Oakland Rocks for Change

Greg M. Schwartz

It’s the season for political benefit shows, so it’s no surprise when the famously liberal Bay Area comes up with an evening of musical entertainment -- including headliners Hot Buttered Rum -- to raise funds for Barack Obama.

Oakland Rocks for Change

Oakland Rocks for Change

City: Oakland, CA
Venue: The Malonga Casquelord Center
Date: 2008-09-16

It’s the season for political benefit shows, so it’s no surprise when the famously liberal Bay Area comes up with an evening of musical entertainment to raise funds for Barack Obama’s get-out-the-vote campaign. The show’s not as high profile as when members of the Grateful Dead reunited for a “Deadheads for Obama” show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater back in February, but there’s an eclectic mix of acts assembled by fledgling organization Music for Democracy. San Francisco newgrass rockers Hot Buttered Rum are the headliners, with special guest Michael Kang of the String Cheese Incident. The bill also features Maria Muldaur & the Free Radicals, Blame Sally, Tuck & Patti, David Gans, Jeff Halford, and Tommy Castro. John Densmore, legendary drummer of the Doors, is unfortunately a late cancellation. The small theater in Oakland holds no more than 300 people, but the space is filled. Patrons mingle early on in the lobby, drinking wine and perusing silent auction items like framed photos from Obama’s personal photographer David Katz, an acoustic guitar autographed by the evening’s performers, and another signed by no less than Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Martin. Bidding for the latter begins at a cool $5,000. Comedian Marga Gomez is the evening’s MC and gets things rolling with a wisecrack about the arch-right wing Republican vice presidential candidate. “You can put lipstick on Sarah Palin, but she’s still Dick Cheney,” says Gomez to laughter all around. Gomez also announces that all the evening’s artists have donated their time and then introduces Maria Muldaur & the Free Radicals. The charismatic folk diva leads the band into Earl King’s “Make a Better World”, a Chuck Berry-ish rocker that sets an uplifting tone for the evening. “Inner City Blues” follows with some funky wah-wah and smoking lead guitar. Muldaur’s voice sounds as strong as ever. She mentions that the band originally turned down the gig since they have to head out on tour the next day, but that when Sarah Palin was introduced into the equation as vice presidential candidate, Muldaur felt it necessary to step up her activism. She then introduces the next tune as Allan Toussaint’s “Yes We Can”, a song first popularized by the Pointer Sisters. Muldaur relates that all three tunes come from her new Yes We Can album, designed to promote a positive vision for social change. Legendary counterculture figure Wavy Gravy arrives at his front row seat in the middle of Muldaur’s rap. She tells of how she was a Hillary Clinton supporter, but when she lost the primary, Muldaur sent “Yes We Can” to the Obama campaign and was pleasantly surprised to receive a personal letter of thanks from Obama himself. The band tears into the song and conjures a soulful New Orleans-style funk groove that closes the brief set in powerful style. Ayelet Waldman, Democratic Party delegate from the East Bay’s 9th Congressional District, takes the stage next to describe her recent trip to Denver for the Democratic Party’s convention. She describes being a delegate at Mile High Stadium for Obama’s historic acceptance speech as “like being at a Grateful Dead concert on ecstasy,” which brings laughs, some knowing nods, and some wonderment. Blame Sally are up next and the four ladies in the band deliver a three-song set featuring sparkling harmonies that recall the best of the Indigo Girls. “Long Time With You” is dedicated to a hoped for Obama victory, while the closing “Fillmore Street” is likened to a spring thaw after the long cold metaphorical winter of the Bush regime’s tenure. Each performance seems to build on the uplifting vibe that preceded it and so it is with Tuck & Patti, who follow with a set that blends Tuck’s virtuoso guitar skills with Patti’s booming voice for a flashback to a bygone era. Patti riffs on Bob Marley with an extended vocal improv on the “everything’s gonna be all right” line from “No Woman No Cry”. She follows that by singing about “turning dreams into reality” and the crowd joins in at the end of the set clapping in unison and singing “dream, dream.” The next performance pairs David Gans, DJ of the Grateful Dead Hour, with Music For Democracy’s youthful national director Bear Kittay. The duo are joined by Hot Buttered Rum mandolinist Zac Matthews and flutist Matt Eakle from the