Beatles Ukulele Tribute @ Brooklyn Bowl

The Beatles hold a big place in the hearts of many. Also in the wallets of many, but that’s another post. Its probably safe to say that their music has been adapted into every style imaginable. What about Rap you say? Grey album. Deal with it. Moving on. As the widest reaching pop band in history, their songs translate well. You can play a Beatles song on any instrument, from Bazouki to Oboe, and its going to sound pleasing. So when my friend Mika mentioned there was a Beatles Ukulele tribute, you know I was down.

The Uke also holds a place in my heart. So simple, yet so effective. If I could record an entire album of Henry Mancini standards on ukulele featuring Biz Markee on Vocals, I’d do it in a second (if Biz would only return my calls). There was also a brief moment where Mika and I had a band called Mikatini and The Shakers, featuring duel Ukulele and hand percussion/pedal steel guitar. So on a Sunday night, we headed to Brooklyn Bowl, in the heart of Williamsburg, ready to be entertained with some ironic interpretations of British classics, on Hawaii’s most adorable 4 string instrument. We certainly got more than we bargained for.

Now, let me just say, if our names were not on the bowling wait list, and had that list not been very long, we would have been out of there much sooner. There were so many problems, I don’t even know where to start. First off….and this may be a confusing one….LACK OF UKULELE. I know, I know. Its right in the title of the event! But seriously! What I walked in to find, seemed like a cover band of local dads, sloppily rocking out to some Beatles covers, poorly rehearsed, with one guy who looked like an overweight Sean Lennon on Uke in the back corner of the stage, barely amplified. You could not even hear it. After 3 false starts of “The Long and Winding Road” I was sufficiently insulted, and just gave up overall. Eventually they got through the tune, but by then, the magic was gone.

Notice the lack of ukulele presence
Notice the lack of ukulele presence

One other consistently annoying factor in most Brooklyn events, is an irritating MC. Where do they find these people? Its always like some less funny, more sarcastic Janeane Garofalo type, who always then sings a song with the band, and this song, is always not good. This particular host kept reminding the crowd she went to art school. What other than “well that explains it!” are you supposed to say in response to that? Don’t they know some jovial big dude they can give a couple beers to and have them introduce bands? I am 100% sure that would have been better than this chosen MC.

Later on, after a short break, the music did get slightly better. Hockey themed band “Zamboni” took the stage and performed a competent version of “And Your Bird Can Sing” which was like a breath of Hockey Flavored Fresh Air. One of the dudes from Guster played a forgettable song, then a crowd of the most stereotypical hipsters you or your mom has ever seen, tore through some shit I can’t remember. It was that good. Had I not been bowling at the time, I would have thrown something at them, stole their parents money out of their wallets, and left.

Luckily this was right behind the stage
Luckily this was right behind the stage

Now, the point i’m trying to get across here has nothing to do with The Beatles, or any of the bands which performed this evening. Well, maybe with the Beatles a bit. The point is this. If you advertise a “ukulele tribute to the Beatles” you should probably focus a little more on the actual ukulele. Thats like having a Garlic Festival and just putting a little garlic powder on top of each dish as an afterthought. We were certainly duped. Think of the potential for awesomeness this event had. Imagine 3 ukulele players on stage, baritone, tenor, and soprano (all types of uke) playing “She Loves You Yea Yea Yea” dressed in the Sgt Peppers uniforms, doing some great vocal harmony. How great would that be?! “8 Days A Week” was practically written to be strummed on the uke.

One day, we’ll have our Beatles Vs Stones debate. I believe its obvious that I am a Stones guy, but I will say that one main advantage Los Fabulosos Cuatros have, is that you cant really translate “Satisfaction” to the ukulele.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings @ Starland Ballroom

Let me just come right out and say it, if you want to see a real band, go see Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.  Yes, theoretically all bands are real bands, but thats kind of like when the Cheez-Its box says “Now With More Real Cheese Flavor!”  Lets examine some things that may get in the way.  Traditionally, there was the manufactured pop band.  This, I do not find so offensive, no one is really being tricked here.  There will always be bands of young people created by old white men for the purpose of making money.  The Monkey’s never played their own instruments, hundreds of bubblegum bands of that era were just there for the appearance, studio players actually recorded the albums.  Jimmy Page notoriously played several solos on Kinks albums (this was even confirmed by Page in the It Might Get Loud film)  But still, these parts are all being played by real musicians on real instruments.  Somewhere in there, someone has some talent, and has possibly even practiced their instrument.  One paradoxical example of this…is that The Dap Kings are the band on Amy Winehouse’s record, and without them, there is no way that album would have been as successful.

