Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bob Dylan, live at AVA at Casino del Sol, July 19

Now essentially an old bluesman, Bob Dylan continues his habit in recent years of leaning on the organ and harmonica during live performances. But in turning away from the guitar, he's taken a greater role in his band's sound.

As the Never Ending Tour made its fourth Tucson stop in the last decade, the now 70-year-old Dylan delivered a 16-song set drawing broadly from his career. The newest studio album, Together Through Life, and 1965's classic Highway 61 Revisited were the most represented albums, with three songs each. Remarkably, Dylan repeated only two songs from his last local performance, a 2007 AVA show that was also far superior to his Tucson Convention Center stop in 2006.

Starting with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," his vocals were clear and strong throughout, but what shined most was his nimble organ playing. When Dylan first brought the organ back to his live show, his style was more subdued, less striking in the band's mix. Now, it's a featured dimension of the band's sound and plays perfectly off Charlie Sexton's lead guitar.

Similarly strong—and more prevalent than in recent years—was Dylan's harmonica, which he played on roughly half the songs, often lacing multiple harp passages into a single song. He played guitar on just one song, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'."

His stage presence more animated without a guitar, Dylan spent the night making little gestures and poses. They're not details that can be detected from the lawn, but those seated close to the stage were treated to plenty of little moves from Dylan, wearing a black cowboy suit with red piping.

With lightning flashing in the southwest distance, Dylan played a jumpy blues version of "The Levee's Gonna Break," with an excellent call-and-response outro jam between Dylan's organ and Sexton's guitar.

Still updating and shifting his old classics, Dylan meshed both first- and third-person lyrics into his narrative "Tangled Up in Blue," and rearranged "Visions of Johanna" around his organ playing.

To close the set, with the stage lights set low for an interrogation effect and his looming shadow tall on the curtain at the back of the stage, Dylan played a version of "Ballad of a Thin Man" dripping with menace, as accusatory as the day it was written.

Published July 28, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cults at Club Congress on Saturday

An 'accidental band' can barely keep up with its own success

For an accidental band, Cults found an incredibly quick path to success.

A chance meeting, a quick romance, some at-home music playing, three songs posted online and boom—the band winds up on Columbia Records with one of the most buzzed-about debut albums of the year.

"I don't think we ever thought about having a band," says Brian Oblivion, the guitarist half of the duo. "We'd just both liked making music around the house, just goofing around, and it started turning into songs. We went up to her parents' house upstate and recorded them in a weekend and put them online. We'd never played a live show, didn't plan on playing a live show. We just recorded some songs to show our friends we can.

"We've tried to put our finger on that moment when we decided to be in a band together and neither of us can remember."

Oblivion and vocalist Madeline Follin met through her brother, who was playing a show in San Diego, where both band members grew up. Oblivion was already in film school in New York and Follin was moving there herself a week later. They both had musical backgrounds—Oblivion had played in bands on and off throughout high school and Follin even performed on her parents' punk album when she was nine—and naturally just started playing together.

Their first recording project wasn't even complete when they posted three songs online and, implausibly, snared a Best New Music rating from Pitchfork within weeks.

"The three we put up were just the three that we finished first," Oblivion says. "We were going to go up the next weekend and finish the others and put them online, and it caught on before we were able to do that."

The real gem that propelled Cults was "Go Outside," which oddly pairs a chiming glockenspiel melody with a sample of cult leader Jim Jones from a Jonestown documentary the pair had just watched. The rest of the song is bouncy, catchy, throwback pop, a near-perfect hit single.

The song reflects that particular time in their lives—close to graduation, close to adulthood, close to having to stand on their own feet. It's about the combination of newfound self-reliance and uncertainty, about excitement leading to fear. It's about "not getting caught up in bullshit you don't want to do," Oblivion says.

"It's scary, that's part of what 'Go Outside' was about for us as well, taking the creative step to make something you actually care about and putting yourself out there," he says. "I have friends in bands who are drowning in giant pits of irony. They waste their talents doing things that are safe or kind of jokey so they don't have to have people judge them. We're serious, which is frightening, but it's a good feeling."

