If it weren't for a beat-up old couch, the country/rock septet Hammerdown Turpentine might not exist. Back in 1995 in Charlottesville, Va., singer/guitarist Jif Johnson and drummer Cling Golden wanted to start a two-piece rock band called the Alkaloids. But all Golden had for a kit was a snare. Taking the bull by the horns, he found himself a ratty ancient ottoman to beat on as well. Ever since, the pair have infused their music with the same plucky drive and weathered-furniture feel. After arriving in San Francisco in 1997, the duo formed HT with banjo/guitar player Oliver Kollar, upright bassist Davyd Drake, multi-instrumentalist Lynn Wilkens, and guitar/dobro player David Batinich. (The group just added a seventh member, guitarist Rob Alper.) Soon, the combo was displaying its rough-and-ready musical chops alongside such acts as the Bad Livers, Zen Guerrilla, Polkacide!, Andre Williams, Brave Combo, and Holly Golightly. Hammerdown's second full-length, the just-released Ain't No Grave, showcases exactly what makes the acoustic band so special. On one hand, there are rollicking barn-burners like the title track and “Sixty-Five,” which feature Johnson's sneering vocals and the other musicians' blistering instrumental attack; on the other hand, there are mournful drunken ballads like “Guarantee” and “Horrible” (in which a dude moons after a speed-snorting, funny-hat-wearing heartbreaker). Throughout, Johnson displays a taste for the macabre, dumping bodies in lakes, feeling a hanging rope around his neck, eyeing an electric chair. But don't worry about the bogyman: Hammerdown's music is as comfortable as that old couch, and twice as engrossing.
Joanna Newsom is one of the most unique local artists to come along in ages. For starters, the Nevada City native's main instrument is a harp — not a little harp, but a giant Celtic one. Second, she plays that harp in a singular style, contrasting her gentle strumming with discordant banging sounds — a result of being as influenced by African traditional styles as by staid classical ones. Then there's her songwriting, which can best be described as Sylvia Plath meets C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll (hell, she even sounds a bit like Carol Channing). While her tunes are filled with unicorns, shellfish, low-flying turkeys, Greek mythological queens, dragons, and dirigibles, the vibe is one of personal declaration, of a girl trapped between unusual visions and earthly emotions. “I killed my dinner with karate/ Kick him in the face/ Taste the body” isn't a couplet you're likely to hear from anyone else. But the main thing that separates this young Mills College student from her peers is her voice. Mostly, Newsom sings in a tiny chirp that seems to come from a pixie chipmunk; occasionally she bursts into fierce screeches, like a cat caught under a rocking chair, or in the case of “Inflammatory Writ,” declaims in the tone of a righteous town crier. Hers is not a voice for the fainthearted, but taken together with her stunning harp playing and oddball songwriting, it shines like a bucket of fish eyes. Besides releasing her debut full-length, The Milk-Eyed Mender, on the hip Drag City label last March, Newsom has toured and played recently with such indie luminaries as Will Oldham, Cat Power, and Devendra Banhart. She's currently on tour with reunited folk-rock legends the Incredible String Band.
Named after a tall, razor-thin grass, Vetiver is the most bucolic of all of San Francisco's new folk acts. Guitarist Andy Cabic's songs have a lustrous, old-timey rural feel, as if they were written in a field of wheat during the 1940s (which is all the more interesting considering that he plays in punk jam band Tussle and used to play noise rock with the Raymond Brake). There's a classical air as well, thanks to the melancholy, melodious playing of cellist Alissa Anderson and violinist Jim Gaylord. While strumming elegant acoustic figures, Cabic sings in a soft, comfortable croon, the remnants of his North Carolina upbringing coming out when he stretches into a slightly nasally region. It's a voice that's perfectly suited to his songwriting, which focuses mostly on naturalism — either telling a narrative about an “Arboretum” trip or spinning more imagistic lines about “Luna Sea.” Live, the trio often covers Randy Newman's “Burn On,” a deadpan tale of an Ohio river that's so polluted it catches on fire. While Vetiver isn't nearly as eccentric as fellow Bay Area folkies Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, both of those musicians guest on the band's eponymous debut (released in March by DiCristina Records). The album was recorded in part at the home of former My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O'Ciosoig, who laid down delicate percussion on two tracks and persuaded altchanteuse Hope Sandoval to sing harmony on one tune. Even with all the help, however, Vetiver is decidedly Cabic's show. With this record, he proves himself to be one of our finest up-and-coming singer/songwriters.
