Explorers of Fire—Pyronauts

Generally, the idea of four young men playing the music they enjoy is, at least to me, a frightening concept. I don’t find much in the modern thrash, metal, and grunge that interests me; it often seems like an excuse not to practice, since it’s unlikely anyone would notice.

Last night, we finished our swing dance lesson earlier than expected, and decided to risk a band called, if we heard the hostess at Beermann’s correctly on the phone, ‘The Pyronauts.’ An evening at Beermann’s is never wasted, and thus far, George’s ear for bands has been unerring. The Pyronauts are no exception.

As we crossed the street half a block away from Beermann’s, I could swear I heard the Ventures ripping into ‘Pipeline.’ Turns out I wasn’t far off.

The Pyronauts' 'Surf Motel'Paul Beatie, Bob Butler, The Brett Cole, and Pan Smith are the tightest, snappiest, most professional young band I’ve ever heard. While many groups are composed of a star and some hangers-on, each of the Pyronauts is a talented musician in his own right. Beatie, lead guitarist and de facto front man, has written over a dozen memorable and distinctive instrumentals which sound as if they’re lost Deltones or Ventures tracks; no mean feat.

The band’s covers of tunes like ‘Pipeline’, ‘Walk, Don’t Run’, and ‘Sleepwalk’ are faithful to the originals without slavish mimicry. Each is arranged to suit their deceptively casual performing style (through the miracle of wireless guitars, Beatie fled the restaurant at one point and danced with some folks outside the front window, all the while delivering his solo with flash and panache.) Later, a cover of ‘Folsom Prison’ could have become a joke. Instead, it was a polished, professional homage to Cash’s original. I was surprised to hear bass vocals from the smallish (well, compared to Brett Cole, at least) Beatie.

Another smashing highlight was the final flail of the evening; Smith’s tour de force, after pumping out snap and pop enough for even a picky listener like me, was a smoking delivery of ‘Wipe Out’ including a final solo not copied from the Surfari’s version. Pan is light-years ahead of most local-band drummers; nothing is mushy or indistinct; despite the blur of movement, his sound is crisp, clean, tight.

These guys practice. The arrangements require coordination and concentration, and they deliver. Beatie is already a talented composer and arranger, and both Butler and Cole have contributed compositions as well. They get noticed; they’ve opened for Dick Dale three times in their short career.

The Pyronauts' 'Surf or Die'I picked up their first two full-length CDs, ‘Surf or Die’ from 2001, and ‘Surf Motel’, recorded last year. ‘Surf or Die’ has three Beatie originals plus energetic and polished covers of Deltones and Ventures tunes. Beatie’s tunes don’t suffer by comparison; the multi-tempoed ‘Surfin Espa

JT, Skunk, and Rosewood

Musically, it was the best weekend of my life.

Months ago, before moving from San Diego to the Sacramento area, we’d bought tickets to see James Taylor at Coors Amphitheatre. I’d never been there, but had heard consistent good reports about the venue, and I was excited about seeing a lifelong favorite perform there. The next day was going to be spent at the Museum of Making Music in San Diego’s north county, with the evening after free for general San Diego-specific sightseeing.

James Taylor Live in San Diego

Coors is a wonderful venue—the open starry sky above, miles from the real city; the comfortable, almost pastoral surroundings seemed to have a calming effect on the crowd. People seemed cheerful, relaxed, friendly; characteristics you won’t always find in a concert crowd in San Diego.

James Taylor's 'October Road'I won’t attempt to describe the evening musically. If you’ve heard James Taylor all your life, as I have, you have your favorites, you’ve heard his popular tunes, you know what was played. It was, essentially, greatest hits plus “October Road“; not a bad mix.

What I will describe is the emotional impact of seeing a performer whose music and lyrics have become a part of your psyche.

The traffic was bad, as expected, but we were on vacation and not in a hurry, so we arrived a bit late. Walking in from the parking lot, we heard the crowd’s opening cheer, and a track from “October Road.” It’s a long walk, so as we finally got close to our seats, James started “James Taylor's eponymous debutSomething in the Way She Moves.” We both stopped dead in our tracks and turned to smile at each other. It’s become a special song around here, and having him start it just as we walked in was amazing.

