Recently I attended a concert by Jarabe Mexicano and it reminded me why I keep going to concerts: sometimes I witness music like this. Music that taps something so true and connects so deeply that it simply has to exist. Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s always serious. It’s just – right.
The times I’ve heard classical mariachi music, it did nothing for me. Of course, part of the problem has been encountering it through strolling players who insist on stopping to serenade me. Not an introvert’s favorite experience. However, I took a chance on this concert because its blurb piqued my interest by emphasizing the mash-up of musical traditions. Also, it was free.
The band was awesome. They were lively, accomplished, cool, friendly; plus, each of them had a singing voice worth hearing. Jarabe means mixture and they really did mix it up.Sure, they played powerful versions of traditional songs (some of which I’ve come to appreciate through my love of Gaby Moreno). They covered some oldies that were new to me (Argentinian rock! of the early ’90s!). They made doo-wop not just tolerable but enjoyable.
My favorite was their cover of “Get Up Stand Up”. I’m particular about my Bob Marley so I was amazed at how right this song sounds in Spanish. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense.
Beautiful summer afternoon in a park with bright sun that wasn’t too hot thanks to breezes from the ocean, nearby. Crowd enthused yet considerate. Dance area packed with all shapes sizes ages. A shout out to the City of Ventura, who provided this free concert, which in me provoked a spiritual experience.
I sat on the grass, hearing this remarkable music and watching the dancers when, for one long moment, everything went slo’-mo’. The sounds stretched, the dancers froze, and I felt how lucky I was to be alive and in that park right then.
The next time Jarabe Mexicano comes around I’ll be happy to pay to see them. Here’s hoping that opportunity comes soon.
Yes, this concert was a long time ago. (And why do I write concert reviews, anyhow? My readers probably don’t have a time machine so can’t attend. ) (Well, Sue, I write concert reviews in hopes of sharing awareness about the musicians.) (If anybody out there does have a time machine, be sure to let me know! There are many concerts I wish to revisit and this one tops the list.)
One sentence post. Five sentences digression. A new record?
Which adds three sentences to the digression tally.
This concert changed my life. In just a scant few hours, I discovered two of my all-time favorites: one a musician, the other a venue. Chris Thile, the Largo at the Coronet.
I went to the show without knowing Thile’s music. I was ignorant of then-adolescent-Thile’s famous, defunct, alt-bluegrass band, Nickel Creek. I went to the show because I was on the Punch Brothers email list-serv. Thile is a Punch Brother, and that list-serv announced Thile’s show near me, and I figured what the hey. At that time, I didn’t really know the Punch Brothers’ music, either. As serendipity would have it, I had recently been in New York for work, had a few hours between meetings, happened to get a ticket to a David Letterman show taping. The musical guest happened to be the Punch Brothers. They played one song and it was awesome, so I found their list-serv. But I hadn’t gotten around to listening to them. (P.S. Turns out they are awesome all the time.)
Thile is a miracle, one of a kind. If you don’t believe me, maybe it will help to learn that T-Bone Burnett calls him a once-in-a-century musician; Yo Yo Ma raves about him. Even more persuasive, perhaps: my teenagers, who I basically forced to attend this concert with me, spent the entire 45-minute drive home thanking me for forcing them. Also, Thile recently won a MacArthur (“Genius”) award, although he doesn’t talk about it much.
Thile primarily plays mandolin. That first concert, he mostly played bluegrass, and Appalachian music, to which I had no aversion but also no previous affinity. He threw in some Radiohead and Shins. Oh, and Bach. Oh, and the Pink Elephants song from Dumbo. In fact, strands of Pink Elephants kept winding their way into the middle of other tunes, which became laughoutloud funny.
I love good stage patter and Thile had great patter that night. He’s witty, sarcastic, friendly, and smart. Turns out he used to be a regular at the Largo, before he moved to Brooklyn. So there was a warm, homey air in the theater.
Largo at the Coronet Marquee (from coolspotters.com)
Turns out there is always a warm, homey air at the Largo at the Coronet, a 300 seat theater with great sound, painful seats and an incredible vibe. The instant I first walked into the courtyard I felt right, being there. I’ve become a regular. In fact, the Largo has ruined me for other venues. Sadly, I missed out on the original Largo, a tiny bar down the road a piece. When the Largo relocated, it took over the Coronet, which was once a legit theater. Buster Keaton played there. Bertolt Brecht directed Charles Laughton there. Like I said, an incredible vibe.
Largo shows feature a collection of regulars, as well as newcomers. There are comedians and musicians who perform there every month and hang out there the rest of the time. That first night, three other regulars joined Thile on stage. So not only did we discover Thile and the Largo, we also got blown away by Fiona Apple (a modern chanteuse and unique songwriter) and Jon Brion (a musical encyclopedia and champion, maybe not in that order) and Sean Watkins (a wonderful songwriter, guitar player and dry humorist who was in Nickel Creek with Thile).
Now that you have read about the Largo, please forget about it. 300 seats sell fast, I don’t need more purchasing competition.
If Thile ever plays anywhere remotely near where you are – Go. Just go. Don’t miss that show for any reason.
There are many splendid Thile videos on YouTube. Below are a few.
Thile on different musical genres and fans:
Typical improv, this time with bluegrass hero Michael Daves:
Covering Elliott Smith at the New York installment of No Name #1, a tribute concert:
Short interview with brief snippets of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers:
One of the all time great love songs is If You Were a Bluebird by Butch Hancock. Hancock is an amazing yet relatively unknown songwriter. I learned about him and this song by being a Joe Ely fan.
I love the fact that Butch and Joe have been friends for decades, along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They have solo careers but they also write songs for each other and they play together as the Flatlanders.
