Tag Archives: Belly Up

Christmas Under Waters


John Waters hates Easter.

Well, the popular version of it, anyway.

He hates the hunt. He hates hard-boiled eggs. He hates the pastel-colored baskets and the shredded plasti-grass that goes in them. But, most of all, he hates the bunny. Man, does he hate that bunny.

Christmas, on the other hand, is a different story.

Since releasing A John Waters Christmas in 2004—a compilation album of hand-picked holiday oddities from artists like Tiny Tim and Jimmy Donley—the cult filmmaker and best-selling author has used every December to star in a Christmas-themed, one-man show of the same name.

What started as a handful of stand-up dates in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., has now become a well-polished show that makes an annual trek through 15 cities, as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

“I hope it sounds like I’m just talking without any planning,” Waters says, speaking by phone from his hometown of Baltimore. “But it’s completely written out and rehearsed. I need to remind people of important things—like to never ask the fat person in your office to play Santa Claus. That’s the worst, rudest thing you could ever do.”

And while it’s impossible for the transgressive auteur not to infuse his perverse holiday monologues with the same kind of bawdy humor he used in films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and A Dirty Shame, the man once dubbed “The Prince of Puke” swears the show—which comes to Belly Up Tavern on Dec. 4—is more therapy than anything else.

“I don’t have much tongue-in-cheek in this,” he says. “I’m serious when I say I’m going to tell you how to get through Christmas no matter your religion, creed, sexual preference or relationship with your family. If you’re a criminal, a capitalist, Republican or Democrat, I can tell you how to get through it. It’s like a self-help meeting.”

Despite the current version of his traveling support group unabashedly celebrating things like Christmas-tree violence and chocolate, Santa-shaped butt plugs, Waters’ own Yuletide celebrations are relatively tame.

He designs and sends out a Christmas card. He gives gifts. He throws a party. And Waters always takes his turn when it’s time to cook for the family.

“It’s traditional,” he says, “but everything has a twist to it. My mantle has the Unabomber birdhouse on it. My sister does a wreath on the front door, but it has prickly bushes that scratch you on the way in. I decorate an electric chair instead of a Christmas tree. But I’ve always said that to celebrate bad taste, you have to know good taste.”

And gift giving and receiving? For the 66-year-old iconoclast, it’s all about books. A bibliophile with a massive collection, Waters finds as much joy in fringe pulp fiction as he does Tennessee Williams. Whether it’s a cheesy, soft-core sex book with a hilarious cover or an obscure piece of literature he hasn’t yet acquired, Waters wouldn’t want to unwrap anything else on the big day. For years now, on the top of his wish list are movies made into novels.

“I collect those because no one collects them anymore,” he says. “It’s a dead genre. And if anyone can ever find me the novelization of Pootie Tang, I’ll give them a lap dance.”

Waters is an accomplished author himself, with five books to his credit. The latest, 2010’s bestselling Role Models, is a collection of essays, including reflections on Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, singer Johnny Mathis and Baltimore stripper Lady Zorro.

He’ll follow that next year with Carsick, a chronicle of his recent hitchhiking adventure across the country. In it, he both imagines what might happen and documents the actual pickups by, among others, a city council member, a married couple and the indie-rock band Here We Go Magic (they tweeted in disbelief at the time).

“The first third of it is a little novella,” Waters says, “and I’m imagining the very best that could happen on the trip—vicious characters, sex, adventure. Next, I wrote the 15 worst rides possible. The day before I left, I wrote my own death, and then I went and really did it. Twenty-one rides in nine days. Most people thought I was homeless at first. The rest you’ll have to read in the book.”

If it seems strange that an iconic writer / director of 16 films has spent the last eight years doing one-man holiday shows and authoring books, it is, especially considering that Waters’ 1988 film, Hairspray, was turned into a Broadway hit—before Hollywood remade it in 2007—and went on to become the forth-highest grossing musical in U.S. history.

But he hasn’t stopped trying to make movies. He’s been attempting to get his children’s Christmas film, Fruitcake, which he describes as “The Little Rascals on acid,” made since 2008. The studios haven’t been cooperating.