Adrian & the Mysterious D
Vinyl-only DJs may sniff at this pair's hard drives, but Adrian & the Mysterious D (aka Adrian Roberts and Deidre George) certainly know how to rock the party. A little over a year ago, the dynamic duo started “Bootie,” the first ever U.S. club night devoted wholly to the bastard pop form known as “mash-ups” (songs comprised of the instrumental from one tune and the vocal from another, usually downloaded from the Web). Inspired by a similar night held in London, the two DJs combed the Internet for the best of these illegal bootlegs, then brought them to their monthly party at the Cherry Bar. Besides sending audiences into spasms of joy over boots that mixed Nirvana with Michael Jackson and Eminem with the Smiths, Adrian & the Mysterious D showcased an unerring sense of fun, offering cheap drink specials, midnight pizza parties, pirate fashion shows, and hot go-go dancers during their gigs. Eventually, “Bootie” developed such a loyal following that the organizers could afford to bring in like-minded DJs from Nashville (Radio Quitta), Glasgow (McSleazy), and even Australia (Dsico), as well as spin off two weeklies (Friday's “Guilty” at the Stud and Saturday's “Smashed” at the Cinch). And for the one-year anniversary of “Bootie,” Roberts even put together Smash-Up Derby, the self-proclaimed “world's first mash-up band.” Committedly unpretentious and ready to rock, Adrian & the Mysterious D deliver the perfect remedy for S.F.'s occasionally snooty, often staid dance scene. [page]
Originally from Venezuela, DJ Omar was raised in the thriving musical subcultures of Washington, D.C., where he was exposed to sounds such as punk, goth, new wave, and hip hop at concerts and clubs. He credits this early education for the eclectic and open-minded slant he brings to mixing records. Ask him about his favorite artists and he'll offer up a list of strange bedfellows that includes Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Joy Division, Suede, Tom Waits, Air, AC/DC, Spacemen 3, and Neu! Few other DJs in San Francisco can speak of playing such a wide variety of sounds, preferring instead to stay within the genre lines. But Omar's multivariate approach resonates with many people whose tastes may be equally as broad; it's the secret to his success, an asset that has made him an in-demand DJ for various parties and promoters. His near-decade-long friendship with DJ Jenny has resulted not only in them both jettisoning their last names in clubland, but also in their hosting some of the most musically diverse and inclusive dance parties in San Francisco. In a local nightlife scene that falls prey to segmentation, they've attracted gay, straight, hipster, nerd, rocker, technophile, and curious bystander alike with their late, great clubs such as “Sixxteen,” “Bordello,” “Fake,” and “The Finger.”
DJ Star Eyes
Star Eyes is the rare DJ who actually dances and participates with the crowd, dissolving the wall that so many DJs build up. With an unwavering ear to the rumble of the underground, she has spent a decade chasing both the toughest and the sassiest grooves.
A Star Eyes playlist is tailored to the event, but her arsenal includes a choice selection of drum 'n' bass, two-step, breaks, and electro jams, all focused on cultivating upbeat parties. Her diverse tastes take her to an equally varied bunch of local venues, from hipster nights at the Rickshaw Stop and the Sunset Boat Party to underground raves and drum 'n' bass events. She's also gone on the road with the Warped Tour and played events in many cities throughout the country and in Europe.
Star Eyes began her DJ career at age 16, spinning raves in Southern California where she grew up, developing a reputation for seeking out the cutting-edge end of the musical spectrum. For five years, she was a resident DJ at S.F. drum 'n' bass night “Eklektic” and more recently has hosted her own club nights, like the former “Slow Burning” event at the Arrow Bar. She's also one-half, along with Siren, of the DJ tag-team Syrup Girls.
Star Eyes daylights as Vivian Host, who was recently appointed editor of local electronic music culture bible XLR8R. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she served as the arts and entertainment editor for the Daily Californian and has since written for such publications as URB, Deuce, Anthem, and the Stranger.
Oakland's Lovemakers are one of the bay's biggest recent success stories. Just a year ago, the synth-pop trio didn't have a record label, a distributor, or a booking agent. Hell, the group didn't even have a drummer. All of that has changed in a hurry. The threesome has hooked up with Marilyn Manson's manager, Tony Ciulla; inked an A&R deal with Martin Kierszenbaum, the producer of Russian faux lesbians t.A.T.u.; and signed on with Interscope, one of the majorest of major labels. The band is currently recording its Interscope debut in Los Angeles, with possible production by Kierszenbaum, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, and Nellee Hooper, who helmed No Doubt's hit cover of Talk Talk's “It's My Life.” All this for a group that's only been around for two years, and had to book its initial shows and self-release its first CD because no one else would. Even more amazing, the band started out as a goof — a way for guitarist Scott Blonde and bassist/violinist Lisa Light to have fun after the soul-numbing experience of being in mopey noise-poppers Applesaucer. But one whiff of the Lovemakers' self-titled CD or the act's salacious live sets, and it was obvious this ensemble was going places. The trio — filled out by keyboard whiz Jason Proctor — concocts songs that are clever, catchy, and fun, and then performs them with sweaty abandon. And while the Lovemakers are very much a product of the '80s, the band's sound — a combination of the chilly synths of Depeche Mode, the art-punk guitars of the Cure, and the sly seductions of Prince — feels more like a synthesis of influences, rather than blatant retro-mongering. Plus, the musicians' new tunes are bigger and grander than ever, aka ready for some stadium rocking (sure to be even more so when they add a live drummer soon).
