A movie I really wanted to see – Where The Wild Things Are - opened at midnight and I forgot all about it. The Flaming Lips were playing a “secret” show at a pop-up store in Hollywood and I didn’t care (although I did wonder how they would fit that big bubble in there). I haven’t slept (much) in days, but I wasn’t tired.
Daniel Lanois, the man who produced some of my (and your) favorite albums of all time, was playing at Troubadour last night and that’s all that mattered. Considering the room was so packed that it became impossible to navigate through the crowd to get to the bathroom or the bar, I’m not the only one who felt that way.
Lanois does more than produce – he’s a songwriter, musician, and quite possibly stylist to The Edge. He epitomizes “cool” and may even love music more than me. Well, he certainly loves music more than he loves me, but he may also love music more than I love music. If that’s possible, Lanois is the one to do it.
Lanois’ Black Dub features Brian Blade on drums, Daryl Johnson on bass, and Trixie Whitley adding vocals, keys, and more percussion. Whitley is the daughter of the late great blues guitarist and singer, Chris Whitley. On June 10, 1997, I stood wide-eyed in the center of the Troubadour, as Chris Whitely made me question my taste in those whom I had previously thought of as good musicians. That night, twelve years ago, Chris Whitley opened my eyes to another level of musicianship.
Similarly, Lanois’ Black Dub reminded me of a band I’d stumble upon in New Orleans. If you haven’t been to New Orleans, here’s how it works: you can walk into any club (often without paying a cover), at any time of night (literally), and see a level of musicianship you didn’t know was possible, by a musician you’d never heard of. You’re left standing there, as the words “music” and “musician” are redefined before your eyes and you’re not sure how you’ll listen to anything else again. I know this about New Orleans, yet every time I’m there I text my friends in the middle of the night: “THIS is music.”
Lanois, Whitley, Johnson
Lanois’ Black Dub IS music. I didn’t have to text anybody last night because my friends and a room packed with people who “know” music were there, in complete agreement. Trixie Whitley belted out songs as if that’s what she was born to do. She picked up the guitar and played as if that’s what she was born to do. Then, mid-song, she’d move to the drums and play as if that’s what she was born to do. Next thing you know, Whitley is hammering away on the keyboard as if that’s what she was born to do. Whitley IS music – no matter what she’s doing, playing, or singing – and her stage presence exemplifies passion.
“Passion never goes out of fashion,” Lanois said between songs. He then went on to share his gratitude for the gift of music. He also shared his gratitude for those who are not musically gifted, but who play the supporting roles necessary to help ensure the music is heard. Although they call themselves Lanois’ Black Dub, it didn’t feel like the night was about Lanois. “I love singing harmonies,” Lanois explained before launching into the harmonies of a song called “Sing.” “When you sing harmonies, there’s no room for ego. It’s not about you. It’s about the blend.”
Black Dub: The Perfect Blend
Last night’s show was about the blend. Whether they were playing “The Maker,” a rockin’ version of “Ring The Alarm,” or a song I’d never heard, the spotlight wasn’t on one person – Johnson, Blade, Whitley, and Lanois shined equally. It was some of the most talented musicians looking at each other with admiration, as if to say, “Holy sh!t! I can’t believe you just did that!” In fact, Lanois spent much of the night playing with a huge smile on his face. Lanois’ Black Dub is a group of musicians who are playing music because it’s fun, playing music because they love it, playing music because they can’t live without it, and playing with each other because they can.
As with all the amazing music experiences noted above, I found out about Brett Dennen’s performance at Library Alehouse via Twitter. Dennen announced this show with a Tweet, at 1:43pm today. I re-read the Tweet a few times because Library Alehouse is not a music venue (not that all shows must take place in a proper venue, but. . .). Library Alehouse is one of my favorite pubs slash restaurants in Santa Monica. They have an amazing selection of beer on tap, including a few that are hard to find elsewhere (I only know this because I’ve been there with some guys who know this). They also have a great year-round outdoor seating area in the back (I know this because that’s where I like to sit).
