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ALMOST FAMOUS

Greetings, Heraldonians, and welcome to the last chunk of the decade.  Since last we connected, I have been to LA and back, celebrating a personal milestone with a rockin’ birthday bash at Molly Malones’ in Aug. and on my actual birthday on Aug. 27 as the guest of my old pal Huey Lewis at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage – heaven!  Other unforgettable shows I’ve attended over the past few months included new and old guard talent:  Adam Lambert at The Warfield – a true superstar and genuinely nice guy I got to meet who deserves every moment of his newfound fame and fortune – and a double-dip of nostalgia with Pablo Cruise and SF Herald favs The Tubes at the Sausalito Art Festival.

The SF Bay Area has been a hotbed of entertainment delights and I’m not going to beat around the bush any further – let’s gooooo on with the showwwww(s)!  ....

Every Last Motherf!@#$% Should Go Down and See Ray Of Light Theatre’s “Jerry Springer – The Opera”! 

- Victoria Theatre 9/11/10

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No, I am not cussing you out, faithful readers of the SF Herald and beyond…I am cleverly using one of the many hilariously derogatory song titles in Ray Of Light’s 2010 SF production of the runaway British hit from 2003 “Jerry Springer – The Opera” to help you have the time of your f!@#ing LIFE!

First off – know that I am biased and for good reason.  This is not so much just a review of this outrageously delicious slice of theatrical Spam pie, but of Ray Of Light itself.  My love affair with this Broadway-caliber SF community theatre company began with their 2009 production of “The Who’s TOMMY” (also at the legendary Victoria Theatre) and their 2010 production of  “Baby – The Musical”, both of which garnered rave reviews across the Bay Area board including this not-so-humble entertainment writer.  These dudes and dudettes – most specifically artistic director Shane Ray and musical director Ben Prince - know how to put on a show, my friends - worthy of the Great White Way every time.  Where do they find this all this creative and technical talent in the SF Bay Area?  (Apparently, my journalistic excitement was so palpable it helped Ray Of Light achieve a large grant of some kind – no small feat in this depressing economy and a win/win for all!)

So it was with great anticipation that I gathered up pals Brett Baker and Nick Lane as cute boy armor to descend into the trashy depths of what promised to be a rip-roaring, raucous, raunchy night in Hell. Literally. And once again, not only did Ray Of Light deliver; it allied with Satan himself to bring this disgusting filth to glorious life bigger and darker than the Brits making fun of us stupid Americans could have possibly ever given us credit for!

Okay, who hasn’t seen the Jerry Springer show? (For all two of you, f!@#$ing google it because I don’t have time to explain and you’d probably be horrified anyway.)  This IS the show – with a look/sound-alike “Jerry” (Patrick Michael Dukeman – acting his !@# off) uttering the only spoken words throughout the journey through a typical day in Springer Hell, purgatory, and actual Hell. Everybody else – from the out-for-blood ensemble “audience” (some of the finest singers you will ever hear) – to the bald, head-setted, security guards (Keith Haddock as Jerry’s right-hand man “Steve Wilkos” was particularly fun) to God himself , breaks out into non-stop legit operatic or musical theatre-style song the entire show and it is an actual note for note riot – complete with fist fights, chair throwing, and porn-worthy sickness.

Which leads to those one-of-a-kind guests.  Like men who like to wear diapers and !@# on themselves and sing lyrics like “Like me – then wipe me!” (stand-out Chris Yorro as “Montel” who also doubles as “Jesus” in Act II, singing “Diaper Man”).  And who doesn’t love the brawls that stem from classic Jerry Springer moments like a guy cheating on his fiancée’ with her trampy, coke-whore best friend (superlative performances by Steve Hess “Dwight/God”, Jessica Coker “Shawntel/Eve” and especially Tracy Camp “Peaches/Head Nurse”, whose repeated operatic outbursts of “What the f!@#? What the f!@#ing f!@#??” had the entire audience in stitches)?! Priceless!

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the rest of the production.  Some of the more operatic performances, like J. Conrad Frank’s “Valkyrie”, who acts as Jerry’s conscience, are technically perfect but completely indiscernible. What the f!@# was he/she singing? When I suggested to amiable executive producer Justin Sadoian it might be both practical and funny to have a screen that ran the lyrics, he said they had looked into that, but for some reason, it wasn’t doable. Too bad, because you don’t want to miss a f!@#ing word of this wild ride!

