Friday, August 29, 2008

How did we let Springsteen leapfrog Nirvana?

Two things have happened in the past week. First, I renewed my affection for music made between 1990 and 1996. Second, the democrats have been holding their election year convention in Denver. I was watching Joe Biden's speech, and the overeager applause, when it occurred to me how funny it is that the new generation is listening to the generation before last. Old, dried-up hippies are the new heroes for people in their twenties.

It's safe to say Nirvana wouldn't have shared the same enthusiasm. The band mocked The Youngbloods' call to "try and love one another right now" at the opening of the Nevermind song "Territorial Pissings." Mocked it, because, as children of divorce, they didn't much want to believe people who talked about love. They rightly called into question a generation who spent so much energy trying to let everyone know they cared for people when, in fact, they were so self-absorbed that they ended marriages for the sake of their own happiness.

In the 1994 film SFW, the cynical catch-phrase of "so fucking what," at one point a valid response to a shitty situation, becomes comodified to the point of meaninglessness. At the end of the film, the phrase is replaced in popularity by "everything matters," which becomes equally commercialized. Life has officially imitated art, so now we sing Springsteen again and talk about the change that's just around the corner, about the dignity of work, about the importance of self-sacrifice. All of these are virtues. But how confident can we be that the next generation won't be mocking our hypocrisy?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Weekend Roundup Pt: 2 - The Toadies @ The Palladium - 8/22/08

My (over?)-analysis of the appropriateness of venues continues with my take on what I'm calling the biggest homecoming of the year. Biggest, because I might as well apply a superlative to a show I got to attend, and because I don't think Sam the Sham has planned any forthcoming reunions.

Dallas is not well-suited to homecomings. The city's combination of a transient populace and me-first ethic make loyalty a bygone virtue in North Texas. But alterna-rock memories are still burned into the consciousness of Big D show-goers from the early 90s. A good lot of them have spouses, houses, and kids in suburban school districts now, but, as I saw Friday night, a Toadies reunion can still draw them back to the Dallas epicenter.

Let's be honest, once the early 90s buzz wore off, Dallas was not overly kind to The Toadies. A period of seven years separated their much-lauded Rubberneck (1994) from their unfairly derided Hell Below/Stars Above (2001) and people lost interest. The local radio didn't help. When I spent my first summer in Dallas in 1997, there was still a Q102, and plenty of Toadies on the airwaves. Four years later, Q102 had been replaced by a Clearchannel sinkhole and the Toadies could not buy local radio support. The low point of summer '01 had to be the 97.1 sponsored "Big Freakin' Deal," a festival name that was no doubt brainstormed by two middle-schoolers with a bag of whippits. The festival offered a foul lineup of butt-rock bands--Staind, Saliva, Cold--all of which received ample pre-festival promotion, and the Toadies. At a hometown show that should have been The Toadies' prodigal triumph, the band was relegated to opening for Rammstein. Despicable.

When The Toadies released Hell Below/Stars Above, They were still trying to build on the success of Rubberneck and establish themselves as an important, current band. As I said, interest and loyalty waned and the band imploded. The band is more grown up in 2008 and have fewer illusions about themselves. Lisa Umbarger has been replaced by Doni Blair of Hagfish, another longsuffering Dallas musician, and band members still have other ongoing musical projects. They do have a new album, but The Toadies know that they exist in people's minds primarily as the group from 1994, evident by the Rubberneck-heavy setlist from Friday night. The band is reformed undoubtedly for making cash, but I believe they are also back for that synergy they once had with fans, something that time, corporate radio, real-estate developers, and disloyal fans have eroded. Something that came back to life again at the Palladium last Friday.

The Palladium is the wrong place for any band with a soul and especially for a band like The Toadies. The place has a dozen flat-screen TVs piping images from the stage, $6.00 beers, and bartenders dressed in uniforms. Rock and roll shouldn't be allowed in the same building as a uniform. But even the Palladium with all its plastic luster couldn't diminish the effect The Toadies had on the place. It was a case of "My musical chaos can beat up your grabby capitalism." And it did. The unsavoriness of the place vanished as soon as the band opened with "Mister Love."

I still don't have an official setlist, but I counted in my head nine songs from Rubberneck, four from Hell Below/Stars Above, four from the new album No Surrender, and a show-closing standard from the unreleased Feeler. What I do know is that the energy never subsided. They ripped through all the classics with aplomb and won us over with all the new material. Dallas, a city with a normally fractured music scene, exhibited a heartening solidarity, shouting back every word of "I Come From the Water."*

Drenched in sweat, the crowd left The Palladium in a renewed euphoria. Members of Deep Ellum's old guard--easily noticeable by their sun-faded tattoos, camouflage shorts, and beer bellies--were reveling in the nostalgia of the moment, in the way it used to, and should be. Younger fans were dumbstruck at having witnessed a moment they had theretofore only experienced on their ipods. It would be hyperbolism to say The Toadies embody what everyone remembers and misses about the music scene we used to know in Dallas and took for granted. Some of Dallas' snarkier inhabitants even have the gumption to call them "overrated."** But one has to assume that there at the Palladium, something was revived in the audience at having seen a band that everybody rightly wrote off as dead. It was the memory of all the reckless fun Dallas used to have and a renewed hope that it can still have it.

*I was so personally overcome with excitement at one point, that I, like many others that night, made an attempt at crowd surfing during the song "Hell Below/Stars Above." I often forget how light I am. I was thrown forward with much violence and little effort, making the stage in what must have been world record time. I apologize for all the people I unintentionally kicked in the head.

**Send Jesse much hate mail.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Weekend Roundup Pt: 1 - Sarah Jaffe @ The Cavern - 8/21/08

I cannot imagine a venue more appropriate for Sarah Jaffe than the Cavern. The venue's brutally understated stage lighting has a single point of failure: one solitary lightbulb. The walls seem to crowd in on audience and artist alike. The Cavern is built and lit as a virtual confessional booth for musicians. No other site is better suited for Sarah Jaffe's tuneful vulnerability, a woman for whom, perhaps obsessively, nothing may be kept secret.

Sarah Jaffe's tendency toward dark honesty is well-known by now in local music circles. Jaffe has even achieved national levels of recognition, having been selected as NPR's Song of the Day on 8/21. Sarah is known for her Dostoevskyish brand of self-consciousness, persistent as she is in exploring her more ignoble motivations. Her threadbare compositions provide the perfect backdrop. Assembled from small bits of guitar and cello, you can almost seem them bend under the gravity of her penitential voice.

Jaffe's fragility in verse is held in tension by her abilities as a performer. Her voice is as insistent and flawless as her guitar work. Meekly resting behind her large-framed glasses, her downcast gaze is somehow as arresting as a direct stare. Sarah can command even those segments of the audience that hadn't planned on listening, the ones who willingly hush their conversations when Jaffe pulls back the sound to a whisper. The effect at The Cavern felt like you were dropped into film noir or a T.S. Eliot Poem, like you were having a cigarette with Tom Waits. I have enough confidence in Sarah to believe someone like him would have been there last Thursday if he had the time and requisite anonymity. With any justice, that's just the sort of recognition Sarah Jaffe will one day receive.