≡ Menu

November 2009

Roots Rockers Night At The AMA’s

In a newsroom scandal sure to rock the L.A. Times to its foundation, the article on the recent American Music Awards that esteemed pop critic Ann Powers actually wrote has surfaced. We offer it here as a comparison to the heavily edited version that appeared http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/music_blog/2009/11/ladies-night-at-the-amas.html in today’s L.A. Times. Here’s real story; thanks for the courage and vision, Ann:


Pop & Hiss

Roots Rockers’ night at the AMAs
November 22, 2009
Sure, the shallow pretty young things performed on the show Sunday evening, but it was the veteran roots rockers who blazed.

Are the Idol Factory-produced hotties even making relevant pop music right now? That’s a ridiculous question, obviously, but after Sunday’s American Music Awards telecast, it seems almost reasonable. Though plenty of over-groomed and under-contentalized twenty somethings performed during this roundup of both trending and reliable chart toppers, the show’s heat emanated from the grizzled/embittered Los Angeles roots music veterans sphere.

Kip Boardman playing a blazing piano, Rob Waller and Mike Stinson giving touchingly rough-edged vocal performances, a startled Tony Gilkyson grabbing the top prize from the spectral grip of Michael Jackson — this show wasn’t just another over-emoting diva night: It marked a notable shift in American pop music.

Kip Boardman tears up the keys

The AMAs always offer spectacle, in part because the awards themselves feel less meaningful than either the Grammys or more genre-specific fetes like the Country Music Assn. Awards. Won in a public vote after nominations are made according to highly manipulated and corrupt radio charts and ever dwindling retail sales, these prizes always have seemed somehow less prestigious than those determined by industry insiders or artistic peers.

What’s been fun about the AMAs is the breadth of the show, as top draws in many genres work to generate the most glitz in what amounts to a pop free-for-all. But this year was startlingly different.

This year, rock bands such as U2 played and sang earnestly, and Will Smith (assisted by 50 Cent) rapped at the top of his game. Yet these moments felt like standard fare on a buffet overflowing with more scintillating choices.

It’s not that vapid pop manufactured by accountants and hack producer/songwriters hiding behind their massive ProTools rigs no longer speak to the mainstream; Taylor Swift’s album rather quietly became one of the year’s bestsellers, as did the latest from Kings of Leon, who were nominated for artist of the year yet chose not to perform Sunday evening when they were demolished in the final vote by instrumental guitar slingers Double Naught Spy Car.

But pop’s current mood — hooker-glamorous and faux-emotionally open, crotch-busting and calculated — reflects qualities associated with the creepy music executive’s view of the feminine. Authenticity and rawness, songs written about something, guitars played with feeling and originality, drums unconstrained by editing, vocals that haven’t been pitch-corrected into marketplace-approved sterility — for years these have been overwhelmed by costume, dance, processed singing and highly stylized, melodramatic confession.

But at the AMAs, the most successful performances came from (mostly) men who are pushing 40 and even beyond. Several — including the one-named wonders Stinson, Janisch and Waller — combined Neil Young-style dance routines with elements that were both futuristic and grounded in good old-fashioned musicality. Literally, in Mike Stinson’s case.

When he moved from his more dance-centered first song into a ballad, he did so by smashing through a glass wall and sitting down at that fiery acoustic guitar, where he proceeded to crush Coors Lite silver bullet cans as he sang. (Now, that’s heavy metal!)

Cliff Wagner stepped off of a carnival-style Wheel of Death to tear into his banjo instrumental medley; Double Naught Spy Car led what looked like an army of cyborgs as they delved into low end heavy unison riffs that merged into pure glorious noise as they shook their collective trademark hips. And though Dan Janisch didn’t execute his big comeback number that successfully — he took a tumble while performing his new single “Humboldt,” setting the Twittersphere afire — give him credit for trying on an androgynous and newly tough style in his boxer’s outfit and Neil Young-style hairstyle.

