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2009 Concert Roundup.

And there I was, thinking I had somehow slacked off on my concert-going this year. (Movies are relatively low-impact nights out.) But in a few days I’m off to see my 20th concert of 2009 (Ben Kweller, who’s playing at a PTA fundraiser for Izzy’s elementary school), then Simian Mobile Disco again, and one more to go after that — The Gossip (!), with Passion Pit (!!) opening — which puts me on track with 2008 (22, my Last.fm page reminds me), but nowhere near the insanity of 2007 (see my blog entry entitled Best Concert Year Ever).

But quality always beats quantity, which makes me think that 2009 may be my real Best Concert Year Ever — some, in my mind, positively historic; some with bands performing at the height of their careers; some with revelatory performances. None of these bested my single favorite stage lineup, from last year at Outside Lands (Stars / Andrew Bird / Broken Social Scene / Wilco — I mean, come on), but 2009 was stellar nonetheless.

Highs and lows, in chronological order (This Charming Band, Wilco / Okkervil River, and the Felice Brothers not included):

1. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
The Warfield, 1/28/2009

I started the year off with one of the best concerts in recent memory (and there are more to come below) — eight men and one force of nature. These folks really know how to put on a show — not just involving people staring at their ratty sneakers or hunched over their laptops, but an exuberantly unrestrained experience, with full-gospel belting and horns blaring in a frenzy. Though I gotta say my favorite moment (other than their show-stopping version of “This Land Is Your Land”) was seeing my former student Jocyl suddenly get up on stage and dance with Miss Jones. So jealous.

2. The Philip Glass Ensemble
Davies Symphony Hall, 2/16/2009

Like Mark E. Smith, Philip Glass digs repetition. Certainly more than the former, I figure. The occasion was a heroic, marathon performance of Glass’s landmark Music in Twelve Parts from 1974, with Glass himself on piano — over three hypnotic hours of unspooling musical lines, variations slowly weaving into each other. Valerie called it “monomaniacal” — sure, but in a good way.

3. Cake
Fox Theater, 2/21/2009

Perhaps in the grand tradition of Radiohead not playing “Creep”, or the Clash not playing “Train in Vain”, or the Pixies not playing “Here Comes Your Man” (not true anymore, which is a good thing), Cake didn’t play “I Will Survive”. Or maybe we were just unlucky that night. I suppose any band might be a little resentful if one of their biggest hits happened to be a tossed-off cover song (albeit a great version), but still.

But this at least marked my first visit to the Fox Theater, which, as Kim Deal described, a little later in the year, “This place is fucking beautiful.” Indeed.

4. Masada String Trio
Yoshi’s, 3/11/2009

I’ve seen John Zorn perform four times, and each time, as William Vollmann would put it (in his novel Argall), my mouth was filled with gawp-seed. (Masada’s 1998 performance at Temple Emanu-el is still the only concert I’ve seen that I would describe as a religious experience.) This Masada String Trio concert, part of Zorn’s week-long residency at Yoshi’s — oh, if only I had money and time, and could go to every show — didn’t exactly have Zorn performing, but he conducted Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander and Greg Cohen through pieces from the Masada songbook, and the results were nothing short of staggering.

5. Simian Mobile Disco
Mezzanine, 3/15/2009

Simian Mobile Disco, San Francisco, March 2009

Says it all.

6. Dengue Fever
Castro Theatre, 5/5/2009

Not exactly a concert, but part of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s yearly indie-band-meets-silent-movie event — in this case, Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World, from 1925. Woozily beautiful psychedelic music, broadly entertaining adventure film with some very cool stop-motion animation (the Pixar film Up pays homage to it), but they don’t exactly play well together, and it’s a little disconcerting, no pun intended, to have Chhom Nimol’s singing in Khmer — a legible and living language, after all — be stirred into the primitivist exotica of Hoyt’s film. (I know, I know, the film is about dinosaurs, and not jungle savages, but still…)

I’ve always liked these yearly marriages of music and film, even if it’s the sort of radical recontextualization of the material that I usually find disquieting. But I’m hoping for music that’s more intertwined with what’s on screen, and not just, say, Yo La Tengo jamming on a single groove the length of a Painlevé short film (which I loved, don’t get me wrong). What I’d love to see is someone like John Zorn doing elaborate sound cues for every minute of a film, but I figure that’s the sort of commissioned soundtrack whose costs would get prohibitive really quickly.

