No one knew David Bowie was dying. When he assembled Tony Visconti and jazz saxophonist Danny McCaslin in 2015 to work on the album Blackstar, he kept his growing cancer a secret from his band. He insisted on recording live with the full band. His mouth opened up with the now classic lyric from Lazarus: “Look up here/I’m in heaven,” and the band played on. Whatever doubts, questions, regrets or fears he felt as cancer shut down his liver, he expressed as he said everything in his life through music. Mystery and excitement were the hallmarks of a wide and varied recorded and performance output. But then, within days of Blackstar’s release, the unavoidable happened to the surprise of friends, fans and collaborators.
No one who has seen Brian Wilson on this most recent tour will be surprised.
This was my sixth time in the last twenty years seeing Brian Wilson in concert, hereafter referred to affectionately by just his first name. Brian, the sad, chubby guy at the piano, singing about surfing for half a century. Brian, with melodies and harmonies that came straight from God. Brian, who when he looks in the mirror, sees his late brothers every day. Brian, whose songs have dug themselves into my heart since birth. My parents were fans, and played his music often growing up. His expression of innocence is my own innocence. I like “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I’ve covered Surfer Girl with my band. Caroline, No hit me right as I discovered girls could be sad.
I include these things in the preface to draw out a distinction between Brian and pretty much every other artist in existence. You listen to Brian with your heart. Sure, in attendance last week were those old rich people who will see any live act to cross them off a bucket list. They were listening with their wallets. Also, there were maybe a couple of nerdy music students who can parse out every harmonic interval and key change, and appreciate them for the innovations that he brought to early 1960s 1-4-5 pop music. They listen to Brian with their well-trained ears.
But I think Brian really lives in the hearts of people who love his songs. I think of my mom, who when she hears the intro to I Get Around starts waving her hands to the beat and start singing, even if she can’t get up to dance any more. There is a purity in her joy that grew from the seed Brian planted. Being my mother’s son on many different levels, I can’t say I reacted any differently last week, dancing in my seat, and bringing an embarrassed smile to my wife. I love these songs, and his band is able to execute them in such a way that hits that button reliably, year after year. There’s a lot of people like my mom out there.
She couldn’t make it this time. My mom has been sick for a while, and in all honesty, will probably be this sick until she dies. I wheeled her to that 2012 Beach Boys reunion show at Blossom, and she couldn’t stay the full time, so we left early. Even in the parking lot, she could hear the distant strains of Do You Wanna Dance? and thought about staying a little longer. I told her I was going to this show last week, and some part of her thinks maybe she could have managed to go, somehow, someway, but decided against it.
Brian had to be walked out to his piano. I’m pretty certain he didn’t actually play the thing. He often started songs, with a voice pure but short, and then handed off the second verse to a younger singer. He’s sick. Any armchair doctor could suggest possible diagnoses, but who cares? He can’t walk, he can barely sing. He’s going to die.
The disconnect between Brian’s sadness and the sunniness of the Beach Boys sound is a turning point. When you unlock that mystery, the world opens up a little more; it’s a little fuller, more real. The program was a complete performance of his 1966 album Pet Sounds with its aching centerpiece I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. He mostly spoke the lyrics, but his heart was heavy. He’s waited fifty more years, and it’s still not his time. It’s important to note the distinction between “sadness” and “darkness.” Another great legend of song who left us last year, Leonard Cohen, said until the very end “You want it darker.” That’s never true for Brian. As sad as he can be, confronted with abuse and drugs and death, he never let darkness pull him. His music continues to be filled with love and joy.
Is Brian being exploited? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leonard Cohen resumed touring in the 2010s because bad managers left him broke and touring was the best source of income. Brian’s struggles with managers, starting with his own father Murray and continuing on to Eugene Landy, are also well known. Under his wife Melinda’s guidance, he appears to be financially stable, but there might be more people with their livelihoods tied to the Brian Wilson touring industry.
I bring this up because I think the answer hints at why this show last week was so great. I think Brian was up there not to make money but because he loves us. I can clearly see the scene in my mind. Brian gets some bad health news, and he says to his family “I think people want to hear these songs one more time, and if I can give to them, I should do it.” He knows it’s going to be hard. He knows his voice isn’t what it used to be. But he’s a giver, and when faced with hard times, he does what he knows he can do.
The only reason this works is because whatever Brian has given us, has given me, we’ve all repaid him more. What hope exists in this man? What faith? To launch his sadness into the void with just some pretty chords and harmonies. But it’s worked every time. His voice has landed on my fertile ears, who return not just the adoration of a rock star, but true genuine love.