Brett Dennen at Library Alehouse
So when Brett Dennen Tweeted that he was going to be performing at Library Alehouse for a Carson Daly taping, I thought perhaps he had one too many glasses of really good beer. Yet the Tweet was very specific and Library Alehouse was on the way home (as “on the way” as anything is in LA), so I decided to stop by. Good thing I did because Dennen was entirely sober and indeed performing at Library Alehouse tonight.
I first became aware of Brett Dennen several years ago (2004-ish), at The Hotel Cafe. Marko, who co-owns and books the venue, told me I had to come down and “check out this guy Brett Dennen.” I remember it was a late show. . . No, actually. . . Whoever had played before Dennen started late (or ran over time) which pushed Dennen’s set back. It was approximately 11:43pm on a weeknight, after a very long day, and with an early morning ahead of me. If anybody else told me I needed to be out that night, I would have ignored them. But when Marko tells me I need to see someone, I show up.
Consistently, 0n any given night, The Hotel Cafe has a solid line-up. It’s the kind of place you can go, even if you don’t recognize the names of the artists playing, and be guaranteed to hear some good music. In fact, I often go there “on the way home” because I’m certain to hear something I like. Marko doesn’t call me every time an amazing musician is playing at Hotel Cafe (if he did, he’d be calling me four times a day). So when he does say, “you’ve gotta come check this out,” I don’t question it; I just show up.
In the case of Brett Dennen, that meant I was one of approximately 8 people in the room when he performed what are now some of his most requested songs. He was, without a doubt, phenomenal which left me thanking Marko profusely and questioning where everyone else was. It also reminded me of a time when I was one of only 5 people seeing Jack Johnson perform at The Mint several years prior to that. In both instances I wondered how long it would take for people to catch on. And in both instances the answer was: not very long at all.
Brett Dennen at Rothbury 2009
The next time I saw Dennen perform at Hotel Cafe the room was packed. The time after that it was sold out. After playing a few sold-out shows at Hotel Cafe, Dennen graduated to larger venues, but he’d often come back to Hotel Cafe and play special shows. The last time I saw Dennen perform at Hotel Cafe, not only was it sold-out, but people hovered outside the window on Hollywood Boulevard, with their ears pressed against the glass, straining to hear as much of the show as possible. Most recently I watched (or rather, danced) as Dennen performed to thousands of fans at Rothbury Festival.
So that’s Brett Dennen – nobody knew about him, then everybody knew about him, and now those who know him on Twitter are the ones who knew to show up for his Carson Daly taping this afternoon. And just like old times, we were among the few (40 people) who got to experience this show.
Dennen began by playing a brand new song, “Dancing At The Funeral.” It’s not as morbid as the title may lead you to believe. “Dancing At The Funeral” is a song about celebrating life, an important message to share. Next, at the request of the audience, he played “Desert Sunrise,” a song off his debut album. Dennen spoke about his fond memories of the Bay Area and how he weaved a break-up storyline into the song prior to playing “San Francisco.” “It’s really a love song,” Dennen said. “I love that city.”
Next, he told a story about recording “Heaven” with Natalie Merchant. Like several artists, Dennen likened the song to a child. But unlike other artists, Dennen’s “child” had a different upbringing. Hopefully they leave that story in the show so you can hear it for yourself (I’d only f*ck it up if I tried to repeat it). Dennen finished the set with “It Could Make You Cry,” another ironically happy tune.
And with that, the show slash taping ended, and some really good beer was the substitute for an encore.
Oh Largo, you’re like a dependable old lover. Even when I try to walk away from you altogether, you lure me back in with the pull of good music and the allure of your distanced “I’m going to serve you from behind the safety of this gate” stance. Although I successfully resisted your temptation since Butch Walker played there December 4, 2008, you sucked me in once again.
And it was even better than I remembered.
“Trust a little in Largo” was the door guy/ticket guy/MC’s response to a question I asked about seating. I’m sure he has a name and I’d like to know it because he’s one of the reasons Largo exceeded my expectations tonight. The other reason is, of course, Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop (Travis).
Andy Dunlop & Fran Healy
Healy explained that the concept of this tour was to play songs chronologically from the first song he wrote to the most recent song he’s written. The idea is that they’ll write a new song every couple of days, and perform the new song as the last song of the set in the next city they play. “At the end of the tour, we hope to have written an entire new Travis album,” Healy remarked.
