Concerts, Music

2020 Goals (a small one)

So I was doing a bit of the ol’ interweb-crawling before heading to bed, and I came across a piece of news that got blood rushing to my head. An Instagram account attributed to the band Rage Against The Machine has put up a single image.

(I screenshotted the image so that it does not suddenly disappear off the face of the internet if the band decides they’re too cool for Instagram)

Yes. The Rage Against the Machine, whose last live appearance was in 2011, at a festival called LA Rising. That year I was in Los Angeles, sans car, barely skimming the surface of what the city had to offer. So of course I missed it, and the band never performed together again.

RATM has been on my top 5 Acts to Watch Live, and it looks like next year is when I make it out to Coachella again, after 5 years of staying away from the festival. Or maybe it may make more sense to just head out to New Mexico or Arizona to see the band, considering Coachella logistics.

Also, I cringe at the thought of being an RATM fan 20 years ago, with little context to their music, other than them being this angry-sounding band with catchy guitar riffs that were great to head-bang to. “The Machine” in their name, in my head, correlated to the System, and of course, we all hated the system, which was all teachers and dumb rules and everything that reeked of adulthood. So it felt good to sing along with “Fuck you I won’t do what to tell me”. It did not help that I heard their music for the first time on the Matrix OST, which obfuscated their political messages even more. In a time when I was still trying to define what “cool” was, and whether I was part of that club or not, Rage Against The Machine’s music presented the right kind of credentials.

It was much, much later that a better knowledge of US politics, history, and culture helped me understand the “Rage” in their name. The band’s lyrics are, in case you didn’t know already, at odds with US domestic and foreign policy, and are a direct critique of corporations, cultural imperialism, and systemic oppression of marginalized groups in America. Once upon a time, I wondered at why exactly the band spoke of convicted murderers and revolutionary Mexican organizations, and wondered if they were taking performance art too far by insisting on shooting a video in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or hanging upside down flags from their speakers during a live TV show. I had misgivings about the violent protests their music seemed to incite, and sort of understood why they were the only band in the infamous Clear Channel memorandum to have all songs banned from radio channels in the aftermath of 9/11.

But you live and learn. Twenty years later, I know America a little differently than I did back when I just graduated college. I am a lot more aware, both from a cultural and sociopolitical standpoint, about what makes this country tick, and the undercurrents of wrongness that pervade American society. The truths to power that the band spits out through their music feel like a necessary part of the American discourse. “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” now hold more import than the chorus of ‘Killing in the Name’. And the song that plays at the end of The Matrix, the one that introduced me to the band, has these lines:

Networks at work, keepin' people calm
Ya know they murdered X and tried to blame it on Islam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

As it turns out, I am not alone in loving the band without understanding them. Republican ex-House speaker Paul Ryan was apparently an RATM fan, and Tom Morello wrote a scathing Rolling Stone opinion piece calling him “the embodiment of the machine”.

These, by the way, are the list of books in the album notes of Evil Empire, their second album.

  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Capital, Volume I by Karl Marx
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal
  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
  • Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism by Alexander Berkman
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
  • Walden and Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Another Country by James Baldwin

I am still working my way through this list, and I do not claim to be an expert. But I shut up, and listen, and read, and read a little more, and every day the world comes a little more into focus.

Concerts, Music

Twenty Fifteen, Post Three: On Stromae


My favorite 2014 concert happened by accident.

‘Alors On Danse’ exploded into my playlist five years ago with the intensity of an Akira-esque thermonuclear bomb, displacing the current summer dance favorite ‘We No Speak Americano’.[ref]Fun fact: Renato Carosone’s Sicilian original plays in a scene in the George Clooney movie ‘The American’, which I watched recently. The song plays on the TV when the actor is sitting down for dinner at a cafe. That brought back memories of my first week in Romania, when in my third visit to a pizzeria near my apartment, I noticed that everybody in the place had gone quiet and were pretending not to glance at me. A quick look at the TV, and I realized why – Raj Kapoor’s Awaara was playing on national TV, with subtitles. “Vagabondul”, remarked the waiter as everyone, myself included, broke into laughter.[/ref] The song somehow managed to get everything right. The happy marriage of the bass-and-brass phrases, accompanied by what sounded like an over-excited poodle running around yapping in time with the beats – did it matter that I could not understand what the song was saying, other than “let’s dance”?

