Friday, February 22, 2008


Live: Mariachi Band
El Taco Mexicano Restaurant,
La Mirada,
Orange County, California

Forget everything I said about there not being an omnipotent creator. It’s obvious to me now that there must be a god. Otherwise how do you explain the existence of Mexican food?

For my friend Ethel and I, a Mexican combinación is about as close to a spiritual experience as we are going to get, and tonight we had a religious conversion at La Mirada’s excellent El Taco Mexicano restaurant.

Ok, maybe they got yer hi-tech burritos and yer designer tacos in San Francisco, but you gots ta get yer butt down to Southern Cali for the real deal, dude.

I was immediately envious when Ethel ordered the carnitas with rice and beans. But then I plumped for the one-two killer punch of chili relleno and tamales washed down with a margarita or two. (OK, you got me. I actually put away four of them suckers.)

Carnitas, Chili Relleno, Tamales. Does life get any better than this?

And if Mexican food is miraculous, what about the music? I discovered to my delight that on Friday nights El Taco Mexicano features an excellent mariachi band, and they serenaded fellow diners and ourselves with a heartwarming selection of romantic canciónes. They played beautifully, and in their silver studded charro outfits they were a dashing sight.

Not only that, they were an amiable bunch of fellows who blushed humbly when I expressed appreciation for their musicianship and continuance of a valuable Mexican tradition. We left El Taco Mexicano with mariachi ringing in our ears, stuffed silly and utterly intoxicated by a heady brew of Mexican delights.

Watch: Marvelous Mariachi

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hair Guitar

Live: Pat Metheny Trio
Yoshi's, San Francisco, California

What is this strange creature appearing from behind Yoshi's sumptuous red velvet curtains? It's Pat Metheny, sporting one of the most spectacular hairdos I've ever seen. And it's not only his trademark thatch which is in fine fettle tonight, as he proves when he settles into a brief solo acoustic set on his legendary custom-made Pikasso guitar. Metheny fashions intriguing combinations of sounds on Make Peace and The Sound of Water.

He is soon joined by drummer Anton Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride, a contemporary jazz legend in his own right. By the fifth number This is not America, although I’m having a good time, I’m not sure I’m actually feeling anything. At best it's a kind of muted exhilaration.

Having said that, you don't realize how good a song is until it's finished and you go, “Gee, that was great!”

I mean, come on, Metheny is a hugely popular artist who has sold millions of records and won a mind-boggling 17 Grammy Awards.

The band’s bluesy jazz fusion interpolation of So May It Secretly Begin captures my attention during an extended workout between bass and drums. It’s appropriately jazzy in a modern, cool way but the respectful hush of the crowd is quite unreasonably driving me mad. On the whole they seem like nerdy San Francisco types who require intellectual explications of musical phenomena in order to confirm they've had an emotional experience. Not that I’m the judgmental type or anything.

But with his contagious smile and youthful enthusiasm, Metheny is impossible to dislike. He comes across as a gracious, humble musician who pays effusive tribute to his excellent band and Yoshi's superb new venue.

Just when many jazz clubs are closing down, Yoshi’s has opened a mindblowing space in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, just around the corner from the legendary Fillmore Theater. What may now be the finest jazz club in the US features an excellent Japanese restaurant, stylish bars and a state of the art auditorium featuring the cream of jazz talent. Despite my reservations about tonight’s jazz-lite experience, it was an evening to remember.

Link: Yoshi's

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Glide Memorial Church
San Francisco, California

No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to the Sunday celebration at Glide Memorial Church, a counter-culture rallying point and one of the most liberal churches in the United States.

At today’s celebration, new pastor Reverend Douglass Fitch delivered a rabble-rousing, impassioned sermon indicting the war in Iraq and urging engagement through self-transformation. Fitch’s superb testifying would move the stoutest non-believer and he even had me praising the Lord for a second or two.

But Glide is Methodist-lite, and the religion is secondary to what the place is really about - the healing transformation it brings to thousands of San Franciscans. Glide has been a force for change for over fifty years, and a leader in the ongoing fight against Homelessness, AIDS, Poverty, and all aspects of social and spiritual change including Gender Rights, Race Relations and Health Care.

The music, as always at Glide, was superb. Clapping, swaying and raising the rafters with the spirit of empowerment, the 100+ member Glide Ensemble is the embodiment of Glide's celebration of diversity, acceptance, and unconditional love. If their inspiring blend of gospel, blues and jazz doesn’t instill you with a jubilant sense of transformation, you definitely have some recovery ahead of you.

Glide's Guiding Light, The Reverend Cecil Williams:

Glide Home Page:

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Savage Dance Class
Oakland School for the Arts, Oakland, California

I'm ashamed to admit I know precious little about dance. Like most folks I've enjoyed musicals like Chicago, All That Jazz, some hip-hop dance and ballet on the TV. But even if I'm aware that dance is an important and meaningful art form, I've never really taken the time to appreciate its joys and complexities.

