When the lineup for Coachella was announced this year, I eagerly scanned it to see who would be playing, but not because I planned to go to Coachella. I really just wanted to find out who might make a trip to perform in Santa Barbara between their weekend shows at Coachella.
And many of the bands I wanted to see did make the trip, if not to Santa Barbara then to San Luis Obispo or Ventura. Check it out!
OK, Arlo Guthrie didn’t play at Coachella, but he certainly is no stranger to big music festivals, so I’m going to take artistic license and lump his Monday night solo show at the Lobero Theatre into this article.
At the concert, Guthrie paid tribute to the 100-year anniversary of the birth of his father, legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie, by playing Woody’s songs like “Deportee” about a plane crash that killed 26 Mexican citizens who were in the United States to help with the crops, and “1913 Massacre” about a Michigan tragedy in which dozens of children of striking miners were trampled to death when someone falsely yelled “Fire!” during a Christmas party. Also on the program was Woody’s timeless “This Land Is Your Land.”
Of course, Arlo also sang some of his own wonderful songs, including “Coming Into Los Angeles” after an amusing story about his wife getting busted for pot possession at a Connecticut airport (she didn’t know it was in the suitcase), “When a Soldier Makes It Home,” which is sadly still relevant, and “The Motorcycle Song” after an amusing story about a guy who made the mistake of starting his motorcycle while it was in his living room. There was also a lovely guitar instrumental called “Haleiwa Farewell.”
Arlo also covered songs by notable artists such as Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” — a fave), Lead Belly (“Alabama Bound”) and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (“Old Shep”), who Arlo told of staying with in California when he was 18.
I’m guessing that I’m one of the few people who rushed out after Guthrie’s show to catch the last half-hour of The Japandroids at Velvet Jones on Monday night. For the uninitiated, The Japandroids are a duo from Vancouver, Canada, who squeeze a massive noise rock sound out of one guitar and a drum set, plus some impassioned vocals.
A definite highlight was their punk anthem “The House That Heaven Built” with lots of fist pumping and fans screaming out, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh-oh, oh!” Arguably even better was their frenetic cover of “For the Love of Ivy” by The Gun Club. How can you go wrong with a song that starts off with the lyrics, “You look just like an Elvis from hell”?
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine
The energy was bumped up another notch on Tuesday night at SLO Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo with Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which will no doubt go down as one of my favorite concerts of the year.
Biafra first made his mark as the provocative singer for the Dead Kennedys. His latest project was performing in SLO in support of their superb new album White People and the Damage Done, which to my ears captures the playful, subversive spirit of the early Dead Kennedys.
The crowd matched Biafra’s level of insanity, rocking out to song after song of sonic destruction, from new songs such as “Brown Lipstick Parade” and “Road Rage” to the Dead Kennedys classics “Police Truck,” “California Uber Alles,” “Chemical Warfare” and “Too Drunk to F***”. Bodies crashed into other bodies all night long, including Biafra’s when he dove several times from the stage into the crowd.
Also notable were Biafra’s between-song diatribes, including the story of how, in his version of events, an overzealous police force at a 1985 show got the Dead Kennedys banned from San Luis Obispo.
Johnny Marr is best known for his work as the guitarist extraordinaire and co-songwriter for The Smiths. After playing with various other bands after The Smiths broke up some 25 years ago, Marr recently released his first-ever solo album, a fine piece of work called The Messenger. Much of the album was in Marr’s set at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night, including the lead-off track “The Right Thing Right” and “Generate! Generate!”
Marr also visited The Smiths catalog with “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” the incredible “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?” I’ll admit that it was a bit strange to hear Marr singing these instead of Morrisey, but it was still cool to hear the songs in any form.
Unfortunately, Marr’s performance was marred somewhat for me by the incessant loud chatting by two glammed-up ladies next to me in the pit. Argh! Bigmouth strikes again!