So, instead, at least for now, all of that unrequited holiday commentary is channeled into his live act.

“I hate Easter,” he says. “But I do like Christmas. I just think everyone’s neurotic at Christmas, even if you don’t acknowledge it. And that’s just another form of neuroses. And that’s why I’m here to tell you how you can both love and hate Christmas at the same time.”

Waters is going to keep writing books, and he’s going keep doling out Christmas advice and observations, until someone decides to finance Fruitcake. And if that day never comes, well, he’s fine with that, too.

“It may never go into production,” he says. “That’s why I’m writing a book. But it’s OK. I have many ways to sell stories. It’s not that big of a shame. I’ve made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on November 28, 2012

RA RA RIOT: There’s a Riot going on

New York sextet Ra Ra Riot has accomplished quite a lot since its inception five years ago. The chamber pop-infused indie rock band, which includes a full-time cellist and violinist, has released two full-length albums and four EPs, and has toured the country and globe extensively.

After meeting at Syracuse University, the members formed the band and began playing shows on a whim, without any kind of master plan. In less than a year, the band had earned a spot performing at New York’s annual CMJ Music Marathon and opened shows for national headliners such as the Horrors and Bow Wow Wow.

In 2007, tragedy struck the young band when drummer John Pike drowned in Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts. The decision was made by the remaining members to carry on, and they’ve been doing just that ever since.

Fresh off a successful Canadian tour, Ra Ra Riot’s national coast-to-coast swing finds the band performing Wednesday night at the Belly Up. But with six schedules to reconcile, and live dates running through Thanksgiving, it’s unknown when fans can expect a follow-up to “The Orchard,” the band’s 2010, critically acclaimed sophomore release.

“We’ve done a lot of touring in the last four years,” said guitarist Milo Bonacci from a recent tour stop in North Carolina. “And we’ve really been in cramped quarters. It’s been a pretty difficult thing to try and write on the road. I mean, we’ll work on ideas during sound check and in minor ways. But the songs have never been conceived or fleshed out while we’re traveling around. The logistics just haven’t been incredibly conducive to having productive time while we’re out doing shows.”

The group’s members had to force themselves to hole up in an upstate New York peach orchard for a couple of weeks to write and record demos for the previous album.

Nothing that extensive has been planned for the new record, but Bonacci said that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been on their minds.

“It’s been a topic of conversation since we finished the last record,” he said. “We’ve made plans to record and have decided on whom to work with as a producer. We have a bunch of demos and a lot of ideas for what perspectives we want to approach on this new album. But we haven’t recorded anything just yet. That’s coming soon.”

Although they don’t have anything set in stone, it’s likely Bonacci’s promise will come to fruition. Even with its rigorous touring schedule, the band has still been able to produce six releases in five years together.

That’s just the way things happen with this longtime group of friends.

Even hitting that half-decade mark wasn’t something the members initially expected. And it’s a milestone they’ve raced past without time to give it much thought.

“It’s actually a strange thing to think about,” Bonacci said. “It really depends on the day. Sometimes it seems like it’s been no time at all. On those days, it’s completely fresh and exciting. But sometimes, I’m surprised when I look back and think of all the things we’ve done, and all the places we’ve gone since we started. Overall, it’s a bit shocking to me that it’s already been five years. This is something that really started as a temporary project.”

While things haven’t exactly gone according to plan, no one is complaining. And at this point, it’s not even an option. They just have too much more to do.

“It’s true that no one expected we’d still be doing this now when we started,” Bonacci said. “But it’s never been a situation where we suddenly found ourselves doing something like touring the country, or even the world, either. The whole thing has been very progressive and steady. And we’re certainly still having fun with it, so we hope it keeps moving in the same direction. It’s all very exciting and satisfying.”

Originally published in The North County Times on November 03, 2011

Trentemøller Ready For New Journey

Last time he was in California, the closest that Danish producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist Anders Trentemøller got to San Diego was playing at April’s Coachella festival.

No stranger to huge crowds, the minimalist electronic musician made a name for himself playing to an estimated 50,000 fans at the 2009 Roskilde Festival in his native Denmark.

