Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Tape from California [SF report #1: J. Gilberto live]

Freshly returned from San Francisco, and here's the promised update on last Friday night's João Gilberto concert at the beautiful Masonic Auditorium high atop Nob Hill. (Guess I'm not the only one out there blogging about the show, as this ecstatic notice indicates.)

The seats I was so worried about turned out not to be so bad at all: full profile, no obstruction, fairly close. The odd angle simply gave me a unique perspective from which to view Gilberto's artistry. It's a shame I don't know shit about guitar technique, because I probably would have learned a lot about his approach this way. As it was, I was mainly able to appreciate what I assume was the set-list--not the usual 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, but a poster-board-sized monstrosity probably better suited to his 72-year-old eyes. (Believe me, I can relate.)

The crowd was pretty much what I expected: a mix of jazz fans, old-school bossa fans in their 50s and 60s, youngish hipsters, and a few transplanted Brazilians. Sadly, lots of them arrived fashionably late (probably to avoid the non-existent opening act), which meant more and more of them would loudly scurry to their seats after every number. From what I'd read, Gilberto is the sort to abandon a show when he's unhappy with the acoustics or pissed about audience behavior, so I was practically expecting either a mass reprimand or a walk-off, but neither was the case. He entered to a standing ovation, took his seat on the bare stage, and played song after song with only the slightest of banter, usually either in Portuguese or in barely intelligible English. About the only thing I was able to make out all night long was something like, "Please wait while I fix guitar," at which point a new one was brought out. About 45 minutes into the show he left the stage--to thunderous applause, of course--and then returned to play what we all assumed was an encore... and then another, and another, and another ... the unending string of which turned into pretty much a second full-length set. Maybe the premature departure was really just a chance for him to stretch his legs? Pee break?

The songs were uniformly gorgeous. Novice that I am, I only recognized the hits--"Desafinado," "Chega de Saudade," and the show-closing "Girl from Ipanema"--but every single number was a treat. (Judging from the lack of recognition applause for all but the biggies, I gather the rest of the crowd was equally unfamiliar with the material.) From the moment he began singing the very first number, in a voice often no louder than a whisper, I "got" exactly what he was all about more clearly than I have from any recording I've heard so far. As I see/hear it, it's all about the challenge of singing softly in a large room--being big and small at the same time. This kind of tension would be impossible to pull off without microphones, and yet there's an amazing sort of one-on-one intimacy in the performance.

Some artists (Dylan, Madonna, Neil Young, Caetano) change one or more aspects of their style several times over the course of their career, and the appeal comes from witnessing the transformations. Others (Leonard Cohen always comes to mind first, but the last several Arto Lindsay albums are another good example) keep doing minor variations on the same theme for decades, and that can be fascinating, too. Gilberto is definitely in the latter category, and given how constant his sound is, particularly when it's produced by just his lone voice and guitar, I expected to lose interest after a while, but in fact the longer he played, the more I came to appreciate that particular texture. His voice has clearly aged over the years, but it's still a joy to listen to. (You can get a good sense of the texture I'm referring to from the 2000 album JOÃO VOZ E VIOLÃO, a copy of which I found at another point during the trip--it's a combo of old and new songs, all performed with just his guitar as accompaniment.)

Don, who entered into this little adventure cold, was more engaged than I would have expected. I don't think he was blown away, but he stayed with the performance the entire time; when João walked offstage the first time, his response was, "That's it?" --which is certainly better than, "Alright! Now we can get the hell outta here!"

One highlight for me was an incredibly charming rendition of Gershwin's "'Swonderful" during that super-encore. His phonetic pronunciation of the only English lyrics of the night gave them a delicacy and vulnerability that made me smile. (Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure he just kept repeating the chorus, dropping all the verses, so it started to feel like a nursery rhyme after a while.) Speaking of merriment, a woman in the row in front of me felt compelled to giggle near the end of each song. I'm not sure why, except that the music was so light and perfect that good-hearted laughter seemed an entirely appropriate response.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Shake Your Moneymaker [AXE BAHIA 97]

I've acquired so much new music lately that I'm facing an enormous backlog of discs I plan to write about here sooner or later. They'll all have to wait while I report that this afternoon I purchased a CD with the single most appalling cover in my collection (aside from a couple of Blowfly albums from the early 1970s, but I'll cut him some slack because he's ... well, Blowfly).