This post’s title comes from the lyrics:
If you were a hotel
Honey, you'd be a grand one
But if you hit a slow spell
Do you think you could stand one?
Here are two versions of the song, the first as performed by all three of the guys. Hancock is the one in the hat.
The second version is the way I learned it – the Ely version. The video has a couple annoyances but the performance outweighs them.
When I was growing up – musically speaking – I hated ultra-pop and ultra-popular. I couldn’t stand Stevie Nicks and it was a big deal when Patti Smith admitted that she liked “You’re the One That I Want” by Newton-John and Travolta. What a relief! I loved that song and thought I was crazy!
But seriously – and it was a big, serious deal; we were rightly passionate about music that was real and music that was bogus – I tried hard to judge music on its merits and not on what was cool. Of course, nowadays saying cool is not cool. Sick. Whatev. Making such an effort was one thing I have in common with my Scar Jewelry character, Heater. (Below I excerpt her remarks* on the subject.)
During the writing of Scar Jewelry there were a few songs that I kept playing again and again, and I quoted them in the book. When I got to quoting “Landslide”, by Smashing Pumpkins, I discovered it had been written by — Stevie Nicks. And it turned out to be incredibly difficult for me to process this fact. I don’t want Stevie Nicks in my book. But I want “Landslide”. But she wrote it. But I don’t want-— you get the idea.
P.S. I won’t try to justify my antipathy to Nicks. Partly some kind of kneejerk purist thing about Fleetwood Mac after Peter Green. A niece is probably named after a Nicks song (not “Landslide”) and I do love her so there you go.
P.P.S. I still love “You’re the One That I Want.”
*Here is what the always-opinionated Heater wrote about this, back in approximately 1979:
Today’s kids got no respect for their elders. Or for anybody else, I am usually proud to report. Respect should be earned, not ordained based on age, status or the other trappings. But so too should disrespect be earned and likewise not be due to superficial claptrap. Punks are no better than rednecks when they disdain Neil Young. So he is from the Sixties, so fucking what. He moved on. He’s always moving on. That’s what makes him an artist. Now I’ve said the A word. So come and get me. You’ll have to catch me first. And I’m moving fast because I just got to interview Neil Young. Who appreciates the great wherever he finds it. Hank Williams, Johnny Rotten. He gets Devo, he gets Kraftwerk, and I’m betting that in another decade he’ll be getting whatever else is new and fresh, while you’re still rattling your rusty safety pins. If he were in Ellay he’d be going out to hear the music that was the most honest and true around. He’d be at all those Alleycats – Differentials nights at Blackies West.
Saw a statistic today about how rapidly brick and mortar bookstores are dwindling in numbers. I confess that overall nowadays, I prefer reading a screen to reading a page. But I would hate it if there were no bookstores. Wandering among books is such a great pleasure.
I think printed books will turn out to be like vinyl records. Simply too good to go away.
Kelly Joe Phelps is one of the great guitar players of our lifetimes. He clearly lives to play music, he tours continuously, and my guess is that music is what keeps him alive and keeps his many demons mostly under control.
He has just announced cancellation of his current tour dates on two continents because he is suffering from something called ulnar neuropathy, which prevents him from using his right hand.
For all of the reasons stated above, I fervently wish him a fast and full recovery.
Most people don’t know about him. One of the few good and lucky things about the years I lived in Oregon (long and other story) was my discovery of Phelps there, shortly after his career started, back when the locals nicknamed him “Cujo”. As a fan, I’ve strayed over the years, because sometimes he is just too much for me. But I’ve always come back.
If you want to check him out, here are some facts and links:
He has nine albums. My personal favorite may be Shine Eyed Mr. Zen.
He made one fantastic album with Corinne West, Magnetic Skyline, then, tragically, they broke up.
He combines elements of jazz, delta blues, folk, and spiritual music.
He is dark and strange and sad and deep – and can be really, really funny.
He has been called “the Coltrane of slide guitar” although he does more fingerpicking nowadays.
This is something a friend of a friend once said. Every time I recall it, I think these are words to live by. Then I forget about it again.
I remembered it tonight, half way through one of the best concerts I have ever attended (and that is saying something). Live music is always an unrepeatable experience. Tonight was the Punch Brothers. Even if music reviews were my thing, I wouldn’t know how to describe them. Alt-punk-bluegrass. Brilliant musicians who play with virtuosity, wit, and occasional sarcasm. Such a great band. This was my fourth time seeing them. I hope for 100 more. We bought the tickets months ago and had fantastic seats…
…but come concert time, we had to take one of our cats to the emergency clinic and we were still at the clinic when the opening act took the stage. Pessimistic, son tried to sell our tix on Craig’s List. Fortunately, there were no buyers. We got to the concert late but still got to enjoy more than 1.5 hours of it and I cannot believe that I considered giving up and staying home. Don’t give up and stay home. This is a lesson that I have to keep re-learning. (Wonder why that is?)
Never pass up the unrepeatable experience. I’m thinking that life counts as one.
I have had so many jobs, and quite a few careers. Writing is my calling, so that has persisted through change after change of day job. But if I could have just one job – and if I got my choice – I would be a musician. I guess I would need to be a musician who writes songs, as I’ll always need to write. Yes, that’s a plan I could live with.
The only problem with my being a musician is that I’m no good at it. No talent. No vision. Incredibly average voice. Skill that rarely breaks past the rudimentary barrier. My best hope of being a musician was back in the early days of punk,when desire trumped ability. I don’t know why I wasn’t in a band back then, say a goof of a band like Heather once had in my novel Scar Jewelry. I suppose I lacked the right kind of cojones.
All four of my novels (three completed, one in progress) have musicians in them and two of them have music as a focus. I only just noticed this as a pattern. Sometimes the author is the last to know.