The other is a problem with the beautiful Victoria Theatre itself. Because of limited bathrooms, there is a 30 minute intermission between Acts I and II/III. After the on-going, pure shock value in Act I, which culminates in Jerry getting shot, 30 minutes is just too long to try and stay in that heightened state.  By the time the show is ready to take us into purgatory and Hell, and actually make Jerry confront his demons – Satan and God and a host of others - it’s like sitting down to watch a brand new show with an actual message and I found myself struggling to re-engage.

Still, there’s no bigger bang for your buck in town – although an acquired lack of taste is required. Special props once again to the seamless collaboration of director M. Graham Smith and musical director Ben Prince and his merry band of music makers for bringing Stewart Lee’s and Richard Thomas’ (not the Waltons dude) bonkers book and lyrics to such delicious depravity. More kudos to artistic director Shane Ray for his continued push-the-community theatre envelope visionary presence in our City by the Bay. 

When I’m 64 (I wanna be Peter Wolf)

Peter Wolf at Yoshi’s SF 10/2/10

Description: C:\Users\Art\Pictures\PeterWolf.jpg   Photo: Jon Strymish

If Peter Pan would have traded flying for legendary rock stardom, he might have changed his last name to Wolf, as evidenced at Yoshi’s SF last Saturday night. The iconic man-in-black on black on black, best known as the front man for the J. Geils Band of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “must of got lost” in a time warp, because the unstoppable exuberance and sheer life force of  the 64 yr. old Wolf  made him seem almost a freak of nature, a musical Dorian Gray. From moment one of the 2 hour set to the last encore song, the stick figure Wolf never let up or let us down for a millisecond and make no mistake, the man can still sing and dance his trademark diminutive ass off, I mean James Brown, get down ass off!  I haven’t smiled/laughed/ had my breath taken away this much or this long in a very long time, and the front row center seats directly under Pete’s party hardy train didn’t hurt either  - I could feel the man sweat (thanks Yoshi’s/U Music)!!

Whether it be a plaintive wish like “There’s Still Time” from his rootsy new should-be album of the year (decade!) Midnight Souvenirs, or an undeniably rockin’ one “I Don’t Wanna Know”, Wolf utterly captivated the interesting mix of on-the-edge-of-their-seats fans who came to hang with their folk/rock hero. Every single song off this record is a brilliant 3 minute slice-of-life indie movie with a killer story to tell and the Wolfman is the dude to set ‘em up and knock ‘em out of the park every single time. The storytelling was as much a part of the fun as the songs themselves, especially his anecdotes about carrying amps and buying booze for his old blues heroes when he was a kid in Boston and NYC, and reminiscing about how he came to write “Riverside Drive” (from 2005’s Long Line), a place near and dear to my own heart as I used to live across the street from both the park and drive of the same name and echoed Pete’s steps many times myself. Doesn’t hurt that he duets on the new record with other music icons like Shelby Lynne (“Tragedy”), Neko Case (the achingly beautiful “Green Fields of Summer”) and yes kids, Merle Haggard (!) (the melancholy closer “It’s Too Late For Me”), but nobody even missed those cats during this show because Pete was absolutely having the time of his life and it was contagious as hell and none of us wanted to be cured any time soon.

Not that he didn’t satisfy said J.Geils fans with a few of da hits from back in the day, as witnessed by the ones who couldn’t stay in their seats and started rockin’ out themselves. ”First I Look At The Purse” and the wildly head-bob ensuing “Lookin’ For A Love” made the audience go nuts with delight. None so much as Pete himself, who picked up his maracas several times mid-song and went into fits of funkiness and deft footwork. And as easily as he could take us to rock nirvana, he brought the mood way, way down to a point of reverence so hushed he just lowered his microphone and sung the rest of the song au natural. You coulda heard a pin drop. At one point, he stepped off the stage (almost into my lap!) and went out into the house, casually strolling from table to table as he sang about love and loss and everything we’d ever felt ourselves. Pete had our back and we had his and we were all in Wolf’s World and no one wanted it to end…

Props must be given to Wolf’s stellar band Midnight Travelers: Duke Levine (lead guitar), Marty Ballou (bass), Kevin Barry (guitar), Marty Richards (drums), and Jonathan Carroll (keyboards).Wolf invited and encouraged each member to shine in his own unique way and these guys were the constant yin to PW’s yang from the start to the finish line.

 I’ve been at this thing on one side of the musical fence or the other since I came out of the womb, and I gotta tell ya boys ‘n girls: this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. A true soul soother and jolt deliverer. Catch him while you can.

What Are Words For?