Stromae was due to perform at Los Angeles in October. I knew that in advance, having kept an eye on the events schedule at the Fonda Theater. I was more interested in La Roux and The Tune-Yards who were playing around the same time. I briefly contemplated buying tickets to go see him, but spending $40 on what I thought was a one-hit wonder – not my cup of tea. Besides, tickets weren’t sold out, and isn’t that a sign that maybe he wasn’t cool enough? Yes, shameful admission: sometimes it feels better to get tickets to sold-out shows. Bam!

A few days before the show, my boss – who is Moroccan – remarked that he was interested in Stromae. He had been listening to his new album obsessively, and mentioned that it was really good. Racine Carrée (which means ‘square root’) was indeed appealing, but did not grab me immediately.That is the thing with music – you need time and patience and maybe a little bit of willingness to get into something new. The one song that sounded super-catchy had the words ‘rendezvous’ in the chorus, and that was the song I kept humming to myself every now and then. It appeared that tickets were indeed sold out, even though they showed up as available on the website. I did some halfhearted Craigslist-scouring, but to no avail. Stub-hub, never one of my go-to sites, showed obscene prices. My Stromae experience was over before it even began.

About 3 days before the show, a friend sent an email to me and a few others about how her friend was traveling to France and would miss the concert; she was traveling at the same time as well, so would anyone be interested in two tickets at the floor price? I was, and another person in the mailing list that I did not know at the time was, too. And that is how I landed up at the Fonda Theater that October night, maybe one of 10 non French-speaking people in the audience.

My ticket was for the balcony. I tried wheedling my way into the floor, but the security guard, normally more than willing to listen, was unrelenting. The floor was packed, the balcony was too. October in LA is not much different from August in LA, and the air-conditioning – even with an expensive beer – were not enough to quell that feeling of impending heat-related collapse. I found out that the Fonda had a terrace with turf carpeting. It was worth missing the opening act to sit under the stars and contemplate cutting and running. Yes, I was this close to just leaving.

I did not leave. I remember dancing like crazy. I remember a French girl in front of me who did not stop screaming, dancing and singing along throughout the show, and her American boyfriend awkwardly looked at her, shaking his head every time she asked him to dance. Douche. I remember being mesmerized by the strobe lights throbbing in time to the tribal drums of the opening song (it was ‘Ta Fete’, the first song in Racine Carrée), the crowd chanting along with the chorus. I remember the trippy animations that accompanied ‘Humain L’eau’, with its nutty, dissonant riff. Stromae taking the piss out of Americans and French people at the same time while talking about french fries (“They are not French and they are not American. They are from Belgium”), neatly seguing into the opening of “Moules Frites”. [ref]Obviously, I did not know the song titles back then, it was only afterwards, when I got into the album with the intent of reliving the sounds I heard in the concert that I was able to figure out which song was what.[/ref]The guy had a bum leg, and still managed to dance around like a maniac. He was a bonafide star, I kid you not. If it sounds like I have a gigantic man-crush, yes, I am not denying it.

It was the first concert where the artiste thanked nearly every member of his crew, from the light-man to the costume designer to the chaffeurs. It was one of the craziest encores I had seen in a while. From collapsing on stage while performing the gut-wrenching “Formidable”, to being carried in like a stiff mannequin for ‘Papaoutai’; from singing an acapella version of the rendezvous song with all the musicians (‘Tous les mêmes’ is the title), sans microphones, and with the entire audience shushing each other, to just being plain fucking awesome, Stromae did it all. He promised to be back in LA in 2015, and that is one show I won’t miss this year.

