I love it when a band transforms a venue. I’ve experienced it before – that feeling that a venue I know so well, and associate with hundreds of other live performances, has been transformed into another band’s playground. For a moment you’re transported to an alternate reality. You lose track of space and time, forget that you own a cell phone, and question what city you’re in. That’s what Nico Vega did at the El Rey Friday night.
Nico Vega Blood Machine
I’ve seen this band perform countless times and have always been impressed, but something was different this time. I don’t think drummer Dan Epand sat on his stool for more than a few seconds. With each strike of the drumsticks, Epand levitated completely. Rich Koehler was playing guitar as if it were a rocket launcher and we were all headed to another galaxy. And Aja Volkman, who is and always has been, a star, took us there.
When their set concluded, my friend looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t need to see anything else!”
I’d say we should all see Nico Vega again. Hopefully soon.
February 23, 2010
Butch Walker Record Release Show
Guest appearance by Pink
The Hotel Cafe, Los Angeles
Butch Walker and Pink at Hotel Cafe
Sometimes when Butch Walker announces a show in LA I think to myself, “I’ve seen Butch SO many times and I do love him very much, but . . . do I really need to see him again?” To which, my more intelligent, forget-that-you-haven’t-slept-since-New-Year’s, self answers, “Fuck yes, you need to see him again!!!” Then, upon taking my own good advice, and going to see Walker perform “again,” I think to myself, “Damn, I really wish he’d play here more often!” As a result, I see Butch Walker every time he performs in LA. Or, as the case may be, if I’m traveling and notice Walker is touring through the city I’m in, I’ll see him there as well. I have yet to travel to another city exclusively to see Butch Walker perform, but most of his fans have. . . repeatedly.
Let me take a minute to set the scene for you because if you haven’t experienced a Butch Walker show and his amazing, dedicated fans, then you should know about this. And for those of you who were there, or have been there before – well, you can attest. The Hotel Cafe is a relatively small room (although, twice as large as it used to be) and Butch Walker sells the place out within minutes of putting tickets up for sale. In order to accommodate as many of Walker’s fans as possible, The Hotel Cafe clears the room of the people who were there to see some of the earlier artists, and then re-opens the room only to people who purchased the special event Butch Walker ticket. Typically, at Hotel Cafe, you can pay a cover to see one artist and stay all night.
At 10:00 pm, Hotel Cafe staff “cleared the room,” which meant they moved everybody out of the performance room and into the back bar area. Walker’s set wasn’t scheduled to start until 10:30 pm. During that half hour break people could grab a drink and sit at the spacious booths in the lounge-y area, they could step outside and have a cigarette, grab a bite to eat, make some phone calls. . . they have half an hour to do whatever they like. Ignoring all of the alternative, more relaxed options, Walker’s fans crammed themselves within the small space boxed between the performance room, back bar, and women’s restroom. With the exception of the restrooms themselves, this is the tightest area of the venue.
It was nearly impossible to make my way through the crowd, to do one of the “more relaxed,” less healthy options. As I squeezed between and around people, apologizing for swimming upstream, I smiled and reminded everybody, “You have half an hour – you can do anything!” And one by one, people smiled at me, shrugged their shoulders and said, “yeah, I know.” So they stood, happy as can be, cramped among each other, peering through the glass doors as Walker sound-checked. When the doors finally did open, they poured into the room and took their positions as close to the stage as possible. In a sold-out, packed room, 99% of the people positioned themselves within the first 30% of the room, to be as close to Walker as they could get. You could have moved a 10-piece dining room set in the back of the room because nobody was standing “all the way back there.”
These are the kind of fans every Artist dreams of. For Walker, this is nothing new. These fans have been with Walker for many years, they’ve traveled around the country to see him, skipped finals, missed weddings, they were his “friends” on MySpace; now they’re his “fans” on Facebook and his “followers” on Twitter. Given the option between smoking, drinking, eating, and Butch Walker – they’ll choose Butch Walker every time. One might infer that Butch Walker is good for your health.