The set last week closed with Love and Mercy, the title of a recent biopic, but the song is from the 1980s. He’s closed with it the last few times I’ve seen him, and I think that’s by his design. It’s a piano ballad about a dopey man going through his day, watching movies and getting dinner and trying to make people happy. Brian has always put himself openly and completely in everything he’s done, but this is Brian 2017. “Love and Mercy to you and your friends tonight.”
Best known for his talents as the lead singer and songwriter of Toad The Wet Sprocket, Glen Phillips has continued to perform as an independent artist focused on honest storytelling and compelling songwriting. The latest stop on tour in support of his latest album, Swallowed by the New, was to a packed but chilly crowd at Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club. The biting cold and rain on a wintery March night couldn’t stop his passionate fans from sitting in on this show.
But first, wrapped in comfy scarf, blue dress and rose cowboy boots, Amber Rubarth took the stage and warmed up the icy crowd with a selection of acoustic numbers. The comforting blend of indie country and folk rock from her upcoming new album Wildflowers in the Graveyard were lovely and her light, soft voice captured the intimacy and strength of her songs. Even her gentle spin on REM’s Losing My Religion recast the classic song in a new light. Later in the set, the crowd got a preview of Glen Phillips as he joined Amber onstage for a stirring guitar and vocal duet. Amber will be returning next month for the Cleveland International Film Festival in support of her starring role in the movie “September 12th.” The film discusses people’s compassion and coming together following the events of September 11th. Amber and co-star Joe Purdy will perform after the screening in Tower City on April 1st and 3rd.
Glen Philips was excited to finally feel better for once. After just getting over a recent bout of sickness, he was finally able to let loose, bringing smiles and laughs to the crowd and his friends onstage. Joined by talented musicians/songwriters Amber Rubarth and fellow Toad collaborator Jonathan Kingham, Glen featured a majority of the tracks from Swallowed by the New, while taking time to weave their stories and settings between songs. At one point, he told the story of how Baptistina was named for the original source of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, only to find out the source was later disproven.
Even though Phillips’ songs are emotional, the night was filled with fun and good spirits. His priceless reaction after his mention that the tour would be ending in Pittsburgh the following night was met with jeers and boos. “Is it a sports thing?” he asked innocently, before getting briefly educated about the infamous rivalry between the two cities. He started a new song, only to stop and remark, “You know, back in the day, this kind of hate was reserved for someone else breaking into your town and stealing all your sheep or something.”
The standout moment of the night belonged to Jonathan Kingham. Before turning the stage over to Kingham for a song, Phillips asked the crowd what they wanted to hear him play. Unanimously, we voted for “funky freestyle,” which Kingham obliged with a solo acoustic version of Every Little Step by Bobby Brown, complete with dance breakdown and off-the-dome freestyle lyrics. Bars included having the meatsweats from his pre-show shortrib dinner, and apologizing to the guy stage right for having to pay full price for a seat with a direct view of his ass all night. “You won’t normally see that at a Glen Phillips show!” he quipped at song’s end.
Glen’s voice is still as distinct and expressive as ever, with touching and tragic lyrics about love, loss, faith, his divorce, and hope combined with his signature folk-inspired songwriting. Even while Glen admitted on stage that “my songs are mainly about how sad I am,” each song of the evening’s set illustrated a wide range of feeling: from the forlorn lighthouse love song in the album’s opening song Go — which muses that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to let them go — to the closing inspirational, stomping, hymnal chorus of Held Up. Glen also played several popular songs and fan favorites from his Toad The Wet Sprocket years, including All I Want, Walk On The Ocean, and an encore crowd request of Crowing that got the room singing along and ended the evening on a high note.
With an amazing career spanning 30 years, Matthew Sweet has been the answer when it comes to guitar-driven power pop. His breakthrough records from the early 1990s, like Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun, highlight the chord-ripping rock and endearing songwriting that set his style apart in the era of “alternative” music, much like Elvis Costello’s emergence parallel to the eruption of British punk in the 1970s. Like a true artist, he has continued to write, perform and collaborate on an astounding number of projects through the years — and shows no signs of slowing down yet. Matthew talked with Blown Speakers before visiting Cleveland on his current tour of the Northeast U.S., and discussed his next album, Tomorrow Forever, among other things.
Matthew Sweet: The whole thing is recorded. I still have to mix it, and I have to figure out what makes the album and what happens with the rest of the songs. I recorded 38 songs for it, so I’m going to try to figure out what the main album is.
There’s supposed to be a bonus disc that some people pledged for, and that was going to be demos, but given the time frame and I got started a little late, I mostly just made real recordings, so that bonus thing will also be full of studio songs.
