If jazz isn’t what you think it is…

On Tuesday, we announced the line-up for the 2nd Annual SF Offside Festival with the tagline “So, you think you know jazz? Think again!” On the very same day, Canadian jazz writer Peter Hum wrote a blog post in the Ottawa Citizen titled, “If jazz isn’t what I think it is, then what is it?”

Was he responding to our announcement? Not directly, no. It was actually a response to the Victoria International Jazzfest, whose slogan this year happens to be “Jazz ain’t what you think.” But his puzzlement over their slogan surely applies to ours as well.

jazzfestSo, what does Mr. Hum find so puzzling about a slogan that suggests jazz may not be what it is perceived to be? For a start, he’s bored, as many others are, with “that tedious ontological debate about what jazz is,” and thinks that any marketing ploy that tries to capitalize on the idea that jazz “suffers from an excruciating identity crisis, and no one knows what it is,” is doomed to failure.

If, on the other hand, the slogan is aimed at jazz-haters instead of jazz-fans and is shorthand for “Jazz is really good, not as bad as you think it is,” he wonders if there isn’t a more effective way to try to disabuse the haters and draw them in with a message that says something more than just, “You’re wrong.”

The last option he considers is that their slogan is intended to signify that the Victoria Jazzfest is abandoning the grand tradition of instrumental jazz in favor of pop- and soul-infused “crossover vocal stuff,” which, he laments, is what “puts the most butts in seats” these days.

Obviously, I can’t speak for any other festival but our own, and I have no idea what the producers of the Victoria International Jazzfest were thinking when they decided on their slogan. But as far as Offside is concerned, let’s rule out this last option right away. There will be absolutely no “crossover vocal stuff” at our festival, however many butts that might be likely to attract. It’s not that Alex or I have anything against that kind of music—it’s just not what rocks our boat, so to speak. It’s not what excites and compels us, as audience members or as curators and event producers.

So, what does our tagline mean? Is it aimed toward jazz-fans or jazz-haters? Or is it just a “harmless throwaway line,” as Hum might hope?

First, I take full responsibility for the line. When I wrote it, my first goal was simply to say something bold, attention-grabbing, and yes, Mr. Hum, something with sass. It was also, I confess, a play on the TV show, So You Think You Can Dance? Yeah, whatever.

Second, there’s no denying that our tagline blatantly says that jazz may not be what you or I or anybody else thinks it is. Which, of course, begs Hum’s question: well then, what the hell is it? And: is pointing out this identity crisis really the best way to build new audiences? (Indeed, if that’s our marketing strategy, we may as well just hire Nicholas Payton to do our PR. “So, you think you know Postmodern New Orleans Music??” Um, actually, no. I have no clue what that is.)

Now, despite my most excellent taste in music, I’m no authority on jazz. I’m neither a jazz musician nor a jazz historian, and I don’t claim to have any special insight on what does or does not constitute jazz. So, what on earth was I thinking when I wrote that line?

I was thinking about my own journey that ultimately led to me co-founding a grassroots jazz festival, despite certain associations I had with the label that would seem to prohibit that very possibility. Let me explain.

As a kid, my parents were both jazz fans. They liked mostly old style jazz, which was popular in Ireland when they were young—big band swing, bebop, and dixieland jazz. My father loved Ella Fitzgerald, my mother Billie Holiday. They both loved Louis Armstrong. On Sunday afternoons when I was a pre-teen, we would drive out to the harbor town of Howth, on the north side of Dubin Bay, to an old hotel that hosted a weekly jazz jam. I loved going there each week. Until I reached a certain age, that is, and the thought of spending Sunday afternoons with my parents just seemed like the most uncool thing ever.

Skip ahead to my mid-twenties, when I moved to the Bay Area for graduate school. I had a boyfriend at one time who was a professor at another institution and about six years older than me. He was a huge jazz fan, but it was not the kind of jazz I had heard before, certainly not the old jazz I grew up listening to. I remember he would go to Yoshi’s, back when it used to be on Claremont Avenue, to see people whose music I knew nothing about, like Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. Although I was invited to go, I always declined. I viewed his obsession with jazz in much the same way I viewed his habit of wearing knit cardigans—something I tolerated because I found his “old-man” tendencies vaguely charming, albeit in a rather comedic way. I teased him incessantly about both his love of jazz and his cardigans.