But I was blown away this afternoon when I visited Oakland School for the Arts - a college preparatory arts high school founded in 2000 - to watch my goddaughter’s dance class in action.

Dance teacher Reginald Ray-Savage is a renowned choreographer, and these students are fortunate to benefit from his inspirational guidance. Since founding his Savage Dance Company in 1992 he has choreographed over 100 works inspired mainly by the music of jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck. Only the week before my visit Savage received rave reviews for his presentation Ritus at the San Francisco Black Choreographers Festival.

Savage is a demanding and inspiring teacher. His studio is decorated with graffiti urging, “There is no justice!”, “Stop Complaining!”, and “Shut Up!” His blend of ballet, Dunham technique, and contemporary dance give his works a fresh feel which he communicates to the students at OSA. As Savage puts it, this is way beyond jazz dance, rather it’s modern dance set to jazz music.

As I watched, his protégées swept across the floor with an astonishing grace and energy, and their interaction with jazz rhythms communicated instinctive and sophisticated urban statements. If their teacher insists they learn the rules of dance before they can break them, they do so with a ferocious intelligence which will stand them in good stead not only as artists and performers, but more importantly as human beings.

Watch: African Flower, Savage Dance Company:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Ms. White's Class
Sierramont Middle School. San Jose, California

My friend Stephen is a musician, producer and recording engineer. I acco
mpanied him to San Jose today to record the performances of Sierramont Middle School’s music department, comprised of three orchestras and a choir. Their teacher is the estimable Ms. White.

18% of Sierramont students take a musical elective, whether it be choir or orchestral practice, and it was inspiring to watch these youngsters singing and playing their hearts out (admittedly for school credit.) The school orchestras applied themselves with impressive concentration, and as the school choir sang, their faces were filled with joy.

A sign on the wall of Ms. White‘s class reads ‘Teamwork: Listening, thinking, working together’, and that seemed to sum things up pretty well.

Early musical training is of immense benefit to young minds. It helps develop brain areas involved in language and reasoning, and students who study the arts receive higher grades and are more successful on standardized tests.

Students of the arts also learn to think creatively and to reject outdated assumptions. Since studying the arts exposes children to other cultures, it teaches them to be empathetic towards others.

In addition, students of music learn craftsmanship, teamwork, discipline, and the concrete rewards of hard work. Crucially, music performance teaches youngsters to conquer fear and take risks, providing them with a means of self-expression.

The dedication of Ms.White was an inspiration. I wish I had had a music teacher like her when I was a teen. This energetic and committed educator moved to San Jose from the American midwest in order to communicate a love of music and foster a sense of co-operation among her students. I must say she has succeeded admirably, and I am certain she will soon be adding to the impressive collection of trophies already decorating the shelves of her music room.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Eight Miles High

North-West Airlines Flight 9728
Somewhere between
Osaka and Honolulu

I'm on my way to Los Angeles via Honolulu, cruising at an altitude of 42,000 feet. That's eight miles high: "When you touch down /You’ll find that it’s stranger than known."

I don't feel so good. I just had the worst airline meal of my life, after giving the wrong answer to the question, “Chicken or Beef?” I chose the beef after playing paper, rock, scissors with myself.

Endeavoring to distract my thoughts from the heinous crime perpetrated on my digestive tract I set my iPod to 'shuffle' mode.

1. 4 Minute Warning - Radiohead
In a democratic band vote this was vetoed from the initial version of In Rainbows, proving that generally five heads are indeed better than one. “This is just a nightmare”, sings Thom Yorke. He should try the beef.

2. Down is the New Up- Radiohead
Another In Rainbows reject, and in perfect synchronicity the plane plummets ninety feet as we hit turbulence, prompting nervous gasps around the cabin. I feel the beef trying to do an about-turn and I remember: I really don’t like flying. This track proves that the rejects of mega-bands are only marginally more interesting than those of no-hopers. Are we in
Honolulu yet?

3. Mr. Grieves - The Pixies
Hmm. This oldie still packs a vicarious punch, but as the plane ducks and weaves its way through the turbulence, negative thoughts continue to percolate in my mind. I recall loudQUIETloud, the 2006 Pixies documentary which proved that famous musicians are just as boring and dysfunctional as we lesser mortals.

4. Girls on LSD - Tom Petty
Reminds me of a girl who had a cat named Alexander and a goldfish named Sebastian. She was my first true love. On rainy days we sat in bars or walked on the beach. She was raised on a ranch and told me, “You don’t know much about animals, do you?” As usual, she was right. Talking of animals....

5. The Past is a Grotesque Animal - Of Montreal
No one with an iota of life experience could dispute the truth of this assertion. Sometimes you knock things down only to build them up again. Even if you succeed, there will always be something missing, in particular the purity and innocent joy which made it special in the first place.

6. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart - Wilco
The singer’s egomania and self-delusion merges with my own, and I wonder if I will end this flight in one piece, or in many pieces. As my pal Red used to say, the devil has his price to pay.

