As I looked around at the lot of us -- at the throng that had shown up to this, the second of two sold-out Joanna Newsom shows as part of Noise Pop 2005 -- I couldn't help but flash back two years, to a cold and rainy February in 2003, when Newsom played what was her third show ever, downstairs at Café Du Nord. Back then we had to restrain ourselves from laughing when an earnest girl in bluejeans and boots sat down next to an instrument we'd never seen anyone at an indie rock show play before: a harp. A few weeks after that I saw her open for Cat Power at Bimbo's, where she plucked and cooed her way through her set, which ended, as it still does today, with "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie." If memory serves, she was wearing the same turquoise dress that night at Bimbo's as when she made her television debut last Thursday, on motherfucking Jimmy Kimmel Live.
I mean, did you see it? Talk about surreal. There's Kimmel -- former co-host of The Man Show, which bestowed upon the world the large-jugged-lasses-on-a-trampoline gag -- sitting next to macho NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who in turn is sitting next to Pat O'Brien, the sleazy host of The Insider. And then Newsom. In recent interviews the harpist has tried to dispel the oft-reported myth that she is "childlike" and "innocent." Unfortunately for her, on JKL she came off looking like Little Orphan Annie next to these three yahoos. Nevertheless, I was on the edge of my seat as she powered her way through "Sprout and the Bean" for a TV audience of millions.
Two years ago I wondered how in the world this songwriter would ever make it. Sure, she had the kind of raw musical talent that makes me pee myself with glee when I witness it, but she also played a gigantic, immovable harp, and her lyrics contained more $5 words than a Greil Marcus screed (could someone please pass the "poetaster"?). That kind of thing might play in San Francisco and New York City, but in Tampa Bay? Indianapolis? So imagine this: Last Thursday night, tens of thousands of NASCAR-obsessed kids tuned in to watch Jeff Gordon banter with that guy who does Crank Yankers, and at least a few thousand managed to stick around until after the commercial break, and a least a few hundred of them made it through all 4 1/2 minutes of "Sprout and the Bean," and, if we're lucky, a few dozen of them felt the same way I did that long-ago February in Café Du Nord. Will some of them ask for a harp next Christmas? Could be.
Last week was full of such wonderful discoveries and observations. Take, for example, the very first performance of Okay, which opened for Newsom on Saturday. Okay is the new band of Fremont's Marty Anderson, who used to be in a super-awesome band called Dilute. I'm gonna be writing a big thing on Anderson and Okay in the next few weeks, but I really just had to mention how amazing this show was.
In the bright afternoon light that filled the Swedish American Hall, Anderson sat behind a Fender Rhodes and a vintage synthesizer, dressed in the flowing red and orange garments of a Hare Krishna. He also wore a fluorescent orange stocking cap and sweet kicks. He was flanked by four other musicians, who played everything from guitar to dulcimer to Tibetan bells; then there was the hidden band member up in the balcony of the hall, who shot off confetti poppers during a few opportune moments. The musicians played songs off Okay's forthcoming double-album debut, High Road/Low Road (out March 15 on local label Absolutely Kosher). Then they played new songs, or would that be old songs? In any case, the songs were distinct from the 22 that make up the two LPs, which means that Anderson is one prolific writer. He's also a genius. He and his band played pop that sounded as if it had been written by a ward of mental patients. Tempos shifted abruptly, time signatures tended to fly out the window, and notes spiraled around one another in bright, kaleidoscopic patterns as Anderson sang in his quivering, timid voice. As Shakespeare once wrote, the shit was tits.
(Oh, and by the way, before anyone thinks that Anderson's crinkly voice is ripping off Newsom or Devendra Banhart, keep in mind that dude's been singing like this for years in his other bands.)
What else, what else ... well, I'd tell you how Tuesday's Ted Leo show was, but I was too busy trying to talk to this cute girl to notice. (Here, by the way, is her take, e-mailed a few days later: "We're all getting older and Ted isn't playing in our Midwestern basements anymore. But hitting big couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, and I couldn't be happier to raise a Jameson to the man, now older, but still respected and profoundly inspiring. Plus at the show some writer asked for my digits.")
Mates of State at Slim's on Wednesday? That duo gets too much credit for being married and cutesy. The most interesting thing about the No Doctors, Hospitals, and Comets on Fire show on Thursday at Café Du Nord was the number of bicycles ridden to the gig. Up and down Market, one-speeds were locked to parking meters, as if freaky psych-rock were the new Britrock, bikes the new Vespas. San Francisco: saving the Earth one hipster at a time.
The final thing I'll mention is 2005's Best Noise Pop Discovery. Kids, here is the group you've been waiting for: Still Flyin' is a 15-member reggae band composed of current and former indie rockers. Here is a list of bands that share at least one member with Still Flyin', given to me by the group's drummer, the very pedigreed Yoshi Nakamoto: the Aislers Set, Scenic Vermont, Masters of the Hemisphere, Track Star, Maserati, Red Pony Clock, Kissing Book, Mosquitoes, Ladybug Transistor, Girlfrendo.
In addition to having four female backup singers, Still Flyin' boasts a saxophonist, a xylophonist, a trombonist, a full-time dedicated onstage dancer (which I haven't seen since the days of the Happy Mondays), and frontman Sean Rawls, who, if he's not high out of his fucking mind at least had me convinced that he was during the band's two Noise Pop shows, the first at Slim's opening for Mates of State, the second for the Friday happy hour at Thee Parkside. According to Nakamoto, songwriter Rawls formed the band just by asking his musician friends to show up to practice; before he knew it he had to cut the number off at 15. And since it's a side project, Nakamoto explained, there's no telling how long the Still Flyin' bus will keep a-rocking. Until it pulls over, however, get on it, because it is one ganja-filled, magic jalopy kind of experience, where catchy hooks bounce through your brain as your ass, mysteriously, finds itself bobbing up and down. As Nakamoto put it, "I don't think my grandmother would like the Aislers Set, but I could see her becoming a huge Still Flyin' fan."
Someone get Jimmy Kimmel on the phone.