Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The intertwined history of Pearl Jam and Lollapolooza

By Rob Janicke

For those who have been following since I started covering the 2007 Lollapalooza festival, you know we’ve already talked about what Lollapalooza is and what it means at this moment in time. We’ve also discussed a few tips on how to get the most out of your festival-going experience. So now seems like the perfect time to start delving into the bands. Let’s face it, isn’t it all about the music anyway?

As I was writing this piece there were 90 confirmed bands on the bill. That’s 90 bands over a three day period––just an insane amount of music. So with that in mind I wanted to talk about some of the bands we’ll be seeing in Chicago (August 3-5) but where does one begin to comment on 90 different bands? At the top I suppose. In future articles I’ll profile several bands at a time but I thought if Lollapalooza has a headliner, than so can I.

For those of us old enough to have been an active participant in the 1992 edition of Lollapalooza, we witnessed a band (very early on in the day) that would one day come to be regarded as “the greatest American rock band of all time” (in a USA Today 2005 reader poll). Polls are polls and always up for debate, but I guess the point is that 15 years after a daytime slot on the second-ever Lollapalooza, Pearl Jam are worldwide superstars whose relevance is beyond measure. I guess that qualifies them to headline this years’ event.

Pearl Jam was spawned from the ashes of several bands from Seattle. Founding members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard played separately in several bands in and around Seattle in the early 1980s. In 1984 they came together along with singer Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner and drummer Alex Vincent to form the infamous Green River. After a few years together, Green River disbanded in 1987, paving the way for Ament and Gossard to start a new band. They hooked up with Malfunkshun singer Andrew Wood and called their new creation Mother Love Bone. The new band garnered some local attention and was signed to major record label PolyGram in 1989.

This would prove to be last good thing to happen to Mother Love Bone. Soon after being signed Wood died of a heroin overdose. His death occurred prior to the release of their debut album “Apple,” which left Ament and Gossard seriously contemplating their musical futures.

That contemplation would not last long. After recruiting former Shadow guitarist Mike McCready and enlisting the help of former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons (Irons turned down their original offer to play drums in their band) in finding a singer, things were about to come together with a sonic boom. Irons was given a five-song demo of instrumentals with the hopes of finding a voice to compliment those songs. That voice was found in the person of Eddie Vedder, a friend of Irons and singer of the San Diego band, Bad Radio.

For all intents and purposes, this was the moment Pearl Jam was born. As you could imagine there is so much more that happened before they actually played as “Pearl Jam”—drummers coming and going, name changes and whatnot. If this were a Pearl Jam biography there would be many chapters dedicated to this part alone, but that’s not the point of this piece.

If we fast forward to 1992, we will have witnessed the explosion of the “grunge” movement (the name “grunge” is often attributed to Green River alum and current Mudhoney front man, Mark Arm) and the second Lollapalooza festival. At this point Pearl Jam had already released its debut album “Ten” (which would eventually go on to sell over 12 million copies) and had been touring nonstop. Their slot on Lollapalooza was given to them before they broke worldwide and therefore appeared second on the bill. It was this tour that solidified what many in the Pacific Northwest already knew—that this band flat-out rocked!

Fast forward again to 2007 and you’ll find a group of men, now in their 40s, ready to headline the same festival they basically opened in 1992. It’s quite an accomplishment really. It speaks to the longevity and the importance of a rock band that has meant many things to many people

Yet as popular an certainly influential as it is, Pearl Jam sort of lives in a bubble of its own. Believe it or not, some people have actually said out loud, “I remember Pearl Jam, they’re still around?” No one would say that about U2 or Bruce Springsteen, but people do say that about this year’s headlining act. It proves that bands can fly under the radar, do things their own way and still grow as musicians. You can develop what has become one of the most rabid and loyal fan bases in all of music and not have to make hundreds of videos or have a new single on the radio every month. Pearl Jam is a throw back band with both the present and the future still in the palm of their hands.

With Lollapalooza going through a few different incarnations, some troubled times and a bit of an identity crisis since it first began, having a band like Pearl Jam slotted as the headliner just feels right. Think about it. Pearl Jam has gone through the same kinds of trials and tribulations as the festival it is returning to—the breakthrough in the early 90s, the Ticketmaster wars, the experimental albums, the decrease in popularity and fan base during the late 90s, and now a renewed appreciation.

