Azkena Rock Festival, Vitoria, Spain, August 31-September 2, 2006
(Note: For larger versions of the pictures, go here.)
"I'm not going to Spain to see some washed up grunge bands," were I think Karen's exact words when I first pitched the idea of attending the Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria, Basque Country.
True, Pearl Jam was the headliner of the three-day affair and would draw by far the largest crowd, but the down-ticket talent would be worth the trans-Atlantic flight, I thought. The Young Fresh Fellows or Big Star setting foot on a stage on this continent, much less the same stage, is a rare occurance. Throw in some other cool acts and the chance to hang out in what have to be a couple of the world's coolest cities--Bilbao and San Sebastian--and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or at least enough to convince her I wasn't totally nuts.
Not nuts, but a little atypical maybe. The rather large outdoor venue seemed virtually empty as what--for me--would be the main event approached. Preceded only by two local bands, the Young Fresh Fellows took the stage before the sun had set on the first day of the festival. The YFFs have been truly one of my all time favorite bands for a long time, although not quite long enough to have seen them on their last full-scale American tour, which coincided roughly with my 15th birthday. The shitty grin on my face as they prepared to take the stage pretty much says it all. Probably the only people in the place having more fun than me were Scott, Kurt, Jim, and Tad.
The best word I can think of to describe this band and their music is magnetic. Who could not love these guys or the exuberance they bring on stage? And who could doubt that a band who goes on stage sporting straw fedoras and pipes is going to be a lot of fun. These are, as the album title says, "The Men Who Loved Music."Frontman Scott McCaughey announced that they would begin their set with "the first song on our first album," and after 22 years "Rock 'n' Roll Pest Control" is still quintessential Fellows. Not serious by any means, but who meant rock and roll to be serious? "Middle Man of Time," a song about McCaughey's childhood memories of the Beatles arriving in America, is telling of where the Fellows are coming from and was a pleasant surprise choice to follow "Pest Control."
By the time the group kicked into their rendition of the Kinks' "Picture Book," like "Middle Man" from the astonishing 1989 "This One's For the Ladies" album, a sizable crowd had gathered and--whether they were able to sing along or not--were clearly having a great time. The language barrier didn't stop the Spanish Fellows fans from beginning to chant the refrain of "Young Fresh Fellows Theme" in between songs, a request that would be granted later in the set, but not before tearing through a few of their more pop-punk inspired numbers, the classic "How Much About Last Night Do You Remember?" from their second album, "Topsy Turvy," Kurt Bloch's "Still There's Hope" from "Ladies," and the any-band biography "Two Guitars, Bass and Drums."
McCaughey is the heart and soul of the Fellows, but Bloch's searing solos and onstage exertions allow him to at times become the focal point of the band. His power is undeniable, and his (unfortunately now disbanded) Fastbacks are the only band that has ever wowed me more than the Fellows.
Drummer Tad Hutchinson also certainly has the ability to get your attention during the set, what with the swaying cymbal/wok combo he dodges from beginning to end.
But the focus comes back to McCaughey, and really there's no choice when he's doing his best Janis Joplin impersonation on the heat-lamenting "Equator Blues" under what was a rather warm early evening sun. Kurt indulged Scott's lyrical exhortations to "pour
some water down on me."
All eyes and ears remain on McCaughey, though, when he delivers the heartfelt "Backroom of the Bar," an odd favorite among a crowd clearly predisposed to rock hard. But rock they did on the closing cover of the Sonics' "Strychnine."
You could have put me back on the plane at this point and I would have been thrilled, but there was a lot of music left.
I've never quite gotten Green On Red, though I'm likely to drool over most things in the Neil Young ripoff/Americana genre. The reunited lineup that recorded the cult favorite "Gas, Food, Lodging" and "No Free Lunch" records are certainly capable musically and benefit from losing the '80s sound quality of those recordings, but the lyrics and Dan Stuart's vocals continued to come across as forced to me.
The first night headliner was Iggy & the Stooges. Fresh off watching the Fellows--who hover around 50 years of age--rock out, I was interested to see what the nearly 60-year-old Iggy and his 1969-70 bandmates could do, though the addition of Minutemen legend Mike Watt (a young buck at 48) on bass brings down the mean age a bit. The interesting dichotomy is that guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton, and sax player Dave McKay look like your average 60-year-old guys. Ron (who Iggy introduced as the "heavyweight champ"), somewhat resembles Michael Moore.
Then there's Iggy, his chiseled body exhibiting every ounce of raunchiness and reckless abandon that it must have in the ballrooms of late-60s Michigan. This guy is a force of nature. As anyone who has ever seen Watt before knows, he can be, too. When the two collide it's a hell of a storm. And the fat, old guys rise to the occasion. This set rocked in a primal fashion that perhaps no other existing band could duplicate. The sight of Iggy (to the chagrin of security) inviting the crowd on stage for "No Fun" was symbolic of the entire experience. (Iggy is singing and the band is playing--well--as this takes place.) And imagine a couple thousands Basques (or "Boscos" as Iggy preferred) chanting along to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" not once, but twice.
They love Iggy so much in Vitoria that they have a statue of him in the town square.
The current incarnation of The Misfits were sort of a mop-up act for Iggy, and it was easy to see why. While I knew going in that I would see nothing resembling the Glenn Danzig-era punk trailbalzers, I thought it could at least be fun. Original bassist Jerry Only is now the principal member and vocalist, and is joined by fellow classic punk notables Dez Cadena of Black Flag and drummer Robo, who played with both the Flag and the 'Fits in their respective heydays.