For better or worse, Matmos is best known these days for playing with that lovely Icelandic pixie, Björk. But there's soooo much more to the groundbreaking electronic music duo of Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt. Take their fifth CD, last year's The Civil War (on Matador), for instance. Who else would attempt to make instrumental music that sounds medieval and modern at the same time, adding traditional instruments like dobro and pedal steel to synthesizers and drum machines? Or compose a song titled “Reconstruction,” which seems to get at the true ennui of living in the South in the 1860s? Or craft one of the most hilariously, chaotically fucked-up versions of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in existence, complete with a sample of someone dropping Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy on the floor? Big challenges and outrageous concepts are nothing new to Matmos, however. Last November, the pair set up shop at Yerba Buena, improvising music and video with their pals in front of live museum audiences, eventually concocting 97 hours of material as part of the “Work, Work, Work” installation. This April, the twosome released Rat Relocation Program, an EP featuring an unedited field document of a rodent being lured into a Havahart trap, along with Matmos' musical remix of that recording. This all follows the group's previous Matador album, 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which was composed from samples of plastic surgery. Not content to rest on its peculiar laurels, the act has spent the last year touring Europe with reunited industrial art-punks Throbbing Gristle, recording weirdo house music as Soft Pink Truth (Daniel solo), teaching “Theory and Practice” at the S.F. Art Institute, and composing music for a play about drunk famous poets called The Appeal. Over the past nine years, Matmos has taken electronic music to new heights, utilizing technology to push the boundaries of what sound can be and do. [page]
The Paradise Boys
More than any other release this year, the Paradise Boys' The Young and the Guest List epitomizes the San Francisco dance-rock scene. From the music — which smoothly combines the minimalist techno of Germany's Kompakt Records and the euphoria of early house with the flailing guitars and whirring synths of '80s post-punk — to the lyrics about nightclubbing and nonstop partying, the album reads like a tell-all bio of the post-electroclash black-clad, pointy-haired, ties-and-pegged-pants twentysomething milieu. Released this March, the Paradise Boys' debut was the result of a collaboration between Jeff Fare (aka DJ Jefrodisiac) and percussionist Bertie Pearson, with help from producer Jonah Sharp and various friends (including Elizabeth Hanley, who ably channels Siouxsie Sioux on one number). Previous to the P-Boys, Fare played guitar in seminal dance-rock act the Calculators, alongside two future members of the Rapture. He also picked up a wealth of dance music knowledge while working at S.F.'s Open Mind Music, as well as when spinning electro, disco, soul, techno, and '80s rock at the Beauty Bar, the Arrow Bar, and throughout Barcelona. Not surprisingly, The Young and the Guest List feels like a jumbled scrapbook of the last 20 years of music, shot through the lens of a giddy club kid with a brand-new vial of crank. Who knows how dated the Paradise Boys will come off five years down the line, but right now they sound just right.
Comets on Fire
When Comets on Fire first started back in 1999, founders Ethan Miller (guitar/vocals) and Ben Flashman (bass) aimed to create a high-octane psychedelic onslaught that mixed equal parts distortion, guitar bombast, and sonic chaos. Ably assisted by resident knob-twiddler Noel Harmonson (who warped Miller's vocals to the howling edge of insanity with his vintage Echoplex tape delay), the group self-released an unhinged eponymous debut in 2001 that shattered minds and earned Comets high-profile endorsements from local taste-makers Aquarius Records and Krautrock Sampler author/HeadHeritage.com overseer Julian Cope. While comparisons to such seminal psych-punk explorers as Blue Cheer, the Stooges, and Hawkwind abounded, the outfit managed to transcend such influences and forge a unique sound.
Comets have since coalesced into one of the foremost exponents of noisy, acid-rock mayhem on the West Coast. With ferocious drummer Utrillo Kushner sounding like Mitch Mitchell and Elvin Jones wrestling their way down a flight of stairs and second guitarist Ben Chasney (the finger-picking guru behind Six Organs of Admittance) providing both high-powered riffage and delicate acoustic passages, Comets on Fire expanded their palette of sounds on their sophomore effort, Field Recordings From the Sun. Added textures, from a variety of exotic percussion instruments and a greater sense of dynamics, gave the album an epic grandeur without sacrificing an iota of synapse-frying intensity. Blue Cathedral, the group's latest record and first for Sub Pop, could well be the album that breaks Comets on Fire out of the neo-psychedelic underground and puts the band into orbit, where it belongs.
The Enemies are a trio from Oakland, specializing in old-school, fast-paced punk rock, with songs about the fragility of life, decay, compromise, insecurity, commercialization, the dark side, the road to manhood, isolation, and (why not?) religion. The group formed when the band's original bass player, Rick Jacobus, and singer/guitarist Mike Pelino, high school buddies and members of a group called Second Hand Spit, enlisted drummer Jason Willers, whom Pelino had previously played with in TFM. Jacobus was eventually replaced by Neurosis bassist Dave Edwardson in time for Seize the Day, the Enemies' first full-length for Lookout! Records. Seize's herky-jerky rhythms recall early Green Day — all upbeat tempos, steady eighth-note bass lines, distorted power chords, and Pelino's confident yelled vocals — and the record's 12 songs employ catchy pop-laden hooks while remaining true to punk rock's aggressive roots. On tunes like “4 am,” the Enemies even channel the seething noise-pop of Nirvana, with Pelino's singing alternating between Kurt Cobain's primal growl and Billie Joe Armstrong's controlled croon. Other places, as on “She's a Mess” and “East 14th,” the band dabbles in Danzig-style dark riffing, utilizing subtle, slow, chunky rhythms before exploding into a wash of cymbals, drum fills, and fast guitars. The Enemies wait until the end of the record before trying their luck with death-metal riffage (“Jocklip”) and Metallica-style sadcore (“Through Sad Eyes”), proving they can just about do it all.