In recent years though, this has changed dramatically in a most bizarre way.  The Auto Tune phenomenon and various other studio trickery have changed the game for the worse.  I’m tempted not to say “for good”  because who knows, there could be a backlash, I’m certainly hoping for one.  I can’t even really get into this here, it will just upset me too much, and I’m not ready to let my day go to hell like that.  Lets just briefly say that Pro Tools, the most widely used recording platform, now advertises that each track now comes with “Elastic Time”.  What Elastic Time does, is time correct actual audio to a preset grid.  What this means, is that a player such as a drummer no longer needs to play in time, the most detailed of samples can be moved around to give the auditory appearance of playing in time.  This one just hurts.  Pitch correction, sure, we all knew that was coming.  But time correction on audio?  Come on!  Is there no motivation for someone to actually learn an instrument anymore? Well, seeing a band like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings I feel could change that.

This group has been around for a while, surrounded by some strange mythology.  From what I understand, bass player Gabriel Roth created Daptone Records, and released several “Reissue” 45 vinyl albums, which were not reissues of old soul recordings at all, but certainly sounded like it.  He believed in recording the old fashioned way, using no computers or trickery of any kind, all real musicians playing real notes.  Everything is recorded on an 8 track reel to reel tape machine, using minimal miking and overdubs.  What comes through is the real thing.  In many cases, these recordings are indistinguishable from the albums they are imitating, both in sound quality and musicianship.  I have heard nothing but stellar reviews of this band, so my expectations were quite high, which is always a dangerous thing.  Last week, my friend Jeff had invited me to check them out at “Southern NJ’s Finest Weird Mid Size Venue”- The Starland Ballroom…how could I pass that up?  So on the shittiest of Saturday nights, we braved the slushy rain/snow/wind combo, and headed south.

The Starland is an odd little place.  Its literally in the middle of nowhere, in Sayerville NJ.  I believe it was some type of dance club until the early 2000’s, when it seemed to take over for the old Birch Hill, as the Pop Punk/ Washed Up 80’s Band venue of NJ.  My old Ska band played there on the “Ska Is Dead” tour, which from what I remember was a great show.  The night before The Dap Kings, none other than Insane Clown Posse occupied the venue, and there were advertisements for Sebastian Bach as well.  But randomly, I saw Wilco there a few years back, and also The Black Crowes, so you really never know whats going to happen.

We arrived after the opening band to a medium filled house, which was kind of nice.  The crowd seemed laid back, no irritating hipsters to speak of, I would say the majority were 25 and older.  The Dap Kings took the stage in traditional Soul Revue style, the band coming out before the vocalist and doing a few instrumental tunes.  Everyone was clad in suits and ties, minimalist coordinated dance moves, great sounds from the instruments.  The guitar player acted as “Hype Man”  giving quite a rap at the beginning of the show, somewhat put on, but still interesting.  It felt as though the band was a little bit bored, not so much tearing it up, but I’m going to assume this is their style as a backup band- leaving all the glory for the front person.

Sharon Jones, gettin funky with some kid from the audience
Sharon Jones, gettin funky with some kid from the audience

Thats where Sharon Jones comes in.  There are no adequate words to describe this woman.  Shes fucking crazy.  She is 100% The Real Deal.  Her voice was flawless, and had enough soul to make Casper The Friendly Ghost come back to life and do the moonwalk.  Her stage presence was like a firecracker, she did not stop moving the entire night, dancing like a madwoman, simply lighting up the stage.  The real question is, where the hell was she for the majority of her life, and why is she not hailed worldwide as the 2nd coming of James Brown?  I heard an interview on NPR saying she was a Rikers Island Prison Guard for several years, and while this could be some made up story, she seemed pretty convincing, discussing the everyday details of the job.  She looks maybe in her late 40’s-early 50’s, and as you may have guessed from the previous sentences, is one of the greatest performers I have ever seen.  My other question is, how does she remain a “large” woman?  Seriously man, shes moving non stop, she must burn hundreds of calories every show, I just don’t get it.