7. Little Dragon
The Independent, 5/20/2009

Good show, but see the November date below. (And a rude observation: why does Little Dragon always seem to be saddled with the most mediocre opening bands ever?)

9. Thao Nguyen
Make Out Room, 6/8/2009

Even more special not just because my musician crush was playing two feet in front of me, but also because my good friend Barb read her poetry during the same event (at the first Monthly Rumpus).

12. Joe
The Fillmore, 7/12/2009

The best part (musical): it was perhaps a couple of weeks after Michael Jackson’s death, and the almost-obligatory MJ medley — here, “Rock With You” and “Human Nature”, with Chico DeBarge — just felt absolutely right.

The best part (non-musical): my date and I were elbowed by some drunk who crashed his way to the front of the stage. A few minutes later, Joe literally stops mid-song (and so does the band) and says (I’m paraphrasing here), “At my shows, women are treated with respect, and you sir, are not doing that.” Then he pauses to let the bouncers strong-arm the drunk guy out of the venue, and only then does he start singing again. A true gentleman.

Second-best part (also non-musical): how Joe would react when the women in front of the stage would hand him their business cards. Joe would take the cards and, without skipping a beat, hold them up between his index and middle fingers and an assistant would run in from the wings and file them for future reference. Dude.

13. Bob Dylan
Greek Theatre, 10/10/2009

Well, I was warned. I guess we all were. And of course Dylan in ’09 would never come close to Dylan in ’69. But those 90 minutes of mumble-and-slur were a bigger letdown than I expected, the only consolation being in the company of my friends (hey, that’s a lot, and ultimately it was a fun evening nonetheless) and hearing the really, really hardworking bar band backing him up.

Random assessment #1 (from Randall): “He seemed pretty spry for a man approaching 70.”

Random assessment #2 (from Keith): “I finally figured out he was singing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ when I caught the phrase ‘like a rolling stone’.”

Then again, all I wanted was just to be in his presence. I guess we all did.

14. Mos Def
The Independent, 10/19/2009

What an amazing concert. Mos Def smashed it like an Idaho potato.

Of all the Albums-In-Their-Entirety concerts I’ve seen (Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Slint, Liz Phair, and see two more below) this was hands-down the best of the lot. Performing the unimpeachably brilliant 1999 album Black on Both Sides album from start to finish, Mos Def circumvented the built-in predictability of the setlist with the musical interludes in between each track — basically, whatever the guys on the decks would throw on: a Latin groove, a fragment of old-school hiphop, the entirety of proto-punk band Death’s track “Freakin Out”.

And therefore, the element of surprise: Would he lipsync a bit? Would he lead the crowd on a singalong to “Umi Says”? Would he dance? Would he freestyle? Would he crack jokes? Would he do the robot? Would he mime playing the vibes on “May-December”? Did he have a huge, goofy smile the entire time? Yes to all of the above. Probably my favorite concert of 2009.

(I figure this was my friend Melissa’s favorite concert too, because she was one of five people he was shaking hands with at the end. You should have seen Melissa jump up and down. Anyhow, I can’t link to Melissa’s photos because they’re on Facebook, so I’ll do the next best thing: a link to the concert photos by the woman standing in front of me. That’s how close we were.)