After an agonizingly long lead-in featuring way too much spooky music, smoke, and lighting, the band finally came on and were awful. One, they look totally ridiculous. All are totally covered in makeup and ridiculous looking punk/horror garb. These are 50-year-old guys, and it's a sure sign that the music can't stand on it's own. Jerry can't sing and the sound resembled '80s pop-metal more than '77-vintage punk. They hadn't gotten to any of the classics before we decided to call it a night, but we should probably be glad for that. My guess is that the Muzak versions of some Misfits favorites that were played over the PA between sets were probably superior.
We got to the festival on Friday afternoon in time to catch The Bottle Rockets, who I knew to be a pleasant if unremarkable Americana act. They've been heralded as "the Best Bar Band in America," and I don't think that's an outlandish statement after seeing their set, though I'm not optimistic about how it would transfer in the studio.
I was excited about Gang of Four, whose reunited original lineup was up next. I try not to get too excited about seeing artists who are decades removed from their best work, and hadn't heard Gof4's recent comeback album to give me any idea whether they still had it or not. They couldn't have played more than a couple of songs that didn't come from their classic first two lp's, though, and these they played with the same energy and angst that is pervasive on those great records. This was an incredibly impressive set that made music created thirty years ago seem vital and fresh. When Jon King created a percussion track by beating a microwave with an aluminum baseball bat, it could have been obnoxious, but was actually entertaining and charming. Must have been the stone face he kept through the entire ordeal.
No melodica, though.
I was at the other end of the venue gearing up for Big Star while Eagles of Death Metal played, but they sounded pretty good. Much more garage rock than death metal. And I do like their name.
So Big Star was next. One of the greatest bands of all time, obviously, during their initial, brief early '70s existance. Knowing that Alex Chilton has been erratic at best since the original Big Star's demise and far from enamored of the recent album by the reconstituted group, I tried to check any overly lofty expectations at the door. But the great songs are still there, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies are great singers and musicians who are absolutely qualified to help Chilton carry on the legacy of his storied band.
But from the first notes of "In the Street" to ring out from Chilton's guitar, any expectation I could have had was exceeded. Chilton's vocals and memorable guitar lines could have been pulled straight off of those fantastic recordings from more than three decades ago, but the smile on the his face as he performed his classics was even more priceless. Perhaps barely surviving the Hurricane Katrina disaster has given him a new perspective on life and his musical past. Seeing him sing the tender "The Ballad of El Goodo" and "Thirteen" nearly brought tears to my eyes. Auer's rendition of the late Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" has a similar quality, and Stringfellow capably delivers the intensity of Chilton's original vocal on "Daisy Glaze." It is clear that The Posies revere these songs and the chance to perform with one of their heroes, and the love and care they treat them with overrides any lack of authenticity that you could imagine stemming from them "covering" the band's originals.
The set did grind a bit when a couple of songs from the new album were played in quick succession, but "September Gurls" easily cured that. By the end, everyone concerned was so pleased that "Mine Exclusively," which comes across as a pointless rave-up on the new album, was completely satisfying, a fun, danceable conclusion to a set that--like the band's classic work--was somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster.
The power-pop bliss continued with Redd Kross, apparently playing their first shows in nearly a decade with the lineup of their recently reissued cult-classic "Neurotica" lp. The live set added the extra kick I always sort of wished their records had, and the songs were of course catchy as all get out. I still have "Bubblegum Factory" and "Annie's Gone" running through my head. And Jeff McDonald sure can sing, though he may have outgrown those plaid pants.
We didn't get any pics of Redd Kross, but there are some posted prominently on their site.
The two big draws this evening were Buckcherry (who I know nothing about, but they sure don't sound like something I would like) and the reunited New York Dolls. The dolls were the band that seemed to be creating the biggest buzz all weekend, but to be honest I've never been real into even the records they made before half of the original lineup passed on. So we took an early leave after a truly remarkable day of music.
It was hard to get real excited about Saturday, the final day of the festival, though I could coast after the great first two days.
The first band we saw on Saturday were the Nomads, who are made out to be sort of a Swedish Cynics, but sounded more like one of those Seattle bands who got to make one record on Lucky or c/z right after grunge broke then were never heard from again. They weren't terrible, but...
Then there was Wolfmother. It would be hard for any band to live up to the hype surrounding them, but I liked them. They certainly rocked, which I think is about all they set out to do. I stand by my characterization of them after hearing one song as a less arty Rush.
I think Karen was disappointed by Wolfmother, though she was into My Morning Jacket, who I hated. There were a couple songs that were decent, but it was more the aura of seriousness and importance they clearly attach to their music that was incongruous with the rest of the festival and annoyed me so. Everything from the frontman's hair completely obscuring his face about 4 seconds into the first song, to the hulking drummer's chest-beating after banging his way through a noisy 10-minute "jam," to having a pedal steel on stage that was played (poorly) on only one song drove me nuts. But perhaps I'm being petty.
The crowd seemed suddenly to have at least doubled when it was time for Pearl Jam. They're a band I've never cared about and have occasionally expressed distaste for, though I guess I've developed a respect for them for hanging around all these years and seeming like decent guys. This was, incredibly, the second time I had seem them within a year, the first being their opening gig for the Rolling Stones at PNC Park. And to their credit, they put a lot of effort into their shows when they could probably just mail it in and get the same response from most of the lunkheads in the audience. This was a fun and enjoyable set, Eddie Vedder was in good spirits (and totally drunk), and the crowd was happy. But as they eased into the third encore or so we figured we had best get a cab to the airport for our early morning flight before the other 20,000 or so people beat us to it.
So Spain was a great experience, we made it back unscathed but jet-lagged, and we definitely took in some great rock. Thanks to Karen for listening to my crazy idea, accompanying me, speaking Spanish for me all week, and taking the awesome pictures.