Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Peter Ellenby/BaracknRollsf.com
Barack n' Roll with: John Doe, These United States & Big Light
10.15.08 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Both inside and out front of The Independent last Wednesday I encountered something that's been in rare supply amongst most of the folks I know during the past eight years, namely hope and genuine American pride. There's been much to hang our heads about in the past near-decade, and the double-plus bad ruling party has been all too happy to paint California (and New York City, protestors, intellectuals, Muslims, the poor and so on) as somehow lesser citizens than "real small town Americans" (whatever those are), or more specifically, those who lean heavily towards the increasingly bellicose and Huxley-esque Right Wing (do you really think they wouldn't exile certain people if they could? cough... Guantanamo... cough). But this night we wore our stars 'n' stripes proudly, toasting freedom in a simple but profound way – gathering together freely to speak our minds and enjoy some live music and strong spirits (of several varieties) in honor of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
|Barack n' Roll :: 10.15 :: San Francisco|
Ostensibly a fundraiser for www.obamatravel.org, a branch of his campaign dedicated to getting volunteers to crucial swing states in this election, this was also a chance for many of us to stand a little straighter, lift our chins and revel in being part of a country that has been great and feels like it will be again. Over the past two years, Obama's rivals have suggested that he's just a straw man made of words. Well, I'd remind those adversaries that the Ten Commandments are just words. The Bill of Rights and The Constitution are just words. Language has long been a unifying and empowering force – one of the key things besides an opposable thumb that separates us from the other beasts - and to dismiss eloquence, poignancy and intellectual rigor as worthless, or at the very least un-substantive, is a crock. The former editor of the Harvard Law Review knows how to argue a case, and what he's saying to us might just lift us out of the morass President W. has left us in. At least that was the feeling at this event, where Big Light, These United States and special surprise guest John Doe of X helped stoke the soundtrack on a bucolic S.F. evening. Hope might just be a word to some but it felt tangible, attainable and oh-so-comforting here.
Big Light arrived like a warm wind, autumn scattering in the wake of their sonically snared sunshine. With guest Dan Lebowitz (ALO) working lap steel, the unforced surge of the Light took us to a picnic in our minds, laying down fuzzy blankets on emerald lawns and settling into our skin like vitamin C for our souls. Rare is the band that's a little better every time you see them but dang me if Big Light wasn't just a smidge more evolved, delivering their small catalog with increased smoothness, solidifying their marriage of pop and jam and inching out unknown spaces in their very collective conjuring. I noticed more and more folks chanting along to their signature lines, happier for the smile they'd been given and singing, "If you see me I must be dreamin'." What caught me this night, as Fred Torphy reminded us the roots are waking up, was the smarts behind such nakedly enjoyable music. It's a cool trick to make us dance and then discover after the show how much has been poured into your head. Couldn't think of a nicer way to start the evening.
|Fred Torphy - Big Light :: Barack n' Roll :: 10.15|
However, their set and the two that followed competed with an endless and flatly rude amount of chatter. John Doe even commented mid-set, "So, I guess this is an all-talking, all the time show, huh?" One would think a tiny amount of personal shame would have clammed folks up a bit after that but the vast majority just went on running their mouths while artists tried to ply their trade. In fairness, many in attendance were there for purely political aims but jeez Louise are we really losing our ability to share an experience in a common place THIS badly? Even if the music wasn't one's primary reason for being there it seems like common courtesy and respect for those that have donated their talents and livelihood to the cause would have brought the babble down a notch or two. It did not.
So, John Doe, armed with either a single acoustic or electric guitar and an increasingly dense songbook, may have gotten off the line of the evening when he pointed at the slide of Obama projected behind him and said, "This guy is a start. We all have lots to do. He's not going to do it alone. But at least he won't be a jerk." His stopping short of name calling or demonizing anyone was part and parcel of the evening, where no one, despite the political nature of things, felt the need to step on or belittle someone else to bolster their cause. Outside of a few kinda tacky anti-Palin t-shirts ("Drill Palin" is funny but sorta gross), I never heard an unkind word about the McCain campaign. Seriously. And this from drunk liberals!
|John Doe :: Barack n' Roll :: 10.15|
Doe's set was roughhewn exquisiteness, the man rapidly developing into California's answer to Bert Jansch, where folklore, highway wisdom and unrepentant romanticism mingle in his tunes and pleasantly weathered voice. One caught the long miles and landscape of his years touring in his verses, the longing for home and stability playing against wanderlust and the urge to stand in front of folks to share his tales. "I've got a couple of political songs but mostly love songs," he said. "When we first went into Iraq, I thought, 'What the fuck?' Everyone did. No one thought it would happen." With that he launched into a clear jab against dumbness and division, a sharp stick in the eye of those that quash real freedom that hung on the refrain, "We're divided but we'll stand for each other." Amen, brother.