The album in question is called AXÉ BAHIA 97; I bought it used (and cheap) out of growing curiosity about what axé music sounds like. Gringos like me generally associate Brazil with bossa nova, samba, and tropicalia, and that's about it. But the stuff the majority of Brazilians actually listen to these days is apparently axé, and so I felt I had to hear it for myself. (For the record--based on very limited exposure--it's your basic transglobal party music, big and unsubtle and designed with machinelike calculation to get large numbers of intoxicated people dancing when played at top volume. Lots of singalong choruses and synthesized drums and horns. At my most generous I'd say it reminds me of the soca albums I heard sometime in the mid80s, but to be more accurate it just sounds like the disposable "Latin pop" that was supposed to be the next big thing in the wake of Ricky Martin and company. The group that strikes me as most interesting on the first couple of listens is Banda Eva; I was a little disappointed with the Timbalada selection after reading a lot of promising stuff about them.) (On another sidenote, if anyone reading this can recommend some truly enjoyable axé, please post a comment.)

Anyway, the cover: it's two women's bikini-clad butts in close proximity to each other and not much else. (Hell, why depend on mere words? Here, you can see it for yourself.) The back cover is more of the same, only we can make out a little more in the thigh and bosom department and the butts are nudging ever closer. Open the jewel case, and underneath the disc itself the two butts are at last in direct, if awkward, contact with each other. I was really embarassed to approach the counter with this thing; kinda reminded me of the day I had to buy a copy of Playboy for work because of an album review it contained. Even if I were a straight man, I can assure you this is not the kind of image that would float my boat. (Believe me, there are dozens if not hundreds of equivalent packages for gay circuit party mix CDs, and they're just as tacky.)

Just what does any of this have to do with music? Nothing, and everything--because I've always contended that you really can judge a book by its cover, and an album by its graphics; maybe not completely, but it's all about context. Would I have bought an equivalent album of Stateside party music--say, "HOOTERS PRESENTS BOOTY-BOUNCIN' HITS OF '97"? (That's a hypothetical example, but I guess the JOCK JAMS series is the real-life one I'm looking for.) Easy answer: Absolutely not.

I'm sure I'm not the only armchair admirer of Brazilian popular music with selective tastes. (Okay, so I bought AXÉ BAHIA 97, but that was more of a sociological experiment, and one I'm not likely to repeat.) Likewise, I love lots of electronic stuff (Autechre, Aphex Twin, etc) but have very little interest in most of the stuff that actually gets played at raves and clubs these days, and my fondness for country music doesn't really include most of the chart-toppers of the last two or three decades. As for my beloved Beach Boys, the only reason I own a copy of "Kokomo" is that it's on the same boxed set as the previously unreleased SMILE tracks I really wanted.

In other words, I confess I'm one of those people who often feels more comfortable studying pop culture from a safe distance than getting down and dirty with the real thing--like my friend who teaches Cultural Studies courses in Orlando but wouldn't dream of going to Disney World for the fun of it. (Analogy #2: I grew up in Louisiana, and had zero interest in Cajun music until I moved two thousand miles away.) I remember reading a review of Lee Breuer's "Gospel at Colonnus" -- the musical adaptation of the Oedipus story featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama (or was it Mississippi?) -- in which the critic pointed out that 90% of the audience digging the gospel tunes Off Broadway wouldn't be caught dead in a black full-gospel church.

Is this distance such a bad thing? I don't really have a simple answer, or any answer at all for that matter. I don't see any harm in constructing my own highly selective version of Brazilian music (heavy on Caetano, light on the lambada) or electronica (Underworld yes, white-label hit-of-the-moment no) or country (thumbs up for Robbie Fulks, thumbs down for Brooks & Dunn) or whatever. The only real danger is when a student of a given culture convinces him or herself he's a native -- that he sees the whole picture when he's really only looking at the parts he finds the prettiest.

