Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

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Don’t Keep It Hid

I’m gonna get this outta the way right quickly, with the help of enumeration. Two things:

1) Dan Auerbach is one of the finest guitar players in any band playing right now. Check out the Black Keys Live at the Crystal Ballroom DVD if you don’t believe me.

2) His solo debut, Keep It Hid is a beautiful album, where Auerbach expands on the old school blues sound he pushes in The Black Keys and tosses in some old school soul and some seriously Band-ish country rock. It’s good stuff and good for you, Dan Auerbach.

Seriously, Keep It Hid is a good album, it’s not just a Black Keys album by any other name. Somewhat paradoxically, this is what kinda pisses me off about Dan Auerbach and his pal Pat Carney, who are better known as the two guys in The Black Keys.

The Black Keys, despite producing one of their finest albums yet with Danger Mouse, continue as a two-piece, which may be why Auerbach kept their name off of his solo debut, which employs nifty things like a bass player and a keyboardist. But make no mistake, following last year’s Attack & Release with Keep It Hid only solidifies this point: The Black Keys need to give up the two-man show, hire some other musicians full-time and use Keep It Hid as their launchpad to bigger and better musical things.

The two-man show thing works pretty well for what it is (again, see them live or see a live video of theirs for evidence), but it only lends itself to the expression of so many musical ideas. Auerbach very clearly has more in him than that, as evidenced by the achingly beautiful Keep It Hid opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton.” It’s a harmony rich, acoustic ballad that hits you like a ton of bricks. And wouldn’t it be refreshing on a Black Keys album if they could just drop their usual shtick (good as it usually is) and go for that kind of vibe? There were places on their last album where they hinted at this capability, but why limit that exploration to the studio? Carney and Auerbach are clearly talented musicians, so why cage up all those great ideas?

There are songs on Keep It Hid that sound like Black Keys songs (“I Want Some More”, “The Prowl,” and the title track come to mind), but what they’re missing is Carney’s stellar drumming. The songs are still pretty good, but you think, “Wow, these could use some of that crashing Pat Carney drumming.” But then you come to songs like “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” “Real Desire,” and “When the Night Comes,” and you realize that if you added Pat Carney to Keep It Hid, you’d have everything you love about The Black Keys plus that ever-sought-after So Much More. Auerbach’s solo debut is a good album, but if you added to it everything that made Attack & Release so strong, you’d have a truly great record. And it woudn’t be that hard to do. Auerbach would merely have to keep everyone who played on his solo album except for the drummer, who would be replaced with Auerbach’s fellow Black Key.

Perhaps there’s a feeling between Auerbach and Carney that their fans love the Black Keys for their lo-tech,two-man sound, but I’m willing to bet that their fans would be willing to forgive them for foisting an album upon us that had the strong melodies of Keep It Hid and all the pure balls of, say, Thickfreakness. Sure, it’d be a change, but some change is just too awesome to pass up. And it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to the Black Keys’ more attentive fans, who, among the ones I’ve spoken to, generally approve of the expanded sonic palette of Attack & Release.

Keep It Hid is lovely, as I’ve said, but that’s not really what we need to be discussing here; Auerbach’s solo album can stand on its own merits. What really needs to be said, and said loudly and repeatedly, is that it’s time for The Black Keys to put two and two together (meaning Carney’s drumming with the sort of songs Auerbach cooked up for Keep It Hid; “My Last Mistake” is a great song toward the end of the album, by the way, but it is the tune that most egregiously suffers for the lack of Carney drumming) and just become a bigger band. They can add a few more musicians and not sacrifice their deliciously old school sound and no one with a brain or an appreciative ear would accuse them of selling out.

My Morning Jacket at the Greek

What’s that you say? You’ve never listened to My Morning Jacket?

Fine. I’ll wait. Go get yourself a My Morning Jacket album based on the following criteria: if you like guitar-rock, get It Still Moves; if you like spacey, Flaming Lips-esque stuff, get Z; if you like strummy country rock, get At Dawn; if you like all of the above, get Evil Urges.

If you’ve followed the above prescription and you live in Los Angeles, you have just a taste of what you missed last night at The Greek Theatre.