Far be it from us to quote from a band's official biography, but in the case of Parchman Farm — whose press release says as much about the group's sense of humor as it does its sound — it's too hard to resist. Big riffing guitarist Allyson Baker is said to be “a Jewish version of Ted Nugent,” hence her nickname, “The Jewge.” The spastic bass lines of Carson Binks are called “lead bass, but not in an annoying fretless Les Claypool way or in a nu-metal style.” Drummer Chris LaBreche, it is claimed, owes his style to “Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer.” The colorful combination is topped off by ex-Mover frontman and guitarist/singer Eric Shea's gritty yelps, the sort that make you nostalgic for Sabbath, the South, and The Dukes of Hazzard. The group's self-titled debut EP provides us with a heavy dose of psychedelic '70s riffing, with songs that conjure a time when pulling out a lighter at a concert wasn't ironic, mustaches outnumbered goatees, cowbells were a standard part of a drum ensemble, and “heavy metal” bands dressed like Thor. The proficient dual solo attack of bass and guitar, which in most cases would come off as annoying, here works to the band's advantage, strewing heavy gobs of distortion gravy, beneath which LaBreche employs his knowledge of every drum solo Bonzo ever committed to bootleg. “They are like a shark riding on top of an elephant, just stomping and chomping everything in sight,” the bio claims — a truth as accurate as any. [page]
Crown City Rockers
With this year's Earthtones, the Crown City Rockers went from being the best live hip hop band in the bay — like the Roots, CCR employs live instrumentation — to being one of the best hip hop acts period. Serving up a style that seamlessly skims from '70s blaxploitation soul to '80s boom-bap hip hop, Earthtones is fluid without losing focus. The album's discipline is admirable. There are very few, if any, throwaway tracks, and each of the band members' individual skills are nicely and oftentimes subtly highlighted. What's best, the record conveys the strong familial vibe of the players, MC Raashan Ahmad, producer Woodstock, keyboardist Kat Ouano, bassist/producer Headnodic, and drummer Max MacVeety. The sense of togetherness is reinforced by a steady guest procession of Bay Area stalwarts: David Boyce from the Broun Fellinis, DJ Zeph, and Gift of Gab of Blackalicious all lend their considerable talents.
Though Earthtones was a revelation, introducing the Crown City Rockers as studio performers to be reckoned with, the group's continued dominance of the local live scene is much less surprising. CCR's recent sold-out show with fellow SFWMA nominee Lyrics Born at the Independent was one of the most exciting and talked-about area hip hop events of the year. Whether taking turns soloing — including an incredible a cappella freestyle from Ahmad — or playing a raucous selection of nonalbum material, the Crown City Rockers moved the crowd with an impeccable blend of charm and substance.
Hailing from the same UC Davis class that produced DJ Shadow, hip hop journalist extraordinaire Jeff Chang, and the rest of the Quannum Projects record label, Lyrics Born (aka Tom Shimura) is inching ever closer to mainstream recognition with a critically acclaimed album (last year's Later That Day), a blazing live show, and a Coca-Cola commercial that features his song “Calling Out.” Formerly one half of Latyrx — along with Lateef the Truth Speaker — Lyrics Born has more or less owned the local underground hip hop scene for the past year and a half.
As the title suggests, Later That Day follows Lyrics Born through a typical day in his life. With its intricate, multicultural combination of traditional boom-bap, blues, funk, jazz, and classical music, the album is a distinctly Bay Area phenomenon — one can't imagine it coming from the hardened, formerly rigid hip hop terrains of New York or Los Angeles. What truly distinguishes the album, though, is its big, juicy hooks, delivered primarily by Lyrics Born's classically trained fiancee (and fellow Quannum artist), Joyo Velarde. Indeed, while we wholeheartedly recognize Lyrics Born's strong grip on the local scene, we're also apt to suggest that — should he win — he break off a little piece of the statue for his girl.
The original gangsta, Too $hort single-handedly put Oaktown on the hip hop map back in the early '80s. With a trunk full of his harrowing funk, the MC revolutionized the industry with a street-learned hustle that subverted the recording industry in favor of self-released, completely uncensored albums, including classics such as '83's Don't Stop Rappin' and '86's Born to Mack, records that all but defined West Coast underground rap. After garnering the respect of the streets, Too $hort hit the mainstream in 1988 with the seminal Life Is…Too $hort. While the Moral Majority would claim that Too $hort's X-rated rhymes advocated misogyny and his street critics would claim that Too $hort was a phony, Life Is…Too $hort helped establish the West Coast funk/hip hop template and featured such timeless cuts as “Pimp the Ho” and the poignant anthem “City of Dope.” The album went platinum and helped influence an entire generation of Bay Area playaz. Too $hort continued laying down X-rated yet melodic classics with 1990's Dog's in the House, 1992's Shorty the Pimp, and 1996's Gettin' It, his last album before his “retirement,” which lasted a full three years. In 2003, Too $hort released Married to the Game, which found him working with longtime collaborator Ant Banks as well as the King of Crunk himself, Lil' Jon. Although Too $hort no longer resides full time in the bay, his influence continues to reverberate throughout the community.
For an area that boasts more than a few reggae DJ nights, as well as a weekly institution dedicated to reggae's echo-laden instrumental counterpart (DJ Sep's “Dub Mission”), it's surprising that San Francisco doesn't have more live groups delivering the hazy, bass-heavy sounds of dub. Guerilla Hi-Fi looks to change that with its jazzy, exploratory excursions into the genre. Initially formed as a studio project in 2000 by multi-instrumentalists/sound engineers John Finkbeiner and Eithen Fletcher, the outfit has evolved into a solid live aggregation dedicated to bringing the duo's spacious and spacey grooves to life. The band's first recording, Echo Springs, came together in a marathon session that found Finkbeiner and Fletcher putting dubbed-out meat on the skeletal sketches they'd brought to the studio with the help of accomplished musical friends avant-jazz drummer Gino Robair, bassist/guitarist Myles Boisen (avant-guitarist for Splatter Trio, Mark Growden, Club Foot Orchestra), bassist Eli Crews (Beulah, Spezza Rotto, Roofies), and trumpet player Gavin DiStasi (Mingus Amungus). [page]
The enthusiastic response to the jazz-informed dub of Echo Springs led Finkbeiner and Fletcher to form a live band version of Guerilla Hi-Fi. The eight-piece collective boasts a three-piece horn section and two drummers, and features Fletcher adding live mixing effects to give the group's sound the kind of authentic vibe that dub maestros the Scientist and the Mad Professor bring to their reverb-heavy concert odysseys with their respective bands. Though Guerilla Hi-Fi has yet to find an outlet for its sophomore effort, Redevelopment, the compelling experimental material and guest spots by noted reggae drummer Wadi Gad and talented turntablist DJ Zeph should convince some sensible label that the group deserves backing.
