Monday, July 25, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: "An Ark of Stars" (California Plaza, 7/23/11)

[Photo courtesy of Reggie Dunn]

The Beast loves/hates downtown. Whenever we go down there we get lost and confused in an urbanscape that seems to have shifted and changed since the last time we ventured down there. Case in point: Saturday night we made it down to the 50th Anniversary Concert by Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra (supported by its spiritual inheritor the Build an Ark Ensemble, led by concert organizer/producer/curator/DJ Carlos Nino). We stood in front of the stage between acts under a balmy July sky, wondering why there wasn't anyone there we knew. Then we heard the stage announcer: "Ladies and gentlemen, THE ROMANTICS!!!"

Build An Ark Ensemble, with vocalist Dwight Trible (center, in red)
conductor Carlos Nino (left, in white, behind the dred head)

Turns out we were at Pershing Square, the famed ex-hookup spot for gay hustlers. So we hoofed the two blocks up Bunker Hill. We actually caught a bit of vertigo as we rode what has to be one of the tallest escalators in SoCal up to California Plaza, an opulent bowl carved into the top of what has to be the highest and most sublime point in downtown LA. Onstage were about thirty musicians (including flautist Michael White, violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, percussionist Derf Reklaw, vocalist and co-leader Dwight Trible, and trombonist Phil Ranelin) being conducted by Nino, who was dressed in all-white. This was the Build an Ark Ensemble and it was raising a holy hell of mutated jazz and vocal genuflecting. Unfortunately, they played their last note the moment we planted our butts on the marble benches.

Carlos Nino and author Steve Isoardi talk about
Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra

The Ark took the stage at about 9pm and it was a bit strange to see this mighty band at such a remove. Due to the massive reflecting pool in front of the stage, the closest one could get to such sensualist and liberating music was about 500 feet away. Having been spoiled by seeing the entire Ark smashed into an Encino living room, or shoehorned into the tiny World Stage in Leimert Park -- where you were so close you could read the musicians' scores and feel the air blast from the saxophones -- to see the orchestra looking so small as to be easily trapped in a mason jar took some getting used to. On the other hand, to see the band as a "collective" unit, the distance enabled us to see the music rather than the individuals who made it -- a completely different experience.

One wonders what the iconaclastic Tapscott would have thought of his Afrocentric "guerilla street band" playing before the colored dancing water fountains and polished futuristic architecture of California Plaza, a sort of a micro-Hollywood Bowl setup with people on blankets and picnic lunches and those custom "gobo" lights splashed on the faces of surrounding skyscrapers. We won't dwell on the cultural implications, especially since Nino himself seemed excited beyond words when he introduced the Ark for a soft prelude featuring African drums, poetic incantations and tribal dancing. Then it was on to the pulsing, sephulchral build of the Ark standard "To the Great House," mellowed a bit from its usual intensity. Band director Michael Session informed the crowd: "We're just playin' Taps tonight" before leading the 15-piece Ark in Tapscott's lovely, time-shifting musical smooch to his wife "I Love Cecilia."

Michael Session (back to audience) conducts The Ark

The nonvocal part of the set was completed with another stalwart "The Dark Tree," Tapscott's ode to forgotten musicians and cultural roots, with the great bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda pulling an otherwordly moan out of his bass that reverberated from every sleek corner and right angle of the plaza. Poet Kamau Daa'ood unfurled his Taspcott tribute "Papa, the Lean Griot" in a gruff Tom Waitsian cadence, reciting the deathless line "I conjure spirits...on this piano so far out of tune it opens doors to other worlds" to great fanfare from the crowd.

"And women form bands of healing, quilting rhythms,
Tucking them into an ark of stars": Kamau Daa'ood

The real treat of the evening was when Dwight Trible returned with the 10-person strong Great Voice of UGMAA, whose chorales on the unification plea "People Like Us" cut right through the dancing waters. Trible even mentioned the fountains to the crowd: "They remind me of the waters that flow from Africa to America, and that sometimes we can't feel them." (He could have been mentioning how far away his audience was -- or the fact that the Ark, so used to stretching their songs up to 30 minutes, were furrowed into an hour-long set.) "Bring us home, y'all!" Trible exulted, before preceding to do just that with the closer "Little Africa," a song he has been singing for so long -- and in so many different ways -- that it arguably has become his calling card.

