First Times: Covering a show at the Hollywood Bowl

Kurt Vile & The ViolatorsBy Josh Herwitt //

Sufjan Stevens with Kurt Vile and The Violators, Ibeyi //
Hollywood Bowl – Los Angeles
August 7th, 2016 //

No matter what you think of LA, whether you love it, hate it or hold no opinion of it at all, the Hollywood Bowl has remained universally loved as one of the city’s most prized possessions. It’s safe to say that the Bowl, as us Angelinos like to call it for short, has always stood as one of the world’s most legendary outdoor music venues. In fact, it’s still considered the “largest natural amphitheater” in the U.S. (whatever that means) at 17,500, but just do a quick Google search for “best outdoor music venues in the U.S.” and you’ll see how often it’s included in listicles ranking the best amphitheaters in the country. For that reason alone — although the glitz and glamour of LA have certainly never hurt — there has always been an understanding within the music industry that any artist who headlines a show inside the Bowl’s iconic band shell has officially “made it.”

Though I don’t know if the same can be said for my music journalism career, there have been at least a few bright spots, one as most recently as last Sunday, when I was invited to cover my first show at the Bowl. It might sound cliché (actually it definitely sounds cliché), but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would get credentialed for a show at one of music’s most storied and historic venues, one that I grew up going to regularly as a kid. When you write for a small music blog like this one, getting the opportunity to cover a show at the Bowl doesn’t come around all that often, if ever. And what a show it turned out to be.

With a bill headlined by neo-psychedelic folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and featuring sets from lo-fi indie rocker Kurt Vile with his backing band, The Violators, and French-Cuban soul/R&B duo Ibeyi, the lineup of performers on this night was eclectic to say the least. Yet, with two of the three acts already in California to play Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival (read our review here), NPR member station KCRW made sure to take advantage for its World Festival series.

Sufjan Stevens


Sufjan Stevens

It’s always tough for an opener to play the Bowl, and unfortunately Ibeyi had to find that out the hard way for its first appearance. With the show’s early start time due to the Bowl’s 10:30 p.m. curfew on Sundays (it slides back to 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday), most of the seats were empty when twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz took the stage at 7 p.m. sharp. It wasn’t until 7:40 p.m., when Vile and his three bandmates were subsequently up next, that the amphitheater started to fill up, especially in the upper-level sections. Vile, who has been touring heavily since the release of his sixth solo album b’lieve I’m goin down…, let out a few hoots and hollers as he opened his 50-minute set, doing his best to pump up the somewhat subdued crowd. But it was his music that ultimately got fans excited, leaning heavily on his newest material as he moved between electric guitar, acoustic guitar and banjo.

The spectacle of the night, however, was no doubt Sufjan Stevens’ set. The Michigan native, who professed his love for his home state on his 2003 LP, had it pretty rough growing up, as he details in “Should Have Known Better” from his latest studio effort Carrie & Lowell. The album, which recounts some of the more unsettling moments Stevens shared with his late mother (Carrie) and stepfather (Lowell) — including times when Carrie abandoned him as a child — and the emotional pain he felt following her death in 2012, has taken his career of almost 20 years to new heights, with many music critics pronouncing it his best yet.

On this evening though, Stevens did his best to spin things in a positive light, proclaiming at one point that he wanted to “sing about life” after spending “a year-and-a-half singing about death.” “Feel your heart and your lungs and the warmth of your skin, and know you’re alive,” he told us in between songs while preaching that we as a society need “less resistance” and “more acceptance.” Coming from a man who dons a pair of giant wings, a neon-colored track suit and at times, a bizarre balloon costume onstage, a spiritual pep talk as such could sound like a bunch of hocus pocus to glass-half-empty types. But the stories Stevens tells on Carrie & Lowell are real and heartfelt, ones that take guts to broadcast publicly like he does, and with a rainbow of fluorescent lights covering the Bowl’s band shell once night fell, the final stop on his 2016 summer tour felt more like a celebration of sorts than a memorial service. So, as the man in a foil-like suit ran through the crowd at the start of his encore, which concluded with a tribute to another one of his fallen heroes in Prince, I couldn’t help but smile and take it all in, knowing full well that the chance to cover a show at the Bowl may never come my way again.