Once the show begins it’s easy to see why Walker has such dedicated fans. In addition to his expressive performances and songs everybody knows the words to, Walker is extremely engaging, authentic, and quite simply, silly. After playing a few songs from his newly released album, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, Walker asked the crowd, “Did anybody get the record today?” A majority of the audience cheered in affirmation. “I mean, did anybody get it legally?” As people responded with laughter, Walker clarified, “I mean, it’s okay. . . however you get it. . . I just want to make sure you know the words.” In reality, Walker’s fans did purchase his latest album legally, propelling I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart to #1 on the iTunes Top Albums chart on the afternoon of release. It’s currently still holding at #14.
As Walker played song after song off his new album, fans sang along. Between songs, there was a constant dialog between Walker and the audience. At one point, somebody shouted “Say ‘happy birthday’!” “It’s not my birthday,” Walker pondered bewildered. After giving it a moment to process, Walker continued, “Oh, it’s your birthday!! Not my birthday. . . What is this? Chuck E. Cheese’s?” Then, as only Butch Walker would do, he worked a “happy birthday” shout-out into the next song. He later reflected, “The whole time I was playing that song I was thinking about what a dick I was about the whole birthday thing, so I had to acknowledge the birthday – Happy birthday.”
Walker prefaced his performance of “She Likes Hair Bands” with a little insight, “This song is about hair. I used to be in a hairband and it’s haunted me forever. . . thanks to Google. Y’know, you think you’re gonna be cool; you think you’re gonna be alright; you think you’re gonna escape that old high school reunion photo. . . and then, there’s Google. . . and Classmates.com” Walker, accompanied by his band The Black Widows, belted out these words with a very catchy tune:
So Baby, lay down
Nobody is around
Watching as our bodies
Slowly sinking to the ground
Throw away your phone
and your inhibitions too
There’s a hundred dirty things
That I want to say to you
Upon finishing the song, and to bring things back full-circle,The Black Widows suggested that they record the video for “She Likes Hair Bands” at Chuck E. Cheese’s, with the Chuck E. Cheese Band. “Better yet,” Walker suggested, “because my mind immediately goes to demented places, the video should be of US playing the song to kids at Chuck E. Cheese’s and freaking them out.” (Now read the lyrics above again). Everybody laughed as Walker continued his set.
Pink joins Butch Walker
One of many highlights of the show was when P!nk joined Walker to sing “Here Comes The. . .” off of Walker’s previous album Sycamore Meadows. Now, P!nk may write very catchy pop songs, but the woman ROCKS. I’ve never actually been to one of P!nk’s concerts, but I have seen her jump on stage with Walker a few times. And every time I see her, I like her even more than the last. Like Walker, Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) is genuinely, 100%, who she is. And she is fuckin’ awesome. When they finished the song and Moore walked off stage, Walker began, “That was. . . ” and then looking at his long-time friend, Moore, said with a chuckle, “YOU!” The audience laughed. “It just feels so weird to say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – PINK!’” Walker added. [Scroll down to see video of Walker's duet with P!nk]
It’s important to clarify that although Butch Walker fans may not jeopardize their place in line while waiting to get into the venue in order to get a drink, once they’re inside, it’s a different story altogether – everybody is drinking. One of the reasons people clamor to get into Walker’s shows is because the shows feel like a party at your best friend’s house, when the parents are out of town, and the liquor cabinet is freshly stocked. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Butch Walker show without hearing a glass break (and as we’ve already established, I’ve been to many).
A few songs and several broken glasses later, on a gracious note, Walker said, “Sorry it took us so long to make this record. Well, actually it didn’t take us that long to make the record – it just took us a long time to get it to you. It only took 5 days to make the record. . . that was a year ago.” He then thanked everybody for buying the album (these really are the fans every Artist dreams of). “It’s great to see it do so well.”
There’s one moment during all Butch Walker shows that, without fail, the dialog, laughter, and sometimes even the sing-alongs come to a halt; and that moment is when Walker sings “Joan.” There’s deep reverence, respect, and complete silence every time Walker sings this song. That’s the impact of Walker and his music – he will take you from the happiest, catchiest, highest of all highs, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, and you won’t want to miss a thing.
