Category Archives: Music

Sunday Night, Fun Day Done Right Day.

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Good Evening:

Sunday night in downtown San Francisco could not have gone much better for culture vultures. The Playwrights Center of San Francisco sponsored a fund raiser in which 8 groups of playwrights, directors and actors wrote, directed and acted in 8 short plays. I happened to play a role in this project: aside from providing breakfast for everyone on Sunday morning, I contributed 2 of the 3 required elements for each play.

The required theme for each play was “Surprisingly Unexpected.” Didn’t come up with that one (my offering: “This Is the End of the World As We Know It”), but I did contribute the required noun and the required line of dialogue. The noun: “Escape Vehicle.” The line of dialogue: “But what about the strawberries?” Thought the poor playwrights would suffer. Thought very wrong. The show was great.

Think for a moment of what kind of play you might write with the theme “Surprisingly Unexpected,” the noun “Escape Vehicle,” and the dialogue, “But what about the strawberries?” Offhand, I can recall these:

  • An extraterrestrial crash-lands her UFO in a male Earthling’s strawberry patch.
  • Two zombie cheerleaders try to cash a check.
  • A mother accidentally reveals that she has lied to her daughter for 21 years–she does know her father’s name.
  • An Elizabethan woman asks William Shakespeare to pretend that he wrote her plays.
  • A nice elderly Jewish couple, both wizards, discover that their new human customer used to be their pet hamster. Not a misprint.

Surprisingly unexpected, aren’t they? And yes, they all included escape vehicles and strawberries.

San Francisco playwrights have excellent imaginations.

After an excellent show, maybe the best 24-hour playfest the PCSF has done, I wandered down to the cable car turnaround on Powell Street, where a gentleman with what appeared to be a 4.5 inch reflector telescope hosted a “Saturn Party,” wherein he offered free viewings of the planet. A little different, even by San Francisco standards.

Just around the corner, in front of the Gap store, stood Clare Means. Who? Clare is a tall woman with Pre-Raphaelite hair, an acoustic guitar, and quite a gift for songwriting in the genre some might call Americana. She currently has a curious sort of nationwide tour in progress: she travels from city to city, busking on the streets with her guitar and portable amp, performing songs from her two current CD collections, collecting dollars to pay for gas and food–basically trying to make a name for herself without a record deal and with an advertising budget of zero. Dropped a dollar in her guitar case and listened to “Look Who’s Lucky Now,” a great intro to her music, which you can find on iTunes. Have heard a lot of musicians and bands that deserved only the greatest success never came anywhere close. Clare Means is just the latest of the bunch, but it would feel pretty darn good some day to see her name on a Top 20. I mean, come on, Pre-Rephaelite hair. Dang.

I even found two dimes on the sidewalk.

Sunday night was that kind of night.

Vonn Scott Bair

World Music and the World of Music in San Francisco: YOUR New Puzzle of the Week!

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Good Evening:

One of these days, maybe just maybe your correspondent will finally break down and subscribe to Songlines Magazine, a very fine periodical devoted to the world of music, the world in music, and world music in particular. Each issue includes one or two sampler CDs (remember those?) containing sample songs featuring that issue’s featured artists–and one of these days I will learn how to write coherent English sentences.

Ukulele Player Busking Before the Last SF Giants Game of the Season.

Ukulele Player Busking Before the Last SF Giants Game of the Season.

The current issue (#111) puts Seckou Keita on the cover–and if you are also a hard-core lover of kora music you will immediately start looking for this issue. The issue includes two CDs. The first is the usual Songlines sampler.

The second–well, that is your official Puzzle of the Week!

Schooled in Massachusetts, Performed in Austin TX, Loves Dogs.

Schooled in Massachusetts, Performed in Austin TX, Loves Dogs.

The second CD includes the following: a song by a band called Jaffa Road (Jaffa is a place in Israel); another song by a band called Delhi 2 Dublin (referencing India and Ireland); and a song by Ayrad entitled “Moroccan Gospel.”

And here is YOUR Puzzle of the Week! What is the title of the CD?

