Tales from the Other Side (of the Bay)

Friends will tell you, it takes a lot to tempt me out of the Mission. And for good reason! Why go anywhere when there are a bunch of great venues all within a few blocks of my house?

Occasionally, though, I will venture out into the nether regions of San Francisco and even (gasp!) over/under the bay to Oakland or Berkeley. This week was an unusual one for me in that I crossed the bay not once but twice to attend concerts in Berkeley.

Wednesday night I went to see Herbie Hancock at Zellerbach on the UC Berkeley campus. If you’ve never been, it’s a huge auditorium with three distinct levels. Our seats were way up there in the nosebleeds. We had purchased the second to cheapest price available, which, with two different kinds of fees smacked on top, came out to almost $50 a head.

Now, I don’t normally go to see big names from out of town, partly because of the exorbitant prices for tickets, partly for political reasons (I believe in supporting local artists), and partly because inevitably I end up being disappointed by the big names. Sadly, this too ended up being the case for Herbie.

I’m not exactly sure why I decided to spend the big bucks to go see him in the first place. It’s not like I’m an especially huge fan or anything. Recently I’ve been a little addicted to one particular track of his, “And What If I Don’t” from the 1963 album My Point of View and also from a later compilation, Cantaloupe Island. I think I just really wanted to hear him perform it live and, because of that, I somehow got in into my head—despite the threat implicit in the track’s title—that he would.

So what was disappointing (other than that fact that he, um, didn’t)?

For a start, his drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, was out of control, and I do not mean that in a good way. Someone should have put that man on a leash! Seriously. He took every opportunity he could to go ape-shit on the drums, when really there are times in which one should just chill out, sit back, and . . . I don’t know . . . keep the goddamn rhythm or something? But no, dude was like a crazed animal most of the time. I found it distracting and annoying. It was like he was in permanent solo-mode. I wanted to tell him, “Dude, you ain’t the star of this show!”

After that, there was nothing in particular to point to that didn’t live up to expectations. A huge venue like Zellerbach is obviously not very intimate and this kind of music played by just four musicians seems a little out of place in a venue like that. It gets swallowed up by the vastness of the space, especially by the time it reaches the nosebleeds.

Also, I couldn’t help but think some of the synth-heavy music sounded a little cheesy and dated. So 80’s . . .

And then there’s the economic assessment of the experience. They were good, but were they $50 good? At that price, I’m expecting to be blown away and when that doesn’t happen, disappointment inevitably sets in. Yeah, big name—what do you expect?

Friday night, on the other hand, I paid a mere $10 admission into downtown Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse to see Wiener Kids, the brain child of local drummer and boy wonder Jordan Glenn.

I don’t know exactly how many different ensembles Glenn plays in, but I think I like them all, and it’s rare a week goes by that I do not see him perform with some group or other. I had seen the particular configuration that is Wiener Kids once before at the Switchboard Music Festival in April, but I think by the time they played my brain was so fried from listening to hours of experimental music that I did not fully take in the Wiener genius. That, and/or they have just become out of control in the intervening months. And this time, I mean that in the best possible way.

Wiener Kids is Glenn on drums, Aram Shelton on alto sax, and Cory Wright on bari sax. Shelton and Wright also sometimes play bass clarinet and clarinet, respectively.

According to Glenn, “Wiener Kids sounds like a ninety pound weakling throwing a spastic tantrum regarding something not really important.” I love how composers describe their own music! And it’s true. The music is in that territory between experimental jazz and progressive rock, with lots of abrupt changes in rhythm and direction, brief moments of abstract insanity, a lot of whimsy and humor that will make you laugh out loud, and also enough structure and melody to keep it accessible for music plebs such as myself who are not steeped in theory. There are also some unexpectedly beautiful harmonies between the two reed players that might catch you off-guard amid all the silliness.

Glenn’s playing—in complete and utter contrast to what I saw of Colaiuta’s on Wednesday night—is subtle, playful, and so delightfully creative. Thank goodness for “ninety pound weaklings” who don’t need to pound on as many surfaces as possible to prove their technical chops! It is obvious why Glenn (who I’m sure weighs at least a hundred and twenty pounds) is such an in-demand drummer in the local creative music scene. It is also obvious that he, Shelton, and Wright play together a lot, such is their onstage chemistry.

In fact, just a week before they all played together at Viracocha in one of Shelton’s ensembles, Marches. That group also included keyboard player Michael Coleman and drummer Sam Ospovat, both of whom made a guest appearance on Friday night, along with eight other musicians, for the first and last pieces in the Wiener set.

I really liked how the music shifted compositionally when the ensemble changed from big band to trio, and then back again. For example, the last song of the set, “For My Mother,” which is also the last song on the new album, What A Mess, sounded like a slightly off-kilter New Orleans funeral march, quite a contrast from the spastic, proggy episodes we had heard before. I call them “episodes” because many of them come in under a minute long and seem to end mid phrase, which is part of what makes the music so much fun. There are always quirky little surprises to keep you on your toes.

As if that weren’t enough bang for your buck, the opening act Kapowski, an Oakland based pop quartet that also includes Coleman on keyboards and Ospovat on drums, gave a fantastic performance, which ended with a screening of their adorably cute new video. Lead singer Jesse Rimler’s plaintive, languid vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke or Rufus Wainwright (though stylistically very different from the latter) are very easy to listen to. The instrumentation, consisting of two sets of keyboards, bass, and drums, is an unusual mix that works really well with Rimler’s whimsical song-writing.