Whereas the model has been: make a record and then go on tour to support it, Healy and Dunlop flipped the model to: go on tour to support the making of the record.
Already, I loved them.
Then they played the songs, each preceded by Healy’s entertaining commentary. Healy introduced “20″ as a song he wrote when he was 19, realizing the best years of his life may be coming to an end with his twentieth birthday. “People make a big deal out of turning 21,” Healy said. “But really, it’s 20 that’s the big deal because that’s when 17, 18, 19 come to an end. And those are the best years because you’re doin’ everything for the first time.” Healy also noted that this is the first song he wrote that he felt was a good song; a sign that he could make a career out of this.
If there’s one thing I like better than ice cream, it’s a funny musician. Healy introduced “All I Want To Do Is Rock” by showing a slide show about Scotland. He gave a humorous geography lesson and then ended the slide show with a picture of his view from the window in the building where he wrote the song. There was a longer story about “Turn” which boiled down to being “a song about wishes. A song full of wishes.”
“It’s an A&R man’s dream when a lead singer gets chucked,” Healy reflected. “Now he’ll write some proper songs,” said Healy, mocking the overjoyed A&R guy. This insight set the stage for Healy and Dunlop’s performance of “A Funny Thing.”
“Flowers In The Window” was written in a house where Travis once stayed. The host introduced the band to the home saying, “Everybody writes a song here.” Rebelliously, Healy thought to himself, “well, I’m not writing a song here.” But that all changed after he received inspiration while looking at flowers in the yard, through a window (and his obstructed view the morning after).
It seemed as if the guys were playing all my favorite Travis songs. In addition to the songs previously mentioned, they played “Good Feeling” and “As You Are”; “Writing To Reach You” and “Sing.” Tonight was the 4th night in a row they played Largo and Healy said they’ve changed the set every night. Although the songs themselves may change, one thing is consistent night to night – Healy and Dunlop remain true to the original concept, playing the songs chronologically during each performance.
Healy spoke about the inspiration for “Why Does It Always Rain On Me” which was written during a trip to Israel. Somebody told him it would be sunny there (his one prerequisite for the vacation) so he journeyed to Israel. The moment Healy arrived it began raining, and this song was written.
Healy also spoke about the lyric: “I’m being held up by an invisible man.” “The invisible man is the A&R guy or manager who’s holding you up (supportively) so you can finish the record. Of course, there’s a double entendre — they’re ‘holding you up’ (Healy positions his hands as if they’re guns) for the record as well.” Healy looked at the audience and continued, “I’ve never explained that to anyone before.” Then he looked at Dunlop, “I don’t think I even told you that. . .” Dunlop nodded in agreement.
Another lyric Healy discussed is: “pillars turn to butter” from the song, “Driftwood.” He was looking to complete the lyric with the idea of one thing evolving into another, to follow the “Nobody”/”Everyone” dichotomy of the previous line. “Caterpillars turn to butterflies” was the original line, but it was too long to fit the form of the song so Healy abbreviated it to “pillars turn to butter.” “But that changes the meaning again. It’s another good visual – these strong pillars turning to butter,” Healy elaborated.
I spoke with the guys for a bit after the show. Dunlop described how much fun these shows are and how they differ from a typical Travis tour. “We don’t want to get comfortable during these shows. When we’re on tour with Travis, we want to get comfortable because we’re going to be playing these songs over and over again, each night with the band. But here – we don’t want to get comfortable. There are some songs we may play every night, but we make the experience different. Especially since we’re playing four shows in a row at the same venue – we don’t usually do that. We’re aware that some people might come to more than one show and we don’t want them to think, ‘Oh. . . here we go with this again. . .” Dunlop elaborated.
We also discussed the current state of the music business. Healy and Dunlop are now off the major label and releasing music independently. Dunlop reflected, “Music is getting back to what it used to be – small record shops, independent labels, the musician and the fan, spending time with our audience, more intimate shows and settings.”