I have a feeling that both Pearl Jam and Lollapalooza, in their current states, will continue to thrive, inspire and be an integral part of the musical landscape for a very long time to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Coachella not just for big name acts

By Mike Ruby

With the temperature officially in the triple digits, I figured it was time to get out of the sun for a little while. As I approached the Gobi tent, I was disappointed to find that there were people spilling out of every side and there was no way of getting any shade. I was, however, intrigued by the music that was coming out of the tent. It sounded like a 10-piece band playing a fast blend of salsa, rock, and flamenco. Imagine my surprise when I got a glance at the stage and found out that the band consisted of only two acoustic guitars.

It then dawned on me that it was the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, who created this wide range of sounds through extremely fast picking and using their guitars as percussion, sometimes both at the same time. I had never heard anything like it. The two played faster than the average heavy metal band, but with more precision and confidence. They showed off their talents further when they did their own spin on songs by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica--making it all look easy.

This was only one of the more than 100 bands that played the Coachella Music and Arts Festival this year. The festival could be described as Burning Man meets Woodstock and needless to say, it was a sensory overload. First of all, the range of music seemed incredibly broad. Whether it was the mellow, folk/bluegrass sound of Nickel Creek or the pounding, electronic beats of Felix Da Housecat, there was bound to be something pleasing to the ear.

The performances by Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers have been described in previous posts on this blog. As amazing as those two acts were, there were masses of lesser-name bands that, although overlooked, were really the glue that held the festival together. Many of them made an impression while bigger names like Willie Nelson, Bjork, Tiesto, Manu Chao and The Jesus and Mary Chain were decent but forgettable.

One example was Los Angeles-based indie rock group Silversun Pickups. Although the band gained attention less than a year ago, it managed to land a gig on the main stage at Coachella, and I was impressed with the band's professionalism. For the entire set, it was easy to tell that all four members were having a blast and their sense of accomplishment provided a new level of energy. At one point between songs, frontman Brian Aubert said, “I’m feeling pretty good about myself right now.” The Silversun Pickups deserved to give themselves a pat on the back for fighting intimidation and just tearing up the stage from beginning to end.

Another memorable act was The Coup, a hip-hop duo from my home town, Oakland, CA. The band's live set offered an entirely different sound from its recorded music. Not that The Coup's records are less than praiseworthy, but what made the show was the guitar/bass/drum trio backing up rapper Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress. With lyrics even farther to the left than those of Rage Against the Machine, Riley succeeded in getting the audience pumped. Rather than chew the scenery, he gave his band members space to jam and express themselves creatively, creating a hip-hop/funk blend unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Being that Coachella is a music and arts festival, the visual aesthetics of the place were astounding, to say the least. In addition to the mountains and palm trees surrounding the field, there were giant art pieces arrayed around the festival grounds. Some of the best were a giant dome covered in moving lights, a 40-foot-tall, three-legged metal creature named I.T., and the ever popular Tesla Coil, which conducted dangerously large lightning bolts. The series of bicycle-powered carnival rides were quite entertaining as well.

One downside of the festival was that there was too much to see in too little time. With five bands playing at any given time, sacrifices had to be made. Because of this, I was only able to see bits and pieces of sets. I managed to watch only part of Patton Oswalt’s hilarious routine with the Comedians of Comedy and caught just a few minutes of Busdriver’s lightning-speed rapping. I had to alternate every couple of songs between The Arctic Monkeys and Stephen Marley because both were too good to pass up. There were also some significant acts I didn’t get to see at all, including Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell’s current project, Satellite Party, and eccentric gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. Infected Mushroom, The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, Girl Talk, and Kings of Leon were other groups that I regretably had to skip.

One act that I did have the pleasure of seeing was Peeping Tom, the latest project from former Faith No More frontman, Mike Patton. The set consisted of an eclectic blend of songs whose influences ranged from alternative to electronica to hip-hop to every other type of music that could be packed into a 50-minute set. And though Patton refrain from the wild stage antics he was known for with Faith No More, Peeping Tom brought down the tent and showed the audience a great time.