Audiences are sure to be a bit smaller during his North American club and theater swing, but those who catch his Wednesday set at the Belly Up will get the same large-scale performance the DJ designed for hordes of festivalgoers in the past.

“We are so looking forward to coming back again,” Trentemøller said recently from his home studio in Copenhagen. “We’ve added some new visuals to the show, but we’re also keeping a lot of the elements we had from the last time. We also have the chance to play in some new cities and some new venues, so we are excited. When we played Coachella, we were only allowed to play for 50 minutes and only played one song with vocals. We are looking forward to playing a full set and doing more of our songs with singing. It’s going to be a totally new kind of journey.”

The journey won’t include scaling things back despite the change in audience size, but it will still be kept in proportion. While the visual component is an important aspect of the shows, Trentemøller refuses to let it take over.

“The music is definitely cinematic,” he said. “We really don’t have a lead singer, and so much of it is instrumental, so I feel it’s really important to have something that can ‘set the scene,’ so to speak. Without dictating too much, the visuals can make a vibe for the music. But it can’t be too much —- then people watch it more than the band. We are six people playing onstage together, so I like to use things that incorporate well with all of us.”

Switching between solo performances as a DJ and full-band performances, Trentemøller also transitions between the electronic and rock worlds. He first gained exposure from creating house music and playing keyboards, guitar and drums in indie bands in Copenhagen. Being recognized as an international ambient DJ is somewhat of a newfound role for the 37-year-old composer. But he said he cherishes the opportunity to indulge in multiple genres and responsibilities, and doesn’t plan to change things up anytime soon.

“That’s the thing for me,” he said. “I always try to be both. I always say to people that I have one leg in the club scene, and one in the rock scene. And for me, it’s not hard to mix those two. I love that people can have such a different experience when they come and see me as a DJ than they do when they come and see me play with a band. And I think that people are now realizing that I can be both. They’re much more open-minded to it now.”

Trentemøller has also remixed a lot of other artists’ songs, and his new album —- a double CD aptly titled “Reworked/Remixed” —- highlights much of that work from the past few years. But the multi-instrumentalist sees the new release more as a compilation and will not be playing songs from it during the live show.

“This is effectively the second part of the Great Wide Yonder Tour,” he said. “But we change it up by playing new versions of the songs and reworking things from the last time we were in the States. But the music seems to change just by us playing it over and over. New things appear, people switch it up, and it happens without us trying.”

Whether scripted or on the fly, the DJ and his band want to create a special experience for fans every night.

“These shows really have their own life,” Trentemøller said. “We don’t know where they’re going to go a lot of the time. But then again, that’s what makes them fun for everyone involved.”

First published by North County Times on October 20, 2011

Neon Indian burns brightly in new ‘Era’

Neon Indian founder, frontman and songwriter Alan Palomo isn’t your typical bandleader.

Before composing the synth-heavy pop band’s just-released sophomore album, “Era Extrana,” the 23-year-old son of a Mexican pop star holed up in an apartment in Finland during the dead of winter.

And he didn’t do it because he had friends or family there, or even because he had always dreamed of visiting the Nordic country. He did it because he had the idea that it was a good way to come up with, well, more ideas.

“It was definitely the most intense winter I’ve ever experienced,” Palomo said recently before a tour stop in Atlanta. “Even trying to go out and get some food was a 30-minute process. But it was nice in the sense that all I wanted to do was stay inside and work. It forced me to never really leave my instruments, and stay in that mindset for better or worse. I just really enjoy the idea of extracting oneself from familiarity.”

Isolating himself in one of the coldest parts of Northern Europe worked for the Texas native, now a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, as the music he created there ended up becoming the foundation of his latest album. But that wasn’t necessarily the plan.

“I didn’t go out there with the specific intent of writing a record,” Palomo said. “I’ve just always kind of preferred being on my own when hashing out creative ideas. I did bring some instruments, but I never had an idea of it playing out that way. There were just too many things in New York that were working in the context of this project. I wanted to get away for a little bit so I could digest everything from the last two years. Every once and a while, it’s good to make a nice escape.”