The show was billed as “An Evening with My Morning Jacket.” Meaning there was no opening act for me to fret over (opening acts are always a delicate thing – sometimes they’re awesome like when Band of Horses opened for the Decemberists, and sometimes they’re fuck-terrible like when Sean Na Na opened for The Hold Steady) or drink my way through. My Morning Jacket took the stage at 8pm while some zany-ass music played over the PA. Jim James, Flying-V strapped over his shoulder, was already jumping up and down (dude gets ridiculously fired up to play live) as Patrick Hallahan (best drummer in rock right now) beat the opening of “Evil Urges” into the night air. And we were off. MMJ followed “Evil Urges” with “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 1” and then, without saying a word to the audience at this point, they jumped right into the best song of 2005: “Off the Record” (it’s from Z. Are you listening to it right now? You should be.).

The best concert I’ve ever seen was The Hold Steady in Portland, back in 2006. My Morning Jacket at the Greek is a close and easy number two. They were workman-like to say the least (James only said about ten words to the audience all night, basically thanking everyone for coming out to “participate with all your brothers and sisters” – I’m guessing Mr. James smoked a little something before the show, but he’s a mellow enough dude), and, yeah, they got a bit jammy throughout the night but my pal Tim and I came to a realization watching Jim James and fellow-guitarist Carl Broemel exchange guitary freakouts last night: the thing that separates My Morning Jacket from jam bands is that it’s interesting when My Morning Jacket takes off on an instrumental rant. A lot of jam bands play fifteen minute versions of their songs and there’s no reason – they’re meandering, feeling for the next dull note in a long line of dull notes. With My Morning Jacket, their songs grow in length because they simply cannot stop rocking out. The outro to “Off the Record,” is kinda tedious on Z. In concert, it’s filled with squalling guitars and, last night, Jim James fleshed it out with an extremely nasty solo at the end. Unlike most jam bands, My Morning Jacket is not determined to play long, stoned versions of their songs – they’re determined to rock out as fully as possible on each song. While that added length to songs like “Off the Record” and “One Big Holiday,” it actually shortened “I Will Sing You Songs” and “Phone Went West.” James and company exhibit an impeccable instinct for exactly how much rock a song needs and a flawless execution in providing it.

At every concert I attend, there are songs that I pretty much need to hear in order to go home happy. With My Morning Jacket, they were, in no particular order: “Evil Urges,” “Off the Record,” “The Way that He Sings,” “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” (both parts!), “Dancefloors,” and “Mahgeetah.” Of those, MMJ only denied me “Dancefloors,” but they’re forgiven because they threw in “Phone Went West,” an older, reggae-tinged chestnut that I totally didn’t expect them to play. The best part about “Phone Went West,” is the free contact-high I got from the people next to me sparking up a joint; on top of the few Newcastle Browns I’d imbibed and coupled with the song itself, I was teetering on the edge of some sort of awesome spiritual vision. Or something.

My Morning Jacket played for two solid hours before departing (closing the show with the awesome 1-2 punch of “Smoking from Shooting” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2”). Then they returned for a 45 minute encore that ended with a completely raucous version of “One Big Holiday.” I’ve been a huge fan of this band since I first heard them back in ’05, but last night’s show solidified them as among my five favorite current artists (before you even ask, here they are in – as always – no particular order: The Hold Steady, My Morning Jacket, The National, Tom Waits, and The Flaming Lips. List subject to change every five minutes) and easily one of the best rock bands in America right now. If this band is coming to your town, go fucking see them.

The Titus Andronicus Blurb That Doesn’t Mention Bright Eyes

Patrick Stickles does not sing like the guy who we’re not mentioning in this “blurb”. And I’m not saying that ’cause Stickles wants someone to say it, I’m saying it because it’s true. He sings like an angry drunk dude in his 20’s and that’s a wonderful thing. He sounds kinda like Tom Stuart from Radio America (okay, Patrick, I’ll buy the Paul Westerberg thing too. And I’ll buy you a beer if you come to L.A. – for serious). Pitchfork doesn’t know who Radio America is and that’s their loss.

Ahem.

