that he’s also a friend of Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, who played on U2’s War album (and would go on to Waterboys fame). I also learn that Bono’s father was in attendance at the show, although I don’t know if he’s in the Hospitality Room with me. Eventually Edge and Adam show up (no Larry), as do the Red Rockers. Meanwhile, security and tour manager Dennis Sheehan are busy screening people who want in, including one guy with a briefcase full of albums whom I’d spotted earlier borrowing another person’s pass. Somehow he manages to slip in, but just as he’s about to corner Bono with the LPs, Sheehan rushes over, grabs him by the shoulder (“I warned you!”) and firmly escorts him out.

It’s fascinating to crowd watch in a situation like this. People behave differently in the presence of stars. One guy engages Edge in a conversation about guitars, and judging by the look on Edge’s face, the two are hitting it off nicely. Then there’s the girl who’s quite vocal about not being able to get the absent Larry’s autograph (later she will literally chase Bono down the hall and beg him to take her to the drummer). Small crowds form around Bono, then slowly break off to re-coagulate in the vicinity of Edge or Adam, as if they are drawing a psychic “celebrity fix” with each mini-encounter. The Red Rockers guys obviously understand their place in the pecking order and pretty much hang out with each other, with people occasionally drifting over to them; they seem to be getting a pretty even mix of actual fans who know their music and U2 nuts who are frustrated they can’t penetrate the aforementioned mini-crowds but are still determined to get some type celeb-fix. I admire the Rockers’ resilience as much as I admire U2’s patience.

At one point Bono looks up from a conversation and spots me a few people away from him, observing the scene. I smile and nod at him, and he offers, “You did make it back here. How are you feeling?” “Great, never better!” “That’s great—so hang on, we’ll talk in just a bit.”

In about ten minutes (by now it’s approaching midnight) Sheehan buttonholes Bono and informs him time’s up. Bono shakes a few last hands, then comes over to me, grabs me by the arm and says let’s go. We head out into the corridor—yes, a part of me is aware of the people staring at the back of my head and wondering who the hell is that asshole with Bono?—and over to a dressing room lounge. We plop down on stuffed sofas opposite one another and he reaches over for an open bottle of red wine. He takes a deep swig then passes the bottle over to me. The back of my mind dimly registers the fact that maybe I should try to figure out some way to keep it after we’re done as a souvenir.

“I’m really drained,” Bono says, sighing for emphasis, as I hand him back the bottle. “That was a good show.” Although I had the proverbial laundry list of questions I’d wanted to ask him for U2/USA, I sensed that our time might be limited (the group is headed back to Florida tonight where they’ll get ready for the final four shows of the North American leg of The Unforgettable Fire tour). So I instead opt to freestyle, first asking him who were all those people back there?

“I’ll tell you who they are. They’re people who work selling our records, salesmen, radio people. The sort of people who are just normally cogs in the machine, you know? And they use words like ‘product’ and ‘tonnage’ and ‘shifting units.’ I go in there, and they all bring their wives or girlfriends—that’s why there are so many in there—and I try to be, just who I am, you know; I try to show them that I am a fan of music. And I hope that when I leave the room, I leave a room of fans of music. Because a lot of people who are working in the music business started off that way! So I hope that they should continue the way they started.

“But some people are also old friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, too; people who were like, when we first came to Atlanta, working our record, going down to the radio stations and saying, ‘Why aren’t you playing this!’ So these people I like to single out.”

I point out that U2/USA gets letters from fans who bemoan the fact that they only get quick glimpses of the band before it jumps into limos and speeds away after shows. At that, Bono turns defensive, blurting, “It’s not true!” He takes another swallow of wine, hands me the bottle, and thinks about it for a moment, the frown on his face telling me that he’s bothered by the implication that there’s a clearly defined hierarchy of fans.

