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Monday, Oct 20, 2014
We conclude our coverage of this year’s London Film Festival with Mike Leigh’s long-anticipated biopic of J.M.W. Turner: a languorous, immersive, richly detailed work that surpasses expectations.

The popular perception of Mike Leigh remains that of a supreme anatomist (or, for those less kindly disposed towards the filmmaker, broad-brush caricaturist) of contemporary British experiences: a sharp, sensitive observer of the myriad ways in which modern life can be rubbish (or great). Yet, weigh it up, and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s actually the director’s period work that’s proved most rewarding over the last 15 years.

The peerless Gilbert & Sullivan opus Topsy-Turvy (1999) (a film that never ceases to reveal new treasures no matter how many times it’s viewed), the ‘50s-set abortion-themed drama Vera Drake (2004) and Leigh’s last play at the National Theatre, the Rattigan-esque Grief (2011), have all been among the director’s finest-ever pieces. Moreover, each has far surpassed the two rather minor contemporary films that Leigh has turned out during the same period, >Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010), both of which found the film-maker falling back in a sometimes tiresome fashion on all-too-familiar situations, conflicts, character types and tropes.

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Monday, Oct 20, 2014
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Blake Mills is touring in support of his new album Heigh Ho with instrumental group yMusic backing him. Friend Fiona Apple joined in in New York.

Singer-songwriter Blake Mills is touring in support of his new album Heigh Ho out on Verve. The album is a showcase for Mills powerful country and blues guitar work and features several renowned musicians including Jim Keltner on drums, Jon Brion on keys and Don Was on bass (amongst others) plus Fiona Apple lending her voice to a couple of tracks. Perhaps it was because Apple was likely to appear (as she had on many other dates) that Mills’ two shows in New York (one at Le Poisson Rouge the week before this one) were sold out, but it would be unfair to suggest that Mills alone doesn’t deserve the attention. According to the NY Times, Mills has received praise from many artists, “Eric Clapton recently called him ‘the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal.’ The producer Don Was says he is ‘one of those rare musicians who come along once in a generation.‘“and he’s played with many of them too. It’s worth checking out his headlining tour when you can to witness his guitar virtuosity.

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Friday, Oct 17, 2014
A pupil/teacher story dressed up as a battle-of-wits thriller, the pushy, over-hyped Whiplash fails to impress.

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a talented and fiercely ambitious jazz drummer who studies at an elite music conservatory. When Andrew is selected by the tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join the ensemble that Fletcher conducts, it seems like a dream opportunity for the young man to kick-start his career. But Fletcher, it turns out, is a fearsome, take-no-prisoners hard ass with whom Andrew soon finds himself locked in an ever-escalating battle of wills and wits.

Having scooped both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival Whiplash arrives at this year’s London Film Festival with a considerable weight of expectation. It looks to be pushing the right buttons for some audiences here too, but I hated the film, passionately. Essentially, the movie is just another guy-on-guy pupil/inspirational teacher story, but one of a particularly extreme variety.Your response to it will entirely depend on how you take to the character of Fletcher and his teaching methods.

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Friday, Oct 17, 2014
Seals isn’t merely continuing to play Garcia’s songs; he and his band continue to push the jams in the bold and exploratory directions the Jerry Garcia Band was always known for.

It was a Friday night in Ocean Beach, where a hippie haven oasis exists in what is otherwise considered more of a conservative town. Deadhead culture thrives here on Ocean Beach’s main drag on and around Newport Avenue, an area that feels like a cross between LA’s Venice Beach and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Winston’s Beach Club doesn’t quite stack up to Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in the Bay Area, but the club has been helping to keep the vibe alive by featuring the Electric Waste Band covering the Grateful Dead every week for over two decades.

The club has also been hosting periodic shows from local outfit Alleycat Street, which covers the music of the Jerry Garcia Band. There’s definitely an audience here for Garcia’s musical legacy, one that forever altered the culture of America in a more benign and musically adventurous way. The room may not have the aesthetic decor of some others, but there’s a community vibe that makes Winston’s one of the friendliest venues on the West Coast.