Racine Carrée has been a constant on my play queue in the second half of the year. It is not just the music. The videos – good lord, the videos are incredible. They also come with sub-titles, an added bonus, and it becomes clearer why this guy is such a phenomenon in Francophone countries. ‘Formidable’ was shot guerilla-style at a Brussels tram station; Stromae appeared drunk, incoherently shouting at passersby, later accosted by policemen who tell him they are big fans and ask if they should drop him home. ‘Ta fete’ shows him at his flamboyant best, overseeing a gladiatorial contest in a get-up that comes with a beret, trenchcoat and a microphone cane, how cool is that? ‘Tous les mêmes’ has him in drag, playing both the male and female adversaries in an eternal war of the sexes, that culminates in a dance-off. It also showcases Stromae’s complete unself-consciousness in front of the camera; one minute, he is a rakish nose-picking boor, grabbing at his girlfriend’s ass while heading out the door; the other, he is a seething woman remonstrating her boyfriend’s lack of interest in her.

The crowd-pleaser of the album is undoubtedly ‘Papaoutai’ (“Where are you, papa?”), which is ironic considering that this has the saddest setting ever. A kid tries to engage with a glassy-eyed mannequin of a father while other kids have their real dads with them. “Everybody knows how to make babies/ but nobody knows how to make papas. Mister know-it-all would have inherited it, that’s it/he probably learnt it while sucking his thumbs”, says the lyrics as the song jumps from sadness to anger to resignation, even as it pulsates with thumping beat and a chorus worthy of hosannas. I find the tone of the song- and Stromae’s delivery of these lyrics – reminiscent of some of Eminem’s best work. Is it worth noting that the artiste’s father – a Rwandan architect who later died in the 1994 genocide in his home country – was absent for most of his childhood?

Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: Early Winters and The Pierces At the Hotel Cafe

When it comes to concerts in LA, I tend to repeat my mistakes. Instead of booking tickets the minute they come out on sale – and believe me, it’s easy to be privy to “secret” pre-sales and special offers – I postpone my buying until the last minute. Nine times out of ten, or maybe three times out of ten, please feel free to insert any statistical value here that drives my point home, the tickets are sold out. And then I have to trawl Craigslist, eBay, Stubhub, even users who say they’re going, in order to come up with tickets at the last minute.

But it is possible to get tickets second-hand, of course. Fun things have happened when I went to get them. Like the bus journey that lasted half a day, involved a long walk through a golf course and by a duck pond, and culminated in me fidgeting near a pool party. A guy wearing a wife-beater and flanked by three gorgeous women took a wad of tickets out of his cargos and picked four for me. After accepting  payment, he asked me if I would like to join the party. I had a birthday party to attend, and I declined. I regret that. But the Feist concert proved to be wonderful, and I managed to sell two of my tickets and broke even, hah!

The Pierces were a band I had stumbled across thanks to a recommendation from a Gossip Girl addict, and much of early 2010 was spent tripping on Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge. It’s a brilliant album, the two sisters spinning their addictive melodies over lyrics that spoke of secrets, boredom and making love with the lights on. I heard of their appearance at the Hotel Cafe when attending the Ariana Hall appearance at the same venue, a few weeks ago. Did not buy tickets, did not pass go, landed up at the venue early today hoping to get some. They were preceded by a band called Early Winters, and the sign said that the venue would be cleared after their set ended. Undeterred, I got in for the first set. A fine performance by the band more than made up for a somewhat-long work-day. The lead singers were a Canadian dude and a British lady, and their other band members were in New Zealand and Japan when they collaborated on their album over Skype video chats.

Soon after the venue was cleared, we went outside and stood on the aisle of shame. “Back up against the wall, please”, the lady at the gate kept repeating to us, and the two Middle-eastern women in front of me giggled all throughout. After some nerve-wracking minutes, they finally agreed to let us in. I fist-bumped the bouncer, swooped in to say hello to the lead singer of Early Winters, who was selling merchandise near the front door – got a signed CD from her, my third CD in 2 weeks, looks like a bad habit’s in the making – and sauntered in. The sisters rocked the set, debuting songs from their new album and totally bringing the house down with old favorites. The Hotel Cafe, ladies and gentlemen. I have a feeling I’ll become a regular here.

Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: Ariana Hall, Live At The Hotel Cafe

The Hotel Cafe, located on Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, is an odd little place. You’re supposed to enter around the back, and they don’t card you when going in – or maybe I just looked over 21. You walk inside, pass through a corridor – a door to the side says “Performers only” –  and enter the main hall. There is a stage inside, and six tables close to it, a bunch of chairs clustered around them. That’s it, six tables.  And a bar. And you ponder why this place is considered one of the best music venues in the US, popular enough to warrant its own nationwide tour. A look at previous lineups reveals names like KT Tunstall, Imogen Heap, John Mayer, Weezer and Badly Drawn Boy have played there before.

Oh, and they have a really funny FAQ page.

I was there last evening because pals Amy and Andrew told me about Ariana Hall performing there. Both of them knew Ariana personally, and I had met her before through them. We had a nice dinner together, all four of us, at her place last November, one night before she was due to leave for a tour. While I had heard her CD before, I had never seen her perform. Andrew wasn’t able to make it last evening, but Amy and I decided to go. We bus-ed it to Hollywood. Reached early, strolled along Hollywood Boulevard to the venue.

It’s nearly a year since I’ve been in LA, but going down the the Walk of Fame, seeing the bronze stars engraved in the sidewalk below my feet – known and unknown names on them – still feels surreal. I subconsciously try to avoid walking on the stars themselves, it feels kind of disrespectful. I think the day I begin walking on them is the day I stop making a big deal of being in LA. Don’t want that to happen.

We decided to pop into Umami Burgers, where I ordered an Earth burger. Yes, vegetarian, don’t ask. On the patio outside, they were screening ‘Back to the Future II’ for a bunch of fans – the lovely LA weather made it a beautiful night. The food, though meat-deprived, was delicious.

Done with dinner, we arrived at Hotel Cafe to find all the tables taken, just as the reviewer on Yelp had said (“get there early. Or be prepared to stand around holding your beer”). I tried scouting for a strategic location to do just that, but Amy miraculously managed two chairs around a table where a single lady was sitting. A pretty waitress came by – I liked the way she asked “you guys ok?”, instead of “what can I get you?” We were, but I ordered a Corona anyway.

There was someone already on stage – a pretty lady with a guitar, singing sad love songs, with the right amount of humor in between (“That was supposed to be a downer”, she quipped, when the audience whooped in appreciation after a song). Her name, I found out later when looking up the calendar, was Brooke Northrop. She’s pretty darn good – listen to ‘Room to Breathe’ on her page. “Just wait till Ariana starts”, Amy whispered, noticing my reactions.  Hmm, talk about expectation-buildup. Brooke finished her set with a Ben Folds cover, and the crowd suddenly began to swell. In about 4 minutes, there were four taps on my shoulder, people asking if I was staying for the next show. Oh yes, I was, thank you.

Amy was right. Ariana live knocked my socks off. She started with ‘Mmm(I Like You)’. I had heard the song before on her website, and it did not do much for me. But live, stripped of the violin and the bells and with just a voice and a guitar, the song bubbled with delicious passion. For the next bunch of songs, a bunch of musicians joined her – a guitarist and occasional banjo/ukulele player, a drummer and a bassist switching between a double bass and an electric bass guitar. Ariana herself switched between the guitar and the piano. Most of the songs she sang were original compositions, some of them were co-written, and nearly all of them were like gut-punches that made me grin like an idiot.