It was probably not till about ten years later that I finally rediscovered jazz for myself. That was when I started to go out regularly to see live music played by local musicians in the Bay Area. The jazz I was hearing—from the straight-ahead to the more adventurous—really ignited my interest and made me realize that I did, indeed, love jazz. How could I not? But certain associations I had with the label made me so closed-minded, I had written off a lot of it as “boring” without ever actually listening to the music. What were those associations? In a nutshell, that jazz was for middle-class, old, white guys who liked to wear cardigans.

“So, you think you know jazz?” is a question directed at my former self just as much as it is directed at anybody else. I thought I knew jazz in my twenties and, as a result, I probably missed out on hearing some amazing music. Back then, I wouldn’t even consider attending a “jazz” concert, never mind a whole goddamn festival. And, I’m pretty sure, there are many others out there who are just like me.

But will our tagline do anything to entice those who are not already sold on the idea of jazz?

Well, I grant Mr. Hum that the line by itself probably won’t have much effect. By the same token, nor will the “Jazz ain’t what you think” slogan. But we didn’t use our line by itself. It was paired with a photo from last year’s festival and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. To me, this photo subverts expectations, not exactly about what the music sounds like, but rather about who is producing the music, where they’re performing it, and, by inference, who the consumers of that music might be.


For diehard jazz-haters, this piece of visual rhetoric will hardly convince. But for young people in their twenties and thirties, part of the demographic we’re trying to reach with our festival, it presents an alternative picture of what a jazz scene looks like. And it’s one in which they are included. It’s one in which they can see themselves. It’s cool. Definitely not the kind of jazz their parents or their prematurely middle-aged boyfriends might have taken them to.

Of course, a picture of the super cool Esperanza Spalding or Vijay Iyer (who are both playing at the Victoria International Jazzfest) might convey the same message to this demographic, but with one significant difference. The price tag. The kind of festival that books folks of that stature, which, let’s face it, is pretty much every regional jazz festival in the US and Canada, is not going to be affordable to as many young people. Tickets to see Vijay Iyer perform in Victoria, for example, cost more than a full festival pass to Offside.

Interestingly, Iyer recently played a free solo concert at Community Music Center in the Mission, which is where we host the last night of our festival in May. Afterwards, Alex asked him his thoughts about how to build specifically younger jazz audiences, to which he responded: make it affordable. And that is definitely what we are doing with our festival.

We’re also focused exclusively on local musicians and composers. It’s not about flying in big names from out of town. It’s about celebrating the incredible jazz talent found right here in our own backyard.

So, you think you know jazz?

You think you know jazz festivals?

Think again!

A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

All Quiet on the Western Front?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here even though there has been so much to write about. We had lots of great performances at Viracocha in March—the Live ‘n’ Local show with the Revolution Duo (amazing improvisation with Charith Premwardhana on viola and Matt Szemela on violin), The John Brothers Piano Company, and Wiener Kids; Aaron Novik‘s latest project, Dante Counterstamp; Janam and The Nice Guy Trio; and Karina Denike. Then earlier this month we had The Immortal Billie Holiday tribute show with many great performers including Kally Price and her Old Blues and Jazz Band.

Also this month was the fifth annual Switchboard Music Festival at the Brava Theater. I thought the selection of music this year was exceptionally diverse compared to previous years. Dominique Leone and the Ensemble Epouser did their last ever performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Volti, a choral ensemble dedicated to new vocal music, were absolutely breathtaking. Pop duo Ramon & Jessica were their usual charming, quirky, clever, and versatile selves. I did not get burned out at all this year (it’s a ten-hour festival!), in large part, I think, due to the greater variety of styles. I recall last year, which seemed to lean more heavily toward avant-garde, feeling at a certain point like I just couldn’t take in anymore music, my brain was feeling so fried.

It’s great to see Switchboard grow so noticeably each year, not simply in terms of number of people attending (they outgrew the original small studio in Dance Mission a few years back), but also in terms of how the vision has matured and its execution become more smooth. This year, for example, they projected info about each artist/ensemble on a screen at the back of the stage, which also indicated when there was a break between performances, and how much time we had to grab some food or a drink. That was much appreciated (though I still managed to miss  Dan Cantrell’s performance when a “friend” insisted we walk all the way to Folsom and 24th just for coffee).

The other most notable performance I’ve seen this month was drummer and composer Eric Garland’s Hodge Podge Ensemble this past Sunday night at the Community Music Center on Capp Street. Which brings me to my next topic, The San Francisco Offside Festival, a three-night festival (May 24-26) that me and Alex Pinto are putting together! It celebrates “the creativity and diversity of the local jazz scene” and features many incredible local musicians and composers, including Eric Garland (and also two of his bandmates on Sunday—Lisa Mezzacappa and Colin Hogan). I’ll post something more official about it soon, but meanwhile, click on the link for more details. We are very excited about it.