Walker finished the set with a favorite from his Marvelous 3 days, “Cigarette Lighter Love Song.” As he sat at the piano, trying to get started, Walker announced, “I didn’t plan to play this long. I thought I’d be peaking at the 4th drink and then I could leave the stage. . . and now I’m up here. . . and the white keys look like black keys, and the black keys look like white keys, and you’re like, ‘I know you’re not gonna get this right.’” That’s OK though, because in contrast to the audience’s revered silence during “Joan,” there’s one moment during every Butch Walker show that, without fail, everybody in the room finds themselves singing along at the top of their lungs, and that moment is when Walker sings “Cigarette Lighter Love Song.”
February 17, 2010
Hotel Cafe, Piano Bar, and everywhere in between
What is Adventures In Rock? On one hand, it’s what happens pretty much every night of my life. But more than that, it’s an idea my friend and talented musician, Jamie Drake (JD), and I (CW) came up with while hanging out last week.
You know those moments when you’re with your friends, laughing, having the time of your lives, and the question arises: “how can we keep doing this forever?” As we sat around a table at The Hotel Cafe, with some of our favorite friends late one night last week, Jamie and I decided that, at minimum, we’ll relive it the next day by writing about it. In addition to my live music reviews, we’ll post an Adventure In Rock once a week. . . for now. But if you like the series, we certainly have enough material to do it more often. At times we’ll include video, audio and interviews; we’ll always include pictures. And while we may set out to share one story, as the night evolves, so may our original concept. Chances are, that will happen more often than not.
The musicians we’re spending time with are not only talented Artists, at various phases of their careers, but are also really stand-up (depending how much they’ve had to drink), great people. They’re some of the most loyal, funny, dedicated friends we have. Some of us have been hanging out for close to 10 years. Some of us – Jamie and I, for example – have only known each other for a few months, but it feels like years. Over time, and through various Adventures In Rock, you will get to know some musicians and venues the way we do – after a show, instead of a show, during a show, at the 24-hour diner after the bars close, on the couch the morning after. Sometimes you’ll get insight into what was really going through a musician’s head when he or she wrote that song, designed that cover, ordered that “last drink.” Other times, you’ll learn that the sad, serious, always lonely singer-songwriter is actually one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet (while also sad, serious, and always lonely) or that the outlandish, wild, crazy drummer is actually quite shy.
So as Jamie and I started dreaming up adventures. . .
JD: we just began throwing out ideas about how we could share this community of music with other people out there who might be interested in reading about how “exciting” our lives were – or rather – how we are all just about the same. We love Frisbee. We love music. We love good beer (Colette prefers good tequila) and real people. We also just wanted to somehow make all of our artist friends feel super rad. You know, we musicians make about 2 bucks when it comes down to it. We have this undying desire and message we have to share with the world, and sometimes the world just doesn’t give a damn.
CW: Also, musicians carry a wealth of information. Touring allows them to explore various cities around the world, often at odd hours. If you ever find yourself in an unfamiliar town, Tweet a musician – chances are they can tell you the best bar, favorite bartender, taco stand, 24-hour diner, and perhaps some stuff you’d rather not know.
JD: So while we were sitting amongst some of the coolest people on the block at this round table of sorts, I had some good news to share: “Soooo… You wanna see the album cover for my first record?”
CW: “Yeah! Break it out!”
JD: (Turning to Cary Brothers, who was sitting next to me at the table) “Speaking of album covers, I saw yours via Twitter the other day. I totally dig it.”
CW: “Let’s see it, Cary!”
Cary Brothers Under Control
JD: Cary took out his iPhone and pulled up a very cool black and white photo of him facing west with a fresh hair cut and of course, wearing that darn leather jacket he’s always got on.
CW: Meanwhile, around the other side of the table, some of our other friends (who will remain nameless for now) were conjuring up ideas for “useful” Apps. The definition of “useful” takes on a new life after a few drinks. Of course, we were entirely focused on Cary’s new album cover so we hardly noticed those other people. Although, since we’re adept mult-taskers, we may share this with you in the future.