The positive response from the audience was tremendous. At one point, it felt like Ariana knew everyone in there; knowing her, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched. One of the songs that stood out for me was  a musical interpretation of a Tony Barnstone poem called ‘The War is Over’, because of the playful way it began, and the words. Umm, not that I knew who Tony Barnstone was before Ariana mentioned the source, his book Tongue of War, a collection of poems on World War IIAnother song had the musicians step away from the microphones to go totally unplugged, made possible only because of the intimacy the venue offered. Every note, every strum rang clearly through the hall, and the applause at the end of it was impressive. Amy’s whoops, for the record, put everyone else’s to shame. I tried matching up, but a recent cold had soaked away my vocal chords. Ariana went on to play one of her songs from the movie Au Pair Kansas, and ended her set with a two-song medley, one of which was from an upcoming Judd Apatow movie. (Where she sings. And plays herself. This woman is unstoppable.)

At the end of it all, Ariana sang out her thank-you’s, but we did not let her go that easy. She wrapped it up with a single-song encore – which I found a bit of a downer, but hey, you can’t have it all. I’ve decided I like Hotel Cafe a lot, and apparently the Pierces are playing there on January 17th. For the $15 admission fee and the kind of vibe about the place, it’s totally worth the price of admission. I am so there.

Then I got back home and ironed clothes until 2 AM, with ‘Mmm (I Like You) playing in my head.


(Not from yesterday, but a good live performance of the song by her. Ignore the noise of the crowd.)

Concerts, Events, Music

Concert Diaries: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at the Wilshire Ebell Theater

I had not bought a CD since 2008. In a few months, I get CDs of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s recent tour, which I backed through Kickstarter. Also attended their LA show, which was a blast. It happened on All Hallows Eve. In addition to Amanda covering songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Neil reading out horror stories that made all of us in the audience sit lower in our chairs and try not to let tendrils of terror tickle our tummies (fuck yeah, alliteration!), we also had fans wearing Halloween costumes. Who were judged by the Dynamic Duo and then given access to luscious swag. The show also featured guest appearances by The Jane Austen Argument, a lovely Australian band. They’ve just released their first single, which has lyrics by The Gaiman himself, and their album is due for release in February.

Neil and Amanda totally behaved like newlyweds, or at least like teenagers out on a voyeuristic date. There was much public display of affection on stage between the two, and a completely aww-moment when Palmer scribbled down lyrics to the song “I Google You”, which was written by Gaiman once upon a time as a post-modern Sinatra-ish love song, and was supposed to be sung by him onstage, at which point he claimed to have forgotten the words. She then scampered up to him, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and then slipped him the scrap of paper with a dramatic “let’s-do-this-secretly-so-no-one-notices” gesture. Total heart-melt. And Gaiman singing “I Google You” turned out to be completely adorable too.

But anyway, I got myself a Christmas thank-you card from them, which was technically not a Christmas card because they sent it way back in November, but became a Christmas card just because I got it around Christmas. So yeah, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer sent me a Christmas card. How cool is that, huh?

The other thing I got today in the mail was a download code to a preview of the release. And what a preview! Two hours of music, storytelling and much hilarity. I am half-way through the 25 minute narration of ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’, a Lovecraft-meets-the-British-Countryside short story by Gaiman, and it drives away every bit of lugubriousness brought about a long and weary working day. It has the songs ‘Blake Says’ and ‘Runs in the Family’ by Amanda Palmer, and also a bunch of excerpts from question-and-answer sessions that the two had. It features great verbal interplay between the two, Palmer’s American drawl contrasting quaintly with Gaiman’s British accent, as the two speak of mixtapes, hobbies, dating and how the audience should behave in order to come off well in the recordings, for posterity’s sake. (“Scream during the singing bits, like you would in a rock concert. And be quiet and inhale sharply in the right bits when Neil reads.”)

That evening was full of fun, laughter, singing, reading, gasping, kissing, premature birthday wishes (Gaiman’s) and a whole lot of ukelele jamming. And, as AFP put it in one of her blog posts, it was a perfect post-wedding reception for two fan-families.

Another memory: On the way back from the concert, I met someone at the bus stop who happened to play the bassoon for Frank Sinatra. He had pictures of himself with Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro. I talked with him until the bus came, and then I took his card and waved goodbye.