With the high concentration of Latino people and cultures in the Bay Area, it's little surprise that musicians playing everything from salsa to Mexican and South American folk to polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban jazz can easily reach an enthusiastic, ready-made audience locally. Founded in 2001, Palenque has filled a particular niche in the region by providing Cuban music fans regular doses of son montuno, the modern precursor to salsa created by Arsenio Rodriguez during the '30s and recently repopularized by the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club. Bandleader and principal composer German Donatien studied at the National School of Music in Havana before starting a career as a professional singer that featured stints with the chorus of the Cuban National TV and Radio Orchestra, nightclub work at Havana's famed Cabaret Tropicana, and membership in the Cuban National Opera. Relocating to the United States in 1996, Donatien put his remarkable voice and fluid guitar style to good use with a number of groups playing son montuno before finally starting his own band. Palenque draws its other members from the Bay Area's fertile Latin and jazz scenes, giving the group an appropriately multicultural lineup that includes classical flute player Chloe Scott, well-traveled drummer Ben Krews, former jazz students Markus Puhvel (tres guitar) and Steve Parkin (bass), and Mission District-raised percussionist Norman Downing. Palenque recently self-released its debut album, Soy Montuno, a scintillating collection of lyrical Donatien originals, and continues to build a base of loyal fans with its lively regular appearances all over the Bay Area, including at popular venues like Ashkenaz and Yoshi's.
John Santos is one of the best-known proponents of Afro-Latin music in the Bay Area, if not the world. Over the past 30 years, the 58-year-old percussionist has performed or recorded with a huge number of important world music and jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Max Roach, Cal Tjader, Charlie Hunter, Linda Tillery, Omar Sosa, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Lalo Schifrin, and Yma Sumac. At the same time, he's served as director of the Orquesta Tipica Cienfuegos (from 1976 to 1980) and the Orquesta Batachanga (from 1981 to 1985), and currently directs the Machete Ensemble, a local Latin jazz band of world renown. Born in San Francisco in 1955 and raised by Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean parents, Santos has become one of the top historians in his field, serving as a member of the Latin Jazz Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian Institution and writing for such magazines as Modern Drummer and Latin Percussionist. Perhaps his best contribution to the Afro-Latin music scene, however, has been through his own recordings. Over a half-dozen albums — both solo and with the Machete Ensemble — Santos has explored the use of traditional forms and instruments within a modern context. His compositions cross all stylistic boundaries, offering mambos, jazz rumbas, folkloric odes, Afro-Caribbean swing, and more. His latest effort, John Santos & El Coro Folklorico Kindembo's Para Ellos, features traditional numbers from the Yoruba and Kongo nations, both of which helped inform Cuba's musical legacy. As always, Santos does more than proffer multiculti tunes — he transforms them into something greater.
Led by trumpeter Ara Anderson, Boostamonte began as a quirky quartet around the turn of the new millennium with two trumpets, a drummer, and (what else?) a tuba player. When Jon Birdsong, the tuba player (tubist?), cut out to tour with Beck in 2001, Anderson took the opportunity to go large, bringing on a string bass to replace the tuba and adding two trombones and two saxophones. The band has stuck with that instrumentation ever since.
Brash, bold, and shaking, Boostamonte stands as a vibrating pillar in the foundation of the San Francisco funk/jazz scene. The group's influences are wide, deep, and off the wall, as evidenced by groove-based numbers like “Dr. Dre Meets Thelonious Funk Monk.” The band currently boasts a powerhouse lineup of local jazz talent, including, along with Anderson, Henry Hung (trumpet), Joe Cohen (alto saxophone), Colin Stetson (baritone saxophone), Adam Theis (trombone), Joel Behrman (trombone), Eric Perney (upright bass), and Ches Smith (drums). And while Boostamonte's performances are relatively infrequent, they are raucous affairs. A driving rhythm section, outstanding compositions and horn arrangements, and the melding of six of the hottest horn soloists in town never fails heat up any room the band fills.
Like all of Boostamonte's members, leader Anderson is an accomplished and busy musician outside of his prime gig. He's worked with everyone from Jonathan Richman to Jolie Holland to the New Pickle Circus, and he played on the recent Tom Waits releases Blood Money and Alice.
Pianist Mark Levine has been one of San Francisco's leading sources of Latin and straight-ahead jazz fire for years. His most visible role currently is as leader of the group Latin Tinge, featuring percussionist Michael Spiro, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer Paul van Wageningen. The ensemble's third CD, Isla, was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Recording. Levine plays with a bright and assured touch, spare enough to let in plenty of light around breezier numbers, yet bristling with a lightning energy when the occasion demands. His across-the-board talents and experience have made him a constantly in-demand sideman as well as a respected bandleader. [page]
Levine moved to San Francisco back in 1966 after jazz studies in New York and Boston. Here he hit the young and learning jazzman's jackpot, landing a spot in the quartet of trumpet star Woody Shaw, a post he held for a full year. Levine then went on to work with a who's who of hard-bop heavyweights, musicians like Dave Liebman, Blue Mitchell, and Joe Henderson. During these years, Levine was also hearing the call of the Latin beat, and began working with Latin standouts like Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Pete Escovedo, and Cal Tjader. He traveled to Cuba in 1997 to study at the Centro Nacional de Escuela de Arte in Havana and upon returning formed the band Que Calor with saxophonist Ron Stallings. He next assembled Latin Tinge, releasing the group's first CD, Hey, It's Me, in 2000.