Many bands at Coachella demonstrated the difference between simply playing and putting on a show. The Decemberists were one that put forth a little extra, the highlight coming in a final, acoustic number for which the band broke out a mandolin, upright bass, hand percussion and accordion. Considering how serious the Decemberist’s music often sounds, I was fairly surprised to hear the band perform a sea shanty involving audience participation and a giant whale costume. Who would have thought?

As an appetizer to Rage Against the Machine, Rage’s guitarist, Tom Morello, under the name The Nightwatchman, attracted a large crowd to one of the smaller stages for his solo set. All of the songs were original folk tunes for which Morello sang and played acoustic guitar and harmonica. While the songs weren’t especially memorable, I enjoyed watching one of today’s most prominent rock guitarists croon a series of Dylan-esqe tunes about things like women’s rights and war. And although songs like “One Man Revolution” might not have had the powerful effect on society that Rage’s “Killing in the Name” has, it was nice to see Morello back into activism, having taken a hiatus while playing with Audioslave. To close the set, The Nightwatchman was accompanied by Perry Farrell and Boots Riley for a rendition of the American classic “This Land Is Your Land.”

I was amazed by the amount of energy and confidence that many performers possessed. The Kaiser Chief’s performance was noteworthy for its abundance of energy. The same was true for Jack’s Mannequin, which rounded out its set with vocalist Andrew McMahon standing on top of a grand piano and belting a surprisingly excellent cover of Tom Petty’s “An American Girl.” Rufus Wainwright sang every song with passion and meaning and everyone in The Arcade Fire sang their hearts out.

By the end of the weekend, I had blisters on my feet and sunburned shoulders and as I got in the car to make the nine-hour journey home, I was struck with the realization that I had just experienced something unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Not only was I there for the reuniting of Happy Mondays, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Crowded House, and of course, Rage, but I had looked at incredible artwork, eaten overpriced but delicious food, met some awesome people, and expanded my musical information bank.

So for those who have been pondering the idea of heading to Coachella next year, here’s a little piece of advice: wear sunscreen and comfortable shoes, nurse a bottle of water at all times, and keep an open mind. The best bands are often the one’s that you least expect.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mike Ruby's Coachella photo gallery

Below is a collection of photograph's taken by Mike Ruby at the the 2007 Coachella Music and Arts Festival. These photos are meant to give a taste of the wide range of visual and musical phenomena at the festival. These certainly don't encapsulate everything, but they give an idea of the general atmosphere.

Chili Peppers still hot in Coachella desert

By Mike Ruby

The Red Hot Chili Peppers returned from their Australian tour last week to play the second night of the three-day Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. Although billed as a headliner, they were scheduled to play on the main stage before European techno phenomenon, Tiesto. This was unfortunate because they were only allowed a set of an hour and a quarter, which seemed like five minutes.

But however short or long they play for, the Chili Peppers can always be counted on to treat every show as if it’s their last. This show was no exception. They acted as if they were having the times of their lives, which in turn carried over into the crowd.

The popping and thumping of Flea’s bass and the beautiful range of tones resonating from John Frusciante’s guitar brought a wave of energy over the audience. Flea, John, and drummer Chad Smith started the show with one of their classic, seemingly improvised jams, transitioning into “Can’t Stop,” for which vocalist Anthony Kiedis made his grand entrance.

They went on to play their hits “Dani California” and “Otherside,” but neglected to play several others--for example, “Around the World” and “Californication.” Other, more obscure songs proved to be as great, if not better than, the chart-toppers. Some of the most memorable songs in the set had never even been played on the radio, including “Get on Top,” “This Velvet Glove” and “Don’t Forget Me,” in which Frusciante played the most powerful guitar solo of the evening.

As excellent as their new music is, I was mildly disappointed that no pre-90s songs were played, with the exception of “Higher Ground.”

Having been a band for over two decades with most of the band well into in their 40s, the Chili Peppers have provoked a common inquiry: Have they still got it? There were a couple noticeable flubs during the show, and Kiedis started a few songs off in the wrong key. However, it is safe to say that, at this point in time, none of those things matter in the least. Even though they’ve entered middle age, all four members still have the vigor and enthusiasm they’ve always had. It’s obvious just by watching a few minutes of these talented individuals play that they love what they do.