As Arto Lindsay observes in a 2002 interview in THE FADER: "I don't see myself as Brazilian, even though I make Brazilian music. ... If you move to New York, you're a New Yorker in six months. If you move to Brazil, you'll be the gringo even if you live there your entire life."

Monday, June 21, 2004

"Disco e cultura"

From an All Music Guide essay on Brazilian music:

"The inscription 'Disco e cultura' (Records are culture) that appears on many Brazilian albums demonstrates an awareness on the part of Brazilians that their music is an authentic expression of who they are, that it is an uplifting, unifying force. It is at the same time a universal language understood everywhere, enriching all who listen."

Well, I'm never too sure about that "universal language" business (there are too many other factors that shape our taste and openness to individual works of art), but the rest of this strikes me as pretty interesting: the handy little motto, for starters, and the notion that record albums are as legitimate a contribution to culture as, say, books or movies. And there is something to be said for the way that a shared interest in a particular song or genre of music can bring people together.

That's what I like, and what I find frustrating, about Blogger's profile template: you're asked to name your favorite music (among other things), and then you can find out who else out there shares your taste in a given artist or song, which could certainly be a way to build community. But I find it really bothersome to have to isolate certain artists as "favorites." I like a lot of stuff from all over the map, and I don't really expect anybody else to enjoy both 70s-era Beach Boys and truly noisy Aphex Twin songs. And what qualifies as a favorite, anyway? I'm eager to hear from--and learn from--other folks who are fascinated by Brazilian sounds from the 40s through the current day, and that (incredibly broad range of) music is certainly a timely passion of mine, but over the course of my life people like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison (to say nothing of the Clash and Gang of 4) have played a much bigger role. Yet I'm not really that interested in tracking down more Clash fans; I don't think we have that much to say to each other beyond, "Yeah, that song is really good" or "Boy, it was sad when Joe Strummer died."

More to be said on all this when I'm not so sleepy.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

I Can See For Miles and Miles (I hope)

When I promise "musical obsession," I deliver: My partner Don and I are going to San Francisco for Gay Pride next weekend, and thanks to, a very helpful guide to Brazilian music in the Bay Area, I learned that João Gilberto himself is playing the Masonic Auditorium on Friday, June 25. Hooray! This would be exciting enough in itself, but I've spent the last several weeks reading Ruy Castro's history of Bossa Nova and getting an extraordinarily intimate portrait of the artist as a young (eccentric, stoned, slacker) man, so the chance to see him as an old (eccentric, not so stoned) man seemed too fortuitous to pass up. Tickets are not cheap, but not as expensive as I would have expected given the stature of the performer and the size of the city. Well, ours are a tad pricey: by the time I found out about the show, there were no seats left except in the middle-to-upper price range. (I'm embarrassed to say how much that is, but I recently shelled out almost as much for nosebleed seats for -- brace yourself, my hipster reader -- Bette Midler. She's somebody else I should write about here sometime ... but not now. Anyway, I confess it gets easier to pay the big bucks after you've broken your own personal limit the first time.)

Things might not have been so bad had I jumped at the opportunity the minute I saw it, but sticker shock held me back. Don will be entering into this thing with no knowledge whatsoever of the guy, and he's not exactly joining me in this thrill ride through Brazilian culture, so I was skeptical. (I didn't even think of dragging him to see Brian Wilson a few summers back; I'm sure he would have preferred to spend the time having oral surgery.) But it turns out he's open to the experience--and hey, we'll be on vacation, which is all about spending money, right? (His words, not mine.) Meanwhile, I decided to search for a few reviews of recent Gilberto shows to get an idea of what we might be getting into: transcendence, or a guy coasting on his 50-year-old reputation? I found enough evidence of a still-fresh performer to take the plunge. (I also came across a warning about -- my analogy here -- Nina Simone or Van Morrison-level unpredictability/volatility, but that only served to excite me further; the weirdest concert I ever attended was an Al Green show over a decade ago, and while the oddness was underwhelming at the time, it has provided me with great memories and a great story ever since.)