Levine keeps up a hectic local performance schedule, playing with his own groups and with local scene jazzmasters like Mel Martin and Akira Tana. Just last month, Levine and Latin Tinge took the stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Concussive orchestral power, burning arrangements, cutting-edge electronics, retro hip hop, scalding vocals, and monster hot-jazz soloing all come together in the Realistic Orchestra, the potent big-band offering of the omnipresent San Francisco musical conglomerate the Jazz Mafia. In 2002, the Realistic Orchestra took shape from a supernova expansion of the hip hop/jazz quintet Realistic, featuring trombonist Adam Theus, saxophonist Joe Cohen, vibraphonist and electronics whiz Michael Emenau, drummer Eric Garland, and DJ Aspect. Gathering many of the hottest jazz players in the city, the Realistic Orchestra ignited in a flash.
Since early 2003, Realistic and its Jazz Mafia colleagues have been appearing each Tuesday at Bruno's, with monthly offerings as the full-scale Orchestra. That's a lot of sweat and explosion for that small room, but RO makes it work. While the good-time atmosphere and frantic pace may sometimes send the band careening around corners and down steep grades at what seems like a “we're out of control and the brakes don't work” gallop, what makes the group exceptional is the fact that the chaos is (mostly) illusory. The compositions and arrangements are sharp and fresh and create an effective framework for the high-spirited soloing as well as for the innovative electronic counterpoints, with stylistic inspirations seemingly running the gamut from Fred McGriff to Buddy Rich to Frank Zappa to the Roots.
It's a testimony to the Realistic Orchestra's vision that it's been able to attract and maintain a roster featuring members of some of the city's best bands, including saxophonist Alex Budman (Contemporary Jazz Orchestra), trombonist Marty Wehner (Mingus Amungus), and saxophonist Kenny Brooks (Alphabet Soup and Ratdog).
The fun of the Realistic Orchestra is well represented by the group's 2004 CD, Recorded Live at Bruno's in San Francisco.
Citizens Here and Abroad
Music history is full of supergroups that formed from other bands. The Firm, Asia, Damn Yankees — the list of glorious acts goes on and on. Now add another ensemble to that roster: Citizens Here and Abroad. This local quartet combines two members of the now-defunct noise-pop group Secadora with the rhythm section from the still-functioning act Dealership to make fuzzy, moody pop perfection. How did such a successful marriage come about? From the near dissolution of another band, of course. Back in fall 2002, Dealership guitarist Jane Pinckard took off for Japan, leaving her bandmates — bassist Chris Groves and drummer Chris Wetherell — scratching their heads. Luckily, the scratching unearthed more than just dandruff. Guitarist Dan Lowrie and singer/guitarist Adrienne Robillard, whose then-disintegrating group happened to share practice space with Dealership, offered a salve for the duo's wounds (and scalps). Taking their name from a '50s Girl Scout handbook that belonged to Robillard's Aunt Shirley, the musicians began collaborating on songs. The result was pretty similar to their individual bands' sounds, only better — like how in good relationships, the partners make up for each other's faults. Citizens' tunes — eventually released in early 2004 on the Omnibus LP Ghosts of Tables and Chairs — recall the best of '90s shoegazing indie-pop, with fuzzed-out rhythm guitar and echo-y guitar leads, stuttering drum fills, and the occasional xylophone accent. (OK, so My Bloody Valentine never used a xylophone, but that's a shame, no?) At the same time, Robillard's hushed, heartfelt vocals intertwine nicely with Groves' counterpoint harmonies, lending a searching, mournful vibe to the tunes. And now that Pinckard has returned and Dealership has started back up, Groves and Wetherell have two kick-ass bands to unleash on the Bay Area. Super!