Aware that their little project had grown into an entirely different type of creature, Oblivion and Follin set out to write and record enough material for a proper album. But, so pleased with the reaction to their first songs when the band was all but anonymous, they purposefully stayed away from self-promotion. Which, of course, proved to be the best kind of self-promotion, driving even more curiosity about the band.

"We're just kind of private people. It's such a beautiful thing the way the music came out and people were listening to it, with no preconceived notions, no marketing story, just people listening to the music and responding to it with no extra frills," Oblivion says. "We've tried to keep that mentality as much as possible."

They both ended up dropping out of school a couple months after the music went online, facing too much pressure to move forward with the band. But with the knowledge that Cults had a waiting audience, with high expectations, the songwriting seemed forced.

"It felt like in the beginning that maybe we were trying to mimic ourselves, trying to rip ourselves off. All the songs that were written in that period were tossed out. After a while of touring and going into the studio and reflecting on what worked, we just decided to throw out the book," Oblivion says. "No one cares, let's just make some music we want to make. So we were able to recapture that feel."

The songs follow the thematic lead of "Go Outside."

"For me, a lot of the songs are about control, about adolescence or post-adolescence, kind of being afraid of joining the real world. At the time Maddy and I were making these songs, we were pretty close to graduating college and moving into the real world, and we were pretty freaked out by that," Oblivion says. "We wanted to have character throughout the songs, and it felt right, that ambivalence about wanting to escape and also the cautionary side."

The Cults sound is hazy yet infectious, somewhere in between the retro pop of bands like Best Coast and the more atmospheric dream pop of Beach House. Oblivion says the band shares a sensibility with a lot of 1960s pop music.

"There's this feeling in that music of being in trouble or having a bad time or a traumatic situation is kind of a glamorous thing. Getting into trouble is better than just being bored. And that's how we've felt about our whole lives, that breaking the rules and getting caught end up being the stories you tell to your friends. It's that feeling where chaos is somehow better than stasis. Lyrically, I'm inspired by that," he says.

Cults recorded with New York engineer Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend), who contacted the band and even did much of the work before Cults could pay for studio time.

"The album was 90 percent done by the time we signed the record deal. It was awesome to go around to the labels that were interested and say 'Here's the record, take it or leave it.' Columbia was an awesome label to work with," Oblivion says.

Cautioned by the nightmare experience of an "anonymous friend signed to an anonymous big label," Oblivion says, "It's just a matter of how much you're willing to stand up for yourselves and how much you're willing to do by yourselves. We did our own artwork, produced our own album, picked our own director for the video. It's been a ton of work."

Cults was released in June and the band has been touring steadily. Now a five-piece live band, Cults includes drummer Mark Deriso, bassist Nathan Aguilar and guitarist/keyboardist Gabe Rodriguez, high school friends and former bandmates of Oblivion.

"That's the only creativity you can have after you finish the album, continually changing and improving your live show," Oblivion says.

Published July 28, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: Liam Finn - FOMO

New Zealand's Liam Finn crafts a sort of quirky orchestral pop that just doesn't seem right coming from a one-man band. It's a full, layered sound that nonetheless shifts instrumental focus song to song, showing an array of skills.

Finn, the son of Crowded House's Neil Finn, draws comparisons to Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy and Jens Lekman, and at times sounds like an indie-pop update of Harry Nilsson. Though he still plays all the instruments, Finn had help from co-producer Burke Reid on FOMO, his follow-up to 2008 debut I'll Be Lightning.

Opener "Neurotic World" draws out the theme that inspired the album's title, an acronym for Fear of Missing Out, his term for that near mental disorder of constant social networking, of trivial snippets about family and friends dominating your day.

"Read each other's minds, had to grow a thicker skin," Finn sings, amid a light psychedelic swirl of distorted guitar. "It's a sense of urgency in another neurotic world."

"Don't Even Know Your Name" pulses with the sort of dance-pop beat perfected by Canadian bands like Metric and Broken Social Scene.

"Cold Feet" is the centerpiece of the album, a midtempo, infectious could-be hit. It's a song about shyness in the face of romantic longing, perfectly sung, with coyness around the edges of Finn's sunny vocals.

