Tag Archives: concert review

come on, I know white people have rhythm!: music at the Democratic National Convention

Denver, where I live, is swarming with people here for the Democratic Convention.  Fifty thousand or so, say the papers.  It’s like a big party out there, even the protesters and cops smiling until they got into the pepper spray.  Booths selling Obama dolls (made to look suspiciously nappy-headed) and Arbonne Cosmetics and sno-cones and of course lots of T-shirts, buttons, stickers, banners. It’s like going to the State Fair without the cows and where everyone is pretty much like you.  White is mostly the color of the day here (from skin to t-shirts), and the attire ranges anywhere from suits and pantsuits (for Hillary supporters) to the kind of casual almost boho attire that relatively hip older people like me like to don.  Once in awhile I passed someone dressed as a donkey.  Once I passed a girl in a pink Playboy Club type outfit riding a bicycle.  Secret Service people are everywhere, although they try to come up with disguises sometimes (you can see it in their eyes–steely, just like in the movies–and they usually don’t move from position).  I saw one skinny guy in full jogger attire, carrying a huge jar of protein mix, and could never decide if he was real or undercover.  With the crowd, though, there was not much jogging to be had.  The real attention grabbers were  the riot police driving down our usually quiet Denver streets in tanks.  They are everywhere: huddling in the shade, when they can find some, or perched on the tanks, or just leaning against buildings.  A lot of them smile at you, like they’re in the spirit of the whole thing themselves.  Hey, it’s my job, don’t worry.  But they have weapons.  They have riot helmets.  As a kid, I was obsessed with Kent State.  Obsessed with, curious about the Sixties, would stare at the photos of the hippies and the soldiers for hours, the kids coming up the hill, the kids laying face down on the ground.  I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but I couldn’t shake it out of my mind.  Even though the bystanders,

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

the tourists, the media, far outnumbered the 100 or so protesters who we soon glimpsed, I was paranoid.  Things just happen–as they did last night, when a group surrounded by officers and pepper sprayed.  They’re saying it’s going to be worse as the convention goes on.  But you know, I’m going to go watch it all this afternoon anyway.  There’s an excitement to that kind of fear.  Everyone is enjoying it, this party, just as people in Denver always seem to enjoy themselves.  Anyway, it’s Obama, everyone is happy.

 

Surreal.  I know this has nothing to do with music yet.  So let’s throw some in.  Most of the music events are by special invitation.  No surprise.  Not being any kind of official press, I didn’t even try to get a pass.  Anyway, there’s nobody here I’d really want to see, to tell you truth.  But I do walk down the packed streets and I did go to a concert last night at Red Rocks.  Let me tell you quickly about the Red Rocks affair, which, in the terminology of the young, COMPLETELY SUCKED.

It was sadly disorganized.  Or, well, it was organized, as in it was done in proper order and timing.  But the music selections didn’t work for the crowd and the thing wasn’t well advertised.  Being at Red Rocks, an enormous outdoor mountain ampitheatre, when no one is there is just depressing.  The sound bounces around the rocks and makes for some kind of sucking void of guitar distortion.  In brief, a sad spare  crowd, average age about 50, exceedingly white, are greeted with a folk singer (Jill Sobule, who was sweet and entertaining), a boring DJ doing dance mixes of 60s and 70s song, a young rap singer named Murs (who tried so hard to no response that I felt sorry for him)…by the time Apples in Stereo came out, the crowd was in a state of depression, no doubt thinking that if they were actually important Democrats they’d be at the convention itself watching Michelle Obama’s speech.  Poor Apples in Stereo were predictably poppy and sunny and silly to the point of being oppressively whimsical, but good, you know, and fun, and would have been fun to see in a bar.  “We LOVE Obama!” they’d occasionally trot out, to crowd cheers, but they made their love sound a little like mushy love, like they wanted to ask him out on a chaste date, complete with roses and a meaningful hand touch at the door.  Sigh.

The best song of the evening: Jill Sobule and her mother singing Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Here.”  Seriously.  And Mom could sing.  Most painful note by rapper Murs-the-Seventh-Wonder:  “Sing along with me, people–when I say Hustle, you say Hustle!” Cringifying.  Although hilarious to see about 200 middle aged white folks imagining drive bys in West LA while yelling  Hustle in unison.

Okkervil River, who were billed, apparently didn’t show–or at least hadn’t by the time we left, after 3 hours of boredom.

My husband, sitting beside me, was just pissed.  “Fucking Democrats can’t organize themselves out of their own asses,” he said, or something to that effect.  He made a list of what they needed to do to arrange the event and get the trains to run on time.  He began the list by insisting that the event NOT be a Red Rocks, a giant wall of rock that is miles outside of Denver.  Even though the musicians loved being there (as in “I LOVE being at Red Rocks!” and “I finally get to play at Red Rocks!”), nobody else did.  

Once when I escaped to  the bathroom, I saw melancholy women wearily washing their hands: “Well, at least we couldn’t have asked for a better sky!”

After all this, they were to show 10 short winning films on democracy.  But by the time they got around to it, everyone had left.