The Monolith employs the four universal truths of indie-pop. No. 1: The Beatles did it all; accept this; celebrate and reference them. No. 2: A well-placed synthesizer will always make a rock song better. No. 3: Boy/girl harmonies make your band sound like it is always having fun, which, in turn, will make the listener think he is having fun. No. 4: Campy drawings of birds and maps are always a better choice for album covers than some cheesy shot of a band's members trying to look cool. Acknowledging and utilizing these truths, the Monolith created one of the catchiest indie-pop records to come out of San Francisco in 2004, Here Comes the Monolith. Singers Bill Rousseau and Dahlia Ramirez, as well as Daniel Rogge (the three of them share guitar, bass, and keyboard duties), started the band in 2001, acquiring drummer Alex DeCarville after finishing their full-length debut. Monolith, recorded at John Vanderslice's local indie haven Tiny Telephone, is packed with nods to the quirkiest elements of the past four decades of pop music: floating vocal harmonies, noisy electric guitars, and Cars-style synth lines. The record covers a grand range of tempos, styles, and emotions. On songs like the opener, “43,” the Monolith is all upbeat '70s rock. Elsewhere, as on “Heart Like a Diamond,” the band spruces up Sgt. Peppers' '60s psychedelia with a dash of Elton John's lounge tinkling. And on “Never Mind What You Heard,” the Monolith pays homage to Simon & Garfunkel's introspective folk. Regardless of the style employed, these musicians always seem to find the perfect melody and arrangement. It's no surprise that everybody loves them. [page]
Rogue Wave began as a side project for Zach Schwartz, who'd grown tired of playing second fiddle, er, songwriter in S.F. indie rock outfit Desoto Reds. When he got axed from his Internet job, he flew off to New York to record a few solo numbers with a nascent producer pal, Bill Racine. The sessions went so well that Schwartz taped enough tracks for a full album, and then added keyboards and drums to them when he returned home. In 2003, he self-released the whole thing as Out of the Shadows, rechristening himself Zach Rogue in the process. Soon enough, he'd formed himself a full band, featuring bassist Sonya Westcott from Venus Bleeding, keyboardist/guitarist Gram Lebron of Schrasj, and drummer Pat Spurgeon of Lessick. The latter two musicians had approached Rogue about being in the band after falling in love with Shadows. Listening to the album (which was remastered and reissued by Sub Pop this July), it's easy to see what the pair were excited about. The disc is full of effervescent pop, rife with elegantly strummed guitars, hooky electric leads, and buzzy organ parts. Rogue seems to be channeling the emotive acoustic numbers of the Kinks, along with the delicate balladry of the Beatles and even a bit of the late-night evocations of Swell. There are also some nice lyrics, as Rogue details a father-son drama in which a recently divorced dad has brought home “13 redheads, a blonde, brunette, and a sheep.” And over the past year, the live version of the band has toughened up the tunes, giving them some new arrangements and a high-octane energy. The current version of Rogue Wave is far from a solo vanity project; it's a group to be reckoned with.
It's likely no one imagined the Clash would ever sound as slick as the band did on Combat Rock, considering its anarchic punk beginnings. The same may be said of Communiqué and its precursor band, hardcore punk outfit American Steel. But this is 2004, and the times they have a-changed. Instead of offering roughshod vocals and howling noise, Communiqué utilizes thick synthesizer parts, multipart harmonies, and thorny guitar hooks. The Oakland quintet — singer/guitarist Rory Henderson, guitarist Ryan Massey, bassist John Peck, drummer Jamie Kissinger, and keyboardist Cory Gowan — formed in 2002, following the dissolution of American Steel. Since then, the combo has released an EP, Honeymoon, and a full-length, Poison Arrow, on Lookout! Records; toured the United States and the U.K.; performed at Live 105's BFD concert, as one of only three local bands featured; and been courted by Geffen Records bigwigs. Listening to Poison Arrows, it's easy to see what all the fuss is about. Henderson is a charismatic singer with a syrupy, sexy tone, the kind that makes young girls (and boys?) drool on their black ruffled shirts. His lyrics focus on all the things kids want to hear about: sex, drugs, suicidal impulses, dark curses. And the rest of the musicians construct their parts so cohesively that the tunes' catchiness is inevitable. Sure, there are plenty of retro touchstones — the Smiths' mirthful misery, the Cure's harsh jangle, OMD's synth wiggles, Phil Spector's orchestral harmonics — but the whole package sounds fresh and burly, like an old linebacker with a new pair of cleats and some kick-ass uppers. Communiqué surpasses the new wave (pun intended) of '80s-minded rock groups by being old, new, borrowed, and kinda blue.
Over the past 10 years, Deerhoof — now comprised of Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich, Chris Cohen, and Greg Saunier, all of whom play multiple instruments — has been consistent only in its unpredictability. The San Francisco quartet's music is an aural (de)construction site, a runaway roller coaster of sound plowing through cotton candy and sharp nails, a head-spinning concoction of dada nonsense and shards of noise. When it comes to Deerhoof's clamor, only these things are for certain: Matsuzaki will alternate singing in a sweet falsetto tone and a harsh yelp; the lyrics will be impenetrable, whether they're in Japanese, English, or Spanish; the guitars, keyboards, and drums will sound like a torn-apart Dali painting that's been haphazardly put back together. If that description implies difficult listening, be assured that the group's sixth LP, Milkman, is its most accessible to date. Nominated for a California Music Award, the disc was called a “perfect album” by Spin; it also rose to No. 2 on both the CMJ Radio Chart and Rolling Stone's College Radio Chart. Altcountry icons Wilco recently chose Deerhoof to open part of an upcoming tour, Sonic Youth and Pavement's Steve Malkmus are huge fans, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening selected the group to perform at last year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Maybe the latter designation makes the most sense, as Milkman is a concept album inspired by the cartoony artwork of Ken Kagami. Apparently, the milkman is a masked goon who likes being stabbed with fruit and luring children into his dreamland. A less talented band couldn't get away with a theme as ridiculous as that; with Deerhoof, though, the nonsensical makes sense. [page]
Bringing an infusion of bloody-knuckled punk energy to Dylan-esque folk epics and tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk, the two musicians of Two Gallants had the balls to name themselves after a short story by James Joyce, and they back up their hubris by crafting a surprisingly original sound out of their timeworn influences. Founded in 2002 by childhood friends and San Francisco natives Adam Stephens (vocals, harmonica, guitar) and Tyson Vogel (drums, vocals), Two Gallants cut their teeth at house parties and frequent busking sessions on the corner of 16th and Mission streets. Equally adept at dark, brokenhearted ballads shot through with a whiskey-soaked wit that belies their youth (Stephens and Vogel are in their early 20s) and punked-up jigs that make the duo sound like a pared-down version of the Pogues tackling Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the Gallants honed their startlingly mature material with extensive touring long before they even had an album to hawk. Though the outfit made enough of an impression on legendary producer Jim Dickinson (whose résumé includes work with Big Star, the Replacements, and Mudhoney) for him to track some sessions with the group in 2003, Two Gallants ended up recording their debut effort in Berkeley earlier this year. The resulting album, The Throes, finds Vogel's alternately muscular and sensitive rhythms propelling vivid narratives built around Stephens' craggy, potent voice and intricate picking. As affecting as the album might be, it only hints at the cathartic ferocity the songs take on when Two Gallants perform live.