Finn seems like the type of songwriter and performer who will steadily and purposefully build a long and strong catalog. Staying perhaps too close to his comfort zone, FOMO is a fine second album, but there's still much more to hope for from Finn.

Published July 28, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: Roadside Graves - We Can Take Care of Ourselves

Life on the Outside

The rich Americana of Roadside Graves

“If you’re lookin’ for me, you better look outside” sings John Gleason on the opening song of We Can Take Care of Ourselves, the fourth album from Roadside Graves. It’s a simple statement, a simple moment repeated in a song that’s anything but.

A concept album of sorts, We Can Take Care of Ourselves is an exploration and meditation on outsiders, using S.E. Hinton’s classic American young-adult novel The Outsiders as both a cornerstone and a prism. The album isn’t about the novel so much as it’s about what the novel is about.

“Outside” perfectly introduces that world — that aimless urgency of teenage desperation, those four walls of angst that seem to be always closing in. It’s about feeling trapped by youth, poverty, alienation and uncertainty, all at once.

The Outsiders is certainly made of the same stuff as rock ‘n’ roll, but in the hands of the Roadside Graves, the book is updated, transformed and recontextualized. Having read it just once in junior high — and never really latching onto it or identifying with it — I barely remember the book. But by mining The Outsiders for theme more than story, the Roadside Graves make sure that the book isn’t necessary as a prerequisite for listening to the album.

Gleason, an elementary school teacher by day, is convincing as a narrator for all these characters, settling easily into those troubled young lives. The emotions resonate clearly and strongly, even when those emotions themselves are convoluted as all hell.

The album — 11 songs in 40 minutes — is a sprawling sort of Americana, ranging from spare folk to barroom rock to AM radio pop to vibrant country-rock, a musical range ably handled by the band backing Gleason: drummer Colin Ryan, guitarist Rich Zilg, guitarist Jeremy Benson, bassist Dave Jones, pianist Mike DeBlasio and keyboardist Johnny Piatkowski.

Released on Autumn Tone Records, the label arm of Los Angeles music blog Aquarium Drunkard, We Can Take Care of Ourselves surges early with “Outside” and “Double Feature,” the track that’s most explicitly a coming-of-age song, a narrative that hinges on the chorus “I don’t want to fight, but I will.”

“Glory” is shuffling, sepia-toned country-rock, flowing into the jaunty piano rocker “Hank Williams,” both exploring the complexities of identity in adolescence.

The album’s middle point is “Hospital,” a brooding instrumental built around insistent piano chords, dark in tone and seeming to tick-tock like a clock running out. It’s cinematic music, soundtracking you down a long, dreaded hallway.

“Love Me More” follows that darkness with a bright, poppy feel, the sonic equivalent of fond recollections. Another highlight is the plaintive ballad “Teenagers Are Tired,” a spiritual cousin of Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Over a soft finger-picked guitar, Gleason sings “Family ain’t right, but I know that they tried.” Album closer “All Over The World” sounds like an unearthed oldie, with soft, wistful strings and a lazy beat.

Concept albums depend more on execution than concept and it’s by this measure that the Roadside Graves have succeeded most. The band pairs ambition with creativity and keen intelligence, presenting their take on The Outsiders — and outsiders everywhere — with deeply evocative poetry and a varied, nuanced soundscape.

Published July 21, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The new mix: Thundercrack


1. Clem Snide - Walmart Parking Lot
2. Deer Tick - Twenty Miles
3. Generationals - Trust
4. Andrew Collberg - Clouds of All Your Rain
5. The Baseball Project - Panda and the Freak
6. Superchunk - Digging for Something
7. The Capstan Shafts - Versus the Sad Cold Eventually
8. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Two Lovers
9. Giant Sand - Fields of Green
10. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
11. Smith Westerns - All Die Young
12. Wye Oak - Civilians
13. The Heavenly States - Model Son
14. Akron/Family - Another Sky
15. Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
16. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - Livin' in the Jungle
17. The Impressions - I Need You
18. Wet & Reckless - New Guy
19. Times New Viking - Fuck Her Tears
20. Black Lips - New Direction
21. Them - I Can Only Give You Everything
22. Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers - All Over The Radio
23. Bon Iver - Towers

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Summer 13

I'm not particularly happy about it, but there's no doubt that it's been summer for a while now. It's hot and steamy and, despite the rain, generally kind of miserable here in the desert. But it's the price to pay for 70-degree sunny days all winter.