Were there any direct influences that were drawing themselves out while you were making the new album?
MS: That’s hard to say. I think that it really just came from me. I’ve moved from living in a new place, and it’s kind of on its own steam. I wouldn’t say there was something I was particularly listening to or wanting it to be like. I just started picking ideas and doing it like I normally do, which is a little bit mysterious. I store up short minute long ideas or something. When I go through my day before I’m making a record, I’ll occasionally record little things and then save them up, or if I have nothing I’ll make them up that day or whatever when I need them. But somehow once they’re that little thing, it’s like the seed of what it’s going to be, and it just sort of becomes that. I just trust that it will and then it’s like magic or something.
I didn’t do a lot of thinking about what I wanted it to be like, but it has a wide range of stuff on it and I did try to make sure it has lots of different types of songs. For instance, I recorded it in three batches, and I think that the first batch had a variety of things, and then the second batch was a little more power-pop, and then the third batch was really slow, moodier type of stuff. But that’s the most I thought about it. I was like, ‘Well, I want to make sure I have slow stuff,’ you know?
Has being back in your old home state influenced the album, like how you were saying about a move back and everything?
MS: Well I guess your house and where you live is the most solid thing. I mean, for me, in my life, it doesn’t matter where I am in terms of doing music. I can do what I do anywhere, and I have. I’ve lived a lot of places, but there’s something about when you’re settling in and you have that comfort of your own space, and I think that did factor in somehow.
I grew up in Lincoln, and so Omaha’s really a bigger city than I grew up in. Although, Lincoln’s a good size, I mean the University of Nebraska’s there, it’s only fifty miles away from here. But it has been cool to connect to how I felt when I was really young. I’ve always been bad with remembering what all happened when I was little. I’d meet other people throughout the years who I grew up with, and I always felt like they remembered all the stuff, but I just didn’t remember it exactly. And there is a little bit of that being here — that I just can feel like I’m more connected with that part of my life. So there is something weirdly comforting about that.
Do you still have the home studio in your new place? How was it moving everything to a new location?
MS: I do. Well, that’s cool, too, to have a new room that I work in. I’ve never had a pro studio set up at home in terms of like “the room.” I’ve never built a room to be a studio. It was funny because when I sold my place in Los Angeles, it got in local papers and online, and it said I sold my home ‘with recording studio,’ but there was really no recording studio in it, except my gear being in one of the rooms of the house. And that’s really the same way it is here, but our new place had a really good room for me to do music in, so it’s always fun being in a new space doing that. It has been cool setting up my studio and making it my own sort of vibe.
You’re hitting the road in September. This will be your second time coming through Cleveland in two years. What is it that keeps you coming back to this area and do you have any favorite moments or memories about playing in Cleveland?
MS: I feel like there must’ve been a time where we didn’t come as much, and then we started coming more often a few years ago. I mean, back in the day, we came there and there were always great rock crowds, and we played a lot of different places that had different vibes and stuff.
Then we played the Beachland a few times over the last few years, and that was when we really started playing Cleveland again. We played there a few times, and then we played the Music Box, and we had a great time there. It’s a really nice venue, and spacious, and has a really good backstage and stuff. I have positive memories of it, so it’s comfortable.
But in general, Cleveland, it’s such a great music city and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is there, and I have some history with it. I had a really cool moment in my career when we got to play at an opening of the John Lennon exhibit that Yoko Ono curated in there in 2000. Two or three bands played at it, and we were able to meet Yoko and have her sign our little books at the exhibit. It was up in this room where they had a lot of John’s handwritten lyrics on walls. So that was a trip and is a cool memory from being around there. It’s always been a rock and roll town so it makes sense that it would be a place good for me.
Your songs have been used in a lot of popular movie soundtracks from the 90s and on. Has anyone asked you to write a film score or perform a complete film soundtrack, like Prince on the Batman soundtrack?
MS: Not really. I would’ve done it, I’m sure. I got close to that sort of thing. Unfortunately, when I probably could’ve done something like that easier was when my career was early enough in success. I was touring all the time and maybe didn’t have as much time to get into that sort of stuff. Later on, I’ve never really concentrated on trying to change the kind of work I do because I just like being an artist and writing my own songs. But I’ve always felt like I could do it pretty easily. I guess the closest I got was a little bit of incidental music in Can’t Hardly Wait, the teen movie. I had a song on the soundtrack of it, but I ended up with a little bit of background music for it.
Are you still crafting pottery? Is the Lolina line still going on?