Enter Melvin Seals & JGB on their fall tour, a group who rightfully think of themselves as “keepers of the flame”. Seals joined the Jerry Garcia Band in 1980 and held down the keyboard position until Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995. Seals and the band always headline the annual “Jerry Day” show in San Francisco every August and keep that flame burning by continuing to tour the nation.

Seals is a Jedi master of the Hammond B-3 organ, so much so that Garcia reportedly nicknamed him “Master of the Universe”. He anchors the band with a zen sort of vibe from his keyboard corner on stage, frequently playing in the pocket yet also dabbling in swirling psychedelic forays at the edge of the space-time continuum. Seals isn’t merely continuing to play Garcia’s songs; he and his band continue to push the jams in the bold exploratory directions the JGB was always known for.

The band hit the stage with the gentle groove of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up”, taking their time to warm the room up a bit with a nod to another Ocean Beach favorite. But then they jumped into the deep end with the full tilt rock ‘n’ roll of “Cats Under the Stars” and the dance party was on. Guitarist/vocalist Dave Hebert makes it all work because he’s, quite frankly, very Jerry. He’s got Garcia’s guitar tone dialed in, and his vocals indicate a devoted disciple as well. Seals also gives Hebert free reign to jam out, as opposed to how John Kadlecik often seems to be on a short leash filling the Jerry role in Furthur.

The female backing vocals are key to the JGB sound as well, with Shirley Starks and Cheryl Rucker adding that extra harmonic dimension for the genuine sound. Drummer Pete Lavezzoli and bassist John-Paul McLean provide a strong rhythm section and it was readily apparent from the hot sound on “Cats” that this band has some real chemistry. “Simple Twist of Fate” was a mid-set highlight, with the band delivering a faithful take on Garcia’s version of the Bob Dylan classic. Garcia’s poignant arrangement is on the mellow side, but allows for some of Seals’ most elegant piano work and deep blues from Hebert.

The band revved it up for “Struggling Man”, where Seals took command on organ to lead a surging jam. The energy carried over into a charged “Rhapsody in Red” with Hebert tearing up the classic Garcia lead guitar trills to close the set with a flourish.

Winston’s always scores highly on being a fan-friendly venue at set breaks. There’s not many other venues where you can walk down to the beach during a break. Or that have a great liquor and tobacco store right across the street, not to mention a variety of options for a quick bite. Or you can just relax for a puff out back as many often do.

“Sugaree” opened the second set in a mellow style similar to the “Stir It Up” first set opener, giving fans a chance to settle back in before a raucous jam on the dance groove of “Get Out of My Life Woman”. The centerpiece of the set occurred during a mega-jam on “Don’t Let Go”, where Seals and the band seemed to be transported back to 1980. The incendiary jam recalled a classic archival release version of “After Midnight” from that year, with Seals and Hebert pushing each other higher with their melodies as the rhythm section drove the groove deeper and deeper. The collective “x-factor” surged as the band jammed to what seemed an infinite forever ecstatic level.

Seals dialed up the perfect interlude afterward with the gospel-tinged spiritual anthem “Sisters and Brothers”, a beloved ode to keeping the faith while making one’s way through this troubled world. Then the band went back to full rock power for a soaring rendition of “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home” to close the set. It was one of those great nights were strangers were stopping strangers, or maybe distant acquaintances, just to shake their hand or maybe share a puff or a tip on the next show. The flame is still burning bright thanks to Melvin Seals and JGB.

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Thursday, Oct 16, 2014
The band's soulful, bluesy and hard rocking sound has led to 2014's "20 Years Strong" tour celebrating two decades of Gov't Mule.

The first weekend of autumn was a big one in San Diego. Sir Paul McCartney was set to play a show in the city for the first time in 38 years at Petco Park on Sunday. But another one of the hardest working men in show business was up first, as guitarist Warren Haynes brought his Gov’t Mule to town for a Saturday night blowout in the city’s historic Gaslamp District.

Haynes has recently been pulling not just double, but triple duty as he’s been known to do on occasion throughout the 21st century. He started the month performing with both Phil Lesh and Friends and the Allman Brothers Band at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia, before launching Gov’t Mule’s fall tour in the Midwest. He then snuck in another Phil & Friends show in New York, flying all the way in from a Mule gig in Spokane, Washington the day before. Two days later he was back out west to continue Mule’s fall tour. It’s all just another month at the office for one of rock’s most dedicated devotees.