To celebrate the season, here are some of the best songs I've heard in the second quarter of 2011. Ladies, it's the Catfish Vegas Summer 13:

• Bon Iver - Halocene (my review of Bon Iver)

• Generationals - Greenleaf (my review of Actor-Caster)

• J Mascis - What Happened

• Paul Simon - Dazzling Blue (my review of So Beautiful Or So What)

• Times New Viking - Fuck Her Tears (my review of Dancer Equired)

• Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean

• Okkervil River- Wake And Be Fine

• The Antlers - I Don't Want Love

• The Rosebuds - Woods (my review of Loud Planes Fly Low)

• Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - Livin' In The Jungle

• Black Lips - Modern Art (my interview with the band)

• Lykke Li – I Follow Rivers

• The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Heart In Your Heartbreak (my review of Belong)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: The Rosebuds - Loud Planes Fly Low

It's nothing new for a songwriter to turn a crumbling relationship into an album of cathartic reflection. But when the breakup involves both halves of one band, that album becomes a conversation.

The Rosebuds—the once-married duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp—trace the outlines of their breakup on Loud Planes Fly Low. The sound, poppy yet melancholy, is an apt setting for an excavation of the details, one more chance to say what never could be said before. But in their case, moving on means sticking together as musical partners.

"I feel like I'm reaching out for the last time," Ivan sings on "Limitless Arms," a somber and ornate song that exemplifies the album: layered guitars and keyboards, surprisingly insistent drums, vocal harmonies and string flourishes.

"I need something to happen now, even if it fucks me up," sings Kelly on the Fleetwood Mac-like "Come Visit Me." "Come visit me way out here / I need you to see me, even if it makes it worse."

Other standouts include the psychedelic soul of lead track "Go Ahead," the percussive and edgy "Woods," and "Cover Ears," whose lyrics yield the album title.

With just acoustic guitar and strings, the plaintive "Worthwhile" is a fitting coda to the album—and the marriage—apologetic, caring, sad and wistful: "We could go on wishing all our lives / I would go on wishing we did it right."

Published June 22, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The Rosebuds - Life Like

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers - The Art of Escape

Border crossing with the band

“Green & Dumb,” any one of a dozen songs that could rightly serve as a calling card for Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, came late in the band’s 2011 Circus Mexicus set and as their fans have come to do, I joined my friends arm-in-arm, all of us swaying in time with the ballad.

I had somewhere south of six Dos Equis cans still dangling from plastic rings laced between two fingers of my right hand (and somewhere north of six running ‘round my head) and I was shouting along with every familiar word, already growing hoarse as I tossed another chorus into the night air in Puerto Peñasco, at the north end of Mexico’s Gulf of California. Escapism? Sure. That’s why it felt so good.

You can’t guess exactly what somebody does for a living, how people spend their long weekdays. New friends from the trip worked in banks, mortgage offices, in various technical fields. I ran into a newscaster acquaintance at the show. Everyone has his or her working life, even freelance writers. Everyone is familiar with the monotony, the tasks, the dragging clocks of those earning hours. But in Mexico, there’s only the party.

Leaving behind one’s working persona becomes so much easier when crossing a border is involved. The planning required, even the hassles encountered — you need to bring your passport now, whereas once a driver’s license would suffice — help to accentuate the break with routine. These escapist interludes are the pulse of freedom, of recaptured youth. They’re what you put on the calendar months in advance, the pure anticipation of fun its own currency to pay the way through bullshit days and petty problems of all stripes. And they’re what stand out once a year is done — the highlights, the “I HAVE to do that again” cornerstone that keeps everything else at bay.

Live concerts can yield any number of such perfect moments, that great-to-be-alive embrace creeping up over your shoulders. But, so precisely designed for fans’ enjoyment, Roger Clyne’s Circus Mexicus is surely better than most at infusing the experience with bliss.