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why so Eastern European? part one

DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, Little Cow and even a quirky coffeeshop–they’re all enticing me into some melancholy funky string-laden mystical-goofy trance.  But you know: this is the United States, this is Denver, Colorado, what’s the deal? Oh, I’d like to say it’s some genetic homesickness, but I’m afraid that would have to be handed to the Celts.  The only friend I’ve ever had with a hint of Eastern European-ness disavowed any link and listened to Brian Eno.  This need for the roots connection, the folkiness of diverse instrumentation nearly lost, has nothing to do with some blood link.  For  about simple boredom.When every commercial song, even the indie stuff, starts sounding the same, the sudden appearance of a sousaphone or theremin, or even a singer who is willing to look like an insane half naked goofball while backed by accordion players–well, that is refreshing.images-12.jpegimages-112.jpeg–Anyway, I like the accordion. These bands throw it all into the stew, cook it up, toss it out there less to be consumed as to create a pop art splatter.  How multidimensional, how spicy, even chunky–okay, it’s to be seen and experienced, creating (for a change) a “wow” response, even a respectful “they can actually play their instruments!”   The most popular of these bands aren’t really Eastern European, by the way–they are the children of immigrants, or came to the States as young children, perhaps with a few “authentic” side players.  They’re popular because, yes, they know the folk tradition, but they also mix it up with the music of the American neighborhood.To explain, let me delve briefly into the music of DeVotchKa, a mighty four-piece band that between them plays twenty instruments, and does it well. (These include not only the usual guitar, but an upright bass, a theremin, a sousaphone, the trumpet, the sax, something called a bouzouki, the piano, and, of course, the accordion.)    images-13.jpegAfter providing accompaniment to Denver burlesque shows and playing the clubs and promoting themselves on the road (sans contract), they got heard on some NPR show and were picked up to provide the soundtrack for the movie Little Miss Sunshine.  At the time, that was just a little indie movie, remember?–and this unknown banddevotchka_12_30_0603.jpg gets heard by all the kids who are obsessed with that film (you know who you are).  Moody (but not pretentious), lonely, rhythmic, pict0210-small-1preview.jpgevocative, ever so slightly spooky and ghetto-ish (there are reasons that people fled Russia to America)–this was not the usual teen cute crap that usually serves as the film backdrop.  What makes DeVotchKa particularly weird, though, is the way they throw in the Mexican mariachi, that rockin’-style mariachi, and then you throw in that freaky sousaphone (played by a woman, thank you) and the theramin and it works….It isn’t a hodgepodge, it’s more of a instinctive realization that these cultures are connected.  (And when you listen to all of this “world music” enough, you begin to recognize the crosscultural sounds, even when the language and instruments are different).  Something almost sad is created here, in DeVotchKa’s tone.    DeVotchKa: “I Cried Like a Silly Boy” “This Place is Haunted”  DeVotchKa’s name does a pretty clever double-meaning thing, coming out of both A Clockwork Orange (punk!), which came from the Russian word meaning “young girl” (folk!).  While no one in the band is directly from Eastern Europe, songwriter Nick Urata’s parents have their gypsy roots.  (Urata grew up in Chicago, on Cicero, in an Eastern European and Hispanic neighborhood, and moved to Denver later to meet up with his bandmates and their own Hispanic musical influences.)  While the band clearly emphasizes the Russian folk sound, it’s really more accurately an American immigrant music, a jumble of street inflections, media influences, and spices. Right before New Year’s, my daughter Paige, stepson Andrew and I saw DeVotchKa perform at a small club/restaurant, The Mercury Cafe, in downtown Denver.   For a change, I wasn’t the only old-ish (over 35-aged) person in the room–I was, in fact, outflanked by an array of who I suspect were relatives, friends, and teachers of the band members.  It was an intimate hometown scene, a kind of band-goes-on-world-tour-then-comes-back-for-a-special-visit affair, and so created an odd blend of the usual pain in the ass drunken people who talk throughout the concert, and the kids hugging the stage edges, and people trying to sit seriously in the  back and listen.  We were in this latter group, except we were standing, craning, and occasionally catching a glimpse of the Christmas-lighted sousaphone and the elegant bow arm of the violinist.  The music was immersive, impressive, and peculiarly more suitable for a quiet space.  Even my stepson the cello performance major looked faintly stunned at the ability of the band members to play multiple instruments (and not necessarily complementary ones: the string players could  haul out horns and vice versa).  My daughter, a far more serious DeVotchKa fan than I, was not in the least surprised.   (Here are a few clips from performances they’ve done elsewhere:) The show was consistently striking, although not exactly filled with the kind of frivolous and loud “fun” that usually comes with the rock concerts I’ve seen  in Denver.  (I’m not talking about the somber shows at the folk clubs–that’s another matter entirely.)  It’s a complement to the band to say I wanted to truly listen without a drunken and large jackass swerving  and bobbing in my way.But that’s all right.  It was all good natured and the band was clearly happy to be playing there.  The t-shirt table did quick business (“Hey, man, I saw ’em back when Nick was in the other band–they crashed on my couch, man–I’ll take that one”) and the women at the bar let me loiter up there on the risers where the view was clear–downstairs at the cafe, they served up coffee and pie and beer, and it was all as if DeVotchKa never made a soundtrack at all.The band’s still trying to get on a major label, by the way.  They’re signed with an indy label (Ace Records) and getting by doing performances, like so many bands do.  They’re probably too weird, a little too melancholy and not in a teenaged kind of way, to ever make it really big.  But they can get by in part by sailing in on the Eastern European/not wave.  And more about that in the next post.