Saturday, December 30, 2017

Concert Highlights for 2017

In retrospect, 2017 was a pretty low-key year for concerts for me. No shows at big venues, but a lot of interesting lineups in more intimate settings, mostly at Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Phil and Jill Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads. I culled a year’s worth of concerts down to a dozen particularly noteworthy musical events.

Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling. Kuumbwa 2/6/17. A unique pairing of Branford Marsalis’ fiery quartet and Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling was a rare treat, particularly in the friendly confines of Santa Cruz’ cozy Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Touring in support of Marsalis’ album, Upward Spiral (also a collaboration with Elling) the ensemble brought their A-game to a concert that featured classics like “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” alongside more contemporary fare like Sting’s “Practical Arrangement” and the album’s title tune co-written by Reavis and Elling. Elling’s vocals packed a hearty punch, and Calderazzo’s and Marsalis’ instrumental excursions were dazzling but always in service of the material.

Still Dreaming with Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade. Kuumbwa 3/27/17, 2017. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Still Dreaming, a project that Joshua Redman organized in tribute to his father’s remarkable jazz ensemble Old and New Dreams, itself an ensemble formed by former Ornette Coleman sidemen that featured Coleman material alongside new compositions. The quartet, rounded out by pianist Miles, bassist Colley, and drummer Blade, did not sound derivative in the least as they breathed new life into the adventurous, open ended Old and New Dreams repertoire.

Dave Holland Trio with Chris Potter. Kuumbwa 4/6/17. I’ve never seen bassist Dave Holland deliver a bad performance, but this gig, featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks, drummer Eric Harland, and a guest slot by Holland’s old bandmate Chris Potter was exceptional.

Nels Cline. SF Jazz April 9, 2017. In 2016, guitarist Nels Cline released an ambitious double CD of orchestral arrangements of romantic ballads from a variety of sources. For this one-time-only performance, Cline flexed his muscles as conductor, arranger, and instrumentalist as he performed the album live featuring the entire cast of 22 musicians who played on the studio sessions. 

Chris Robinson solo. Kuumbwa Jazz Center June 20, 2017. For what was billed as his first ever solo concert, Robinson seemed completely at ease, performing a tasty blend of Chris Robinson Brotherhood tunes, Black Crowes songs, and covers, interspersed with some wild and wooly monologues. Los Angeles acoustic guitar duo Mapache played a very impressive opening set of finely crafted originals and gorgeous harmonies.

Chris Robinson and the Green Leaf Rustlers. Terrapin Crossroads 6/9/17. Between lengthy tours with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Marin County transplant Robinson found time to do three shows at Terrapin Crossroads with different lineups, playing a different genre of covers each night. For this show, Robinson was joined by electric and pedal steel guitarist Barry Sless, bassist Pete Sears, and drummer John Molo for a sublime mix of California country rock deep cuts from the Byrds, Burritos, New Riders and others. Apparently the band had as much fun as the audience, so they are doing another week of shows in January, augmented by Mother Hips guitarist Greg Loricano.

Brothers Comatose Shastice Park, Mount Shasta, CA. 7/17/17. On the way back from a road trip to Portland, we stopped for the night in Mount Shasta, only to discover that bluegrass quintet the Brothers Comatose were doing a free show in the town park. The group, which deviates from a traditional bluegrass format by introducing some judicious electric instrumentation, drew a couple of thousand revelers that matched the Brothers’ foot stomping, high-octane originals.

Country Joe McDonald. Freight and Salvage, Berkeley. 7/27/17. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Country Joe and the Fish album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, record producer and bassist Alec Palao put together a band of talented generation-X musicians to recreate the psychedelic weirdness of that album, performed in its entirety with Country Joe McDonald providing vocals, acoustic guitar, and summer of love reminiscences. McDonald is apparently retiring from performing after a few December reprises of this show, so it was wonderful to hear him wind up a long and remarkable career in such grand fashion.

 Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band. Terrapin Crossroads 8/11/17. Although Bob Weir is raking in big bucks and playing stadiums with Dead and Company, he found time on several occasions to play more intimate shows with Phil Lesh, along with a couple of mainstage gigs at the Lock’n Fest and Sound Summit. This gig in the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads featured Weir guesting with Lesh’s Terrapin Family Band, and consisted of one long set that blended classic Dead tunes with material from Weir’s recent solo outing Blue Mountain. Weir and Lesh maintain a remarkable chemistry, which they will explore in more depth in a short tour of large theatres this coming spring.

Phil and Stu do Europe 72. Terrapin Crossroads 9/14-15/17.  Phil Lesh has focused most of his attention to working with the Terrapin Family Band this year,  but he has also maintained a strong musical connection with guitarist Stu Allen. For these two September shows, Lesh, Allen, Alex Koford, Grahame Lesh, and keyboardist Holly Bowling took on the daunting task of covering the two albums that compiled material from the Dead’s memorable tour of Europe in 1972. Given this ensemble’s tendency to extend material relative to the originally expansive Grateful Dead versions, these were two very long and enjoyable shows.

Crosscurrents. SF Jazz Center 10/22/17. Both tabla master Zakir Hussain and bassist Dave Holland are serving as Artists in Residence for the current SF Jazz season, so it was fitting that their joint ensemble, Cross Currents, was slated for a weekend run in the Center’s Miner Auditorium. The group, which was rounded out by Chris Potter and some of India’s best young jazz musicians, played a thrilling, eclectic set of east-west fusion music that defied easy categorization.

David Nelson Band. Terrapin Crossroads. 12/10/17. Veteran Bay Area guitarist David Nelson was out of action for over a year recovering from a fractured shoulder and colon cancer. In late 2017, Nelson started making a few guest appearances with his bandmates Pete Sears, John Molo, and Barry Sless with their newest band, California Kind (also featuring Katie Skaene and Rob Baracco). This show was the first official full show by Nelson’s wonderful band (rounded out by keyboardist Mookie Segal), and it was a triumphant return to form for the group, which has become one of the most talented and beloved groups in the North Bay.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Michael Nesmith. Infinite Tuesday. Crown Archetype Press. 2017. 306 Pp.

Few artists have had an impact on more forms of creative endeavor than Michael Nesmith, although he has flown under the radar for most of them, with the exception of one of his earliest, the stint he served playing one of that pre-fab Four, the Monkees, on TV in the mid 1960s. Fans of that short-lived but influential show may be disappointed that Nesmith does not spend much of the book reminiscing about fun times with Davy, Mickey, and Peter.  Instead, Infinite Tuesday is an unflinchingly self-critical and very literate exploration of his random walk through the creative process, and of the influence fame and wealth, which visited and deserted Nesmith several times through his long and winding career, and the dangers of the self-delusion that he very accurately dubbed creative psychosis.

Nesmith's path took him from a Texas childhood, to a minimally successful stint as a Los Angeles folk singer on to the Monkees adventure followed by an economic collapse that nonetheless a series of beautiful country-rock albums. A failed attempt to run a record label led to a move to Northern California that jump-started an entirely different career. With Pacific Arts, Nesmith essentially invented the music video and the video rental industry. He narrowly avoided becoming producer for MTV, produced one of the great cult movies of all time, Repo Man and, in recent years, crafted and patented one of the earliest 3-D virtual reality environments.

Nesmith had an affinity for acquiring remarkable companions for his journey, and one of the richest parts of the book is his reminiscences of those friends, including Hitchiker's Guide author Douglas Adams, John Lennon, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Cash, director Bob Rafelson, Island Records maven Chris Blackwell, and Christian Science teacher Paul Seeley. Nesmith also delves into the roles that strong women have had in his life, starting with his mother, Bette Clair McMurry, who raised him as a single parent and later amassed a fortune as the inventor of Liquid Paper, and continuing with his three wives, all of whom he portrays as wonderful partners who he failed as outfall from his creative psychosis. What might be most unexpected in this narrative is that Nesmith views his life, and all of the creative turns it took, as essentially a spiritual quest. However, that theme should not deter those wanting a good read, as Nesmith is an exceedingly funny and entertaining writer, and Infinite Tuesday is worth reading for anyone interested in the paths popular culture has taken in the last half-century.

Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev

Years in the making, Amir Bar-Lev's marathon documentary on the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, was acquired earlier this year by Amazon, and will go live on Amazon later this Spring. It made its big screen debut at this year's Sundance Film festival, and those of us in the Bay Area were treated to the first of two big screen previews of the film Saturday night at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. The sold-out theatre was, not surprisingly, crammed with aging Deadheads, and the majority of the center seats on the floor were reserved for contributors to the film, band members and film Festival staff and supporters.

The four-hour film was presented as six cable-ready episodes, broken by a half-hour intermission near the midpoint. Although the narrative is essentially chronological, Bar-Lev chose not to take a purely historical approach, instead framing the thrust of the narrative as an exposition of Jerry Garcia's character, how central he was to the soul of the band, and how he eventually became a victim of the group's massive success in their last decade.  Bar-Lev focused on Garcia's enormous appetite for two types of stimulus, things that were fun and those that were weird, and a theme that was referenced through the entire narrative was his fascination with Frankenstein's monster, particularly as portrayed in one of his favorite films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Fun was most evident in the film's first half, which chronicled Garcia's early immersion into the world of bluegrass banjo, the assembly of the group's initial lineup through the folk music and post-beat hipster scene in Palo Alto and vicinity during the early 1960s, and their emergence as one of the most creative and ultimately enduring of the rock bands that were instrumental in defining San Francisco of the emerging youth culture in the mid-sixties. The second half detailed the bands challenges with scale, starting with the enormity of the Wall of Sound and its logistical nightmares that ultimately led to the band's eighteen month 'retirement' in the mid 1970s. Returning to the road on a smaller scale, the band gradually attracted a growing following during the next decade that ultimately led to even bigger logistical problems as they found a large gypsy community of fans that literally followed them from show to show, an issue exacerbated by their having their first hit single in 1987.

During that same interval, the band, and Garcia in particular, became drawn into the world of less user-friendly drugs, notably cocaine and heroin, as both the hallmarks of financial success and as a panacea to escape the pressures to maintain the income that would allow the band's extended community to continue to enjoy the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed. Bar-Lev basically portrays Garcia as the martyr that had to carry the burden of this stress, continuing to tour extensively even as his health grew increasingly worse, except for a brief respite in the late 1980s when he was drug free and took up scuba diving.

This story has been told before in a variety of print and visual media, including The Other One, the recent documentary that focused on Bob Weir, but what informs this film is the rich catalogue of video and still images, many not previously seen, that are used to drive the narrative. A particularly vibrant segment is some film commissioned by Warner Brothers, who asked a film crew to travel to Britain with the band to document their performance at a 1970 outdoor festival in Newcastle-Upon Lyme. What began as a routine assignment for the crew was derailed as they were dosed by the band, with the expected influence on the quality of their photojournalism.

Another rich component of Long Strange Trip is running contemporary commentary by numerous talking heads within and around the band, including lengthy interviews with all four surviving members, as well as interviews with Garcia's road manager Steve Parish, lyricist John Barlow, publishing company manager Alan Trist, publicist Dennis McNally and, most notably, some very entertaining commentary from the loquacious Sam Cutler, who served as the band's road manager from 1970-74 after meeting them during planning for the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

Even at four hours, the film omits some significant parts of the band's story. Keyboardists Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick are never mentioned, and keystone events like Woodstock, Watkins Glen, and Englishtown are not referred to either. Picky Deadhead quibbles aside, this is a tremendous documentary that captures the essence of the Dead, their approach to their art and their community, and will provide a rich tableau of what made the band the unique aggregation that it was. If the opportunity affords itself, it is well worth seeing the film on the big screen, and the Meyer sound system at the Castro, crafted by one of the wizards that brought the Dead's music to a new level of sonic excellence,  cast the movie in its best possible light.