Taylor knows what an audience wants: the old stuff. He mentioned more than once that he was going to play ‘the old stuff’, then smiled wryly as the audience went wild. He threatened, though, to play ‘some new stuff’ too, and included nearly every track from “October RoaO

Still Haven’t Found What You’re Looking For? (4)

Finally catching up on recent searches. In descending order (I’m a database guy; I do things this way):

  • “walking in memphis”—Ah, Marc Cohn‘s voice and piano . . .
  • “what s it s like to be the bad one” and “to be the bad one”—Actually, it’s “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man; to be the sad man behind blue eyes . . . ” Often touted as the best rock album of all time (it’s at least in the top 10) “Who's NextWho’s Next” needs more time than I have at the moment. Half beautiful ballad, half angry snarling, “Behind Blue Eyes” is often overshadowed by its position on the album, which places it just before one of the all-time-great crankers, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” We’ll come back to it; honest.
  • “gypsy jazz”—Django, or Robin Nolan?
  • “beethoven”—mentioned in Boating with a Finn and Renaissance Woman’s Journey Within
  • “jude cole”—”A View from Third Street
  • “tank”—Jumping Japanese Jazz!
  • “boyz 2 man”—nope
  • “circle of two”—Though I’ve never heard Steve and Annie Chapman, you’ll find all you need to know at their website, including links to buy their music.

Not Short, but Definitely Sharp, Shocked

Every Sunday, I listen to Meg Banta’s “Sunday Morning Unplugged” on KPRI (you must not forget KPRI, Best Beloved.) This past Sunday, I was dismayed to hear that Michelle Shocked was appearing at the BellyUp Tavern in Solana Beach; dismayed, because there was no way I could make the 500-mile drive in time to see her.

Not only does Michelle have a reputation for spectacular live performances, but the BellyUp is a marvelous venue, with lots of wood and curved surfaces nurturing and bouncing the music around the room ’til it lands in your ears.

As I lay on the floor in the fetal position bemoaning this tragedy, my own Best Beloved read from her Sunday paper, “Thursday night at Harlow’s in Sacramento: Michelle Shocked.” And my own Best Beloved took me to see her.

The Hackensaw Boys, who opened the show, were a hoot. Bluegrass run riot, in fact. I’d drive a ways to see them again. (One word to the management of Harlow’s: chairs. Cheap folding chairs, even. There were huge expanses of open space, and very few places to sit. So we didn’t.)

When Shel walked onstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, I wondered how her more aggressive works would take to being stripped down like that.

They took just fine.

my autographed copy of 'Short Sharp Shocked'Having just re-released “Short Sharp Shocked” (a much extended version, by the way) she was dedicated to playing most of the tunes from the album. In fact, she covered every tune from the original release except “Black Widow” (wonder why?), and most of the extras from the second CD of the new release. Rockers like “If Love Was A Train” (now, where have I heard that name before?), “Gladewater”, and even the bizarre-but-lovable “When I Grow Up” seemed right at home with their treatment. Being limited to an acoustic guitar and voice doesn’t limit Michelle’s range or genre. She jazzed; she rocked; she swung. And, yes, she played straight folk, a traditional Irish tune, and a bit of blues.

“Grafitti Limbo”, with its ending reference to ‘that midnight special line’ flowed easily into “Midnight Special.” By now, inhibitions forgotten, the audience was chatting with the performer, singing along, and generally becoming participants instead of spectators. And somehow I knew, when she started “Anchorage” (to a standing ovation during the opening notes) that when she got to the reference to ‘that love song you played’, she’d finally tell us what it was. And she did.

 The water is wide, I cannot get o'er  Neither have I wings to fly  Give me a boat that can carry two  And both shall row, my love and I 

“The Water is Wide” bears a strong resemblance to “Carrickfergus”; not unusual in traditional songs.

Michelle has long known the value of audience contact. The between-song storytelling and reminiscences are as endearing as the music itself—which is mighty indeed.

After the show, she came out to sign albums or shirts or bald heads, and contrary to my usual reticence in public, I managed to be the first to talk to her.

 Me: "Last time I heard a single acoustic guitar sound that big, it was Michael Hedges." Herself, lowering my half-signed CD and shaking my hand: "Now, that's a real compliment, especially since I haven't played acoustic much in the past ten years and I'm a little rusty!" Me: "Oh, you did just fine. Like Nanci Griffith says, if the songs work stripped down like this, they work."

I try to act like normal people, but it just isn’t me.

She didn’t seem to mind.