David Grisman Quintet. Kittay introduces a song called “Pittsburgh”, inspired by his time working for the Obama campaign during the primary season in Pennsylvania. Kittay relates how was stunned to be told, “how dare you betray your race” by a Pennsylvanian, and wrote the song about the experience. The tune seems a bit ragged but the quartet pulls it together by the end. Gans then contributes a number where he sings, “It’s gonna get worse before it gets better, but it’s gonna get better.” The ace musicianship of Matthews and Eakle lifts both tunes. Vocalist Jeff Halford and renowned blues guitarist Tommy Castro come out next to front the “Ba-Ba-Barack Band” and Halford scores with “Louisiana Man”, dedicated to President Bush’s bungled response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The song has a musical flavor recalling Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Born on the Bayou”, along with some stinging lyrics. Halford follows it with “Cry of Hope”, a counterpoint written for the Obama campaign. Castro then blows up the room with a serious dose of blues power on a tune called “Wake Up”, with smoking guitar solos and a three-piece horn section that pushes the music higher. He introduces the next tune as a blues that “John Lee Hooker did one time.” The song is reminiscent of blues classic “Red House”, with Castro conjuring some Hendrix-ian fire. At one point Castro leaves the stage and continues to jam out in the crowd, ala the great Buddy Guy. He caps off the set by remarking, “I’ll be casting my vote for an America I can be proud of again.” The sentiment resonates with a universal feeling in this crowd. Marga Gomez returns to implore the crowd to vote no on California’s Proposition 8, which seeks to change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of gay couples to marry. As she’s speaking, someone from the Hot Buttered Rum organization starts passing out free CDs, a “Green Sampler” with 10 tracks from the band’s 2007 summer tour. This is a band that not only talks the talk, but the truly walks the walk. The songs on the disc concern social, political, and environmental issues and the liner notes detail how the band has been touring since 2003 in a bus that runs on biodiesel and recycled veggie oil. Gomez suddenly switches into Saturday Night Live mode to introduce the band -- “Live from Oakland, Hot Buttered Rum!” The band opens with “Swing & Sway” before being joined by String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang as they dive into “Reckless Tex”, a tune dedicated to the current Commander in Chief. When they sing “It's time to know your sister and brother / And drive this cowboy out of town,” the crowd responds with a huge cheer. Kang introduces the next tune, “Stay Through”, as one he wrote a couple of years ago that seems to make even more sense to him now after the rise of Obama’s candidacy. He switches from mandolin to guitar to lead the band on the melodic number, which features sharp solos from flutist Eakle, mandolinist Matthews, banjo player Erik Yates, and guitarist Nat Keefe. But it’s the final two songs that really deliver with compelling musical and lyrical messages that epitomize the evening. “Golden Days” features a blues-y fiddle part by Aaron Redner and a deeply soulful vocal with Matthews singing, “Look what is going on around, you will find / Open your eyes and now you can see / This world is headed for catastrophe / We need the gold to turn to green.” The band then closes it out with a smoking performance of “Guns or Butter”. Tuck Andress joins in too as the Hot Buttered Rum quintet now evolves into an octet with Kang, Eakle, and Andress on board. Yates takes the lead vocal for the signature song of the evening -- “Well, guns or butter, what's it going to be? Feed our poor and hungry or invent new enemies? You might call me crazy, but it seems real clear to me / Less guns, more butter!” The tune captures the band’s whole package -- great harmonies, meaningful lyrics, and sizzling musicianship. Outside afterward, an enterprising t-shirt salesman has crafted one of the funniest images of the election season, summing up the night’s emotions. The shirt features Obama’s head photoshopped onto NBA star Tracy McGrady’s body slam dunking a basketball over a Dallas Maverick with John McCain’s head. In a sane world, an Obama victory would be a slam dunk. But in a crazy paradigm where profits count more than people and the corporate-controlled media spins every issue into a polarizing one, the outcome remains in doubt. If Obama can pull it out, the rock vote will no doubt have played a significant part.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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