Musician Performing East Asian Music in Front of a Starbucks Ad, Powell Street Station, San Francisco, CA, 7 October 2015, 9:10 p.m.

Musician Performing East Asian Music on a Japanese Koto  in Front of a Starbucks Ad, Powell Street Station, San Francisco, CA, 7 October 2015, 9:10 p.m. Note how the ad complements the dress and vice versa.

You probably did not guess correctly. Not unless you own the issue.

The title of this CD is–believe it or not–Canada Now (Canada Maintenant).

It consists entirely of Canadian music. Or at the very least, music by Canadian musicians.

No one can deny that almost all recent developments in the music industry have caused a lot of pain for the artists, as fewer and fewer superstars grab more and more of the attention and money, except that they suffer as much from illegal downloading as anyone else (in terms of actual dollars lost, perhaps more, but I don’t have the numbers). Musicians share the very reasonable hope that they can support themselves with work they love, but their fans have developed the expectation that music should be free, possibly as an offshoot of the original idea that information wants to be free (sometimes attributed to Stewart Brand, late 1960s).

The one positive development? Music itself.

How on earth does a balding, late middle aged, pot-bellied, government bureaucrat white boy like yours truly even know that the kora exists?! Have you seen one of those things?! The kora is The Elephant Man of the guitar family, the horribly misshapen, deformed and monstrous mutant offspring of the unholy dalliance between an oud and a diddley-bow that the family keeps locked up in the basement out of shame–and yet the kora produces gloriously ethereal and beautiful music equal to anything else in the world.

How did I first hear of this West African instrument?!

The truth is that I don’t remember. Somewhere in the past decade, I blundered into In The Heart of The Moon, a collaboration between the late Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate and became madly enraptured with the performance of Toumani on one of his own koras–but even that doesn’t count as my first encounter with that strange-looking instrument. Nonetheless, we all know where I first encountered the kora. On the Internet.

We have entered an extraordinary era, one in which it has become more difficult than ever for musicians to make a living, and yet more easy than ever to discover each other, learn from each other, and experiment with each other, drawing inspiration from music and musical instruments that we might never have encountered even a decade ago.

Making Napster, the iPod, YouTube et alia very bad news for the musician–and very good news for the musician’s music.

I feel so glad I don’t work in music. Feels much better that I just enjoy the sound.

Especially since I never steal music.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Incongruities & Little Pleasures of Market Street.

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Good Evening:

1. Sometimes, even something so commonplace as a butterfly can look different.

Such as the one fluttering about Market & 8th Streets after my Sunday trip to the Civic Center farmers market. I don’t think this was a lone Monarch butterfly that had gone waaaaay off-course on its northern migration; I suspect this was a butterfly that looks like Monarchs because supposedly the Monarch tastes too unappetizing to certain predators.

But for whatever reason, this particular butterfly chose to orbit my head like a drunken moon for a few seconds, then fluttered off to the strangest and possibly deadliest location for such a critter. The yellow dividing stripes in the middle of Market Street, where it could have gotten killed by a passing automobile even without getting struck. Fortunately, thanks to the arrangement of red lights on Market, the block was empty of cars. I walked into the middle of the street and chased the butterfly from its resting place. It orbited my head like a drunken moon for a few more seconds, then fluttered up into the sky toward the nearest tree.

The other San Franciscans looked at me as if I was nuts and I didn’t care.

2. The aria near noon.

I frequently walk to the City’s Department of Human Resources on business, which takes me along the block of Market Street between 10th and 11th streets. Last week, during one such trip near lunchtime, as I turned onto Market, I spotted a group of four people–all strangers to each other, each stood apart from the rest–with their jaws hanging down as they craned their neck to look upwards at a four story building that houses among other things a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residential hotel.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, so I also looked up.

At which point, the singing began again. Opera. We could not see the woman, but anyone within a hundred yards could her practicing an aria, singing for maybe 15-20 seconds, pausing, singing the same passage again, then singing that passage and continuing with the rest of her song. My guess: a guest artist in town to perform with the SF Opera, but not a big star, so the Opera put her in a nearby residential hotel.