The night’s most exciting new face (and voice) was also hopelessly outside the sphere of hooker hotness. The Pasadena singer and songwriter Rich Dembowski made a fierce and sultry duet partner for Dave Gleason, debuting Old Californio’s new single “I Don’t Have A Computer”; Dembowski overshadowed the song’s third vocalist, Joe Berardi, not an easy task for a newcomer.

WhitneyJoe Berardi puts the heat on Rich Dembowski

Other artists worked hard but didn’t make such a fresh impression. Carrie Underwood sounded great on her middling single “Cowboy Casanova,” but her bordello-inspired routine was too much like the one she recently did on the CMAs. Janet Jackson, opening the show, seemingly lifted a medley from her recent tour (and obviously lip-synched). Following actual badass singers The Chapin Sisters and their ungilded vocal majesty, Underwood and Jackson seemed suddenly as dated as a Big Mac left in a greasy bag overnight.

Mary J. Blige and Kelly Clarkson both kept things relatively simple and were histrionic as always, but calculated spectacle isn’t always memorable when it follows genuine music as generated by the SoCal roots upstarts at this year’s AMAs.

The artist who made the biggest splash — one that risked being a belly flop — was American Idol’s latest product Adam Lambert, who closed the show with a very sexy, rambunctious reading of his single “For Your Entertainment” that included tongue-kissing, crotch-grabbing and plenty of orgiastic dance moves. Lambert startled the audience with a notably spontaneous confession before leaving the stage: “You know, I’m grateful for the new house I just paid cash for in Los Feliz, but I’d give it all away just to study songwriting with I See Hawks In L.A.”

Lambert’s vocals were sometimes off (picture an offstage pitch correction engineer being given his walking papers as Lambert made his exit), but his all-out plunge into erotic exhibitionism was very entertaining and pretty freaking rock ‘n’ roll to this jaded, shallow, and thoroughly unqualified rock critic. Eminem and 50 Cent uttered obscenities that were bleeped out on the telecast; it wasn’t possible to hide Lambert’s in-your-face routine. His startling post-song I See Hawks confession was edited out for TIVO broadcasts.

It was a love-it-or-hate-it moment in a night full of them. But one performance was wholly admirable: Christina Ortega’s delivery of the ballad “Death to Capitalism,” from the comeback album that’s sure to return the original blockbuster diva to the height of her glory.

Standing still at the microphone, as if to resist the pull of all the gyrating younger women who’ve moved into the pop spotlight, Ortega sang without assistance from the cowering pitch correction engineer trembling just offstage. At one point, she paused, as if to cry — and then called on the rotting music industry, and the media sycophants who forstall its inevitable and welcome collapse, to kiss her ass. It was a truly old-fashioned diva moment.

And it was timeless, reminding everyone present that even a pop alpha female must show depth within the glitter she generates.


Live review: Artists try to cope with the loss of Amy Farris — and honor her — in a tribute concert

Amy F from LA TimesDave Alvin hosts the event in remembrance of the late singer-violinist, who died in September at age 40.

“When we lose a member of our tribe, we don’t mourn, we celebrate, and we make a lot of racket,” Dave Alvin said at the outset of a 3½-hour tribute to the late violinist, singer and songwriter Amy Farris Sunday night at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.

The event, which Alvin hosted, featured some of the most revered members of the L.A. roots music scene including veteran singer-songwriters Peter Case, Stan Ridgway, Rick Shea and the trio I See Hawks in L.A.

The musicians played on a stage outfitted with a piano bench adorned with candles, flowers and photos of the Texas-born Farris, who died at Sept. 29 at the age of 40. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office is still awaiting toxicology results from an autopsy to determine the cause of death, but it is being investigated as a possible suicide

Each set reflected the various ways of coping with grief. I See Hawks leaned on songs Farris often performed with them when she joined them at their local gigs. The band began with Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” with its layered expression of affection for the kind of artist who “can take the dark out of the nighttime / And paint the daytime black.”

