Best of 2003
Unsung Heroes ‘n Zeroes
David Bowie/Macy Gray at HP Pavilion
Greetings, Heraldonians! This month it’s cram times – as much as the illustrious publisher of this little newsrag will allow. First, a shameless plug: For the best haircut ever – go see Shannon at DiPietro Todd Salon on 2307 Birch Street in Palo Alto 650-328-4545. She will intuit your needs and desires for that mop on your head.
I was one of 1400 music critics asked to participate in New York’s Village Voice 2003 Pazz ‘n Jop Poll. What an honor! Hard to cram in just ten, but I managed. And I’ve changed my mind since then (it’s my prerogative, like Bobby Brown). And since SF Herald readers are my family, you get some “bonus tracks”. This is not in order of importance – you all are “brilliant stars” in my book.
1. Nelly Furtado - FOLKLORE - "Powerless" – Dreamworks
She is SO ahead of her time - blending all those musical styles - writing great songs AND really saying something. A brilliant sophomore effort after a perfect debut record.
2. The Pretenders – LOOSE SCREW – “Complex Person” – Artemis
This original rock mama has still got it; as good as she gave back in the day 20-something years ago. Even if she says stupid shit like, “We deserved 9/11. Bring it on!” Shut up ‘n just sing yer ass off, Chrissie.
3. Outkast - SPEAKERBOXXX - "Hey Ya" - La Face
Best thing since the Mothership landed - Parliment/Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins for the new Millenium. I can’t get enough of this stuff.
4. Switchfoot - THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN - "Meant To Live" - Columbia/Red Ink
Rock like hell while surfer dudes offer a roadmap of how to live your life. 25 year-old Jon Foreman is a modern day prophet.
5. Jenna Mammina/Andre Bush - THE ART OF THE DUO - "A Moment's Magic" - Mamma Grace Records
Before Norah Jones, there was Jenna Mammina. Breathtaking vocal interpretations w/ one perfect guitar swirling around them.
6. Essence - MARIPOSA - "Still Crying" - OR Music
Tori Amos meets Alanis Morrisette without the pretension. Obsession and pain never felt so good. She’s cute as a button, too. A Lilith Faire contest winner out of SF.
7. Simon Stinger – SOME KINDA VOODOO – “French Connection” - self-released
I know, I raved about this band last year and they just keep blowin’ my mind. Will somebody sign these guys to a major label deal already?
8. Brenda Warren - AS YEARS GO BY - "Blue Island" - 7 Mile Music
The female George Winston - heal your heart and soothe your soul with absolutely beautiful solo piano gems, aided by the Section String quartet on a few of 'em.
9. Eva Cassidy – AMERICAN TUNE – “Drownin’ in the Sea of Love” Blix Street Records
This songbird continues to move and inspire from the great beyond. They keep digging up buried gems because fans still want more. When I go, I want to end up just like Eva. She’s my hero.
10. Larry Ching - TILL THE END OF TIME - "All of Me" - Forbidden City Records
by former senior editor of Rolling Stone Ben Fong-Torres and Dr. John Barsotti
of SF State, this San Francisco Forbidden City veteran and 82-year-old crooner
released his silky sweet debut CD of timeless standards on June 28. He went up to that big nightclub in the
sky a week later. A fitting send off to a cool guy who got his due just in
Honorable Mentions (Just as good as any in the Top Ten):
KP Devlin – Shoot Down The Stars Manhattan Mule, Inc. www.kpdevlin.com
(See last issue - www.sfherald.com)
William Brooks – Bitter Circus -Sawhorse Records/CD Baby www.bittercircus.com (See last issue - www.sfherald.com)
Tommy Womack Band – Washington D.C.
The Contes – Bleed Together –
KG’s picks for 2003 (besides albums/singles)
Unsung Heroes and Zeros
I met Chris Ford in his hometown of London sometime ago. I’d heard some of his earlier work from a band called The Conversation and I knew that here was someone with the potential to make his mark on the pop scene. Hooky, acoustic-based songs with intelligent lyrics will always bend my ear. And his ruddy good looks, boyish British charm and sharp wit didn’t hurt, either. This bloke seemed to have his s**t together and a serious game plan.
