Thursday, December 3, 2009

How I Learned to Love Van Allen Belt: A Review

Eerie vibe, quiet, listen, the ear draws in close. Trembling piano begins to resound in the room, soon joined by layers of strings and hymnal voices. A white light bursts! A strong female voice is so clear, so concise. This graceful woman with a long silk gown resting over her body takes center stage. She gently curls her fingers around the boxy shape of a glistening old-fashioned mic, standing strong, yet with elegance. Vocals spring from the microphone like gold satin ribbon, curling weightlessly through the air. Tables, chairs, walls around her begin to erupt in slow motion, deteriorating piece by atomic piece, crumbling into dust. Each word is a knife, aimed at the elite class; the fools, herself.

Partaking in a little Pittsburgh-based Van Allen Belt tends to send my fingers to my laptop. From there they begin to rapidly scan over the keyboard, hunting for proof and clarification of the band's lyrics. Eyes frantically attempt to absorb the political and social issues belonging to VAB's new album, Superpowerfragilis: Or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Drug. Subtle statements are thrown into the wastebasket when it comes to this group of musicians. Their tune is one of constant satire, co-mingled with despair, anger, and hopelessness.

Van Allen Belt may be a somewhat advanced and strange listen in the beginning, but those folks truly focused in discovering the darker image of America will no doubt be interested in using VAB as a means of guidance. Every lyric, name, and idea is carefully thought out and holds a deeper meaning only discovered by critical thinking. If education is the means to providing change during our current (and constant) pre-planned economic instability, then consider Van Allen Belt just another adviser. They may confuse, they may offend, they may seem to be a little over the top and extreme in their message. That being said, dig a little deeper into these lyrics if you dare...

Friday, October 9, 2009

You're Still the One: A Goodbye to Denim Blue

         A dark and hazy Huntington Beach sky glowed faintly as the crowd began to build and spill out the doors of the local vintage store, Denim Blue.  Inside lights were low.  Outside, pizza and snacks were available.  Alcohol and tobacco permeated the young locals.  Musicians and music appreciators alike, gathered, packing closely together amidst racks of used denim, jackets, blouses, and boots of various styles and colors.  This single place, and a single person served as the reason for each audience member's attendance.

Local musician and shop owner, Billy Kernkamp had given notice that the doors to his beloved vintage location would not longer remain open.  On this warm autumn evening, those he had given support, inspiration, and a place to play their music, came to return the generosity by collaborating in an evening of cover songs.  Over 15 bands and musicians, over 30 "Unexpected Covers."  A sea of recognizable faces--members of Melanoid, Honeypie, Handsome G., Yellow Red Sparks, Railroad to Alaska, (echo echo), Parker Macy Blues, We Are the Pilots, Stanley Lucas Revolution--stole the dark corner of the shopping center one last time.

         Kerncamp, himself on the microphone, wooed the crowd with a charming smile and eyes that radiated a touch of bittersweet sorrow.  Lyrics belonging to, “You’re Still the One,” by Shania Twain, shocked the audience for a brief moment, but quickly caused grinning mouths to follow Shania’s words.  The normally cheesy, country-pop song now emanated a genuine romantic feeling of devotion.

As friends nearby exchanged playful glances in response to the strumming of the acoustic guitar, a moment of camaraderie swept over the congregation.  This is what Denim Blue had meant to so many. And though doors close and situations change, the feeling of acceptance and inspiration that existed here will continue.  Thank you...

An Introduction to Devendra

            Sweaty, sticky for the last three days in the Indian-Summer heat, and I can’t take anymore.  Even though day has become night, the humidity still zaps all excitement, all anticipation from those who preoccupy the small black Volkswagen mobile that cruises down Katella Ave.  Tonight at the House of Blues in Anaheim would be the third time crossing paths with Devendra Banhart.  A long time ago, stories from other mouths implanted a vision of the musician; an imagination run rampant, a single guitar, and an audience of unblinking eyes that left my mind whirling.  One day, I would have my own Devendra story to tell.