Between organizing a jazz festival, booking music at Viracocha, trying to keep on top of Live ‘n’ Local, and . . . I don’t know . . . holding down a fulltime job, I’ve been pretty busy. Hence the silence. Whew! It feels like I’m just catching my breath before continuing to march up a steep hill. But march on I will.

More deets about SF Offside coming soon!

Dublin Can Be Heaven

As I’m contemplating what might be my last days ever in Dublin, a particular old song keeps coming to mind, the chorus of which goes:

Dublin can be heaven / with coffee at eleven / and a stroll / in Stephen’s Green.
No need to hurry / no need to worry / you’re a king / and the lady’s a queen.
Grafton Street’s a wonderland / there’s magic in the air / there are diamonds in the lady’s eyes / and gold dust in her hair.
And if you don’t believe me / come and meet me there / in Dublin / on a sunny summer morning.

Although commonly known as “Dublin Can Be Heaven,” the song’s title, as I just learned, is actually “The Dublin Saunter.” It’s about a Dublin native, a self-professed “rolling stone” who has traveled far and wide only to discover that “there’s one place on this earth I’ve always liked the best, just a little town I call my own.”

Written sometime in the 40s or 50s by Dublin songwriter and radio broadcaster Leo Maguire (no relation), and made famous by singer Noel Purcell, it’s a nostalgic song evoking a golden era that happened long before I was born. The romantic sentiment it expresses, like Dublin itself, feels distant to me. While I too have “been north and I’ve been south, and I’ve been east and west,” if there’s one place that I’ve always liked the best, that would be San Francisco. That’s the little town that I call my own.

Whenever I return to Dublin, to my so-called “hometown,” I feel like a stranger in a strange land. The rows and rows of cramped-looking terraced houses, some with tiny front doors that reveal how short people were just a few generations ago, feel oppressive to me in their uniformity, each one mirroring perfectly the one beside it. They are the same houses I walked past everyday on my way back and forth to school.

I walk past them again now, on narrow streets not built with all these cars in mind. Often only one car can pass at a time. Irish drivers, unlike the typical American one, are happy to pull in and wait for the other to pass. Motorists here are refreshingly polite.

Despite the huge increase in the number of cars, large swaths of the city center are still cut off from traffic, including the pedestrianized “wonderland” that is Grafton Street. There you’ll find the famous Bewleys Cafe, established in 1927, and a slew of street performers dotted the length of the street. Many a Saturday afternoon in my youth was spent sauntering along from one busker to the next.

I wonder if I will ever return to Ireland after this visit. All that has kept me coming here will soon be gone forever and I can think of no reason why I might want to come back again. It is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

Tonight, I will decide what few things from my parents’ house I want to take back with me to San Francisco. On Sunday morning, I will leave this house for the last time. I will probably never see any of the neighbours here again, families who, like ours, have lived for many decades on this quiet cul-de-sac street, lined with the usual terraced houses, each one perfectly mirroring the next, except for the style of window and particular shade of grey or cream the facade is painted.

Neighbours here are very good and can always be relied upon in times of need. They cut the grass for us, bake apple pies, and offer rides wherever we need to go. Some of these families have known my family across three or four generations. It is strange knowing that those ties will simply wither away now, that another family will eventually take up residence in this house.

Again, it is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

And yet, and yet . . . that song keeps going round in my head. “Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll . . .”

Dublin, I guess this is my goodbye.

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.


Amy Winehouse Tribute with Con Brio this Wednesday

For a long time I knew the name “Amy Winehouse” without really knowing anything about her music. I knew that she was famous and that she frequently got into trouble because of her drug and alcohol habits. I wasn’t really interested. I assumed she was some talentless wannabe like Paris Hilton who just wanted attention at any cost.

The Immortal Amy Winehouse

What I didn’t realize was that I was already a fan of her music. I had just not yet made the connection between the name and the music.

It was not actually that long ago that I finally made the connection. I was in a bar in Chiang Mai last year and there was a TV hanging from the ceiling broadcasting some live performance. I recognized the music and started paying attention.

Then the ball dropped. “Wait. That’s Amy Winehouse??” I thought. Another surprise–she was white! I had mistakenly assumed the singer of these songs I had heard and loved was black because of her incredible contralto vocals. But no, it turns out, there are some white folks who got soul and Amy was definitely one of them.

