We Are Wolves

Non-Stop Je Te Plie en Deux is the debut release from the French Canadian alternative rock band We Are Wolves. What it is doing on Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi blues label, I havent quite figured outtheir synthesizer based music (keys, bass, vocals and drums, no guitar at all) seems miles away from the Black Keys, let alone Robert Belfourbut I like it anyway. The group plays with drive and a sense of fun that connects with the listener.

We Are Wolves has something to do with what I think of as the new new-wave (or retro-wave) crop of bands out there that hearken back to the new wave bands of the late 70s and 80s. What sets We Are Wolves a little bit apart from some of these bands is that they seem so openly frivolous; their hard riffs remind me a bit of early Devo and Pere Ubu, but with rhythms and the in-your-face attitude of early Beastie Boys. You could call We Are Wolves arrogantwhen I saw them at the Troubadour in West Hollywood they introduced The Little Birds as Les Petite Ouiseaux and told the crowd to Learn some Frenchbut not pretentious.

Anyway, good stuff. They throw down beats that are basically rock but still danceworthy, and they are funny even if the jokes are sometimes obscure. We Are Wolves are entertaining and, let’s face it, not everyone in alternative/indie rock is.

Kristin Hersh at Tangier

Kristin Hersh
The Good Listeners
The Fold at Tangier, Los Angeles
1/13/06

This was the second and final night of Kristin Hershs engagement at Tangier in Los Angeles. She performed two sets, the first consisting of songs from her solo career, while the second focused on songs from her 90s group Throwing Muses. Both halves of the show were a success, with her sizable contingent of fans entranced by her every word.

Though the performance was in a solo acoustic format, the music was far from laid back. Ms. Hersh is diminutive in size and feminine in dress, but she plays and particularly sings with an an almost demonic ferocity. When her songs reach their apex of intensity, she seems to channel both Patti Smith and Linda Blair. Her soft, babydoll face changes, radiating the pain of her lyrics, her eyes appearing possessed. Her voice can be beautiful, but then she reaches down into some wellspring of rage and you can literally here her scraping it out through her throat. Her guitar work also impressed, interpolating some folk and blues techniques into a modern rock idiom on songs like Snow Cat.

Opening were the Good Listeners, a two-piece NPR-friendly pop group seemingly indebted to the late music of the Beatles, the Flaming Lips, David Bowie, and Squeeze, among others. Their show in particular was reminiscent of the Lips, with its quirky audiovisual accompaniment and their unusual method of making music. The two gentlemen used a variety of electronic equipment to expand their sound, laying a track on an electronic drum or keyboard and feeding it into a loop, then playing some bass and looping that, switching to guitar and so on.

It was all very interesting to watch, though Im not really sold on their songwriting based on this first impression. It wasnt bad, but the lyrics in particular seemed a bit weak when they stood out at all. I enjoyed some of the playing, though, especially the bits of pedal steel guitar that were scattered here and there in the set. A nice cover of the Kinks Waterloo Sunset (with some video footage of that band spliced into the program) ended their part of the performance on a pleasant foot.

Cream, May 2005 on DVD

Ive been viewing the DVD release of Creams 2005 concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and really enjoying it. Rock-n-roll reunions can be hit-or-miss, with many groups never recapturing their original magic of their youth. While Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton dont sound exactly the same today as they did in the late 1960s, when Jimi Hendrix called them the best group in the world, but whatever their music might have lost in terms of spontaneity is made up for in polish.

All three of the musicians in Cream had already established themselves on the English blues before coming together, and the name they selected for their group asserted their clout among musicians. For a few short years, they were the premiere improvisational blues/rock group in the world. Jimi Hendrix may have been the most singularly devastating player and the San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service may have had more stamina, but Cream was the unit that excelled the most individually and collectively.

In the years since their acrimonious breakup, each of the players has led an interesting and erratic career. Clapton, obviously, has been the most commercially successful, but that doesnt necessarily make him the best; his orientation has been much more commercial than either Baker or Bruce, so its probably unfair to compare them on that level. Though he has gone through fallow periods due in part to drug problems, the drummer Ginger Baker can make a strong claim for having the most interesting post-Cream discography. He has recorded some pretty solid, fairly straight ahead jazz albums with the likes of Charlie Haden and James Carter, made some nice records with Afropop legend Fela Kuti, and also made a pair of fascinating world fusion albums with Bill Laswell and his crew; Laswell also brought him in for a memorable guest spot on Public Image Limiteds Album. Jack Bruce has also followed an interesting career arc, alternating avant garde and fusion jazz projects with artists like Carla Bley, John McLaughlin and Tony Williams with more mainstream rock albums, sometimes with Baker in tow.

