John Mayall

Years ago I had the chance to hear Robert Lockwood Jr. a few times in a small club in Cleveland. My mother had just died, or was about to, and I was in the midst of a series of trips to be with her and then to deconstruct the house. Lockwood was the same generation as my mother, 91, a few months away from dying, and a link to the past as the only guitarist to have learned to play from Robert Johnson and, later, as a collaborator with Sonny Boy Williamson II. on the King Biscuit radio show. Why he preferred Cleveland to Chicago I don’t know. He’d show up at Fat Fish Blue, several nights a week I believe, across the street from the Terminal Tower (now called Tower Center, where the Republicans had the convention that nominated Donald Trump), sit down, and play. Doing what he did

I saw Big Mama Thornton once too, no longer big, sitting in a chair in the Pub at UCSD, brought there by a local musician friend, to do what she did. Most of the children (I mean college students) had no idea who she was, had no idea what it meant when she sang Hound Dog. I had no idea she’d be there when I walked in looking for a beer, serendipity I guess. And she wasn’t well, she died at 57 and this can’t have been much before that, she only looked old, older than Lockwood when I saw him.

Last week I saw John Mayall at The Belly Up in Solana Beach, the same place I saw X the week before. X had a good time, fortieth anniversary tour, perhaps planning to keep going until at least one of them dropped. Mayall just needs Mayall. These aren’t his glory years, if he ever had them, he doesn’t have Eric Clapton or Harvey Mandel in his band now, just a bass and drums behind him and an organ, guitar, and harmonica in front, sometimes two at once. He’s 83, and I guess you’d know it, or think he was at least 60, but maybe only for his attitude. Here’s what I thought: he has nothing to prove, he just does what he does. And for all I know that’s the way to stay alive.

The contrast with the X show was interesting. The members of X are all about a decade younger than me, Mayall a decade older. (For reference, I’m slightly older than Mick and Keith, and a few years younger–this surprised me–than Grace Slick. If you don’t know who I’m talking about you probably need to ask your parents.) Mayall’s audience skewed older than most I’ve seen at the Belly Up (though Billy Bob Thornton’s audience wasn’t terribly young either): I didn’t feel out of place, and they didn’t pat us down on the way in. X sold out two nights and the line to get in was horrid; Mayall played one night, and it was walk right in. Both X and Mayall are arguably important in the history of rock, but influence is not popularity, perhaps the reverse if the size of Pere Ubu’s audience last December at the Casbah is an indication.

Greg Douglass, Barry Melton, Peter Albin, David Aguilar, and Roy Blumenthal (on drums)

On Saturday I drove to Venice Beach in LA for the Venice Beach Music Festival. I didn’t know what to expect but, as I told a couple of friends recently, I feel as though if I can go from music to music I’ll be fine. I hadn’t been to Venice for about 40 years, the last a time I almost rented an apartment right on the Boardwalk (which doesn’t seem to have any boards, but that’s not important). The drive was bad, the parking worse, I walked a mile from my car to the beach. I didn’t start listening to the Festival music right away, walking the length of the Boardwalk to see if I could find the place I almost lived (no luck). There were musicians everywhere, craft artists, lots of signs that said things like “no free photos,” and a topless protest parade that passed within feet of me almost before I noticed. This group was followed closely by a less attractive group of religious zealots shouting what you might expect. One sign said something like “Ask me why you deserve hell.” Those guys were followed by a few police officers, to keep the peace I assume, and an incidental indication of legitimacy.

Greg Douglass, Denise Kaufman, Barry Melton

After the walk, a bathroom line, and a sandwich, I got back to the festival stage just in time to hear more old folks–my age group, my generation, this time–having fun, Barry Melton’s San Francisco All-Stars. Barry Melton is the “fish” of Country Joe and the Fish. In his band were Greg Douglass (Steve Miller), now a Del Dios resident where I used to live, Denise Kaufman (Ace of Cups), Peter Albin (Big Brother), Roy Blumenthal (Blues Project), and David Aguilar (broad resume). Seeing these guys made me happy. I love lead guitar and harmonica more than anything, and Greg Douglass and Denise Kaufman were terrific. No one played like they had anything to prove, and it was grand.

A little later the Festival headliners, The Strawberry Alarm Clock came on, suffering a little from their repertoire.

Strawberry Alarm Clock

And, just because I have it, and because if you’ve gotten this far you deserver it, here’s a photo of The Head and the Heart (a Seattle band my daughter and granddaughter like) singing California Dreaming with Michelle Phillips at Monterey Pop 50.

The Head and the Heart with Michelle Phillips
X

I don’t usually go in for hearing old bands live, touring with their old material for whatever reason (Steely Dan? and I’ve resisted both chances to hear the B-52s this summer). But X is different: hearing X makes me happy, makes me want to move to Los Angeles, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It could be argued that X is an important band, despite being unknown to a surprisingly large percentage of my friends, influential beyond their popularity, a band’s band maybe, like Pere Ubu.