In her short but stellar musical career, she released two critically-acclaimed albums, Frank (2003) and Back to Black (2006), the second of which won several Grammies, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year. Back to Black features the Dap-Kings, a band that has been playing funk and soul since the early sixties. If you’ve never listened to Amy Winehouse because, like me, you’d been put off by her notoriety, give this album a listen and be prepared to have your all your prejudices shattered. It really is a masterpiece.

Sadly, Amy died a month ago at age 27 from what many assume to be a drug overdose, though there has been no official verdict on that. Her death was not a huge surprise, given the inexorably self-destructive path she seemed to be on, but a profound tragedy nonetheless.

I had just started booking music for Viracocha, a local antiques store/subterranean music venue, when Amy died. Upon news of her death, the idea to do a tribute show honoring Amy and her astounding musical talent immediately occurred to me. The obvious choice to lead that effort was local soul/funk/blues band Con Brio, a band that has quickly gone from playing in tiny venues like the Revolution Cafe to much larger venues like the Great American Music Hall. Give them a few more years and I think they’ll be selling out stadiums!

Xandra Corpora, lead singer and guitarist for Con Brio, has an incredible voice that will blow you away. Joining Xandra and Con Brio will be a whole host of guest singers, each singing one or two of Amy’s songs.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this show! Full details are available on Facebook (though there will also be a few surprises in store too!). Tickets are almost sold-out, but at the time of publishing this, there are still a few left. You can buy them here. Don’t miss this!!

Dance in Dublin

I’m searching my memory to recall if I’ve ever been to a dance performance in Dublin. Okay, there was that one time in primary school when we were on a school trip that included going to my very first ballet, but all that I remember about it was that some sticky drink I had been given for this special occasion spilled all over my lap in the dark theatre. I got very upset and tried to get help from my teacher, but she was just annoyed by my crying, which upset me even more. No wonder I never went to another dance performance here after that!

Since I left Dublin seventeen years ago, my interest in dance has evolved a great deal. First, I discovered Argentine Tango and became obsessed with it for several years, but whenever I returned to Dublin on visits, I could never get my dance fix. Tango had not yet made it here. On my visits in the last eight years, I’ve looked for Contact Improvisation, my current passion, but that too was always missing, though by then, there were regular milongas (Argentine Tango social dances). A little too late for me. Me and the city were just always out of sync with one another.

Last summer at the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, I met some Contact Improv dancers from Dublin and was so happy to discover that now there is indeed CI here. I resolved to make it to a jam on my next visit home. Alas, the circumstances under which I’m visiting this time have prevented me from making it to a jam so far. With less than a week left in Dublin, I have one opportunity left—on my last night—to go to a CI class. We’ll see if I make it.

But, I just discovered today that there is a contemporary dance performance happening this week by a leading Irish choreographer and I’m going to go! I’m really curious to check out the contemporary dance scene here. Hopefully, I will find something different and interesting.

Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.

Welcome Home

It’s not a balcony, but a big, drafty bay window with a view of many rooftops and two green peaks to the west. There is no golden temple, no sense of a continental vastness beyond. Just over those hills, where the sky has finally broken blue, the Pacific stretches out for thousands of miles.

It has been raining almost constantly since I’ve been back. Today, Sunday, we are enjoying some respite. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Last night I battled the wind and rain for two blocks to Dance Mission on 24th Street to see a dance performance by some friends. I had not seen people move their bodies in this way in some time.

The night before, I went to see one of my favorite local bands, a nine-piece Balkan brass ensemble that are so tight, you could gather them up and hug them all at once. Despite the jet-lag, I danced like a crazy fool.

In the time it has taken me to write this, they sky to the west has almost entirely disappeared behind a thick blanket of cumulus clouds. It will probably rain again in a few hours.

Sadness, Anticipation

Sounds like it could be the name of an Astor Piazzolla: Sadness, Anticipation. I could certainly dance a tango to it. A slow, intense tango. An achingly passionate tango with a kind of precision that could only come from deep melancholy.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a tango quite like that.


It’s nighttime and I’m standing alone on my balcony, enjoying the last of a particular treat bestowed upon me by a good Thai friend. I lean out and look to the west, toward Doi Suthep with its golden, mountain-top temple glowing high above the lights of the nearby apartment blocks. I know it will be one of my last nights to have this particular view of the world. The rains come, fourth night in a row.


It’s nighttime and I’m walking along 22nd Street in the Mission, taking it all in, adjusting to my new but familiar universe. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so perhaps that buzz I’m sensing is because there are many more people out and about. Or maybe that buzz is just the Mission on a Thursday night. I’m back, and despite having just stepped off the plane, there’s at least three different music venues I want to hit. First on the list: Kaleidoscope…