The centerpiece of Circus Mexicus XX, as on previous occasions, was a four-hour marathon performance from the Peacemakers, a band that’s leaned on quirky independence to guide its 12-year career, and done so well that thousands of devoted fans every year drive from Arizona to Mexico for a weekend-long party, filled with the same beachside escapism that runs so strongly through Clyne’s music.

It’s a relatively small twist of historical fate that Puerto Peñasco — which also goes by the gringo name Rocky Point — is in Mexico at all. Had James Gadsden pressed a little harder in 1853, the United States might’ve had its own port on the Sea of Cortez. And Arizona would’ve had its beach. But who would really want it?

What’s special for Clyne and the adoring hordes who make the journey is precisely that the destination is south of the border (if only 60 miles). The leave-it-all-behind romanticism that is the core of Circus Mexicus is a powerful spirit, an intoxicant in its own right. It’s all about the sun-and-sand-and-beer-and-music fun that Roger and his crowd seem to seek in equal measure. The vibe leans more than a little toward spring break, but it’s also family territory.

The Sonoran coastline is rocky and, still not yet transformed into a major resort town, Puerto Peñasco and neighboring Cholla Bay retain the half-finished aura of failed dreams. Everything — the buildings that are finished, at least — is either brand-new or seems like it never was. It’s a town where you just don’t believe the “coming soon” signs that make so many promises.

The area is filled with contrasts: the wind-swirled, lifeless expanses of sand vs. the sea, over-fished yet still full of life; the new resort and condo towers for rich gringos vs. the third-world scraping by that occurs most everywhere else; the relative safety of the small beach town vs. the drug violence that’s spiked across northern Mexico in general. Even the tides at Puerto Peñasco exist in two extremes greater than nearly everywhere else.

And that’s fitting, somehow, because it’s a place apart, at least for tourists from across the border. Yes, you’re in Mexico and don’t have to look too far to find evidence of that brute fact. But this isn’t the Mexico that dominates the airwaves these days, the Mexico of beheadings and cop-killings and corrupt officials, the Mexico of sensationalist TV news in the U.S., certainly exists, but as with any drug- or gang-related crime anywhere around the world, that violence is almost entirely confined to those actors involved in the game.

Just as it would be foolish to ignore entirely a State Department warning (at nearly 4,000 words, the current advisory is thorough, measured and reasonable), it would be foolish to conflate all of Mexico into one dark Juarez alley. Safe fun is just as available on the Mexican coast as anywhere. The biggest danger is the loss of common sense: drunk speeding, dehydration, ATV recklessness.

“Rocky Point”, the anglicized destination of that other sort of border-crosser, caters to the gringos, whether it’s the spring breakers, the weekenders or, in this case, the Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers crowd. It’s a place to let loose, however one lets loose. Eighteen-year-old college freshmen drink the beer they can’t in the states and rush into sexual encounters they wouldn’t risk at home either.

Things are different with the Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers crowd now. They might very well have walked in those flip-flops in their own time, might very well be trying to recapture the essence of that (but with a wife and kids in tow), but the stupidness of the party scene has been supplanted by safer pleasures. They’re there for the music, not the boneheaded WHOOOO!

The context of their escape, not from the restrictions imposed on youth but the responsibilities of adulthood, matters enormously. You see it in how people treat their vacation land, how they interact with the place and its in habitants. They come, they party, they spend their money, but it’s a far more sustainable type of vacationing than the slash-and-burn sort practiced by American college students. Still, the memories of more reckless times so animate the proceedings, enhancing the contrast between the easy abandon of the teenager with the more dearly bought kind practiced by weekend escape artists.

I brought my own contrasts to Circus Mexicus as well. I’d long been a Clyne fan but then gradually lost interest; now I was rejoining the fold. And I was also a Rocky Point tourist eight years removed from my last visit, stunned at the real estate boom that stacked what must be thousands of condos and hotel rooms on what I remembered as vacant beach.

My companions for the trip were Mila, Audra and Cori, veterinary technicians from Tucson and Flagstaff who’d already perfected their Circus Mexicus routine. We rented a condo (coincidentally next door to the one they had the previous year) at the Pinacate, which was one of the first large complexes to be built there, back n the early 1990s. I could look down from the balcony and see the condos I’d stayed in many years earlier, as well as the completely transformed beach stretching out to the west.

