Thursday, August 30, 2007


I don't go to a lot of shows anymore—not after spending years being forced to go to a million clubs to check out a zillion crappy bands as an A&R guy, and not in the midst of the new golden age of episodic TV, which makes the living room my primary entertainment destination (Big Love and Mad Men rule). But last weekend, I decided on a double shot of live music, and I didn't have to twist Peggy's arm, cuz the prospects were too good to pass up: spend a weekend freeloading with our friend Cindy on the Mesa in Santa Barbara, and heading over to the impossibly picturesque County Bowl on consecutive nights to see Crowded House on Saturday and Wilco on Sunday.

Formed a decade apart and half a world away from each other, Crowded House (Auckland, 1985) and Wilco (Chicago, 1995) turn out to have a whole lot in common. Both bands are led by supremely talented, disarming and charismatic writer/singer/guitarists in Neil Finn and Jeff Tweedy, both sport sounds rooted in the 1960s and ’70s, and both enrich songs that would be memorable presented with just a vocal and acoustic guitar with intricate detail, while always leaving space to stretch out, particularly in live performance, at which both excel.

This outing would take place just two weeks after I made my first amphitheater foray of the summer to see Squeeze with Fountains of Wayne at the Greek, an experience recounted in the previous entry—an IM exchange with sometime fellow Music Snob Roy Trakin. We’d disagreed about where to put Squeeze in the rock firmament; remembering Andrew Sarris' useful categories for filmmakers, I’d said Far Side of Paradise might best describe the band's status, and I later added that I'd probably put Crowded House (who remind me of Squeeze in terms of their roots in the Beatles and their inventive melodies and chordings) on the same level of significance.

But after seeing them Saturday night, I'm tempted to make a claim for the band’s bona fide greatness. The fact that they have a real grower of a new album in Time on Earth enabled CH to sprinkle the setlist with new material without disrupting the flow. It’s no small thing that recent songs like “Nobody Wants To,” “Heaven That I’m Making” “People Are Like Suns” and the epic “Silent House” (written with the Dixie Chicks, who recorded it on their latest LP, Taking the Long Way).

I’ll confess that I’d forgotten how staggeringly good Crowded House has always been at elevating Finn’s songs to godhead onstage. And that has never been any more deliriously evident than it was on a gorgeous Saturday night, under a nearly full moon and wispy clouds, with this new lineup. From the opening number, “Private Universe,” which the band turned into a withering anthem in the manner of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their best, it was dramatically evident that this was far from the mellow, tuneful pop band most people imagine when they think of the group’s records—on this night they reached for, and sustained for two hours, all-out majesty.

American keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart, who was on hand for the final phase of CH’s first incarnation, plays a truly essential part now, expanding the band’s sound with deftly executed accents, including some tasty forays on lap steel, singing spot-on harmonies and taking flight alongside Finn as he elevates the solo sections into the stratosphere. Even more surprising was the virtuosic muscularity of new drummer Matt Sherrod, an Angeleno best known for his work with Beck, who drove the band's forward movement onstage with the chugging mass of a locomotive—and looks like he's having a blast while he's at it, which adds to the momentum and helps make CH as fun to watch as to listen to. Afterward, Cindy said, "Geat show," just like that—she italicized it. Peg and I seconded that emotion. We practically levitated back to the car.

What stunned me was that Crowded House’s set turned out to be even more memorable than Wilco’s, though both bands put the pedal to the metal in the rarefied dimension they share—stretching out the songs and taking them somewhere truly magical and previously unexplored (which is how Deadheads view the live experience, I imagine). That’s not to disparage Wilco, who were transporting as well once they warmed up after a slow start—apparently looking for a way to connect with the mellow crowd (they live in paradise, after all), like boxers feeling each other out. The first four or five numbers were beautifully played but distant, and the crowd sat passively, as if watching a recital.