The last time Palomo made an escape was when he moved from his Denton, Texas, home to the state capital of Austin and wrote Neon Indian’s debut, “Psychic Chasms.”

The album drew critical acclaim from SPIN and Rolling Stone, as well as online sources Pitchfork and Rhapsody, and was blog fodder for a while when the identities of band members were unknown.

Since then, Palomo has created his own label imprint to distribute his music, designed and sold his own analog synthesizer, released a song for Mountain Dew and made an EP with the Flaming Lips.

“That’s the way things work these days,” he said. “In my dad’s era, I don’t think there was such a strange undulation between mediums in trying to make a musical lifestyle sustainable. It was a lot more straightforward then. And in that sense, a bit easier when most of what you had to think about was selling records. But for me, it’s just about keeping it all sustainable and making sure the first record saw the light of day.”

While there’s no question that whatever Palomo chooses to do will have little trouble being heard or seen, it’s impossible to predict exactly what those projects will be.

“I’m fueled by a desire to try a lot of things,” he said. “To me, playing a synth is as much a part of the musical narrative as writing the record. And at the end of the day, I don’t even consider myself that much of a musician. Especially after watching my dad and brother spend day and night learning their craft. I look at more about creating an aesthetic. It’s an amalgamation of things. And I want to put together a different scope of projects to keep things fresh. Following one musical narrative is confining.”

When Neon Indian duties wind down in December, even Palomo has little idea where he is headed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I subscribe to the philosophy that if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing something right. I’d rather continue to make polarizing decisions creatively, because it’s more fun for me to play with expectations. I never really want to be what people want me to be. There’s no fun in just meeting that. And that’s certainly not why I’m doing any of it. I’m just going to continue creating this little universe, and people can choose to walk into it every now and again, or they can choose to stay out of it.”

First published by the North County Times September 22, 2011

Blues Still Alive In Guy

Maybe Buddy Guy is a robot.

Or maybe he’s from an undiscovered planet where everyone is exceptional.

But there just doesn’t seem to be a likely explanation for how the 75-year-old blues legend has been able to accomplish all that he has since first picking up a two-string, hand-me-down guitar nearly six generations ago.

In a storied career that has spanned well over 50 years, Guy has released nearly 65 albums, won six Grammy Awards, was bestowed with the National Medal of Arts, picked up 23 W.C. Handy Awards, been named “Greatest Living Electric Blues Guitarist” by Billboard Magazine, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

And perhaps more important, Guy has been a direct influence on people such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck.

Yet, despite his numerous contributions to music, Guy has barely slowed over the years. He still owns and operates Buddy Guy’s Legends Club in downtown Chicago, and just released one of his strongest records in a long time, “Living Proof,” late last year.

Although the album opens with the track “74 Years Young,” Guy’s blistering solos throughout hearken back to what many would call his glory years.

It’s all somewhat hard to believe for someone who didn’t even pick up an instrument until he was in his teens.

“I didn’t even know what a guitar was for the longest time,” Guy said recently from his Chicago home. “But my momma used to get a catalog from Sears Roebuck. I’d see a guitar in it every year around Christmas because that’s when she’d order our clothes and shoes. We finally got a radio and I heard John Lee Hooker on it. I knew I wanted a guitar, but there wasn’t no shopping out there where I was. My daddy finally paid two dollars for one that had two strings on it. And that was my first. I was about 16 then. But I didn’t even know what running water was until I was about 16 or 17.”

Guy played the blues throughout the ’50s, but it was an underground, segregated style until the British Invasion of the ’60s co-opted it. And while many look at those bands as ripping off the blues, Guy sees it another way.

“The British gave a big lift to black-man blues,” he said. “When they started playing it, that’s when our names started coming up again. White America certainly didn’t know about it. They didn’t know who someone like Muddy Waters was until then. And when the Rolling Stones were getting bigger than bubble gum, they did a show called ‘Shindig!’ and brought Muddy with them. And Mick got really offended when they didn’t even realize that the band was named after one of his songs.”