I am happy to report that “This Atlantic Low,” has arrived. Recorded at various London recording studios and mastered at the famous Beatles’ Abbey Road studio, it is an ambitious and earnest effort. A modern day cross between the heady singer/songwriter style of James Taylor and the classic British pop/rock of Squeeze, Ford has incorporated some nifty yet subtle production bells ‘n whistles, perfect for current radio formats.
To give the album a narrative structure he based the songs around an imaginary story he wrote involving a series of people living in London, written from their different perspectives: their hopes, their mistakes and desire for resolution. He has embedded his catchy, radio-friendly blend of singer/songwriter/pop/rock into a fabric that links full-length songs with to interweaving instrumental pieces, giving it a “rock opera” feel. Hmmm - not a bad idea, mate. Get thee to the theaTAH!
Chris’ ability to lower his voice to a whisper in his falsetto provides a dramatic texture to his songs, but I wish he would use it less. It loses its impact when used so frequently. Give us a couple good belts here and there, luv (vocally, that is)! A few songs strike me as being a bit on the self-indulgent side, but because he does it so well, I can excuse Chris for going places where perhaps few would be interested in joining him.
That said, it’s a strong debut, one that could find a home in the U.S. given the proper distribution and promotion. Starbucks has programmed one of the strongest tracks, “A Hole In Time” for in-store play in their 4,000+ locations in the U.S. and Canada. The high point is the title track, “This Atlantic Low”, which has a hauntingly beautiful melody and an equally personal message that resonates on a universal level. More of that. Jolly good stuff!
Bray – Independent Film
With “Giant billboard in the center of Time Square” good looks and a vocal/ live performance style that rivals early Prince and Off The Wall era Michael Jackson, this blue-eyed soulster has a bright future. Right now, his sound is more of a retro late ‘80s/early’ 90s vibe, which is fun to revisit with a snifter of Courvoisier and the lights down low. Songs like “make-out” make ya want to, and “manufactured atmosphere (it’s only life)” is a cool take on chillin’ out. The title track, “Independent Film”, is his strongest and most unique, hinting at Bray’s potential to funk us up for real, baby.
There’s no denying this kid is electrifying on stage, but the world still awaits to hear what Bray will sound like when he finds the right producer to bring his sexy sound into the new millennium. I predict he’s gonna give Britney’s ex a serious run for his money, honey. And he won’t need to rip Janet’s clothes off during half-time to get attention – girls will have “wardrobe malfunctions” as soon as he steps onto the stage. This kid’s gonna be startin’ something. Sign me up.
I first read about this guy in our own Steven Capazzola’s column about his experience writing with a mystery chick (Michelle Branch) and then heard him in December at Steven’s Sacred Grounds songwriter show, of which I was a participant. Bernie optimizes everything about why I still love what I do.
He writes great songs about stuff I relate to, he adds cool sounds like moog synthesizers to simple arrangements that let the songs do the talking, and he sings from his heart, not worrying about note for note perfection. That’s music to my ears. The title track, “Amateur Tools”, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Pro-Tools everyone and their Uncle Bob uses nowadays to fix what’s wrong in the mix. Although totally contemporary, everything from BTO to Michael Franks comes to mind here and it all works. If a guy wrote a song like “This Time” about me, it’d be a done deal.
The World’s Best Reality Show - David Bowie w/ Macy Gray at HP Pavilion, San Jose, January 27, 2004
This night almost turned into another ”The thing that went horribly wrong – I’m Stone Phillips and this is Dateline NBC/Dido concert” experience. (See www.sfherald.com under my columnist link for further explanation). After driving through rush hour traffic in the rain for an hour and a half, HP Pavilion tried to charge me $15.00 to park. Are they on crack?? I terrified the poor attendants and demanded to see a supervisor, snapping, “I am the press, I don’t pay to park!”, flashing my SF Herald business card. I was going to go right back home if they refused to accommodate me. Low & behold, the wonderful supervisor guylet me in, free of charge. Thanks, dude. Fifteen bucks to park? What is up w/ that? Call the mayor!