15. Echo and the Bunnymen
Fox Theater, 10/22/2009

Hmm. And there I was, honestly prepared to weep during the last minute of the song “Ocean Rain”, but no. What was billed as the Ocean Rain album in its entirety “with orchestra” was something of a letdown: a too-long break between encores, poor acoustics (oddly for the Fox), which made Will Sergeant’s Scouse even more difficult to understand, plus the “orchestra” turned out to be what was more or less just a conductor, a string quartet (though there might have been more), and a percussionist (who was drowned out by the real drummer anyhow).

16. Built to Spill
The Fillmore, 11/1/2009

Doug Martsch must be the calmest guitar soloist in indie rock. He can break a sweat, that’s for sure — halfway through the set, the combination of perspiration and running his hands through his hair with the tufts standing willy-nilly made him look like some demented scientist — but the effortless way he sends his guitar lines soaring over the crowd is almost uncanny. I’ve seen Built to Spill maybe five times now, but this was surely the best I’d seen them play, even if they didn’t perform “I Would Hurt A Fly”.

Random observation #1: If the Dylan concert had the most heads of gray hair in the audience, BtS had the most facial hair on stage.

Random observation #2: I haven’t been to a concert with that many teens in the audience since Oasis in 1996. Very strange.

17. Little Dragon
The Independent, 11/4/2009

I think my tweet from the concert — it’s odd revisiting real-time tweets to recall states of mind — just about sums it all up. (It was actually a rather inarticulate “Holy crap Little Dragon are ON FIRE tonight”.) This was my fourth time to see them (and, I’m pretty sure, their fourth time to visit SF), but I was unprepared for their sheer energy this time — fueled, I’m guessing, by an enraptured audience cheering and yelling every time Yukimi Nagano rocked that tambourine of hers. (Indeed, she was swinging it so hard during the encore that she fell down on stage — and, without missing a beat, continued to hammer the tambourine on the floor.) Part of the joy of watching them live is seeing the lead singer get lost in the music, dancing with a seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness; you will, too.

18. Pixies
Fox Theater, 11/8/2009

Oh, what a great time. They played the Doolittle album from start to finish, and really, how could you go wrong with that? Highlights: Frank/Francis/Charles completely shredding his lungs out on “Tame”, the goofy footage playing behind “Here Comes Your Man” (an echo of its video), the crowd shout-along to “Hey” (Chris pronounced it “absolutely fucking genius”), Un Chien Andalou playing on the LED screen before the band walked on stage, and the best surprise of all — the UK Surf version of “Wave of Mutilation” during the encore.  When they gathered together in the middle for their final bows, messing about with each other, they looked so — dare I say it? — happy. (p.s. Don’t quit your other band, Kyp!)

19. Buraka Som Sistema
Mezzanine, 11/15/2009

The exemplary ability of Buraka Som Sistema to drag you onto the dancefloor stems from a simple combination: vocals (in Portuguese) spat out like a weapon, steel drums and whistles and stabbing horns, simple choruses that demand either call-and-response or just plain old yelling along (at some point they even sample Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” just for the hell of it), and an unflagging, irresistible techno thump. And if it’s a venue with acoustics as good as the sound system at the Mezzanine, even better. My dancing for three hours — “with uncharacteristic abandon”, I noted on Twitter — was made even sweeter by the fact that I had been in a leg immobilizer and knee brace and a Kaiser-issued cane for most of the fall of 2009. Praise the baby Jebus, I can dance again.

—–

And once again, a shout-out to all the good people who didn’t mind me bugging you about buying tickets and the late nights and spilled beer and pushing our way to the front and standing in five feet of cubic space with me, some of you more than twice. Thanks to, in concert-chronological order, Courtney, Joey & Lynn, Valerie, Sue, Jeff H., Xochitl, Frank, Laurel, Barb & Oscar, Jens, Jeff L., Lisa, Patrick, Keith & Margaret, Melissa, Chris, Randall & Robin, Dawn, Shaylih, Izzy, Jane, Romeo, Jake, Heinzel, & Monch. Here’s to 2010.