“I think I see,” he begins, choosing his words carefully. “Well, normally I meet people just about every soundcheck, just about every night when I leave the venue. Like today, I must have met about a hundred people in and around the venue. I was just hanging around opening doors, inviting people in and out. I meet people—I like to meet people like that! One on one, even if there’s 10 or 20 of them, I don’t mind, once they treat me one on one. But I will not, cannot be expected to, or… I don’t expect myself to stand there and be treated like a thing, you know, an object…”

Just an autograph signing machine…

Yeah. If there’s a hundred people and they’re trying to pull, um, bits off you, I know that in those hundred people there may be 25, or 75, that really have something to say to me, and want to say something, and I wanna say something back. But I can’t go out there and have all that, ‘cos somebody’s gonna get hurt and damaged. So at times like that we just have to drive back.”

When he mentions the part about “bits” I think back to Hampton, and the nutty girl wandering around backstage trying to find “bits of Bono” like she was going to spot a discarded boot or something. I draw the scene for Bono and he nods vigorously, as if I’ve confirmed what he was saying: “See, they’ve just got it wrong.” Per the other side of the equation, I hand him a folded piece of paper from a young girl who’d spotted my laminate and, having had no success convincing security to let her backstage to give the note to Bono, asked if I could deliver it for her. He unfolds the paper and scans it, smiling, clearly pleased. (“Yeah, I do get a lot of gifts from fans. It can be a bit much, but it’s nice.”) We talk a little more about how people act around celebrities, and how in particular the emotional investment music fans make tends to make things intensely personal for them. Noting how there was a major crush of fans at the stage barrier in Hampton that required security to hoist some of them over for their safety, he adds that it bothers him sometimes about the lengths to which fans will go to get close to their heroes.

“The thing about being a fan,” he says, between swigs, “is that when you’re into a band, it can be the most important thing in the world to you. The only thing that matters is when you’re in your room listening to the records, or waiting for the band to come out onstage.

“It’s a rare occasion, very rare [that people get hurt] at our concerts. [We have] security down front, either trained police or our guy, a policeman from the Boston police force who’s worked with all the groups. He comes in and briefs the security in every single hall. He tells them, ‘The people who come to see U2 play are paying your wages and our wages. Treat them as such.’ And there’s also no security people from any venue actually allowed on our stage. Only our own people. We’re very aware of all this and very concerned that everything is handled properly.”

One of the crew pokes a head into the dressing room to let him know it’s almost time to go. Bono nods then asks me how everyone at the ‘zine is doing—the previous December in Detroit my fellow editor had also done an interview with him—and tells me that he appreciates how we focus on the music itself and the social issues that the band raises. “I think one of the things we value most about U2,” he says with a knowing chuckle because it’s something he’s said a number of times in the past, “is that we never forget we’re just four people. Just four jerks! Like everyone else. So I like that side of the magazine… the music’s what’s important, not the musicians. And it’s all kept on an intelligent level, the comments, and the positive stuff.”

Bono offers me the wine bottle one last time, then he finishes it off and stands up. He gives me a sincere handshake and wishes me good luck with the ‘zine. As I wander back down the corridor, I’m thinking about how this is a man who, at one point in his life, was just another civilian—read: music fan—like me, just like the fans clustered outside at the loading dock hoping for a glimpse of the band. That he’s on the other side of the security barrier now, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that his perspective has also taken a 180. Here in Atlanta, in April of 1984, he’s a guy who remembers what it was like to be a fan and who apparently cares about the people who pay money to come see him perform.

On my way to the exits I somehow make a wrong turn and wind up in some kitchen area. There’s a tub of ice full of beers, so I glance around, grab one, then head towards the parking lot, feeling pretty cool.

***

Memories tend to be rose-tinted; for some of mine, I’m fortunate enough to have documented things in near-real time, so recreating the scenes outlined above was not only pretty easy, I had a transcript I could refer to. Literally recreating how I was feeling and what I was experiencing, however, can be tricky—and I’m not about to subject readers to that anyway! (As with most writers, some of the stuff I was spewing out 30 years ago, or at least the way I expressed myself at the time, is best left un-dredged. And there are probably stray copies of the fanzine still floating around anyway, awaiting your bemused perusal and/or my deep embarrassment.)

But the thing is, U2 in 1984-85, and by extension U2 fandom back then, was a markedly different beast. Think of all the foregoing, then, as a handful of snapshots from one particular, very personal, photo album. To my fellow fans: I’ve shown you mine—now it’s your turn.