SUFJAN STEVENS

Setlist:
Seven Swans
Too Much
All of Me Wants All of You
Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
I Walked
Vesuvius
Blue Bucket of Gold
Fourth of July
Should Have Known Better
Carrie & Lowell
I Want to Be Well
Impossible Soul
Chicago

Encore:
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
Kiss (Prince cover) (with Moses Sumney)

KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS

Setlist:
Dust Bunnies
I’m an Outlaw
Jesus Fever
Goldtone
KV Krimes
Walkin’ on a Pretty Day
Pretty Pimpin’
Puppet for the Man
Freak Train

IBEYI

Setlist:
Elleggua
Lost in My Mind
Mama Says
I’m on My Way
Oya
Think of You
Oddudua
River

First Times: Experiencing the Santa Barbara Bowl as My Morning Jacket take their game to the next level

My Morning JacketBy Josh Herwitt //

My Morning Jacket with Fruit Bats //
Santa Barbara Bowl – Santa Barbara, CA
October 11th, 2015 //

Ever since I can remember, the Santa Barbara Bowl has always been on my bucket list of concert venues to visit.

With its majestic views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the 4,562-seat outdoor amphitheater offers one of Southern California’s — and maybe even one of the country’s — most beautiful settings to take in live music.

My Morning Jacket

But for whatever reason, whether it was the distance, the timing or just not being able to find the right band to make the 90-minute drive from Los Angeles worth it, seeing a show there had yet to happen for me.

So, when My Morning Jacket unveiled their 2015 U.S. tour dates, which included a Sunday night gig at the Santa Barbara Bowl earlier this month, it was an opportunity that I wasn’t about to pass up.

Following the release of their seventh studio album The Waterfall this past May, My Morning Jacket are one of rock’s biggest crown jewels at the moment. There are a select number of rock ‘n’ roll bands that can elevate their game to another level when they perform live, and for all intents and purposes, the Louisville five-piece has clearly proven to be one of them over the last several years.

But since 1998, when frontman Jim James founded the band with three members from the emo-punk outfit Winter Death Club, My Morning Jacket have done their best to live outside the box, paying homage to the Southern rock gods that have come before them while combining elements of folk, country and even dub and reggae to create a sound that is uniquely their own. In short, they’re a rock band, while psychedelic in nature, that seemingly has no limits. Of course, at least some of that eclecticism can be attributed to James, who has long served as the band’s primary songwriter, but the 37-year-old has also managed to surround himself with a talented group of musicians over the years.

My Morning Jacket

At the Santa Barbara Bowl after an opening set from the recently revived, indie-folk project Fruit Bats (read our interview with the band here), James (guitar, vocals), Tom Blankenship (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Bo Koster (keyboards, percussion, vocals) and Carl Broemel (guitar, pedal steel guitar, saxophone, vocals) were locked in from the moment they walked on stage and started with “Steam Engine”, a deep cut off 2003’s It Still Moves. Though it was more than understandable to see the band play a large majority of The Waterfall for its first performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl in almost four years, there were plenty of other deep cuts mixed in over the next two hours, from “Bermuda Highway” to “Mahgeetah” to “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2”. After all, it’s no secret that My Morning Jacket have always been good to their most loyal and dedicated fans, and in once again taking song requests as part of their “Spontaneous Curation Series,” they made sure to dig up many of the classics from their seminal album Z, including “Wordless Chorus” and “Off the Record” one after the other in the middle of a loaded, four-song encore.

Yet, before it was all said and done, it was only fitting for James and his bandmates to end the night with “One Big Holiday”, a longtime crowd favorite about a “bad man from California” that put My Morning Jacket squarely on the map more than a decade ago. And as the curly, long-haired guitar wizard shredded his way through the single’s final notes, I couldn’t help but think that after waiting all those years to step inside the Santa Barbara Bowl, the whole show had felt like one big holiday to me.