There’s no doubt that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have evolved. Their music is no longer as funky and psychotic, but now is more melodic and spiritual. Sure, it would be nice to hear a little more of the old stuff. It is, after all, what originally made the band so famous. But there’s only so much that can be fit into one short set. Plus, their new songs are enchanting in their own way and from the looks of it, the Chili Peppers are going to keep at it for many years to come.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rage makes triumphant return at Coachella

By Mike Ruby

Legendary rock band Rage Against the Machine played its first show together in seven years on Sunday at the Coachella music festival in Southern California. The group had been broken up since 2000 and this was the first of only a few shows that the band plans to do. Headlining the three-day festival along with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tiesto and Bjork, Rage Against the Machine had fans flocking from all over the world to witness this historic landmark in rock music.

[Photo (Reuters): Rage's Zack de la Rocha testifies at Coachella.]

Besides being known for their unique blend of hip-hop, metal, funk, and punk, Rage is also world renowned for its radical leftist views. Their whole image has always been anti-authority, and their music has been a catalyst for protesting and rioting, something the members of the band hold near and dear to them. From the beginning, Rage Against the Machine was all about fighting for your rights and standing up to the man. It is fair to say that with everything that’s currently happening in the world, Rage is just what the world needs right now. It needs a band that’s angry at the goings on of the American government and is not afraid to express it.

There was a slew of amazing bands that played the festival, but they all seemed like just an appetizer to what was scheduled to appear at quarter to eleven on Sunday night. By ten thirty, the vast majority of the audience had migrated to the main stage, leaving below-average-sized audiences for Infected Mushroom and The Lemonheads, who were unfortunate enough to be billed at the same time as Rage.

As tens of thousands of fans gathered around the stage, the lights went out and everybody knew that this was the moment they’d been waiting seven years for. Amidst clouds of smoke and ground-rumbling screams, the band made its entrance. They picked up their instruments and just stood their and drank in the love from the audience. Vocalist Zack de la Rocha took the microphone and said in a cool and calm voice, “Good evening. We’re Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California.” The band proceeded to break into “Testify” and from that point on, it was as if they hadn’t ever split up.

For the entire performance, there was absolutely know mention of the fact that this was the first time they’d been on stage together in seven years. They simply picked up where they left off and played a classic Rage Against the Machine concert. Zack de la Rocha may not have quite the screaming capacity he used to, but he put his heart and soul into the words and put on an excellent performance. Guitarist Tom Morello was captivating as usual with the use of his many guitar effects and the scratching and other percussive sounds that he could make emanate from the instrument. Tim Commerford drove the band with his original and bold bass lines and Brad Wilk laid down the beat with precision.

Although the band played only for an hour and fifteen minutes, Rage Against the Machine’s set was comprehensive and full of energy. The songs were ordered well and even though they couldn’t play all of their great tunes, they didn’t leave out any hits. Some of their best performances were of “Bullet in the Head” and “Wake Up,” during which De la Rocha gave a powerful speech about America’s corrupt regime. Again, classic Rage.

The most memorable moment of the show was when the band played its final encore number, “Killing in the Name” and De la Rocha had the entire audience prominently sporting their middle fingers and chanting “Fuck you, I won’t do whatcha tell me!” This was reminiscent of hip-hop artist Pharaoh Monch, who also led the audience in an anti-authoritarian bird-flipping session during his performance on Saturday. On the other hand, Rage didn’t burn flags or duct tape their mouths and stand onstage naked for fifteen minutes. This time, they just played and it sounded fantastic.

But if the band was less rowdy than its reputation, the fans were no less keyed up. Earlier in the day, The Kaiser Chiefs had performed their hit song “I Predict a Riot,” which foreshadowed the events yet to come. Though the audience was well-behaved at the venue, that was not so for those who were at the camp site after the show. By three in the morning, all hell had broken loose. There was a giant fire blazing and people were burning clothes and cell phones and drinking and chanting and rebelling.

Against what? Who knows? But it wouldn’t have been a Rage Against the Machine concert if everyone just went to bed and there was no chaos. Throwing cell phones in a fire might not have been what Rage had in mind, but people were rebelling and that’s all that seemed to matter. Coachella might well have been one of only a few more shows that Rage Against the Machine will ever play. But there's no doubt that there is an audience ready for another band to come along and show the world the true meaning of revolution.