Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Califone and Iron and Wine, Freebird's, Jacksonville, April 13


Easier trip this time, earlier, time for dinner (Mexican food, not bad), time to walk on Jacksonville Beach on a sparkling perfect late afternoon and watch the ocean hush and hush before the Sunday evening show. This time my traveling companion was Andrea, lead singer of Night Driving in Small Towns, a graduate student who writes wonderful poetry and songs.

Freebird's is an odd, two-storey venue where some of the crowd looks down on the stage from upstairs, but it's charming in its own way. It's owned (if the name of the venue didn't clue you in) by an ex-Lynard Skynard musician, and the resident sound guy was Molly Hatchet offspring (no evidence of those Satellites), so Southern heritage was thick as a tick on a sleeping redbone hound. But Sam Beam is from around these parts, so the Jacksonville show doubled as a homecoming of sorts. His parents and other family members attended, so Iron and Wine played a generous, enthusiastic, passionate, and outstanding set.


Califone opened, and this time, we were there before the start. They eased into the show with a sweet "Tayzee Nubb." This time the crowd was more aware, interested, and clearly many in the audience knew the oeuvre and grooved along. They moved through their short set seamlessly between [Roots and Crowns] material and older works. "Orchids" surprises no matter how many times I hear it, and "Fisherman's Wife" after "The Eye You Lost in the Crusades" reminds us that music is pure time and stops it. Feel its rhythms directly; lose count. "Horoscope Amputation Honey" has become Califone's raga live, as its slow opening, its folky troubled poem ("braid your sins into its mane/and kick it to the county line/shake your chains cold and loose/there's nothing safe in your stars") builds into a bardo of rhythm and improvisation that hurts when it stops. Live, it's a folk-shaman symphony. They turn it up.

Sam Beam and his bassist (superb Chicago guy with a great sense of humor) came out to help finish the set, and, while the quieter "Spider's House" played more to Iron and Wine's traditional fan base, they erupted into "Pink and Sour," surprising for its heavy harem flavors and its strong rhythms. The bass crunched magnificently and Sam added to the strong rhythm superbly. And that was it.

After the show, everyone was happy. After goodbyes, Andrea and I drove two hours back to Valdosta, all the music in our heads keeping us awake and talking.

cellphone photos courtesy Andrea Rogers

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tallahassee Roadtrip: Califone and Iron and Wine

Getting to The Moon in Tallahassee on the 10th wasn't as easy as the 86 miles between us, since I had to sit through a stomach-churning committee meeting an hour too long. My wonderfully patient friend Dixie and I unfortunately arrived late, too late to go out to dinner before the show (The Moon's gumbo, though, ain't too shabby), and just in time to catch Califone's last two songs--"Orchids" and "The Eye You Lost in The Crusades." It wasn't even 9:30. The crowd (lots of FSU kids admitted free with ID), clearly showed up only because " free with ID," and maybe because they'd sorta kinda heard that Iron & Wine song on an M&M's commercial or something and somebody in the sorority said like one of their indie rock nerd friend's said it like might be awesome, and so they talked loud and had already drunk too much. Only 9:30 and some guy passes flat out in front of the stage during "Eye," a beautiful and arresting song, that, yes, could in fact cause one to swoon, so perhaps I'm being harsh. To be fair, plenty in the audience knew what they were listening to and were also irritated by the fraterlopers.

Tim Rutili, whose writing I've long admired, was kind enough to come out and wait with me for Dixie, who was out talking to guitarist and filmmaker Jim Becker, dutifully handling merch duties after the set. Tim rescued us and let us back stage where I caught up with him and Joe Adamik and Ben Massarella. Dixie had a good time hearing Joe reminisce about his single Valdosta experience way back when he was married to a woman who spoke only French. The owner of Groucho's (a classic dive and current biker bar called Mikki's) almost kicked Joe's band out because they refused to cover Skynard or Molly Hatchet or the Georgia Satellites, demonstrating that our famous deep South hospitality doesn't apparently apply when it comes to issues of musical diversity.