I’ll admit that I’d never heard of the band Titus Andronicus (I had heard of the play – it’s Shakespeare’s Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay collaboration, 400 years early. Did I spell Bruckheimer wrong? I don’t care.) before I read their interview with the Pitchfork kids at Pitchfork’s very own festival. I came to a conclusion after reading that interview and I can say without fear of contradiction: these guys are dope.  Example? They played fucking “Common People,” in their set because they knew Jarvis Cocker wasn’t going to play it in his (apparently, Mr. Cocker doesn’t play Pulp tunes at his shows. If that is true, law dictates that he must play “Running the World,” every night. People need that song, Jarvis. Give it to them.).

Anyway. Titus Andronicus are from New Jersey, just like Bon Jovi. The comparison pretty much ends there. Unlike Bon Jovi, Titus Andronicus have something interesting to say (sorry folks – “oh, oh; living on a prayer” = not interesting), they can play their instruments, and they are distinctly lacking the hard-on to be Bruce Springsteen that Jon Bon Jovi has walked around (one must assume painfully) with for the last 30 years. (Incidentally, this Springsteen hard-on is apparently contagious – the guy from The Killers got it just a couple of years ago with disastrous results.)

The line between Awesome and Pretentious is hard to spot; some bands know how to handle the dangerous areas near the border. For instance, The Hold Steady (America’s best rock band) is awesome and Craig Finn steers them near the rocky shores of Pretension without ever cracking them up on the rocks. Fall Out Boy is lost wandering the ghettos of Pretension; they’re never gonna make it out of the harbor and if they do, they’ll drown, blinded and destroyed by what awaits the unprepared in the Land of Awesome. Titus Andronicus has some pretentious song titles (“Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ,” and “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'” come to mind. Well, really, most of their songs and their band name come to mind) but the delivery is just so… so… compellingly rad that the siren song of Pretension is drowned out by  Titus Andronicus yelling, “Your life is over.” From the shouted “Fuck you!” of “Fear and Loathing” to the final scream of “we only want what we’re not allowed” that ends “Albert Camus” (see? Pretentious titles!), this band means business. I’ve railed time and again against the stuff that passes for punk music now, but if ever a band oozed a truly punk ethos, it’s Titus Andronicus. These guys have the chops and they’re not afraid to sound dirty. Which is not to say they can’t play – at first blush, The Airing of Grievances sounds like a big fucking wall of noise – and it is – but underneath all the racket is a band that has clearly studied the Beatles (the Lennon tunes mostly) as well as the Clash, the Replacements, and The Et Ceteras. This melodic gift is never more humorously exploited than on “Titus Androncius,” where, amidst a pretty standard doo-doo-doodoodoo background vocal, Mr. Stickles croons, “Fuck everything/ fuck me.”

The Airing of Grievances is a record to put on and bounce around the room to, being not the least bit careful about breaking stuff (yourself included). Lyrically, it’s pretty dark (“no God of mine would put light in such unrighteous eyes,” “You’ll spend the rest of your life trying hard to forget/ that you met the world naked and screaming and that’s how you’ll leave it,” and the absolute death knell of “Titus Andronicus”: “No more cigarettes/ no more having sex/ no more drinking till you fall on the floor/ no more indie rock/ just a ticking clock/ you have no time for that anymore”). Musically, it’s fucking loud.  I’m not gonna lie – I’ve had a lot of excess anger in the last month or so, they kind that it’s hard to know where to put. The Airing of Grievances gives a pretty good voice to how that feels and, upon separating it from my own personal circumstances of late, I can still view it as one of the best debut albums I’ve heard in a long time, and easily one of the best albums of 2008.