That changed when they launched into “Impossible Germany,” the extended three-guitar symphony that is the sublime high point of the band’s latest opus, Sky Blue Sky, with Tweedy and the versatile Pat Sansone playing Allmanesque harmony lines while the alarmingly gifted Nels Cline danced around them like a punk Nureyev. The moment of explosion that takes climaxes the song was also the moment when people in the crowd not only got to their feet but started moving toward the stage—and that was all Tweedy and company needed to take the performance to another level of intensity. From that point onward it just kept getting better, and, as with Crowded House, the drummer quaterbacked the coordinated rhythms of the other players. Glen Kotche proved to be a force of nature, soaked to the skin on this cool night, his hair flattened against his skull, sweat flying off him, grinning like he was exactly where he wanted to be in the universe. It was a sheer joy to watch him.

The rest of the set was as rocked-out as it was disciplined, and a bunch of the irresistible highlights came off the new album, like the Cline showcase "Side With the Seeds," a rhapsodic "On and On and On" and "Walken," which seemed to contain all the best parts of my record collection, from the Beatles to Kings of Leon. They topped off by a raging workout on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which gave these focused players a chance to really let it all hang out in what has become a signature fusion of control and abandon.

They had to encore with “California Stars,” which seemed to have been designed especially for this lovely spot on this glorious moonlit evening.

For a compare and contrast, click here to read Roy's thoughts about Wilco's show Wednesday night at the Greek (you may need to do a ridiculously simple registration). It's on the site we jointly edit (so to speak), I get up early to do the morning shift; he stays up late going to shows three or four times a week, so he takes afternoons. We like to think of it as a synergistic relationship.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Once upon a time (from 2004 till early last year), Roy Trakin and I had a site called (with no www), sponsored by Sony Connect (soon to be defunct), on which we dia-blogged using IM. Indulge us now as we relive those carefree days, comparing notes on what I’d been anticipating as THE guitar-pop bill of the summer: Squeeze with Fountains of Wayne. It started with an aside...