And just when you thought the evening could not be better value for money, add on two Wiener Kids CDs for only $15 and you’ve got yourself a real bargain! I took home the aforementioned new album and also Wiener’s first, Why Don’t You Make Me? 

To which the only appropriate response is: And what if I don’t?

The Revolution/Corporate Oligarchy Mystery: Solved.

A favorite meeting place of mine for many years now has been the Revolution Cafe. Sunday, a day like any other, I had made a plan by text to meet with a friend there. He was to text me again when he was ten minutes away and then I would head over and meet him. It sounded fairly straightforward.

I was busying myself at home with various tasks when eventually I got another text saying, “Hello? It’s been 20. Should I just come over then?” I wrote back saying that I had been waiting for the ten minutes “heads-up” but that I would be right over. A simple miscommunication, most likely. English was not his first language. It was no great enigma.

The first whiff of mystery wafted into the Rev when my friend informed me that he had indeed sent me a ten minute “heads-up.” Nevertheless, I told him, I had not received his text. I even showed him my inbox, devoid of said text.

A small mystery, perhaps. Not one that merits further investigation, you might think. Just one of those vagaries of daily life in the digital age. Random texts sometimes evaporate into the ether, never to be seen again.

Until, that is, you learn, as I did, that the text had contained the words “revolution” and “corporate oligarchy” in it.

We wondered. Could it be possible that the content of the text, those particular words that were used, had somehow triggered a kind of message censor system? Did the phone companies have some means to scan and block messages with specific content? And, if so, whose company was intercepting the message? His or mine? We became suspicious. Curious.

He tried to resend the text. We knew that if the second time around I still did not receive the text, we were on to something. Something really big.

“I’m 10 min away from revolution. I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).”

The message didn’t go through! What were the phone companies up to? I sent him a text that said, “Revolution corporate oligarchy. Testing 1 2 3.” My message went through . . . But what did that mean? The mystery only deepened.

Not satisfied to entertain mere hypotheses, we decided to run some more tests, disprove some possibilities in the hopes of narrowing in on a plausible theory. What specific words might have triggered this filter? Was it simply all three together, a specific pair, or was there one in particular? We designed the first experiment.

We began by testing one word at a time. “Revolution”—the text went through. “Corporate”—the text went through. “Oligarchy”—the text went through. No real surprises, there.

Our inquiries continued.

Next we tested pairings. “Corporate oligarchy”—the text went through. “Revolution corporate”—the text went through. And finally, “Revolution oligarchy”—the text went through.

Then we tested all three words together. The text went through.

So, we determined, the words by themselves were not enough to trigger the filter. Yet something about the particular wording of his text had.

Why, those sneaky motherlickers, we thought! Those phone companies, trying to stop the revolution against corporate oligarchy by blocking any texts that appear to call for, you know, revolution against corporate oligarchy. We wondered how many companies were involved. He had Verizon, I had MetroPCS, so at least one of those, though we had yet to determine which one. Probably AT&T too. Of course, AT&T! And maybe he was now on some secret government list of people trying to incite revolution against the corporate oligarchy by text message.

Perhaps they would be reading all his texts from now on, those backsterds! They were trying to suppress the goddamn revolution against corporate oligarchy and we had accidentally stumbled upon their nefarious scheme. We would expose them and, in doing so, would foment an actual revolution against the corporate oligarchy. We would hoist them with their own petard. We would bring them down by sending messages that they would then block, and thus everyone would know that the corporate oligarchy was trying to suppress the revolution against them.

But then I wondered, what if that message my friend had sent had been corrupted in some other way that had nothing to do with the content? Maybe the phone companies were not that smart and it was just a random coincidence. We had to be sure. I asked my friend to type a new message with the exact same content as before— “I’m 10 min away from revolution. I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).”—and try sending it to me anew.

Again, the message didn’t go through. We were definitely narrowing in on the truth.

It was not just specific words, but specific sentences that triggered the filter. To be sure, the technology was impressive. It seemed rather sensitive, intelligent even. It appeared to detect nuances of the language that went beyond syntax, which in itself was a spectacular feat of artificial intelligence. The problem was these phone companies—and we didn’t yet know which ones—were using this incredible technology for dubious purposes.

It was obvious we would need to collect more data, we would need to broaden our experiments to include more people, more phone companies. Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth. We would use whatever resources were available to us. “Try it for yourself!” we would tell all our friends. “See if your phone company blocks messages about the revolution against corporate oligarchy!” And people would be shocked, outraged even, when their messages were suppressed. It would be glorious. It would be huge.

We started to wonder if it was the combination of these two particular sentences that had triggered the blocking system, or if one sentence or other might have been enough. We would need to narrow it down so we could give clear instructions to others who wanted to test the system on their own phones. So, there were two more texts that needed to be sent.

The first—”I’m 10 min away from revolution”—went through, which left us with “I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy ;-).” He sent the second message and we waited. Nothing.

So, here we had it. We had narrowed it down to a single sentence. The phone companies, apparently, did not want us expressing our dissatisfaction with corporate oligarchy. Unbelievable!

Unless . . . there was one more thing to test . . . the winking emoticon. It had to be ruled out, so we could be certain. He sent me another text with nothing but the emoticon. We waited. Nothing. It couldn’t just be that, could it? An emoticon?? He sent me one last text, this time without the emoticon . . .

My phone beeped. I had a new message, but what did it say?

“I’ve had it with this corporate oligarchy.”

Message received, mystery solved.