The Great Voice of UGMAA

NOTE: If you want to catch the Ark in a more accessible setting, they are playing a set at 3:20pm next Saturday, July 30, 2011 as part of the 16th Annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival. And the line-up for the 2011 Angel City Jazz Festival has just been announced, with the Ark playing at 5pm on October1 at the Ford Amphitheatre. Not to be missed!

Saturday, July 23, 2011


She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell

Monday, July 18, 2011


PART III: 1991-1987
59. Bonnie Raitt – “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (10/26/1991)
The first time Bonnie appeared on SNL in 1978, she was a relative unknown whose performance was overshadowed by Michael O'Donoghue's ambitious, ongoing "Attack of the Killer Lobsters" sketch. She returned 13 years later on the crest of her Grammy-festooned Nick of Time record and its companion follow-up Luck of the Draw, of which this beautiful ballad is a highlight. This version might even be superior to the studio one!

58. Public Enemy – “Can’t Truss It” (9/28/1991)
Before Flav became a millennial version of Buddy Hackett, he freaked everybody out by snapping off his hat to reveal his proto-Coolio hairstyle and making grotesque facial contortions into the camera. Too bad they couldn't get Anthrax up there to do "Bring the Noise."

57. Fishbone – “Sunless Saturday” (3/23/1991)
The Beast's personal favorite. An absolutely unhinged and anarchic performance from this group of L.A. nuttwerks, who had just released their masterpiece The Reality of My Surroundings. The audience does not quite know what to make of the barechested backup singer with a flat-top mohawk, the spectacular scissor kicks by a lead singer in gumboots and transluscent walking cane, the nappy-haired moppet who spins his keyboard around like a whirling dervish, and the lovely mariachi trumpet coda at the end.

56. Deee-Lite – “World Clique” (2/16/1991)
Before Lady GaGa there was Lady Miss Kier in her black crushed velvet bodysuit and 21st-century hairstyles -- all of which she designed herself. Not to mention her muscular, operatic singing voice. And lo, there's Bootsy AND His Rubber Band!

55. The Time – “Chocolat” & “Jerk Out” (10/20/1990)
The reunited Minneapolites bring their unique updating of Chitlin Circuit showcraft to New Yawk. Morris Day looks a little older; Jerome looks a little skinnier; Jimmy & Terry look exactly the same. Favorite part: Day ending the second song seated at a banquet table eating roast chicken. If anything, this is the progenitor of the recent "spectacle" performances of Lady GaGa and Kanye West.

54. Sinead O’Connor – “Three Babies” & “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” (9/29/1990)
Why didn't we include Sinead's second SNL appearance (actually, it would have been ther third had she not had her hissy fit the previous season over host Andrew "Dice" Clay) where she defiled a photo of the pope as a highlight? Because it wasn't. There's a lot of right reasons this girl was a brief and bright star: her bracing singing style, her utterly unpredictable stage presence (including self-flagellation), two intense songs about being a woman, and a pretty kicking band.

53. The Pogues – “The Body of an American” (3/17/1990)
For the St. Patrick's Day show, did the music bookers at SNL just grab at the first Irish band who wasn't The Chieftains? Did they know The Pogues reputation as punkers posing as an Irish drum and fife orchestra? Had they seen Shane MacGowan's teeth? (Dennis Miller called them out when he noted on Weekend Update: "Ya know, I love the Pogues, but I'm also a sucker for lyrics.") Perhaps the paddies were thinking of Miller when they sang this second song of the eve: ("Farewell to new york city boys...I'm a free born man of the USA!").

52. Aerosmith – “Janie’s Got a Gun” & “Monkey on My Back” (2/17/1990)
Old pros show how they do it -- or, at least, how they once did it before the freebasing kicked in. They also play the Wayne's World theme in a sketch while Mike Myers fellated them and Tom Hanks made "Sibilance" a catchphrase.