MS: It is, theoretically. I have all my stuff here and I actually have a small garage just for doing pottery in, but I haven’t really set it up and started doing it. It’s been kind of a long break for me but I am going to get it going sometime soon. I got embroiled in the album pretty quickly after we moved and I’ve only really been working on that. Some of the rewards from the Kickstarter campaign include 3-D printed things that I’m making. I’ve scanned from pieces of my pottery, like a cat head, and then use them in building the 3-D things. I’m also making a bronze cat sculpture as one of the things people could get as an incentive. To do that, I think I’m gonna carve it out of clay, and then we’ll make some sort of a mold from it, so I’ve got to get into some clay and get it going. I’m thinking sometime this fall is when I’ll actually get all that stuff rolling and get back on the wheel. Make some things to get myself going.
I think that doing pottery, the way I do it, it’s very self-taught. I’m not like a pro at doing it, it’s my own weird way. I learned just a little bit from others, but kind of like my guitar playing, I just kind of learned it on my own. It has this thing about it that’s kind of like music, which is why I like pottery. Where you can get lost in it, and it’s hard to imagine how you did it afterwards, for me. I listen to a song I’ve done and I can’t really imagine where it came from. It’s sort of like when I said magic, that’s sort of what I mean.
I’ve got several pieces around the house that we ended up keeping though a lot was made and sold. When I look at pottery that I made over a few years ago, I go, ‘How did I ever make that?’ It’s hard to imagine how I knew how to do it on the wheel. It’s different from music because it’s like a solid thing.
I think I will be able to just do it still. I think, in a weird way, maybe I’ll be better at doing it even though I didn’t do it during that time. You go back to a feeling, and if you can get in that kind of a meditative state where you lose yourself, you can do it. That’s when it works. You know, pottery is really weird. Some days it just seems like you can’t do it at all, even for people who are great at it. Some days it’s just not happening, something’s wrong, and then you get in that sort of zone, and it happens. I’m more used to creating that feeling with music and a lot less used to it with pottery, but I still have faith in that concept.
How do you feel about the Kickstarter approach and using this kind of method to connect with fans and get your work out?
MS: I like it. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, and I talked about doing it for a long time before I ever did one. I can’t say whether I’ll always do it through Kickstarter. In a way, I feel like it would be hard to do it multiple times or something, but what it gets for me is this fire under me to really try to do something great. I’ve really tried to make it come to life in a strong way, and it’s afforded me more time to spend on recording and record more things just out of wanting it to be very special. Because it’s paid for by fans, I want them to really like it. The only way I really knew to make sure it’s especially good was to just record a lot of stuff and then pick the things that just work the best. That’s been great, although it’s making it a little harder to choose what the album is. I’m getting close to that.
I think the hardest thing about it is that it’s taken me so long to do, and some people get impatient about it, although the vast majority are just really great and supportive. I think that trying to stay super engaged with communicating and keeping everybody happy is something I’m not as good at. I’m a person who’ll decide one day, ‘I want to do Facebook,’ and I’ll do posts or I’ll get engaged, but then the next day, I have no urge to do it. I just know myself in this way that. That’s been the hardest thing, I think, between me and the Kickstarter, is me giving enough extra stuff because I’ve just been so focused on recording.
Having said that, people are great and it’s really fun to give a big update and tell them where I’m at. Last month, when I got done with all the rough mixes and everything was recorded that’s going to go on all the parts, it was fun to tell everybody, ‘Look, here’s where it is, and we can see light at the end of the tunnel now.’ I just have to get all the rewards going and mix it this fall and we’ll be good to go.
If there was a (purely hypothetical) biopic movie of your life coming out either this year or next year, who would you want to play your role, and who do you see playing any of the other guys in your band, like Ric (Menck) and Paul (Chastain)?
MS: Ha! This is great. I wish I had a couple days to think about this. There’s a guy who looks like I looked when I was young. People tell me, ‘That guy reminds me of you.’ To me, he’s much cooler than me, and also a really cool actor. His name is Michael Pitt. He played Jimmy Darmody, the young, up-and-coming bootlegger guy on Boardwalk Empire. We may not really look that much alike, but he’s cooler than me and somewhat similar.
He can play me, and then, god, who could be Menck? Who’s really tall? You need someone tall and skinny so that’s the actor. Paul would be a smaller guy. I don’t know, I just have to think a little bit more about casting those two because it would have to really be right. In a way, Steve Buscemi would be good as Ric, but he’s not tall enough and he’s too old to be with Michael Pitt. Meet the older and the youngers, you know? Buscemi has the personality that’s a little more like Ric. But no, it can’t be all people from Boardwalk Empire!