JD: The font on Cary’s album cover was in the most possible badass font: comic sans. Totally kidding. In hearing him chat to someone about it a few weeks before viewing the photo, he had said that this was finally the album cover he had always wanted. Apparently, when he was visiting friends or something, one of his buddies just started taking some photos and they ended up being really great. These are the kinds of cool things I really dig about being an artist. Not having plans all the time and just seeing where the wind blows.
CW: I’ve known Cary for. . . I’ve lost track of how long, but many, many years. For me, it’s been extremely fun, inspirational, and gratifying, watching from the sidelines as my friend created all aspects of his latest album, “Under Control,” exactly how he wanted to. The album cover was the remaining piece I had yet to see. As Cary showed us the final artwork, I smiled, “that’s you!” That may not seem like a profound observation, but every time somebody is able to express themselves authentically, without interference from people with different agendas, it’s to be celebrated. Just as the songs do, Cary’s album cover is an uncompromised expression of who he is, at this stage of his life. There’s a sense of confidence and stability, now that Cary has it all “Under Control.” Or, as he often puts it, is “all’s growned up now.” Don’t worry – he still smiles, drinks whiskey, and has a lot of fun.
After we had ample time to absorb Cary’s album cover, Jamie whipped out her phone and scrolled through photos until she found her album cover.
Jamie Drake When I Was Yours
JD: Taking my Blackberry Storm out of my old raggy purse that I got at an Urban Outfitters 4 years ago (and should probably replace), I pulled up my album cover. I was a little nervous to be honest. Having this be my first “legit” album (well, that’s yet to be determined), there was the fear of laughter at how green I am as an artist. I mean, I was sitting next to Cary Brothers, come on now.
CW: I wish I had a picture of Jamie with her Blackberry Storm and Cary with his iPhone. It looked like a simultaneous showdown of technology and art. I love it when those intersections happen. Anyway, Jamie passed her phone around so we could check out her album cover.
JD: “So here’s my album cover…”
CW: After considering it for a bit, I turned to Jamie and said, “I know that a lot of thought and work goes into this, so I say this with the utmost respect and sensitivity, but essentially, you and Cary have the same album cover.”
Now, as you can see from the pictures, the covers themselves look nothing alike and each one illicits a completely different mood. I went on to explain that just as Cary’s album cover boldly expresses where he is in life now, Jamie’s does as well. Theoretically, that’s what the album cover would do – express the artist and the music – so I also know this isn’t a revolutionary observation. But when you actually know the Artist, you have additional insight into how accurately this reflection is portrayed. Speaking of reflections, I later learned that the photo on Jamie’s album cover is literally a reflection. . .
JD: “Oh yeah, that’s interesting.. I see what you’re saying about them being ‘the same.’ My friend who took the photo, Daley Hake, just had this idea of shooting my reflection in a puddle and then adding texture by layering a photo of skyline in the water… kinda looks like I’m in space…”
CW: “Wait, that changes everything. I thought you were looking up toward the sky, but in reality, you’re looking down in the water?” It was one those mind f*ck moments where my eyes had seen one thing, my mind processed it a certain way, and then Jamie flipped it upside down. “I love how that shifted my perspective. That’s the kind of stuff I think we should let others in on.”
We asked Cary to share his thoughts, but he was unavailable to comment. Actually, we didn’t really ask him what he thought. Instead, we stood up and along with Austin Hartley-Leonard, The Brother Sal, Marko and Matt Ramsey, we headed to Piano Bar where more Adventures In Rock ensued.
The secret’s gonna get out. I might as well be the one to tell you. . . But know this – I have been to several amazing events at this venue and have yet to write about it (and I tell you everything!), precisely because it really is one of the best kept secrets in LA.
A little while back (and more than once) – Ben Harper. A couple weeks ago – Brett Dennen. Tonight – Jackson Browne. Whenever it happens, whether you know their names or not, you will be treated to great musical talent at The Stronghold. The ones whose names you don’t know are often as spectacular as the ones you do know. As Jackson Browne said (in reference to his surprise appearance), “Welcome to The Stronghold – where anything can happen.”
Browne was phenomenal. He played a handful of songs including “My Stunning Mystery Companion.” Each song turned into a jam session within this intimate house-party setting. Also outstanding – Steve Postell, Amalia K. Spicer, Debra Dobkin, Shannnon Moore, Tariqh Akoni on guitar, Peter Adams on keyboards, and Mark Gorman on bass. It was a perfect night of music.
