Barack n’ Roll | 10.15 | San Francisco
Barack n’ Roll with: John Doe, These United States & Big Light
10.15.08 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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