Marr was followed by New Order, with original members Bernard Sumner (vocals, guitar), Stephen Morris (drums) and Gillian Gilbert (keyboards). Unfortunately, bassist Peter Hook is no longer with the band.
It was especially cool to hear the songs off their landmark 30-year-old dance-rock classic Power, Corruption & Lies, which established the band’s musical identity after the demise of Joy Division due to singer Ian Curtis’ suicide and the somewhat tentative first New Order album Movement. Rarely has a band so successfully blended guitar and keyboards together! Of course, they played “Blue Monday,” but equally enjoyable were “Age of Consent,” “5 8 6” and the underrated gem “Your Silent Face.” Another highlight was “Bizarre Love Triangle,” which kicked of the “dance part of the set.”
I’ll confess that I’m somewhat ambivalent about their Joy Division covers (“Isolation,” “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). I support the band’s desire to visit this part of their past, but it feels odd to hear these songs without the vocals from Curtis that are etched in the brain, even with the cool videos showing his image.
Hey, Coachella hologram programmers, how about bringing Curtis back with your magic technology?
In an embarrassment of riches, indie rock pioneers Dinosaur Jr. played at Velvet Jones on the same night that Marr and New Order were at the Bowl. I rushed over after New Order ended and caught most of their show.
What will stay with me most from Dinosaur Jr. will be the image of guitarist J Mascis in front of two Marshall full stacks and with a Fender combo amp pointed back at him, calmly creating ear-splitting distorted bliss.
It was refreshing to see a “legacy” band — their first album came out in 1985 — with all of the original members: Mascis on guitar, Lou Barlow on bass and Murph on drums. It is also still surprising, given the public feuding by Mascis and Barlow not so long ago. Thank goodness they’ve let bygones be bygones, because the chemistry between these guys is undeniable, and the power they generate is astounding.
Another 1980s landmark album was well-represented here, namely 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me with “Little Fury Things”, the cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and especially the appropriately named “Sludgefeast,” which closed the concert. (I may have missed more before I got there.) They also played their hit “Freak Scene,” plus “Training Ground” from Mascis and Barlow’s prior hard-core band Deep Wound.
It was back to the Bowl on Friday night for Icelandic soundscape masters Sigur Ros. The show started with the band behind a giant white mesh upon which trippy visuals were projected, plus at times a giant silhouette of frontman Jonsi Birgisson bowing his guitar.
The mesh dropped dramatically during the climax of the second song, “Ny Batteri,” to reveal a core rock band accompanied by three strings and three horns.
The evening was full of lush, ethereal sounds, with Jonsi’s falsetto floating above the swell. It must be said that the band made effective use of dynamics, particularly crescendos that built up to almost cathartic moments; however, a little more sonic variety would’ve been nice. The songs that stood out to me were “Svefn-G-Englar” from their breakthrough album Agaetis Byrjun and for which a scattered collection of onstage bare lightbulbs were illuminated, and “Festival” with its rising and falling outro.
The Gaslight Anthem
It seems almost obligatory to mention Bruce Springsteen in a review of The Gaslight Anthem, given their shared geography (New Jersey) and songwriting sensibilities (energetic, often uplifting), plus their mutual admiration. Add to that the enthusiasm of the fans. There were times when I think the whole crowd was singing along, many with fists in the air. Then there were the crowd surfers, who were not-so-politely escorted out by security if they ended up too close to the stage.
In addition to songs from their own catalog, they covered Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” The encore stretched to six songs, capping off a very fine show.
The Central Coast arguably gets more than its fair share of great concerts throughout the year, and this was certainly the case last week thanks to our proximity to Coachella. And there was even more Coachella spillover than that mentioned above! For example, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in Ventura on Tuesday night, Modest Mouse played in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday night, and Band of Horses played in Ventura on Thursday night. As a bonus, most of the bands that visited our parts were able to play longer sets than at Coachella.
I can’t wait until next year’s Coachella festival ... so I can skip it again and see some great concerts closer to home.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.