So what happens when three artists with such divergent paths reunite for a series of gigs? They dont quite pick up where they left off, but they do seem to enjoy returning to their roots. Clapton does not revive the heavy, fuzz-laden tone of his youth, but he does play with a fire that hearkens back to those days and stands out in contrast to the more typically laconic approach he has employed since the 1970s. Bruce sticks more to the blues mode than he might in another setting, but that only focuses his improvisational talent that much more. And Baker just puts on a clinic, keeping perfect time while liberally sprinkling powerful and expressive fills.

Cream has played a series of concerts at Madison Square Garden since these shows were filmed. While it is unlikely that they will again become a regular working band, it is surely to be hoped that they embark on a larger tour. Any fan of improvisational music should be happy to witness a performance on this level.

John Mayer The Bluesman

On the current John Mayer Trio tour fans who fell in love with songs like “Wonderland”, the top 40 hit that compared the human anatomy to a theme park as well as other wonderful songs filled with nice-neat-sensitive male emotion, will be shocked by what they hear. Mayer has enlisted Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan, very skilled and seasoned professionals, to push the boundaries of his songs and guitar playing into the direction of the blues.

If you feel as though Mayer shouldn’t be playing the blues, take note of some of the people he has played with. He has preformed with Buddy Guy, played with Eric Clapton on Larry King’s Katrina benefit and is on B.B. Kings new album 80. If you still have doubts then you should see him as apart of this Trio.

His current tour opens with the blues classic, “Everyday I Have the Blues”. Mayer adopts the main riff of Freddie King’s version of “Woke Up This Morning”. Those who attend these shows will have no clue what I am talking about and thus it will sound like “Everyday I Have the Blues”. Later in the show he finds his way through “I Got A Woman” the Ray Charles classic and “Mr. Pitiful’ by Otis Redding. But what caused me to pause was hearing a version of “Ain’t Gonna Give Up On Love” from his September 6th show at the Fillmore. Mayer’s vocal and guitar haunted me with visions of Stevie Ray Vaughan the way Kenny Wayne and Johnny Lang never have. I was awe struck. Stirring is his ability to take a song identified with a legend and do it with style and taste. He continues to pay homage to the greats by closing his show with “Axis: Bold as Love” the second Hendrix cover in his set. “Wait Til Tomorrow” came early on in the show and the Trio locked into its groove to never let go. Hendrix like Stevie Ray is a tough person to cover. Many try and succeed at going over the top while forgetting the subtle nuances to Jimi’s complexity. “Axis” came off as classy and emotional, yet with a unique quality that didn’t compromise the spirit of Hendrix. Mayer’s guitar work will surprise individuals who view him only as a songwriter. His playing has equal parts- withered understanding and youthful energy. In person you see the passion, grace and emotion in his playing. A recording simply cannot provide the same experience. After witnessing the John Mayer Trio you know they understand the depths of the blues.

The John Mayer Trio’s webpage hints the possibility of live downloads. I would recommend checking these out if you are curious about the Trios sound. Just know that by the time they add songs to the website, the shows near you will be sold out.

B.B. Kings Duets

In honor of his 80th birthday B.B. King released a new album of duets last week, titled “80.” For the new album, King got together with some of music’s biggest stars, including Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Roger Daltrey, Elton John and more. The songs recorded for “80” range from well-loved standards like “The Thrill is Gone” to lesser known tunes, such as “Hummingbird.”

B.B. King also paired with Van Morrison and Eric Clapton on the albumDeuces Wild”, which came out in 1997. That album featured B.B teaming up with artists representing a variety of music genres, including Bonnie Rait, the Rolling Stones and rapper Heavy D (that song is, uh… interesting). The song “If You Love Me,” written and sung by Van Morrison is a treat, and I always enjoy B.B. and Bonnie Rait’s rendition of “Baby I Love You.”

But my favorite by far of B.B. King’s duets albums is the 1993 album “Blues Summit,” where B.B. was joined by blues and jazz stars to sing blues classics. Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Koko Taylor are some of the greats featured on “Blues Summit.” I crack up listening to Ruth Brown and B.B. tease one another in the song “You’re the Boss,” and delight in the incredible guitar playing in B.B.’s duet with Albert Collins, “Call it Stormy Monday.” Finally, the tune “We’re Gonna Make It,” B.B.’s duet with Irma Thomas, is both sweet and cheerful. But I’m a little biased towards that one – it was the song my husband and I danced to at our wedding.