7. Dusty Nothing - Black Mountain
As this one pummels my senses, the plane stabilizes and I begin to feel better.
Have all my epiphanic, life-defining moments been refracted through a musical lens? Can the only possible meaning to existence be reached through the amorphously precise and hazy joy that is musical expression? Nah.

8. It Stoned Me - Van Morrison
As the plane banks steeply I glimpse the Pacific shimmering many miles below, and I am gripped by a feeling of inexpressible gratitude. This is a song which communicates the majesty of pure experience, and I sense the vast gulf which separates Van from a multitude of artists who can never hope to approach his genius. As I look down I see Maui sparkling in the distance, and it truly stones me.

Listen: The Byrds, "Eight Miles High"

Friday, February 8, 2008

Reasons to Believe

Live: The Arcade Fire
Namba Hatch, Osaka

As they confront through their art the burdens of modern life - fear, responsibility, the fragility of love - Arcade Fire remind us that there are reasons to believe.

It’s not so much what they say as the way they say it – with a big shouty "YES!" teetering precariously on the edge between joy and hysteria. It's their raging desire to offer salvation from the modern nightmare which explains why they have managed to forge an almost evangelical bond with their audience.

Try as you might to withstand their melodrama, Arcade Fire’s immense, ambitious sound - featuring a whirlwind of mandolins, violins, organs, horns, sirens and hurdy-gurdys - has an unstoppable forward motion which delivers a joyful catharsis. As I discovered last night, resistance is futile.

The band begin their set with a haunting, restrained version of Neon Bible before shifting into top gear with the propulsive Black Mirror.

Then comes the epic tragedy of Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) mourning those "names we used to know." It's followed by the fatalistic and heartbreaking Intervention: “every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” Yet somehow - as in the irresistible singalong choruses of Rebellion (Lies) and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) - the message remains one of hope.

It’s a rousing, committed performance, the musicianship never less than superb and the band’s legendary showmanship very much in evidence.

Having said that, sometimes less is more and it comes as a mighty relief when Arcade Fire allow their music to breathe on slower numbers like the wisely sad Ocean of Noise: “All the reasons I gave/Were just lies to buy myself some time."

The emotional honesty is compelling, inspiring a deep sense of liberation. I exit the auditorium and fade back into the neon cityscape, feeling only connection and compassion, those remarkable songs of hope and survival echoing in my mind.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Far Out

Noh Theater Performance
Kongoh Nohgakudou

Noh, Japan's classic musical drama, has been performed since the 14th century. A friend recently invited me to a performance at Kyoto’s Kongoh Nohgakudou, directly opposite the Imperial Palace.

Although I was curious to witness this uniquely Japanese experience, I was a little hesitant about attending. I’d heard Noh described as an interminably tedious endurance trial with little in the way of drama or action, performed in a mostly unintelligible form of ancient Japanese.

How wrong those descriptions were. This was one of the most unique, mind-blowing things I’ve seen in Japan.

The 250 plays in the Noh repertoire depict mythic stories concerning vengeance, madness, spirits and supernatural worlds. Performances last four hours or more - they can be a tad exhausting - and consist of two plays separated by a humorous interlude known as kyogen.

The first play we saw - Soshiarai Komachi - concerns a poetess wrongly accused of plagiarism by a jealous rival.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but seen in the flesh it was quite compelling. Our heroine cleverly proves her innocence and recovers her honor.

The second play was no less fascinating, though I had no clue what it was about. My culturally savvy companion informed me that all was not well in the land of the rising sun. He knew this because there were priests, a poem on a stick, and a menacing looking demon who took forever to exit the stage. When he finally did leave, everybody stopped whooping, lay down their fans and suddenly it was all over.

I was fascinated to discover that, by tradition, Noh actors and musicians never rehearse together. Each actor, musician, and choral chanter practices his or her contribution independently or under the tutelage of a senior member.

Neither are performances entirely scripted. There's a good deal of improvisation and negotiation. Thus the tempo of the performance is set by the interactions of all the performers together. It’s all got something to do with the traditional Japanese aesthetic of transience, or "ichi-go ichi-e" ("one time, one meeting").

For all its inherently traditional, stylized drama, Noh is spectacularly weird. During the final act the leading actor, or shite, dressed in a costume resembling a giant chicken, his chest decorated with four turquoise pom-poms, repeatedly (and I mean repeatedly, it went on for all of twenty minutes!) addressed the hayashi (musicians) with the following bizarre intonation:


The hayashi then replied with random drum beats and a rolling “HOoooooooooooaaa!” sound. Far out.

To this western viewer, despite Noh’s traditional roots, its minimalist aesthetic and unwitting surrealism gve it an "alternative" even Pythonesque feel. This is hardly surprising since the Noh-play creates its own “reality” which is simultaneously opposed to realism. Its virtual dream space simultaneously evokes solemnity, transcendence, mystification and amusement.

If that’s not alternative, I don’t know what is. There's nothing quite like Noh, and should you ever visit Japan, I heartily recommend you experience its bizarre wonders for yourself.

VIDEO: An Invitation to Noh