But she was really really good. I just have a feeling that for her next visit they will place her in more luxurious quarters. Which will be too bad for the strangers gathered on the sidewalk that morning to hear something as incongruous as beautiful singing on one of Market Street’s dingier blocks.

Vonn Scott Bair

Ozomatli @ The Fillmore, 20 December 2014 & The Aristeia of Caipo.

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Good Evening:

I know what you’re thinking–what the heck is a Caipo?

I have written once before on the subject of the aresteia: that brief passage of time during which an individual suddenly, astonishingly, not only performs at a level far above his/her previous best, but actually becomes the best ever. Ozomatli came to the Fillmore Auditorium for their annual Christmas shows this weekend, and as usual they blew the roof off the building, More on that later; the time has come to praise Caipo.

Bang Data: Deuce Eclipse on Vocals, Caipo on Percussion

Bang Data: Deuce Eclipse on Vocals, Caipo on Percussion

Ozo loves to showcase opening acts so good they might make you forget that Ozo even exists: Cumbia Tokeson in 2011, Los Rakas in 2012, and for 2014 they brought in Bang Data, most famous for the inclusion of their song “Bang Data” in a classic scene from Breaking Bad (the one where Gus poisons the entire Mexican cartel–yeah, that classic scene).

Anyway, most everyone I asked didn’t know the name of the opening act: one of the Fillmore employees said “Ben Data,” while another audience member thought it was Deuce Eclipse, actually the name of the vocalist.

But when Caipo hit his bass drum, he got everyone’s attention. Tokeson brought the dance, Los Rakas brought the energy, but Bang Data brought pure power, and that power came from the drummer. Of all the solo drummers I have ever seen perform live (as opposed to teams of percussionists such as Ozo’s), this was the absolutely best performance I have ever heard. Seriously, better than Charlie Watts, Jack DeJohnette or Bill Bruford. Even a song like “Calavera Life,” their best song of the night and normally a swinging dance tune, sounded like the offspring of a happy marriage between rap and heavy metal thanks to Caipo’s thunder. I have no idea if Saturday night was a fluke performance, but Bang Data will perform at The Addition on 1/22/15, so perhaps I’ll visit then.

However, someone else performed at the Fillmore on Saturday night–I have not forgotten about Ozomatli. Unlike the 2012 show, which featured among other things two Wushu masters demonstrating their rope dart techniques and a dancing banana (not a misprint), the men from LA also chose to play a simple, no-frills, pure power sort of show, playing their hits with a quicker tempo and more of a rocking sound than normal–even their famous closing number featured a Chuck Berry riff, something I’ve never heard them do before.

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All these pictures came from my iPhone 4, which theoretically cannot take still photography in darkened concert venues. I prefer to convert the weakness into a strength; please think of these pictures as Instant Expressionism.

Ozomatli chose to acknowledge the holiday by bringing a bare Christmas tree onstage and then inviting a pair of volunteers from the audience to decorate it. They did a good job. Ozo also produced their latest invention–official, genuine Ozomatli Christmas sweaters (not a misprint). I am not making this up, and admit it; until you read “Ozomatli Christmas sweaters,” you never realized that you never realized that you ever realized that you never thought you would ever read the phrase “Ozomatli Christmas sweaters.” Or something like that. In 2012, I stood so close to the stage that the band literally sweated on me, so this time I stood further back. Big mistake; the sweaters they threw into the audience came nowhere near me.

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The band concluded with their famous drumming circle in the middle of the audience; never gotten this close before. They then led the audience in one giant conga line to the bar–very considerate of Ozo, insofar as the fans needed refreshment after all three hours of dancing, and the bar hadn’t sold much beer because of all that dancing (and it was close to the merchandise table). Just another incredible Ozo @ the Fillmore show, and I’d like to thank the band for having the guts to bring in opening acts good enough to challenge them. Especially when that opening act has a drummer giving us the performance of a lifetime.

Vonn Scott Bair

Families (Weekly Photo Challenge: Dialogue)

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Good Evening:

Dialogue.

