Monday, August 17, 2009

And one more...

Vincent Gallo and Sean Lennon: Two Shows*
posted by Leona Laurie on August 15th, 2009

*note: this one is all text, baby. gallo & lennon say “no” to video/audio.

vincent gallo & sean lennon. photo by user marquis_de_sad

This week I went to two shows by Vincent Gallo and Sean Lennon, each of which also featured Lennon’s band with Charlotte Kemp Muhl, The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger (The GOASTT). The first involved a whirlwind trip to San Francisco to catch the acts at the Red Devil Lounge. The second was a 180-mile round-trip drive to San Diego to see them at Anthology. Both shows were sold out.

I didn’t know what to expect at all from the first show. My companions for the evening were Phil, an ardent admirer of Gallo’s, and Marcia, always game for an adventure. We stood in line outside the venue, wondering what the common denominator(s) in the accumulating crowd were and whom they’d come to see. Was it Sean Lennon’s crowd? Was it Vincent Gallo’s? We couldn’t tell. They skewed a great deal older than we’d expected, although there were enough youthful people in vintage clothing to convince us we were in the right place.

It had been years since I’d been to the Red Devil, and I’d forgotten how bad the sight lines are. I’ve enjoyed every show I’ve seen there so much that my lingering impression is positive, but we settled on the balcony for what turned out to be an evening of straining to see the musicians through chandeliers. Phil went down on the floor at one point to see if it was better, but it was so crowded and hot down there that he returned to the relative comfort of leaning against a cast-iron balustrade and craning to see past lighting fixtures.

The GOASTT went on first, and I never caught a clear look at Charlotte’s face through their entire set. Sean Lennon apologized for their unprofessionalism and explained that this was only their third show together. They implied that they were a couple (Wikipedia says boyfriend/girlfriend, although it looked like Charlotte’s ring finger was sparkling last night), and since I couldn’t see Charlotte, I watched Lennon for visual cues.

Perhaps it’s gauche of me to say, but we were all struck by how much Lennon looks and sounds like his father. I guess it makes sense, and that it’s something we could have expected, but it was still remarkable. Charlotte’s voice sounded a little limited in range, but well-suited to the kind of music they were playing, and she seemed solid on both piano and electric bass. Their music didn’t break any new ground in the world of mellow boy/girl duets, but Lennon is a talented guitar player, and their song India really gave him a place to show off.

They finished their set, and after a short break, Vincent Gallo took the stage with Lennon and someone named Rudy. I learned Rudy’s name from Lennon, who said a few things to the audience during the set. If he hadn’t, no-one would have. They did not introduce themselves. They did not banter with the audience. Gallo spent most of the set sitting in a corner of the stage with his back to the audience, hiding in his hair and focusing on what he was doing. The music was experimental/noise. They only played for between 20-30 minutes, and when they left the stage without comment or explanation, the audience murmured in confusion and discontent. They didn’t sound polished. I got the distinct feeling that they weren’t playing for us– we were just there.

I watched the sound tech in his crow’s nest across the way, and he made no move to bring up the lights or dismiss the audience. He was exchanging hand signals and messages with someone backstage, and eventually he picked up a mic and asked us all to hang in for a special treat. During the lull, though, about 1/3-1/2 of the crowd filtered out of the club.

After a long pause, Sean Lennon returned to the stage with Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead and RatDog. They played a long jam session, throughout which Weir was made suggestions to Lennon– and the fact of their friendship and appearance of a mentor/student relationship was fascinating. The crowd responded so well to Weir’s appearance that I suspected they’d known either that he was in the building or that he might be joining. Aside from a long piece that sounded eerily like the Cialis commercials, the set was fun to watch. Gallo emerged from backstage to stand in a corner and watch, and I watched him intermittently, wondering about the structure of the show and the thought behind it– because there did seem to be thought behind it.

Both venues had been instructed by the artists to forbid cell phones, cameras, and audio or video recordings. The audiences in both venues were cautioned several times that using a forbidden device would result in ejection from the show. There was an opportunity to demand silence from the crowds, but neither crowd was quiet. In fact, the seemingly deliberate disengagement of the band from the audience during the experimental set seemed to encourage the crowd to get gradually noisier and less respectful. I kept waiting for the reprimand or at least a request from the stage for silence, but nothing came. It must have been on purpose.

