Sunday, May 20, 2012

Live Review: Play Misty For Me

1. Early Show: Jonathan Wilson / Jenny O.
By now, the Mercury Lounge is starting feel like home. So it was no surprise that Father John Misty's exuberant bass player, Jeffertitti, was standing right inside the door and that within minutes we were chatting away like old friends. I had to tear myself away, however, to accept a drink from my sister and brother-in-law, who "always buy a drink for someone who turns us on to great music." They owe me a great many drinks. After a few sips of Black Bush, we stepped into the music room to hear Jenny O.

As I told Jeffertitti (and Laurel Stearns, Father John Misty's manager, who was also hanging out), anyone who can sing a Buddy Holly tune without making me cringe is worth a listen. This rule of thumb was proven right by Jenny. Her voice is exquisitely controlled throughout its considerable range and her songwriting has a busker's swagger along with a deep engagement with elemental folk and rock structures. High hopes in this quarter for her debut album, "produced with, for, and at me" by none other than Jonathan Wilson, who was up next.

JW is like that cool guy you stay in touch with because he always has the best records. The difference is, he can play every note (and instrument, practically) on all those records. But this virtuosity is always in the service of song and emotion, and he gives plenty of opportunities for his band-mates to shine. One of my favorite moments was when he picked up an enormous tambourine to enhance our - and most likely his own - experience of another great solo by his ace keyboard player. JW and the band are now simpatico enough that when echoes of Hendrix's 1983...A Merman I Should Turn To Be seemed to creep into a lengthy take of Natural Rhapsody, they were all along for the ride.

Terry, my brother-in-law, and I saw Wilson back in January and neither one of us would have called that show tentative. But when he and his four-piece band roared to life this time around the true meaning of "road-tested" was immediately clear. They just jelled more and found even more directions to pursue in JW's songs, which already have marvelous meanderings built in.

This was the last gig of their tour. Next stop is opening for - and playing with, I believe - Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While the prospect of JW exploring the interstices of Free Falling (Petty's best song) is tantalizing, I look forward to his next club tour - and so should you.

2. Late Show: Father John Misty / Har Mar Superstar
After popping around the corner for a mochachino at D'Espresso, I returned to the Mercury for what Wilson had called "the Father John Misty experience." But first up was the character who calls himself Har Mar Superstar. His gimmick is that he's a tubby little balding man who fancies himself a funky R and B sensation. Unfortunately, his voice and songs are not up to the task and his act quickly grows monotonous. For a sub-cheap thrill, he ends the show in his underwear. Life is too short to discuss him further, except to say that he did provide an instructive contrast to Father John, as they are both persona exercises to some extent and Har Mar demonstrates the pitfalls of that being all you have to offer.

Remember J.Tillman? The graceful and melodic drummer from Fleet Foxes, known for his solid backing vocals and witty asides? He's also known for a series of beautiful albums under his own name. While these feature some excellent songs (check out No Occasion) and gorgeous production, they can be slightly morose and over-introspective. In fact, the most satisfying J.Tillman recording I own is actually a Daytrotter session from 2010, which never fails to elicit at "Who IS this?" whenever I play it to the unsuspecting. So he has long been on my radar as a hugely talented musician looking for focus or identity, or both, and when I read last year that Jonathan Wilson was producing his next album, I sensed a breakthrough around the corner.

Little did I know that the breakthrough would come under another name: Father John Misty, whose louche videos began dropping into my iTunes via the Sub Pop podcast earlier this year. This guy likes a bit of Riot House decadence with his singer-songwriter stylings, has outrageous dance moves, an acerbic wit, and probably thinks J.Tillman is a bit of a wet blanket.

Now, with the excellent album Fear Fun (produced by one J. Wilson, natch) under his belt, he's taken his show on the road with an top notch band of co-conspirators. Coming on stage to the strains of I Call My Baby Pussycat, his greeting was "Hello, fake funk fans," before launching in to an explosive assay of I'm Writing A Novel. His voice sounded stronger and more flexible than on record and the catharsis seemed to feel as good to him as it did to the crowd.

Throughout the night, I never tired of his slinky moves, accompanied as they were by his haunted eyes and slightly pissed-off air - not to mention one terrific song after another. His band was a study in contrasts, mainly between Jeffertitti, with his dyed blond hair, pogoing and overall extroversion, and the other guys. There were so many personae flying around, however, that it wouldn't surprise me if the bass player was a devout churchgoer and that Banjy Lysaght, the somewhat studious lead guitarist, who achieves his precise and glowing tone with the help of about 18 effects pedals, was the one with the nearly empty bottle of tequila rolling around under his seat on the tour van.