A tender reading of X favorite "See How We Are," still eerily relevant, and a raw, solo electric take on Joni Mitchell's immortal "A Case of You," that recalled vintage Billy Bragg, joined his own endless string of great songs, many of which tapped into Phil Ochs's revolutionary soul and hobo hopefulness. But, as he observed, it was the love songs that dug in deepest. One particular corker began, "You are the hole in my head/ I am the pain in your neck/ You are the lump in my throat/ I am the ache in your heart." Even amidst important social discourse it's grand to be reminded of the most basic connections, the complicated swirl of personal joining. And thanks to John for the Cali shout-out he delivered, too: "People talk shit about California but they're just jealous. 'Cause no matter who's President we go on. It's fucking cool."
Last but far from least, These United States arrived with the rush of old Beatles, summoning up the kooky energy of the Fabs in suits being chased by packs of fans in the London streets. Such is the wild, charismatic energy of opener "Get Yourself Home (In Search of the Mistress Whose Kisses Are Famous)" and the band themselves. Already smitten with their new album, Crimes (see JamBase's review here), it was immediately obvious they carry their windmill tilting, discourse elevating mojo very well into the live setting. By the second tune, they sounded like Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited band if they'd been left along the side of that asphalt desert, forced to eke out a meager, mean existence banging away in a clapboard dive where the rejected gather and drink away their dreams while the band plays behind chicken wire with undiminished gusto, doing some good while stuck inside of Mobile or Lodi or whatever backwater has seized them. Full of off-mic exhortations and great physicality, These United States answered the talk storm by plowing ahead with knowing grins and grit.
|These United States :: Barack n' Roll :: 10.15|
Lead singer-acoustic guitarist Jesse Elliott has a great but none too careful voice reminiscent of Patti Smith's shaman '70s, kicking against the pricks with bite and nifty falsetto. The vocal oomph is further generated by stunning drummer Robby Cosenza, who adds some bark to the backdrop, and McCartney-esque bassist Mark Charles, who recalls Macca in both his sweet harmonies and permeating, un-showy four string work. Weaving and bobbing amongst these three was sinewy, ever-tasty guitarist and pedal steel player Tom Hnatow, who may not have had a mic but sang along just the same. These four really listen to each other, pulling back and diving in tidal grace - a gravity felt, all the space and distance and daydreaming inside their marvelous tunes hitting with visceral kick. Their compositional reach and profound dynamics recalls The Weather Underground, but where those L.A. boys go for loft and epic scale in their builds, TUS invites us into their bosom, giving us space under their wings, the whispers and shouts used to lure us closer, the lyrics like super strings tying big things together in pretty knots.
"We're called These United States. What do you guys call yourselves?" inquired Elliott, just before noticing the Obama slide behind the other acts had disappeared. "Where did our fifth member go? I can't believe Barack Obama would leave. Oh, there's another one of him [pointing at one of the many images of the Senator around the room]. That's the good things about him – he contains multitudes."
|Barack n' Roll :: 10.15 :: San Francisco|
Singing about "pleasure and pain and pride and me," TUS echo but don't imitate the freewheeling vibe of early Steve Miller Band and Badfinger infused with the manic feel and too much information onslaught of our times. Watching them, I felt energy pumped into my limbs, and often found myself unable to resist leaping into the air, shouting along and waving my arms like some great ape, which matched up nicely with Elliot's own hopping and twitching and the swaying chug of the others. With jangle and "slow, sad bastard" songs, These United States offered us semi-apocalyptic reveries that ultimately had the long haulers dancing like a Jewish wedding reception, while TUS rosin'd up their bows as the flames rose higher and higher. Tapping into the primacy of "Not Fade Away" and Rolling Thunder Revue Bob-osity, TUS run a pipeline to rock's ancient core and splash us with something capable of unleashing the unbound, even slightly stupid energy of the genre's early days, before Presley got jumpsuits and the word "business" wasn't superglued to "music." With one show they've secured my love.
Outside, moving along the sidewalk towards home, I found myself thinking about America. We are a nation founded by dissenters and intellectually and religiously curious people. Our resistance to being told what is the right way and what the wrong is ingrained. Those who would order others around, dictate universal guidelines and demand compliance – even in the face of failure and facts – may find that our rebel spirit - our birthright as Americans from the founding fathers (and mothers) they so frequently invoke - may be the last thing they pry from our cold, dead fingers, more powerful than any bullet in the long haul. And that's what we're in for – the long haul – but I left this gathering feeling like I won't be walking there alone.
We've got a way of taking all the roads but golden, and still somehow breaking day
We're staying sane, and one more turn should be OK
See, if you're striving to illuminate the night you might as well use every lane
Yes, if the thing that drives you onward is your heart
Then you must not let that engine die
(from These United States' "When You're Traveling At The Speed of Light")
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