51. kd lang & the reclines – “Pullin’ Back the Reins” (12/02/1989)
The short-haired Canadian brings the Age of Gender Politics to 8H. Considering that this was a lesbian country singer who dressed like Kyle MacLachlan on a genderbender and sang country music like the lost doppelganger of Pasty Cline....well, it's as potentially subversive as Fishbone's appearance. Highlight: the great modern pedal-steel guitarist Greg Liesz is a backing musician. 

50. Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World” (9/30/1989)
Speaks for itself, no?

49. Elvis Costello – “Veronica” (3/25/1989)
Why didn't we choose Sir Elvis' infamous first appearance in 1977 -- the legendary "I'm sorry ladies 'n' gentlemen but there's no reason ta do dis song 'ere" moment that made Lorne Michael's wineglass explode in his hand? Because his triumphant return 12 years later backed by the full SNL band was so much better, summed up by host Mary Tyler Moore's intro: "Ladies and gentlemen, he's baaaaaaack..."
48. Anita Baker – “Just Because” (1/21/1989)
Does anyone remember how great a vocalist she was/is? Her smoky vocal swoops and classy arrangments made her the true Whitney in our eyes.

47. Tracy Chapman – “Baby Can I Hold You Tonight?"” (11/19/1988)
Before the hype machine went into overload, before the "Fast Car" video was inescapable, before she devolved into politically correct overseriousness, she was a Nikki Giovanni-reading kid with a guitar and a heartbreaking voice. She did not play "Fast Car" either.

46. The Sugarcubes – “Birthday” (10/15/1988)
Undoubtedly the best band from Iceland who ever played the SNL stage. This is where we all fell in love with Bjork. This is also where we realized her irritating bandmate Einar Örn Benediktsson was dragging her down. As Opera Man would bray: "O solo carreero!"

45. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Under My Thumb/Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (2/13/1988)
On the crest of a laserlike concentration of Next Big Thing hype, TTD seemed to be the saving grace of retro R&B. And the kid had a mouth, too! Before it all came tumbling down, he and his top-shelf band kicked up a ferocious, edgy performance that was equal parts Prince and Otis Redding.

44. Roy Orbison – “Crying” (5/23/1987)
On this Blue Velvet-themed episode (Dennis Hopper was the host), The Dark Knight of Operatic Pop simply showed up and let fly with his alien vibrato, this song building and climaxing like an orgasm -- which we're sure we achieved when we saw this. Our fave part: Roy's lead guitar player, who looks like he walked in from Night Ranger.

43. Timbuk 3 – “Hairstyles and Attitudes” (4/18/1987)
Seemingly consigned to the One Hit Wonder bin (for "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" a.k.a., "The Theme from 1,000 Road Trip Movies"), this oddball Madison, Wisconsin duo of Pat and Barbara MacDonald made one of the best albums of the 1980s, Greetings from Timbuk 3. Love Pat's deadpan voice while he sings a hilarious song about 80s hairdos while actually wearing one. 
42. Willie Nelson & The Family – “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (3/21/1987)
Willie hosted this show and appeared in a number of memorable sketches, including Great Moments in White Trash History and his charming duet with future homophobe Victoria Jackson on "The Boyfriend Song." Willie's lonesome voice just soars on this one.

41. Paul Simon – “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
& “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (11/22/1986)
"Diamonds" shows up frequently in SNL 'Best of" music specials. It is a lovely song and a lovely moment, but we realize Simon does nothing but stand there, sing, and not strum his guitar. And we defy you to prove that the South African band behind him is NOT airbanding to a prerecorded track. Of course, the true highlight is the precision kickline of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who aren't consigned to wearing the embarrassing "African tribal dress" they wore on their first 8H appearance with Simon the previous season. Simon's third song of the evening is a solo performance of a memorable folk epitaph for John F. Kennedy and doo-wop music from his underrated 1983 album Hearts and Bones. The song is even prefaced with a photo of JFK -- fittingly so, as it was on this day in 1963 that he was assassinated.