The first stop after loading the coolers with ice and beer was Sandy Beach, near the newer condos, the first real beach visit I’d had in years. The Oregon coast in winter and San Francisco’s Ocean Beach (any time of year) don’t begin to match the plunge that I could take at Rocky Point.

Friday night’s activities centered on a hot-dog cookout and a series of performances from RCPM-affiliated bands at JJ’s Cantina, a gringo favorite a few miles up the road in Cholla Bay. We were stuffed four in the cab and four in the bed of a friend’s truck, and I was surprised to find the road out there was nearly halfway paved.

The hot-dog cookout is put on every year by drummer P.H. Naffah, to benefit Esperanza Para Los Niños. Naffah is the yin to Clyne’s yang, a quiet former biology major who’s been playing drums with Clyne since their days in The Refreshments, a Tempe contemporary of the Gin Blossoms that had a quick two-album run with Mercury Records. Naffah is the only other constant in the Peacemakers (now including bassist Nick Scropos and guitarist Jim Dalton), an all-business presence holding things together at the center of the party, like the soil and stalk that supports a bright sunflower.

At JJ’s you buy beer by the case, 20 bottles of Dos Equis passed around the group till none are left and somebody gets up to fetch another box. In this way, its impossible to care about tracking how much beer actually gets consumed, and Mexican lager tends to disappear fast in the presence of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fans. Still, my companions are pros at this Circus Mexicus thing and the main event was still to come, so they made sure the night was guided by an easy, carefree buzz.

Framed by the bright sand and blue sky, people lined the beach as Saturday got going. The day started with the annual soccer tournament, with Roger’s Mexican Moonshine squad (named for his own brand of tequila) as the defending champion and heavy favorite. Two short fields were set up back-to-back, and the vacation setting did nothing to diminish the competitiveness. Not a soccer player, I grabbed a cup of coffee and stuck to wading in the sea, but my friends joined up with a team and advanced to the semi-finals, where they took Roger’s team to sudden-death overtime before losing. Incredibly, Roger played five games in the late morning and early afternoon, the temperature in the upper 80s, ultimately losing the championship in another lengthy sudden-death match.

Accessibility has always been a leading trait of the Peacemakers. Everyone it seems has his or her own story of meeting Roger. An old friend of mine had a first date at a Peacemakers show and later set it up with the band to propose to the girl on stage, right before the song they’d first danced to. Few bands have ever extended such a strong invitation to their fans to join in the fun. The music — driving rock, harmony-rich, with a classic jangle and some Americana influences — is the sort that’s distinct and easy to get into but never likely to draw a lot of critical praise. It’s traditional rather than innovative.

And so, with a remarkable consistency and obstinate reliance on their own style, the band has pressed on. Starting with its debut record, Honky Tonk Union, in 1999 through five successive full-lengths, an EP and three live albums, everything has been released independently on the band’s Emma Java label. It’s a word-of-mouth band that wants to keep it that way. Roger Clyne has never had anything remotely close to a platinum album and probably still makes more money from his Refreshments theme song for the animated series King of the Hill than anything else besides touring.

What matters to him is the strength of his fan base, not its breadth. That’s part of the reason he dreamed up Circus Mexicus in 2000 as the Peacemakers’ own mini-festival, a destination concert that matched exactly what they’d want as a vacation. The concert used to be held in October and May — hence the “XX” — but starting in 2009 it was consolidated to the single event, held each June.

We got to the big sandy lot, next to Chango’s Bar & Grill, well before Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers started, maneuvering close to the stage and slightly left of center. I’d seen the band eight times before, mostly at now-defunct Tucson clubs, where the cover was somewhere in the $5 range. But until a month before Circus Mexicus, I hadn’t seen the Peacemakers since 2004, and generally lost interest over that time. It’s strange to think I’d been leaning away from the band at exactly the same time my concert companions had been discovering their music.