Whew! Everything went up from there, thank God. (Well, not exactly – read on…) I was seated next to a charming young writer from the Stockton Record named Aaron Davis, a Dave Matthews fanatic, but I let that slide, even when he dissed my girl Macy Gray. Only the best seats for us “serious” press people, where was Joel Selvin?
Once again relegated to playing to a half empty house (see my Dave Matthews review from 2001), Macy Gray and her funky-ass 9-piece band did their best to deliver a “headliner-worthy” set. Unfortunately, the sound guy was not worthy. She does much better when playing clubs like The Fillmore, where she can strut her own stuff and funk up the devoted “Mace-heads”. A guy behind me asked, “Who is Macy Gray?” and his sister replied,” You don’t like her because she talks dirty in her songs.”(Obviously, he was not one of “the sexy people!”
Macy kept dedicating her songs to throughout the set.) Looking like Angela Davis with biggest Afro I have ever seen, with a flashy Foxy Brown-type light show and stage vibe, Macy & Co. ran through old gems like “Sex-o-matic”, “Why Didn’t You Call Me” ,”Relating To a Psychopath” and “Sexual Revolution”, off her first two CDs, On How Life Is and The Id, and new tunes like “She Ain’t Right For You” interjecting riffs from the Beatles “Come Together” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” for added punch. Very cool. Special props to the badass band, and especially the sexy back-up singers. I want that gig.
Between sets I went to get something to drink, and slipped down the beer drenched stairs as I was coming back down, falling right on my $*@ in front of the now-capacity house of 40/50 something Bowie heads. Stone Phillips, again!
As soon as the lights went down, the excitement was palpable. Something electrifying was about to occur – and it did - David Bowie stepped on stage and the crowd jumped to their feet as the band slammed into a rousing version of “Rebel Rebel”. When the dear, departed Alliyah sang “Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Number” , she must have been referring to David Bowie. Dressed in black tails, tight black jeans and t-shirt that hugged his fit frame, a loose tie around his neck, and high top sneakers, the blond, perfectly-coiffed rock star proved exactly that. At 57 years young,
Bowie has never looked - or sounded better. On top of his game and the world, Bowie appeared every bit a young man in his prime, opening his arms, smiling, emoting, and greeting the die-hard fans with enthusiasm, self-effacing jokes, and a sincere desire to entertain the hell out of us. Most of the crowd remained on their feet for the entire set, thrilled to be in the presence of someone they obviously worship. Some idiot next to me remarked, “He looks like David Spade’s dad,” and it was obvious the poor slob was jealous.
The 90 minute set was an effective mix of old favorites and songs from his new CD Reality. Bowie and his crack band including long-time guitar player (and my old pal from LA) Earl Slick, original keyboard player from Spiders on Mars Mike Garson, and bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey, dove into songs like “Fame”, “All The Young Dudes”, “Life on Mars”, “Suffragette City”, “Heroes” and new ones like “Days” from Reality and a fabulous version of the politically charged “I’m Afraid Of Americans” from 1997’s Earthling, with equal reverence and fervor.
The sound guy for this set was just as in tune as the rest of the band, putting everything exactly where it should be, particularly Bowie’s spectacular vocals. Slick’s guitar hooks were as much the star of the show as the songs themselves, and Dorsey’s “Annie Lennox-like” vocal performance on the Freddy Mercury duet “Under Pressure” was chill-inducing.
Strapping a guitar on and off between songs , climbing onto a plank above the stage and gallantly strutting upon it, Bowie seemed almost other-worldly in his command and confidence, yet humble in his delight to perform. The light show behind him was a perfect aesthetic compliment to his majestic performance. “Ziggy Stardust”, the final encore, embraced the generations of his career and his fans, new and old.
It’s a crime that so many artists of Bowie’s stature can’t seem to generate record sales as much as ticket sales after a certain age. Contrary to some critics, I find his new material relevant and contemporary. As I looked around the almost sold-out arena, I noticed many parents with their kids in tow. I was struck by a woman in her 40s with a girl about 13 or 14 who must have been her daughter. They were rockin’ out together, and every time I turned around, this teenager was faithfully singing along to every single song, even the new songs off Reality. And as I was leaving the building, I heard a guy ask his date, “Given the chance, would you have sex with David Bowie?” Now that’s what I call a reality check.
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