To a playwright, dialogues do not confine themselves to two characters; my personal record for a stage play consists of 13 distinct characters nattering away (in screenplays, eight). So I did not confine myself to just two pictures for this, my final post inspired by this week’s Challenge.

Besides, families come in all sizes and types. We have the traditional family…

Family at Duboce Dog Park, San Francisco, California, 30 August 2014

Traditional Family at Duboce Dog Park, San Francisco, California, 30 August 2014

…and the new traditional family.

New Traditional Family at Old Navy, San Francisco, 30 August 2014

New Traditional Family at Old Navy, San Francisco, 30 August 2014

But family doesn’t have to be just about families. After all, you can make your own.

These folks are part of a musical family that have hung out in Golden Gate Park for more than 40 years.

Drumming Circle @ Golden Gate Park, 31 August 2014

Drumming Circle @ Golden Gate Park, 31 August 2014

These gentlemen have their family, clan, tribe, or what have you. Their home? Wherever they can thrash.

Skateboarders Headed for the Park, 31 August 2014

Skateboarders Headed for the Park, 31 August 2014

 

Finally, this family, mentioned in a previous post.

Homeless "Family," Hayes Street Behind Civic Center

Homeless “Family,” Hayes Street Behind Civic Center

They are all they have, so even if only for a few hours, or perhaps a few days, or years, they make their family, although in this case, “mutual protection society” might seem apropos. But at least one can make one’s own family, whether for traditional reasons, shared passions, or mutual need.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Drumming Circle of Golden Gate Park (Weekly Photo Challenge: Relic)

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Good Evening:

Some of these guys have spent four decades of Sunday afternoons at this location.

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If you ask, no one quite knows when the drumming circle began, who began it, or who is the oldest remaining veteran of the old days, but even on World Cup Sunday, they come here and pound the percussion. This group was one of the tiniest I’ve seen; presumably, the others were still celebrating/despairing over the Germany-Argentina game. But only horrible weather will prevent the Sunday gathering of this living relic of San Francisco’s brief glory days as the center of the music universe. People have despaired of San Francisco’s musical decline for decades, more intensely than ever in recent years as our soaring rents keep driving out people.

And yet, the San Francisco music scene persists.

Somehow.

In the theater community (well, San Francisco’s theater community), we have one of the strangest compliments you might ever hear: we praise others and happily describe ourselves as “cockroaches.” Not a misprint. Cockroaches. It refers to the ability of some artists and theater companies to keep afloat, keep acting, keep creating theater no matter how bad the arts environment can get. Somehow or another, we sneak around and create art in the dark, as it were. The term might also have an application for San Francisco’s musicians. On the same Sunday I photographed the drumming circle, I wandered down Upper Haight and wandered past two soloists and a band, all performing on a single block. That guitar in the first picture was homemade from a wooden box and parts scrounged around the house, plus a leftover piece of a broken acoustic guitar.

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Haight Street hasn’t looked this um, uh, well–hasn’t looked this Haight Street in years.

Surely they know. Surely they know that the music scene in San Francisco hasn’t been this weak since before the Gold Rush. And yet the city’s musicians keep playing anyway, even if it means creating their own guitars in order to do so.

Vonn Scott Bair

Singing in the Office, 16 June 2014

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Good Evening:

At 8:40 a.m. today, several co-workers including your fearless correspondent, for perfectly sane, rational, logical, work-related reasons, began singing the refrain of “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” as the perfectly sane, rational, logical, work-related result of a perfectly sane, rational, logical, work-related discussion. Which baffled the heck out of all of us. Not the discussion (logical) or the song (awesome!), but the group.

No one could remember who first made “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” My hypothesis: a one-hit wonder circa 1970 whose name began with “The” and ended in “-ells.” Actually, not that bad a guess–they had two other Top Ten hits on the R&B charts, but nothing as memorable as this masterpiece.

Now it’s your turn. In 1971, “Thin Line” peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, but spent two weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. Without peeking at the Internet, can you tell me the name of the group?

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–Do I have terrific co-workers or what?

PPS–UPDATE! The correct answer is The Persuaders, who had five Billboard R&B Top-25 hits from 1971-73 and then vanished.