U2USA 5

Editorial postscript/addendum: I do realize, gentle BLURT readers, that the headline at the top of this page is slightly erroneous; the concerts discussed in the story were in April of 1985. But the album was released in the fall of ’84, and hey, “It was 29 ½ years ago today” as a title doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. So allow me that small concession to literary license. Yours in U2 fandom, FM

ELEVATION & OBSESSION: U2 2001—Fans, Bono, the Elevation Tour, and the Miranda Tapes

U2 Elevation 1

Reflections on what it means to be a U2 fan through thick/thin, disillusionment/reaffirmation, and all that you wind up having to leave behind in the process.

BY FRED MILLS

April 29, 1985, Atlanta, Georgia: I’m sitting on a dressing-room sofa, somewhere in the bowels of the Omni coliseum, passing a bottle of red wine back and forth with Bono. A few hours earlier, U2 had flawlessly executed a show on the Unforgettable Fire tour; now, the singer is holding forth animatedly on the nature of fan worship. How he remembers what it felt like to be a devoted follower of Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix.

“The thing about being a fan,” Bono says between swigs, “is that when you’re into a band, it can be the most important thing in the world to you. The only thing that matters is when you’re in your room listening to the records, or waiting for the band to come out onstage.”

He goes on to agree with me that, yes, U2’s fame is growing exponentially and, no, he can’t go back and talk with every fan one-on-one like he once did. The after-show crowds now sometimes get so big that all the pushing and jockeying for position to “pick off bits of Bono,” as he puts it, can get dangerous.

Point of fact, however, tonight Bono was out by the loading dock again, chatting, signing autographs, and levying his own smooth brand of crowd control. I mention that it was fun watching the looks on the kids’ faces when they got their turn with him, and —

“Don’t call them kids — they’re young adults,” he interrupts me sternly. “Part of my job is to let them know that they are important to me, to the band — they’re fans, they’re regular people, just like you and me.”

Well, of course Bono was right. And wrong. Fans are regular people. Only Bono’s not; he’s a pop star, and in April ’85 he’s headed on a collision course with superstardom. To date, U2’s albums and tours have celebrated and reaffirmed the notion of musical salvation—the purest expressions of rock ‘n’ roll tent revivalism since Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Darkness-era Springsteen, or Patti Smith broadcasting from the Radio Ethiopia jungle.

But if U2 is gonna take us higher every night, sooner or later there’s gotta be a crash. This would come in a few years with the Rattle and Hum album and film, which documented the band going mega during the huge world tour for 1987’s The Joshua Tree. While that album was arguably U2 at its most daring during the first phase of its career, Rattle and Hum proved an artistic and aesthetic misstep, disingenuously aiming to portray U2 as “regular people” who just happened to be staring into the maw of mass adulation. Instead, the band came off as sanctimonious, a group hungrily choosing to embrace that adulation just as surely as a televangelist covets his lucre. And if U2’s subsequent so-called self-reinvention in the ’90s resulted in at least one artistic masterpiece (Achtung Baby), it also yielded, claims to irony be damned, an unprecedented amount of bloated, giant lemon excess (the Pop Mart tour).

Sonofabitch. These guys were humans, not gods, after all. Sometimes folks can walk on water, but sometimes they have feet of clay.

At any rate, after the Atlanta concert I wrote up the show and my interview with Bono for U2/USA, the unofficial U2 fanzine I published and co-edited at the time. One of the first American U2 ‘zines, we were well-regarded throughout the decade by fans and the inner ranks of U2 themselves, who routinely granted us interviews and full-access passes whenever the band toured the States. But soon enough I, too, would have my own strange crisis of faith as a result of U2’s massive fame and the Rattle and Hum debacle, eventually concluding that the tent had been dismantled and packed away.