Alas, when I returned 24 hours later to the website where I'd planned to place my order, there were suddenly no tickets at all available. Damn! He who hesitates... Undaunted, I tried another online option, where I did find a pair of tickets -- still in that pricey mid-range, this time labelled something like "partially obstructed; extreme rear view." (Hey, I've seen that porn tape...) By this point, though, I'd completely talked myself into the whole experience, potential fiasco or no. So I clicked the appropriate buttons, fed those credit card numbers into the machine, and one week from tonight I'll be watching a living legend's ass for two hours.

I promise a complete report after the fact. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

And words are all I have ...

Thanks to my pal Richard Wicka for tipping me off to the phenomenon of MP3blogs, which evidently started here. Just now I was listening to Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy sing "Kiss Me (With Your Mouth)," a staple of college radio in the 80s, while reading the blogmeister's thoughts on the song and comments from six readers. Lordy, a new web-craze is born every two minutes, I swear. (I suppose this means mash-ups are So Two Years Ago by now, right? The only thing that saddens me about these quick flareups of creativity is how quickly they get discarded, thus replicating the idea of planned obsolence from consumer culture.)

I don't think I want to go the MP3 route myself at the moment. I enjoy the challenge of trying to convey the sound, or more importantly the appeal, of music with words alone. (God knows how many albums I've picked up thanks to a review by a writer whose taste I trust.) But it is nice to be able to let people know what a given song sounds like, particularly since much of what I intend to write about here is pretty obscure. And something tells me I'll be checking out "FluxBlog" and its many successors quite a bit in the months to come, at least before they're all superseded by some even newer innovation.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Cosmic Ray

I can't help thinking Ray Charlespicked a bad time to leave the planet, what with all the hubbub over a certain freshly dead president and all.

Why, just a few hours before I heard the sad news about the Genius of Soul, I was wondering who would play Mother Teresa to Reagan's Princess Di: the unfortunate soul deprived of adequately detailed posthumous tributes in the wake of another, more glamorous, fatality around the same time. (I seem to recall Stanley Kubrick dying too close to somebody else, too, though I don't remember whom now.)

I somehow doubt Ray Charles eulogies will be as plentiful as those for R.R.--even though I must humbly suggest he probably left just as big a mark on the planet in his own (significantly more life-affirming) way. Because all his major work was done before I became aware of him, I never had the chance to encounter it in its freshest state.

Unless you count the first time I saw Bruce Conner's short film "Cosmic Ray" back in college long long ago. The song that formed the soundtrack was so exciting, so catchy ... and it was Ray Charles singing "What'd I Say."

Many years later, about a week after September 11, 2001, I held a performance/media event in my home to give people a chance to express whatever it was they were experiencing in those charged days, and a friend of mine brought a tape of Mr. Charles (that doesn't sound right!) singing "God Bless America" as his contribution. Some of the audience members, already weary of the flag-waving on the streets of the U.S., were annoyed by what they probably felt was yet another instance of mindless nationalist fervor, but to me there's a huge gap between Kate Smith (for instance) singing that particular anthem and Ray Charles. In that gap is a whole version of America that the current Reagan nostalgia trip seems determined to suppress.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


The sole cultural advantage to living in my particular suburb of Buffalo, NY is the ability to pick up CIUT-fm, a freeform station out of Toronto, on my car radio. Like all such stations I've heard, there are some really exciting shows and some not-so-exciting ones. Tonight I caught an interview with DJ and experimental electronic musician "Herbert," a.k.a. Matthew Herbert, a.k.a. Dr. Rockit, a.k.a. lots of other stuff. He sees the sampler as a tool for making music out of literally anything; some of his earliest experiments involved crumpled paper, vegetables, you name it. I'm almost always a sucker for interesting combinations of rhythm and noise (too much of one without the other gets annoying after a while), and I couldn't wait to hear his project -- in the guise of Radio Boy -- called THE MECHANICS OF DESTRUCTION.