I asked how they conceived of the idea to go on tour as the central creative process for writing another record. Again, it was to do something different – to keep the tours and the music feeling fresh. Dunlop shared his outlook, “You know, we may get nothing out of it. Or we may get a lot out of it. If nothing else, we get to travel all around and see some beautiful places.”
Then I shared a perspective, telling Dunlop, “We’d like it if you’d release a double-CD; one CD with all the commentary and another with the acoustic song performances.” Dunlop mentioned that they’ve recorded everything from each show so far and that they may release it following the tour.
As of now, if you’re lucky enough to attend one of these shows, you can purchase a CD comprised of 80 minutes of live audio recorded during this tour.
The last time I was at the Henry Fonda Theater it was to see Nine Inch Nails’s second-to-last concert (theoretically) ever. NIN absolutely destroyed the place! Not cosmetically, but existentially. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever experienced. They took all my previously fond memories of past concerts at that venue, crumpled them up, and made them seem like insignificant moments in time. A reader posted the following comment on my review of the Nine Inch Nails show at Henry Fonda Theater:
September 11, 2009 at 6:37pm
They should just burn down the Fonda, because there will never be a better show there again.
If they leave it standing they should no longer be allowed to have any more concerts there. b-ill-one
I’m not condoning arson, but I couldn’t have agreed more. Something so outstanding took place that night that the Henry Fonda could have closed its doors forever and nobody would question it.
Fever Ray at Henry Fonda Theater
Well, it’s a good thing they stayed open because, tonight, Fever Ray resurrected the Fonda ghosts and turned that venue upside-down. . . again. Does that make it right-side up now? If so, then the Henry Fonda is back in business.
I will admit that between opening acts I looked up at the stage and nostalgically felt that Nine Inch Nails show all over again.
But the instant Fever Ray hit the stage, all thoughts dissipated as the characters (aka the band) – led by Karin Elisabeth Dreijer Andersson (formerly, The Knife) – transformed the Henry Fonda Theater once again. Fever Ray’s full, layered sound filled the room, complemented by the pulsing laser show. There were costumes and face paint, and fans swayed in reverence.
I don’t believe a word was spoken on stage between songs and if so, I was too entranced to notice. You didn’t just hear the music, watch the lights, see the smoke – you felt the music, felt the lights, felt the smoke (some more than others).
This has been one of the most anticipated shows in LA since the tour was announced on May 12, 2009. It may remain among the most talked-about until May 12, 2010. . . or whenever Fever Ray returns.
By the way, speaking of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor was at the show tonight, but nobody seemed to care. Every now and then somebody returning from the bar or restroom would say, “Hey – Trent Reznor’s here!” And without turning their head, without shifting their eyes, the friend would respond, “yeah. . . ”
So this is what it’s like to go to a Fever Ray show: your friend can tell you that your hero just walked in the room, and as if you were talking about the color of the carpet, you’d say, “yeah. . . cool.”
If I could sit next to one person on a long flight, it would be Nick Hornby. That is, of course, assuming he’s always in a good mood and likes flying. I’m sure I could think of other people I’d like to travel with if I really put my mind to it, but I don’t have time for that kind of thinking at the moment – I’m on my way out to another event.
That’s not to say I’m picking Hornby because I’m in a hurry. Quite the opposite actually. Hornby is one of my favorite writers and he also happens to love music (possibly more than writing). So we have at least two fundamental things in common. Though the topic of music was discussed tonight, we didn’t even scratch the surface of where we could go during a good eight-hour flight. “I wish I brought my iPod with me. It makes it a lot easier to answer that question,” Hornby said when I asked him what new artists he’s excited about. “I really like that Elvis Perkins record.”
“No, no. . . But I’ll check them out. Their names are easy enough to remember,” Hornby replied with a laugh.
So this is why I’d like to be on a long flight with Hornby – so we could discuss music at length; so that we could trade iPods for an hour and introduce each other to new music; so that I could subliminally (or perhaps overtly) encourage him to write more than one book every two to three years; but mostly so we could talk about music.