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Around the Bay, February / March 2009.

Playground.

The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival schedule is finally out! But a quick Filipino film-related aside first: You can get a good heady dose of Filipino cinema the weekend of March 20, as Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis is opening at the Embarcadero, with Lav Diaz’s monumental 10-hour In the Land of the Encantos at the Yerba Buena Center the following day, on the 21st. How cool is that? (I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mendoza’s Tirador, but Foster Child was a powerful piece of work; I can’t make it to Diaz’s film, but his ten-and-a-half hour The Evolution of a Filipino Family was staggeringly good, and this new one shouldn’t disappoint either.)

The SFIAAFF program this year looks pretty good, including a Kiyoshi Kurosawa retrospective, but here’s what’s bubbling up for me, in calendar order (I live in the East Bay, so I’m very PFA-biased, but who wouldn’t be?):

Friday, March 13 (both at the PFA):
– Adolfo Alix Jr., Adela
– Jennifer Phang, Half-Life

Saturday, March 14 (both at the PFA):
– Jia Zhangke, 24 City (here’s my short entry on Still Life as well)
– Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata

Wednesday, March 18 (both at the Kabuki):
– Jeff Adachi, You Don’t Know Jack: The Story of Jack Soo
– Bong Joon-Ho, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry, Tokyo! (and here’s my entry on Bong’s The Host)

Thursday, March 19 (PFA)
– Heiward Mak, High Noon

Friday, March 20 (PFA)
– H.P. Mendoza, Fruit Fly (Mendoza is the co-writer and star of Richard Wong’s Colma: The Musical, which I loved. I can’t go to the Castro premiere, unfortunately, because I’m going to a concert that evening, which is uncannily similar to what happened a few years back (I never tire of linking to this): here he is hassling me about not going to the Colma premiere, and when I introduced myself to Wong and Mendoza a couple of years later, Mendoza actually remembered.)

– Na Hong-jin, The Chaser

Saturday, March 21 (PFA)
– Peng Lei, The Panda Candy
– Ryosuke Hashiguchi, All Around Us

Elsewhere (and I’ll keep adding to this list as more programs come in), Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light is showing for a week (Feb. 27 – Mar. 5) at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

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The Geary Street Project.

The plan was simple — meet at the corner of Geary and Market and walk all 6 miles to the ocean and take photographs the whole time. And sample the different kinds of food along the way. And maybe pop into a bar every so often for a pint or two.

This was all inspired (at least I was) by William Vollmann’s fantastic novel The Royal Family — “a love letter to San Francisco on some levels,” Vollman writes. One of the book’s many highlights is a chapter entitled “Geary Street” (“a love song, from the ocean to downtown”), and here’s an excerpt (cribbed from this blog):

The tale of Geary Street is the tale of life itself, which begins, as did the first prehistoric unicellular organisms, at the ocean. In that very first block somewhere in the mists of Forty-Eighth Avenue, which almost touches the low sea-horizon and the wet silver-tan sand of Ocean Beach, Geary Street, here known to meter maids as Geary Boulevard, as indeed it will remain all the way to Van Ness, already foreshadows the business character of its adulthood… Geary Street — Jack-of-all-Trades-Street, we ought to call it. We can bully ourselves into pretending that Geary is something special, but it eschews preciousness; if only lava were to seal it off for five centuries, anthropologists would love it. Shunning Haight Street’s narcissism, Clement Street’s dreaminess, Geary Street expresses pure functionality, like a well-made Indian arrowhead.

Two beers and a huge roast beef sandwich later, we had only just crossed Van Ness at 1 pm and we wusses were faced with the notion that this may be physically impossible. (It was also 70 degrees out with hardly a cloud in the sky.)

Special K and 40 ducked out at Masonic (40 actually needed to pack for a trip); Big Al and I kept walking until the mid-30s in the Avenues once things weren’t as interesting. But there’s no denying the diversity of the neighborhoods we were walking through: Union Square to the Tenderloin to Japantown to the Fillmore to the Russian / Irish / Chinese / Korean sections in the Avenues.