All of the sounds on the album are sampled from the detritus of our culture--a trip to Mickey D's on the track "MacDonald's," a pair of blue boxer shorts from the Gap on "Gap," etc. Liner notes on the website discuss the background of each corporation, and coolest of all, the album is distributed for free by download (at TigerSushi, an internet radio station/music store I've totally got to check out in more detail) and by mail.

And the music? So far, three tracks in, I'm loving it; Herbert hits that delicate balance of concept and execution. The idea's great on its own, but the songs are, well, actual songs, not just Cage-y sound collages you'd only want to hear once before moving on.

If this all sounds like Matmos, the duo who devoted an entire album to the sampled sounds of plastic surgery and related medical procedures, the connection is intentional; some of their side projects appear on Herbert's labels, he uses some of the equipment they developed, etc.

I've got eleven more tracks to download sooner or later, but here's your spur-of-the-moment report from the frontlines of a new discovery.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Big Idea

So I'm in this Brazilian Music Phase lately. It's been building up inside of me for, oh, I don't know how long: a compilation here, a label sampler there. An earlier day job of mine had me writing publicity for Arto Lindsay's recent albums, and his immense knowledge of the subject (to say nothing of his own beautiful work) really got me going. Friends have passed along a few albums and individual songs over the years, too. But a couple of months ago I picked up a used copy of Caetano Veloso's PRENDA MINHA live album and something snapped. The stuff of his I'd heard before that point had been so-so -- I liked the late-90s LIVRO album, was mildly appalled by his 80s-era PERSONALIDADE hits compilation. And even PRENDA had some low points, but the high points were so high that I was hooked; within a week I'd acquired two more live records, both of which were even better than "Prenda." (And one which was way worse. Details to follow in another post, if I remember.)

This bout of Caetanomania provoked hours of web searching which led me to Joe Sixpack's "Slipcue Brazilian Music Guide," an amazing resource in terms of album reviews, artist profiles, and other info as filtered through one man's very specific perspective. His writing can be very funny (urging readers not to avoid a certain album because of the singer's hairstyle on the cover, for instance); it's always smart and entertaining and just plain good. And it's addictive: I can spend hours reading reviews of albums I'll likely never hear. (Of the ones I have heard, I tend to agree with his assessments 9 1/2 times out of 10.)

Meanwhile, I've been hitting not just record stores for more discs but my local library, which has a deep, if eccentric, CD catalogue, and eMusic,, eMusic, a pay-download service I subscribe to (took me a while to catch on to their strengths, namely specific indie labels, and now that I've got the hang of it, I'm hooked). Been reading books on the subject, too. Now I'm scarfing up everything from folk music of the 1930s to electronic stuff from just a year ago.

In the process, I thought of starting a blog about Brazilian music, but honestly, I can't imagine shedding more light on any of it than Mr. Sixpack does. (One thing I can do that he doesn't do is encourage readers to post comments/recommendations of their own.)

I still intend to write about the music I'm learning about and listening to right now, but I've decided to broaden the focus here and look at/contemplate/write about the larger notion of musical obsessions in general. After all, the current Brazilian Phase is only the latest in an ongoing series of them over the course of my life: the Beach Boys a few years ago, electronic music a few years before that, old country/western before that, and so on. None of these tastes ever leaves me completely, it just moves to the back burner after a while. The pattern is typically the same from genre to genre: initial introduction, obsessive bingeing, gradual tapering off, incorporation into my daily life, new obsession, return to square one. Which, if you think about it, is not unlike the arc of a romance. (And a similar connection between art and eros is depicted in the titles of Pauline Kael's collected film reviews: I Lost It At the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang , etc.)But culture consumption in American culture is never simply about love, it's got to be about money, too, or at least the love of objects and the desire to collect them.

So that's the big idea, at least to start out: me, immersed in one kind of music for the moment, thinking about other immersions and the very idea of immersion/obsession, and wondering if you, dear reader, experience the same. Drop me a line in the comments section if you feel so inclined. Meanwhile, I'll be busy importing Rounder's THIS IS SAMBA! VOLUME 2 into my iTunes library...