Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sub-Pop 20 and Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band: Sun, Song, and Nostalgia

A flag emblazoned with the basic black-and-white logo of Sub Pop Records waved from the Space Needle's spire a couple of weeks ago, and it damn near made me cry when I saw it from my workplace rooftop that Friday.

The draperie flew to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Seattle's most famous record label, and the celebration culminated at Marymoor Park the weekend of July 12 with a two-day music festival that featured bands from every phase of the label's history.

I was lucky enough to be at Ground Zero when Sub Pop first came thundering out of this part of the world, forging a sound that became known by the lemmings in the media as Grunge and changing the world's perception of this sleepy little big city I live in. One of my first 21+ shows was a gig at the Central Tavern in 1988. On the bill: Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood and Stone Gossard, Mudhoney, Denver punk band The Fluid, and Soundgarden. Through some miracle of God and nature I'd even scored an interview with the latter that night, years before they became worldwide arena-rock gods. It was a great time to be a rock-and-roll-loving college kid.

So Sub Pop 20 Irony of Ironies Number One: Saturday's Sub Pop 20 jam replicated half of that bill, and damned if both bands didn't rip it up with the abandon of a buncha young pups. Seattle sons Mudhoney have always been the Nolan Ryans of Seattle rock--they've pounded out the same Iggy-Pop-cum-Ramones wall of noise with nearly the same line-up lo these last twenty years--and they cemented their rep with a shredding set that hauled out grunge-era classics like "Touch Me I'm Sick" alongside new piledrivers like the insanely catchy "I'm Now". Lead yelper Mark Arm left his guitar alone, yowling like Iggy on a bender and leaving the rest of the band to cough up bruised garage riffs like barbed-wire furballs.

The big surprise for me amongst the old guard acts was The Fluid, whose straightahead garage punk didn't impress me terribly way back in the day. This gig marked the band's first full-fledged show together in fifteen years, and simply put, they blew me away. Though most of the band looked decidedly long in the tooth, they powered through their 45-minute-long set with jackhammer force, and the songs, well, they were tight, punchy, catchy, and anthemic as hell. Best of all, vocalist John Robinson brought his best Mick Jagger-cum-Iggy foot forward: He sounded and looked like he hadn't aged an hour over the last two-plus decades. We all should be so lucky.

Sub Pop 20 Irony of Ironies, Number Two: The old geezers rocked the hardest while the young bucks kept it mellow. I'd only heard one track from Fleet Foxes prior to the Sub Pop 20 (the gorgeous "White Water Hymnal", which can be easily accessed via the band's MySpace page), but their magnificent set that afternoon converted me thoroughly. Their sound elegantly blends traditional folk, Appalacian bluegrass, Brian Wilson/Beach Boys harmony, and the haunted grandeur of the Zombies into an utterly fresh and achingly beautiful new thing. And when they broke into stunning three-and-four part harmonies at the drop of a straw hat, you could color me smitten. Minnesota natives Low, meanwhile, took it down several notches with a sensual narcotic drone that went down really well in the July sun (color me smitten by them, too). Second-to-last act Samuel Beam (better known as Iron and Wine) maintained the chill vibe, but his earnest Neil Young-isms lacked the stick-to-itiveness of Low or Fleet Foxes.

Which leads to Sub Pop 20 Irony of Ironies Number Three: The biggest selling act on Sub Pop's roster of artists right now ain't some skull-crushing grunge outfit, nor is it some earnest bunch of folkies. Nope, the mantle of the label's current Golden Goose belongs to two New Zealand clowns currently purveying some of the most hysterical musical parody this side of Spinal Tap.

Sub Pop's been building an impressive roster of comedy recordings from the likes of David Cross and Patton Ostwalt lately, but The Flight of the Conchords look to be (hyperbole alert!) the Beatles of the Sub Pop Comedy Invasion. The duo's evening-ending set packed Marymoor Park to the gills, turning hundreds of grown women into shrieking little schoolgirls (including yours truly's significant other): If the outdoor venue woulda had a roof, they'd've brought it down with two acoustic guitars and a boatload of sharp wit.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie have parlayed their brilliant audio parodies into the best comedy on TV right now (that'd be, um, HBO's Flight of the Conchords), on which they play struggling New Zealand musicians eking out a living in the Big Apple. But live playing is where they really shine, replicating everything from boudoir funk (on the hilarious "Business Time") to Donovan hippy-pop ("The Prince of Parties") to gangsta rap ("Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros") with only their voices and a couple of acoustic guitars as backup. The songs are funny enough, but these guys shore up the yocks with honest-to-God hooks, harmonies, and song structures as solid as any 'serious' band.

They didn't play their finest composition (the jaw-droppingly brilliant and pants-soilingly funny David Bowie parody, "Bowie"), but they played most of their other favorites with enthusiasm and had the whole audience eating out of their hands by night's end. Who'da thunk that a couple of court jesters would save The Label that Nirvana built?

(Memo to all of my lady friends with rampant crushes on both Conchords, by the way: Jemaine and Bret looked much the same as they do on the show, except Jemaine's mane of curly brown hair was a bit longer and messier than usual and Bret looked a lot taller in person. They seem like really nice, funny regular guys. And yes, they're both cute as buttons in real life, a proclamation put to the test by the dark photo above, shot by the missus.)

One week later, any pretense of averting nostalgia was shot to hell when I attended Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band's set at Chateau ste. Michelle. Screw jaded post-modern cynicism: It was the first time I got to see a Beatle live, and it couldn't have been more of a blast. Enclosed please find the closest thing to a clear shot I snagged that night: The former Beatles drummer would be the third smudge from the left.

The Happy Beatle's been doing All-Starr shows for years now, and every tour follows the same pattern. Ringo puts together a backing band made up of several familiar musical faces (most of whom have hits of their own); they cover several Beatles songs, as well as key Ringo Starr solo tracks; each member of the band gets to trot out their own hit(s) for the approving audience; and they finish out with a Beatles sing-along. It's pure warm-and-fuzzy good times.

Among Ringo's instrumental back-up were bassist Hamish Stewart of the Average White Band (he laid a supple bottom end to the band's cover of that funk instrumental gem, "Pick Up the Pieces"), keyboardist/70's hitmaker Gary Wright (who played both of his AM gold classics, "Dreamweaver" and "Love is Alive"), Men at Work lead singer/guitarist Colin Hay (representing the new wave contingent with "Down Under" and "Who Can it Be Now"), Texas boogie-bluesman Edgar Winter (who rotated through various instruments and laid down scary keyboards on his seventies instrumental rock gem, "Frankenstein"), and eighties arena rocker Billy Squier (purveyor of Reagan-era Camaro fodder like "Everybody Wants You").

The audience would've probably eaten the two-hour-plus set up regardless of the quality--after all, the show was chock-full of old hits from the sixties, seventies, and eighties and cheap and tasty wine flowed freely. Blessedly, the show was tight enough to beat back any charges of laurel-resting. Rabid Beatlemaniac (and fellow concertgoer) Bob Suh had already seen Ringo's All-Starr jam twice previously, and he said this one was by far the best. I can see why. At age 68, Starr's looking and sounding more robust than ever, and when he wasn't out front singing he was behind the drum kit lending rock's most famous backbeat to the mini-sets by his bandmates (all of these classic-rock warhorses, incidentally, seriously cooked). Hearing the Beatles' drummer accompanying Squier on that arena-rock classic, "The Stroke" hit the realm of the surreal, but it really hit home Starr's un-snobby joy at playing. And that joy was infectious.

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