Haynes is known for his uncanny ability to cover rock pioneers like the Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead and so many more. But it’s the way he mixes those influences into his own soulful, bluesy and hard rocking sound that has led to 2014"s “20 Years Strong” tour celebrating two decades of Gov’t Mule. The band got right down to business with a “Bad Lil Doggie” opener that set a high energy tone for the evening. The Balboa Theater crowd, notorious for sitting through shows just because the theater has seats, was up on its feet from the start. A Mule crowd might lean a bit older, but it’s a demographic that’s always ready to rock out.

The reggae-tinged groove of “Unring the Bell” provided an early peak, deepening the vibe with a tune featuring some of Haynes’ boldest lyrics. Written during the George W. Bush regime era, the song continues to defend the civil rights of the American people at a time when those rights remain under fire from Uncle Sam’s incessant propaganda for the “war on terror”. Mule took the tune for a fantastic ride, with Haynes clicking on his wah-wah pedal for some funky jamming over a marching dub groove from drummer Matt Abts and bassist Jorgen Carlsson. The sonic atmosphere was elevated further when keyboardist Danny Louis threw in a psychedelic organ solo as the band turned in a truly anthemic rendition of the song. Then Haynes tossed in a short tease on the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” at the end, rousing the audience higher still.

The San Diego music scene receives rightful criticism from time to time when compared with Los Angeles and San Francisco, due to a shortage of quality venues and questions about the support the scene can offer touring bands. Mule even skipped San Diego on their fall 2013 tour after having played the House of Blues on the fall 2012 tour. But the Balboa is a superior venue to the HOB (save for the even weaker beer selection) and the “Shakedown” tease seemed to acknowledge this with the song’s classic sentiment, “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around.”

Haynes continued tearing it up on “Larger Than Life” and “Thelonius Beck”, delivering some of the best lead guitar in modern music. But Haynes isn’t just a lead guitarist. He’s a soulful singer/songwriter as well, demonstrated here on a poignant combo of “I Shall Return” and “Time to Confess” to close the set. The latter featured a wah-wah infused “Get Up Stand Up” jam that electrified the Balboa, with Mule once again showing their elite skill at segues and left-field jams.

Why the Balboa Theater continues to serve only big corporate beer like Guiness, Heineken and Miller remains a mystery, especially when San Diego has become renowned for its thriving craft beer industry. But at least there’s an outdoor smoking section where people can smoke or get some fresh air during the setbreak, as opposed to the decidedly non-fan-friendly environment of the nearby House of Blues.

“Child of the Earth” was an early highlight in the second set, a heartfelt bluesy gem with some poignant lyrics, including a “lead me to the mountains of the moon” line referencing the late ‘60s Grateful Dead classic. Carlsson and Abts laid down a monster groove on “Stratus”, with Louis throwing in some electric piano recalling Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Haynes traded hot licks with guest guitarist T-Bone on a dynamic jam that explored a vast sonic landscape.

The set surged during “Lay Your Burden Down”, with Haynes invoking the crowd to sing along on the chorus and indeed lay their burdens down in a rock ‘n’ roll ritual. “Can’t you hear the angels screaming?” he sings on the tune that for some Californians will always recall the soul-searing August ‘99 rendition at the Berkeley Greek Theater on the day that Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan had passed away. The deep blues kept flowing as the band segued into “Smokestack Lightning”, much to the delight of the audience. Haynes sang into his megaphone during one section, sounding like a voice from another dimension before ripping up some slide licks with an otherworldly quality of their own.

The band closed the set with a downright smoking take on “World Boss” from 2013’s Shout LP, as the quartet delivered another heavy groove that crackled with electricity. Haynes sang what seems like a warning about a New World Order takeover. Many bands are content to keep their lyrics on a superficial level, but Warren Haynes has long been known for his willingness to speak truth to power while also delivering cathartic blues for the weary soul. It’s all part of what makes him one of the modern counterculture’s boldest and most important musicians.

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