Concert/photo recap, Music Box Supper Club, Cleveland, 9.13.2016
Instead of bootlegged whiskey, Matthew Sweet has been chord-running an intoxicating collection of hits and fan favorites as his fall tour winds through the Midwest and toward the Atlantic coast. His visit to Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club proved to be another outstanding performance that his devoted listeners have come to love.
The night began with a rousing performance from Cleveland’s Chris Allen, known for his work in the bands Rosavelt and The Boys From County Hell. His brand of hard-strumming heartland rock with a subtle touch of Telecaster twang was a perfect match for the evening. Joined by Tom Prebish on bass, and Fred Perez-Stable on congas and percussion (instead of the usual drum kit because the kit couldn’t fit on stage in front of all of Sweet’s band’s gear), the trio delivered a strong, yet intimate set that included several Rosavelt favorites, like The Last Heartache and Perfect Girl.
Matthew Sweet arrived on stage to a packed seated house. As usual, he was joined by Ric Menck on drums and Paul Chastain on bass, both long-serving bandmates and the core duo of Velvet Crush, and featured the incredible non-stop talents of John Moremen on solo guitar.
Matthew’s set covered plenty of his popular singles, like Girlfriend, Sick of Myself, and Time Capsule, and also showcased signature tunes from his recent releases, such as Byrdgirl and She Walks The Night. By the end of the night, the crowd of steadfast fans in the audience got more hits and rock sweetness then they bargained for.
For more details on east coast tour dates and venues, and more news on the upcoming album, visit Matthew Sweet’s official website.
Last night, the avant-garde cello rock group Rasputina took over the Music Box Supper Club. The group covered scientific and historical fact-based songs with topics including Saturn’s moon Titan, to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Frontwoman Melora Creager’s quirky banter delighted the audience and Rasputina newcomer, Luis Mojica’s beat boxing surprisingly complemented Creager’s and Parvo’s melodic strings.
Opener Eliza Rickman enchanted the crowd with her one-woman set. Her set included multiple instruments ranging from the zither to a toy piano. Her angelic voice rang through eight songs of which included a haunting cover of “Moon River”.
When p.stoops took the stage on July 19, the crowd was sparse, either they hadn’t shown up to the Grog Shop yet or they were outside having a smoke, chatting up friends. p.stoops, also known as Patrick Stoops, hopped up onto the stage, dressed down in a Nintendo Duck Hunt shirt and khaki pants, spoke a bit hesitantly into the mic “Hi, I’m p.stoops. It’s great to be here opening for Sage Francis along with Johnny La Rock & Furface.”
Without wasting another moment, p.stoops hunched over his dove into his set of head-bopping, beat-driven electronic sounds off of his 2014 release Object Permanence that began to slowly lure the outside crowd into the venue. A known record digger, p.stoops rare vinyls that sampled exotic sounds that were reminiscent of a 1950s beach cabana party or, at times, a Bollywood extravaganza. Standing on stage in his own world, p.stoops showed off his turntablist talents, effortlessly juggling beats and scratching the vinyl along with the beat. Using his midi fighter that resembled an arcade game controller, he mixed sounds that flowed together while also choosing from a smorgasbord of controllers and knobs.
By the end of his performance, a larger crowd had formed, entranced by the sounds emanating from the stage. Although he had just one more song to throw down, the beats p.stoops had packed into his 30 minute set made an impression on the audience, who cheered for just one more.
Following p.stoops was electronic DJs and music producers, Johnny La Rock & Furface (JLRFF). Accompanied by Ottawa guitarist Will Hooper, the trio also put on an impressive set that showcased songs off of their recently released EP, Splittape. A vibrant technicolor video backdrop with the “JLRFF” logo lit up the stage as Furface kicked off the set, smoothly transitioning sounds through his launchpads and samplers. Johnny La Rock began his turn with a sound byte from the Johnny Carson show, “Here’s Johnny!”, stealthily moving his hands across his turntables. As Furface and Johnny La Rock took turns controlling the beat, Will Hooper stood in the center, playing guitar which complemented the duo’s beat mixing.
As a self-made artist, show headliner Sage Francis not only books his own shows and drives from city to city, he was also at the merch table selling t-shirts and music for his “Going Through Hell” tour. This carried on to the stage where Sage Francis elicited loud cheers as he launched into his one-man set draped in his homemade costume; a Strange Famous Records flag (his own record label) and hood that made him look like a high priest about to perform a Satanic ritual. Channeling LeBron, Sage Francis also performed his own stage stunts that included clapping his hands with powder to create a smoke filled haze as he stood with arms wide open and his head facing to the ceiling. With a single Macbook on a high bar table, Francis would press play for the next beat as words flew out of his mouth mellifluously, rapping songs from his extensive discography throughout the years.