The geotagged map is linked to in the picture above; otherwise the Geary Street Project set can be seen here. (Big Al’s set is here; not sure when Special K and 40 are putting theirs up!) Another photo/walking tour may be scheduled in the near future.

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Books for the Fall.

I’m also (somewhat belatedly) trying to figure out my anthropology syllabus. While it would be easier on me, I hate assigning the same things over and over, and I’ve never repeated books in successive semesters simply because it’s boring. It’s hard figuring out the right calibration; my favorite ethnographies are either too “esoteric” or too theory-laden for the first-years to appreciate. At the same time, I want them to be able to sink their teeth into actual ethnography.

Last spring was, I think, a successful one, though one student rightly criticized me for not assigning any ethnographies per se. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is a triumph of journalistic writing, but in terms of anthropological principles and ethics skirts, at times, on the dubious. Donald Stull and Michael Broadway’s Slaughterhouse Blues was, strictly speaking, a sociological study and not the single-sited, area-focused work of which most anthropologists are fond. (This was, however, something of a surprise hit: I wouldn’t have figured a book on the American meatpacking industry would generate such great discussions.). In any case, both books had their fans (and of course I am one): one student said he would be “greatly disturbed” if I didn’t reassign Fadiman this semester, and another thought I should do Slaughterhouse Blues again because it was “important for students to read about social inequity.”

I also used to assign at least one book on music — I’m sure you regular readers know how invested I am in it — but haven’t done so in a long time. My students have read books on techno, hiphop and dancehall — not all of them ethnographies though — and enjoyed them, I think. (My former student Jean Jacket thanked me the other night for assigning Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal — as she put it, “it got me a boyfriend.”)

So far I’ve boiled it down to a Bay Area-centered fall. (As an outsider, I explain to the students every semester, I’m very fascinated with American culture.) I’m looking through Carla Menjivar’s Fragmented Lives, on Salvadoran immigrants in SF (I wonder how it compares with Sarah Mahler’s American Dreaming, which actually upset a couple of people one semester), and J.A. English-Lueck’s cultures@siliconvalley, and both look quite fascinating. Rebecca Solnit’s well-written and still relevant (though really rather breezy) Hollow City, on gentrification in SF, might be a good quick addition as well. (Plus excerpts / articles from Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco, or the Castro Street chapter from Frances Fitzgerald’s Cities on a Hill, a screening of Curtis Choy’s documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel, maybe something of mine about Daly City…)

The other combination I’m considering has not much relevance with each other. Leo Chavez’s Shadowed Lives, on undocumented Latino immigrants in San Diego, was a real eye-opener for many of the students a year ago; the fact that Chavez also made two documentaries in connection with his work makes it a no-brainer to assign to an intro class.

The other is Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey, about which I’m still on the fence. His ethnography on Rutgers students is hilarious, well-written and sucks you in; it also features a chapter I’ve used before that beautifully illustrates how brilliant insights can emerge from seemingly banal but detailed participant observation. But it also happens to be quite dated (the research was done in the ’80s) — which might, in fact, be a good launching point for discussion. (The attitudes toward race, for instance, are pretty hair-raising; the chapters on sex, at least at first skim, seem to just go on in somewhat creepy detail about students’ sexual experiences / fantasies.) Or maybe toss Tanya Luhrmann’s (I’m a big fan of her work) Of 2 Minds in the mix.

Yesterday at Moe’s I bought three more ethnographies that look extremely interesting as well. One of them, Setha Low’s Behind the Gates, seems like a better companion to Chavez’s ethnography mentioned above; it’s a study on gated communities, and should make the students think about fear, security, borders, labor and so on.

But then I could always go back to the old standbys: women in rural Iraq, fellatio rituals in New Guinea, poverty in Naples…