Although Guy can look back on an unmatched run of his own, he’s also trying to lay groundwork for the future. He recently self-released an album for 12-year-old guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan and has taken the youngster under his wing.

“Producers and managers take advantage of us all unless you know what they’re doing,” Guy said. “In this business, you need all the education you can get. I’m trying to school Quinn with this street sense I … learned from the Muddys, the Walters, the Wolfs, the Sonny Boys, the B.B.s, and everyone else who got ripped off. The alligators and crocodiles are out here and they will bite you.”

Adding mentoring to the list, it makes you wonder how he finds the time for it all. But his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Chicago just named a street after him.

“I think it was the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Guy said. “But Chicago is where I first met Muddy, B.B., Clapton, Hendrix, and all of the other greats. I thought they were kidding when they told me. I’m too old to cry. So I held the tears back until I got home.”

With so many things going on with him, it would seem hard to keep track of it all, but Guy just tries to keep things simple.

“I’m divorced,” he said. “So I don’t have to come home and report anymore. I mostly go to the club and just enjoy it with all of the people. I’m really trying to keep all of this alive. There just aren’t the blues clubs out there in the world like there were in Muddy Waters’ or my younger days. They’ve all but disappeared. So far, we’re surviving in mine. I’m just trying to keep the music playing.”

Guy is also trying to do something much bigger. He wants to make sure that blues itself lives on past the lives of its true pioneers.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “But if you were interviewing me 20 years ago, I’d have said there’d be at least a handful of us blues players left by now. But the hand’s not even full anymore, man. Me and B.B. talk about it all the time. And we’re no babies anymore. We’re just trying to carry this as far as we can.”



Beats Antique hits its ‘Threshold’

Drummer Tommy “Sidecar” Cappel isn’t complaining much these days. The producer and Berklee College of Music grad just got back from a few relaxing days in Hawaii. And before that, he spent three weeks with pal David Satori traipsing around Australia.

But he’s back stateside and preparing for a 28-date tour that will have him traveling again until May.

Along with belly dancer Zoe Jakes, Cappel and Satori compose Bay Area trio Beats Antique, a dance-meets-DJ-meets-organic-music partnership that just released its third full-length record, “Blind Threshold.”

Born of the Burning Man festival and Oakland performance collectives such as the Yard Dogs Road Show, Beats Antique first got together around a belly-dancing concept album. With a unique blend of performance, electronic beats and live instrumentation, the music and stage show has captured an ever-growing fan base that is as eclectic as the group’s music.

With three albums and two EPs out in less than four years of existence (and two more EPs scheduled for release this year), the band is showing no sign of slowing down.

“We’re on a roll, so we’re just going for it,” said Cappel while having some lunch recently. “And we feel like each thing we’ve done has been done at exactly the right time. We have all of this music that we’ve created live and we’ve been able to cut up and make into songs. We want to record it all and haven’t really stopped. It just keeps coming.”

While the group’s breakneck pace scarcely gives fans a chance to keep up, it doesn’t seem to matter. The albums keep charting on Amazon and iTunes, and the range of influences and styles seems to expand with each release.

Beats Antique’s latest, “Blind Threshold,” again mixes the electronic and organic, amps things up across the board, and keeps with the tradition of collaborating with like-minded artists.

“It’s definitely a more personal record,” Cappel said. “We had some time to really focus our styles. We really figured out what we wanted to do, what it meant to us, and what we had to do to define our sound. Before, we were really just shooting in the dark and seeing what came together. Whereas now, we’re writing down all of our ideas, making a list of all of the instrumentation we plan to use, and following through. It’s much more of a focused movement.”

While the members’ focus may have changed, their collaborative nature has not. For this release, harmonica virtuoso John Popper got into the mix.

“It started with John sitting in with us at South by Southwest,” Cappel said. “We also have the same management, so it was easy enough to make happen. We went to his house, sat on his couch, recorded it and cut it up. Then, we did ‘Austin City Limits’ together, and it brought down the house. We always want to work with people like him. He just loves music and that’s exactly how we are.”