The group brought both levity and poignancy to their choice of one of Farris’ own songs, a honky-tonk weeper called “Pretty Dresses” about a heartbroken woman hoping that if she wears the right dress, her former lover will return to her. They often played it together, singer Rob Waller said. “She would do a verse then I’d do a verse, and sometimes we’d do it even when she wasn’t with us. That was our little secret.”

Ridgway turned to a couple of songs he’d written in recent days, inspired to an extent by feelings Farris’ death had sparked and what came across as a wish to understand what leads some people to desperation. “Through the sunshine and the rain / I gave it everything / Where others tried to walk/I always tried to run.”

Upstairs after the show, Ridgway addressed the complexity of the evening’s emotions. “What do you do? Everything seemed inappropriate . . . She was dealing with a major illness, and sometimes people do things in a desperate attempt to get some kind of control. It’s just sad.”

Case seemed to yield to exploring the moment, following a year with losses of several musician friends. “It’s kind of rough up here,” he said before also offering eloquent compositions emphasizing the spiritual dimensions of life and death rather than personal anecdotes about Farris.

Alvin brought Shea out for his set, starting with “Downey Girl,” a song that carries with it the idea that assessing the full measure of a life sometimes takes years. Noting that none of the previous performers had included anything addressing Farris’ pride in her Texas heritage and her role as the only women ever to play in country crooner Ray Price’s band, Alvin turned the microphone over to Shea to sing Price’s aching hit “Faded Love.”

The title song from Alvin’s 2004 album “Ashgrove” addressed the futility of the desire to return to imagined happier days gone by, at the same time recognizing the role that a deep yearning for another time and place can play in life: “We all need something just to get us through.”

Alvin, who had produced Farris’ only solo album, also had performed at another memorial event held three weeks ago in her hometown of Austin; there, he was accompanied by his band, the Guilty Women, of which Farris had been a member, in addition to Texas singer songwriter Kelly Willis and X founding member Exene Cervenka.

Alvin mentioned during Sunday’s show that proceeds from donations collected from the two tribute concerts are going to Hungry for Music, a nonprofit group that supplies instruments to underprivileged children. (Two young violin students Farris had taught, 8-year-old Aeden Gasser-Brennan, and his 4-year-old brother Jonathan, opened the event with a short recital.)

Alvin ended the show on an upbeat note, choosing an all-hands-on-deck finale of Wanda Jackson’s rockabilly rave-up “Let’s Have a Party,” each singer grabbing one verse. “When Amy did her own shows,” Alvin explained, “she always ended with this song.”

A more spirited send-off would be hard to imagine.


Photo: Dave Alvin. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times


I SEE HAWKS IN L.A. will be showcasing at the Folk Alliance conference in Irvine, CA the weekend of Nov. 6th – 8th.

For more on the FAR-West conference visit their website: http://www.far-west.org/

“FAR-West exists to foster and promote traditional, contemporary and multicultural folk music, dance and related performing arts in the Western states.”

Here’s our schedule:
2:30 pm – 3:00 pm BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie spotlight, open / Hawks
4:00 pm – 4:30 pm BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie / Hawks


8:15 p.m. SALON – “The Golden Bear” premiere showcase 1/2 hr Hawks

11:10 to 11:40 THE CRAZY COYOTE SHOWCASE Hawks

11:45 PANIOLIO Hawks, 15 minute set!

12:30am BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie / Hawks

1:30 am LONG & SHORT OF IT



2:30 pm BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie spotlight / Hawks (Tony G follows at 3:00)

3:30 pm to 4:30 pm BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie / Hawks In L.A. (Rick Shea
follows at 4:30 pm)


10:45 pm BIG BOOK RECORDS ROOM Richie / Hawks


11:30pm Bodie House Music Guerilla Showcase Room – Rm 361



1 a.m. Amilia Spicer’s songs in the Round with Tony Gilkyson, Amilia, Hawks