I See A Lightness (And No, Mr. Kundera, It Is Not Unbearable)

Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy and The Palace Brothers) is the most bearded bard in all of indiedom, rivaled only by Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Sam Berm from Iron & Wine, and (occasionally) Jim James of My Morning Jacket. A photo of this man hung on a post office wall would suggest that he should be wanted for something by all major U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Fortunately, Mr. Oldham is only (as far as I know) wanted for his musical gifts, which are numerous. Like Steve Earle, Oldham manages to put something out there for the kids about once a year. This level of consistency (Oldham’s not Ryan Adams prolific, but that’s why he still makes good music) means that if Oldham puts out an album you don’t like, you wait twelve or fewer months and he’ll give you something else to sink your teeth into. His latest offering as Bonnie “Prince” Billy is the folksy as fuck Lie Down in the Light, another in a long line of home-runs for BPB (not counting a so-so covers album he did with Tortoise but choosing to count his collaboration with Matt Sweeney, his last few records have been fucking dynamite – quiet, melodic, harmony-rich dynamite). Ashley Webber joins the Bonnie Prince on this album for rousing tracks like “So Everyone,” (the best song about fucking in public that you’ll hear all year) and “You Want that Picture.” Webber continues Mr. Billy’s tradition of matching his high whiny voice to a more full-voiced female counterpart. The combination is pretty stirring to say the least.

This album has been out for a while so you may have read reviews of it already that declaim its greatness – “best album since I See A Darkness” is a common theme in the reviews I’ve seen. These laudatory sentiments are accurate; Lie Down in the Light is damn fine album, more country/folk than his last few records (although 2007’s The Letting Go was starting to tilt in that direction) but every bit as beautiful. Oldham has a knack for building a song to a beautiful chorus or sometimes even just a well-turned couplet and Lie Down in the Light is chock full of examples right out of the gate – “Easy Does It,” “You Remind Me,” and “So Everyone,” start the album with a soft bang (enter Phil Ken Sebben here: “Ha Ha Ha! ‘Bang!'”), setting the tone for what is, overall, the happiest Bonnie “Prince” Billy album I’ve ever heard (in the interest of full disclosure, my favorite BPB album is I See A Darkness, which is an album so depressing that I can imagine the Grim Reaper putting it on to cry himself to sleep the day his girlfriend leaves him, takes the dog with her, and then he gets a call informing him that his mom is next on his list of folks to escort into the sweet hereafter).

Where other BPB albums seem to trend between folksy indie and warped classic rock (see Superwolf for stellar examples of this), Lie Down in the Light picks up the ball that country music has dropped pretty much since the late 60’s – namely, music that sounds like country music. High lonesome harmonies like those on “What’s Missing Is” would make Hank Williams (the first and, in my opinion, the only Hank Williams – no, I am not ready for some fucking football) proud and probably more than a little misty-eyed. Some folks might file Mr. Billy under the dubious alt.country genre, but most of the stuff that people call alt.country is really just what country music used to be (country has mutated into pop now – listen to Patsy Cline then listen to Faith Hill and you’ll see what I mean; Faith Hill sucks. It’s also interesting to note that pop used to be The Beatles, R&B used to be Marvin Gaye, and jazz used to be John Fucking Coltrane – this is not to sound old fogeyish and suggest that everything was cooler Way Back When, but it’s to point out that genre has become meaningless. The best rock bands in the world right now might be considered “indie” or “alternative,” but they’re still rock bands. The best jazz musicians in the world… well… no, sorry; jazz died with Coltrane) – music free of the gimmickry and pop-schlockiness of your Trace Adkinses and Toby “Idiots for a Redneck Foreign Policy” Keiths (seriously, please, someone harm these individuals in a way that prevents them from making music ever again). Johnny Cash’s music was powerful because he wasn’t trying for pop-crossover success. He was trying to sing songs about being lonely and fucked up. And it worked because he was lonely and fucked up or, when he wasn’t lonely and fucked up, he could accurately recreate what it was to be lonely and fucked up. Bonnie Prince Billy (superbly covered on Mr. Cash’s American III – JC does “I See A Darkness,” and when he sees one, you sure as fuck do too. I don’t know why everyone had a thousand orgasms about his cover of “Hurt.” His rendition of “I See A Darkness” is not only far superior, but also one of the all-time most powerful songs I’ve ever heard, a cover version rivaled only perhaps by Joe Strummer’s take on “Redemption Song.”) usually paints a nice lonely and fucked up portrait as well and no one could accuse him of trying to write 2008’s “This Kiss.” He’s just doing what he does and sometimes it sounds folky and sometimes it sounds rocky, but it’s always worth the listen.