Music is an integral part of several of Hornby’s books. Music is the device utilized to unveil Rob Fleming’s stories of love and loss in High Fidelity. Music is the reason Will Freeman has never had to work a day in his life in About a Boy. Songbook is a non-fiction work by Hornby that is dedicated to discussing pop music and the ways in which it moves us. And, Hornby’s latest release, Juliet, Naked is about the connection between a couple and a rockstar who underwent a self-imposed early retirement.
Hornby doesn’t just use music to set the scene of his stories. He uses music to help define his characters. In some cases he uses music primarily to define his characters. We learn about their neurosis, fears, losses, and perception of love based on the music the characters choose to listen to. . . or choose not to listen to. When reading Hornby’s books, music adds another layer of emotional connection and understanding. We all remember the songs we broke up to, songs we made love to, the first concert we went to, our favorite mix tapes and who gave them to us (well, not everybody remembers the days of cassette tapes, but I do). . . so when Hornby references similar experiences in his stories, you don’t just read about them, you actually feel them.
Tonight’s free event at Skirball Cultural Center included a reading and Q & A session with Hornby. I’ve never been to a book reading before. Typically, I choose books (like Hornby’s) that are written so that I can hear the character’s voices in my head. I don’t need the voice of somebody reading to me cluttering my mind. Thankfully, Hornby read the characters exactly as I hear them which means he’s either a really good reader or a really good writer. The evidence seems to prove he’s both.
Following the reading, Hornby answered several questions from the audience. I was happy to learn that Hornby is as quick-witted in person as one might expect given his body of written work. For those of you who haven’t read Hornby, that last sentence is another way of saying he’s extraordinarily funny (as are his books).
Hornby answered questions about his influences, characters, story locations, and favorite music. About his writing process Hornby said he has an office that’s approximately a 10 minute walk from his home. “The office started mostly because of kids – just having a place they couldn’t mess up,” Hornby began. “I enjoy the walk to the office. I don’t work weekends or nights. I don’t bring my work home with me. I do a day’s work . . . which equates to about 43 minutes of writing per day. I dream of that 43 minutes happening at the beginning of the day and then I could leave, but that never happens.” Hornby went on to explain that he typically answers emails, hunts for new music online, gets a burst of inspiration and writes what he can (which generally lasts just a few minutes) and then he goes back to looking for new music online.
“You know, if you commit to writing 500 words per day – which isn’t really that much – then you should be able to write a book in under a year,” Hornby calculated. “But books seem to come out every two to three years. Something seems to have gone wrong. There’s a lack of productivity,” Hornby laughed with the crowd.
Hornby went on to to discuss some recent collaborations, including an album he’s working on with Ben Folds which they hope to put out in the Spring. Hornby sends Folds the words and Folds sends back the songs. I look forward to hearing that album.
In the spirit of High Fidelity, somebody put Hornby on the spot and asked him to name his “Top 5 Acts of all time.”
“Live? Or Recorded?” Hornby asked for clarification, also in the vein of High Fidelity.
“Whatever you want,” the man replied.
“This is really hard. . . Well, I guess in terms of lifetime plays: Springsteen, Dylan, Marvin Gaye, J. Geils Band, and. . .” Then, Hornby went on to explain that he used to listen to J. Geils Band all the time as a kid. “I used to think if I could be anyone, I’d want to be Peter Wolf,” Hornby added. “The thing is, sometimes your favorite music isn’t what gets the most plays. Sometimes, it sits on a shelf and you just know it’s there. . . that’s what makes this so hard. . . I like the new Elvis Perkins – I’ve been listening to that a lot.”
“What I really like is finding new music. That’s why I’m a writer. . . because you have all day.”
Hornby is currently on tour, promoting his latest release, Juliet, Naked. If you like music, or if you like to read or laugh, then try to go see Hornby during his remaining tour dates. If you don’t like music, reading, or laughing, then I’m not sure why you’re here.
Although I was there tonight, I respectfully decided not to cover the final Thom Yorke show in order to give the real journalists time to catch up with the news and post more than a “quick take review.”
Besides, you don’t need me to tell you what happened. . . Somebody has probably already posted the entire concert on YouTube.
It seems you need to give the New York Times your email address (if you’re not already a member) if you’d like access to their article now. However, if you read the NYT review, this post makes a lot more sense.