Monday, October 23, 2006

Live Music: SF, The Fillmore, October 21 of 2006

I am opposed to paying more than $20 to hear music involving electric guitars.

That, at least, is my general rule when seeing bands in The City. I much prefer putting my $7 in the musical slot machines of the Hemlock Tavern or the Bottom of the Hill, places where you are much more likely to be astonished or irritated or amused than the cavernous palaces of hip like the Fillmore.

So, now that I've taken pains to pose as someone eclectic and worldly-wise, I'll admit that I usually break my $20 rule at least two or three times a year to see music at the Greek Theater or Great American Music Hall or... that cavernous palace of hip called the Fillmore.

Objectively, I should like that club more. It occasionally gives out nice posters, there is a 'greeter' who (once you get past the door goons) provides a nice Wal*Mart touch of civility, the upstairs lounge gives a chance to young DJs, and, hey, it's on a convenient bus line. Unfortunately, the show on Saturday night -- and the whole Fillmore experience in general -- was pretty terrible.

A few weeks earlier my friend Alison had emailed me: did I want to see Yo La Tengo with her? Why, sure. Yo La Tengo is one of those bands that succeeds largely by seeming just a little bit half-assed. They aren't especially good-looking people, they're not master technicians on their instruments, and in many ways they do better when covering other people's songs. As such, there's a scruffy normal-people appeal about them, like they're the band you can imagine your older sister being in. Even when they turn on the echo effects and churn out some head-bobbing rockabilly, there's a hum of failure underneath, a complete absence of the the showmanship and glamor normally associated with selling an audience on rock music. As such, their aesthetic is an interesting photonegative of cool, you might say.

This was not a great night, though.

Things got off to a bad start- two Fillmore door goons threatened to bar me from entering because my bag had 'too many Sharpie pens' (the bag has about ten slots for pens, in which I carry, among other writing implements, a few laundry pens for writing on CDs). I'm not sure where they get these people- one was a ravaged former punk in leather and tattoos (the drugs had turned him into what Stan Lee might have been if he'd done a lot of heroin):

The first guy just asked "What's with all the Sharpies, man?" after rifilng through my bag, but Stan Lee announced: "This guy's not comin' in!" I explained that I could check my bag if it was an issue, and the upshot was that I had to be taken aside for a little talk with the main door goon about whether I was planning on vandalizing their club. I got the impression that this might be a regular good cop/bad cop routine that they've worked up, but the whole experience was very sour and irritating after already shelling out for the privilege of entering their hallowed temple.

Ahem. Let me set aside my Fillmore irritation to describe the opening band:

"Why?" is a San Francisco-based band assembled by Yoni Wolf. The music is a tissue of influences, from They Might Be Giants (very apparent in the -- forced, unfortunately -- wordplay of their lyrics), to early '80s British piano-based thumpy music hall rock (er...Boomtown Rats? Dexy's Midnight Runners?), abundant mallets in the modern style (cf. Sufjan Stevens, Stereolab), and about a dozen other very discernible musico-genetic vectors. All of this, however, is tastefully integrated, and it is impressive to hear so many ideas melded together without collapsing in a kitchen-sink implosion.

The lyrics, unfortunately, contain an undue number of bloating corpses, funerals, apostrophized 'you's, and eye-rolling fun-with-language. ("Cheery-A Cheery-E Cheery-I Cheery-O, Cheery-U" -this repeated several times, no less.) Worse, the singer has a nasal, swooping voice that is very much at odds with the glockenspiels, electric pianos and dreamy guitar. The effect is like seeing a stick figure drawn in grease-pencil over a watercolor.

They were pretty good though. The best thing about 'Why?', in my opinion, was how satisfying it was to see people who were adept with their instruments approaching songs in a way that was compositionally clever. These songs were arranged with nice attention to detail. Instrument distribution was more interesting than the music itself, and the bearded drummer's alternation of drum kit with glockenspiel (using the same mallets for both somehow!) provided better entertainment than the latest graveyard in the lyrics. So, hats off to 'Why?' for being good at their instruments.

As a side note: this is possibly the darkest era in human history for stupid band names. I don't know if 'Why?' think they're sticking it to the man by picking such a stupid, general name designed to elicit confusion in conversation and writing.

And then, the main event: Yo La Tengo.

I didn't really know what to expect from a Yo La Tengo audience, and, in a way, I still don't. I don't know if the audience on Saturday night were fans of the band or, like me, somewhat lukewarm but vaguely affectionate- they certainly didn't seem particularly interested. As soon as the three bandmembers strolled onstage, there was a unanimous sparking up of terrible weed and the bad concert lurched into motion.

High, Scandinavian-looking people flailed their arms and danced for every song, dozens of pairs of skinny-glasses nodded imperceptibly on the bridges of noses, but -- mostly -- people talked. And talked. Through every song.

"WHAT? Your brother said what?"
" I don't know if you know a lot about screenplays..."
"...oh yeah, he's in the Mission now. The rent is..."

This drove home for me that I don't understand concerts. Or, rather, I don't understand why most people go to concerts. The 'classical' concert ritual has evolved in such a way that, implicitly, hearing the music is supposedly why you paid your money and presumably you'd want to listen to it without making a big distraction. I'm not some jerk who gets sniffy when people clap between movements, but this Yo La Tengo show floored me. Who would pay $35 to stand around at the edge of a club shouting over the music to be heard by their friend?

The band, I hate to say it, was bad, too. After two decent songs at the start of the set, they offered up a 13 minute wailing guitar solo over a literally one-measure repeating bass and drum groove. I don't understand how that could constitute entertainment for anyone. The idea struck me- is everyone at this show only pretending to enjoy this? Or is it a gigantic hive-mind effort, having paid their money, to make the best of things? Or is the idea to bask in the aura of something culturally accepted as impeccably cool and credible? Or do you use it as wallpaper for a conversation while you play the rĂ´le of a hip young San Franciscan who gotes to Yo La Tengo shows?

I was, in a word, disenchanted.

The rest of the night is a little bit of a blur. There were a few good songs -- covers, mostly -- and some pretty, soft songs ruined by the chattering crowd. Mostly, though, I remember yawning during interminable, vaguely improvisatory guitar solos. Colored lights flashed, I lost my friend in the crowd, some girl was using her cellphone as a flashlight to look for her keys on the floor- all of these minor incidents are more interesting and memorable than the music.

Unfortunately, since I'd lost my friend, I had to stay through the first set of encores, culminating in a fucking Bob Dylan song, which, to my mind, placed a big cherry on the sundae of inexplicably bad music. Alison and I luckily bumped into each other again and fled before the second set of encores, taking our complimentary (and pretty) Yo La Tengo posters at the door with decidedly mixed feelings.


Blogger sfmike said...

"A fucking Bob Dylan song?" I've never heard that phrase before and it's deliciously subversive. Thank you.

I've only been to the Fillmore once, for David Byrne recently, and hated the experience too. If I'm paying $35 effing dollars plus more for overpriced drinks, I'd like to be able to at least sit down and hear the music. Never again.

8:51 PM  
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