Bud: Squeeze was really good at the Greek.
Roy: they were... i thought fountains were pretty good, too. very enjoyable....
Bud: They have a lotta memorable songs, and the band still cooks.
Roy: I met Bret from Flight of the Conchords backstage... My big thrill of the night.
Bud: Whoa.
Roy: "Brit... Brit... Best show on TV!!" No Jemaine in sight, though. But I love Bret.
Bud: Me too. Interesting seeing all the power-pop connoiseurs there last night. Including Glickie and Julia.
Roy: Ahhhhh... good for them... It was definitely a night for the savants. It's hard to put over good pop music in a setting like that, but they both did, I thought.
Bud: Yup. FOW suffered a bit from semi-obscure song choices and murky sound, apart from drums. But the patter was hilarious—Adam Schlesinger is a very funny dude.
Roy: FOW's comment about giving 70% in a venue that was 30-40% full was pretty funny.
Bud: Loved that 30-40% line.
Roy: funny... Michael Hartman said it was one of the most self-deprecating things he'd ever heard a band say onstage.
Bud: In truth, I thought they gave a solid 85%, which is the best you can expect without the energy of an adoring crowd.
Roy: neither band are what you'd call powerhouses live, though... that was my only problem... It really was just about the music.
Bud: Omigod, we’re unconsciously doing Music Snobs!
Roy: i was just thinking the same thing.
Bud: I'm saving this, just in case.
Roy: Difford and Tilbrook... Scoppa and Trakin... together again.
Bud: There you go.
Roy: those two really do have a nice chemistry with their vocals... very distinctive. Chris and Glenn, that is.
Roy: The high and the low.
Bud: Love the contrast. To me they're a power-pop Steely Dan—very dry and acerbic.
Roy: I thought it was a good show, but it was hard not to be "bored" a little by it all... Just my take. But Squeeze was good... It's incredible to realize none of those hits ever really crossed over to the Top 40 here. They seemed ubiquitous to me.... I dunno. There were at least seven-eight songs I remember... even album cuts.
Bud: They were central to my life. Loved that they went to "I Think I'm Go Go." But then, I was their A&M product manager in the beginning.
Roy: When was that song from? I didn't remember it.
Bud: Argybargy. Great album. “Mussels,” “Nail,” “If I Didn't Love You.”
Roy: That was my favorite, too... The only comparison I can make is to Hall & Oates... Same kind of R&B/Motown feel...
Bud: They're my fave kinda pop band—one that grooves. That's what I loved about the Odds. You have to be able to really play to pull that off.
Roy: the band was pretty impressive when they stretched out.
Bud: Exactly.
Roy: I argued with Hartman afterward... I thought they were second-tier, but underrated as opposed to Elvis Costello, who's better, but overrated. And first tier.
Bud: I rate Squeeze higher than you do.
Roy: that's all... they certainly write better pop hooks than Elvis. Kind of a B+... is my assessment. Just below the pantheon level.
Bud: They're part of my parallel universe HOF, along with the Tubes, Todd, Dolls, Gram Parsons, Little Feat, Roxy Music...
Roy: in an Andrew Sarris vein. I can see what you mean... very underrated... I mean, classically so.
Bud: Far Side of Paradise is a reasonable category to put them in.
Roy: there you go.
Bud: Love the Sarris categories. Lightly Likable is very handy.
Roy: he was always one of my favorites when it came to lists... sort of the original Nick Hornby
Bud: He was indeed… By the way, I watched Friday Night Lights on your recommendation. Just watched the first-season finale.
Roy: did you get a copy of that FNL DVD?
Bud: No, I DVR'd a bunch of episodes and just finished last night. Awesome show.
Roy: what a wonderful show... put a lump in my throat at least several times per episode...
Bud: Exactly.
Roy: The relationship with the Coach and his family is so real.
Bud: It starts there.
Roy: I don't think there's a better depiction of the modern American family.
Bud: Big Love, mebbe—by exaggeration.
Roy: well, that is the nuclear family times three. it just explores the various sides in an unusual situation. This season of Big Love has been superb, also.
Bud: It has indeed. This is the new golden age of TV, that's for sure.
Roy: I heard one of the ESPN commentators last night on Sports Center calling referencing Flight of the Conchords. Someone got a clutch hit to start a rally, and the anchor went, "It's business time..."
Bud: Love it. Bret and Jemaine are taking over.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Every so often, pop hits an especially fruitful patch—a passage of time in which several artists simultaneously appear with records that raise the bar for everyone else. It last happened two springs ago, when Beck’s balmy Guero, Spoon’s minimalist epic Gimme Fiction and Coldplay’s grand X&Y brightened the landscape with their comparably delectable juxtapositions of slam-dunk hooks, phat grooves and overall inventiveness. Happily, it’s happening again, and has been since the very beginning of 2007, with a combination of young bands that are growing—Kings of Leon, for starters—and old-timers who have revitalized themselves. Here’s a playlist, which also fits onto two CDs—but doing that would be so 2006. Check it out—the titles are compelling all by themselves.

/ Midway 2007
The Shins
, Sea Legs
Spoon, Don’t You Evah
Fountains of Wayne, Strapped for Cash
Mark Ronson f/Amy Winehouse, Valerie
Arcade Fire, Keep the Car Running
Crowded House, Don’t Stop Now
LCD Soundsystem, Get Innocuous!
Kings of Leon, Knocked Up
Wilco, Walken
Amy Winehouse, Rehab
The White Stripes, Rag and Bone
Feist, My Moon My Man
The Shins, Phantom Limb
Spoon, Rhythm & Soul
Wilco, Impossible Germany
Kings of Leon, Trunk
Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová, When You’re Mind’s Made Up
Crowded House, Nobody Wants To
Spoon, The Underdog
LCD Soundsystem, Time to Get Away
Fountains of Wayne, Someone to Love
Kings of Leon, Fans
The White Stripes, Bone Broke
Arcade Fire, Intervention
The Shins, Sleeping Lessons
Feist, 1234
Peter Bjorn & John, Young Folks
k.d. lang, Help Me
Crowded House, Silent House
Wilco, Side With the Seeds
Kings of Leon, Arizona
The Honeydogs, Heads or Tails
Markéta Irglová, The Hill
Wilco, Either Way
Neil Young, Tell Me Why (live, 1971)
The Shins, Red Rabbit
Fountains of Wayne, Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim
Jackson Browne, Oh, My Love