Anyway, In addition to the stage presence of Jones, the backing band is just plain fantastic.  I would say, hands down, it was the greatest horn section I have ever seen.  The lines were so tight and so clear, it honestly reminded me of my favorite James Brown records.  The Baritone sax was perfect, punctuating bass lines with a little bit of growl.  The Trumpet was hitting high notes with ease, it was some Dizzy Gillespie shit.  The Tenor sax played some Maceo style solos, it was all there.   One of the most puzzling parts of the entire evening was their drummer, Homer Steinweiss (who also maintains a food blog)  On record his grooves are serious and straight ahead, though live, his performance seemed somewhat underwhelming.  Also, as Jeff pointed out, he was playing the bass drum with his left foot, using a double pedal, but the drum was in its normal position on the right.  How to explain this?  I have no idea.  There was technically nothing wrong with his playing, the feel was still there, it just didn’t really make me want to say “Hell Yea!”.  The bass playing was superb, the lines moved around, but never once got in the way.  Same thing for the guitars ( of which there were 2)  Their lines intertwined perfectly, they kept their solos minimal.   Overall, this is truly a band who knows how to support a front person.  Not one note was out of place, and nothing distracted from the vocal (though even if they tried, I very much doubt they could overshadow Jones.  Metallica could be up there and she would still stand out)

One Hilarious moment was when Jones brought up a young man from the audience, and danced, shall we say,  “All Up Ons”  It was quite entertaining.  But overall, the show was great.  This is a band like none other out there today.  It reassured me that serious music is still being made by serious musicians.  I don’t think one guitar effect was used all night, not even distortion.  Get out there and check it out, then go listen to The Jonas Brothers.  Tell me which one you prefer afterward.

Phish @ Madison Square Garden 12/3/09

Once every few years, its nice to revisit childhood. To some this may be tossing around the old football, watching an old movie, wearing your old Halloween costume….for me, it’s seeing Phish. My parents moved recently, and while cleaning out the house, I found my many phish ticket stubs from back in the day. It brought be back to a simpler time, in the early days of the internet. All mail order for tickets was done by standard mail! (now i believe its called ‘lottery’) You had to fill out index cards for each show! And recordings of shows were mailed around the country on cassette! UPHILL BOTH WAYS! Man, I feel old.

My interest in the band has certainly decreased over the years, and I’ve tried to examine why. In the high school years, I thought of these 4 musicians as the greatest of their respective instruments. I could analyze musical passages for weeks on end, and I was so incredibly excited for every solo. Maybe its my lack of interest in soloing or disinterest in any song over 6 minutes these days…but something has certainly changed. Phish is like a moment in time, best left alone. They were certainly some good days, but the band is definitely on the down slope of their career. Yes, its true. Once a band takes several, several year breaks, the singer gets arrested, and they come back on tour playing ‘the hits’ that signifies “Late Period” for that band.

The last time I ventured to Madison Square Garden was Wilco and The Flaming Lips on New Years Eve 04-05. We’re not going to talk about that evening, wilco is not meant for an arena. Before that, I believe the only band I had seen there was Phish, numbering somewhere in the mid 7-8’s. So it holds very specific nostalgia for a certain time in the late 90’s. Very few bands I feel are meant for a venue such as this. Led Zeppelin? Sure. The Stones? Probably not. Andrew WK? Of course. Phish?…..Yes. They’ve played in arenas for the last 15 years, they’re used to it. Their sound is more consistent than any band I have heard, each instrument is always audible. Last night was no exception.