Iron & Wine began with their earlier quieter works, just Sam Beam with his acoustic and his sister Sarah with violin, pleasing those in the crowd who like Sam Beam's whispering ballads, his quiet stories. Then the entire band joined him, deftly weaving complex rhythms and melodies without overwhelming Sam Beam's natural vocal gifts. In fact, the bigger sound brings out the richness and purity of his voice, and live he proved that Shepard's Dog wasn't all Brian Deck's brilliant production. Every song on the setlist sparkled, especially my favorite from the new album, "Pagan Angel in a Borrowed Car," its southern love-gothic imagery clear and dark ("Love was our father's flag and sewn like a shank/In a cake on our leather boots/A beautiful feather floating down/To where the birds had shit our empty chapel pews) against surprising uplifting rhythms. The backing band was tight all evening, but never mechanical.

Watching from backstage, I focused on Ben Massarella, who plays in both bands, while he worked his percussive wizardry. Usually, from the front, he's hard to see, especially in larger venues. He's constantly picking something up and putting it down, his head bobbing behind the bank of "stuff" he plays like a bear hesitant to come out of the cave after a winter of hibernation, lots of up and down, lots of beautiful noise, that full head of hair, but mysterious. From the back, I watched him pick up instrument after instrument, many found objects, and make the perfect, perfectly timed, bang, shirrrr, ting, beat, or rattle. At times he held so many odd sound-fetishes live in his hands like spirit animals, it looked like he was performing shamanic ritual exorcism (especially during the thundering extended finale of "Horoscope Amputation Honey" in Jacksonville, more on that later). He also smiles when he plays; he loves the music, the sound he helps sculpture. I mentioned my amazement to Tim after the show. He just nodded and smiled, said, "He plays the air."

Photos by Dixie.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Blogging and entertaining visitors for me are mutually exclusive, but I don't mind when people come and hang out here in Valdosta to read poetry or go to the swamp and look for alligators, so if either one of you missed me, please know the cause was righteous and just. First Elena Karina Byrne* (link on the list), a long-time friend, came and read from her new book Masque and taught in my beginning creative writing and contemporary literature class. She stayed for several days and I cooked, which was fun, and the reading was terrific even though I had to throw a sorority out of the building. Standing up to well-dressed, privileged girls, threatening to call security (we were in the right, so I wasn't being a jackass here), was one of my prouder moments. My proudest moment, however, was pulling a sourdough loaf out of the oven that looked and tasted like real sourdough, with the wonderful chewiness and the lightly sour tang that the local strain gives the bread. The next night I turned the remaining dough into a lovely pizza crust, which set itself off perfectly against the fresh sauce and aged fontina, provolone, and parmigiano reggiano. Best pizza I ever made, and second best Elena had ever had (after Italy, she says). Her wonderful smile was worth it all.

My nephew, Erick, also visited, beginning early Sunday, so we cooked on Happy Wake Up Jesus Day a fine leg of lamb, which has since become curry. He came to classes, to the reading, and enjoyed the post-reading "party" with former student and friend Jessica, who showed up with a bottle of the Captain and somebody found a shot glass and, somehow, we ended up in the back yard at midnight doing hula hoops. Fortunately, I stayed away from the captain (as did Erick) and so can document the late night silliness, and can say with no small amount of pride that I can, in fact, still hula that hoop. We did make it out to Grand Bay and spotted a large alligator not too far from the viewing tower, so our swamp trip was also a success. Erick also managed to find time to skateboard and we had fun walking around Little 5 Points in Atlanta, eating at the Vortex, buying T-Shirts at La Petite Mort, before he hopped on the plane for Coos Bay.

Note: Elena and I will be reading together Sunday, April 27th, 10:00 AM at the LA Times Festival of Books Poetry Corner.