From Mountains to Music Criticism

How does a month spent alone in the Sierra Nevadas stack up to spending a night with four local bands?

My friend Tate is an awesome guy. I've known him since sixth grade, when we played in our first band together. Tate was a guitarist, owned a sparkly silver Ibanez, and could shred. I could not shred. But Tate, in teaching me to play Metallica songs like "One" and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)," did his best to correct that. When we weren't jamming, we were vandalizing. (Ask our seventh-grade teacher and the Huntington Beach Police Department about that one.) In high school Tate was that rare blend of superjock and supernerd. We bonded over the latter, eating pot brownies at debate team events and pulling all-night cram sessions for pre-calculus, as I marveled at the fact that he got straight A's and played linebacker for our varsity football team. Tate was destined for greatness. He could have been a senator, a CEO, or a Buddhist monk. Today, he studies frogs.

It's cooler than you'd think. Tate makes routine expeditions to the most remote regions of the Sierra Nevada mountain range as part of a team that researches amphibians for UC Berkeley. Last year he spent roughly three months in the woods -- by himself -- studying salamanders, which are nocturnal. For more than 100 consecutive nights Tate's only company was the newts and his guitar. He grew a long beard and nearly went crazy. See what I'm saying? Awesome.

Last week I added another achievement to Tate's ever-growing list: music critic.

On Wednesday evening it was dumping cows and turtles, and for the 10th or 11th night in a row there was nothing going on. (This is the last holiday season I ever spend in this town.) I found but one show that seemed worthwhile, a four-band bill of unproven locals playing for free at Café Du Nord. It would be like Showtime at the Apollo, I told myself, mostly tedious but offering the slim chance of seeing something great. And just like Apollo, it would be the perfect place for an amateur critic to try out his stuff, even if he didn't know that that's what I had in store for him.

The two opening acts were a soloist named Chelsey Fasano and a band called the Periphery. Fasano reminded me of a kind of character you always see in movies about people in their 20s, that sensitive singer/songwriter girl who plays an acoustic guitar and writes songs about her ex-boyfriends. The Periphery wasn't as innocuous: It reminded me of Train. What I told myself, though, as Tate and I stood watching and sipping our beers, was that these acts were still green, still learning, not quite ready for prime time. I, for one, would refrain from dissing them. Instead, here are a few random observations, directed at no one in particular:

1) If you are a guitarist playing leads to fill out your friend's solo acoustic ballads, do not begin unplugging and packing up your 19 pedals as your friend wraps up her last song. This makes everyone in the audience think you don't give a fuck.

2) If you are the frontman for a band, do not advise the stationary people in the crowd that they can dance if they'd like. They know this. They are most likely not dancing because they find the music shitty.

3) Unless you are a Christian rock band, do not use a phaser or a chorus pedal. Ever.

4) Your capo will not save you. If you are a singer/songwriter, you must learn more than three chords.

5) If you are a rock band, unless you want to play songs like "Brick House" at weddings your whole life, you need to create an original sound. This does not mean borrowing a different band's sound for each song; do not do Led Zeppelin one minute, Cameo the next. Throw out your entire CD collection. Teach yourself to play left-handed. Drop acid or, better yet, DMT. Do whatever it takes to expand your creative horizons beyond "Ramble On."

"Man, you're so sardonic tonight," Tate observed toward the end of the Periphery's set as I laid out these observations to him. "Is this what it's like being a critic?"

"Yeah, this is what it's like," I said.

"Don't suck me in."

6) When playing your musical instrument onstage, do not wear a peach-colored button-down shirt with the collar arranged over the lapels of your black blazer. The only people who are allowed to do this are Tom Jones and David Hasselhoff.

This last one was directed at Minipop, the third band, although the group hadn't offended me. To tell you the truth, the five-piece act (three of whom were cute girls) wasn't half bad, sounding like a warm-fuzzy tribute to Sigur Rós, Stereolab, Heavenly, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Rilo Kiley, Madder Rose, the Stone Roses, and Belly. Being the evil bastard I am, however, Minipop's set was the point at which I had to suck Tate in. I handed him my notepad, wished him luck, and left for a cigarette.

"Tate here. Sorry to be so critical, but as a substitute critic, I feel that that is what a critic should do. Minipop: a band any girl would love. There's three girls, talented, playing catchy music but undifferentiated (was that a word?). Anyway, as a band you hear in a club, definitely entertaining, but I think owning the album would be a disappointment, a bit monotone. But maybe I'm just resentful because I'm single and can't be with the pretty girls in the band. Well, you're back [meaning me], I'll let you take it from here."

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