With all the different instrumentation that goes into a Beats Antique record, Popper’s harmonica is more like part of the usual mix than a guest appearance. But Cappel said that the band’s commitment to working with outside artists is primarily steeped in assuring that the pairing is a true partnership.

“In the last few years, we’ve really looked at collaborations more seriously,” he said. “We definitely have people that either inspire us or we’ve played with, that we want to bring in on our records. As opposed to just having someone sit in, it’s been great to really spend time with them and create something. We just want to highlight these artists as much as possible.”

Collaboratively or alone, Beats Antique is hitting its creative stride and wants to keep it going. With the tour extending through May, two more EPs on the way, and plans for more dates during the summer and beyond, it seems the members are going to get their wish.

“This is just the culmination of all our inspirations,” Cappel said. “We’re really excited about where we are. With us, at first, it was all experimentation. Now, it’s really a lot of intention.”

Originally published in The North County Times Preview Section February 17, 2011

Black Lips (Photo by Zach Wolfe)

10 Best San Diego Live Shows of 2010

Because plenty of factors other than the music inform an opinion on live performance – the mood of the people that accompany you to the show, the guy with the ginormous head that stands directly in front of you, etc. – it’s musical Rashomon compiling one of these lists. That said, here are ten of the best things to hit San Diego stages in the last twelve months.

Black Lips (Photo by Zach Wolfe)

Black Lips – Casbah – January 24

I’m not quite sure whether this Atlanta-based “flower punk” quartet takes their music seriously, but it certainly doesn’t stop them from delivering high-energy, audience-friendly, wildly entertaining performances, and this night was no exception.

St. Vincent and Wildbirds & Peacedrums – Belly Up – Feb. 10

Not only did Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, make good on the promise of her two critically-acclaimed albums, singer Mariam Wallentin of Swedish opener Wildbirds & Peacedrums nearly stole the show with her amazing vocals and frenetic stage presence.

Bonobo – Casbah – April 20

It was unknown if Ninja Tune sound guru Simon Green, aka Bonobo, would be able to make his electronically-based down-tempo tunes translate on stage, but with an exceptional live band and vocalist Andreya Triana in tow, he did – and then some.

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Loft – May 5

He’s actually not that tall and hasn’t yet been able to shake incessant comparisons to Bob Dylan, but armed only with a guitar, Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson had the entire audience smitten that night.

Billy Joe Shaver – AMSD concerts – June 20

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of his songs of addiction, love, and loss played from the chancel of an old church, but this one-time songwriter for Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley, and Kris Kristofferson delivered his outlaw honky-tonk as well as his engaging anecdotes.

Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson – Harrah’s – July 17

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this might have been better 20, 30, or even 40 years ago, but these two legends didn’t miss a beat as they ran through some of the greatest classics in R&B/Soul history.

Joanna Newsom – SD Women’s Club – July 29

The pixie-voiced chanteuse ripped through her classical compositions with verve, switching back and forth from harp to piano, and charming the audience with her charismatic demeanor. Fleet Foxes front man Robin Pecknold opened the show with an engaging set of new tunes.

Seu Jorge and Almaz – Belly Up – August 11

The Brazilian singer/actor proved that he had far more up his sleeve than The Life Aquatic Bowie covers he’s best known for. Backed by members of the late Chico Science’s band, the mix of samba, rock, and Portuguese rhythms was electrifying.

The Black Keys – SOMA – September 25

I was sure that this Akron, OH, duo had lost some of its charm and power after expanding their sound beyond the lo-fi, garage-blues that launched them and adding additional touring members. I was wrong.

Mavis Staples – Belly Up – November 4

Working with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on her latest album, “You Are Not Alone,” infused this legendary gospel singer with new energy and those who caught this latest tour were the benefactors. She still belts it out with the best of ‘em and showcased why she’s been a respected figure in music for over five decades.

*Honorable mention goes to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at Belly Up on October 3. The New York City punk-blues trio showcased their true professionalism and mastery of genre in their seamlessly orchestrated set.

Originally posted on NBC San Diego SoundDiego Blog on December 31, 2010.