Setlist:
Steam Engine
Believe (Nobody Knows)
Compound Fracture
Circuital
In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)
Bermuda Highway
It Beats 4 U
Gideon
Like a River
Golden
Mahgeetah
Spring (Among the Living)
Only Memories Remain
Tropics (Erase Traces)
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2

Encore:
Victory Dance
Wordless Chorus
Off the Record
One Big Holiday

First Times: Experiencing Seattle’s music scene

Seattle skylinePhotos by Melissa Hebeler & Josh Herwitt // Written by Josh Herwitt //

Growing up in the 90’s, Seattle always had a special place in my heart.

From my days of listening to Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains albums in my bedroom, grunge music had already produced a profound impact on my musical taste by the time I entered my teens. Unlike so many of my peers, I never became a crazed Nirvana fan, but the rock music I did like — whether I knew it or not at the time — was being born in the Pacific Northwest.

As time passed and my music palette grew, grunge wasn’t the only genre coming out of the region that tickled my ears. In fact, Seattle’s musical history stretches further than it just being the birthplace of grunge. In more recent years, Seattle’s hip-hop scene, for one, has exploded in part due to Grammy winners Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but even experimental acts like Shabazz Palaces and Blue Sky Black Death have helped build the local scene. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about the city that bred the one and only Sir Mix-a-Lot, of course.

Knowing this, my expectations of Seattle’s music scene have always been quite high. Since the late 60’s when Seattle native Jimi Hendrix took London by storm with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, there has been a musical fabric that has run through the Emerald City. It’s a city, after all, that has a nonprofit museum dedicated largely to pop culture and music, with informative, in-depth exhibits on the history of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Nirvana that include authentic artifacts, hand-written lyrics, used instruments and original photographs of both groups. You never know — maybe someday Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters memorabilia will also find its way behind the EMP Museum’s glass doors.

EMP Museum

Meanwhile, Sub Pop, Seattle’s famed independent record label, has found continued success outside of its home base long after popularizing the grunge movement, with indie contemporaries like The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Foals, The Postal Service and Wolf Parade all signed to its current roster. And even more than 25 years after its inception, the label Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman created hasn’t lost its charm in a city where the Seahawks carry as much weight as any local band on the brink of national prominence these days.

With that said, while history can’t be erased, it certainly doesn’t mean it will be repeated. The Crocodile, formerly known as The Crocodile Café, has long been a fixture in Seattle’s music scene; the relatively small, intimate club on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Blanchard Street in the neighborhood of Belltown was the place where bands like Nirvana and Death Cab for Cutie first got their start. Even though the 525-person venue closed its doors in 2007, it reopened them a couple years later and has remained instrumental in maintaining Seattle’s reputation as one of America’s best music cities.

But whether it was the Fourth of July holiday or just the band that was booked for the night — in this case, San Francisco’s Geographer, who I have seen a handful of times at this point — I was surprised to see a room only half full of spectators when I walked inside. Maybe Geographer just doesn’t draw in Seattle what it does in SF or LA — or maybe I’m just spoiled. Since graduating college, I have had the privilege of living in New York and Los Angeles while getting to experience both cities’ music scenes for an extended period of time. My concert-going experiences haven’t been restricted to just LA and NYC, though. Over the years, I have made numerous trips to Denver — a city smaller than Seattle, yet one that undeniably eats, breathes and lives for live music — to attend shows at Red Rocks and beyond.

Geographer

At The Crocodile, something felt missing unfortunately. Sure, it was just one show, but there wasn’t the same kind of buzz I found in any of those aforementioned cities. For whatever reason, my native LA often gets vilified by outsiders and transplants for our crowds’ lack of enthusiasm; words like “rude” and “unengaged” are regularly thrown around when it comes to LA’s music scene. But the energy at The Crocodile on that Friday night wasn’t anything better than what I experience on a regular basis in Southern California. If anything, it was considerably worse.

As disappointed and uninspired as I was after the show, my respect for Seattle’s music scene hasn’t wavered. With so much of my youth influenced by the musicians who have called this majestic seaport city home, it will always remain an important place for this music lover. Yet, what it’s made me realize is just how lucky I am to have lived where I’ve lived and been where I’ve been.

Geographer