The whole show was a complete success and by the end, Father John and his cohort owned the room. The combination of literate (and often hilarious) songs steeped in the sounds of the best of American music and more than a little sparkle of showmanship is a winning one. J. Tillman could learn a few things from this guy.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Adam Yauch Remembered: A Tale of Two Bassists

The last time I saw Adam Yauch was at a Beastie Boys concert in August, 1998. Mike D. had offered me tickets partly because we were old friends and partly because he knew I could use a good night out as my 19 month old son had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor just five months before. And the time before that likely had been in 1989 when I photographed the Boys for the Paul's Boutique album cover. So we were not close, but we had a history, and when I walked into the cinder-block backstage area at what is now the Izod Center, he greeted me warmly, introducing me to his wife and making me feel welcome. My sister had been to Nepal recently so we talked about Nepalese tea and I wished him well with his quest to help the Tibetan people. Onstage, they rocked the house and lifted my spirits. Adam had become an accomplished bass player by then and I couldn't get enough of his raspy voice and witty words.

Our history, if presented in a manner appropriate to Behind The Music could consist of me railing at the camera that Adam had wrecked my band (The Young Aborigines) and helped the Beastie Boys rise from its ashes. But it wasn't like that. The Abs consisted of myself on bass, Mike Diamond (drums), John Berry (guitar) and Kate Schellenbach (percussion). We played an un-categorizable mash-up of post-punk, dub, and what we called "primitive" music. It was mainly for fun but we had some ambitions. My journal from 1981 mentions contact with the manager of the Bad Brains and a constant attempt to play in front of people. In the end, we only played two shows, and the joke was they were both on the same night.

Adam came to our crowd through the NYC hardcore scene, which Mike, John and Kate had grown increasingly attracted to. Though we were a tight-knit bunch of (mainly) upper-Manhattanites, the guy from Brooklyn with the wicked sense of humor and a wild streak was soon one of us, he fit right in. Adam respected what I was trying to do on the bass and was open to suggestions about the instrument. At the time I was taking lessons with a guy called David and Adam considered learning from him as well. My diary also notes that I brought Adam to David's loft to buy his first Fender bass.

While I was blown away by the Bad Brains (I must have listened to their ROIR cassette every day for a year), I was not much of a hardcore fan and the idea of playing that kind of reductive music did not fit with my omnivorous musical appetite. This led to to an unusual situation, with Adam and me playing in completely different bands with the exact same people, sometimes even rehearsing on the same day. Mike would get up from the drums and move to the mic; Kate would leave her hodgepodge of percussion and slide in behind Mike's kit; I would unplug my bass, and Adam would plug his in. John would keep his guitar, likely watching with a crooked grin and running his hand through his excessively pomaded hair. Sometimes I hung around and tried to add something but usually I would cut out home. My biggest contribution musically was probably the time I showed Adam how to use his thumb to slap the bass, a la Larry Graham. It had taken me almost a full summer to refine the technique and he was impressed.

The B. Boys and the Abs continued their parallel lives until around May of 1982, when the latter, without a thriving scene to support it and a confused musical approach, faded away into the ether. However, now that Adam is so tragically, heartbreakingly and unbelievably GONE, I find myself thinking more about the spaces in between. Like the hilarious night a passel of us crashed at Adam's Brooklyn brownstone, getting no sleep at all as we tried to fit five people in one bed. He was obsessed with the phoniness of advertising and kept us in stitches with his impressions of how poorly the media portrayed the way people behave.

In September 1981, a few days before I took the pictures included here, Mike and I headed to Central Park to go boating. No doubt this excursion was prompted by the fact that Yauch had a job at the concession and could hook us up. We might have put his job on the line as I tried to teach Mike to row, something for which he showed absolutely no aptitude. The three of us just broke out laughing after we finally got the boat back to shore.

We all had a lot of energy, and watching Adam bounce around on stage in old clips on YouTube reminds me of the night he got "nicked for acting like an ape on [the] subway," as I wrote in my diary. The cops gave him a warning and we continued on to see the Bad Brains at A7. Soon the Beasties were opening for the Brains and headlining their own shows.

Then came Pollywog Stew, Cooky Puss, Adam Horovitz, and, most improbably, global super-stardom. When the Licensed To Ill era was happening I was sort of amused by the whole thing, but also disgusted by the casual misogyny and bored by the brutish, frat-boy friendly beats. The success of that album kept Mike and the boys out of town for quite a while but we reconnected after things died down, leading to my agreeing to use my photo skills to make their dream of a 360-degree album cover a reality. While we careened around the city between locations, they played me some rough edits of the Paul's Boutique material and I turned to Mike and said, "Now, this I like!" The smorgasbord of sounds took me back to our listening sessions, when the Gang Of Four could be followed by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and some old record from the 1920's.

They were on their way to becoming the hipsters hipsters as the world knows them today, and while I didn't always go for everything they did, I knew there was no compromise in their pursuits, within the Beastie Boys or otherwise, and I respected and admired Adam's work as an activist and filmmaker.

Even though I spent a lot of time with Adam in 1981 and 1982, we were really only acquaintances. In the end, I think his death felt like such a crushing blow to me for the same reason it did to many who never even met him: he was one of us, he fit right in.

My heart goes out to his wife and daughter, his parents, and his brother Beasties.

Note: All photos, and photos within photos, copyright 2012, Jeremy Shatan