            First meeting: Love-In.  The Valentine’s Day inspired underground warehouse-party lingered just outside downtown Los Angeles.  Devendra wore white fur and kept to himself in the midst of hundreds of faces.  Instead of celebrating, his focus was to play.  Unfortunately, his performance was a foreign one.  There was no folk music.  No beauty.  No intimate musical experience.  Just Devendra, dressed in a royal green and purple Knight’s costume, rapping over cheesy electro beats.  This horrible techno music filled the high ceilings of the dimly lit warehouse, and a self-absorbed image of Devendra drove the crowd away before the set came to a close.

             The Coachella Valley Festival intertwined us yet again.  This time, the man strumming his guitar, wearing vibrant vintage shorts and loafers appeared like the man who once wrote “Little Yellow Spider.”  As he began his performance, Devendra was overwhelmed with giving thanks.  Diverse people, a gathering inspired by music, a sunset spraying light from rolling hills; he couldn’t ask for a more beautiful moment.  But an intoxicated crowd of sweating youth begged for pop songs, for the sound of  “Lover.”  Although he refused the crowd that specific trendy track, the rest were bouncy, and played loudly by his band.  Unable to focus on anything but the debauchery around us, we lost any possibility to experience a heartfelt moment.  The sun slowly lowered itself behind the golden mounds in the distance as we exited the Gobi tent.  Again, we had missed him.

            Weave through the parking lot, the tourists, the churros, the Lego store, the Monorail, the restaurants.  We trek like ants in search of home base.  Arrive at the House of Blues, awake and bustling with fellow concertgoers. Wait in line, receive an armband, get waved over by a metal detector, and it’s up the stairs into the upper balcony. 

Local band, The Growlers, already have the venue packed with a sea of swaying adolescent bodies.  From the corner of the dark wooden banister, I manage to find lead singer, Brooks Neilsen, wiggling and jiggling between the obstructions of bobbing silhouette heads.  In their month of August residency at the Echo, the Growlers took on a few hundred at a time.  Tonight, they face an army that has treaded their way through Downtown Disney to see a show.  From above, the crowd swirls as the boys mesmerize the inebriated with the hollow twanging of a guitar during “What It Is.” Neilsen’s eerie voice recites from “Wandering Eyes.”  Each word floats in the dim light, “I’ll tell you I’ll never leave you, if you believe me, then it’s your fault.”  They hold the gaze of their listeners.  They lure more shadowed figures towards the spectacle on stage.  They have prepared the audience for a trip with Devendra.

No one fights for a spot in the front.  It’s no use at this point; the crowd is packed tight as sardines. Confined by surrounding people, the chit-chatter, the moisture in the air.  The stifle from summer heat begins to return.  But the uneasiness felt is not important in a moment such as this.  Devendra is soon to appear from behind the deep colors of the quilted curtain.  We must press on.

Thick fabric lifts, cheers fly into the air, and vision of the stage is clear.  Devendra enters the scene from stage right, adorning a bowtie, white button-up shirt with rolled sleeves, and a scruffy complexion.  His lanky body moves with a humble embarrassment as he stretches his legs toward the microphone.  Strap on an acoustic, and he faces his audience alone, surrounded in blue light.  “1, 2, 3, 4…” he begins with soft picking of the guitar.  In this moment, the cheers of the crowd are muffled.  All focus is on Devendra, moving his lips to “Little Yellow Spider.” Finishing the simple song, he then transitions to “The Body Breaks.”  Eyes closed, a delicate aura surrounding, voice trembling.  Don’t blink.  Not as he sings, “The body burns, yeah the body burns strong, until mine is with yours, then mine with burn on.”  Spiritual smoke burns from these words, from the stage, moving upward, wrapping in ringlets with the dusty blue light. Tonight Devendra has found comfort and acceptance in Anaheim.  Tonight he has the chance to share his true self with a collection of eager listeners.

Lights change, and Devendra softly picks at the electric guitar he now holds in his hands.  The band tip-toes into view, but each take time finding their specific spot for the evening.  Melody continues slowly as each puzzle piece falls into place.  Heat rises as music bursts into “Carmensita.”  Hundreds of voices sing the foreign words at the top of their lungs.  But after a handful of songs, the need to detach from the crowd, to find fresh air takes over. Slither through the human obstacles, step past the dance floor threshold, and wind up the stairs.  Perhaps there is a chance to work my way in close to the handrail.  On the right, bodies ruin any chance to find a window of vision.  In the center is the same.  On the left, a 30-something Hispanic security guard blocks off the section.  Take a loop through the outside smoking patio, and quickly end up near the television screen mounted over the watchman’s head.  Beams of color dance behind the perimeter of the screen.  On television, the lighting radiates over Devendra and his band in a deeper color than on the stage below.