Bing Ji Ling
Not since Ben & Jerry's has ice cream had such a profound influence on an individual as it has on soul singer Quinn Luke, aka Bing Ji Ling (which translates to “ice cream” in Mandarin). Bing's story — and he's sticking to it — is as follows: A baby boy is born in the back of an ice cream truck in the early '70s and is quickly and aptly named Bing Ji Ling. Said baby develops melodic responses to individual flavors, producing giggles in various musical keys based solely on the ingredients of a scoop of the dairy product. Praised as a curious, sweet new wunderkind, Bing composes a slew of jingles for his family's armada of ice cream trucks. Like all child celebrities, he develops psychological problems, which, according to Bing, resulted in the kid holing up “in his room looking at pictures of nearly naked girls and listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Luther Vandross, Prince, Freddie Jackson, New Edition.” When he eventually emerges from his bedroom, the singer marks his return to the world by recording Doodle Loot Doodle a Doo, a soul record that packages all of the above influences into a butt-shaking pint of romantic goodness. Doodle is all funky Clavinet and Rhodes electric piano, bobbing booty bass lines and danceable drum machines, with soul vocals as juicy as they come. The record is meticulously crafted with minimal but effective arrangements, suggesting that all that time cooped up with the R&B masters really did teach Bing Ji Ling a thing or two. Best of all, though, is that when Bing performs his songs — which he does aided by the talents of drummer Adrian Young and guitarist Tom Dumont, of No Doubt fame — he brings free ice cream for all. Now that's soulful!
Nedelle & Thom
Why is Nedelle & Thom in the Soul/Funk category? Maybe it's because the local act is so eclectic that it could've been placed in any of four sections. No matter where you put this songwriting duo, though, their tunes stand out from their peers'. Having numerous releases of their own (including Nedelle's 2003 LP Republic of Two and Thom's three CDs with the Moore Brothers), the pair have already shown themselves to be accomplished singer/songwriters. But Nedelle & Thom's debut together — Summerland, released by Kill Rock Stars this July — is another beast altogether, an epic work of '60s soul and Brill Building folk. Imagine if Burt Bacharach recorded an album with an indie rock rhythm section in a tiny studio in Boston (in this case, with several members of Karate), and you might get a hint of what the pair have accomplished. There are loads of pretty harmonies, with Nedelle's jazzy phrasing wrapping around Thom's tart melodies. (She got her singing start covering jazz standards around town, after dropping out of the Berklee School of Music and giving up on classical violin in the late '90s.) And, more so than on the musicians' own records, Summerland brims with concise, jangly guitar hooks and swinging organ parts. As for lyrics, the two focus mainly on such Bacharachian topics as love that's sweet and sour. Of course, old Burt never weaved nuclear war and rampant consumerism into his romantic songs, as the duo do on “Cute Things,” crafting protest bossa nova folk funk soul. Yeah, Nedelle & Thom can do it all.
Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra
The roots of funk band Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra date back to the late '80s in Los Angeles, where lead singer Sean Sharp was fired from a band called Stymie. That group later changed its name and morphed into a heavy metal act, while Sharp took on the “Stymie” alias out of a sort of revenge. Sharp moved to San Francisco in 1996, and he brought with him the ambition to further the lineage of funk in the city that birthed one of history's most acclaimed funk groups, Sly & the Family Stone, a chief influence on Stymie and his pals. Today, Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra entertain San Francisco audiences with their freaky blend of funk, a kind of sonic stew flavored with an array of musical seasonings, incorporating styles from ska to rock to gospel to blues. Always high-energy, the Orchestra manages to avoid sounding dated or retro, contributing a modern twist on a classic genre. [page]
The band now numbers 15 members strong: Sharp (lead vocals), Bill Leigh (bass), Renee Padgett (vocals), Joe “Mojo” Powell (vocals), Marilee Bazzano (vocals), Lamont Duncan (bass, guitar), Paul Sloan (guitar), Chris Craig (guitar), Chris McGee (bass), Mark Viada (drums), Zack Farris (keyboards), Kevin “KBO” Owens (trumpet), Chris Jordan (alto saxophone), Andy Raskin (trombone), and Eric Shorter (tenor saxophone). The Orchestra crafts original songs with tongue firmly in cheek (check “Radio Bullshit Resistance Squad,” “Happy Sanchez School of Low Riding,” and “Superfun Teenage Girls”). Together the musicians have released an EP, Dim Sum Goodies, and appeared on the critically acclaimed compilation Funky Precedent Volume II. Their debut album is forthcoming. Hammerdown Turpentine. Parchman Farm. Crown City Rockers. Lyrics Born. Too $hort. Guerilla Hi-Fi. Palenque. John Santos. Boostamonte. Mark Levine. Realistic Orchestra. Joanna Newsom. Citizens Here and Abroad. The Monolith. Rogue Wave. Communique. Deerhoof. Two Gallants. Bing Ji Ling. Nedelle & Thom. Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra. Vetiver. Adrian & the Mysterious D. The Lovemakers. Matmos. The Paradise Boys. Comets on Fire. The Enemies.