Fast forward to 2000. The Decade of Irony has given way to the New Millennium, and with it brings a new U2 album. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is neither a return-to-’80s-roots album, although it displays a telltale “U2ish” airy ambiance and economy of movement, nor a disavowal of U2’s ’90s dalliance with dance music, despite the tasteful deployment of electronics throughout. The pervasive vibe is a sonically spare, emotionally fluent soulfulness, from the inner-strength anthemism of “Walk On” to the falsetto-flecked love ballad “In a Little While” to the Sly Stone-ish psychedelic funk that drives “Elevation.” Bono himself pointed out, in a SonicNet interview, that while in the recent past bigger may have meant better for U2 (particularly in the multimedia stage extravaganzas), for now, they just wanna take you higher with song and spirit: “To find something extraordinary within yourself . . . emotionally, we got to a place that was very raw. I think that’s what you can call soul music . . . that place where you reveal rather than conceal.”

A few months later, advance reports on U2’s “Elevation Tour 2001” would corroborate his thesis. America got its first look at the kinder/gentler U2 last December when the group put on an intimate, 75-minute club gig at New York’s Irving Plaza. Broadcast live over the radio, it spotlighted a handful of ATYCLB songs plus some vintage material (in particular a boisterous “I Will Follow” and the totally unexpected chestnut “11:00 Tick Tock”) and a couple of surprising covers (a ballad take of the Ramones’ “I Remember You”; an over-the-top encore with the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). The band was apparently still charged up a few nights later when it appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Not only did Bono serve up impromptu tributes to John Lennon and the then-hospitalized Joey Ramone, in lieu of having a lighting scaffolding to ascend and teeter from, he bolted maniacally through the studio audience and deep into the backstage area, reviving his old break-down-the-band/audience-barrier work ethic in fine fashion.

The Elevation tour proper kicked off on March 24 and 26 in Fort Lauderdale, quickly moving through the South, then up toward the Northwest and Canada, followed by a sweep down into California and throughout the West. (I’m slated to catch the band in Phoenix.)

For the tour, U2’s stage design is consistent with the themes suggested above, its elongated, heart-shaped runway allowing the band to stroll unencumbered into the middle of the audience (general admission on the floor, with concertgoers both flanking and in the middle of the “heart”) and minimalist lighting motifs (silhouettes upon translucent screens; four black-and-white overhead video panels) ensuring the focus remains squarely on the music. From anthemic readings of ATYCLB tunes — “Elevation” is played in-your-face style, full arena lights blazing; “Beautiful Day” is transcendently psychedelic — to vigorous reprises of old-school classics — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” gets the full, stomping Red Rocks-style treatment; a blazing “Bullet the Blue Sky” finds Bono prowling the stage with a hand-held spotlight, casting beams into the crowd — U2 is willing to risk those return-to-basics accusations if in the process it gets to pitch its tent again and draw the audience inside.

Wrote a New Times reviewer, of the March 26 Fort Lauderdale concert, “This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no laser show. The seasoned musicians conjured the spirit — and social conscience — of rock ‘n’ roll. Call U2’s renewed search for meaning a midlife crisis, but it’s more a symptom of a band that’s found a way to keep making plainspoken, plaintive rock music important — for themselves and for others.”

To date, set lists for the two-hour-plus shows have remained fairly consistent: “Elevation,” “Beautiful Day,” “Until the End of the World,” “New Year’s Day,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Gone,” “Discotheque”/”Staring at the Sun,” “New York,” “I Will Follow,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “The Sweetest Thing,” “In a Little While,” “Desire,” “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” “Bad,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Mysterious Ways,” “The Fly,” (encores) “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “With or Without You,” “Pride,” “One,” “Walk On.” Snippets of covers (Bob Marley, R.E.M., INXS, the Stones, Bowie) also pepper the set, and following Joey Ramone’s death 11 days ago, a tender “I Remember You” began appearing as the next-to-last song.

And it’s likely that other surprises will turn up during the tour. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, Bono notes that the band-audience empathy levels are running high: “The first night we were just kind of floored by the feeling in the room. I woke up after the first night just dreaming of the second night — that has never happened before.”

Flashback to 1988: I abruptly wake up from my own dreams early one morning. On the phone is a female calling long distance, sweet and friendly but with a note of urgency in her voice that I recognize: Over the years, while doing U2/USA, I’ve grown accustomed to taking calls from overly earnest readers desperate for some sense of “contact” with their rock heroes no matter how many steps removed that contact might be. Still, my steadily growing role as a kind of surrogate Bono isn’t my idea of journalism, and U2 essentially turned into the biggest band on the planet last year on the Joshua Tree tour, ensuring that new waves of anxious, and sometimes disturbed, fans will continue to come out of the woodwork.