I first heard X about 35 years ago, give or take, at a small club out Clairemont Mesa, gone now. don’t remember the name, maybe the Bacchanal but maybe not. There were a few rows of seats facing the stage and that was about it. Some drugs in the bathroom, or maybe that’s a misremembered TV show. Last week I attended the second of two sold out X shows at the Belly Up, a bigger venue than that first one but still what one might call “intimate.” Two nights before it was X Day at Dodger Stadium. They’re on their 40th Anniversary Tour.

X is back the same as it ever was, all four original members–Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake– forty years older. X is what we might have called in the late 60s a power trio with a chick singer, though I doubt I’d dare. They have power, straight-ahead punk sound, unrelenting even, coupled with the tight, unforgiving, shout singing vocal harmony between John Doe and Exene. (The only reason I hesitate to use the word “punk” is because they’re so good musically, unlike, say, the Dead Milkmen. And Billy Zoom, perhaps the straightest looking middle-aged musician I’ve seen in a long time, can flat play.) X is rarely subtle, musically, and the message of one of their best songs, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, suffers from it, misconstrued into its opposite so that they stopped playing it for a while (but not anymore). Some of the songs are newer (Billy played a sax of some size on a couple of them) but the sound is pretty much the same, and these guys are still live. Exene in particular–and I know the term is overused–a force of nature.

The audience was a bit punky, pogoing and jerking side-to-side, at least in my neighborhood, people probably younger than the band, but okay, better for me than the screamers at the Lana Del Rey show at the House of Blues. At one point, sometime after eleven, someone in the audience requested a song. John Doe answered, “It’s coming,” and “You were here last night motherfucker, you know what’s going on.” A little later they launched a medley, mostly from their first album, without breaks, Los Angeles, Your Phone’s Off the Hook but You’re Not, Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, Motel Room in my Bed, and Soul Kitchen (a Doors song they do better), and an encore from a later album, The New World (my favorite) and Devil Dog. This is all according to Setlist, I was too busy listening to take notes.

The warm up band, LP3 and the Tragedy, was pretty good too, with a sound that at first made me wonder why X looked so different.

Lana Del Rey in situ

I haven’t been a big concert goer the past few decades. I’ve heard Pere Ubu, Billy Bob Thornton, Father John Misty, Kitty Plague, and I went to the three-day Monterey Pop 50 with my daughter (where we both heard Regina Spektor for the first time), but none of these was a match for the Lana Del Rey experience at the House of Blues in San Diego. The concert was announced four days in advance, with insider ticket sales the next day if you bought something from her site and logged on at 10am. So grandpa played the rules, bought her new album online, and made the will-call list, part of the experience.

On Monday I left work early but not early enough to avoid an hour-and-a-half wait in the will-call line that that went three-quarters of the way around the block, standing with strangers mostly my granddaughter’s age, managing not to need to pee or to faint from dehydration, then it was another line, half an hour and all the way around the block, lapping the will-call line still going strong, to get in the door, past the pat down, and over to the bar to wait for another hour before the singing started. So, will-call line at 5:30, ticket at 7:00, inside by 7:30, singing at 8:40 until 10:10, ending with an instrumental walk-off worthy of the introduction to a Cure song.

I haven’t heard everybody, but I’ve listened to singers my age-mates, and even my daughters age-mates, have never heard or even heard of. To me Lana Del Rey is one of the three most interesting singer-songwriters of her generation (I have tickets to the other two in October). I’ve listened to her songs, on headphones mostly, over and over. I’m ambivalent and enthusiastic, beautiful songs contain lyrics like “Heaven is a place on earth with you/Tell me all the things you wanna do/I heard that you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” (Video Games, her first “hit”), or “My old man is a bad man” etc. (Off to the Races, which she closed with), where she loves that he loves her. But then there’s I Sing the Body Electric, which she opened with: right now I’m all about the night I saw her, not the hours I’ve listened on my own.

The problem, if you can call it a problem, is that she has fans. She has fans like no one else I’ve seen in a very long time. My 49 year-old daughter rushed the stage at Monterey when Phil Lesh came on, and that was something, but Lana’s fans were something else, much younger (than my daughter, and of course me) for the most part, majority female. They know the songs, and sang along, some. Lana encouraged it, pointed her microphone at audience for the refrain “probably a million years” in Summertime Sadness. She has a new album, Lust for Life, not the first album or song with that name (Iggy Pop, collaborating with David Bowie, not to mention the reference to Vincent Van Gogh), so the title could be seen as a statement about her position vis-a-vis these others. Reviewers, and Lana Del Rey herself, think this album, which debuted at #1, is her best, and a new departure; I’m not so sure, to me it seems more like her Nashville Skyline moment (to reference one of her avowed influences), but it didn’t matter last Monday night. Only two of the sixteen songs she sang–Change and Love–were from the new album. The concert, with the fans singing along, holding their phones aloft as a previous generation held cigaret lighters, screaming in recognition as each song started and intermittently throughout, so that the acoustics were better in the men’s room–this concert, this experience, was about the past, not the future or even the present.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved being there, standing in the back by the bar, peering over the heads of the fans who, if not her target audience (she says she’s a songwriter first and a singer second) have at least taken that role; I know the songs too, and teared up during Born to Die, and I’d go see her again (even with the will-call line), but the true experience of her music is alone in headphone space listening closely to the lyrics.