Aimee Mann at Yoshi’s SF 10/8/10

Description: C:\Users\Art\Pictures\AimeeMann.jpg   Photo: Sheryl Nields

You look like a perfect fit/for a girl in need of a tourniquet/but can you save me?”  If there was a Grammy award for most clever lyrical rhymes while hitting the listener in the heart and gut simultaneously, surely the lifetime recipient would be pop songstress/cult hero Aimee Mann. I mean, who even uses the word “tourniquet” in a sentence, let alone a song  - and create an emotional image so utterly arresting and compelling, than Ms. Mann with her Grammy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominated Magnolia soundtrack song, “Save Me”, one of the many three-minute stand-alone masterpieces of her Yoshi’s set. 

The former lead singer of the iconic, one-hit-wonder ‘80s MTV band Till Tuesday – who doesn’t remember that stunning video of their hit “Voices Carry” (which she sadly did not include this night, even after a fan cried out for it) – certainly has a knack for capturing the trials and tribulations of the human condition, particularly of the heart and all the ways it can be twisted and broken. Her many solo records never disappoint in both execution and production, showcasing every subtle nuance of her plaintive, subtle vocal delivery and the tasteful musical arrangements are always perfect window dressing to wrap up each song and convey each Mann-penned message.

 

But what’s a perfect fit for a good pair of headphones or a state-of-the-art car stereo does not necessarily a night of great live entertainment make. Backed by her long-time collaborators Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards, with some assistance from electronics here and there, the guitar-toting, bespectled and skinny-tied Ms. Mann delivered what proved to be a pleasant, but one-note performance that got boring early on. Aimee is just not one to use dynamics to convey emotion in any capacity, particularly vocally – the woman is not a belter. Smooth, always in tune, and in control of her impressive range, the lack of distinctive highs and lows in any given song made them all start to kind of sound the same, even with her interesting stage patter and wry sense of humor in between. Aimee may make it all seem effortless, but she’s so laid back it feels like there’s just not a lot of effort being made beyond that. Her adoring audience didn’t seem to mind and hung on each impressive word, but after awhile I found myself tuning out, much to my chagrin.

There were some highlights and intriguing twists along the way. What dysfunctional lover among us could resist the addictive opener “The Moth”, where Aimee sings “Moth don’t care when it sees the flame”? And whose heart didn’t drop during “Thirty-One Today” when at such a relatively young age she already lamented “I thought my life would be better”? The afore-mentioned “Save Me” is very possibly the most quietly heart-wrenching song ever written, especially when reminiscing about how perfectly it fit into that tragic, inter-weaving storyline for the film created for it.

The most interesting and unexpected portion of the show was also the longest: a sneak preview of Aimee’s foray into musical theatre territory. Based on her 2005 concept album The Forgotten Arm, it is the love story of John, a drug-addicted Vietnam vet/boxer and Caroline, a young woman desperate to connect to something besides her dead-end world. Aimee had a ball setting the backdrop of each scene, readying her audience for the emotional one-two punch of the song that would deliver it. The seamless three-part-harmony on “Easy To Die” added a haunting touch to what she jokingly referred to as “the most depressing song I’ve ever written”.

The full-house of fans couldn’t get enough of this prolific songbird and were still clamoring for more after several encores. But I must admit I prefer my sugar with a little more spice and that’s just a matter of MY taste. So I made up for my need for a jolt or two by sticking around for the late show of possibly the most fun band I have ever stayed on my feet for a solid two hours straight for: a ten piece Latin/rock/funk/salsa hybrid orchestra called Grupo Fantasma. They’ve backed up Prince in LA and they’ll rock your caliente socks off. You cannot NOT dance to this band – I’ve never seen so many sweaty white people shaking their hips as well as the multi-colored ones. Ay caramba!

Pure Pop For Now (& Forever) People

-The Rubinoos 40th Anniversary Party at Great American Music Hall 10/23/10

Description: C:\Users\Art\Pictures\Studio Shot copy.jpg Photo: John Cuniberti

Back in 1979, Nick Lowe titled his classic album (featuring the smash hit “Cruel To Be Kind”) Pure Pop For Now People. He might as well have been describing the timeless, breath-of-fresh-power pop air that since that same era up to now remain The Rubinoos.

Who?

Description: C:\Users\Art\Pictures\GroupShot400.jpg Photo: Craig Street

Every generation has its’ seminal bands/artists that define it with the different genres they inhabit. The ‘60s had The Beatles, The Stones and Led Zeppelin, The Who, the ‘70s had the Jackson 5, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, the ‘80s had Duran Duran and Madonna…you get my drift. They either remain true to form forever, refusing to compromise (Springsteen) or re-invent themselves for every generation (Madonna) but however they do it, they manage to retain their iconic status throughout history.