“I want to play you a tape,” the girl on the phone announces, suggesting that she has some newsworthy information for U2/USA. She sketches out a few preliminaries: It’s taken from the answering machine of a young lady, described as a student and part-time model, from a rich family and attending college in Louisiana, and apparently fond of walking around campus sporting a series of U2 teeshirts. I’m told that on the eight-minute tape I’ll hear a voice, a male professing his devotion to the lady; the voice will be Bono’s.

Wondering if someone’s trying to play a practical joke on ye olde ‘zine editor using edited/doctored interview tapes, I listen closely to the recording.

Well, it’s Bono, that’s for sure; I recognize his distinctive Irish drawl right away. I hastily scratch out notes while listening to the recording. He’s voicing terms of endearment, phrases like “I feel so far away from you,” “I can’t wait to see you,” “When we meet . . .” — general expressions of loneliness and desire, with the occasional aside concerning favorite and recommended books or films.

I’m fascinated, but repelled, too. This isn’t why I started doing U2/USA, which never delved into gossip and personal lives, only the music (well, we did interview The Edge’s mum once). Married or not, Bono’s life at home or on the road is none of my business.

My caller tells me she can let me hear more at our next conversation, and while deliberately vague on certain details (for starters, why and how did she get the tape?), she doesn’t seem like a prankster. There’s a note in her voice that’s part concern, part envy, part look-what-I-discovered. She’s a fan, and this is a matter of sincere importance to her. I tell her I’ll get back to her. But I don’t, nor do I return her subsequent calls.

Not long afterward, I turn over the reins of the magazine to my fellow editors. Rattle and Hum comes out, but it leaves me cold, and besides, my heart’s just not into dealing with U2 fans full-time anymore.

A decade or so later I’m at a newsstand when an article called “The Miranda Obsession” in the December ’99 issue of Vanity Fair stops me cold. It’s a complicated yarn about a woman, supposedly named Miranda Grosvenor, who for about 15 years starting in the late ’70s managed to charm and fascinate some of the pop and film world’s heaviest hitters. Names like Billy Joel. Quincy Jones. Peter Wolf. Bob Dylan. Art Garfunkel. Robert De Niro. Director Paul Schrader. Writer Buck Henry. Super-producer Richard Perry (who fell hard for Miranda). There’s a twist: The woman never actually met her would-be paramours, but instead engaged them in protracted games of phone seduction, somehow keeping them at bay with a mixture of sophistication and intrigue — and the tantalizing suggestion that she was a very rich, very gorgeous young model-student attending Tulane University in New Orleans. Oh, and before she finally dropped out of, um, earshot, “Miranda” (her actual name was Whitney Walton) would also entertain her own friends with tapes of the male voices that crowded her answering machine — long, passionate, often pleading for a face-to-face rendezvous that would never come.

While the U2 vocalist is never mentioned in the Vanity Fair article, I have to wonder: Did I cross paths myself with “Miranda” back during U2/USA days, a girl who dedicated herself to blurring the lines between “fan” and “fantasy” and was able to pluck her own personal “bits of Bono” from the telephone lines? And did I, at the service of some vague code of integrity, unwittingly deep-six a career in celebrity journalism (scandal-sheet division) for myself? Hard to tell; this was long before the age of TMZ.

Of course, had I done the “journalistic” thing back then, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing about rock ‘n’ soul salvation, about crises of faith, and about what it means to be a fan. Upon reflection, I’m pretty happy just to be back under the tent again with U2 and their outstanding new album.

Welcome home, guys — Bono, Edge, Larry, Adam. Look outside, it’s America.

***

Photo credit: DmolaviOwn work / Via Wikipedia / Photo from the U2 Elevation Tour stop in Philadelphia, PA on 12 June 2001 at the (then) First Union Center (now Wells Fargo Center). The Elevation Tour stage design was stripped down compared to the elaborate stadium sets on the band’s previous two tours. It featured a heart-shaped ramp around the stage.