In truth, I’d always found the crowd a little too “fratty”. And as far back as 2004’s Americano I’d thought Clyne’s unerring faith in a single muse might be risking repetition, or worse, a Jimmy Buffet-style self-parody. But Unida Cantina brought me back, its songs approaching larger themes, with a different sort of live-for-today attitude. So, I figured, once a Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fan, always a Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers fan. Besides, who was I to refuse an invitation to have fun in Mexico?

The show kicked off with a burst of fireworks and the Refreshments’ song Mexico, with my friends Jon and Javier from The Jons on trumpet. As the chorus goes: “Well the good guys and the bad guys never work past noon around here. They sit side by side in the cantinas, talk to señoritas and drink more beer.” It’s a song that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1994 self-released debut CD Wheelie.

There’s a remarkable consistency to the whole of Clyne’s career, his Southwestern rock peppered with Spanish phrases and songs about the low-key party life to be found beachside. He always manages to extend an invitation to join him in the escape, both in song and in real life, which is the key to Circus Mexicus.

A third generation Arizonan who split his childhood between Tempe and a ranch southeast of Tucson, Clyne is a man whose biography will surely be titled “Here’s To Life.” And perhaps the subtitle will reference another of his lyrics, the songwriting persona Clyne has cultivated and stayed true to over the years: “A mad drunk and reckless troubadour.”

One performance is enough to sell anybody on the Peacemakers. From the great showmanship of Roger at the front of the stage to the communal sing-along feel that permeates the crowd, a Peacemakers show is very simply a fun time. And those sing-alongs extend throughout the set, not just the “hits” like “Banditos” and “Down Together,” running the gamut from obscure deep cuts from as far back as 1994 to songs that haven’t yet found their way onto an album.

“Pace yourselves,” Clyne kept warning the crowd throughout the 44-song performance. And for a crowd that buys individual six-packs, they did. Out where the arid madlands of Arizona and Sonora fade into the soft sand and the endless waves of the sea, we were invested in a true-to-life, familiar sort of escapism. The thing with fandom of this type — performance-focused fandom, whether it’s chasing down the Grateful Dead or Springsteen or the newer jam-band circuit — is that you’re rewarding yourself with something you know for sure that you’ll love. Devotion to Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers comes with rewards that are both easy to capture and strong in their effect.

While plenty of the crowd takes off again for Phoenix and Tucson on Sunday morning, the die-hard bums can stick around for the hangover bash out at JJ’s. The bands set up again — including Tempe’s Tramps & Thieves and Denver’s Hickman-Dalton Gang, featuring Peacemakers guitarist Jim Dalton and former Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman. We split carne asada and fish tacos and made new friends, exchanging stories about our first Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers shows.

Roger showed up, again in his Mexican Moonshine soccer jersey, and held court in a receiving line for nearly four hours, smiling, shaking hands, signing autographs, talking and posing for pictures with everybody who wanted a personal moment with him. And with long shadows taking over JJ’s patio, in the end he thanked me for my patience.

Published July 8, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Generationals at Congress Tonight

The Generationals play throwback pop of the best kind—bouncy and playful, melding a variety of vintage sounds together.

The project of New Orleans songwriting duo Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, who trade instruments and vocals throughout, the Generationals fit in with the quirky talents of current and former Park the Van label-mates like Dr. Dog, Tucson's Golden Boots and the Spinto Band.

The Generationals' follow-up to their 2009 debut, Con Law, takes bits from 1960s pop, garage rock, Motown and British invasion. Built around guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, the songs have just the right helping of handclaps and ooohs in the background vocals.

The songwriters deal with their lyrics differently than they do music: The songs are bright and uplifting in sound, but varying degrees darker in lyrical tone. "It won't get better 'til you leave me alone" is the main lyrical thrust of the sunny "Goose and Gander": "I know sometimes you gotta live in the dark / We can't stand each other but we can't be apart."

The band is strongest on songs like "Ten-Twenty-Ten," "I Promise," "You Say It Too" and "Greenleaf," which keep the catchiness at the forefront, with hooks alternately coming from vocals, guitar, bass and piano.

Actor-Caster is an album that is immediately endearing and also worth exploring deeper, when the album's real richness emerges from the contrasts between sugary music and the bleaker lyrics.

Published July 7, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

DOWNLOAD: Generationals - Greenleaf