The Arena Before The Show
The Arena Before The Show

This was the 2nd show of their MSG run, I did not attend the first night, but was deeply offended that they played Peaches En Regalia. Much to my dismay, they did not re-cover all of Exile on Main St ( which was done this past halloween.) They did cover Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and Talking Heads “Cities” which were both enjoyable, but no real fireworks. Musically, the show was in between- the band was tighter than their disasterous comeback several years ago at MSG, but not as free flowing and on the edge as the 98 Island Tour. It was nice to see some old friends, not have to wait for your parents pick you up, and be at a venue mere blocks from work.

But it got me thinking about the darker side of the Phish World. For a band so associated with all things joyus and hippy-ish, theres a lot of dark shit going around. Maybe it was always this way, but the drug culture seems to be on the rise in the actual venues. Sure, sketchy white rastas would always sell weed or acid, maybe some ecstacy in the parking lots, those are the hippy drugs, thats basically like a normal person shopping at Whole Foods. But at the Fenway Park show last summer, I certainly saw several kids, not more than 20 yrs old, doing coke off of their seats. That really just turned me off to the show experience. Come on dudes, just have a beer or something.

At most phish shows, this will be your view
At most phish shows, this will be your view

For someone like Trey Anastasio, I really wonder what life is like these days. A few years ago, he was arrested for a DUI in upstate NY, and Heroin was found in his car. This prompted all sorts of speculation about the last few years of the band, much of it I agree with. The songs were sloppy, the energy seemed to be gone, the fun felt kind of sucked out. As far fetched as it is, I can understand the pressure he felt at the time. First off, he’s basically the millionaire CEO of a very large and far reaching company. Phish may be a party time rock and roll band…but they have employees with health insurance, whose livlihood depends on this band touring. After the financial aspect…the emotional attachment from these hippies is CRAZY. Sure, it won’t be life or death if these kids have to go out and get a real job, or a couple ibankers dont have something to do for a summer road trip…but for the rest of his life there will be speculation about reunions, insane critique of his catalog, and sharp criticism of any show he plays which is less than stellar (see above paragraphs) Its basically- Tour for the rest of your life, or fire an entire company and be disliked by millions of fans all over the world. The same thing happened with Jerry Garcia, and we all know how that ended up.

Heroin seems like some dark shit. It doesnt make you think of rainbows and teddy bears. I think of Motley Crüe passing out on stage. Slash pissing him self and passing out in an elevator doorway, the door opening and closing on his head. The movie Basketball Diaries. Its kind of the antithesis of everything Phish seems to stand for. We’d like to think of the 4 members of phish as the wholesome friend you have, who sometimes smokes some weed, drinks micro brews, but doesn’t really fuck up his life. But this dark side is always there right beneath the surface. While we were enjoying our childhood, relaxing on the lawn and hearing some spaced out jams in the summertime….was Trey all strung out, waiting to shoot up or some shit? I’m puzzled by this. Someone supposedly wrote a book about the band recently, which included discussion on this, but its realease was apparently delayed. If he OD’d how would that affect his legacy? I somehow feel it would end up much darker than the Grateful Dead saga. There was 6-ish people in that band, their style was much more song oriented, much more Americana. If one guy goes…the others could pretty much carry on in a similar style. In a 4 person situation, where there is only 1 of each instrument, no one is really replaceable. If Trey pulled a Garcia, I can’t help but think there would be more bitterness towards the thought.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Here are my thoughts in conclusion about their live performance. They’ve been repeating several songs from night to night, which is in my opinion not kosher for this band. If you’re a pop oriented outfit, fine, that’s what people want to hear. You’re a fucking jam band, act like it. Trey looks happier now than in the last few years pre-breakup 1.5. I guess it’s a – you don’t know what you had until its gone – type of thing. His solo career never really caught on, everyone only wanted to hear him play phish songs no matter how many symphonic pieces he wrote, and he’s certainly not a singer/songwriter. This band is carrying quite a legacy, and only now are they playing like it. They’re playing like a band who know’s their reputation has been tarnished. They’re fighting hard to get it back, and I’m not sure how its working out. They’re technically proficient, but the risk taking seems to be gone from the music. Where as in the late 90’s they were not afraid to make a mistake (the risk/reward was far greater) Now they seem to be afraid to make a mistake for fear of looking like they’re out of practice.

Phish 3