After the San Francisco show, Phil and I talked about what we’d seen for a couple of hours. I felt like my pleasure in the evening was based on having entered the venue without expectations, and he eventually declared the show “perfect.”

The next day, my plans for Friday night fell through, so I grabbed tickets to the San Diego show at Anthology. We hit the road at 3pm, arrived in San Diego at about 6:30, and settled into counter seats in the raised bar-area above the main dining floor.

The menu was so tempting that we went a little crazy, ordering four appetizers to share and then an entree and a fifth appetizer. Anthology feels like an upscale jazz supper club. There’s a loosely enforced dress code, mood lighting, cloth napkins… and to our surprise, a second show that means the audience is asked to leave at the end of the first show. We were out the door at about 9pm. In any case, the venue seemed like a mis-match for what we expected the show to be, and the crowd was as varied and curious as the San Francisco crowd.

When the announcer took the stage to introduce The GOASTT, Vincent Gallo emerged and explained into the mic that The GOASTT would actually be going on second, and they’d be going on now. With him was Rudy and a woman and a man he didn’t introduce. (Lennon later identified the man, who played the drums through Gallo’s set, as “Stephen.”) A man in the seats below us responded to Gallo’s announcement with, “Who are you?”

This set sounded richer and tighter than Wednesday night’s. It also lasted quite a bit longer, and included three pieces during which Gallo sang. He’d sung once in San Francisco, but I wasn’t really able to hear the quality of his performance over the din of the instruments and the crowd. In San Diego, though, I discovered that he has a beautiful voice. When they left the stage this time, he said a brief “thank you” to the audience (excluding the group below us who had walked out 1/2 way through), and Lennon and Charlotte emerged to help switch the equipment for their set.

The GOASTT’s set was tighter than Wednedsday’s, too, and this time I had both a clear view of the stage and the assistance of a large screen behind the artists that enlarged their images, so I was able to get a clear look at Charlotte. I guessed that she must have been a model, and the Internet has confirmed that. She had a self-conscious and “on” energy about her that I hadn’t picked up in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what I thought of her overall until she picked up her bass. When she was playing that, her energy mellowed, and her focus seemed complete and joyful. She won me over. Lennon’s guitar playing on India was again the highlight of their set for me, and we were hoping for a little post-lineup treat again, but were disappointed when the venue politely asked all of us to leave.

During Gallo’s set, our waitress approached us at one point to ask if we needed anything else. Phil was so focused on the stage that he didn’t acknowledge her, and she responded to that by assuring us that if we ordered food right then, we wouldn’t miss anything, because this was not the main event. I corrected her, but she pushed a button for me with her assumption that we were not enjoying the show. An assumption I guessed was based on the conversations I’d witnessed her having with other patrons on her way to us.

After the show, Phil and I adjourned to the restrooms, where we had almost identical experiences of hearing other people’s negative reviews of the show we’d both been happily and sincerely engaged in. The washroom attendant in the ladies’ room couldn’t stress strongly enough how terrible it had been– the worst thing she’d ever seen there. Her comments, combined with our waitress’ comments and the general grumbling of both crowds left me wondering: What were you expecting, people?

When I go to a show by a mega-band on a major label during an arena tour to promote a new album, I have a reasonable expectation of what the show’s going to be, and if it seriously diverges from what I thought I was in for, I’m disappointed. When I attend something like this, though, a barely-announced show by two personalities with no promises of what it will be and no agenda in terms of promotion or merch sales, I feel like I’m walking into the unknown, and it’s my responsibility to show up ready for anything. Since that’s how I approached these shows, I thoroughly enjoyed them. They were an experience. They were interesting. There was something special about them. I felt buoyed by being there. I don’t know what the grumblers were expecting, but I wanted to shake them for interfering with my experience and making their discontent audible enough that the artists must be able to hear it.

In closing, I think I’d recommend that you check this dog-and-pony show out if it comes to your town– but only if you’re in the mood for surrender. Oh– and in answer to the question I posed the other day, I do think Vincent Gallo is kind of sexy.


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