Pulling out a handwritten letter, our host takes a moment to tell a story.  He had received a note from a fan, asking for him to play a particular song.  This song belonged to two lovers, and they would use it as “a song to bring you home,” whenever they parted.  Guitar strings bounce as the plea from the lover cries, “Put me in your suitcase, let me help you pack, cause you’re never coming back.”  The entire audience cannot help but sigh as the band plays, “At the Hop.”  In these moments, the security guard nearby has felt compassionate, and subtly releases his watch.  Nylon tape belonging to the barricade zips back into its black shell, and the man in his official yellow polo sets the unconnected bases aside.  After one final glance about the area, he walks away. 

After a moment of keeping a lookout, it’s time to slip into the half-empty section.  The view is still tough. Propping up on knees on a nearby barstool, I watch a dancing Devendra pop in and out of view.  Quick thrusts of twanging guitar are set ablaze.  Bomp--bomp, bomp--bomp, the drums crash.  The beat of “Long Haired Child,” is recognizable in an instant, and the crowd begins bopping.  Devendra begins slowly, curling into a ball, then morphs into an orangutan dancing in place on stage.  The guitar players match Devendra’s playful energy with expressions of their own.  All sound suddenly cuts before the song has finished.  Silence from the stage.  Wait, wait.  And lyrics burst, “But when my baby slips out my mama’s womb, we’re gonna enter a new life, enter a new life, that’s for shooore.”  The crowd squirms and offers their own back-up vocals.  With a loud crash of the symbols, and an echoing “shoo-bop, shoo-bop,” the song finishes its last note, and the audience erupts in cheers.

As the show rolls on, my eye is on the roped-off balcony entrance to the right.  Security is watching, is opening the velvet rope as a few people come and go up and down the three stairs.  In the top row, near the center of the back row, are a few empty barstools resting at the base of the handrail-crowd.  Creeping to the corner where the rope is attached, elbows rest on the deeply colored wooden rail.  From this angle Devendra is more visible as he advances through the rest of the energized set.  We have experienced, “This Beard is for Siobhan.”  We have absorbed every word of, “A Sight to Behold.”  We have listened to the Jewish love story of, “Shabop Shalom.”  And it is time for Devendra to finally say goodnight. 

As a few of the rich ticket-holders exit their seats in the center balcony, the security guard leans in close. Go now, sit at the stools, if anyone comes back, move down out of the way.  Speechless, I nod and smile, slipping through the small opening of the retracted rope.  In place, dead center.  A rush of excitement explodes from the crowd as Devendra appears yet again, this time without bowtie and shirt.  Shakers in hand, monotone movement, he starts slowly, “…If I lived in China, I’d have some Chinese children.”  A few lines of lyrics to tease, and the melody morphs into something else.  Shakers now ablaze in his hands, Devendra cries out, “From sucking on my mama’s breast to when they lay my soul to rest, I’m a child.”  The fellow children of the crowd are singing the anthem of “I Feel Just Like a Child,” dancing, twisting, clapping in the final moments they have left with Devendra during his encore.  Lights dim on stage, and he gives a sheepish wave and a smile as he makes his official exit off stage.

Gather final moments, slide off the barstool, and down the front steps of the establishment.  A splash of cooling evening air refreshes the body.  Downtown Disney is no longer bustling.  We reconvene at the paisley-shaped fountain near the ticket booth, and begin to retrace our footsteps to the parking lot.  A buzz is in the air, the excitement and satisfaction radiating off everyone who had witnessed the performance.  Finally, a moment to meet the man who gave, “This Is the Way.”  To see the movements of his face, his eyes closed, true emotion being emptied into every word.  Of course an element of Spectacle had been present during the show; blinding lights and an expensive establishment full of corporate advertising.  But the collection of pure moments of admiration outweighed any bit of the show that seemed tainted.  An experience to be remembered.  A story of Devendra to finally tell.