Great talent at The Stronghold
Now imagine you’re a teenager (unless you are a teenager, in which case you don’t need to imagine) and you climbed out of your bedroom window, sneaked over to a barn on a neighbor’s property and stumbled upon all of these great musicians jamming. You glance over at your friends and the stylish people in perfect-fitting denim, and give each other knowing looks – “this is where it’s at.”
The evening winds down as the morning approaches. You say “goodnight,” scurry back home, and slide back into your bedroom, undetected, just 2 hours before your alarm is due to go off. The next morning not a word is spoken, but you know – and those who were there know – you were just part of something very special. That’s what it’s like at The Stronghold, and you feel it the morning after.
Without going into much more detail because I think you get the idea, it is important to mention that everybody at The Stronghold is exceptionally nice. They’re not scary-nice, nor what-can-you-do-for-me nice, nor I’m-high nice — they are simply genuinely kind, good people. When a venue’s team treats people well, they attract a generous and respectful audience, exceptional talent, and loyalty amongst both performers and fans.
Well, beginning 8:30pm ET today, you can see for yourself. Black Dub will be streaming their Bowery Ballroom set live on Ustream.
If you’ve never been to The Bowery Ballroom, then you’ll get to see 2 great things for yourself.
Just remember – “seeing” is only scratching the surface. Eventually, you’ll need to experience it for yourself. The next time Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub is playing anywhere near you, go check ‘em out. And the next time you’re in the New York area, stop by The Bowery Ballroom – regardless of who’s playing – it’s one of my favorite venues on the East coast.
Priscilla Ahn was tonight’s “Special Guest” at The Hotel Cafe. Ahn reflected, “I like ‘Special Guest’. . . I’ve been ‘and more.’ Like when the flier says, ‘so and so’ and ‘so and so’ and ‘so and so,’ ‘and more,’ and I’m the only other one, so I must be ‘and more.’ Yeah. . . ‘Special Guest’ is nice!”
The reason for Ahn’s guest appearance was so she could try out new material before heading into the studio to record. It’s a good idea, really – to see how it feels to play a song live before you record it.
Ahn began the set by warning, “I’m playing all new songs tonight, so you can’t scream out, ‘Play Dream, gd dammit!’” She then paused for a moment, as if to confirm something, “I’m pretty sure I’m gonna mess up every one of these songs.” After taking a minute to tune (and breathe), Ahn struck the first chord and sang her first note. “”Ok, I messed that up. . .”
If that’s the case, then I hope Ahn messes up more often. Note after note, song after song, Ahn delivered a captivating performance. To say Ahn sings songs would be to oversimplify things – Ahn sings stories. Every story she sang tonight described universal aspects of life, love, loss, belonging, and uncertainty. The subject matter of Ahn’s music is universal, but it’s not cliche. In fact, Ahn’s music goes straight to the core truth and vulnerability that you tend to keep safely tucked away.
"Tonight's the night to try new things"
From a tune about being a lost cause to a song about an awkward elf, Ahn weaves you through a web of emotions and reminds you that you’re not alone. At least one other person has felt this way before and everything turned out okay. Or, maybe it didn’t, but we’re still here, so let’s just embrace it. . . “This is something I must live with,” Ahn sings.
Among my favorite new Ahn tales was a song about taking a different route to the coffee shop one day and meeting a cute guy. Break out of your routine, take a different approach, you will be rewarded. There should be far more children’s books that expound this wisdom. Try something new, do things differently, LIVE.
Ahn also introduced what she called her “one romantic song,” with a working title of “Torch.” You know this story – the one about that one love – THE one love. There may have been many loves before and many loves since, but that one person is the only one who really knows you; the only one you really opened up to. You experienced something more profound and intimate with that person because you allowed yourself to. A lot has happened; life continues to happen, but no matter what, you will always share something with that person that can’t be described. But — if it could be described, it would be this song.
I don’t know if you could hear a pin drop when Ahn performed tonight, but you could hear a bottle cap drop, and that seemed far more appropriate.