But the there are those bands/artists had everything in the world going for them and all the stars aligning to shoot them to the top and they just couldn’t have done it any better in a trillion years, and yet that iconic fane and fortune alluded them. BUT – just because they never achieved household name status, that doesn’t take away from the legacy they did create and the legions of loyal fans past and present who still want more. Who am I talking about again? THE RUBINOOS: singularly the BEST power pop band in the free and not-so-free world EVER.

Here’s a bit 'o background on the dynamic duo who should have been as big as those two moptop guys John & Paul. Founded in Berkeley by junior high buddies, Tommy Dunbar and Jon Rubin, a partnership born out of love for pure pop music was ignited and they formed The Rubinoos, a band who unabashedly created and performed gem after gem of the best ear candy ever written and spewed it out with an exuberant and uncompromising energy to match. Jon Rubin’s sweet, pristine tenor voice juxtaposed against those undeniable harmonies set them apart from the rest of the pack from the start.

In 1977 they hit the top 40 with a cover of Tommy James' “I Think We're Alone Now” (which was WAY better than ‘80s one-hit-wonder Tiffany) - and in ‘78 they followed it with the power pop classic “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, which was named record of the year by Britain's Music Week Magazine  - and current pop grrrrl Avril Lavigne allegedly ripped off with her song “Girlfriend” (she “settled” out of court). Several albums and decades later The Rubinoos proved they can still pop out the pop gems with by the 2006 release Twist Pop Sin . In 2007 the band was honored with the career spanning 3-CD anthology, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Rubinoos . In Oct. ‘07 The Rubinoos time traveled back to younger days and hit the road for a triumphant return to Japan and release of the Japan only double CD set One Two That's It. In February 2009 the group made a triumphant return to Spain to support the release of their album HodgePodge and have been touring in 2010 to Europe and Japan and back again to sold out shows.

But what about the country and the city that gave birth to the greatest pop band you’ve never heard of? Were there still die-hard fans jonesing for that magic and shouldn’t there be some kind of acknowledgement that it’s been 40 YEARS since it all began??

You betcha.

SO – on October 23, larger-than-life impresario Dick Bright, SF’s own “Paul Schaffer”, became The Rubinoo’s “Ralph Edwards” and along with Great American Music Hall, hosted a 40 year anniversary “This Is Your Life” retrospective for the packed-to-the-guilds full house of middle-aged fans – many with their confused kids in tow (who are these old guys jumping around anyway?) – who came out of the woodwork to support and celebrate The Rubinoos journey from day one in junior high till the power pop of nowsville 2010 man! The scene was festive and the excitement palpable as the lads took the stage to travel down music memory lane with Tricky Dick at the helm. There were scads of hilarious clips and special guests galore, like their principal, relatives, and original band members from each incarnation, leading up to present day drummer Donn Spindt, along with longtime member bass player Al Chan, celebrating his 30th year with The Rubes. Rounding up the line-up is cute-as-a-button and twice as talented Susie Davis on keyboards, who’s played with everybody under the sun. Jon and Tommy took great delight in providing musical accompaniment to the merry memory making on moments like “Gorilla” and “Peppermint Twist” Highlights included the clip of their American Bandstand appearance, a clip of Avril Lavigne herself sheepishly quipping “All is forgiven” and former senior editor of Rolling Stone/SF treasure Ben Fong-Torres, who came up to introduce their Rolling Stone Special clip and give the guys a good ribbing and a hug.

The second set was an age-defying “dance set” in which The Rubinoos just played and sang their middle-aged/still cute as hell asses off through stone-cold hit after hit of just killer songs like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Hurts Too Much”, kick-ass covers like “Black Is Black” and of course the afore-mentioned “I Think We’re Alone Now”, all the way through three (!!) encores, and the dance-crazy fans were still clamoring for more, long after their kids tuckered out.  Afterward, The Rubes stuck around to sign CDs, t-shirts, and whatever else the Rub-i-fans could get their hands on. Oh what a night!!

Fun “Almost Famous” connection: back in 1983 I was the bass player in the all-girl band at the Halloween dance in Jim Carey’s scary first film Once Bitten. Lauren Hutton played the vampire who seduced teenage Jim to get his young blood so she could live forever (something I do regularly now, heh heh). The songs we played “Hands Off” and “Just One Kiss” were written by two talented songwriters Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar! And Tommy became one of my favorite LA co-writers! One of these days you’re gonna hear a great song called “Fallin’ For The Boy”!

Till next time, faithful Heraldonians! ###

All contents © 2008 by Gene Mahoney