Philosophy of Listening

How many people really listen to music today? I know frustrated worker bees sit in traffic with the Clear Channel radio stations replaying song after song.  I know MTV still plays videos from time to time.  I know it's in every movie we watch.  But most people are sitting in an elevator, humming to a melody that travels in one ear and out the other.  No chance to absorb.  No thought.  Just something to tap toes to.  Just background sound to preoccupy the space of real thought.
Give me headphones.  Eyes closed.  Full blast.  Let the sound fill every crag of my mind.  Let the body fade away until all that remains is a head swimming in the sounds of melody, harmonies, lyrics.  Relax all thoughts until they melt away.  Every worry, love, hate, emotion dissipates until the warmth of musical connection is the only feeling traveling through muscle, nerves, bone.  Then, pure meditation through music can be achieved.
A single second may be all that a mind can muster.  Brain tends to kick in.  But practice, practice, practice can extend this enlightenment.  Reeelax.  Take it all in.  Don't think.  Just feel.  This is what it is to listen.

The Dark Corner of Detroit: The New Limb's Residency

Detroit is full tonight. Man I hate clacking my worn heels this far across the parking lot to make it to the entrance. No matter. Nod to the bouncer reading his book, then through the threshold. Yellow Red Sparks is on! Already. Sprint through the puzzle of people; front and center, second row back.
A team of two guitarists own the stage bathed in soft blue light.  The lead vocalist is recognizable.  Yellow Red Sparks, lead man.  But the other quiet presence, I know him, I know him.  A night...Gypsy Den...a memory of Melanoid strumming guitar under a single hanging bulb.  That face belongs to the same man who now sits on the stool before me.  According to a nearby friend, the two entertainers are siblings.  Generally, the two pursue their own musical interest, but tonight they combine powers; wooing the crowd of eager listeners.
Blue light changes focus.  A pretty little female with dimpley cheeks, dark bangs, and a high-waisted shimmer skirt has set up and now taken the mic in place of YRS.  Test, test, back-ups, and guitar, and drummer.  Stacy Clark is precise, but the audience grows impatient.  Darling, opaque vocals are strong but seem effortless.  But background vocals bulge from speakers.  A twin voice materializes to aid Stacy.  Instead of incorporating other musicians, she implements recorded copies of herself, and the floor begins to thin.
Twisting hands, stomping feet, eyes rolled back in a posture to speak to God.  She is a Greek Oracle, in a trance, singing prophecy.  But it is stiff, it is strange to watch.  Stacy gives thanks to Yellow Red Sparks, to the residency, to the New Limbs.  Plural Limbs.
Smoke.  Final drink.  And The New Limb is tuning, playing along side The Zombies, working out the kinks.  Spectators begin to congregate, but keep their distance from the artists.  "Come Be With Us."  The sign adorning this message rests on the base of the stage, beckoning followers to join.  To join in on the experience, the freedom, the beauty, and a purer level of existence.  The New Limb are the perfect guide.  A few make their move to the front, then tease the rest of the audience to inch closer.  Then the music takes over.
Harmonies resonate, eery, enlightening.  The feminine counterpart is feeling hoarse tonight.  She glitters in a beaded orange dress, showing no exhaustion on keys.  Special guests take their place next door to her setup.  A cello, a violin.  They move up and off stage as necessary.  A tall dark lead vocalist stands center, sporting his vintage Hawaiian button-up and charming smile.  His voice crashes, collides and intertwines with the voice of an energetic lead guitar man.  Harmonies, float smoothly in the air.  An Orange beauty amp glows a blacklight purple in the corner.  Twisting, bending, rhythmically tight kicking, this guitar player releases delicate, scratchy, psychedelic sounds from his guitar throughout the set.
Pace, pace, pace, of a drum keeps the group in unity as each song morphs and changes levels.  Only a mere moment occurs when he is taken over by distraction.  A faint combination of flickering projector lights produce a movie over his face and covers the back wall.  Turning, looking, the sight entices him to focus on the motion picture.  But his fellow musicians pull him back.
A growing crowd is comfortable now.  They step closer and let the music swallow.  "Weeee are the dust, wee are the dust, we are the dust..."  Simple lyrics in repetition become something more; an awakening.  But the musicians are still growing, experimenting, testing their limits.  This positive force is on the rise.  Gentle harmonies seduce the company of Detroit to, "come be with us."  We'll be following.